Wellin Votara was hunkered down behind a twisted piece of steel, rifle clutched tightly in his sweaty hands, trying not to think about death. On the other side of his refuge, Imperial guns were blazing away at his position, trying to flush out him and his squad. Votara and his fellow soldiers had been there for over four hours, fighting a losing battle against a numerically superior and better-equipped force. There had been fifty men in Votara’s unit four hours ago.
The problem wasn’t just that Votara and his men were outmanned and outgunned. They had nowhere to retreat to either. They were trapped in a narrow valley, with sheer walls on three sides. The fourth side was open, but 200 Imperial troops occupied that side. Votara’s lieutenant had requested air support as soon as the Empire attacked their position, but they had so far gotten no response.
They weren’t likely to get a response now. The lieutenant in charge of the unit was dead, and Votara, the highest ranked surviving member of the unit, didn’t know the proper authorization codes to make contact with Command. Not that it mattered. Everybody at Command was probably dead by now anyway. Votara wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that he and his twenty men were the only ones alive still fighting for the Nether.
Wellin Votara was 24 years old, and had been part of the Army of the Dark, the military arm of the Nether, ever since he was 15. The Nether had been desperate for manpower since the very beginning of the war, and they would take anybody they could get their hands on, regardless of age, gender, or fitness for combat. Votara had fought in many battles over the past nine years, and he didn’t fear pain or death, but he didn’t want to die either. He didn’t fear these things, and yet his hands got sweaty every time he fought. It was odd.
“Sergeant!” called out a young man, “What are we gonna do, sir? I don’t want to die here!” Votara couldn’t see the man’s face through the visor of his helmet, but he knew who it was. It was a private named Mektemar Felnen. His parents had been farmers on this planet, a colony called Nutralids. They had died last year when the Empire first attacked, and their son had joined the Army of the Dark. He was a good soldier, but still green.
“We’re gonna hold our ground until air support arrives, Felnen!” Votara snapped. “If you don’t want to die, then stay in cover and keep shooting!” Felnen nodded and ducked down as a shell exploded over his head. Votara knew he needed to say things like that to keep up the morale of his men, but he didn’t believe it himself. He knew there was no air support coming. He knew they were all going to die.
Votara didn’t want to die, though. He accepted that death was going to come for him someday, and he knew that he had cheated death many times in the past nine years, but none of that meant he wasn’t going to cling to life with all of his might. He prayed a quick prayer to the Dark Presence, the Being whom all member of the Nether worshipped.
And the Dark Presence answered. The Imperial guns stopped suddenly, and a deep silence settled over the valley. Votara’s men looked at him, hope and fear visibly warring on their faces.
“Quiet,” Votara ordered in a whisper, “It could be a trap.” Then a strong voice rang out from beyond the barricade.
“Hey!” yelled the voice, “Are any of you idiots still alive in there?” Votara looked around at his men. They looked as puzzled as he felt. He decided to reply with sarcasm.
“Nope,” he yelled back, “We’re all dead. There’s nothing but ghosts in here.”
“Very funny,” the voice responded, “Well, we’ve got some news for you ghosts. Your commanders just surrendered to ours, so the war is over. There’s no backup coming for you now, so you can lay down your guns, come out with your hands up, and live. Or you can keep on fighting, and throw your lives away needlessly. It’s your choice. We’ll give you twenty minutes to decide.” The voice ceased, and an eerie silence settled over the valley. Votara and his men stared at each other.
“Well,” said Felnen, “What do we do now? Sarge?” Votara remained silent. He wasn’t quite sure what to do. On one hand, as a soldier of the Army of the Dark, he had sworn an oath to destroy the Empire. It was a mission he believed in, a mission he would die to carry out. But on the other hand, his death here, in this Darkness-forsaken valley in a backwater colony on the edge of inhabited space, was not likely to have any effect on the Empire one way or another. In the end, it was an easy decision.
“We surrender,” Votara said. Felnen nodded, and then turned to the rest of the squad.
“Lay down your arms,” he yelled. Votara expected to see some anger about his decision, but instead everyone seemed resigned and even a little relieved. On further reflection, Votara wondered why this would surprise him. Everyone in the Army of the Dark knew that this day was coming. Ever since that horrible incident on Trifelimoor, the end of the Nether was inevitable.
“We’re coming out!” Votara yelled to the Imperial soldiers. “We’re unarmed!” He stood up with his hands over his head, and slowly walked past the barricade that he and his men had been sheltering behind. Five Imperial soldiers immediately descended on him and bound his wrists behind his back. He watched impassively as the rest of his squad followed and were bound as well. He wasn’t surprised that the Imperials didn’t trust them not to pull hidden weapons. There was little love lost on either side of this war.
As the Imperials marched him and his men to a waiting transport ship, Votara began to reflect. The war was over now, but he still had a mission to carry out. The failure of the Nether changed nothing. He had not sworn his oath to the Nether, but to the Presence Itself. And he would fulfill his oath. The Empire would fall. Or he would die. It was as simple as that.