Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2020, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part CXXVI: Blood Shall Answer
Continued from the previous excerpt
Most of Tozama's Hatamoto had shed their powered suits, but the five who had escorted Yonn's party had not. They, and the others in the rooftop lounge, raised their weapons to cover the squad of Executive Guards, and the old man who accompanied them.
"Secure them," the Emperor commanded. "I shall decide their fates later." As the Hatamoto began stripping them of weapons, Tozama said to the captives, "Perhaps I will release you into the galaxy, to spread word of my power. Or perhaps I will feed you to the Nikar and the Flike." He shrugged and turned away. "Report," he ordered Nakata.
His adjutant, now ranked the equivalent of Lieutenant Colonel, had staff of his own, who fed data to him through devices he was rarely without. Even during the duel he was keeping up with the situation on and around Oskran. Together they walked away from the others, across the rooftop plaza, to converse privately. "The enemy in Lii have respected the cease-fire, though they are attempting to maneuver for advantage. Counting irregular and reserve forces they have us greatly outnumbered on the surface, but with our command of the skies they dare not form too large or obvious a concentration. They pose no threat we cannot immediately eliminate.
"The same applies in Hewnak. Your newest vassals, from the Kingdom of Garch, were reluctant to halt their activities, but obeyed, pleased enough with having finally defeated their ancient rival. As I reported earlier, they had already secured all Hewnak territory except for a few island colonies too small and remote for urgent attention.
"The Kingdom of Narloof has likewise been conquered, by your Flike servants. Considerable effort was required to halt their predations, and their commanders have expressed displeasure at having their meals interrupted. Narloof is possessed of many natural resources, and slaves are even now being organized to gather this wealth for your needs. This is being explained to the Flike war-leaders, and some claim to understand.
"The other states of Oskran remain preoccupied with their own conflicts, internal or external, and pose no threat to us. They shall be taken in their turns upon your orders.
"The Jeffersonian Navy is believed to be in hiding, in the outer system. Searches continue." The Marsten Detector, faster-than-light radar, did not have infinite range; and the smaller or more distant the target, the less effective it became. Planets could be detected at light-hours' distance. Ships, at -minutes or -seconds. "The forces encountered here were badly mauled and remain heavily outnumbered by our own. Republic and Allied reinforcements are known to have been dispatched, but how many are coming here or being directed to other fronts is not known. The surviving enemy ships could be alone, or they could be gathering force to return." Nakata projected graphs. "These estimates take into account the enemy's new stardrive. Saito-sama expresses remorse for his failure to learn more. He is well aware of your strategy and your desire for kessen.
"As to that strategy, Copeland-Taisho expresses, again, his unease at this delay. He reiterates that mobility and speed are behind our successes to date, and warns most strenuously against losing momentum. He invokes Lee at Antietam."
Nakata protected more graphs. "Here are the latest production reports from our captured shipyards, those of your vassals, and our own forge-ships. They are all... below expectations. The factors are numerous: lack of skilled labor, primarily; shortages of critical materials, particularly the rare elements necessary for the Marsten Drive; resistance and sabotage from our subject populations.
"If I may observe, sama, the momentum Copeland-Taisho fears losing may already be slipping away from us. Nearly every ship we have has been deployed, and nearly two-thirds of our entire navy is here, awaiting the kessen. Director of Production Yoshioka-Taisho, contrasting Copeland-Taisho, warns that our momentum cannot be maintained. He calls for a halt, to consolidate our gains and increase our forces. He invokes Hitler in 1939."
Both arguments were valid. In Copeland's view, the Republic and her Allies were on the defensive and must be kept so, before their greater industrial capacity could be brought to bear. In September of 1862CE, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had an opportunity to shatter Union forces and drive to the northern capitol, bringing a swift end to the War Between the States. A chance interception of his campaign orders destroyed that opportunity, ending a string of southern victories, losing the Confederacy's momentum and allowing the greater industry and population of the north to bury the south in steel and men.
Adolf Hitler, dictator of National Socialist Germany in 1939, had conquered much of the European continent, and yet no major world power had declared war against him. It would have been a perfect time to halt, secure and integrate his new territories and subjects, build the powerful navy he had originally planned. Instead he had reached for one more little country, Poland, dividing it with his then-allies in the communist Soviet Union, resulting in declarations of war from Great Britain and France, launching a series of events which would eventually lead to conflict with the largest and most advanced industrial power in his world, the United States of America.
"A halt is what I intend," Tozama explained to Nakata. "With dignity for our forces, of course. The kessen remains necessary. The Republic and her allied nations have few truly powerful ships, and most of those are decades old, however much they have been updated. Few of their crews and commanders have combat experience. I must destroy as many of them as possible, both ships and beings, while I can, to make the enemy spend the time and resources to replace their losses, leaving me the time to do the same.
"Finding the enemy fleet or fleets is vital. Communicate this to all my commanders in the strongest possible terms. The kessen must come soon, or both Copeland's and Yoshioka's fears may be realized." It was at this moment that the device on Nakata's wrist beeped.
The adjutant projected the new report for his Emperor. "A single enemy ship has appeared, sama, and her captain has requested communication with you."
The hologram showed the face of Solomon Danner, and a diagram of JRS Aurora.
In Aurora's bridge holotank, a Japanese man appeared, wearing black military fatigues. In unaccented American the man announced, "I am Tozama Daiki, Emperor of Space."
"Brevet-Commodore Solomon Danner, Jeffersonian Republic Navy." In the bridge acceleration couches, he inclined his head toward Aurora's gynoid, who said, "Lieutenant Aurora Danner, CL63 JRS Aurora, of the same."
Tozama smiled. "I have studied your battles in great detail, Commodore, Lieutenant. Several times you have directly interfered in my works."
"I'm pleased our efforts bore fruit," Solomon replied, glowering.
"I am pleased to meet you at last," Tozama-Tenno answered, smiling. "Your late friend the Councilor had much praise for you both."
Aurora and her Family had seen the recent duel, broadcast minutes ago by friendly and enemy cameras and forwarded by the tight beam of the Marsten Device, as they had emerged from hyperspace to execute their own plan. "His life is another for which you must pay," she declared.
Tozama smirked. "Come, Lieutenant, by all accounts you are an intelligent being, as is your Captain. Surely you can understand my position, my code. Even if you disagree with it."
"...I see that you truly believe in your cause."
"Good," the Emperor expressed with pleasure. "That will make our own contest far more interesting.
"I know that your reinforcements are approaching. You know they will not be enough," Tozama lied, "that our positions are reversed from those of our ancestors. My Empire can build ships faster than your Republic. My armies outnumber yours and can replace losses sooner. For decades I have been gathering resources, developing industries in the depths of space, unimagined by your intelligence services. Your nation, your allies, your civilizations, are doomed to failure."
"You underestimate civilization," Aurora told him. "Your kind, or your previous incarnations if you prefer, always have."
Tozama smiled at the recognition of his periodic divinity. "And yet, as I explained to your friend, I always return."
"So do we. Look at this world, Oskran. The gods themselves struck this world with their hammers, and civilization rose again. That is the natural order."
Tozama considered this. "Indeed, without civilization, what would wolves prey upon? Yes... I see now. The Shepherd is as immortal as the Wolf. Your friend the Councilor understood this, and I have gained wisdom even from him... and from you.
"In any case, in this age, the balance tilts to me.
"I am pleased you have contacted me. I presume you wish to challenge me personally, and I am also pleased to accept. I propose an alternative to the wasteful battle forming before us. You and your ship against I and mine. Mikasa against Aurora, to the death. All forces represented by the defeated party will withdraw from this system. If I am victorious, I will halt my advance here, holding what I have already conquered, and allow peace to be restored to the galaxy."
"I have a counter-proposal," a new voice declared.
Daisuke Taniyama's hologram appeared on the channel, from his gunnery station.
"Ah," Tozama uttered with pleasure, "Taniyama-kenshi. You, too, have been an object of my study. I have dreamed of crossing swords with you. If it is you who wishes to challenge me instead of your captain and ship, I gladly accept."
"I too have dreamed of meeting you," Daisuke replied, "for you and I have more claim to each other's blood than this mere war."
"Oh? Have I wronged you personally, somehow?"
Speaking now in nihongo, Aurora's Purser declared, "You wear your father's sword." Takeo Nakayama lifted his sheathed wakizashi into the video frame, horizontal in a clenched fist, extended toward Tozama. The chiseled-out remnant of the Nakayama family mon was visible on hilt and scabbard. "As do I."
Emotions raced across Tozama's face: shock, confusion, disbelief....
"All these years," Kazuo Nakayama whispered in Japanese, "I never dared hope we would meet again."
"I have hoped, and lived, for little else," Takeo answered, returning the short sword to his waist with deliberation.
Eyes bright, smiling, Kazuo asked, "What are your terms?"
"An immediate halt to all hostilities across all fronts. Then, the same as yours... but you and I alone. No ships, no guns. Only ourselves."
A heartbeat passed, and another; and the Emperor of Space said, "I accept.
"We shall duel here, on the surface of this world, and all the armies and navies of both our causes shall watch. I shall send a ship to bring you to me. None shall halt or harm you....
"None but I."
The man now known as Admiral John Copeland had objected to his Emperor risking himself in a ship-to-ship duel, or in ground assaults. He objected most strenuously to this personal contest. By Marsten Device from his command center in the worldship Suizei, Copeland implored his Emperor: "Tozama-Tenno, this may be the only being in the galaxy who can defeat you."
"That, Taisho, is why I must face him," Tozama replied... "and for another reason."
"Sama, what will become of us, of your Empire, if you were to fall? Who would succeed you? I cannot, your Hatamoto and uchuu-no-okami would not accept a gaijin."
Tozama grinned like the wolf. "As I said when I departed the vessel of Alexander: 'The strongest.' That is the way of wolves."
Tozama issued orders for an immediate and universal cease-fire. Marsten transmissions were practically impossible to intercept, but the orders were broadcast in clear to his enemies in the Oskran system, then forwarded by still-hidden Marsten Devices to those beyond. In less than three hours reports came to the Jeffersonian fleet from neighboring systems, confirming the orders. This information was forwarded to Aurora.
As though aware of the timing, minutes later a gunship of the Blood Rose arrived near Aurora's position, burning to rendezvous.
Takeo Nakayama needed little time or effort to prepare. He had been preparing his whole being for this moment, since that terrible night of murder and flames.
A docking tube extended from Aurora's bow while the gunship approached. Takeo, in a common shipsuit, with only his father's Mitsuhira wakizashi and his own conventional katana, paused at the airlock, his feet in bulkhead loops for stability.
His true Family gathered to bid him farewell, each taking his hand or embracing him in turn. Aurora herself was last. "Brother," her gynoid said, "take my sword." She held out to him her golden-bladed Sakaguchi katana, nearly the equal of a Mitsuhira. "Strike for us all."
Takeo Nakayama removed his own long sword and left it floating beside him. He took his sister's weapon in both hands, and though still in freefall, bowed deeply, as he had rarely done before.
Takeo - though less than twenty beings in the universe knew his true name - arrived in the same lift Nalat Yonn had taken, escorted by a single unarmored Hatamoto, who gestured toward the plaza and stepped aside.
The rooftop plaza was a hexagon some twenty meters per side, with bars and restaurants and lounges all around. The surface was setts, roughly regular stone blocks fixed in compacted soil, but instead of historical Human rectangular pieces, the designers of this ziggurat had chosen triangles. The footing would be unusual. The remains of Nalat Yonn had been removed, though much of his blood remained, having dried in the passing hours.
The Hatamoto had withdrawn to the edges of the clearing, as the sun set and a light rain began to fall. The gas torches were raised for more light, and raindrops hissed as they struck. Yonn's blood began to soften and run.
Kazuo was waiting in the center of the plaza, and of the blood. Takeo strode to face him. He stopped a couple meters away, and the brothers, each wearing one of their father's swords, silently stared.
Hovering cameras broadcast, and a whole star system watched... but only two men in all the universe would ever hear their last words to each other.
Kazuo broke the silence: "The irony," he observed. "I had sought you out on your own merits as kenshi, as a challenge to my own skill, never imagining who you really were." Takeo did not answer.
Kazuo continued, "And yet you knew who I was. How?"
Finally Takeo spoke: "Kure."
Kazuo's mind traced back across the decades, to the very beginning of his rise to power. "The weapon shop. How remarkable. The smallest of things can have the longest reach." Again Takeo fell silent.
Kazuo offered no justification for stealing the family fortune, murdering their parents, and framing his brother for the crime. Takeo made no condemnation. Each man knew what he was.
Kazuo's eye fell upon the Sakaguchi at Takeo's hip. "Your ship's?"
Takeo answered, "My sister's."
Kazuo digested his meaning, and sighed. "There is so much I want to know, to learn. About you, her, them.
"But there will never be time."
Kazuo drew their father's black sword.
Takeo calmly drew his sister's golden blade.
All conditions were equal, or nearly so; the footing, the clothing, the light, the rain... perhaps even the weapons. The last question was skill.
Kazuo Nakayama had murdered two people in their sleep. Tamura Ken had slain more than thirty in duels. Tozama Daiki had killed at least a hundred in combat. His experience was fresh, his skills at their peak.
Neither Takeo Nakayama nor Daisuke Taniyama had ever crossed swords in earnest with a truly skilled opponent, except once, with the brother now before him. He had butchered pirates and criminals and stupid thugs... but he had trained, as much as he could, against the living and against machines faster than any natural being.
Both men held their swords at the classic chudan-no-kamae, the middle stance, blades directly before them. They held their positions, eyes locked together. The contest was also psychological.
Kazuo was the first to move, shifting to the aggressive jodan, the high stance, taking half a step toward his brother. Takeo... remained still.
Kazuo felt a thing he had not experienced since childhood, receiving instruction from his despised father:
He had worn an artificial right hand for decades. It was of the highest quality, with a delicacy of feeling and control as fine as the original.
For the first time in many years, the place where he ended and the machine began throbbed with pain.
The mystery of the Mitsuhira sword had been approached by Matsu Sakaguchi. Both processes remained secret. The crossguards of these Japanese-style weapons, the tsuba, were made separately, but of the same material as their respective blades.
A conventional sword of folded steel would have shattered when meeting the black cermet katana. As Takeo raised his sister's sword to parry, Aurora's golden blade and tsuba held, and rang.
The brothers became still, their weapons touching at the end of Kazuo's stroke.
The Mitsuhira was visibly scuffed where the two blades had met.
The Sakaguchi's golden tsuba was scarred, where the black cutting edge had struck.
Kazuo bared his teeth in a wolf's snarl, and attacked.
Takeo Nakayama was a quiet man.
So much had been burned out of him that evil night. He had lost the capacity for love, for humor, for happiness. He had wandered the galaxy, numbly performing tasks to keep his body alive, not knowing what else to do.
He had crossed the Republic more than once, on ships of every kind and quality. Sometimes he could apply the trade for which he had trained, managing money. Sometimes he used the other skills he had learned, from his respected father, in defense of his shipmates or himself. He learned new skills, the operation and maintenance of a ship, or small craft, or tools and weapons and equipment he had never in his previous life expected to encounter or need.
On the passenger liner Morning Flower, he had risen to Deputy Purser, with an expectation of promotion. He had given thought to settling, staying with that ship, regaining some stability in his life. Then that too had been taken from him, in blood and violence. Captain Yolanda Milowski had begged him to stay, but something in him could not. She saw the scars within him, though she could not know their source. She had given him her blessing, a purse of precious metal and gemstones from her own vault, and a suggestion that he seek out Eric Linfarger in High City at Wilson's Colony.
That had been the most fortunate meeting of his life. He had found yet another ship, which quickly grew to be his home, his shipmates a new Family closer than any he had known before. They had never asked about his past, even after sharing their own tales of tragedy and loss... until one day the time had seemed right for him to speak.
His new Family had not merely accepted, but claimed him as brother, and sworn to join their causes to his. Years had passed in their company and he had returned to some semblance of life and normality, feelings he had never hoped to regain.
Then, in a little weapon shop in Kure in Old Nippon, all the blood and horror of that deadly night came crashing back... with one tiny spark of hope, for vengeance.
More years passed as the universe gave up one clue after another, that his evil brother was alive, had escaped justice, was committing more terrible crimes across the galaxy. Takeo learned his enemy's new name, his mark, his works. He scoured the Net for information, shared what he found with the few people he could trust with his secret.
Now war had come to the galaxy, and had brought him this one chance to balance the scales.
Their father's sword crashed again and again into his sister's. Kazuo was enraged, striking with more fury than thought. He had seen that Aurora's Sakaguchi was weaker, that the Mitsuhira would defeat it in time, as it had every other sword and spear and axe it had ever encountered. Kazuo attacked constantly; Takeo only defended himself.
Most swordfights were over in moments, some with a single movement. It was incredibly rare for contestants to be so evenly matched that a duel continued for minutes.
But these contestants were not equal.
Takeo had felt it in his brother's first attack: the difference in their skill, their speed, their strength. In an instant, he knew the outcome was inevitable.
He retreated before Kazuo's onslaught, one step and another, on the bloody, rain-slick stones, on the very roof of this alien city. His defense began to soften, as he deliberately weakened his parries to lighten the blows against his sister's sword, prolonging the time before it failed. With each strike, Kazuo drove his brother further back, his weapon and the hands holding it further out of position.
Then, on the rain-softened blood of Councilor Nalat Yonn and the uneven triangular stones, Takeo's foot slipped, skipping mere centimeters from one high spot to the next.
Kazuo saw it, the momentary loss of balance, the brief opening. He struck yet again, and saw his brother overcorrect, bringing Aurora's sword against their father's with more force than he had in the last exchange.
Matsu Sakaguchi, his descendants and employees, made the second-best sword in the galaxy. Only the line of Daisuke Mitsuhira made better. Aurora's Sakaguchi katana could have survived a thousand strikes against any lesser blade... but not from the second ever created by the Heretic.
Aurora's golden sword shattered against Kazuo's black.
Takeo had learned much in his travels, much more from his Family.
He had learned strategy. He had learned patience.
In the first instant of their contest Takeo had known the outcome, lacking only the details. For minutes he had received his brother's attacks, learning his speed and strength... and the moment when Kazuo's technique began repeating itself.
When he was sure he had seen all his brother's moves, Takeo allowed his foot to slip.
As the Mitsuhira katana passed through the disintegrating Sakaguchi and continued in follow-through, an opening appeared, not in Takeo's defense, but in Kazuo's.
In that moment, as he had done in a waste-choked alley in the bottom of another distant city, Takeo drew his father's wakizashi and slashed backhanded.
In a fraction of a second, Kazuo had recovered, reversed the motion of his katana, and swung to decapitate his brother. Takeo ducked below the black blade, reversed the momentum of his own, and raised it to parry Kazuo's next reversal. For the first time in their centuries-long existence, their father's swords collided in ringing anger.
Again the brothers stood motionless, their swords and eyes locked together. Feeling the release of tension in their contact, Takeo stepped back, dropped the hilt of his sister's ruined sword, and sheathed his father's wakizashi. Kazuo straightened and did the same with the katana.
In the next moment, Kazuo's abdomen opened and spilled his life upon the alien stones.
Takeo Nakayama bent over the dead body of his elder brother and retrieved their murdered father's sword. He discarded the Sakaguchi's sheath at his waist and put the Mitsuhira in its place, uniting the daisho for the first time in thirty-two Terran years.
Then, without a word or a glance, he walked calmly to one side of the hexagonal plaza. No one spoke or moved as he reached stairs leading down to the surface, and disappeared.
Continued in the next excerpt....