To Break the Galaxy, Part 1

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.

A Moment of Unrest, Part 8

Summer Wind and the rest of the ships in the Imperial Fleet glided silently through the dust and debris left behind by the Fangalin fleet. Belatras stood on the observation deck, gazing thoughtfully at what had once been a mighty armada. He still wasn’t sure whether their commander had been brave, reckless, or just plain stupid, but it didn’t really matter anymore.

After the two Starfortresses exploded, Belatras had been sure that the rest of the Fangalin fleet would drop into subspace and escape. That’s certainly what he would have done. No point in throwing your life and the lives of your people away when there is no chance of victory. But, some people felt that there was honor in fighting until the bitter end. Either that or their commander was stupid.

In a way, it was good that they hadn’t fled. Three entire Battlegroups, and part of a fourth, were gone now, and Fangalin would feel that loss, for sure. But it had cost him too. Five destroyers, three cruisers, and a battleship had succumbed before the fight was over. Nine ships total, along with their crews, and they would all still be alive if the Fangalin commander had been less honorable and/or stupid.

But there was no point in fixating on the dead. They were gone, and no amount of second-guessing would bring them back. It was better to focus on the positive. And there was a great deal of positive. 39 Imperial ships survived the battle. 56 Fangalin ships did not. And the general commanding the Fangalin ground troops had surrendered, thus sparing the lives of thousands of soldiers on both sides. All in all, things probably couldn’t have gone much better.

The failure of those two Nexus drives troubled him, though. It was an article of faith that Nexus drives were nearly infallible and perfectly safe. What if that wasn’t true? What if galactic civilization had just been unbelievably lucky over the past thousand years? An investigation would have to be carried out. Maybe it was just a colossal coincidence. Maybe. But it would be better to be sure.

***

On a small, grassy hill in a sunlit clearing a few miles outside Parnaval, the capital city of the Imperial province of Cortaris, two cloaked and hooded figures looked up at the sky and admired their handiwork. One of the figures was a woman, young-looking and strikingly beautiful, with intense brown eyes that were so dark they were almost black. Her companion was a man, his lined face grim and hard, with long silver hair flowing out from under his hood. They had been standing there for some time without speaking, just watching the battle between Fangalin and the Empire. Well, not just watching. They had participated as well. The man was the first to break the silence.

“You do realize, Meshara, that what we have done breaks nearly every precept of our order,” he said in a deep voice. The woman, Meshara, smiled slightly.

“You say that every time, Colaven,” she responded.

“I say it every time, because every time I am unsure that you are aware of the gravity of what we are doing,” he said with a frown, “If the others catch wind of this, we will be punished severely. We cannot allow our existence to become known to outsiders.” The smile left Meshara’s face and she sighed.

“I understand that,” she said, “But I also understand that preserving the Empire is more important than preserving the secret of our existence. Besides, no one will trace what happened here back to us.” Colaven’s eyes widened slightly as he looked at her.

“How can you be so sure?” he asked, incredulous, “Nexus drives do not rupture easily. Surely the fact we ruptured these two will look highly suspicious.” Meshara sighed again and ignored his stare.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “Even if anybody figures out that something unusual happened, they’ll never be able to figure out exactly what happened.”

“Are you so sure?” he said, “The people of the Empire still tell stories about you. The great hero of the First War, Meshara the Wild. What do you think would happen if somebody linked these events to those stories?”

“Why would they?” she said with a grin, “Those stories are just legends, now. Nobody really believes that the First War actually happened. It was thousands of years ago. Besides, if you were really so concerned about what I’m doing, you would be turning me in.”

“And implicate myself in your crimes?” he said drily, “No thanks. And in any case, I believe that what you are doing is right. I agree with you that the Empire must be preserved. I just don’t want to to get caught by members of our order who have… different priorities.” Meshara shook her head ruefully.

“The fools,” she said contemptuously, “What does it matter if we’re discovered if the Empire crumbles in the process?”

“Well, I suppose they would say that the Empire is doing just fine without us,” Colaven responded.

“But it’s not, of course,” Meshara said, “The Empire would have been swallowed up by Fangalin hundreds of years ago if we hadn’t intervened.”

“I know that,” Colaven said, “and you know that. But they don’t know that. And it needs to stay that way.” Meshara sighed once again.

“Fine,” she said, “No more rupturing Nexus drives. The sad part is, I’m not entirely sure it was necessary. The Fangalin commander really didn’t seem to have any idea what he was doing.”

“And you wonder why I worry about your recklessness,” Colaven said. Meshara flashed a mischievous grin.

“Oh, Colaven,” she laughed, “That is exactly your problem. You worry too much. You need to just trust me. I’ve got this all figured out.” Colaven smiled warmly.

“Of course I trust you,” he said, “Would I be here if I didn’t trust you?” Meshara laughed again, and then the two of them were gone, leaving behind nothing but the sound of the wind rustling through the trees.

The End

A Moment of Unrest, Part 7

Admiral Fenjeelin thought he had been angry when he first heard about Captain Soromine’s plans, but by the time his shuttle got into orbit, he was positively seething. Just as he suspected, two more Imperial Battlegroups had dropped out of subspace as soon as Soromine took the bait. Now one Battlegroup had fled, and Fenjeelin didn’t blame its commander for her decision. She had been placed in a terrible situation.

Now the Imperial Fleet was disgorging thousands of dropships to the planet’s surface in order to reinforce the ground troops that had been fighting the Grand and Invincible Army of Fangalin for the past five years. Even if the Imperial Fleet could be fought off at this point, the siege of Cortaris just got a lot more difficult.

“Admiral,” said the shuttle’s pilot, “We are approaching the fleet, but it’s nearly encircled by Imperial forces. What do you want me to do, sir?”

“Make your way through, Sergeant,” Fenjeelin responded, “Whatever it takes. I will not abandon my fleet.”

***

Admiral Lomeur stood on the bridge of Summer Wind and watched the displays without any expression on her face. So far everything had gone according to plan. Her hit-and-run tactics had managed to keep all but one of the ships in the 18th Battlegroup intact, and she had just received word that the 17th and the 3rd had forced the one Fangalin Battlegroup orbiting Cortaris to retreat and had launched their dropships. Now all that was left was to crush the rest of the Fangalin forces, or at least make them retreat.

She turned and looked at the Emperor. He was standing with his arms folded, his face just as expressionless as hers, with one difference: his eyes glowed with a violent light. Nobody was more passionate about destroying Fangalin than Belatras. In a way, it was almost disturbing. She was just glad that she was on his side.

“The 17th and the 3rd report that they are in position, your majesty,” Lomeur said.

“Excellent,” Belatras responded. His voice was quiet, but it almost seemed to quiver with emotion. “Commence Phase 3.” Lomeur gave the orders to her crew, and then returned to watching the displays.

“You’ve done well, Admiral,” the Emperor said in that same soft-but-powerful voice, “Your tactics have kept us alive. Now you need to go in for the kill.” Lomeur nodded, her face as expressionless as before, but now the light in her eyes mirrored that of her Emperor.

***

Captain Soromine took a deep breath as he tried to ignore the sweat pouring down his face. Things were not turning out at all like he expected. He had lost an entire Battlegroup, and now his remaining forces were encircled. He realized now that he’d made at least two fatal errors, and he was highly uncertain of his ability to salvage the situation. He was, in fact, starting to panic.

“Status update!” he barked.

“We’ve lost five destroyers and a cruiser,” responded Commander Borodeim. “And we’ve only managed to kill two destroyers.” He gestured to a display showing the position of the forces on both sides. “Three cruisers and seven destroyers are heading for this position. If they reach it, we will be completely encircled, and our only way to retreat will be to drop into subspace.” Which meant abandoning the siege. Soromine took another deep breath.

“Have Mountain cut them off,” he ordered, “If we get encircled, then we’re finished.” Borodeim nodded and gave the order. Just then, Radiant lurched violently and an alarm began blaring.

“Report!” screamed Soromine.

Mountain and Sapphire are gone, sir!” yelled an ensign. Soromine’s jaw dropped.

“Gone!” he exclaimed, “What do you mean, ‘gone’?”

“I mean they no longer exist, sir!” the ensign responded, “There was an explosion inside both ships. I think their Nexus drives ruptured!”

“HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE!” Soromine bellowed. Mountain and Sapphire were both Starfortresses, the core of a Battlegroup. With them gone, Radiant was the only Starfortress left under Soromine’s command.

Soromine stood still, staring at the shocked faces of all the officers and crew on the bridge of Radiant. He knew his face looked just as shocked as theirs. In one fell swoop, Fangalin’s chances of victory in this battle had gone from slim to nonexistent.

***

On the bridge of Summer Wind, the general reaction was just as stunned as on board Radiant. Belatras had never seen anything like it. Nexus drives were incredibly stable. Ruptures only happened once every hundred years or so. And now two had happened at virtually the same time. All Belatras could think was that he was fated to win this battle.

“Your majesty, we have the Fangalin fleet encircled,” Admiral Lomeur said, a hint of bewilderment in her voice.

“Very good, Admiral,” Belatras responded. He was a little surprised to hear that his voice was steady. “Now finish them off.” Fate had given them this opportunity, but it was up to them to take advantage of it.

***

Admiral Fenjeelin’s pilot had managed to evade the Imperial forces surrounding the Fangalin fleet, but the sight of Mountain and Sapphire spontaneously exploding had almost completely unnerved him. For that matter, Fenjeelin himself felt like he was having a hard time holding on to his sanity. How could such a thing happen?

Whatever the cause, the battle was over. There was no way Fangalin could fight off the Empire now, short two Starfortresses. He hoped for the sake of his fleet that Soromine had the sense to escape into subspace, even though that would almost certainly mean his own death or capture, as his shuttle lacked a Nexus drive. Unfortunately, Soromine hadn’t shown any indication of possessing any sense yet, and Fenjeelin didn’t expect him to start now.

He was startled out of his thoughts by a scream from his pilot, and he just had time to register the alarm signaling an approaching missile before the shuttle erupted into flames. There was a horrible, all-encompassing roar of sound, and then nothing but dust and silence.

To be continued…

A Moment of Unrest, Part 6

There was silence on the bridge of Summer Wind as the 18th Battlegroup dropped out of subspace near Cortaris. To Belatras, it felt as if everyone in the fleet was holding their breath. This was the most crucial part of the operation. If the Fangalin fleet didn’t commit all, or at least most, of their strength to intercepting the 18th, the operation would have to be aborted. The Imperial Fleet simply didn’t have the numbers to go toe-to-toe with Fangalin. They needed to fall for the bait.

“Report,” Belatras said quietly after a few minutes. There was more silence for a moment, and then a lieutenant responded.

“Sensors indicate that three Fangalin Battlegroups are headed this way, your majesty,” she said. A palpable sense of relief swept through the officers on the bridge. Belatras smiled slightly.

“Inform the 17th and the 3rd to commence Phase Two,” he ordered. The battle was not won yet, not by a long shot, but at least now they had a chance.

***

Captain Allemay Mosevin, commanding officer of the Fangalin Starfortress Triumph, was feeling grim. She had just received frustrating orders from Captain Soromine. He expected her to hold the siege with one Battlegroup while he fought off an Imperial Battlegroup with the rest of the fleet. It was a risky, and in Mosevin’s opinion, unnecessary, gamble. If the Imperial Battlegroup was really alone, three Battlegroups would utterly obliterate it. But two would as well. And the same logic applied to Mosevin’s Battlegroup.

“Are we picking up anything on the sensors yet?” she asked her officers. A lieutenant shook his head.

“No, sir,” he said, “Everything is clear.” Captain Mosevin began to relax slightly, and then the lieutenant spoke again.

“Wait,” he said, and hesitated. “I’m picking up multiple contacts, Captain. Looks like…at least two Imperial Battlegroups!” Mosevin swore, and then started barking orders.

“Full alert!” she yelled, “Move into attack formation! Hold them off at all costs! And send a message to Captain Soromine! Tell him that we need help, now!” There was still a chance that the siege could be maintained, but it all depended on how quickly Soromine admitted his mistake and adapted to these changed circumstances.

***

Captain Soromine was somewhat less pleased than he had been when the Imperial Fleet first showed up. The Empire was failing to be decimated by his superior might, and it was somewhat…annoying. Rather than trying to break through his forces and reach the planet, like he expected, the Imperial ships kept darting near his fleet and then backing off a little farther before they could be engaged. It was exasperating. He wished the Imperials would stand and fight like men.

“Captain Soromine!” yelled out one of the crew.

“What is it, Ensign?” Soromine growled.

“We’ve just received a message from the Triumph!” the ensign exclaimed, “Captain Mosevin is requesting assistance! Two more Imperial Battlegroups have dropped out of subspace and are engaging her forces!” Soromine’s eyes widened in shock and he swore loudly.

“Tell Captain Mosevin to hold her ground!” he screamed, “We’ll get to her when we take care of the first Battlegroup!” The ensign nodded to him and began sending the message, but Captain Vesketar rounded on him.

“We’ll do WHAT?” she bellowed, “Are you out of your mind? That’s exactly what the Empire wants us to do! They’ll have ripped Triumph to shreds before we can deal with this Battlegroup! And then they’ll come after us! We need to take advantage of our superior numbers!”

“Captain Vesketar, you are relieved of duty,” Soromine announced coldly, “Commander Borodeim is now commanding officer of the Radiant. Captain, I suggest you retire to your quarters.”

“I will do no such thing,” Vesketar responded, just as coldly, “You are leading this ship and this fleet to ruin, and I will not stand by while it happens. I am placing you under arrest. MPs!” The two MPs stationed at the entrance to the bridge approached, but hesitated, waiting to see how Soromine would react. Soromine stared at Vesketar with a blank expression on his face.

“So,” he finally said in a soft voice, “you would stoop to mutiny. I don’t know that I would have believed it of you.”

“I’m not the one carrying out mutiny, Soromine,” Vesketar said firmly, “You know better than I that Admiral Fenjeelin would not approve of your strategy.” That name set Soromine off. His eyes widened and his face went pale.

“Fenjeelin isn’t here!” he screamed, “I am in command of this fleet, and you are under arrest! MPs! Get her out of my sight!” The MPs rushed to obey, grabbing Vesketar by the arms and escorting her off of the bridge.

Soromine stared after her with wide eyes, breathing heavily. Then he realized that every officer on the bridge was staring at him.

“What are you staring at?” he yelled, “Get to work!” Quickly everyone averted their gaze and returned to their duty.

***

Things were going poorly on board Triumph. Half of the ships in Mosevin’s command had been destroyed, and her forces had only managed one kill of their own. In addition, Triumph itself was badly damaged and would not be able to withstand much more punishment. Mosevin was not one for prayer, but if she had been, she would have prayed her heart out that reinforcements arrived soon. Instead, she got more bad news.

“Captain!” yelled a lieutenant, “We just received a response from Radiant!”

“Well?” Mosevin snapped, “Where are our reinforcements?”

“Not coming, sir,” the lieutenant responded, “Captain Soromine has ordered us to hold our ground until he deals with the first Imperial Battlegroup.” Mosevin was stunned. Had Soromine gone insane?

“Sir?” said her XO, “What are your orders?” Mosevin thought to herself for a second, then nodded decisively.

“Retreat,” she said.

“What?” said her XO, stunned, “But Captain Soromine ordered us to hold our ground! If we retreat, the siege will be broken!”

“If we hold our ground, we will die and the siege will still be broken,” Mosevin said, “Sometimes, you have to know when to live to fight another day.” She turned to her navigation officer. “Drop into subspace and set a course for Hechelen. And order the rest of the Battlegroup to follow. We’re done here.”

To be continued…