Culmination, Part 23

Hana Lodimeur was perfectly still, her body like a compressed spring. She was crouched down behind a barrier, a sniper rifle cradled tightly in her arms. Holding her breath, she carefully centered the scope on her target, and then, ever so gently, she pulled the trigger. A blast of energy silently erupted out of the barrel of her rifle and pierced the target, 2 inches to the left of where she’d been aiming. Snarling, she stood up and slammed her fist into a nearby wall, while keeping a tight grip on the sniper rifle. The rifle was a Fanimar Industries WN7-329 Injected Fusion Heavy Sniper Rifle, one of only ten in existence, and possibly the most expensive piece of equipment that Starfengt possessed.

“What are you so mad about?” Arcten Sidel asked calmly. He was leaning against a nearby wall, arms folded, watching Hana practice. “That was your best shot yet!”

“It still isn’t good enough!” Hana growled. “I’ve seen you nail the bullseye from twice this distance! I need to get better if I’m going to be the one to take out Neminatrix, and I’m running out of time!”

“I still don’t understand why it’s so essential that you be the one to kill Neminatrix,” Arcten said with a slight frown. “No matter who kills him, at the end of the day, he’ll be dead and your father will be avenged.”

“It’s essential because it was MY father who was murdered!” Hana roared. “It’s essential because this is what I have devoted my life to for the past ten years! If, after all the work I’ve put in, all the blood, sweat, and tears that I’ve shed, I’m not the one to pull the trigger, then what in Nerzaga have I been doing with my life!”

“You’ve been building the best team of operatives that this galaxy has ever seen,” Arcten said quietly. “I hardly think that qualifies as wasting your life.” Hana scowled at him, and opened her mouth to yell some more, but Arcten cut her off. “You need something to live for once Neminatrix is dead, even if you do succeed in killing him. You can’t keep clinging to this vendetta once it’s over. What will fill the void for you, Hana Lodimeur? Because there will be a void, even if you pull the trigger.” Hana’s scowl deepened, and she took a deep breath, but then she let it out in a heavy sigh.

“Why do you have to be so damn wise?” she asked in a sour voice, but her eyes twinkled as she spoke.

“It comes with the years,” Arcten replied solemnly, but his eyes were twinkling, too. “You’ll be wise someday, too, once you’re old like me.”

“Oh, knock it off,” Hana said, laughing and punching Arcten playfully in the shoulder. “I don’t want to hear any more talk about how old you are. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir, Captain Lodimeur, sir!” Arcten shouted, standing up straight and saluting sarcastically. Hana opened her mouth to tease him some more, but she shut it with a frown as the door of the shooting range slid open and Kyla Vertrane raced in, breathing heavily as if she’d been running.

“Captain Lodimeur!” she yelled, skidding to a halt and saluting. “I have urgent news for you!”

“Yeah? Well, spit it out, Vertrane!”

“Intelligence reports that a huge fleet just left Hibellia,” Kyla said breathlessly. “They’re headed for Trisitania! Command thinks that Valador is getting ready to end the civil war and crush Neminatrix in one fell swoop. That means-”

“That means, if I’m going to kill Neminatrix, we need to go now,” Hana interrupted with a hard voice.

“Are you crazy?” Arcten growled. “You’re going to take the team into the middle of a war zone? Without any preparation? We’ve spent a month training for an assassination in a secure location. We’re not prepared to do this in the middle of a battle!”

“We’ll be fine,” Hana snapped. “Both sides will be focused on each other. They won’t even notice us. Security will be a mess, so this will be even easier than infiltrating the Imperial Palace. We’ll use this to our advantage.”

“You’re not thinking straight,” Arcten snapped back. “You’re so obsessed with your vendetta that you’ve lost all perspective. If Valador’s forces take Trisitania, they’ll almost certainly kill or capture Neminatrix. I know you think that you need to kill Neminatrix, but if Valador wins this battle, your father will be avenged. And if Valador loses, then we can move in and complete our mission. But if we try to do this now, a lot of good men and women are going to be killed. Are the lives of your troops really a reasonable price to pay to avenge your father?”

“You worry too much,” Hana said with a sneer. “Starfengt has the best troops in the galaxy. Nothing the Empire can throw our way will be a match for us. Besides, like I said, neither side will even notice us. They’ll be too busy killing each other.”

“This is ridiculous,” Arcten scowled. “You do realize there’s only 12 of us, right? Neminatrix and Valador will have tens of thousands of troops apiece! And, need I remind you that both sides want us dead?”

“Enough!” Hana barked. “I am in command of Starfengt, and I say we are departing for Trisitania as soon as possible. Besides, we still have our secret weapon. If I decide that things look too hot, I’ll just drop the Nexus bomb on the Imperial Palace and we’ll head home.”

“Um, about that, sir?” Kyla interjected.

“What!” Hana bellowed.

“Well, I talked to the Supreme Commander about your secret weapon,” Kyla said, looking nervous yet defiant.

“You what!?” Hana hissed through clenched teeth.

“He told me to tell you that you’re too valuable to be locked away,” Kyla went on, pretending she hadn’t heard Hana, “but that under no circumstances will you be allowed to use a Nexus bomb on this mission, and that you’re lucky he’s not going to rescind his authorization for the mission.”
Kyla clamped her mouth shut so quickly that her teeth clicked, and for several minutes, the only sound was Hana’s tense breathing as she stared at Kyla with seething hatred.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 22

“What do you mean, ‘it never should have happened’?” Kryla asked carefully. “I read the reports about Phumelenin. Are you saying that something was falsified?”

“No, of course not!” Alaia replied quickly, shocked. “I just meant, I was never supposed to be in the Captain’s chair on Majestic Falcon. I had no idea what I was doing. I just happened to be the most senior officer left alive. I took command because I had to, and I just acted on instinct. I didn’t have any grand scheme. I just did stuff and it happened to work.”

Kryla eyed Alaia thoughtfully for a moment, and then, much to Alaia’s surprise, she started chuckling. “Commander Farlen,” she said, her tone a mixture of amusement and sternness, “do you think it’s different for any of us?”

“Well, I…,” Alaia began uncertainly. “When you’re in the Captain’s chair, sir, you just have such poise, such an air of command. Surely you know exactly what you’re doing at all times.” Kryla just started laughing even harder at this.

“I sure do have you fooled, don’t I?” she said with a smirk, and then laughed even harder at the bemused look on Alaia’s face. “I apologize, Commander,” she said once her mirth died down. “I don’t mean to make fun of you. I just find it surprising that you’ve advanced as far as you have without learning the ‘secret of command’.”

“The ‘secret of command’?” Alaia said, her puzzlement deepening. “What’s that?”

Kryla leaned forward and whispered, “None of us know what in Nerzaga we’re doing.” She leaned back, her expression perfectly serious for a moment, and then a wide grin split her face in two. “It’s a joke, but it’s also serious. You think I know exactly what I’m doing every moment I sit in that chair? You think every decision I make is the absolute best decision I could have made at that moment? Every commander in this fleet, and in every other fleet in the galaxy, is just acting on instinct. Instinct is the best weapon we have, Alaia! And from the results you got at Phumelenin, I think your instincts are pretty damn good.”

“It just…it just seems like there should be more,” muttered Alaia.

“Maybe it does,” Kryla said, her smile growing warmer. “Heck, maybe there are people who have such command of the battlefield that they can just see every move they need to make at every moment. But if there are, I’ve never met any. I’m certainly not one.”

“But you plan your moves several steps in advance, don’t you?” Alaia asked, her brow furrowed.

“I try to,” Kryla said with a shrug. “You need to try and anticipate what your enemy will do, of course. But it just happens. You don’t think to yourself, ‘oh, well, they’re going to do this, so I’m going to do this’. You just do it.”

“That…does basically sound like what I did at Phumelenin,” Alaia admitted.

“You see?” Kryla said with a smile. “You already know how to command. You just need to work on your confidence.” She leaned forward and fixed Alaia with an intense gaze. “And you don’t need to be afraid of me. Don’t worry about what happens during battle drills. Failing during a battle drill is meaningless. Take any mistakes you make and learn from them. That’s what they’re for.”

“I’ll try to do better, Admiral,” Alaia said, bashful.

“Don’t just try, Commander,” Kryla said, her voice and expression growing hard. “Do better.”

“Yes, sir!” Alaia replied, blushing and sitting up straighter. “I will, sir!” Kryla eyed her for a moment, and then her expression softened again.

“I know you will,” Kryla said in an encouraging voice. “Dismissed, Commander.” Alaia nodded, and then stood up, saluted sharply, and left Kryla’s office.

Well, thought Kryla in satisfaction, that went better than I expected. Of course, there was no guarantee that Kryla’s little pep talk would actually change anything. Maybe Alaia was right, and her performance at Phumelenin had been an accident. Maybe next time she was in command, she would freeze up and get everyone under her command killed. But there was no sense in dwelling on such possibilities. Alaia Farlen had the potential to be a great officer. All she needed was some confidence.

An alert sounded, telling Kryla that someone was trying to contact her, and she pressed the button to answer the call. “Yes?”

“Admiral Zomulin, General Hemetal has arrived,” said the voice of one of her aides.

“Excellent,” Kryla replied. “Show him into my office.” A few minutes later, the aide arrived, followed by Lord Hemetal and two of his aides.

“Good to see you again, sir,” Kryla said as she stood up and saluted.

“Likewise, Admiral,” Belfamor said, returning her salute. “How are your preparations going?”

“Everything is progressing as smoothly as possible, General,” Kryla replied, and they both sat down on opposite sides of her desk.

“Good,” Belfamor said, nodding sharply, “because in two days, the fleet departs for Trisitania.”

“That soon?” Kryla asked, her eyes widening. “I thought I’d have at least two more weeks to prepare! I haven’t fully integrated my units yet. Just this morning, you sent me a note that you’re adding 15 more ships to my fleet! They haven’t even arrived yet, and you’re saying that we’re leaving in two days?”

“Those 15 ships will be here tomorrow,” Belfamor said calmly. “You will have 24 hours to get them situated, and then the operation begins.”

“Why the rush?” exclaimed Kryla, exasperated. “Did the Emperor figure out what you’re planning?”

“Yes, but that’s not why I moved up the timetable,” Belfamor said, a slight frown appearing on his face. “I’ve looked over your reports. You’re as ready as you need to be, considering the resistance we’ll face on Trisitania.” He handed a tablet to Kryla, who perused its contents quickly, and then let out a low whistle.

“Are you sure this is accurate?” she asked, amazed.

“As sure as it is possible to be,” Belfamor replied. “75 percent of the forces defending Trisitania have been reassigned to other sectors. The capital is virtually defenseless.”

“We will be too, until this battle is over,” Kryla said in a warning tone, but Belfamor waved a hand dismissively.

“We’ll crush Neminatrix’s forces, kill or capture him, and then the rest of his troops will swear allegiance to Valador. What else can they do? There won’t be enough of them left to put up an effective resistance.”

“That’s a pretty big assumption,” Kryla said skeptically.

“That’s not your concern,” Belfamor replied harshly. “Your job is to capture Trisitania. Let me worry about the bigger picture.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 21

Admiral Kryla Zomulin sighed as she tossed a tablet on her desk, and then gazed around at her surroundings. She was sitting in her quarters onboard Decimator, the flagship of the fleet that Lord Hemetal was amassing to invade Trisitania. Decimator had been Kryla’s first command, and she’d always regretted being promoted out of the Captain’s chair. So one of her requests when she’d agreed to join Lord Hemetal’s potentially treasonous crusade had been that she would be reinstated as captain of Decimator, in addition to being in command of the fleet. Lord Hemetal had been happy to oblige. Decimator was no longer the newest ship in the fleet, but it was still one of the fastest and most powerful ships in the Empire. Kryla had served on many ships over the past 13 years, but Decimator would always hold a special place in her heart.

She shook her head and turned her attention back to the report she’d been sighing about. 15 more ships had been added to her fleet. That brought the total to 100, and also meant that she had more than 100,000 ground troops. That was more than half the total strength of the Imperial Fleet. Kryla knew that Trisitania would be a tough nut to crack, but Lord Hemetal was taking a huge risk by stripping the Empire’s defenses so bare. It wouldn’t be all that helpful for the Emperor to control the capital if Fangalin or Midigal seized a big chunk of territory in the meantime. But, that was Lord Hemetal’s problem, not hers. The important thing for her was that she’d gotten her ship back, and if this mission was her last, then at least she would die where she belonged.

She frowned down at the tablet, and then she shook her head, stood up and strode out of her quarters. It was time to run battle drills again. Not that her presence was required for battle drills, but she liked to keep up with what her XO was doing. Her XO was good, but she was still pretty green, and Kryla wanted to make sure that she was there to correct any mistakes. Of course, after 15 years of war, nobody could rise to the rank of Commander and still be truly green. But her XO had either been really lucky or really clever, and had managed to avoid most of the battles that she should have taken part in over the course of her 10 year career.

“Admiral on the bridge!” announced an ensign as Kryla stepped through the door and past the officers sitting in the tactical section.

“At ease, everyone,” Kryla said firmly as people began to stiffen and stand up in response to her presence. “No need to get up, Commander Farlen,” she said, holding out a hand to forestall her XO, who was just rising up out of the Captain’s chair so that she could sit down. “I’m only here as an observer.” Farlen nodded uncertainly and slowly lowered herself back into the chair.

“Helm, change course to heading 4732.9,” Farlen ordered, studiously ignoring Kryla’s presence. Kryla, on the other hand, studied Commander Farlen carefully. Alaia Farlen, graduated 3rd in her class from the Imperial Military Academy in 2159, six years after the war started. Served under Emperor Neminatrix for three years, and then was part of a sizable fleet that defected to Emperor Valador seven years ago. Since then, she had served with distinction but had so far failed to exhibit the exceptionality expected of those who graduated from IMA with high honors. Somehow, she had managed to avoid most of the major battles that Valador’s forces had taken part in, with the exception of one.

Two years ago, Valador’s forces had struck at Phumelenin, a province held by Fangalin, far beyond Valador’s borders. The objective had not been to seize the planet, but rather to destroy a munitions plant located there. Unfortunately, Valador’s intelligence about the forces stationed at Phumelenin had been faulty, and there were nearly three times more ships in orbit than had been expected. The commander of the mission, Captain Lodech Nermaia, had made the decision to go ahead with the operation, but was killed almost immediately after the battle began. Several other officers fell soon after, and then-Lt. Commander Alaia Farlen had been the highest ranking officer on the lead ship, an Imperial cruiser called Majestic Falcon. She had taken command of Majestic Falcon, and the operation, and she managed to destroy the munitions plant and escape with a minimum of casualties. It had been a brilliant display of cunning and courage, and it had led Kryla to request Alaia as her XO, hoping that it hadn’t been just a one-time thing.

“Target coming into range, sir,” announced the tactical officer.

“Open fire,” Alaia ordered. There was a moment of silence as the computer simulation calculated the effects of Decimator‘s actions.

“No good, sir,” said the tactical officer. “We missed them.”

“Target is dropping into subspace!” announced the sensor officer next.

“Damn it!” snarled Alaia, pounding her fist on the arm of the Captain’s chair.

“Careful, Commander,” Kryla said quietly, standing just to Alaia’s left. “That’s my chair you’re abusing.”

“Y-yes, Admiral,” Alaia said nervously, her fury evaporating immediately. “S-sorry, Admiral.” Kryla watched her thoughtfully for a moment.

“Come with me for a moment, Commander,” she said calmly.

“Y-yes, sir,” Alaia replied, practically leaping out of the Captain’s chair.

“Commander Verallen, you’re in charge,” Kryla announced as she and Alaia left the bridge. They walked a short way down the corridor, and came to Kryla’s office. Once they entered, Kryla sat down behind her desk and gestured for Alaia to sit across from her.

“Talk to me, Commander,” Kryla said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t understand what you mean, sir,” Alaia replied, avoiding Kryla’s eyes.

“Yes, you do,” Kryla said firmly. “You’re making foolish mistakes, losing your temper, and you seem to think that I’m a venomous calrach who’s going to crush your neck if you make one false move.” Alaia eyed Kryla for a moment, and then she let out a deep sigh.

“Everyone expects me to be a genius, to repeat what I did at Phumelenin,” she replied wearily, “but it’s just not going to happen.”

“Why?” Kryla asked quietly.

“Because Phumelenin was an accident,” Alaia said defiantly, meeting Kryla’s eyes now. “It never should have happened.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 20

General Lord Belfamor Hemetal bowed low to the ground as he approached the Imperial Throne. It wasn’t the real Throne, of course. It was just a chair that Valador Mifalis had found in the Revellian governor’s mansion. It was a very nice chair, yet still just a chair. But if Belfamor had his way, the Emperor would soon be sitting in the real Imperial Throne, and this pseudo-Throne could go back to whatever closet Valador had pulled it out of.

“Your Majesty,” Belfamor said as he bowed. “What can I do for you?”

“Rise, Lord Hemetal,” the Emperor intoned. “I require a status report on your latest operation.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Belfamor said smoothly as he straightened, hiding the sudden apprehension he felt. As far as the Emperor knew, his latest operation was an invasion of Grafllionis, a province controlled by Neminatrix on the edge of Valador’s territory. In reality, his latest operation was a full-scale invasion of Trisitania that had not been authorized either by the Emperor or by Emelien Fanas, Belfamor’s direct superior.

“I have assigned 15 ships under the command of Admiral Kryla Zomulin to the invasion of Grafllionis,” Belfamor continued. “In addition, there are 15,000 IA troops assigned to the operation as ground forces.”

“Seems like a solid allocation,” the Emperor replied musingly. “Not bad, General.” He perused something on a tablet for a few moments while Belfamor watched him with a carefully neutral expression. “Two battleships, four cruisers, and nine destroyers, correct?”

“That is correct, Your Majesty,” Belfamor replied, nodding slightly

“Yes, that will do nicely for this operation,” the Emperor said calmly. Then, continuing on in that same calm voice, he said, “So why am I hearing that you have assembled 85 ships and nearly 100,000 troops near Epikalia?”

Belfamor froze. How could Valador have learned of his preparations? He’d been so quiet, so careful. Maybe Valador was just guessing. Maybe he could still bluff his way out of this. So he said, in a very nonchalant voice, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Your Majesty.”

“I’m sure you don’t,” the Emperor replied with an amused smirk. “There’s no need to act all coy about this, Lord Hemetal. I know exactly what you’re doing. You’re going ahead with your plan to assault Trisitania even though General Fanas denied you permission.”

“That’s absurd, Your Majesty,” Belfamor said calmly, although inwardly he was sweating bullets. “I would never so flagrantly disobey orders.”

“Of course you would,” the Emperor said, rolling his eyes. “I would do the same thing in your position. Here’s the thing. Officially, I condemn your actions and warn you of grave consequences if you continue on your current path, yada yada yada. But unofficially? I say, go for it.”

“I don’t understand,” Belfamor said with a puzzled look.

“Here’s the thing, Belfamor,” the Emperor said, all pretense at formality dropped. “I need you, desperately. Well, technically, I need your money, although your brain is useful too. Without the backing of House Hemetal, your father-in-law probably would have ground me to dust five years ago. So it’s in my best interests to keep you happy. Because if I court-martialed you and locked you up, you could just transfer the House headship to your son and send him off to Neminatrix, which is where, I gather, he would prefer to be anyway. And even if I could force you to give me access to your sizable bank accounts, that’s not my style anyway. I’d rather you help me because you want to.”

“I see,” said Belfamor with a frown. “What happens if I’m wrong, and the invasion is crushed?”

“Ah, that’s best part,” the Emperor replied with a twisted grin. “If you lose, I’m finished. Which means I won’t need your money anymore, which means that I’ll either be satisfied at your death in battle, or I get the enjoyment of having you court-martialed and executed.”

“And what happens if I win?” Belfamor asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Then you will be a hero, Lord Hemetal,” the Emperor replied, his grin widening. “Off the record, of course. Officially, I’ll have you court-martialed either way. But,” he added with a wink, “I bet you’ll beat the court martial if you come back victorious.”

Belfamor considered all of this for a moment before he responded. Finally he looked up at the Emperor with a grim frown, although there was a slight twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “It would have been nice to know this in the first place,” he said.

“If I had authorized this invasion, Emelien would have never let me hear the end of it,” the Emperor said wryly. “I’m not supposed to give you preferential treatment, after all.”

“At least one of us will be happy once this is over with,” Belfamor said, a small, sardonic smile appearing on his face.

“I don’t understand why you’re so convinced that Emelien hates you,” the Emperor said, rolling his eyes again.

“Do we really need to talk about this right now?” Belfamor snapped, his smile quickly turning to a scowl.

“We need to talk about it sometime,” the Emperor said firmly. “The One knows that I’m not going to be around too much longer. The last thing I want is for you and Emelien to start a new civil war after I’m dead.”

“Once we get the capital back, a new Senate will finally be elected, and whoever the Senate chooses to replace you, I will be loyal to them,” Belfamor replied just as firmly.

“Even if the Senate chooses Emelien Fanas?” the Emperor asked, quirking one eyebrow.

“If the Senate elects Emelien Fanas to be the next Emperor, then I will have serious doubts about the intelligence of the citizens of the Empire,” Belfamor said wryly, “but yes, I will pledge my loyalty to him.”

“I certainly hope so,” the Emperor said doubtfully, “because one way or another, this civil war will be over soon, thanks to you. And it would be a terrible black mark on your legacy if you started another one in a few years.”

“That will not happen,” Belfamor said firmly. “I promise.”

To be continued…