Grey Ronin | Chapter One

Grey_Ronin_Chap1 HeaderDutiful Japanese men stood in the courtyard of the Noro-Shimura Officeplex, their faces expressionless. Eight identical figures in black suits, shoulder to shoulder in front of the main entrance, formed a wall. Three shorter men, an elder flanked by two younger associates, waited a short distance in front of them. Cloth fluttering in a mild breeze overpowered the stillness everywhere else. Two hundred meters past a field of grass and cherry trees, the city of Kagoshima appeared devoid of life.

The elder took a step forward and peered over dark glasses. A surge in the wind sent waves through his immaculate grey hair a second before he reached to the katana on his left hip.

Cloudless sky glowed an unnatural shade of electric blue, lit by a sun hidden somewhere behind the silhouettes of skyscrapers. White cherry blossoms danced in the wind, drifting in whorls over red brick hexagonal tiles. The Eight moved in unison, their heads tilting as their eyebrows notched upward. The same jagged stripe of reflected sunlight slid across eight pairs of sunglasses. A gust drove a flood of petals against the face of the building, a pink-and-white wave crashing upon black glass. The men on either side of the elder drew their blades, filling the air with the hypersonic wail of active vibro-katanas.

A set of gloss white samurai armor―without a wearer―stepped from behind a fourteen-foot tall carved onyx rendering of Takeshi Noro, CEO. Orange-yellow energy seeped from the edge of the phantom’s ornate katana, peeling off like smoke as the figure moved, casting a soft glow over the armor.

At a gesture from the elder, The Eight moved as one to surround their opponent, spreading around him in a ring.

The armor advanced, pivoting its left shoulder forward as it took the blade in both hands. Shimmering light wavered in the high-polish helmet. Ten paces from the elder, the samurai halted, empty helmet staring through a curtain of falling cherry blossoms. A rushing sound of energy from its blade drowned out the wind.

A voice emanated from within the hollow armor. “I recognize the honor of your attempt. However, the inevitability of your failure renders this a pointless exercise. Noro-Shimura’s transgression demands my response.”

“So, this is the great Saitō Mamoru,” said the elder. “I am not impressed. Let us see if the legends are true.”

The Eight closed in, drawing blades, all moving in unison.

Fuming energy around the samurai’s katana intensified, rising. White-orange flames lapped at the air.

“I wonder”―Mamoru flexed his knees, lowering his stance―“would your courage remain if you knew the veil would not protect your life?”

The elder and his two companions glided backwards, sliding twenty feet in a few seconds, disturbing the cloud of cherry blossoms. Mamoru sprang at one of The Eight. His blade trailed an arc of phantasmal light as the edge passed through a body without a sound. The man convulsed before staring into the distance, confused. A second later, the body split in half along a diagonal cut from hip to shoulder. The upper portion slid off, shattering on the ground as though it were made of glass. The rest fell backwards, landing with a clank.

“Kill him,” said the elder.

His two associates raised their blades, which condensed into formless metallic lumps for an instant before growing into pistols.

Mamoru spun to the left as the men fired, swiping his blade through the air. A cloud of bullets hung suspended in the air as if trapped in gelatin an arm’s length away. The projectiles twisted in place, pointing wherever the seething katana directed. Mamoru made a grasping gesture at nothing and shoved his palm towards one of the remaining Eight. The bullets appeared to vanish as they returned in an instant to normal speed, shattering the man into a waterfall of onyx chips.

Gloss black fragments scattered across the courtyard, consumed by bands of white light that devoured them with a shrill squeal. Mamoru glared at the men on either side of the elder. Neon blue dragons, sinuous serpents as big around as a child’s arm, emerged from the barrels of both pistols, hissing and spitting violet flames. The men seemed to battle for control of their weapons, and the elder charged.

Six identical men joined him, attacking in a simultaneous flurry of screeching vibro blades. Mamoru held his katana to his chest, the spine against his helmet, and submerged into the ground.

Seven swords crossed through empty space in an angry wail of hypersonic steel.

Mamoru gazed up at a ceiling of glass, which used to be the ground, overlaid with a hexagonal pattern matching the tiles. The elder spun in circles, sword raised, unable to tell where he had gone. The six identical men stood motionless, staring straight ahead. Mamoru glided to a spot a few feet behind the two unique men, who still fought the miniature dragonlings, and willed himself to ascend. He burst upwards through the tiles. Red stone slabs the size of dinner plates exploded skyward in a plume of dust and soil. They slowed, tumbling, as Mamoru sailed through them and sliced open the back of the man on the left. The operator screamed, arching his back from pain. The serpent protruding from his weapon sank tiny fangs into his throat, emitting a cute trilling noise as diaphanous whiskers threaded around the man’s neck.

As if time rewound, the detonation of tiles and dirt collapsed back to form perfect, unbroken courtyard.

The elder whirled about, raising his katana, and charged. Mamoru rolled through the top of his leap, descending with a downstroke at the other gunman, who remained occupied with his mini-dragon. Mamoru landed with a peal of thunder, his boots sending light-filled cracks racing through the bricks. The second operator collapsed to the ground, screaming through gritted teeth as cyan grid lines spread over his warping body. His dragonling bit him over the heart, wriggling until it forced its head inside.

Both men convulsed as the outline of brains glowed within their heads.

The elder came in with a rapid slash, which Mamoru turned with ease. His counterattack found only air; the old man slid sideways as if blown by hurricane. The elder attacked again, but Mamoru parried with enough force to bounce him off the onyx wall of the Noro-Shimura Officeplex tower, cracking the glass.

“You insult me, Goji-san,” said Mamoru. “Your feeble attempt to strike me with outdated viruses is a sign of disrespect―or incompetence.”

Goji’s eyes faded to fields of white static. Sensing tendrils about to emerge from the ground to snare his leg, Mamoru stomped his boot. His command triggered a buffer reset in the network node, killing Goji’s trap soft before it finished loading. The six identical men blinked in and out of existence for a few seconds. As the effect of the reset faded, they converged on him with jerky, robotic motions.

Mamoru frowned. “These defense programs are little more than children’s toys. You should humble yourself before your superiors, Goji-san.”

He triggered a bogging program, which hammered Goji’s interface deck with millions of connection attempts per second, all of which aborted after one data packet. Cyberspace rendered the software assault in the form of Mamoru summoning an army of two-foot tall green-skinned oni dressed as caricatures of samurai. The little goblins assailed Goji with bows, raining a limitless hail of arrows at him.

The six remaining defense programs advanced. Mamoru slid to the side to prevent them from surrounding him again. Damaged brick rippled like liquid wherever his boots passed, and became whole a second later. Two of the program constructs charged. Mamoru deflected the one on the left while leaning to the side enough to avoid the other. Before the construct could withdraw, Mamoru grasped it by the face with his free left hand. Software in the image of a man went rigid as threads of white energy spread through its skin from the samurai’s fingertips. Light shone from its eyes and gaping mouth for several seconds, fading as it fell to its knees, looking exhausted.

The man with the dragonling sticking out of his chest picked himself up from the ground and ripped it out. It emitted an adorable cooing noise as he crushed it into fragments of ethereal blue glass. With a snarl, he lunged, a katana forming in his hand, held low to the right. Mamoru moved his right leg to the rear. He backed away and faced the circling man as he rounded his weapon in an upward slash. Mamoru smashed the attack aside, sending his opponent flying face-first into the building.

Chirping and trilling, the remaining dragonling gnawed on the throat of the other operator, who lay on the ground convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Goji stooped by the fallen man, and pulled the little program out of him, crushing it into a fading cloud of sparkling iridescent flakes.

Another construct came at Mamoru from behind, sword in a wild overhead grip.

Simple in design, the program attempted a brute-force disconnect, which cyberspace animated as a reckless charge. Mamoru’s katana blurred as he thrust it to the rear, impaling the faux man through the heart. The construct gawked at the steel penetrating its chest as blackness consumed it from head to toe. Scintillating white energy leaked through cracks racing outward from the wound. In seconds, the body crumbled from Mamoru’s blade, a broken glass statue.

The construct Mamoru had grabbed took a position at his side, eyeing its former brethren with an emotionless stare. Its black business suit changed from cloth to liquid, and morphed into samurai armor.

“You have succeeded only in making my task easier, Goji-san,” said Mamoru.

His reprogrammed construct ran at the elder. While his minion kept his living opponent busy, Mamoru whirled through the duplicates. He cut down two more and seized another by the throat. Seconds later, that construct changed into a black samurai. Only two defense programs remained hostile. The identical men circled Mamoru as their altered brethren squared off against the elder and his one active subordinate. Blades rang against each other as viruses and counterprograms ran through the wiring of the GlobeNet, each assault on a firewall represented by the crossing of swords.

With a wail of resignation, the convulsing operator reached toward the sky and vanished in a burst of cyan pixels.

A deep frown twisted Goji’s face. “What have you done? Futoshi has logged out, but he will not wake.”

Mamoru’s laugh echoed from the empty helmet. “I told you, the veil cannot shield you from me.”

The constructs attacked in unison. Mamoru hurled his katana to the side, where it floated, and caught each of their swords in his open gauntlets. Steel met armor with a plastic sounding clack, rising to an ear-splitting shriek as he closed his fingers around the hypersonic blades. Swirls of azure light shimmered at his fist, and the weapons went silent.

Mamoru roared. The seething energy from his hovering katana streamed to his body and engulfed him. Serpentine wisps of amber luminescence leapt across his shoulders and spiraled down his arms, riding along the swords to his foes. Each construct gritted its teeth and tried to force its way forward, but Mamoru held fast. Red glowed beneath their skin as the energy tendrils impaled them. Two katanas shattered, sending random cracks of disintegration racing up their arms, reducing both bodies to a scattering of onyx fragments on the wind.

Deleted.

Mamoru waited, casting a half-interested glance at the elder and remaining operator dealing with the reprogrammed constructs. He reached a hand in the direction of the debris before him and thought lines of program code into being. A lingering echo of the defense constructs from the node’s neural memory gave him a blueprint to build on. Chips and shards rose airborne, spiraling in an obsidian whirlwind that came together in the shape of two men. With a final flare of light through cracks, the effect of a glued-together vase faded and left two ebon samurai whole. Both bowed in deference to their new master.

Mamoru pointed his blade at the network defense operators. “Your efforts, though futile, are worthy of respect.”

The white helmet tilted backwards as Mamoru gazed up at the Noro-Shimura tower. Clouds raced across blue sky reflected in seamless windows, billowing and gliding as if time moved at fast forward. His target hid high in the network, and knew he was coming. Mamoru held his arms out and launched upwards, skimming inches away from dark windows and his mirror image. Both living men screamed in frustration as he took flight, but only for a second before their attention returned to the rogue constructs.

Ringing sounds of crossing blades receded into the distance below. Mamoru ascended in a blur, passing several stories of virtual building every second. Energy pulsing within the monolithic tower thumped like a beating heart in the back of his mind, leading him to his target. The white samurai glided to a halt outside the building at an impossible height, too high to perceive the men below him.

Shimmering threads of blue and orange pierced the distant clouds, intercontinental uplink conduits carrying thousands of petabytes of data every second, a sight only GlobeNet admins were supposed to see. Mamoru glanced at one, a pipe six feet across and made of an uncountable number of bright orange fibers, shifting and swaying as light coursed through. Images sprouted up around it, like a primitive animal raising spines to ward off a threat: images of objects, people, sporting events, Vidphone calls, and games. All the information within the circuit bared itself to his mind. He looked away, uninterested, and touched one hand to the opaque jet window. A smattering of white-pink cherry blossoms gathered on the glass, giving him pause until the wind took them.

He widened his stance, as if his boots found footing on an invisible surface, and grasped the blade in both hands. With a low growl, he thrust the tip into the window, twisting it back and forth. At first it stalled, sparks and flashes bursting from where the point touched. Mamoru disregarded the ear-splitting cry of steel on glass and commanded the network to yield to his will.

It obeyed.

The onyx surface turned magma orange around where the katana sank in. Mamoru leaned on the blade, grunting as though he forced it through a block of dense gelatin. Millimeter by millimeter, the edge vanished until the tsuba above his grip met glass. A noise in his throat grew to a roar. Brilliant light radiated from his helmet and the seams in his armor. Glowing white cracks splintered out from where the blade had pierced. Seconds later, the wall burst apart in a rain of foot-thick black chunks that fell out of sight.

Blue sparks lapped at the rough, smoking edges of a deep hole. What had appeared from the outside as the glass windows of an office tower now resembled three-foot thick stone walls. The GlobeNet used so-called ‘dark matter’ for things intended to be indestructible: network boundaries, node walls, and terrain features. Mamoru glided through the opening and let his weight settle on his feet, standing amid smoke and the scent of burned graphite.

Inside, the network space rendered in the image of an office: dark carpeting, dim lights, and a messy workstation where a slender man swiped at holographic tiles, a lunatic grasping at shiny trinkets.

The programmer shrieked, spinning in his chair to face the white samurai emerging from the dust. “T-that’s impossible! Only the Sages can change dark matter! Even Minamoto couldn’t afford to bribe them!”

“You are a fool, Imura-san. The Sages are not mystical.” Mamoru drifted closer, raising his sword. “They have no greater innate talent over this false reality, only superior tools.”

The man’s body went stiff as his back arched and a matrix of cyan gridding lit his closed eyelids from behind. Mamoru blurred to a streak, seizing the man by the neck. Pixilation and static washed through the emaciated figure for several seconds before he sagged limp and opened his eyes.

He dug his fingernails into the armrests, cowering from the vacant eye sockets in the frowning samurai mask. “H-how…”

“Did I pull you back in?” Mamoru flung him from the chair, face first to the ground. “You did not think I would come all this way only to have you disconnect as soon as I arrived, Imura-san? Where is your respect for a guest?”

Imura rolled on to his back, holding an arm over his face. “Please, Saitō-sama, we can find an arrangement. The data―”

“Is already gone.” Mamoru waved his katana, causing the man to scoot away from the seething vapor. “Minamoto-Heika demands retribution. Did you expect to infiltrate the network of Matsushita Electronics Corporation without repercussion?”

“Jiro? What is going on?” A man’s voice crackled out of the desk. “The logout aborted.”

The programmer whimpered and glanced at the desk, seeming as if he wanted to beg for help from the outside, but could not bear the shame.

Jiro Imura crawled across the office until he huddled against the wall and gathered his knees to his chest, shaking, crying. “I did not conceive the idea. Make an example of my supervisor. It was my job. Like you, I must do what I am told.”

Mamoru held out his left hand, grasping at the air. Imura shuddered and screamed, cringing as he fought an invisible force. He floated into the air, grasping at cabinet handles, frantic swipes knocked small objects to the ground. The man rotated to face the white samurai, tears streaming from his eyes.

“You failed. I am doing your supervisor’s work.”

Imura flailed and kicked, helpless as Mamoru thrust the blade through his chest. He stared at the glowing fumes peeling from the metal, as if seeing a blade through his heart was so beyond plausible he could not believe it. Mamoru Saitō’s mind reached across cyberspace, following the connection through the impaled man to his login point. The electronic path unfurled in his thoughts. He flew along an infinite maze of blue on blue lines, emptiness and power, memory and hardware. At the distant end of glittering azure, a silver box etched with circuit lines and green light hovered over a pedestal. Small dots of white climbed the virtual stone, up and over the device before they zoomed off along the floor. As many entered the cube as left: the entire chamber swarmed with signals.

Mamoru entered the M3 systems interface port of a cyberspace deck, the software shadow of a metal plug in a socket―the other end connected to a human mind. One solitary impulse, a glowing star the size of an orange, repeatedly bounced away from the box, denied entry.

Imura’s continued attempt to log out, a command no longer recognized by his hardware.

Mamoru told the machine what it must do.

The emerald light leaking through cracks in the cube flickered and turned dark. Violet lightning surrounded the pedestal, crackling and lapping at the ground. Somewhere in the real world, a fatal jolt of electricity entered a brain stem, ending the life of one of Noro-Shimura’s mid-level infiltrators. The beautiful corridors of azure light faded to black, the darkness followed Mamoru’s receding point of view until he was again standing in the virtual office, holding the weight of Imura’s body impaled on the katana. The corpse twitched once and hung limp for a moment before it blew away, black sand carried off on an imaginary wind. Mamoru lowered his arm, frowning at the carpet.

Why was this necessary? This will fail to deter others. Minamoto demands a show of strength, but they will not stop. He tilted a sword that did not exist, gazing at a reflection of overhead lights that also did not exist. Jiro Imura did exist―or at least he had. On the other side of Japan, a body sagged in a chair with smoke leaking from its dead mouth, eyes bulging with shock and fear. Mamoru bowed his head, thinking on how the man had begged for his life.

“Coward.” Mamoru pivoted on his heel and walked to the hole. He glanced back at the empty chair. “Worthless.”

The samurai armor came apart at the seams, disintegrating as he released his hold upon the virtual world.

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Incense―Kyara agarwood―invaded the transition, followed by the feel of hard wood beneath Mamoru’s knees. His sense of being the machine gave way to a momentary nothingness in which his consciousness existed neither in the net nor his body. His senses went from muted to extreme. Even delicate silk raked across his flesh with the teeth of sandpaper. Warm electronics beneath his fingers seemed hot enough to cook on. The edges of the vent fluting tugged at his skin like razors. A creak, inaudible to most, ran through the floor like the string of a yumi under tension.

The scent of tea came on with a rush of sickening intensity, lessening as his awareness settled back into his living body. Mamoru opened his eyes to the rice-paper walls of his dojo. Thin, dark-stained slats divided sliding panels in neat squares. Pale wood floor ran wall to wall, surrounded by rich reds and browns, and a dozen ceremonial weapons mounted on the wall. He looked down at his hand atop a slab of technology alien to its surroundings. A sleek, featureless bar of black plastic―the Matsushita Corporation Oni series cyberspace deck―rested on a squat table in front of him. He folded his hands in his lap as a red and white kimono crept into his peripheral vision. Toes peeked out from the hem. Her posture betrayed nervousness.

“The tea is appreciated, Ayame-chan.”

The young woman stooped to set the cup on the corner of the table. Mamoru’s gaze flicked to the little red light blinking at the front of a snug metal choker, a round cord as thick as a finger. She bowed and pulled away without turning her back. Once at the door, she bowed again until her forehead almost touched the floor.

“Saitō-sama, will you desire food?”

Mamoru sipped his tea, not answering for the fifteen minutes it took him to finish it. The girl waited without moving or making a sound.

“That is agreeable. However, I must speak with Ishikawa before I eat. Have my meal ready in one half hour.”

“As you wish.” She bowed again, stood, and drifted out of sight.

He stiffened, placing his hands on his hips. “Terminal, outbound. Ishikawa, Reiko, Majordomo to Minamoto-Heika.”

Holographic snow appeared before him, stretching to a rectangular pattern four by three feet. Soon, an interface filled in around the stern face of a woman in a black executive’s suit. An NSK news feed scrolled across the bottom, a constant stream of kanji detailing gains and losses in the endless inter-corporation battles both virtual and real. Already, word of his work had reached the world. Her glower softened at the sight of him, tinted by the faintest hint of affection.

Mamoru bowed from the hip. “Ishikawa-sama, it is done as asked.”


Chapter Two

Grey Ronin The Awakened Series • Back to PreviewsBooks Main