No matter what his faults, Xendin Lodimeur had to admit that Neminatrix IV at least looked like an Emperor. Although in his mid-40s, he was as fit and trim as a man half his age, with a full head of perfectly styled blond hair, and straight white teeth that gleamed every time he smiled, which he did often, if insincerely. He was resplendent in the gold and crimson robes of his office, and he walked with a distinct swagger. He was, if nothing else, a man who was fully confident of himself and his place in the world. But the glimpse of madness that Xendin has seen in his eyes was a reminder that his Imperial facade was nothing more than that.
“Your Majesty,” Xendin said with a deep, formal bow, “my officers and I humbly request the privilege of being allowed to join your mighty fleet in order that we may crush your enemies beneath your feet.”
“You grovel well, I’ll give you that,” Neminatrix said with a small smirk. “But Admiral Tred here tells me she has grave misgivings about the sincerity of your words. Apparently, you resist having your ships integrated into the existing unit structure of my fleet?”
“Resist is perhaps too strong a word, Your Majesty,” Xendin said smoothly. “From a military perspective, it seems unwise to split up a task force that is used to working together on the eve of a major battle. However, how Admiral Tred chooses to organize Your Majesty’s fleet is, of course, not up to me. My loyalty and the loyalty of my troops is not dependent on my ships and crews staying together. I was simply offering my advice on the best disposition of the fleet.”
“Interesting,” said Neminatrix, his smirk deepening. “You grovel, but you’re also not afraid to speak your mind. An intriguing mix of humility and arrogance.” He spent a few minutes walking in circles around Xendin and Jical, stroking his chin and inspecting them as if they were livestock he was considering purchasing. “I like you, Colonel. I think you’ll be a good asset in my fleet.” And with that, he turned and walked up the dais to his throne and sat down. “You are dismissed,” he said in a perfunctory tone.
“Uh, thank you, Your Majesty,” Xendin said with another bow, but Neminatrix was already talking to somebody else, as if he’d forgotten that Xendin and Jical were ever there. Lt. Niermor came over to escort them out.
“So does that mean we’re part of the fleet now?” Xendin muttered to himself as they walked back to the hovercar, but Lt. Niermor answered anyway.
“Of course, sir,” she said. “If the Emperor had not accepted you into his fleet, he would have had you executed as a traitor.”
“I see,” he replied calmly, but his eyes widened in shock as he looked over at Jical, whose expression mirrored his own.
The ride back to the starport was short and silent. Xendin had plenty to discuss with Jical, but he didn’t want to do it in front of Lt. Niermor. Niermor, for her part, sat with her hands folded in her lap and stared straight ahead, a strangely vacant look on her face. Xendin, thinking about Neminatrix’s reputation, found himself wondering what might have happened to a pretty young woman like her at the hands of someone like that. He suppressed a shudder, and found himself realizing that he suddenly had absolutely no qualms about betraying Neminatrix.
Once Xendin and Jical were back on the shuttle and had exited Allamanin’s atmosphere, Xendin allowed himself a small sigh of relief, but he still had no intention of speaking freely yet. They hadn’t been on the surface for long, but long enough that someone could have surreptitiously installed a listening device on the shuttle. Things were going well so far, but one slip of the tongue could still ruin everything.
Once the shuttle landed safely in Ranger‘s shuttle bay, Xendin and Jical exited to find Hana and Commander Omilai Alten, Ranger‘s XO, waiting for them in the corridor. Commander Alten was almost as tall as Captain Sorali, but much skinnier. He had shoulder-length blond hair, a thin beard that followed his jawline and blue eyes that were normally twinkling with mirth, as if he saw something funny in most every situation that other people had missed. Those eyes were dead serious now, however, and so were Hana’s.
“What is it?” Xendin asked them as he approached.
“Trouble, sir,” replied Omilai. “While you were in transit, we received a message from Neminatrix’s Central Command. They have informed us that each of our ships will be receiving a company of marines, to be stationed on the bridge, CIC, and engine room of all 12 ships.”
“Interesting,” Xendin said musingly. “I thought Neminatrix accepted our help too easily. The man is insane, but he’s not stupid.”
“What are we going to do?” asked Hana, a slight note of worry in her voice.
“This is a problem, but a manageable one,” Xendin said with a frown. “The Supreme Commander and I suspected that something like this might happen. We came up with a contingency plan.”
“Why was I not informed?” Hana demanded to know.
“Because you are not in command of this mission,” Xendin said coolly. “I am. And I determined that there was no reason for you to know this plan unless it became necessary.” Hana took a deep breath and visibly took hold of herself.
“Okay,” she said in exasperation, “so what is the plan then?”
“All essential command functions are to be routed to the forward observation deck on each ship,” Xendin replied. “If Neminatrix’s marines attempt to seize control, they will quickly discover that the bridge and CIC are useless. Once we have turned on Neminatrix’s fleet and dropped into subspace, they will find themselves trapped and outnumbered. They will be forced to surrender or die.”
“It’s a risky plan,” said Omilai somberly.
“So it is,” Xendin agreed, “but there was never a chance of pulling off this mission without risk.”
To be continued…