Catching the Sun, Part 16

Ranger and the other 11 ships in Xendin Lodimeur’s task force dropped out of subspace outside the Allamanin system, close enough for Erelesk Votalin’s fleet to detect them, but far enough away that they wouldn’t immediately assume an attack. The plan was for Lodimeur to contact Votalin’s fleet, ask to speak to Votalin, petition Votalin for permission to join the assault on Endragar, and then…see what happened.

“Lieutenant Dranfar,” Lodimeur said, addressing the communications officer on Ranger’s bridge, “open a channel and request permission to speak with the commanding officer of the Allamanin fleet.”

“Aye, sir,” replied Lt. Dranfar, and a few seconds later he said, “Channel is open, Colonel. We are receiving a reply from Captain Hoskell Varnum, CO of the battleship Dawnstar.”

“Onscreen,” ordered Lodimeur, and a second later a man’s face appeared on the main viewscreen. The man was in his late thirties, with shoulder length black hair, a large nose, and a scowl that appeared to be permanently affixed to his face. “Captain Varnum,” Lodimeur began, “I am Colonel Xendin Lodimeur, Imperial Army. I have come with this humble fleet of ships to pledge loyalty to his Majesty, Emperor Neminatrix IV, and to aid him in his upcoming victory against the usurper, Jimalin Redlamin.”

“I see,” replied Captain Varnum slowly, his scowl deepening. “And am I supposed to believe you? How do I know that you’re not just trying to infiltrate His Majesty’s forces and destroy us from within?”

“With all due respect, Captain, I do not believe that is your decision to make,” Lodimeur said calmly. “You may try to force us to leave, and if you turn your guns on us, we will retreat, but I would hate to be in your shoes when the Emperor discovers that you turned away twelve heavily armed warships fully crewed with highly trained men and women.” Varnum’s scowl deepened even further, and he glared at Lodimeur, but remained silent. “Who is in command of this fleet, Captain?” asked Lodimeur sharply when Varnum still didn’t respond.

“Admiral Zhiala Tred,” Varnum said curtly. “She is currently consulting with the Emperor in the Governor’s Mansion in Cailoss City.”

“Very well,” said Lodimeur. “If you have nothing else to say, Captain, then I will contact Admiral Tred.”

“You do that, Colonel,” Varnum replied coldly. “But remember that I’ll be keeping an eye on you. If the Emperor gives you permission to join us, then you’d better not try anything, cause if you do, we will destroy you.”

“Understood, Captain,” said Lodimeur solemnly, and made a gesture to Lt. Dranfar to end the connection.

“Seems like a pleasant fellow,” said a voice behind him. Lodimeur turned to see Komeela Shalavin walking onto the bridge.

“Komeela,” Lodimeur said in a flat voice. “I do not think that civilians should be on the bridge during combat operations.”

“Colonel Lodimeur,” she said, flashing a broad smile at him, “I am not just any civilian. I am here as the Supreme Commander’s personal representative. That gives me authority to be wherever I want to be on this ship.”

“I see,” said Lodimeur, his voice even flatter than before. “And does that give you authority to supersede my orders if you believe them to be contrary to the Supreme Commander’s wishes?”

“Of course not,” Shalavin replied. “You are in command of this mission. Of course, I will be reporting back to the Supreme Commander at the conclusion of the mission and evaluating your performance, but as long as the mission is ongoing, you have complete freedom of action.” Lodimeur grunted and turned back to the viewscreen. He stood there in silence, with Shalavin watching him, and then suddenly he turned back to her and spoke.

“May I speak to you in private?” he asked, an unreadable expression on his face.

“Of course, Colonel,” she said with a slightly confused smile. They made their way into a small conference room situated near the bridge. Once there, she turned to him and said, “All right, Colonel. What’s on your mind?”

“I have wondered for weeks now whether I should confide in you or not,” he said, his arms clasped behind his back. “Common sense would indicate not, as you are the Supreme Commander’s personal representative, and it is unlikely that anything I say to you will not eventually make its way back to him.” He strode toward the observation port and stood there in silence for a few moments, looking out over the reddish-bluish sphere that was Allamanin, and the massive war fleet that surrounded it. “But for some reason, I feel that I can trust you.”

“Colonel Lodimeur,” Komeela said, somewhat worriedly, “I like you and respect you, but my duty is to the Supreme Commander. If you are about to say something that you believe the Supreme Commander should not hear, I would ask you to reconsider.”

“No,” he said sharply, turning back to her. “I need to say this. I can live with the consequences, no matter what they are, but I cannot live with staying silent.” He took a deep breath, and then continued. “Komeela, I have serious concerns about this mission. I do not believe it is right to pledge loyalty to a man and then stab him in the back, no matter how reprehensible that man may be.”

“I see,” she said slowly. “So, what does that mean? Do you forswear your loyalty to Fangalin then? Will you stab Zhemeen Fortulis and the Dark Presence in the back instead, in order to protect an abusive child molester?”

“Of course not!” Xendin said quickly. “I bear no affection for Erelesk Votalin! He is vile and filthy, and deserves to be destroyed! But I also do not believe that two wrongs make a right. We should withdraw for now, and strike Votalin’s fleet after the battle at Endragar. We may not do as much damage, and we may incur higher casualties, but at least we will be able to claim the moral high ground!”

Komeela was silent for a moment, looking down at her feet, and when she spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper. “You are wrong, but before I tell you why you’re wrong, I need to tell you something important.” She looked up, and Xendin was shocked to see that there were unshed tears glistening in her eyes. “I am not Komeela Shalavin. I am Hana Lodimeur. I am your daughter.”

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 15

Decimator dropped out of subspace on the outskirts of the Endragar system and began cruising at conventional speed toward Endragar itself so that it could take up an orbit around the planet. Admiral Kryla Zomulin stood impassively on Decimator‘s bridge, arms folded across her chest, gazing out at the viewscreen that showed the fleet of warships already gathered around Endragar. In theory, it looked like a formidable force, gathered under the banner of Emperor Extrator IV to defend his claim to the throne against the usurper Erelesk Votalin. In reality, more than half of those ships were planning to flee as soon as the battle started. Extrator had already lost this battle. He just didn’t realize it yet.

“Admiral, all decks, all systems, reporting green,” said Decimator‘s captain, a young man named Vodic Hauli. Zomulin couldn’t help but feel a little stab of jealousy every time she thought about Hauli. Not too long ago, Decimator had been her ship. Now she was just a passenger. A passenger who told the captain where to go and what to do, yes, but being in command of the captain of a ship was not nearly the same as being the captain herself.

“Very well, Captain Hauli,” Zomulin said curtly. “Send a message to Admiral Lors, informing him of our arrival.” She pursed her lips and stared resolutely at the viewscreen. She knew it wasn’t Hauli’s fault that she’d been promoted out of the captain’s chair, but she couldn’t help but take out her frustrations on him. She felt bad, too, about the fact that he seemed to sense her hostility, and was working extra hard to try and impress her. She felt bad, but not enough to change her attitude.

“Message coming in from Admiral Lors, sir,” said Hauli suddenly.

“Onscreen,” replied Zomulin. A second later the image of Endragar that had filled the viewscreen was replaced with Abaden Lors’s smiling face.

“Admiral Zomulin, it’s so good to see you, my dear,” he said cheerfully.

“Likewise, sir,” Zomulin said, her expression unchanged. “What is the situation here?”

“Everything is proceeding as planned,” Lors said. “The Emperor is due to arrive in three days with the rest of the fleet. Intelligence estimates that Erelesk Votalin’s attack will hit in about a week. He has been amassing forces at Allamanin for the past month, and every bit of information we’ve been able to gather leads us to believe that he is almost ready to strike.”

“If Votalin has been openly gathering his forces, why haven’t we struck first?” Zomulin asked, frowning. “It seems to me that we could have disrupted his plans weeks ago.”

“I have attempted to make that case to the Emperor,” Lors said, sighing heavily, “but it seems he is disinclined to listen to his military advisors these days.”

“I see,” Zomulin said, her frown deepening. “That does explain a lot.”

“It certainly does,” Lors replied. “In any case, I have some other matters I need to attend to. No doubt we will be in touch in the coming days.”

“Yes, sir,” Zomulin said, saluting. “Thank you for contacting me, sir.” Lors returned her salute, and then the connection was severed. “Captain Hauli, I will be in my quarters. Inform me as soon as the rest of the fleet arrives.” Hauli saluted, and Zomulin returned it and left the bridge.

I need a drink, she thought as she wound her way through Decimator‘s narrow corridors to the VIP quarters. Twice she caught herself making her way to the Captain’s quarters, and both times she sighed and backtracked to the correct path. She dutifully returned the salutes of the crew members that she passed, but her thoughts were focused elsewhere. There were no doubts in her mind about the course she’d chosen. She would have followed Abaden Lors to the death, but the more research she did and the more she learned about Extrator IV’s lack of military knowledge and excessive meddling in military matters he didn’t understand, the more she realized she probably would have defected of her own volition soon anyway.

It still bothered her, though. She had never cared about politics, but in a society where political power was concentrated in a hereditary monarchy, and the democratically elected government body had very little real power, she was hardly atypical. After all, the Old Empress, Emella II, had ruled for almost 40 years, and her grandfather and predecessor, Preclonus III, had ruled for almost 70. In the wake of such stability at the top, very few people in the Empire had ever really given much thought to who would be Emperor. Even in recent years, when senators and generals were jockeying for position in the race to see who would replace Emella II, most common people assumed that they could have had no real effect on the outcome.

Things were changing, though. Now that the Empire had splintered and multiple factions were vying for power, it was possible for normal people to care about who would be the Emperor, and maybe even to make a difference. Kryla Zomulin still thought of herself as a normal person (although being an Admiral in the Imperial Fleet gave her power that the average citizen on the streets of Selorin couldn’t have dreamed of), and it was just starting to dawn on her that her decision to transfer her loyalty from one Emperor to another could be key, or at least a key, in ending one man’s reign and beginning another’s. It was a little overwhelming, and a signal that maybe it was time to stop blindly following Abaden Lors like a little puppy and start thinking for herself.

She entered her quarters and started changing out of her uniform and into casual clothes. There was nothing for her task force to do now but wait, and she had a lot on her mind, so she was going to rest, and think. She was committed to her course. She’d given Admiral Lors her word, and besides, she really did believe that Valador Mifalis would be a good Emperor. But what happened next? That was the part she was still trying to figure out.

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 14

Twelve gleaming starships glided silently through space, hanging in orbit around the Fangalin planet Moratorila, which had been chosen as the staging ground for Xendin Lodimeur’s offensive against the Empire. He had been there for two weeks, gathering supplies, organizing his forces, and getting to know the men and women who were serving under him. He had been made a General in the Grand and Invincible Army of Fangalin, but for the purposes of this mission, his troops would still be referring to him as Colonel. As he was trying to persuade Erelesk Votalin of his loyalty, it wouldn’t do for him to act as if he was putting on airs and promoting himself to General.

“Colonel, one of the members of the High Council has arrived and wishes to meet with you at your earliest convenience,” announced one of Lodimeur’s aides suddenly. They were standing on the bridge of Ranger, one of the two battleships under his command, and the one he had chosen as his flagship. It was one of the newest models of Imperial battleship, having come off the line only two years ago. Its Captain, an intense, middle-aged woman named Vynay Nonmar, had grown disillusioned with the incompetent leadership displayed by the Empire, and increasingly enamored with the teachings and example of Fangalin, so she and her senior officers had decided to defect. Those crewmembers who had not been aware of her plans were ordered to choose between Fangalin and death. Most chose Fangalin. A few picked death, but after the first of their number was executed, the rest realized their officers were serious and swore loyalty to Fangalin.

“Very well, Lieutenant,” Lodimeur replied. “Inform the Councilor that I will meet with him in the starboard conference room in fifteen minutes.” The lieutenant saluted sharply, and Lodimeur turned to Commander Omilai Alten, Ranger‘s XO. “Commander, you have the bridge.” Commander Alten saluted as well, and Lodimeur headed for the conference room.

He entered the conference room, and saw a man standing there. He was short and slender, although that was somewhat masked by his voluminous robes, and he had a narrow goatee, a shaved head, and a serious expression on his face. “General Lodimeur, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said in a deep voice. “I am Dren Calabane.”

“I have heard of you, sir,” Lodimeur said, bowing. “It is said that you are first in line to succeed the Supreme Commander once his illustrious reign comes to an end.” Calabane waved one hand dismissively, as if to say he was unconcerned with such matters, but the pleased smile on his face gave his true feelings away.

“I try to meet with as many high-level converts to our way as I can,” Calabane said. “Of course, I am a very busy man, and we get so many that I find it difficult to meet with all of them. But I was particularly interested in meeting you.”

“Why is that, sir?” Lodimeur said with a puzzled frown.

“So many of our converts come to us eager to embrace our cause and our mission, and anxious to do whatever they can to dismantle the Empire,” Calabane said, folding his arms across his chest. “But I sense a reluctance from you, as if you’re still torn between your old loyalty to the Empire and your new loyalty to the Dark Presence. It fascinates me, and…well, it worries me a little bit as well.” Turning, he walked over to the large windows nearby and gazed out on the green and blue expanse of Moratorila.

“I assure you, Councilor, I will do nothing to betray the cause of Fangalin,” Lodimeur said firmly.

“Perhaps,” replied Calabane, his back still turned to Lodimeur. “I have no doubt that you will do nothing to overtly betray us. But to see a duty that needs to be done, and fail to do it, that also is a form of betrayal. I fear that when push comes to shove, if you have an opportunity to destroy Jimalin Redlamin, you may fail to take it. Allowing Redlamin to escape the coming battle… Well, it would be difficult to prove that such an act was purposeful, but that would not diminish the damage it would do to our cause.”

Calabane turned back to Lodimeur and fixed him with an intense gaze. Lodimeur found himself at a loss for words. Calabane had struck him to the very core of his being. He wanted to serve his new masters faithfully, but could he serve them even to the point of striking down his best friend and mentor? He had his doubts, but he didn’t dare admit that to this man. If he wanted the opportunity to prove to Fangalin that he was a worthy servant, he needed to carry out this mission. And although he knew that Supreme Commander Fortulis trusted him, Fortulis trusted Dren Calabane much more. If Calabane told Fortulis that Lodimeur was wrong for this mission, there was little doubt that he’d be pulled and replaced.

“Councilor, I have no intention of doing anything that will bring harm to Fangalin,” Lodimeur said intently. “Nor do I have any intention of failing to do something that will benefit Fangalin. I know I cannot give you any assurance beyond my word, but you do have my word.”

“And that will have to be enough,” Calabane said. “I trust the Supreme Commander’s judgment. He trusts you, so I trust you. I just want you to know that I do not trust you implicitly. If anything goes wrong on this mission… Well, just know that I will be keeping an eye on you.”

“I understand that, Councilor, and I expect it,” Lodimeur said. “I, also, will be keeping a close eye on my subordinates. It is the nature of what we do.”

“Well said, General,” Calabane said with a small smile. “Excellent. I, for one, am glad we had this little chat. With your permission, I would like to stay on board until you are ready to deploy.”

“Of course, Councilor,” Lodimeur said with a small bow. “I would be honored to have you as my guest.”

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 13

The Veren Building was probably the most luxurious place that Kyla Vertrane had ever set foot in. A gleaming, gilded skyscraper set in the heart of Allavaisca, it was a symbol of the wealth and power of the Veren family. The Verens were not nobles, but on Endragar, that didn’t matter. Endragar provincial law did not recognize the existence of the nobility, which meant that nobles steered clear of Endragar, and common people had the opportunity to earn riches and prestige, provided they had enough drive and ambition.

At least, that was the myth of Endragar. In reality, the Veren family was as much a noble house as any of the Great Houses of Infanalis or Grennel. Anyone whose last name wasn’t Veren and wasn’t married to someone whose last name was Veren had a very hard time distinguishing themselves on Endragar. But Kyla Vertrane wasn’t interested in distinguishing herself. She just wanted to get paid.

She was sitting on an overstuffed recliner in a huge and elegant living room in a large and expensive apartment near the top of the Veren Building. From where she sat, floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on a spectacular view of the skyline of Allavaisca, and she was surrounded by priceless works of art and designer furniture, all tastefully arranged so that it felt comfortably impressive rather than tacky. The apartment belonged to Achave Veren, oldest surviving son of the current matriarch of the Veren family, Trevel Veren. He was the reason that Kyla had come to Endragar in the first place.

Despite being surrounded by more comfort and luxury than she’d ever even imagined could be in one place, Kyla felt uneasy. For one, she felt out of place. Her work boots, ripped jeans, and leather jacket didn’t exactly comprise the sort of outfit that a wealthy pseudo-noble would wear. But more than that, she usually refused to meet clients on their on turf, especially clients as rich and powerful as Achave Veren. In this case, there was too much money on the table for her to pass up the opportunity, but she still didn’t like it.

“Ah, you must be Kyla Vertrane,” said a man’s voice smoothly. Kyla looked to her left a tall, fleshy man enter the room. “Forgive my tardiness, my dear. I am Achave Veren. It is a pleasure to finally meet you.” Achave was dressed like his living room, extravagant without being gaudy. His dark hair was slicked back against his head, and he wore a smile that didn’t quite reach his small brown eyes. He offered Kyla his hand and she stood up and shook it.

“No worries, Mr. Veren,” she said with more cheer than she felt. “I haven’t been here long, and besides, it gave me an opportunity to admire your living room.”

“Ah, this is but a trifle,” Achave said with false modesty. “All of this could be destroyed, and I wouldn’t bat an eye. My real treasure, on the other hand… That is why you are here, Ms. Vertrane.” He turned away from her and stood in front of the window with his hands clasped behind his back. She sat back down and folded her arms. “The Veren family has little care for who rules the Empire,” he continued. “As long as our business interests are undisturbed, we will back whoever is strong enough to hold the Throne, and if any would-be Emperor attempts to encroach upon our interests, we will back one of his or her rivals. Neither Jimalin Redlamin nor Erelesk Votalin has done anything to offend us, thus we are unconcerned about which of them wins the impending battle. However, a battle that begins in the skies over Endragar could easily spill onto the surface, and I have a certain…possession, that is too valuable to risk being caught in the crossfire.” He turned back to Kyla, and gazed at her intently. “That is where you come in.”

“Let me guess,” she said, “you want me to take something off the planet before the battle starts.”

“Precisely,” Achave said solemnly. “Normally, I would have the Veren Shipping Company take care of any of my delivery needs. Keep it in the family, and all that. However, I am afraid that certain members of my family are rather jealous that I have possession of this object, and I have concerns that my shipment would be intercepted. Nor is the Imperial Post an option either. For one, with the chaos of a civil war, I have very little faith that the Imperial Post can get any package safely from one place to another. But with this package in particular… There are too many factions that would love to get their hands on what I have.”

“Well, rest assured, Mr. Veren,” Kyla said, lacing her hands behind her head. “I don’t have the faintest interest in what you want shipped. All I care about is getting paid for shipping it.”

“That is exactly what I want to hear,” Achave said with a toothy grin. “How soon can you be ready to depart?”

“I need another week to finish repairs on my ship,” Kyla said, but Achave shook his head impatiently.

“Not soon enough,” he said. “Votalin’s forces could be here any day. You need to be gone before they arrive.” He stroked his chin and frowned. “What if I gave you a new ship?”

“With all due respect, Mr. Veren,” Kyla said, crossing her legs so her right ankle rested on her left knee, “a smuggler’s ship is her lifeblood. I need to know my ship inside and out before I’ll trust it on a mission like this. With a new ship, I simply don’t know if I’d be able to do what you expect of me.”

“I see,” said Achave coldly. “Well, then what do you propose?”

“The only option I see is to wait,” replied Kyla calmly. “You’re welcome to try and find someone else to deliver your shipment in the meantime, but I doubt you’ll find anyone as good as I am. As for me, I can’t leave until my ship is ready to go.” Achave thought about this for a moment, and then nodded.

“Very well,” he said with a scowl, his words clipped. “But I want you to understand that you will receive no payment if Votalin’s forces arrive before you are ready to depart.”

“Oh, I understand,” Kyla said with a grin. “Glad we could come to an arrangement.”

To be continued…