On Sunday, May 31, just after sundown in Los Angeles, the winner for the annual Indi 500 race was announced. Shimakagi Isao in Kintoro - the Golden Tiger - had won for the fourth straight year.
Takeda Sulu was in the Shimikagi landing pit when the needle returned. He'd been watching the races with his father as long as he could remember, but this was the first time he'd actually been in the winner's landing area. Not that he hadn't been in the pit before, but Isao had insisted he be fifteen before he was there on race-day - and even though he wouldn't be 15 for another 18 days, the racer had relented and allowed him the coveted "All Area" visitor's pass.
"You follow the rules, Sulu," his father reminded him as they showed their badges to the security officers.
"Don't I always?" the teen returned with an infectious grin.
"No," Jiro returned, with a stern voice but a forgiving smile.
"Not gonna do anything to get Isao-san annoyed with me today," Sulu called as he skipped ahead.
"As if you could when he's just won his fourth Indi!"
Jiro had to raise his voice so it would carry over the noise of the pit as Sulu moved further away from him. He heard his son's laughter and quickly decided to let the boy be. It was a momentous occasion, after all, and Sulu was a very good boy, especially considering that he was a second son, with all the impetuous fervor that was expected of that family position. Added to that was the fact that Jiro and Isao were old friends. The racer had never let his well-deserved fame get in the way of that friendship and he had always treated Sulu almost as a son of his own. Jiro trusted him. He would never let the boy get into any real trouble.
"Omedetou gozaimasu!" Sulu cried as Isao emerged from the cockpit of his needle. There were dozens of other voices in the landing area, and hundreds - maybe thousands more from the stands, but Isao looked directly at him.
"Doumo arigatou," the racer called back, waving with both arms to the crowd.
Sulu stood where he was, his eyes shining as the officials brought out the trophy - a silver cup as tall as Isao himself - and placed the large flowered wreath at the tapered nose of Isao's needle. Pictures were taken, the holovid of the ceremony displayed in the over-sized emitters all over the track. Sulu knew the history of the race, knew that the reason it was called 'the track' was because in the days the race was run with ground vehicles, they went around and around in an oval shape at this very site. Now, of course, the race was in elliptical orbits around Terra, beginning and ending in the troposphere over this spot.
He waited until the ceremony was over, until most people had stopped slapping Isao on the back and had drifted away, until only those in the pit crew were left to begin the work of reconditioning the Kintoro. He waved at Isao and the man walked over to him, giving his shoulder a brief hug.
"So, how did we do today, Sulu-chan?" the racer asked with a teasing smile.
"You won, how do you think?" was the impish response.
"Manners, Sulu," came his father's voice from behind him. Isao chuckled, and Sulu grinned, taking a step back.
"You won, how do you think, Isao-san," he repeated with a bow.
Isao laughed, then again put his arm around the boy's shoulder. "Jiro," he said, "he's old enough for a celebratory drink, neh?"
"It's why you gave him a pass 18 days early, isn't it?" Jiro replied.
"Really, tousan?" Sulu exclaimed.
His father tousled the dark hair that was a messy mop down to his shoulders. "Really," he returned with a smile.
"You drink it like a man, not a little boy," Isao was saying mock-sternly as he poured the warmed rice wine into a small cup. "No sipping. Throw it to the back of your throat in one swift motion."
"No hesitancy," Jiro continued. "But clean. Assertive but not aggressive."
"Like this," Isao rejoined. He lifted the cup to his lips, then snapped his head back as he poured the entire contents into his mouth.
"And you swallow it all at once," Jiro added, demonstrating with his own cup.
"No smacking your lips, no vulgar noise after," Isao said, pouring another cup.
"And no coughing afterwards," Jiro informed his son. "No matter how strong you find it."
"Or how it burns going down," Isao finished with a wink.
Isao refilled their cups as well. "Kanpai Sulu!" he said.
"Kanpai!" Jiro seconded.
Sulu grinned lifting his own cup. "Kanpai!" he exclaimed, and did as he had been instructed. The saki was strong and it did burn a little as he swallowed, but he didn't smack his lips, or cough, or even let out a satisfied "ahh!" as he'd sometimes heard his grandfather do. He glanced at his father and Isao expectantly.
The men were grinning at each other. "You raised a proper son, Jiro-san," Isao said with a wide grin.
"Arigatou, Isao-san," Jiro replied.
"Wake up, baka!" Takeda Ichiro called loudly as he slid open the shoji door to his brother's room.
"Wake up yourself," Sulu returned jovially. "I've been up for hours."
Ichiro made an astonished face. "What for?" he asked. "You graduated shougaku and Alterra classes don't start till September."
"Tousan said I could work with the simulators this morning."
"Ah, you and your racing," Ichiro snorted. "How lucky for you I was born first to save you from a life of duty and honest work.”
Sulu rose from the futon on which he'd been sitting, putting aside the data tablet. "Doumo arigatou, most kind and generous of brothers," he said with an overly elaborate bow.
From outside the rice paper walls, they both heard the shrill voice of their paternal grandmother,
"Boy!" she called. "You show your oniisan respect, neh?"
Ichiro hid a grin as Sulu's eyes went wide.
"Hai, obaasan,” he replied immediately, then whispered to his brother, "Has she got her broom?"
"When doesn't she?" Ichiro answered, his voice also low. "I think she sleeps with it." He let his voice rise. "He's being respectful, obaasan," he assured.
Their grandmother let out a small grunt, then the sound of her voice muttering in Japanese receded from their hearing.
"Thanks, Chiro," Sulu said with a grin.
"You owe me one, baka," his brother returned good-naturedly, then moved away from the door, whistling.
"Hey, what did you want to wake me up for?" Sulu called after his brother.
"To annoy you, why else?" came the answer.
"Sorry to spoil your fun."
"It's okay. You'll undoubtedly get into some kind of trouble today. I'll have to be satisfied with that." The smile in Ichiro's tone was evident, and Sulu shook his head with a smile of his own.
"I've looked over your scores from the simulators," Jiro announced the next day at dinner.
"Perfect, perfect, slightly more than perfect," Jeremy Paget murmured.
Sulu grinned at his best friend. Jeremy had been there all day, hanging out in the carefully maintained garden with Sulu. His mother, Midori - with her usual grace - had insisted the young TerAfrican join them for the evening meal.
Ichiro rolled his eyes at the comment while Sulu's seven-year-old sister Hana giggled. Tayu, their broom-wielding grandmother, rapped on the table.
"Respect!" she demanded.
"Hai, obaasan," came from Ichiro, Sulu, Hana and even Jeremy. Midori bowed her head with a deferential, "Hai, shiutome," and Jiro nodded to his mother with, "Hai, okaasan."
"If I may continue," Jiro went on, "I showed them to Isao-san and he agrees with me that you're ready for an actual test flight..."
The words were barely out of his mouth when Sulu jumped up with a very disrespectful whoop of joy. Jeremy was on his feet a moment later, hugging his friend, sharing the excitement.
Tayu shrieked something in Japanese, then she, too rose, reaching for her broom. With shouts of "Wretch!" she pummeled the back of both Sulu and Jeremy's legs, beating them away from the table. "You spoil table, you spill tea! This is respect? Show respect to garden!"
"Arigatou, doumo arigatou gozaimasu!" Sulu called to his father.
"Dad, did you have to tell him at dinner?" Ichiro complained. "Obaasan is gonna berate the rest of us all night."
Jiro shook his head, but he was smiling.
The ship Isao allowed him to pilot wasn't the newest, and the flight was made on the test track, a lunar orbit that was considered safer for new pilots due to the lesser gravitational effects. Sulu had taken the transporter to the relay station in orbit, then a shuttle to the racer's facility at Luna. Isao met him there.
"For you," the older man said as he held out a large package. "It's a flight suit." He smiled. "I didn't want to take the chance that one of Jiro's old ones would fit you."
"Doumo arigatou," Sulu replied with a proper bow, then grinned at Isao's small snort of amusement and tore open the wrapping. The suit was blue and white, light-weight, the fabric comfortable to the touch.
"It's not meant to be worn over street clothes," Isao pointed out. He pointed to a row of small booths to Sulu's right. "You can change in one of those. And don't say 'arigatou' again."
"I thought you liked that my father raised a proper son," Sulu called over his shoulder.
"I do - when your father's around," Isao called back.
The suit fit him perfectly. All the necessary life-preserving units were concealed in body-flattering panels, mimicking pectoral muscles and six-pack abs. Sulu had to grin at himself. He looked good.
He walked with Isao to the hangar, answering all of the racer's last-minute test questions with confident ease. He knew, of course, that he wouldn't be piloting Kintoro - but he glanced with undisguised longing at the beautiful needle just the same.
Isao chuckled. "Maybe someday, Sulu-chan," he said.
"Promise?" Sulu responded.
"If you can use the word 'maybe' and still promise, yes," the racer answered, then chuckled again as Sulu made a gesture his father would have definitely found less than proper.
They reached a craft that was smaller than Kintoro, and gaily painted like a animal from a carousel.
"This is Pirouette," Isao said, placing a hand on her tapered side. "She's light and quick and easy to handle. She's one of the first ships new pilots have to master before they can move on to the standard craft." A grin flashed across his face. "If you're as good as your simulations suggest, that will be in no time." He pressed a pad on the docking stand next to the ship and the hatch opened, a small flight of stairs emerging from the floor below. "Take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the controls," Isao said. "I'll call you on the comset when flight control signals you've got a launch vector."
"Thank you so much, Isao-san," Sulu returned. "I can't tell you what this means to me."
"You don't have to, the racer replied. "I was a new racer once myself." He grinned. "A thousand years ago, sure, but..."
Sulu laughed. "You're not that old."
"Old enough to be your father."
"Old enough to be a respected sensei," Sulu countered, then bowed in all seriousness.
Isao smiled and returned the bow as would be proper from a teacher to his student. "It's been my honor to tutor such a promising pupil," he said.
Sulu shifted in the seat of Pirouette, trying to settle his body into the optimum position. He was acutely aware of where his arms and legs were in relation to all the controls of the small ship. It wasn't quite the same as the simulators - he suspected that was done on purpose. After all, if a pilot couldn't handle such minutia, there was little chance he'd successfully navigate at the speeds a needle reached. Quick reflexes were paramount - as are quick thinking and quick decision-making and the daring to carry out those decisions quickly, he added to himself, grinning at the repetition Isao had drilled into his head. He flexed his fingers, letting them dance over the controls, then closed his eyes and memorized the placement of each one, along with the movements required to shift between them.
"Sulu, you'll be doing ten laps to start," Isao's voice came over his helmet's comset. "Your vector is from launch set three, about 30 degrees port. Here's hoping you make it out of the hangar without crashing into anything."
Sulu could hear the smile in the racer's voice. "How long would I have to work your pit crew to pay off the debt if I do?" he teased back.
"Like I'd let someone who would crash a needle work for me?" Isao chuckled warmly. "All good luck to you, Sulu-chan."
"I'd rather have all good skill," Sulu returned.
"Done," Isao agreed. "Launch in thirty seconds."
Sulu held his breath. Thirty seconds later, he punched the accelerator and was heading toward his launch vector.
He was flying a real needle for the very first time.
Time had no meaning. The stars seemed to speed past him, curving around him and the lunar surface. A part of him was intensely aware of the sensor readings that streamed before his eyes, the oxygen and air pressure gauges, speed and shielding and life support monitors. His fingers moved over the controls not only with practiced ease, but with the flow and intuition of natural instinct. His mind raced far ahead of Pirouette, plotting course and vector in effortless understanding of the craft's capabilities. Ten times the familiar globe of blue and brown and green contained within a glowing atmospheric envelope that was Terra rose behind him, dancing along side him, then falling away as he sped between her and her natural satellite. It was wondrous, glorious, everything Isao had talked about, everything he himself had dreamed of. His breath was catching in his throat, heart hammering jubilantly against his chest, tears of sheer exaltation threatening to cloud his vision. More! his mind cried. Ten laps is nothing! I can handle more, I want more... I need more!
"Final lap, Pirouette," Isao's voice came through his earpiece. "And no, you can't do more. Not today." The familiar chuckle eased some of the disappointment. "Come on, Sulu-chan, You have to have some discipline to be a racer."
Sulu took a deep breath, disguising his sigh as a careful exhale. "Alright, Isao-san, if you say so," he replied, then followed the nav beacons back into the hangar.
He waited for the docking bay to repressurize, then guided the Pirouette back to her parking spot. After the rush of racing, taxi speed seemed sluggish and dull.
Isao was waiting for him at the bottom of the steps that again rose from the floor to meet the craft's cockpit. As he got out, he was hit with a sudden rush of dizziness and stumbled. Isao steadied him.
"Don't worry," he said. "That's just your body trying to catch up with your brain."
"My brain is still out there," Sulu said with a nod towards the bay doors.
Isao smiled. "I know exactly how you feel, Sulu-chan."
In the next three weeks, Sulu did little but his chores and piloting. When Isao couldn't take him up to Luna, he practiced with the simulators, and when even Jiro said "Enough!" he watched while Jeremy began his own simulation training. He had graduated from the Pirouette, to a faster, feisty ship which had been dubbed Mustang - and when he mastered that, he got to try his hand at a full size craft called Roulette.
"Because it's always a spin of the wheel whether a new pilot can handle her," Isao's lead engineer had told him.
"I wouldn't bet the farm against this pilot," Isao warned with a wide smile.
"Duly noted," the technician returned.
The Roulette was a challenge, not only due to her size and her much greater top speed. The controls were more complex, though Sulu couldn't figure out why. There was extra instrumentality that didn't do anything as far as he could tell. He was given a full one hundred laps, a fifth of an actual Indi race. While his control of the ship was as effortless as ever, his timing seemed to be off. He thought he was making all the correct course maneuvers, but his final time wouldn't've won him anything in a real race. He'd seen ships just like her - including Isao's Kintoro - fly at close to 1 percent of light speed, but he couldn't get the Roulette anywhere near even half that.
His face was set in a frown of frustration as Isao met him in the hangar.
"Gomenkudasai," he said immediately. "I don't know what's wrong with me today."
Isao chuckled - a reaction that didn't fit the situation. "What do you think was wrong, Sulu-chan?" he asked.
"I couldn't get her up to speed," Sulu returned. "There were some extra controls that I hadn't seen before. They aren't in any of the simulations, and they didn't seem to..."
"Those were the governor controls," Isao interrupted. "A pilot's not supposed to do anything with them."
Sulu's frown changed to one of puzzlement. "Governor controls? What's a governor?"
"They're dampening systems, meant to regulate fuel consumption and distribution. They're designed to prevent a ship from reaching her potential top velocity."
"Why would anyone want that?" Sulu said, both disdain and disbelief clear in his voice.
Isao chuckled again. "Well, for one thing, running without them outside sanctioned races is illegal."
"Then why didn't Piroutte or Mustang have them?"
"Because they can't reach illegal speeds."
Disappointment settled around Sulu like a dark cloud. He was well aware that he couldn't race legally until he was 18, and that seemed like an eternity away; an eternity to long for speed that was beyond his reach due to arbitrary, irrational, ridiculous restrictions that had nothing to do with skill. But all he said was, "Oh."
Isao put an arm around his shoulders and leaned down so that his lips were close to Sulu's ear. "Maybe I have a workaround for that," he whispered.
Sulu glanced at him, knowing enough to at least try to keep the sudden eager hope from his expression. Isao winked.
"Meet me at the relay station tomorrow after dinner," he said. "And bring your flight suit."
"No, Sulu, tomorrow is your birthday and I have something important planned," Jiro said when Sulu told him about meeting Isao.
"But he'll be expecting..." Sulu began.
"I'll call him and let him know he has to reschedule," his father replied firmly. "This is important." He narrowed his eyes. "This is tradition, musuko."
Sulu lowered his. "Hai, tousan."
The next morning there were the usual bright congratulations for his birthday. His sister, Hana, made him a beautiful origami needle. Ichiro presented him with the tape list for his first year at Alterra, then laughed at the consternation on his brother's face and gave him a pile of tapes - all those that were on the list.
"To give you a head start on all that boring reading," his brother said with a grin.
From his grandmother he got a handsome and very traditional outfit consisting of both haori, a short kimono jacket, complete with haori himo, and hakama pants. He bowed deeply and for once she seemed pleased with his response.
His mother gave him an Amida Buddha statue, one that had been sitting on her bedside table for as long as he could remember.
"You are a man, now," Midori said softly. "This belonged to my father, who was also a second son, and his father..."
"Another second son," Jiro put in with a warm smile.
"...and so it is fitting that it should now be given to you."
"Since you're an immeasurable pain in the..." Chiro began, then winced as his grandmother's broom whacked the back of his leg. Amida Buddha was one of the five Wisdom Buddhas, called 'the Immeasurable One.'
"Arigatou, okaasan," Sulu replied. "I'll take good care of it." He hugged her warmly.
"And the rest of our gift comes this evening," Jiro said. "Now go have your birthday party with your friends."
Jeremy Paget's mother had baked him a cake in the shape of a needle, at her son's insistence. Jer's gift was a transporter pass to the Lunar relay station, good for one hundred trips. "It should last two months or so," he said with a smile.
Sulu rewarded him with a wide grin and a tight bear-hug, then shared a chuckle with his friend over Dominique's exasperated sigh.
"Now you two get out," she said, and as he and Jeremy raced out of the house, the TerAfrican said, with the echo of his mother's voice, "When you gonna stop chasin' after that Takeda boy?"
Sulu laughed again.
He and Jeremy met up with other friends - Stephanie Kinsai and her brother Carl, Serena Tremayne, Hosan al-Amar, Will Parado, Katie Miller, Miko Nakamura - and spent the day at the beach, swimming and surfing. At sunset, when Jeremy suggested they build a fire to continue the party, Sulu reluctantly shook his head.
"Sorry, Jer, I have to get home. My father's got some traditional thing we have to do."
"You going to Luna tomorrow?"
Jeremy grinned. "Good luck. Tell me all about it."
"Thanks. I will."
When he got home, his father insisted he take a shower. His new clothes were laid out on his futon. After putting them on, he checked his appearance in the mirror. They fit perfectly and, he had to admit, looked good. They made him look somehow regal and grown-up. He grinned at his reflection, then went to meet his father. Jiro was waiting for him on the engawa, the strip of wooden flooring outside the house under the extended edge of the roof. There was an elaborate norimono waiting as well, the conveyance once used in ancient Japan to carry those of samurai class from place to place. Of course, the modern version relied on anti-grav units and power cells rather than on peasants to carry the heavy litter.
"What's this for?" Sulu asked.
"It is tradition," was Jiro's enigmatic reply. "Get in. It is programmed to take you to Kurimuzon Okiya. Oka-san Reiko will meet you there."
Sulu blinked. "An okiya? I'm going to see a geisha?"
"You are fifteen," Jiro said. "It is customary for an arrangement to be made for your instruction into manhood."
"But geishas aren't..." Sulu began.
"It is customary for arrangements to be made with an experienced woman of high quality, not one who gives sexual entertainment for a living," his father interrupted. "Those of the Floating World have traditionally performed this task for well-placed families." He patted his son on the arm. "As they did for me and for Ichiro, so they will do for you."
Sulu found himself flushing. "Dad, you know I'm not..."
"Which is the reason for instruction, musuko."
Sulu declined to correct his father's obvious misunderstanding. Turning, he stepped into the norimono and settled himself on the cushions inside.
"I will be here when you return in the morning, if you have questions," Jiro said.
"Hai, tousan," Sulu replied. "Doumo arigatou."
"Douitashimashite," Jiro said, and pressed the control that activated the litter's programming.
Kurimuzon Okiya was a beautiful, very traditional-looking home tucked away behind a huge garden somewhere outside Los Angeles. The clean lines were not marred by gaudy ornamentation, the outside walls tinted a pale peach color. Lanterns hung on either side of the steps leading to the front door, and Sulu noticed a statue of a perfectly dressed and coiffed geisha standing between them. When the norimono stopped and let him out, he realized that this was no statue, but a beautiful, elegant, enchanting actual geisha who stood so unmovingly, waiting for him. She bowed as he approached and he returned it.
"Welcome, Takeda Sulu-sama," the geisha said. Her voice was soft, the hanging ornaments in her hair making a slight tinkling sound. Her thick white make-up made it impossible to guess her age. "I am Reiko, oka-san of this house, and it is my pleasure to greet you."
"Arigatou," Sulu murmured, and a small, brief smile touched her bright red lips.
"Douitashimashite," she said and Sulu reflected on how much nicer it sounded than when his father had said it. "If you will follow me?"
She walked with small but smooth steps to the door, then bowed and let him precede her through it. A bamboo pipe waterfall fed a stone-lined pool in which koi fish darted like colorful little needles. He could hear the music of koto and shamisen coming from rooms hidden by closed shoji.
As he drank in the sensations, Reiko knelt, gently tapping his left foot. He glanced down, seeing she had a pair of slippers. Grinning, he lifted his foot while she removed his zori, replacing it with the slipper, then lifted his right foot in turn. She stood with a fluidity of motion that nearly took his breath away, stepping neatly from her own shoes.
"This way, if you please," Reiko said, indicating a hallway to his left. Again, he preceded her, enjoying the quiet rustling of her elaborate kimono. When he heard the sound stop he turned. Reiko was kneeling beside a shoji painted with a pair of cranes. She rapped twice on the frame, then slid it open.
There was a beautiful geisha kneeling on a cushion before a low table on which was a flask of saki and a single cup. In the far left corner was a futon already unrolled on a lacquered platform. On the far right was a round tub, full of steaming water. Towels and a simple kimono were laid on a bench beside it.
The geisha rose in one graceful motion, red lips smiling in the painted face. She moved to the open shoji, then placed her hands at her knees, one on top of the other, as she bent into a low bow. Sulu noticed the deep 'V' of unpainted skin at the nape of her neck, surrounded by white and her upswept black hair.
"Kiyomi, this is Takeda Sulu-sama. He is fifteen today."
"Ah, so, wakarimasu," the young woman said. She straightened from her bow, beckoning to Sulu. He stepped through the shoji as Reiko slid the door closed behind him.
He settled onto the cushions at the table and watched with fascinated pleasure as Kiyomi returned to her place, pouring a cup of the rice wine, presenting it to him with another bow. He drank it, realizing why his father had agreed to his sharing it with Isao: it would have made him look foolish to the geisha if he hadn't known how to drink saki.
Kiyomi spoke, her Japanese accent sweet and musical. "Takeda is old name, strong family," she began. "You are descended of Shingen?"
"Yes," he replied. "Through his son's marriage to the daughter of Oda Nobunaga."
She made a deep bow of respect. "Descended from two great families," she said. "Impressive." She smiled, then tilted her head in deference. After a moment she continued. "You are Metal Rooster, Sulu-sama?"
He grinned, knowing she was referring to the sign and element of traditional Japanese/Chinese astrology. "Hai, he answered, "yes, that's right."
"Roosters are quick-witted," she said, nodding. "Efficient, confident. You will thrive on challenge and change, and will be resolute in your drive for success."
"I hope so," Sulu returned.
She nodded again, refilling his cup. "Metal has strong attractiveness," she continued, and Sulu found himself flushing. Kiyomi giggled, hiding her mouth with her hand. "You have a naturally charismatic draw, people will be attracted to your strong energy." She paused, then lowered her gaze. "Some say Metal Roosters have the focus necessary to be famous."
"That's a lot of flattery..." Sulu began.
"I only give what astrology will say about you, Sulu-sama," she quickly apologized. "If I have given offense..."
"No, no," Sulu rejoined. "I'm just not used to that much praise in one sentence." He smiled.
She returned it shyly, filling his cup a third time. After he drank, she rose - again in one fluid movement - and held out her hand. He stood, not quite as easily as she had, and she came around the table.
"To be juugo is to be a man," Kiyomi murmured. Her hands began undoing the haori himo at his waist. "There are things a man must know to be with a woman."
"I'm not a virgin," Sulu confessed, his voice as soft as hers.
She smiled. "Then together we will refine your experience, neh? This is a gift from geisha to samurai, as practiced long ago in our homeland. It will be my honor to serve you, Sulu-sama."
"As it is my honor to accept such service, Kiyomi-san," Sulu returned. He gently took her face in his hands, turning it to place a kiss at the side of her neck, then relaxed, allowing her to return to the deft, graceful removal of his clothing.
In the morning, Kiyomi donned a light-weight kimono. She had removed her hair ornaments and white make-up before joining him in bed the night before, and her long, silky hair fell around her shoulders like a waterfall of black silk. She helped him dress, then knelt, sliding open the shoji for him.
"Arigatou gozaimashite," she said. "It was my pleasure to serve you, Sulu-sama."
"Douitashimashite," Sulu returned with a bow. "The pleasure was all mine, Kiyomi-san."
She smiled and bowed low, her forehead touching her hands which were laid on the tatami mat that was the floor of the room.
There were nearly a dozen geisha and twice that many mako lining the hallway outside. They all bowed as he passed, and when he reached the entryway, Oka-san Reiko was at the head of the line.
"We hope you will come to see us again, Sulu-sama," she said.
"Doumo, Oka-san," he replied and bowed to her.
"Arigatou gozaimashite," she murmured, bowing, and was echoed by her 'daughters.' The soft chorus of voices made him smile.
"The norimono will take you back to your home," Reiko continued. "Please convey my greetings to your honored father." She bowed again, as did he, and he slipped on his zori and headed out the front door and back down the sidewalk. The women and girls crowded out behind him, calling, "Sayounara! " and "Osaraba!". He turned and waved to them before entering the noromono, hearing their pleased laughter as the conveyance sped away.
Both his father and Chiro were waiting as the norimono pulled up to the front of his house. Sulu got out, then bowed before his father.
"Doumo arigatou, otousan," he said, using the more formal address. "Oka-san Reiko sends her greetings."
Jiro smiled and Chiro nudged his father's arm with a wide grin.
"She said nothing at all about you," Sulu couldn't resist adding.
"Baka," his brother replied, but his smile didn't fade.
"And do you have questions?" Jiro asked.
"Iya," Sulu returned. "Kiyomi-san was quite thorough in her instruction."
"So," Jiro nodded. "You will want to rest today. I told Isao you will see him tomorrow."
Chiro surreptitiously shook his head and Sulu sighed. "Hai, tousan."
As Jiro headed back into the house, Chiro rested his hand on Sulu's arm, a subtle signal for him to remain. When their father was inside, his brother turned to him.
"Well?" he said.
"How was she?"
Sulu hid a grin. "Skilled," he answered.
"I've never seen Kiyomi perform," Chiro went on. "Is she pretty?"
"She's geisha, what do you think?"
"Oh come on, Sulu, give me some details!"
"I don't think Sosei would approve," Sulu teased. Sosei Okamura was Chiro's steady girlfriend.
"What she doesn't know..."
Sulu appeared to consider, then finally sighed. "Nah," he said. "I don't kiss and tell." Then he grinned, ducked the movement of his brother's arm and ran laughing to the house.
"You went to a geisha house?" Jeremy asked that evening as they sat on the beach. They had set up a small tent and had laid but not yet lit a fire for when the temperature dropped.
"Apparently this is some kind of samurai custom," Sulu answered.
"Wish I was samurai," Jeremy fake-pouted.
Sulu grinned and punched him on the arm.
"So what was it like?" his friend continued. "I mean, does it look like the history tapes?" he quickly clarified, seeing the frown that started on Sulu's face. "I'm not asking for details of what you did with her." A grin creased his features. "Unless you want to tell me...."
Sulu snorted. "Why would I want to torture you?" he returned.
"Well....." Jeremy began and Sulu punched him again. Then they both started laughing.
"So any word from Isao on his mysterious workaround?" Jer asked.
"No, but I'm going up to Luna tomorrow morning," Sulu answered.
"You are so lucky."
"With you for a friend, yes, yes I am."
Jeremy flushed, though his dark, mahogany skin barely showed it. "You're sweet, babe."
Sulu gave him a mischievous grin. "Yes," he said. "Yes I am."
The next morning Isao met him at the transport station in downtown Los Angeles instead of the relay station in orbit.
"Because we're not going to Luna," the racer said in answer to Sulu's puzzled question.
"Where are we going then?" Sulu wanted to know.
"Remember that workaround I mentioned?" The expression on Sulu's face clearly said 'how could I forget?' and Isao smiled. "There's a place I can take you where the legal niceties aren't strictly observed," he continued. "But there are rules. First is you can't tell your father about it."
Sulu nodded an eager assent.
Isao chuckled. "Somehow, I didn't think that would be a problem. Second, you'll never know the actual names of anyone you meet there, unless you happen to know them from someplace other than there - like me. The racers there all..."
"Racers?" Sulu interrupted.
Yes, Sulu, racers. Most of them not on the circuit though, and most of them closer to your age than mine." He grinned. "Racers there are known by the name of their needle. Third, be warned; these ships are stripped down to the bare necessities. There are few safety protocols, the bare minimum in life support and the sensors aren't what you're used to - almost exclusively navigation."
"Which is how they can reach the speeds that would be illegal," Sulu guessed.
"Exactly. Where we're going isn't on any relay system maps. It's a large, man-made satellite with its own network of cloaks. You have to know someone there who will give you its current coordinates, and you can only make contact with a personal frequency given to you after you've been up there."
"So you have to be taken up there the first time by someone who's been there already," Sulu said, his eyes dancing with excitement.
Isao grinned again. "When we get there, Sulu-chan, you can't refer to me as 'Isao,' and I won't call you 'Sulu.' My handle there is Zashi - short for Wakazashi, the name of my illegal needle."
"What will I be?" Sulu asked.
"Usually the maker - the person who builds your craft - gets to name it - and you - but I think I'll forego that bit of protocol. After all, you're not a groupie..."
"Someone who's a fan of needle racers but who hasn't gotten the credit together to get a needle of his/her own," Isao explained. He punched in a code at the transporter. "Since you've already flown a legal craft, 'groupie' would be inappropriate, as well as something of an insult. I've decided to introduce you as 'Kam,' short for 'kami.'"
Sulu flushed. In Japanese, 'kami' referred to a divine spirit. To cover his flattered embarrassment, he asked. "So what's this place called?"
A signal flashed on the console, a set of coordinates. Isao took hold of Sulu's arm as he activated them. He spoke as the familiar transporter sparkle came to life around them.
The Clave was unlike anything Sulu had ever imagined. There were three levels nestled inside an irregular sphere of solid rock with a shell of verillium and obstitrate. Isao - Zashi explained that the combination of minerals was a natural sensor block, so that from the outside, it looked and scanned as a small asteroid. They beamed into what Zashi said was the second level, one that contained the workrooms for the Makers; both engines and bodywork and electronic components. Several people - all, as the racer had said, much closer to Sulu's 15 years of age than Zashi's 34 - called to him. He waved back. then led Sulu to a stairwell at the far end. Sulu thought it was more a ladder than stairs.
"Going up is to the crash rooms - I know, not a good moniker in a place with ships," Zashi said with a grin. "They're sleeping areas for when the partying gets too intense, or when people want privacy."
"Partying?" Sulu asked.
"You'll see," was the reply. "The main meeting hall is up too - where the partying actually takes place." He pointed to a large glass-steel enclosure next to the stairs. "That's the control tower - it spans all three levels and is the only part of the Clave that has a passenger lift."
"So in general, the ladder it is," Sulu nodded.
"You get used to it," Zashi said. "Down is... well, why don't I just show you."
He stepped onto the ladder/stairs and climbed down, Sulu following.
The sight that greeted him when he got off the rungs and turned made him gape in open astonishment.
"This is the hangar bay," Zashi said.
Rows of needles - dozens of them, maybe more - angled away from the stairs toward a set of huge bay doors. Some were typical metal colors, others primarily one color with stripes or birds or flames or other designs on the wings or fuselages, still others as brightly painted as the Pirouette. The people there - most in either flight suits or mechanic-type coveralls - milled around, talking, laughing, and working on the beautiful, streamlined craft. Sulu noted there were lift doors in the ceiling, clearly so that pieces from the workrooms above could be easily brought down to the needles themselves.
"That's the Wakazashi," Zashi said, pointing to a sleek steel-colored craft about half-way to the bay doors.
"Hey, Zashi, who's this?" a young man with curly brown hair called. He wore a flight suit and was standing by a white needle with a golden lightning bolt painted on its side. There was a very young girl hanging on his arm - Sulu guessed she couldn't have been much older than Jeremy, who was two years younger than himself. She was very pretty, wearing an outrageously skimpy outfit, and her green eyes flashed at him as she showed her teeth in a brilliant smile.
"Kam, this is Barak and his Groupie," Zashi said, walking over to them. "Barak, Groupie, this is Kam. He's flown the training craft for the legal beat."
Barak gave him a clearly unimpressed once-over. "Is he any good?" he said at last.
"Would I have brought him here if he wasn't?" Zashi returned. His voice was polite, but the challenge in his eyes was clear.
"Bubee here doesn't need the competition," Groupie said. She had a thick New York accent, and when Barak glowered at her, she stuck out her tongue, then grinned, getting up on her tip-toes to kiss him. He shook his head in obviously relenting good humor.
"So, 'kam' for camouflage?" Groupie quipped. "Campaign? Camaraderie? Camp follower?"
Sulu felt himself starting to flush, but Zashi said, with a warm smile, "No, for the Japanese word for divine - because his piloting skills are." He winked, then turned. "Come on Kam, let's get you used to the Wakazashi's controls."
He heard several calls of "Ooooh!" as they made their way down the row of ships.
"Why did you do that?" he asked Zashi.
"Had to get your reputation started right," was the genial reply.
It took 'Kam' all of ten minutes to memorize the control configuration of the Wakazashi. He'd worn his flight suit, expecting to go to the test track on Luna, and was itching to fly Zashi's beautiful ship.
"The Clave doesn't have practice runs," Zashi told him. "I arranged for a simple race with Barak; it's called Straight Out..." the racer chuckled "... for the obvious reason that it's simply to a specified point and back. The set point is on your display. The idea is to be the first to get back here after pinging that point with your sensors." He handed Kam his helmet. "I'd wish you good luck, but you won't need it. Barak is good - and he can be a clever son of a bitch in a more complicated race - but he's not in your league." Zashi smiled at him. "Go win your first race, Kam."
"Doumo arigatou..." Kam began, and Zashi shook his head.
"No Japanese here. We don't do anything that can give anyone a clue as to who we are or where we're from."
Kam grinned. "Don't our features already do that?"
"Our ancestry, sure, but we don't want anyone to suspect we might be traditional." Zashi flashed a smile. "This place is anything but traditional."
"Gotcha," Kam replied.
"Taxi over to the bay doors," Zashi said. "There will be a 'go' flag flashed on your display when the race starts. You'll be able to hear the countdown on your comm, too"
Kam pushed the necessary buttons to start the Wakazashi's engines. Just before Zashi began climbing down the ladder from the cockpit, he said, "Zashi... how can I ever thank you?"
"Win," the racer responded. "Win big."
The ladder retracted, the smooth glassteel dome of the cockpit slid into place and Kam eased the needle out of her holding space into the bay and towards the hanger door. The white craft with her golden lightning bolt was already in place and Barak gave him a nod of acknowledgment. Kam plotted his course to the race's set point, flexing his fingers before placing them over the proper controls. He could hear the Barak's engines whining up.
"That's the move of an overconfident racer," Isao had once told him. "All it does is give a millisecond burst of speed, but at the cost of control. It's intended to intimidate. You don't need those kind of tricks, Sulu-chan. If the engines are tuned correctly, that burst won't cost you anything, and the loss of control will cost your opponent."
Kam grinned to himself. Barak was overconfident, then. This Straight Out race was his for the taking.
And who's overconfident?
He shook his head with a chuckle. The starting flag waved on his screen, a voice over his comm counting down: "Ready in three... two... one..." The flag dropped and he closed off everything else. His focus was on the race, and nothing else mattered.
The speed was incredible. He moved through the stars like a blazing comet, all that he was yearning further and further ahead. A part of his mind tried to tell him to be aware of where Barak was, but he was too enthralled to care. All that mattered was his position, his speed, his control. Wakazashi responded to him like she was a part of him, only an extension of his mind and hands and will. The navigation was nothing - which why this was a beginner's race. There were no complicated maneuvers to execute. Which, at the moment, suited Kam just fine. His first run in a full-sized needle without governors and he relished the freedom, relished his ability to push her faster and faster. There was a humming in his ears, the song of the universe, a call to unrivalled ecstasy. He let it consume him, racing in his veins, filling him with joy unlike anything he had ever experienced.
Still, even with all the headiness surrounding him, he remained aware of the set point. Should he slow to make a U-turn or try the professional racer's move of flipping over on his axis? It was a simple set of control orders, but it could disorient a pilot, and the inertia was hell on a Human system. Isao had told him tales of pilots who'd vomited in their cockpits after trying it.
He became aware of Barak at his port side, could see on his sensors that the older racer was slowing. That settled the brief argument he was having with himself.
Flip it is!
He entered the instructions into the navigation computer and without giving himself any time to reconsider, punched the controls.
Wakazashi did a perfect 180, tail over nose, shooting back out the way she had come. Without thought, Kam's hands switched to the rear sensor display to see the bright 'ping' at the set point of the race. He gave a jubilant shout of "YES!" - then had to swallow abruptly as his stomach almost came out of his mouth. Common sense told him to back off on his speed just enough to stop his ribcage from trying to crush his lungs, but instinct - and Isao's careful tutoring - said otherwise: take a deep breath, hold it, push back against the inertia, then speed up. You want to even out from the flip.
Which is exactly what he did, holding his breath, pushing Wakazashi to her limits. The sense of euphoria quickly returned, multiplied. Visions of racing starlight and Stygian beauty washed over him, caressing him, giving him over to their rapturous embrace. This is what he had been living for, this was the purpose his life was meant to have, the course he was born to take. No one and nothing else could ever match this thrill, this wonder, this all-encompassing sense of pure passion.
He was home.
He made it back to the Clave well ahead of Barak. He was, in fact, taxiing back to the Wakazashi's berth before the white needle finished. When the cockpit dome opened, the ladder coming up from the floor, Zashi raced up it, a large glass of a bright orange liquid in his hand.
"Drink this," he said.
Kam did, pulling off his helmet. It tasted like a chalky, over-ripe orange. "What was that?" he asked.
"Anti-rad. With how little shielding there is on a needle, it's necessary to prevent poisoning from Sol's radiation."
"I suppose you get used to it," Kam replied, making a disgusted face.
Zashi chuckled. "Not really." He climbed down, then held out his hand to Kam.
Kam took it gratefully. His legs were far too wobbly for him to depend on them not buckling under him. He stood on the deck for a moment, re-orienting himself, then was almost knocked over by a pretty, petite girl who body-slammed into him, kissing him ardently.
"You won, you won, congratulations!" she said in a high, breathless voice.
Kam cocked an eyebrow over her head. Zashi chuckled again.
"This is the normal way winners are greeted, yes," he confirmed.
"Won, feh!" Barak's Groupie commented as she strode up to him. "You broke a record. Let me congratulate you before I have to go be all 'oh you poor baby' on Barak's ass." She gave the petite girl a shove. "Move it for two seconds, Gypsy," she said. "Then you can go back to devouring his ass." She gave Kam a quick peck on the cheek.
"I broke a record?" Kam asked.
Zashi smiled. "You sure did. Not only did you make the fastest time for this particular Straight Out and won your very first race, you did a successful flip on your very first race. That's two records." He leaned forward. "Others have won their first Clave race," he confided.
The petite girl - Gypsy - began kissing him again, and he was getting more than interested when Barak came striding up, his helmet in his hand.
"Good race, Kam," he said, though his lowered brow and growling voice were at definite odds with the words.
Kam held out his hand. "You too, Barak."
The other racer hesitated, but shook it, then draped his arm around his Groupie, walking off with her. For her part, she turned he head and winked at Kam before being all oh-you-poor-baby.
"Hi, I'm Gypsy," the petite girl breathed at him.
"So I guessed," he returned, smiling down at her. Her features were very pleasing, sleepy Asian eyes with full, down-turned lips, her black hair pulled up into a messy ponytail at the top of her head. "I'm Kam."
She giggled. "So I guessed."
"Go on," Zashi said with a wave of his hand. "Normally, you see to your needle before celebrating, but seeing as how you're new here..."
"And she's actually your needle..." Kam returned jauntily.
"Don't get smart with me, boy," Zashi faux-warned.
Kam bowed impishly, then grinned and let Gypsy take his hand, pulling him away.
Isao accompanied Sulu to the Clave on four more occasions, letting him race Wakazashi each time. Each time, Sulu won. He had begun to collect a small but growing community of fans and Isao had promised to fund the Making of his own needle. Together they spoke with a number of the Clave's more noted Makers, but Isao rejected them all, saying Sulu deserved something really special.
“Can't we at least get me something while you're finding the perfect creation?” Sulu complained one evening as they were headed back to his house in Isao's air car.
“We could,” the racer responded, “but then what would I do with the Wakazashi?”
Isao sighed. “It's getting too risky for me to continue going up to the Clave,” he said. “And I'm really too old to be hanging out with you kids.”
Sulu snorted and it made Isao smile.
“Anyway, I have to train for Indi if I'm going to keep winning, and the Clave gives me too much excuse to...”
“Race rather than train?” Sulu guessed.
“Ironic, isn't it?” Isao agreed. “But circuit racing is a very different animal than the Clave.” He paused. “And like I said, it's getting too risky. No one says anything, but it's pretty obvious they all know who I am. And it's just a matter of time until someone makes a mistake that could get me thrown off the legal circuit.” He paused again. “You're established now, you don't need me to take you up. I've shown you how to care for a needle, and you know the Makers to call on if you need anything beyond standard maintenance.” He turned his head, grinning at Sulu. “And you know how to get a hold of me if you need to.” He turned his attention back to his flying. “Rename her and take good care of her, Sulu-chan. When we find you a galaxy-class Maker, we'll get you set up with a ship of your own.”
There were tears of gratitude in Sulu's eyes. “How can I ever thank you, Isao-san?” he managed.
Isao grinned again. “Win,” he said. “Win big.” He stopped the car in front of the gate to Sulu's home. “And be sure to tell me all about it.” He reached over, ruffling his hand through Sulu's hair.
“Arigatou gozaimasu,” Sulu said, then leaned over, giving Isao a crushing hug.
“Doumo,” Isao returned. “Make your father bring you to the track to see me, like always.”
“I will.” Sulu got out of the car, and watched as Isao pulled away and back up into the traffic lanes.
Sulu didin't have time to ask his father to take him up to the practice tracks for a week. He was enthralled with racing the Wakazashi, and with trying to come up with a suitable new name. Those at the Clave still called him 'Kam' – it would have felt disrespectful to try and take on 'Zashi.' He was in his room, at his computer tablet, trying to come up with suitable names, when he heard his mother's soft tap on the shoji frame.
“Sulu, please come to the family room,” she said. There was something in her voice that stopped the automatic 'in a minute,' he would have usually given.
He was surprised to see his father standing, waiting for him. It was the middle of the day, Jiro should have been at work.
“Son, sit down,” Jiro said. “I have bad news.”
Sulu swallowed and did as he was told.
“There was an accident at the practice track on Luna this morning....” Jiro began.
It was all Sulu needed to hear. “Isao,” he breathed.
Jiro nodded. “He was badly burned, and he lost his right arm and shoulder.”
“But he's alive?” Sulu broke in, his heart starting to beat again.
“Yes, but the doctors say, even with prosthetics, he will never regain the dexterity to properly control a needle.”
The words surrounded Sulu with what he knew must be Isao's grief and loss. Never to race again, never to pilot a needle, not even on the legal beat, much less at the Clave... He couldn't imagine a worse fate. He felt the tears filling his eyes, and brushed them away.
“What can we do?” he asked.
“Visit him, musuko,” Jiro said. “Be as much a friend as you were when he could teach you racing.”
“Jiro, do you think for a moment our son is so callous?” Midori put in.
“Of course, I will,” Sulu said. “And no, okaasan, I'm not that callous. He is a friend as well as a mentor.”
Midori smiled at him. Jiro clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder. Sulu went back to his room, but was far too numb to return to the frivolous task of deciding on a new, fancy name for himself.
He visited Isao in the hospital every day, and when the racer's rehabilitation with his prosthetic arm began, Sulu was there to help and encourage him. But Isao was changed. The repair of his burnt flesh left his face with a noticably rough texture, and he was clearly self-conscious about it. He seldom smiled, and talked only as much as he needed to. Sulu attempted to cheer him up by telling him of the races he'd run – and won – as he had promised. But Isao would turn his head, closing his eyes, and Sulu soon realized that such stories only made him feel his loss more keenly. When Sulu started the new term at Alterra in September, he switched his stories from the boring, mundane summer pastimes – swimming, surfing, bonfires on the beach – to tales of schoolwork and new friends and exciting challenges. Isao would nod and pat his hand, but was increasingly distant and increasingly tired. His doctors said the prosthetics were doing well enough, but Isao had lost interest in rehabilitation therapy.
By November, Isao had lost interest in prety much everything.
“Don't come to see me anymore, Sulu,” he said one overcast afternoon. “I have nothing to give you and there's no need for you to waste your time.”
“You have your company to give me,” Sulu protested. “I don't come for anything else.”
“We both know that isn't true. You pity me.”
“Don't call me that. I'm not your sensei, I'm not your superior.”
“You are a respected elder, Isao-san...”
“Don't!” Isao snapped, and he turned away, staring out of the therapy center window. “Don't come again, I will tell the doctors I don't want to see you.”
“But Isao - “ Sulu choked off the 'san.' “Why...?”
The former racer didn't anwer. Sulu pleaded with him for nearly half an hour, but when met with nothing but stony silence, finally left the room, tears clouding his eyes and sliding slowly down his cheeks.
He sat on one of the couches of the Clave's main hall, ignoring the bustle around him, too depressed to even take a hit off the pipe of Rigellian that was being passed around. He noted Daffy – Barak's Groupie, who had defiantly informed him of her name and insisted he use it – glancing at him with sympathy in her bright green eyes, but she didn't approach him. Gypsy, too, watched him sadly, but she didn't try to cheer him up either. He wondered if he was radiating the same 'don't come near me' vibe that Isao had, and sighed. He knew that wasn't healthy and took a deep breath, determined to shake it off. It would be more than difficult to fly Wakazashi again, and that was enough of a weight on his mind. If he allowed Isao's banishment to eat at him, he'd never fly again, and that thought sent absolute panic screaming through him.
He took another deep breath and pushed himself up, stretching. Time to get down to the hangar, he thought to himself, and face Isao's – Zashi's – my ship.
“Ah, this is the new pilot, yes?”
The voice stopped him. It was warm and confident and welcoming, a rich tone, clearly not that of an adolescent. He turned and saw an older man, handsomely dressed, his feaures and skin-tone identifying him of Latin or Spanish ancestry. He heard the murmurs of those around him, agreeing that yes, this was the new pilot.
The man stepped forward, offering his hand. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am a patron of the Clave.” Sulu shook his hand, and was pulled slightly closer. “I was a racer myself, once upon a time,” he added with an air of confidentiallity.
“Yeah, when rocks were small and dirt was new,” Daffy commented.
Sulu saw a flash of anger in the man's eyes, but it was brief and was quickly replaced by a tolerant amusement. “Yes, compared to you all, I am indeed something of a fossil,” he admitted. He turned back to Sulu. “But I have heard much about you...” He let the sentence rise, obviously waiting for Sulu to introduce himself.
Sulu thought that a little odd, since he had just said he'd heard much about him, but figured it must be because he had yet to have a ship of his own that would identify him.
“Kam,” Sulu said.
The man bowed ever so slightly and Sulu couldn't tell if it was a kind of courtly gesture, or a nod to his own Japanese heritage.
“Janeiro,” the man said, “but everyone here calls me Cal.”
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