Sunday, 30 December 2007

Fiction Feature: TERRA INCOGNITA

Terra Incognita appeared in the AMAZING HEROES II Sci-Fi/Fantasy anthology published by G.W. Thomas. This is technically the first time it's appeared in full on t'interwebs, hence Fiction Feature.



It had rained for six days and nights, turning the road into mud and soaking the four men as they waited among the trees opposite the roadside inn.

Their flamboyant yellow and scarlet radiation cloaks suggested they might be New Yakuza but Lei Ping was not fooled—their weapons were the best and they moved like tigers, alert and dangerous. She'd hoped the war would keep its distance. Their presence dashed her hopes and boded nothing but blood and pain for the future.

Upon their arrival her stepfather had taken her mother and her half-brothers and half-sisters to the next village to stay with relatives. Only Lei Ping and the equally worthless Second Assistant Cook remained, to cater to their visitors' needs. She saw the wisdom in this. These men would think nothing of putting everyone here to the sword if they were displeased with the food or the rice wine or the service, or simply because the mood took them.

Only one at a time would come inside to eat and then sleep for a few hours in one of the rooms at the back of the inn. The other three would stand like iron statues in the rain, always looking south. After a while Lei Ping began to wonder whether they were human or whether they were automatons from the terrible past before the gods lit up the skies with thunderbolts and crimson blossoms scarred the world forever.

On the morning of the seventh day the rain stopped. The sudden silence seemed unnatural. The four dangerous men went about their business as before, with three outside watching the road and the fourth man inside, resting. Second Assistant Cook wrung his hands and prayed the men would soon begone. Perhaps he sensed, as Lei Ping did, their growing frustration. If whoever or whatever they were waiting for did not come soon. . . .

The distant growl of a monocycle engine stirred them into activity. The fourth man, who was at breakfast, snatched up his sword and went to the window overlooking the road. He cautiously peered outside. The other three men had hidden themselves among the trees, though Lei Ping could still see them. She hardly dared breathe lest they notice her.

A lone rider appeared on the crest of the hill. Three curious faces looked up at the window. The fourth man stared at the rider for long moments—then he gave a hand signal. The other three relaxed. The rider was not the person, or persons, they were waiting for. The fourth man returned to his table and resumed eating his breakfast. Lei Ping remained by the kitchen door so she could watch their guest and respond to his wishes, as was her duty—but also so she could see what was happening outside.

The monocycle rider came down off the hill and pulled up in front of the inn. Lei Ping couldn't see his face—he wore protective mask and goggles—but then he looked up and she sensed his gaze upon her. Lei Ping shuddered. It was as if a power had swept over her, an elemental force of Nature.

He killed his engine and climbed down into the mud. His monocycle stood upright, balanced by its gyroscopes. He walked to the stairs and paused there, looking back over his shoulder. The three men had emerged from the trees and were looking south again, making it obvious that they had no interest in him. The stranger climbed the steps, opened the door and came inside. He shrugged off his anti-radiation coat and hung it on one of the wooden pegs. Then he took off his goggles, his mask and his gauntlets and put them into the coat's deep pockets. His black hair was tied at the base of his neck and hung halfway down his back, thick and shiny, like poured oil. He stepped onto the ultrasonic mat which removed mud from his boots. When he turned to face the room Lei Ping only just managed to smother her gasp before it escaped her lips. A livid radiation burn covered the entire left side of his once-handsome face. He'd been touched by the crimson blossom! Her heart went out to him. Karma to have such beauty destroyed.

He wore a plain brown kimono without any embroidered Clan or Corporation insignia. His cat eyes swept the interior of the inn, missing nothing. His gaze rested upon the warrior sitting at the breakfast table. The warrior's head slowly came up and his dark, dead eyes studied the new arrival incuriously. Then he returned to eating his meal. Evidently the stranger had been assessed and judged inconsequential.

Her stepfather should have welcomed the stranger but he had fled, so this duty also fell to Lei Ping. She stepped forward and bowed her respect, trying not to look at his face. He smiled at her, but she knew that he knew. Then his stomach rumbled noisily, and they both laughed.

"The smells from your kitchen please me," he said. "What would you recommend?"

"The chicken noodle soup and a bowl of savory dumplings," Lei Ping replied at once. "The best in the district if I may say so myself. Please sit down. I'll bring you hot rice wine first. That'll dispel the morning chill, hmm?"

He nodded his approval. "A most excellent idea."

He sat down by the other window, facing the door. He carefully placed his sword, sheathed in its lacquered scabbard, upon the matted floor beside him. Lei Ping hurried to the kitchen and gave the food order to Second Assistant Cook. She flash-heated the rice wine herself and brought it to the tall stranger's table. She kept her gaze carefully averted from his ruined face as she poured wine into his cup. The tall man sipped the wine and nodded his approval again. Lei Ping breathed a sigh of relief. Here was someone she could understand and deal with, a traveler who wished only to rest for a while and eat some noodles before he continued on his journey. Not like the four dangerous men who were like nervous cats, waiting to pounce and kill.

The stranger sat quietly while his meal was prepared. He stared out the window, idly watching the three men standing by the roadside. Lei Ping went to the kitchen. Second Assistant Cook had performed adequately. She carried the tray with its two steaming bowls, set them down on the stranger's table and placed spoon and chopsticks upon a silk napkin. She added a small vase of trumpet-shaped purple flowers to the table. The stranger's gaze met hers and he smiled again.

Abruptly the warrior who'd been eating breakfast rose and hurried outside to join his comrades. Lei Ping watched as all four men moved to take up positions among the trees and bushes on the far side of the road. They squatted down, concealing themselves expertly. She wondered what was about to happen, and tasted her own fear.

Several monocycles appeared on the crest of the road. Lei Ping counted eleven machines and riders. Their machines were painted green and brown flecked with black—military camouflage pattern. The riders wore hooded anti-radiation coats. Even at this distance she could see from the way they slouched in their saddles that they were tired. They had journeyed a considerable distance, and because of this their captain made the inexcusable mistake of not sending scouts ahead to check the harmless roadside inn and its surroundings. Lei Ping held her breath, and waited. What else could she do?

The thunderous chorus of their engines shook the air as the riders came down the road and drew up outside the inn. As they did so the four warriors leapt from hiding, ran across the road and attacked with a berserk fury that startled Lei Ping. They came upon their unsuspecting enemies from behind, their blades slashing at exposed backs. Four riders instantly fell from their monocycles, dead. In the blink of an eye another four riders were hacked from their saddles. The handsome young captain, identified by the red scarf he wore about his upper arm, seemed only dimly aware of what was happening. He turned to face the attackers but his sword was still in its scabbard when one of the warriors bore down upon him. His warning scream died in his throat and his corpse toppled into the mud.

Only two of the eleven riders still lived. The first gunned his monocycle into a slewing half-circle to cut the warriors off from the last rider. Lei Ping observed that the last rider was smaller than the rest, with a boy's figure beneath his radiation coat. The defending rider drew his sword and shouted a challenge, inviting a duel, but two of the ruthless warriors leapt to either side of him and struck together, a double attack that skewered the rider from both sides. He slumped across the handlebars and his weight pitched his monocycle over onto its side, the engine dying along with its owner.

The four warriors quickly surrounded the last rider and so prevented him from fleeing. They carefully closed the trap, cautious and wary, ready for anything. The boy looked around desperately seeking an avenue of escape, but there was none.

The leader of the four—he who had been eating breakfast when the riders appeared—lowered his sword and took a pace forward. To Lei Ping's surprise he bowed to the last rider. And then he held out his hand.

"The message spool, if you please," he said, and as she heard these words Lei Ping realized that the four warriors must have received intelligence informing them that these riders would be coming north by this road, bringing a message with them. A message from whom? A message to whom? Lei Ping had no way of knowing, nor did she wish to know. Such knowledge might well bring about her own death, assuming it was not already written in stone.

The young rider hesitated, his face hidden within the shadows of his hood. The warrior behind him snatched the rider's hood away. Lei Ping gasped as long black hair spilled out, framing a face that was suddenly very feminine and very afraid.

Afterwards, when she thought back to this moment, Lei Ping would swear that the stranger moved with such speed that the chopsticks he had been holding floated in mid air for long seconds, uncertain as to whether they should obey gravity's pull. The stranger became a blur as he leapt through the open window. His sword left its scabbard in a smooth arc that cut entirely through the body of the warrior who had pulled the rider's hood away, before the stranger's boots had even touched the ground.

The warrior gurgled and fell, his body splashing in the mud. All motion then ceased as the three remaining warriors regarded the stranger who stood in their midst. The woman, for such she was, seemed no less afraid. She did not recognize the stranger, as was obvious from her surprised expression, and therefore she had no way of knowing whether one swordsman was any better than another. Lei Ping could have told her.

The leader of the warriors said, "This is private business. If you wish to live, turn and begone."

On this last word another warrior lunged, his blade humming as it sought the tall stranger's head. Instead it found only air. The stranger spun, slashed, and slashed again. The warrior stared at his handless wrists, and then a line of red slowly appeared across his neck and he realized he was dead. He fell to his knees and pitched forward into the mud which turned dark beneath him.

The two remaining warriors attacked together, their speed deadly, but the stranger held them both, refusing to retreat. Yet it was obvious to Lei Ping that their combined skills might prove a match for him, therefore the outcome of the battle was by no means certain. She snatched up the flower vase and threw it. The vessel tumbled through the air, leaving a trail of trumpet-shaped purple flowers, and smashed upon the head of the warrior nearest her. The man cried out and stumbled. An instant later he too was dead, a victim of the stranger's lightning reflexes.

The leader backed away from the stranger. When he spoke, his voice betrayed his rage at having three of his men killed.

"Who are you? Why do you interfere in our business?"

The tall stranger's sword did not waver, nor did he take his eyes from the leader for an instant, even to look at the woman. She was still uncertain as to whether she could trust the stranger, but he had killed three of the men who had murdered her escort and so she stared at him, anxious to hear his reply.

"My name is unimportant. And I have no interest in your business. Only in the lady."

"You killed my men because of her?"

The stranger smiled. "But of course. She's pretty, don't you think? I never could resist a pretty face. She's too good for you and your vermin. She needs a real man, mmm?"

A muscle beneath the leader's eye twitched. Even as Lei Ping began to understand that the stranger had said these things to anger him, the leader screamed and stamped forward, raining blow after blow upon the stranger's sword as if determined to smash through his enemy's defense by brute strength alone, his desire for bloody vengeance now his only consideration.

The stranger held the attack. His rage exhausted, the leader stepped back and re-assessed his adversary. The two men circled each other, each a master swordsman, neither prepared to give or receive quarter. They came together and the clash of steel on tempered steel all but deafened Lei Ping, who put her hands over her ears and was terrified by the thought that the leader might triumph—in which event she and Second Assistant Cook would perish along with the rest. The leader would leave no witnesses to what had happened here, she knew that now.

"Remain in the kitchen!" she warned Second Assistant Cook who was peering around the door, frightened by the sounds of fighting. He needed no second telling and disappeared at once—just like her stepfather, who'd thought nothing of leaving Lei Ping to whatever fate the four warriors wished to inflict upon her.

At that moment the leader lunged, the point of his sword seeking the tall stranger's heart. Something happened then, something which Lei Ping could not quite follow or understand. A flash of steel—and then the stranger and the leader stood immobile in the mud, each perfectly relaxed and unmoving. In the eternity that stretched out of this single instant in time Lei Ping realized that one or other of the men below had embraced death. She swallowed hard and silently prayed it was the right one.

At last the leader moved. He looked down at the dark stain that spread across his chest, hardly able, it seemed, to comprehend what had transpired. He looked up at the stranger, wishing him to explain this curious phenomenon. Instead the stranger took a step forward and decapitated the leader cleanly. The leader's body splashed into the mud, as did his head, a moment later.

The stranger examined the other bodies thoroughly, making sure the warriors were all dead, not that there was any doubt in Lei Ping's mind. The stranger and the woman were the only two people still alive down there, that much was obvious.

The stranger wiped his bloodied sword on the dead leader's tunic before returning it to its scabbard. Only then did he pay any attention to the woman. She'd picked up a fallen sword and stood ready to defend herself. But once again her expression became one of surprise as the stranger, without a word, turned and climbed the stairs. He came back inside, stepped onto the ultrasonic mat again to clean his boots, then returned to his table and sat down, placing his sword beside him on the floor. As if nothing had happened, he picked up his chopsticks and resumed eating his savory dumplings.

Lei Ping went to the kitchen and heated more rice wine. She brought it to the stranger's table and refreshed his cup. She tried not to stare, but was not entirely successful; the stranger looked up at her. Lei Ping bowed her thanks. The stranger nodded, acknowledging her unspoken gratitude and understanding her fears. Lei Ping went and stood by the window, leaving him to enjoy his meal in peace. She closed her eyes and reveled in the soft touch of the morning breeze on her face. From certain death to continued life; a short but significant journey made possible by a stranger's sword. Even with its ever-present burned metal taint, the air smelled wonderful.

Footsteps sounded upon the stairs. The door flew open and the woman entered. Her gaze swept the room, lingered on Lei Ping for a moment, and then locked upon the stranger. She came forward to stand before his table, dripping mud on the floor. He looked at the mud, tutted his disapproval, then raised his head to look at her.

Until that moment Lei Ping had not realized how beautiful the woman was. Even in her mud-spattered anti-radiation coat, with her hair windblown and unkempt, she brightened the interior of the inn with her perfection like some goddess descended from the heavens.

"Who are you?" the woman demanded of the stranger.

"My name is unimportant," he said—the answer he'd given when the leader had asked the same question, Lei Ping remembered.

"You have saved my life and vanquished my enemies. I would know why."

"Must there be a reason?" he asked.

"Yes!" The single word exploded from her perfect lips.

He shrugged again, as if the subject was inconsequential. Then he said, "My mission and theirs is the same."

Color drained from her face but he held up a hand, palm outward, as if to reassure her that he meant her no harm. "The message spool you carry must not reach my master," he said.

Her eyes widened in surprise. "Meaning?"

"I should have thought it obvious, Princess. Your father wishes you to deliver an offer of alliance to my master. But such an alliance would bring us into a war which we do not wish to be involved in. I was ordered to spare my master the embarrassment of having to refuse your father's offer." He nodded toward the window. "These men were sent to stop you because their master wished to make his own offer of alliance first."

"And what will your master say when that offer arrives?"

"It will never arrive. The messenger will be intercepted, just as you were intercepted. He will be turned back, assuming he listens to reason—or if not, he will simply vanish from the face of the earth. Easy enough to blame his disappearance on one of your father's patrols, which have no respect for official borders any more."

His tone carried a warning that the woman could not have failed to notice. She gestured angrily at the dead warriors lying in the mud. "Why did you stop them? If you had allowed them to kill me, my message would not have reached your master."

He thought about it for a moment, sipping his rice wine and staring out across the blackened fields beyond the shriveled, bare trees. Lei Ping also waited to hear his answer.

"It was a spur of the moment thing," he said at last.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I stopped them," he said, "because I felt like it."

"And for no other reason?" She looked disappointed.

"For no other reason."

At last, Lei Ping understood. The woman wished to know if the stranger intended to take her as a spoil of war. He'd saved her life. None could dispute his right even though she possessed Royal blood.

"You have a long ride ahead of you, and there are bandits on the road," he said. "Speed will be of the essence. Take my bike. The tank is nearly full and there's food and water in the storage pod. I'll take one of yours. I don't have as far to travel." He threw her the key. She snatched it out of the air and turned it in her hand, inspecting it. Lei Ping sensed she wanted to ask more, but somehow realized that there would be little point; the stranger had said all he'd wanted to say. She turned and went to the door, opened it and paused on the landing, looking down at the carnage. The bodies of her dead escort and the warriors who had been sent to intercept her lay sprawled in the mud in various positions of obscene death. The predominant color was crimson, like the fiery blossoms that had transformed the world into a quiltwork of pain and suffering.

The woman cast a final backward glance at the seated swordsman, then went down the steps. She mounted his monocycle and rode back the way she'd come, her long black hair streaming behind her.

The stranger finished his meal and dabbed his lips with a napkin. He rose from the table, fished in a pocket for a coin and placed this beside his empty cup. Lei Ping stared at the gleaming hexagonal coin. At the current exchange rates it represented enormous wealth; enough to purchase this inn outright from her stepfather.

"You were right," he told her. "Your savory dumplings are the best in the district."

He took his anti-radiation coat off the hook and shrugged it on, then pulled on his goggles and gloves. Lei Ping watched as he went outside and down the steps. He inspected the camouflage pattern monocycles and selected one, mounted it, started the engine and drove off in the opposite direction from the beautiful princess—north, toward the distant, half-melted city-dome where he would report the outcome of his mission to his master, the wise mandarin-daimyo who refused to involve himself or his people in the senseless war that sought to destroy the feuding southern nations.

Lei Ping sighed. Had she expected the swordsman to sweep her up and place her on the back of his monocycle and take her with him? Just because they had both been kissed by the burning heat of the crimson blossom didn't mean that a man such as he would ever consider a lowly serving maid encountered by chance in a roadside inn.

She bowed once more to the departing rider, and then she told the Second Assistant Cook to ride to the next village to fetch the village headman, who would give her a good price for the ownerless machines. After all, she'd need money to pay for the extension she planned to build onto the restaurant she would purchase from her stepfather, and the extra staff she intended to take on.

The End


Original anthology cover

3 comments:

elarasophia said...

Great stuff! One of my favourites. Is there a longer story set in this world?

Derek said...

Thanks S, you're authorized to post comments like that any time you like! There are a couple of unfinished ditties floating around in my 2002/3 subdirectories, but alas nothing else seems to have made it to virtual print. I wonder where you saw it? I couldn't find any threads in OzWin2 (oh! sweet nostalgia!) or in saved discussions from the "new" board. Terra Incognita and The Barrow are really airing for the first time, they didn't appear in their entirely on my old website.

elarasophia said...

(racking brains...)

Wasn't the opening of this a BOC entry, a long time ago? I definitely recall reading at least the first part of it somewhere, and I think you offered to send over the whole story, but I intended to buy it through Fictionwise, along with stories by other IMPs. (whacks brains some more) Urk, I might be thinking of something else, it's all a bit hazy now. :)

No novellas or anything in this setting, though? Drat. :)