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…

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