Authors: Steve Perry
Second book in the Matador series
Table of Contents
DEATH CAME FOR her from behind a child's game.
There was only a single man this time, but Dirisha saw he was trained by the way he moved, solidly within his own Center. She didn't know him, but she knew what he was: a ronin, like herself. He was a player and it was the Musashi Flex which drove him. He might have seen her work, or maybe heard from somebody who had. So now, he had to test her. It was always the way of it, that testing.
Somebody might die, she knew, and death only had two contestants from which to choose. It was no field of honor on which Dirisha Zuri stood, watching her would-be assassin, only a dimly-lit arcade, bounded by banks of holo-proj games and sturz-booths. The place was deserted, save for Dirisha and her stalker—she had chosen it for that reason. He moved well, this big man with tea-colored skin and blond hair, but he was all too visible a tail to somebody with Dirisha's own training.
She nodded at him, resigned. "Armed?"
He shook his head. "Let's do it bare."
"All right." If he were any good, he'd be carrying half a dozen weapons. He could have a buzzer, buckle blade, slap-caps, maybe even a projectile pen; Dirisha had those. His hands were open and empty now, but that didn't mean anything. If it went against him, he might go for a helper; certainly she would. Honor was in surviving, not fair play. But first, you had to know...
Tea-skin slid his left foot forward a few centimeters and turned his body slightly. He brought his hands up, left high, right low, and stiffened his fingers, curling his thumbs down. He was four meters away.
Dirisha stood relaxed in a neutral stance and watched Tea-skin calmly as she tried to figure out his style. One of the striking systems, obviously, and likely he was a mono-stylist, too. He could be very good at it, but he gave away more than he should by his stance; a really experienced ronin would hide as much as possible until the last moment.
Tea-skin scooted forward half a meter, using the economical push-slide of a martial boxer. Karate or kung fu, Dirisha figured, or one of the myriad variants. He would be a power-fighter, judging from the swellings of his muscles. He would likely hit hard and depend upon his strength to carry the fight. All right. She knew she shouldn't expect anything, that she should simply trance-react to whatever came, but her experiences wouldn't go away.
If she was right, she might be able to handle him easier, maybe get away without killing or maiming him.
He moved half a meter closer, sliding across the grimy tile floor. A blue light from some holoproj game program strobed across his face and he blinked against it. The same blue light glinted from her own black skin.
He's nervous, Dirisha thought. A bad sign. For herself, Dirisha felt no fear.
She was deeply trained in four Arts, less well-instructed in a handful of others. She would wki or lose, that was all. She would essay to perform her techniques correctly, no more, no less; the consequences of failure didn't enter into it. A woman did what a woman had to, the best way she knew how. To do more was impossible, to do less, unthinkable.
Tea-skin slid yet closer, almost within his range and still outside of Dirisha's zone. For a moment, she took time to wonder about the man facing her. What would he be thinking? What he could see was simple enough; a big woman of about thirty, with chocolate skin and green eyes, dressed in a red body suit and tunic, standing loosely and watching. He couldn't know what she had done, where she had been, what forces had formed her into what she was. No, all he could see was another player, a follower of the ancient warrior Musashi, a seeker after martial perfection. A personal test for himself. A bloody battle.
For a brief moment, Dirisha thought about turning and running from the arcade. It seemed pointless to fight this man, pointless to play the game she'd first learned a decade ago on Mti. She wanted the perfection, but this part of it had grown old. She had long since learned to avoid fights when she could, especially with the untrained. At first, the competition had been exciting, it had made her blood sing. Even when she lost and had to spend days or weeks nursing her body back to optimum, it had been a part she'd willingly played, a role she wanted. But now? Now she wished only to learn and be left alone. She avoided other players when she saw them, never issued challenges, kept a low profile at each new dojo. The only thing was, other players knew of her; and, those who did not, would see evidence of her skills in the most simple of movements. She might as well be wearing a flashing sign for those with the same kinds of abilities.
The sound of a breath too sharply indrawn roused Dirisha from her wandering thoughts. Tea-skin was almost ready for his attack. Outwardly, Dirisha gave no sign she noticed; inwardly, she reached for the autotrance—
Tea-skin lunged and drove his fist at Dirisha's throat. It was a deathblow, aimed at crushing her windpipe.
Dirisha pivoted to her right, planted her feet solidly, and grabbed the outstretched arm as she twisted. She applied Atemi Waza Second, a kind of tug-and-loop with her hands, and Tea-skin lost his balance and tumbled forward. If he didn't know how to recover from the fall—the man tucked his shoulder and rolled, coming up in a half-turn so that he faced Dirisha when he regained his feet. It was a move which saved him from a bad fall, but from his attack and recovery, Dirisha knew the more important thing: his skills were no match for hers; the fight was as good as over.
"What say we call it a draw, Deuce? One pass for the fun of it?"
The man shook his head, angry. "No!"
Dirisha wanted to sigh, but held it. He wasn't very good at all, not as good as she'd first thought. He moved well enough sub rosa, but his resting was better than his active. That was unusual, but it happened. At this point, a better ronin would know where he stood and back off; otherwise, he'd be asking for grief.
Tea-skin yelled, a guttural grunt, and cross-stepped for his second pass. A kick this time, low, so he knew that much, but far too strong and slow. His foot came up from the floor, aimed at her pubis—
Dirisha V-stepped and was suddenly behind him. She cocked her right fist and fired the punch, slamming the two big knuckles into the man's back, over his left kidney. She heard the wind leave him as he moaned. Before he could recover, she lifted her left foot and stamped it against the back of his knee. Tea-skin's leg buckled and his knee cap smacked hard into the floor tiles; she heard the bone give. But he dove away and rolled, and when he came up, most of his weight was on one leg—not the one Dirisha had just crippled. He stared at her as though he couldn't understand who she was.
She saw the pain twist his face.
There was no way Tea-skin had enough strength in the leg with the shattered kneecap to come at her again, not unless he hopped. It wasn't good, but it would do. Pain was the best way and following that, disabling injury.
A little orthostat glue and the patella would be as good as new. But for now, Tea-skin was out of it. Dirisha said, "This dance is over, Deuce. Let me call the medics—"
Tea-skin jammed his hand into his tunic pocket and came out holding a single-blast shot tube. He swung it to point toward Dirisha—
Dirisha slapped her own hand onto her belt closure and ripped the kinzoku dart from its hidden sheath; the throw was a back-handed toss. She continued the flinging motion into a wide follow-through—that was important, the follow-through—and then dived after her hand, in a twisting back-flip. The gas charge in the shot tube went off and a spray of steel fanned the air where she had been a second earlier. One of the pellets slapped into her ankle, but glanced off the bone, leaving only small wounds. She landed hard, on her heels.
Dirisha stood and glanced down at Tea-skin. There was no pain on the man's face, no tension in his muscles. The kinzoku dart had buried itself in his forehead; the brain-shock must have killed him. Tea-skin had checked out, there was no longer anybody home.
Dirisha felt cold, a coldness which reached deeply into her and touched something hidden there. This was not what she wanted, this was not what she had trained nearly half her life to become: a killer, someone who could calmly wipe away another human with as little effort as throwing a sliver of steel at a target. Why hadn't he quit? It was obvious she was better than he had been, it was illogical, it was stupid for him to continue after he was beaten! She found herself angry at Tea-skin—she didn't even know his name—for being so stupid. It was his fault, not hers!
No. Dirisha knew she was wrong. Sure, she had to defend herself, but the other was just rationalization. She was too good to have taken the easy way.
She could have risked herself more and maybe put him down without killing him, she knew it. She had done her technique correctly, but she had failed in her Art. Suddenly, she felt very tired, as if she had climbed some tall high-gee mountain into thin and lifeless air.
She looked down at the corpse. Methodically, she retrieved the stainless steel kinzoku dart and wiped away the blood. This was a bad world to kill somebody on, the authorities on Tembo were harsh and difficult to convince of innocence under the best of circumstances. They were less than fond of cults and Musashi players would receive little sympathy, either killed or killers. It would be wise to leave, and quickly. There was no official registration of Hex players on Tembo, but it wouldn't take the cools long to figure out that Tea-skin had been such. Then, they'd be locked into suspects.
Sure, it was self-dee, and any straight scan would back her story, but Dirisha had no desire to sit for some heavy-handed brain scrambler. People had been known to come out of such sessions wiped or nearly so—especially if the simadam running the scan didn't like the subject. It could happen easily on this world.
Tea-skin was heavy, but she managed to shoulder the body and walk with it. Corpses were always heavy, being literally dead weight with no muscle tone to help; Dirisha counted herself unfortunate to know such things.
People who passed on the nearly-deserted street glanced at Dirisha and her load briefly, if at all, and if they wondered about her, they did not do so aloud. She staggered along for two blocks before she found a refuse container large enough to accept a man-sized object. Too bad there were no public flash disposals on Tembo, a decidedly backward world compared to some. With a grunt, Dirisha heaved the body into the trash container and covered the unit.
He'd be found soon enough, but probably not until she had time to leave the planet. She had enough stads in her account to travel nearly anywhere in the galaxy; money meant little to her and she seldom spent it on anything other than the barest items of survival. She could go to any world she wished, but—where did she want to go? She had learned as much of the local fighting art of T'umeaux as she cared to learn; after that, she had planned to try the wheel world of Chiisai Tomadachi, orbiting Tomadachi itself in the Shin System. There was supposedly a variant of kaiatsu, which actually worked, being taught to a handful of students there. She had heard of voice-stun styles, but had never seen one which was truly effective. So, Chiisai?
As she left the alley in which she'd dumped the corpse of the man who'd attacked her, Dirisha felt that earlier weariness latch onto her again, as though some kind of malignant leech had attached itself to her spirit. Her Id seemed to drain away, leaving her exhausted. For a moment, the idea of continuing to play the Flex seemed too much to bear, to even consider. But what else could she do? Settle into some bodyguard job? Become a bouncer permanently? Set up a school and teach what she had learned? She could do that, she was good enough to attract the best students.
The face of a man dead nearly three years floated up from her memory.
She smiled at the recollection. She'd liked Khadaji, liked working for him. A lot of people had been very surprised when they'd found out what he'd really been doing on Greaves. Dirisha had always suspected there was more to him than met the eye—he moved too well to be a simple pub owner on such a backrocket planet.
Dirisha kept the smile, but wondered why she was thinking about Khadaji now. Was it merely due to the death of Tea-skin, reminding her of another death? No, there was something else scratching at her memory. Something Khadaji had said to her once, shortly before he'd died. What was it, exactly?