Culmination, Part 6

Shala Votalin was sitting in her study, going over some routine paperwork when the security alarm sounded. At first, she ignored it. Her father had tried to kidnap her at least a hundred times in the past decade, so it didn’t surprise her in the least that he was making yet another attempt. So she tucked the alarm into the back of her mind and kept on working.

It wasn’t until she heard the sound of booted feet running down the hall that she began to realize that this wasn’t a normal kidnapping attempt. She was just getting up to see what was going on when the door to her study burst open and half a dozen of her bodyguards rushed in.

“We need to get to the safe room, now!” yelled their leader, grabbing her by the arm and rushing her out the room. She was a little startled by this turn of events, but she didn’t protest at all. She’d always thought this day might come, and she meekly allowed herself to be pulled along, trusting in the bodyguards to know what they were doing.

Before she could fully wrap her mind around what was going on, they had made their way down into the basement of the manor, into the heavily fortified safe room buried deep underground. The walls and door of the room were about three feet thick, and so strongly reinforced that any explosives strong enough to breach them would almost certainly kill anyone inside, and destroy the entire manor, at that. As Neminatrix’s desire was for Shala to be captured alive, there was no way his soldiers would even attempt to get in that way. Once inside the safe room, they would be safe long enough for reinforcements to arrive and fight off Neminatrix’s troops.

“So, what happened Captain?” asked Shala once the safe room doors were tightly shut.

“I’m not sure, my lady,” said the captain with a frown. “The proximity alarm went off, and then suddenly all the systems shut down. We tried to fight them off with our handguns, but without the defensive systems online, we were outnumbered and outgunned. The six of us here are all that’s left.”

“Oh no,” Shala breathed, putting a hand to her mouth in shock. There had been thirty soldiers assigned to her bodyguard, and she’d known them all personally. “How could this happen?”

“I don’t know, my lady,” the captain said grimly. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that they were able to override the defense system’s computer.”

“But…but that’s impossible, isn’t it?” Shala asked, perplexed and worried.

“I would have thought so,” the captain replied. “No encryption algorithm is completely bulletproof, but most of the computer experts in the Empire have sworn allegiance to Valador. It’s highly unlikely that Neminatrix has the resources to break our encryption. Unfortunately, if his soldiers have access to our defense system, it’s because someone gave them the password.”

“But who would do such a thing?” Shala asked, her worry and confusion deepening.

“I have no idea, my lady,” the captain said, grimmer than ever. “The only ones who know the password are you, your husband, myself, and Lieutenant Valdenar, and Valdenar was killed outside, so if it was him, he has the worst luck I’ve ever heard of.”

Shala frowned thoughtfully for a moment. What the captain had said was not entirely true. Shala had also given the password to Vendamil, just in case. Could he have been so angry about not going to Imperial University that he’d given her up to her father? Frowning bitterly, she shook her head and then, drawing herself up to her full height, she addressed the soldiers with her best command voice. “Captain, if Neminatrix’s soldiers have access to this manor’s defense systems, that means they will be able to open this door, correct?”

“That’s right, my lady,” the captain said with a worried frown, “but-” Shala cut him off before he could say more.

“Then I order you and your men to stand down,” she said firmly. “I will not allow you to die needlessly for my sake.”

“I cannot do that, my lady!” the captain exclaimed, aghast. “It is my duty to protect you at all cost, even if it requires me to sacrifice my life!”

“Nonsense!” Shala scoffed. “If there was a chance that your death could save me from Neminatrix, then maybe I’d allow you to die, but I will not have you throw your lives away needlessly! Put down your guns and surrender as soon as that door opens, or I will open it myself and turn myself over to my father’s troops.”

The captain stared at her for a moment, clearly torn between two conflicting directives, but then he nodded sharply, laid his handgun down on the floor, and motioned to the other soldiers to do the same. Satisfied, Shala gave them all a winning smile, and then faced the door defiantly and waited for the end.

She didn’t have long to wait. Only a few minutes passed before the faint sound of booted feet and muffled yelling could be heard through the safe room door, and a few seconds later, a voice came over the intercom. “Shala Votalin!” it said, “There are over a hundred soldiers surrounding this safe room, and we have the password to open this door. Order your men to stand down, or they will all be killed.”

“It’s okay!” she yelled back. “I’ve already given the order. Go ahead and open the door, and I will surrender peacefully!” For a few seconds, nothing happened, and Shala began to hope that her father’s soldiers were bluffing, but then the door opened, and over a dozen heavily armed soldiers rushed in, shoved her bodyguards to the ground, and bound their hands behind their backs. Shala stood stoically as the leader of her father’s troops came into the room, and she was somewhat surprised to see Jefmin Lakatai, her father’s ISS Master.

“I’m surprised to see a coward like you here, Lakatai,” Shala said scornfully.

“Why wouldn’t I be here?” Lakatai replied, a smug look on his well-fed face. “I have complete access to your manor’s defense systems. I was never in any danger.”

“And how did you get that access?” Shala demanded.

“That is for me to know and you to wonder about,” Lakatai said with a nasty grin. “Now, let’s get out of here.” He turned and addressed one of his soldiers. “Kill the prisoners,” he said brusquely.

“What? No!” screamed Shala in horror, but her voice was drowned out by the roar of gunfire as her bodyguards were executed.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 5

“Belfamor, I need you to talk to your son,” Shala said with her hands on her hips as Belfamor entered their bedroom. He had just arrived home after two weeks of inspecting troops at the military outpost on Harboria, a planet that had recently switched allegiance from Neminatrix to Valador. He was a general now, and the second-highest ranking military officer in the entire IAF, or at least the part of it that was loyal to Emperor Valador I.

“Well, thanks for the warm welcome, honey,” Belfamor said with an ironic smile. “I missed you, too.”

“Belfamor, we spoke via commlink every day that you were gone,” Shala said, rolling her eyes. “I hardly feel like you weren’t here. And even if I had missed you terribly, we have a serious problem to deal with.”

“I’m sure we do,” Belfamor replied, trying and failing to mask his exasperation. Vendamil could be a trying child for sure, but Belfamor never quite understood why Shala had so much trouble with him. No matter how arrogant or whiny or abrasive Vendamil got, if Belfamor told him to stop, he did. Shala just wasn’t firm enough with him.

“I know you think I’m just being dramatic or whatever,” Shala said with a scowl and a glare, “but we really do have a problem. Vendamil has applied to study at Imperial University.”

“I don’t see why that’s a big deal,” Belfamor said with a shrug. “He’s already smart enough to get in, and even if he wasn’t, they’d be stupid to say no to the heir to House Hemetal. Once the war’s over and the Emperor has control of the capital, I don’t see any reason why he can’t go. By then, he’ll probably be about 10 years old. It’s not unprecedented for a 10 year old to attend university.”

“I agree, but that’s not the problem,” Shala said in a too-patient voice. “The problem is that he wants to go now.”

“What?” Belfamor asked, startled. “Of course not! Out of the question!”

“That’s what I told him,” Shala said, spreading out her hands in a gesture of futility. “In response, he said, and I quote, ‘You will live to regret this, woman’.”

“You’re kidding me,” Belfamor breathed, a stunned look on his face.

“You’ve never believed me about Vendamil, have you?” Shala said, shaking her head in disbelief. “You think that because you can handle him, that there isn’t a problem with him. Well, let me tell you, it’s great that you can handle him, but you’re not always around. And what if something happens to you? You’re a soldier. There’s no guarantee that you will survive your next battle. Vendamil needs to learn how to respect people other than you, or he’s going to turn out just like my father.”

Belfamor winced and sat down heavily on the bed. After a moment, he sighed and said, “Okay, you’ve made your point. But what do you want me to do about it?”

“That’s the problem,” Shala said with a pained frown. “I have no idea.” She came and plopped down on the bed next to him, and together they sat there for a few moments, just thinking.

“Well, I suppose the first thing to do is have a chat with Vendamil, get him to realize that going to Trisitania now is not going to happen,” Belfamor said.

“I think that’s a marvelous idea,” Shala said, rolling her eyes again.

***

“And how can I know that you are telling me the truth?” said the man on the other side of the commlink suspiciously.

“What have you got to lose?” replied Vendamil with a shrug and a smirk.

“I suppose you have a good point,” said the man thoughtfully. Then a huge grin brightened his face. “You know, I like you, Vendamil. You remind me of myself. I think I’ll be able to find a place for you, once you finish your degree.”

“I would appreciate that greatly,” Vendamil said with a solemn nod. “It is a shame that my parents saw fit to assign me to House Hemetal, rather than House Votalin.”

“That can be dealt with,” the man said with a dismissive gesture. “Once you and your mother are on Trisitania, we can worry about minor details like that. Who knows? If we play our cards right, it might even be possible to merge Hemetal and Votalin! Just think of it: the power and prestige of the Imperial dynasty combined with the wealthiest noble house in the galaxy! That would certainly be an achievement, wouldn’t it? And it would all be thanks to you.”

“You are too kind,” Vendamil replied with another slight incline of his head. He opened his mouth to say more, but he heard someone approaching his chamber and severed the commlink immediately. It wouldn’t do for anyone to find out who he was talking to, much less what he was planning with that person. He wasn’t concerned about offending the man on the other end. Their plans were already in motion, and the man was well aware that a sudden disconnection was a possibility.

“Who were you talking to, Vendamil?” asked Belfamor as he entered the room.

“Oh, just a friend of Mother’s,” Vendamil said airily. “Welcome home, Father. What can I do for you?”

“I have spoken to your mother about your request to attend Imperial University,” Belfamor said, sitting down on his son’s bed, “and I have some concerns about the way you reacted when she said no.”

“Oh, Father, I’m very sorry about what I said,” Vendamil said cheerfully. “I was wrong, and I promise it will never happen again.”

“I…see,” Belfamor said, somewhat flummoxed. “Well, I suppose that settles it then. As long as you’ve learned your lesson.”

“Oh, I have, Father,” Vendamil replied earnestly. “I know I need to treat my mother with respect, and I assure you I will do so in the future.”

“Okay, well,” Belfamor said with a shrug, “I guess that settles things then. How have things been here while I was gone?” Belfamor sat and chatted with Vendamil about inconsequential things for a few minutes, and then he left. As soon as the door shut, Vendamil let out a relieved sigh. His father had no suspicions about his plans. He hadn’t really expected otherwise, but stranger things had happened. A malevolent smile crept across his face as he thought about the conversations he’d just had. Nothing was going to stand in the way of his ambitions. Not even his own mother.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 4

Shala Votalin smiled wearily as she gazed upon her five-year-old son, Vendamil, a proud smile tinged with exasperation, as little Vendamil was whining about something again. Sometimes she wondered if maybe she had been better off in the days when she’d believed it impossible for her to get pregnant. Having a child was as marvelously wonderful as she’d always imagined it to be, but it was also about 100 times more difficult than she’d imagined as well.

Not that Vendamil was a normal child. No, he was an exceptional little boy, in both good ways and bad. For one thing, he was extraordinarily brilliant. Academically, he was already performing at a university level, solving complex mathematical equations and reading and comprehending esoteric philosophical treatises. Just thinking about his genius made Shala beam with pride. But unfortunately there was a flip side to Vendamil’s brilliance. He seemed to have inherited all of the worst aspects of the personality of his grandfather, the so-called Emperor, Neminatrix IV. He was cruel, tyrannical, arrogant, and utterly disconnected from reality. He behaved as if he were the center of the universe, which Shala feared she had inadvertently encouraged because of the fact that he was her first, and likely only, child.

“Mother,” Vendamil said in a petulant tone, “you are not listening to me!”

“I’m sorry, Vendy,” Shala said with a sigh. “What is it, dear?”

“First of all, you are not to call me ‘Vendy’,” Vendamil replied with an arrogant scowl. “I believe we have discussed this in the past. Secondly, I was telling you that I have applied to attend Imperial University in the fall, and I expect that I will be accepted.” Shala stared at her son for a moment in disbelief, and then she shook her head.

“Vendamil,” she said firmly, “I appreciate that you are exceptionally intelligent, but there is no way that you will be attending Imperial University, regardless of whether you are accepted.”

“And why not!” Vendamil exclaimed, jumping out of his seat and stamping his little foot. “I have every right to attend whatever college I want. And don’t tell me we can’t afford it! I’m well aware that House Hemetal is the richest noble house in the galaxy!”

“Of course we can afford it,” Shala replied, sounding more calm than she felt. “But that’s not the point. First of all, no matter how bright you are, there is no way I’m allowing a five-year-old to attend a university. Even if you are smarter than most college students, you’re still a child, and you’re not emotionally prepared for college. Besides, attending Imperial University would mean sending you to Trisitania. You would almost certainly be captured and held hostage by your grandfather if you set foot in the capital.”

“Don’t be absurd, Mother,” Vendamil said, waving a hand dismissively. “Surely Neminatrix would want his grandson to get a good education.”

“If he was a well-adjusted, loving man, then I would agree with you,” Shala said, “but unfortunately, your grandfather is a narcissistic tyrant who is only concerned about his own desires. And for some twisted reason, he desires me, and I have no doubt that he would not hesitate to seize you in order to force me to return to Trisitania.”

“And wouldn’t being captured by your father be a small price to pay so that your son could be educated at the most prestigious educational institution in the galaxy?” Vendamil retorted with a sneer. Shala stared at him coldly.

“Vendamil, you are my son, and I love you,” she said in an icy voice. “You are perhaps the most brilliant person I’ve ever met, but you are still a child, and there is much that you do not understand. Now, leave me, and do not mention going to Trisitania again.” Vendamil stared at her in shock, and then his expression morphed into pure rage.

“How dare you, woman!” he hissed. “You will regret this decision, I assure you!” And before Shala could reply, he turned on his heel and stormed out of the room. Shala maintained her cold expression until he was gone, and then she sighed deeply and slumped into her seat. How could she have given birth to such a monster? She wanted desperately to love her son, and of course, on some level she did. But there was so much about him that reminded her of her father, and that was terrifying to her. What if he grew up to be just like her father? And what if he treated her the same way her father had? To be abused by her father had been horrible enough. The thought of the same abuse coming from the hands of her son was unthinkable.

Fortunately, she had her husband to lean on. Vendamil would whine and bluster and rage, but when Belfamor spoke, he listened. Maybe having that strong father figure would be the difference for Vendamil. Shala’s grandfather had been a drunken wastrel who had squandered House Votalin’s fortune on alcohol and gambling, which was the reason why her father had had to ally so closely with House Hemetal when he made his bid for the Imperial Throne. Shala sometimes wondered if it was also part of the reason why her father was such a sociopath. Maybe if he’d had a father who loved him and paid attention to him, he would have turned out differently.

Well, Neminatrix was not Shala’s concern anymore. She had been free of him for almost a decade now. Over a decade if she didn’t count the month she’d spent on Trisitania after Belfamor’s father was executed. He had tried many times to get her back since she’d defected to Emperor Valador, but she was guarded too well, and every attempt had failed miserably. Valador placed too much value on the support of his rival’s daughter to allow her to be captured.

None of that helped her with Vendamil, though. She needed to figure out a way to teach him empathy and compassion, or he would end up as horrible as her father.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 3

About an hour after the Grand Council meeting ended, Hana found herself sitting in the Supreme Commander’s spacious office, trying to understand why she was on the receiving end of a disappointed frown. Apparently, Dren Calabane was upset with her for asking the Council to let her kill Neminatrix IV, and she wasn’t quite sure why. He hadn’t said anything yet, but he was regarding her with a look that she knew from several years’ association meant he wasn’t happy. She glared back at him defiantly, which she knew wasn’t terribly wise, but she couldn’t even pretend to feel chastised if she didn’t know what she was in trouble for.

“Hana, do you have any idea why I asked you to come speak to me?” asked Dren in a voice that said he was well aware that she didn’t.

“You know the answer to that, Commander,” Hana said in a level voice.

“I suspect I do,” Dren said with a sigh, “but I’d hoped I was wrong.” He stood up and began pacing back and forth. “When I was a Councilor, I used to get frustrated with the way Zhemeen Fortulis did things. I used to imagine that if and when I became Supreme Commander, I would be bolder, more aggressive. I used to think that the war was over as soon as the Emergence took place, and all we needed to do was push forward and sweep the galaxy clean of the dying ruins of the Empire. I couldn’t understand why Fortulis was so passive in his approach when the war was already won.” He stopped pacing and turned to look Hana in the eye.

“Now that I am the Supreme Commander, I know differently,” he continued. “The Empire is bleeding, but its wound is not terminal. We could still lose this war. Despite our hundreds of years of careful planning, we could still go the way of our predecessors in the Nether, a noble dream that faded like mist. The more we do to keep the Empire fractured and focused on its own internal problems, the more likely we fulfill our destiny of bringing the entire galaxy under the dominion of the Dark Presence. But if we allow our pride to blind our vision, if we allow petty personal problems to get in the way of our greater goal, the Dark Presence will not hesitate to cast us aside and find worthier champions.” He sat down and fixed her with his intense gaze. “Does any of this make sense to you?”

“You think I’m being selfish for wanting to kill Neminatrix,” Hana said flatly.

“I wouldn’t put it quite so bluntly, but yes,” Dren replied, lacing his fingers together on the desk in front of him.

“Then why did you overrule the Council?” Hana asked, exasperated. “You hate doing that! If you agreed with their vote, why didn’t you just let it stand?”

“Because Ron and Valin are right,” Dren said. “Your service to Fangalin does deserve a reward, and it’s disrespectful to everything you’ve done that your request for the life of Neminatrix has been denied so many times.”

“Then what is this all about!” cried Hana, throwing her hands up in frustration.

“I want you to reconsider,” Dren said calmly. “You deserve to be the one who kills Neminatrix, and Presence knows the man deserves to die, but I don’t think you fully appreciate how fragile our situation is. Neminatrix and Valador have been fighting for over a decade now, and this long civil war has greatly weakened both sides. It is apparent to myself and my analysts that Valador will ultimately come out on top, but left to their own devices, it may be five or six more years before that happens. Meanwhile, we are building up our forces and preparing for a massive push to crush the Empire once and for all. However, it will be five years before we are ready. By then, Valador’s forces will be so depleted by civil war that it will be very difficult for them to resist us. However, if you kill Neminatrix now and Valador becomes sole ruler of the Empire, he will have five years to reconsolidate and prepare for our assault, and we will have a much longer and more difficult war ahead of us. He may even be able to strike us before we are ready to fight back.”

Silence fell as Hana glared at Dren, who looked calmly back at her. “You want me to choose between my duty to my family and my duty to the Dark Presence,” she growled.

“There shouldn’t be any choice, Captain,” Dren said sternly, dropping his benign father posture and turning the full force of the Supreme Commander of Fangalin on her. “Duty to the Dark Presence trumps all. If I have to remind you of that, then maybe the time has come to relieve you of your command.” Hana turned white as a sheet at this, and recoiled as if struck.

“How dare you question my loyalty!” she hissed. “Haven’t I proven myself a thousand times over in the past ten years?” Hana and Dren glared at each other for a moment, and then the stern Supreme Commander disappeared and the benign father resurfaced.

“Of course you have,” he sighed. “I shouldn’t have put it that way. You will not be accused of disloyalty if you persist in your plans to kill Neminatrix. After all, I have already given you permission to do so. But if you decline to accept my gift, you will still have the honor of having been granted your request, and I assure you, in five years, when our forces are ready, you will be in the vanguard when the time comes to take Trisitania. For the sake of the greater good, I would ask you to do this.”

“I,” Hana began firmly, and then she paused and sighed. “I will consider your request, Commander.”

“That is all I ask, Hana,” Dren said with a wistful smile.

To be continued…