How many times have I died now?
I sprint, the sound of my breathing loud in my helmet, and blood spurts from a gash to my arm. The tunnel narrows out, and I slide to a stop, dust arrowing about in the vacuum. I follow the sound of hissing air and slap a gaff-patch over the rent in my suit. Within moments my killers are with me.
I suppose a better question might be: how many more times will I have to die? How many deaths, before the daimyo can see that I’m meant for more than this?
I force myself upright, shifting my stance. “Hello boys. Who’s first?”
They don’t talk much, instead just drooling globs of freezing venom. They’re spider-monsters, glistening genetic constructs like something from an H.R. Giger sketchbook. The spider-monsters circle me, clinging to every surface, my blood still pooling on their claws.
Then I spot my mark: the herd-bot is there at the back, and it blows a gust of sustaining gas at the monsters. This is the robot that’s been herding them up through the mines, enabling them to hunt and murder the Daimyo’s workers. I leap towards it.
I dodge past the first few spider-monsters, jolts of impact as I crash into them. Something tugs at my arm and I spin, slashing out with one of my energy-blades. For an instant the monster’s eggplant face is all I see, shark-fin teeth close enough to kiss, and I plunge my blade through it with a crunch.
Spinning away, I pivot on the lodged spike and shove forward through the mess of violent spider-flesh. Something hits my helmet hard enough to crack my eyebrow against it.
“Hey, I’m trying to stay beautiful here!”
I stab the offending spider and stagger away, dazed, but I keep moving: moving towards the robot, stabbing like I’m rowing through flesh.
Something hits me in the back and erupts from my chest: a spider-monster’s chitinous forelimb. I grit my teeth through a wave of pain, but the pain just keeps rolling higher. Grabbing the offending spider, I stab it again and again. But I’m getting weaker. The spider floats, taking me with it, and I realise it’s dead.
The other monsters close for the kill, but then I see the robot again: it hovers in the bend of the tunnel, lens irising as it prepares to observe my final moments…
I hurl one of my blades at it, and the blazing weapon plunges straight through, soundless in the vacuum, sparks erupting. The other weavers scatter, their controller destroyed.
I activate my retrieval beacon, and sleep.
When I wake up I’m pickled in the medical-tank, back aboard my ship: My handlers must have found me. I wonder what the date is? As if it matters. The nano-fluids are cycled out, and I flex my cerebral implants to pop the lid.
Later I’m floating in the rec module, one foot hooked around a hand-hold, eating tofu analogue from a tube. It’s not the constant dying that really gets to me, it’s the time between missions. I’ve been staring at a hologram of my lord, the Daimyo. It’s been fifteen minutes and I’ve only just realised. I shut it off, figuring it’s time to go take a wipe-wash and get some sleep.
How long has it been since I began my training?
That day I’d put my hair in a ponytail, tied my judo gi.
The first kick caught my chin and left me looking at the roof-beams, listening to their laughter.
One, two, three…
I flipped upright and palm-heeled my opponent’s crotch.
He sagged, eyes bulging, his laughter choked off.
I grabbed his descending shoulders, jumped, and head-butted his nose flat. Face met floor, a bouncing ribbon of bloody mucus trailing from his lip, and I whaled on him with fist, knee, tooth and claw.
The others had to drag me off him.
I wanted to be a samurai, but I have no family.
That was then, and this is now, my hair tied close and charcoal black, my skin gold. I kneel, and the Daimyo looks down at me.
“Are you ready to continue with your training?”
Now it’s another day, another mission…
Location: ASTEROID 739; Gravity: NEGLIGIBLE (0.01 earth G); Atmosphere: NIL; Designation: MINING
My motorbike hugs the lip of a crater. The wheels have arc generators set to suck, and they glue me to the rock in spite of zero gravity, which is just as well, at this speed. I race toward the Mouther-Ship, noting the hexipedal dog-walkers that are attending it. It’s a Qing mining vessel, seven mechanical legs stomping across the asteroid surface… It’s about one li across: half a kilometre in the common parlance, and it looks a bit like an ugly metal sphere with a mouth. It’s not supposed to be mining our asteroid.
I swing the bike over the far lip of the crater, launching into a long jump, and from up here I can also see one of my clan’s villages, a Meiji imperial outpost: metal modules and crystal domes, scattered across a ridge.
The dogs spot me first, and I land between them just as they get their mining blasters trained on me. I hit the gas, and the two dogs shoot each other in the crossfire, cracking like kicked eggs and keeling over. It’s silent out here, but I can easily imagine the chaos inside them.
I twist the throttle, letting the battery drain out quick, feeling the thrum of the electric motor through the seat of my pants, and I shoot forward at a mesmerising pace. There’s the Mouther-Ship right in front of me, and only another couple of dogs in the way.
Bolts of crackling energy flash past, and I swerve the handlebars, slippery fingers tight inside my gloves. It’s a mean machine: this bike, but I’m woman enough for it. I race toward them, juddering over the uneven surface. The dogs spin around gamely as I drift the bike between their feet, but then I’m past them and in the clear.
I speed toward the Mouther-Ship’s namesake: its voracious metal jaws.
I stab the gas one more time, a bolt of energy scorching my shoulder, and thump the wheel inverter, launching me toward the mouth. The Mouther’s whirring teeth are all I see, like a personal IMAX of earthmoving death.
I drop the bike and jump…
The bike explodes on impact, but I flex my arc belt, and the tiny device creates a force-field, buffeting my own landing. I stick to the Mouther-Ship’s hull with a clunk, and it’s only a short climb to a nearby turret.
The couple of Qing soldiers there are surprised to see me. I kick them into one another and jump down a hatch headfirst.
Now inside, I deactivate my boots and jump, drifting far above the crushing apparatus, dodging the conveyors on the sorting deck… I land on a gantry, engage boots, and kick in the door to the control room. Twelve guys with spears are waiting.
I dive under the first Qing soldier and through his legs, slashing. Blood balloons around his legs in the zero gravity, like a scarlet jellyfish, and then the fight is on. I slash and stab, the press of bodies slamming into me, and my feet can’t find the deck: I’m just standing on other peoples’ legs. I keep going, grimacing faces pressed against my helmet. There’s air in here, but I’m not keen to taste it.
One of them gets far enough back to retaliate, and the first I know about it is a spear lancing my hip. It presses through and grinds along the deck, torqueing me with it. I scream and stab him through the eye. The hot suck from his socket is no more gruesome than the sound that his spear makes as I pull it out of me. My vision swims, and I let myself float: these legs weren’t working now anyway.
Through the morass of corpses, I spot the ship’s commander, standing on the other side of the console: he’s looking pale.
I can’t walk, but pull myself toward him, like I’m swimming through red seaweed. He runs for it, and dives down a chute, into the power core room. I float down after him, blades ready. But he’s not there, and the hatch slams behind me…
The Mouther-Ship lurches: it’s walking. There’s no porthole to the outside, but there’s a viewport to the Ship’s central area. I can even see out through the mouth: the ashen dunes, the rocky ridge, the village coming closer.
A voice crackles through the ship’s intercom. “Sit tight. We’re going to demolish your village. You can watch.”
There’s less than a minute to act… The room heats as power flows through the core.
I have to think!
Thirty seconds left, and sweat sticks the suit to my back. My leg is running with blood, so I stab a needle into my thigh, and smear gaff patches over the rent fabric, but It won’t close: the material is too slick.
Ten seconds left, and the village looms large outside the ship…
The whirring steel teeth bite into the first row of modules and greenhouses, and through my viewport comes a whirlwind of air, glass blowing like sleet. The processing machinery swings into action, and it’s hard to see specifics after that. I spot a rendered arm amid a tangle of copper wiring: it looks very small, like a kid’s arm…
Chikushō! I curse, turning and smashing my fist on the power core. The glass cracks.
I whoop, and smash the hilt of my blade on top of it. Red lights, and sirens begin to wail above the grinding downstairs. The hatch opens above me but I ignore it. I slam my blade into the casing again, and it splinters, it cracks, even as a spear stabs down through my collarbone and into my chest, the commander’s spear, and I cough blood inside of my mask.
My knees wobble, numb. I could die again right now…
No. I’ll destroy our enemies, and be made a samurai, one day I will.
I plough the commander’s face into the core, and it breaks with a bang, sucking him in, chewing him through the gap like a paper cup of blood.
Time to escape. I activate my grapple and shoot upward, popping through the command room like a champagne cork. I wade to the hatch and drag myself outside.
The explosion launches me forward, and I clip a rock, cracking my helmet. Before I know it I’m spinning off the asteroid altogether, and then I’m among the stars. My hair shakes loose inside my helmet, waving through the droplets of blood that patter back and forth. It’s a little like looking up through the branches of a cherry tree, I think to myself, as I activate my retrieval beacon…
When I next wake, drifting in the medi-tank again, I try to remember how many times it has been: how many times have I died?
The journey goes too slowly, and when I arrive back I immediately present to my lord. The paper screen is slid aside, and I enter the Daimyo’s chamber, eyes down. I kneel opposite him.
“You’ve completed your training.”
I keep my eyes on the floor, but I can feel him looking at me.
“Are you ready to accept your role now?”
“My lord, I… I’d like to be one of your samurai.”
He doesn’t answer for a moment, and I hold my breath.
Everything seems distant, and I can’t quite process this just yet: it can’t be right.
“You have become a capable ninja. You are needed in New Canton.” What he doesn’t add is: but not here, not a samurai, and not with honour.
I bow, my head touching the mat, which is a small relief: it allows me to hide my face.
Later, I’m back in the rec module, watching a hologram of my next target: a Qing ambassador. How many times have I died? How many times will I have to die? Maybe next time it will stick… No. I know that I won’t allow it, not until I’ve gained my honour.
I look at the slowly spinning hologram image of this handsome Qing ambassador, and I form a novel plan. Novel, because for the first time in my life… it’s entirely my own.
D.R.Sylvester – 26 August 2014