A Piece of Bamboo
By Derek James, illustration by Socar Myles
4 June 2001
Mindtime: 2036 -- Tokyo, Japan
The slender Japanese man stood naked and alone in the tiny chamber. His body was shiny with sweat despite the cool air.
Behind the curved white walls, billions of optical processors would soon begin the blindingly complex series of calculations required to perform the task.
Tomo Hayashi was ready.
The grid began to hum. The receptors fixed along the inner lining of his skull plate began to receive. The artificial dendrites branching throughout his cortex, neo-cortex, and frontal lobe began to fire. . . .
Mindtime: 1642 -- Edo, Japan
He was a boy.
He walked behind his father along the rugged, hilly terrain. It was early morning, and the sun still hid behind the mountains. He watched the short, stout frame of his father moving swiftly up ahead and tried to keep up. In the man's loose grip a heavy cutting blade swung in rhythm with his stride.
They would not work the fields today. Now that the boy had reached the age where he could wield a weapon, his father would devote one day a week to his training.
They stopped before a thick grove of bamboo, looking out over the low mountains shrouded in mist.
"Today you will learn to fight," his father said. "Though I hope you will never need to." His father turned and looked into his eyes. He held his father's hard gaze, refusing to lower his eyes. Time passed; the boy didn't know how long.
Finally his father broke the silence. "Good," he said. "Let us begin." He walked into the cluster of bamboo and the boy followed again, his lungs beginning to burn from the cold morning air. They came to a small clearing, encircled with tall stalks rising to the sky.
"Sit," his father commanded.
He sat in seiza, his legs folded beneath him, his father facing him.
"Shintaro," his father said, "sometimes a man must fight, and soon you will be a man. The weapon a man wields reflects his inner self. A samurai wields a sword, a weapon whose only purpose is to kill and maim.
"You will learn to use the staff.
"The sword is the weapon of the samurai, vicious and extravagant. The staff is the weapon of the peasant, simple and strong.
"A sword costs mounds of gold and silk, but look around -- there is a forest of weapons growing before you.
"And listen closely: a well-trained man with a length of bamboo can defeat a man with a sword and equal skill."
The man rose and walked to the nearest stalk. He grabbed it high and severed the base with one chop from his blade. He let it fall to the ground, then cut away the top of the stalk. He dragged the bamboo to the boy and dropped it before him.
The piece of tree was as long as the boy was tall. His father instructed him to strip it bare. As he began, his father chopped a second piece from another tree. Together, they knelt on the uneven ground and picked the sparse leaves from the stalks of bamboo.
His father finished first, his nimble fingers plucking quickly along the bamboo's length. He then stood, patiently hefting the stick in both hands until the boy had finished.
"Stand up," his father said.
The boy stood, gripping the slick bamboo staff uncertainly in his hands.
"Defend yourself," his father said, striking downward. The blow struck the boy's left shoulder. He hit the ground, the sting of the attack blooming across his shoulder. Tears formed in his eyes, but he pushed them back.
His father reached down. The boy grasped the hard, callused hand and pulled himself up.
"Pick up your weapon," his father said, and he did. "Again."
His father's staff sliced through the air. But this time the boy reacted just as swiftly. He brought the staff up over his head, to the sharp snap of the sticks hitting. He looked over the crossed weapons into his father's eyes. There was a faint smile behind them.
That long morning, and well into the afternoon, he learned. He learned to parry and thrust, when to block a blow head-on and when to deflect it. He learned where to place his feet, and where to put his hands. And he could see the surprise and approval in his father's eyes, instinctively knowing that it would not take long for him to surpass his father's prowess.
They stopped after the sun had begun to dip across the opposite side of the sky and walked back the way they had come. His father told him to bring his staff.
In the small hut where they lived, his mother had prepared a thin stew. They ate, seated on the dirt floor -- he and his father, mother, and two younger sisters.
After the meal, his father took him outside and retrieved a small saw and awl from hooks behind the hut.
He showed the boy how to cut two smaller pieces from the staff, how to bore the interior of the shaft, and where to make the holes with the awl. When they were done, there were two flutes. One for each.
The lessons were not over for the day. That evening and well into the night, sitting by the light of a small fire outside the hut, his father taught him to play.
Tomo opened his eyes. He lay curled upon the chamber floor. It worked, he thought through his exhaustion. I was him, and he was me.
Matter could not be transported across the timestream, but incredibly small electrical impulses could. A team of physicists had temporally retrieved energy streams from a range of historical and geological periods, but to no practical end. Tomo had built upon their work and applied this technology to his own field of neuroengineering. The calculation power and energy expenditure was immense, but he had found a way to emulate the synaptic activity of people long since dead.
Of course, Tomo couldn't affect the past. He was just a ghost rider in Shintaro's mind, a passive observer. No, not simply an observer, he thought. I experienced everything that he did.
He not only saw what the boy saw, but felt what he felt, and it had all seemed so real. He could still feel the goose bumps on his forearms from the cold mountain air and taste the weak stew on his tongue.
He was exhausted, but with the exhilaration of the jaunt his mind raced. Why this boy? Tomo had set the temporal parameters for approximately four centuries before, a period in his country's history that had always fascinated and repulsed him with its barbaric simplicity. Perhaps he is a distant relative, he thought. Similarity in neural chemistry and synaptic mapping might strengthen the connection. But he couldn't be sure, and he knew he wouldn't find the answers anytime soon.
His head was throbbing and his body was cold, covered in a thin sheen of sweat. Tomo pulled a clean T-shirt from his bag and slipped it over his head. All he wanted right now was a hot bath and a bowl of soup.
He began to pluck the feedback plugs from his scalp. He had at least another twelve minutes allocated to him on the system, but he wasn't going to use it today. He was exhausted, and he had another session scheduled for tomorrow at noon.
Tomo removed the last of the sensors and walked to the door of the small chamber. As the airlocks hissed he thought of his own father, and briefly tried in vain to remember the last time he had seen him smile. In fact, he had not seen either of his parents for two years. Or was it three?
He pushed the uncomfortable thought away, picked up his nylon bag, and left for his apartment.
Mindtime: 1653, Autumn
He was working the fields.
The sun was high in the sky as he stooped to grab, pull, and cut the tall blades. It was warm for a November day, a warm day to harvest. Sweat trickled down Shintaro's back as he worked, making the damp cotton of his work clothes stick to his body. But he felt good, cutting and gathering the rice, binding it in bundles for the women to hang and dry.
His entire family was here with him in the fields. On his right were his father and two sisters; over there was his mother, working alongside his grandfather, a small old man who refused to stay home in uselessness during the harvest.
Shintaro's kama rose and fell with a steady rhythm, chopping the plants at the base of the stalk. He felt good. He felt strong. Then he heard the hoofbeats.
Only one kind of man rode horses through this countryside. Samurai. He squinted to see a trio of the Daimyo's men approaching on horseback. He dropped his kama and knelt in the field, putting his forehead to the damp earth. His family and the others working there did the same.
No doubt they were here to check the harvest, not to collect, not yet. To survey this year's yield and surmise just how much they could take in tribute. They would take as much as they could, leaving the farmers just enough to stay alive.
Then, from the corner of his eye, Shintaro saw something that stilled his heart. His grandfather, his ojiisan, continued to stand, his back to the samurai. The old man had many years behind him, and his ears were weak. He could not hear the horses. Even so, Shintaro dared not rise or cry out. He knew he would only draw the ire of the men with swords.
The horses stopped, the lead horse's hooves not ten paces from Shintaro's bowed head. He could hear an angry snort from the steed and the impatient clopping of its hooves.
The samurai astride it was a short, squat, powerful man. He wore simple black armor and two katana blades, also sheathed in black. He moved his mount past the huddled forms of the peasants in the dirt to where the old man still stood with his back turned.
Shintaro saw everything from the edge of his sight.
The samurai drew his sword in one smooth motion. The old man saw the shadow behind him and turned, looking up into the blank, pitiless eyes of the swordsman. He had no time to drop and kneel, to beg for mercy at his display of disrespect.
The blade whispered through the autumn air.
The old man's head thudded to the wet earth, and the thin, lifeless body followed, slumping into the shadow of the dark rider.
Shintaro watched all of this with his head bowed. He wanted to scream. He wanted to pick up his kama and cleave the black samurai's head. He wanted to do anything but kneel in the dirt like a whipped animal. But he could do nothing, for he knew it would only mean his death as well, and he knew there would be other days after this one.
The black samurai produced a red silk handkerchief and wiped the bloody blade before returning it to its sheath.
Tomo's heart hammered in his chest and he felt the blood hot in his face from rage at what he had just witnessed. His ojiisan . . . no, not his ojiisan, he reminded himself.
The sensations had been so intense, he wondered briefly about the negative side-effects of prolonged connection. But it is still too early to say, he thought.
Tomo reached for the towel on the floor beside him as the processors cycled down to silence. He wiped the sweat from his skull and looked around for his water bottle. Instead, his eyes met a pair of leather shoes.
He looked up to see Nakamoto-san, his faculty mentor. Nakamoto wore a gray suit with a yellow bow tie. His hair was a silvery grey, and the shiny beads of his eyes looked down upon Tomo where he lay.
"How is your little experiment coming along?" he asked.
Tomo's mouth was clammy and dry. His vision panned to the left, then right, and found the water bottle. He pulled out the stopper and gulped greedily. "I should have a preliminary report for you by next week," he answered, wiping his chin with the back of his hand. He had hoped they would leave him alone to work as he pleased for at least another month or two.
"I see," Nakamoto said, frowning. "Next week."
Tomo said nothing. He had not expected a confrontation, especially not here, naked and vulnerable. He struggled to control his breathing and regain his composure.
"You have been given quite a lot of flexibility with this project," Nakamoto continued. "The higher faculty have entrusted me with your care and development. You have been allowed to transgress virtually every aspect of protocol. But I'm afraid more details will need to be supplied to allow you to continue in this way."
What Nakamoto said was true. They had given him a great deal of latitude. He was their pet, the prized prodigy who would bring the university untold accolades. So he had bartered with their intellectual greed for the time and equipment to pursue his own interests, and now he knew they would not be pleased.
"You will have a report by tomorrow afternoon," Tomo said.
Mindtime: 1654, Spring
Shintaro crouched in the tall grass, clutching his bamboo staff. His friend Masahiro crouched beside him. There were three others hidden among the grass and brush. All young men like him.
The old ones in the village had refused to act. Even his own father had rebuked him at the mention of vengeance. It pained him to see his father behave in such a cowardly way.
He could no longer tolerate the Daimyo's men destroying their way of life. The last harvest, the harvest when they had slain his ojiisan, the samurai had taken three of every five koku for tribute. Though they had taken much more in other ways.
Unable to pay the full tribute, his father had been forced to send Yumiko, the youngest, away to a geisha house in the city to pay their debts. The thought of his little sister, pouring tea for fat merchants and entertaining them in private--
Masahiro rested his hand on Shintaro's arm. Shintaro flinched, looked into his friend's calm eyes and then down at his own hands. His knuckles were white from clenching his staff. He took a deep breath and forced himself to loosen his grip. He managed a thin smile for Masahiro. He was lucky to have such a friend.
Down along the riverbanks the cherry blossoms bloomed, the icy pink beauty illuminating the countryside. Here, where they waited along the mountain pass, there were no cherry blossoms, though the air was thick with the scents of spring. As he waited, the world and every sensation in it seemed clearer and sharper than ever before. Each blade of grass, each buzzing insect, each pebble along the mountain road stood out in isolated clarity.
Then he heard the sound he had been waiting for. The horses were coming. He looked across the path, where Noriaki and Nobuyuki lay in wait. The brothers acknowledged his hand signal with a nod and ducked lower in the grass.
The hoofbeats grew louder, and the riders came into view. He was among them, the short thick samurai who had killed Shintaro's grandfather. The other two were different, but the leader was unmistakable, the Daimyo's chief collector and enforcer -- the black samurai.
The sound of the hooves on the pebbled road filled his ears. The samurai were almost upon them.
Shintaro raised a single finger, and the brothers across the path jerked hard upon the rope, lightly buried beneath the sandy surface, tied to a low stump across the road. The line snapped taut.
The leader pulled up just in time, his horse's hooves skidding in the dirt. He had seen the trap just before it had been sprung. His companions had not been so observant.
Their horses tripped and tumbled in a frenzy of dust and noise. The rope must have pulled and burned the boys' hands, but they held tight enough and long enough to send the horses sprawling to the earth.
Two samurai were felled -- one half-crushed beneath his mount, the other rolling down the rocky embankment. The third and most dangerous was still mounted, his sword already sliding from its sheath.
Shintaro and Masahiro leapt from their positions, but the fifth of their rebellious band, Akihiro, was already closing in on the mounted warrior.
The samurai deflected a clumsy swing from Akihiro's staff, then removed the boy's head with a short swipe.
Shintaro saw his friend's body drop as he ran behind the samurai's horse, but he also saw his opening. The samurai's back was turned, his sword lowered.
Shintaro jumped and struck.
It was a short, compact swing, intended not to inflict damage but to put his opponent off-balance. He connected with the samurai's armored shoulder, knocking him from his horse.
The samurai hit the ground hard, but rolled quickly to his feet, his sword clutched in both hands. He stood over the headless body, now soaking the dust with blood.
Shintaro and Masahiro stood in front of him, staffs raised.
The samurai struck like a snake, lunging toward Masahiro. The boy tried to deflect the blow, but was too slow. The sword, aimed for his midsection, glanced off the staff and sliced through his inner thigh. Masahiro dropped to the ground, screaming.
Shintaro took the opening afforded and struck the samurai in the neck with a sharp thrust.
The stunned samurai staggered backwards a step to recover from the blow, but Shintaro swung again, connecting with his knee. The samurai doubled over and Shintaro was upon him swinging and thrusting. He struck the samurai in the stomach, then the neck, then the same leg again. The samurai dropped to one knee and raised his sword to block the next blow.
Shintaro shifted the staff in his hands and knocked the sword away with an underhand swipe.
The stout warrior looked from under the brow of his helmet, and Shintaro could see the anger and humiliation there. Furious because he'd been bested in combat by a peasant boy, and humiliated because he would now die in shame.
And there was something else in those eyes -- recognition. The samurai had looked into the eyes of an old peasant before he had taken his head. Now those eyes stared back into his.
Shintaro reached out with the tip of his staff and flicked the brow of the helmet up. It rolled off behind the samurai into the dirt. Shintaro then raised the staff high and struck the samurai's head with a loud crack. The anger went out of the eyes, and the lifeless body slumped to the ground.
Shintaro looked about him and surveyed the damage. He saw Akihiro, dead. He saw his best friend, Masahiro, lying on the ground, clutching his leg as blood pulsed between his fingers. He saw the brothers down the road, pulling a dead samurai from beneath his horse and taking his sword.
He saw something else, clearly. Five farm boys had engaged three of the Daimyo's men in combat. And they had won.
In a faculty cubicle near the top of the administrative tower, they sat on the tatami floor, facing each other across a small wooden table. An ornate pink ceramic teapot rested upon the table, with tiny cups on either side.
"Would you like some tea?" Nakamoto asked.
"No, thank you," Tomo replied. He had killed a samurai warrior with his own two hands just hours before. The recoil of the staff in his grip as it struck the samurai's head had felt unlike anything he'd every experienced -- a rush of power, burdened by the guilt of having taken a life. He knew he would never forget those eyes.
"I have read your report," Nakamoto said, tapping the folder on the floor beside him. "As always, your ideas are innovative and extraordinary. When you came to the university, we decided to give you free rein, to allow your mind the flexibility to investigate whatever interested you. We gave you the resources and the privacy to work as you wished.
"I must say that your recent project is . . . intriguing. But there are serious questions of responsibility, not to mention practicality."
"I do not understand," said Tomo. Practicality? he thought. Can he not see the implications? But he remained calm as Nakamoto continued.
"You have allowed yourself to be implanted with the dendrite prototypes. Technically, they are illegal. They have not been fully tested or approved. So of course there are questions regarding personal safety, not to mention your judgement.
"But the real issue is one of potential. We feel that your skills would be better employed investigating other applications of neuroengineering. You should be producing the tools of the future, not dwelling in the past."
"Yes, you cite possible research applications in history, archaeology, and so on. But the costs of the equipment and the computing power are more than most such departments could hope to pay for. It is simply not practical. And there are other complications."
Of course there would be complications; that's what made the technology interesting. What Nakamoto was really worried about were the political, philosophical, and religious ramifications that might arise from delving into the minds of the past. Tomo said nothing. He looked down at the straw mat beneath his feet. His palms itched for the smooth strength of his bamboo staff.
"You are scheduled for another session this afternoon. Due to the effort and investment you have made up to this point, I will allow you this final luxury before you direct your efforts into more constructive endeavors," Nakamoto said. "However, this session will be your last."
Mindtime: 1654, Summer
Shintaro stood among his men and watched the smoke billow into the air. Soon the last of the fires would die, and they would march up the mountain.
That summer had seen skirmishes throughout the territory. In retaliation for the ambush of his men, the Daimyo had ordered the slaughter of Shintaro's village. No living thing had been spared. Men and women, boys and girls, pigs and chickens had been cut down and gutted.
Shintaro had returned from a journey to four neighboring villages, gathering support for a full-scale uprising, to find his village in flames, every member of his family murdered.
He had buried their bodies, one by one, digging in the charred earth till his hands were bloody.
Thankfully, their deaths were not entirely in vain. When word of the massacre spread across the countryside, Shintaro was given the support he'd gone looking for.
He had bartered skillfully for the services of ronin. They had no love for the Daimyo or his men, and they were skilled, willing allies.
He soon became a hero among the villagers, organizing farmers and boys into efficient fighting units that engaged bands of samurai throughout the Daimyo's terrain, and won battle after battle.
Now they stood at the base of the mountain stronghold of the Daimyo himself.
With most of the local samurai defeated in villages and towns across the countryside, the bulk of the Daimyo's remaining army had concentrated here, at Kumoyama.
Now was the time Shintaro had planned for, the time he had hoped and known would come. For the last month he had ordered his captains to spread instructions in villages throughout the area to cut and dry as much long grass as they could. The straw was to be packed in tight bundles.
He had ordered his peasant forces to converge from three different angles, through scattered lines of retreating samurai, upon Kumoyama. They had secured their positions at the base of the mountain, but dared not attack. The heavily fortified castle, on higher ground and ringed with archers, would massacre an attacking army. And with the fortress's stores of rice, they could withstand a siege of many months.
"What are we to do?" Masahiro had asked. He was now a general, but only behind the lines. His leg would not serve him in combat.
"Send the word," Shintaro had said. "Every man, woman, and child that can walk will bring a bundle of dried grass to the base of Kumoyama."
They had. Thousands upon thousands had emerged from the countryside, each bearing a bundle of straw upon his or her back. They had piled the grass into a golden ring round the base of the rocky hill. The ring stood higher than any man among them.
Shintaro placed his own archers around the perimeter of the ring, then he had waited for the gentle winds to slow. He touched a torch to the dry grass, and fire circled the mountain.
The fire climbed the hill. Once during the slow upward march of flame, a group of samurai had tried to break through, but the heat and opposing archers forced them to retreat from the fire. The flames marched relentlessly up the hill, consuming everything in their path.
Shintaro watched the castle burn atop the mountain, a beacon to all in the area that the Daimyo was dead, that his rule was at an end.
Tomo stood before the chamber security panel in the early morning hours. There were no guards. All security was automated. It would be quite easy to gain access, at least for him. He'd already bypassed the two drones at the main entrance.
His clearance to the chamber had been revoked. They wanted him to work on something more relevant, perhaps intelligent weapons interfacing or one of the other high-profile projects. But what he chose to take an interest in was no longer their decision to make. He had made up his mind.
After he breached the chamber, they would expel him. But he had to have one more session, to discover the fate of the mind he now felt a part of. Being Shintaro had changed him. The needs and opinions of the high faculty no longer seemed very important. In fact, he felt as if he had been running from what was truly important for a long time now.
Tomo overrode the security codes, and the chamber door hissed open. He picked up his nylon bag and stepped inside.
It was the day after the victory, the day after the burning of the royal castle. Shintaro gathered his men at the foot of the smoking mountain. He meant to lay out his plans, his new ideas for the future of his people. They were no longer ruled by one man. They would rule themselves instead.
He planned to propose a new system, unlike any his people had known before. The Daimyo's former territory would be divided into twelve sections, each with a representative, selected by the largest township in each section. He himself would remain ineligible, instead remaining the leader of the territory's standing army. The representatives would meet four times a year, here, to decide the laws and taxes for the region.
Shintaro and his generals huddled in a ragged ring. They were exhausted, but proud and strong. He felt the respect and awe he generated in their presence as he crouched among them to outline his plans. Around the outlying areas, the remaining troops were tired and worn.
Shintaro raised his head and opened his mouth to speak, but never got the chance. A lone rider, a scout, galloped up and slid from his horse. He did not wait for the commander's question, nor did he say a single word. He merely pointed at the northeast horizon. Shintaro looked in that direction and his heart sank. They were far away, but fast approaching. A fully battle-dressed army of samurai.
He realized instantly what had happened. As the fires had approached the castle on the hill, the Daimyo had sent messages by bird to the surrounding territories. Though the opposing Daimyo were his enemies, they would aid him in crushing a peasant uprising, especially if his defeat were imminent and they saw a chance to claim some of his land in the process.
Shintaro's mind was a burning haze. His army could pull back to the south, through the hills, and regroup. . . . He looked over his shoulder and despair consumed him. Another wave of samurai approached from the south, blocking all retreat. The Daimyo must have had a number of messenger birds atop the mountain.
The generals scattered from the circle, running to organize their men. Shintaro merely stood, transfixed, knowing that any defensive measures would be useless. They would be slaughtered like dogs. The Daimyo had always ruled and would continue to rule. He was a fool to ever have thought otherwise.
Men were running in every direction, screaming and clambering for weapons and cover. Then the arrows began to rain from the sky. He saw his remaining army begin to drop, screaming and twisting as the arrows fell.
He felt an iron grip on his upper arm, and the spell was broken. He turned to see Masahiro, his old friend.
"We must go," Masahiro yelled. "We must go now!"
Shintaro reached down to pick up his bamboo staff, clutching it fiercely as he was pulled by his friend to the horses on the other side of the encampment.
Perhaps there was a way to escape, to ride through a gap in the enemies' onslaught. But what would he do then? All he had fought for was lost and destroyed.
Nevertheless, at the prompting yells of his friend, he pulled himself astride a white horse. He turned his horse to look once more across the battlefield, now the scene of a bloody massacre. Those who had not been killed outright by the storm of arrows now faced the flashing blades of the advancing samurai.
He pulled his horse around once more, to follow his friend, already moving away. Then the arrow struck him. It hit him from above, sinking in between his neck and collarbone.
He toppled from his horse into the dirt, his eyes blinded with tears. The last thing he saw, between the hooves of the horses round him, was the sight of the approaching army's feet, walking across the land he had won only yesterday.
Tomo drove out from the city limits, into the countryside. Everything he owned was in the back hatch. It was an unusually cool summer evening, and he retracted the car's top to feel the wind.
They had expelled him, of course. But not before he had finished his final session. He had woken to the sounds of security breaking through the door. His academic career was finished. Now, as the wind whistled across his shaved skull, he didn't really care.
Living through Shintaro, he realized how spoiled he'd been. He'd taken his way of life for granted and ignored the things that were most important.
He would go back to Inuyama, where his father operated a dry-cleaning store and his mother kept the books. He hadn't thought much about his family for years, not until recently, but it would be good to see them again. Then he would try to find a job, maybe even work in the shop for a while.
But first, he had a promise to keep.
Though he had never been in this area of the countryside, at least as Tomo Hayashi, he knew every hill and ridge. Power lines and billboards for hotels and Pachinko were the only differences to mark the landscape. He pulled his car off the main road and drove down a narrow, grassy path.
Tomo stopped the car and reached under the passenger seat for a small bag.
He walked up the sloping hill, passing from the fading light of the sun into the darkness of the grove. He opened the bag and produced a small, curved saw. He chose a tall, strong stalk and cut it at the base. Then he stripped it and trimmed it as his father had shown him so long ago. He replaced the saw and took out an awl, then carefully bored the holes one by one. By the time he was finished, the sun had set. He built a small fire in the clearing and sat before it.
Tomorrow he would go back home, to start again. Tonight he would pay his respects to the other's life he had lived, to the young man he had been and always would be.
He touched his lips to the flute and began to play.
Copyright © 2001 Derek James
Derek James lives near Dallas, Texas, where he writes boring technical stuff all day and speculative fiction at night. He is a graduate of Clarion 2000. This is his first sale.
Socar Myles is a British artist currently studying in Vancouver, Canada. She lives in a chaotic ninth-floor apartment with three noisy rats and an even louder bird. Socar has been drawing using traditional media for just under ten years, and with her computer for several months. See more of her art at her Web site.