The Solitude of Death, Part 7

There was a pause as Dren Calabane absorbed this statement. “Grave danger?” he said, confused and angry, “What are you talking about?” The voice on the other end of the connection chuckled.

“You’ve been wondering about what your Supreme Commander is up to, haven’t you?” Xelmin said. Calabane frowned and bit his lip.

“Yes, that’s true,” he said, “But how do you know that?”

“I know more than you can possibly imagine, Argamyle,” Xelmin responded, “Haven’t I proved that to you in the past? And I’ll tell you something else I know. Fortulis thinks you are a traitor.” There was a pause as Calabane tried to process this.

“How can that be?” he asked in shock. Xelmin chuckled again.

“Fortulis thinks you are an Imperial sympathizer, and his proof is that you insist on opposing the assassination of the Emperor.” Calabane sat in silence, stunned by this revelation.

“How can that be?” he repeated in a whisper, “It’s true that Fortulis and I have never had a positive relationship, but to doubt my loyalty? If I was really an Imperial sympathizer, I would be calling for Embamor II’s head louder than anyone! The man is an imbecile, leading the Empire to ruin!” Calabane frowned and narrowed his eyes in anger. “Wait a minute. Who are you? How do you know all this?” Once again, Xelmin chuckled, causing Calabane to grind his teeth in frustration.

“I told you, I know more than you can imagine,” Xelmin said smugly, “I’ve long known that ‘Argamyle’ is the codename of Dren Calabane.” Calabane was shocked. Xelmin knew who he was! How could that be possible? He thought about denying it, but he knew immediately that was a waste of time. Clearly Xelmin wasn’t exaggerating when he bragged about how much he knew. Calabane decided that the best course of action was to go along with this, and see if he could use the information that Xelmin was going to give him.

“Okay then,” Calabane said, “So you know who I am. Wonderful. The question is, can I trust you? How do I know that you’re telling me the truth?” Calabane closed his eyes and clenched his fists as Xelmin, predictably, chuckled at this question.

“You can’t,” Xelmin said, “And I don’t expect you to. I’m simply giving you information, and it’s up to you to decide what to do with it. And here’s some more. You say that if you really were an Imperial sympathizer, you would be calling for Embamor II’s head. Don’t be so sure. Embamor Etralis is more crafty than you think.” A skeptical look appeared on Calabane’s face.

“Crafty?” he said, “That drunken idiot? The only thing crafty about him is the beer he pours into his gut.”

“Is that so?” asked Xelmin, “What if I told you that the Emperor is planning to deal a deathblow to Fangalin?”

“I would tell you that you’re insane,” Calabane replied. “The Empire’s resistance to our assault has been tepid at best.”

“All of that has just been a smokescreen,” Xelmin said. “The Grand Council and the War Council are meeting in a joint session in a few weeks, aren’t they?” Calabane frowned. Every year, both Councils met together to plan strategy for the coming year. Every Councilor and every General was required to attend, as was the Supreme Commander. If Embamor II knew when and where the joint session was going to take place, and he was going to plant a bomb… Such a blow would be devastating for Fangalin. It might end the war before it really began.

“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Calabane said.

“If you think I’m saying that the Emperor plans to give you a taste of your own medicine, then yes,” Xelmin said. “But it goes farther than that. Etralis knew about your plot to bomb the Senate.” It took a moment for that statement to sink into Calabane’s head, but when it did, his eyes widened.

“That can’t be true,” he breathed.

“It can, and it is,” Xelmin responded. “There was no way that the Senate was going to raise General Etralis to the throne. This was his only way to advance so far. And now that you’ve helped him achieve his goal, he’s going to return the favor.”

“Presence preserve us,” Calabane whispered.

“You see what you need to do, don’t you?” Xelmin said, “The man you thought was a buffoon is really a master of deceit, and opposing his death means your Commander sees you as a traitor. If you want to keep your head and save your order, Embamor II needs to die. You have no other option.” Abruptly, the connection was severed, leaving Calabane feeling highly disoriented.

He laced his fingers together, leaned forward, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. How could he know whether this information was true or not? On the other hand, did he dare risk ignoring it? His life, and the fate of Fangalin itself, was at stake. What was the reign of Embamor II worth, balanced against that?

***

Adlamor Finegal sat back in his chair with a satisfied smirk on his face. It was so easy to get people to do what you wanted when you knew everything about them. Finegal had complete files on every member of Fangalin’s leadership, and it was simple for him to make the connection between Councilor Calabane and Vorzhak Larachai, a high-ranking ISS official who was also known as Xelmin. Larachai really had been executed 20 years ago, as Calabane believed, and Embamor II was every bit the imbecile that Calabane thought he was. What Finegal had told Calabane about Fortulis and the Emperor was a lie, but it was a lie mixed with enough truth to be persuasive. If Calabane was as smart as Finegal believed him to be, he would persuade the Fangalin Supreme Commander to go ahead with the assassination attempt. And Finegal would make sure that it succeeded.

To be continued…

The Solitude of Death, Part 6

All three of Numoris’s moons were full as Dren Calabane stood on the roof of his mansion, gazing up at the sky. Calabane was something of an astronomy buff, and Triple Full, as the locals had dubbed this phenomenon, was something that hadn’t happened yet in the less than 40 years since Numoris was first settled. It was a pretty spectacular sight, and Calabane was glad he was able to see it.

In another sense, though, he wished he’d had to miss it. The Grand Council was supposed to have met tonight, but the Supreme Commander had informed the Council an hour before the start of the meeting that he would be unable to attend. This was certainly his prerogative as Supreme Commander, but it did technically violate the Charter, which stated that the Supreme Commander had to be present at meetings of the Grand Council. No Supreme Commander had ever broken this rule. In order to save face, Calabane, who was President of the Council, decided to cancel the meeting, and thus avoid setting a precedent.

Commander Fortulis’s behavior was becoming more irritating and erratic. This incident was just the latest in a series of disturbing incidents. He had been meeting privately with certain councilors, the ones who were most resistant to Calabane’s influence. He was also disappearing for days at a time, leaving the Grand Council and the War Council to administer the Fangalin empire without his input or guidance.

Calabane wasn’t sure what to make of all this. Fortulis was an old man. Perhaps he was becoming senile. He was by no means the oldest Commander ever, and senility and even dementia had afflicted previous Commanders. Or maybe he was just starting to crack under the pressure of conducting an open war with the Empire. After all, he was dealing with issues that no other Supreme Commander had ever had to deal with before. Fangalin was hundreds of years old, but in the aftermath of the Emergence, it was beginning to radically transform itself.

Or perhaps something more sinister was going on. Calabane and Fortulis had never gotten along particularly well. Calabane’s father, Orfan, had also been on the Council, and had been a strong supporter and a good friend of the previous Supreme Commander, Harbin Adamine. Orfan Calabane had been Commander Adamine’s chosen successor, but the Council had elected Zhemeen Fortulis instead. Orfan had spent the remainder of his life trying to undermine Fortulis’s command.

Dren Calabane had not inherited his father’s prejudice against Zhemeen Fortulis, but Fortulis acted as if he had. The last thing Zhemeen Fortulis wanted was Orfan Calabane’s son as a councilor, and despite Dren’s efforts to prove that he was not the same man as his father, Fortulis had done everything he could to marginalize and neutralize him.

Still though, if Fortulis was actively conspiring in private with other councilors against him, that would be something new. Fortulis had always been open about his hostility towards the son of his nemesis. And he had never been so petty as to reject Calabane’s ideas just because they came from Calabane. Something strange was going on, and Calabane didn’t know what it was. He just knew that he didn’t like it.

He turned his head slightly at the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs behind him. He was somewhat surprised at the sight of his wife, but not really. He knew she wanted to talk to him about what was going on with the Council and the Commander. But she was deathly afraid of heights, and generally avoided the roof at all costs. That was part of the reason he went up there.

“Shalor,” he said, grimly but with a hint of warmth, “I wasn’t expecting you to come up here.” She gave him a grin that was equal parts sickly and mischievous.

“I know,” she replied, “I’m well aware that you’re up here to avoid me. Although I must admit that Triple Full is quite stunning.” He smiled slightly at her, and then returned to staring at the sky. “Dren,” she continued, “I have a good reason for coming up here. You just received a message from Xelmin.” She involuntarily took a step back as he whipped around to stare at her, his eyes suddenly aflame.

“Xelmin!?” he hissed, “You had better not be lying to me, woman.”

“Lying?” she said, shocked and hurt, “When have I ever lied to you, Dren? Besides, why would I lie about this?” Dren clenched his fists tightly and glared at her, and then swept past her.

As he stormed through the mansion to his study, he was flooded with memories. As a younger man, he had worked for the Grand and Invincible Army’s intelligence service, Meskin. He’d had a network of agents scattered throughout the Empire, and it had been his responsibility to gather reports from them and turn that information into policy recommendations. His most highly placed and productive agent had been codenamed Xelmin.

He entered his study, punched the authorization code that would let Xelmin know that he was talking to the right person into the console on his desk, and received Xelmin’s authorization code in return. He was a little surprised that he still remembered it, and even more surprised that it was correct. He hadn’t had any contact with Xelmin in over twenty years, because Xelmin had been compromised and executed twenty years ago.

“This is Argamyle,” Calabane said, using his codename from his days in Meskin, “What is your message?” There was a long pause, and then a familiar voice responded.

“Argamyle,” the voice said, “It has been too long.”

“More like not long enough,” Calabane snapped, “How can this be? You were executed twenty years ago for treason!” The voice chuckled grimly.

“Oh, Argamyle,” the voice said, “There is much that you never knew. But now is not the time. I have urgent information for you. You, and all of Fangalin, are in grave danger.”

To be continued…

The Solitude of Death, Part 5

The Emperor was drunk and passed out in his favorite recliner when Adlamor Finegal found him. Not for the first time, Finegal thought about how easy it would be to slip a knife in that fat gut and claim the throne himself. Embamor II had no children, so there was no heir for the throne to pass to automatically, and there was still no Senate, so it would be as easy for him to proclaim himself Emperor as it was for Embamor Etralis.

The one thing that stayed Finegal’s hand was the military. He had no illusions about how the Imperial Fleet and the Imperial Army felt about him, and he knew that if he tried to launch a coup, the military would overthrow him almost immediately. No, he needed to bide his time. His opportunity was coming. He just needed to be patient.

Finegal folded his arms and glared down at the pathetic old sot who claimed to be the ruler of the galaxy. It was a hollow claim, and everyone knew it. Emperor Embamor II had effective control of maybe a quarter of what was once the unbroken Trisitanian Empire, and he’d had it for only three years. Finegal couldn’t understand why even that much of the Empire had followed him for that long. Only a fool would be loyal to Embamor Etralis.

Finegal was no fool. His loyalty extended only as far as Embamor’s usefulness to his ambitions. Finegal meant to succeed where Embamor had failed. He would sit on the Imperial Throne, and he would be the one to reunite the shattered provinces with an iron fist. He could see it all so clearly. All he had to do was allow the Fangalin assassins to do their work, and then every obstacle in his way would be eliminated. His reign would be truly glorious.

He was so lost in his wonderful daydreams that he didn’t notice at first when the Emperor stirred. He just about jumped out of his skin when the Emperor sat up and spoke to him.

“Ah, Adlamor,” he said drowsily, “How goes the war?” Finegal was so startled that he dropped the tablet he was holding, which fortunately was designed to stand up to rough treatment.

“Oh, um, yes, sire,” he stammered, fumbling around on the ground to pick up his tablet, “Things are going, ah, well, they are going poorly, as usual.” The Emperor growled and sat up a little straighter.

“Curse you, Finegal,” the Emperor said angrily, “Why can’t you ever bring me any good news? What’s going wrong now?”

“Actually, I do have some good news for once,” Finegal said, scanning the contents of his tablet once more, “General Haasadis Ventelin is reporting that his raiding parties have had some success damaging Fangalin fortifications on Habaladis and Beneforix.”

“Ventelin, huh?” the Emperor said with a frown, “The muscle head? I thought we got a report last week from General Vandox that he wasn’t in his assigned sector?”

“Well, those reports were unconfirmed, sire,” Finegal replied, “Obviously, General Ventelin’s reports are unconfirmed as well, but until we have proof otherwise, we should assume that he’s telling us the truth.” Embamor frowned and scratched his unshaven face.

“I suppose so,” he said grumpily, “Do we have anybody who can go out to that sector and make sure that Ventelin is where he’s supposed to be?”

“Unfortunately, no,” said Finegal, “We don’t have anybody to spare. Every single unit in the Empire is tied up fighting the terrorists, the Republic, or the usurpers.” The Emperor scowled and muttered swear words to himself.

“I guess we’re gonna have to trust him then,” the Emperor said disgustedly, “Generals! They’re all idiots!” He leaned back in his recliner and scratched his crotch idly. Finegal stared at him with a mixture of confusion and disgust.

“Um, sire, forgive me for saying this but…weren’t you a general before you ascended to the throne?” he asked. The Emperor glared at him.

“Of course I was, you imbecile!” he thundered, “That’s how I know that! Don’t you have any brains under that greasy hair? Get out of my face!” Finegal bowed in acquiescence, but his eyes burned with rage. He straightened and turned without letting the Emperor see the fury in his eyes, and strode out of the Emperor’s chambers.

He walked quickly through the halls of the great Imperial Palace, not paying any attention to where he was going. He was so sick of bowing and scraping to that great imbecile. And he was even more sick of being insulted by him. Adlamor Finegal should be the Emperor, not Embamor Etralis! It was Finegal who knew every secret thing that took place throughout the galaxy. It was Finegal who ran the Empire, while the moron who sat on the throne drank himself to death. Finegal was tired of having the responsibility without the glory.

He gradually forced himself to calm down and slow down. There was no reason for him to get so enraged over a few slight insults. He had a plan. A good plan. He already knew that Fangalin was considering assassinating the Emperor. He had told the Emperor this, and the Emperor had laughed in his face. Well, Finegal would be the one laughing last. Once Fangalin struck, Adlamor Finegal would be in the perfect position to take Embamor’s place.

There was one problem though. The leaders of Fangalin had not yet decided whether or not to go ahead with the assassination. Finegal needed to figure out some way to persuade them that the Emperor was a threat. He had spies in every corner of the Empire, so he knew everything that was going on, but his ability to actually affect events was limited.

And then he had his answer. It was so simple, yet so brilliant, that it made him laugh out loud, causing a pair of cleaning women passing by to stare at him strangely. But he didn’t care. In fact, he laughed even louder at the look on their faces. It felt good to laugh for once. Even better, he knew that soon, the Imperial Throne would be his.

To be continued…

The Solitude of Death, Part 4

The Imperial province of Midigal was an unremarkable province. Not too rich, not too poor. The population was about equal to the Imperial average. It didn’t export anything to make Emperors and Supreme Commanders lust over it, but it also didn’t need to import much. Settled over 500 years ago, it wasn’t one of the oldest provinces in the Empire, but nor was it one of the newest. It was just…average.

Haasadis Ventelin had plans to change that. At 35, Ventelin was one of the youngest generals in the Imperial Army, a beneficiary of the decimation of the top of the military command hierarchy when the Senate was destroyed. But he had much bigger ambitions. A native of Midigal, Ventelin had always loved his home province, and he had always yearned for the opportunity to bring greatness to it. And the chaos that had gripped the Empire in the wake of the Fangalin uprising was the perfect opportunity.

General Ventelin stood on the bridge of Burning Axe, the flagship of his small task force. Burning Axe and two other cruisers were under his command, and he had been ordered to raid Fangalin provinces. Instead, he and his men had gone to the Midigal sector to carry out a grander mission.

Originally, Ventelin had thought to aim for the Imperial throne, and then move the capital of the Empire to Midigal, but there were too many ambitious generals in the Empire right now for that to be a realistic idea. Instead, Ventelin decided to set his sights a little lower: instead of becoming an Emperor, he would make himself a King. And Midigal would be his kingdom.

“General,” said Captain Horv Lazhamar, commanding officer of Burning Axe, “We are about to reach our destination. We will be dropping out of subspace in five minutes.”

“Very good, Captain,” General Ventelin said in a deep, booming voice. Haasadis Ventelin was a man’s man. He was over six and a half feet tall, with wavy black hair that went past his shoulders, and a thick beard that extended to his waist. He was 300 pounds of pure muscle, with fists almost as large as an average man’s head. In his short but brilliant military career, he had already developed a reputation as a generous and jovial companion, and a ruthless and implacable enemy.

His plan was simple: from this small task force of three Imperial cruisers, he would build a mighty fleet that would sweep away the token forces defending Midigal and the other provinces in its sector. While he was doing that, he would be sending emissaries (and himself) to the leaders of Midigal and the nearby provinces to convince them that he would do a better job protecting them from the Fangalin terrorists than the Empire could do.

The task force dropped out of subspace on time, and there on the screen was what he was hoping and expecting to see: another Imperial task force, this one made up of five cruisers. These cruisers were commanded by General Vorlemask Shen, a fellow Midigalan, and Ventelin’s chief co-conspirator. General Shen outranked General Ventelin in the Imperial military, but Ventelin was the more beloved of the two, and Vor, as he was known to his friends, was more interested in being the King’s right hand than being the King himself.

“We’re receiving a message from Terrible,” said one of Ventelin’s lieutenants. Terrible was Shen’s flagship.

“Put it on the screen,” replied Ventelin, and the main screen was filled with an image of Vor Shen’s wizened face.

“Vor, you old man!” roared Ventelin with delight, “What a surprise to find you here!” Vor Shen was a silent, somber man, in almost every way the complete opposite of Ventelin. When he heard Ventelin’s greeting, a small, almost imperceptible smile crossed his face, and then was gone. For him, this was the equivalent of a normal man laughing boisterously.

“General Ventelin,” he said with a slight incline of his head, “Considering that you requested my presence here, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see me.” Haasadis Ventelin let out a booming guffaw, and slapped Captain Lazhamar’s back jovially. Lazhamar staggered and coughed, clearly not expecting Ventelin’s sudden outburst of amusement.

“Ah, Vor,” Ventelin thundered, “You pretend you don’t have a sense of humor, but I see right through you, you old scoundrel.” He laughed and slapped Captain Lazhamar again, and this time the poor Captain collapsed to the ground. “Anyway, enough fooling around. We need to get down to business. Between you and me, we have eight heavy cruisers, but we’re going to need more. Ahmarik Dron has six cruisers under his command, and I’m expecting him to arrive here in two days. Have you spoken to Admiral Locatine yet?”

“I have,” Shen responded, “He is most amenable to our proposal. He should be here in three days.”

“Good!” bellowed Ventelin, “With his cruisers, we’ll have almost a quarter of what’s left of the Imperial Fleet. That oughta be enough. The next step is to approach the civilian government.”

“That process has begun as well,” Shen said, “I have sent emissaries in your name to the governors of Midigal, Dalamaris, and Trifelimoor. If the governments of those three provinces are amenable to your rule, every other province in this sector will follow. And if they aren’t, then your reign will end before it starts.” Ventelin frowned at this.

“Are you sure that the men you sent are trustworthy?” he growled, “And persuasive? Maybe I should go to Midigal myself.” Shen shook his head.

“That would be a very bad idea, my friend,” he said forcefully, “If you approach the Midigalan government directly, you’ll look desperate. Better to deal with them from a position of strength. You don’t want them to know that you need them. You want to make them think that they need you.”

“They do need me!” Ventelin roared, “The Empire won’t save them from the terrorists!”

“I am aware of that,” Shen said with a weary sigh, “but that doesn’t mean they see it. Civilians are always blind when it comes to threats to their security.” Ventelin thought about this for a second, and then suddenly laughed loudly, smacking Captain Lazhamar to the ground again.

“Very good!” Ventelin yelled with delight, “You’ve done great, old man. How about you and your officers come on over to Burning Axe and we’ll have a feast!”

“That would be wonderful, General,” Shen said, inclining his head slightly. “We’ll be over in two hours.”

To be continued…