It has been 19 years since Maiha Nakatoma rose to secure the Imperial Throne of the Human Empire. Each year following her rise she has made a trip to a different planet within her Empire to visit the Military Cemeteries. She has always done this alone and on the same day, every year. This year she will have her family with her. Most importantly, among them is her oldest son James.
James ‘Jimmy’ J. Nakatoma could not believe his mother was making him actually write a twenty page report on the Valley of Heroes. It wasn’t like he didn’t come in contact with heroes of the last war every day. Then again his mothers never did anything without a reason. The fun part for him thou was going to be watching his sisters trying to dodge their Security Detail. They maybe only a year younger than him but they had already given their Detail more grief then Jimmy had in his seventeen years of life.
“Excuse me Prince James, but do you know when we’ll be entering Space Norm?”
Jimmy turned to look at the young cadet setting next to him. “Come on Steve, how many times do I have to ask you to just call me Jimmy?”
“At least once a say until you are no longer a Prince but the Emperor. Then you’ll have to ask not to call you your Majesty.” The young man chuckled. “Come on Jim you and I both know that we have to watch our selves around the Handlers. You more so than me, my friend.”
To prove his point Steven Light Horse looked over at the six very visible Hellhound, and four Stalking Horse bodyguards. “At least we my friend do not have it nearly as bad as our sisters.”
“I doubt that Steve. You know that their guards tend to look the other way a lot, right? Something about teenage girls needing more room to grow or some crap like that. I mean come on how many times has your sister slipped her leash in the past year?” complained Jimmy.
“Bro you’re preaching to the converted here. Trust me I know how you feel. And to answer your question Heather has slipped out twelve times that I know of. If I could get Derick to give me a straight answer I would know exactly how many times.” The two young cadets started to laugh about the love affair of their friend.
Their fun though was interrupted by the arrival of four young women and two more cadets. James stepped over and hugged the twins who were his sisters. Looking over their shoulders at the security detail. “Moring little sisters. I see that the Night Sisters have attached new members to your Handlers.”
“No that was grandma’s orders. She said something about keeping us out of the garden district. Whatever that means?” complained James’ sister Ohmie.
“Yah, you guys don’t know how easy you got it?” bitched Ahmie, Ohmie’s twin.
“Ahmie if I were you I would keep your mouth shut. Trust me girlfriend. Your brother’s handlers are a real pain in the romance muscle.” Laughed Cathy Pike as she wrapped James in a hug to be followed up with a kiss. “Hi ya good looking. Did you miss me?”
“Can you be any more obvious sis?” complained Derick Pike, Cathy’s older brother. “Say does anybody know where we’re dropping out at? I asked D'Artagnan and the old boy told me ‘You’ll know when everyone else does.’ I swear these Academy AIs are getting screwier by the decade.”
“What do you expect Derick. Everyone knows that the Academy AIs are decommissioned Angle/Demon Battle Platform AIs. That means the newest of them is four hundred and fifty years old. Of course they’re going to be a little screwy. You would be to if you were over four hundred.” Said the young lady that was the spitting image of her mother, Heather Light Horse.
The eight young cadets laughed at Heather’s joke. They had all experienced the flakiness of the ancient AI that ran their space-born academy. Like the new Super Dreadnaughts the Academy ships were a sign of the reign of Empress Maiha. One year after securing the Throne Empress Maiha commissioned the first of the great Academy ships. These ships were based on the haul design of the Texas class battleships. The Academy ships though would be unarmed; with the exception of defensive weapons, and places of learning.
The sound of a warning claxon echoed through the corridor interrupted their laughter. All eight stood there waiting for the automated message to play. When it did they knew that they needed to get back to their cabins.
“WARNING! T MINUS FIFTEEN MINUTES TO SPACE NORM! WARNING!” and the message repeated twice before beginning a countdown. All eight headed for their individual cabins. Their personal bodyguards were hot on their heels making sure that the teenagers made it to their cabins and safety.
James Nakatoma had more than enough time to reach his cabin and into his security net. He knew more than most the dangers of space travel. Like his sisters James had been raised aboard the great space craft Ryuk the Shinigami battle platform for the first seven years of his life. After his seventh birthday James spent his time either aboard Ryuk, the Academy ship D'Artagnan, or planet side on Hades with his grandmother Die Etsu and his aunts. James had spent more time in space than most non-military citizens of the Empire. Then again James was the oldest son of Empress Maiha and the War Princess Alison.
The warning claxon sounded a final time and James felt the shift to Space-Norm. It took James a few minutes to get his baring’s before he stood up and exited his cabin. He knew that his sisters and little brothers would be looking for him. They always did after a jump between Hyper-space and Space-norm. For whatever reason his four younger siblings always feared for his safety during Jumps. He asked them all once why they worried about him and Space Jumps he was taken aback by their answers. They didn’t want him to die like their great grandfather and his name sake James Johnathan Owens Sr.
When he heard the reasons for their fear James just accepted it and went with the flow. He too had heard of how their great grandfather had died. He had also heard how their grandfather James J. Owens Jr. had died. So James understood the fears of his younger siblings and learned to live with them. He didn’t have long to wait as his twin sisters found him first to be followed shortly by thirteen year old Jerry and eleven year old Richard. The fact that all five of the Empyreal children were enrolled at the same Academy Ship was a State secret. One that was protected with extreme jealousy. As for the protection of the school itself that was not lost on the poorest of intellect. Not when the Academy was surrounded by an enter battle group at all times.
Once James had ensured his brothers and sisters he was fine James headed for the nearest window. As he stood there looking out the massive view with his family he looked out in wonder. There before his eyes was the birthplace of the Human Race. Stretching out as far as he could see was Earth Prime. James barely remembered the first time he had seen this planet, and that was fourteen years ago. Then as if the very blackness of space was ripped out by a sword made of blazing white light a jump gate formed and the massive battle platform Ryuk appeared.
“Looks like we get to visit with our mothers’ guys.” James told his brothers and sisters. He loved his mama Alice, but it was mother Maiha that he never saw eye to eye with. He must not have schooled the tone of his voice because Ohmei picked up on his uneasy at seeing their mothers.
“Why do you have to always push mommy’s buttons? Can’t you just once sit down and listen to her and not judge?”
“I will the day that SHE quiets reminding me that one day I will replace her.” James snapped at Ohmei.
“James have you ever stopped and listened to her. I mean really listened to her.” when James looked at Ohmei she could tell that he hadn’t. “You know those little lessons mommy likes to give? Will they are for more than just you. She gives them to all of us. She doesn’t care if you abdicate to one of us. However she does want you to make your choice based on facts not emotions alone. This time when we see her really pay attention to what she is saying.”
Before James could say anything Ohmei walked away leaving him to his own thoughts. It wasn’t long thou before a young Ensign came up to him and his friends and family. “My Lords and Ladies, Princes and Princesses, would you please follow me?” Eight teenagers and along with the two youngest Nakatoma’s and bodyguards were led to the flight deck and shuttle. “If you will all please board quickly. You will be cross decking to the Ryuk in ten minutes.”
Before any of the small group could say a word their bodyguards ushered them aboard the shuttle. Once inside they were seated and strapped in by their bodyguards. The kids had long ago learned to not argue with the men and women who were in charge of their safety. If the guards said run they ran where they were told. If the guards said down they just dug a hole and didn’t ask why. Once secured the bodyguards followed suite.
“Um… Jimmy do you know what’s going on?” asked Richard from across the aisle.
“I think we’re going to be joining our moms on Ryuk Richie.”
“But why wouldn’t she come to visit us?” the eleven year old boy had problems at times understanding the concept of security.
“Richie, you know that our moms have that problem we talked about remember?”
“Oh I forgot. Security.” Richie said the word with a great deal of venom for one so young. James knew and understood where his little brother was coming from thou. He had felt the same way more than once. “Why can’t we just be like everyone else?”
James didn’t get a chance to answer his brother’s question before the engines of the shuttle fired and the small spacecraft took to its element. No sooner had they cleared the launch tube than they were shadowed by six aero-fighters. James looked outside when he more felt than seen the arrival of the next six fighters. Looking over at the forward hanger bay for Ryuk. Then almost as if James had summoned them twelve more fighters followed a shuttle out the launch tubes.
James and the others felt their shuttle shift directions. No longer heading for the battle platform James did the math in his head. “Holy Shit! Guys were heading for the surface. We’re going to set foot on Earth Prime in thirty two minutes.”
“Not bad your Highness, but I suggest you redo your math.” Said the Captain of the guard detail. “I make our landfall in twenty one minutes.”
“If we’re making landfall that soon then we’re not landing where the old capital was. If I knew where we were headed I could maybe give you a better answer Captain Delacourt.”
The woman chuckled behind her tactical helmet. Like all of those who were close to his mother Captain Delacourt always hide her face behind a tactical helmet. No one had ever seen the faces of the Captains for the personal bodyguards to the Empyreal family. What everybody knew though was to not try the captains; it was not got for your health.
“I will give you all one clue, Prince James. We will be landing in the former capital for a once great and powerful nation on the North American continent.”
It didn’t take James long to refigure their landing zone from the time that Captain Delacourt had given. “Oh man, we’re going to land somewhere around the Washington DC ruins.” James looked over his shoulder at Captain Delacourt. “Why in the world would our mothers want to land there? I mean isn’t it still radioactive? I mean during the War against Terror that extremist group set off those nine thermonuclear warheads. Shouldn’t it be still hot in that area?”
“While it is still slightly radioactive in and around the ruins of DC the area we are landing is not. I will give you and your friends some advice Prince James. When we touchdown stay close to your mother Maiha. She has not visited this site in sense before you were born. She has waited until she thought the time was right. This is important for her and your mother Alison. There will be a great many peoples where we are landing today. They are here for a special reason. That reason is to remember and pay respect.”
“What is so special about this day and this place?” asked Ahmie.
“I will leave that to you to figure out Princess. I will give you all one clue though. This place was the inspiration for Fiddlers Green on Hades.” The sounds of the atmosphere starting to rush against the wings of the shuttle interrupted anymore discussion. “Stand by for breaking burn.”
They all felt the sudden cut in forward movement as the forward thrusters fired. The next thing they felt was the grab of the Earth’s gravity. It wasn’t long before they felt the shuttle pierce the envelop of Earth’s atmosphere and began the downward glide to the surface. James looked out the window next to him to see the other shuttle flying almost on the tip of their wing. The two shuttles and their escorts were truly flying in formation. The Twelve aero-fighters were bracketing the shuttles, forward, to the sides, and from the rear. The formation covered close to two and half miles square.
Even as they crossed over the West Coast of North America the teens could feel the tension in the air. Wherever they were going was truly special. Whatever the reason the Empress was here for most be truly special. Captain Delacourt had even said it was. James couldn’t get his thoughts to slow down. They kept going over what Delacourt had said. How this place was the inspiration for Fiddlers Green.
He along with all of his siblings had spent their summers helping to care for that cemetery long side of the House troops. It was a place for Death Dealers who pay the ultimate price for freedom. When he felt the second burn of the forward thrusters he knew they weren’t long from landing. Looking out he saw the mighty Mississippi River flowing below the shuttle. It wouldn’t be long now before they touched down. The problem was where they were touching down.
What could be so important for the Empress, his mother, to adventure so close to a radioactive creator? Even now after all these centuries the Washington DC area still held areas that reach the danger zones for most rad counters. Then he remembered something in his history lessons. Only certain ruins in the District of Columbia were radioactive. The nation of the United States had moved their seat of government deeper into the heartland of the country following that attack. The rest of the area surrounding DC had been exposed to the Tokyo Miracle. The citizens of that ancient nation had truned their destroyed capital city into a memorial to all those who died there in that attack.
James was ripped from his thoughts by the sudden lurching of the shuttle as it set down and fired its forward thrusters one last time. The sounds of screaming breaks and tires on pavement let James know they were down and down safe. Once the shuttle stopped James unstrapped and stood to help his younger brothers and sisters. The other cadets saw this and followed James example.
By the time the shuttle door was open and the ramp deployed all members of the party was ready to get off. James stopped his sisters and brothers before letting them off the shuttle. After inspecting their uniforms James let them go. He smiled as his three friends were doing the same to their siblings. As the younger children hurried across the tarmac the four young men stood there quietly. When they started down the ramp they were in lockstep with each other. They were more than just friends, and cadets, they were a lance.
Maiha looked up from her daughters and two youngest sons. There before her was something that brought a great deal of pride to her heart. Her oldest son James was more than just a name sake. He was a true leader she could see it by the way he lead his lance mates across the tarmac. There was no doubt that here was the next leader of the Empire and his staff of advisors. With a bump to Alice’s hip Maiha pointed with her chin to the four young men.
Even Alice could tell that it was more than just friends that advanced on them. It was a lance of equals that faced them. “He has your wining way with the troops Kitten. Do you think they’ll follow him onto the battlefield?”
“Not only will they follow him onto the battlefield Pussycat but they’ll walk through the Gates of Hell and tear down the Throne of Satan himself for him. I fear the day that someone pisses off our son, Alice. Because the day he takes up the sword in anger the universe will see someone that even Deaths Own Daughter will fear. He will bring something that I never could.”
“Maiha, what on earth are you talking about?” Alice wasn’t seeing what Maiha was. All she saw was her son and his friends. A lance yes, but not one ready for the battlefield. “I am sorry but I just don’t see the fierce warriors that you do.”
“They are there love. And our son is the fiercest of the four. When it is time our son shall stand head and shoulders above you or me. For now though I want to put such thoughts off for the future. He has time yet and I will do my best to give him more.” there was a note of sadness in Maiha’s voice. She knew that there was always a threat to the peace of the Empire. She just hoped that James would have the time before he needed to step in as a battlefield commander.
As James approached his mothers he noticed something in his momma Maiha’s eyes. There was a look of pride followed by one of great sadness. Once again James felt he had disappointed his mother the Empress somehow. He and his friends came to stand at attention in front of her. Saluting James called out. “Wild Cards ready for the shuffle, ma’am!”
Maiha and Alice both smiled at their son’s cocky attitude. Maiha returned the sault and gave her own response. One that she was sure her son and his friends weren’t expecting. “Deal me in, Cadet Nakatoma. It is time to gamble with our lives.” At their looks of surprise Maiha smiled. “What you didn’t know that I’m more than willing to join any game of chance? I prefer poker gentlemen but in war I am more than willing to stand with fine officers such as you.”
At their looks of total shock Alice started to laugh. She was soon joined by the bodyguards. They all knew that the Empress had just given her son and his fellow cadets a very important lesson. Never be a smartass with the boss, it come back to bite you in the ass. James seeing that his mother had gotten the best of him and his friends did the only thing he could. “Very well ma’am. If you are willing to leave you AI out of our game you’re more than welcome to join us tonight for our weekly game. Penny ante stakes only thou. None of us have access to a national treasury to cover our bets.”
“Oh I would never us Dee De to insure my chances at a poker table James. As for your invitation to your weekly game I accept gentlemen.” Maiha smiled at her oldest son and his friends. A single thought goes through her mind. ‘Yes he will be a far better Emperor than any who have come before him. He will be a Death Dealer’s Emperor, just as Sha was, and I am.’
“Well we’re wasting time standing around here. Fall in cadets. We have a five mile walk before we can get started.” With that Maiha dropped her robes to show she was wearing BDU’s and combat boots. Alice just smiled as her own robes joined those of her wife’s on the ground. The two women picked up a pair of backpacks and started to hand them out sets of BDUs. After all the cadets had gone inside and changed their uniforms and rejoined them Alice took the lead. She headed towards the Southeast towards what was once the city of Arlington, VA.
Maiha dropped back to take up the tail end Charlie position. She smiled as she watched her son and his friends flank outward to prove cover for the party. Maiha knew that the Royal bodyguards had taken up positions that would insure their safety but the four boys were doing their part to protect their siblings. The more Maiha watched them the more she knew that they would be one hell of a team. At two miles from their goal Maiha moved to the front and took the lead.
At an easy pace Maiha lead the group through the Theodore Roosevelt Gate of the onetime National Cemetery. For the next five hours Maiha lead the young cadets through the cemetery. Over hills and down through valleys. In among the tombstones to place Empyreal Flags in front of certain ones. It was at one of these tombstones that Cathy Pike asked the question that was on all of the children’s minds. “Empress, why are you placing an Empyreal Flag alongside those ancient national flags?”
“Each flag that I have placed is for one of my own ancestors. Today is a special day among the people here. At one time this was a nation of heroes and heroines. Uncommon Valor was common place and bravery ran as if it flowed through the water. The people of this nation fought for their freedom. They knew that the Tree of Democracy had to be fertilized with the blood of patriots. That Freedom had to be pay for by the blood of heroes. I count among their number two hundred and seven ancestors as members of their military. That is way I have been placing the Empyreal flags at certain graves, Cathy.” Maiha continued down the row she was currently walking until she reaches the next grave. “As for how I know where and who are my ancestors I took the liberty to look them up. I did the same for all of you as well. If you want to join me in placing a flag on a hero’s grave you just have to ask. The guards know where your family members are buried.”
The all five of the teens walked over to their individual guards and asked. Maiha stood and watched as the children spread out across the ancient cemetery. Maiha and Alice both smiled as their four youngest walked over to their guards. Of them all only James stood off to one side. He stood looking up the hill at a white marble sarcophagus with a flat-faced form and is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classic pilasters, set into the surface. Sculpted into the east panel are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. There are six wreaths, three sculpted on each side, represent the six major campaigns of World War I. Maiha knew that inscribed on the back of the Tomb were the words: Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.
“What draws you attention so my son?” Maiha asked James.
“That tomb up there mother. Who is that for? Is he one of our ancestors?” James never took his eyes off the gleaming white marble. Nor did he miss the two soldiers standing guard over the tomb. “Why are not Death Dealers standing guard over this tomb? What House Troops have such honor in protecting this man?”
Maiha smiled at the wonder in her son’s voice at seeing the Tomb for the first time. It was time to take her son to the Tomb. “Come with me my son. It is time for you to learn the story behind that tomb.” James followed his mother Maiha to stand with her before the tomb.
For the next hour Maiha told her son the story of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the military unit that was charged with protecting it. She told her son how there was one such tomb in almost every nation on Earth. She explained how each nation had at onetime their own military forces. That is wasn’t until after the last Great World War that humanity was able to reach for the stars. Maiha did her best to answer the questions her son asked of her. They stood there in silence as the guard was changed. James was drawn in by the beauty and pageantry of the ceremony.
Once the guard had completed their change Maiha stepped forward and saluted them. As one the two guards came to attention and returned her salute. Two of Maiha’s personal bodyguards came out of nowhere holding a wreath. Maiha took the wreath from them and slowly walked to the base of the white marble sarcophagus. There with reverence and love she placed the wreath. Once Maiha was done she stood at attention and saluted once more doing an about face she returned to James side. As they walked away to continue their tour of the cemetery James asked Maiha the question that she was waiting for. “Mom, why did you bring us here today?”
“I had hoped that you would have figured that out by now, James. I brought you here to understand the price of war. I came here long ago before going to Hades.”
“Did Grandfather James bring you here mother?” James asked with some wonder.
“No, James. I came here on my own. I never wanted to forget what it means to be a soldier. It means to place one’s own life on the line to protect your neighbor. To give your life so that others may live free. When I faced the Rebellion on Hades I swore to those who fought for us there that I would never forget them. To honor that promise I commissioned Fiddler Green. The first and only Death Dealer cemetery in all the Empire. Just as here those who die in the service of the Empire are buried there and will always be honored there. That my son is now your duty. I brought you here to past on that sacred duty and honor.”
James stopped where he was. In all of his seventeen years he had never heard his mother Maiha sound so sad. Yes she had been angry with him and his siblings. Sure she had shown disappointment in their screw-ups but never had she sounded sad. As he stood there looking around him he now understood the price that a Leader paid. The toll on the soul of all those lives lost protecting the Empire. Every decision made ultimately came back to her.
“James, there was once a great leader and statesman of the United States of America. He placed a sign on his desk when he held the highest office of this nation, The Presidency. That sign read ‘The buck stops here.’ do you understand what that meant? Oh and one of his titles was Commander in Chief.”
“That all decisions both good and bad are ultimately the responsibility of a Nations Leader. However it is the decisions that a leader makes as a military commander that have the highest price and greatest cost. You brought me here to see that cost, and understand what it means to be a leader, didn’t you momma?”
“And so ends the lesson, my son. Come along we still and a few more places to visit this day.” James quickly caught up to the woman that was his mother, but so much more on this day. Over the past seventeen years James had never seen her so quiet or somber. No she was none of those his mom was paying her respect to long dead heroes. As they walked among the tombstones James thought he could hear the voices of these long dead men and women. “Do you hear them Jimmy?”
“Yes momma, I do. Each voice is deferent but they are all saying the same thing. Remember, or never forget. All these heroes have earned their chance to rest in peace mom. I shall never forget what they have paid for us to be free. There is something else though mom. It is just on the edge of hearing but I just cannot make it out.”
“It is the warning my son. One that goes clear back to the days of the very First World War. They called it the war hero’s warning, James. Do you want to know what that warning is?”
“Yes please mom. I have learned so much here this day. What is this war hero warning?” at first Maiha thought James was being a smart ass, until she looked in her son’s face and saw the need to know.
“Never turn your back on the reaper.”
It took James a few minutes to understand that his mother wasn’t referring to herself. James was more than aware of her nicknames Reaper, Death’s Own Daughter, Lady Death, Empress of Death, and the Death Scythe of Hades. These were just a few of the names that his mother had. James had heard of a few others but there was no way he would ever use them around her or within a thousand miles of her.
“Mom, did you ever fear the reaper?”
“On more than one occasion James. Then I remembered a promise I made long ago.” At the sound of her voice James faced his mother. Maiha had gotten a faraway look in her eyes. “I promised someone that I would never retreat and never surrender.”
“You promised someone that you would always come home didn’t you mom. That is the other reason you brought me here today. To remind me that is one promise that I might not be able to keep and to never make it.”
“And so ends the lesson of lessons my son. However I have one last question for you James?” Maiha had a sad smile on her face now as she looked at her son.
“Am I ready to face the thin red line, mom? To tell you the truth I don’t know. I am afraid that when the time comes I’ll freeze and do nothing or I might forget everything I have been taught and charge headlong into the fight. To tell you the truth I just don’t know.” James couldn’t believe that he was telling his mother all of this. There was no way she would ever understand his feelings. She was never afraid of anything.
“So my son you have your own fears and are willing to face them. That is a good thing James. Just remember when the time comes that it helps to talk to someone.”
“Did you ever talk to someone mom?”
“More than once. Before you ask I’ll tell you my confessor. I always talked with Death, just as my grandfather did.”
“You talked with Death? Didn’t people think you were, well um… crazy?”
Maiha started to laugh at her son’s confusion. “Take it from me James there is no such thing as sanity in war. There is only survival. If talking to Death helps you get through the upcoming battle then fine. If rubbing a piece of wood or carrying a rabbit’s foot helps then do so. Like I said I always talked with Death and he became like an old friend to me. So when it came time to face Death on the battlefield it was like greeting an old friend.”
James just looked at his mother, the Empress Maiha Mana Nakatoma. Here was a woman that all his life he had thought had all the answers. The woman he had done everything to impress and all she cared about was him doing his best. For the first time he truly understood all the little lessons she had given him over the years. Everything she had tried to teach him was to prepare him for the day when he or one of his sisters or brothers took her place. She was doing her best to make him a better leader. Even this little trip to Earth Prime was to teach him, his siblings, and all their friends something. The only question James had left for his mother was why today.
“Mom, I promise to always find someone to talk to if I have time. Even if I have to talk with the Grim Reaper himself. Just answer one question for me. Why this trip on this day?”
“Today is Veterans’ Day here in America. I had not planned on the other lessons we have found together here this day, but I could think of no better a day than day to give you this lesson. Remember and honor our veterans as they have pay for our freedom. Some gave their all, while all gave some. Here now all around us are those who paid the highest price. Never forget this one lesson my son. All the others I have given you, you can forget, but not this one. You do that and you will always have the loyalty of the military.”
“Yes ma’am.” James had come to the position of attention and saluted Maiha. Then he smiled at his mother. “Death is dealt by our hand, but the Wild Cards always keep one Trump Card in the hole.”
Maiha couldn’t help it, as she returned her son’s salute, she started laughing. She knew that her son was ready to step out into the world as the next leader for the Empire. “Carry on Joker. Take your place as the next Death.”
“I’ll ring the bells of Hell, mother. I’ll ring the bells of Hell.”
For the next generation of Veterans you’ll not be forgotten.
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