Catching the Sun, Part 3

The stately manor on the hill outside Vortronis had once been the grandest structure in the city, but it had fallen into disrepair in recent years. The owner of the manor, Imperial Army Colonel Xendin Lodimeur, (Ret.), had likewise fallen into disrepair over the years. His life had once been just about perfect. He’d had a fulfilling and profitable military career, a well-connected and beautiful wife, and a brilliant and devoted daughter. Now all of it was gone. His career was over, his wife had left him, and his daughter was dead. The first two he could have dealt with. His career had been long and fulfilling, but also exhausting, and he had welcomed retirement. As for his wife, old age had robbed her of her beauty, and her connections weren’t as important now that his career was over.

But his daughter…her death had driven him to despair. He had always been close to Hana. She had been the light of his life, the twinkle in his eye, and she had reciprocated his adoration. He had been so proud of her when she was admitted to Imperial University. That moment had been the culmination of everything he’d worked for and dreamed of his entire life. But about a year after she started at IU, the war had broken out, and she had gotten embroiled in politics. She’d spent three years ignoring her studies and organizing protests against the rule of Embamor II. How she’d managed to avoid getting kicked out and/or arrested by the ISS was beyond him, but it almost made him even prouder of her. And then, came the short and unlamented reign of Preclonus IV.

Hana had been one of the ringleaders of a massive protest against Preclonus, and when that protest was crushed, Hana was crushed along with it. The worst part of it all was that the man who had ordered Hana’s death was none other than Jimalin Redlamin, Xendin Lodimeur’s best friend and most important patron.

That was the main reason why Hana’s death had sent him into a self-destructing spiral of drinking and depression. If Hana had died in an accident, Xendin would have been crushed, but he would have accepted it as fate and moved on. The fact that a man Xendin still loved and respected was responsible for her death was impossible for him to process.

Of course, it wasn’t as if Redlamin had specifically singled out Hana. Redlamin probably hadn’t even known that Hana was in that crowd of protestors. But knowing that his protege’s daughter was in the crowd wouldn’t have stopped him from firing into it. That’s how Redlamin’s mind worked; if he believed something was right, he did it, regardless of who got hurt.

Xendin took a swig of bourbon and stared vacantly at a crack in the wall. He had done nothing to maintain his mansion since he had received the news of Hana’s death. He’d fired his staff and refused to so much as empty out his trash. He simply used the fortune he’d amassed over his military career to buy more booze and then he drank it. Occasionally, he ate. Sometimes, he slept. Mostly, he drank. He’d gained over a hundred pounds in the last two years. He had no idea why he was still alive.

A ringing sound interrupted his vacant self-pity. It was his tablet, letting him know that a call was coming in. He ignored it. He hadn’t taken a call in over 18 months. Nobody had anything important to say. After a few moments, the ringing ended, and Xendin took another swig of bourbon. And then the ringing started again.

Xendin turned his head to look at his tablet. The identification number of the person calling was unfamiliar. He wondered if it was the same person as before, or just a coincidence. He shrugged and took another swig of bourbon. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. The ringing stopped and Xendin continued to stare at the wall.

And then the ringing started again. Slowly, almost disbelieving, Xendin turned his head back to his tablet. Sure enough, it was the same ID number as before. He stared at it, as if unable to comprehend what he was seeing. Since Hana’s death, nobody had made so much effort to contact him. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would make so much effort now. He was almost tempted to answer this call. Almost. Instead, he turned away, back to his bourbon and the crack in his wall.

And then the ringing started again. His head snapped back to glare at his tablet irritably. Once again, the same ID number was listed. Who could possibly want to talk to him this badly? He had a sneaking suspicion that they would keep calling again and again until he answered.

Fine, he thought angrily, I’ll answer it. Maybe then I can convince them to leave me alone. He grabbed his tablet and jabbed the answer button with his finger. The call connected and Xendin was annoyed to discover that it was audio-only.

“Hello!” he barked in his best angry colonel voice. “Who is this?”

“Hello, Colonel Lodimeur,” said a young woman’s voice, and Xendin’s heart skipped a beat. For a second, he thought it was his Hana, but then she continued speaking. “My name is Komeela Shalavin, and I have a business proposition for you.”

“Business proposition?” he growled. “Are you insane? I already have more money than I can possibly spend! I certainly don’t need any more!”

“This proposition is not about money, Colonel,” replied Shalavin. “It’s about revenge.”

“I’m not terribly interested in that either, my dear,” Xendin said drily.

“Aren’t you?” Shalavin asked. “What else do you have to live for? You’re just drowning yourself in booze and self-pity. Why not put your talents to work for a good cause, and get some satisfaction in the meantime?” Xendin was silent for a few moments, thinking. “You don’t have to decide right now,” Shalavin continued. “How about we meet in person, and I can give you some more details?” Xendin thought for a few moments, and then he answered.

“Fine,” he said. “We’ll meet. Like you said, I don’t have anything else to do anyway.”

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 2

Dren Calabane frowned as a beeping sound from his tablet notified him that he had an incoming call. It was from his chief of intelligence, which meant it was definitely work-related. He’d known his respite wasn’t going to last very long, but that didn’t make being interrupted any less annoying.

“Yes, Vedrin?” he said to the face that appeared on his tablet.

“Sorry to interrupt you, my lord, but I have some news that I thought you might be interested in,” Vedrin Borodai said deferentially. Calabane nodded, and Borodai continued. “I’ve received some reports which indicate that Erelesk Votalin is preparing to make a move against Jimalin Redlamin. There are reports of young men and women being forced into military service on provinces such as Ynevin, Parnora, and Kefeflin, all provinces controlled by Votalin. There is also evidence of Imperial Fleet units loyal to Votalin moving to Allamanin, which may indicate that Votalin is preparing to launch an assault against Endragar.”

“Interesting,” Calabane said, mostly to himself, as he perused the files that Borodai had sent along. “Your recommendations?”

“I do not believe we need to act on this information yet, my lord,” Borodai replied. “But I do think it is important to keep it in mind, in case it turns out to be accurate.”

“I agree,” Calabane said, nodding. “Keep an eye on Votalin’s territories, and keep me appraised of any change in his preparations. We need to be ready to intervene if he moves faster than we would like.”

“As you command, my lord,” Borodai said with a salute, and his image disappeared from Calabane’s tablet. Calabane sat back with a thoughtful frown. Endragar was the second-most powerful province in the Empire. An attack against Endragar meant that Votalin was going for broke. If he was successful in seizing Endragar, then Trisitania itself would not be long in falling.

The question was whether or not to allow that. Redlamin was hardly a formidable foe, but he had proven to be the strongest Emperor to sit on the throne since the Emergence. It was well known that Votalin was a sadistic monster with a complete lack of morals, but that didn’t necessarily mean he would be a weak Emperor. Calabane needed to sit down with Commander Fortulis, and hopefully together they could decide who would be the weaker Emperor, and devote their resources to making sure that person sat on the Throne.

***

Kyla Vertrane yawned widely as her freighter dropped out of subspace near Endragar. It had been two weeks since she’d left Chamalar, a rural Fangalin province near the border with Hadramoris, and she’d barely slept since then. It had been imperative that she reach Endragar by a certain date, and she’d pushed herself and her ship to their limits to make it on time. She would have to spend at least a month on Endragar, overhauling her ship and making repairs to make up for the damage she’d caused in pushing so hard. She hoped that this trip would be worth it. Endragar was not a place that smugglers normally came. It was too deep in the core, too close to the heart of Imperial power. Too much risk of getting caught by the ISS or the Imperial Fleet. But some prizes were worth the risk.

She eased her freighter, which she had named Fluttermask, into a high orbit over Endragar, and sat back to await clearance to land. Hopefully clearance would arrive in a few hours, but realistically it would be more like a few days. Not a big deal. Now that she was in orbit, she had all the time in the universe.

She ran her hands through her short, thick, brown hair, smirking as she remembered the days when she used to dye it pink. Although it was only a year ago, it seemed like forever. So much had changed since Midigal. After she and Treben Holkas had collected their fee from Calaia Tromin, they had parted ways, and she hadn’t heard from him since. He had told her he was returning to Minisca to take care of some loose ends, and he had promised to contact her soon after. She didn’t know what had happened. Maybe he was dead. Maybe he was still mad that she had killed Vor Shen instead of him. Or maybe his sob story about his dead wife and child was crap, and he’d just taken her for a ride. It didn’t matter. The money she’d received had been more than enough for to buy her own freighter and become a smuggler in her own right, and that was all that really mattered. There had been a time when she’d hoped that her relationship with Holkas could become something more…meaningful, but that dream was dead and forgotten. Life was too short to spend it pining over a man.

A notification beep roused her from her thoughts. She reached over and jabbed a button on the control panel to open a channel.

“Freighter Fluttermask, this is the Endragar Transit Authority. Please respond,” said a male voice over the comm.

“ETA, this is Kyla Vertrane, captain of the Fluttermask,” Kyla responded. “What can I do for you?”

“I have received and processed your request for entry,” the ETA officer said. “You are cleared for landing. Please proceed directly to Endragar City Starport. I will transmit precise coordinates to you shortly.”

“That fast?” Kyla asked, surprised. “I was expecting to be sitting up here for a few days, at least.”

“I was ordered to bump you to the top of the list,” the ETA officer said. “I don’t know any more than that.” And with that, the channel was closed. Kyla chewed her lip pensively for a few seconds, and then shrugged. Whatever she had gotten herself into, it apparently went pretty close to the top. No matter. Her experience on Midigal had taught her that, at the end of the day, the job itself didn’t matter. All that mattered was the payoff at the end.

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 1

Erelesk Votalin stood on the third floor balcony of his home in an upper-class district of Heretoral, the capital of the province of Infanalis, basking in the glow of a rare sunny day. He was shirtless, and his well-oiled, perfectly muscled torso shone in the sun. Taking a deep breath, he let it out and grinned happily. Everything was going so well. The weather was good, the sun was shining, birds were singing, and a traitor was slowly dying a few feet behind him.

A low moan attracted Votalin’s attention, and he turned around to peer into the open door behind him. On the opposite side of the room was a person chained to the wall. This particular person’s body was so badly broken and bleeding that one would have been forgiven for believing that he was dead, but in actuality, he still clung to life, barely. Votalin grinned widely as he realized this, and cracked his knuckles loudly as he reentered the room.

“Oh, Haskev,” Votalin said brightly. “You’re still with me! How delightful. I was thinking that maybe the fun was all over.” He strode over to his victim, and spent a few moments perusing a wide selection of torture instruments carefully arranged on a nearby table. “Hmmm…I think this one will be good,” he said, picking up a long, gleaming, slightly curved knife. “Sometimes you just have to stick with the basics.”

He hummed cheerfully to himself as he got to work. A couple of times he lost track of the melody he was humming because it was drowned out by the pained groans coming from Haskev, but he didn’t mind. He actually couldn’t remember what Haskev had done to deserve this kind of treatment, but he was sure that it was deserved. Votalin had very deep-seated moral convictions against torturing anyone who didn’t deserve it. Of course, he also strongly believed that everyone deserved torture for something, so it was pretty easy for him to hold to that conviction.

Votalin stood up and put the knife aside as Haskev passed out again. He so hated practicing his art on anyone who couldn’t appreciate it. He strode back onto the balcony and basked in the sun again. Gazing out over the city, he smiled warmly at the sight of all the people out appreciating the nice weather. Warm, sunny days were a rarity on Infanalis, so people here took full advantage of them when they came.

They were his people, whether they believed it or not. Although he had never sat on the Imperial Throne or even set foot in the Imperial Palace, he was the Emperor. He didn’t know how long it would be before he could land on Trisitania and enter the Palace in triumph, to take his rightful place on the Throne, but it didn’t matter. He was the Emperor, and that was all there was to it.

***

On the planet Numoris, in a large and luxurious mansion on the outskirts of the city of Votara, Dren Calabane was reading in his study. A member of the Fangalin High Council, Calabane was a busy man, and rarely had time for anything as mundane as sitting and reading for pleasure, so when the opportunity came, he took it. Ever since the assassination of Embamor II, Calabane’s power and influence had grown considerably, and he was now unquestionably the second-most powerful person in Fangalin, and the clear successor to Supreme Commander Zhemeen Fortulis. Although, Calabane sometimes wondered if he would actually outlive Fortulis. Even though Fortulis was 87 years old, he was as healthy and strong as he’d ever been, and showed no signs of slowing down.

It was now five years since the Emergence, when Fangalin agents had destroyed the Imperial Senate Hall during a session to determine who would succeed the recently deceased Empress. That act had eliminated the top level of the Imperial government, and thrown the galaxy into chaos, allowing Fangalin to emerge from hiding and begin the effort to conquer the galaxy in earnest. Many Imperial provinces had already been secretly converted to Fangalin even before the Emergence, and most of the Empire’s colonies, including Numoris, had actually been founded by Fangalin. Combining that with a swift string of victories against the Imperial Fleet, Fangalin now controlled about a third of the known galaxy.

The Empire still retained control over another third, and unfortunately that third included all of the galaxy’s richest, most populated, and most powerful provinces. But even that was divided among four men who all claimed the title of “Emperor”. The one who actually occupied the home province of the Empire, Trisitania, was named Jimalin Redlamin, and he referred to himself as Extrator IV. There was also General Erelesk Votalin, aka Emperor Neminatrix IV, based on Infanalis, General Valador Mifalis, Valador I, who was based on Sevvelin, and Vibal Trogoron, Emperor Malador VI, based on Nemixis. So many names, so many competing claims…it was hard to keep it all straight.

The remaining third of the galaxy was divided up by two independent states, the Republic of Hadramoris and the Kingdom of Midigal. Both of these were created by ambitious leaders seeking to take advantage of the chaos of the months and years following the Emergence. None of the leaders of Fangalin had expected such a turn of events, but it was seemingly a good thing so far. The more pieces that the Empire fragmented into, the easier it would be for Fangalin to absorb them all and fulfill its destiny of ruling the galaxy.

Things were progressing more slowly now, however. Ever since Commander Fortulis had ordered the assassination of Embamor Etralis, Fangalin had largely sat back and watched events unfold. Not that Fangalin had been completely idle, of course. One of Calabane’s own agents had been instrumental last year in the death of Vor Shen, a remarkably brilliant but utterly unprincipled Midigalan general. And there were other operations, of course.

Fangalin was an organization that had been born and nurtured in the shadows on the fringes of galactic civilization. In the wake of the Emergence, Fortulis had made a valiant effort to shift into a real government that made open war with other real governments, but the reality of the situation was that even with a third of the galaxy under their control, the people and structures of Fangalin were still better suited to covert operations. So, Fortulis was playing to the strengths of the organization he ruled. It was a strategy that Calabane fully approved. It was unlikely now that the war would be completed in Fortulis’s lifetime. But maybe Dren Calabane would become the Supreme Commander under whom Fangalin attained its greatest triumphs.

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 23

A single shuttle touched down in the pouring rain outside of Haasadis Ventelin’s villa, and a solitary figure emerged and ran up the short path into the building. As he showed his ID to the guards and tried to shake the excess water off his clothes, Vor Shen scowled at the necessity of coming here in the rain. He would have preferred to wait until the rain was over, but it wasn’t supposed to stop for a few days, and he really wanted to get this meeting over with.

He was alone, a fact that disturbed Verdek greatly. He had to admit that he’d had second thoughts about telling her to stay with the fleet. She was quite…formidable, and she would have been an excellent counterweight to Ventelin’s horrible steward. But he was also determined to show Tromin that he wasn’t afraid of her. He knew that he held all the cards after his decisive victory over the Empire. If Tromin wanted to insist on trying to see his personal files, then he would tell Ventelin to choose between the two of them, and he had no doubt about which of them Ventelin would choose.

His confidence slipped a little as he approached Ventelin’s quarters and realized that there were no guards in front of the door. Why wouldn’t there be any guards? Ventelin was an exceedingly paranoid person. It was completely unlike him to leave his door unguarded, and it didn’t make any sense. Unless…he was planning to do something that he didn’t want witnessed.

Shen shook his head to clear it. He was getting paranoid himself. There was no reason to suspect that Ventelin knew anything about his plot, and even if he did, Shen had just proven himself indispensable. Ventelin wouldn’t dare harm him now. There must have been a perfectly good reason for the guards to be absent. He pressed his palm against the identity sensor, the door slid open, he entered, and…

***

Treben Holkas stood up with a scowl, gun in hand, as the door to Ventelin’s chambers opened and Vor Shen entered. He’d never actually met the man in person, but he’d seen enough pictures and holos of him to know what he looked like. He pointed the gun directly at Shen’s head, and was delighted when a brief glimpse of fear flashed across the man’s face, although it was gone almost as fast as it appeared.

“Who are you?” Shen demanded angrily.

“A ghost from your past,” Holkas said grimly, “come to exact bloody vengeance.”

“I see,” Shen said slowly. “Tell me…how long did you rehearse that little line before this moment?” Holkas growled angrily and wiggled his gun emphatically.

“Do not mock me, you butcher,” he said. “I hold your life in my hands here.”

“Really,” Shen said flatly. “Do you realize that we are in the heart of Midigallan power, and that I am the most powerful person in Midigal? And we’re surrounded by armed guards who are loyal to me? Do you really think that you can kill me and get out of here alive?” But Holkas just grinned at this.

“Awfully confident, aren’t you?” he said sardonically. “Don’t you think all the guards in this building already know I’m here? How do you think I got in?” Shen’s face froze for a second, but then he reassumed a nonchalant look.

“Okay, fine,” he said, folding his arms. “Let’s play this little game. Who are you really? Tell me what this is all about.” Holkas’s grin grew wider and nastier.

“My name, General Shen, is Treben Holkas,” he said, and waited. Shen thought for a second, and his face fell as realization dawned.

“You’re the one that Verdek hired to kill Ventelin,” he growled.

“Why, yes, I am,” Holkas said, still grinning like a madman.

“How much did Ventelin offer you to turn against me?” Shen asked with a snarl. “Whatever it was, I’ll double it! Triple it even!”

“Oh, this isn’t about money,” Holkas said. “It’s about you. Your little assistant apparently didn’t do a very good job of looking into my background. If she had, she would have realized that you and I have a history.”

“We do?” Shen asked, baffled. “I’ve never heard of you before!”

“You haven’t?” Holkas asked. “Are you sure about that? Think back about…oh, five years or so ago. Do you, by any chance, remember ordering the executions of a woman and her son?” Shen still looked baffled.

“Not…really,” he said.

“Their names were Harasai and Joras Holkas,” he said in a soft, dangerous voice, all hint of a smile gone from his face. “My wife and child.” Shen frowned.

“Nope,” he said. “Not ringing a bell. Sorry.”

“YOU KILLED THEM, YOU BASTARD!” Holkas screamed suddenly. “You killed an innocent woman and her young son, and for what!? They’d done nothing wrong! And now…now I am going to make you suffer. You are going to die a slow and painful death for what you did. I am going to take my sweet time killing you, and I am going to enjoy every moment of it.” Holkas drew out every syllable of every word of this last sentence, and began slowly stalking toward Shen. A look of terror appeared on Shen’s face, and he began backing up, but before he could get far, a shot rang out from behind Holkas, and Shen dropped to the ground, dead. Holkas spun around in shock and anger, and there was Kyla Vertrane standing there, still holding a smoking gun in her hands.

“WHY DID YOU DO THAT??” bellowed Holkas. “He was mine! I was going to make him pay for what he did to my family!!”

“He has paid now,” Kyla said. Her face was pale and her expression somewhat shocked, but her voice was steady. “You didn’t need to torture him for justice to be done. He just needed to die. And if I’d let you go through with what you planned, you would have been just as much of a monster as he was.” Holkas aimed his gun at Kyla’s head with a wordless growl, but after a few tense seconds, instead of pulling the trigger, he dropped the gun on the floor. Then he collapsed to his knees and started sobbing. Kyla set her gun down on the floor, and then kneeled down next to Treben and held him.

“It’s over,” he gasped between sobs. “He’s dead. I avenged them.” He sobbed wordlessly for several minutes, and then suddenly let out a primal scream, causing Kyla to recoil in surprise. He screamed for what seemed like an eternity, shaking with rage and anguish, and when he was done, he just sat on the floor with his head bowed, breathing heavily.

“It doesn’t change anything though, does it?” he said softly. “They’re still dead. Killing Shen didn’t bring them back.”

“Did you expect it to?” Kyla asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” Holkas said. “Maybe, in some weird, irrational way. Maybe I just thought that getting revenge would help me be at peace with their deaths. But it didn’t work. I’m just as empty now as I was before. Maybe even emptier, because now I don’t know what to live for.”

“I can’t tell you what you should live for, Treb,” Kyla said gently, placing one hand on his shoulder. “But I can tell you that you can’t give up now. I never knew your wife or your son, but I have to believe that they would want you to press on and find a new purpose for your life.” Treben sat quietly for a long time, just staring at his hands. And then he stood up.

“You’re right,” he said resolutely. “It is time to close this chapter of my life and open a new one. Harasai would never forgive me if I spent the rest of my life moping over her.”

“That’s better,” Kyla said with a smile. “Let’s go find Tromin and get our money, and then …we’ll see what happens.” She winked, and he smiled, and together they left the bleeding body of Vor Shen behind.

The End