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Stars, Hide Your Fires by James C Rocks

EXTRACT FOR
Stars, Hide Your Fires 
(James C Rocks)


Starts, Hide Your Fires

Hard Lessons

The City of Edo, Hiroshi

May 14, 2791

 

Three squadrons of Falcon Orbital Ground Attack Craft, dropped a few minutes earlier from the carrier IMS Pandora, sped low and fast across the small moon's surface. Near invisible in stealth mode, their camouflage systems closely mimicking their surroundings, terrain following radar kept their height at fifty metres. Dust from their down-angled engines, curved upwards in artistic seeming arcs, a subtle sign of their passage, then settled slowly in the low gravity once the ships had passed. Fifteen minutes above and behind, two more squadrons, a second wave of OGACs, dropped towards the ground.

Walls - six-kilometres-high, grey and rugged - closed in around the lead squadron as they began to climb the lower slopes of a large crater, the moon's largest, heading for a dark gash in its edge. An ancient meteor had created the gash as well as a passage through the wall, but more recent events had closed parts, twisted others, into a treacherous canyon. The canyon, the only passage into the crater except from above, was protected by automated gun emplacements.

 

"Status report, Sergeant?" Lieutenant Commander Zandra Stone, captain of the lead craft, STR/BG-1A, continued checking her plane's weapons and detection equipment.

"Three minutes to canyon, Commander," Sergeant Russel Cage, callsign 'Animal', drawled. "Speed, one thousand kay, stealth mode active."

"Thank you." Stone glanced at her tech-gunner, eleven years her senior and considered the relationship between his name and callsign.

'Caged animal?" She thought, 'Sounds about right.'

"Spin up the Gatlings and prepare to slow us to five hundred."

"Main guns one and two spinning up, Ma'am." Cage nodded at one of his panels, "Setting speed reduction, half-kay pre, OK?"

"Just the ticket." Stone grinned at her tech. She and Cage weren't great friends off duty, but their working relationship was about as tight as any could be. "Activate strobes on canyon entry."

Military strobes operated across a wide range of frequencies, many of them harmful to the human eye, and Stone knew they would increase the craft's visibility. Questions about their suitability as a weapon had been raised following reports that some nations had used strobes to control civil unrest, even though she was fairly confident Saxonia wasn't one of them. However, they were in a canyon and their complex light patterns helped confuse automated optical equipment so, used correctly, they could reduce threats to their craft. For the umpteenth time Stone checked the status of their primary payload, a half-ton HKA penetrator, all systems coming up green. Nine of her first wave carried the penetrator missiles, along with six of the second, the rest were armed with conventional bombs and missiles.

As Lead Squadron Commander, Stone felt she had a duty to keep herself more informed than her crews concerning the whys and wherefores of the mission. The Valentians had allied with the Geist and, ever since, had become a problem, destroying Saxon ships emerging from gates around the Sea of Souls, harassing convoys to Maleth and interdicting troop transports across the Kusini arena. The Supreme Lord Chancellor had been most insistent that the problem be dealt with so Commodore Wheatley, CINC Sea of Souls, had come up with the delightful little adventure that was Exercise Sagacity. Stone also had a fairly good idea what might be waiting for them beyond the twisting and narrow canyon and knew that if they didn't navigate the pass successfully, they wouldn't get the chance to launch their penetrator. In her mind that justified the use of strobes, whether she approved of them in other scenarios or not.

Their target, almost dead centre on a thirty-six-kilometre-wide crater floor almost a kilometre below the rest of the moon's surface, was the Valentian forward base, Vulcan. The base protected Valentian interests around the Sea of Souls and her crews would shortly discover whether Vulcan's notoriety was deserved. Stone had studied photographic, video and holographic data from a series of stealth drones and was worried enough by what she had seen. Clearly the base was a major refuel, repair and refit facility having some thirty docks, ten capable of mooring full-size battleships. The data revealed that six battleships, six cruisers and eight destroyers were in dock. She had seen that the base was heavily defended with kinetic and laser emplacements as well as several missile batteries. She had also seen ordered shapes, implying the base had several squadrons of short-range, defensive fighters. Fortunately for her people, the orbiting missile platforms would be a problem for Pandora's task force but, just based on what she had seen, the base alone looked formidable.

Falcon Orbital Ground Attack Craft were new and Sagacity was the craft's first real outing but Stone and her crews had been training on both simulators and the real thing for almost nine months. The squadrons had hit dirt a hundred kilometres out, just out of Vulcan's detection range, and had reconfigured their camouflage and stealth profiles. The small moon's gravity was low and limited the squadrons to a maximum of one and half thousand klicks per hour and she had opted for two thirds. As the craft cycled up to speed, Stone revisited her decision... to her mind that would be fast enough but would still leave something in reserve in case the mission went south. In her mind, she could hear her trainer saying the Falcon's optimum attack speed was around three thousand kilometres per hour, that her chosen speed was too slow for an attack against well-prepared positions, but her gut was telling her the Valentians had never dealt with an attack of this kind. With six-variable direction engines, the Falcon had the very latest in stealth tech and her hope was that that would be enough to catch the Valentians off guard.

A message appeared on her command panel. Opening a laser comms channel to her squadron she spoke tersely, "GemStone to StringBag One. Pandora and her support have engaged the missile defence platforms. They're likely to take some casualties so let's make this count. Take 'em up to a hundred, straighten up and follow us in."

She looked at her co-pilot. "Relay that to the other squadrons, Sergeant and get ready to pile it on when we come out the other side."

"Yes Ma'am." Cage nodded.

 

The lead craft moved to the head of the column, the perfect arrow head formation gracefully collapsing to single file behind her. The canyon walls closed in as a nest of Viperidi guns opened up on them. The squadron began a complex series of evasive manoeuvres, weaving from side to side, rolling back and forth as well as up and down, the small ships rapidly switching places with each other. Three more Viperidi nests opened up on the squadron.

 

Cage had sent the warning back to the trailing squadrons, Two and Three only minutes behind, Four and Five about ten minutes back.

STR/BG-1A began to be buffeted by flak, Stone and Cage both stayed alert for problems, but both knew what their small craft was capable of... close though they seemed, both knew the small explosions had to be virtually on top of the Falcon to do it any real damage.

'One of the advantages of flying an armoured bathtub in a vacuum,' Stone thought as they sped down the dark canyon.

Still she was glad they were flying the flat and boxy craft, little more than a heavily armoured cage built around two Gatling-style kinetics. Though the guns were immobile, aimed by manoeuvring the ship itself, they could fire massive numbers of armour piercing five-centimetre slugs, a storm against which even heavily armoured targets rarely stood.

The canyon was less dusty than the plain and, as they continued their descent to the crater floor over half-a-kilometre below, they passed over the first Viperidi nests, all five craft dropping clutches of bomblets. It wouldn't help their squadron much but she figured it might make it easier on the fellows coming in behind them. Darkness closed in around them, explosions, strobes and scanners continuing to guide their way.

"Top engine sliced, Commander," The radio squawked, "Nano fibre. Five engines still operational. STR/BG-1C responds AOK."

"Damnation!" Stone swore thumbing the comms override, "StringBag One, all units! Get down closer to the canyon floor! Fibres! Reduce speed to three hundred."

'Smart move,' Stone thought as she envisaged the carbon-fibres the Valentians had strung across the canyon, undetectable and with passages through it that only they knew. But she also knew such defences were costly to install and difficult to maintain so her best guess was that the fibres would be patchy and probably non-existent at lower levels. The squadron dipped to just over ten metres, a dangerous manoeuvre, since it would give them far less chance to avoid rising rocks and other high obstacles.

'Probably helps that the canyon's descending,' Stone thought as, further down the canyon, the flak reduced and finally stopped.

 

A little over ninety seconds later, the canyon walls started to open out again and the squadron burst back into full stellar light. Ahead, as she ordered the strobes deactivated, Stone could see a distant series of domes, masts and what looked to be docked ships. Had they not been on a mission to attack the base, she might have considered it a fairly peaceful scene.

"Reckon they anticipated this kind of attack?" Stone mused rhetorically. "We'll loiter round the crater edge, clockwise I think, keep us below one thousand, relay that to Squadron Two. Let's take a closer gander, shall we? Magnification fifty, please Sergeant."

"Yes Ma'am." Cage nodded, increasing the craft's speed as he started to reconfigure the craft's defences and stealth, to match the crater walls.

Armoured as it was, the Falcon had no true windows but the distant view through their main forward display, a simulated forward 'window' courtesy of a hundred tiny holo-cams embedded in the hull, switched to a close-up of the base. The small craft's computer rapidly identified the main dome, various masts, fuel depots and, the most important to her, a series of larger docks.

"We're taking some fire, small scale stuff. Primary targets have been identified and, ah, Squadron Two are in, Ma'am. They are proceeding anti-clockwise." Cage paused, the glow from his displays casting a green light over his face, "Squadron Three is in. We're good to go."

"Computer has established optimum ingress, AOK." Stone flexed her shoulders in preparation, "Send 'Saddle Up' and targeting data then turn us towards the docks. Give me the best you can Sergeant."

Cage turned the craft towards the docks and, as a series of confirmations came back, Stone checked her command screen to see all fifteen craft all heading in towards the docks from three directions and ramping up to one point five kay.

"Tally Ho!" She murmured.

At one and a half thousand kilometres per hour, she figured they should be in firing range in forty seconds and, as they closed on the docks, Stone had Cage alter the angle of the Falcon's engines to give them more lift. That, she figured, would allow them to launch their baby right down the throat of one of the now clearly visible battleships. Stone saw movement out of the corner of her eye and saw STR/BG-1B, Coalscuttle and Salmon, pull ahead as they zeroed in on The Rōmulus.

"Contact! There you are." Breathed Stone as she stared into her targeting scope at the pride of the Valentian navy, The Vesuvio, "You're mine. Sergeant Cage? Open the bays. Going tactical."

Speeding over the crater floor, the Falcon rose higher, engines compensating, preparing to hold them stable for the shot Stone was about to take. Twenty seconds from optimum, all hell broke loose as fire rose from The Vesuvio, the nearby Rōmulus and the cruiser Tiber.

"Mud launches detected, targeting enemy missile emplacements and direct threats." Cage drawled turning the craft slightly, a stream of kinetics causing an incoming missile to explode enthusiastically, then turning back as he loosed a pair of ground busters at a Valentian missile silo. "Bingo! Targets squished."

"Good splash, Sergeant." Cage nodded in acknowledgement, his concentration focussed on the threats ahead of them.

"Secondary targets. Fuel depot and silo. Fifteen and nineteen degrees starboard." Cage's voice carried no discernible trace of emotion, "Permission to engage, Captain?"

"Engage," Stone replied, "Missiles only. Stay on target."

"Yes, Ma'am." Cage gestured over his panel, bright flashes evidence of the missiles streaking past the cockpit from their craft's rear launchers, "Four birds homing." He paused then, "Three confirmed hits, silo and fuel depot destroyed. Two birds remain."

"Well done, Sergeant."

'There are times,' Stone thought, 'That I love my job.'

 

Five kilometres. The radio squawked, "Volcano and Shaman are down. They've bailed."

"Damn!" Stone breathed, "Good luck, chaps."

Four kilometres. Streaks of fire shot out from the closing squadrons as defensive flak and laser fire intensified.

Three kilometres. A blinding flash ahead.

"What the hell? Was that..."

"Falcon down," a voice hissed against radio static, "STR/BG-1B. CoalScuttle and Salmon. No evidence of bail."

"Fuck! God speed guys!" Stone whispered.

Two kilometres. Flak explosions bracketed them and lasers sang past their hull. Stone ordered Cage to bring the Falcon up to firing height and, seconds later, released her bird. Cage jinked the craft up and away from the missile, a brief glare told them the missile's engines had ignited as it shot away.

"GemStone to StringBag One. Mission objectives complete. We're out of here." Stone closed the communication channel and turned back to her screen to monitor the missile's progress.

"Full burn, Sergeant." Stone saw the missile vector in towards its target, full 3V and tactical thanks to the hull holo-cams and sensors mounted on the speeding missile. The craft's six engines ramped up to full power and she was slammed back in her seat.

"And while you're at it," Stone hissed through gritted teeth, "Ditch the rest of our shit."

"Yes Ma'am." Cage's voice was strained and she wasn't sure if he had heard the order until she saw the confirmation on her screen, multiple launches as he fired off his two remaining missiles at a destroyer several kilometres away and dropped the last of the craft's cluster bombs on a neat row of fighters far beneath them.

Their Immersaline suits inflated around them as the Falcon accelerated upwards and, as they crossed the thousand-metre upper threshold of the craft's action envelope, there was a bright flash. The screen dulled for a moment, the inevitable electronic response to the blinding actinic glare of an atomic explosion.

"Splash one battleship!" Stone tried to punch the air, failing miserably against the savage g-forces, then lowered her tone, "Gotcha, you bitch! You ain't gonna be comin' after our ships no more!"

"Reckon," Cage drawled, "Must have scored a direct hit on the reactor."

"Yeah but lighten up Cage, we got the job done, didn't we?" Stone playfully admonished even though she knew it was just Cage's way, "OK. Relay tactical info to the others and the Task Force then get us the hell outta here."

"Data transfer initiated, Ma'am. As the Commander suggests, let's get the hell outta here." Cage turned his face and grinned as the small craft rocketed upwards.

Minutes later, as they slid into IMS Pandora's massive shadow, the inside of the cockpit faded from view.

 

END PLAYBACK

 

Six students leant back from their simulators, stretching wearily in the dimly lit room as their chairs slid away on AESRA cushions and settled gently onto fixed supports. On a raised dais in front of them, sitting comfortably in a leather chair, the class tutor remained silent, watching his students and allowing them time to readjust to reality. After a few moments, he pressed several buttons in the arm of his chair, the light in the room slowly brightened and the large wall screen lit to display a series of statistics about the battle they had just experienced.

 

"Exercise Sagacity otherwise known as The Battle of Vulcan." Vice Admiral Kishi spoke slowly to allow the students additional recovery time, "A battle you just got to experience thanks to the Saxon habit of downloading pilot PAs after missions and the hacking skills of some of our, ah, friends over at Bunrui Jigyōbu."

Kishi watched with amusement as several of the students shook their heads, still fuzzy from their recent immersive experiences.

"So, the Battle of Vulcan, the first time a nation took action against another without the battle fleets of either side either sighting each other or directly engaging. Even the battle between the Saxon task force and the orbital missile platforms was fought at long range and there were no Saxon fatalities. Records indicate that only fourteen penetrators were fired and that twelve of those were confirmed hits. The task force's only casualties were OGAC crews compared, as you can see, to the massive Valentian damage and personnel loss and, overall, it was a success for the Saxon military, a huge boost to their morale.

"What have we learned from this, ladies and gentlemen?"

"Sir?" A hand was raised, Kishi smile frozen at the expected response, as he nodded at Sergeant Okuta to continue, "You say 'overall' when the Saxons destroyed or damaged four Valentian battleships, two cruisers and several other ships for the loss of only three," She looked at the class screen, "Sorry, four fighter-class ships and their crews. Surely that would be a victory in anyone's book?"

Kishi looked at Okuta, the youngest member of the class and the only non-commissioned officer ever to attend one of his courses, and she stared back at him, locking her gaze with his.

"A good question, Okuta." The smile on Kishi's, brown, leathery face briefly turned into a glare as he surveyed the five commissioned officers of his class. "In terms of the battle alone, yes, it was a complete success and no one can take that away from the ships and personnel involved. However, the operation could have been so much more successful if greater resource had been provided. Yes, naval fighter power was thoroughly demonstrated but it did relatively little to change the balance of power across The Sea of Souls even if it did give Wheatley, the Saxon Commander in Chief, Sea of Souls, a break of almost a year before the Valentians were properly back on their feet.

"To be fair to Saxon Naval Command, the original plan did envisage using two carriers instead of the one actually used but the Antaeus developed engine problems shortly before the fleet set off and no other carriers were available so an additional squadron of OGACs was transferred to the Pandora and the rest, as they say, is history."

"Your assessment of the Saxon action seems overly cynical, Sir." Okuta seemed curious, "Why?"

"Because the Saxons failed to exploit the opportunities the Battle of Vulcan presented them." Kishi was patient. "They allowed the undamaged battleships, Lyskamm and Libertà, to move freely back, deeper into Valentian space. They also allowed the damaged ships, Karalis, Nuova Fortuna and Rōmulus, to be towed back to other bases, bases equipped with big docks capable of repairing battleships. What could they have done?"

"Attacked again on a second night, Sir?" Kishi nodded as, once again, Okuta was first to answer but another student, Susumu Daigoku, indicated he wanted to answer.

"Daigoku?"

"Could the Saxons have set a trap, Sir?" Daigoku looked uncomfortable as he asked the question, "Perhaps positioned some cruise-bombers along the expected route for the undamaged battleships?"

"Good answer." Kishi smiled, "However, there is something you're missing. I'll give you a hint. Something they could have done before when planning Sagacity."

"More ships, Admiral?" Okuta was marginally ahead of the disappointed Daigoku, apparently thinking much the same, "Clearly the Valentians were unprepared for such a strike so another carrier with more OGACs would have massively increased the damage done. It may even have effectively removed the Valentians from the war altogether."

"Excellent Okuta, quite excellent." Kishi favoured her with another cold smile, "Daigoku?"

"I was going to say something similar, Sir." Daigoku nodded to Okuta, acknowledging her more rapid answer but struggling to think of another answer.

"Thank you, Sir." Okuta didn't smile, Kishi couldn't remember a time when she had, "I think I need to do more research on this."

Kishi paused for several seconds as he considered the young student. He could detect no trace of smugness in her mien. Mentally shrugging, he addressed the class generally, "Any other questions?"

"Yes Sir." Daigoku seemed uncertain, "Could the Saxons have used atomics?"

"They could." Kishi looked thoughtful, "However, general public attitude towards nuclear weaponry remains negative because of the damage and horrific injuries resulting from their use in the Amaranthine. Yes, they are still occasionally used, for example when a damaged enemy ship refuses to surrender, remaining behind to prevent pursuit of its fellows. A nuclear bomb in its guts will ensure it is permanently out of action and forever end its resistance. Nuclear missiles are also a useful, though expensive, method for dealing with orbital defence platforms. But public distaste for nuclear weaponry severely limits their use... that's why the majority of highly destructive weapons are HKA based."

"It's war, Sir."

"Yes Daigoku, its war." Kishi sighed, "And as we all know, as soon as wars start, the rules, the conventions and just about everybody's rights go out of the window. Any more?"

There were none so after a short silence he stood but before turning to leave, as the class made preparations to head off to their quarters, he turned back.

"The simulation and several other resource files have been transferred to your personal work areas. That includes all the planning details for Exercise Sagacity, tactical information as well as a series of personal records and recollections of the pilots involved in the operation." He surveyed the looks of alarm on all but Okuta's face. "Take the weekend but, by Tuesday morning, I want to see a reasonably detailed outline of a hypothetical attack on the United Colonial Systems base in the Aumakua system, UCS Port McKinley. Dismissed."

Walking out of the door towards his car, Kishi smiled, he had a Bunrui Jigyōbu graduation ceremony to attend. His smile turned into a cynical grin at the chorus of groans from the class behind him.

 

*  *  *

 

Fifteen minutes later, stepping out of his car on to the wide paved area in front of Edo Memorial Hall, Kishi was met by an honour guard of six elite Bunrui Jigyōbu soldiers who escorted him up the steps towards the massive gothic structure. As he passed through the wide arched doorway, Kishi glanced around. The foyer was stunning with massive marble columns supporting a domed ceiling painted beautifully with a copy of Michelangelo's, Creation of Adam. At least he assumed it was a copy, the original was supposed to be in the Sistine Chapel in Rome on Earth and he hadn't heard anything about it not being there anymore. Sumptuously carpeted marble stairways curved up on either side of the foyer, stained glass windows rising next to them. Sculptures were everywhere, busts of famous city councillors and others to whom the city owed its heritage. The walls were adorned with pictures and other works of art, mostly of famous Akatsu, both military and civil leaders.

However, to Kishi's mind, the most impressive piece was a central silvered sculpture, twenty metres long and three high, of the first Earth generation ship, the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the ship that had kickstarted human expansion into space. The Tsurugi, launched in nineteen-twenty with a cargo of two thousand young men and women, had made the trip to the trinary system Rigil Kentaurus in just fifty-six years. Finding a wealth of planets, the Tsurugi's descendants had renamed the stars and started the process of terraforming. The Tsurugi was no more of course, she had been purposefully crash-landed on Higuchi a few years after her arrival there, her components cannibalised and turned to use by the colonists of the then inhospitable world. Today, populations increasing massively by birth, embryo banks and centuries of hyperspace immigration, the Akatsu home systems centred on four planets, Hiroshi, Hayashi, Higuchi and Hattori. Still, Kishi found the sculpture both beautiful and detailed and his only regret was that he couldn't touch it, surrounded as it was by barriers keeping people at least three metres clear.

Turning his attention finally to the event itself Kishi saw a throng of people, some military, some student as well as men, women and children, relatives of the graduates he assumed. His gaze swept around the foyer and he spied two familiar faces, Major Itsuko Ishizaki and Captain Ryou Umemoto, his contacts for the event. They turned towards him, coming to attention and saluting as he marched up to them.

"At ease, Major, Captain." Kishi gestured to his two subordinates, "Thank you for meeting me here."

"Vice Admiral Kishi." Ishizaki bowed politely, "If you will follow me through to The Great Hall, I will show you to your seat."

The two officers escorted him through a smaller arched doorway nearby and into a large open hall that Kishi estimated must have contained over five hundred people with more wandering in to occupy the remaining seats. He sat in the chair indicated by Ishizaki and glanced curiously around the hall. To one side was a dais, lower than the one on which he and his fellow officers were seated, with some thirty seats. He guessed that was where the new Bunrui Jigyōbu graduates would sit, and rapidly found that he was right as the smartly dressed youngsters, seventeen men and thirteen women with shaved heads, entered to take their seats.

Major Ishizaki checked his portable speech cue, coughed and stood to walk smartly to the centre of the dais and stand behind the lectern. As Ishizaki spoke to the rapt graduates, Kishi's attention wandered around the hall towards a number of Bunrui Jigyōbu staff standing at ease around its edges. His gaze swept across a young female guard wearing darkened protective glasses, almost continuing on but looked back as a sickening wave of familiarity, almost Déjà vu-like, hit him. Shaken and unable to place her, Kishi stared for almost half-a minute until she looked up to meet his eyes and forced him to look elsewhere. He returned to his abstract analysis of the hall, his eyes roving everywhere but where the strangely familiar guard stood, his jitteriness slowly fading.

 

Ishizaki's speech lasted for about fifteen minutes before he finally paused and nodded towards Kishi.

"And with that I would like to hand over to our guest of honour, Vice Admiral Kikuma Kishi."

There was a round of applause for Ishizaki and, as he stepped backwards to stand respectfully several steps behind the lectern, Kishi took his place.

"Good afternoon, Ladies and gentlemen." Kishi focussed on the graduates, feeling the presence of the young guard at his mind's edges, "I confess to an inclination to ramble so I will do my best to keep this short and with that in mind, hope you won't mind that I address my comments to our new graduates.

"Since being invited as guest of honour for this ceremony I have wondered what I would say. What important life lessons I have learned and how I can, in the space of a few minutes, pass those lessons on. The simple fact is I can't and, in short, don't plan to try." Kishi paused as a ripple of murmurs flowed across the hall. He smiled, "At least not directly.

"Some that have met me will know me will know I am something of a devotee of the ancient Greeks and it is to one of them, Heraclitus, that I turn for my first piece of wisdom. 'There is nothing permanent except change'. The world is continuously changing around us all, technology is outdated before it hits our desks and society is a moving, living force that ebbs and flows around us. As such, very little of my experience can be directly relevant to our newly graduated students here. Yes, I can advise in general terms but there are better people than me for that purpose and, to be brutally honest, our young graduates have spent the last two years with exactly the right kinds of people to advise them properly in such respects. Regardless, I would advise our young graduates to be aware that all things change and not necessarily for the better.

"My second piece of advice is to say that time is a precious commodity, perhaps the most precious commodity. Why waste it living as others want you to? This is important. Having graduated, you have demonstrated your potential, that you are clever enough to pass the set exams, that you have a modicum of skill and presumably a unique set of talents. An old Earth playwright, George Bernard Shaw as I recall, once said 'The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.' Live your life the best way you can but be unreasonable, change the world to fit your needs.

"My third piece of advice is by Demosthenes, yes, another ancient Greek, who said, 'Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.' Be aware of the huge, the calamitous, the impressive but don't overlook the small as they might present opportunities you previously did not know existed. Think of it like a set of interlocking building blocks. Individually they are nothing but put them together in a certain fashion and they become something much greater, much more impressive and potentially very useful. Remember that from tiny acorns, mighty oaks grow... if you are unable to see the little things or use them correctly, you might never be able to do or see the larger ones. Pay attention to detail.

"My final piece of advice is to remember that it is not so much if you die but to remember that we all die. You may get little choice about how or when you die so the only thing left to control is how you live. We could die at any moment and it should not be a case of how long we live but what we do with our lives. Make your lives count for something.

"And with that I shall finish, all that remains is for me to make a few presentations."

 

A few hours later, after they had eaten, Kishi wandered over to the bar to see if they had any single malts, perhaps a decent Braeriach. He had found Ishizaki and Umemoto perfectly pleasant, if a little bland, but now sought something with a little more character. He felt a presence at his side and turned to look straight at the young guard he had somehow connected with earlier.

"Admiral?" She saluted, "Matsuyama, Lieutenant. I don't know exactly how I know but, during the ceremony, I got hit by a feeling. Part of it told me that you wanted to talk to me?"

For several seconds Kishi stood still. When he had seen her in the hall he had been hit by a wave of dizziness, a feeling of having somehow known her previously, a feeling he could not logically explain. As far as he knew, he had never met the young woman before but had somehow wanted to meet her, to talk to her. However, he knew he hadn't told anyone and he was stunned by her direct approach.

"Yes." He agreed, finally returning the salute, "I do have some questions. My first is a request for confirmation, Lt. Matsuyama. Are you in any way related to Yori and Kiya Matsuyama?"

"If I was, I would not admit so." She locked her gaze with his, her face wearing an expression of forced neutrality, "You may take that as you wish, Sir. If you wish to know more you can look on my records."

He smiled, instantly aware she had bested him. He knew he didn't have the necessary clearance to access Bunrui Jigyōbu security files. She knew it too.

"OK Matsuyama." Kishi had already decided he liked this rather straight-laced young woman, "If you're not willing confirm your identity, are you will to tell me how you came to enlist in the Bunrui Jigyōbu?"

"Certainly, Sir." She agreed readily, "Though I will have to keep it brief. I already have my next assignment and I need to be across the other side of town before midnight. Would you mind if we sit for a few minutes?"

They sat at an empty table in a darkened corner that others seemed to be avoiding.

"My childhood was troubled." Matsuyama began simply but precisely, "I ran away from my family when I was fifteen. I ended up in Edo, like many others, the potential prey of thugs and pimps but I decided I wasn't going to be a victim. Building on martial arts skills I had acquired at school I learned to fight. I lived simply as I made a name for myself, competing in street fights or leagues for status and insignificant prizes. Sure, I still got targeted by the thugs, got threatened and beaten but each time I learned a little more and one day, when I thought I had learned enough, I fought back. That fight wasn't quite so one-sided but I still lost." She flinched then smiled ruefully before she continued, "Times were, ah, challenging but I survived and less than six months later few pimps or thugs dared lay a hand on me and if any did, I made damned sure they ended up regretting it.

"I improved my street-fighting skills over time and began selling my skills as a bodyguard, an enforcer or whatever and I quickly earned enough to rent a small single bedroom flat in the slums near the Izumi river. I know." She smiled sadly, "I had arrived a romantic but as my notoriety increased, my dreams faded. Even that took its toll, despite my relative success I took to drinking heavily, throwing my money away and often ended up collapsed in gutters near the cheap bars.

"That was when he found me."

"He?"

"Kubota. One morning I woke to see him, a man in a light grey suit, crouched in the shadows nearby. Thinking he was a threat, I attacked him but he beat me away easily, so easily I just turned and ran. I thought I lost him but a few minutes later he was there, a hundred metres behind and clearly following me. I ran once more, fleeing for my life this time, and again thought I had lost him but when I turned, he was still there, a little closer. I put everything I had into an escape move and buried myself in one of my bolt holes, a place I was confident no one knew anything about. I watched as Kubota walked nearly silently past my hideout and his quiet footsteps began to fade. I stayed there for an hour, perhaps two. I started to believe I had lost him but when I climbed out of the hideout he reappeared, moving out of some shadows to stand in full view of where I had been hiding.

"He spoke to me by name, his voice quiet. I just stared. I wasn't very nice. I screamed at him, demanding he tell me what he wanted. He just introduced himself but then mostly talked about me... my early life, my schooling, my flight to Edo and my rise within the slums of Edo. He went further, predicting my future, a day when I would lie dead in an alley from the fight I one day had to lose. Finally, he persuaded me that there had to be something different, something better, more worthwhile and that this was not who I was meant to be.

"I asked him what he meant and he said he worked for an organisation that could use someone with my skills. Then he just walked away."

"Really?" Kishi asked, "What did you do?"

"I followed him... at a distance at first, I got a bit closer later. I followed him right into the administrative sector of Edo, somewhere in the backstreets I had never been before, until he had stopped at a door. I remember it clearly, a small, black door in a large featureless building, not so much a door as a black chasm into... into... somewhere else. I don't mean spiritual, just somewhere scary. I asked him what came next and he told me it was a choice, a choice I had to make, whether to go in or not. The way he said it made it clear that it was no easy option, that the doorway could mean life or death for me."

"And?" Kishi was totally engrossed in her tale, "Did you go in?"

"Well duh!" Her laughter broke the tension, "I'm here. Of course, I did."

"And?"

"And nothing really." She became evasive, "I don't like to think of some of the things they put me through in order to evaluate my suitability for Bunrui Jigyōbu training but I passed, barely. I didn't start out as their best student but I worked hard, I've always been willing to study if I understand what the goal is. I graduated top of my year in combat and tactical. I very nearly graduated top in information acquisition and interrogation but not quite. I've been working as part of a specialist unit within Bunrui Jigyōbu.

"Really?" Kishi leant forward, "And that is?"

"With respect, Sir." She pulled back slightly, "I think perhaps it is better you do not know. They've been disbanded anyway."

"I understand." Kishi nodded, almost absent-mindedly, "At least I think I do."

"And on that note." She stood, "I really need to be on my way."

"Yes, of course." Kishi smiled and extended his hand, "Good luck, Ms. Matsuyama. I trust you know I won't say anything."

"Thank you, Sir." She smiled, realising that a silent bargain had been struck. As she took the proffered hand, she felt an energy pass between them, "Perhaps we will meet again, Admiral?"

"I hope so... in fact, I feel sure we will." He had felt the connection too but simply bowed as she let go of his hand and when he raised his eyes again, she had disappeared.

"May the gods be between you and harm in all the empty places you walk." He whispered as he felt her presence fade and finally disappear.