PREVIEW: Talon’s Truth and the Sword of the Spirit

The long-awaited sequel to Talon’s Test and the Shield of Faith is finally here! Book 2 of the Talon Trilogy has arrived… Talon’s Truth and the Sword of the Spirit will officially launch in the Amazon Kindle Store on Dec 20, 2018! Click on the image below to go to the Amazon product page:

Talon's Truth

Book Two of the Talon Trilogy is Available Now in the Amazon Kindle Store!

 

Can’t wait until Dec 20th? No worries… here is a sneak peek at the prologue and first two chapters!

 

Prologue

Knight Commander Talon Vance stood near the passenger boarding ramp of the T-130 Pelican-class medium transport shuttle. With his powerful arms folded across his chest, he waited impatiently for the infamous man of the hour to arrive.

In addition to a reinforced security platoon of royal legionnaires dressed in full battle armor, the crowded Calvary City Intergalactic Spaceport docking bay was overrun by an army of ravenous reporters. Each bloodthirsty holovision media personality was chomping at the bit for a piece of the action while cameramen jockeyed for the best positions from which to visually document the historic occasion.

Talon ignored the multitude of inquiries directed toward him by intrusive reporters. He was in no mood to play the dreaded public relations game, as much as the Knights of Adonai stood to benefit from his beloved public image. The ceaseless barrage of negative propaganda campaigns orchestrated by those determined to undermine the once impeccable reputation of the Knight of Adonai and the ideals for which it stood were starting to poison the well of public opinion. But at this moment, he could not bring himself to care.

Despite Talon’s iconic status as the hero who recently rescued Queen Naomi from the clutches of NATAS forces led by the evil General Mirkham Hesatan, the argument for allowing Ado-knights to continue serving as the Royal Defense Force’s elite commissioned officer corps, royal honor guardians, and ordained military chaplains remained tenuous at best.

On one hand, the Eye-for-an-Eye Party stubbornly maintained its position that the entire RDF needed to disband to clear the way for a much larger standing army. In addition to providing the Star Kingdom with the military muscle required to expand Manna’s colonial footprint across the stars, the Eyes believed a large standing army was necessary to sufficiently protect the citizens of Manna from aggressive threats like NATAS, the Nations in Alliance for Total Atheocracy among States.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Neo-Pacifist Party believed armed conflict should be avoided at all costs and viewed the Knights of Adonai as nothing more than “ancient relics of a violent past.” As far as the Neo-Pacifists were concerned, the archaic institution needed to be disbanded and the RDF significantly reduced to the role of providing self-defense services for Her Majesty’s subjects living and traveling abroad.

But as concerned as Talon was over the future of his profession amid the kingdom’s rapidly changing social mores, at the moment he was much more perturbed by the ramifications of interstellar law, especially as it pertained to the decrees and far-reaching influence of the Earth-based Galactic Defense League. In particular, Talon was extremely distressed by the League’s recent decision to indict a notorious space pirate for a long list of interstellar crimes, a decision which was about to result in the undesirable transfer of said pirate into the custody of the League’s Interstellar Crimes Tribunal.

The source of Talon’s angst suddenly appeared at the other end of the hangar bay, escorted by a reinforced contingent of fully-armored Ado-knight Honor Guardians from the Queen’s Own Regiment. Talon’s hands clenched with fury as he caught a glimpse of the monster responsible for wrecking his adolescence and deliberately erasing his childhood memories.

Likewise, Captain Francois Lafitte quickly spotted Talon’s position beside the shuttle. The silver-haired pirate stopped in his tracks just as he came upon the man responsible for his capture. He tilted his head and greeted Talon with a cruel smile.

“Talon, my boy, did you really come to see me off? How deeply touching.”

Despite the wrist-to-ankle plasma shackles and bright orange prison jumpsuit, Lafitte looked very much in command of his surroundings as he practically strutted his way toward the awaiting shuttle like a proud peacock. It was obvious to Talon that months of confinement had done nothing to diminish the legendary raider’s arrogance.

“So tell me, has the prodigal son finally seen the light and returned to embrace his loving father?” Lafitte sneered as a slick smile emerged across his weathered, yet roguishly-handsome face. “Are you ready to admit your wrongs, shed the charade of righteous indignation, and reclaim your proper place at my side? Don’t forget, my son… once a pirate, always a pirate.”

Fuming over Lafitte’s bombastic display, Talon exercised every ounce of self-control within him to suppress his sudden urge to remove Lafitte’s head with his broadsword.

I’m fast enough. I can draw my blade and cleave his skull clean off the shoulders before anyone around me could attempt to stop me.

No. Vengeance belongs to Adonai. Let it go. Lafitte will eventually get what he deserves as he spends eternity in the lake of fire, consumed by weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“You are not my father, Francois,” Talon growled as his eyes narrowed into dagger-like slits. “You are a monster who deludes himself into thinking he is the captain of his own destiny. In truth, you’re nothing more than a lowly pawn of Lucifer.”

Talon detected a spark of anger in Lafitte’s eyes in response to his insult.

“Oh please. Spare me the dogmatic religious drivel, you pathetic orphan slave,” Lafitte jeered. “You should have killed me when you had the chance.”

“Perhaps,” Talon agreed as he remembered how close he’d come to doing precisely that only a few months prior. “But had I done so, I would have played right into your Master’s hands. And yours. You forced me to kill for you before, when I was your slave. I do your bidding no longer.”

Lafitte laughed. Despite the dozens of reporters shouting probing inquiries as spaceport security personnel attempted to hold them back, the only voice Talon could hear was that of his former master.

“Very well, Talon. You may have won your little battle, but surely you realize you’ve lost the war, don’t you? Do you really think the League bureaucrats will have me executed?”

“The Tribunal will do its duty. Your crimes are indefensible and no honest court of law in the galaxy would acquit you of the charges being brought against you,” Talon replied defiantly, silently wishing he believed his own assertion.

“Is that so?” Lafitte asked, lowering his voice so that only Talon could hear him. “Consider this, old friend. Nearly half of the nation-states currently represented on the League’s Interstellar Crimes Tribunal are frequent customers of mine. They’ve either discreetly issued me letters of marquee to engage in clandestine privateering operations on their behalf or they’ve secretly purchased slaves from me to run their less-than-desirable colonial mining operations. Tell me, Talon, do you really think the rulers of these nation-states want their dirty laundry aired in public for all to see? I can assure you I won’t see one more day in a cell by the time that Tribunal convenes.”

Talon felt his stomach turn. “Why you little…”

“Of course,” Lafitte continued, “even if I’m wrong and I am ultimately sentenced to hang, I will still have the last laugh where you and I are concerned.”

Talon glared. “What do you mean?”

Lafitte smirked. He knew he had Talon’s undivided attention. “If I die, certain secrets go to the grave with me. Secrets I don’t intend to share with another living soul. For example, you will never, ever, find out what your real name is. Or who your parents were. Or what really happened to them.”

The reaction was instantaneous. Talon’s armored fist flew with unrelenting fury. He managed three stiff, nose and clavicle-shattering strikes delivered in rapid succession before the two closest Honor Guardians managed to pull him off his unconscious prey.

But the damage was already done. Both to Lafitte’s severely broken face and to the now sullied reputation of the honorable Knights of Adonai.

By losing his temper and publicly assaulting a defenseless prisoner, Talon lost in two ways. First, the extensive damage to Lafitte’s face risked softening the Tribunal’s stance toward the pirate, perhaps even shifting public perception of him from that of a notorious outlaw to an unfortunate victim of excessive force. Second, the savage and seemingly unprovoked outburst gave the media, politicians, and the general public further reason to denounce the Knights of Adonai.

After all, if the ultimate Ado-knight poster child could be so violent and unpredictable, how could the rest of the Knights of Adonai be trusted to serve and protect the citizens of the Star Kingdom?

 

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Chapter One

Miyamoto Yoshimitsu felt the cool silk fabric of his favorite blue kimono rustle against his lean, muscular forearms as the garment flapped in cadence with the unrestricted rhythm of the western wind.

For a moment, the stoic Samurai found himself lost in time, transported back to days of youthful exuberance by the familiar sensation of fingertips touching tall sticky blades of overgrown grass.

Lord Miyamoto, as he was more commonly known throughout Miyamoto Prefecture, knew this patch of open meadow quite well. After all, this was the sacred ground where he and his younger siblings had learned from their father and his field commanders how to fight… and kill.

With expert precision, the skilled swordsman deftly drew his most prized possession—the nearly flawless work of artistic weaponry known as a tessakatana. Visually identical to its infamous ancestor, the tessakatana was a masterful sword, an instrument of both exquisite beauty and instant death for all unfortunate enough to encounter its curved, twenty-nine-inch blade.

Unlike the original katana wielded by the ancient Samurai, the modern tessakatana owed its modified namesake to the most powerful alloy in the known universe – tessadaranium. This vital element of the sword’s altered composition made the modern melee weapon stronger and more durable than its predecessor, without sacrificing the former’s legendary speed and efficiency.

In accordance with his standard morning ritual, Yoshi flawlessly performed a series of intense katas, choreographed combat sequences he’d committed to muscle memory since childhood. His body moved in synchronous harmony with his blade as he executed each movement to near-perfection. Every independent action was as it should be – crisp, time-sequenced, and naturally flowing. Though he performed for a non-existent audience, great attention and care were afforded to each individual nuance.

Despite outward appearances to the contrary, Lord Miyamoto found the intense routine mentally and physically gratifying, a welcome respite from the stress and strain of being the resident daimyo, or feudal chieftain, of the largest prefecture in the Imperial Kingdom of Katana.

Not yet forty years of age, Lord Miyamoto was the youngest of the planet Katana’s thirteen hereditary daimyo. Forced to ascend to his father’s place of leadership much earlier than his peers in other prefectures, Yoshi’s appointment as resident daimyo came nearly a decade earlier, after his father – Miyamoto Fujitaka – was appointed Shogun of Katana by the Emperor.

As Shogun, Lord Miyamoto’s father was the supreme military ruler of Katana. And as the most powerful Samurai in the Imperial Kingdom, Shogun Miyamoto answered only to the Emperor. Because the Shogun resided several hundred kilometers away in the Imperial City of New Edo, he had been required to appoint his eldest son to serve in his stead as daimyo, with the charge of effectively leading Miyamoto Prefecture in his father’s absence.

Though he would never admit it publicly, Lord Miyamoto missed his father greatly. Like all daimyo, Yoshi was required to visit the Imperial City twice a year to pay homage to the Emperor and to participate in the Conclave of Daimyo, a formal gathering of rulers held at the Emperor’s palace. However, visiting with his father within the watchful walls of the Imperial Castle was a far cry from the private bonding experiences he remembered from his childhood.

Although his father was a staunch disciplinarian, Yoshi fondly remembered the man who enjoyed a round of gut-busting laughter as much as he did kendo practice or horse-mounted archery. The father who devoted as much energy in teaching his children about honor and loyalty as he did demonstrating the proper way to shout a proper kiai in the heat of battle.

The burden of being Shogun had changed Fujitaka. Of that, Yoshi was certain. His father was now lord over all other lords, the right hand and enforcer of the Emperor himself. Without doubt, it was an awesome responsibility, especially because there was a constant threat of infighting amongst the thirteen ruling clans, and with it came the persistent danger of another destructive warring states period. If there was one man who could consistently rise above the challenges to keep the Emperor’s kingdom united, it was Miyamoto Fujitaka.

But as proud as he was of his father’s leadership, Yoshi longed for the rare occasions when the Shogun was able to leave behind the pressure cooker of life inside the Imperial City and return home for a surprise visit.

So it was with great excitement that Lord Miyamoto willingly disengaged from his fourth and final kata of the morning to turn his head in the direction of Miyamoto Castle, perched atop a prominent hill only a few kilometers away.

Beckoned by the familiar whine of a single turbine engine, Yoshi’s face lit up as he spotted a familiar sight approaching from the east. Outdated by most of the galaxy’s modern manufacturing standards and no longer capable of space flight, the small passenger shuttle was nearly a century old and one of the few remaining relics of the once mighty Galactic Samurai Empire.

Provided that mechanized aircraft were only authorized to be piloted by members of the Imperial Army under the command of the Shogun himself, Lord Miyamoto knew he had nothing to fear from the approaching shuttle. He was further assured of his safety by the prominent kamon crest of the Imperial Army clearly emblazoned on the aircraft’s tail and wingtips. Naturally, Yoshi raised his right hand in greeting.

He was completely unprepared for what transpired next.

As the shuttle began its counter-clockwise landing spiral, Lord Miyamoto expected to see the familiar sight of his kimono-clad father standing at the top of a depressed rear cargo ramp.

Instead, he was greeted by the alarming image of two armored warriors manning the controls of what appeared to be an ion particle cannon.

Stunned but instantly recognizing he was in danger, Lord Miyamoto turned to run but it was too late. A massive wave of bright blue energy lanced out of the cannon, directed straight at his precarious position. Instead of reducing him to pulp upon contact, the ionic projectile dispersed, forming a large containment field approximately ten meters high and ten meters wide.

Trapped within the confines of this artificial prison, Yoshi was initially beside himself as he struggled to make sense of what was happening.

Moments later, the young daimyo’s heartrate accelerated as he saw a group of four men, all clad in full Samurai battle armor, descend the shuttle’s ramp. The moment he was able to get a better look at their attire, he knew he was in serious trouble.

Prominently emblazoned on each Samurai’s dou or dō armored chest plate was the all-too-familiar image of a black circle accented by a pair of thick, horizontal white stripes. The ancient family crest was unmistakable for it was the distinctive calling card of the notorious Ashikaga clan, the Miyamoto family’s most hated and bitter rivals. The Ashikaga were the hereditary rulers of Ashikaga Prefecture, the second largest of the Imperial Kingdom’s thirteen official provinces.

Trapped within the containment field, Lord Miyamoto drew his tessakatana and assumed a proper fighting stance as he hyper-focused on the advancing party.

“Ashikaga scum!” he shouted over the buzzing hum of the ionic field. “Have you no respect for the Emperor or fear of the Imperial Army? Are you really so crass and impertinent that you would dare to steal an Imperial shuttle and use it to invade our sovereign territory? I’ve always known the Ashikaga to be a clan without honor, but this is far beyond recklessness! The Shogun will demand your heads and the heads of your entire family for this!”

The obvious leader of the group, a captain in the Ashikaga army judging by the prominent Monogashira rank insignia affixed to his kabuto battle helmet, jeered in response. “Silence, you prepubescent fool! The only culprits guilty of treason against our beloved Emperor are members of the Miyamoto family. Yesterday, your father, Shogun Miyamoto, was arrested by his own Imperial Army for plotting to assassinate the Emperor. He was directed by the Emperor himself to commit seppuku. If you ask me, allowing that traitor to take his own life and die with honor was far more than what he deserved.”

“You lie!” an incensed Yoshi yelled as he hacked and slashed at the containment field, desperately seeking to force an opening. It was a futile effort. The ion particles refused to give way and the field stubbornly maintained the integrity of its composition.

The Monogashira was emboldened by the futility of his efforts. “Lord Miyamoto, it is pointless to direct your anger toward us. The ion containment field has enough charge to hold you in place for at least half an hour. Rest assured, you shall have plenty of time to calm yourself and listen to me as I convey my master’s voice of reason.”

Despite intense inner anguish and confusion over the unexpected and heart-wrenching loss of his father, Yoshi could clearly hear a familiar voice of instruction, urging his well-trained and highly disciplined mind to focus.

Control your emotion or it will control you,’ the words of wisdom cautioned. ‘If you wish to control others, you must first control yourself.’

Inspired by the ancient Samurai maxim imparted to him early and often by his beloved father, Lord Miyamoto willed himself to focus on processing and interpreting the incoming stream of information so he could use it to his advantage.

First, he considered the shuttle. Unless it was a fake, he had to assume the Ashikaga were truly acting as agents of the Imperial Army.

Second, he considered the ion cannon. The astonishing range and power of the weapon was far superior to anything in the outdated Imperial Army arsenal. This led him to believe the Ashikaga were willing to violate the Emperor’s isolationist Sakoku policy by illegally acquiring weapons from foreign powers. Even if the Ashikaga were now in control of the Imperial Army, Lord Miyamoto found it difficult to believe the Emperor would permit such an egregious violation of his own edict.

Does the Emperor even have a say in all of this? Or do the Ashikaga now control him too?

“Very well,” Lord Miyamoto said at last as he quietly returned his tessakatana to its saya scabbard. “It appears you have rendered me a captive audience. I will not give you the satisfaction of watching me behave like a caged animal. Unlike you despicable Ashikaga dogs, I can control my own emotions and wait patiently for the moment of vengeance to arrive. Speak now while you still have tongues with which to speak.”

“Lord Miyamoto, it would be wise of you to watch your own tongue, especially with regard to my master,” the Ashikaga Monogashira warned, wagging his left index finger. “After all, he is now your master too, as well as the master of all Samurai. For you see, Ashikaga Mitsusuke has been appointed as Interim Shogun by the Emperor himself.”

“More Ashikaga lies,” Yoshi said, shaking his head in disbelief as he clenched his fists. “Even if your master somehow managed to deceive the Emperor into believing such outrageous accusations about my father, the Conclave of Daimyo will never pass the majority vote necessary to confirm your master’s appointment. Some of the more susceptible daimyo might be willing to bend their ear to your father’s undying machinations of reviving the old Galactic Samurai Empire but most of us are wise enough to know he is only looking for an excuse to seize all power unto himself!”

The Monogashira laughed again. “Your accusation is tragically ironic, Lord Miyamoto. Need I remind you it was your father, not my master, who was found guilty of treason? Shogun Ashikaga has saved the Imperial Kingdom from your father’s treachery. Were it not for his heroic intervention, the Emperor would be dead and the entire kingdom would be in grave danger.”

“Ashikaga Mitsusuke, a hero and friend to the Emperor?” Yoshi scoffed. “That will be the day! You can tell whatever lies you wish to fabricate, but you cannot alter truth. Your master has betrayed my father and the Miyamoto clan will not rest until his death has been avenged. In the end, your master will be exposed as the deceitful traitor that he is!”

“You should proceed with more caution, Lord Miyamoto,” replied the Monogashira with a smirk. “It is obvious your father did not act alone in his treachery. Miyamoto Fujitaka was a brilliant strategist. Surely, assassinating the Emperor was only the first step of a more elaborate plan to achieve his path to undisputed dictatorship. However, all of his subordinate commanders within the Imperial Army have vehemently disavowed any knowledge of his plans for a coup. A comprehensive inquisition is under way but if it is revealed that Lord Miyamoto did not have accomplices within the Imperial Army, then one must naturally wonder whom your father intended to receive assistance from upon carrying out his deplorable scheme…”

“…and naturally, the leading suspects would be his eldest son, as well as daimyo from other prefectures historically loyal to the Miyamoto clan,” Lord Miyamoto said with seething contempt.

“Precisely,” said the Monogashira. “So tell me, Lord Miyamoto, what knowledge do you have of your father’s plan to assassinate our beloved Emperor? I must remind you that lying to an agent of the Emperor is a crime punishable by death.”

Yoshi glared at his inquisitor. “I will not dignify this farce of an investigation by answering such a ridiculous and offensive question. Like my father before me, my loyalty is to the Emperor. As daimyo of the largest prefecture in the kingdom and a member of the Conclave of Daimyo, I demand to be released at once. I also demand to review the evidence of my father’s alleged betrayal. Even with the Emperor’s backing, the Conclave of Daimyo will never affirm your master’s nomination to replace my father as Shogun, especially once the truth has been revealed. And after I expose Ashikaga’s treachery, I shall claim vengeance for what you have done to my father and I will restore my family’s honor.”

“Very well,” said the Monogashira with a dismissive wave of his left hand. “My master thought you’d say something to that effect. He prepared a message for me to share with you,” he said as he activated the miniature holographic projector built into his wrist gauntlet.

A half-size holographic image of Ashikaga Mitsusuke hovered in mid-air.

“Greetings, Lord Miyamoto,” said the new Shogun of Katana in a pre-recorded transmission. The weasel-faced Samurai wore a vibrant yellow kimono bearing the official crest of the Imperial Army on one side and the seal of the Shogunate on the other. Yoshi recognized the throne Mitsusuke sat in as the same seat from which his father had presided over the military affairs of the Imperial Kingdom for nearly a decade.

So, my father really is dead.

“By now, my men must have informed you of your late father’s treachery. I assure you, I have personally reviewed the evidence and it is damningly conclusive. Nothing you can do now will change what has already transpired. However, I urge you to find solace in knowing our compassionate and forgiving Emperor allowed your father to take his own life, permitting him to die an honorable death. Miyamoto Fujitaka accepted the Emperor’s gift of mercy and took his own life in atonement for his transgressions.

“Lord Miyamoto, I understand this must be difficult news for you to hear. However, the Emperor urges you to consider the honor of Miyamoto Prefecture before you make your next move. If you are an accomplice to your father’s schemes, he implores you to turn yourself in and spare the rest of your family from further disgrace. As Shogun, I pledge to have mercy on the rest of the Miyamoto clan, as well as the lesser families and prefectures who pledge allegiance to the Miyamoto banner. You alone would be held accountable for your actions. All others would be pardoned.

“On the other hand, if you are innocent, I encourage you to first mourn your father’s loss and then prepare yourself to return to New Edo for the upcoming Conclave of Daimyo. By the time the Conclave assembles, the complete inquisition of the Imperial Army will have run its course. Any additional traitors discovered within the ranks will be identified and executed. The Imperial City will once again be safe and secure. By then, we shall have all the relevant evidence assembled for you and your fellow daimyo to review. I am confident that once you’ve seen the evidence of your father’s betrayal with your own eyes, you will understand why I had no choice but to go to the Emperor and expose his treason. If you decide to return to Imperial City with your honor intact, I am confident we can reach a mutually beneficial arrangement. One which would allow you to retain your status as daimyo of Miyamoto Prefecture and to distance yourself from your father’s tarnished legacy.”

Mitsusuke leaned forward in his seat and scowled. “But be forewarned. If you decide instead to embark on a mission of vengeance, you will be branded as an enemy of the Emperor and the Imperial Army shall spare you no quarter! We will swiftly crush all those loyal to the Miyamoto and every member of your clan will be erased from existence, shamed for all eternity. The first to die will be those hostages already in my custody here within the walls of Imperial City. Your mother, your brother, and two of your father’s most trusted field commanders will be among the first executed, but far from the last. The decision is yours, Lord Miyamoto. Choose wisely.”

As the hologram dissipated, Lord Miyamoto ground his teeth. He could not restrain himself from releasing a fierce howl of frustration. The choice being offered him was clear. Betray his father’s memory and pledge loyalty to the new Shogun or hang a noose around his neck and all those loyal to his family.

But Yoshi’s father had not raised him to be a fool. He understood Ashikaga’s offer of reconciliation for the deceitful ploy that it was. He surmised the new Shogun wanted his enemies to act prematurely, which would grant him an excuse to eliminate other possible threats to the new regime before they could properly assemble, organize, and mount an effective resistance.

There was no doubt in Lord Miyamoto’s mind that even if he were to accept Ashikaga’s offer, he was too great a threat to the new Shogun to be left alive. Despite assurances to the contrary, Shogun Ashikaga would almost certainly hire someone to assassinate him the moment he let down his guard. Or he would fabricate evidence to justify arresting him as an accomplice to his father’s alleged crimes.

Lord Miyamoto saw right through the offer of peaceful reconciliation. He speculated that for the time being, Shogun Ashikaga wanted to avoid a costly civil war until he could solidify his base of power within New Edo, legitimize his claim to the title of Shogun, and assert his iron-fisted rule over the Imperial Army. All of this would be significantly easier to accomplish if he could convince the younger Miyamoto to join his cause instead of taking up arms in protest.

“Lord Miyamoto, you have heard my master’s gracious offer,” the arrogant Monogashira said. “Even in your present state of mind, you must realize you have no choice but to accept it unless you are willing to jeopardize the future of Miyamoto Prefecture. For now, I bid you farewell. As soon as our shuttle is out of range, I shall deactivate the containment field and then you will be free to return to your castle. You have much work to do. After all,” he said as he withdrew a small remote from one of his side pockets and pressed a small round button, “someone needs to attend to the baggage we are leaving behind.”

A black rectangular container, elevated two meters off the ground by four anti-gravity skids, slowly descended along the shuttle’s rear cargo ramp.

The moment he saw the nondescript hover-container, Lord Miyamoto knew exactly what, or in this case who, was inside.

The disrespect shown to the former Shogun’s decapitated body was almost too much for Lord Miyamoto to bear. Imagining his father’s remains stuffed into an unassuming cargo container, Lord Miyamoto was consumed with bitter hatred for his enemies.

“You Ashikaga swine always take things too far,” Lord Miyamoto hissed. “A Shogun deserves much more than to have his body stuffed into an unceremonious receptacle. Because you have shown no respect for my father, I shall show you none in return. Prepare yourselves to die!”

All four Ashikaga Samurai burst into laughter.

“How do you expect to kill us when you cannot even escape your cage, little bird?” mocked the most junior of the four Samurai.

“Because my father taught me how important it is to ‘perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye’ and I was wise enough to listen and heed his advice,” Yoshi replied with an eerie projection of confidence.

“You may think I am ensnared but a prison only represents confinement if you submit to being held captive within its walls,” Lord Miyamoto said as he took three small steps to his right to retrieve the satchel he’d laid upon the ground before beginning his morning rituals. From this satchel he withdrew his yumi – a traditional Samurai bow – and a quiver of assorted arrows.

“The breadth of your arrogance is astounding, Lord Miyamoto,” said the Ashikaga Monogashira. “Do you really think you are so fast that you can penetrate the ionic field with an arrow? The moment the arrowhead breaks the surface, the tiny gap in the containment field will close in on itself and the ion particles will quickly repulse your arrow before it can pass through. Believe me, I’ve tested it myself.”

“I don’t have to be fast enough,” Yoshi answered as he raised his bow, along with the two arrows he’d drawn from the quiver. “At least not with the first projectile. My earlier attacks upon the containment field with my blade were not without purpose. I was scouting its strength and timing its responsiveness to my inputs.”

Lord Miyamoto took careful aim with the yumi, which he held in his left hand, along with the second arrow. With his right hand, he prepared the first projectile for flight. “The first arrow does not need to fully penetrate the field. It merely needs to pave the way for its successor.”

“You’re mad! It will never work,” the Monogashira asserted, but his voice was noticeably devoid of confidence. There was something unsettling about the young daimyo’s conviction.

When Yoshi let fly, the first arrow traversed the four-meter distance from the edge of his bow and struck the containment field. The arrowhead pierced the wall of plasma, causing a small but measurable separation among the integrated ion particles. But, as the Monogashira warned, the plasma shield’s responsiveness was near-instantaneous. By the time the arrow was halfway through the field, the gap was already closing, impeding the possibility of further progression as the containment field’s reactive properties actively worked to repel the foreign object’s intrusion.

However, the Monogashira underestimated two critical factors. First, the uncanny blink-and-you-miss-it speed at which Lord Miyamoto could reload and fire off a second arrow, which was already in flight even before the first arrow’s forward progress had been halted. Second, he underestimated Yoshi’s superhuman accuracy, a near-perfect combination of natural skill reinforced by constant repetition across a lifetime of dedicated and relentless training.

The second arrow was dead-on, traveling precisely along the same trajectory as its predecessor. Lord Miyamoto’s timing was impeccable. As the second arrowhead impacted against and drilled through the core of the first arrow, the first arrow exploded, launching miniature projectiles outward with enough force to reopen the narrowing separation of ion particles, a micrometer wider than necessary to permit the second arrow’s uninhibited passage through the previously impenetrable wall.

The Monogashira watched with horrifying fascination as the second arrow inexplicably cleared the containment field. It appeared to him to move in slow motion, seemingly aimed directly at his forehead. Instinctively, he ducked, barely missing the kiss of death at it flew over his head instead of boring into his skull.

Regaining his composure, the Monogashira managed a tepid smirk. “Impressive. But you missed.”

Yoshi responded with a knowing look of satisfaction. “Did I?”

Suddenly unsure of himself, the Monogashira spun on his heels to see where the arrow had landed. It took only a moment for him to realize he had not been Lord Miyamoto’s intended target after all.

The second arrow had buried itself into the ion cannon’s control panel inside the cargo hold of the parked shuttle. As a direct result of the resultant power loss, the containment field deactivated.

Lord Miyamoto wasted no time springing into action. Even before the containment field collapsed, he quickly retrieved two more arrows from his quiver and took swift but careful aim.

Both arrows found a home in the dou or dō chest plate of the nearest Ashikaga Samurai’s armor before the stunned warrior could draw his sword. Although each Samurai’s reinforced armor was thick and strong enough to protect its wearer from conventional attacks, the plating was no match for tessadaranium-tipped arrowheads fired at close range.

Drawing his tessakatana, Lord Miyamoto unleashed a ferocious vortex of violence against the other three Ashikaga warriors. His second target was halfway through a classic Iaido draw of his sword from its saya scabbard when Lord Miyamoto’s tessakatana struck the area between the man’s neck and right shoulder, one of the few significant weak points in modern Samurai battle armor.

The tessadaranium-reinforced armor was strong enough to prevent a clean slice-through. It was not nearly strong enough to stop Yoshi from inflicting a debilitating mortal wound, much to the agony of his shrieking victim.

The third Ashikaga Samurai lunged into the fray with a powerful tessakatana attack that nearly cleaved Yoshi in two before he could defend himself. Wisely, the young daimyo switched to his secondary sword – the shorter wakizashi blade – rather than attempt to free his tessakatana from its deeply embedded location in the center of the second Samurai’s armored chest. This reflexive thinking spared his life.

After barely raising his wakizashi up in time to block the third Samurai’s attack, Lord Miyamoto craftily snatched his adversary’s armor with his free hand as he turned, crouched, and redirected his opponent’s inertia to send him sailing over his head. The third Samurai landed with gruesome spectacle atop the second Samurai’s upwardly protruding tessakatana, severing his spine and terminating his status as an active combatant.

This left the Monogashira. Fully recovered from his initial shock, he advanced with renewed focus and an obvious determination to avenge his men.

“I don’t know how you managed that little trick, but the games end now. I will not follow my men into death!”

“You were dead the moment your master decided to send an underqualified lackey to do his bidding,” Yoshi quipped as he took a moment to retrieve his tessakatana from the second Samurai’s body.

Blades collided as both men took turns attacking and counterattacking. The Monogashira was a skilled opponent, but he was no match for Lord Miyamoto’s blinding speed and superior skill.

Thirty seconds and countless rapid combination attacks later, it was clear who the better swordsman was. Trapping his opponent’s sword arm with his own, Yoshi finally ended the fierce engagement by plunging his tanto dagger deep within the Monogashira’s chest.

“You are not dead,” Lord Miyamoto announced as the Monogashira’s blood splattered across his face. “At least not yet.” He held the man close, forcing him to listen to each syllable he spoke.

“I made certain the nature of your wound would allow you a few more hours to live. You should have enough time for your pilot to fly you back to New Edo to die in your master’s arms. Tell him his days amongst the living are numbered. I swear on my father’s memory, I shall not rest until I have avenged his death and restored honor to our clan. Now then, run along little fly. Return to your master’s dung heap and make your final deposit.”

 

 

Chapter Two

Knight Commander Hector Gonzalez nursed a piping hot mug of dark-roasted hazelnut coffee as he stood on the observation deck of HMS Antioch, quietly immersed in the dazzling display of rapidly streaming stars.

After twenty years of active service in Manna’s Royal Defense Force, the veteran knight commander still found himself mesmerized by the curious spectacle of hyperspace travel. No matter how many times he stared transfixed at the unnatural phenomenon, Gonzalez had difficulty wrapping his mind around the concept of moving through the galaxy at a rate faster than the speed of light. Lost in the stars, he felt a momentary sense of relief from the heavy burden he felt in being responsible for the safe transport of Captain Francois Lafitte.

Gonzalez didn’t blame Talon Vance for being upset over the involuntary prisoner transfer. He was angry too. After all the hard work his task force had invested in bringing that vapor worm to justice in the first place, Gonzalez certainly didn’t want to let Lafitte out of the RDF’s custody any more than Talon did, even if it was to stand trial before an interstellar tribunal that would presumably hold him accountable for his actions.

As far as Gonzalez was concerned, Lafitte deserved the death penalty for his crimes against humanity and he might well have gotten precisely that if the Galactic Defense League hadn’t intervened to throw its legislative weight around. Now the best he could hope for was that the League’s notoriously corrupt legal system would do the right thing.

“Corbin, how much time before we translate out of hyper?” he asked the battleship’s helmsman, Senior Chief Petty Officer Corbin Franklin.

“Less than a minute, Commander,” Franklin replied, eying the countdown clock on his monitor.

Gonzalez nodded. “Translation point is the Carthage System, right Nancy?”

“Affirmative, Sir,” answered Senior Chief Nancy Osborne, Antioch’s chief astro-navigator.

“Threat Analysis?” Gonzalez asked, already anticipating the answer.

“Slim probability of contact with unfriendly forces,” reported Senior Chief Israel Aberlein, Antioch’s chief intelligence officer. “This backwater quadrant is so far off the grid there shouldn’t be another living soul within several light years of our translation point, Commander. Not a single registered space station in the area.”

“Copy that,” Gonzalez acknowledged. “So, if I’m reading the nav chart correctly, we should reach our next optimum jump point less than three hours after translation. I suppose there’s not enough time for any of us to hop out of the hover-car to stretch our legs,” he joked. “Even so, I want everyone on their toes. I have a bad feeling about this. Something doesn’t feel right.”

When HMS Antioch translated out of hyperspace a moment later, Gonzalez realized how dreadfully accurate his premonition was.

Stunned, he and his crew stared with mouths agape, awestruck at the intimidating wall of warships before them, apprently lying in wait for their arrival.

“Ambush!” shouted Senior Chief Javier Batista, Antioch’s chief sensor operator, stating the obvious as his hands flew rapidly over his workstation console’s touchscreen keyboard. “Multiple hostiles within immediate striking range! At least a dozen warships openly flying NATAS colors, including a Herod-class spacecraft carrier!”

Still in shock, Commander Gonzalez could hardly believe his eyes.

“Our flight plan was classified at the highest security level! How could they have known?” he wondered aloud, not expecting an answer.

“Sir, we’re being hailed,” reported his chief communications officer. “Should I accept the transmission?”

Struggling to find his voice, Gonzalez cleared his throat. “Patch them through.”

A life-sized, three-dimensional hologram appeared on the bridge, depicting a massive individual dressed in a black and red armored suit. The menacing figure’s enormous head was completely encased in a gleaming mask forged of solid gold.

“Welcome, Commander Gonzalez,” spoke the demonic being in an insidious voice. “We’ve been expecting you. We are General Legion. And you have something that belongs to our Master.”

Legion. So, the rumors are true. The demon-possessed half-brother of General Mirkham Hesatan is not just an Alliance bogeyman after all.

“In case it isn’t obvious, you’ve been betrayed,” Legion continued. “You, your crew, and your ship now belong to NATAS. We demand complete and unconditional surrender. Terms are not negotiable. Comply with every directive or be slaughtered. And Commander, before you attempt anything foolish, you should know this—escaping back into hyperspace is not an option. We’ve already activated a gravity-well interdiction field. Boarding parties are on their way to greet you. You have precisely five minutes to lower your shields, power down your weapons, and surrender. Make the right decision. Once unleashed, the dogs of war will not be called off.”

The hologram disappeared. Gonzalez felt sick. His natural instinct was to fight and fight hard. The odds didn’t matter, he told himself. Victory was not even a remote possibility but surrendering seemed dishonorable.

But do I really have a choice? If I order my crew to resist, they will follow my orders. But I’d be committing them all to a hopeless course of action guaranteed to result in their deaths.

Gonzalez surveyed the bridge and saw every member of his command staff looking back at him. In some of their eyes, he saw resolute defiance and a willingness to die for Queen and Country. In others, he saw traces of fear and trepidation, perhaps because they had not yet made their peace with the Maker by accepting the Blessed Redeemer’s gift of eternal life. But the one common element he noticed among all present was a willingness to follow his orders, whatever they might be.

Merciful Maker, Creator of the Universe, what would you ask of me? Should I surrender and trust that you will protect us from our enemies even against seemingly impossible odds? Or should I lead my warriors into battle, knowing we face certain death?

For what felt like an eternity but was in reality a mere half-minute, Gonzalez grappled in prayer, desperately seeking divine inspiration. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do.

Activating the closed-circuit communications link allowing his own holographic image to appear throughout the ship, Commander Gonzalez cleared his thoughts and prepared to address his crew.

“All hands, now hear this! Men and women of HMS Antioch, this is your commanding officer speaking,” he began, struggling to keep the feeling of defeat out of his voice.

“It appears we’ve been betrayed by one of our own. Alliance forces have ensnared us in a trap. We are surrounded by enemy warships, who have taken away our ability to flee to hyperspace. The enemy is demanding our complete and unconditional surrender. If we do not comply, they have vowed to destroy us. Unfortunately, they have the weapons at their disposal to make good on this promise.”

Gonzalez paused, praying for the strength he needed to continue.

As much as he personally loathed the idea, against insurmountable odds, surrender was the most logical course of action. Then again, surrender would likely lead to a fate worse than death. He didn’t need to tell his crew the horror stories of NATAS concentration camps, where prisoners were banished and never heard from again. They’d all heard the same haunting horror stories.

As commanding officer, he also had to consider the potential ramifications of allowing a monster like Captain Francois Lafitte to run free. Free to resume his piracy, kidnapping, and slave-trading operations. Free to kill or destroy the lives of countless innocent civilians.

There was one other consideration which drove him to his final conclusion.

“Whoever betrayed us, he or she must be entrenched at the highest levels of our government. Until this traitor is exposed, Manna is in grave danger. For this reason, I have decided not to surrender. I do not doubt the enemy’s intention to retaliate with lethal force. However, I am reminded of our solemn duty to defend both our Queen and our beloved kingdom. My intention is to reverse course and head toward our translation point. Although the enemy has denied us the ability to jump to hyperspace, I envision a scenario that could allow us the opening we need to deploy a small, hyperdrive-capable drone to carry our message home for us. The chances of success are slim but I believe it is our duty to try, even if we are doomed to fail.”

Gonzalez paused to give his audience an opportunity to process what he was telling them.

“Let’s be clear about what I am saying,” he continued. “This is a blatant suicide mission and I do not expect everyone to agree with my decision. Any conscientious objectors who wish to surrender and take their chances with the enemy have my permission to board an escape pod and abandon ship. Your decision will not be held against you and will not be considered an act of dereliction. I urge you all to take a moment to pray the most important prayer of your lives. Ask Adonai to reveal His plans for your life. Ask the Blessed Redeemer to intercede on your behalf and to grant you the wisdom of discernment. Then, once you have made your decision with Adonai’s blessing, act swiftly, without remorse or delay.”

Another deliberate pause.

“For those of you choosing to depart us, we will continue to pray for your deliverance with our final breaths. For those choosing to stay on board… man your battle stations!”

 

***

 

“General, they are turning to run,” reported Colonel Mohammad Al-Alawi, the spacecraft carrier’s commanding officer.

“Of course they are,” replied General Legion. “Was there ever any doubt, Colonel? Martyrs are stubbornly predictable when it comes to choosing self-sacrifice over the logic of self-preservation.”

“Yes, General,” the colonel replied. “What are your orders?”

“Eradicate any escape pods that jettison. We do not reward cowardice, even amongst our enemies. Then disable, board, and commandeer the ship. Dispatch the Copperhead Commando team, reinforced by Crimson Grenadier platoons. Have them release stun gas through the ventilation shafts. We want most of the Mannans captured alive. You are free to execute anyone who stands in direct opposition to the completion of your objectives. However, ensure Captain Lafitte is retrieved alive and in good health. The Master has plans for him.”

“As you command, General.” Colonel Al-Alawi replied, immediately turning on his heels to carry out his orders.

 

***

 

Ten minutes later, HMS Antioch was on her last legs. Commander Gonzalez did his best to ignore the scene of carnage unfolding around him as the damaged battleship limped onward toward the far edge of the gravity-well interdiction field blocking their escape into hyperspace.

The bridge no longer resembled an operational command center. Having suffered the effects of several missile strikes against its now unshielded exterior, the once immaculate area was littered with decimated workstation terminals, shredded carpet and upholstery, and more than a few mangled bodies of deceased or mortally wounded crew members.

The battleship itself was barely intact, having lost her primary generator, two of her main engines, and control over most of her offensive and defensive weapons systems. Antioch’s only saving grace was the fact that the multiple enemy destroyers, half-dozen missile boats, and two dozen ZF-109 Star Screamers hot on her tail were clearly operating under orders to disable Antioch rather than destroy her.

The moment Antioch’s shields collapsed, the missile boats and destroyers switched from firing warhead-tipped projectiles to stunner missiles and ion concussion bombs while the Star Screamers began targeting the battleship’s nuclear fusion power plants with electromagnetic pulse beam attacks.

“Commander, Engineering tells me we’re minutes away from near-total power failure,” warned Master Chief Petty Officer Tony Nguyen, Antioch’s senior warrant officer and Gonzalez’s right-hand man. “After that, we’ll have enough juice from the backup generator to maintain basic life support systems but not enough to keep power flowing to the engines.”

“Copy that, Master Chief,” Gonzalez acknowledged. “Nancy, how far are we from reaching the edge of the gravity well’s containment field?”

“About thirty seconds away from our maximum missile deployment range,” answered Senior Chief Osborne.

“I see. Well, that leaves me with a pretty small window to lob a Hail Mary pass into the end zone now, doesn’t it?”

“Sir?” Osborne asked, clearly confused.

“Never mind, it’s an Old Earth adage I heard once,” explained Gonzalez. “An ancient sports metaphor that’s no longer relevant. What is relevant is that I need those missiles and drones ready to fly at my command.”

“Missiles standing by and ready to launch, Sir,” reported a fire control officer over the ship’s intercom.

“Ditto for drones,” added another.

Gonzalez glanced at Senior Chief Osborne, who was waiting for his command. “Then let her rip!”

In successive waves over the next two minutes, every missile aboard Antioch was launched into space on a planned collision course for the edge of the interdiction field, each projectile programmed to strike the same precise location. This preselected target was a single gravity well generator node chosen at random among the hundreds integrated into a massive constellation of nodes that when activated, generated the gravity-well effect responsible for rendering hyperdrives inoperable by emulating the disruptive effect of a planet’s gravity-shadow.

By eliminating just one of the generator nodes, Gonzalez hoped to effectively disable a small segment of the interdiction field, or at least severely degrade its strength. In theory, this would allow a smaller vessel the ability to slip through the gap in the grid and escape into hyperspace.

Trailing behind Antioch’s missiles were all seven of the battleship’s hyperdrive-capable messenger drones, each programmed to fly on a course intended to take them right through the small, temporary gap the missiles were about to create.

Unfortunately, several ZF-109 Star Screamers were in hot pursuit. The enemy starfighters had quickly figured out what was going on and abandoned their EMP attacks on Antioch’s power plant. Refocusing on their new targets, the Star Screamers intended to eliminate the drones with heat-seeking missiles.

Anticipating this development, the drone operators back aboard Antioch triggered the remotely piloted spacecraft to deploy a wall of advanced electronic countermeasure pods.

The ECM pods were successful in confusing over half of the Star Screamer missiles into thinking they had struck their intended targets, resulting in premature detonation.

Unfortunately, eight missiles made it through the ECM screen and remained on a course for intercept.

One-by-one, the messenger drones were picked off by missiles as they drew closer and closer to the edge of the interdiction field. Meanwhile, the missiles from Antioch reached their own intended target and successfully destroyed one of the gravity-well generator’s nodes.

From the battleship’s devastated command bridge, Gonzalez monitored the three-dimensional holo-monitor with intense focus as a single remaining messenger drone continued along its designated flight path.

“Come on, little guy,” he whispered. “You’re our last hope. You have to make it through!”

But the tiny drone spacecraft had its work cut out for it. For starters, the temporary hole in the interdiction field was already beginning to close in on itself as surrounding generator nodes automatically maneuvered inward to close the gap in coverage. Even if the drone was able to clear the shrinking window of opportunity in time, two heat-seeking missiles remained firmly on its tail, swiftly closing in on their intended target.

Holding his breath, Gonzalez resisted the urge to cheer as the first missile fizzled out, exceeding its maximum flight range and detonating far short of its mark. Less than two seconds later, both the drone and the final missile cleared the gap in the interdiction field.

Again, Gonzalez resisted the temptation to cheer, and with good reason. Moments after clearing the gap, the missile detonated, so close in proximity to the drone there was no way to know if it made contact.

Gonzalez blanched white and suppressed a rise of bile as he glanced at the holo-monitor. The green icon representing the drone was nowhere to be found.

“No!’ he shouted in frustration as he slammed his fist into the nearest console. At the same time, another series of explosions rocked the battleship, driving him to the floor.

We failed.

“Sir!” shouted an excited Senior Chief Batista, as Gonzalez struggled to his feet. “Sensors confirm our little bird made the jump to hyperspace right before the missile detonated! She’s free and clear!”

The surviving members of Antioch’s crew erupted into cheers. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, they forgot all about their other problems.

Reality delivered a rude awakening when the ship was rocked by yet another round of explosions, this one resulting in a loss of all power not essential to basic life support. Lights dimmed to a shade of near-total darkness.

“We’re dead in the water,” Master Chief Nguyen confirmed.

A few minutes later, another voice called out over the intercom. It belonged to Knight Centurion Keith Rider, the Ado-knight who commanded the century of royal legionnaires on board. “Sir, the hull has been breached. Hostiles have entered the ship. I repeat, hostiles have entered the…” the voice on the other end cried out in anguish before being permanently silenced.

Seconds later, the lights went completely out. Then, a strange hissing sound emerged from the ventilation ducts.

“Gas!” Gonzalez tried to warn, but it was too late.

Much, much too late.

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