Terrible Shadow, Part 10

For two days, Embamor Etralis stayed in his quarters, drinking and staring at the wreckage of the Senate Hall. He refused to allow anyone in to see him, and he also ignored the many messages he was receiving from other military officers throughout the Empire. He was monitoring the news, but none of it was good. A terrorist organization called Fangalin was claiming responsibility for the attack on the Hall, and it seemed that they had also seized several provinces and were launching attacks on others. The Imperial Fleet was fighting back, but the resistance was scattered and half-hearted. Most of the senior commanders had been in the Senate Hall, and so there was no one coordinating the Fleet’s response. To make matters worse, several units had defected to Fangalin, and others had been sabotaged by Fangalin infiltrators.

As far as General Etralis could tell, the Empire was rapidly crumbling. The burnt-out crater where the Senate Hall had stood was a prophecy of where the Empire as a whole was headed. It was a concept that the old General could barely wrap his mind around. Just a few days ago, the Empire had seemed mighty and everlasting, but now that facade had been blown away, and the real Empire was revealed to be corrupt and hollow.

General Etralis felt like he needed to do something about it, but he was scared to admit to himself what that thing might be. The Empire needed a leader, somebody to take firm command of a rapidly deteriorating situation, and Etralis was afraid that that leader might have to be him. Etralis had no interest in sacrificing himself for the good of the people. He had always lived for himself, first and foremost. But he also recognized that if the Empire fell, the good life that he’d built for himself would disappear as well. From what little Etralis knew about Fangalin, it was apparent that they were a much more disciplined and controlled organization than the Empire had been recently, and it seemed unlikely that he could apply his talent for making and exploiting connections in a galaxy ruled by them.

Over the past two days, then, despite the prodigious amounts of alcohol he’d consumed, his course was becoming increasingly clear to him. In order to save his luxuriously debauched life, he would need to save the Empire. And in order to save the Empire, he would have to become something he’d never been, and had never wanted to be: a level-headed and decisive leader. He would take over the throne, become the Emperor, deal with the Fangalin threat, and once that was done, he would retire to one of his many country estates and go back to pickling himself in whiskey.

Having come to a decision, he drained his glass and unsteadily rose to his feet. He went to his liquor cabinet and took out the last bottle that remained after the past two days. He took a long, deep pull from it, and then took it to the sink in his bathroom and dumped it out. If he was going to be the Emperor that he needed to be, he was going to have to stop drinking.

That done, he wobbled over to the door, which opened automatically at his approach. Two guards stood there, surprised looks on their faces, which they quickly erased as they saluted the General.

“Get me Lieutenant Aganar,” Etralis slurred. One of the guards nodded sharply and began speaking into his headset, and the General stumbled back into his room and slumped down in his recliner, worn out from even that little bit of effort. A few minutes later, Aganar entered the room and saluted sharply.

“At ease, Lieutenant,” Etralis slurred wearily. Aganar relaxed very slightly. “I want you to be very frank with me, Aganar. I know that I have never been the type of commander who invites criticism, but I want you to put all that aside right now. Tell me what you think of me, as a person and a general. Be as harsh as you feel you need to be.” Aganar frowned, suspecting some sort of trap. Embamor Etralis had always been one who reacted excessively to even the slightest criticism or correction. He had even been known to demote soldiers for pointing out obvious yet critical errors.

On the other hand, Aganar had seen a lot in the past two days. In the absence of leadership from the top, Aganar had taken command of the clean-up operations at the Senate Hall. The devastation he had witnessed had changed him, and now he wondered why he had ever feared this dried-up husk of a man. He decided to throw caution to the wind.

“Well, sir,” he said, “I think that you are a lazy drunk who puts his own wants above the needs of those he commands and above the needs of the Empire. I also believe that you are a spineless manipulator who pretends to be a tough guy but then cowers in his room drinking whiskey when trouble happens.” He closed his mouth suddenly, afraid that he may have gone too far. Etralis just looked at him, his face expressionless. Then a small smile appeared and he chuckled.

“I knew there was a reason I liked you, Ven,” he said, chuckling even more at the shocked look on Aganar’s face, “You hit the nail on the head. I am everything you said and more, and I make no apologies for who I am. I’ve never seen any reason to care about anybody but myself, and I see no reason to start now.” Aganar frowned and opened his mouth to reply to this, but Etralis cut him off. “Unfortunately for me, a crumbling Empire is not compatible with my chosen lifestyle. Therefore, I have made the decision to put my wants and needs aside, and lead the Empire against these terrorists until the threat is destroyed. Then I will retire to one of my estates and drink to my heart’s content. What do you think about that?”

“I think that’s…um…admirable, I guess. Sir. But I have my doubts that you can pull it off,” Aganar said.

“So do I, my boy,” Etralis said, “But I don’t really have any choice, do I?”

To be continued…

Terrible Shadow, Part 9

Embamor Etralis was standing on the balcony outside of his quarters in the Imperial Palace. From where he was standing, he had a fantastic view of the city of Selorin, the capital city of the Trisitanian Empire. Selorin was an ancient but vibrant city. Selorin was born along with the Empire itself, founded by the first Emperor, Malador, in the aftermath of the titanic struggle known as the First War. Selorin had been the heart of the Empire since the very beginning, when the Empire encompassed no more than the planet of Trisitania itself. Everywhere General Etralis looked, brand-new technological and architectural masterpieces like the 220-story Trident Center intermingled with ancient and venerable buildings like the Senate Hall and the Hall of Lords. For all his cynicism and apathy, the skyline of Selorin was a sight that never ceased to amaze him.

The building that occupied most of his attention was the Senate Hall, for obvious reasons. The deliberations for choosing the new Emperor had begun several hours ago, and were expected to last for a few weeks. Every candidate was given the opportunity to make his or her case to the Senate, and there were no time limits on how long candidates could speak. Once a full round of speeches was finished, the Senate would decide whether or not to move on to voting on the candidates. If a majority of senators voted not to move on, each candidate would give another speech. If a majority of the senators did vote to move on, each senator would then cast a vote for their preferred candidate. Once all the votes were tallied, the candidate with the least votes would be removed from consideration, and the cycle would begin again, until there was only one candidate left.

This process had been consciously designed to be very deliberate. The last time the throne had been vacant, there were no set principles in place to choose a new Emperor, aside from the law that said the Senate was to do the choosing. The result was that no candidate received a majority of the votes, and the two leading candidates ended up going to war to decide the matter. Ever since then, the Senate had been determined to make sure such a result was no longer possible. There would be no ambiguity over who won this election.

General Etralis had a live feed set up so he could view the deliberations from the comfort of the Palace, but he wasn’t particularly interested in listening to speeches. He didn’t need to make up his mind about who he wanted to win. He was afraid that he had backed the wrong horse, though. Hesha Vorlan’s support had grown under his influence, but not nearly enough to overtake Shayban Drahzen’s. He had known the risks though. The best case scenario if he’d supported Drahzen was that he’d maintain what he already had. By supporting Vorlan, he had a chance to gain so much more. And if she lost, then he would retire. That wouldn’t be such a terrible prospect at this point in his life.

These thoughts were swirling in his head when he realized that something was wrong. He felt a strange sensation, almost as if reality itself was being twisted and warped. He stared at the Senate Hall, because that’s where the sensation seemed to be emanating from. Suddenly, he realized that something was indeed very wrong. The Senate Hall was collapsing.

He stared at the sight of the massive and ancient building crumbling into dust with his mouth hanging wide open. Then there was a blinding flash, and he closed his eyes and threw up his arm to shield himself. A split second later, he was thrown backwards into his bedroom as a massive shockwave erupted from the Senate Hall. His head bounced off the floor as he landed, but fortunately the impact was softened by the thick carpet that covered the floor. He lay there for a second, blind and deaf from the explosion, and slowly shook his head to clear it. Then, as sight and hearing returned to him, he slowly got up and moved back toward the balcony.

What he saw appalled him. The Senate Hall was gone. In its place was a massive crater, and a gigantic mushroom cloud billowing up over the city. The buildings surrounding where the Hall had been were severely damaged as well. In fact, the Trident Center, the second tallest building on the planet, after the Imperial Palace itself, looked as if it were in danger of collapsing. Etralis stood there, shocked and appalled by the devastation, for several minutes, unable to process what was going on.

Just then, Lieutenant Ven Aganar rushed into his quarters. He ran up to the General, and then stopped, staring in horror at the same sight that had Etralis immobilized. Then he shook his head and looked up at Etralis.

“General Etralis!” he said, saluting, “The Legion of the Heart awaits your orders!” Etralis just stood there, staring in numb horror at the mushroom cloud that towered even over the Imperial Palace itself. Finally, after a long moment, he slowly turned to face Aganar and just stared at him.

“Sir?” Aganar said, tentatively, “Do you have any orders, sir?” But the General didn’t respond. He couldn’t respond. His brain was paralyzed by the shock of what he’d just witnessed. Aganar just stood there, feeling ever more foolish with every passing moment. Finally, he decided to take the initiative.

“Do you want the Legion to sweep the Palace and make sure there aren’t any more bombs hidden here?” he asked. The General continued to stare at him, and then, painfully slowly, he nodded his head once. Aganar quickly saluted and rushed out of the room, unsure whether he was more eager to get away from the sight of the ruined Senate Hall or the sight of the shell-shocked General.

Etralis went back to staring at the mushroom cloud after Aganar left. There were no thoughts in his addled brain. Everything in his world had just been turned completely upside down. He had no frame of reference for dealing with a tragedy like this, so he did nothing but stare at it.

After about a half an hour, a thought did occur to him. He turned away from the apocalyptic scene in front of him, went to his dresser, and pulled out his trusty flask of whiskey. Then he took a long, deep drink from it, and went and sat in his favorite plush recliner. And there he sat, staring at the mushroom cloud and waiting to see if any other thoughts came to him.

To be continued…

Terrible Shadow, Part 8

Ahsken Lorovic stood up slowly, with his hands over his head. Shen Lodoria followed his lead. Both of them had dropped their guns on the floor. Several of the ISS officers with Dren Folmor rushed over and pushed them up against the wall and began searching through their pockets.

“Found it!” called out one of them as he pulled the detonator out of Lorovic’s coat pocket.

“Good, good,” Folmor responded, rubbing his chubby hands together, “Well, that’s one crisis taken care of. Really, Lorovic, what in the world were you thinking? Did you really think you could blow up the Senate Hall without anyone noticing? You’re either stupid or crazy. Or both.”

“How did you find out?” Lorovic said calmly. The ISS officers had let him go, but they made sure to keep their assault rifles trained on him, in case he tried anything.

“Oh, it was pretty easy, actually,” Folmor replied with a greasy chuckle, “You’ve always played the straight man around here, but you’ve never been afraid to get your hands dirty with politics when you needed to. Except in the past few days, you haven’t. You didn’t show up for our meeting about keeping Senator Drahzen off of the throne, and then I heard that Drahzen asked you to keep some senators out of the Hall this morning, and you said you would, and you didn’t. That seemed odd to me, cause for all of your failings, you’ve always been a man of your word, so I decided to do some digging. I noticed that you had changed the security code on this storage closet that hasn’t been used in 500 years, so I decided to get some men together and come down here and see what was going on. It was just a happy coincidence that we arrived about the same time as you did.”

“It certainly seems as if you took care of every detail, Folmor,” Lorovic said, his voice still perfectly calm. “You did miss one important thing, though.”

“Oh yeah?” Folmor asked with a sneer, “What’s that?” Lorovic took a deep breath. He didn’t want to have to do this, but he had no choice. His orders had been crystal clear. Detonating the bomb took precedence over all other considerations, even his own life and the lives of his men. He fixed Folmor with an iron stare, and Folmor involuntarily took a step back, despite the fact that Lorovic was unarmed and he had twenty men with assault rifles pointed at him.

Suddenly, Lorovic lunged forward with his hands outstretched, acting like he was going for Folmor’s throat. Before he made it more than a few steps, several assault rifles fired, and Lorovic collapsed, his body riddled with bullets. Lodoria cried out, ran to Lorovic and knelt down beside him. He picked up Lorovic’s head and cradled it in his arms. Lorovic was still alive, but barely. His breath came in wheezing gasps, and when he opened his mouth to speak, it came out in a whisper that everybody in the room had to strain to hear.

“The important detail you missed,” he struggled to say, “is that the bomb is linked to my biometrics. The moment I die, that bomb will go off.” There was a stunned silence from the ISS officers, and then Lorovic looked right at Lodoria, who had tears streaming down his face. “Sergeant, you know what to do.” Lodoria nodded, and then, before anyone could stop him, he grasped Lorovic’s head and swiftly broke his neck.

***

Senator Shayban Drahzen was in a better mood now, but only slightly. Things could still go against him, and badly, but the overall vibe in the vast and extravagant Senate Hall seemed to be trending in favor of his election. Hesha Vorlan gave a long, impassioned speech about freedom and justice and other vaguely positive things, but its main effect seemed to be to bore everyone present. Another candidate, the provincial governor of Parnora, was giving a speech now, but hardly anyone was paying attention to her. Everyone there knew that the throne would be won by either Drahzen or Vorlan. The other candidates were basically just going through the motions.

Suddenly, Drahzen felt an odd sensation, a sort of warping or tearing, as if the very fabric of reality was being ripped apart. A confused look came over his face, and, looking around the Hall, he noticed that other people seemed to be sensing it as well. The governor’s speech faltered, and she fell silent, but nobody seemed to notice, as they were all looking around, trying to figure out what was going on.

The only sound in the Hall was the low rumble of thousands of people talking quietly, asking each other if they felt the same thing. Then, one by one, everyone in the Hall fell silent, as they began to realize that there was another sound, low at first but quickly growing in volume. This sound was a different kind of rumbling, almost like an earthquake, but not quite.

All of a sudden, the sound got much louder, and the walls began to crumble. Immediately, everyone in the Hall realized that something very bad was happening, and full scale panic set in. Almost everyone gathered jumped out of their seats and began scrambling for the exits, pushing and shoving and crushing each other in their desperation to escape the dying Hall.

The one exception was Shayban Drahzen. Several years ago, as a member of the Military Appropriations Committee, he had been present at a test of a Nexus rupturing bomb. The warping feeling he was experiencing right now was the same that he had felt then. It was the sensation of the Nexus, the very lifeforce of the universe, being torn apart. He hadn’t recognized it at first, because it had been so long, but once the walls started to collapse, he knew what was going on.

There was no escape. He sat stoically in his seat because there was no reason to do anything else. All he could think was that all of his hard work, all of his sweat, his tears, the people whose lives and careers he had destroyed to further his own plans, everything he had done to sit on the Imperial Throne, was for nothing. He had failed at the one great ambition of his life. He thought he would be angry about that, but strangely, in this moment, waiting for death, it didn’t really seem to matter.

To be continued…

Terrible Shadow, Part 7

“All is ready, Captain,” said Shen Lodoria. He was Ahsken Lorovic’s chief assistant, both in the ISS and in Fangalin. He was in his early 30s, and short, with close-cropped black hair and a short mustache. Despite his lack of height, there wasn’t an ounce of fat on his frame. He moved like a leopard, quick and powerful. His family had been close to Lorovic’s for many years, and their relationship was akin to father-and-son, despite the fact that they were fairly close in age.

“Excellent, Lieutenant,” Lorovic replied, returning Lodoria’s salute. They were in Lorovic’s office in the Senate Hall. All morning long, Lorovic had been getting ready to leave his office for the last time. He had to leave most of his things behind, because it would be too suspicious if he cleaned out his office, but he had managed to pack a few small, especially meaningful items. Strangely, even though his position was just a cover, he felt like he would miss this office once it was gone. He’d been Director of Security for the Senate for five years, and aside from the politics, he’d enjoyed the work. But it was time to move on to bigger and better things.

He stood up and motioned for Lodoria to follow him. It was time to leave. He would go down to the lower levels and arm the bomb, and then once he and the other Fangalin officers on duty in the Senate Hall were clear of the blast radius, he would detonate it. Then he and his fellow officers would leave Trisitania in a ship that was equipped with override codes to get them past the planetary defenses. They would then go to Fangalin space, their role in the opening salvo of the war complete. All over the Empire, Fangalin agents were preparing to seize provinces and military units as soon as the Senate was destroyed. It was Lorovic’s job to set that in motion.

The bomb itself was located in an unused storage closet deep beneath the Hall. It had been fairly easy to find a storage closet that wasn’t recorded anywhere. The Senate Hall was over a thousand years old, and massive. There was a vast labyrinth of corridors and storage rooms underneath it, much of which had been forgotten over the past millennium. Lorovic had little reason to suspect that anyone would ever see, much less enter the closet where the bomb was located, but to make sure, he had changed the security code on the closet door to something that only he knew.

He and Lodoria reached the closet, where two ISS officers/Fangalin operatives were standing guard. Both of them were dressed in full battle armor, and armed with assault rifles. Lorovic had no intention of allowing anyone who wasn’t part of Fangalin into that closet. One of the guards saluted Lorovic as he approached.

“Everything is ready, Captain,” the guard said.

“Very good, Sergeant,” Lorovic responded, returning the guard’s salute. It felt good to finally be using their true ranks. Technically, they were still supposed to be using their ISS titles, for security purposes, but Lorovic and his men were anxious for the charade to be over, and besides, in a couple of hours it wouldn’t matter anymore.

Lorovic and Lodoria entered the closet, where there were two more heavily armed soldiers standing guard. As a security precaution, the bomb had to be armed manually, and only Lorovic had the code to do it. In addition, once it was armed, it could only be detonated with a remote detonator, which was in one of Lorovic’s coat pockets. Once arming the bomb, if Lorovic was captured, he had orders to detonate it immediately, no matter what the circumstances.

The bomb itself was gigantic, as befit a bomb with enough power to completely destroy one of the largest and oldest buildings in the galaxy. It was a type of bomb called a Nexus rupturing bomb. The Nexus was the energy that held the universe together. It was infinite and all-pervasive. A Nexus rupturing bomb was designed to exactly what its name indicated: disrupt and unravel the Nexus itself, leading to destructive power on a catastrophic scale. This bomb was just powerful enough to destroy the Senate Hall, but it was theoretically possible to build one with enough power to obliterate an entire planet. Such an awful weapon had never actually been constructed, though.

All he had to do to arm the bomb was punch in a passcode, and in a few seconds, it was done. He felt in his coat pocket for the detonator. Soon, he thought to himself. All 336 senators were in the Senate Hall now, as well as their aides and much of their staffs. In addition, most of the leaders of the Imperial bureaucracy were in the Hall, and most of the top military officers, and several provincial governors. Once the bomb went off, all of those people would be dead.

He stood up and turned to leave, but just as he reached the door, the sound of gunfire could be heard from outside. He quickly gestured to the men with him, and they just as quickly took cover with their assault rifles aimed at the door. He and Lodoria ducked down behind a pile of rubbish and pulled out their sidearms.

After a few seconds, the gunfire ceased, and the door slid open. Lorovic’s heart sank. As he was the only person who knew the code for this room, there was no way that somebody ranked lower than him would be able to open it. But somebody of a higher rank could override the code. As soon as the door opened, there was a deafening roar of gunfire, and both of the guards in the room quickly died. There was the sound of many feet rushing into the room, and then Lorovic’s suspicions were confirmed.

“Well, well, well,” said Dren Folmor, Master of the ISS, “I thought you were up to no good, Lorovic, but a bomb? Fascinating. This news will be very interesting to Senator Drahzen. He might even promote me for unmasking a traitor. This is turning out to be a very good day after all.”

To be continued…

Terrible Shadow, Part 6

Ahsken Lorovic was sitting on the couch in his apartment when the phone rang. He had been trying to concentrate on some documents relating to his cover job, but was having a hard time attaching any meaning or importance to them. It was several hours after he should have gone to bed, but he was having trouble sleeping, too. Any day, he would be able to commence Operation Thunderclap, and he was getting excited, but also nervous. He didn’t expect that anything would go wrong, but he knew there was no such thing as a perfect plan.

“Yes?” he said after picking up his phone.

“Director Lorovic, this is Senator Drahzen,” said the voice on the other end of the line. Lorovic rolled his eyes. Politics again.

“Yes, Senator,” he responded, “What can I do for you, sir?”

“Director, I just received word about ten minutes ago that the Empress has passed away,” Drahzen said.

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir,” Lorovic said, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice.

“Indeed,” Drahzen said, clearly not upset at all, “Now, I am aware that you will be very busy preparing your staff for tomorrow’s session, but I need you to do me a favor.” Lorovic frowned, and responded with a noncommittal grunt, which the Senator clearly took for agreement. “I’ve sent you a list of certain senators. It would be very beneficial for me if those senators were somehow barred from the Senate Hall tomorrow, even if only for a few hours. I’m sure that, as Director of Security, you would be able to come up with some way to keep them out, at least temporarily.”

“I will make sure to do that, sir,” Lorovic responded. He spoke in a neutral tone, but in reality he was disgusted and appalled by Drahzen’s tactics. For the past five years, he had been witness to all kinds of corrupt political practices, but he had never managed to get used to it.

“Very good,” Drahzen said, “Now, of course I don’t expect you to do this without getting something in return. So I promise you that, once I am Emperor, you will be promoted to Master of the ISS. Assuming, of course, that you carry out the task I’ve assigned you.”

“I understand, sir,” Lorovic said, still carefully keeping any hint of his true feelings out of his voice.

“Of course you do,” Drahzen said, “You’re a smart man.” And with that, the line went dead.

Lorovic felt like vomiting, but at the same time he felt elated. He had been witness to these sorts of crude and corrupt political practices throughout his entire career in the ISS, and they were a major part of the reason why he was convinced of the rightness of his cause. He’d never doubted his faith in the Dark Presence and the Supreme Commander, but if he’d ever had even the slightest second thought about setting off a bomb that would kill thousands of people, tactics like those used by Senator Drahzen and others dispelled those thoughts. Such corruption needed to be purged.

Besides, the Empress was dead. It was time to put Operation Thunderclap into effect. In the morning, the senators would start to gather in the Senate Hall for the first day of deliberations to choose a new Emperor. And once Lorovic was certain that all of them were in the Hall… Boom. Lorovic smiled, and then he chuckled to himself, and then his chuckles quickly turned into full-blown laughter. It was a strange sound coming from the normally stoic and reserved security officer, but he felt that it was justified, just this once.

***

The Senate Hall was buzzing with activity the next morning. Senator Shayban Drahzen was already in his seat, watching the rest of the senators file in with his customary small smile. Anyone looking at him sitting there would have thought he was perfectly calm and reserved, but in reality, his heart was racing and his palms were sweaty. He was both nervous and excited. Today was the beginning of the culmination of his life’s goals. He was so close to the Imperial Throne that he could almost feel its extravagant yet tasteful armrests under his hands.

He didn’t expect anything to go wrong, of course, but that didn’t mean nothing would. He was optimistic that Director Lorovic would uphold his end of their bargain. If Hesha and her closest supporters could be kept out of the Senate Hall, even for a few hours, Drahzen would be able to seize the initiative and bring her weaker supporters and those senators who were still undecided over to his side. If Lorovic was true to his word, then Drahzen would be able to surge ahead in the vote and build an insurmountable lead before Hesha would even be able to make her case. And if Lorovic didn’t come through…well, his career would be over.

Suddenly Drahzen frowned and sat up straighter. Hesha Vorlan and her cronies had just entered the Senate Hall and were making their way to their seats. He felt murderous rage boil up inside him, but a slight frown was the only indication on his face that he was upset. His hands clenched tightly as he fought to keep his countenance neutral. He would crush Lorovic. Even if he lost the election, he would make sure that Ahsken Lorovic’s career was over, plus he would throw him in prison! Nobody crossed Shayban Drahzen and got away with it.

With considerable effort, he forced himself to master his emotions. Ahsken Lorovic was a problem to be dealt with at a later date. For right now, he needed to focus on winning the election. Senator Vorlan’s presence was a problem, but he still would win the Senate’s support. In fact, having her here would actually make his ultimate victory even sweeter. It would be much more satisfying to humiliate her to her face than to do it behind her back. And once the throne was his, he could deal with all of his enemies at his leisure.

Slowly, the frown disappeared, to be replaced by the broadest smile anyone had ever seen on Senator Shayban Drahzen’s face.

To be continued…