- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
December 12, 2022
Ignore the cold. Ignore the pain. Ignore the icy wind that whips down off the ridge and knifes through your gi. Ignore your numb, frozen fingers as they grasp the jo. Ignore everything but the task at hand. Move. Breathe. Survive.
But it was hard this morning, harder than usual. The nightmare always made it that way. He had lost count of how many times he'd jerked upright out of fitful sleep, his heart pounding, body draped in sweat-drenched sheets. There was a time when he had believed the nightmare's terror would fade with familiarity, that the passage of years would carry him to a day when sleep would bring nothing but itself. Nine years was long enough to wait.
Even now, his pulse resumed its frantic tattoo as his attention wavered only the fraction of a second purchased by the recollection. He cursed himself as he lost count of his kata, the kata he'd executed thousands of times. He stood still in the shin-deep snow for a full minute as punishment, the butt of the jo breaking the icy crust of the new snow with a soft crunch as he let the oaken staff slide through his fingers and come to rest beside his frozen foot. Eyes closed, he directed his focus inward, towards his one-point, the spot below his navel where his center of gravity was and his ki lived. He sucked a lungful of the frigid air through his nose, counting thirty, then slowly exhaled through his mouth on another thirty count. His breath hissed through his throat like steam, pluming in the air before him before the wind found it and snatched it away.
The frozen landscape around him fadedfrom consciousness as he turned inward, seeking the only release he could find, release from exterior pain. It was the inner ache which now presented itself, a pain that cut through him more cruelly than the wind that buffeted his body like the surf, shaking him out of his reverie. You will find no forgiveness there, it moaned. You should know that by now.
He wearily opened his eyes, the biting cold flooding back into his consciousness with the daylight. He was freezing. He should go back inside his cabin, make a cup of coffee, make a fire. He knew what he should do. Instead, he did what he had to do.
He bowed to the gods and dropped back into sankakutai, the triangular stance that began each jo kata. His numb right foot plowed through the snow as he slid it backwards, no longer able to feel the ground. He inhaled and began the kata anew, counting silently as he executed each move.
Ichi : thrust forward to the midsection of the enemy.
Ni : raise the jo in a forward-slanting, two-handed block.
San : thrust forward to the enemy's face.
Shi : another overhead block.
Go : a right-side cut to the enemy's neck, the jo whistling through the air.
Roku : reverse and cut to the left.
Shichi : right-hand thrust to the rear, to the enemy's midsection.
Hachi : Spin one-hundred-eighty degrees to the right, the tip of the jo skimming the snow in a leg sweep, ending in another rearward thrust.
Ku : another block.
Ju : another thrust to the face--
He breathed steadily, exhaling on the thrusts and cuts, inhaling on the blocks. He pictured each foe before him as he fought, stern shadows in the snow, making no sound except in his imagination as they continued their relentless, untiring attack.
Every morning he began his day this way. And every day, the outcome was the same. No peace. No redemption, only the certainty of the battle. As he moved -- now slowly, with the grace of a ballerina, then swiftly, like a pouncing panther, his movements a blur as the worn jo sliced through the air -- he felt the hot breath of his demons on his neck and in his heart.
The kata was his meditation, and his penance. And so, he welcomed the cold. This, he knew, was transient, unlike the guilty ache that drove him to his daily torture. If he could not banish his demons, then he would master his punishment.
He executed the final movement of the kata, cutting downward before him as he shouted an explosive kiai, the guttural sound echoing over the frozen landscape like a cannon shot. He stood with his jo held before him, locked in the completion of the final move of the kata. The way of the warrior is in resolute acceptance of death. That's what Sensei always said, all those years ago. The true test, he now knew, was in living.
He slowly returned the jo to his side and forced himself to bow once again, closing the kata. Cannot forget reigi, proper etiquette. Sensei would have a fit. He stared dumbly at his left hand as he clenched it, feeling the joints of his fingers crackle with cold as he formed the fist, the ridge of purplish calluses thick on his knuckles.
Freezing. He was freezing to death. Get inside, that whisper from somewhere urged. Turn. Walk up the hill. It's only fifty yards or so. You'll be there in just a minute, inside the cabin where there's warmth and coffee and comfort. But he was having a hard time hearing the voice, the wind was so loud, whining over his head, the whine deepening into a roar that now filled the snow-covered glade--
He forced his stiff neck muscles to turn his head over his right shoulder, up towards the ridge behind the cabin. At first he thought it was a bird, but the shape skipping over the high horizon lacked the elegant upswept arc of an eagle's wings. The body was much too large as well, he calmly observed. It was thick, oblong, with stubby wings that swept back from the fuselage, thick cylindrical turbines that roared and then rotated downward as the craft sailed over the cabin and slowed to a thousand-foot hover almost directly over his head.
It was an aircar, sleek and steady as it floated in the sky. The last time he'd seen one this close, it was resting on the tarmac at Fort Bragg and spilling Army brass. The shock of the novelty pulled him fully into focus like a rubberband snapping back from the breaking point.
The pilot seemed to sense his scrutiny. The shining craft slipped sideways fifty yards, seeming for a moment as if it were about to topple and crash, then steadied and began its descent.
He shielded his eyes from the jetwash as the aircar touched down. The door opened and the interloper emerged, tugging on a pair of heavy gloves. He could see the man was young, maybe thirty, with short, curly blond hair that ruffled in the wind like springs. He wore rimless, wire-framed glasses, a heavy parka and leather loafers that disappeared into the snow as he gingerly stepped down off the aircar running board. The parka looked new.
The visitor lurched clumsily through the snow towards him, shouting over the wind and dying whine of the aircar turbines:
"Major Harrison? Major Mackinley Harrison?"
Steve Davis stopped, squinting against the wind. A little over a yard away the man stood in the snow like he was planted there, unaffected by the weather, a shoulder-high staff clasped lightly in his right hand. He peered closely at his face, the angular features camouflaged by the dark, full beard that reached almost to his chest. His hair was long, falling well past his shoulders, shot through with gray that swept back at the temples like wings; a lion's mane of hair that floated around his head in the wind. Davis could see now that he was wearing a martial arts practice uniform, the simple cotton jacket held closed by a tattered black belt tied around the waist, the long ends hanging limp. A thin gold necklace showed through the frayed open lapels of the jacket, the pendant some Asian-looking symbol which Davis didn't recognize.
Davis returned his attention to the face, tried to imagine it ten years or so younger, mid-thirties and without the beard, the hair close-cropped, the cotton jacket and pants replaced by an Army dress uniform.
He swallowed, feeling his pulse quicken. Holy cow, he'd done it. He'd found him.
"Are you Major Mackinley Harrison?"
"Who--" Mac's long-unused voice caught in his throat. He cleared it. "Who're you?"
"My name is Davis. Steve Davis. I work for UniCom.
He waited for Mac to be impressed, but the man only held that thousand-yard stare, seeming to look straight through Davis even as his eyes bored into him. For an instant, Davis felt a cold touch to his gut that had nothing to do with the weather.
He covered the awkward moment by fumbling off a glove and unzipping his parka. He reached inside and withdrew his UniCom photo ID, offering it like a magical trinket. Mac afforded it a momentary glance, long enough for Davis to take a final look at his features.
"It is you," he said, a smile showing as he replaced the ID and quickly zipped up against the cold. "I wasn't sure at first, what with the, you know--" He waved his hand around his own clean-shaven chin as he donned the glove. "Department of Defense told me where to look for you. Mister Conner pulled some strings." Again, he waited for a reaction. "Roger Conner? He's--"
"I know who he is."
"Been cruising around for an hour trying to spot this place," Davis continued, casting a glance around the property. "Pretty remote. Only one for fifty miles in any direction."
"Folks here like their privacy."
"Yeah," Davis ended lamely. "Guess so." He finally noticed Mac's bare feet, the toes clearly blue against the snow. He looked back up, open-mouthed. "Aren't you cold?"
Davis cleared his throat and plunged ahead. "He'd like to see you. Mister Conner. He'd like for you to be his guest for a few days at UniCom corporate in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. He--"
Mac turned and started up the low rise to his cabin. Davis stared. "What'd I say?" Mac kept on walking as Davis' mind went into frantic overdrive. "I just came two-thousand miles to find you!" he shouted at the retreating back. "Don't you even want to know why?"
Mac spoke without turning, the words echoing sharply off the snowpack during a lull in the wind. "If it's that important, e-mail me. I get my messages in town twice a month." He kept walking.
"It's about Colonel Takeshita!"
He pronounced it incorrectly, making it four harsh syllables instead of three. It was close enough. Mac stopped, turned.
"What about Sensei?
The cabin was small, just living quarters, kitchen and bathroom below and a sleeping loft above. Mac had built it himself, felling the trees and stripping the logs, dragging them to the cabin site behind his battered Humvee, notching the timbers and erecting the cabin one log at a time using nothing more than the Hummer's winch and his own strong back. It had taken him all of a summer and part of the fall, finishing just as the leaves turned russet and the big bucks finally emerged from the deep woods, sternly patrolling their turf as their harems followed meekly behind, already pregnant with the fawns of the coming spring. His labor, his home. Something pure and honest that he could claim as his own.
He closed the cabin door behind him, unconsciously leaning the jo in its usual place against the wall beside the doorframe. He crossed the plank floor to the narrow stair that led to the loft, climbing the rough-hewn steps until he emerged into his bedroom, still reeling from the bombshell Davis had dropped into his ascetic existence.
The loft was as simple as the downstairs. There was a bed, a dresser bearing a single electric lamp, a small plank closet, and a scuffed aluminum footlocker resting on the floor at the bed's foot. Mac knelt in seiza before it, sitting on bent knees, right foot automatically crossing over his left, both beginning to flood with the pins-and-needles agony of returning sensation. He read his name, stamped on the footlocker's dull gray surface: HARRISON, MACKINLEY M., MAJ. It was followed by his serial number and a handful of Army abbreviations and obscure acronyms -- 82nd SPEC. AIR. DIV., HALO CO. BRAVO SQ. The locker was the same Mac had been issued when he'd first enlisted, twenty-seven years before, the surface scarred and dented by his travels.
He flipped the latches, lifted the lid, removed the folded olive drab blanket that overlaid the contents. The dress uniform came first, ribbons and polished bars bright against the smooth fabric. He laid it carefully aside on the floor and lifted the palm-sized box that next presented itself. He hesitated a moment before opening it, stared at the golden star resting within, circled by the ring that held it affixed to the silk ribbon. He waited for something to stir inside him as he gazed at the Congressional Medal of Honor, his country's thanks for his service, his sacrifice, his valor in the face of overwhelming odds. He remembered the words well, spoken as the president had draped the medal around his neck while Mac stood at attention and Sensei watched proudly.
He snapped the lid shut. He felt nothing.
He placed the box atop his uniform and raised up the object of his search. The frame was simple, purchased at a drugstore. It was the photo beneath the glass that fanned the ash-covered embers of Mac's remembrance. Fourteen men stood proudly side-by-side, twelve clad in black and gray camouflage pressure suits, the curved Ranger insignia high on their shoulders, hovering above the upright sword and angled meteor of the company crest. They held their drop helmets tucked beneath their left arms, the dark siliplas visors presented to the camera. Sergeant's stripes stood out on the arm of the thirteenth, standing at the far left end of the line. The owner stared sternly ahead, black as night, lean-limbed and screaming career Army, the light fringe of buzz-cut hair above his ears barely visible in the photo -- Dropmaster Sergeant Otis Rawlings.
Standing at the far right end of the line was a stocky
Japanese-American man, his black hair slicked close to his wide, round skull, the dark eyes flashing with pride beneath their slanting epicanthic folds. Colonel Yoshi Takeshita Sensei: modern-day samurai, martial arts master, commanding officer of the elite U.S. Army 82nd Special Airborne HALO Company. And beside him stood a slender man barely into his thirties, his face all gawky angles, his chest stuck out so far it appeared as if it would explode, his right shoulder just touching Sensei's left. Captain Mackinley Michael Harrison, Bravo squad leader.
Ghosts now, so many of them. Mac ran his hand over the photo, pausing on Sensei's face, then clenched his fist to stop it from trembling.
Davis gunned the turbines and the craft rose smoothly into the air, wheeling into a graceful one-hundred-eighty turn as the landing skids retracted. The whine of the turbines deepened into a roar as the main thrusters kicked in, speeding the craft up and over the ridge. From the shotgun seat, Mac watched his snow-blanketed world dwindle away beneath him as the car headed south.
They stopped once outside of Rockford, Illinois, long enough to refuel, relieve themselves and grab two coffees to go. It was just turning dark when the aircar set down in front of UniCom's hangar at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. There was a company limousine waiting there, Mister Conner's personal ride. Davis recognized Joseph, Conner's chauffeur, standing placidly at the ready beside the sleek black Lincoln. Mac had exited the aircar and was standing a yard off the nose, modest duffel on the tarmac beside him, stretching.
Davis glanced at the man next to him, dressed in the tan coverall of a Carolina Airfreight employee, one of Conner's many holdings. He'd seen him a couple times but couldn't remember his name.
"Yup. That's him."
The worker stared, enthralled. "Wow," he murmured. "Doesn't look anything like the photos. What's he like?"
Davis had been thrilled to receive his assignment from Connor, had fantasized during his trip north about spending the return flight south getting to know his passenger, collecting a few stories to tell in the pilot's lounge. Mac Harrison, the last of the Shooting Stars, big as life in the seat next to him. He cast a baleful glance in Mac's direction.
"He's quiet. Ve-ry quiet. Didn't say a word the whole damn trip."
"You piss him off?"
"Yeah." Davis jammed his thumb hard against the validation square of the e-pad log the worker held. "I breathed."
He reluctantly dropped the aircar keys into the worker's open palm, not knowing when he'd get another chance to log time in the custom ride. Mac rounded the front of the car, carrying his duffel in his left hand, and the worker pretended to examine the port belly fan. "Joseph will take care of you from here," Davis told Mac, nodding to the waiting limo.
"He knows where Sensei is?"
"He knows where UniCom is," Davis curtly replied. "Mister Conner will take care of the rest when you arrive. Nice meeting you."
He offered his hand almost as a dare, and was surprised when Mac grasped it and gave it a single, firm tug, looking directly at him for the first time since their meeting that morning.
"You're a pretty good pilot, Davis."
Mac released Davis' hand, turned and stepped into the limo. Davis watched as Joseph closed the door, climbed behind the wheel and smoothly accelerated the car towards the exit.
"You hear that?" Davis said, watching the car drive off. "Major Mac Harrison thinks I'm a pretty good pilot."
"Wait'll he sees you drive." The worker moved off as another hooked a tractor to the front of the car to haul it into the hangar for post-flight. Davis strutted towards the pilot's lounge, donning his shades as he walked. What the hell, just one quick beer before home, with the rest of the flyboys.
Copyright © 2000 by Christopher Watson
Posted June 19, 2001
What I like about 'Shooting Stars' is that it is science-fiction and action-adventure, but it's realistic. All of the space elements in the book and the science is based on present-day technology, and that makes the plot seem more plausible, so when you read it you think, 'This really could happen!' The author has done lots of research but it doesn't get in the way of the story or the action. But 'Shooting Stars' is mainly a terrific action-adventure story, with solid, interesting characters, martial arts, and even a romance between the hero, 'Mac' Harrison, and Martha Reeves, who is the administrative assistant to the villain in the story. I also like that she isn't a lightweight, but she's very intelligent and savvy and holds her own and directly affects the plot. Other action books treat women like they don't matter, but 'Shooting Stars' doesn't. And the story really flies along, it's a real page-turner, and you truly don't know until the very last pages whether or not Mac is going to survive the lunar 'skydive.' I highly recommend 'Shooting Stars' to anyone who likes a good action-adventure, and who likes realistic science-fiction. It would make a great movie!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.