Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Episode 1 – Arrival © C. J. Hoare 2006.
All rights reserved.

Gisel slid open the observation room door and slipped inside. It was unoccupied, a row of empty seats facing a huge viewport that bulged out into space, several devices clipped to the rail in front of them, and a console screen to the side, showing the current remote sensing being recorded. She held the katana in its sheath in front of her as she drifted to the seats and strapped herself into the end one.

Damn him! Hadn't he hurt her enough? First the divorce from Mother – her world had come apart. Then this assignment – ten years setting up the infrastructure for a new world. Like hell. Where was the world? "I'll train you to be the best damned planetary engineer in the service, Gisel. Promise." How much were Henrik Matah's promises worth? He'd broken them to their mother, to both her and Robbie, and now he was screwing that Dr. Badry in their own quarters. Disgusting, mortifying.

She lifted the katana by its hilt and sheath and drew out the razor-sharp sword – shining like a mirror even in the heavily shielded sunlight. He didn't care how much he hurt or humiliated her. She'd show him.

Her eyes drifted from the edge of the blade, mere centimetres from her face, to the brilliant planet beneath. Blues and greens in many shades marked out continents she had seen in every atlas file her whole life. It was Earth, but not the one she'd been born on, or spent most of the first sixteen years of her life. This Earth seemed to be in a different universe – where or when it was, a total mystery. They had taken a wormhole jump that was to carry them across the galaxy – and it had brought them here.

She placed a finger gently on the steel edge. In ancient times defeated and disgraced warriors had used this edge to slice their bellies, signifying to a trusted companion that they wished to be beheaded. Disgraced women needed no help to sever their carotid arteries with the smaller kaiken. She hadn't brought hers with them; a weight restriction for this journey. She'd had to plead with her father for the two foils and the katana – if he hadn't pulled rank to sign her onto the crew as a personal trainer she'd have lost them too.

Her attention drifted to the planet again. What had happened to this Earth? They'd found signs of cultivation and small towns – but the radio spectrum was empty. No Houston Control, nothing but the random crackle of electrical storms, and the background hiss of the Big Bang. The starship's top people were about to start a conference to decide when and where to take the shuttle down to investigate. Her father would be in the meeting, of course, he rated number three in the Iskander's hierarchy.

How should she go about her intention? Was it really her intention? The mythology said seppuku was called Hara-kiri – that the blade was used to disembowel oneself. Her teachers had told her that wasn't true, but she had no trusted companion to slash off her head. How could she use this long sword to sever a carotid artery?

If he'd been with anyone but Dr. Hannan Badry . . .. She thought the woman was her friend. Had befriended her because of her own qualities – her intelligence, her personality – and all the while it was no more than a ruse to worm closer to her father. The oceanographer was a fascinating companion, had even asked to learn more about Zen meditation and the art of the katana. Fraud! Lies!

Two naked bodies writhing on the cabin floor . . . like . . . like a pair of gophers. Disgusting. So engrossed in their sensuality they hadn't heard her enter the cabin. Well, she hadn't completely entered. Just stood dumbstruck in the doorway for several seconds – an eternity of seconds – until she'd swung around and slid the door closed.

She'd gone to the gym. At least she supposed she had propelled herself down the corridor to her locker. She hadn't paid attention to her surroundings until she'd taken out her sweats. She had no session scheduled – the next of her personal training clients was booked for foils in the morning. She'd started to believe she'd become a valued member of the crew – lord knew that keeping fit in a weightless environment was important. And Iskander hadn't been under 1G acceleration for a month. Deceleration, the last times. She'd thought to work out on the ropes and bars until the sweat ran and she'd have nothing left but to flake out in her bunk. When she hung her off-duty clothes inside she'd noticed the katana.

She held out the sword at arms length, the blade pointed at the turquoise planet below. What forces could she sense in the conjunction? The mystery of life . . . of death. And the mystery of the planet. She breathed deeply – in . . . and out. One. Breathe again . . .. Two. In meditation she felt closer to the forces of the Universe – to the unifying factor her learning said was called "That". Not a name – how could something so all pervading be limited by a name? One instructor had taught her a katana exercise of oneness, but made her promise never to practise it alone.

She was alone. She was also in zero gravity, and it was a certainty that the creators of its deadly meditation had never envisaged its practice under weightlessness.

She unfastened the restraint holding her into the seat and pushed herself off gently – to stop herself above the rail. Poised like a tightrope walker. She curled the toes of one foot under and pressed the other above the rail to hold herself in place. She held the breathing rhythm of the meditation and began to swing the katana from hand to hand.

As she swung the sword she spun it about its axis. Slowly at first – then faster. Her mind locked onto the spinning blade. The mind training called Kime – its later refinement Aikido – that held the devotee's attention in the present. She flicked the katana as she threw it, so now it spun end over end as well. Her other hand darted out at exactly the right instant to take the sharkskin handgrip as it spun past.

The deadly point skimmed past her throat. Millimetres away. Her mind stilled its worry and its hurt. The meditation would answer her destiny. Death or the planet below.

Reflected light flashed from the spinning sword. Her eyelids flickered but did not close. The blade became a blur. Something sharp stung her left arm. Globules of blood drifted across her vision. The keen edge had stroked her bare forearm. She spun the sword faster.

The sun's reflection from the steel traced out a circle in the air before her. Her hands darted forward at exactly the correct instants to sieze the tsuka and impell its next rotation. The circle traced by point and kashira merged with the curve of the planet below. The meditation gave her the answer. Her hands ceased speeding the katana's deadly path. She leaned forward to hold her balance near the spinning steel. Three more turns, then two, then . . .

She clutched the tsuka of the weapon in her right fist and let it whirl about her head. Then she held it motionless, pointing again at the planet below. They must meet. They held her destiny.