Culmination, Part 15

Kyla Vertrane sighed wearily as Fluttermask dropped back into normal space, shuddering slightly as it did. Her new military contact, this Captain Hana Lodimeur, claimed that she wasn’t as much of a stickler for military discipline as most high ranking officers in Fangalin, but that was only partially true. Sure, Captain Lodimeur didn’t really care if you referred to her as “Captain” or “sir”, but she kept up an extraordinarily grueling schedule for herself, and she expected everyone under her command to meet or exceed that standard. You could speak your mind in front of Hana Lodimeur no problem, but if she thought you were slacking off, you’d feel the full force of her wrath.

Kyla’s gaze swept over the bank of instruments in Fluttermask‘s cockpit. Everything seemed to be in good working order. The ship she commanded now was very different from the one she had commanded when she’d joined Fangalin over a decade ago. The only things that were the same were the hull, the name, and the masking device that gave the ship its name. Everything else had been gradually replaced to the state-of-the-art. There were definitely advantages to being an officially sanctioned smuggler.

As for the masking device, even after 15 years, that still was state-of-the-art. In fact, it was so advanced that there were only five ships in the galaxy that used it, all of them owned by Fangalin. There had been talk of fitting the device onto more ships, possibly the entire fleet, but the Supreme Commander and the Grand Council were afraid of it falling into enemy hands, which would massively diminish the advantage of having it. Of course, some, like Kyla, felt that restricting it to just a few ships diminished the advantage even more.

The more she pondered the emissions masker, the more she found it puzzling. When she’d first bought Fluttermask from Grolder Hanh, her only thought about the emissions masker was that it’d be really handy for a smuggler. She’d had no idea it was such a singularly rare device. Even when Hanh had bragged that his personal transport ship was the only other ship in the galaxy with such a device, she’d given it little thought. But once she’d joined Fangalin, she realized just how mistaken she’d been. The emissions masker was one of the most advanced pieces of technology in the galaxy. She’d never known how it worked, but that hadn’t seemed odd to her because she wasn’t an engineer. She knew how to keep her ship flying and that was it. But Fangalin’s finest technical minds had marveled at the emissions masker, and that was her first clue that there was more to Fluttermask than she’d ever imagined.

How had Grolder Hanh gotten his hands on such a marvelous feat of engineering? Sure, Hanh was one of the most successful crime lords in the galaxy, but even that didn’t explain it. The Empire had kept a pretty tight lid on organized crime until it had collapsed, and although Hanh had expanded his criminal empire greatly in a short amount of time, it still didn’t make sense that he’d be able to get his hands on such advanced technology that quickly. Especially since no one else in the galaxy seemed to know anything about it. Somehow, someone in Hanh’s organization must have invented it, which made even less sense than anything else.

Kyla shook her head and snapped her attention back to her instruments. This grueling pace was starting to make her go crazy. Who cared where the emissions masker had come from? All that mattered was that her ship had it, and it had saved her life countless times. Let other people figure out the mysteries behind it. All Kyla Vertrane cared about was delivering cargo and getting paid.

Fluttermask was returning to Numoris after yet another training mission ordered by Captain Lodimeur. By the Presence, Kyla thought, rubbing her eyes wearily, that woman does keep me busy. Kyla had been training at a non-stop pace for weeks, and no matter how many times Kyla told Captain Lodimeur that this much training was excessive, it made no difference. Kyla found herself wondering what the Captain’s grudge against Neminatrix IV entailed.

Whatever it was, it was major. Detonating a Nexus bomb without authorization could get everybody involved with this mission into a great deal of trouble. Kyla had attempted, several times, to get Captain Lodimeur to reconsider this decision, but Lodimeur was unyielding. She was determined to see Neminatrix IV dead, no matter what the cost. Unfortunately, Kyla worried that the cost would be too high.

She wondered what would happen if she went to the Supreme Commander with Captain Lodimeur’s plans. Lodimeur had dodged her question about whether or not she had permission to use a Nexus bomb, but that didn’t necessarily mean she didn’t have permission. After all, if she didn’t have permission, how was she planning to get her hands on one? The vast destructive power of a Nexus bomb meant that they were kept under extremely tight security. It would be almost impossible to steal one, even for someone as high-ranking as Hana Lodimeur.

What would happen if another Nexus bomb was detonated on Trisitania? Thousands of people would die, of course, but they would anyway. This war wasn’t going to be over anytime soon. But how would the people of the Empire respond? The Nexus bomb that had destroyed the Imperial Senate had exposed the cracks in the Imperial structure. Would another one repair that damage? Kyla could see the people of the Empire uniting as never before once they realized that Fangalin would keep on using Nexus bombs indiscriminately.

That couldn’t be allowed to happen. This war was already terrible enough with one side weak and divided. If a strong Empire were to confront Fangalin, the result could be disastrous. Kyla realized at that moment that Hana Lodimeur could not be allowed to detonate a Nexus bomb on Trisitania, no matter what.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 14

Veilia was silent for a long time while she pondered Kryla’s question, which left Kryla little to do except for sip her filiate and admire the decor in Veilia’s sitting room. Fortunately, the filiate was quite good, and the decor was quite admirable. Kryla was by no means an expert on filiate (as it was consumed almost exclusively by the nobility), but admirals did have a tendency to rub shoulders with nobles, so she’d sampled it a few times in her life. This batch was probably the best she’d ever had. Thick and creamy, with a reddish-brown color and a sweet, spicy taste, filiate may not have been the best perk of being a noble, but it was right up there.

After a few minutes of sipping and admiring, she finally sighed loudly and placed her cup on a nearby table. Veilia looked startled at the sound, but she quickly recovered, a warm smile spreading across her face. “I apologize, Admiral,” she said smoothly. “This question that you have posed is indeed a tricky one. I am finding it exceedingly difficult to separate my familial affection for my brother from who he really is as a person.”

“No need for apologies, my Lady,” Kryla replied, bowing her head slightly. “It was foolish of me to come to you for advice. You’re not a soldier, so coming to you for help on a military matter was, perhaps, a poor idea.” She prepared to stand up, but something about the look in Veilia’s eyes made her pause.

“It’s not just a military matter though, is it?” Veilia said, her luminous blue eyes holding Kryla in place. “You want to know what kind of a man my brother is. I understand that. I don’t know exactly what he’s planning, but I can imagine. I know about his love for his wife, and about the rivalry between him and General Fanas.” She leaned forward, and suddenly her eyes transformed from pools of light into icy blue flames. “And I especially know about how much he loathes Neminatrix IV.” She leaned back again, and the fiery look in her eyes was gone so quickly that Kryla wondered if it had really been there. “Given all of that, I have a pretty good idea what my brother is planning.”

“So you do understand my dilemma,” Kryla said.

“I do,” Veilia replied with a slight nod. “You want to know if my brother is the type of man who is worthy of devotion.”

“Yes,” Kryla said. “I already know who your brother is as a military strategist. I know that this plan of his will almost certainly succeed, and I don’t even know the details yet. But what good is a victory if it’s won by a tyrant? If your brother is going to defy the orders of his commanding officer, before I can go along with him, I need to know if he’s really doing this for the good of the Empire, or if he’s just doing this for his own selfish ends.”

“Isn’t there a possibility that those two things might overlap?” Veilia asked, raising one eyebrow.

“Yes,” Kryla admitted, “but intent matters. If Belfamor’s main goal is to serve the Empire, then I don’t care if he rescues his wife and murders the man who wounded his family in the meantime. But if his real goal is to get revenge, then I want nothing to do with it, even if his vengeance would incidentally further the goals of the Empire.”

“I see what you mean,” Veilia said with a thoughtful frown. “If you’re going to risk execution, you want to make sure that risk is for a good cause.”

“I suppose that’s one way of putting it,” Kryla replied with a pensive frown. Veilia gave her a sympathetic smile, and took a sip of her filiate.

“I think my brother is somebody worth giving loyalty to, even loyalty unto death,” she said carefully. “I think he is a good man, and one who would not do something this drastic simply to fulfill his own desires. I believe that he is truly motivated by the good of the Empire.” She took another sip of filiate and eyed Kryla over the rim of her cup. “Of course,” she continued, setting down her now empty cup, “I say that as someone who is already devoted to him, heart and soul.”

Kryla sighed deeply and looked out over Veilia’s spacious and well-manicured gardens, which were easily visible from the large, arched windows in the wall to her left. “I suppose that’s the answer I expected to hear,” she said wearily. She gazed at the beautiful gardens for a moment, and then she looked back at Veilia. “Are you familiar with Admiral Abaden Lors?” she asked. Veilia thought for a moment, and then she nodded.

“He was the Commander of the Imperial Fleet until a couple of years ago, correct?”

“Yes,” Kryla replied. “He died in the Battle of Noramonen. He was my mentor, and the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father. When he asked me if I’d join him in defecting from Extrator to Valador, I didn’t even hesitate. I would have done anything he asked me to do. But soon after that, I started to think. I realized that I was a grown woman, and not only that, I was an Admiral in the Imperial Fleet! I decided that it was time for me to make my own decisions, that I could no longer do things just because someone I admired and respected asked me to do it.”

“It seems to me then,” Veilia said thoughtfully, “that the question for you is not, who is Belfamor Hemetal, but rather, is this thing that he’s asking you to do something that you want to do? Do you believe its good for the Empire? If so, then it doesn’t really matter what Belfamor’s motivations are.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Kryla said with a pensive smile. “Well thank you, Lady Hemetal. This conversation has indeed been exceedingly enlightening.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 13

Kryla Zomulin fidgeted nervously as she stood outside the gates of a palatial manor on the outskirts of Caldamar, the capital city of Revellia. She wasn’t sure why she was nervous. In the back of her mind, she vaguely remembered being nervous the first time she’d taken command of the cruiser Decimator, back when Extrator IV first seized Trisitania. What a bloody business that had been. Not that she’d witnessed any of the carnage herself. The Imperial Fleet hadn’t fired a shot. The thousands of dead civilians had been laid at the feet of the Imperial Army, at the direct command of the Emperor. But Kryla still felt like she bore some of the responsibility. After all, Extrator had ridden on her ship.

She’d been nervous on that mission, but she’d hadn’t been nervous again since. Not even when her battleship’s shields were crumbling and she was outnumbered 5-to-1. So why was she nervous now? It couldn’t have been the manor. As magnificent as the manor was, it wasn’t nearly as grand as the manor she’d just left. Veilia Hemetal lived large, but not as large as her brother.

What if it was just the fact of meeting Veilia Hemetal for the first time? After all, she was wealthy and influential, a combination that would certainly intimidate any normal person. But Kryla Zomulin wasn’t exactly a normal person. She was a full Admiral, Vice-Commander of the Imperial Fleet, and possibly the youngest person ever to attain such a high rank. Someone like her wasn’t easily intimidated, even by a noblewoman.

Before she could contemplate her predicament any further, she shook her head, and reached out and pressed the screen mounted into the wall surrounding the manor. After a few minutes, the face of a young man appeared on the screen. “Yes?” he said.

“I am Admiral Kryla Zomulin, and I have an appointment to meet with Lady Veilia Hemetal,” Kryla said to the screen.

“Ah, yes,” the young man replied. “Just one moment, Admiral.” The screen went black again, and a few moments later, the gate swung open. Kryla walked up the path, sternly willing her fingers to stop their nervous fidgeting.

At the top of the stairs leading into the manor was the same young man she had seen on the screen. “Greetings, Admiral Zomulin,” he said with a deep bow. “I am Chonas Iliemu. Please allow me to escort you to Lady Hemetal.”

“Of course,” replied Kryla with a slight nod. Chonas led her into a magnificent entry hall, through a few sumptuously appointed hallways, and then into a tasteful yet richly decorated sitting room.

“Please have a seat, Admiral,” Chonas said with another bow. “Lady Hemetal will be with you shortly.” Kryla nodded again, this time slightly impatiently, and sat down in a plush, red armchair. She drummed her fingers on the armrests irritably, but it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before Lady Veilia Hemetal glided into the room. Tall, blond, and willowy, Veilia might have been the most lovely woman Kryla had ever seen. Dressed in an elegant, floor-length dress, with her hair done in elaborate curls, she looked more like she was preparing for a formal ball than sitting down for an informal meeting with an admiral in her home.

“Admiral Zomulin, I’m pleased to finally meet you,” she said, bowing her head slightly to acknowledge Kryla as she approached and sat down opposite her. “I’ve heard so much about your accomplishments from my brother. I’d almost think he was in love with you, if he wasn’t so smitten with his wife.”

“I, um, that’s very flattering, I suppose,” Kryla said with a frown. “But that’s not really what I came to talk to you about. Have you, by any chance, heard anything about your brother’s plans for Neminatrix?” As soon as Kryla said that name, a grimace appeared on Veilia’s face and she shuddered slightly.

“I, um, I knew he had some sort of thought about trying to rescue Shala, but I don’t really know any details,” she said, averting her gaze from Kryla’s. “He doesn’t really talk to me about military matters.” Kryla frowned for a moment, confused about Veilia’s reaction, and then suddenly everything fell into place.

A decade ago, Belfamor’s wife had technically been his stepmother-in-law. She had married Belfamor’s father, the Head of House Hemetal, at the command of her father, the Head of House Votalin. But Beflamor’s father had attempted to protect Shala from Neminatrix’s perversions, and in retribution, Neminatrix had arrested and executed Belfamor’s father, and taken his mother and sisters prisoner. Belfamor had led a raid on the Imperial Palace and rescued Shala, but he and his team had been forced to retreat before they could rescue the others. A few weeks later, Veilia had been released in order to tell Belfamor that his mother and his other two sisters had been executed. Veilia had been just 15 at the time, and had suffered horribly at Neminatrix’s hands.

And that was the source of Kryla’s apprehension. Battle did not make her nervous. Commanding starships, commanding great fleets of starships, these things only made her feel more alive. They made her feel powerful. But the idea of being powerless, of being completely at another’s mercy…that was truly terrifying. She couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be in that situation. Even being close to a woman who had been raped and tortured was enough to make Kryla’s skin crawl. Not because she blamed Veilia for what had happened to her, but because Veilia was a reminder that such things were possible, even for someone with wealth and power.

“Do you trust your brother, Lady Hemetal?” Kryla asked, trying to forget about the thoughts and feelings she’d just dredged up.

“Of course I do!” Veilia said, looking offended. “My brother is one of the most honorable and courageous men alive. I would trust him to the very ends of the universe.”

“So, if he, by chance, asked you to do something that might be considered treasonous, would you do it?” Kryla asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Absolutely,” Veilia said firmly. “Even if I didn’t know why he was doing it, I would agree to it. I trust him completely.”

“What if he wasn’t your brother?” Kryla replied.

“That’s an interesting question,” Veilia said after a slight pause. She paused again and looked thoughtful. “I suppose I must admit that my views are colored by the fact that he’s the only member of my immediate family who’s still alive. I’d have to think about that one for a bit.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 12

Belfamor Hemetal scowled down at the collection of tablets and papers on his desk. He’d done hours worth of meaningless busywork already today, and the pile on his desk didn’t seem to be getting any smaller. He wasn’t sure why he was being assigned so much garbage, but he had a couple of guesses. Either the Emperor was trying to keep his mind off his wife’s kidnapping, or Fanas was trying to keep him busy so he wouldn’t have time to work on his plan to invade Trisitania. Either way, it wasn’t working.

“Come in,” Belfamor said as the chime on his study door rang. The door slid open and a short, blond woman stepped in. Belfamor studied her as she approached his desk. Just shy of 40, she looked to be at least 20 years younger. She was dressed in the uniform of an Imperial Fleet officer, but something about her bearing made it look more like a trendy outfit from a boutique shop on Endragar or Cortaris. Her hair was cut and fashioned in the latest style, and her skin and makeup were perfect. Despite looking like all she cared about was fashion, Belfamor was well aware that she was one of the most effective and decorated officers serving under Emperor Valador.

“Admiral Kryla Zomulin, reporting, sir!” she said with a crisp salute as she approached his desk.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice, Admiral,” Belfamor said, returning her salute, and then gesturing to her to sit down. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’ve heard a great deal about your exploits over the past decade.”

“The pleasure is all mine, sir,” Zomulin said, settling down across from him. “Most of my ‘exploits’, as you call them, came about because of plans drawn up by you. All I did was carry out my orders.”

“Don’t be so modest, Admiral,” Belfamor said with a slight smile. “I may not have a great deal of field experience, but I’ve had enough to know that even the best plans aren’t worth the tablets they’re transmitted on. Everything always changes as soon as the guns start firing.”

“Ain’t that the truth, sir,” Zomulin said with a broad grin. “Even so, I’ve been in the Fleet for almost 20 years now, and your plans are the best I’ve ever seen. You might be surprised how few adjustments I need to make when I get my orders from you.”

“Well,” Belfamor said, blushing slightly, “now that we’ve both thoroughly complimented each other, perhaps we should get down to business.”

“Yes, sir,” Kryla replied, sitting up straighter.

“Admiral, you may or may not be aware of this, but we are at a critical turning point in the history of the Empire,” Belfamor began, folding his hands in front of him. “We have an opportunity to unify the Empire under one Emperor for the first time in nearly twenty years. It is a slim opportunity, but it is there, nonetheless. Taking advantage of this opportunity will require boldness, skill, cunning and a willingness to do things that are unconventional. I know that you are someone who possesses all these qualities.”

“Well, I’m glad you think so, sir,” Kryla said, sounding slightly confused and uncertain. Belfamor stood up and turned to the large windows behind his desk. Clasping his hands behind his back, he gazed out at the wooded hillsides rolling off into the distance behind his manor.

“I will be honest with you, Admiral,” Belfamor said, still looking out the window. “I’m planning to do something that may lead to my execution as a traitor, especially if my plans fail.” He turned back to Kryla and looked her firmly in the eye. “If you join with me, you will likely share my fate, whatever it may be.”

“Interesting sales pitch, sir,” Kryla said wryly. “How do you know I’m not going to sit here and listen to what you have to tell me, and then go straight to General Fanas?”

“How do you know Emelien isn’t in on this?” Belfamor asked, cocking his head to the side slightly.

“Oh, come on, sir,” Kryla said with a bemused smirk. “Everybody knows how much you and General Fanas hate each other. I already know that the main reason you’re thinking about doing something that might get you seen as a traitor is because General Fanas said you couldn’t do it.” Belfamor frowned at her, slightly petulantly, and then shrugged.

“Okay, fine,” he said, slightly irritated. “The truth is, if I don’t have you on my side, then I doubt my plan will succeed anyway. If you won’t join me, then I’d just as soon not proceed. And Emelien already suspects I’m going ahead with this, I would imagine.”

“How are you still Vice Commander of the IAF then?” Kryla asked, raising one eyebrow.

“Because I’m too rich for the Emperor to dispose of me,” Belfamor said with a shrug.

“Must be nice,” Kryla said, her eyes widening slightly.

“It has its advantages,” Belfamor replied, his frown deepening. “Do you want to hear my plan, or not?”

“Of course I do,” Kryla said, leaning forward slightly.

“I’m planning to launch a full-scale assault on Trisitania,” Belfamor said with intensity. “I will crush Neminatrix and unite the Empire under one Emperor for the first time in twenty years.” Kryla sat back again, her expression unreadable. She was silent for a few minutes, and Belfamor watched her carefully, trying to figure out how she felt about his proposal.

“And who will sit on the Throne?” she asked finally. “You or Valador?”

“Valador, of course,” Belfamor said with a confused frown. “I’m not really a traitor, you know.”

“Just someone who’s willing to disregard your orders to further your own ambitions,” Kryla said flatly.

“I’m willing to disregard my orders for the good of the Empire!” Belfamor said hotly.

“And the fact that Neminatrix just kidnapped your wife has nothing to do with your decision?” Kryla said, her voice coolly neutral. Belfamor stared at her stonily for a moment, and then turned away.

“I need a decision, Admiral,” Belfamor said, his voice hard. “Are you with me or against me?” Kryla regarded Belfamor’s back thoughtfully for a moment, and then she sighed.

“I need time to think about it, sir,” she said.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 11

“Captain Kyla Vertrane, reporting for duty, sir!” the short, brown-haired woman announced with a sharp salute as she stepped into Hana Lodimeur’s office. Hana inspected her closely before she replied. Captain Vertrane was in her late 30s, and had probably been pretty once, but now she had the hard, weathered, no-nonsense look of an experienced smuggler, which, of course, was exactly what she was. For all of Fangalin’s military might, it wasn’t that long ago that Fangalin had been an underground “terrorist” organization, hiding in the shadows and doing whatever it could to evade the Imperial authorities while growing its influence. Even though Fangalin now openly controlled more than a third of the former territory of the Empire, it was still more comfortable operating in the shadows, which meant that experienced smugglers like Kyla were in high demand.

“Good to meet you, Captain,” Hana said, standing up and extending her hand for Kyla to shake. Kyla stared at Hana’s hand blankly for a moment, and then took it and gave it a quick, firm shake. “I’m glad you could return to Numoris on such short notice.”

“When High Command calls, it’s unwise not to answer,” Kyla said without a hint of a smile.

“Very true, Captain,” Hana said with a nod. “Well, let’s get down to business. Have a seat,” she said, gesturing to one of the chairs opposite her desk. Kyla sat down rigidly, her back as stiff and straight as a measuring stick, while Hana took her own seat. Hana’s office was small, but clean and well-organized. Some of her troops believed she deserved a larger office, but there wasn’t a great deal of space in Amarise House, and Hana hated to waste it for her own purposes.

“I take it you read the mission briefing before coming over,” Hana said.

“Of course, sir,” Kyla said crisply.

“Do you have any questions before we begin?” Hana asked.

“It would be difficult to know where to start with my questions, sir,” Kyla said, a faint note of dissatisfaction creeping into her voice. “I’ve never seen a more vague mission briefing in my life. All it said was that I would be transporting a team into enemy territory. No indication as to when, or where, or who, or how many, or for what purpose, or any of that.”

“I apologize for that, Captain,” Hana said, nodding briefly. “As you might suspect, this operation is highly classified.” She pulled out a tablet and opened up a document, but before she said anything else, she paused and frowned at Kyla’s stiff posture. “You know, you’re awfully formal for a smuggler. I expected you to be a little more…laid back.”

“My apologies, sir,” Kyla replied, back as rigid as ever. “It is my experience that military officers expect formality from those under their command.”

“Well, I’m hardly an orthodox military officer,” Hana said with a small grin. “I’ve never even had any formal military training. Everything I know, I’ve learned from experience, and one thing my experience has taught me is that formality doesn’t do you any good in the field. I think you’ll find serving under me to be quite a bit more relaxed than you’re used to.”

“Good to hear, sir,” Kyla said briskly, her posture unchanged. Hana frowned slightly and sighed, but decided it wasn’t worth pressing further.

“In any case, the mission at hand is simple, at least in concept. I need you to transport my team to Trisitania.” Kyla let out a low, impressed whistle.

“You’re not fooling around, are you, sir?” she asked, her posture relaxing slightly.

“No, I’m not,” Hana replied grimly.

“Well, getting into Trisitania shouldn’t be a problem,” Kyla said. “I haven’t done it for a couple of years, but it was smooth sailing then, and everything I’ve heard says that security is even more lax now. I suspect Neminatrix thinks that his daughter might try to slip back into the capital, and he doesn’t want anyone to detain her accidentally. Although why she would even be tempted to go to Trisitania, I have no idea.” Hana inhaled sharply and a worried look appeared on her face. “Is there something wrong, sir?” asked Kyla, her brow furrowed.

“There might be,” Hana admitted. “We just received reports yesterday that Neminatrix finally succeeded in kidnapping his daughter. If you’re right, we might have a much harder time getting into Trisitania now.” Hana’s worried frown deepened, but Kyla just shrugged.

“I don’t think we have much to worry about,” she said. “Good security isn’t something you just flip on like a lightbulb. After a decade of not caring, it’s not like the ISS is going to be able to suddenly close the floodgates and keep everybody out. No matter what they do to tighten up security now, there will be cracks that we can slip through.”

“Hmmm,” Hana said with a thoughtful frown. “Well, you’re the expert. If you’re confident that it can still be done, then I won’t question you.” She handed the tablet over to Kyla. “You will need to transport twelve of us, along with all our equipment.”

“I don’t see any problems with any of this,” Kyla said, scrolling through the list of equipment. “Fluttermask can hold at least three times as much as this.” She was silent for a moment, pursing her lips as she perused the list. Suddenly her eyes widened, and she looked up at Hana.

“A Nexus bomb?” she asked, a look of alarm creeping onto her face. “Is…is that really necessary, sir?”

“I certainly hope not, but I am not taking any chances with this mission,” Hana said darkly, her face a mask of stone. “I would rather destroy half of Selorin than allow my target to live.”

“That…that’s intense, sir,” Kyla said, visibly uneasy. “I…I assume you’ve cleared this with High Command?” Hana didn’t answer, but instead just stared icily at her. Kyla shifted in her seat slightly. “Smuggling a Nexus bomb past the ISS is going to be extremely difficult, sir.”

“I don’t care,” Hana said darkly. “You’re the smuggler. Make it happen.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 10

“You wanna do WHAT?” exclaimed Emelien Fanas, incredulous. “Are you COMPLETELY insane?”

“I assure you, sir, I am fully sane,” Belfamor replied, stone-faced. He was standing in Fanas’ office on the top floor of the tallest skyscraper on Revellia, a huge, open space full of glass and gleaming metal. It was very modern and tasteful, and completely inappropriate for the office of the SCIAF. For one, it was completely indefensible. If Revellia was attacked by an enemy force, Asteron Tower would almost certainly be the first thing to be destroyed, if only because it was so exposed. If an invading enemy force realized that Fanas had his office at the top of Asteron Tower, it would definitely be the first thing to be destroyed.

“Look, Belfamor, I know that you’re having a hard time, what with your wife having been kidnapped and all,” Fanas said, trying to sound patient, “but surely even you must see that invading Trisitania is not the best way to get her back! It’s more likely to get her killed than to rescue her!” Fanas was a handsome man, Belfamor supposed, eyeing him with disdain. He was tall and well-muscled, with long, wavy black hair and a charming smile, but his nose and ears were too big for his face, his hairline was starting to recede, and his washboard abs were starting to give way to fat. Belfamor wondered how much of his supposed prowess with women was real, and how much was the product of his own imagination.

“Which is all the evidence you need to know that I am not proposing this plan for personal reasons,” Belfamor said in a hard voice. Fanas replied by making an exasperated snort and rolling his eyes.

“Come on, man!” he scoffed. “What other possible reason could there be?”

“The only reason that makes sense,” Belfamor said. “The unification of the Empire under the rule of Valador I.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Fanas said scornfully. “The Emperor is far too cautious to agree to such a reckless plan.”

“The Emperor has already all but approved this ‘reckless plan’,” Belfamor said coldly. “All I need is your approval, and the plan will go ahead.” Immediately Fanas threw back his head and started laughing, a loud, boisterous laugh.

“You ARE insanse, Hemetal,” he yelled, still laughing. “The Emperor knows I would never approve such a ridiculous plan! This was just his way of letting you down gently!” He continued roaring with laughter, while Belfamor folded his arms across his chest and gazed at him impassively. After a while, Fanas’ laughter slowed, and he flashed a broad grin at Belfamor while wiping away a tear, but one look at Belfamor’s face caused the grin to slowly fade away.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Fanas said, shaking his head wonderingly. “You really think you can convince me to agree to this crazy plan.”

“Of course I do,” Belfamor said flatly, “because it’s the right plan for this situation, and as thick-headed and ignorant as you are, even you have to see that.” Fanas rolled his eyes and shook his head at this.

“Insulting your superior officer?” he said with a smirk. “Never a good idea, especially if you want something from him.”

“It’s not an insult to speak the truth,” Belfamor replied with a sneer.

“Oh ho!” Fanas exclaimed. “Good one, good one. I still fail to see how these little jabs at me get you what you want. I would think that if you’re really trying to convince me to approve your plan, you’d be a little nicer to me.” Suddenly a malevolent smile crept across his face. “You know what I think, Hemetal? I think you came up with this plan, knowing all along that I would never go along with it. I think you just wanted people to believe that you were a bold, manly man, coming up with a grand scheme to save the Empire. And I think you want me to deny approval for your plan, because you’re really a coward.” Belfamor turned as white as a sheet, and a fire appeared in his eyes as he took a menacing step toward Fanas.

“How dare you!” he hissed.

“Well, it makes sense,” Fanas said with a nonchalant shrug that was belied by the wicked amusement in his eyes. “If I turn you down, then you get all the credit for coming up with such an audacious plan, without any of the risk of actually carrying it out.”

Belfamor’s eyes widened in shock and rage, and he took two steps toward Fanas, fully intending to punch him in the face as hard as he could, but then he stopped. The thought suddenly dawned on him that if he struck his superior officer, that would kill any hope of getting his plan approved. He took a deep, steadying breath, and then turned away.

“You’re right, sir,” Belfamor said in a voice that was calmer than he felt. “I should be acting more respectful towards you, not only because I want something from you, but also because you are my superior officer. I apologize for my indiscretion, and humbly seek your forgiveness.”

“Apologies from Lord Hemetal?” Fanas said skeptically. “I can hardly believe my ears. If you keep up this attitude, I might actually listen to you. Maybe.” Belfamor could hear him sitting down at his expansive desk and placing his booted feet on top of it. “Very well,” he said grandly. “State your case.”

Belfamor could hardly believe his ears himself, but he turned around and opened his mouth to start defending his plan. Before he got a word out, however, Fanas cut him off.

“Okay, I’ve heard enough,” he said with a malevolent smirk. “Approval denied.”

“WHAT!” Belfamor roared.

“You heard me,” Fanas replied, his smirk deepening. “Your plan is too risky, and nothing you can say will change my mind. Now get out of my office before I throw you out.” Belfamor stared at Fanas, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly in shock, and then he shook himself slightly, turned sharply on his heel, and stormed out of the office of the SCIAF without a word.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 9

For a moment, Valador simply stared at Belfamor with an utterly blank expression on his face, and then, all of a sudden, he burst out laughing, and continued to laugh for at least five minutes, while Belfamor stared at him, completely straight-faced. Belfamor hadn’t entirely expected this reaction, but it was certainly not out of character for the Emperor. In a way, Belfamor couldn’t blame him. It was ludicrous to think of launching a full-scale assault on Trisitania. Neminatrix was certainly weaker today than he’d been ten years ago, but he still had substantial resources to call upon. An assault on Trisitania would have to be planned and executed perfectly if it wasn’t going to lead to complete disaster. Even at that, successfully capturing Trisitania and capturing or killing Neminatrix wasn’t guaranteed to unite what remained of the Empire under Valador’s rule. Certainly there was a very great possibility that one or more of Neminatrix’s supporters would claim the Throne in his stead. Still, Belfamor stood by his assessment of the situation. Neminatrix needed to be stopped, and the time to do it was now.

After what seemed like a very long time, Valador finally sighed, wiped his eyes, and gazed at Belfamor with a bemused smile. “Alright, General,” he said with a chuckle, “sell me on this plan. Tell me why you think it has any chance of success.”

“It is a risky plan,” Belfamor admitted, “but one in which I believe the potential reward outweighs the risk. Intelligence reports indicate that the defenses around the capital are at their lowest point at any time since Neminatrix seized it 11 years ago. Meanwhile, our forces are stronger now than they have been at any point since you first declared yourself Emperor. Indeed, the forces under your command right now are greater than any Emperor has had access to since the day that the Empire was first broken. The balance of forces is heavily in your favor, and the fact that the capital is so lightly defended also means that a swift victory would leave the bulk of Neminatrix’s remaining forces intact, which would strengthen your rule greatly, assuming they swear loyalty to you once Neminatrix is dead.”

“Ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it?” Valador said with a sardonic grin. “And what happens if they don’t swear loyalty to me? What happens if an ambitious commander or two decides to seize the initiative and declare him- or herself Emperor? We could end up fracturing the Empire even more than it already is!”

“That is a possibility,” Belfamor acknowledged with a slight nod, “however, every intelligence report I’ve seen indicates that every ambitious general or admiral under Neminatrix’s command was purged a long time ago, and my own intuition backs that up. Neminatrix would never allow anyone to serve him that he thought was capable of or interested in taking his place.”

“Interesting argument,” allowed Valador, stroking his magnificent beard. “However, you realize that an assault on the capital would have to be lightning fast, and carefully targeted to do as little damage to the civilian population as possible. If we got bogged down in a long, drawn-out battle, that would give time for Neminatrix’s forces to arrive and hem us in. If that happens, most of our military strength will be wasted, and we will lose everything we’ve gained over the past ten years. And if the civilian population of Selorin takes heavy losses, it won’t matter how fast we take over the capital. We’ll lose all the support we’ve spent twenty years amassing.”

“I understand all that, Your Majesty,” Belfamor replied, nodding. “I admit that we will be taking a huge risk with this operation, but I believe, and so do my advisors, that the reward will be worth the risk. We can pull this off, and once we do, the Empire will be unified under one ruler again for the first time in nearly twenty years.”

Valador didn’t allow his face to show much of what he was feeling, but Belfamor thought he’d known him long enough by now to be able to read him, and he was certain that he’d managed to persuade him. So Belfamor was a little surprised when Valador said, “And what does General Fanas think about your plan?”

Suppressing a grimace, Belfamor replied, “I have not informed General Fanas about this plan yet, Your Majesty.”

“So,” said Valador with a smirk, “thought you’d go over his head, eh?”

“Your Majesty,” Belfamor said, holding back an exasperated sigh, “you know what Emelien is like. Everything I propose, he opposes, just because I proposed it. It’s been that way for ten years.”

“And everything he proposes, you oppose, just because he proposed it,” Valador shot back, his smirk deepening. “Why do you think I keep both you around? I’m guaranteed to get both sides of every argument!”

“Your Majesty-,” Belfamor began, but Valador held up a hand to cut him off.

“Not another word, General,” Valador said firmly. “You are a man, not a spoiled child. Inform General Fanas of your plan, and get his approval. If you can do that, it will go a long way toward persuading me that you can pull off this crazy plan.” Belfamor wanted to argue with Valador further, but he understood when he was being dismissed. He saluted sharply, turned on his heel, and stalked out of the Emperor’s study.

He kept his face carefully composed as he walked through the outer chamber, but as soon as he entered the corridor outside, he could feel a vicious scowl spreading across his face. He knew he wasn’t a spoiled child, but Emelien Fanas made him feel like one. Fanas was Valador’s SCIAF (Supreme Commander of the Imperial Armed Forces), the highest ranking military officer in the Empire, or at least the part of it that Valador controlled. He was also arrogant, pompous, loud, vain, self-absorbed, and incompetent. Belfamor and Fanas had clashed almost from the first moment they’d met, when Belfamor was assigned to Fanas’ staff almost ten years ago. Belfamor had tried to please Fanas, but Fanas seemed to dislike him merely for who he was. If Belfamor said the sky was blue, Fanas would say it was green with pink polka dots. Convincing Fanas to approve a plan this risky and bold would be impossible. Belfamor was about ready to just go back to his manor and forget the whole thing. But then he remembered his wife, and what she was most likely going through at that moment, and a twisted smile crept across his face. Suddenly, convincing Emelien Fanas to agree to his plan seemed like the easiest thing he’d ever done.

To be continued…