Izik Hoshic was laying flat on his back on the floor when he was informed by Jefmin Lakatai that the Emperor had summoned him. He scowled up at Lakatai’s fat, arrogant face, and then begrudgingly rose to his feet. He had been practicing close combat drill with some younger members of the Palace Guard, the unit that had replaced the defunct Legion of the Heart, and one of them had just managed to flip him onto his back. It was bad enough to have the wind knocked out of him, but to have his hated rival walk in just at that moment made it immeasurably worse.
Hoshic brushed past Lakatai, ignoring the expectant look on the latter’s smug face, and retrieved his tablet from amongst his other belongings on a bench along the wall of the practice room. He tapped a few buttons, and a hologram of the Emperor’s face began hovering in the space above the tablet.
“Your Majesty,” he said reverentially, “what can I do for you?”
“You can come to my quarters, General, and help me plan a war,” Extrator said impatiently.
“A war?” asked Hoshic, confused, “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but haven’t we been at war for almost four years now?”
“Of course, you buffoon,” Extrator said with a scowl, “This is a new war. One that we need to crush before it really gets started. So get up here. Now.” With that, Extrator’s face disappeared.
That brief exchange left Hoshic feeling disoriented and a little disgusted, but that was how he normally felt after dealing with the Emperor these days. Hoshic and Extrator had been colleagues and friends for almost ten years, ever since Hoshic had replaced Xendin Lodimeur as the commander of the IAF troops stationed on Bliddle. Extrator had always been a religious fanatic, while Hoshic was agnostic at most, but in most other ways, they were alike. They both had a strong belief in duty, in justice, in order. But ever since Extrator became Emperor, Hoshic believed that his pursuit of power was clouding his mind and keeping him from fulfilling his deepest ideals.
Not that Hoshic believed Extrator had abandoned his ideals. He just was so determined to bring order and justice back to the galaxy as a whole that he was ignoring order and justice in the short term. He was becoming increasingly irritable and capricious, and it was obvious to Hoshic that the pressure of the Throne was wearing heavily on his friend. The problem was that Hoshic had no idea how to help him. Extrator had never been one to easily accept criticism, and now that he held the power of life and death, he generally responded to criticism with death.
So Hoshic spent his time training and fretting. In addition to his worries about the Emperor, he was still haunted by the deaths of so many good men and women when his forces seized the Palace. He saw their faces in his dreams, and he dwelled on their screams whenever his mind wasn’t otherwise occupied. So he did his best to drown his worries in sweat. When he was focused on knocking down the man or woman in front of him, and keeping himself upright, he didn’t have time to wallow in grief.
He entered the Emperor’s quarters still dressed in his training outfit. He worried that Extrator would be displeased at the lack of decorum, but he worried even more what would happen if he took the time to shower and change and Extrator decided he was late. He kneeled down in front of the Emperor and touched his forehead to the floor, hoping that debasing himself in this way would assuage the Emperor’s wrath at his appearance.
“Rise, my servant,” Extrator said in a patronizing tone which implied that such debasement was exactly what he expected. That made Hoshic cringe inside. The Throne really was changing his best friend, and not for the better. “I have just received word that a group of provinces in the Retigulous Sector have announced their secession from the Empire and are calling themselves the Kingdom of Midigal. Needless to say, we cannot allow this insult to stand. We must crush these rebels before they have a chance to establish themselves and further fracture the Empire.”
“I wholeheartedly agree, Your Majesty,” Hoshic said, who had quickly read the briefing on this matter on his way up. “However, I wonder if it might not be too late for that. From what little information we have, it seems like these rebels might already be too well established to be easily dislodged. Vor Shen has a reputation as a master strategist. I have to imagine that he has a plan to deal with any force we might send against him.”
“Are you thinking of disobeying me, General?” Extrator said, his eyes narrowing dangerously.
“Of course not, Your Majesty!” Hoshic said quickly. A sharp stab of fear pierced his heart. How could such a small suggestion be taken as evidence of disobedience? “I am simply offering my opinion. You may take it or leave it as you will.” Extrator regarded him suspiciously, and then shook his head.
“Forgive me, my friend,” he said with a sigh, “It’s so hard to sit here, in this place of authority and responsibility, and not feel like I’m surrounded by traitors and fools. I know that you are neither, but it’s very hard for me not to treat you as such, because I have to treat everyone else like that.”
“I…am not sure how to respond to that, Your Majesty,” Hoshic said warily.
“Don’t worry about it,” Extrator said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “We need to focus on the task at hand. I appreciate your feedback, and I see your point, but I believe that we need to crush this rebellion at all costs, or else we will risk looking weak in the eyes of our many rivals. Above all else, we need to project an aura of strength, or we will be overwhelmed. Whether or not to strike now is not up for debate. All I need from you is the best way to strike.”
To be continued…