“Colonel,” said Ranger‘s communications officer as Xendin and Hana Lodimeur walked back onto the bridge, “we’re receiving a call from Admiral Zhiala Tred.”
“Excellent,” said Xendin briskly. “Onscreen.” A second later, a woman’s face appeared on the main viewscreen. She was in her mid-to-late fifties, with short dark hair that was speckled with gray, and a no-nonsense air about her. “Admiral Tred, sir, thank you for responding to my request so quickly.”
“Of course, Colonel,” she replied. “It is my understanding that you wish to pledge loyalty to His Majesty Emperor Neminatrix IV, and add the ships under your command to our forces.”
“Yes, Admiral,” Xendin said with a nod.
“I do believe that can be arranged,” she said. “However, we will have to integrate your ships into our existing unit structure.”
“With all due respect, Admiral,” Xendin said deferentially, “I think that would be unwise. My forces have been a team for some time now. To split them up and stick them in units they are unfamiliar with could cause a serious decrease in their efficiency.”
“I see,” Zhiala said flatly. “Are you sure that you don’t just want to keep them loyal to you, rather than to the Emperor?”
“I assure you, Admiral,” Xendin replied, “we are all fully loyal to the Empire, and we wholeheartedly recognize Neminatrix IV as the true Emperor.” Zhiala was silent for a moment, her lips pursed thoughtfully.
“I don’t like this, Colonel,” she said bluntly, “but I also don’t like turning fresh troops away. I will speak to the Emperor on your behalf. But be forewarned. The Emperor is utterly merciless when it comes to traitors, and it doesn’t take much to convince him that someone is a traitor.”
“I understand, sir,” Xendin said with a salute.
“I wonder,” Zhiala replied with a frown, and then the image of her face on the screen was replaced with an image of Allamanin. Xendin took a deep breath and wiped his forehead with his left hand. He was surprised to discover that it was bone dry.
“You handled that well,” Hana said reassuringly. Xendin gave her a wry look.
“Isn’t it supposed to be my job to reassure you?” he asked.
“Children grow up,” she said with a shrug. “You took care of me for my whole life. Now it’s my turn to do the same for you.”
Xendin opened his mouth to reply, but suddenly his communications officer called out, “Colonel, I’ve just received a message from the Emperor. He would like to meet with you in person on the surface of Allamanin.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Xendin replied.
“It could be a trap,” Hana said grimly.
“It could be,” Xendin agreed, “but I’m not sure what he would gain by trapping me. I can’t imagine he would think that keeping me captive would insure the loyalty of my troops.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Hana said skeptically. “He doesn’t realize that we are part of Fangalin. He just thinks you’ve somehow amassed a private fleet. If that were true, your forces might actually be willing to trade loyalty to Neminatrix for your safety.”
“Perhaps,” Xendin said, stroking his chin, “but it’s much more likely that the fleet would cut and run in that situation. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because I’m going down to the surface regardless.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” she asked, a concerned look on her face.
“Maybe not,” Xendin replied, “but you have convinced me that the Empire must be defeated at any cost. That includes the cost of my life.” He looked at her, and discovered that she was smiling broadly, but there were tears glistening in her eyes.
“I’m proud of you,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling back at her.
Raising her voice, she called to the communications officer. “Lieutenant, when does the Emperor want to meet with us?”
“Wait a minute!” Xendin broke in, alarmed. “You are not coming with me!”
“What do you mean?” Hana said, surprise flashing across her face. “Of course I am! I am the Supreme Commander’s personal representative! It is my job to observe every facet of this mission!”
“That may be so,” he said sternly. “but you are also my daughter, and I am not going to risk you falling into the hands of a murderous psychopath.” He ignored the gasps and stares of the bridge crew, and eyed her seriously.
“I appreciate your concern, Colonel, but you do not have the authority to order me around,” she said, her severity mirroring his own. “I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
“Hana,” he said quietly, his voice still stern, but with a hint of pleading. She stared him down, and he continued speaking, the plea in his voice growing stronger with every word. “I thought I had lost you forever, and now you’ve come back to me. Please don’t force me to risk losing you again. Not yet. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you now, so soon after getting you back.”
“Colonel, I will not allow personal feelings to get in the way of my job,” Hana said firmly. “Unless you can think of a mission critical reason why I should stay on the ship, I will be accompanying you to the surface.”
“Fine then,” Xendin said. “What purpose will you serve in my retinue that Neminatrix would accept?”
“I…,” she started assuredly, and then she stopped with a thoughtful frown. “That’s…actually a good point.”
“Indeed,” he replied. “Surely Neminatrix would not understand or approve of my bringing a civilian advisor, and introducing you as my daughter is out of the question. Your death provides perfect motivation for me to turn against Jimalin Redlamin. Undoubtedly, Neminatrix is aware of my relationship with Redlamin.”
“I could put on a military uniform,” Hana suggested hesitantly, but Xendin started shaking his head before she even finished speaking.
“You are too young to be a senior officer, even in this day and age, and bringing along a junior aide might be perceived as putting on airs. I am, after all, supposed to be just a Colonel.”
“I see,” she said, a disappointed look on her face. “Very well, Colonel. Have it your way. But I expect a full report on your return.”
“You shall have it,” he said, with no hint of the satisfaction he felt at winning the argument.
To be continued…