A Song of Sorrow, Part 14

Without knowing the situation in the Imperial Palace, Emperor Extrator decided that it would be best to land his troops at Venemas Station, a military base on the outskirts of Selorin. He was standing on an observation deck overlooking the vast area where his dropships were landing and his troops were disembarking. The operation was proceeding smoothly, no mean feat considering there were a hundred thousand soldiers involved.

His tablet beeped suddenly, notifying him that he had a new message. He pulled the tablet out of a pocket in his robes, and began reading. What he saw made his ever-present frown even deeper.

Your Majesty, we regret to inform you that we have uncovered a plot against your rule. The Legion of the Heart has decided to renege on their agreement with you, and is planning to install a pretender of their own choosing on the Imperial Throne. They have locked down the Palace and plan to keep it sealed until they are ready to reveal their duplicity. Their hope is that their pretender will be popular enough that they will be able to muster support from the people and the Fleet to overthrow you. We urge you to move against the Palace quickly and destroy the Legion before they are able to bring their nefarious plans to completion. We know that you are the true Emperor and the Chosen of the One, and we eagerly anticipate your deliverance.

Jefmin Lakatai
Master of the Imperial Secret Service

“What is it, Your Majesty?” asked General Hoshic, who had been standing nearby, watching over the troops with the Emperor.

“Look at this, Hoshic,” the Emperor said grimly. He handed his tablet over to Hoshic, who scowled as he read the message.

“I don’t like it,” he said, and spat. “The ISS has had it in for the Legion ever since the Legion was formed. They consider the Palace their turf, and they’ve never forgiven the Senate for entrusting the security of the Palace to a separate organization. This smells like a convenient way for the ISS to get rid of the Legion once and for all.”

“If that’s so, then why is the Palace locked down?” the Emperor asked. “Why are we unable to communicate with anyone in the Palace?”

“How did this message get out?” Hoshic countered. “If the Legion was really trying to betray you, and they didn’t have the ISS on their side, wouldn’t they have made sure that they locked down the ISS communication network too? For that matter, wouldn’t they have sent you some sort of message to allay your suspicions?”

“Bah,” said the Emperor with contempt, “The ISS is made up of loyal servants of the Empire. I cannot believe that they would fabricate a plot like this.”

“And the soldiers of the Legion are not servants of the Empire?” Hoshic growled. “I’m not necessarily saying that this message is a trick, Your Majesty. I’m just saying that we don’t know all the facts, and we shouldn’t act without further investigation.”

“Nonsense,” the Emperor said with a dismissive hand gesture, “I believe that this message is legitimate. We need to move quickly, before the Legion can get further entrenched. Order the men to be ready to deploy. In two hours, we’re taking the Palace back.” With that, Extrator turned his back to Hoshic, leaving Hoshic standing there, feeling confused and angry. But he and Extrator had been friends for many years, and he had pledged his loyalty to Extrator, so he had no choice but to carry out his Emperor’s orders.

***

Shana Vodic had never felt panic before now. She’d been afraid before, she’d experienced anxiety, but those feelings had been caused by more or less minor things. But her life was in danger now, and that terrified her. Even though she had spent her entire professional life in the military, she’d never really considered death. A military career during a long period of peace was actually a pretty comfortable position. Even since the destruction of the Senate, she’d thought of the war as an abstract thing. Somehow, she’d never really expected to have to fight.

But it was a fight that she was faced with now, and a fight that she could not possibly win. The Palace was designed to be easily defended by a few people, but without access to the Palace’s control systems, much of that advantage was gone. And the two thousand soldiers of the Legion of the Heart would be vastly outnumbered by the troops that Extrator was bringing with him.

“Okay, I’m open to any and all suggestions,” she said, addressing the officers who had been hastily assembled in a conference room in the Legion barracks. She was desperately trying to keep her feelings of panic hidden, because she recognized that if her troops knew that their commander was terrified, all hope of putting together an effective resistance would be gone.

“We need to get into the ISS offices,” said one captain, “If we can break in there, we can expose them as the true traitors, and contact the Emperor to explain that we were set up.”

“That’s impossible,” said a colonel, “We have the advantage of numbers over the ISS, but their offices are too hardened for us to get into. By the time the battle was over, the Emperor would be here, and there wouldn’t be enough of us left to matter anyway. What we should do instead is find a way out of the Palace before the Emperor gets here.”

“And then what?” said a major, “Run and hide in the city while the Emperor’s troops hunt us down? If we flee, it will just confirm in the Emperor’s mind that we’re guilty. I say we surrender instead. Then we can explain that the ISS set us up.”

“Nonsense!” said another colonel, “If we surrender, the Emperor will just have us all executed. I served on Bliddle a few years ago. I know Jimalin Redlamin. He’s ruthless and unforgiving. Our only hope is to fight. Yeah, if we fight, we’ll probably die. But if we choose any other option, we will certainly die.”

There was silence in the conference room after this statement, as one by one, everyone present realized its truth.

To be continued…

A Song of Sorrow, Part 13

Two hours and three packs of cigarettes after she entered the main landing bay of the Palace, Shana Vodic didn’t know whether to scream in frustration or laugh maniacally at the absurdity of life. The demolition team had made no progress in breaking through the landing bay doors, and Colonel Chrevis was increasingly of the opinion that no amount of firepower the Legion possessed would even make a dent in the door.

“I don’t know if it’s a flaw in the design of the door, or what,” Chrevis growled to her, “but it’s actually stronger from the inside than from the outside. Even if we could blow through the door, it would take so much power, we’d take half this building with it.” Vodic swore and took another drag from her cigarette.

“So what do we do, Colonel?” she said irritably, “We need to find some way to let the Emperor in here!”

“I know, General,” Chrevis said in a flat voice, “but this isn’t the way to do it. If we could contact the Emperor, we could work together with his troops and get this door open. But with all outbound communications shut down…”

Vodic closed her eyes and inhaled deeply on her cigarette while she thought. There had to be some sort of solution!

“Keep working on the door, Colonel,” she said, turning to leave. “I’m going to talk to IT and see if there is some way to get a message out to the Emperor without access to the network.” Chrevis saluted and turned back to his team, and Vodic walked briskly down the hall to where her IT team had set up shop.

Normally, the Palace’s IT staff worked in the Palace’s central command center, but nobody could get in the command center right now, because the remote defense system that guarded it was programmed to attack anybody who approached. According to her people, if they could get in the command center, they could reroute control of the Palace away from Halais’s tablet, but defeating the remote defenses would be difficult, to say the least.

“Well, Captain,” Vodic said as she entered the makeshift IT center, “what’s the status of that tablet?”

Captain Hashai Selbsi was the leader of the Legion’s IT team. She was, like most members of the Legion, a long time veteran of the Imperial Armed Forces. She was normally cool and unflappable, but this crisis was wearing on her as much as anybody. Her usually impeccable hair was stuck out at random angles, and her generally perfect makeup was smudged. She had dark circles under eyes, as if she hadn’t slept in days.

“This is a mess, General,” she said in an exasperated tone. “Maybe if I had a month and a team twice this size, I could crack the encryption on this tablet. Maybe. But in a few hours? Impossible. Completely impossible.” Vodic sighed and flicked the butt of her cigarette onto the floor.

“I was afraid of that,” she said. “Let’s try another tack then. Is there anyway we can bypass the Palace’s communication network and contact the Emperor? If he understood our situation, it wouldn’t be nearly so urgent.”

“I don’t know,” Selbsi said, shaking her head. “All communications in and out of the Palace are routed through the central command center so that the ISS can keep an eye on everything. You know how paranoid they are…,” she trailed off and a thoughtful look appeared in her eyes. “That’s it!” she exclaimed suddenly. “That’s the answer!”

“What is?” asked Vodic.

“The ISS!” she yelled. “They have a separate communications network! If we can access their network, we should be able to contact the Emperor!” Vodic’s eyes widened, and she swore softly to herself.

“Of course!” she said, quietly but intensely. “Why didn’t I think of that sooner!” Immediately she turned on her heel to make her way to the ISS office.

The problem was, the Legion and the ISS did not get along. The Legion of the Heart was responsible for the security of the Imperial Palace, but the ISS was responsible for the security of the Empire as a whole, and they considered the Palace to be the most important portion of the Empire. As a result, each organization defended its turf quite viciously and did as little as possible to cooperate with the other.

She approached the door leading to the ISS office, and was surprised to discover that it failed to open. Despite the hostility between the two groups, as Commander of the Legion she should have had access to every area of the Palace. The door should have detected her biometric data and allowed her access. The fact that it didn’t was…troubling.

“This is General Shana Vodic,” she announced to the stubborn door. “I need to access the ISS communication network.” There was no response. Vodic stood there for a few minutes, getting angrier and angrier, until finally she swore and slammed her fist against the door. “I am General Vodic!” she yelled. “I order you to open this door and let me use your communication network!”

A few more moments passed without a response, and then a voice spoke. “I’m sorry, General Vodic,” it said, “but we cannot allow you to enter.” Vodic’s eyes widened with rage at this statement.

“How dare you!” she screamed. “I am the Commander of the Legion of the Heart! There is no area of this complex that is off limits to me!” The voice chuckled nastily, and Vodic felt herself getting even more incensed.

“I’m afraid your position is no longer needed, General Vodic,” the voice said, “The Emperor has no need of traitors.” A sharp stab of fear cut through Vodic’s rage.

“Traitor?” she yelled. “What are you talking about! I am no traitor!”

“You might think that,” the voice said, “but when we tell the Emperor that the Legion locked down the Palace in order to hold it against him, well… I don’t think he will have much use for the Legion of the Heart after this.” The voice chuckled nastily once more, and then went silent, leaving a shocked General Vodic to contemplate her fate.

To be continued…

A Song of Sorrow, Part 12

General Shana Vodic was in a bind. The Commander of the Legion of the Heart, she was in the difficult situation of preparing to welcome a new Emperor to the Imperial Palace without having any control over the Palace’s computer systems. It was an excruciatingly frustrating situation, and when Shana Vodic got frustrated, she smoked. She knew smoking was a bad habit, and she’d tried to quit many times, but she was an very intense and angry person, and smoking helped calm her down.

It wasn’t working this time, though. Too much was going wrong, and finding solutions was proving to be difficult. She had the former Emperor, the weasel Adlamor Finegal, in her custody, and he was spilling his guts in a desperate attempt to save his pitiful life, but after much “interrogation” (i.e., torture), Vodic had been forced to admit that he was telling the truth when he said he didn’t know how to regain control of the Palace computers.

So she had a stern and unforgiving man coming to claim the Throne, and when he got there, she would be unable to allow him into the Palace. Her worry was that the new Emperor would think that she had reneged on their deal, and was trying to hold the Palace against him. If Extrator attacked the Palace, it would be disastrous. For both sides.

“General,” said one of her aides, breaking her out of her thoughts, “I have some news for you, ma’am.” She was in her office, looking out the window at the mob gathered in the courtyard, desperately trying to find some way into the Palace. At least the lockdown of the Palace was having some positive effect.

“Proceed, Captain,” she said without turning from the window. He cleared his throat before he began speaking.

“We, um, captured Adlamor Finegal’s chief aide, Vemnor Halais,” he said, “We think he was the one who locked down the Palace’s computer systems.” General Vodic brightened at this. She turned to the captain, her stern frown a slight bit less stern than usual.

“Oh?” she said, “Good! Now we can finally contact the Emperor and let him know that we’re ready for him.” The captain cleared his throat again and looked nervous, causing Vodic to narrow her eyes. “What?” she growled.

“Well, um, about that,” he said, and then hesitated. “Halais is, um, dead.”

“Dead!” exclaimed Vodic.

“We did find his personal tablet,” the captain said quickly. “We think he had routed control of the Palace systems to it.”

“Oh, well, then it doesn’t matter if he’s dead or not,” Vodic said. The captain frowned, and Vodic sighed, aware that there was more bad news coming.

“Actually, ma’am, it does matter,” he said hesitantly, “You see, his tablet was, um, well, it was heavily encrypted, and we’re, uh…we’re not sure if we’ll be able to access it.”

“What!” the general snarled, “Well, you’d better work fast! You need to get into that tablet before the Emperor gets here!”

“General,” the captain said quietly, “We’re not sure we’ll be able to access it at all.” Vodin just stared at him in disbelief.

“You cannot be serious,” Vodic said, just barely keeping her fury in check.

“I wish I was joking, ma’am,” the captain said, shaking his head, “but our IT staff has looked at the tablet, and the encryption on it is unlike anything they’ve ever seen. Apparently Halais had created a method of encryption far more advanced than anything currently available to the military.”

“How can that be possible?” Vodic asked, still having trouble believing what she was hearing.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” the captain said, “Halais had a reputation for brilliance, but it seems like that may have been an understatement.” Vodic frowned, trying to think fast. It didn’t seem like she had very many options.

“Okay, Captain,” she said finally, “what do you suggest we do?”

“Me, ma’am?” he asked, surprised.

“Yes, you,” she said, “I need ideas, and I’m having a hard time thinking of any myself. I’ll take just about any suggestions I can get at this point.”

“Well, ma’am, I would put the Palace’s entire IT staff to work on Halais’s tablet, and I would set a demolitions team to work on breaking through the door to the main landing bay so that the Emperor and his troops can get into the Palace. And, if I were you, I would make sure I was there to meet him in person to explain this whole mess to him.”

“Very well,” Vodic said with a nod, “Tell the IT staff to break into that tablet, and get some of our IT guys on it too. And send a demolition team to the main landing bay. That’s where I’ll be if anyone needs me.” The captain saluted and ran off. Vodic grabbed her tablet and quickly left her office, on her way to the main landing bay.

Breaking open the landing bay door would be difficult, to say the least. Like all of the Palace’s doors, it was made of mylium and arvinium, and was designed to withstand full bombardment from a star cruiser. Vodic wasn’t sure if there was anything they could do to break it open, but they definitely weren’t going to succeed if they didn’t try.

By the time she got down to the main landing bay, the Legion’s demolition team was already there. The commander of the team was a grizzled old man with one eye, Lt. Colonel Hargin Chrevis. Chrevis had been in the Imperial Army for 40 years, and he’d worked in demolition his entire career. There was no one in the Imperial Armed Forces who knew more about explosives than he did. If Col. Chrevis couldn’t figure out a way to break through the landing bay door, no one could.

“This is gonna be a tough nut to crack, General,” Chrevis said by way of greeting.

“I know, Colonel,” Vodic responded, “but it has to be done. If we can’t let the Emperor’s forces in, he’s going to think that we’re trying to hold the Palace against him. You don’t need me to tell you what a disaster that would be.” Chrevis nodded grimly, and then began barking orders to his team.

To be continued…

A Song of Sorrow, Part 11

Vemnor Halais was a timid, nervous man who went to great lengths to avoid taking risks. He was the sort of man who ate steak well done because he was terrified of ingesting harmful bacteria and kept his tablet in a special case because he was afraid of harmful radiation. And he was currently sneaking into the barracks of the most elite military unit in the Empire to save a man he didn’t even like.

Not for the first time, he wondered if he’d lost his mind. When he sent the message to Emperor Preclonus about Jimalin Redlamin’s fleet heading for Trisitania, he knew things were dire, but he hadn’t realized just how dire. As he was sitting in the Palace’s command center, trying to find out more information about Redlamin’s fleet, he noticed that the Legion of the Heart had arrested the Emperor and was preparing to hand the Palace over to Redlamin. Halais was something of a computer genius, and he had spent his entire professional life working in the IT department of the Palace, so it had been fairly simple for him to lock down the command center and instruct the automatic defenses ringing it to take out anyone who even attempted to enter. Then he had rerouted all the Palace’s computer systems to his personal tablet, so that only he could access them.

That had bought him some time, but he knew the Legion would be able to override his control of the Palace eventually. He needed to get out before that happened. His first order of business was to lockdown the Palace so that nobody (except for him) would be able to leave. He then shut down the Palace’s communications network. The Legion of the Heart was made up of the best troops in the Empire, but their numbers were inadequate to cover the entire Palace complex. Halais didn’t want them to be able bolster their numbers from the outside.

He knew that if the Legion caught him, he was a dead man. They’d already arrested the Emperor, and it was clear from what had happened and the communications he’d been monitoring that the Legion had thrown its support behind Redlamin. Halais knew Redlamin’s reputation, and he had no doubt that Redlamin would execute Preclonus, and as Preclonus’s chief aide, there was little doubt that he would be executed as well. And he very much wanted to live.

Getting out of the Palace would have been simple, considering the precautions he’d taken. His tablet was tied into the Palace’s security grid, so he could see the positions of every single person in the complex. That made it fairly easy to maneuver through the halls without being spotted. The Legion had given up their attempts to break into the command center after several of them had been killed by defensive turrets. That allowed Halais to slip out unseen, leaving the turrets set to kill anyone who tried to approach the command center. This kept the Legion from going in and wresting control of the Palace from him.

But despite having a clear path to get out of the Palace, he hadn’t left. Instead, he was risking his neck to save the Emperor. He really didn’t know why. There certainly was no benefit to such an endeavor. Any influence or power that Adlamor Finegal may once have had was almost certainly dissipated by his short and disastrous reign. If he escaped the Palace, he was going to be a fugitive, and Halais would become even more of a target for having helped Finegal.

Nor did Halais have any personal affection for Finegal. Finegal had always been a rather harsh and demanding boss, and, if he was thinking objectively, Halais would have been glad to part ways with him forever. But he couldn’t just walk away. He didn’t know if it was loyalty or what, but the thought of just leaving Finegal to die made him feel physically sick.

So here he was, in the barracks of the Legion of the Heart, trying to slip through unseen and make his way to the area where Finegal was being held. His heart was pounding like a jackhammer, and he could feel sweat dripping down the collar of his robes. He did not want to be there, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. He made his way down an empty hall, and made his way to a shadowed alcove to take a look at his tablet and see if there was anyone in the area.

“Halt!” a stern female voice yelled before he made it there. He jumped in shock and, without even thinking, took off running down the hall. He heard the sounds of booted feet following him, but he was too terrified to look back. He just ran as fast as he possibly could, as far as he possibly could, and it was only after he’d run for several minutes and his flabby body collapsed from exhaustion that he realized something that chilled him to the bone.

He’d dropped his tablet.

Panic seized his chest like a vise. The tablet was heavily encrypted, so it was unlikely that anybody who found it would be able to access it, but that didn’t really matter. Without it, he was blind, deaf, and completely defenseless. He wouldn’t even be able to get back into the command center. All he could do was lay on the floor where he’d fell, gasping for breath like a fish out of water.

A few minutes later, a group of four soldiers rounded the corner and spotted him, and that was too much for him to handle. He struggled to rise, but as he did, his heart gave out. Intense pain struck his chest, and he collapsed to the ground again. He lay on the ground, his body twitching, struggling to even take breaths, as four pairs of booted feet approached him. He slowly reached out a hand towards the closest soldier, but before he could do anything else, he took one last breath, and died.

To be continued…