It’s not unheard of for a tired stranger to save a town. Jeremy Kolassa brings us just such a tale. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Reentry was never this bad. Sure, there were times when the ship was rattling,but never before was reentry violent to the point of being nauseous.
Of course, it was an escape pod.
It had to been built as an afterthought, by a designer who never dreamed his ship was going to get shot at. Now, with the ground hurtling at him, the traveler wished he could take a shot at the designer. Assuming the ground was going to let him walk.
The first thing he knew of the impact was looking back on the pod, crumpled like a can, the only tree for several miles standing over it, burning. He felt nothing but a buzz in the back of his head, and his eyes dancing in the front. He crawled between two rocks and fell asleep.
It must have been the next day when he woke, for the sun was high in the sky. Taking a moment to curse it for being so damn bright, he stumbled off towards the horizon. Sagebrush and jagged outcrops were all he could see, and all he could hear were his boots and labored breathing. He tripped and fell. For a moment he just lay there, and as the sun continued to beat down, he thought death wasn’t so bad. His eyelids started to close, until there was only a thin strip of light left. And there, focused by the thin band, was something he hadn’t seen before: a hoof print. He paused, then raised his head. There were several of them, all leading off towards the horizon.
A trail. Civilization. Hope. Whiskey.
He followed it until he found himself looking over a settlement. Maybe thirty buildings total, none built from the nanofiber found on most worlds, but wood. A number of people were walking around, wearing dusters and tall boots. It was hard to distinguish the women from the men, but here and there some wore more feminine clothing. Grunting, he wove his way down the rock face and went into town.
Some people frowned at him as he walked past, but none made a move to stop him. There was a deputy with a shotgun, on horseback, who gave him a long look, but he didn’t make any moves either. As he kept walking, an old couple looked at him for a moment, decided he was no uglier, nor no prettier, than the average, and then crossed the street. He watched them walk between a pair of red pillars, holding up a curved red bar. He recognized it immediately. A torii: the symbolic gateway to a Shinto shrine.
He had to stop and stare at it for a long minute. A shrine? This far out on the Arm? He walked over to it, almost put his hand on the red wood, then stopped. He shook his head and moved on. Those memories hurt.
He found the saloon easily enough, it’s sign decorated with strokes of a different age. The people inside gave him brief glances, before turning back to their drinks and chess games. He walked up to the bar and planted his hands on the bartop. The bartender, who looked like a walking rum jug, frowned.
“Where’s the hypercomm unit?” the traveler asked.
“Never had one that worked,” the bartender answered.
The traveler nodded. “Got any good drinks?”
“Depends. You pay in…”
The bartender shrugged. “Sure. Whiskey?”
“Of course.” He took a stool and knocked back two shots before another man walked in, looking a tree ripped from the ground. He approached the bar and spoke rapidly, getting a green bottle of…something. Looked unpleasant. As the traveler knocked his third shot back, a second man walked in, bulkier than the first, with a scowl. He too approached the bar, and for the moment, the air went still.
The look between their eyes was unmistakable. Bad blood, all right. The first one was standing between the traveler and the second man. The traveler looked over, saw the second reach for his belt. No doubt a blazergun was going to come from there. And if he shot, his target would be nothing more than tissue paper. He’d get two kills for the price of one. When the first man reached for his belt, the traveler acted-
With a slight lean, he and his stool fell over backwards. From the floor he watched as the two men stared each other down. He blinked. There was no blast, no smell of stinking meat. Then he looked at their hands. They weren’t on the butts of guns, but rather on the hilts of swords. And from the gleam of the steel, they were katanas. The two men gave each other a curt nod, then turned and marched out of the bar, paying him absolutely no heed.
Everyone else, on the other hand, was looking at him with intent curiosity.
He struggled back to his feet. “Had enough to drink?” the bartender asked.
“Meant to do that,” he muttered. He picked up the now empty shot glass and stared. “What’s in this stuff?”
The bartender raised an eyebrow.
He left the bar and walked around town for some time. Once again, he was ignored. He found a shed on the outskirts of town where the hypercomm unit used to be, but it was far too damaged to be useful. The kids must’ve used it for soccer. Cursing his luck, he continued his tour. The only thing this town seemed to be missing was a hotel, so he stayed on his feet until nightfall. There wasn’t even a crack between rocks for him to crawl into.
He leaned up against a house and rubbed his temple. Something scuffled in the dirt behind him. He turned to see a young boy sitting on the porch, looking at him. In his hand was a bokken, which he was banging against the ground. With each blow the traveler winced.
“Hey mister,” he said. “You need a place to sleep?”
The traveler snorted. “You could say that.”
The boy stood up and gestured towards his house. “You can stay here.”
The traveler smiled. How sweet. “Well, I wouldn’t want to impose…”
“It’s okay,” the boy said. “My mom’s pretty lonely.” The traveler blushed.
It barely took a minute for the boy to drag him inside, where his mother gave him a concerned look. She wasn’t bad looking, but then again, it wasn’t like he could compare her. But his eye certainly didn’t sting. The boy told her he found a new friend, and then he explained his mother was the town teacher. Both remarks made the traveler blush even more.
“I apologize,” he said, but the woman stopped him.
“No, no,” she said, “This is Chun’s fault.” She whacked the boy on the head with a spoon, not enough to hurt but enough to make a noise. “Please sit. We rarely have guests.” She then disappeared into the kitchen.
He sat down, embarrassed. She returned with a bowl of soup and bread, while Chun came with what looked like spiced tea. They sat down, and immediately they began eating. It took the traveler a few moments to follow, but the food was good, the tea was excellent, and the chair was not as uncomfortable as his bottom was making it out to be.
“So what brings you to our settlement?” Chun’s mother asked. The traveler looked at her; there was no suspicion in her eyes, only interest.
“Trouble,” he said.
“What kind of trouble?”
The traveler paused. “The kind of trouble people really don’t like.”
“I’m not afraid of trouble,” Chun said. At the looks he got, he added, “I’m going to become a great sword master.”
“Oh really?” The traveler emptied his cup of tea and set it down. “And you’re sure that’s what you want?”
“Yup.” Chun scratched his chin. “Just need a teacher. I want a red and white one. From the school.”
The traveler nodded. “Shame.”
Chun’s mother frowned. “What is?”
“That the School was bombed from orbit. No one survived.” He poured himself another cup of tea and drank while they stared at him.
“Why would anyone do that?” Chun finally asked. It took the traveler a moment to respond. “People found them scary.”
It took another minute for Chun to regain his senses. “You gotta be lying,” he said. “Nobody could do that. Swordmasters don’t die.”
The traveler sighed.
Chun’s mother took him upstairs to bed before his mind could be further polluted. When she returned, his eyes glared at him. “Why?”
“My apologies,” he answered, finally emptying his bowl of soup. “Might not have been my place, but it’s better his hopes are dashed now, rather than his head later.”
“Do you think you’re being charitable?”
“Charity’d be keeping that boy from the fate that befell the others.” He chomped down on a slice of bread. “I might joke about my gambling record, but I can’t joke with twenty thousand newscasts saying every swordsman got gunned down.”
She snorted as she sat down. “We don’t get the newscasts out here.” She shook her head. “The only thing we do get are meteor showers. That’s what I thought it was last night. I have to assume now it was your ship?”
“Escape pod,” he corrected.
“Sounded terrible. You’re lucky to be alive.”
He looked out the window. “I have my doubts about that.”
A minute passed by in silence before she spoke again. “Do you have a family that misses you?”
“Not unless a pet ferret counts as family, no,” he said. He looked at the serving bowl. “That was really good. May I-?”
“Of course,” she said, filling his bowl. As he ate, she continued. “So, do you know much about the School?”
He stopped. “A little,” he said, around his soup.
“It got bombed.”
She shook her head. “Anything more than that?”
He set the bowl down and made a face. “Well, there were a bunch of people going around, saying the samurai were social deviants, traitors, killed innocent people, bunch of other ugly rumors. Never believed it myself, but I guess some did. Enough to blow it up.”
If she was worried, she didn’t show it. “It wouldn’t happen to be the ones who shot you down, were they?”
The traveler blinked. “No,” he said, maybe too quickly. “I mean, I doubt it. Looked like brigands to me.”
“I guess lots of people prefer that life, where you come from.”
“Where I come from most people prefer to make money, not bullet holes,” he replied. “Though I done have to admit, the galaxy out there is full of assholes nowadays. And it’s getting more crowded by the minute.”
He stopped when he noticed her watching him, one eyebrow upturned. “What?”
“I usually smack boys with an oar for using that language,” she said.
He froze, dumbstruck. Finally it hit him. “My sincerest apologies,” he said, bowing. “It has been a long time since I’ve been in civilized company.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
“I should get going,” he said, rising, but she grabbed his wrist. He looked down at it.
“You can stay here tonight,” she said. “I have an extra room.”
“Why…thank you,” he said. “I have no wish to impose, Madame.” She snorted. “Madame? People around here call me Missus Perkins.” She let go of his wrist and rose. “Come to think of it,” she added, “I never got your name.” “Well,” he said, “I don’t quite lend it out.”
The next morning he left before the others woke. Outside, it was still cool, but his duster was more than enough. The sun was low in the north, but not low enough to keep the townspeople in bed. Once again, he took to looking, on the off chance someone else did have a working hypercomm.
Instead of finding a hypercomm, though, he found what looked like a government hall: squat, rectangular, yet still imposing by virtue of it’s outer wall. He gave the banner above the front entrance a look, then walked in. Between the building and the wall the ground looked measurably more fertile, actually having grasses to tread on. He walked around the outside of the inner building before he found a door on the side. It opened silently. Inside he found one large room, with a shiny wooden floor. At the closest end to him, the statue of a bearded man stared, demanding fealty. Above it was another large banner, where he read the lineage of the building and the man who sat underneath it. He wanted to sit and just read.
He was interrupted by the swinging of a door from behind. Five men walked in, in typical settler getup. One was carrying a shotgun, with a scowl that could crack rocks. The leader was a smooth faced man, probably in his mid-twenties. He put his hand on his belt, showing off the gun that was there.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he said.
“Admiring the sculpture,” the traveler answered, turning back to the banner.
“You have no right to be here,” the leader said taking a step forward. “And certainly no right to come through the master’s door.”
“Are you the master here?” the traveler said, still reading the banner.
“That don’t matter—”
“Matters a lot,” the traveler answered, staring into his eyes. “Only the master can decide that.”
The leader bristled, and his hand crept towards his gun. “And what would an outsider know of the ways of the dojo?”
“Plenty,” the traveler said, then added, “I mean, a bit.”
Two of the men split off to the sides, hoping to box him in. The leader took another step forward. “There’s a lot of suspicion about you.”
“Really? I’ll make sure to keep an eye out for it.”
“Word has it you stayed at Missus Perkins’ place last night.”
“She invited me.”
The traveler rolled his eyes. “Well if it wasn’t willingly then it couldn’t be called an invitation, now could it?”
The leader didn’t back down. “I don’t like people coming out of the desert and just showing up in my town,” he said. “I don’t trust you.”
“As if I care.”
The leader took a few more steps forward, until he was nearly nose to nose with the traveler.
“You might want to start being a bit more friendly.”
The traveler snorted. “Care to be a role model?”
“You like to joke.”
“You are one.”
There was a ka-chang as the shotgun was pumped and leveled at the traveler’s head. He looked down the barrel to see if it was the deputy from yesterday, but it wasn’t. Good.
“You aiming to start a fight in a dojo with guns?” he said. “Considering the school, that’s deplorable.”
“What would a person like you know of that, outsider?” The leader paused. “What are you? Criminal? Bounty hunter?”
The men in the gang stopped and looked at each other, trading raised eyebrows and shrugs.
“You won’t believe how big space cows get,” the traveler added.
The leader gave him a look that said “Not buying.” “And just what would a cowhand be doing in our settlement?”
“If you’re lucky, you’ll never find out.”
For thirty seconds, the dojo was deathly still. Then, it started to rumble gently, and soon a whine entered their ears. They slowly increased in loudness and pitch until a giant lion and a monstrous fly were over their heads. The men looked around, fear painted on their faces. Even the leader had stepped back, and none had their guns aimed at the traveler.
“Chi-chou! Takuya! Get out here!” Through the doorway the traveler could see a sheriff’s deputy beckoning them, the same one from yesterday. “There’s a ship landing, might be trouble.” He paused. “Hey, Jin! That better not be my shotgun!”
Without giving him a second look, they all took off, leaving the traveler alone. He sighed, then followed. So much for luck.
Outside the people had gathered in the main street, as a giant troop carrier had landed about half a kilometer away. Already he could see men with submachine guns marching towards the town, most in light armor. At the front of the town gathering were four men, each wearing the star of a lawman on their chest, each with a sword at their side. The traveler stepped up next to the oldest one, the sheriff, and watched as more men came.
“So,” the sheriff said, turning to him, “These are the men looking for you?”
The traveler grimaced. Small town. “Not specifically,” he answered. “They want anyone who wields a sword.”
The traveler gave him an incredulous look. “Why do you think I know?” He turned back to the men. “Prejudice and clear thinkin’ don’t exactly go together.”
The column of men reached the border of the village and stopped. Their leader, a man in a brown jacket and an eyepatch over his right eye, brandishing a carbine, grinned. “Well boys, look like we found a whole damn village of da deviants!” That was followed by a large, raucous cheer from the men.
The sheriff stepped forward. “Something I can help you with, gentlemen?”
“Help?” Eyepatch spat. “You just listen to what we say, don’t give me any reason to shoot y’all, that’d be helpful. Otherwise,” he continued, raising his voice, “There might be a whole lotta killing around here.”
“What is it that you want?”
“You just hand over any samurai in this village—as well as those swords—and we’ll be thinking of leaving you alone.”
The settlers bristled. “We can’t do that,” the sheriff answered.
Eyepatch walked up to him. “Is that what you think?” The sheriff opened his mouth, but the only thing anyone heard was a gunshot.
There was a flash of silver. Eyepatch screamed. Blood streaked down the traveler’s katana.
Eyepatch’s hand hit the ground just as the sheriff did. The soldiers aimed, but then one was thrown to the ground. The traveler looked over and saw Jin with the shotgun, crouching behind a barrel.
The soldiers turned and started pouring bullets into Jin’s cover. Dashing forward, the traveler kicked Eyepatch out of the way and barreled into the formation. He swung the sword ever so gently towards the nearest soldier, who found that missing three fingers made holding a gun difficult. That one fell back, and he moved on to the next one. There an arm, half of a gun, a few fingers, a slash across the cheek. The soldiers weren’t helping their case; half the time they tried to shoot him, he would duck and they would hit a comrade instead.
One of the men impressed him by constantly dodging every strike. The traveler would sweep through, and the soldier would dance back. Finally, there was an opening, as the soldier’s arms went wide—just in time for another blade to skewer him in the chest. The traveler turned his head to see the gang leader from the dojo there, an apology on his face. The traveler just rolled his eyes and looked for the next enemy, but there wasn’t anyone near him.
He looked around. It was a rout. Clustered on rooftops and behind any sort of cover, the townsfolk were firing back, many with guns that would only fire on the third try. Yet there were plenty of bodies on the ground, soldier and townsfolk alike. Some of the townsfolk were being brought down by a sniper, perched behind a wagon parked next to the school. He shot one in the knee, lined up, shot another in the chest. The traveler took a step to advance on him—but then the window above the soldier opened, and a woman stabbed a knife into his neck. There was a flash of blood, a gurgled yell, and it was over. The woman looked up, and the traveler blinked. It was Miss Perkins, now with a stripe of scarlet across her blouse. Next to her white face, it was almost beautiful. A gust of wind picked up, and his duster, now tattered and ragged, flew off.
Gradually, the gunfire stopped, and the few surviving soldiers started to fall back to their ship, clutching at body parts and squeezing gashes. There was a roar from the townsfolk, and they charged forward, but the traveler held up his sword. “Wait,” he said, and they fell silent.
After a minute of watching the soldiers scurrying to their ship, one of them said, “They’re gonna get away!”
“Then let them,” he answered. “You’ve made your point. There’s been enough killing.”
They looked at each other, some with confused looks, other depressed, some still hopping mad. Eventually they started to murmur assent, and walked back. He followed.
Eyepatch was on his knees, still clutching his wrist, with Jin watching him. The traveler stopped in front of him, put the blade in front of his face. Eyepatch focused on it, then slowly looked up until he met the traveler’s eyes.
“Best be getting before your men take off without you,” he suggested.
Eyepatch spat on the sword. “You’ll pay for this,” he said, his voice raspy.
For a moment, no one said anything, the crowd looking between the executioner and the criminal. Finally, the traveler said, “How clichÃ©.” Then he grabbed Eyepatch by the collar, hauled him to his feet, and gave him a swift kick in the ass towards his ship. He didn’t bother to watch him run off.
“Wow!” a voice said. The traveler turned to see Chun looking out the front door of the school.
“Chun!” his mother said, grabbing him. “Get back in here!”
“But Momma, Momma!” Chun said, pointing, “He’s a swordmaster! He’s the guy I was tellin` you about! He’s a real red and white! A real one, Momma!”
The traveler looked down at his clothes. The red and white kimono of his rank was showing. The red had made a few inroads onto the white in round, splotchy bits, but the pattern was still clear. Too late to hide anything now.
He nodded. “The boy is right. I am what he says I am.”
A few of the townsfolk gave him amazed looks, but most were already cleaning up the mess. The gang leader chuckled. “Cowhand, huh?”
The traveler smiled. “I moonlighted.”
He watched as Miss Perkins walked out of the school and plucked the star off the sheriff. Chun followed, as she pinned it to his kimono. He winced—protocol was clear on these matters—then loosened up, decided protocol was the last thing that should be on his mind.
“Old Tetsuo would have wanted you to have that,” she said, tears trickling down. He sighed.
Chun looked at him with gleaming eyes. To think that he would eventually grow up and become a man. The image of Chun wrecking a sword came to mind. He looked to Miss Perkins. “Ma’am,” he said, “I think I should take your son on as my apprentice.”
Chun started hopping up and down. “Please Momma! Please!”
She hesitated, then nodded. The traveler smiled. “Are you ready to become a Swordmaster, Chun?”
He grinned. “I’m ready for anything!”
“Even shoveling poop?”
Chun’s jaw dropped, and his mother had to cover her mouth to keep herself from giggling. The traveler smiled. “Don’t worry about that yet. First…first…” He sheathed his sword and started walking. The people formed up behind him, and he led a march into the town square. He could see the torii, standing tall. The memories didn’t hurt as much now. He chuckled.
“I need a drink.”