Month: August 2015


The old woman ladled broth and noodles from the clay cook pot into a wide wooden bowl. “Whatever your problems, they can wait until your stomach is happy with hot soup.”

Icho wiped a hand across his eyes. “No! You don’t understand! My family – ”

“Yes, yes, your family.” A spoon and a splash of shoyu, and she pushed the bowl towards him across the low table. “Problems can wait until after soup.”

“I can’t eat! Bandits attacked my village! They killed my father, and, and – ” Icho looked around the hut, eyes wide. He saw fire, bloody blades, his father falling. He’d run, run so fast he thought he might die like a coward and not his honorable father’s son. He’d eventually found the old woman when he really wanted a soldier, an army, anyone else. “Please, you must help me. They’ll kill everyone
if I don’t do something.”

The old woman patted his cheek. She was fat like a toad, with a wide mouth, and bulging eyes beneath wiry brows. She wore a simple green kimono and thick tabi. “Soup first, then talk.”

Desperate, Icho grabbed the spoon and took a sip of broth. The sweet warmth of ginger filled his head. Another. He’d had nothing to eat since his onigiri at midday. Tasty bits of daikon and egg hid in the nest of noodles. He slurped the bite of chilies and onion, the salty tang of fish sauce. Before he knew it he‘d finished his second bowl, and the autumn night had wound tight and dark around the tiny hut.

The old woman set the bowl and spoon in the wash bucket by the cook fire. “There. You have had your soup, and your stomach is happy.” She grinned with crooked, yellow teeth.

“I guess.” Icho rubbed his eyes. “Can you help me now, please? I need to reach the garrison in Nagasaki before. . .” He stifled a yawn.

“Nonsense, you can’t travel at night.” The old woman led him to a tatami mat he had not noticed against the far wall. “Rest here tonight, and tomorrow you can go for help.”

The mat pulled Icho to his knees, then his head to the barley husk pillow. “But my family. . .”

The old woman tucked the kakebuton around his shoulders. “You are a good son. Sleep now, worry about your family later.”

Icho opened his mouth to protest, and was asleep before the first word came out.

The old woman whispered in his ear, “You must go now, Icho.”

He sat up, squinting in the candlelight. “How did you – ?”

Four men in dirty padded armor sat at the low table, battered helmets beside them. The old woman moved around the table, ladling hot soup into their bowls. Icho recognized the long knives tucked in their belts, and fear splashed like winter water down his spine. Brusque chatter, and the whinnying of horses came from outside.

The old woman set the pot back on the fire and wiped her hands on her kimono. “Awake finally, hmmm?” She waddled to the tatami mat and took Icho by the shoulder. “Up and off with you, then.”

Icho clambered to his feet. He screamed a bare whisper: “That’s them!”

The old woman looked over her shoulder. “These men? Bandits? Certainly not.”

Icho clutched her kimono. The threadbare cloth was bitter with woodsmoke. “No, you don’t understand. They’re the ones who attacked my village.”

The men watched him with sharp dark eyes, dog eyes. One sneered at him, made to stand.

“Don’t mind the boy,” the old woman said with a laugh. “Eat, eat. Make your stomachs happy with hot soup before it gets cold.”

The man hesitated, then settled back with the others. He lifted his bowl and gulped the broth. His eyes widened, he smacked his lips, and nodded to the others. After a moment, they lifted their bowls to join him.

The old woman walked Icho towards the door. “Head back home. Bring me noodles for my soup the next time you come this way.”

“They’ll kill us. We have to – ”

The men standing with the horses looked up from their dice as she pushed Icho outside.

“Of course not. Get on home now.” She motioned the men inside, her eyes sickly yellow in the dim light. “Come in. I have soup to warm your bellies.”

The dark woods reeked of smoke and hot metal. Blood and death grabbed Icho by the heart and he ran, the way he ran when the bandits came for his family. Left the old woman standing in the doorway, her terrified screams so much like his mother’s! Icho raced his shame into the night until fear tore the breath from his chest and he tumbled into darkness.

The next morning, Icho followed his shame along the path of broken branches to the hut. His coward’s heart would have rather kept running, but honor demanded he return. If he couldn’t apologize for his cowardice, he could still bury the old woman’s body then give himself to the sea in shame.

He stopped at the edge of a small clearing littered with slick, white bones and bits of cloth. Shreds of padded armor hung from dead black branches overhead. In the center of the clearing, leather reins knotted around a pile of human and horse skulls at the base of a small stone altar. A fine breath of smoke hung in the air, then drifted away on the wind.

Icho walked to the altar. He pressed his palms together and bowed low to the stone soup pot perched on top. A master’s hands had given it life – a wide toad mouth with crooked teeth, and bulging eyes beneath lightning brows. “I thank you. My village thanks you. My father thanks you.”

On the other side of the clearing stretched a wider path made by horses. Icho started home. Noodles. He would not forget.

Blood Feud

In the beginning, I knew her only as Kalomi of the Plains. The name, the simple and only vaguely descriptive sobriquet seemed enough to know. She was my Apprentice in the Sisterhood, bound to my side by chance assignment and solemn oath.

Soon, by shared experience, she became my true and trusted comrade. Inevitably, increasingly I came to know her as my friend. But still—and despite her many evident complexities of heart and spirit—she remained to my mind simply Kalomi of the Plains.

It is truly said that I am drawn to explore the exotic, the unknown. And yet, behold the paradox—I often fail to wonder at the unguessed ingredients in the stew, bubbling in the homey and outwardly familiar pot before my very eyes.

So it was with my Apprentice Sister—with my comrade and friend, Kalomi of the Plains.

Space Rat Black

I peered through the coffin window at the dead alien. “Are we at war with them?”

Yuko shrugged. “I’ll have to check the database.” Nothing the universe threw at Yuko – from exposed biological hazards to escaped flesh eating cargo – fazed her.

The Ithpek vessel had no crew and no declared cargo other than the blue-scaled humanoid stored in the hold. The inspection station’s scanners had verified the ship as clean. No trace of biological, nuclear, or chemical weapons or toxic nanobots.

“We were at war with the Ithpeks for about six years,” Yuko said. “The conflict ended forty-four years ago.”

“Who won?” I asked. Endless political tangles meant whole species were sometimes annihilated before outlying worlds even learned there was a war going on.

“Their colonies surrendered after we nuked their home world.”

“Go us.” The dead alien’s final destination was listed as Tokyo’s Museum of Defense. It must be a trophy.

I double-checked the ship’s flight logs. The ship had left an Ithpek colony world forty-three years ago, just after the war ended, but something just didn’t feel right. “I’m going to run a more detailed background check.”

Requesting information from the station’s byzantine computer system was a painful process. If I’d been on duty with anyone but Yuko, I would’ve had to justify the delay.

I joined Yuko by the ship’s viewport and we waited for the computer’s report. The viewport showed a dozen ships waiting to dock at the station. A deep space cruiser bypassed the line and proceeded to a private hangar.

Yuko zoomed the view in on the cruiser. A Kurohoshi Nisshoku, the fastest human ship ever built. “Captain Wonder got himself a new toy,” she said, using her nickname for Hashimoto, the station’s chief administrator.

The closest I would ever come to owning a spaceship was playing a space sim. At least there were some advantages to working at Earth’s most important space station. Any cargo bound for Earth had to clear our inspection teams, which meant every day I got to board a dozen different alien spaceships.

The station computer confirmed the accuracy of the ship’s logs. The Ithpek vessel had left the colony after the war ended. The delivery code for the Museum of Defense was authentic.

I looked over the ship’s stopping points. The logs said the vessel had taken four years to travel from the Ithpek colony world to the first world in human space. That didn’t sound right. I checked my calculations three times. A vessel of this class couldn’t have made the trip in less than six years. What if the vessel had left earlier than claimed, when the Ithpek were still at war with humanity?

The Clones of Tehran

Drones buzzed overhead as Miller entered the restaurant. The front looked normal enough, but the back half was a mess of rubble and blood. Policemen collected evidence and took statements as paramedics carried out bodies covered in white sheets. Miller flashed his badge at the soldier who greeted him and walked over to a pair of policeman chatting in the corner.

“Well, if it isn’t my favorite buddy cop duo.”

“Miller.” Ezra, the taller of the two, offered his hand. The short, perpetually scowling Ali merely nodded.

“How many this time?”

“We’re still scraping bits and pieces off the ceiling, but at least twenty. Mostly civilians, plus a couple IDF soldiers on patrol.”

“Any ideas on a motive, besides the usual troublemaking?”

“The owner is related to one of the big shots in the Transitional Government,” said Ali. “But he wasn’t in the restaurant today.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve acted on shoddy intel.”

Miller pursed his lips as he glanced around the remains of the building. This was, what, the third bombing this week? Fourth? At least it wasn’t as bad as the mosque. Shame, though—he had always meant to eat here.

“Another vatman?” he said.

“Do you even have to ask?”

“No need to get snippy, Ali. Let me know when your tech boys have figured out what the bomb was made of. I want to know how they got past the sensors this time.”

“One of the witnesses said he saw the host slip out the door right after the bomber came in,” said Ezra. “We’re thinking he was bribed to disable the sensors.”

“Find him, fast. Shouldn’t be hard for Tehran’s finest, right?”

Neither of the men looked amused by Miller’s joke. He made a mental note not to try another one just as his ear buzzed.

“Miller? It’s Browning.”

“What’s up, Chris?”

“The police have a guy they’re pretty sure has a connection to the Guard. They’re holding him for us.”

“Is ‘pretty sure’ more or less sure than when they were ‘really sure’ about that student being a Guard agent?”

“Come on, just get down here. I just had to listen to another lecture from Langley, and that was before they heard about the latest bomb.”

“Alright, I’m on my way.” To the policemen he said, “Duty calls, gentlemen. I take it you know the drill by now?”

They nodded and went back to picking through the rubble. Miller walked back out into the beautiful spring evening, taking care not to step in any blood on the way.

This Mortal Coil

“He’s real,” said Freddy.

“What? Who?”

“Death. The Grim Reaper.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I saw him, Dave. He was just as I pictured him.”

“The Reaper,” I said with some irritation. “Death himself.”

“Yes! He’s real! Are you listening to me?”

I was used to Freddy’s little jokes and this was not one of his better ones. When I turned to look at his face I expected his affable grin. Most of the time he can’t keep himself from laughing. He wasn’t even smiling and his face had a wild, intense look to it.

I replied, “You’re not making any sense. How did you come to this conclusion?”

“The climb, man. I was halfway up on Cannon when my carabiner malfunctioned. I was toast.”

“You fell off of Cannon? Weren’t you locked in?” I asked. Of course, I knew the answer. Fred had long ago dispensed with the safety protocols. He had been free climbing for years and this was not his first serious accident. I sat down, prepared for yet another of his narrow escapes from the jaws of death–except that there was no death anymore. There hadn’t been one in 340 years and for that reason his embellished stories were not the exception; they were fairly commonplace.

With a life expectancy of well over a thousand years, humankind had grown bored. Nobody died of old age. Our everlasting bodies were full of tiny Nanobots, their sole purpose to seek and repair cell damage at the molecular level. Accidents were rare due to electronic surveillance that reached even the most remote locations. Our microscopic caretakers operated as a single entity, communicating instantaneously over great distances. Death had been conquered, or so it seemed.

With a lifespan that stretched out infinitely before them, humanity had lost their sense of urgency. Generations of comfort had dulled our survival instincts, bringing progress and innovation to an interminable crawl.

The majority of mankind now fell into two categories, those who sleepwalked through their idyllic life seeking constant entertainment, and the StimSeekers who sought out physical risk, always on the lookout for dangerous experiences to make them feel more alive. Some of these adventurers found their way off-world, bound for the outer limits of the galaxy where unexplored planets were being colonized. As you may have surmised, Freddy was a Stimmer. He was always finding himself a new and ever more dangerous playground.