Culmination, Part 35

Belfamor Hemetal frowned as he gazed out on the rapidly approaching skyline of Selorin. It had been a long time since he’d last been here. Oddly, he was doing the same thing this time as he’d done last time; rescuing his wife from her father. Although, she hadn’t been his wife at the time, but that didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that this time, Belfamor was going to end this.

In reality, he probably shouldn’t have even been on this landing craft. As the overall commander of the operation, he wasn’t even supposed to be with the fleet, much less with the ground forces. But he needed to be certain. Certain that his wife was okay, and certain that Neminatrix was dealt with, once and for all. He didn’t trust anyone to complete this task aside from himself. Somewhere deep inside, he knew that was an insane thing to think, but he didn’t care. Neminatrix needed to die, and his wife needed to be back in his arms. That was all that mattered, and once those two things happened, everything would be alright again. He just kept telling himself that.

“General, are you sure this is a good idea?” asked a voice suddenly. Belfamor glanced over at a young Captain sitting nearby. She was the commander of the unit occupying this landing craft, and her name was Melizca Felane. The fierce expression on her face as she looked at Belfamor belied the mildness with which she’d spoke. She was one who would treat a commanding officer with utmost respect, but wouldn’t hesitate to speak her mind if she thought said commanding officer was doing something stupid.

“No, Captain, I’m not sure,” Belfamor replied drily, “but I’m doing it anyway. One of the prerogatives of being a general. If you want to do something stupid, there aren’t many people who can stop you.”

“Must be nice, sir,” Felane said with a smirk.

“It’s alright,” Belfamor replied, returning her smirk. Then he went back to looking out of the viewscreen of the landing craft. Probably, he should have been sitting down and strapped in like the rest of the soldiers on the craft, but he felt like if a person was going to do something stupid, they might as well take it all the way. Besides, Neminatrix’s ground defenses were no match for these new landing craft.

No, as stupid as his actions were, he was committed to this, and he needed to see it through. He would make sure that his wife was safe. Nobody else could do this.

***

Since the dawn of time, humans had lived on Trisitania. And as long as humans had lived on Trisitania, there had been a settlement on the site of Selorin. Over two millennia of constant habitation meant, among other things, that there was an extensive series of tunnels underneath the city. As long as you knew where you were going, it was possible to get from any point in the city to any other point, without ever poking your head above ground. Including the Imperial Palace.

And Hana Lodimeur knew exactly where she was going. For three hundred years, Fangalin had hidden within the structures and organizations of the Empire, biding its time and gathering information until they could come out into the open and begin their war to claim their rightful place as rulers of the galaxy. One of the things they did during that time was create a complete and exhaustive map of the tunnels under Selorin. It was believed by some that Fangalin had more extensive knowledge of the Selorin tunnel system than anyone in the Empire.

Intelligence reports from Fangalin operatives on Trisitania had indicated that there was a relatively short stretch of tunnel that was unguarded and led straight into the Palace itself. How Neminatrix could be so lax about security that he wouldn’t even post guards on such a direct route into the heart of his power, Hana had no idea, but she wasn’t going to complain about it. Maybe he was just so secure in his egotism that he figured nobody would dare to attack him directly. Whatever the reason was, Hana thanked the Dark Presence that it existed.

Quickly and quietly, she poked her head around a corner and scanned for guards. “Clear,” she whispered as she moved out into the tunnel. The intelligence reports indicated that this tunnel was unguarded, but intelligence reports weren’t always correct. Hana was too close to her goal for it to be thwarted now by carelessness.

She and the rest of her team crept silently down the tunnel, moving much faster than any outside observer would have imagined, considering how little sound they were making. Hana and her team members kept their eyes and ears open, doing their best to make sure that if there were guards in this tunnel, they wouldn’t be caught by surprise.

Bringing up the rear at this point was the young lieutenant with the rocket launcher. Tall and muscular, with short black hair and bright hazel eyes, he was one of the newest members of Starfengt. An expert in demolition and explosives (hence the rocket launcher), he was also well versed in computer technology and information warfare. His name was Valdamich Lotarien, and he was bringing up the rear so that he could keep an eye on the motion/heat tracker that was strapped to his left wrist.

“Captain, I’m getting some anomalous readings here,” he said, suddenly and quietly. Hana signaled for the group to stop, and she turned to him.

“What do you mean, Lieutenant?” she asked with a frown.

“I mean I’m detecting some motion up ahead, around the next turn, along with some heat sources, but…I don’t think they’re human,” he replied, looking puzzled. Hana’s frown deepened as she looked at Lotarien, and then she pulled up the display on her own motion tracker. For a moment, she studied the anomalous readings that Lotarien had noticed, and then suddenly it dawned on her.

“Drones,” she breathed. “Neminatrix, you clever bastard.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 34

“The 7th Fleet has just arrived, Your Majesty,” said Admiral Termaina, a note of relief creeping into his voice. The IDF had been forced to retreat beyond the orbit of Calexis, the farthest of the three moons that orbited Trisitania. The Emperor and his advisors had hoped that the IDF would be able to hold out longer, and the fact that they hadn’t meant that part of the rebel fleet had managed to achieve a stable orbit around the planet and had begun landing ground troops. But the 7th Fleet had finally arrived, so the rebel forces would be forced to cease, or at least slow down, landing operations in order to defend themselves. It was something, anyway.

“That’s good news, Admiral,” Neminatrix said with a small smile. “What about the enemy ground troops?”

“Looks like 11 dropships managed to unload before they were engaged by our fleet,” Termaina replied. “We’ve attempted to engage the landing craft, but we’re not having much success. Valador’s got some new landers that we’ve never seen before, and they’re much more maneuverable than we’re used to. The ground defenses are having a surprisingly hard time targeting them.”

“11 dropships,” Neminatrix said, musing. “So, at most, 55,000 troops.” He thought for a moment, gazing off into space, and then his eyes refocused and he looked at Admiral Termaina. “They will come straight for the Palace.”

“Of course,” Termaina said, meeting Neminatrix’s gaze, calm but intense.

“I will not flee,” Neminatrix replied, his eyes mirroring the intensity of Termaina’s.

“I would never even suggest such a thing, Your Majesty,” Termaina replied, not looking away. Neminatrix held his gaze for a moment, as if he was searching for something, and then he nodded sharply and turned his attention back to the displays showing the progress of the battle.

***

“Helm, adjust heading to 5542.9 and intercept enemy destroyers at 3926.1,” Kryla ordered, not taking her eyes off of Decimator‘s viewscreen. Commanding the fleet from the bridge rather than from the CIC was proving to be more challenging than she’d anticipated. She was finding that it was necessary for her to leave most of the tactical decisions to her XO, because the bridge simply wasn’t equipped to give her a good view of what was going on in the battle as a whole. Fortunately, as far as Kryla could tell, her XO was handling the job with aplomb. But, she couldn’t help but worry a little bit.

“CIC, status report,” Kryla ordered.

“Understood,” responded her XO over the intercom. A few seconds later, a detailed accounting of the battle appeared on Kryla’s personal information screen. Kryla scanned it quickly and nodded. Yes, her XO did indeed have things under control. Hopefully, “under control” would prove to be enough to win this battle.

***

In the CIC deep inside the battleship Magnificence, “under control” was about the best that Admiral Tred could say about the progress of the battle. The opposing commander knew what she was doing. A lesser commander would have attempted to push the weight of her heavier ships on Tred’s fleet, which would have given Tred’s smaller and faster ships an opportunity to slip in between the rebel fleet and the planet. But whoever was in command of the rebels was patient, and more than willing to let Tred come to her and keep from ceding the planetary orbit.

“Gamma Wing, alter course by five degrees and engage the two cruisers at 2916.4,” Tred ordered, studying the holographic map of the space around Trisitania carefully.

“Admiral, Alpha Wing is being hard pressed by enemy battleships,” called out one of her tactical officers.

“Tell them to pull back to rally point Enterial,” Tred responded, “and form up with Beta Wing. Together, they can push back against those battleships.”

Yes, this battle was winnable, but only if the rebel commander made a mistake and Tred was able to capitalize on it. So far, the rebel commander had given no indication that she was liable to mistakes.

***

For a moment, Hana just watched and waited. The moment she’d been waiting a decade for had finally arrived, and she wanted to savor it. But she couldn’t savor too long, or else it might pass her by. She looked at the other three members of her team, and nodded. It was time.

“Echo Two, you are clear to engage,” she said.

“Copy that, Echo One,” replied Arcten. “Preparing to engage.” For a few moments, nothing happened. And then there was a flash of light and an earth-shaking rumble. Beyond the Imperial Palace, a great cloud of smoke could be seen billowing up into the sky. Hana watched it for a moment, and then she unholstered her assault rifle from its cradle on her back and fired a few rounds through the window, shattering it. Then she gestured sharply to one of the members of her team, who was carrying a rocket launcher.

Smoothly, the young lieutenant stepped up, hoisting the launcher onto his shoulder as he did so. He crouched down on one knee, took a moment to aim, and then pulled the trigger, sending a rocket zipping across the plaza to slam into the front gate of the Imperial Palace. As soon as it did, he stood up, slung the launcher back across his back, and looked at Hana. She nodded sharply, and gestured toward the stairs to their right. He nodded in reply, unslung his assault rifle, and led the way out of the building, with Hana and the other two members of her team following close behind.

A few moments later, they were outside the building and slipping through deserted streets and alleys. As they moved, they could hear another explosion from the direction of the Palace. After a few twists and turns, they reached their destination. The young lieutenant bent down, pulled out a laser cutting tool, and used it to slice through the lock on a manhole cover. Then he picked it up, dragged it aside, and dropped down into the sewers below. As Hana and the others followed, a fourth explosion could be heard ripping through the air near the Palace. Hana grinned. Neminatrix had no idea what was about to hit him.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 33

Kryla stared at Decimator‘s viewscreen intently, watching the progress of the battle unfold. So far, Attack Pattern Volmin was working exactly as it was supposed to. The IDF was crumbling before Kryla’s furious assault. It had only been half an hour since the fleet dropped out of subspace, and the IDF was already breaking orbit and retreating beyond Trisitania’s farthest moon. Moving the bulk of the fleet into orbit around the planet and taking up a defensive perimeter around the dropships carrying the ground troops, Kryla ordered a detachment of ten ships to pursue the IDF and either finish them off or force them to drop into subspace. Kryla did not want those ships lurking in interplanetary space if reinforcements showed up.

“Speak of the Dark Lord,” Kryla whispered as an alarm blared and the viewscreen lit up with contacts. She leaned forward, her body almost quivering with anticipation as the sensor officer called out that 84 warships had just dropped out of subspace. “Now we get serious…”

***

“Report!” Tred barked as Magnificence shuddered back into normal space.

“The IDF has retreated beyond the outer moon,” announced her tactical officer. “Enemy forces number…103, sir.”

“Composition of the enemy fleet?” Tred asked.

“Looks like…mostly battleships and cruisers, with a few frigates and a smattering of destroyers,” the tactical officer replied.

“Dammit,” Tred growled in response. “We underestimated.” She paused for a moment, considering. She had 84 ships in her fleet, and the IDF had 15 ships left. That meant her forces’ numbers roughly matched those of the enemy fleet, but her fleet had relatively few battleships and cruisers, and instead was mostly comprised of destroyers. The result was that she was heavily outgunned, despite the numerical parity.

“Should we recall the task force?” asked her XO, contemplating the same numbers she was.

“It is tempting,” Tred mused. Recalling the task force would give her a large numerical advantage, and close the gap in regards to heavy ships. The task force had a vital assignment, but their success would be meaningless if Trisitania was lost. On the other hand, recalling the task force wouldn’t necessarily guarantee victory, and she didn’t want to start second-guessing herself. “No,” she finally said. “The task force will continue on its current mission. The 7th Fleet will defend Trisitania.”

***

“Clear!” yelled Hana as she rounded a corner. She and three other members of her team were in an office building on the opposite side of Citizen’s Plaza from the Imperial Palace. The streets of Selorin were surprisingly peaceful considering that the largest battle in 400 years was unfolding in orbit. Hana had not yet seen a single Imperial Army soldier, but most likely they were concentrated in the Palace itself and other important installations. It was too much to hope that Starfengt would be able to get all the way to their target without meeting any resistance.

Fortunately, the battle had one positive consequence for Hana and her team, which was that Selorin seemed as if it had been, for the most part, evacuated. Hana couldn’t imagine Neminatrix caring at all about the fate of civilians, but she thanked the Presence that he, or at least someone with authority in the city, did. Not having any civilians around would make it a lot more likely that Starfengt would make it into the Palace undetected.

She and her team rounded another corner, and Hana was confronted with a sight that filled her with powerful and conflicting emotions. They were in a large, open office space, and on the opposite side of the room was a huge window that afforded a spectacular view of the Imperial Palace and Citizen’s Plaza.

Citizen’s Plaza. She hadn’t seen it for almost fifteen years. Not since that fateful day when the Empire killed her old self in a storm of blood and artillery shells, and she was reborn as something new. No longer an idealist dedicated to reforming the Empire and bringing it back to its former glory, she was now a bringer of death, devoted to the Empire’s destruction. Because of the devastation she’d experienced back then, she had renounced her old loyalties and pledged allegiance to a new power.

That was all well and good. She had no regrets about the decision she’d made that day. Subsequent events had only strengthened her revulsion for the Empire. But what she hadn’t expected was to be reminded of all the good friends who had died at the hands of the Imperial Army that day. Veshryk Jilorin, Niven Umior and Shilmek Aladia had been three of her best friends while she was a student at Imperial University. Together they had planned to remove the pretender Adlamor Finegal from the Imperial Throne, and restore the Senate so that a true Emperor could be elected. But they had failed miserably, and all except for Hana had paid with their lives.

What would they think if they could see her now? Would they be proud of her? Would they be thrilled that she was finally going to get into the Palace and eliminate a false Emperor? Or would they be mortified that she had turned against the Empire and joined Fangalin? Vesh, in particular, had been so devoted to restoring the Empire, but then so had she, back then. Would he understand? Or would they be on opposite sides of the war if he had survived?

She shook her head and strode forward to the window. It didn’t matter. Her friends were dead, and so was the man responsible for their deaths. She had one last bit of business to take care of before all the ghosts of her past were expunged.

“Echo Two, we are in position,” she said over her communicator.

“Copy that, Echo One,” replied Arcten from his position on the opposite side of the Palace. “Awaiting your signal.” She nodded, even though Arcten wouldn’t be able to see it. It was time. Vengeance would be hers at last.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 32

“Status report!” barked Admiral Kryla Zomulin as soon as Decimator dropped out of subspace. “What’s out there?”

“Looks like 24 contacts, sir,” responded the sensor officer. “Two battleships, three cruisers, nine frigates, and ten destroyers.”

“Attack pattern Volmin,” Kryla ordered. “Obliterate them.”

“Yes, sir!” replied the tactical officer.

“CIC, confirm attack pattern Volmin,” Kryla said to her XO, stationed in Decimator‘s Command Information Center. Normally, the officer in command of the fleet would be in the flagship’s CIC, and the officer commanding the flagship would be a separate person stationed on the bridge, but Kryla tended to be quite unorthodox. It went along with being one of the youngest admirals in the Imperial Fleet.

“Attack pattern Volmin, confirmed,” replied Kryla’s XO. “All ships, begin charging forward weapons arrays.” Kryla nodded in satisfaction. Volmin was an aggressive combat scheme, designed for exactly this situation, when one fleet vastly outnumbered an opposing fleet, and needed to destroy it quickly, before reinforcements arrived. Very few countermeasures had been devised against it, as military strategists didn’t overly want to think about trying to fight back against overwhelming odds. The only flaw with Volmin is that it had never actually been tested in combat, as such lopsided battles were extremely rare. But Kryla was feeling lucky today.

***

An insistent beeping noise woke Neminatrix out of pleasant dreams. At first, he was inclined to ignore it. He had been up late last night, celebrating with his daughter. It was amazing how reconnecting with her had cleared the fog that seemed to have settled over his brain ever since his wife’s death. Trinia’s death had hit him harder than he would have ever imagined. After all, he had married her solely because of her connections to the Imperial family and its wealth. House Votalin was an ancient and prestigious house, but its money had been bled dry by Neminatrix’s wastrel father. When Neminatrix had suddenly become Head of House after his father was stabbed in drunken barroom brawl, his first order of business was to find a wealthy, connected spouse to restore his family’s fortunes. He hadn’t expected to fall in love with her.

But fall in love with her he had, and her death had broken him in ways he hadn’t even realized until recently. He had nearly destroyed his daughter in some twisted scheme to blame her for something that couldn’t possibly have been her fault. Not only that, but his reign as Emperor had only exacerbated the wounds caused by the Fangalin rebellion and accompanying civil war. He had spent so much time brooding over his past and playing cat-and-mouse with his ISS Master that he’d had very little time left for governing and overseeing the war. So much pain and destruction had been caused by him. But now, he felt like he was beginning to finally find redemption and was working toward healing the damage he’d caused. Which was why he was ignoring the aide calling him, because deep down inside, he suspected that the news he’d hear would tell him that it was already too late for him to turn his life and his reign around.

“Yes, what is it?” he finally growled, sitting up in his bed.

“Your Majesty, thank the One you’re finally awake!” the aide yelled frantically. “We are under attack!”

“What do you mean?” Neminatrix replied, sitting up straighter.

“I mean that a fleet has just dropped out of subspace, and is engaging the IDF picket in orbit!” the aide practically screeched.

“I’m on my way,” Neminatrix said, jumping out of bed and pulling on a robe. He strode out of his quarters and down the halls of the Imperial Palace, full of purpose, his bodyguards falling in around him as he moved. He’d been waiting for this moment for weeks. His spies had been hearing rumors that Belfamor Hemetal was up to something, but they hadn’t been able to figure out exactly what. The most common story was that he was planning a diversionary strike on Trisitania to provide cover for an invasion of Endragar. Neminatrix didn’t believe that for a second, but he’d played along with it, because it was clearly what his enemies wanted him to believe.

“Report!” Neminatrix barked as he strode into the Imperial Palace’s command center.

“The picket is crumbling fast,” announced the commander of the Imperial Defense Force, the unit of the Imperial Fleet that defended the capital. His name was Admiral Veleken Termaina, and he was a short, gray-haired man with a wispy beard and a fierce demeanor. “Whoever’s in command up there is good. They clearly don’t believe that we think this is a diversionary attack. They’re trying to crush the picket fast, before we can bring reinforcements in.”

“How much of a chance do they have?” Neminatrix asked.

“Current projections indicate that the picket will be destroyed in an hour,” Termaina replied, and then a wolfish grin spread across his face. “The 7th Fleet will be dropping out of subspace in twenty minutes.”

“Excellent,” Neminatrix said, his grin mirroring Termaina’s.

***

Admiral Zhiala Tred, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Armed Forces under Emperor Neminatrix IV, had taken direct command of the 7th Fleet for the defense of the capital, and she had a bad feeling about it. The Emperor and his advisors were confident that they could repel anything that Valador Mifalis threw at them, but Admiral Tred wasn’t so sure. Over the past ten years, the forces loyal to Neminatrix had grown weaker, and those following Valador were stronger. But Neminatrix’s forces were still quite strong, thus making it a bold gamble to strike directly for the capital. Tred knew Valador well enough to know that he wouldn’t have committed to such an operation unless he was confident that he would win.

“Ten minutes until Trisitania, Admiral!” called out the navigation officer. She nodded in response and went back to drumming the arms of her chair with her fingers and thinking. She was in the CIC of her flagship, the battleship Magnificence. It was brand-new, the first of its class, and the best that the Empire had to offer, along with the rest of the ships in the 7th Fleet. Tred wished she felt like it would be enough to turn the tide.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 31

“What’s our status?” asked Hana Lodimeur, coming into Fluttermask‘s cockpit and sitting down in the empty copilot chair.

“We’re about twenty minutes out from Trisitania,” replied Kyla Vertrane, not taking her eyes from the controls in front of her.

“Good, good,” Hana replied vaguely, staring intently at the kaleidoscope of colors visible on the viewscreen. Kyla glanced over at her, and then turned back to the controls, shaking her head slightly. She’d encountered people who were this obsessed with revenge before, and it never ended well. She was thinking of one person in particular, an old friend named Treben Holkas. Treben’s burning desire for revenge had left him in a shallow grave in one of the outer colonies. Of course, knowing that hadn’t kept Kyla from taking the opportunity to get revenge of her own for Treben’s death, so maybe she sympathized with Hana more than she thought she did.

A beeping sound brought her out of her reveries and back to the present. “Got a report here, Captain,” she said briskly, looking at the text appearing on a display mounted to her left. “You might be in luck. It looks like Valador’s forces haven’t arrived in the Trisitania system yet.”

“That is good news,” Hana said with a sharp nod. “All right, I’m gonna go get my team ready. Let me know when it’s time to deploy.”

“Yes, sir,” Kyla replied. As Hana left the room and Kyla turned her full attention back to flying, she wondered what Treben would have thought if he could see her now.

***

Hana was nearly buzzing with excitement as she walked back through the narrow corridor toward where the other members of Starfengt were waiting, although she didn’t let it show on her face or in her posture. This is it! she thought, This is the moment I’ve been working towards for ten years! No matter what happened today, she would not leave Trisitania until Emperor Neminatrix IV was dead. No matter what it cost her, she would have her vengeance today.

“This is it!” she announced, repeating her earlier thought, as she entered the compartment where Starfengt was waiting. “In a few minutes we’ll be dropping out of subspace, and we’ll be able to commence the operation.” She paused a moment, and took in all of the calm, expectant faces looking her.

“You are the best of the best,” she continued quietly, “and no matter what happens today, you’ve proven yourselves a thousand times over, to me, and more importantly, to each other. I won’t lie and say this is the most important mission we’ve ever had. I know it’s stupid for us to be here when Valador’s forces are supposed to arrive anytime. Maybe we should have just left these two pretenders to duke it out amongst themselves and weaken the Empire further. But killing Neminatrix is something I have to try and do myself. And it means everything to me that all of you were willing to come along with me on a personal vendetta.”

“You’re the best, Cap’n!” called out one of the youngest members of Starfengt, a red-haired, freckled young man named Sholin Ilimace. “Starfengt wouldn’t exist without you, sir! If helping you take care of the man who killed your father will show you how grateful we are to be together, in this unit, then it’s the least we can do!” The rest of the team murmured their agreement and nodded.

Hana looked overwhelmed by this at first. She closed her eyes tightly for a few moments, and then she cleared her throat and her expression was back to normal.

“Thank you, Sholin,” she said, her voice slightly huskier than usual. “And thank you to all of you. Now, let’s go get this bastard.”

***

As soon as Fluttermask dropped out of subspace, Kyla engaged the emissions masker. With the masker running, the only way that anybody in the Trisitania system would notice Fluttermask was if they looked out a window and saw her. Which was always possible, but highly unlikely. Space was a pretty big place, after all. Not for the first time, she prayed to whatever god might be listening, to thank he, she, or it for putting her in the cockpit of this ship. It was a smuggler’s dream. Also not for the first time, she wondered about where the masker had come from. But, that was neither here nor there. At the moment, she had a job to do.

She was just entering orbit around Trisitania when an alarm bell sounded, causing her to look over at her sensor display. What she saw there made her eyes widen, and she swore under her breath. Then she smacked her hand down on her control panel and said, “Captain Lodimeur, you better get back up here. We have a problem.”

A few seconds later, Hana burst into the cockpit. “What is it?” she barked. In response, Kyla pointed to the sensor display. “By the Presence,” Hana breathed. “I’ve never seen anything like that.” She was silent for a moment, thinking furiously. “We need to get down to the surface. Now!”

“On it!” Kyla replied. Her hands flew over the controls as Fluttermask pitched forward sharply and screamed into Trisitania’s atmosphere, causing Hana to hold on tightly to the back of the copilot’s chair to avoid falling forward into the viewscreen. A few seconds later, Fluttermask leveled out and Kyla turned to Hana.

“We’ll be landing in just a few minutes,” she said. “You should go get your team ready to disembark, sir.” Hana nodded sharply and rushed out of the cockpit.

***

“Grab your gear and get ready to move as soon as the hatch opens,” Hana said as she strode into the compartment where the rest of Starfengt was waiting.

“What’s going on, Captain?” Xeliana Merane asked.

“Valador’s fleet is here,” Hana replied, her words clipped. “Over a hundred warships. We need to move faster than we ever have if we want to do this and get out of here alive.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 30

Belfamor Hemetal crouched behind a fallen pillar in the Grand Hall of the Imperial Palace on Trisitania, assault rifle clutched tightly to his chest, his squadmates huddled next to him. They had almost reached Neminatrix, but his bodyguards were putting up a determined resistance, trying to take out as many of Valador’s soldiers as they could before they went down. Belfamor popped up, squeezed off a few shots in the direction of the Throne, and then ducked back down behind the pillar before Neminatrix’s soldiers could return fire. Sweating profusely, he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. He also had to urinate badly, but there wasn’t much he could do about that at the moment, so he ignored it.

Suddenly a female voice called out across the battlefield. “Stop this nonsense at once!” it said. Belfamor’s eyes grew wide at the sound of that voice, and he risked a peek over the top of the pillar. Sure enough, his wife was standing in the middle of the Grand Hall, her appearance immaculate, wearing a beautiful green and gold dress, oblivious to the death and destruction surrounding her.

“Shala?” Belfamor whispered, shocked. Somehow, despite the noise of guns firing and men and women yelling and screaming, Shala heard him. She looked right at him, and then starting marching toward him, heedless of the chaos around her. When she got close to him, she planted her fists on her hips, with a firm look on her face.

“Go home, Belfamor,” she said harshly.

“What?” Belfamor replied in shock.

“I said, ‘go home!'” she replied, her voice stern. “I don’t want you to rescue me. I’m going to stay here with Neminatrix. I’m in love with him now, not you.”

“How…how can this be?” Belfamor whispered, his voice barely audible over the sounds of battle still going on around them.

“General, it’s 0600 hours,” Shala replied. “Time to wake up.” Belfamor stared at her in complete bafflement for a moment, and then his eyes snapped open, and he was laying on his bed, in his quarters onboard Decimator.

“General?” said the female voice again.

“I’m here, Ensign,” Belfamor replied groggily. “Thank you for the wake-up call.” He sat up slowly, shaking his head and rubbing his temples. What in Nerzaga was that dream all about? he thought irritably. He’d been having strange dreams like that for a week now, ever since the Emperor had given him the tacit go-ahead for his offensive against Trisitania. He wondered if maybe his subconscious was having second thoughts about this whole plan, but it was too late to back out now. Instead, he got out of bed, relieved himself, and got in the shower.

Today was the day. Today, the fleet was going to drop into subspace, fly to Trisitania, and reclaim the capital in the name of the true Emperor. Once Neminatrix was dead, the Empire would be whole again, at least as whole as it had been ever since the war started. And, perhaps more importantly, Belfamor would have his wife back, and he would never have to worry about her father stealing her away ever again.

Finishing up with his shower, he shaved and then got dressed, and left his quarters for the bridge. Although Admiral Zomulin was in command of this operation, he had still planned it, and he wanted to be there as the operation got underway. The ship was bustling with activity as Belfamor made his way through the narrow corridors, returning the salutes of junior officers every few steps. Decimator was scheduled to drop into subspace in less than twenty minutes, and the crew was rushing to make sure everything was prepared for the drop.

On the bridge, things were outwardly calmer, but there was still an air of heightened anticipation among the bridge crew. Admiral Zomulin was sitting in the command chair, looking, at first glance, out of place with her stylish hair, her immaculate makeup, her painted nails, and the fact that she could somehow make even a military uniform look fashionable. Even at almost 40 years old, she looked like she should be strutting down a trendy street on Cortaris or Endragar, instead of commanding a military vessel. But if you looked closely, there were small clues, like the way she sat in the command chair, or the steely glint in her eye, that made you realize she was exactly where she was supposed to be.

“General, good to see you, sir,” Zomulin said respectfully, glancing away from her display for a moment and then going right back to it.

“Likewise, Admiral,” Belfamor replied, nodding slightly. “Everything ready?”

“Would we be ten minutes from drop if it weren’t?” Zomulin asked wryly. She paused, and then glanced up at him, her cheeks reddening slightly. “My apologies, sir.”

“Not at all, Admiral,” Belfamor replied with a small smile. “It was a stupid question.” Kryla gave him a small smile in return, and turned her attention back to the display attached to the command chair.

Belfamor found his seat at the back of the bridge and observed the crew as they prepared for the drop. Unlike everyone else in the fleet, he had absolutely nothing left to do. His job had been to plan for this operation. Now that the planning phase was done and it was about to commence, there wasn’t anything else for him to do. In fact, he probably should have stayed behind on Revellia, but he was too personally invested in this mission to sit around and wait for the outcome. Besides, he did have one more task he intended to accomplish.

“Drop in ten seconds!” announced the navigation officer, interrupting Belfamor’s musings. A few seconds later, there was the familiar shudder and kaleidoscope effect, and Decimator and the rest of the fleet were on their way. Belfamor sighed in satisfaction as he watched the mesmerizing colors on the viewscreen. There was no turning back now.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 29

“No, Father,” Shala said gently. “There was a hovercar accident when I was eight, but it was Mother who died, not me.” She was proud of how steady her voice was. Deep down inside, she was screaming at herself to stop, yelling that she should take the love her father had already shown her and be happy with it, even if it was directed toward a woman who’d been dead for 30 years. But she couldn’t do that. Now that she knew her father was capable of showing love, she needed to know that he could love her for who she was.

“I…I don’t understand,” Neminatrix said, a small frown creasing his forehead. “How can you be Shala? I…I love you. I…desire you! But…you’re my daughter? How can that be?”

“I know it’s difficult to understand, Father,” Shala began gently, but Neminatrix cut her off.

“Stop calling me that!” he yelled, pushing her away roughly and clutching his head. “You…you’re wrong! You’re not Shala! Shala is dead! Shala is dead, and I killed her!” There was a silence as Shala stared at him, comprehension dawning on her face.

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” she said quietly. “All these years, you’ve blamed yourself for Mother’s death, and instead of dealing with your grief, you took it out on me.”

“Don’t…don’t be ridiculous,” Neminatrix stammered, looking away from her. “Why would I blame myself? Shala needed to die!”

“Why?” Shala moved so that she was facing him again, staring at him intently. “What did Shala do?”

“She…she…,” Neminatrix hesitated, a look of intense anguish appearing on his face, and he seemed to be battling with himself about whatever he was thinking of saying. Finally he screamed, “IT WAS HER FAULT THAT TRINIA DIED!”

Shala’s eyes widened, but she refused to relent. She needed to get to the bottom of this. “How was it Shala’s fault?” she asked in a quiet, intense voice.

“If it…if it hadn’t been for Shala,” Neminatrix began, breathing heavily, staring off into the distance, every word seeming as if it was being wrenched from deep in his soul, “Trinia…she would never have been…in that hovercar! She was…she was going to meet with a new tutor for Shala. If Shala had never been born, the accident would never have happened!”

“I see,” Shala said softly. She was silent for a moment, and then she said in the same soft voice, “Did you know that I blamed you for Mother’s death?” Neminatrix started and stared at her with wide eyes. “Yes,” Shala said. “You were such a monster to me, that I thought for sure that you must have had Mother murdered because she was the only obstacle keeping you away from me.” Shala continued to speak very quietly, but a fire blazed in her eyes as she spoke.

“I…I loved your mother, with all of my heart,” Neminatrix rasped hoarsely. “I would never have done anything to hurt her.” He stared blankly off into space for a moment, and then his eyes slowly focused on Shala. “You really are Shala, aren’t you?” Shala nodded. He stared blankly at her for a moment, and then a look of utter horror crept across his face. “By the One,” he whispered, “what have I done?” And then, so suddenly it made Shala jump, he let a howl of pain and rage and sorrow all mixed together.

“WHAT HAVE I DONE!?” he screamed, falling to his knees and raising his hands beseechingly toward the ceiling.

“Father!” shouted Shala, taken aback. “What is wrong?”

“Oh, Shala,” Neminatrix said, his voice breaking and a look of such sorrow appearing on his face that Shala almost burst into tears at the sight of it. “How can you say that? I’ve spent almost your entire life treating you like trash, and you ask me what’s wrong? How can you be so innocent after all I’ve done to you?”

“Oh, Father,” Shala said softly.

“When your mother died, it broke me,” Neminatrix whispered. “I blamed you for her death, but I also thought I could use you as a replacement. I hated you and loved you at the same time. But when Belfamor stole you away, it shattered what little grasp on reality I had left. I became convinced that you had died and that Trinia had lived, but that Belfamor Hemetal had kidnapped her. And now… Now there’s only one thing I can do.”

He stood up slowly, wavering slightly as he did so. He glanced around vaguely for a moment, and then his gaze hardened and he strode forward, toward the soldier holding his sword. He gestured for it, and the soldier handed it to him with a slight frown.

“Father,” Shala began in a worried voice, “what are you-” and then she broke off suddenly and screamed, “NO!” because her father had turned the point of the sword toward his own stomach and was about to plunge it in. She leapt up and grabbed his arms before he could do so, struggling with all her might to keep him from ending his life.

“What are you doing, Shala?” he yelled, his voice straining as he fought against her. “This is the only way! I don’t deserve to live!”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Shala yelled back, angry and terrified. “The one thing I’ve wanted more than anything else is for my father to love me! Don’t take that away from me now, when I know it’s possible! If you want to atone for your sins, then live! Killing yourself now would just be the last and greatest brutality you could afflict me with.” Slowly, the import of Shala’s words sunk into Neminatrix’s brain, and he gradually stopped struggling, allowing Shala to wrest the sword away from him and hand it back to the soldier, who looked utterly bemused by the whole scene.

“Oh, Shala,” Neminatrix sighed, and suddenly he began to weep. “My poor, little Shala. How can you ever forgive me for the torment I’ve put you through?”

“I don’t know, Father,” Shala murmured, wrapping her arms around him and stroking his hair. “But I do. Oh, I do.”

To be continued…