Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Fū-jiin sat cross-legged on a mat before a low table, on which rested a bonsai tree nearly half a meter across its canopy, and nearly a quarter of that tall. He rotated the tree barely a degree at a time on its mag-lev base, pausing at each mark to study, and very rarely to make a cut, collecting the tiny fragments on a white handkerchief at his side.

The tree was as old as Fū-jiin himself, and both bore centuries of scar tissue, energy wounds the tree was exfoliating over time in his patient care, thickened stripes of shiny flesh that seemed to bind his own self together like twine.

Outside he could sense booted feet sinking into the sand, closing the distance to his low, windswept home from a hundred meters out, where landing crafts were being pulled out of the water and onto the shore.

They couldn’t fly on this side of the globe, these intruders into his peace, not without risking orbital death from the watchers above, and they couldn’t see through the atmospheric haze that made this such a calm place to retire.

They must have been crisscrossing the ocean of this planet for years to find him this time.

He sighed.

He folded the kerchief with apparent care and placed it and his pruning scissors into a drawer in the table beneath the tree, then folded his hands in his lap and waited.

It may have been an hour or three before they entered, he could sense their probes, hear the digital chatter of their comms encryption. They were admirably cautious.

The breach itself was surprisingly peaceful. The unit commander simply walked through the open archway into the living quarters followed by four troopers in powered armor with weapons of an unwieldy length slung on pivot mounts from their chests, held at the ready two-handed, energy charges crackling with the anticipation of violence.

“Chao, isn’t it? Commander Chao?” Fū-jiin broke the silence first, “you’re a very long way from home.”

Commander Chao struggled to maintain his composure as he surveyed the room. It was the very model of minimalism. Fū-jiin clearly had access to intel that they had somehow managed to miss on what he had thought was particularly thorough recon.

“You’re a very difficult man to find,” Chao replied, “we’ve wasted nearly two years on this planet alone searching for you, and this is not our first nor the only deployment.” He chuckled, “It would seem that it will finally be our last.”

“Yes,” Fū-jiin smiled, the expression taking its time to fully manifest across his face.

“I am a hard man to find, and I regret that I couldn’t have been harder,” he paused, “for your sake, though you’ll find this a peaceful place to end your commission.”

Chao had, for years, resented being tasked with searching for this ghost, and now found his feelings conflicted. The stories of the hell Fū-jiin had brought to conflicts across the galaxy made him seem almost god-like, a force of immense tactical skill and violence, and yet here he was, a sad old man in a stone hut on a sandy beach in the middle of nowhere, gardening.

“You all make the same mistakes, do you know that?” Fū-jiin spoke, slowly rocking forward from crossed legs to his knees, hands spread wide on the table.

The soldiers flexed, weapons maintaining their lock. Chao waved them down.

“You show no respect for time. The sand you walked outside on was once polished glass, before wind, and rain, and time reduced that formidable expanse to dust. What has your journey reduced you to?”

He slowly extended his legs, rising to his feet with his hands still palms down on the table, bent at the waist and not bothering to look up as he spoke.

“You make poor assumptions; you see no weapons and assume safety, no technology and assume ignorance, no army and assume tactical superiority.”

“You drastically underestimate the fury of serenity.”

Fū-jiin flexed, and for everything within several kilometers, time slowed to a near stop.

The ball of energy that formed around him radiated outward in a wave, consuming everything it touched in a raging cyclone of raw, unfettered fury, ripping flesh, weapons, and craft down to their base atoms, then painted the beach with them, leaving its surface a smoldering, multicolored mosaic of freshly baked glass.

Fū-jiin exhaled, and slowly lowered himself to sit cross-legged again on the floor.

He felt the searing pain of fresh wounds where his outburst had cracked open his flesh, the smell of their cautery ripe in his nostrils.

Before him the bonsai was mostly unharmed, just a few patches this time smoldering gently where he’d been unable to control his discharge.

“My apologies, old friend,” he spoke out loud, retrieving his scissors and the white handkerchief from the drawer before ever so slowly resuming his turning of the tree on its base.

Outside the wind and the waves gently cooled the beach.

There was work to be done, and nothing but time in which to do it.