The Bull and the Hyena, Part 17

Vor Shen stood on the bridge of the cruiser Destiny, hands clasped behind his back, looking out at the majestic view of the planet Midigal displayed on the screen in front of him. His plan had worked perfectly so far. The Imperial fleet had taken heavy losses before it fled like a dog with its tail between its legs, and 200,000 Imperial troops were entrenched in the city of Grendemar, arrogantly thinking they could hold out against what the Midigalans were about to unleash on them. Shen couldn’t help but grin.

His chief assistant, Chefeel Garronis, known to some as Verdek, came up to him as he stood there. At first glance, she might have looked a little out of place, as she was wearing civilian clothes on a military vessel. But if one looked at her eyes, it was obvious that she had the authority and the presence to command anyone onboard, including Vor Shen himself. She did not look happy, but then, she rarely did. It wasn’t until she spoke that Shen realized there was a reason for her to look unhappy this time.

“General, I have some bad news that needs to be delivered in private,” she said pointedly. Shen frowned, and motioned to her to follow him to his quarters.

“Please tell me that Ventelin is dead, and this bad news has to do with some other matter,” he said, turning to face her as the door slid shut behind them, a hint of pleading in his voice. She shook her head sternly.

“Unfortunately, as far as I can determine, the assassins I hired never showed up at Ventelin’s villa,” she said. Shen swore loudly and slammed his fist on the desk.

“You told me they were the best!” he bellowed. “You told me there was no possibility that they would fail!” Garronis arched an eyebrow at him.

“I never told you any such thing,” she said coolly. “In fact, I believe I explicitly informed you that these two were untrained and inexperienced. I told you we should try to find someone with more seasoning, but you were concerned about the expense.” Shen glared at her angrily, but he held his tongue. She was right, of course.

“So, what then?” he growled.

“We pretend that nothing happened, and we wait for another opportunity,” she replied.

“And what if Ventelin turned them, and knows we tried to kill him?” Shen asked.

“We pretend that nothing happened, and we wait for another opportunity,” she repeated irritably. “Ventelin needs you. You’re too great an asset to be squandered, even if you are trying to kill him. And maybe he’ll treat you with greater respect, now that he knows what you’re capable of.” Shen frowned and stroked his beard thoughtfully.

“Interesting,” he said. “Yes, I can see your point. Very well then. Maybe our goals can be accomplished without Ventelin’s death. I would be content to continue to be the power behind the throne, as long as I have all the power.” He made his way to the door. “All right then. Let’s deal with the matter at hand. We have an occupation to end.”

***

General Hoshic was nervous. It had been six hours since the Imperial fleet had retreated from the skies over Midigal, and still the Midigalan fleet did nothing but circle the planet silently. All of his troops were still on alert, waiting to repel the Midigalan assault, but all this waiting was leading to increased tensions and frayed nerves. Hoshic himself felt like he had his emotions under control, but he still had that nagging feeling that he’d missed something, and the lack of action by the Midigalans wasn’t helping matters. He couldn’t imagine what he might have missed, though.

As soon as the Midigalans had moved into orbit, he had contacted them and informed them that he had the Merchants’ Council and would place them in an exposed location where they would likely be killed in the fighting, unless negotiations began. He thought maybe that negotiating would at least stall them for a little while, buying the Emperor time to send a new fleet to relieve them, but the Midigalans had not responded. So, he had ordered the councilors moved to the top floor of the Council Hall. If the Midigalans thought he was bluffing, he would prove them wrong.

He himself had transferred his command post to a former Imperial army base near the edge of the city. It was a heavily fortified and easily defendable position, and the Council Hall was the opposite. Exposed and vulnerable, it would almost certainly be destroyed during the course of the battle, no matter how hard the Midigalans tried to avoid hitting it.

He yawned and stretched his arms up over his head. All this waiting was really wearing on him. It would have to be worse for the men and women out in the field, who had no idea when the hammer would fall, and they would have to start fighting and dying. Not that Hoshic thought himself immune from death, but he was much less likely to die in this battle than the grunts on the front line.

A sudden, deafening explosion outside jolted Hoshic out of his thoughts. There were no windows in the room where he was standing, so he couldn’t see what had happened, but the explosion was powerful enough to shake the building and knock Hoshic off his feet.

“How in the Nether did the Midigalans manage to begin their attack without anyone noticing?” he bellowed to his aides in the room.

“General!” yelled a lieutenant. “They’re bombing the city from orbit!” Hoshic froze, as the last piece of the puzzle clicked into place in his head. Of course. It was so brilliantly simple, he should have seen it all along. Vor Shen let the Imperial Army occupy Grendemar and seize the Merchants’ Council because those things were expendable. Vor Shen was going to sacrifice a city to wipe out a sizable chunk of the Empire’s military force, and the king’s main internal political rival. Hoshic had been a blind fool. And now he and his troops were going to pay the ultimate price for his foolishness.

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 16

“General Hoshic!” yelled a voice suddenly, jolting Izik Hoshic out of his thoughts. “There’s an urgent message from Admiral Lors!” Hoshic spun immediately and began striding toward the lieutenant who had just entered the room.

“Well,” he demanded, “what is it?”

“Sir!” the lieutenant said, saluting sharply, “The Midigalan fleet has arrived and begun engaging our ships!”

“Dammit,” Hoshic growled, “How many?”

“I’m not sure, sir,” the lieutenant replied, “Definitely more than we have. Maybe a lot more.”

“Great,” Hoshic said with a scowl, “Alert all units. Dig in and prepare for a counterattack.”

“Yes, sir!” the lieutenant saluted again and turned on his heel. Hoshic turned back to the window and his thoughts. He couldn’t help but feel like he’d missed something. Why would the Midigalans wait until his troops were entrenched in their capital city before they struck? Could it just be an oversight? A mistake? Hoshic had little hope that Lors would be able to hold off the Midigalan fleet for long, especially if the lieutenant was right and they had “a lot more” ships than the Empire. But even if Lors was forced to retreat, the Midigalans were in for a long and protracted ground war to get their capital back, which would give the Emperor time to send a larger, more powerful fleet.

Everything about this – the defenseless capital, the presence of the Merchants’ Council, the timing of the Midigalan fleet’s arrival – all seemed like foolish mistakes to Hoshic. And that made him worry, because Vor Shen was not known for making foolish mistakes.

***

“D-con, status report!” barked Captain Zomulin.

“Shields are at 30 percent, but they’re holding,” replied her damage control officer, as Decimator shuddered under the force of Midigalan guns.

“Come about to heading 7443.6,” Zomulin ordered. “Target the cruiser at 6429.3. Open fire on my mark.” There was a moment of tense silence, before she yelled, “Fire!” The mighty cruiser shuddered again, but this time it was a slightly different feeling, as the ship was emitting energy rather than absorbing it.

“Target destroyed!” announced her tactical officer.

“One down, thirty-seven more to go,” Zomulin said with a sigh. She was only in command of this one ship, not the entire fleet, but she had to be at least peripherally aware of how the battle as a whole was going, so she could coordinate attacks with the other ships in the fleet, and so far, this battle was going quite poorly. Not that it was a surprise, considering how outnumbered they were. Out of 48 ships in the Midigalan fleet, 11 had been destroyed, which would almost be impressive if the Imperial fleet hadn’t lost 13 ships out of 20.

“Two Midigalan cruisers approaching on bearing 2914.6,” announced her navigation officer.

“We can’t stand up against two cruisers at once, Captain,” said Zomulin’s XO, Commander Jalari Tokul. She was a tall, stately woman with long black hair and dark skin, older than Zomulin, but not by much.

“Agreed, Commander,” Zomulin said, “Helm, evasive maneuvers. Head for bearing 7271.9.” Then she swore loudly as the ship shuddered violently. “Report!” she bellowed.

“There’s a third Midigalan cruiser approaching!” yelled the navigation officer. “I’m sorry! I didn’t see it!”

“Shields are at 10 percent, Captain,” said the damage control officer. “Another hit like that, and we’ll be done for.”

“We have to retreat,” muttered Zomulin. “Contact Admiral Lors!” she yelled. “Apprise him of our situation. Let him know that I recommend immediate withdrawal.” Her communications officer nodded and sent the message.

***

In the CIC, Admiral Lors was sweating nervously, which was unusual for him. Normally, he was exceedingly cool under pressure. He’d once faced down an entire room full of angry admirals and senators after four soldiers died in a training exercise that he was in charge of. His composure hadn’t cracked in the slightest in that incident, but the stakes weren’t as high either. If he screwed up today, it would mean his death, and the death of hundreds of members of the Imperial Fleet.

“Admiral!” yelled his communication officer suddenly, “Message from the bridge! Captain Zomulin recommends immediate withdrawal!” Lors swore under his breath and stared at the information on the screens in front of him for a moment before answering. It was the obvious choice, and probably even the right choice. The Imperial Fleet had begun this battle vastly outnumbered, and they were even more outnumbered now. This battle had not gone well at all for the Empire, but if they retreated, Lors risked punishment and disgrace, perhaps even execution, at the hands of the Emperor. If he retreated, he might die, but if he stayed, his death was certain. And he had the surviving ships and their crews to think about. Could he sacrifice them to avoid the shame of execution? That was the deciding factor him.

“Order the fleet to drop into subspace,” he commanded, “Set course for Medradi. Send a message to General Hoshic. Tell him to hold on. We will be back for him.” The communications officer nodded and sent his messages. A few minutes later, the ship shuddered slightly as it made the shift from conventional space to subspace. Lors sighed heavily and wiped his brow. So that was what a battle was like. Interesting, but not an experience he would want to repeat anytime soon.

***

Hoshic frowned as he read the message from Admiral Lors. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was disappointing that the fleet couldn’t have held out longer. But there was never much of a chance that the Imperial fleet could have forced the Midigalans to retreat. There was just too many of them. Now it was time for the ground troops to earn their pay.

It wouldn’t be long, Hoshic suspected, before dropships started descending from space, full of Midigalan troops hellbent on taking their capital back. Hoshic’s troops were as prepared as they could be. They had surface-to-air guns and missile batteries installed all over the city, and they had fortifications set up all around the outskirts, to fight off enemy troops that landed outside. Hoshic had no illusions that they’d be able to hold this city indefinitely, but he was confident that they’d be able to hold it long enough for the Emperor to send reinforcements.

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 15

“Wait a minute,” said Kyla, incredulous, “After all that you’ve done to convince me to do this job, you’re going to give it up, just like that?”

“I’m sorry, Kyla,” Treben said, shaking his head sadly, “I don’t really expect you to understand, but I kind of hoped you would.”

“Let’s not forget,” interrupted Calaia, “you have no hope of killing Ventelin now, not that you ever really did. Even if I did let you walk out of this room, Ventelin isn’t here. He never was. And I have a suspicion that you’d have a hard time ever finding him.”

“I understand all that,” Kyla said, exasperated, “This has just been…very hard for me. That, and I was really looking forward to the money.”

“Oh, I’ll pay you,” Calaia said confidently, “Not as much as Shen was promising you, I’m sure, but plenty. You needn’t worry about being out on the street after this.”

“But what about what Verdek told us?” Kyla said, “About how we’d be killed if we didn’t carry out the mission?”

“Don’t worry about that,” Calaia said, “I have powerful friends, and I’m not just talking about Ventelin. I’ll make sure that no harm comes to you.” Kyla frowned and shrugged.

“Whatever,” she said resignedly, “I guess I don’t have a choice anyway.”

“No, you don’t,” Calaia said firmly.

“I’m sorry, Kyla,” Treben said, “I’m sorry I got you into this mess. I’m sorry I convinced you to come to Midigal without being clear about what we were doing. I’m sorry you’ve gotten caught up in my personal issues.” Kyla waved a hand dismissively.

“Don’t worry about it, Treb,” she said with a weary smile, “I kind of like the fact that you’re a real human who cares about more than money and getting laid.” Treben snorted and grinned.

“If we’re all done sorting out our feelings,” Calaia said pointedly, “it’s time to get down to business. You two are going to stay here until the Imperial invasion is over. Once that’s taken care of, Shen will undoubtedly come here to meet with Ventelin, and then you will take care of him. Simple plan, huh?”

“Wait,” Treben said, “why would Shen come here? Isn’t he, you know, expecting Ventelin to be dead?” Calaia grinned broadly.

“Of course, but Ventelin won’t be dead, and Shen won’t know why,” Calaia replied, “He will be lead to believe that you two just never showed up, so he has to pretend that nothing is amiss. And when he gets here, he won’t find Ventelin, he’ll find us!” She cackled with delight.

“And what about the Empire?” Kyla asked, “You make it sound like the invasion will be over in a few days. What if you’re wrong? What if the Empire wins?” Calaia smirked ruefully.

“Vor Shen has a lot of faults, and I obviously want him to die, but even I have to admit the man is a military genius. The Imperial Fleet has no idea what it’s getting into,” she said, and chuckled nastily, “Almost makes me wish Shen was on our side, but there’s no chance of that happening.”

“Your side?” asked Kyla, puzzled, “What do you mean? Aren’t you Midigalan?” Treben chortled at this.

“Calaia? Midigalan?” he said, “Hardly.” Calaia arched an eyebrow at him.

“Suffice it to say, Kyla,” she said while still looking at Treben, “I prefer that my true loyalties remain a secret for now.”

“Okay, Calaia,” Treben said, still chuckling, “I’ll play your little game for now. But I think I know who you’re really working for.”

***

Grendemar fell to the Empire without a fight. Two hundred thousand Imperial troops descended on the capital of the Kingdom of Midigal and seized every important political, military, and economic position within the city in a matter of a few hours, all without firing a single shot. General Hoshic was pleased at the lack of casualties, but he couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling that he was missing something important.

He had successfully seized every member of the Merchants’ Council, and had them under guard in the basement of the Council Hall. He himself had set up his command on the top floor of the Hall, in a spacious chamber that had obviously been King Ventelin’s throne room, if only briefly. Of Ventelin himself, there was no sign, nor had they been able to gain any information about the whereabouts of Vor Shen or the Midigalan fleet.

He couldn’t figure out what Shen’s game was. The Merchants’ Council was the most powerful political body in this sector of the galaxy. It officially ruled over just the province of Midigal, but the councilors were known to have significant influence over the ruling bodies of many nearby provinces, one of the reasons Midigal was the heart of this rebellion. Clearly Shen had allowed them, and perhaps even convinced them, to stay on Midigal to add extra bait to his trap, but in Hoshic’s mind, they were too important to be used so mundanely. He couldn’t conceive of any reason why it would be to Shen’s advantage that the Merchants’ Council was a hostage of the Empire, and that worried him. Just because he didn’t know the reason didn’t mean there wasn’t one.

***

“Contact!” yelled Halah Vortum in Decimator‘s CIC. Everyone’s head snapped up immediately to watch the dots representing Midigalan ships appear on the sensor screen. “I read thirty…no forty…forty-eight warships just dropped out of subspace and are on an intercept course!” Admiral Lors swore softly under his breath. The Midigalan fleet was more than twice as large as his.

“All ships!” he yelled immediately, “Assume defensive formation Paktar! Fire at will as soon as they’re in range! Do whatever you can to keep them from making orbit!” He watched intently, fingers tightly clutching the computer console in front of him. He was 57 years old. He had served in the Imperial Fleet since the day he turned 18. He’d served with distinction, commanding starships and fleets of every type and composition. And this was the first time he’d ever been involved in a real battle.

What a shame, he thought, to serve in the military for forty years and die in my first battle.

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 14

Treben Holkas and Kyla Vertrane landed their skimmer in a grassy field on the opposite side of the planet from Grendemar. There were three major continents on Midigal, and the one that Verdek had directed them to was the least densely populated of the three. According to the information they had received, their target, King Ventelin I, was holed up in a lavish country villa in order to keep him safe from the Imperial forces that were about to descend from the skies at any moment.

As soon as Treben and Kyla finished memorizing the information they’d received from Verdek, they had taken a shuttle to Komalas, the largest city on this continent, which was also the closest city to Ventelin’s refuge. They had checked into another rundown motel, and there they waited for the signal to proceed. They spent their time making sure they remembered all the information Verdek had given them and trying to keep themselves from getting too bored.

They were just watching news reports about how ground troops were embarking from the Imperial ships orbiting the planet, when a message arrived from Verdek informing them that it was time. The message appeared to be from an old friend of Treben’s, and the content of the message was utterly innocuous, but it matched up with what Verdek had told them to expect. Considering that “Verdek” was itself a codename, the fact that she used an entirely different codename for this message told them how paranoid she was about anyone finding out what they were doing.

Their landing spot was about two miles away from the villa, close enough that could just see it on the horizon. Somewhere in this field was the exit for an emergency escape route from the villa, designed to be used in case of attack. Verdek had given them its location, reasoning that since it was believed to be top secret, it would be the perfect way to enter the villa undetected.

To the naked eye, the entrance to the secret passage looked like a lone tree near the edge of the field, close to a nearby forest. But Verdek had told them where on the tree to press to open the door. They did so, and the tree disappeared, revealing an opening and steps leading underground.

Of course, not just anybody could have touched the tree in that spot and opened the passage. Verdek had also inputed their biorhythmic signatures into the database of people cleared to access the passage. Treben had his doubts about the wisdom of that approach. For one, there would now be a record of who had accessed the passage. Treben and Kyla’s biosignatures were entered into the database under false names, of course, but it still wouldn’t be that difficult to cross-reference those signatures with a galactic master list, and find out exactly who had entered the passage. Verdek assured them, however, that it was in their employer’s best interest to pin the blame for Ventelin’s death on the Empire instead of on mercenaries. Besides, Treben knew it would be the safest way into the villa, and he had no intention of dying on this mission.

The passage into the villa was so uneventful, it was almost boring. It was just a straight, grey-walled hallway. No twists, no turns, and no security. Treben found this a little suspicious, but he also could believe that Ventelin and/or his security team was so arrogant that they thought no one would ever be able to find the secret passage, and thus there was no need to secure it.

“Okay, this is it,” Treben whispered to Kyla as they reached the end of the passage. He drew his gun, and she did the same. There was a solid metal door there, and according to Verdek’s information, it opened directly into the master bedroom. With any luck, Ventelin would be alone in there, and they could kill him and get out before anyone noticed they were there.

Treben opened the door. There was a single person standing in the room. It was not Ventelin. It wasn’t even a man. It was a woman, a woman whom Treben knew very well. She was standing, facing the door with her arms crossed, as if she knew they were coming.

“Calaia,” whispered Treben in a stricken voice.

“Treben Holkas, I never expected to see you here,” Calaia Tromin asked with a knowing smirk that implied otherwise.

“You know this woman?” Kyla asked.

“Yes,” Treben said quietly, “Yes I do.” He approached Calaia slowly, not lowering his gun, although she hadn’t made any sort of threatening gesture. “Calaia, you know why I’m here.” Calaia’s smirk deepened.

“Oh, I do,” she replied, “But the question is, do you?”

“I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean,” replied Treben.

“Yes you do,” Calaia said with a wink, “Did you ever stop to think about who hired you to kill King Ventelin? No, don’t answer that. I know you, and I know you have thought about it, and I know that you’ve tried to pretend that you haven’t. Well, pretend no more, my friend. You were hired by-”

“STOP!” screamed Treben, a wild look coming into his eyes, “I don’t want to know!” Calaia grinned wolfishly.

“Vor Shen,” she said with a malicious glint in her eyes. Treben screamed, a horrible, primal, desperate scream, and as he did so he fired off a blast from his pistol. Calaia didn’t even blink as it barely missed her head. Treben fell silent and dropped his gun, which clattered loudly to the ground. He bent over, panting as if he’d just finished running a long race. “Why did you do that?” he said between gasps, “I was content in my ignorance. I was happy to just take the money and live the rest of my life in ignorant bliss. Now you’ve ruined that. I can’t finish this job, knowing where the money is coming from.”

“You can’t finish this job anyway,” Calaia said with a sneer, “cause if you tried, you’d be dead before you left this room. But I have a new job for you.”

“Let me guess,” Treben said wearily, “Kill Vor Shen.”

“Of course!” Calaia said brightly, “You’re not the only person who wants Shen dead, you know.”

“No, I suppose I’m not,” Treben said darkly, and then he took a deep breath, “All right. You got me. Tell me what to do.”

To be continued…