Culmination, Part 28

Fear and loathing waged war in Shala’s heart as Jefmin Lakatai reached for her. She tried to pull away, but he grabbed her shoulders tightly and wouldn’t let her move. She struggled for all she was worth, but it was no use. He was just too strong for her. He bent down and kissed her roughly on the mouth. She struggled mightily to escape his grasp, but there was simply nothing he could do. Panic began to well up inside her. Wasn’t it bad enough that she’d spent most of her life being raped by her father? Was she going to have to suffer through being raped by this pig, as well?

Suddenly, the door to Lakatai’s office slid open. Lakatai growled and let go of Shala brusquely. “I gave strict orders not to be disturbed!” he yelled sourly. “What is going-,” but as he looked up, Shala saw all the color drain from his face, and she quickly turned around to see who it was.

Her father.

“This can’t be!” Lakatai whispered, his eyes bulging out of his head.

“Oh, but it can,” Neminatrix replied in a cold, hard voice. He stepped into the room, and Shala could see that he was carrying a long, slightly curved sword in his right hand

“Who betrayed me?” Lakatai hissed, fear and anger warring for supremacy in his voice.

“Betrayed you?” Neminatrix bellowed, astounded. “You are talking about my soldiers! They were never loyal to you!” Then he threw back his head and laughed, a harsh, grating laugh with no mirth in it whatsoever. “You thought you had me fooled. You thought you were taking advantage of my weakness. But you were blinded by your ambition. All along, I’m the one who’s been fooling you! I made you think that you were slowly grasping control of the IAF away from me, but in reality, this whole time I’ve been feeding you the rope that you just hung yourself with.” As he spoke, he advanced menacingly on Lakatai, sword held extended to his side.

“Your Majesty,” Lakatai began, and he dropped to his knees as he spoke. It was clear the gravity of his situation had hit him, if a few minutes too late. “I beg your forgiveness. Please, I meant her no harm. I just brought her down here for a friendly chat. I didn’t even touch her!” Shala’s eyes widened at this blatant lie, and she opened her mouth to speak, but her father beat her to it.

“Liar,” Neminatrix hissed, spitting on Lakatai’s face. “How stupid do you think I am? I can see the mark of your hand on her face. You were kissing her when I walked in the door!” He advanced closer, until he was looming menacingly over Lakatai’s trembling body. He was silent for a moment, glaring down at Lakatai with a look of pure disgust and furious rage. In this brief lull, Shala glanced over at the door of Lakatai’s office, and saw that the corridor beyond was filled with soldiers, dressed in full battle armor, clutching assault rifles, and watching the proceedings in the ISS Master’s office with great interest. With a shiver, Shala hoped they really were as loyal to her father as he thought they were.

“You were a useful tool, Lakatai,” Neminatrix said, his voice dripping with contempt and hatred. “Without you, I would have had a much harder time ousting my predecessors. But a tool is all you ever were. And when a tool has outlived its usefulness, then it can only be destroyed.”

“No! Wait!” Lakatai screamed desperately as Neminatrix raised the sword over his head, but before he could say anything else, Neminatrix swiftly brought the sword down and severed Lakatai’s head from his body. The head rolled toward Shala as blood spurted out of Lakatai’s neck, and Shala gave it a look of satisfied loathing before she kicked it away.

“Good riddance,” she spat, and then a broad smile split her face. “You showed up just in the nick of time,” she said to her father. Her father looked at her, and a matching smile appeared on his face.

“Did you really think I would ever let anything bad happen to you?” he said cheerfully, but there was an undercurrent of pain in his voice. Shala’s smile faded slightly, and she held her arms out for a hug. Neminatrix’s smile grew warmer, and he handed his sword to a nearby soldier before he wrapped his arms around her.

“I love you, Trinia,” he said quietly.

“I love you, too,” she replied, and then, before she could stop herself, she added, “Father.”

She could feel his body freeze against hers, and then he slowly pulled away from her with a very strange look on his face. “What did you say?” he asked quietly. Shala froze for a moment, horror filling her soul. Did she really want to go through with this? He’d just protected her, maybe even saved her life. He’d proved that he cared about her, but then he didn’t even know who she really was. In his mind, he’d just saved his wife from being raped, not his daughter. What if she convinced him that she wasn’t Trinia, only for him to go back to beating and raping her? Could she live with that? Was it worth the risk?

“I said, I love you, Father,” she said softly, deciding that it was, indeed, worth the risk. If her father was going to love her, he needed to love her as a father, not as a husband, for his own good as much as hers.

“Why are you calling me that?” Neminatrix asked with a worried chuckle. “I’m your husband, not your father. I know I haven’t been a very good husband, but that’s still a pretty bizarre joke.”

“It’s not a joke, Father,” Shala said, shaking her head slightly. “I am not Trinia. I’m Shala. Your daughter.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Neminatrix said with a tremulous smile. “Shala is dead. She died in a hovercar accident when she was seven years old.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 27

Shala was nervous but excited as she waited in her quarters for her father to come get her. She couldn’t even quite imagine what having dinner with her father would be like. Of course, she’d “dined” with him in the past, but on those occasions, she’d been expected to wait on him and wasn’t allowed to eat anything but scraps. It wasn’t as if they’d ever actually sat at a table together and eaten and conversed like two normal people.

She was still pacing and pondering when the chime sounded, letting her know that someone was requesting access to her quarters. She glanced at the clock and frowned. 1807. It seemed a little early for her father to be here, but maybe he was just as eager as she was. She shrugged and opened the door, and scowled once it slid open and she saw who was on the other side.

“Jefmin Lakatai,” she said, as if she was describing a dead and decaying slug.

“Now, now,” Lakatai replied in his oily, unctuous voice, “what have we discussed about manners?”

“What are you doing here?” she demanded, still not bothering to hide the disgust she felt towards him.

“Coming to take you to dinner with your father, of course,” he said with a satisfied sneer.

“Why you?” she asked suspiciously. “Why not him?”

“He has a big surprise waiting for you,” Lakatai replied, his sneer deepening. “He wants to be in the room when you see it, so he can see your face.”

“I don’t trust you,” Shala said, a matching sneer appearing on her face.

“You don’t have to trust me,” Lakatai said with a shrug. “But your father trusts me, and you seem to be getting along a lot better with him lately, so I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just come with me.” Shala hesitated, and Lakatai rolled his eyes irritably. “What do you think is going to happen between here and your father’s quarters?”

Shala frowned at this, but then she shrugged. “I suppose you have a point. Very well. Lead the way.” Lakatai gave her an oily smile and an insincere bow, and then turned and walked out of her quarters.

There were twenty heavily armed soldiers outside her quarters, and they made a ring around her as she followed Lakatai down the corridor. Who is my father so afraid for? said a voice in the back of her head, but she didn’t voice that question out loud. She had a sneaking suspicion that Jefmin Lakatai was that person. Then why are you going with him? the voice said again, but she ignored it. Lakatai wouldn’t try anything right now anyway. Not with her father expecting her for dinner. Besides, if Lakatai really was up to something nefarious, he could have removed her from her quarters by force.

Regardless, Shala’s sneaking suspicions of dread grew deeper as they made their way through the corridors of the Imperial Palace, farther and farther away from the Emperor’s quarters. In fact, they seemed to be headed toward the ISS barracks, which did nothing to allay Shala’s fears. As Lakatai was the Master of the ISS, that meant they were headed into the heart of his domain.

“Um, shouldn’t we be going to my father’s quarters?” she asked Lakatai tentatively. He glanced back at her with a dismissive leer.

“Don’t worry, we’re taking the long way,” he said as he turned away from her. “I need to check on something in my office first.”

Shala frowned at Lakatai’s back. It could be true. It also likely wasn’t. Why would he have shown up early to escort her to dinner, only to take her to the ISS barracks first? The ISS barracks were about as far from the Emperor’s quarters as it was possible to get and still be in the Imperial Palace. And what could he possibly have to check before he took her to her father? In any case, it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t like there was much she could do, surrounded by 20 heavily armed soldiers.

Lakatai led her into the ISS barracks, and from there to his office. At the door, he nodded to the soldier leading the escort, and then grabbed Shala by the arm and pulled her into the room. She pulled back in surprise, but he was stronger than her and dragged her past the threshold before he let go. The door slid shut with a snap, leaving her alone with Lakatai.

“What are we doing in here?” she demanded. Her voice was angry, but there was a icy feeling of fear growing in the pit of her stomach.

“Oh, I thought it would be nice to have a little appetizer before dinner,” Lakatai said with a nasty leer.

The icy feeling in Shala’s gut grew exponentially stronger at this, but she managed not to let it show. Instead she sneered, “You really are an idiot, aren’t you? Do you really think my father will allow this to go unpunished?”

“Your father is irrelevant,” Lakatai said in cold satisfaction. “I rule the Empire in all but name, now. He’s spent all of his energy finding and coddling you, and meanwhile, little by little, I’ve taken control of the IAF. Right now, your father is sitting in his quarters waiting for you, and my soldiers are going to make sure he stays there.” He drew closer to her and reached out his hand to stroke her cheek, but she drew back sharply and spat at him. He chuckled nastily, and then casually backhanded her across the face.

“You really are stubborn, aren’t you?” he said, a look of ugly hunger appearing on his face as he gazed at her. “Even here, in the very heart of my power, surrounded by soldiers loyal to me, you insist on defying me. So be it. The more you fight, the more fun this will be.”

Shala stared at him with undisguised loathing, rubbing her cheek where he’d hit her. She’d never thought that she could possibly hate anyone more than her father, but at this moment, she wanted nothing more than to find something long and sharp, and stab it deep into Jefmin Lakatai’s flabby gut.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 26

Shala smiled as she admired her new hairdo in the mirror. The Imperial Palace’s stylists really were quite good. Her thick, brown hair was notoriously hard to manage, but the women sent to her quarters by the Emperor had done an admirable job taming it. The smile on her face felt odd but natural, and the fact that it felt natural at all was itself odd. She wasn’t sure she’d ever smiled while in the same building as her father before, but something had changed about him. He was still utterly insane, but his insanity no longer took the form of raping and beating her. Instead, he lavished gifts and attention on her. It was still disconcerting, as Neminatrix was obviously convinced that Shala was his deceased wife, but it was definitely an improvement.

Her smile faded as she looked down at the clothes she was wearing. Actually, to call them clothes was something of an exaggeration. She wouldn’t have been much more exposed if she’d been naked. And it wasn’t even as if this ridiculous lingerie was in any way flattering. Shala had never been one who people considered pretty, and carrying a child plus the normal aging process had done nothing to improve her figure. She didn’t feel sexy or beautiful or anything like that in these outfits. Instead, she felt more like a particularly lumpy potato with scraps of lacy silk attached. She’d asked her father several more times for some decent clothing, but every time he’d smiled and told her that, since she couldn’t leave her quarters, she had no use for normal clothing. Which was better than being beaten for asking, but still frustrating.

Even so, all things considered, being on Trisitania was at least a thousand times less horrible than she’d expected it to be, especially considering how the first week had gone. There was still a nagging fear in the back of her mind that at some point, something would snap in Neminatrix’s head, and he’d go back to being the evil bastard that she remembered, but for the first time in her life, Shala felt like maybe there was hope that she could teach her father how to be a real father. She just needed to convince him that she was really his daughter, not his wife.

A chime sounded, and a second later, the door slid open and her father entered the room. That in and of itself was a change. As a child, and even as an adult until recently, there was no way that Neminatrix would have announced himself at all. He would have just barged in without any warning. Before she’d married Belfamor, Shala had never had any idea what it was like to have privacy.

“Ah, there’s my rosebud,” Neminatrix said warmly, a broad smile spreading across his face at the sight of her. He was carrying a package under his arm, and he reached out and handed it to her as he approached. “I brought you something.”

“Another present?” Shala asked, feigning irritation. “Your Majesty, if you keep lavishing gifts on me, there won’t be any room in these quarters for me to walk!”

“Oh, well, if you don’t want it, I can certainly take it away,” he said with a shrug, “but I’m sure you’ll appreciate it. I have a feeling that you’ll really regret it if you don’t accept it.” He made as if to leave, but his eyes were twinkling.

“Oh, give me that,” Shala said, snatching the package from him. Pretending to be annoyed, but with an eager smile on her face, she unwrapped the package and opened it up, and then gasped at what was inside.

“Oh my goodness,” she breathed. “It’s beautiful!” She reached in, pulled it out, and held it up. It was the most magnificent dress she had ever seen. It was red with gold accents, sparkling with jewels that were somehow tasteful, not gaudy. And, perhaps most exciting of all, it had a floor-length skirt and a high neckline.

“Do you like it?” Neminatrix asked with a slightly nervous smile.

“I love it!” Shala exclaimed, her face beaming. “But, why? You’ve refused me modest clothes for weeks now. Why the change of heart all of a sudden?”

“Well, I realized that if I’m going to convince you that I’ve changed, forcing you to wear lingerie all the time might not be the best way to go about it,” he said, his cheeks turning slightly pink.

“Thank you,” she said shyly, and then, impulsively, she rose from her seat and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. Neminatrix’s cheeks turned bright red then, and his smile grew even broader.

“Well? Go try it on!” he exclaimed, waving her towards the bathroom. “I want to make sure it fits!” Shala bowed her head, gathered up the dress, and made her way to the bathroom. A few minutes later, she emerged in the dress, a radiant smile on her face. She even twirled like a little girl pretending to be a princess as she crossed the bedroom back to her father. For the first time in her life, she felt like a princess, and even better, like a little girl whose daddy loved her.

“It’s gorgeous,” she said in a shy, excited voice, and there were tears welling up in her eyes as she spoke.

“It certainly is,” Neminatrix replied, and there were tears starting to appear in his eyes as well. “Would you…would you like to have dinner with me tonight? In my quarters?” Shala stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment.

“You mean…leave my quarters?” she said hesitantly. “I thought you didn’t trust your men.”

“I don’t,” Neminatrix replied with a small frown. “At least not all of them. But I think I can muster together an escort of trustworthy guards to take you from here to my quarters. That is, if you would like to come?”

“I would love it,” Shala said, grinning eagerly.

“Excellent!” Neminatrix said brightly, clapping his hands together. “I will be here at 1830 to get you. Make sure you’re ready!” He hesitated, as if he wanted to say or do something else, but then he shook his head slightly and left her quarters.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 25

“You’re kidding me,” Arcten said, his voice flat with disbelief.

“No, I’m not,” Hana replied firmly. “This is what Starfengt exists for. I built the best teams of assassins in the galaxy so I would have the opportunity to hunt Neminatrix down and punish him for what he did to my father. I am NOT going to let this opportunity pass me by just because it might be a little dangerous!” Her eyes were ablaze as she spoke, and she kept creeping closer and closer to Arcten, so by the time she finished, she was standing practically toe-to-toe with him. Arcten stared at her impassively, huge arms folded across his broad chest, and once she finished, he just continued staring silently.

“Xeliana!” Hana barked, not taking her eyes off of Arcten. “Contact the rest of the team. Tell them to break off their exercises and assemble here immediately. We depart for Trisitania in one hour.” Xeliana saluted sharply and ran off, leaving Hana and Arcten to their staring contest.

“What are you going to do, Arcten?” Hana whispered, never taking her eyes off of Arcten’s.

“I will follow you to the deepest depths of Nerzaga,” Arcten whispered back. “You know that.”

“Do I?” Hana replied, and the tone of her voice almost made Arcten’s heart break, although he didn’t show it on his face. “You just punched me so hard it knocked me unconscious.”

“I had to do that,” Arcten said, his face unchanged but his voice cracking slightly. “You were trying to do something that I knew you would regret later. I had to stop you, for your own sake.”

“You knocked me out me for my own sake?” Hana asked, a small smirk appearing on her face.

“Everything I do is for your sake,” Arcten replied, his expression unchanged. Hana’s smirk disappeared, and she sighed deeply.

“I know,” she said, her expression a mix between sorrow and affection. “Believe me, I know.” She turned away and folded her arms across her chest.

“Hana,” said Arcten suddenly, and she turned back to him. “Please reconsider this decision.”

“I can’t, Arcten,” she whispered, tears appearing in her eyes. “You know I can’t.” She shook her head and turned away again. Arcten regarded her in silence for a few moments, and then he stood up straight and saluted.

“Very well, sir!” he barked. “I will prepare the team for departure immediately.” Then he strode out of the holding cell area, leaving Hana alone with dark thoughts.

***

Forty-five minutes later, the team had assembled and was ready for departure. Hana smiled inwardly as she looked over the 11 of them, lined up and waiting to load up into Fluttermask. They really were the best troops in the galaxy. To go from training and thinking they had weeks left to prepare, to being ready to depart and fight in less than hour, was a feat that no regular soldiers could match.

“Listen up!” she barked in her best “commander” voice, striding back and forth in front of her troops. “I know that we weren’t scheduled to depart for Trisitania for a few more weeks, but the Empire’s civil war has forced our hand. We’ve received reports the so-called Emperor, Valador, has dispatched a fleet to invade Trisitania and put an end to our target, the other so-called Emperor, Neminatrix. So if we want to be the ones to kill Neminatrix, then we need to move now!” She fell silent, and fixed each one of the Starfengt members with a piercing stare.

“You might be wondering why we’re even bothering,” she continued in a firm voice. “If Valador is going to invade Trisitania, why don’t we just let Valador take care of Neminatrix?” She fell silent again, and once again made sure to look all 11 assassins in the eye. “Because we are Starfengt. Because we are the best, and we are not going to just let the Empire do our work for us. It is our job to strike fear in the hearts of Fangalin’s enemies, and what better way to do that then by killing an emperor in the middle of a war zone?” Her striding back and forth became more energized now, her speech becoming faster and louder. “We will send a message to Valador, and to all the leaders of all the nations that oppose us! You are not safe from us! We will find you, even in the heart of your most fortified refuge, and we will break you! And when you think you are about to win a great victory, we will slip in under your nose and steal it from you!”

She stopped and fell silent once more, a fire raging in her eyes. “We are the best soldiers that have ever lived,” she said in a quiet, intense voice, “and we will prove it.” She paused again, and then she thrust her right fist into the air. “To victory!” she bellowed.

“To victory!” came the response from 11 men and women, their right fists thrust into the air as well. Hana nodded sharply, and 10 of them rushed up the ramp into the ship. Arcten, however, approached Hana as she was about to follow them.

“Gonna try and change my mind again, Arcten?” Hana asked skeptically.

“Of course not,” Arcten replied. “I know when I’ve lost. I just wanted to tell you something.”

“What?” asked Hana, one eyebrow raised quizzically. Arcten took her by the arms and gazed deep into her eyes.

“I’m proud of you,” he said quietly.

“Proud of me?” Hana said, her puzzlement deepening. “Why?”

“Because nobody thought you would ever come to this point,” he replied. “Nobody believed that you could build the finest team of assassins in the galaxy. Nobody but me. And you proved them all wrong. Starfengt is feared by all of Fangalin’s enemies, and if we pull this off, that reputation will only become greater. We’re on the verge of accomplishing what you set out to do 10 years ago, and I couldn’t be happier to have been by your side every step of the way.”

“Thank you, Arcten,” Hana replied, and her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. “That means everything to me. And we WILL pull this off. I promise you. Our victory over the Empire will be a thing that future generations will tell stories about for a thousand years.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 24

“I’m going to kill you, Vertrane!” Hana hissed viciously, lunging at Kyla, but Arcten grabbed her before she could cover the distance.

“Hana!” he barked. “What is wrong with you!”

“This…this bitch has betrayed us!” Hana screamed, flailing uselessly as she tried to escape Arcten’s strong grasp. Kyla backed up a few steps, eyes widening in shock at her CO’s reaction to her news.

“Betrayed us? How?” Arcten yelled, his voice showing the strain of holding Hana in check. “By following the rules? By showing greater loyalty to the Supreme Commander and to Fangalin than to you?” Hana howled wordlessly, and managed to slam her knee into Arcten’s crotch. His only reaction was a slight grunt and a widening of his eyes, but it did distract him enough that Hana was able to slip out of his grasp. She flung herself on Kyla, a whirlwind of punches and kicks that Kyla was just barely able to block. After a few seconds of this, Arcten had recovered enough to intervene. He grabbed Hana by the shoulder, spun her around, and punched her hard, right in her shocked face, knocking her unconscious. Then he took a deep breath and sat down heavily on the floor next to her.

“Thanks,” Kyla said, putting one hand on her chest and breathing heavily.

“Don’t mention it,” Arcten said darkly. “Ever.” He glanced down at Hana’s prone body and shook his head. “She’s going to be so pissed at me when she comes to.”

“I’m sorry,” Kyla said, but she didn’t sound like she meant it.

“You don’t need to be,” Arcten said dismissively. “I did what I had to do.” He was silent for a moment, staring at the floor, and then he glanced up at Kyla. “You handled yourself well. Hana’s extremely skilled, but she wasn’t able to land a blow on you.”

“A smuggler needs to know how to protect herself,” Kyla said with a shrug. There was silence for a few more moments, and then Kyla spoke up again. “What do you think she’ll do when she comes to?” she asked.

“She’ll likely try to attack you again,” Arcten admitted. “I should probably put her in a holding cell until she calms down.” He glanced at Kyla again. “You should probably make yourself scarce for awhile.”

“Good advice,” Kyla grunted. She headed for the door, but then she turned and looked back at Arcten again. “Do you…do you think I did the right thing?”

Arcten gazed at her silently for several moments, his face expressionless, and then, slowly, he nodded. “Dropping a Nexus bomb on the Imperial Palace would have turned the entire galaxy against us. Hana should never have even considered stealing one.” He looked away from Kyla and back to Hana. “You did what I should have done. You’ve got bigger balls than I do, Vertrane.”

Kyla snorted, shook her head, and walked out of the shooting range.

***

Arcten’s prediction had been right on the money. About half an hour after he deposited Hana on a bed in a small holding cell several levels beneath the Amarise House, she woke up, and almost immediately began screaming obscenities and throwing herself at the door of the cell. After several minutes of this, Arcten, who was standing outside with his arms folded, shared a worried frown with Lt. Cmdr. Xeliana Merane, Starfengt‘s number three, who was a tall, striking woman with dark skin, short, curly dark hair, and piercing blue eyes.

“What are we going to do?” Xeliana whispered. Normally a lively, exuberant woman, she was currently quite subdued, her mouth pressed into a thin frown and her eyes crinkled with worry.

“We wait until she calms down, and then we talk to her,” Arcten replied in his calm, taciturn manner. Despite his demeanor, though, he was desperately concerned about Hana. He’d known her for ten years, ever since she founded Starfengt, and he had never seen her like this. He worried that the strain of the past few weeks had finally broken her.

For a quarter of an hour, Arcten and Xeliana watched the holding cell door, listening to Hana’s screams in silence. They were the only two members of Starfengt who knew what was going on. The rest of the unit was taking part in a training exercise at a military base a few miles away. Xeliana had been in charge of that exercise, but Arcten had called her back to the Amarise House to help deal with Hana. Arcten was hopeful that they’d be able to calm Hana down before the rest of the unit returned. It wouldn’t do for them to see their commanding officer in such a state. Arcten didn’t even want to see her in this state.

Finally, the sounds coming from inside the holding cell faded. Arcten and Xeliana glanced at each other, worry and hope mingling in their expressions. Then a voice called out from the cell. “Arcten? I know you’re out there,” Hana said, her voice hoarse from screaming.

“I’m here, Captain,” Arcten said cautiously.

“Can I come out now?” Hana asked, sounding pitiful. Arcten glanced at Xeliana again, and motioned silently to the side of the door. Xeliana nodded, and stood next to the door, so that she’d be behind Hana once she came out.

“As long as you promise not to attack me,” Arcten replied.

“I promise,” Hana said in a very small voice. Arcten nodded at Xeliana, and then pressed the button to release the door. It slid open, and Arcten tensed, expecting Hana to leap at him, but instead she just stumbled forward. She blinked unsteadily a few times, straightened up, and then shook her head. “You can stop hiding Xeliana. I know you’re there, and I’m not going to try anything anyway.”

“Sorry, sir,” Xeliana said, stepping forward and looking half-sheepish, half-defiant.

“I’m the one who should be apologizing,” Hana said ruefully. “I lost control, and I should have never let things get to this point. Vertrane was right. It was a mistake to appropriate that Nexus bomb.”

“I’m glad to hear it, sir,” Arcten said carefully. “Would you like me to start making plans for how to proceed if Valador’s forces fail to take the capital?” Hana gave him a strange look.

“Of course not,” she said stiffly. “We are proceeding with the mission as planned.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 23

Hana Lodimeur was perfectly still, her body like a compressed spring. She was crouched down behind a barrier, a sniper rifle cradled tightly in her arms. Holding her breath, she carefully centered the scope on her target, and then, ever so gently, she pulled the trigger. A blast of energy silently erupted out of the barrel of her rifle and pierced the target, 2 inches to the left of where she’d been aiming. Snarling, she stood up and slammed her fist into a nearby wall, while keeping a tight grip on the sniper rifle. The rifle was a Fanimar Industries WN7-329 Injected Fusion Heavy Sniper Rifle, one of only ten in existence, and possibly the most expensive piece of equipment that Starfengt possessed.

“What are you so mad about?” Arcten Sidel asked calmly. He was leaning against a nearby wall, arms folded, watching Hana practice. “That was your best shot yet!”

“It still isn’t good enough!” Hana growled. “I’ve seen you nail the bullseye from twice this distance! I need to get better if I’m going to be the one to take out Neminatrix, and I’m running out of time!”

“I still don’t understand why it’s so essential that you be the one to kill Neminatrix,” Arcten said with a slight frown. “No matter who kills him, at the end of the day, he’ll be dead and your father will be avenged.”

“It’s essential because it was MY father who was murdered!” Hana roared. “It’s essential because this is what I have devoted my life to for the past ten years! If, after all the work I’ve put in, all the blood, sweat, and tears that I’ve shed, I’m not the one to pull the trigger, then what in Nerzaga have I been doing with my life!”

“You’ve been building the best team of operatives that this galaxy has ever seen,” Arcten said quietly. “I hardly think that qualifies as wasting your life.” Hana scowled at him, and opened her mouth to yell some more, but Arcten cut her off. “You need something to live for once Neminatrix is dead, even if you do succeed in killing him. You can’t keep clinging to this vendetta once it’s over. What will fill the void for you, Hana Lodimeur? Because there will be a void, even if you pull the trigger.” Hana’s scowl deepened, and she took a deep breath, but then she let it out in a heavy sigh.

“Why do you have to be so damn wise?” she asked in a sour voice, but her eyes twinkled as she spoke.

“It comes with the years,” Arcten replied solemnly, but his eyes were twinkling, too. “You’ll be wise someday, too, once you’re old like me.”

“Oh, knock it off,” Hana said, laughing and punching Arcten playfully in the shoulder. “I don’t want to hear any more talk about how old you are. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir, Captain Lodimeur, sir!” Arcten shouted, standing up straight and saluting sarcastically. Hana opened her mouth to tease him some more, but she shut it with a frown as the door of the shooting range slid open and Kyla Vertrane raced in, breathing heavily as if she’d been running.

“Captain Lodimeur!” she yelled, skidding to a halt and saluting. “I have urgent news for you!”

“Yeah? Well, spit it out, Vertrane!”

“Intelligence reports that a huge fleet just left Hibellia,” Kyla said breathlessly. “They’re headed for Trisitania! Command thinks that Valador is getting ready to end the civil war and crush Neminatrix in one fell swoop. That means-“

“That means, if I’m going to kill Neminatrix, we need to go now,” Hana interrupted with a hard voice.

“Are you crazy?” Arcten growled. “You’re going to take the team into the middle of a war zone? Without any preparation? We’ve spent a month training for an assassination in a secure location. We’re not prepared to do this in the middle of a battle!”

“We’ll be fine,” Hana snapped. “Both sides will be focused on each other. They won’t even notice us. Security will be a mess, so this will be even easier than infiltrating the Imperial Palace. We’ll use this to our advantage.”

“You’re not thinking straight,” Arcten snapped back. “You’re so obsessed with your vendetta that you’ve lost all perspective. If Valador’s forces take Trisitania, they’ll almost certainly kill or capture Neminatrix. I know you think that you need to kill Neminatrix, but if Valador wins this battle, your father will be avenged. And if Valador loses, then we can move in and complete our mission. But if we try to do this now, a lot of good men and women are going to be killed. Are the lives of your troops really a reasonable price to pay to avenge your father?”

“You worry too much,” Hana said with a sneer. “Starfengt has the best troops in the galaxy. Nothing the Empire can throw our way will be a match for us. Besides, like I said, neither side will even notice us. They’ll be too busy killing each other.”

“This is ridiculous,” Arcten scowled. “You do realize there’s only 12 of us, right? Neminatrix and Valador will have tens of thousands of troops apiece! And, need I remind you that both sides want us dead?”

“Enough!” Hana barked. “I am in command of Starfengt, and I say we are departing for Trisitania as soon as possible. Besides, we still have our secret weapon. If I decide that things look too hot, I’ll just drop the Nexus bomb on the Imperial Palace and we’ll head home.”

“Um, about that, sir?” Kyla interjected.

“What!” Hana bellowed.

“Well, I talked to the Supreme Commander about your secret weapon,” Kyla said, looking nervous yet defiant.

“You what!?” Hana hissed through clenched teeth.

“He told me to tell you that you’re too valuable to be locked away,” Kyla went on, pretending she hadn’t heard Hana, “but that under no circumstances will you be allowed to use a Nexus bomb on this mission, and that you’re lucky he’s not going to rescind his authorization for the mission.”
Kyla clamped her mouth shut so quickly that her teeth clicked, and for several minutes, the only sound was Hana’s tense breathing as she stared at Kyla with seething hatred.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 22

“What do you mean, ‘it never should have happened’?” Kryla asked carefully. “I read the reports about Phumelenin. Are you saying that something was falsified?”

“No, of course not!” Alaia replied quickly, shocked. “I just meant, I was never supposed to be in the Captain’s chair on Majestic Falcon. I had no idea what I was doing. I just happened to be the most senior officer left alive. I took command because I had to, and I just acted on instinct. I didn’t have any grand scheme. I just did stuff and it happened to work.”

Kryla eyed Alaia thoughtfully for a moment, and then, much to Alaia’s surprise, she started chuckling. “Commander Farlen,” she said, her tone a mixture of amusement and sternness, “do you think it’s different for any of us?”

“Well, I…,” Alaia began uncertainly. “When you’re in the Captain’s chair, sir, you just have such poise, such an air of command. Surely you know exactly what you’re doing at all times.” Kryla just started laughing even harder at this.

“I sure do have you fooled, don’t I?” she said with a smirk, and then laughed even harder at the bemused look on Alaia’s face. “I apologize, Commander,” she said once her mirth died down. “I don’t mean to make fun of you. I just find it surprising that you’ve advanced as far as you have without learning the ‘secret of command’.”

“The ‘secret of command’?” Alaia said, her puzzlement deepening. “What’s that?”

Kryla leaned forward and whispered, “None of us know what in Nerzaga we’re doing.” She leaned back, her expression perfectly serious for a moment, and then a wide grin split her face in two. “It’s a joke, but it’s also serious. You think I know exactly what I’m doing every moment I sit in that chair? You think every decision I make is the absolute best decision I could have made at that moment? Every commander in this fleet, and in every other fleet in the galaxy, is just acting on instinct. Instinct is the best weapon we have, Alaia! And from the results you got at Phumelenin, I think your instincts are pretty damn good.”

“It just…it just seems like there should be more,” muttered Alaia.

“Maybe it does,” Kryla said, her smile growing warmer. “Heck, maybe there are people who have such command of the battlefield that they can just see every move they need to make at every moment. But if there are, I’ve never met any. I’m certainly not one.”

“But you plan your moves several steps in advance, don’t you?” Alaia asked, her brow furrowed.

“I try to,” Kryla said with a shrug. “You need to try and anticipate what your enemy will do, of course. But it just happens. You don’t think to yourself, ‘oh, well, they’re going to do this, so I’m going to do this’. You just do it.”

“That…does basically sound like what I did at Phumelenin,” Alaia admitted.

“You see?” Kryla said with a smile. “You already know how to command. You just need to work on your confidence.” She leaned forward and fixed Alaia with an intense gaze. “And you don’t need to be afraid of me. Don’t worry about what happens during battle drills. Failing during a battle drill is meaningless. Take any mistakes you make and learn from them. That’s what they’re for.”

“I’ll try to do better, Admiral,” Alaia said, bashful.

“Don’t just try, Commander,” Kryla said, her voice and expression growing hard. “Do better.”

“Yes, sir!” Alaia replied, blushing and sitting up straighter. “I will, sir!” Kryla eyed her for a moment, and then her expression softened again.

“I know you will,” Kryla said in an encouraging voice. “Dismissed, Commander.” Alaia nodded, and then stood up, saluted sharply, and left Kryla’s office.

Well, thought Kryla in satisfaction, that went better than I expected. Of course, there was no guarantee that Kryla’s little pep talk would actually change anything. Maybe Alaia was right, and her performance at Phumelenin had been an accident. Maybe next time she was in command, she would freeze up and get everyone under her command killed. But there was no sense in dwelling on such possibilities. Alaia Farlen had the potential to be a great officer. All she needed was some confidence.

An alert sounded, telling Kryla that someone was trying to contact her, and she pressed the button to answer the call. “Yes?”

“Admiral Zomulin, General Hemetal has arrived,” said the voice of one of her aides.

“Excellent,” Kryla replied. “Show him into my office.” A few minutes later, the aide arrived, followed by Lord Hemetal and two of his aides.

“Good to see you again, sir,” Kryla said as she stood up and saluted.

“Likewise, Admiral,” Belfamor said, returning her salute. “How are your preparations going?”

“Everything is progressing as smoothly as possible, General,” Kryla replied, and they both sat down on opposite sides of her desk.

“Good,” Belfamor said, nodding sharply, “because in two days, the fleet departs for Trisitania.”

“That soon?” Kryla asked, her eyes widening. “I thought I’d have at least two more weeks to prepare! I haven’t fully integrated my units yet. Just this morning, you sent me a note that you’re adding 15 more ships to my fleet! They haven’t even arrived yet, and you’re saying that we’re leaving in two days?”

“Those 15 ships will be here tomorrow,” Belfamor said calmly. “You will have 24 hours to get them situated, and then the operation begins.”

“Why the rush?” exclaimed Kryla, exasperated. “Did the Emperor figure out what you’re planning?”

“Yes, but that’s not why I moved up the timetable,” Belfamor said, a slight frown appearing on his face. “I’ve looked over your reports. You’re as ready as you need to be, considering the resistance we’ll face on Trisitania.” He handed a tablet to Kryla, who perused its contents quickly, and then let out a low whistle.

“Are you sure this is accurate?” she asked, amazed.

“As sure as it is possible to be,” Belfamor replied. “75 percent of the forces defending Trisitania have been reassigned to other sectors. The capital is virtually defenseless.”

“We will be too, until this battle is over,” Kryla said in a warning tone, but Belfamor waved a hand dismissively.

“We’ll crush Neminatrix’s forces, kill or capture him, and then the rest of his troops will swear allegiance to Valador. What else can they do? There won’t be enough of them left to put up an effective resistance.”

“That’s a pretty big assumption,” Kryla said skeptically.

“That’s not your concern,” Belfamor replied harshly. “Your job is to capture Trisitania. Let me worry about the bigger picture.”

To be continued…