Catching the Sun, Part 25

Erelesk Votalin, aka Emperor Neminatrix IV, stood on the bridge of his flagship, Berserker, with his hands clasped behind his back and a broad smile on his face. He had won a great victory this day. The forces of the pretender, Jimalin Redlamin, had been smashed by his superior might, and the pretender himself was dead. The casualties suffered by his own forces were minimal. One destroyer had been lost with all hands, and one cruiser was badly damaged and would have to spend considerable time in the orbital shipyards at Medradi. A small price to pay for such a stunning victory.

“Your service pleases me,” Neminatrix said to the man standing behind and to the left of him. “The work you have done over the past two years has been nothing short of exemplary. It is due to your tireless efforts that we stand at the brink of greatness at this moment.”

“To hear such praise from one such as yourself is truly humbling, Your Majesty,” said Jefmin Lakatai with a bow. “And yet, I cannot help but feel that my work is incomplete. Most of the dead pretender’s forces were able to flee into the waiting arms of the pretender who still lives. I cannot be truly pleased with my service, knowing that I permitted such a grievous blunder.”

“All in due time, my friend,” Neminatrix said, turning and giving Lakatai a genial grin while clapping him on the back. “We will deal with General Mifalis and those who follow him. His treachery will suffer the same fate as that of Redlamin. For now, let us savor this moment, and let it infiltrate our minds and spur us to greater feats in the days to come.”

***

Onboard Ranger, the mood was considerably less festive. Infiltrating Votalin’s fleet and destroying Redlamin’s had been child’s play compared to what came next. Now that Votalin and his forces thought the battle was over and were relaxing, now was the time to strike, to hit them hard, and flee into subspace, back to Numoris. There was still the small matter of the teams of Imperial marines onboard. Lodimeur was hoping that they might be recalled to their own ships once the battle was over, but so far there was no sign of that happening. No, the Fangalin ships were going to have to strike with Imperial marines on board, and deal with the consequences of that action.

He and Captain Nonmar were on the bridge, to give the marines the illusion that Ranger was still being commanded from the bridge. In reality, all of the rest of the regular bridge officers were on the forward observation deck, waiting for the signal from Lodimeur to begin the assault on Votalin’s ships. Commander Alten, Nonmar’s XO, was in command of Ranger for this mission. All Lodimeur and Nonmar were going to do was sit on Ranger‘s bridge, and watch, and hope that nothing went wrong.

Lodimeur pressed a button on his command console. That was the signal, simple and subtle, and hopefully completely unnoticed by the marines standing behind him. A few seconds later, Ranger and the other 11 ships in Lodimeur’s task force began moving on an intercept course towards the rest of Votalin’s fleet.

“What are you doing, Colonel?” asked the sergeant in charge of the marines coldly.

“Me?” Lodimeur asked, feigning ignorance. “I’m not doing anything!”

“Don’t give me that crap,” the sergeant said with a sneer, moving toward Lodimeur and pointing his rifle directly at Lodimeur’s head. “This ship is headed on an intercept course toward the rest of the fleet! Now, you better come clean about what you’re plotting here, before I blow your lousy head off.”

“Go ahead and blow my lousy head off if you must, Sergeant, but it won’t help you at all,” Lodimeur said calmly. “I am not in command of this vessel.” The sergeant glared at him for a second, and then swung his rifle around to point at Nonmar’s head instead.

“You!” he barked. “Order this ship to stand down, NOW!”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Nonmar said grimly. “I am not in command of this ship either.”

“Order this ship to stand down, or I will blow your friggin’ head off!” the sergeant bellowed.

“Neither of us can do that, Sergeant,” Lodimeur said firmly, placing himself in between the sergeant and Nonmar. “This vessel is now under the command of Commander Omilai Alten, and all command access codes have been transferred to him. In addition, all command access has been transferred off of the bridge. You may kill Captain Nonmar and I if you wish, Sergeant, but doing so will gain you nothing.” The sergeant glared at him with naked rage and hatred, and then whirled to face one of his soldiers.

“Contact Berserker!” he snarled. “Advise them of the situation here!” The soldier nodded and started pressing some buttons on a tablet, but suddenly he stopped and looked up at the sergeant with a horrified expression on his face.

“Sergeant!” he gasped. “They’re jamming our communications! I can’t get through to anyone! I can’t even reach the other teams on this ship!”

“Withdraw from the bridge!” the sergeant roared. “We’ll link up with the team in CIC and figure out where they transferred command access!” He and the other marines on the bridge started to move toward the doors, but as soon as they did, the doors burst open, and Fangalin marines stormed in and quickly surrounded the room, weapons aimed at the heads of the Imperial marines. There were three times as many Fangalin marines as there were Imperial marines. The sergeant and his fellows gaped at them with shock and fury.

“You see,” said Lodimeur in grim satisfaction, “you are the real prisoners here. Now drop your weapons and surrender peacefully, or you will all die.” The look of black malice on the sergeant’s face never changed, but he dropped his rifle on the floor, and the other Imperial marines quickly followed suit. Fangalin marines quickly swooped in, gathered up the discarded weapons, and bound the defenseless Imperials.

“Now, let’s hope that went as smoothly everywhere else,” Lodimeur muttered to himself.

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 24

Kyla Vertane had certainly never seen starship repair facilities as shiny and well equipped as those belonging to Achave Veren. It was definitely making her job easier, but the damage she’d done to Fluttermask trying to get to Endragar in time was so extensive that it had still taken her and her crew two weeks of working around the clock to get ready to depart. In retrospect, it was foolish of her to push her ship so hard when the real deadline had been for getting away from Endragar, not to Endragar, but she hadn’t known that at the time. Oh well. She’d be ready in time. She had to be. She needed the money too badly.

“Cap’n,” said her first mate, a large, thuggish-looking man named Grar. That wasn’t his real name, of course, but he’d never volunteered anything more, and Kyla hadn’t bothered to ask. “We should be ready to go in less than hour.”

“Not a minute too soon,” Kyla muttered, noticing Achave Veren himself entering the hangar. He was accompanied by a team of cargo handlers pushing a large box on a hovercart. The box was a perfect square, and twice as tall as Grar.

“This must be the cargo?” Kyla said to Achave, nodding in the direction of the box.

“Indeed, my dear,” Achave said with a sniff. “Now, I know you are aware of this, but this cargo is extremely valuable and extremely fragile. This container must not be opened under any circumstances. If it is, you will forfeit your payment, and your reputation.”

“I know, I know,” Kyla replied, rolling her eyes. “Last time I checked, you didn’t hire a baby in diapers. You hired the best damn smuggler in the galaxy. I’m gonna get your cargo safely to its destination, don’t you worry. And you really don’t need to worry that I’m gonna open that stupid box. I don’t give a crap what’s inside. I just wanna get paid.”

“Excellent, my dear,” Achave said with a thin smile. “Such attitudes are exactly why I hired you.”

“Cap’n!” yelled Grar suddenly, holding his hand up to the subspace radio transceiver in his ear. “We’re pickin’ up a transmission from the Imperial Fleet! Looks like Votalin’s forces are here!”

“What!” screeched Achave, a horrified look appearing on his face. “You were supposed to be gone before Votalin got here! The deal is off!” He whirled around to yell at the cargo handlers. “Let’s get out of here!”

“Wait!” yelled Kyla, grabbing Achave by his sleeve. “You want this thing off the planet before it falls to Votalin, right?” He glared at her and tried to shake his arm free of her grip, but she held on tighter. “Listen to me! I’m still your only hope of that happening! If we leave right now, I can elude the Imperial Fleet and drop into subspace before they know I’m even out there. And if I fail, the cargo will be destroyed. That would be better than Votalin getting ahold of it, right?” He continued to glare at her for a few seconds, but then his expression softened and he nodded.

“Fine,” he said coldly. “Load it up!” he roared to the cargo handlers. As he turned away, Kyla breathed a deep sigh of relief. For a second, she had been afraid that he really was going to leave with the cargo. She couldn’t let that happen. She needed the money too badly.

***

Less than 15 minutes later, Kyla was strapped into the pilot’s seat in Fluttermask‘s cockpit, with Grar sitting to her right, the seatbelt straining to contain his massive girth. Achave Veren’s precious cargo was safely secured in the hold, and Fluttermask was just spinning up its engines to take off. She still needed the Endragar Transit Authority’s permission to take off, which Kyla couldn’t imagine they would normally give during a battle, but Achave had assured her that she would have it.

“Freighter Fluttermask, this is ETA. You are cleared to enter orbit,” a voice said over the radio suddenly, “and may the One have mercy on your souls.”

“Copy that, ETA,” Kyla replied, rolling her eyes. As if she didn’t know this would be tricky. She certainly didn’t need a clearance officer flinging corny religious sentiments at her. “You ready for this, Grar?” said Kyla with a mischievous grin.

“For 50,000 trinar, I’d take on the whole Imperial Fleet with a pistol,” Grar grunted in response. Kyla laughed wickedly.

“You would be dumb enough to try that,” she snorted. “Alright, let’s do this.” She punched a button on her control panel, and Fluttermask started rising into the sky.

For the first few minutes, their flight could have been any routine flight on any other world in the Empire. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and there was no sign of a battle going on above the planet’s atmosphere. But as soon as they breached the upper limits of the atmosphere, all hell broke loose. Imperial ships were shooting green blasts of energy at other Imperial ships, and getting hit with green blasts of energy in return. It was impossible to tell just by looking which ships were on which side, but it sure seemed to Kyla like one side had a lot more ships than the other. It seemed unlikely that this battle would last long.

“Proximity alert!” bellowed Grar a split second after an alarm started blaring.

“Crap!” screamed Kyla, who immediately banked the ship hard to the left, just barely missing a large, flaming chunk of a destroyed cruiser. She slammed on the accelerator to speed past another hunk of debris, and then quickly whipped back to the right to avoid a third piece. “That was too close!” she yelled, sweat streaming down her face.

“Three fighters headed straight for us!” yelled Grar in response.

“What the hell!” exclaimed Kyla in frustration. “Why do they care about us?” She spun the freighter in a tight spiral to minimize the fighters’ chances of hitting them, and turned back to the left, away from the fighters.

“They’re still gainin’ on us, Cap’n!” Grar bellowed.

“Punch it!” screamed Kyla, who slammed her foot on the accelerator.

“No good!” he yelled back. “They’re still comin’!”

“Prepare to drop!” Kyla ordered.

“What!” Grar roared. “We’re not high enough yet!”

“I know that, but we need to drop as soon as we are!” Kyla yelled back. Seconds ticked by as Fluttermask crept higher and higher, the three Imperial fighters gaining on them with every passing second. The fighters fired on the freighter a few times, each time just barely missing. Kyla gripped the helm control tightly as she desperately tried to weave in and out of the fighters’ shots.

“Dropping!” howled Grar as soon as they reached the necessary altitude, and suddenly the black space, white stars, and gray battleships outside the ship’s viewscreen were replaced with the swirling rainbow of subspace.

“We did it,” breathed Kyla in amazement, and then she laughed. “We did it!” she yelled, punching Grar in the arm.

“Heh, we sure did,” grunted Grar, a rare smile splitting his ugly face.

“Now, we just have to deliver this cargo, and we can retire in style,” Kyla said with a grin. Or pay off our debts, she thought to herself, but even that depressing thought didn’t put a damper on her mood.

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 23

“Five minutes to Endragar, Captain,” announced Ranger‘s navigation officer.

“Thank you, Commander,” replied Captain Nonmar. She turned and looked at Colonel Lodimeur, who was standing off to the side of the bridge. “Any last minute remarks, Colonel?” she asked.

“Everyone on this ship, and in this fleet, has their orders,” Lodimeur said, stepping forward to address the bridge crew. “You all know what to do. Remember who we are, and why we are here, and we’ll all make it home alive.” He looked around the bridge, and saw that the Fangalin operatives were all nodding their heads and giving him looks of approval, while the Imperial marines were all regarding him with sneers or looks of amused mockery. Well, he would see who got the last laugh there.

Ranger shuddered slightly as it dropped out of subspace. “Status report!” barked Nonmar immediately.

“All ships are reporting green across the board!” replied the tactical officer. “Scans indicate the presence of 17 Imperial warships in orbit around Endragar!”

“That’s it?” asked Lodimeur, a note of wonder in his voice.

“Verify that number, Commander!” Nonmar ordered.

“Verified, sir!” replied the tactical officer after a few seconds.

“By the One,” Lodimeur breathed. “I knew Redlamin was in bad shape, but I never realized it was this bad.” He took a deep breath, and then said firmly, “Hail them!”

“Yes, sir!” replied the communications officer. Nonmar gave him a flat look, but she didn’t say anything. She had known that he was going to do this, but she disapproved. Even though Votalin’s fleet outnumbered Redlamin’s nearly 4-to-1, Nonmar believed that giving away any kind of tactical advantage was a bad idea. But Lodimeur was her CO, and besides, he’d gotten special permission from Votalin to do this.

“This is Colonel Xendin Lodimeur of the Imperial Armed Forces, contacting the Imperial Fleet units in orbit around Endragar,” Lodimeur said in a commanding voice. “Who is in command of this fleet?” There was silence for a few moments, and then Jimalin Redlamin’s face appeared on the screen. Lodimeur’s breath caught in his throat. He thought he’d been ready for this moment, but now that he was here, it was harder than he expected. Redlamin looked older than he remembered, much older than could be accounted for by the few years that had passed since they last met. There was also a wild, fervent gleam in Redlamin’s eyes that Lodimeur didn’t remember. Redlamin had always been passionate about his faith, but Lodimeur suspected that he had crossed the line to full-fledged fanaticism.

“I am in command here,” he began angrily, but he cut off and his eyes widened in shock when it dawned on him who he was addressing. “Xendin Lodimeur?” he breathed.

“Yes, Jim,” Lodimeur said somberly, “it’s me.”

“How could you?” Redlamin whispered. “HOW COULD YOU BETRAY ME TOO!?” he screamed suddenly, his widened eyes growing even more demented and spittle flying from his mouth.

“I could ask you the same question, Jim,” Lodimeur said grimly. “Why didn’t you contact me after you took the Imperial Palace?”

“What!” Redlamin exclaimed. “What are you blathering about?”

“Hana, Jim,” Lodimeur said more calmly than he felt. “My daughter. She was in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace the day you murdered the civilians gathered there. And you never bothered to contact me at all, not even to see how I was doing, or to offer even the slightest bit of sympathy.”

“Nonsense,” Redlamin said, waving a hand dismissively. “Those people in the courtyard were impeding the future glory of the Empire. They needed to be destroyed.”

“My daughter, Jim?” Lodimeur asked, the fury he felt starting to seep into his voice. “My daughter needed to be destroyed?”

“What is one girl’s life weighed against the safety and security of the Empire?” Redlamin sneered contemptuously. “Aren’t you just full of yourself, to think that your grief is more important than preserving the Empire.” Lodimeur stood silent for a few moments, smoldering with silent rage. When he did speak, his voice was like a pot of boiling water with a tight fitting lid, in the moment before the pressure built up too much and blew the lid off.

“Perhaps I could see the merit of your argument, if your actions had done anything to help the Empire,” he said, “but all you have done in your reign is fracture the Empire further. You have done nothing but throw lives away for two years, and for that, your reign ends here.” He gestured sharply to the communications officer, who immediately severed the connection.

“Receiving a signal from the flagship, sir!” said the communications officer suddenly. “We are to commence the attack!”

“All hands, prepare for battle!” roared Lodimeur. “Show no mercy!”

***

On the bridge of the Imperial battleship Invincible, Emperor Extrator IV, aka Jimalin Redlamin, sat dumbfounded. How could things have gone so horribly wrong? Wasn’t he the chosen of the One, the hero who would save the Empire and restore it to its former glory? Could he have been wrong? Why would the One let him go down this path, if it wasn’t His will?

“Your Majesty, the pretender’s forces are preparing to attack!” yelled Invincible‘s captain.

“Get us out here!” roared Extrator. “We can’t possibly fight off this attack! We’ll regroup at Trisitania!”

“Yes, Your Majesty!” said the captain with a salute. Extrator gripped the sides of his chair tightly and watched Votalin’s ships getting closer and closer on the viewscreen. Invincible‘s engineers had repaired the damage to the engines from Lors’s treacherous attack, but it still took a few minutes for the engines to spool up for a drop. Plenty of time for Votalin to attack and destroy them.

“Your Majesty!” yelled the Captain suddenly. “The engines aren’t responding!”

“What!” bellowed Extrator. “Well, get them working!”

“We can’t, Your Majesty!” the captain yelled back, somewhat hysterically. “Engine controls have been locked out, and we can’t override!” Extrator stared at him in mute horror, and then the communications officer called out.

“Communications are down too!” she yelled. “We can’t even contact the other ships and have them cover us!”

“Weapon systems have been disabled too!” piped up the weapons officer immediately.

“WHAT IS GOING ON!” Extrator roared in fear and rage.

“Captain!” yelled the security officer suddenly. “Unauthorized launch from shuttle bay 5!”

“Really!” exclaimed the captain in exasperation. “Who is on it?”

“Sensors indicate that Jefmin Lakatai is onboard!” replied the security officer.

“The ISS Master?” asked the captain, baffled. “What is he doing?” But Extrator knew. Lakatai had persuaded Extrator to give him Invincible‘s main access code. And he was willing to bet that Lakatai had changed the code since. It was done. Everyone that Extrator had trusted the most had now betrayed him. He lowered his head into his hands and wept, as Votalin’s fleet closed in.

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 22

Abaden Lors was pacing impatiently back and forth across the bridge of Dominator, his flagship, and the latest battleship to come out of the massive shipyards orbiting Medradi, the main base for the Imperial Armed Forces. His spies reported that Erelesk Votalin’s forces had dropped into subspace almost three hours ago, which meant that they would arrive in the Endragar system any minute. It was almost time for him to make his move, but now that it came down to it, he was reluctant to pull the trigger. It was hard to throw away two decades of friendship and loyalty. He had to keep reminding himself that he wasn’t throwing away anything. It was Redlamin who had betrayed him.

“Comms,” Lors said to Dominator‘s communications officer, “send a message to Alpha Force.” That was the codename for the ships that were defecting to Valador Mifalis. “Tell them to prepare for drop on my signal.” The communications officer nodded and sent the message. Lors stood in silence for a few minutes, and then the communications officer called out suddenly.

“Admiral!” he said, “Message coming in from Invincible!” Lors frowned, and a slight tickle of worry crept into the back of his head.

“Onscreen,” he ordered, carefully keeping any hint of uncertainty out of his voice.

“Lors!” bellowed Extrator IV as soon as his face appeared on the viewscreen. “What is the meaning of this!”

“What is the meaning of what, Your Majesty?” Lors asked. Best to play dumb for as long as he could.

“The order you just sent out!” Extrator screamed, his face turning red. “What is ‘Alpha Force’, and why have you ordered them to prepare for a drop?” Lors had never seen Extrator IV this unhinged before. No matter what the situation, no matter what the crisis, he had always kept his cool. The fact that he was so visibly agitated and angry strengthened Lors’s resolve. Extrator’s madness had gone beyond the point of no return.

“I’m sorry, Jim, I really am,” Lors said. Extrator’s face turned purple at Lors’s use of this familiar nickname, and he opened his mouth to speak, but Lors rode right over him. “I hereby formally pledge my allegiance to the true Emperor, His Majesty Valador I.” He stared resolutely at Extrator, whose face was changing color from purple to white.

“This…this is treason!” Extrator gasped, his eyes wide.

“No, Jim,” Lors said, shaking his head sadly. “I’m doing what’s best for the Empire. You are the true traitor here.”

“How dare you!” Extrator said through clenched teeth, seething with fury. “You would be nothing without me! You owe all that you are to my benevolence!”

“You’re wrong, Jim,” Lors said firmly. “I owe all that I am to the Empire. I serve the Empire. You? You are destroying it. And today, you will be judged.” As soon as he finished speaking, he motioned to the communications officer, who immediately severed the connection. “Time to drop?” he asked.

“Two minutes, sir,” replied the navigation officer.

“Sir!” called out the tactical officer. “Invincible is changing course and charging its main guns!”

“Activate shields!” ordered Lors. “Prepare evasive maneuvers!” He sat down and clenched the arms of his chair tightly. Invincible was an older ship, and no match for Dominator, but a lucky or well-placed shot could still ruin everything.

“Sir!” said the communications officer. “Two-thirds of Alpha Force report they are ready to drop.”

“Tell them to go ahead,” Lors ordered.

“Are you sure about that?” asked his XO, Captain Chalaya Motour. “That would leave the rest of us outnumbered by Extrator’s forces. And what if Votalin’s fleet gets here before we’re ready to drop? That would leave us stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

“I understand that, Captain,” Lors replied, “but Mifalis wants as many ships as he can get, and it’s better if they’re in the best condition possible. I want to live, but I want as many of the people under my command to live as well. If anyone can get out of here now, then they’d better.”

“Understood, sir,” she responded with a salute.

Invincible is opening fire!” yelled the tactical officer.

“All hands, brace for impact!” yelled Lors in response. He himself gripped the arms of his chair even more tightly, and a few seconds later, Dominator shuddered violently under the force of eight fully charged phased proton blasts.

“Damage report!” demanded Lors.

“Shields are at 73% and holding,” replied the damage control officer. “Hull is undamaged.”

“Time to drop?” Lors asked.

“Thirty seconds,” replied the navigation officer.

“Should we return fire, sir?” asked Motour. Lors grimaced and thought for a second. Even though he was abandoning his friend and leaving him to the mercy of a manipulative ISS Master and a psychopathic rival Emperor, the idea of actually firing on his ship seemed…wrong. And yet, in thirty seconds, Invincible could potentially do a lot of damage to Dominator, if he didn’t respond. Maybe even destroy it.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “Return fire.” The weapons officer nodded sharply, and a few seconds later Dominator shuddered mightily as all twelve of its forward phased proton arrays began unleashing their wrath. Lors closed his eyes tightly as the blasts impacted Invincible.

“Direct hit, sir,” announced the tactical officer. “Invincible‘s shields are down, and its engines are offline.”

“Very well,” Lors replied softly. “Are we ready to drop?”

“Yes, sir,” said the navigation officer.

“And the rest of Alpha Force?” asked Lors.

“All ships report ready to drop,” replied the communications officer.

“Then commence drop,” Lors said.

“Shouldn’t we finish off Invincible?” asked Motour.

“No,” said Lors fiercely. “I may be abandoning Jim, but I won’t kill him. We’ll leave Invincible for Votalin to take care of.”

“If you say so, sir,” she replied in a tone of voice that made it clear she didn’t understand what her commanding officer was thinking, and she certainly didn’t agree with it.

“Dropping in 5…4…3…2…1…now!” said the navigation officer, and there was the familiar and somewhat comforting sensation of plunging into subspace. Lors allowed himself a small sigh of relief. He was safe, and so were the men and women who had followed him. A minor victory, to be sure, but still a victory. At this point, Abaden Lors would take what he could get.

To be continued…