Culmination, Part 46

Surprisingly, getting out of the Imperial Palace proved even easier than getting in. Even though the Palace was swarming with soldiers now that it had been occupied by Valador’s troops, Starfengt’s access to the PTS made it easy for Hana and her team to follow a route that was unoccupied.

Once out of the Palace, however, things got a little trickier. There was no PTS for the city of Selorin, so Hana and her team had to use their eyes, ears, and the motion trackers on their wrists to avoid Imperial troops as they crept through the streets to the extraction point, where Kyla Vertrane and Fluttermask were waiting for them. Even so, this was what the members of Starfengt were trained for, and Hana and her assassins managed to get to the extraction point without incident.

***

“General Hemetal!” came a voice over Belfamor’s communicator suddenly. It had been so long since he’d heard anything over his communicator that he actually jumped at the sound of it, and then shook his head ruefully as he responded.

“Copy. Who is this?” he said.

“Lieutenant Songrenan,” said the voice. “You sent me down to the communication server to deal with the Fangalin jamming.”

“Obviously, you succeeded,” Belfamor said drily.

“Yes, sir,” Songrenan replied. “Not only that, but whoever installed the jammer was either not very good, or sloppy, because I was able to use it to figure out what frequency the assassins are broadcasting on, and jam them instead.”

“Excellent work, Lieutenant!” Belfamor said with a grin. “I bet they won’t like that very much, wherever they are.”

***

“Echo Two, report in,” Hana said as soon as she entered the hangar where Fluttermask was waiting. There was no response. “Echo Two, this is Echo One, do you copy?” Still no response. “Echo Four, are you there?” Again, there was silence. Hana looked at Xeliana. “I can’t raise Two or Four.”

“That’s not good,” replied Xeliana, looking concerned.

“No, it’s not,” Hana muttered, thinking. It was possible that Valador’s troops had found their jamming device, and reconfigured it to jam their frequency. Starfengt could get around that by switching to a different frequency, but Arcten and Vedregela would have no way of knowing which frequency she was using. Honestly, it had never occurred to any of them that the Empire would find their jammer and use it against them. Imperial technicians were usually so hopelessly incompetent that Fangalin operatives didn’t usually think about countermeasures. So Starfengt didn’t have a set backup frequency, an oversight that seemed horribly amateur now that Hana thought about it. And she couldn’t just broadcast on random frequencies and hope that Vedregela and Arcten caught it, because the Imperial Army would be able to hear it too, and they’d be able to triangulate Hana’s position.

“I guess all we can do now is wait,” Hana said grimly. Judging by the looks on Xeliana and the others’ faces, they didn’t like that idea any more than she did.

***

About 15 minutes later, Vedregela and her team came into the hangar, cautiously, with weapons drawn. On seeing Hana and the others waiting for her, she breathed a sigh of relief and holstered her rifle.

“When we lost communications, I didn’t know what to expect,” Vedregela said with a frown. “Do you know what happened?” Vedregela was a short woman with flaming red hair that was straight and came down to her shoulders. She was normally cheerful, but her round face was creased with concern at the moment.

“No idea,” Hana said, shaking her head. “Best we can figure, the Empire found our jammer and is using it against us.”

“Dammit,” Vedregela said with a snarl. “I should’ve gone back for it.”

“How could you have known that they’d be able to decipher it so easily?” Hana asked, shaking her head again. “We’re not used to the Empire being able to counter our electronic warfare tactics.”

“I know, but I still should have gone back for it,” Vedregela countered, still scowling. “There was a vulnerability on the device that I could have accounted for, but I didn’t, cause I was running behind, and I figured if an Imperial found it, they’d be too dumb to make use of it. I should have known better.”

Hana frowned at her for a moment, and then shook her head a third time. “No,” she said firmly. “We are not going to second guess ourselves. The mission is done, and it was successful. We just need to get out of here, and that’s not going to be accomplished by worrying about what we should have done differently.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Vedregela said with a resigned sigh. There was silence for a moment, and then Hana spoke again.

“Did you see Commander Sidel’s team at all?” she asked, somewhat hesitantly.

“Sorry, sir,” Vedregela said, shaking her head. “After we left the Palace and lost access to the PTS, I didn’t see Team Two at all. They were still in the Palace when we left. That’s all I know.”

“Very well, Lieutenant,” Hana said with a sigh, and went back to waiting silently.

***

Another fifteen minutes passed before Team Two arrived at the hangar. Hana’s heart skipped a beat as Master Chief Velencias Moratino and Chief Shalaminas Retico walked through the door, and then it sank into her stomach when no one followed them.

“Master Chief!” she barked. “Where is Commander Sidel?” But she knew the answer even before Velencias shook his head grimly.

“He didn’t make it, sir,” Velencias said, grief etched in every line of his face. “We were ambushed by a platoon of Imperial soldiers. He ordered us to retreat. I thought he was coming with us, but by the time I realized he was staying behind to cover us…it was already too late.”

Hana barely heard a word Velencias said. Arcten was dead. Her dearest friend, her closest companion, the rock she leaned on, the one who’d kept her sane in dark days as she brooded over her father’s death…gone. Her world seemed to shatter into tiny fragments, spiraling off into the darkness. For ten years, she’d thought she had nothing to live for but avenging her father’s death. Too late, she realized she’d been wrong. Arcten had been worth living for, but now he was gone. All because she’d been too focused on her lust for vengeance. In the end, despite all her best efforts, Neminatrix had won.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 45

“Belfamor!” Shala gasped.

“Shala!” Belfamor exclaimed. “It is you! I figured your father would have you locked up in the dungeon somewhere! What are you doing here?”

“Well,” Shala said, looking somewhat bashful, “it’s kind of hard to explain.” She glanced over at her father, and Belfamor followed her eyes.

“You!” he roared. He leveled his assault rifle at Neminatrix, and all of the soldiers with him followed suit.

“Wait!” Shala screamed, throwing out her hands again. “Don’t shoot! Let me explain!”

“Shala, this is the monster who has tortured you ever since you were a child!” Belfamor yelled, still aiming his rifle at Neminatrix’s head. “What are you doing protecting him?”

“Things have changed, Belfamor!” Shala yelled back at him. “My father has changed! For one, he’s abdicated the Throne!”

“Is this true?” Belfamor asked Neminatrix harshly.

“Yes,” Neminatrix replied simply.

“I want to hear it,” Belfamor said, his voice hard as stone. Neminatrix just stared at him for a moment, and then he took a long, deep breath.

“I, Erelesk Votalin, do hereby, henceforth and forevermore, renounce all claims to the Throne of the Trisitanian Empire, and pledge my whole hearted loyalty to His Royal Majesty, Emperor Valador I, under pain of death.” There was a moment of icy silence, and then Belfamor let out a small sigh of relief mingled with regret, lowered his assault rifle, and signaled to his troops to do the same.

“I suppose it would be murder for me to kill you now,” Belfamor said to Neminatrix, his voice cold and hard as ice. “But I will see you put on trial. I have not forgiven you for murdering my father.”

“I am sure that justice will be done,” Neminatrix said in a quiet, weary voice.

***

Hana had just gotten herself in position when Neminatrix, his daughter, and his few remaining guards burst into the Throne Room. She was just about to pull the trigger when Valador’s troops burst in a few minutes later. Their presence didn’t matter, except that as soon they entered, Shala jumped in front of her father to shield him, and Hana couldn’t get a clear shot. Not that she had any qualms about killing Shala Votalin, but she had no good reason to either, and she didn’t want to give away her presence before she killed Neminatrix. She wanted to take her shot and escape, without risking any more of her team members.

Her heart was in her throat as Shala spoke to Valador’s troops. Her vengeance was about to be stolen from her, right before her eyes. But then, miracle of miracles, whatever Shala said to Valador’s troops convinced them to stand down. As they continued to talk, Shala finally moved out of the way, giving Hana a clear shot. She took a deep breath, steadied herself, and fired.

***

For about two seconds, Shala’s life was perfect. She was reunited with her husband, and her father was alive and safe and loved her. For two seconds, she had everything she’d ever wanted.

And then her father’s head exploded.

At first, she couldn’t process what had happened. Time seemed to stand still, and the smile she wore seemed to freeze in place. An eternity passed in slow motion as her father’s blood splattered her dress and his headless body slumped to the ground. And then time returned to its normal flow, and she realized she was screaming, a wordless howl filled with horror and shock and fury.

And then she was being shoved to the floor, as a woman’s voice yelled “Sniper!” and the sound of dozens of booted feet rushed in every direction. And still she screamed, heedless of anyone around her, as she felt as if her soul was tearing in half.

***

Hana watched through the scope as Neminatrix’s head disintegrated in a spray of blood. A grin spread across her face, wider and more vicious than any grin she’d ever worn. It was done. Her father’s death was avenged. In the back of her mind, she heard Shala Votalin’s anguished screams and realized that she’d just done to Shala what Neminatrix had done to her, but she ruthlessly shoved down those thoughts. She was well aware of Neminatrix’s reputation. The wretched woman was probably brainwashed or something.

“Echo Team, target is down, repeat, target is down,” Hana said over the radio. “Withdraw and rendezvous at extraction point Beta.”

“Acknowledged,” came the response from eight different voices. Hana stood up, and watched the chaos down in the Throne Room for a moment. It was strange. She’d imagined this moment for ten years, and every time, she’d imagined herself feeling elated and free. But that wasn’t how she actually felt. Instead, she just felt sort of…empty. She shook her head, and followed her team out of the Throne Room and into the corridors.

***

As soon as Shala was safe, Belfamor and Captain Avredai led their platoon through the halls of the Imperial Palace, searching for the assassins who had killed Neminatrix. Communications were still being jammed, but Belfamor had sent a team down to the communication servers in the basement of the Palace. Hopefully they would be able to cut through whatever the Fangalin assassins had done to shut down all signals in the Palace, so that Belfamor’s troops could inform Neminatrix’s that there was no reason for them to keep fighting.

Even though Belfamor was looking for Neminatrix’s killers, it was a half-hearted effort. Frankly, they’d done Belfamor a favor. Even aside from his personal hatred for his father-in-law, keeping Neminatrix alive would have made incorporating his troops back into the the Empire more complicated, even with his abdication. He had been a highly charismatic leader, and many would have stayed loyal to him as long as he was alive. But there was no one among his followers who could take that role. He had made sure there were no rivals among his servants.

Belfamor scowled as he marched through the corridors with Avredai by his side. He should have been elated that Neminatrix was dead and his wife was safe, but instead he felt frustrated and angry. Something had changed while Shala was with Neminatrix this time. She should have been thrilled that the man who’d tortured her since she was a little girl was dead, but instead she was devastated. Belfamor couldn’t understand that, and it made him angry. How could Shala grieve that bastard? How could Shala shed a single tear for the man who’d murdered his father? Suddenly his sense of unease about this operation was starting to make sense.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 44

Belfamor and the rest of the 3rd Battalion met surprisingly little resistance as they pushed through the halls of the Imperial Palace, searching for Neminatrix and an end to the civil war. Neminatrix’s troops had fought fiercely in the streets of Selorin, but it was almost as if their morale had been decimated by their enemies gaining access to the Palace itself. The 3rd Battalion wasn’t even encountering very many troops, and those they did encounter retreated almost immediately, after only putting up a token effort. It was possible that Neminatrix’s troops were just completely demoralized, but Belfamor suspected that the 3rd battalion was walking into a trap.

“What do you think, Captain?” Belfamor said to Leatoreai Avredai, who was walking alongside him.

“I think you’re right, General,” Avredai said with a grim frown. “It’s definitely a trap, and you know how I know that? Because something is jamming our communications, so I can’t even contact the rest of the unit and warn them of my suspicions.”

“Crap,” Belfamor said with a sour expression. “Guess we just need to be on our toes then, huh?”

“That’s the understatement of the year, sir,” Avredai said drily.

***

Shala and Neminatrix moved quickly through the corridors of the Palace, closely surrounded by their guards. Shala was frightened, of course. It would have been impossible not to be frightened when a room you were in suddenly went dark and armed assassins burst in and started shooting. But she was also strangely exuberant. Her father was going to abdicate, and he was doing it for her. The long, slow-motion nightmare that had been her life thus far was finally ending, and happier days were coming. She had dreamed of this moment for so long, but she’d never really believed it was possible.

Finally, she and her father could have a real relationship. And it wasn’t just for herself and her father that she was excited. Her father’s change of heart also gave her hope for her son, Vendamil. If her father could change at his age, then surely there was still time for her little boy. Of course, they needed to survive this attack before any of her dreams could truly come true. But she was optimistic. After all, what was surviving an assassination attempt compared to convincing her abusive father to love her?

***

I’ve got him now, Hana kept thinking to herself as she crept swiftly through the halls of the Imperial Palace. It was a thought borne of firm conviction, tinged with a hint of desperation. In the back of her mind, the feeling that all of her preparations and the sacrifices of her team might be in vain kept popping up, but she ruthlessly pushed it back down every time. She was so close. She needed to be the one to kill Neminatrix. She would be the one to kill Neminatrix! She wouldn’t be able to truly let her father go until the man responsible for his death lay lifeless at her feet.

Hana and the other members of Starfengt hadn’t met a soul since they’d left the command center, but that wasn’t surprising, considering their access to the Palace’s personnel tracking network. The PTN registered the lifesigns of every human being in the building and used sophisticated motion trackers to triangulate their positions in real time. Hana and her team had devices in their body armor that masked their lifesigns, of course. Trying to infiltrate the Palace otherwise would have been suicide. But as far as Hana knew, such technology was beyond the capabilities of the Empire, giving Starfengt a massive advantage over their adversaries.

“Echo Two,” she said over the radio, “I want you to set up an ambush at the crossroads of corridor 774 and 775 in section E36 on level 5. It looks like they’ll be heading down 774 in a few minutes. I want you to make sure they take a right into 775 and head towards the Throne Room.”

“Copy that, Echo One,” came Arcten’s response.

“Echo Four, I want you to do the same at the crossroads of 775 and 778,” Hana said. “That should ensure that they will pass through the Throne Room.”

“Understood, Echo One,” replied Vedregela.

“Team One and Team Three will be on the upper balcony of the Throne Room. Team Three will provide support while I eliminate the target.” Acknowledgment came back from every surviving member of Starfengt, and Hana nodded in satisfaction. The plan was in place. All that was left was to execute.

***

Shala, Neminatrix, and their four surviving guards limped into the Throne Room, gasping for breath and praising the One that they were still alive. Shala was no soldier, but she’d been married to one for 10 years. She’d seen a lot over the course of that decade, but she’d never seen anything like these assassins. They were devastatingly effective, superbly well trained. She found herself wondering whose troops they were. They couldn’t be Imperial, because she couldn’t imagine that Valador had such skilled soldiers without her knowing about it, and they most likely weren’t Neminatrix’s, considering they were trying to kill him. Not that treason was impossible, but her father seemed as stunned by the existence of these soldiers as she was.

No, they were almost certainly Fangalin. Ever since the destruction of the Senate, Fangalin had been at least two steps ahead of the Empire, technologically and logistically. In fact, Shala recalled that she had heard rumors of a terrifyingly effective squad of assassins being deployed by Fangalin ever since the death of Extrator IV. It was seeming highly likely that those rumors were true.

“We can’t stay here, sir,” the highest ranked surviving guard, a corporal, said as Neminatrix slumped against a pillar to catch his breath. “The Throne Room is too exposed.”

“I know,” gasped Neminatrix. “Just…just give me a minute.” The guard frowned, but Shala could tell that he was well aware that her father wasn’t going to last much longer at the pace they’d been moving. She opened her mouth to say something, but before she could, the huge double doors leading into the main entrance of the Throne Room swung open and dozens of troops poured inside.

“Don’t shoot!” Shala screamed, running forward with her arms outstretched, because it was obvious from their uniforms that these were Valador’s troops.

“Shala?” said a familiar voice, and her heart skipped a beat. It was her husband, Belfamor.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 43

“Echo One, this is Echo Two,” Arcten’s voice came over Hana’s earpiece suddenly. “We are in position.”

“Copy that, Echo Two,” Hana replied. “Now we’re just waiting on Team Four.”

***

“Something’s jamming our communications, Your…um, sir,” an exasperated communications tech said to Neminatrix, clearly unsure what to call him now that he’d announced his abdication. “I’m sending out a message on all frequencies about your surrender, but I’m not sure anyone’s receiving it.”

“Keep trying, Major,” Neminatrix replied. “We need to get that message out ASAP. Every second this battle goes on, more lives are thrown away needlessly, on both sides.”

***

Belfamor’s expression was somewhere between a snarl and a grin as he strode through the front doors of the Imperial Palace. This was a moment he’d been anticipating for well over a decade, a moment that was the culmination of everything that had happened to him since the fateful day when his father had married Shala Votalin. Today was the day he would make everything right. Today was the day when he would finally put an end to the bastard who had torn his family apart. All of his doubts and fears were behind him now. It was time to put an end to this dark chapter of his life, and move on to happier times.

***

“Echo One, this is Echo Four,” said Vedregela. “We are in position.”

“Copy, Echo Four,” Hana said calmly. Then she paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and said, “Echo One to Echo Team… Begin.”

***

Another massive explosion rocked the command center, this one much closer, causing tables, chairs, and people to fall to the ground. A split second later, the lights went out and all the computers and displays in the center went dead.

“What’s going on!” Neminatrix roared, scrambling to his feet.

“Power’s out!” a technician yelled back. “That explosion must have taken out the main generator!”

“Switch to backups!” yelled Termaina.

“Can’t do that, sir!” replied another technician. “Backups are down, too!” There was a moment of shocked silence as Termaina and Neminatrix looked at each other.

“The infiltration team,” Termaina said softly.

“We can’t stay here-,” Neminatrix began, but before he could finish his thought, the doors at either end of the command center blew open, and five soldiers rushed in, guns blazing. Neminatrix immediately threw himself at Shala and pushed her to the floor, desperately trying to shield her from the attack with his body. There was a few seconds of furious gunfire in every direction, and then hands grabbed Neminatrix and Shala firmly and pulled them to their feet.

“We’ve gotta get out of here, sir,” said one of Neminatrix’s guards. A dozen of them flanked Neminatrix and Shala on all sides and rushed them out of a nearby door.

“What’s the problem, Sergeant?” Neminatrix asked as they sped through the corridors. “There’s only five of them!”

“True, sir,” the sergeant replied, his eyes scanning in every direction at once, looking for threats, “but those five were no ordinary soldiers. In the time from when they breached the command center to when we left, they killed twenty of your guards.”

“By the One…,” Neminatrix breathed.

“Exactly, sir,” the sergeant said grimly. “I don’t know how we’re going to keep you safe, but I’m not ready to give up yet.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Neminatrix replied gratefully. He was silent for a moment, and then he said, “What about Admiral Termaina?” The sergeant shook his head resignedly. “Dammit,” Neminatrix snarled. There was another pause, and then he asked, “So where are we going?”

“We need to get you out of the Palace, sir,” the sergeant replied. “All communications in the Palace are being jammed, probably by the same people who just barged into the command center. If you’re going to surrender to Valador, we need to get you to a place where you can let them know. And hopefully, once these assassins realize that you’re no longer the Emperor, they won’t be so determined to kill you.” Neminatrix frowned at that, thinking that there were probably a large number of people in the galaxy who would want to kill him regardless of whether he was the Emperor or not.

***

Hana quickly surveyed the remains of the Imperial Palace command center. It was already clear that Neminatrix had eluded them. “Dammit!” she growled. “How did we not know there was a third door out of the command center?”

“It must have been added recently,” Xeliana replied, shaking her head. “It doesn’t show up on any of the schematics we have of the Palace.”

“Well that’s just great,” Hana fumed. “Arcten! We need the power back on, now!” A few seconds later, there was a deep hum and the lights and computer screens flickered back on. “Cailor!” she barked. “I need access to the Palace’s systems! We need to get into their personnel tracking system and find out where Neminatrix is!”

“On it, sir,” Lt. Berain Cailor replied. The hacking specialist for Team Three, he was short and thickly muscled, with a shaved head and a thin, black mustache. He didn’t look like a hacker, but then, hacking was only one of his many talents, just like every member of Starfengt.

“He’s moving through a corridor on level 6, Section D41,” Cailor said after a few minutes. “Looks like he’s headed toward the Throne Room.”

“Then that’s where we’ll trap him,” Hana said decisively. “Echo Two and Four, I am sending a link to the Palace’s personnel tracker. Converge on the Throne Room. We are going to ambush our target there.”

“Understood,” came the response from Arcten and Vedregela. Hana motioned sharply to the members of Team One and Team Three, and they streamed out of the command center, assault rifles at the ready for anything.

Hana’s face was expressionless as she followed them, but inside her emotions were churning. They’d come so close, and then they’d lost him. How could they have let him slip away so quickly? This wasn’t over yet, but even once they’d found Neminatrix again, they still needed to get out of the Palace, and Valador’s troops had arrived now. They were going to have to be quick and quiet to have any chance of survival.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 42

“Echo One to Echo Leaders,” Hana said over the radio. “We are in position. Report in, Echo Leaders.”

“Echo One, this is Echo Two,” replied Arcten. “We are approaching our target. ETA five minutes.

“Echo One, this is Echo Three,” chimed in Xeliana. “We are in position and ready to go on your mark.”

“Echo One, this is Echo Four,” said Vedregela. “We’ve just entered the Palace. Echo Seven is down, repeat, Echo Seven is down.”

“Understood, Four,” Hana replied with a scowl. Echo Seven was Sholin Ilimace, the young man who had told her she was the best just before they’d disembarked. She wondered if he had still thought she was the best in his dying moments. Could a commander who led her team to their deaths in pursuit of personal revenge really be the best? She shook her head and cleared the scowl off her face. Was she going to have these thoughts any time one of her team members was killed? That was a cheery thought. Why would she even assume that any more of them would die?

“Two and Four, report in as soon as you’re in position,” she said, and then she looked at Lotarien. “Now we wait.” He grimaced at her slightly, nodded, and then turned away to watch for threats.

***

“What’s the situation, Admiral?” Neminatrix said, already knowing the answer.

“Not good, Your Majesty,” Admiral Termaina replied, just as he had an hour ago. “Things are crumbling fast. The task force reached Hibellia, and it sounds like they did massive damage, but they haven’t reported in yet. Admiral Tred thinks we’ll never hear from them again, and I’m inclined to agree with her. The military might of Valador’s rebels has been greater than we anticipated thus far. Meanwhile, most of Selorin is in rebel hands. Both the outer and inner defensive rings around the Palace have been breached, and we’re bracing for an assault on the Palace right now.

“I’m also getting the suspicion that some sort of infiltration team has made it inside the Palace itself. Several of our drones in the tunnels have gone dark, and a patrol unit just outside the Palace has failed to report in, and they were scheduled to report before the rebel forces hit the outer defensive ring. There were no rebel forces reported anywhere near the Palace at that point, so either the rebels sent in some sort of elite scout force, or someone else is taking advantage of the situation.”

“So, in other words, we’re screwed,” Neminatrix said with a wry smile. Termaina was silent for a moment, and then he gave a heavy sigh and turned toward Neminatrix slowly. He appeared to have aged ten years since the battle began.

“I hate to say it, but yes,” Termaina said grimly. “We’ve been outmatched at every turn. Despite our best efforts, Valador has soundly beaten us.” Neminatrix opened his mouth to reply, but just then the door of the command center opened and Shala walked in.

“Shala!” Neminatrix exclaimed, fear and anger warring in his expression. “What are you doing here? You were supposed to be on the evac transport!”

“Do you really think I’d run away and abandon you, now of all times?” Shala shot back, her expression determined. “No, my place is here, with you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Neminatrix exclaimed, exasperated. “There is a battle going on here! What do you think you can do to help?”

“You’d be surprised what I’ve picked up from Belfamor over the past decade,” Shala replied. “But-,”

“Even if I were to let you stay,” Neminatrix cut her off, “are you really going to be able to choose between me and the rebels? You’ve sworn loyalty to Valador! Your husband is one of his highest ranking generals! I can’t ask you to choose between your husband and your father.”

“I have no intention of doing so, Father,” Shala said calmly, “because I’m going to ask you to surrender.” There was a long pause while everyone in the room processed this comment.

“Surrender?” Neminatrix finally said in a quiet, dangerous voice. “Did I really just hear you say that?”

“I would never suggest it if there was a possibility you could win,” Shala replied. “But you heard Admiral Termaina. The battle is over. You’ve lost. No matter what you do now, Valador’s forces are going to get in here, and they’re going to capture or kill you, and even if they do capture you, you’ll just be executed for treason. Your only hope of survival now is to abdicate and declare your loyalty to Valador.” There was another pregnant moment of silence after this statement.

“No,” Neminatrix finally said softly, and then he repeated it more firmly. “No! I will not abandon the Throne! I am the rightful Emperor, and I will die the rightful Emperor!”

“Dammit, Father!” Shala snarled, her calm composure suddenly shattering. “I don’t give a slylark’s ass about the Throne! I’ve spent my entire life wishing that you would love me, and now that you finally do, I’m not going to lose you because of politics!” If Shala’s suggestion that Neminatrix surrender had let the air out of the room, this outburst was like opening the airlock on a starship. Nobody moved, nobody even seemed to breathe. It was as if Shala’s desperate anger had smothered the very atmosphere in the command center.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Neminatrix drew a long, deep, breath, and then let it out slowly. “You’re right,” he said quietly. “I’ve spent my entire life worrying about what I want, and putting myself ahead of you. It’s time I started making up for my mistakes.” He smiled then, a weary but joyful smile, as if the burdens of three decades had suddenly fallen off his shoulders. A broad grin lit up Shala’s face, and she opened her mouth to say something, but just then a massive explosion rocked the building, and she had to grab onto a nearby desk to keep from falling over.

“Report!” Neminatrix barked.

“Perimeter breach!” one of the technicians yelled back. “Enemy forces are inside the Palace!”

“Dammit,” Neminatrix growled. “We need to get a message to them. If I’m going to abdicate, then this battle is just a waste of lives and resources. We need to let them know soon, or this day is going to turn into an even bigger disaster than it already is.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 41

Sound and light returned agonizingly slowly to Belfamor’s senses. He groaned and tried to move, but nothing seemed to happen. A wave of panic hit him. Was he paralyzed? Was he being crushed by something massive? He slowly opened his eyes, and shut them tight again as blinding light flooded them. The monotonous buzzing in his ears slowly coalesced into the sounds of explosions and gunfire and men and women screaming in rage and pain. Very carefully he tried to open his eyes again, and realized that the blinding light he was seeing was Meargetal, Trisitania’s sun. It was just past noon, and Meargetal was almost directly overhead. It was a clear summer day in Selorin, aside from the haze of smoke caused by the battle.

The sight of Meargetal in the sky gave Belfamor a small amount of clarity. It had been about an hour before noon when the 3rd Battalion had landed on Trisitania. He’d lost track of time after that, but considering it was only a little over an hour since they’d landed, he couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a few minutes. He tried to move again, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that his body was responding now. So he wasn’t paralyzed or pinned underneath anything.

“General!” a woman’s voice called suddenly. She sounded distant, but Belfamor wasn’t sure if that was because she was distant, or because his head was still fuzzy from the explosion. He groaned and tried to stand up, but movement was still difficult.

“General Hemetal!” the woman called again. Belfamor shook his head in an attempt to clear it

“I’m here!” he said, his voice sounding thick and slow to his ears. There was a sound of someone scrambling over a pile of rubble, and then a woman appeared in Belfamor’s vision.

“General!” she exclaimed, relief evident in her voice. “Thank the One you’re alive! Are you hurt?”

“I think I’m fine,” Belfamor said, shaking his head and trying once again to stand. “I don’t feel any pain.” He rose partway, and then slipped and fell onto his side.

“Let me help you up, sir,” the woman said, grabbing his wrists and guiding him gently but firmly to his feet.

“Thank you, Captain…?” Belfamor said, not knowing the woman’s name.

“Avredai, sir,” she replied. “Leatoreai Avredai. XO, 3rd Battalion.”

“Ah, yes,” Belfamor said with a grimace. “I thought you looked familiar. Apologies for not remembering your name, Captain Avredai.”

“No worries, sir,” Avredai said with a grin. Captain Avredai was a plain-looking woman, average height, with brown hair that was no more than an inch long and brown eyes.  “We both have bigger problems to worry about right now.”

“That we do, Captain,” Belfamor said, looking around. “What’s the situation?”

“We’re bogged down, sir,” Avredai said in a no-nonsense tone. “The enemy’s got barricades at every approach to the Palace. Heavily-fortified, with rocket launchers and mortars. Our vehicles are getting torn apart.”

“So I noticed,” Belfamor said wryly, eyeing the wreckage of his Adralack. “Air support?”

“Negative, sir,” Avredai replied, shaking her head. “Enemy’s got AA guns mounted on all the buildings around the Palace, and on the Palace itself. Any approach by air will get shredded.”

“Any word from Admiral Zomulin?” Belfamor asked.

“Last we heard, the enemy fleet had pulled back and she was resuming offloading operations.” Belfamor pursed his lips and thought for a second.

“Orbital bombardment would make short work of those AA guns, but I’d rather leave Selorin as intact as possible,” he mused. Avredai eyed him critically while he thought, but he ignored her. “Well,” he finally said, “if we can’t go by Adralack, and we can’t go by air, we’ll have to go by foot.”

“Yes, sir,” Avredai said, just barely suppressing her grimace. “I’ll spread the word, sir.”

***

Twenty minutes later, the 3rd Battalion had regrouped and was moving, slowly but steadily, toward the Imperial Palace. Neminatrix’s forces had prepared for an assault by ground vehicles, so they’d set up heavily fortified barricades at every intersection around the Palace, but either they hadn’t anticipated their enemies changing tactics, or they didn’t have enough manpower to do more than that, because they’d left the buildings around the Palace unoccupied. The 3rd Battalion was using that to their advantage, slipping into the buildings and flanking the enemy positions. Using these tactics, the 3rd Battalion was able to smash the outer ring of Neminatrix’s defenses, forcing his troops to abandon their barricades, and retreat to a smaller ring of barricades closer to the Palace.

The second ring of barricades was proving a tougher nut to crack, however. Neminatrix’s troops had learned from their mistakes, and were occupying the buildings immediately surrounding the Imperial Palace as they fell back. Unfortunately for them, they had been forced to abandon much of their air defenses as they withdrew, which gave the 3rd Battalion an opportunity to call in air support for their final push on the Palace.

Belfamor watched from the roof of a nearby building with a satisfied expression on his face as a squadron of MK71 “Venemear” Low Altitude Attack Fighters hovered just out of range of the Imperial Palace’s AA guns and bombed the Nerzaga out of the inner ring of barricades. The Venemear was in the same category of vehicles as the Adralack: only good for one thing, but very, very good at that one thing. In the case of the Venemear, that one thing was attacking ground targets that couldn’t fight back. Venemears were fairly agile, and absolutely loaded with weapons, but on the negative side, they were extremely lightly armored, meaning that they could easily be shot out of the sky with one rocket or missile. But when given adequate protection, they were devastatingly effective at tearing up ground-based fortifications.

“General Hemetal?” said a voice behind him. He turned to look, and saw Captain Avredai coming up the stairs behind him. He acknowledged her with a nod and turned back to watch the Venemears at work. “The Adralacks are ready to roll again, sir. Enemy forces are retreating into the Palace.”

“Excellent, Captain,” Belfamor said with a small, satisfied smile. “Let’s move on then, shall we?”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 40

“Admiral, the rebel fleet has pulled back and tightened their orbit around the planet,” announced the sensor officer in Magnificence’s CIC.

“Good,” Admiral Tred replied. “Order the fleet to stand down from battle stations, but stay on alert. As soon as the task force arrives, we need to go back to battle stations and go on the offensive. In the meantime, have the engineering crews on every ship repair as much damage as they can.” The communications staff in the CIC nodded and began sending messages to the rest of the fleet.

“Admiral, are you sure this is a good idea?” asked her XO in a quiet voice.

“I’m not, but I don’t see that we have any other choice,” Tred replied grimly. “We’re falling apart here, Captain. The rebel commander is better than anyone I’ve ever gone up against, and I can’t seem to do anything to counter her. If we keep going as we’ve been, we’re going to get destroyed. If we pull back and wait for the task force to arrive, at least we’ll be back on equal footing.”

“And in the meantime, the rebels land more troops on the planet’s surface,” her XO said bitterly.

“Which we’ll be able to do something about if we fight off the rebel fleet!” Tred snapped. “But if we keep pushing the rebels and we get destroyed, they’ll be able to land all of their troops with impunity! This is a choice between a slim chance and no chance, Captain.”

“Understood, sir,” the Captain muttered sullenly. “But I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I, Captain,” Tred replied softly. “Neither do I.”

***

Hana and Lotarien continued to creep swiftly through the halls of the Imperial Palace, making their way to the rendezvous point. So far, there still hadn’t been any sign of the battle between the rival Emperors, but that was unlikely to last. Valador’s forces had to be on their way to the Palace at that very moment. With any luck, Starfengt would be able to penetrate to the heart of the Palace and eliminate their target before they arrived. With even more luck, they’d be able to get out before Valador’s forces arrived as well. But that was much less likely.

***

“Targets at 10 o’clock!” yelled the sergeant over the Adralack’s comms.

“Got ‘em!” Belfamor yelled back, swiveling the Adralack’s gun to the left and opening fire. Several of Neminatrix’s soldiers died as bullets ripped through their position, but then the Adralack hit a bump, jostling the gun and causing Belfamor’s aim to go astray just enough to miss the last few targets. “Stay on target, Sergeant!” he barked, annoyed.

“Yes, sir!” the sergeant replied. “Sorry, sir!” Belfamor sighed, momentarily frustrated with himself. It wasn’t the sergeant’s fault that the road was pitted and cratered with combat damage. But there was no time to dwell on this thought. The Adralack swung around a corner and a whole platoon of Neminatrix’s soldiers appeared in Belfamor’s vision. Without a moment’s hesitation, Belfamor opened fire on them. They tried to fight back, but their assault rifles were no match for an Adralack’s armor.

“Rocket!” somebody suddenly screamed. Belfamor’s eyes widened, and he scanned the battlefield rapidly, looking for an enemy soldier with a rocket launcher. Almost immediately, he found his target, and swung the gun around to open fire, but he was too late. The enemy soldier pulled the trigger, a rocket came screaming toward the Adralack, there was an overwhelming blast of sound and light, and then darkness.

***

There was an almost feral gleam in Kryla Zomulin’s eyes as she gazed at the enemy ships highlighted on the display in Decimator’s CIC. They were just sitting there! What were they doing? She had imagined that they wanted her to chase them, but it had been half an hour since they’d withdrawn, and they hadn’t budged, even as Kryla’s fleet had disgorged tens of thousands more soldiers onto Trisitania’s surface. What were they waiting for? Were they clinging desperately to their trap, even though it had obviously failed? Or had Kryla guessed wrong, and they wanted her to ignore them? But what purpose would that serve?

“Admiral, we’re getting a message from Hibellia!” yelled out the communications officer suddenly.

“What?” Kryla replied with a puzzled frown. “Why now? We’re in the middle of a battle here!”

“Yes, Admiral, but I think you’re going to want to hear it anyway,” the communications officer said grimly. Kryla turned toward him slowly, hearing the note of doom in his voice.

“Tell me,” she said firmly.

“Hibellia has been raided,” the communications officer said softly. “By Neminatrix’s forces.” There was a long pause while Kryla digested this information.

“Casualties?” she asked quietly.

“Millions,” the communications officer whispered. There was another, longer pause, and then a look of cold fury appeared on her face.

“Send a message to the fleet,” she snarled. There was a moment, and the comm officer nodded. “All ships, prepare to re-engage the enemy. Enemy reinforcements are expected to arrive shortly. We are going to smash as many enemy ships as we can before they arrive.”

***

“Admiral!” called out the sensor officer in the CIC on Magnificence. “The rebel forces are breaking orbit and headed our way!”

“Dammit,” Tred muttered. “They must have received a message from Hibellia. How did they get anything through our signal jammers?”

“I don’t know, sir,” responded the communications officer. “I still haven’t received any messages from the task force.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Tred said, dismissing disturbing thoughts from her mind. “All ships, prepare to re-engage the enemy! We need to hold out until the task force arrives, and then we can turn the tide. Let’s do this! For the Empire!”

“For the Empire!” came the chorus of responses from around the CIC. Tred was glad for their enthusiasm, but personally she didn’t think there was any hope left for the 7th Fleet. The fact that the rebels on Hibellia had managed to get a message to their fleet, but the task force hadn’t sent any kind of update to her did not bode well. Tred didn’t want to say this out loud, but she didn’t think there was much chance that the task force was coming.

To be continued…