‘The Road to Rebellion’
On the western docks of Taizen Gate, the kensei moves through the sweat and sea spray smell of traders and gamblers toward the looming city.
He buys a map chip from a street kid. Straight paths are nonexistent here, and it’s imperative to know which streets and tea houses are owned by which family. The kensei plugs the chip into a hologram reader and the color-coded map spreads out before his eyes. “Neutral,” he commands quietly, and a selection of streets, linked by peace shrines, light up in yellow.
He has seen this before. He knows what comes next. Deja vu.
He pauses, and everyone pauses with him. The tourists staring down at their own maps, the spoiled pleasure-seeking children of Aullerian oligarchs riding above the hoi-polloi in litters, they freeze in place.
What is happening?
Don’t be alarmed. You were injured, and now you are regaining consciousness.
The kensei spins around, looking for the woman to whom the voice belongs.
Who are you?
You can call me Kinetic.
Am I dreaming?
You are remembering.
He closes the hologram with a snap, and everyone moves again.
Weapon carry laws are nonexistent in Taizen Gate, but the kensei keeps his sword tucked under his cloak. Up rickety ladders, through manholes, and down trash-littered streets he travels between neutral shrines. He pauses at each, drops a coin into the offering box, and whispers this prayer:
Send me hardship, that I might learn from it.
To reach the School District, he must pay the toll on a public airbus. Uniformed students wear badges depicting adorable cartoon versions of their favorite Taizen bosses on their backpacks.
Beautiful women in kimonos call out from the gambling houses, enticing him to play badugi or mahjong or throw dice. Street kids swarm him with rolls of lottery tickets. Elders play Twenty Squares in tea houses.
The kensei moves through the markets, winding around ancestor shrines, avoiding the smoggy streets leading toward Boiling Bay.
How am I seeing this?
It is a therapeutic technology called Electronic Hypnotism. It is helpful after acute trauma to bring the mind to the present time.
There was an explosion…
We’ll come to that. Keep going.
Outside the city, the only place on the island where a healthy deep breath can be taken, is farmland, precious and expensive. Pristine roads connect orchards, rice paddies, and sprawling estates.
The kensei stops several paces before the gate of Third Boss’ mansion and dojang. He extends his sword forward and a holographic security barrier shatters into green pixels, then forms again around the blade. He draws his sword out and waits.
Within moments, alarm bells ring and dozens of students race out of the gate with knives and short swords dangling from their belts and revolvers pointed at him.
A thin, angular man in an expensive kimono walks through the gate under a nameplate that says “Pae.” He approaches the visitor, empty palms out and facing down. Both men bow low, eyes locked.
“You seek a duel?” asks Pae.
“I have found it.”
“Wonderful.” Pae’s smile widens. “Long have I wished to test my skills against the great kensei. Shall we discuss terms?”
“Down,” says Pae, and the security barrier dissolves. The students holster their guns and make a path.
“It was snowing.”
“It doesn’t snow in Taizen Gate.”
The men kneel across a low table from one another in a small rice paper and rattan tea room. Outside, Pae’s students stand at attention.
“I have been too long away from the mainlands. Many of the old traditions have been abandoned here,” says Third Boss, his voice smooth as silk as he pours the matcha.
“A shame,” says the kensei.
“Is it?” Pae offers a steaming bowl to his guest. “You are a relic. In Taizen Gate, we duel for power, not honor.”
“To the cut, then,” says the kensei, accepting his bowl.
“To the death,” says Pae.
The kensei sips. “What would you gain by killing me?I own nothing but my sword.”
“Your reputation is your wealth.” Pae drains his cup. “He who ends the kensei becomes the kensei.”
“To the death, then.” The kensei drains his bowl and rests it on the table. “Blades only.”
“Anything else would be dishonorable.”
“Shall we go to the dojang?”
“Why wait?” Pae grins, showing crooked teeth, as he whips his kimono open, revealing a vest lined with throwing knives. The first blade leaves Pae’s fingers at such speed that, even with the kensei’s wind-quick movement, a lock of his hair is shorn away. The second kisses the kensei’s cheek as he leaps to his feet. The small blades slice through the paper walls.
The kensei’s sword unsheaths with a brilliant shhhing! and the two men face off, Pae with throwing knives between the second and third fingers of each hand and the kensei gripping the hilt of his sword before him. The kensei strikes; Pae leaps and delivers a hooking kick to the empty air where the kensei had been. The kensei’s sweeping sword slices through the walls, peeling them away from the rattan. Two more knives fly, piercing the paper; a student outside gurgles as one small blade buries itself in his throat.
“You are quick,” says Pae, circling.
“You are stalling,” hisses the kensei. He shrugs off his hooded cloak and sinks into a ready stance.
More blades fly, some so small and fast they buzz the kensei’s ears like deadly bees, one a machete that turns end over end and splits a rattan support beam. Pae leaps like a barrel away from the kensei’s attacks, silk kimono flying. A rattan beam falls and the paper ceiling drops, blinding the kensei long enough for Pae to attack with a blade in each hand. The kensei’s blood splatters on the paper as he whirls and shreds, forcing Pae back. The tea house collapses, then bursts into shredded paper snow that catches in the breeze and swirls around the two masters as they spin and strike and cut, close and then far, blood on both sides, eyes locked.
The kensei steps back, closes his eyes. A second passes like an eternity while he meditates. He opens his eyes and races forward, the life of the Third Boss in his grasp.
There is an acrid taste on the kensei’s tongue, and then there is a flash of light in Pae’s hand.
The flying paper snow ignites in the blast, and all goes gray.
When I count down to one, you will open your eyes and be in the present moment.
Open your eyes.
A dim room comes into slow focus. Outside the window, skyscrapers and towers light up a moonless night.
A machine beeps out the rhythm of the kensei’s heart.
Kinetic stands at his bedside, a screen flickering over one eye. She presses a black-gloved finger to her ear and murmurs, “The EH was successful, sir. Roger that.”
The kensei stares at the gray ceiling. “He used magic.”
“Pae is known for cheating.”
“Where is my sword?”
“I cannot feel it.”
“What are my injuries?”
“Extensive. Stabilization took some time. We had to induce a coma. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Luck did not save me. Why does New Aullerium want me alive?”
Kinetic crosses her arms. “Pae’s family followed you here. There are hundreds of them, and more arriving every day. Honor matters, even now, on Taizen Gate. They are already calling you Third Boss.”
“You think I will be your puppet boss in Taizen Gate.” The kensei chuckles. “You are unwise.”
The woman holds up a remote control and pushes a button. A mechanical sound erupts under the kensei’s hospital sheet. Blinding pain floods through his body. He grinds his teeth to stay silent.
“We could not save your arms and legs, so we replaced them with mechanical limbs,” says Kinetic. “The pain is your nervous system awakening. It should already be subsiding.”
The kensei gasps. His mechanical hands open, then clench closed. His metal knees bend and straighten.
His metal hand curls around the hilt of his sword.
“Your old life is over,” she says. “Now you are stronger. Faster. Unstoppable.”
The sword whips out from under the sheet, slicing the woman in half at the torso.
Green pixels scatter away from the wound, then reassemble.
The woman taps the remote control. The kensei’s mechanical arms and legs power down.
“Except by me,” says the hologram.
The sword clatters to the hospital tile.
The kensei closes his eyes. “You would make me into a criminal.”
“A criminal of purpose. Together, Taizen Gate and New Aullerium will take down the old empires.”
The kensei swallows hard, tempering his breath, refusing to meet the eyes of an apparition. “Kinetic is not a real name.”
“Neither is Kensei.”
With a wink, she presses the button on the remote control that sends brutal sensation flowing back through the kensei’s limbs.
The hologram flickers and disappears.
The Brave and Quiet Death
The kensei stands over a hospital bed in the burn ward. Under yards of bandages, attached by his wrist veins and by suction cups to the drips and monitors keeping him alive, is Pae, the erstwhile Third Boss of Taizen Gate. The kensei holds up one hand and his retinue, made up of the best bodyguards in the city, the gold standard of security services, Pae’s former family, retreat into the hospital hallway without a goodbye. More security stands guard at the exits and elevators; others point revolvers at the personnel kneeling behind the nurse’s desk.
“They rebuilt you,” says Pae. The burnt, choking sound coming from his throat, the kensei realizes, is a laugh. “I would have been New Aullerium’s pawn. Why didn’t they choose me?”
“You cheated,” says the kensei.
“It was not that.” Pae’s eyes flick away. “You were better. Are better. I can die knowing that.”
“So you will,” says the kensei.
His sword slides between Pae’s ribs, pierces his heart, and exits with a burble of deep red blood.
Outside the hospital room, one guard is ready with a motorcycle jacket and sunglasses. The kensei shrugs on the jacket and sheaths his sword. “Get me a hacker,” he says. “Aullerian. The best there is.”
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The Road to Rebellion, Part One: Treachery!
At a table on a remote hilltop, representatives from the Gythian mages, warrior, traders, cartographers, and advocates face the heads of the five Technologist Dynasties.
“The Dynasties demand equal seating at the Gythian council,” says Serena, head of the Campestrian family, “and equal shares of steel.”
“Ludicrous,” hisses the archmage. “You are not Gythian.”
“The first Gythians were Aullerian.” Alaric’s old voice booms as strong as when he addressed his troops at the Gythian Wall twenty years ago. Kinetic, his heir, glares across the table.
“You are asking us to halve our shares,” says a paladin.
“Demanding,” says Jovius of Renaia.
“One,” says the archmage. “The provinces may have one seat at the Gythian council and distribute one share of steel.”
“If equality is not given, it will be taken.” Alaric rises and turns to go, his hand on Kinetic’s shoulder for support. By the time she sees the steel cord that unspools, lighting quick, from Jovius’ bracelet, it has wrapped around Alaric’s throat and sliced his jugular.
“The seat is mine,” says Jovius, snapping the cord back inside his bracelet with a spray of blood.
“Very well,” says the archmage.
“Treachery!” screams Serena.
Alaric collapses into Kinetic’s arms.
The Road to Rebellion, Part Two: The Hacker
The Hacker is delivered, kicking and screaming, to the kensei’s practice room, and forced to sit on the mat.
The kensei sits cross-legged and waits for her to settle.
“You are the best?”
“Yeah, you metal-legged loser,” she says.
“I need you to hack into my system and disable the remote control connection.”
“That ain’t what you need.” She picks her nose and glares. “They put a failsafe in you.”
“A self-destruct mechanism.” The kensei closes his eyes and nods.
“Something that’ll kablooie your brain stem if you fudge the frequency or remove the sensor. What you need is a surgeon.”
“Have you ever done a physical hack?”
“I’ve cut into a cyborg or five. But I ain’t gonna mess with a boss.” She crosses her skinny arms. “You want my advice? Keep your factory presets and do what you’re told.”
The kensei smiles. “Prepare a surgery room,” he says, and a dozen guards sprint into action. “And pay her well, whether she succeeds or fails.”
The Road to Rebellion, Part Three: Something in Return
“He would have hated this,” says Ardan, standing in the dark over Alaric’s fresh grave.
“He liked electric skies,” says Kinetic.
“Why here, then?”
“Jovius killed him here. The hill where Gythia signed treaties with the Technologists after Rebellion Day.”
“I was there.” Ardan shakes his head. “I still can’t believe it – Jovius?”
“The Churn pushes the Renaian border ever northward.” Kinetic’s voice is ragged. “Alaric would have fought for equality, but Jovius needs steel tech now to fight at the Churn border.”
“You don’t blame him?”
“I blame him,” she whispers, “and I blame you.”
Ardan’s fists clench. “Alaric was like a brother to me.” He kicks at a clump of dirt. “But when the Stormguard came for my children, where was he?”
“Now you know where he is,” says Kinetic, turning from the grave. “New Aullerium is mine now, and Gythia is going to burn.”
“I’d thank you for the warning,” says Ardan, “but if you’re anything like your father was, you want something in return.”
“You up for a rebellion?”
“Open the gate.” Kinetic presses a communicator into his palm and he closes his fist around it. “Wait for my signal.”
The Road to Rebellion, Part Four: Criminal of Purpose
“This wasn’t part of the deal.”
At the blockade, Kinetic’s retinue watches as she approaches the kensei. “I told you to block the road, not seize provincial property,” she says.
“Criminal of purpose, you called me,” says the kensei.
“You’re stealing from our people,” she says.
“Your people,” corrects the kensei. He steps in close, flicks the screen off her face with his thumb and forefinger.
Chuckling, she slips the remote out of her pocket.
“Call off the looters,” she says, thumb on the button. Her guards draw their weapons.
“No.” The kensei’s family surrounds the Aullerians, pointing guns and blades. The kensei turns, lifting his hair, to show Kinetic a fresh scar on the back of his neck.
Kinetic curses, jamming the remote button again and again, as the kensei turns back around. “I am honor bound to you…” He holds her chin in one hand. “…but I do not answer to you.”
Kinetic’s jaw locks. She raises one hand and the Aullerian guard holsters its weapons.
“You will continue to blockade the road into the city?” she whispers.
The kensei’s smile is rare. “Of course I will.”
Kinetic nods and slips away from the kensei’s grip, following the mech army north.
The Road to Rebellion, Part Five: The Alarm
A paladin and an assassin sit together in a dark booth, separated by a screen. Outside, dusk falls over Gythia like an itchy blanket. The supply road to Gythia has been blockaded for weeks. A Taizen crime family has held off all attempts at defense from external Gythian troops. The streets are restless with protests against the rationing of food and medicines. Labyrinthine passageways through the west wall are the only way in and out of the city, which is how the assassin must have…
Grace snaps back to the present, shaking her head to clear it. “Is the deed done?”
“Is there proof?”
Through a slot in the screen, the assassin passes a small box. “I kept the eyes of the mark, as it is written.”
Grace opens the box and shudders at the soulless eyes staring back at her. “Your burden is lifted, Daughter. You are forgiven.”
“Bless you, Moth…”
An alarm screams outside, startling them both out of the dark booth. For one moment they make uncomfortable eye contact before the assassin ducks under her hood and sprints away in silence.
The Road to Rebellion, Part Six: The Battle Begins
Her fist closes tighter around her spear. Long-range plasma technology, developed to dissolve magic shields, and classified as too dangerous for mass production, the spear requires excellent aim and full-body dexterity. Which means, classification be damned, the plasma spear was made for her.
Shadows appear between the parapets. It is said that the sagittarii, Gythia’s elite archers, can pierce a butterfly from one-hundred paces in a fierce wind. A ripple of nervous, excited murmurs from the mech pilots is silenced when the commander turns, her spear raised.
“Soldiers of Aullerium!” Her voice rings clear through the pilots’ ear pieces. “On the first Rebellion Day, our mothers and fathers fought for freedom on this very ground. Their tech was primitive, their chances minimal, but their courage and resolve overwhelmed an empire. Now, we will complete the work of the first Technologists. Today is our Rebellion Day!”
A roar rises from the pilots. Mech arms rise in salute.
The sagittarii draw their bowstrings. A glowing magic shield appears before them, connected by the Battlemages. The mech guns rise. Kinetic kneels, aiming the plasma spear at one glowing parapet. “Cover me!” she cries, and the night bursts into violence.
The Road to Rebellion, Part Seven: Gythia's Mistake
Paladins thread across the wall, healing the injured and dragging away corpses, but the Aullerians are relentless. Another section of the magic shield melts under a plasma blast; the Battlemage and archers behind it fall to mechfire.
“Sagittarii! Fall back! Mages! To the tower!” Grace lifts her hammer high. “Paladins! Light the fires!”
Fires blaze to life under massive cauldrons filled with pitch.
While the pilots secure their respirators, Kinetic sprints around dysfunctioning mechs and fallen pilots, wounded by magic or pierced through by the sagittarii. Nevertheless, Gythia has done as Kinetic hoped: underestimated her. The smoke billowing down the wall, obscuring all vision, means they think the Technologists are going to climb, or fly, over the wall.
The mechs fall in line behind her as boiling pitch splashes down the wall, incinerating everything below. The Gythians cannot see, through the smoke, that they are aiming at nothing.
The impenetrable Gythian steel gate slides open.