The Darkest Heart, Part 23

On the bridge of Decimator, Kryla Zomulin’s face looked as if it was carved in stone. She was about to lose her ship. She knew that. There was no saving Decimator now. But she would make these Hadramoran bastards pay in blood for it.

“Admiral, all non-essential personnel have evacuated the ship,” announced the sensor officer.

“Very good,” Zomulin said in a voice like the coldest ice. “Everyone else, get to your escape pods now.” There was a flurry of activity as the senior officers stood up and hurried to the exits. Zomulin grabbed Sahrinae’s arm as she passed. “You locked in that course, right?”

“Of course, Admiral,” Sahrinae replied.

“Excellent,” Zomulin said with a grin that was nearly a snarl. “We’ll see how a Starfortress can stand up to a cruiser smashing into it.” Sahrinae’s answering grin was nearly as savage. The two of them moved toward the bridge’s exit, when suddenly it opened, and Zomulin was shocked to see the Emperor standing there.

“Your Majesty!” she exclaimed. “Why aren’t you in an escape pod?”

“Do you really think I would run away so easily?” Valador asked wryly. “I see you haven’t left yet either.”

“Of course I haven’t!” Kryla yelled in exasperation. “I’m the captain of this vessel! It’s my responsibility to make sure everybody evacuates safely! You, on the other hand, your only responsibility is keeping yourself alive so that a civil war doesn’t start on top of this debacle of a battle!”

“Yes, this has been a debacle, hasn’t it?” Valador said sadly. “I apologize, Kryla. This operation was my idea, so I take full responsibility for the dog’s dinner that has resulted.” Kryla just stared at him for a moment, eyes wide in shock that he felt that now was the best time to have this discussion.

“With all due respect, Your Majesty, now is really not the best time to have this discussion!” Kryla said, a manic edge entering her voice. “We need to go, NOW!” As if to emphasize her point, the ship lurched heavily, knocking them all to the floor. Kryla scrambled to her feet, grabbed the Emperor, and hoisted him to his feet as well. Then she got on one side of him, put his arm over her shoulders, while Sahrinae did the same on his other side.

“I never expected when this day started that I would be carried off by two beautiful women,” he said with a sly wink.

“I swear, Your Majesty, if you say one more word, I’m going to knock you unconscious and drag you to the escape pod,” Kryla growled, all semblance of propriety gone. Valador just chuckled at this, while Sahrinae looked half scandalized that Kryla would speak to the Emperor that way, and half ready to clobber him herself.

Between the two of them, the women were able to help the elderly Emperor down the corridor to the last escape pod on the bridge deck. Kryla opened up the hatch leading to the pod, and was just about to help the Emperor enter it, when Decimator gave another massive heave, lifting the three of them up off the floor, and then slamming them back down. Kryla’s head rang for a few moments as she lay on the floor, trying to recover. She slowly started to get up, and winced at a stabbing pain in her side. It felt like several of her ribs were broken. She looked around her, and saw Sahrinae already on her feet. Then her eyes fell on the Emperor, and the vilest curse word she could think of erupted from her mouth.

The Emperor was obviously dead. His head was hanging from his body at an unnatural angle, his neck clearly broken, and his eyes were glazed over in a look of shock.

“That stubborn…idiot!” Kryla said fiercely. “I knew this would happen!”

“What do we do, sir?” Sahrinae whispered.

“We get the hell out of here!” Kryla yelled. Then, she added, “And we take him with us.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Sahrinae replied, and the two of them managed to get the Emperor’s body into the escape pod. As soon as the hatch was sealed, Kryla launched the pod, and then all that was left for her to do was sit back and watch the last moments of her beloved cruiser.

***

On the bridge of Iron Dragonfly, Admiral Voderik Lavatiel could not have been more pleased at the course of the battle. The Imperial Fleet had taken the bait, and they had been crushed between her hammer and Admiral Peltoren’s anvil. Her losses had been minimal, and the Empire’s losses had been devastating. And Admiral Peltoren had informed her that the Imperial boarding party had been captured without her marines firing a shot. It was always so satisfying when a battle plan went perfectly.

“Admiral, there’s a cruiser at bearing 9921.4, headed straight for us,” the tactical officer announced suddenly.

“Evasive maneuvers!” Lavatiel barked. “All guns, direct fire on that cruiser!” There was a subtle sense of motion as the gigantic ship started to swerve out of the path of the oncoming cruiser, but as Lavatiel watched the positions of the ships on the main screen, she could already tell that there was no way to avoid the collision. “All hands, brace for impact!” she yelled.

Iron Dragonfly was the largest ship ever built, but Decimator was big for a cruiser, so the resulting explosion when the one slammed into the other was immense. The bridge crew were thrown out of their seats from the force of the impact, and dozens of alarms began blaring as reports of damage came in from all over the ship.

“Report!” Lavatiel bellowed as she hauled herself to her feet.

“Hull breaches on decks 13 through 35!” yelled the damage control officer. “Life support is offline! Engines are offline! Shields are down! Weapons are offline! Main power is offline!” Lavatiel swore under her breath viciously.

“Casualties?” she asked.

“More than a thousand,” the damage control officer replied. “I can’t give you a better estimate than that right now. Reports are still coming in.”

Lavatiel just shook her head in disbelief. So much for everything going according to plan.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 22

Ensign Neskatrai Dradital wasn’t nervous anymore. In fact, she was too busy to be nervous. If she’d been able to think at all, she probably would have realized that she was terrified, but as it was, she was far too busy trying to keep the ship running while it fell apart around her to have any time to think at all.

“Shift auxiliary power to the number five coupling!” yelled her immediate superior, and she did it, without thinking. She was one with her console. There was no one in the universe but her, her console, and the voice yelling in her ear, telling her what to do.

So it came as a complete surprise to her when her aunt’s voice came across the ship’s communicator, ordering all hands to abandon ship.

“You heard the Admiral!” yelled Commander Moskoren immediately. “Non-essential personnel, get to your assigned escape pods, now! Senior staff, wait for my order. Let’s keep this tub afloat long enough for everyone to get off!”

Neska was too stunned to move for a moment, then a hand grabbed her by the collar and pulled her out of her seat.

“Are you deaf, Ensign?” screamed her superior officer, Lt. Hatalmor Longavei. “Get moving, now!” Lt. Longavei practically threw her toward the exit, and Neska just barely caught herself before she sprawled face-first on the deck. As soon as she regained her balance, she was running, along with a few dozen junior officers, headed for the escape pods nearest to engineering.

A few times on the way, the ship rocked so hard that Neska and a few others were thrown to the deck, but she immediately picked herself up and kept running. She was on autopilot now. Her training had taken over completely, and she wasn’t even thinking about what she was doing. Which was good, because if she’d stopped to think, she’d probably have been too paralyzed by terror to take another step.

Before she knew it, she was in her escape pod, and it was launching out into space. Looking through the small viewport in the pod’s side, she was able to get her first look at the state of the battle. Deep in the bowels of the cruiser, she hadn’t had any idea what was going on, until the call came to abandon ship. That alone told her that things were going badly, but now she could see for herself just how badly. The Imperial Fleet was badly outnumbered, and losing ground quickly. At first, she couldn’t understand what had happened, but then she saw something that made it all click into place: a second Starfortress. Suddenly, it all made sense. The Imperial Fleet had fallen into a trap. Neska felt like icy fingers were grasping her heart. She may have escaped from Decimator before it was destroyed, but her troubles were just beginning.

***

As the Imperial marines crept through the corridors of Heart of the Galaxy without encountering any resistance, Colonel Nerevor became more and more convinced that the Hadramorans had an ambush waiting for them somewhere. Either that, or there weren’t any soldiers on the ship, and the captain of the ship was unwilling to throw lives away defending her vessel, but that option seemed more like wishful thinking than anything. A man could hope, though.

After all of the narrow corridors that Nerevor and his troops had passed through, it was almost a shock to open a door and end up in a huge, open chamber. It looked like some sort of courtyard, with a second level high above that circled the entire room and had a railing all the way around. The second level was high enough and dark enough that Nerevor couldn’t make out what, if anything, was lurking up there. He was just thinking that it was a perfect place for an ambush when another door opened nearby and another squadron of his troops came out. This only deepened his suspicions, and they were confirmed when two more doors opened and the rest of his troops entered.

“Fall back!” he yelled, waving his arm in the direction they’d just come. “Find another route!” But no sooner had he said this then the doors slammed shut automatically.

“They’re sealed!” yelled a soldier who was still right next to the doors.

“Imperial soldiers!” boomed a voice that resounded throughout the vast chamber. “This is Admiral Chieria Peltoren, commander of the Republican Navy. You are trapped. In the level above you are 2000 Republican marines, all with their guns trained on you. If you fight, you will all die. If you lay down your guns and surrender unconditionally, you will live. You have two minutes to decide. After that, my troops will open fire.”

Colonel Nerevor looked around at his soldiers. They were all good men and women, highly trained, and ready to die for the Empire. They would not hesitate to fight, if he gave the order. But if he did give that order, they’d be dying for nothing. Even on the off-chance that the Hadramoran admiral was lying, whoever was up on the balcony still had a commanding field position. Even if there were less troops up there than under Nerevor’s command, they could still tear his soldiers apart. And from the way this ambush had been laid, Nerevor suspected that the Hadramorans had known full well that the Empire was coming, and had prepared accordingly. In other words, if he surrendered, the mission would be a failure, but he and all his troops would be alive. If he fought, the mission would still be a failure, and he and all his troops would be dead.

“All right!” he yelled suddenly. “I agree to your terms. We surrender unconditionally.” To emphasize his words, he laid his assault rifle on the ground, pulled his sidearm out of its holster, put it down next to the rifle, and held his hands up in the air. He nodded to the troops nearest him, encouraging them to do the same, and one by one, all 400 Imperial soldiers laid down their arms and held their hands up in the air.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 21

As big as Heart of the Galaxy was, Peltoren still felt a slight shudder as the Imperial cruiser slammed up against it. She grinned a feral grin as she thought about what was going to happen next. An alarm blared suddenly, and one of her officers called out, “Intruder alert! Boarders on decks 37 through 40!”

“All marines, prepare to repel boarders,” Peltoren ordered, and then she said to her communications officer, “Comm! Send a message to Iron Dragonfly: it’s time.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” came the response.

***

“The marines are reporting that they’re all on board,” said Decimator‘s communications officer.

“Good,” Zomulin said. “Get us back into the fight.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” replied Sahrinae.

The cruiser shuddered slightly as it disengaged from Heart of the Galaxy‘s hull, and then it turned toward the nearest enemy vessel and accelerated. Suddenly, the tactical officer called, “Admiral! New contacts! Hadramoran ships are dropping in behind our forces!” There was a pause, and then he turned slowly to look at Zomulin, his eyes wide. “And there’s another Starfortress with them!”

Zomulin froze for a moment, letting those words sink into her mind. “That’s impossible,” she finally said, her voice flat. Then she shook herself, and snarled, “It was a trap! And we fell for it, like idiots!” She thought for a moment, and then she shook her head. “We need to hold as long as we can. Keep the enemy ships away from Heart of the Galaxy, so they can’t land reinforcements.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Venrel said heavily.

***

Colonel Hobalgen Nerevor followed his troops through the breach made in the Starfortress’s hull, assault rifle at the ready, alert for any threats that might present themselves. It was quiet inside the Starfortress. Nobody in sight. Most likely they had an ambush planned somewhere, in a place that the Imperial marines would have to pass through to get to the bridge. Hopefully they didn’t have too many soldiers onboard. They wouldn’t, unless they expected an attack. It was expensive to carry around a bunch of people who probably wouldn’t be needed, because resources were at a premium on a starship. Although, maybe not as much on one this size.

Colonel Nerevor had 400 troops at his command, spread out evenly among the four decks they had landed on. They didn’t have plans of the interior of the Starfortress, so they needed to try and make their to the bridge without knowing exactly where it was. Split up into four groups, it would be more likely that one of them would be able to find it. Nerevor didn’t expect it to be too difficult to find. As big as the Starfortress was, there were only so many ways to lay out a ship, and only so many places the bridge could be.

Suddenly, Nerevor heard Admiral Zomulin’s voice through his in-ear communicator. “Colonel Nerevor, this is Decimator. Come in, Colonel!”

“Yes, Admiral,” he replied. “I read you.”

“Another Hadramoran fleet just dropped in behind us,” Zomulin said. “We’re going to hold them off as long as we can, but you will probably be on your own soon.”

“Understood, Admiral,” Nerevor replied. “We’ll find the bridge double-quick, and be back to Imperial territory before you know it.”

“Then I’ll see you soon, Colonel,” Zomulin said, and Nerevor could almost hear the tight grin on her face when she said it. “Decimator out.”

“We’ve got company, troops,” Nerevor said on the channel that would broadcast his voice to his soldiers. “Let’s find that bridge on the double, and bring this baby home!”

***

The look on Kryla Zomulin’s face was grim as she surveyed the situation displayed on the main screen. Her forces were badly outnumbered, and caught in a vise. She had arrayed her ships around Heart of the Galaxy, in order to keep the other Hadramoran ships from getting close and transferring reinforcements to it, but that meant they had enemy ships on both sides of them. Until her marines had control of the Starfortress, it was going to keep shooting at them, and so she was in the unenviable position of trying to defend a hostile target.

“Come about to heading 9921.7 and target the destroyer at 3245.8,” she ordered, and there was a slight vibration as the ship sped up and turned around. Then suddenly, the ship rocked violently as it was blasted by another round from Heart of the Galaxy.

“Admiral, our shields are down to 20 percent!” the damage control officer yelled.

“Dammit,” Zomulin growled. “We can’t take much more of this. We’re going to have to retreat.”

“Those marines won’t last long if the Hadramorans land more troops,” Venrel said grimly.

“They won’t last long if we get destroyed either!” Zomulin snapped. She opened her mouth to give the order to retreat, when suddenly there was another violent shudder as Decimator was blasted again.

“Admiral, we just lost subspace capability!” the damage control officer yelled.

“Get it back!” Zomulin yelled. “We’re not going to last much longer! We need to retreat!”

There was yet another blast from Heart of the Galaxy, and the damage control officer yelled again, “Shields are gone! Hull breach on deck 5!”

“Engineering, ETA on subspace!” demanded Zomulin.

“Best case scenario, it’s going to be at least half an hour,” came the response from Commander Moskoren.

“That’s not good enough, Commander,” Zomulin snapped.

“I understand that, Admiral, but the damage is just too extensive,” Moskoren replied. “Half an hour, and that’s if we don’t sustain any more damage between now and then.”

Zomulin was silent for a moment, and then she scowled. “All hands, abandon ship,” she ordered in a voice that sounded as if it had been dredged up from the bowels of Nerzaga. “Evacuation plan Zeta. All hands get to your assigned escape pods.” She turned off the all-ship communicator, and then looked at Commander Sahrinae. “Commander, set the auto-pilot for evasive maneuvers until all crew have evacuated, and then direct it to crash into the second Starfortress.”

“Understood, sir,” Sahrinae replied, her face as grim as Zomulin felt.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 20

Admiral Chieria Peltoren was sound asleep in her quarters on Heart of the Galaxy when an alarm blared and a voice yelled, “Admiral to the bridge! Admiral to the bridge!” She shot out of bed, practically leaped into her uniform, and strode to the bridge at a brisk walk. She would have ran, but it would have been undignified, and it would have instilled an unnecessary sense of panic in any crew members who saw her.

As soon as she arrived on the bridge, she barked, “Status update!”

“At least two dozen Imperial ships just dropped out of subspace, and are headed our way,” replied Captain Emain Lomor, Peltoren’s former XO who was now the captain of Heart of the Galaxy.

“They took the bait,” Peltoren breathed, grinning. “Time to put this plan into action. Advance to meet them, one-quarter speed.” She pressed a button on the command chair that would broadcast her voice to the entire ship. “All hands to battle stations. Prepare for incoming boarders.” Boarding parties were a quite uncommon occurrence in ship-to-ship battles, but this one was different. The Imperial Fleet wasn’t coming to conquer the planet that her ship was defending, they were coming to steal the ship itself. That certainly meant boarders, and those boarders had a nasty surprise waiting for them. An entire battalion of marines was defending the halls and vital operation centers of Heart of the Galaxy. Any Imperial soldiers who thought they could just waltz onto her ship and steal it for themselves would be deeply disappointed.

***

“Status report!” barked Kryla Zomulin as soon as Decimator dropped out of subspace.

“There are sixteen Hadramoran ships orbiting the planet,” announced the chief sensor officer. “Two battleships, four cruisers, nine destroyers…and one Starfortress,” he finished with a grin. Zomulin felt like grinning herself, but she kept her face still.

“All ships, engage the Starfortress’s escort and disperse them,” she ordered. “Navigation, close in to boarding range.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” Commander Sahrinae replied.

***

Peltoren gazed intently at the vast screen that filled the front of the bridge on Heart of the Galaxy. So far everything was going well. The fifteen ships that were escorting Heart of the Galaxy were engaging the Imperial ships, while Galaxy itself hung back, as if she was unwilling to risk it in combat. She wanted the Imperial commander to underestimate Galaxy, to think that she was trying to protect her ship at all costs. In other words, she wanted Galaxy to look like a tempting target.

Her fleet was outnumbered by the Imperials, but they were still holding their own. Most of the Imperial ships were focusing on the other ships in her fleet, but one Imperial cruiser was making a beeline straight for her.

“Tactical, concentrate fire on the cruiser at 7932.4,” she ordered. She expected that some boarding parties would make it on board, but she still wanted to make it as hard for them as possible. The battle plan called for goading the Imperial Fleet to commit itself, and then Iron Dragonfly would drop in with another dozen ships, trapping them in a vise, but if Heart of the Galaxy and its escort could deal with the Imperial Fleet all by itself, so much the better. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep the fact of Iron Dragonfly‘s fully operational status a secret for a little bit longer.

***

“Look at the size of that thing,” Sahrinae breathed, staring at the main screen in something approaching awe, as Heart of the Galaxy drew closer.

“Steady, Commander,” Zomulin ordered wryly.

“The Starfortress is opening fire!” yelled the tactical officer suddenly.

“Evasive pattern Onzina,” Zomulin ordered. “Return fire, but remember, we don’t want to hurt that ship too badly. We want to bring it home with us, not turn it into scrap.”

Commander Venrel gave her a wry look. “You think we can do much more than scratch the paint on that thing?” he asked.

“We’d better be able to do more, or this will be the shortest mission ever,” she replied grimly.

***

“Admiral, we just lost Pride of the North,” said a tactical officer.

“Acknowledged, Lieutenant,” Peltoren replied, keeping her face smooth. Pride of the North was a destroyer, one of the newest ones in the Republican fleet. Hopefully the wreck could be salvaged. Hopefully most of the crew made it off safely. But Chieria Peltoren couldn’t do anything about either of those things at the moment. Win the battle. Make their sacrifice count. That’s what she could do.

“Admiral, two cruisers, a battleship, and three destroyers have broken through our lines and are headed for us,” announced another tactical officer.

“I see them, Lieutenant,” she replied. “Have Lightning Storm and The Coming Judgment pull back and flank them. Then have Ebony Crystal, Sundering Hand, Blue Mountain, and Call of the Dawn move in and hit them from behind.”

“Admiral, that will leave our defensive line dangerously depleted,” replied the chief tactical officer, Commander Belanas Foltouren.

“I understand that, Commander,” Peltoren replied, “but we don’t want them to suspect we have reinforcements coming. It’s a desperate move, but we want them to think we’re desperate. We also want them to underestimate Heart of the Galaxy.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” Commander Foltouren replied.

***

“Damn, that monster packs a punch!” Venrel exclaimed as Decimator shuddered under the force of a blast from Heart of the Galaxy‘s guns.

“Just think about all the punching we’ll do once its ours,” Zomulin replied with a tight grin. “Comm, tell the ships behind us to spread out! Enemy ships are moving in to flank them.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” said the communications officer.

“Five seconds to docking range, Admiral,” announced the sensor officer.

“Good,” Zomulin said. “Remind the marines to book it as soon as we’ve cut through the Starfortress’s hull. We can’t stay docked for very long, because we’ll be a sitting duck.”

“Yes, sir,” came the response. Almost immediately, there was a deep clanging sound that rang through the ship, and all sensation of movement ceased.

“Colonel,” Zomulin said, pressing the button to communicate with the CO of the marines onboard, “it’s all up to you now.”

“I won’t let you down, Admiral,” the colonel replied.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 19

There was a long, cold silence in the room after that statement, as Admiral Zomulin and Emperor Valador just stared at each other. Meanwhile, Commander Venrel was fidgeting and looking around the room, as if he was desperately looking for an escape and knew that there wasn’t one to be found. Finally, Valador broke the silence.

“I should throw you out the airlock for your impertinence,” he said in a harsh voice. Zomulin just looked back at him impassively. He stared coldly at her for a moment more, and then finally he sighed and looked away. “But you’re right. Maybe I am being a foolish old man. So I will explain my reasoning for wanting to come, and I will leave the decision in your capable hands.” He looked at her again with a wry grin, but she just looked back at him, her facial expression unchanged. The Emperor’s grin faded slowly, and then he sighed again.

“Okay, here it is,” he said, “this mission might be the most vital mission the Empire has carried out in the past twenty years. Certainly it’s the most important mission of my career. If it fails, it could spell the end of the Empire, whether or not I survive. I want…no, I need to be here, to see this through. If we win today, we will be on a solid footing to recover our strength and weather the storm. If we lose, it won’t matter if I’m alive.”

“And what if we win, but you still die?” Zomulin asked grimly.

“Then whoever takes my place will be in a strong position to build on my legacy,” Valador replied with a smirk. Zomulin stared at him for a moment, a searching look in her eyes, and then she sighed heavily.

“I don’t know,” she said wearily. “It just seems so risky.”

“Please, Kryla,” Valador said in a pleading voice. “I need this.” Zomulin was so startled at his words and his tone that she just stared at him, wide-eyed, for a long time, and then, finally, she nodded her head. Valador exhaled slowly, and then grinned. “You know, there aren’t many people who could get away with what you’ve just done,” he said.

“To be honest, I thought you really would throw me out an airlock for a second,” Zomulin replied, the surprise slowly fading from her face. “I still think this is a terrible idea.”

“Maybe it is,” Valador said with a harsh laugh, “but I’m doing it anyway. And may the One have mercy on our souls.”

***

“Admiral on the bridge!” announced Commander Sahrinae loudly, standing up and moving out of the way as Zomulin and Venrel strode back onto Decimator‘s bridge.

“Man your station, Commander,” Zomulin replied, settling herself in the command chair that her navigation officer had just vacated. “Comm, send a message to all ships. Prepare to drop on my command.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” replied Lt. Otur. For a few minutes, everyone sat in silence, waiting, and then Otur turned to Zomulin. “All ships reporting in, sir. The fleet is ready to drop.”

“Send the signal to drop, Lieutenant,” Zomulin ordered. Otur nodded, and a few seconds later, Decimator shuddered slightly, and the view on the main screen shifted from black studded with stars to a kaleidoscopic swirl of every color imaginable. “Let’s do this,” Zomulin said in a soft voice, staring intently at the view of subspace outside her ship.

***

Deep in the bowels of Decimator, Ensign Neskatrai Dradital was sitting at her station in engineering, monitoring the energy output of the cruiser’s Nexus drive. It was an important job that took most of her concentration, which was good, because the small corner of her brain that was not engaged was utterly terrified. Despite having the best training the Empire could offer, there was no substitute for actual combat experience, and that was something that Neska was about to experience for the first time in her life. She kept stealing glances at the other people working in the ship’s vast engine room, and none of them seemed nervous at all. She wondered how they did it. Actually fighting in a battle was the most terrifying thing she could imagine.

Which was ironic, because she’d wanted to join the Imperial Fleet ever since she was a little girl. She was young enough that she couldn’t remember a time before the war started, so the idea of joining the military and doing her part to defend the Empire seemed natural. Plus, she’d grown up idolizing her aunt, one of the youngest starship captains in the Imperial Fleet, so it was almost a foregone conclusion that she would someday join up herself.

Her mother, Lucila, hadn’t wanted her to join the Fleet. Lucila and Kryla were sisters, and while they got along well, they were very different in temperament. Kryla was bold and confident, whereas her sister was quiet, reserved, even meek. And if Neska was going to be honest with herself, she was more like her mother than her aunt. Maybe even a lot more. But she wanted to be like her aunt. She wanted to be able to stand on the bridge of a starship while everything was falling apart around her and hold it together by the sheer force of willpower. She just didn’t know if she was ever going to be able to pull it off.

So here she was, sitting at a console in the engine room of a massive cruiser, so nervous she felt like she was probably going to pee her pants. She wondered how her aunt had felt on the eve of her first battle. She realized that she’d never asked her that before. The idea of her aunt being nervous was…difficult to imagine.

“Ensign,” said a male voice behind her suddenly. She jumped, and then blushed and turned to see who it was. The red on her cheeks deepened when she realized it was Lt. Commander Allavade Moskoren, the chief engineer on Decimator. “How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m…I’m just fine,” Neska stammered.

“No you’re not,” Moskoren said with a knowing smile. “We’ve all been there. It’s okay. You’ll get through this. Trust me.”

“I…um…yes, sir,” Neska replied. Moskoren nodded, and moved on to the next station, while Neska turned back to her work. Oddly, she did feel a little bit better.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 18

“Give me a status update, Commander,” Kryla Zomulin said as she strode onto Decimator‘s bridge.

“All ships are reporting in, Admiral,” Hosken Venrel replied. “All captains are ready to go on your mark.”

“Excellent,” Zomulin said, settling into the command chair. “As soon as we get the final word from the Emperor, we’ll be ready to depart.”

“Admiral!” called the communications officer, Lt. Halamai Otur. “We’re receiving a transmission from Trisitania!”

“That’s our ticket,” Zomulin replied, a wolfish grin spreading across her face. “Put it onscreen.” Immediately the Emperor’s face appeared on the huge viewscreen at the front of the bridge. “Your Majesty!” Zomulin said. “Is the mission ready to go?”

“Not quite, Admiral,” Valador replied. “I have a last minute change of plans.”

“Oh?” Zomulin said, carefully keeping her face still. “What sort of change?”

“I don’t want to tell you over a long-distance channel. I’m coming to the Rock to brief you in person.”

There was a slight pause, and the Zomulin said, “Understood, Your Majesty. We will await your arrival.”

“Very good, Admiral,” Valador said with a slight nod and a sardonic smile. “I will arrive in about three hours.”

Zomulin leaned back in her chair as the viewscreen went blank, a small frown on her face. “What do you suppose that was all about?” asked Commander Venrel.

“I don’t know, and I don’t like it,” Zomulin replied thoughtfully. “The Emperor gave me command of this mission. If he’s changing things up now, that can’t be a good sign.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Venrel said. “When has messing up a perfectly good battle plan at the last second for no reason ever backfired?”

Zomulin looked at him with a smirk, and just shook her head. “It’s a good thing I like you, Commander,” she said. “Not too many XOs could say something like that about the Emperor and keep their commissions.”

“Ah, Valador’s alright,” Venrel said, grinning. “He was a military man. He knows how this game is played.”

“You’re right, he does,” Zomulin said, her grin fading. “So why is he doing this?” She was silent for a moment, thinking, and then she shook her head. “Well, we’ll find out soon enough. Inform the fleet that our departure will be delayed. Have everybody run down their pre-drop checklists again. That’ll keep everyone busy until the Emperor arrives.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Venrel said, as Zomulin stood up.

“I’ll be in my office,” she said. “Inform me immediately as soon as the Emperor arrives.”

The next three hours passed both quickly and slowly. A few times Zomulin looked at the clock, sure that an hour had passed, only to find that it had been just five minutes. And then she got lost in her work, glanced at the clock after what seemed like only a few minutes, and was shocked to discover that it had been over an hour. Indeed, she was convinced there was still an hour left to go when her communicator beeped.

“Admiral!” said Commander Venrel’s voice. “The Emperor’s transport has just dropped out of subspace and is headed for docking bay 3!”

“I’m on my way,” Zomulin replied, standing up. “Meet me there, and tell Commander Sahrinae that she has the bridge.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Venrel said. A few minutes later, he fell in next to her as she was striding down the corridor leading to the docking bays.

“Here we go,” Zomulin muttered under her breath as the door to docking bay 3 slid open. The Emperor was just disembarking from his shuttle, surrounded by his usual retinue of advisors. “Your Majesty!” Zomulin exclaimed. “Welcome to Decimator! It is such an honor to have you on board.”

“I’m sure it is,” Valador replied with a smirk. “I won’t take up much of your time, Admiral. I’m sure you and your fleet are anxious to get started with your mission. Do you have somewhere we can talk in private?”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Zomulin said with a bow. “Right this way.” Zomulin and Venrel escorted the Emperor, minus his retinue, up to the top deck, where there was a large conference room that was secured against all known forms of eavesdropping. Once they were there, Valador sat at the head of the large conference table, and gestured for Zomulin to sit next to him. Venrel sat on Zomulin’s other side. No one else was in the room.

“I’ll be brief, Admiral,” Valador said. “I know you’re worried that I’m going to do something stupid and screw up your whole battle plan, so rest assured that’s not going to happen. The only change I’m making, is that I’m coming along.”

There was a brief pause, while Zomulin just stared at Valador, and then she shook her head. “No,” she said.

“No?” Valador repeated in a soft, dangerous voice. “I’m sorry, I must have misheard you. Did you just say ‘no’ to the Emperor?”

“Yes I did,” Zomulin replied, “and you can execute me or imprison me or whatever you want, but I’m not going to take it back. It’s ridiculous. What possible purpose can be served by you coming with us? Do you want to die? Do you realize how much chaos would result at this point if you died right now? The Senate has yet to meet for the first time since the Breaking. Do you really want their first session to be picking your successor? Especially when two men who despise each other are poised to go head-to-head in that fight?”

“I’m well aware of the political situation, Admiral,” Valador said wryly. “Probably even more so than you. Rest assured, this is not a decision I make lightly.”

“Then prove it,” Zomulin shot back, folding her arms across her chest and fixing the Emperor with her most determined stare. “Convince me that I should let you come on this mission.”

“I’m not accustomed to being the one who does the convincing, Admiral,” Valador said, the dangerous tone back in his voice.

“Then toss me in the brig,” Zomulin replied coolly. “Or throw me out an airlock. Because I will not give the order to commence this operation with you on board, unless you give me a good reason why you should be.”

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 17

“I’m glad you feel that way, sir,” Peltoren replied. “I’ve done my best to live up to the expectations that go along with my new position.”

“Indeed,” Lavatiel agreed. “That said, I do have some concerns about the command that the President has entrusted you with.”

“Oh?” Peltoren said, raising one eyebrow. “What sort of concerns? Sir?”

“I’m familiar with your file, obviously, and I know how intimately involved you were with the Starfortress project under Fangalin. Understandably, you have a very close attachment to Heart of the Galaxy. I’m concerned that using Galaxy as bait to lure the Imperial Fleet into our trap will be…difficult for you.”

“I don’t…quite understand what you mean, sir,” Peltoren replied, her brow furrowed. Lavatiel paused for a moment, thinking.

“It’s difficult to explain,” she said finally. “Let me tell you a story, and we’ll see if that sheds any light on what I’m trying to say. My first command was a destroyer called The Messenger. That was a good ship. I was still serving with the Imperial Fleet back then. This was before the war started. My fleet commander was a good friend of Eregon Fadlamis, and he was also my mentor, so when the Republic was formed, my crew and I joined up. I was in command of that vessel for five years. Those were five good years. But then, during a battle with the Empire, we were forced to abandon ship, and The Messenger was destroyed. I was devastated by that loss. I was offered a new command after the battle, but I turned it down. It took me a year to get over losing my ship.”

“I’m…sorry to hear that, sir,” Peltoren said, “but I don’t quite understand what this has to do with me and Heart of the Galaxy.” Lavatiel stared flatly at Peltoren for a moment, and then she sighed heavily.

“I guess I just want to make sure that you will put the wellbeing of the Republic ahead of the wellbeing of your vessel,” she said. “I know how easy it is to get attached to a ship, Chieria. I can imagine how much you love Heart of the Galaxy. So I need to know, if you are faced with a choice between sacrificing your ship, or sacrificing the Republic, which will you choose?”

Peltoren stared at her for a moment, her face blank. Then she spoke, in a quiet but fierce voice. “I love that ship. I love it more than any human I have ever met. But I know my role, and I know who I serve. If I am ever faced with a choice between Galaxy and the Republic, there is no doubt in my heart that I will chose the Republic.” Both women stared at each other for a long time, no expression on either face, and then finally Lavatiel leaned back, and grinned broadly.

“I couldn’t have come up with a better answer myself,” she said, relieved. “You will do well, Chieria. It won’t be long, I bet, before you’re sitting in this chair.”

“Thank you, sir,” Peltoren replied, her face still expressionless. Truth be told, she was seething inside. For someone to even think such a thing of her! Yes, she loved Heart of the Galaxy. That ship was her baby. But it was still just a ship. Obviously, people were more important than ships. If Galaxy was destroyed, she would be sad, but infinitely less so than if she managed to save the ship at the cost of any members of its crew. How much more so would the fate of the Republic mean to her, as opposed to her ship! True, she’d only been a citizen of the Republic for a brief time, but she wasn’t a mercenary. She already loved and believed in the Republic far more than she’d ever loved Fangalin. Maybe it was because she had been born into Fangalin, but she had chosen the Republic. Whatever the reason, she served the Republic now, and that wasn’t going to change for any reason, especially not for the sake of a hunk of metal!

“I didn’t mean to question your loyalty,” Lavatiel said with a slight frown. Peltoren blinked in reply. Well, she thought she’d kept her face expressionless. “I know you’ve transferred your loyalty to the Republic wholeheartedly. I’ve read your file. I know what happened in Fangalin. Truth be told, I’m surprised more people didn’t defect with you. I mean, I know you brought an entire fleet and an army with you, but frankly, I don’t see how anyone could have stayed after what happened. Who would be foolish enough to write a constitution for a country that basically encouraged murdering its ruler?”

“It is quite baffling,” Peltoren said quietly. “I certainly have no interest in returning to such a regime.”

“And I believe that,” Lavatiel said, nodding. “I know what you’ve been through, and what you turned your back on, and that’s why I trust you. I don’t want you to think that I don’t trust you. I just want to make sure that your head is in the right place for this mission.”

“I do appreciate that, sir,” Peltoren replied, feeling slightly mollified. “I would do the same thing for anyone under my command.”

“I know you would, Admiral,” Lavatiel said with a satisfied look. “You are a good commander.” She paused for a moment, and looked at Peltoren thoughtfully. “I’m going to talk to the President about me being on Iron Dragonfly. There’s no reason you need me looking over your shoulder. If you’re going to be in command of this mission, you should be in command of this mission. You don’t need me scrutinizing your every move.”

“That’s really not necessary, sir,” Peltoren said with a slight frown. “I don’t mind.”

“Don’t worry about it, Chieria,” Lavatiel said, shaking her head. “I’ll take care of it. You go and get to work on that operational writeup now. Just let me take care of the rest.”

To be continued…