The chamber of the Ninja High Council was among the largest rooms in the city. Ninjas had little use for big buildings, so it paled in comparison to the meeting rooms of any of the other governments Ryo had visited.
The room was square, with three tiers. On each tier several Ninjas sat, there backs firmly against the wall. And not out of tradition either, assassination was considered a natural death for a member of the high counsel. The highest members of the counsel sat on the top tier, with there backs against the outer-most wall and their heads nearly touching the ceiling.
The doors burst open and Ryo sauntered proudly in, waving and grinning at the stone-faced Ninjas. To her right she had her trusted navigator, and to her left her trembling First Mate. The City Watch had left them at the door, so it was just the three members of the Red Fleet, surrounded by a hundred of the fiercest Ninjas on the planet.
“How we doin?” Ryo asked excitedly.
No one spoke, they just glared at her with contempt.
“I betcha all know why I’m here,” Ryo began as she walked around the floor of the room. “See a little birdie out near the equator told me you folks were talking about stripping me of my family name!”
“You’re guilty of innumerable atrocities against the Ninja race!” one of the slightly younger counselors near her screamed. “You’ve committed high treason! Ultimate Dishonor!”
“High Treason?” Ryo asked innocently. “Tell me, how can someone you’ve always treated as an outsider—an invisible—commit High Treason?
“Just listen to yourselves,” she continued. “All my life, you’ve been denying that I was one of you. Now, you seek to take away my family honor—but to do so, you must first admit what you have denied since my birth: my heritage.
“If you are to take my family name in accordance with the ancient law, then you must first admit that I have one, and if I do, then I am a Ninja.
“So you tell me, what is more important: denying me honor, or denying me identity?”
The counsel erupted into a hundred different arguments as each Ninja shouted his own belief. Any real words were lost in the muddle.
Ryo raised her hand for silence, and so commanding was her presence that she got it.
“I am Ryo,” Ryo announced. “Sansen. Whether I am Ninja or Pirate, I am still Ryo Sansen. The blood of the ancestors flows through my veins, but so does the blood of your enemies.
“According to the Law, a Pirate can never be a Ninja. But according to the ancient code anyone who carries the blood of the ancestors is truly a Ninja. So it’s time to ask yourselves what you believe: the Code of our ancestors, or the Law of your predecessors?”
Now murmurs filled the room. Ryo had asked them a straightforward enough question, but it was still a difficult one. If she was a Pirate, then they could not take her family name because the code did not give them that right. If she were a Ninja, the Law was wrong but they could take her family name, they simply had to admit she was one of them.
And that thought was possibly the most fearful of all, the idea of finally admitting Ryo into who they were.
The biggest problem with the Ninja High Counsel, as compared to other forms of leadership Ryo had visited, was that they lacked a strong central voice. If there was an issue before the counsel, they all argued and shouted about it until someone finally called for a general vote. Usually, solutions had to be presented to them, for they could find none on there own.
“Let me offer you this,” Ryo began when there was silence again. “The world is changing. You would not know, because you sit all day in this room watching your backs. But I have traveled the world, and I know. I feel it in the water, and I feel it in the air.
“The time of the old code is coming to an end, and the whole purpose of Law is that it can be changed. I propose you create a new Law, allowing half-breeds to be admitted into whichever society they choose.
“The Drakes of course will be required to accept a similar law.
“But with the rise of the Red Fleet and the proliferation of the Utopians, there will soon be many more like me. You have the chance now to choose: you can either make us Ninjas and change the law, or force us to be Pirates and deny the Code. Or, you can let us decide.”
“And if you decide to be a Pirate…?” one particularly bold counselor asked.
“Then shiver my timbers,” Ryo grinned. “And you can’t steal my family name.”
“And if you stay a Ninja?”
“Then you have to ask yourselves why you are taking my name,” Ryo spat. “For if I am truly a Ninja, then you have to decide what crime I have really committed. Raiding other Ninjas has always been an acceptable profession, so what have I done wrong—if I am a Ninja?”
“You consort with Pirates!”
“There’s no Law against that, just no one ever does it.”
“Then we shall make a Law!”
Ryo was somewhat stymied. She really hadn’t thought this out as well as she’d meant to. Her first plan was to simply demand they not take her name, but then reasoning with them had occurred to her.
Now she was running out of logic.
Another counselor stood up and raised his hands for silence. It was very brave to demand the counsels attention, but he was doing it.
“I propose another solution,” he announced. “I suggest this very simple, very straightforward new law: any being having at least some Pirate blood in its body will be killed on sight. In this way, we avoid all question of whether or not half-breeds truly count as Ninjas. Because part of them is Pirate, they die. All in favor?”
Ryo glanced fearfully around the room as every hand raised.
The one good thing about the Ninja High Counsel was the ease with which it passed laws. Any motion could be passed into law by a simple majority vote.
Kind of like the one Ryo and her shipmates had just witnessed.
“Well,” Ryo admitted with a slight gulp of fear. “I guess that about settles it, we’ll eh…. Just go now and—”
“Kill them,” the counselor ordered nonchalantly.
“Right,” Ryo nodded. “Um… bye!”
Ryo turned immediately to her shipmates. She didn’t even have to say it aloud, the command to run was instantly understood.
* * *
The chase through the streets of Ninpou was an exciting, if one-sided one. Thanks to her childhood of invisibility, Ryo knew the back alleys and hidden shortcuts of Ninpou better than anyone. Hide and go seek was a popular game among the youth, but most Ninjas were by far better at hiding than seeking.
The last challenge lay in the largely open stretch between the docks and the alley where Ryo, Nenyo, and Adam crouched. The Watch were everywhere, but the deck of the Storm remained clean. The crew stood at attention, brandishing various weapons of there own.
Ryo drew a small knife and tried to catch a few of the suns rays to signal the lookout in the ship’s crows nest, but the late afternoon sun was simply at the wrong angle.
No choice, they’d just have to go for it.
Ryo turned to Nenyo and Adam and nodded.
“Remember,” she said quietly. “Life is risk.”
“What am I risking?” Nenyo asked. “Legally, I’m allowed to be here.”
“Just keep your head down and run,” Ryo ordered. “Don’t look back, don’t wait, just run.”
She turned and darted from the alley, Nenyo and Adam hot on her heels. Thank to medicines procured off world, Nenyo’s breathing problems were largely a thing of the past. He still wheezed when he was nervous, but when the situation called for it he could run as fast as any Ninja.
Arrows clattered on the stonework all around them. Guards shouted, and swords flashed.
Ryo drew her own blade and began clearing the path for her friends. By the time they reached the edge of the docks, the Storm’s crew had figured it out and started laying down cover fire in the form of crossbows and multi-shot weapons from other worlds.
Ryo was almost to the gangplank, and still Nenyo was at her heels.
But Adam had fallen behind.
Against her own orders, she turned back. Adam was a dozen paces behind her and hunched over. She knew it was already too late, but she ran back for him anyway.
There was an arrow sticking out of his back.
He wasn’t dead, and he looked up at Ryo with a pained expression, begging her for help. Ryo didn’t hesitate, she just yanked his arm up over her shoulder and started dragging him towards the Storm.
Kuma leapt from the aft castle and took his other arm, causing Adam to release a grown of pain. They reached the gangplank and it was hauled up as they ran along it.
Mooring lines cut, and the Storm drifted slowly away from the dock.
Ryo let Adam gently down onto the deck, making sure he landed on his side. The arrow hadn’t gone all the way through and there was very little blood, so for a moment a seed of hope welled up inside her as she cradled his head.
Adam coughed up a huge wad of black blood on the deck and sobbed, trying desperately to inhale.
Ryo heard herself calling for the doctor. She was lost; she had no knowledge of medicine. All she could do was hold Adam’s head on her lap and try to keep him from drowning in his own blood.
Adam’s face had turned blue. He continued to gurgle out blood, but he seemed unable to draw breath in. Ryo then knew what had happened; the arrow had pierced his lung and it was now filling up with blood. He couldn’t breathe because there was blood where the air should go.
He started flailing madly, and Ryo held him still so he wouldn’t drive the arrow in further.
The ship’s doctor finally arrived, but by then it was too late. Adam had gone limp, and stopped trying to breath.
The doctor held a curious metal instrument to Adam’s chest, with a tube that ran up to his ear. Then he pressed two fingers into Adam’s neck, and finally held a small mirror in front of his mouth.
When the doctor looked up at Ryo, his face was grim, and he shook his head.
“His wound is mortal,” the doctor said. “There is no more life in him. He is dead.”
Ryo nodded and tenderly pushed Adam’s head off her lap. She wanted to cry, she wanted to scream and then sob for hours, but she had a job to do, she had a ship to command.
Slowly, Ryo stood, set her jaw resolutely, and ran to the aft castle and the tiller.
Many Ninja ships had run up there sails and war flags, it was time to pit the Storm against the fury of the Ninja scorned.
The Storm sported sixteen 04 WW Nugs, a weapon which when the label was turned right-side up proved itself to be a 40 Millimeter Gun. They fired an explosive shell propelled by ten pounds of compressed gunpowder, a significant improvement over the crack-four pounders used by most ships in the Storm’s class. Still more devastating was the way the Storm’s guns absorbed recoil so they did not have to be pushed back into place for another shot, and the fact that they were breach-loading meant the Storm could fire nearly a dozen broadsides for any ordinary ship’s one. Motius called the weapon a ‘howitzer’.
“There’s no time to run up the sails,” Kuma told her.
“All right fine,” Ryo spat. “Activate the infernal machine!”
The ‘infernal machine’ as Ryo referred to it, was something called a new-clear reactor. The name was always very confusing to her, because it looked neither new nor clear. It’s lights burned with an unearthly glow, and it produced an unholy heat. Somehow, Ryo did not understand how, it made heat and steam which drove a turbine which powered up screw propellers at the back of the Storm.
To sail without masts against wind and current, the Utopians lit fires under the decks of their ships. The Red Fleet had no time for such nonsense, and only used the new-clear when there was no wind. Ryo hated the new-clear with a passion, because it seemed so wrong for such a graceful ship as the Storm to move without sails.
The Storm lurched forward and the terrible sound of the new-clear engines growled up from beneath the decks. Nestled in the belly of the ship was the machine, black and stained, which sucked up bilge water and spat out steam. It was always hot, whether they were using it to drive the ship or not. It was always burning without fire, always steaming, always hissing. But when they turned on the screw propellers, it roared.
The ship rapidly picked up speed, away from the docks and out towards the mouth of the harbor, where two agile Ninja ships made to block there path.
Ryo knew this harbor, she’d grown up playing along it’s banks. She knew exactly where the ships were, and how much space there was around them.
And how to get out.
There was a good wind coming off the island, enough to propel the Storm easily to it’s wind-driven top speed.
And enough for Ryo’s maneuver.
“Run up the sails!” she ordered, and braced herself on the helm. “And open the gun ports.”
“We’re eh, heading strait for that ship,” Kuma pointed out. “We’ll be in range within minutes.”
“Get the fifty-pounders spitting,” Ryo commanded. “Aim for the gun deck, let’s make them think twice about shooting back.”
The whole ship rattled as the first volley escaped the huge fifty-pound guns on the deck of the Storm. They had an incredible range and could easily shoot over the horizon, and were also the only weapon on the ship with a three-hundred-sixty degree firing axis, which meant they could shoot the Ninja ship directly ahead of them.
If there’d been time for torpedoes she could have torpedoed it, but there were a score of other ships making sail behind them and the two blocking the harbor. There simply wasn’t time for any nonsense.
The sails billowed and the ship sprang forward, she could sail much faster than she could move with the infernal machine.
“Form up!” Ryo shouted, getting the sailors in position to pull the sails around. “Port side!”
“You better not be planning what I think you’re planning,” Kuma scowled. “It’ll never work; we’ll be dashed upon the rocks!”
“You don’t know these waters,” Ryo grinned. “Storm can turn in a boat-length and a half, we’ll have two boat lengths between us and the rocks.”
The Ninja ship drew ever closer.
The fifty-pounders hailed once more.
“Steady,” Ryo said calmly. “Let’s let them be the first to blink.”
Ryo liked to go by her gut, but with this precise a maneuver she decided to let some technology guide her. The radar screen was directly in front of her. It had a grid calibrated so that each square was a boat length along an edge. It showed both Ninja ships, and the edge of the bay, and the Storm moving at an incredible clip.
“Five,” Ryo breathed. “Four, ready, steady—HARD TO PORT!”
She nearly lost her balance as the ship pitched hard, the angle of the deck was at least thirty degrees and the port-side batteries were probably close to the waterline.
The bow of the Storm passed within a few feet of the stunned Ninja vessel. Ramming was by no means an uncommon practice, but Ryo knew no Ninja had ever seen a ship turn that fast.
“Starboard batteries!” Ryo screamed as they came in parallel with the enemy. “Give em’ a broad-side!”
The howitzers screamed and tore through the Ninja ship.
The main deck collapsed and the masts toppled over.
Fires erupted from the powder kegs.
The Storm ducked expertly out of the way, now pointed at the sharp rocks that lined the bay.
“Hard-starboard and hold!” Ryo commanded
The Storm turned a hundred-eighty degrees around the wrecked Ninja ship. They were so close Ryo could see the astonished faces of the battered and bleeding Ninjas as they struggled to control the damage.
“Port side batteries!” Ryo screamed. “Give em’ a broad-side!”
The second round finished it. Two broad sides, close range, with explosive ordinance. The Ninja ship known as Hannock’s Curse settled low and prepared to die.
“Hard to port!” Ryo screamed as they were now fast approaching the far side of the mouth of the harbor. With the fast turn they were now pointed safely out of the bay and into open waters.
The Ninja ships would try to follow, but they would fail. Ryo’s ship was simply faster and better, and even if the wind died there would be no catching her. The Samurai would surely take her family name after this fiasco, but Ryo didn’t care anymore.
Adam had been a true friend.
She never really told him, because of how remarkably irritating he was, but she really did value his life.
The Samurai had no power over her anymore, except that which she gave them. If they were going to strip her of her Ninja family name then she would no longer be a Ninja. That way, there was nothing to take.
“That’s one for the strategy books,” Kuma commented.
“Hmm?” Ryo grunted. She’d been staring at the rapidly disappearing shape of Ninpou since the danger passed. This trip had been fun at first, revisiting all her old haunts, seeing her old schoolmates cower in fear. In fact right up until Adam died she’d been having the time of her life.
Now, she would never set foot in the city of
“That maneuver,” Kuma shrugged. “Turning so fast around the ship and delivering a broad-side to each side. I dare say Sun Tzu himself would be proud.”
“Herumf,” Ryo grunted. A book called ‘The Art of War’ was another of her father’s little off-world acquisitions. Written by some guy named Sun Tzu reportedly thousands of years ago, it was quite an impressive document, Ryo didn’t mind admitting. Still, very little of it was useful to her, the main lesson of the book seemed to be ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia’, wherever
“Maybe we’ll call it ‘The Sansen Maneuver’, and have it taught to all the Red Fleet captains,” Kuma continued. “Why I’d give it odds against one of our own vessels.”
“Kuma,” Ryo said softly, checking to see that none of the other crew were in earshot. “I just got my first mate killed; I am not a fit captain. When we reach the base, I’m turning command of the ship over to my father. I can’t… be the Scion of the Storm.”
“Having a crisis of faith are we?” Kuma asked. In order to maintain her command, Ryo always had to keep a certain level of distance between herself and her crew. She was the captain, she was at the top. While she was close friends with Nenyo, they still had to maintain that distance while at sea. And even though Kuma was third mate and she still had to be distant, he was one of the very few people she could confide in.
Kuma had been a captain a year earlier, on the Red Fleet Ship Garaboldi. He’d given up his command when a slot opened up on Ryo’s ship, his desire to serve with her was that great. He understood the burden of command in a way no one else on the Storm did.
“You know,” Kuma told her quietly. “Being in command, is not an easy thing. You aren’t allowed to make mistakes, and when you do, you have to convince those around you that it wasn’t a mistake. Admitting you were wrong is about the finest thing a person can do, but it is a luxury we captains don’t have. Just remember, the bravest thing to do when you are not brave is to profess courage, and act accordingly.”
* * *
The Revenge sailed gracefully under the falling night, without a single light on her deck. The only illumination came from the pale green radar, which lit up Captain Roberts’s face with a ghostly glow.
The radar screen showed only a haze, and the oblong shape of the Revenge at the center.
“You are sure this isn’t just a cloud bank,” Tameli, the Ninja first mate whispered.
Roberts, a second-generation Red Fleet captain, shook his head.
“I’ve been sailing since I could walk,” he told her. “And I have never seen a cloud bank like this one. The Radar only proves it.”
“So why did we darken the ship?” Tameli asked. “And why are we whispering?”
“There is a Utopian SkyShip overhead,” Roberts told her. “And we’re going to bring it down.”
“But how?” Tameli pressed. “Our radar is blinded and the sky is darker than any I have seen!”
“I’ve also been hunting since I could walk,” Roberts hissed. “I can track a falcon on a cloudy day, I can find that SkyShip.”
He shut the radar screen off and stared up into the inky blackness. The cloud bank covered the whole horizon and without a single light on the ship, he could not even see the top of the mast.
But far above he could perceive the movement of the clouds. He could feel the wind on his face.
“Port,” he whispered. “Two more degrees.”
“Why no lights?” Tameli pressed as she made the adjustment. “If we cannot see them, surely they cannot see us?”
, six thousand miles south of Ronin,” Roberts replied. “There lives a species of flightless bird so utterly stupid that when pursued it sticks it’s head in a hole in the ground in order to hide. It reasons that if it cannot see its chaser, its chaser cannot see it. Do you see the error in the bird’s judgment?” island of Harlequin
“I hardly think we’re sticking our heads in a hole,” Tameli snorted.
“Still,” Roberts cautioned. “It is wisest not to presume too much, to quickly.”
He reached for the radio and held down the button.
“Firing room,” he ordered. “I want a surface-to-air missile fired at the following coordinates.”
In the early days of the conflict, Red Fleet ships had shot down Utopian dirigibles in droves, until the SkyShips started using these curious cloud banks to hide in. They seemed entirely too convenient.
A hatch towards the front of the ship opened and a long, needle-tipped missile erupted out, spewing flames and smoke in a long trail behind it. The weapon momentarily illuminated the dark ship, before disappearing into the low clouds.
It left behind a kind of glowing dot, a spot on the crew’s eyes as it ventured into the clouds.
Seconds passed, and the dim patch of orange turned black.
“Well that’s one missile we’re never going to see again,” Tameli sighed. “Shall I give the order to remote detonate?”
Without a word Robert’s gestured to her to hold, then stretched out his hand and pointed at the clouds, tracing the missiles path with his finger.
“Bang,” he whispered.
A moment later, the sky lit up in a dazzling fireball high in the heavens. It left a hole in the clouds through which moonlight streamed, and by this light they watched a single burning box fall toward the sea.
“Running lights on!” captain Roberts ordered. “All ahead full-sail, lets see if we can get there before it sinks!”
End Chapter 1