The Striker Saga



Copyright 2011 by Patrick Smith​



Let this stand as the definitive record of the so-called ‘Blackstone Incident.’

I was there the day a man became a hero . . . the day a hero became a martyr.

I can still hear the screams of the Hrulon fighters as they bore down upon the man I came to know as the Dragon Striker. In an instant, a disrupter bomb ripped through his form, disintegrating flesh and bone, while alien alloys held their integrity.

It was in those next few moments that my days of chasing the horizon were over. Fate had found me.

You know, that’s the funny thing about fate. It doesn’t wait for when you’re ready, it doesn’t wait for your day off. Just when you think you’ve found your destiny and grabbed hold of that brass ring, you come to realize that you haven’t been chasing your purpose in life. Instead, you realize that fate . . . has been stalking you.

That day, forces beyond my control would reveal to me the very fabric of my destiny and my birthright . . . as the Dragon Striker.




Prologue



In the age before recorded time, long before the Golden Age of Man, a peaceful and technologically advanced race of Regadan humans, called the Gaidorin, began to chart the star systems beyond their own. On a distant blue-green world, which we now call the Earth, the Gaidorin colonized the untamed wilderness and found themselves face to face with the first primitive races of ‘Earth-men.’

In an effort to share the benefit of their superior knowledge by introducing our ancestors to the concepts of society and architecture, the Gaidorin discovered that the men of Earth weren’t so different from the tribes of Regada. However, civil war soon erupted across their lands, engulfing the tribes their homeworld- a bloody and violent conflict that spilled across the tribal colonies, even reaching planet Earth, which they called Isgard.

After many long years, the fires of war cooled and, united under an ideal of peace and justice, the tribes and planetary colonies of Regada came together and signed into effect the Constitution of Sovereign Tribes . . . but peace between such culturally diverse tribes and the passive disregard for such deeply rooted prejudice can only be held for so long. Plagued by unrest and indecision, a new war amongst the free tribes brews once more . . .


****​

Fort Belvoir, Virginia . . .

The silver Audi eased through the drive that sat in the cold shadow of the Menzel Memorial tower. Dressed in a black suit and tie, Dr. James Howe, Director of Artifacts for the CIA, thanked the driver and stepped out onto the pavement. He mindlessly stroked the neglected salt-and-pepper mustache that widened with a weak yawn- the only indication of his early morning conference with the other CIA directors at Langley.

Like a sentinel of concrete, glass, and steel, the tower dominated the horizon of manicured lawns and of the Selfridge Headquarters Complex. Encompassed on three sides by a thick blanket of emerald pines, the nearly twenty story high-rise had been named for former Secretary of Defense, Donald Menzel. Stepping out of the tower’s restricted access elevator, Howe was blinded by the mid-morning sunlight that spilled out into the hallway.

Toting a Data Monitor in one hand and an access card in the other, he intently navigated the long and winding corridor. A near window looked out onto the other buildings comprising the SAC (Special Activities Complex) nestled near the north side of the military installation. The Defense Logistics Agency anchored the sprawling view of the horizon, separated by US Route 1, which ran the length of the base’s western perimeter.

In his right hand, Howe clutched his access card, the glossy laminate gleaming light over a set of surreptitious emblems, known as the Maiestas Ordo. The symbols marked the key like this- on the top of the card, a 12-sided dodecagon bearing the initials ‘MJXII’ sat positioned opposite of a multicolored rosy cross, adorned with astrological, alchemic, and occult symbols, centered by a gold lemniscate. The card was, in fact, so unique, that there were only twelve like it in existence. Turning with determination, he slid the coded ID card into a locking terminal that flanked the door at the end of the hall. The archive repository greeted him with the unpleasant, nearly acrid odor of controlled temperature and climate and the sounds of fluorescent lighting coming online.

“Good evening, Doctor Howe,†a soft computerized voice resounded into the archive chamber, accompanied by the soft flicker of a female-formed life-sized hologram that appeared from several hidden projectors.

“Good evening, JILL,†Dr. Howe replied to the slightly distorting image which sat fixed laterally on the doorframe. The CIA’s newest human-software networking interface took some getting used to. Howe wasn’t sure who the programmers had used to model the holo’s likeness after, but he was sure that she was just as striking as the ethereal image would suggest.

“Prep the analysis terminal, JILL . . . access Tanas files zero-one-three-four-five-two and six-two-four-nine-five-four.â€

“As you wish, Doctor Howe,†JILL complied. The red-haired female recording accessed her faux PDA as the appropriate systems came to life.

“Display.â€

The humming sound of delicate, super-sophisticated systems filled the glass and steel lab as the sleek, horizontally-fixed holographic monitors came to life. Howe slid a pair of black-rimmed glasses over his eyes and pulled a seat up to the first active monitor. Hovering a few inches over the monitor screen, the ethereal representation of the ancient tablet spun into existence, birthed from a single spark of brilliant sapphire energy.

“JILL, access the cipher from our last session,†Dr. Howe began, as he keyed in a specific line of data at the system’s touchscreen keypad. “New data from keypanel should help break the encryption.â€

“As you wish, Doctor Howe,†the preprogrammed voice sounded again. “New data is processed. Displaying results on Monitor One.†Howe’s jaw suddenly fell in amazement as the cryptic markings on the ancient tablet gave way to lines of very standard Latin-based English words, some lines left broken by the deep scars in the surprisingly smooth stone.

“First Age, Eighteenth Year of Amma, realm [unrecognizable entry],†the translation systems adding the benefit of English prepositions and clarification entries to the foreign lines of markings. The opening line struck Howe’s imagination . . . the words ‘Age’ and ‘Year’ were relatively common to someone here on Earth . . . but to the authors of the mysterious tablets, the application of such concepts were unfathomable to the human mind, even one as exceptional as the Director’s.

“In the great [-] before the Tragedy of Vistol the Grand, the Hephan, Nostros, forged the swords [-] Arestar, great weapons which harnessed the life and will [-]. Within these swords was trussed the strength and power, as afforded by providence, to bring peace and justice [-] Tribes [See lists of alternate meanings].

“However, the Hephan’s apprentice, Emon, betrayed his [-] forging in secret a sword of confusion, created with the sole purpose of plunging our realm into war, without end. It was at this time that the warrior Krael, born of the Hrulons, took up [-] sword of confusion.

“And so began the War of the First Age . . . .

“Of the accord of Naral of [-].†A whirlwind of possibilities suddenly flooded Howe’s limited human mind. Manipulating the hologram, he ‘filed’ the tablet back into the system.

“Sword of ‘confusion’?†He pondered the term mostly to himself. “JILL, apply the same properties to secondary file.â€

“As you wish, Doctor Howe.†Howe had already studied the similarities not only in the markings of the two tablets collected from the African rainforests, but in the patterns as well. As the other flat-faced stone tablet materialized before him, the foreign glyphs suddenly morphed into Modern English.

“Third Age, Twelfth Year of Bostros, the realm of Regada,†the glyphs disclosed again, indicating an incomprehensible passage of time from the recording engraved on the first tablet.

“[-] . . . it began with the emergence of the [-] from each of the Great Tribes, each bearing the armor of the eternals, said to have been discovered by our forefathers [-]. Legend states [-] intended to usher in an era of righteousness to each of the tribes . . . but much was lost in the great wars [-]

“At the end of the war [-], only [-] remained to contest the shadow of the Hrulon, called Krael, [-]. No one knows what evil had brought to Krael unnatural long life . . . some assume the evil of the confusion sword had utterly consumed the Hrulon. Whatever the justification [-]

“In his ever-growing madness, Krael declared a last stand against the surviving [-]. It was this battle that would prove to be his undoing, as the champion of the Duroks, the warrior Arius, [-], defeated Krael, summoning a new era of peace for our [-].

“Of the accord of Tikke of the Duroks,†he read aloud. “JILL, I want a full diligence standard on both translations. Forward results to my personal account, then save the translations to hard copy, standard Tanas protocol. I want a full data lock on both files, Code Alpha 5.â€

“As you wish, Doctor Howe.†James Howe found himself struggling for a grasp on reality. The artifacts, known as the Tanas Tablets, were named after archeologist William Tanas, who unearthed the stone writings near the city of Bandiagara in the West African country of Mali. They gained countless notoriety after radiocarbon dating had traced their origins to a time before recorded history, making them the oldest artifacts in all of human history.

However, it was the discovery of a cipher key on an ancient Sumerian stele nearly three months before that confirmed the extraordinary origins of these extremely-confidential tablets to rest; and provided Howe the breakthrough he had been praying for. With a long sigh, Howe pulle a small phone from his jacket and slid the keypad open.

“Colonel Macluran? I have sensitive information that Tanas protocol denies from telecommuniqué. Yes sir . . . everything is Code Alpha locked. Okay sir, I’ll see you when you get here.â€
 
Chapter One

Setting the Board


The dreams of man are bold.

Bold, wild, and far-sweeping, despite the finite abilities and comprehension of the human condition. He dreams of wonder and magic, fortunes and empires- things not often imparted by the course of fate. Instead, man is burdened to labor and to sweat, to toil in the dirt from whence he came, and to reap the fruits of a cold existence. Man, despite all his schemes, is coldly mundane- save for a few.

Called demigods and heroes, kings and warriors, only a select handful of men have achieved immortality through epics and songs, having an impact so great that they would become indistinguishable from legend. As the brilliant dawn of early morning broke over the desolate and arid Amargosa Range, the Dragon Striker, having earned his extraordinary distinction by the edge of his sword and the strength of his armor, regarded his enemy with blinding prejudice.

Standing on the sky, the Striker hovered for a moment, basking in the heat of the rising sun. Crimson rock, dried clay, and hot sand spread out beneath him like an ocean of parched death. A closing, dark shadow against the steel-blue horizon heralded the attack of the black-armored Hercuron.

Moving with incredible swiftness, the two warriors cut the sky like bolts of white-hot lightning, clashing their archaic weapons with furious intent. The resulting boom of thunder echoed across the expanse of the desert and into the pitched ranges of the nearby mountains.

Executing a flawless parry that utterly shattered the blade of the Hercuron warrior, the Striker followed up with a solid kick that cracked the black helmet of the hunter. A lesser man could not have resisted the blow with the resiliency that the Hercuron managed. But then again, the Hercuron was no man, by any stretch of the imagination. Forged from the very heat of battle, the trophy hunter was just one of a clan of such warriors that easily numbered in the tens of thousands. And if the Dragon Striker had anything to say about it, those numbers were well on the decline.

Without warning, a storm of mystical energy burst into existence around the Striker, his physical form consumed by the maelstrom. Then, like the strike of a viper, the storm of energy surged forward like a thunderbolt and slammed into the chest of the Hercuron.

Sternum and ribs cracked from the sheer impact, splintering bone and armor, the energy burning the soft tissues of its heart. Shards of unidentifiable alloy rained over the rocks and sand, immediately followed by charred Caucasoid remains and debris too far removed from anything distinguishable. Standing over the stinking, smoking cinder of the Hercuron, the Striker sheathed his gleaming sword, inducing a wave of energy that robbed him of his Striker armor.

Where the Dragon Striker had stood a heartbeat before, a tall, male human now regarded the black shell of armor and flesh before him. His shoulder-length jet black hair ended in a knot, falling down his neck in a taut ponytail. Asian features and a light complexion completed his visage, his face pitted with long, streaking scars.

“That’s the third this month,†he noted to himself, regarding the corpse of his Hercuron attacker. While the would-be harbingers of destruction only knew him as the Dragon Striker, he had a name - Austin Yong. Furthermore, he had a purpose, a legacy, entrusted to him by his father, who had been the champion of the Dragon Striker powers a generation before.

A sparkle of ruby flame burst into brilliance near the center of the Hercuron, growing and consuming the body until there was no evidence of the terrorist - save for the exhaustion that plagued Austin’s body. There would be more, he knew. Deep in his bones, beneath the layers of fleeting courage and failing resolve, he feared the storm had just begun.

****

James Cook High School, Port James, California . . .

‘A Nation Divided.

‘It was the greatest war in American history. Three million fought- an astounding six hundred thousand died. This great, yet terrible war was the only one fought on American soil by Americans. In the mid 1800s, the United States would be torn apart by this turn of events. Since the beginning of the colonies more than two hundred years earlier, two regions of the country had developed in very different ways. They were not the same for many reasons, but rising tensions began separating the fabric of our sovereignty. By 1860, after failed years of compromise on many issues, the outbreak of war was something that could not be prevented. The time of serenity and unity would be utterly shattered by the Civil War of the American people
.’

Matt Morrison yawned, rubbing his eyes and brushing blonde locks out of his face, as the words on the page blurred out of strain, if not boredom. Slightly athletic by genetic chance, not activity, his nearly six-foot frame sat squeezed into the undersized desk. Like most Americans, Matt knew what happened to his forefathers- the basics anyway. Through a haze of utter indifference, he did his best to focus on the lesson - and failed miserably. After all, it was Friday, nearing three-thirty in the afternoon, and in a matter of minutes, the James Cook High student body would be freed of their prison of higher learning and loosed upon the unsuspecting Port James nightlife.

Reading from his oversized educator-edition textbook, Kent Anderson stifled a yawn as he continued with his usual, monotonous drone that dried up any emotion out of the already lifeless words before him. He was, admittedly, not the most interesting teacher, having taught the same subjects to two generations of Port James students during his tenure at Port James High- and, short of a miracle, he knew the reading of such a chapter was more a time-killing tactic than any academic process.

“This conflict was one of many wars fought to end the persecution of innocents. This American ‘Civil War’ spilled the blood of our ancestors for nearly four long years, until the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox in 1865. This war against prejudice would be reflected nearly a hundred years later.

“By 1939, the great societies of the world were plunged into what would come to be known as the ‘Second World War’, as recently elected Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, perpetrated one of the greatest tragedies in modern history, a Nazi mass murder of the Jewish people known as the Holocaust. However, the Jews were not the only the victims of Nazism; it is estimated that as many as fifteen million civilians were murdered by this racist regime, including millions from other ethnicities.â€

Scattered yawns erupted across the classroom, which were soon drowned out by the anticipated scream of the bell. As if by precognition, half of the students were already stuffing books and papers into their already overflowing backpacks. Gathering his notebook and binders, Matt ignored the various insults spewed his way as an ensemble of jocks passed his seat, giving voice to their weekend ambitions.

“Party at Hibriten’s!†a voice declared from amongst the bunch of carved-from-stone and, as Matt ironically noted, dumb-as-rock football players that cheered the announcement. Nick Hibriten, whose ridiculously square jaw seemed to defy the laws of physics, smiled on as the crowd continued to celebrate the gathering at his house in the high-class Angel Hills community. The jubilation continued as Hibriten led his posse of letterman-jacket wearing Neanderthals through the classroom door.

Interrupted but not deterred, Mr. Anderson raised his voice above the bustling sounds of the quickly evacuating room. “All right students, we will begin our discussion on the wars of the modern era on Monday. Have a safe weekend and be sure to have your chapter questions completed to be turned in when we return!â€

Oblivious to the jock-herd, Steven Daniels, awkwardly-lanky, dark-skinned, and president of the Port James Technology Student Association chapter, nearly shrieked in terror before being silenced against a wall of blue-lockers face-first. He stared a hole through the celebratory parade of Hibriten-followers as he pushed his glasses back up the ridge of his nose. Slowly regaining his composure, he watched as Matt came around the corner of the hallway from Mr. Anderson’s class. There was no need for pleasantries, as the two teens had been thick-as-thieves for as long as anyone could remember.

“Yeah, you better keep walking!†Steven shouted mockingly over Matt’s shoulder, confident that his nasally threat had been unable to reach the ever-growing celebration that spilled into the school parking lot.

“Freak,†a feminine voice exasperated behind the duo. Matt instantly recognized the voice belonging to Karen Archer. Tall, blonde, and beautiful, she clutched her book-bag tight against her body as Matt sighed and gorged his already overflowing locker with his World History books.

“So, you on for Nick’s party tonight?†she asked.

“Yeah, a bunch of chest-beating apes and their beer-keg mating rituals seems like the perfect way to spend my Friday night,†Matt returned as he closed his locker.

“Actually, mademoiselle, ‘The Matt’ and I are putting the final touches on our NERO concept for our report on nanotechnology for Dr. Langer,†Steven interjected. Karen grinned mockingly with disgust.

“Nero?†she asked.

“Nanoid Experimental Robotic Organism- NERO,†Steven explained defensively.

Having considered Karen’s proposition, Matt finally conceded. “Maybe.â€

“What?†Steven blurted. He glanced over at Matt, who stared past him in a daze of reflection at Karen’s offer. “Come on Matt, you can’t be serious!†He waved a playful hand in front of Matt’s face. Matt continued to look right past him at the corridor of the south wing.

“Yo,†he said, snapping his fingers. “Mattie boy, wake up.â€

Smiling softly, Karen echoed his concern. “What’s wrong?â€

“Nothing - I just . . .†No matter how hard he tried the words just weren’t there. “I can’t explain it.â€

“Try me,†Karen demanded.

“Do you ever feel like you were meant to be something? Besides all of this?†he made a sweeping motion towards the classrooms and stragglers of the rush hour student traffic. “I’m not talking college or a career. I’m talking about fate- not just what that fate is- but why?â€

Steven tried to maintain his composure. “Okay, Earth to Matt. Come in Matt.â€

“I’m serious, SD!†Matt defended, shoving Steven lightheartedly. Karen and Steven then moved to catch up with Matt, who had abandoned them in the empty hallway.

“Okay- fate,†Karen replied, “- or destiny? You’re talking about a calling, not the eventual outcome of your life. What’s sparked this quest for your divination?†Matt considered the question for a moment.

“There’s got to be more than the everyday, nine-to-five, get married and settled down routine that everyone buys into. We’re born, we die, and in between, we’re just slaves to the grind- and for what? Call me crazy, but I don’t want to be a pawn,†Matt rationalized, mostly to himself. “Look, all I’m saying, is it wrong to crave a life of substance, a life of significance? Why else do we dream of things that seem to be beyond our reach if we’re not meant to achieve an existence greater than that of a normal life?â€

“Define ‘normal’,†Steven teased. By the look on Karen’s face, it was painfully obvious to Matt that not everyone had the same concern for their future. Without any closure to the subject, Matt pulled away and dashed down the steps of the school’s side entrance.

“Nevermind,†he yielded.

“Matt!†Karen called. She stopped dead in her tracks, knowing that whatever was bothering Matt was something that no amount of conversation could quell. In fact, she worried that her prodding may have made things worse.

****

The hot water exorcised the pain and fatigue that punished the human body of Austin Yong as he leaned against his forearms. The cascading water fell over his bruised body which was freshly scrubbed of dirt and sweat from the morning’s battle with the Hercuron. He recounted the events of the fight in his mind as the steam enveloped his sore body.

It was almost like a … sixth sense. Somehow, he knew the Hercuron had been hunting him. For nearly ten years, they had come for him. He never understood why- just that they were bent on claiming him like some sort of prize hunt. While there certainly had been more than a few close calls, it was almost like the hunters were adolescent- not entirely sure of themselves and their capabilities. Either way, showing mercy meant showing weakness- and if the Hercurons were good at one thing, it was capitalizing on that weakness.

Stepping out of the shower, he draped a towel over his middle as steam rose from his body. His thoughts concerning his less-than-perfect physical condition were barely louder than the sonorous CNN broadcast reporter who shared the screen of the dilapidated television set with Colonel David Warren.

“With me tonight is Colonel David Warren, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the growing speculation of highly-dangerous and experimental weapon testing in the Amargosa Mountain Range outside of San Angeles, California and the supposed sightings of an armored vigilante operating in the Levy Peninsula area of California,†the reporter was saying. “Thank you for your time, Colonel . . .†Colonel Warren sat opposite of the reporter, his broad form more than filling the space of the small chair. His strong, squared features encircled stronger eyes that regarded the speculative reporter with strong disdain.

Austin pulled a plain white teeshirt over his bruised shoulders. A little over two thousand miles away, the Colonel politely thanked the reporter.

“Thank you, Tom.â€

“Right, let’s get right down to it, Colonel - what do you have to say concerning the supposed use of experimental and potentially toxic weapons of a nuclear nature in the Armargosa Range?â€

“I don’t believe there is sufficient evidence to support such an outrageous claim,†Colonel Warren returned coolly. Without missing a beat, the middle-aged reporter continued his line of questioning.

“I understand that these same reports have also mentioned eyewitness accounts of,†the reporter began, as he shuffled a stack of papers in his hands. “And I quote: ‘A heavily armored red soldier with a samurai sword who seemed to appear from thin air and do battle with a black-suited warrior.’ These sightings also seem to coincide with numerous reports of these mysterious flying humanoids.â€

The gruff Colonel rolled his eyes, which only fueled the reporter’s drive.

“I believe we have amateur video documentation of a supposed ‘UFH’ or Unidentified Flying Humanoid. Colonel, let’s take a look.†With that, the screen was suddenly filled with a shaky, low quality image of a black, bipedal figure that seemed to levitate above the horizon. “Of course, there’s nothing exceptional concerning this particular video, as recorded sightings of such UFH’s have been steady documented for the last few decades. Colonel, your thoughts?â€

Sighing, Colonel Warren shifted in his seat. “Tom, you know, I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my life, but these reports and ‘amateur evidence’ of a so-called armored warrior bring to mind poorly-adapted Japanese hero shows and creative film-school students rather than an advanced supersoldier program or whatever the talking heads want to call it. To those who believe in this, no proof is necessary. They believe with or without hard evidence. â€

“To which I say, Colonel, that, to the skeptics, no proof is possible- anything can be justified or rationalized to those who need to doubt the existence of such . . . entities.â€

Sitting down in the hard and uncomfortable chair opposite the antique television set, Austin slid his bare feet into his slippers and popped the tab on a cold can of his favorite draft.

“Okay Colonel, let’s focus on the latest reports that put this vigilante in the city of Port James.â€

“Again, Tom, I believe these continued reports to be nothing more than a group of over-imaginative citizens, starved for attention, abusing our emergency services in the Port James area.â€

“I see. You know, I can understand your stance on this seemingly ludicrous issue, but what can you say about the confirmed evidence of marks of molecular disintegration and the presence of fragments of an unidentified metallic alloy in the vicinity of these reported sightings in the Peninsula?â€

“Let me set the record straight on these infrequent and isolated incidents. We have taken the damage of commercial and personal properties seriously and dispatched our own teams of specialists to the areas. However, there is nothing to indicate that these incidents of criminal damage were somehow linked to the reports of this armored vigilante supposedly operating in the Levy Peninsula.â€

Good cover, Austin commented. As he poured the alcoholic beverage down his throat, a singular dot of red light hazily penetrated the darkness of his small kitchen. The low-divergence beam was soon joined by nearly a dozen others, each born from super-sophisticated rifle-mounted targeting scopes. From the corner of his eye, Austin caught the crimson gleam of the lasers and with all his might, threw himself behind the nearest wall. Sheetrock and wood suddenly exploded into a hell-storm of disintegrating debris as the assault rifles chewed through the walls of the small apartment.

“Forward team, secure the area!†a stern voice commanded as the sound of tactical boots landing on the debris-filled floor of the kitchen filled Austin’s ears.

“STS,†Austin told himself. While the nomenclature ‘Security Technology Services’ seemed to imply a nondescript dot-com company run by some pimple-faced, overbearing Ivy Leaguer barely out of his twenties, the reality was that STS was a privately contracted security force, having replaced the infamous Blackwater Worldwide corporation as the world leader in private tactical forces following the US occupation of Iraq in the early twenty-first century.

With barely a thought, the Strike Saber materialized in Austin’s grasp. Witnessing the burst of accompanying energy, the lead STS soldier stepped back and thumbed his comm.

“Target is armed, I repeat target is . . .†Before he could finish, Austin silenced him with a sweeping leg strike before leaping toward the front door of the flat.

“Fire!†one of the soldiers commanded. As Austin neared the entrance way, a burst of energy exploded from the hilt of his Strike Saber, shifting the Dragon Striker armor on his body. Bullets ricocheted off the armor as it seared itself to his skin and clothing.

Austin cried with determination as he smashed through the wall. The momentum of his lunge carried him over the metal staircase that led to his apartment. With the ease of an acrobat, he caught the railing with his right hand. Moonlight revealed the location of his Kawasaki Izumi sports bike parked in the narrow grasp of the conjoining alleyway that separated the decaying brownstone from a crumbling warehouse.

Straining with the flimsy terrace, he pushed off of the staircase and pivoted beneath the waves of gunfire that would have slammed into him only seconds before. Landing with a splash into a puddle of collected rainwater, he manipulated the hilt of his Saber, returning his armor and sword to their complex quantum storage systems. He had practiced the routine on a number of random occasions and performed the brilliant exit with scant effort. Pulling a black jacket from a compartment he had installed on a nearby dumpster, he sheathed his arms and torso in its protective leather and Kevlar grasp.

“Sight him up!†one of the lead voices shouted as laser sights rained down over the rippling puddle behind him. The scream of the bike’s high-performance engine echoed through the alleyway as the STS squadron came rappelling down the outer staircase.

“STS One to Mobile Command, target is off grid. Requesting multiple vector scans for all possible routes,†Lieutenant Jon Stevenson ordered. He cursed to himself- the siege on the apartment complex had been the culmination of months of stakeouts and intelligence gathering- and in seconds, the elusive Dragon Striker had slipped through their fingers once again- but this was the closest his squad had gotten to the civilian operator of the Striker powers and he would be damned if he was about to give up the hunt now.

“Twenty-two that, STS One. We’ve got black and whites en route to location. Get out of there, Jon, we’ll get him next time,†the voice replied, robbed of its humanity by the warbling static that heralded the transmission.

Stevenson grimaced, killing the light on his rifle, giving the signal to fallback. Instantly, the STS tactical squadron evanesced, leaving no indication of their presence as the pulsating lights and resonating sirens of the police cruisers filled the dark lane.

****

Angel Hills . . .

The upper-crust society of Port James called the sprawling community of Angel Hills home when the stuffy high-rises and swollen commercial structures of the city disgorged their slaves at the end of a long and tiring work week. Here, far removed from the congested highways and the canyons of glass and steel, it could almost be believed that their thankless corporate lives were as faint as the breeze that blew through the well-manicured rows of arboreta that flanked the streets.

While Joe Hibriten’s nomenclature may have suggested otherwise, the word ‘average’ was certainly never considered when describing the CEO of Hibriten Motorsports, least of all his three-story dwelling centered at the apex of the main loop that connected the branches of the gated community.

The ample-sized driveway of the Hibriten estate boasted a bevy of high-end vehicles, none of which belonged to the Hibriten Motorsports armada. Instead, they were possessed by the ‘in-crowd’ of the James Cook High School upperclassmen whose trust funds and estates were moderate in comparison to the Hibriten Empire. Watching the door, Karen Archer stood, grasping a soda can and watching the usual, customary people involved in the usual, customary rituals of young-adulthood.

A pair of headlights that swept through the living room window drew her attention to a late-model black Chevrolet truck that joined the crowded curb. Within, Matt Morrison and his counterculture co-pilot, Steven Daniels, regarded the impressive architecture of the Hibriten estate.

Before they could approach the door, Karen came bolting out of the house, grabbing Matt up and stealing him away from his intellectual counterpart. She was barely covered in a black dress that both stunned and frightened the new arrivals.

“I don’t even care that you brought Astro-Boy along,†Karen blurted, nearly dragging Matt up the steps to the house. “Things are finally looking up for you . . . in fact, I have a couple of potential prospects for the Fall Ball that I’d like to introduce you to . . .†Full of disgust, Steven began to slink back to the truck.

“No you don’t,†Matt barked, grabbing the black male by his shirt collar. The loud, booming bass of vulgar hip-hop greeted the two as they followed Karen through the foyer. A loud, exasperated groan from the kitchen indicated that Hibriten’s posse had become painfully aware of the duo’s arrival.

“We don’t serve their kind here!†cried Daniel Ashworth, the starting receiver for the Port James Tigers, quoting the cantina bartender from Star Wars. The group burst into drunken laughter.

“These aren’t the geeks we’re looking for,†Donovan Johnson, the Port James center, called out. Steven, painfully aware of the context of the comments, swallowed and stepped forward.

“You just watch yourself. We’re wanted men. I have the death sentence on twelve systems,†Steven added. With a chorus of tired sighs, the two athletes faded into the sea of gyrating teenagers.

Matt begrudgingly followed Karen past the living room occupants and into the much smaller den, where a mostly female crowd was seated around, trading gossip and fashion tips.

“Rachel,†Karen introduced, referring to the raven-haired teenager who sat directly across room, wearing a sky-blue dress. “I’d like to introduce my good friend, Matt.†Matt swallowed hard. As if talking to a woman as gorgeous as Rachel Pratt wasn’t hard enough, the unorthodox way the two were introduced shoved him over the edge into full-blown embarrassment.

“You don’t have to blush, cutie,†Rachel said, rising from her seat. “We’re all adults here.â€

“I wish that were so,†Matt mumbled to himself. He had seen her type before - recently separated from a serious relationship, stepping out of her comfort zone in an effort to reassure her self-confidence at any cost. Whatever the reason, he would have no part in it.

“Karen, can I talk to you for a second?†He asked, gently shoving the tall woman back through the doorway.

“What’s your problem, Matt?†she demanded.

“I’ve told you before, Karen, these people may be your crowd, but this isn’t my scene. Believe me, she’s gorgeous, but I’m not about all of this.â€

“Not your scene? Puh-lease, Matt, your brother would have jumped on that opportunity in two seconds flat.â€

“I’m not my brother,†he forced through a grimace. “We may have the same father, but I can assure you, the similarities end there. You used to appreciate that, remember?†With that, Matt stormed out of the room, grabbed Steven, and headed for the door.

“Leaving so soon?†a voice called out behind him. Nick Hibriten.

“What’s it to you, Nick?†Matt called back.

“I just don’t remember inviting you to my party.†Turning, Matt looked the six-foot-five quarterback up and down.

“We were just leaving,†Steven added.

“Shut your face,†Donovan replied, stepping out from behind Nick.

“You know, you’re a Morrison. You’re supposed to be one of us, like your brother. You’re supposed to be a part of the legacy - instead, you choose to run with freaks like Daniels. When are you gonna face up to it, Matt?â€

“Face up to what?†Matt threw back, taking a step forward. Nick shoved Donovan out of the way.

“That whether you like it or not, you were born into this crowd . . . and you can’t leave the party without paying the band.†Matt clenched a fist and took a deep breath.

“Nick, stop,†Karen pleaded, hanging off Hibriten’s muscular form. Nick stared down at her and back at Matt.

“Come on Matt, let’s roll man!†Steven insisted, pulling on Matt’s arm.

Nick leaned down to eye-level with Matt and loosed a final threat. “Consider it a loan then, Matt. But I promise you . . . when you least expect, I will collect.†The back door to the kitchen flung open before Matt could respond, as the rest of the offensive line entered, each holding fifths of grain alcohol.

“Smirnoff Air, ready for liftoff!" Brannon Scott, the Port James starting offensive guard cried out. Nick snapped into a wide smile as he rushed to meet the new arrivals. Matt stared back at Karen for a long second before following Steven through the front entrance.

“Matt!†Karen called out. Watching as Matt started up his truck, she sighed and begrudgingly rejoined the party.

“Why do you keep doing this to yourself, Matt?†Steven asked as the black pickup pulled out of manicured driveway.

“What?â€

“This - do you really expect a new attitude from Nick and the cromags? It’s just like Heath, man, you can’t seriously think they’ll ever change. You don’t, do you?â€

“Anyone can change, SD. Sometimes, change . . . happens in an instant.â€

****​

Norfolk, Virginia . . .

The massive headquarters of Sensor14 Industries sat in the shadow of other centers of industry, including the Wells Fargo Center and Dominion Tower. While S14 was known as a manufacture of military-grade communication devices and electronics, the truth was much more menacing.

Colonel Steven Macluran sighed as he passed through the main gate, his black SUV transmitting clearance codes to the port gate control room. He held a monitor plate in his hands, its transparent screen flanked by black plastic control handles. A sixteen terabyte memory card dangled from his neck, resting against the clearance ID at the end of a black lanyard, bearing the stylized initials C-A-S, or Code Alpha Systems on one side, with the mysterious Maiestas Ordo emblem on the other. A man dressed in a plain black suit met the Colonel at his door. Armed with a Stormhawk model revolver, the man escorted Macluran across the sally port and into the receiving area.

“Colonel,†Another black-suited man addressed, saluting Macluran.

Gruffly, Macluran addressed him as he returned the gesture. “Sturm.

Standing barely over five feet tall, Head Administrator Carter Sturm was a thin, young man, barely in his thirties. In fact, he was the youngest person to ever be promoted to Head Administrator over S14. Colonel Macluran’s personal security escort chuckled amongst themselves over this fact as he drew on what little courage he could muster to address the Colonel and the data contained in the teradrive.

“More from Howe’s ‘Gospel of Yoda’?†he asked as the Colonel released the data pad into Sturm’s possession. With the push of a button, the clear plate came to life with display screens feeding information directly from the teradrive.

“Excellent work,†he added, losing himself to the content of the monitor.

“Stevenson’s ops team in Port James has logged a new direct encounter - that’s the third this year alone. I feel like we’re starting to pick up on his trail,†Colonel Macluran noted. With a pass of his hand across the monitor’s keypad, the screen went blank once more.

“. . . I’m listening.â€

“An investigation into the apartment where contact was made has led us to a name- John Austin.â€

“John Austin? That’s the most ridiculous name I’ve ever heard.â€

“Well, Carter, if you’d made it to last month’s debriefing, you’d know that he’s used the alias before, in a purchase of that little Mickey Mouse bicycle of his. He’s getting sloppy- it’s just a matter of time now before we can hook him and book him.â€

“Look, it’s an interesting story, Colonel, really it is, but it’s your job to ‘bag him and tag him’ - it’s my job to see what all of this has to do with hokey artifacts and this ancient astronaut theory of Dr. Howe’s.â€

“You just keep feeding Warren his lines for the press. I’m heading to Port James to oversee operations there. Maybe you can get us something from Howe’s reports, something we can use in the field.†Colonel Macluran stated, before turning to his entourage. “Let’s kick rocks, men. The stench of inferiority is making me want to gag.â€

Regan Creek, California . . .

The Riverwalk snaked along the bank of Regan Creek, separating the lush suburbs of Angel Hills from the industrial parks that ran along the 101 freeway. Here, the rumble of Austin Yong’s Izumi sportsbike shattered the still of the peaceful Riverwalk, its bass echoing off the iron rails and rain-slicked concrete. Austin never really knew why he was always drawn to the wooden benches and manicured foliage that skirted the edges of the walk, but he figured that the STS goons would never show their masked faces in such a densely populated area- and so far, he had been right.

The assorted pubs near the north end of the walk bustled with their usual patrons and musical acts, the south end anchored by the always bustling Port James Times building. The evidence of a light summer rain glistened off the stone pathway as he parked the bike near the waterfront. His stomach growled- a quick survey of the contents of his jacket revealed the depleted funds of his emergency cash- a couple of crumpled dollars and a driver’s license, bearing his likeness and the name John Austin.

“Pretty sure that name’s run its course,†he said, destroying the ID. One of his only trusted contacts, a local computer tech by the name of William ‘the Cranium’, had helped him conceive and produce several identities to use while he evaded the ever growing shadow of the STS. It had been nearly twenty years since he had been legally known as Austin Yong . . . but once he received the mantle of the Striker, everything about his past life had to be burned- the unfortunate ‘victim’ of a traffic accident, Austin Yong had been buried.

With no real family to speak of, he hadn’t heard the name in just as many years- due mostly to the fact that his entire upbringing had been nothing more than a series of exercises and events, meticulously ordered by forces he never had the privilege of knowing, in order to prepare him for the passing of the Striker powers from the last generation to the current. The specific separation from family from that point on was part of the lifestyle of a Striker- a strictly-imposed, almost monk-like isolation, meant to bring about self-reliance and strength that could only be achieved through such practices. Austin himself knew very little about the true philosophy he had inherited, as his supposed parents had been captured by a previous incarnation of STS only hours after he was given the blade of the Striker.

The moment seemed laser-etched into his memory. The woman he knew as his mother for eighteen years admitted the startling revelation as his ‘father’ produced the alien weapon from thin air, bestowing its heavy weight upon him. He was warned that the initial transition would be quite jarring, as the powers would have to adjust and bind themselves to his specific physiology. He had no memory of the first transformation, only the physiological and psychological trauma as a result of the evocation of the energy fields and fleeting memories of darkness and fading echoes of some sort of ‘war’ and a Japanese term, ‘kagemusha’, which meant, ‘shadow warrior.’ Although the term had been spoken by his father, who had been raised in San Angeles after his family emigrated from Japan a decade before his birth, the explicit context of the exact word had always eluded him.

Each transformation thereafter had become less and less painful, until the act of donning the Striker armor had become as natural as walking between rooms. Over time, more aspects of the powers revealed themselves to him . . . but as of late, he could almost swear that the powers were fading ever-so-slightly, as if their very source had been somehow lessened.

Breathing the night air deep into his lungs, he exhaled and stared out across the water, at what few stars could penetrate the glare of the pubs and smog from the city as they glimmered across the surface. Austin knew the sword and its powers were from the great ‘out-there’ - the evidence was inescapable. It was in the ache of his bones and the bruises that mottled his chest and sides. Equally, he could not escape the ever-growing fear that forces and intellects responsible for waging the war his mother had spoken of were moving into place like the pieces of a chessboard - and found himself consumed with the question of whether he was a pawn in this grand war-to-come or whether he would ultimately be in control of his destiny.
 
Chapter Two

The Merciless Rise​

Across the great chasm of space that spans from the outer fringes of our galaxy to the Sirius constellation, resplendent clouds of stardust and clusters of the most basic carbon-based shivers of existence tumble without comprehension or concern for matters of the species that are most common to the cosmos, the Humans. While the works of science fiction writers paint the Great Unknown as an expanse teeming with worlds of wonder and alien societies beyond our understanding, the harsh reality is that the universe is littered with Human civilizations not unlike our own which sit mired in corruption and failing principles and spin tales of their own grand space operas and escapism adventures.

Near the edges of the galactic rift known as Wild Space, the planet RLA-2 sits, bathed in the brilliance of Sirius A (locally known as Acturus), the massive yellow star that the eight planets of the Sirius system orbit. Once a pleasant world of grasslands and forests, rivers and lakes, RLA-2, known simply as Regada, had been overtaken by industry and progress . . . for better or for worse. While there are still some ‘wild’ areas where one can visit the planet’s previous splendor, the edges of the planetary cityscape still threaten to overtake the world’s sparse arboretums and wildlife refuges. Though not a galactic capital as is most common with other Trantor-class worlds, Regada’s most unique distinction is its tribal nation known as the Free Tribes of Regada.

At the center of the planetary sectors sits the Tribal Capitol known as Dekata Center. The sector had been the center of the planet’s politics, commerce, and industry long before the ecumenopolis had been but a sparkle in the mind’s eye of Eisensthat Havnor, the United Tribes’ most prolific Ossusian architect.

But the all-encompassing cityscape is not the planet’s most prestigious feature - that distinction belongs to the Nation Hall, home of the Vistol, the President of the Sovereign Tribes. For a hundred-thousand orbit progressions (or years), the spires of the executive towers have encircled the great towering wing of the Hall, its noble form casting a long shadow over the commercial districts.

Vistol Menas Nereus stood at the very center of the convocation chamber, facing the delegates of the Sovereign Tribes and taking in the golden splendor of the great Hall. The first sixty-six Vistols had wielded their legislative power from the precursor of the Nation Hall, the crudely built House of Tribes, whose foundation, the awe-inspiring Hall had been built upon. He had first seen the Hall when his father, Gratus Berenus, had been commissioned by Vistol Hollus to lead the colonization efforts of the outer worlds of the Regada system. By the time of the Great Manifest, Berenus was a celebrated Tribal hero- but his fame would be short-lived.

When Nereus was but sixteen standard years old, his father was the victim of a political assassination at the hands of a Metela terrorist, hoping to sway the Sovereign Tribes into drawing all involvement from the distant world of Metela Major. Nonetheless, Nereus told himself, my destiny could not be impeded.

Taken in by the highly influential House of Aulet, Nereus attended and graduated from the exclusive Pilan Academy of Scholars on the world of Buruthon with top honors. It was there that he carved not only his own legacy, but his own identity- forsaking the name of the Berenus clan of explorers, he took the name of Nereus, from the legendary Vistol responsible for protecting the tribes during the Great Aurgan War and notorious for drafting the first tribal military force in a thousand years.

Nereus returned to Regada after a brief consignment to the Collavarian Parliament to find Dekata Center in chaos. The previous Vistol, Lor Bacchus, the direct descendant of the legendary Vistol Palin Bacchus, was discovered in his presidential flat alongside his mistress, both bearing slashed wrists. Despite the apparent self-inflicted wounds, the evidence of a struggle sparked an investigation that had wasted thousands of credits. News of such a heinous crime only fanned the fires of speculation that the Intertribal Council was the target of a foe as old as the Tribal republic and the Constitution of the Sovereign Tribes that had allied the hundred-fold tribal states millennia ago.

But that had been nearly twenty years before this legislative session. Flanked by his Deputy Chancellors, the human female Orri and the Gaidorin male Pyrin, Nereus drove the memory from his mind and composed himself before addressing the gathered representatives.

“Sovereign brethren, I thank you for heeding the call of this unprecedented session to hear the position of the Durok Tribe in response to the Metelan mercenary which was captured earlier this week. If you will join me in recognizing the honorable Senator of the Duroks, Rennata Dol,†Vistol Nereus announced in his thick Rakan accent, as the seated council rose to their feet. Rennata Dol approached the large podium at the end of the freestanding bridge which reached over the gathered representatives.

“Thank you, Grand Vistol. My brothers and sisters, I come before you today with stunning evidence that the Metelans have been contracted by an unknown civilian within our sovereign tribes to bring about civil war, not unlike the one which brought our sovereign tribes together. I need not remind you of the ramifications we suffered to protect the primitives of that realm.

“But that, Senators, was the past. This . . . is now. The bounty hunter the Vistol spoke of was detained only after taking the lives of many innocents within my tribe. However, the most disturbing aspect of this atrocity comes from our intelligence reports that the Metelan had been paid in Pre-Republic realm credit coins.†The implications set the Intertribal Council into a frenzy of outbursts.

Senator Astel Danus of the Hrulon tribe knew what Senator Dol was implying. The Hrulon were the only tribe represented in the council responsible for the drafting of the ancient currency of credit coins. Struck with the naturally occurring alloy, Kyme, which was only found in the mountains of the Hrulon providences, the coins were famous for the difficulty of counterfeiting. The flat, square coins had been out of circulation since the implement of credit chips- only someone with access to the Hrulon Treasury Archives could have secured the coins.

“Grand Vistol, if I may . . .†Danus began, as he stood from his post and addressed Nereus. His company of Hrulon politicians sat uneasily behind him as the ever-growing speculative whispers consumed his mind, like the incessant buzzing of insects.

“Please adhere to the common order, Senator Danus,†Deputy Chancellor Pyrin reminded, his deep voice booming across the expanse of the chamber.

“I apologize, Deputy Chancellor, but would you please remind the council to adhere to the same?†Danus managed through a forced grin. Fluent in the political languages, Danus knew better than to offend the Deputy Chancellor, lest he be ejected from the council proceedings.

“Point, sir. Senators, order! We must have order! Please, let us hear the rest of Senator Dol’s findings - please, do not hasten yourselves to an uneducated conclusion!†Pyrin thundered once more. The hooded man, seated behind Danus, nodded, as if in applause of the manner in which the Deputy Chancellor addressed the council. The other members of his political company applauded with handclaps. The deafening roar of the council then faded to a whisper as Senator Dol cleared his throat.

“Senators, I am implicating no person or tribe in this act- I am merely calling for an investigation into the contracting of this bounty hunter and the payment of Hrulon credit coins. Senator Danus,†Dol addressed the Hrulon senator. “Your allegiance to the nation precedes you, sir. I apologize for the unrest this must bring to you and your tribe, but we must bring the person or persons responsible for these acts of terror to justice.â€

“The chair does indeed recognize the Sovereign Tribe of Hrulon,†Deputy Chancellor Pyrin stated, nodding toward Senator Danus.

Properly recognized, Danus stood and addressed Senator Dol. “I concede, Senator. The Sovereign Tribe of Hrulon acknowledges this threat to our greater peace. I am equally disturbed that a member of my assembly could have aided this fugitive without my knowledge. I assure you, the responsible parties will be brought to justice.â€

“Then it is settled. Senator Dol, Senator Danus - I will appoint a commission to ascertain the identity of the parties responsible for entering into a contract with the hired mercenary from Metela and for the apparent theft of Hrulon credits from the Treasure Archive.†Vistol Nereus informed. A chill ran up the length of his spine as he addressed the assembly of the Hrulon. He recognized the usual politicians- Governor Tenas, Gall Enge, Lady Acebo . . . but he could not identify the fourth person. Oddly dressed in a dark, hooded cloak, he could only assume he was some sort of private party, perhaps invited by the Senator.

As his eyes tried to penetrate the shadow of the cloak to fulfill his curiosity, the hooded figure suddenly produced a blaster, aimed across the chamber, and fired at the head of Senator Dol. Without a tear for his pain, Dol slumped into a bloody heap as the Hrulon assembly scattered, diving from their platform to the ring below. Immediately, Senate guards sprung forth from their concealed posts. The gold-armored force swarmed the Senate box of the Hrulon, as the frontrunners were quickly disposed of by the cloaked murderer.

Still catching their breath from the assassination of Senator Dol, the other members of the Senate scrambled to safety while Nereus stood stoic, his eyes fixed on the armed assassin. With a last sweep of the area, the assassin vaulted over the edge of the box, into the air between the middle tier of the chamber and the Vistol’s podium. A single shot from the assassin’s blaster cut the space between the podium and the ring, slamming into the Vistol’s chest. Catching the outer rung of the tier supports, the assassin slid down to the lower level, as armored troops filed in through the outer doors of the chamber. The senators, aides, and chamber personnel met the intimidating sight of the troops face to face, unsure of the intention of their so-called protectors. All emotion hid beneath darkened cowls of armor, the commissioned soldiers, known in parts of the deep as the Sword of the Tribes, pushed the panicked crowed back into the center of the chamber.

Deputy Chancellor Pyrin knelt over the prone form of Vistol Nereus, examining the wound that scarred his upper body. Despite his lack of medical training, Pyrin knew the wound was too great for Nereus’ survival. With a last frantic gasp of air, Nereus exhaled a finale, groaning breath.

“They called me a threat to the security of their Republic,†the cloaked figure stated, as he climbed the rise of the podium’s base. “They said I destroyed Republic shipyards, looted supply bases, and enslaved the Dellus natives . . .†More troops filed in through the chamber doors until they cut off all exits. The crimson red armor of the Grand Army of Regada cast a brilliant blood-gleam across the expanses of the chamber. Finally reaching the apex of the podium rise, the assassin held his blaster on the Deputy Chancellors.

“What will they say of me now?†he said pulling back the hood to reveal his face. A duo of soldiers entered the hold of the podium, restraining the Vistol’s aides as Pyrin regarded the assassin.

“Drael.†The name was bitter as bile on his tongue.

“Surprised to see me, old friend?†Drael replied. Pyrin’s eyes swept the floor of the podium enclosure, looking for anything he could use as a weapon to free himself from the hold of the ‘bloodtroops.’

“Do you not see the folly of this institution? In two swift strokes, I single handedly cut down everything this Republic has stood for . . .†Drael continued.

“You dare defy the gods?â€

“I dare . . . where are your gods now? Where is their vengeance? I welcome it. I will feast on their famine, their very altars will be my flush-port.â€

“Your violence is only surpassed by your blasphemy.â€

“Well said, old friend. Your Republic infests every manner of life for my people -and under the new rule, it will be cleansed until the Sovereign state of my people is pure once more. We have lived in the shadows of the temples of your gods for too long. The great Republic of the Sons of Colsu will be restored . . . and my people will see their destiny manifest.â€

“Your people? Your mind is poisoned with prejudice. You will face justice, Drael . . . in this life or the next.â€

“You cannot frighten me with your dogmatic insights. I have struck down the grand Republic - but I will do so much more. Arius was right to hide on that backwater swamp of a realm, away from the Sons of Colsu, beyond the reach of our might. His lineage has lived a life of ignorant privilege. It is time to wake the sleeping dullard and finish what the great father of our cause began.â€

“You’re insane. The location of the Isgard colony has been lost for a hundred generations. It is too remote and isolated, even for you.â€

“Then you are as ignorant as General Valat has claimed. The restoration of the Hrulon order is at hand . . . and therefore, all other ideologies must be opposed,†Drael explained. As the words sunk in, Pyrin shook his head. Drael motioned to the two bloodtroops to release the Gaidorin, who fell to his knees.

“Leave us.†Drael commanded. Chancellor Taber Orri watched in horror as the maniacal villain grinned her way as the bloodtroops led her back through the spiral bridge-rise. Shocked at the turn of events, Pyrin was unmoved as Drael knelt beside him, silently unsheathing a tribal dagger from a scabbard on his waist.

“I’ve always pondered, old friend - is it possible for an eternal like you to die?†Drael asked, punctuating the inquiry with a quick stab of the tribal blade into the heart of the Deputy Chancellor. Rising to the main control panel of the podium, Drael engaged the loudspeaker systems and carefully drew his thoughts.

“My brothers, my sisters, my blood . . . sons and daughters of our founders. I dare you to clear your sight and look around you. Every one of you, from this moment of distinction forward, will hate me and fear me . . . but I will free your minds from the plague of this nation. For as long as I can remember, I have felt tormented and at war, and have felt hatred and animosity for an ideal that was not my own- the very foundation of that ideal now lies dead at my feet. Its strong towers are crumbling around you with my every breath.

“The winds of a true faith are blowing. Every Son of Colsu must rise to defend our beliefs. We are the sons of kings, the descendants of the Order of the Droma. The Republic you have called home for all these long years is but an imposter of the true destiny for our people. Our birthright is more than these empty halls and these tired men, squabbling over taxes and debts that should not have been incurred in the first place. You elected this body because you were tired of a deficit that has raped our lands of good harvest and took food from the mouths of our children- yet they have not done a single thing worth mentioning. Instead, the other systems of the Galactic Commonwealth continue to tax our trade routes and the very politicians who tell you that change is coming are on the payrolls of the guilds who impose these tolls. I tell you, it is folly . . .

“That is why we will strike at the heart of this order- the descendant of the very person responsible for robbing us of our providence. Stand with me, my brothers and sisters. Shake off the oppression of this Republic body. We will invoke the might of our past and shake the clenched fists of dissent. We will sing revolution’s song. Our people can be the one to overcome the corrupt and frail body of government. I tell you now, with every ounce of my being, that I will fight this cancer, until the Sovereign Nation is but a scar in the pages of our galactic history . . .

“It is now the individual duty of every son and daughter of our founders across every tribe, every nation, every system, to rise against this body, until every person left standing against us is either driven out of our lands, defeated and unable to threaten our inheritance . . . or swept beneath the wave of change that will spread to every civilization across the stars until we are as one!†Drael thundered with blinding resolve. A few scattered hands of applause broke out across the arrested audience, the rest held face-first to the stone of the chamber floor by the blunt-handles of blaster rifles carried by the bloodtroops.

Ascending the podium, a bloodtroop wearing black combat armor on the chest, forearms, and lower legs, approached Drael and removed his equally dark helmet.

“All comlink systems were deactivated before security transmissions were broadcast, my lord. We were lucky,†the man informed Drael. Raising an eyebrow, Drael countered the statement.

“Luck is for those who die without the benefit of torture, Valat. What of the security council?†To Valat’s surprise, the question coursed through his stomach with an icy edge. He had been the head of the Tribal Security Council up until the ‘suicide’ of Vistol Bacchus, until an internal investigation implicated his involvement in an attempt to cover up the specifics of the Vistol’s death.

At that time, many saw Chief Justice Sinil Valat as a thorn in the Vistol’s side, ever since Bacchus announced his support of the move to dissolve the council and found a united tribal military force. Only a third of the Senate opposed the bill until rumors spread that the infamous war criminal, and former Marshall of the Regadan military forces, Hosk Drael, had been the true orchestrator of the double-homicide. Memories of the atrocities wrought by the Marshall at the Conflict of Ulday crept back into the minds of the Senators and the bill was quietly dropped.

Following the investigation into his conduct, Valat was found guilty of malfeasance and offered a chance to quietly resign from his post or be terminated and face prosecution. After fourteen years, just a year short of his pension manifest, Valat left the Security Council. Drael’s carefully scored movement to play on the allegiance of the Grand Legion, more specifically, Valat’s Eclipse Company had rested on his strength alone.

“They have been seized and neutralized. Our special units were able to intercept and detain all members off-duty as well.â€

Grinning, Drael celebrated his insurrection. “Then all has gone according to my design. The time has come to sift through the harvest, General Valat.†Leading the General of the High Command down the steps of the bridge-rise, Drael addressed the restrained Senators that sat at blaster-point.

“Where is the power of the great Republic, Senators? You have been left in the dark by your elected officials to face the revolution while they feast on the crops and stock taken from my people . . . abandoned by them, when you need them most.â€

“You’re a terrorist! Why should we listen to you?†a protesting voice rang out amongst the prisoners.

“If restoring order to a power bloated by arrogance is terrorism, if declaring war on the war-mongers is terrorism, if restoring the glory of the dream of our founders is terrorism, then let history be witness that I am a terrorist. I will not implore you for your cooperation. Every single person that stands against me and the Sons of Colsu is now an enemy of this nation. If you choose to stand against me here, now, you will be cut down by the blade of our honor . . . but if you stand with us, none will ever stand against you again.†One by one, the Senators, wide-eyed and fearful, offered their support.

“Senator Danus, Chancellor Orri, please, join us,†Drael invited. Apprehensively, Rugo Danus approached Drael and General Valat from the lower concourse. His trepidation was hardly an act, despite his prior knowledge of Drael’s proposed uprising.

“My lord,†he offered humbly. “How may I . . .â€

Bitingly, Drael interjected. “Save your remarks, Rugo. You may serve me by properly declaring Order of State Tutros for the sake of our dear delegates.†Danus instantly recognized the contingency plan proposed by Senator Sel Tutros, his own mentor and predecessor. Passed by the senate forty standard years earlier, the Order stated simply: In the event of either (I) a majority in the Senate declaring the Chancellor of the Sovereign Tribes to be unfit to issue orders, or (II) the High Command declaring him to be unfit to issue orders, the General of the High Command shall be authorized to detain the Chief of State, with lethal force if necessary, and executive authority over the senate shall fall to the General of the High Command until a successor is appointed or alternative authority identified as outlined in Executive Amendment 22.

“As you wish,†Danus conceded, returning to his assembly. Taber Orri, surrounded by troops of Eclipse Company, nodded in forced affirmation.

“Senator Danus, I, Sinil Valat, General of the Regadan High Command, do formally submit Hosk Drael to the position of Chief of State, under the Order of State Tutros.†Valat began.

“Your submission is noted, General- Deputy Chancellor, you have heard the proposal for Hosk Drael. Do you acknowledge?†Danus added. Chancellor Orri shook her head slightly, tears streaking her makeup as the distinct sound of a blaster cartridge engaging a round swept over her.

“I do . . .†the words were like ashes in her mouth. As tears welled up in her eyes, she vomited the confirmation. “The Senate of Sovereign Tribes . . . hereby recognizes this murderer as Chief of State.â€

“Behold the diplomat,†Drael smiled, the insult barely sounding in his ears. “Our work here is finished, General Valat. Are our forces ready for deployment?â€

“Your shuttle is prepped for flight. Hercuros is a dangerous realm, my lord. Commander Teana’s support wing is already in station at Rashon, only six-standard hours from Hercuros. His reports indicate that spaceport facilities at Biskok will be our best chance.â€

Fort Biskok. The Regadan outpost had sat abandoned for nearly a thouand years, since the nearly three-year Siege at Thaedus. There was no precedent for what awaited the High Command in the bowels of the settlement- Metelan mercenaries and Utauin farmers had each tried to settle the Biskok March and each had been driven back by Hercurons hiding in the caves beneath the stone compound.

A steely scowl split Drael’s rugged features as he considered the risk.

“Excellent.â€
 
Chapter Three

The Eclipsing Shadow

July 14, 1947 . . .

Corona, New Mexico . . .

Ravensteel alloys hid a myriad of complex quantum systems, as the tear-drop form of the pod rose into the sky. The two dissected halves of the craft held as one, held by the faded yellow straps that supported its form. Men in white, level-B hazmat suits watched from a short distance as soldiers in full fatigues gathered pieces of the craft’s hull from a nearly mile long scar in the earth. With a hydraulic groan, the pod settled onto the bed of an over-sized flatbed truck that bore the roundel of the United States Air Force.

“Major Avery?” a man greeted, dressed in an in-explicably clean, black suit, given the dusty conditions of their current location. Major William ‘Mac’ Avery, kneeling near the crater that had once held the pod craft, dusted his trousers off and approached the man.

The seized pod-craft was unlike any aircraft Avery had ever seen, despite his extensive tours with the 5th Bomber Command and subsequent campaigns at the Battle of Luzon. Bulbous and rough-textured, the craft bore a silvery metallic ring along its equator that the surveyors of the site could only guess as to the specific function.

“I assume you’ve got a good reason for being here,” Major Avery replied, as he noticed a pristine black Crown Victoria parked just beyond the crash site. Local deputies had managed to keep the site clear of public contamination- leading Avery to the conclusion that the man in black had been given clearance by the officers to approach the crash site.

“Sir, Lieutenant Kelly Holderby,” the man began. “I’m here under direct orders from President Truman and Defense Secretary Forrestal. Your initial reports state that four biological entities were found near the wreckage, is that correct?”

“How the heck do you . . . what branch of the military did you say you were with?”

“I didn’t, sir. Please, this will go much more smoothly if you let me ask the questions. Perhaps it’d be best if you came with me.”

“Now listen, son, I don’t know who you are . . .”

“Lieutenant Kelly Holderby. Please, sir, try and keep up.”

With a groan, the Major flagged down two soldiers from their debris detail. “Yes, Lieutenant Kelly Holderby, I see your bars there. See hundreds, just like them, every day. That doesn’t impress me. Now, either you show me your clearance under penalty of court martial or Corporal Windham here is going to show you why he was All-State offensive guard at Stinnet High School.”

Undeterred, the man in black produced a large envelope from his jacket. Opening the folder, he retrieved a series of pictures.

“Sir, did the entities you found resemble the ones in these photographs?” he asked, as the Major took the pictures. Each image bore bipedal figures, dressed in all-black armor, topped by strange masks or helmets.

“These are cases from around the world, Major. Almost every biological was found in close proximity to craft just like the one you found in this hole. I don’t have to tell you that we are certain the incidents are somehow linked.”

“My God . . . is it an invasion?”

“We’re looking into that, sir. Please, if you’ll come with me, I’d like to debrief you back at headquarters.” Staring at the images before him, Major Avery nodded slowly.

“Good. Please, this way sir.” As the man led the Major back to the waiting car, the vehicle’s other occupant exited and produced a box filled with rolls of tinfoil, paper, tape, and a bag of hobby craft sticks. Passing the Major, he handed the box to Corporal Windham.

“See that these are delivered to General Rainey and Chief Dubois immediately.”


****​

Nellis Air Force Base and Testing Complex, Lake Groom, New Mexico . . .

The Intelligence and Security Support Center comprised just a small corner of the Integrated Support Center at Nellis, better known by its designation in American folklore as ‘Area 51.’ Towering over the smaller administration buildings, the ISSC sat a full twelve stories high. While the control towers and dipoles that anchored the complex at its furthermost corners competed for dominance in the skyline, all paled in the shadow of Tikaboo Peak.

A black, non-descript SUV sped down the access road flanking the massive tandem airstrips that encompassed the Eastern perimeter of the facility. Within, Colonel Scott Macluran reviewed a data pad that displayed a dissected view of the Hercuron flashpod found on that infamous day in 1947. A former Marine, having served his first tour of duty during Operation: Enduring Freedom, Macluran had been selected as an intermediary between the United States Department of Defense and its private contractors. Following his retirement, he became the executive administrator over the STS corporation- but despite all his years of service in the development, testing, and implementation of covert technologies, he had never been privy to the legendary secrets of the Lake Groom complex.

“We’re here.” The driver noted, as the truck came to a stop. A team of armed guards, neither military nor STS, approached the vehicle to escort the Colonel to Holderby Hall, known on grounds as Central Command.

With a salute, the Colonel greeted the men. “At ease, gentlemen.” Passing through the outer doors of the tower the lead security guard produced an access card. The set of elevators through the small foyer were flanked by access terminals. With a swipe of the man’s card, Colonel Macluran waited for the lift to admit him. A chime heralded the arrival of the lift, which received the Colonel and the five armed guards.

“Lift control, clearance code Eagle-Niner-Two-Eight,” the lead guard spoke into his comm. Instantly, the lift emitted a musical tone and sped down the shaft. The lift chimed again as the lift car came to a gentle rest. As the lift doors split open, the Colonel beheld the twenty-seventh level of the ISSC tower, designated by the control system panel’s layout as the Integrated Sciences and Logistics Department. The floor was laid out in a semi-circle, set with a large, sealed chamber at its core- a centerpiece of dark steel, set with bands of impact glass observation windows midway up its height. Its sterile, fluorescent ambiance complimented the nearly clinical smell of cleaning agents.

“Colonel,” Major Raimi Shuman greeted, walking up from the side. A gaunt, lean, and dark-complected man, Shuman had been Vice Commander of the Air Force Space Command before a transfer to being the commanding officer of the Nellis base.

“Major Shuman, I’m not easily impressed, but I must say . . . you’ve got one heck of an operation going on here.” Macluran returned with a handshake.

“Thank you, Colonel- welcome to the Vault,” Shuman stated as he produced a datapad. With a short series of keystrokes, its viewer lit up with a three-dimensional projection of the craft Macluran had studied before arriving at the base.

“I’m sure you’re already familiar with this craft. We seized it from the Corona site over eighty years ago. It’s taken us just about as long to restore what we believe to be a complete recreation of the original vehicle from the initial wreckage we found at Roswell, with other components gathered from similar sites such as Shag Harbor and Rendlesham.”

Macluran’s eyes narrowed as he turned his focus from the image. “I’m listening.”

“We believe that the outer ring of the pod to be a sort of quantum energy drive, which bursts at set intervals, allowing the craft to skip along real space like a rock across water. Each burst of energy, we believe in this case to be tachyonic matter, propels the craft through slip space for a specific amount of time. We haven’t tested this theory, but all reports seem to point to such a function.”

“Slip space?”

“The theoretical stream of faster-than-light travel. This, considering the distance in which the craft traveled is a little over two-thousand light years, is an ideal means of travel.” The statement rang in Macluran’s ears. The only possible way the Major could have had a leading on the distance the craft would have traveled to reach the Earth would be via a starting point.

“You know its point of origin?”

With a grin, the Major nodded. “Mm-hmm. That’s why I contacted you, Colonel. When the initial discovery of the craft was made, several organic entities were also found near the site.” Shuman then accessed the chamber systems through the datapad, causing the massive cylinder at the room’s center to come alive. Panels of light within the hollow column illuminated its hazy inner expanse, revealing four bipedal figures. At first glance, Macluran noticed that the humanoid aliens were fairly human-sized, standing nearly six feet tall. Hairless, either by genetics or by human manipulation, and covered in fair, leathery skin, the creatures seemed frightened by the sight of their observers.

“Each was found dressed in, what we assume to be, heavy battle armor. The stuff these suits were made of is just phenomenal- a lightweight composite material that, due to its unique chemical properties, makes it as strong as diamonds and light as plastic. We still haven’t determined whether it’s a synthetic compound or naturally occurring alloy, just that we can’t replicate it- as seems to be the case with their foreign technology.”

“How dissimilar are they?” Macluran asked. He stepped forward and locked eyes with the nearest creature, who regarded him with absolute terror.

“Not that much, really. They breathe oxygen, they need water just as we do- the masks they wear seem to function as a sort of gas mask or respirator, preventing the consumption of airborne toxins, so we’re led to believe that their world either experienced a catastrophic event of a nuclear, biological, or chemical level or that they simply have polluted their atmosphere with toxins or pollutants. They’re so sensitive in fact that even the smallest pollutant can make them extremely sick. These hyperbaric chambers are probably the only things keeping them alive - that and the taxpayers,” Shuman laughed.

“These suits you found them in- how certain are you of their functions?”

“We know that the cabin of the pod craft was sealed as such that it wouldn’t necessitate pressure suits, ruling out such a possibility despite obvious airtight seals. The condition of the soft tissues beneath the suits also indicates that the armors were worn constantly, as if by tradition, if not necessity. Furthermore, the suits were marked with strange symbols and designs, almost like tribal markings and the presence of scarring and pitting, which we suspect was obtained during battle.

“Each individual suit also operated a series of specific functions, almost like mobile combat systems. The suits are capable of producing an electromagnetic field around itself, allowing its wearer to levitate for short periods of time. These fields can also repel several forms of energy, including light, making the suit invisible. We’re still unsure of the means by which the suits are powered, but it has to do with power cells that depend on a chemical process that, again, we’re unable to replicate. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

“Well, thanks for the science lesson, Major . . .” Macluran said finally. “You said you have information indicating their point of origin earlier.”

“Oh yeah, although this is all just theoretical, of course. Specific data within the craft itself illustrates a star chart we’re quite familiar with- the Alpha Centauri system, more specifically, the planet designated as OCL-79,” Shuman said, gesturing with his forefinger towards a holo-monitor projecting the system. “At a distance of barely over four light-years, it makes them our nearest intelligent neighbors.”

Macluran eyed the image of the binary star-system intently. Know your enemy, he reminded himself. It was one of the most quoted lines of the Chinese military treatise, the Art of War, one that was quite often used out of context. The condensed verse stated simply, if you know both yourself and your enemies, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. Scott Macluran had made a career out of testing his own limits, whether it was in wars in the Middle East or in black ops missions in North Korea . . . As such, he knew his own strengths backwards and forwards. And more and more, the true nature of the events taking place in the Levy Peninsula region of California were becoming clear. Peering through the observation window at the smallest of the four creatures, he grinned as he repeated the motto- know your enemy. Indeed.

****​

The Triton-class Regadan Command vessel, the Defiant God, tore through the brilliant realm of slip space as newly appointed Chief of State Hosk Drael beheld its aerial beauty from the comfort of his shielded bridge. A chorus of ready tones sounded across the bridge as the team of engineers cut the pulse drives, inducing the drop back into realspace. A series of flashes swept the viewports as the drives cut power. As inertial compensator systems came online, Drael’s sight from the forward viewports leveled out.

Hercuros Prime was visible now, just beyond the moon, Folon. Drael caught a fleeting glimpse of the Pessel asteroid belt as the cratered objects tumbled between them and the dark, mottled realm. The asteroids were all that remained of the realm Tirnos, having been destroyed by the Covu Empire two million years before the War of the First Age. Such knowledge was basic level astrography for any mildly intelligent Regadan human- but Drael knew the terrible truth behind Tirnos’ destruction.

The Age before Men was a dark time for the galaxy as a whole- but the mysterious Keeper of the Taune had recorded the events long before the God of men brought forth their races from the dirt of their realms. One of the eldest of the race known simply as the Celestials, the Evil One, known as Legur, created the twelve Hunters, sentient constructs meant to plunge the realms of the Celestials into all-out war. The Hunters carried out their mission flawlessly, reigning supreme for a thousand years, until a team led by the Celestial warrior Tandos destroyed all but one of the mindless killing machines.

Named Angor, or the Eternal Death, the remaining terror was said to be imprisoned within the core of the realm of Tirnos, where he would slumber for millennia. Upon his discovery by the Covu, the realm was literally ripped apart by disrupter bombs, seeking out the dark Hunter. It would be, as Drael recalled, in vain, for Angor was never recovered, having either been imprisoned elsewhere or, despite his indestructible tangible form, was obliterated by the deluge of tachyons that wrought the realm’s terrible fate.

“Sir, we’re being hailed . . . it’s the Nebulos, sir,” a communications officer reported from his post.

“On viewer.” The dark Hercuros realm and its moon were quickly obscured by a hazy image of Commander Minas Teana. Waves of interference swept over the distinguished visage of the Commander of the Emerald Battalions.

Hercu . . . -xperincin . . . -evel deg . . . eet storm. Cond . . . -nfavorable for . . .” the transmission sounded, cut by intervals of warbling static.

“Boost comm frequencies, Lieutenant,” Drael ordered.

“Sir, sensors are picking up electrical disturbances in the upper ionosphere. They’re impeding our ability to communicate with the Nebulos. Thermal imaging indicates that the Biskok March is experiencing a grade-five acid storm,” the officer returned. Grade-five- the enhanced Prisda-Moro scale rating for a storm capable of severe electrical system failure, weakening of hull integrity, and structural deformation on a catastrophic level.

“Ready my shuttle.”

“Lord Drael, sir, a grade-five storm would rip apart . . .”

“I am not concerned with your trepidation, Lieutenant Recinas. Ready my shuttle.” Drael stood stoic as the young officer, eyes full of new-found apprehension, swallowed past the lump in his throat.

“As you wish, my lord.”

****​

Sleek and retrofitted with a payload of proton cannons, the personal shuttlecraft of Lord Drael, named the Scythe, was exceedingly modified, compared to the common personnel transport vehicles that filled the bay of the Triton-class command ship. For a ship of its size, the shuttle boasted an impressive array of field generators, including anti-concussion and energy deflectors, a quad-cell high-output power core, and an armor of transtium plating. Quick, rakish, and deadly, it was, pound-for-pound, more lethal than common classes of starfighters found in the Republic’s service.

Sinil Valat, General of the High Command, flanked the shuttle’s lowered entry ramp. Fully suited in his personalized black combat armor, Valat monitored the local comm traffic that hissed across his headset.

“General, I trust your fortitude is greater than that of your communication officers,” Drael stated, strolling through the wide access terminal that cut through the heart of the docking bay.

“I apologize for their hesitance, my lord. I assure you, Eclipse Company will do their job well. I promise you that.” Valat returned. Valat’s own personal command squad was the most elite company in the bloodtroop units. Tempered by their tours during the Conflict of Ulday, the Siege of Bionasis, and the Second Conflict of Ulday, Eclipse Company often saw the best and worst of the battles to liberate the Ulday system- but that was before their commander, General Valat, pledged their support to the successor to the President of the Senate, Chief of State Drael.

“Your company’s reputation is in no danger, Valat.”

“Navigating an acid storm would be a new trick for Captain Joribi- but if evading orbital bombardment at Bionasis was a challenge, she won’t even break a sweat.” Valat promised, as Drael made his way into the shuttle’s crew bay. Strapping into the forward row of seats, the Hrulon shifted to find his comfort as EM drives repulsed the craft from the drydock. The Chief of State perceived the passing through the electromagnetic field that separated the ship’s bay from the cold vacuum of space by the wave of static that swept the shuttle’s comm systems. Out the side viewport, he watched as the brown-green orb of Hercuros grew in size until the Scythe shuddered with its arrival into the ionosphere.

Sir, there are substantial electromagnetic readings on all scopes. Rad shields are holding at seventy-percent.” Drael heard the report over his own comm. Facing the bulkhead, he folded his hands together, admiring the jeweled ring that sat on his right hand. The Almsteen Band. Forged by monks on the realm of Tirol, the ring was constructed from moonsteel, a rare alloy exclusive to the realm’s Avolon Mountains, which allowed its bearer the ability to conduct xenosensory energy fields inaccessible to any other sentient.

The most exotic of the ring’s properties was its ability to harness electrical fields and read them like a seer would his cards of divination, foretelling the near future through visions that only its bearer would perceive.

Okay - tighten your crash straps, it’s about to get a little rough,” General Valat’s no-nonsense voice boomed over his comm. I had counted on such, Drael thought to himself. He could almost feel the ring’s energies coursing through his very being, standing his fair hairs on end. The shuttle then slammed through a pocket of severe turbulence, pushing the limits of his crash harness. The azure Kinite crystals radiated with power as bolts of lightning safely played across the rad shields.

The flashes of electrical discharge almost repeated in a cacophony of light and sound, growing in intensity with each second. Drael sat entranced, the energy building up in the Kinite crystals crackling with ferocity until his skin seemed to shine with a cerulean hue. Then, he saw it- A towering, ivory ghost that seemed to nearly boil away at the edges. Its pronounced crimson eye seemed to stare right back at Drael, who beheld the titan with wonder. Suddenly, flames burst from its eye, licking at the apparition’s edges until it had dissolved away. The sight haunted him for a moment, before the passenger cabin rocked with enough turbulence to wake him.

Dissatisfied with his vision, he let the screams of the shuttle’s klaxons and claps of thunder fade to a soft roar as his sight was once again overtaken by the energies of the Almsteen Band. A human-sized figure, clothed all in kingly red, holding what seemed to be a single tendril of snaking light in its hands, stood opposite of him. Drael instantly recognized this ‘spirit’- the Dragon Striker. While he had never laid eyes on the actual armor of the Striker, he had, on several occasions, seen paintings depicting his forefather, Lord Krael of the Hrulons, battling Arius, the most esteemed warrior of the Duroks.

Following the momentary stupor of recognition, Drael seethed at the sight of the Striker. He felt that if he could reach through the portal of precognition and touch the bearer of the Dragon Striker powers, he would squeeze every ounce of life from his body. The thought pleased him to the very fiber of his being. He could almost hear the whine of his last breath and the fall of his broken body as it hit the ground. He savored the thought for a moment before the fury of his many years of lust to see the heir of Arius die at his hands stormed his consciousness.

“Son of Arius! I defy you! I curse your birthright!” Drael spewed defiantly at the crimson ghost. “I curse you! I am coming for you, son of Arius! I am coming for your birthright!” The image wavered as if moved by Drael’s hatred before raising the bolt of light at an angle. Drael watched silently as the ethereal weapon solidified into a sword that swung for his head. Shaken back to cognizance, his hands raised to defend the salvo caught the falling support beam as the cabin began to unravel at the hands of the acid storm.

“Blast!” he cursed, shoving the beam to the side. “General, what is our heading?”

My lord, we’re just over the March now. Our scopes are still blind, so we have to opt for a visual to put her down. Our sensors put us as two clicks from Fort Biskok, so we’re maintaining a cruising altitude until we can clear visuals for an approach,” the response hissed in his ear.

“Acknowledged.” The spectre of the Dragon Striker still loomed hazily in his sight as Drael fidgeted with the crash straps. He could almost feel the lunge of the Striker, the blade gleaming with impending death as it swung for his skull. He cursed the ghost, driving it from his sight.

“I will consume you,” he swore with renewed resolution.

****​

[ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfT-liuHw0c"]Confession (What’s Inside My Head)[/ame]

Port James, California . . .

I feel fine . . . and I can’t smile . . . but I feel the anger coming . . . its underneath . . . I don’t know why . . . it’s always overflowing,” the opening strains of Red’s Confession (What’s Inside My Head) pounded through the earphones. Matt Morrison lay across his bed, checking his personalized social feed streaming across the display of his Motorola Prime NS5 as the music pumped into his veins. Navigating from his feed to his home screen, he saw a reminder for his eighteenth birthday scrolling to the right of the main content. With a defeated sigh, he resigned himself to accept the reality that he was less than a week away from becoming a legal adult.

On some level, he supposed it was a good thing. He had managed to downplay the date so far, though he admitted that he should be excited to witness such a ‘milestone’ in his life- regardless of the fact that the thought of having to face all the smiles of false sincerity utterly bored him. The sunlight that beamed in from his bedroom window now cast a long blade of luminance across his face, as he squinted into the world beyond the glass.

With a resounding chirp, the music that spilled from the earphones dropped out, as the Prime displayed the face of Steven Daniels with the text ‘Incoming call’ scrolling across. Thumbing the ‘phone’ key, the call connected.

“What’s up, SD?” Matt greeted, rolling out of the sun’s glare.

“Hey man. I know it’s the weekend, but I wanted to see if you’re up to finishing our paper for Dr. Langer’s Science Engineering class.”

With a tired groan, Matt knocked a tattered copy of Kevin J. Anderson’s Horizon Storms from its hidden refuge within the rust-dyed comforter onto the floor. With renewed interest in the recovered book, Matt’s focus on the nanotechnology report trailed off. “Maybe later.”

“We need to finish it, man. The due date is Monday.” Steven failed to understand Matt’s disinterest in the project. A self-professed über nerd, he nearly salivated at the thought of the Nanoid Experimental Robotic Organism concept becoming a reality, more specifically, the ability to create ‘microcons’, or independent microscopic robotic entities, that would carry out specific, individual functions or coalesce into a single consciousness for more complex tasks when needed.

Tossing the book to the side, Matt sighed. “I guess,” he conceded. Without warning, a booming thunderclap resonated through the foundation of the split-level home. Abandoning the warmth of his bed, Matt stretched across to the window, eyeing the storm clouds that rolled in from the east. “If you’re coming on your moped, you might want to hurry.”
 
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Chapter Four

The Damned Pawn

With a groaning sigh, the boarding ramp of the Scythe touched the rusted landing platform that overlooked the facilities at Fort Biskok. Sublight drives spewed their exhaust as General Valat crept cautiously into the light. He scanned the horizon as the hissing of the Fort’s radio traffic filled his ears. A hazy, violet sun burned through the misty residue that lingered in the aftermath of the acid storm, the air still thick with humidity. The dark stone towers of the fort reached into the sky, towering over the jagged ridges that lined the Biskok march.

“Can never be too careful here. The Hercurons don’t trust anyone,†Valat said, turning back to face Lord Drael. “But, hey- you could get lucky.†Drael sneered and pushed forward, shoving Valat out of his way. His dark cape billowed as he marched down the ramp to the access doors.

“This is suicide,†Valat whispered, taking point, comforted by the weight of the blaster rifle resting in his right hand. “Valat to Biskok command, we’re in the clear.â€

“Acknowledged. Stand by.†The reply hissed loudly. As the soldiers of Eclipse Company swept the perimeter of the platform bridge, the loud banging of pistons sounded into the distance as the outer doors began to yawn open. Nearly twice the size of the Scythe’s crew bay, the access lift admitted the party into its hold as its armored doors swung shut. With a sudden jerk, the lift activated and began to descend into the depths of the landing tower.

The stench of decay rose from the depths to meet the arrivals as Lieutenant Vylo Recinas studied the archaic hydraulic cables, noticing a couple of words scrawled across the control panel that read ‘the mouth of ‘hael.’

“Call it superstition, but I’ve got a bad feel-†Recinas began.

“Quiet!†General Valat barked in the darkness. Scattered murmuring rose from the ‘shadowtroopers’ of Eclipse Company. “-All of you! We’re passing through the labyrinths.†The shadowtroopers held their blaster lances tight as the hold of the tower opened up into the Hercuron catacombs of Ulunt Peak, the secret passageways that the Hercurons used to raid the Regadan settlements a thousand years before. While Commander Teana’s forces now claimed the March in the name of the Sons of Colsu, Hercuron hunters were notoriously persistent- and foreigners were always in season, it would seem.

Drael took in the sight of the Hercuron labyrinths, watching as the lift descended toward a massive ferresteel platform, ringed with equipment and machinery whose purpose he could only imagine. With a grinding whine, the lift slowed and docked with the horseshoe shaped balcony.

A strobing light began to flash as an oxidized ramp opened up from the stone wall, disgorging a squadron of bloodtroops that flanked Eclipse Company. As the crimson soldiers formed ranks on the scaffolding, a uniformed man, roughly middle aged, appeared at the top of the ramp.

“Lord Drael, General Valat, welcome to Fort Biskok,†The man spoke.

“Commander Teana, I didn’t expect to find you personally guarding the Lithnu,†Drael replied, referring to the mythical river that served as the boundary between the realmverse of Astrum and the underverse of Samhael. Teana grinned and saluted the Chief of State.

“In that case, welcome to ‘hael,†he returned.

* * * *

Under the guise of the Office of Anthropology and Socialization , Minas Teana had studied the society and culture of the primitive Hercuron sentients closely for the past several years, more specifically, the race known locally as the Serans’i. Rich and rigid, the Seransi culture stood unchanged for a thousand years and was defined primarily by the severe weather of the realm, which justified the full body armor of the savages. A large part of Seransi culture was the coming-of-age ritual, known as Seranga, a ritual in which a young male Seransi will choose a sentient or semi-sentient target off-realm to hunt, proving his worth as a warrior.

Such a rite was just the opportunity Lord Drael had prayed for. Following the Seransi raids on the Regadan camps at Biskok a hundred years earlier, the Hercuron warriors had secured and adopted the alien Regadan technology into their society. It was not long before a party of Seransi, using captured flash-engine enabled starpods to travel across the great ocean of stars in search of a new quarry, stumbled across a lost realm- and the Regadan colony of Isgard.

However, Teana knew, the Seransi shamans would never willingly disclose the location of the sacred hunt- but if any living soul stood a chance, it was Hosk Drael. Dressed in his regal state-dress, flanked by a heavy cowl anchored at the shoulders by golden plaques in the shape of lions, he mindlessly sifted through a set of holos portraying Seransi rituals as Teana explained in detail the nuances of the indigenous Hercurons.

“Milord,†Teana began. “Sergeant Klow has already successfully infiltrated the Seransi ranks and has even been blessed by the chieftain of the tribe controlling the Biskok.†With a nod, Teana acknowledged a short, stocky human standing beyond the conference platform, dressed in the traditional black uniform of a bloodtroop commander.

“It’s quite simple, my lord- the Seransi aren’t as bright as most would assume. Sure, they’re quick to pick up on technology- but they’re not very perceptive.†Harsper Klow added.

“The chieftain- how difficult would it be to arrange an encounter?†Drael asked.

“The chieftain? He has very little real power. Your best bet is the Grand Shaman, Isi Goray. He is the Saga Juon, their most sacred storyteller.†Klow replied.

“Then it’s settled. Sergeant Klow, you now report solely to General Valat. Assemble your best men and prepare a suitable itineris. We move out at daybreak.â€

* * * *​

Swiveling on the ball of his heel, Austin Yong followed through with a fluid side kick that knocked the air out of his partner’s lungs. Sun beamed in through the open, floor to ceiling windows of the large academy, warming the sea of usual blue practice mats that covered the hardwood of the building. Flanked by Paddy’s Market and Fulltime Fitness, the two-story space housed five office spaces above the massive studio area which shared the lower level with a kitchen and a small storage and junk room.

Brian Allston fought for air while keeping an ever watchful eye on the man across the mat. Standing a full six-foot two-inches tall, Brian was the older of the two martial artists and held the designation of chung sa nim, or head instructor. But he was more than an instructor- his parents, Keith and Lynne Allston, had owned the dojo nearly twenty years before him.

Circling his peer, Brian considered his strategy for a moment before lunging for Austin. The two men twisted into the air as Austin dodged a high sweeping kick. Reaching out with a knife-edge, he caught Brian as he landed nimbly on the ball of his foot. Austin then spun low, knocking Brian off his precarious perch. Floating over, he struck the instructor in his solar plexus with the heel of his foot. Brian grimaced before letting his body go limp against the mat.

“Come on,†Austin offered, helping Brian up. He stripped the sparring gloves off and returned them to his duffel bag.

“Sorry to hear about your place, man,†Brian offered as he grabbed his towel.

“Well, I appreciate you letting me crash here until I can get something a bit more permanent lined up.†The Agito Dojo had been Austin’s home away from home ever since he was twelve. Here, he had walked through the fires of discipline, both mental and physical, and came out a man of ‘steel.’ Having met Brian when he was twenty years old, once the heir to the Agito had moved from Boston to help run the dojo, Austin considered him to be the closest thing he had to family.

“You know you can stay as long as you want.â€

“Thanks, bro.†Austin watched as a couple of students entered the training space with bags draped over their shoulders, followed by a tall man, wearing a black gi.

“Hey Jason, I want you to meet someone,†Brian called out before turning back to Austin. “This guy is one of my top students.â€

“Jason, this is Austin.†Austin reached out and shook hands with the older Jason, whose high-and-tight hair was streaked with gray at the temples.

“Jason Archer. I don’t guess I’ve ever seen you around,†the man greeted.

“Well, it is a big city.†For a reason Austin couldn’t fathom, a burning knot set into the pit of his stomach as he stared into the steel-blue eyes of the older man.

“Yeah, well, Austin sorta keeps to himself,†Brian came to his defense. “Jason here, he’s a retired Marine.â€

“Retired?†Austin blurted.

“Yeah, well, recently un-retired. I’ve been with the Security Technology Services firm for about six months now.†Panic shot through Austin’s veins like ice water. The very air in his lungs seemed to dissipate, causing his diaphragm to seize. He quickly broke out into a frenzied coughing fit, drawing unwanted attention to himself.

“Hey, you okay?†Brian asked, patting him on the back. Slowly, Austin regained his composure and calmed his breathing.

“Yeah,†he answered through gasps. He hoped and prayed with every fiber of his being that his outburst would be quickly dismissed by the ex-Marine. “I just need a little air.â€

“Alright man- be careful.†Brian wished.

Shoving through the dojo’s back door, Austin slung his bag over his shoulder and fumbled for the keys to his bike. In the failing light of the alley, a cold shiver ran down his spine. The world around him seemed to spin out of control as his stomach churned with anxiety.

Jason Archer. It felt good to have a name to go along with the masked faces of the STS forces. As his stomach settled, he considered the opportunity to exploit the identity of his attackers, instead of the other way around, for a change. There was only one person who could help him.

* * * *

Matt Morrison quietly chewed his food as his Uncle Rick and cousin Brock, cheered the Port James Breakers on from the den’s wall-screen. It had been a tradition as long as he had known- every Sunday during football season, his mom would whip up a traditional family meal, usually a pot roast or casserole depending on her mood, and the family would gather to cheer on the Breakers.

Gathering up the last of his rice, Matt finished his plate and downed the rest of his soda. As the program cut to a commercial, Rick Morrison rushed into the kitchen and dumped his plate.

“I don’t see why you never played the gridiron, Matt . . . If I was your size, I’d probably be in jail by now,†Rick smirked. Matt sighed and cleaned his mouth.

“Guess that’s the difference between you and me,†Matt returned. Rick paused for a brief second before returning to the den.

“I know you’ve had it rough, kid . . . but whether you like it or not, you’re still a Morrison.†Rick conciliated.

“Yeah, so I’m told,†Matt replied with a tired sigh, depositing his plate into the sink. Reaching into his pocket, he retrieved his Prime NS5 and thumbed open the network tabs.

“Where are you going?†his mom asked, craning around to check on her son.

“I’ve got to get this paper finished,†Matt answered, dashing up the stairs. Navigating the tabs on the Prime, he highlighted the profile belonging to Steven Daniels and tapped the ‘connect’ tab. With a swipe of his finger, he transmitted the connection to his desktop computer, its screen filling with the young African-American’s face.

“Hey SD,†Matt greeted, grabbing the notebook pages he had taken notes with during his last study session with Steven. After a long moment of silence, he sighed and glanced back at the computer screen, where his intellectual counterpart’s focus seemed to be off screen.

“SD!†he called again.

“Matt, are you watching this?†Steven asked, as if Matt was the only person on the planet not sharing in whatever event Steven was watching.

“What?†With Matt’s question, Steven swiped the news feed on his screen and transmitted the video to Matt’s screen. The screen suddenly came to life with an image of an old fishing vessel, pulling its nets from the depths of the ocean.

“48 hours ago, a Dutch fishing ship in the North Sea discovered a most amazing catch in their nets. You can see the sword here, removed from its scabbard. Scientists at the University of Amsterdam have now been undertaken the daunting task of identifying the origin and remarkable qualities of this weapon.†A voice narrated as a fisherman held up the strange looking sword.

“And that means what to me?†Matt threw back, his attention quickly stolen by a mixed martial arts magazine across the bed.

“Did you see the sword?†Steven blurted. Matt took a long second to focus his attention on the screen. Lying beneath scrutinizing eyes and harsh lights in the University science lab, the sword gleamed and shone brilliantly, free of oxidation, age, or any other evidence of its storied past.

“Matt,†Steven called out. His attention drowning out the call, his eyes were drawn to the ornate guard on the sword’s hilt, set with a brilliant emerald-hued metal, fashioned in the shape of a European-style dragon, its wings set to flight. For him, it was like staring into the fulgent tempest of a white-hot nebula.

“Matt?†The blade almost seemed to call to him . . . as if it were some long-lost possession of his from a life, long since past.

“Matt!†the protesting voice of his friend woke him from the daze.

“What?†Matt almost demanded. Vaguely aware of his surroundings, he rubbed his eyes and cleared the news transmission from his phone’s screen.

“Hey, check and see if I left my Science Engineering folder there . . .†Steven’s voice echoed over the speaker. Still waking back to reality, Matt mumbled as he glanced around the room.

“Got it,†he reported, zeroing in on the dark blue folder lying partly underneath a red hooded sweatshirt.

“Alright, there’s a flash in there with our data graphs and charts in it . . . we’re going to need that for our presentation tomorrow.â€

“Right,†Matt said, tossing the folder on top of his scholastab. For a long moment, the line went silent.

“Matt, you okay man?†Steven asked, addressing the obvious distracted attention of his lab partner.

“Yeah, I just . . .†he began, searching for the words. The luster of the large sword hung like a fog in his mind. Before, it was almost like seeing a long-lost friend . . . but in the shadows of his subconscious, a distinct warning seemed to grow . . . and just as soon as he had felt the cold shiver of fear, it was gone. Deciding it was best to keep it to himself, Matt eared his throat and busied himself with toggling the controls to his wall-screen, adjusting the picture’s position. The Breaker’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers stretched across the ceiling of his bedroom, game highlights and scores from other games bordering the program on all sides.

“. . . need some down time.†Matt finished. Scrolling through the program categories, his fingers, seemingly on their own accord, dialed in the news site carrying the story of the mysterious sword.

“You got that, man- I’ll see you in the morning.â€
 
111 views and no thoughts? lol ... Anyways, I'm working on the next chapter and getting ready to post some views of some concept art I've done and give you some views on what the characters themselves will look like.
 
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