The Bull and the Hyena, Part 13

“Five minutes until Midigal, Captain,” said Kryla Zomulin’s navigation officer. She nodded and turned to Admiral Lors, who was standing on the platform behind her.

“All ships are reporting ready for action, sir,” she said to the Admiral. He nodded to her, and turned and made his way off the bridge to his post in the Command Information Center. The bridge was where the systems for controlling a particular ship were centralized, but the bridge of every ship in the fleet was linked to the CIC onboard Decimator, where Lors and his staff could view everything that each individual ship was seeing and doing, and send orders to the individual ships, or to the fleet as a whole.

“We’re ready to go here, Admiral,” said Lors’ chief aide, Commander Hevin Jalai.

“Good,” said Lors briskly. “We’re about to drop out of subspace, and I want all ships ready to go hot immediately.”

“Every ship is good to go, sir,” Jalai said confidently, “We’ll crush anything the Midigalans send against us.”

“I certainly hope so, Commander,” Lors said with a wry grin, “Otherwise, why did we even bother coming all the way out here?” Jalai frowned at this comment, which made Lors sigh inwardly. Jalai was a competent officer, but he had two major flaws. One, he was too confident in his ability to prevail in any situation. And two, he had no sense of humor.

“10 seconds until drop,” announced his tactical officer, Lieutenant Halah Vortum. Lors stared impassively at the screens displaying all of the important information he would need to direct the tactics of the battle, until he felt the telltale shudder of Decimator dropping back into normal space.

“Report!” he barked immediately. He was answered by Lt. Vortum.

“Initial scans show…no military vessels in orbit, Admiral,” she said, sounding confused. “Just five civilian ships.” Lors frowned at this.

“No military vessels?” he said, “That can’t be right. Run a secondary scan. The Midigalans wouldn’t leave their capital undefended. Would they?”

“Of course not, Admiral!” came Commander Jalai’s too-confident voice, “The cowards must just be hiding somewhere. Too afraid to face the might of the Imperial Fleet!” Jalai’s words caused a few of the crew in the CIC to cheer, but Lors just continued to frown. Something wasn’t right. He didn’t know Vor Shen well, but he was aware of Shen’s reputation. General Shen was many things, but a coward wasn’t one of them.

“What’s the situation, Admiral?” said General Hoshic as he entered the CIC.

“Unusual,” replied Lors, “As far as we can tell so far, the Midigalan fleet has left Midigal undefended.”

“Interesting ploy,” mused Hoshic, “A trap?”

“I can’t imagine what else it could be,” Lors responded, “A dangerous one, though. If we took the bait and commenced bombardment of the surface, we could do a lot of damage to their capital before they could stop us.”

“Admiral,” said Vortum, “secondary scans confirm the initial results. There are no military vessels in this system aside from ours.”

“Puzzling,” said Hoshic, scratching his beard as he mulled this information.

“There is more, sir,” continued Vortum, “Our initial scans of the planet’s surface indicate that there are no ground units currently mobilized. Midigal is, to all appearances, completely undefended.”

“It’s got to be a trap,” said Hoshic immediately.

“But what sort of trap?” replied Lors, “We need to figure out what it is, so we can decide whether to spring it or retreat. Besides, we can’t exactly go back to the Emperor and say, ‘Well, Your Majesty, they left their capital undefended, but we were afraid of a trap, so we just came home.’ We would be executed for sure.”

“Agreed,” Hoshic said decisively. “Order all ships to begin intensive scans. Send out probes and scout ships to investigate every nook and cranny of this system. Maybe the Midigalans found a place to hide their forces where our sensors can’t penetrate. And keep the fleet on high alert for now. We can’t discount the possibility that their fleet jumped from a nearby location on a signal from the planet as soon as we got here.” Lors saluted, and Hoshic turned and left.

“Admiral,” Commander Jalai said as soon as Hoshic was gone, “I don’t see any reason to wait. If the Midigalans have left their capital undefended, then we should seize it immediately! We can get our troops down to the planet and have them set up defensive positions! By the time the Midigalans show up, we’ll be so entrenched there’s no way they’ll be able to dislodge us!”

“It’s a bold plan, for sure, Commander,” replied Lors, “But without more information, boldness is difficult to distinguish from recklessness. What if the Midigalan fleet drops out of subspace as we’re deploying our ground forces? What if the Midigalan army is somehow concealed from our scans on the surface? There are just too many possible risk factors for us to proceed without more information.” Jalai scowled, and Lors could tell that he wasn’t convinced, but it didn’t matter. For all his faults, he was a soldier, and a good one, and he would follow orders.

***

After two days in orbit around Midigal, there had been no change in the situation. There was still no sign of the Midigalan fleet, and no indication of any military units on the surface. Admiral Lors had left the CIC only to sleep and go to the bathroom, and the tense monotony was starting to wear on him.

“Anything?” he asked as General Hoshic entered the CIC. Hoshic shook his head.

“I’ve contacted the ISS, Fleet Intelligence, and Army Intelligence, and as far as I can tell, no one in the Empire has any idea where any Midigalan ships are. I don’t know how they’ve done it, but they may as well have left the galaxy entirely.”

“So what do we do?”

“We spring the trap. I’m confident that given enough time, we could figure where Shen is hiding his ships. But we don’t have time. The Emperor has contacted me at least once an hour, demanding to know why we haven’t moved yet. I fear his patience is growing dangerously thin. I’m ordering the ground troops to deploy immediately. And may the One have mercy on our souls.”

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 12

Two hours before they were scheduled to break into the Council Hall, Treben Holkas and Kyla Vertrane were contacted by Verdek. It was the first time they’d heard from her since they first met her two weeks ago. They were staying in a rundown motel on the outskirts of the city. It was severely lacking in luxury, but it was clean and serviceable, and was far from the worst place Kyla had ever stayed in.

“You want us to WHAT?” Treben exclaimed in disbelief to the image of Verdek’s face floating in front of him.

“I want you to meet me before you begin your mission,” Verdek replied calmly, “Now, in fact. I’m transmitting coordinates to you.”

“But we only have two hours before we begin,” Treben said with exasperation, “We have things we need to do to get ready. We don’t have time to have a face-to-face meeting. Can’t you just send us the information?”

“No,” Verdek replied, a hint of anger evident in her otherwise even voice, “The information I have for you is too important to risk transmitting over the network. I need to give it to you in person.”

“Fine,” Treben said with a heavy sigh, “We’ll be there as soon as possible.” And then he severed the connection and turned to Kyla. “Well?”

“Let’s go,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. He looked at her with surprise.

“I thought you were the one that didn’t really want to do this job,” he said.

“So?”

“So, this is the perfect opportunity to back out! When your employer starts messing with things at the last second, that’s a bad, bad sign. Something is going wrong on their end, I can guarantee it, and that can only mean bad things for us.”

“I don’t know, Treb,” Kyla said, shaking her head, “I just have this weird feeling that this is important for you, that all of this is going to turn out in a…strangely satisfying way.” He gave her a bemused look.

“Well, that was oddly vague and specific at the same time,” he said, “Does this have something to do with Vor Shen?” She shook her head again.

“I have no idea,” she replied, “Maybe. I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it? We’ve heard all these rumors about a power struggle going on between Ventelin and Shen. It’s not farfetched to think that our employer is Vor Shen, is it?”

“No,” Treben said darkly, “it’s not.”

“What will you do if he is?” she asked, slightly anxious.

“Let’s hope we never find out,” Treben said with a scowl, “I want the money.” And with that, he stood up and left the room. Kyla jumped up and hurried after him.

They met with Verdek in a fancy restaurant in an upper class district of Grendemar, near the Council Hall. Even using the tram, it took them about an hour to get there, which meant that Treben was steaming mad by the time they got to Verdek’s table.

“Okay, so you’ve wasted most of our final prep time on this meeting already,” he said angrily as he sat down, “I sure hope what you say is important, because we’re gonna have to go straight to the Council Hall from here, and I’m not sure we’re ready. I’m sure you don’t care about our safety, but I bet your boss is gonna be pretty pissed if we fail to complete our mission because you had to have a last minute meeting to tell us something stupid.”

“I don’t do anything that is a waste of time, Mr. Holkas,” Verdek said coolly, “Part of what I have to say is that you will not be going to the Council Hall at all. There has been a change of plans. So don’t worry about losing out on preparation time. You will have all the time you need.” Treben glared at her, but he seemed at least somewhat mollified by this.

“You say that’s part of what you have to tell us,” Kyla said calmly, “What’s the rest?”

“Everything you need to know is on this tablet,” Verdek said, handing one to Kyla, “Where to go, when to go there, and how to get in. Memorize the information it contains, because in an hour, it will completely wipe itself.”

“Seems a little extreme, doesn’t it?” Treben said, crunching loudly on one of the appetizers that Verdek had ordered before they arrived.

“To you, perhaps,” Verdek said with a level gaze, “But to us, it is imperative that no one ever find out the truth about what you are about to do.”

“Fine, fine,” said Treben nonchalantly, “What else? Is that all you had to tell us?”

“No,” Verdek said, suddenly very intent, “There is one other thing.” Then she was silent, waiting until she was completely certain that she had Treben and Kyla’s full attention.

“Okay,” Treben said after a few moments, “Well, what is it?” Verdek gazed at him with surprising intensity.

“Whatever you do, you must carry this mission to completion,” she said, boring into him with her eyes, “Remember, once the target is eliminated, you will be obscenely rich. Wealthy beyond your wildest dreams. But if, for any reason, FOR ANY REASON AT ALL, you fail to complete this mission, not only will you forfeit your reward, but you two will be marked for death.” Treben and Verdek stared at each other, so intently that Kyla expected one or both of them to burst into flames.

“Are you saying there might be a reason I wouldn’t want to complete this mission?” Treben said slowly and carefully.

“Of course not,” Verdek said briskly, looking away from him suddenly, “I just wanted to make absolutely sure that you were aware of the risks and rewards involved.”

“I see,” Treben said, but it was obvious he wasn’t convinced.

“Well, you two have a lot of work to do, I’m sure,” Verdek said, rising from her seat, “I’ll just be going now. Help yourself to whatever you want. I’ve already told the proprietors to charge anything you order to my account.” And with that, she left.

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 11

It wasn’t the mightiest fleet that the Empire had ever mustered, not by a long shot, but General Hoshic hoped that it would be mighty enough for his purposes. Seven cruisers, 11 destroyers, and two battleships, in orbit around Medradi, all mobilized in the space of a few hours. It paled in comparison to what Hoshic suspected the Midigallans could muster, based on the scanty intelligence he had, but their fleet would be scattered throughout their so-called kingdom, trying to protect every province of significance that had joined their rebellion. Hoshic was going to concentrate all of his force on the most important province they possessed, and hopefully snuff out any momentum they had before they really got started. It seemed like a good plan. He hoped he was right.

His flagship was Decimator, the same cruiser that had been the Emperor’s flagship last year when they had overthrown the pretender Adlamor Finegal. Kryla Zomulin was still its captain, and she still looked too young and too cute to be a starship captain. But Hoshic had read her file and he trusted the judgment of Abaden Lors, the Grand Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, and both sources claimed she was the best officer serving under Extrator.

Hoshic stood near the back of the bridge, trying to stay out of Zomulin’s way. As Supreme Commander of the IAF, he had overall command of this operation, but Decimator was still Zomulin’s ship, and as a general, he didn’t know anything about commanding a starship anyway. Standing next to him was Admiral Lors, who was commanding the fleet for this operation. It said a lot about how important this mission was to the Emperor that he had sent his top two officers to personally command it.

“Well, General,” said Lors, “what do you think?” Hoshic frowned and thought for a moment.

“I’d say we have about even odds,” he replied, “If the Midigallan fleet is as scattered as we think it is, and their leadership is concentrated on Midigal, then this mission will be a rousing success.”

“And if neither of those things are true?” Lors asked.

“Then we’re in a lot of trouble,” Hoshic said with a scowl, “If the Midigallans concentrated their strength around their capital, we simply don’t have the numbers to match up. If the Emperor had given us a few more days to prepare, we could have mustered a much stronger fleet, but as it is…”

“Say no more,” Lors said, “I made that exact argument to His Majesty, but you know how stubborn he’s been lately. He wants this rebellion crushed, and he wants it done last week. Nothing short of total victory will satisfy him, and he wants it NOW.” Hoshic opened his mouth to respond, but at that moment Captain Zomulin came up to them.

“General, Admiral, the fleet is ready to drop into subspace,” she announced with a sharp salute. Admiral Lors nodded and returned her salute.

“Thank you, Captain,” he replied, “Order the fleet to stand ready for my signal.” Zomulin nodded, went back to her seat, and started barking orders to her crew.

“Well, General,” Lors said grimly, “this is it. Last chance to back out. What do you think? Should we overthrow Extrator IV and put an end to this madness? Or do we stay loyal, even though it will probably lead to our deaths, the destruction of this fleet, and the further dissolution of the Empire?” Hoshic was silent for a few moments, his face not betraying any of his thoughts. When he spoke, his voice was slow and deliberate, as if he was being very careful to say exactly what he meant and nothing else.

“Those thoughts have certainly occurred to me,” he said, “I don’t know what it will take to end this war and put the Empire back together again, but I know that the course that Extrator has embarked on is the not the correct one. And yet, should I throw away my loyalties and my oaths just because I think I can do a better job? How do I know I’m right? How do I know that the pressures of the Throne won’t just turn me into an even more capricious and brutal tyrant than Extrator?

“And besides,” he continued, “isn’t that how we got into this mess? People thinking they could do a better job of running the galaxy than those who were rightfully in charge? I don’t have any interest in perpetuating that cycle. At some point, somebody needs to stand firm.” Lors regarded him thoughtfully for a second, and then nodded.

“Good answer, my friend,” he said approvingly, “I agree with every bit of it. Extrator IV may not be the best Emperor we’ve ever had, but he’s the best one we’ve got. Let’s carry out his orders, even if they’re stupid and will get us killed.” He grinned sardonically, and then turned away from Hoshic and went to go give orders to Zomulin.

Hoshic stayed on the bridge as the fleet dropped into subspace, but once the jump had begun, he made his way to his quarters. He still needed to work out the final details of his plan. He would leave the Midigallan fleet to Admiral Lors, but once that fleet was taken care of, the 200,000 troops under his command would deploy to the planet’s surface, occupy the city of Grendemar, and take as hostages any members of the Merchants’ Council they could find. It was a simple plan, which was good, but it relied too heavily on factors outside of Hoshic’s control.

They did have a backup plan. If the forces stationed in the Midigal system were too powerful for Hoshic’s fleet to handle, the Imperial fleet would immediately drop back into subspace and make for Trifelimoor, one of the most important provinces that had joined Midigal. Losing Trifelimoor would not be as great of a blow politically, but it would be a bigger blow economically, and would cripple the fledgling kingdom’s chances of success.

But Hoshic would prefer to decapitate his foe, rather than cripple them. A wounded Kingdom of Midigal would still be a greater threat than if it were killed and reincorporated into the Empire. Hopefully Ventelin and the Merchants’ Council would be on Midigal, and hopefully it wouldn’t be too heavily defended. It never occurred to Hoshic how much wishful thinking he was employing, that he was expecting his foe, famous as a master strategist, to make novice mistakes that any second lieutenant fresh out of the Academy would never think to make.

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 10

Everything was going according to Vor Shen’s plans. Ventelin’s announcement of the foundation of the Kingdom of Midigal had caused an uproar across the galaxy. Despite the fact that the Empire had been broken into several pieces for almost four years now, it still seemed shocking to some that anybody would dare break it up further, a testament, Shen supposed, to how solid and whole the Empire had been in the 350 years since the Nether War.

Fortunately, the uproar had been mostly limited to talk so far. Emperors Neminatrix IV, Valador I, and Malador VI had all issued statements condemning Midigal’s actions and making a lot of pious noises about “upholding the holy and sacred Empire”, as if multiple men fighting over the Imperial Throne didn’t defile the Empire just as much. Fangalin had officially ignored Midigal’s declaration, but had launched a few probing raiding parties against some of Midigal’s outer provinces, which had been easily repelled. And the Republic of Hadramoris had actually extended an offer of alliance, which Shen had hoped for but not really expected. So that was a pleasant surprise.

The real threat, at least in the short term, was Extrator IV, as Shen had expected. For all the talk from the other Emperors, their forces had not stirred so far, but Extrator’s had immediately begun to mobilize within hours of Ventelin’s announcement. All available information indicated that they were going to strike directly at Midigal, which made sense. If you were going to crush a rebellion quickly, it made sense to hit the heart of it, fast and hard. Unfortunately for Extrator, that was exactly what Shen wanted.

Everything was going so well, in fact, that Shen almost felt giddy. Or at least, he would have, if it wasn’t for Ventelin. No longer General Haasadis Ventelin, he was now officially His Majesty King Ventelin I, and his ego seemed to have grown proportionally. He had gone from treating Shen like a servant to treating him like a slave. It took all of Shen’s self control to keep from stabbing Ventelin in the neck during their frequent nude massage sessions. He just had to keep reminding himself that everything was in hand. Ventelin was still necessary. Once the IAF was crushed and the Kingdom was firmly established, then Shen could go through with his plan.

And what a plan it was. It made Shen feel genuinely giddy just thinking about it. During the chaos and confusion of fending off the Imperial Fleet, the two assassins that Shen had hired would sneak into the King’s hiding place and eliminate him. Shen would blame Imperial agents, and install Ventelin’s son, Granfilon, in his place. With a child as king, Shen could go back to being the power behind the throne, only with the official title of Regent this time. And who knew? Once his power was established enough, maybe it would be possible to remove Granfilon and crown himself. The Merchants’ Council certainly wouldn’t be able to stop him.

It was a delightful thought, almost enough to cheer him up as he faced the prospect of scrubbing the King’s royal toilet again. He had something akin to a spring in his step as he made his way up to Ventelin’s chambers. He may have even been smiling. But any hint of a good mood was snuffed out when he saw who was waiting for him in front of the King’s chambers.

It was Calaia Tromin, Ventelin’s new royal steward. If Ventelin treated Shen like a slave, Tromin treated him like a particularly nasty variety of slug. Tromin’s appearance was the only thing that was counter to Shen’s plans. Ventelin had appointed her to the post of royal steward with his first decree as king, an act which completely blindsided Shen. He had never heard of Calaia Tromin, and had done what he could to find out who she was and where she came from, but somehow her past was very well hidden.

It didn’t help that her treatment of him inhibited him from carrying out much research. She was constantly hounding him with demeaning little requests that took up a great deal of time but didn’t seem to have much purpose aside from that. He had thought about refusing her, as she had no legal or other kind of authority over him. But he needed to keep Ventelin happy, in order to keep him from getting suspicious about Shen’s plans. And keeping Ventelin happy meant keeping Tromin happy. Not that she ever was happy.

“Shen,” she said with a sneer, her voice dripping with contempt, and her eyes gleaming with sadistic delight, “it’s about time you dragged your worthless carcass up here.” She would have been beautiful if she wasn’t such a hateful person. Long, shiny dark hair, deep, blue eyes, and full, red lips were complimented by a lithe but curvy figure. Shen supposed that she was an object of lust for most men, but all he saw when he looked at her was a demon straight from the Nether Realms.

“I came as soon as I was called, Tromin,” he replied, trying, and failing, to keep contempt out of his own voice. “What pointless and demeaning activity do you have for me today?” She grinned evilly.

“Oh, nothing that would be too taxing for your pathetic little mind,” she said with a nasty chuckle. “I just need the access codes to your personal files.” She let that statement hang in the air for a moment. Shen’s jaw worked soundlessly as he stared at her incredulously.

“You cannot be serious!” he finally blurted out.

“Oh I am,” she said, “I have reason to believe that you have been…less than completely loyal to His Majesty the King. He has given me permission to obtain access to your files by any means necessary.”

“Impossible!” he practically screeched, “I won’t allow it! This is a violation of my rights and my privacy! I will resign my commission, and then who will defend you against the Empire!?”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” she said with a patronizing wink, “Go ahead and carry out your plans for the Empire. But once the IAF is defeated, you will hand over your access codes, or you will be thrown in prison.” He glared at her, fear and rage warring in his heart.

“Don’t be so sure about that, Tromin,” he said with quiet intensity, “You think you’ve beaten me, but I won’t go down so easily. You’ll be the one in prison in the end.” He turned and stalked away, but her mocking laughter followed him as he went.

To be continued…