Culmination, Part 32

“Status report!” barked Admiral Kryla Zomulin as soon as Decimator dropped out of subspace. “What’s out there?”

“Looks like 24 contacts, sir,” responded the sensor officer. “Two battleships, three cruisers, nine frigates, and ten destroyers.”

“Attack pattern Volmin,” Kryla ordered. “Obliterate them.”

“Yes, sir!” replied the tactical officer.

“CIC, confirm attack pattern Volmin,” Kryla said to her XO, stationed in Decimator‘s Command Information Center. Normally, the officer in command of the fleet would be in the flagship’s CIC, and the officer commanding the flagship would be a separate person stationed on the bridge, but Kryla tended to be quite unorthodox. It went along with being one of the youngest admirals in the Imperial Fleet.

“Attack pattern Volmin, confirmed,” replied Kryla’s XO. “All ships, begin charging forward weapons arrays.” Kryla nodded in satisfaction. Volmin was an aggressive combat scheme, designed for exactly this situation, when one fleet vastly outnumbered an opposing fleet, and needed to destroy it quickly, before reinforcements arrived. Very few countermeasures had been devised against it, as military strategists didn’t overly want to think about trying to fight back against overwhelming odds. The only flaw with Volmin is that it had never actually been tested in combat, as such lopsided battles were extremely rare. But Kryla was feeling lucky today.

***

An insistent beeping noise woke Neminatrix out of pleasant dreams. At first, he was inclined to ignore it. He had been up late last night, celebrating with his daughter. It was amazing how reconnecting with her had cleared the fog that seemed to have settled over his brain ever since his wife’s death. Trinia’s death had hit him harder than he would have ever imagined. After all, he had married her solely because of her connections to the Imperial family and its wealth. House Votalin was an ancient and prestigious house, but its money had been bled dry by Neminatrix’s wastrel father. When Neminatrix had suddenly become Head of House after his father was stabbed in drunken barroom brawl, his first order of business was to find a wealthy, connected spouse to restore his family’s fortunes. He hadn’t expected to fall in love with her.

But fall in love with her he had, and her death had broken him in ways he hadn’t even realized until recently. He had nearly destroyed his daughter in some twisted scheme to blame her for something that couldn’t possibly have been her fault. Not only that, but his reign as Emperor had only exacerbated the wounds caused by the Fangalin rebellion and accompanying civil war. He had spent so much time brooding over his past and playing cat-and-mouse with his ISS Master that he’d had very little time left for governing and overseeing the war. So much pain and destruction had been caused by him. But now, he felt like he was beginning to finally find redemption and was working toward healing the damage he’d caused. Which was why he was ignoring the aide calling him, because deep down inside, he suspected that the news he’d hear would tell him that it was already too late for him to turn his life and his reign around.

“Yes, what is it?” he finally growled, sitting up in his bed.

“Your Majesty, thank the One you’re finally awake!” the aide yelled frantically. “We are under attack!”

“What do you mean?” Neminatrix replied, sitting up straighter.

“I mean that a fleet has just dropped out of subspace, and is engaging the IDF picket in orbit!” the aide practically screeched.

“I’m on my way,” Neminatrix said, jumping out of bed and pulling on a robe. He strode out of his quarters and down the halls of the Imperial Palace, full of purpose, his bodyguards falling in around him as he moved. He’d been waiting for this moment for weeks. His spies had been hearing rumors that Belfamor Hemetal was up to something, but they hadn’t been able to figure out exactly what. The most common story was that he was planning a diversionary strike on Trisitania to provide cover for an invasion of Endragar. Neminatrix didn’t believe that for a second, but he’d played along with it, because it was clearly what his enemies wanted him to believe.

“Report!” Neminatrix barked as he strode into the Imperial Palace’s command center.

“The picket is crumbling fast,” announced the commander of the Imperial Defense Force, the unit of the Imperial Fleet that defended the capital. His name was Admiral Veleken Termaina, and he was a short, gray-haired man with a wispy beard and a fierce demeanor. “Whoever’s in command up there is good. They clearly don’t believe that we think this is a diversionary attack. They’re trying to crush the picket fast, before we can bring reinforcements in.”

“How much of a chance do they have?” Neminatrix asked.

“Current projections indicate that the picket will be destroyed in an hour,” Termaina replied, and then a wolfish grin spread across his face. “The 7th Fleet will be dropping out of subspace in twenty minutes.”

“Excellent,” Neminatrix said, his grin mirroring Termaina’s.

***

Admiral Zhiala Tred, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Armed Forces under Emperor Neminatrix IV, had taken direct command of the 7th Fleet for the defense of the capital, and she had a bad feeling about it. The Emperor and his advisors were confident that they could repel anything that Valador Mifalis threw at them, but Admiral Tred wasn’t so sure. Over the past ten years, the forces loyal to Neminatrix had grown weaker, and those following Valador were stronger. But Neminatrix’s forces were still quite strong, thus making it a bold gamble to strike directly for the capital. Tred knew Valador well enough to know that he wouldn’t have committed to such an operation unless he was confident that he would win.

“Ten minutes until Trisitania, Admiral!” called out the navigation officer. She nodded in response and went back to drumming the arms of her chair with her fingers and thinking. She was in the CIC of her flagship, the battleship Magnificence. It was brand-new, the first of its class, and the best that the Empire had to offer, along with the rest of the ships in the 7th Fleet. Tred wished she felt like it would be enough to turn the tide.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 31

“What’s our status?” asked Hana Lodimeur, coming into Fluttermask‘s cockpit and sitting down in the empty copilot chair.

“We’re about twenty minutes out from Trisitania,” replied Kyla Vertrane, not taking her eyes from the controls in front of her.

“Good, good,” Hana replied vaguely, staring intently at the kaleidoscope of colors visible on the viewscreen. Kyla glanced over at her, and then turned back to the controls, shaking her head slightly. She’d encountered people who were this obsessed with revenge before, and it never ended well. She was thinking of one person in particular, an old friend named Treben Holkas. Treben’s burning desire for revenge had left him in a shallow grave in one of the outer colonies. Of course, knowing that hadn’t kept Kyla from taking the opportunity to get revenge of her own for Treben’s death, so maybe she sympathized with Hana more than she thought she did.

A beeping sound brought her out of her reveries and back to the present. “Got a report here, Captain,” she said briskly, looking at the text appearing on a display mounted to her left. “You might be in luck. It looks like Valador’s forces haven’t arrived in the Trisitania system yet.”

“That is good news,” Hana said with a sharp nod. “All right, I’m gonna go get my team ready. Let me know when it’s time to deploy.”

“Yes, sir,” Kyla replied. As Hana left the room and Kyla turned her full attention back to flying, she wondered what Treben would have thought if he could see her now.

***

Hana was nearly buzzing with excitement as she walked back through the narrow corridor toward where the other members of Starfengt were waiting, although she didn’t let it show on her face or in her posture. This is it! she thought, This is the moment I’ve been working towards for ten years! No matter what happened today, she would not leave Trisitania until Emperor Neminatrix IV was dead. No matter what it cost her, she would have her vengeance today.

“This is it!” she announced, repeating her earlier thought, as she entered the compartment where Starfengt was waiting. “In a few minutes we’ll be dropping out of subspace, and we’ll be able to commence the operation.” She paused a moment, and took in all of the calm, expectant faces looking her.

“You are the best of the best,” she continued quietly, “and no matter what happens today, you’ve proven yourselves a thousand times over, to me, and more importantly, to each other. I won’t lie and say this is the most important mission we’ve ever had. I know it’s stupid for us to be here when Valador’s forces are supposed to arrive anytime. Maybe we should have just left these two pretenders to duke it out amongst themselves and weaken the Empire further. But killing Neminatrix is something I have to try and do myself. And it means everything to me that all of you were willing to come along with me on a personal vendetta.”

“You’re the best, Cap’n!” called out one of the youngest members of Starfengt, a red-haired, freckled young man named Sholin Ilimace. “Starfengt wouldn’t exist without you, sir! If helping you take care of the man who killed your father will show you how grateful we are to be together, in this unit, then it’s the least we can do!” The rest of the team murmured their agreement and nodded.

Hana looked overwhelmed by this at first. She closed her eyes tightly for a few moments, and then she cleared her throat and her expression was back to normal.

“Thank you, Sholin,” she said, her voice slightly huskier than usual. “And thank you to all of you. Now, let’s go get this bastard.”

***

As soon as Fluttermask dropped out of subspace, Kyla engaged the emissions masker. With the masker running, the only way that anybody in the Trisitania system would notice Fluttermask was if they looked out a window and saw her. Which was always possible, but highly unlikely. Space was a pretty big place, after all. Not for the first time, she prayed to whatever god might be listening, to thank he, she, or it for putting her in the cockpit of this ship. It was a smuggler’s dream. Also not for the first time, she wondered about where the masker had come from. But, that was neither here nor there. At the moment, she had a job to do.

She was just entering orbit around Trisitania when an alarm bell sounded, causing her to look over at her sensor display. What she saw there made her eyes widen, and she swore under her breath. Then she smacked her hand down on her control panel and said, “Captain Lodimeur, you better get back up here. We have a problem.”

A few seconds later, Hana burst into the cockpit. “What is it?” she barked. In response, Kyla pointed to the sensor display. “By the Presence,” Hana breathed. “I’ve never seen anything like that.” She was silent for a moment, thinking furiously. “We need to get down to the surface. Now!”

“On it!” Kyla replied. Her hands flew over the controls as Fluttermask pitched forward sharply and screamed into Trisitania’s atmosphere, causing Hana to hold on tightly to the back of the copilot’s chair to avoid falling forward into the viewscreen. A few seconds later, Fluttermask leveled out and Kyla turned to Hana.

“We’ll be landing in just a few minutes,” she said. “You should go get your team ready to disembark, sir.” Hana nodded sharply and rushed out of the cockpit.

***

“Grab your gear and get ready to move as soon as the hatch opens,” Hana said as she strode into the compartment where the rest of Starfengt was waiting.

“What’s going on, Captain?” Xeliana Merane asked.

“Valador’s fleet is here,” Hana replied, her words clipped. “Over a hundred warships. We need to move faster than we ever have if we want to do this and get out of here alive.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 30

Belfamor Hemetal crouched behind a fallen pillar in the Grand Hall of the Imperial Palace on Trisitania, assault rifle clutched tightly to his chest, his squadmates huddled next to him. They had almost reached Neminatrix, but his bodyguards were putting up a determined resistance, trying to take out as many of Valador’s soldiers as they could before they went down. Belfamor popped up, squeezed off a few shots in the direction of the Throne, and then ducked back down behind the pillar before Neminatrix’s soldiers could return fire. Sweating profusely, he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. He also had to urinate badly, but there wasn’t much he could do about that at the moment, so he ignored it.

Suddenly a female voice called out across the battlefield. “Stop this nonsense at once!” it said. Belfamor’s eyes grew wide at the sound of that voice, and he risked a peek over the top of the pillar. Sure enough, his wife was standing in the middle of the Grand Hall, her appearance immaculate, wearing a beautiful green and gold dress, oblivious to the death and destruction surrounding her.

“Shala?” Belfamor whispered, shocked. Somehow, despite the noise of guns firing and men and women yelling and screaming, Shala heard him. She looked right at him, and then starting marching toward him, heedless of the chaos around her. When she got close to him, she planted her fists on her hips, with a firm look on her face.

“Go home, Belfamor,” she said harshly.

“What?” Belfamor replied in shock.

“I said, ‘go home!'” she replied, her voice stern. “I don’t want you to rescue me. I’m going to stay here with Neminatrix. I’m in love with him now, not you.”

“How…how can this be?” Belfamor whispered, his voice barely audible over the sounds of battle still going on around them.

“General, it’s 0600 hours,” Shala replied. “Time to wake up.” Belfamor stared at her in complete bafflement for a moment, and then his eyes snapped open, and he was laying on his bed, in his quarters onboard Decimator.

“General?” said the female voice again.

“I’m here, Ensign,” Belfamor replied groggily. “Thank you for the wake-up call.” He sat up slowly, shaking his head and rubbing his temples. What in Nerzaga was that dream all about? he thought irritably. He’d been having strange dreams like that for a week now, ever since the Emperor had given him the tacit go-ahead for his offensive against Trisitania. He wondered if maybe his subconscious was having second thoughts about this whole plan, but it was too late to back out now. Instead, he got out of bed, relieved himself, and got in the shower.

Today was the day. Today, the fleet was going to drop into subspace, fly to Trisitania, and reclaim the capital in the name of the true Emperor. Once Neminatrix was dead, the Empire would be whole again, at least as whole as it had been ever since the war started. And, perhaps more importantly, Belfamor would have his wife back, and he would never have to worry about her father stealing her away ever again.

Finishing up with his shower, he shaved and then got dressed, and left his quarters for the bridge. Although Admiral Zomulin was in command of this operation, he had still planned it, and he wanted to be there as the operation got underway. The ship was bustling with activity as Belfamor made his way through the narrow corridors, returning the salutes of junior officers every few steps. Decimator was scheduled to drop into subspace in less than twenty minutes, and the crew was rushing to make sure everything was prepared for the drop.

On the bridge, things were outwardly calmer, but there was still an air of heightened anticipation among the bridge crew. Admiral Zomulin was sitting in the command chair, looking, at first glance, out of place with her stylish hair, her immaculate makeup, her painted nails, and the fact that she could somehow make even a military uniform look fashionable. Even at almost 40 years old, she looked like she should be strutting down a trendy street on Cortaris or Endragar, instead of commanding a military vessel. But if you looked closely, there were small clues, like the way she sat in the command chair, or the steely glint in her eye, that made you realize she was exactly where she was supposed to be.

“General, good to see you, sir,” Zomulin said respectfully, glancing away from her display for a moment and then going right back to it.

“Likewise, Admiral,” Belfamor replied, nodding slightly. “Everything ready?”

“Would we be ten minutes from drop if it weren’t?” Zomulin asked wryly. She paused, and then glanced up at him, her cheeks reddening slightly. “My apologies, sir.”

“Not at all, Admiral,” Belfamor replied with a small smile. “It was a stupid question.” Kryla gave him a small smile in return, and turned her attention back to the display attached to the command chair.

Belfamor found his seat at the back of the bridge and observed the crew as they prepared for the drop. Unlike everyone else in the fleet, he had absolutely nothing left to do. His job had been to plan for this operation. Now that the planning phase was done and it was about to commence, there wasn’t anything else for him to do. In fact, he probably should have stayed behind on Revellia, but he was too personally invested in this mission to sit around and wait for the outcome. Besides, he did have one more task he intended to accomplish.

“Drop in ten seconds!” announced the navigation officer, interrupting Belfamor’s musings. A few seconds later, there was the familiar shudder and kaleidoscope effect, and Decimator and the rest of the fleet were on their way. Belfamor sighed in satisfaction as he watched the mesmerizing colors on the viewscreen. There was no turning back now.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 29

“No, Father,” Shala said gently. “There was a hovercar accident when I was eight, but it was Mother who died, not me.” She was proud of how steady her voice was. Deep down inside, she was screaming at herself to stop, yelling that she should take the love her father had already shown her and be happy with it, even if it was directed toward a woman who’d been dead for 30 years. But she couldn’t do that. Now that she knew her father was capable of showing love, she needed to know that he could love her for who she was.

“I…I don’t understand,” Neminatrix said, a small frown creasing his forehead. “How can you be Shala? I…I love you. I…desire you! But…you’re my daughter? How can that be?”

“I know it’s difficult to understand, Father,” Shala began gently, but Neminatrix cut her off.

“Stop calling me that!” he yelled, pushing her away roughly and clutching his head. “You…you’re wrong! You’re not Shala! Shala is dead! Shala is dead, and I killed her!” There was a silence as Shala stared at him, comprehension dawning on her face.

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” she said quietly. “All these years, you’ve blamed yourself for Mother’s death, and instead of dealing with your grief, you took it out on me.”

“Don’t…don’t be ridiculous,” Neminatrix stammered, looking away from her. “Why would I blame myself? Shala needed to die!”

“Why?” Shala moved so that she was facing him again, staring at him intently. “What did Shala do?”

“She…she…,” Neminatrix hesitated, a look of intense anguish appearing on his face, and he seemed to be battling with himself about whatever he was thinking of saying. Finally he screamed, “IT WAS HER FAULT THAT TRINIA DIED!”

Shala’s eyes widened, but she refused to relent. She needed to get to the bottom of this. “How was it Shala’s fault?” she asked in a quiet, intense voice.

“If it…if it hadn’t been for Shala,” Neminatrix began, breathing heavily, staring off into the distance, every word seeming as if it was being wrenched from deep in his soul, “Trinia…she would never have been…in that hovercar! She was…she was going to meet with a new tutor for Shala. If Shala had never been born, the accident would never have happened!”

“I see,” Shala said softly. She was silent for a moment, and then she said in the same soft voice, “Did you know that I blamed you for Mother’s death?” Neminatrix started and stared at her with wide eyes. “Yes,” Shala said. “You were such a monster to me, that I thought for sure that you must have had Mother murdered because she was the only obstacle keeping you away from me.” Shala continued to speak very quietly, but a fire blazed in her eyes as she spoke.

“I…I loved your mother, with all of my heart,” Neminatrix rasped hoarsely. “I would never have done anything to hurt her.” He stared blankly off into space for a moment, and then his eyes slowly focused on Shala. “You really are Shala, aren’t you?” Shala nodded. He stared blankly at her for a moment, and then a look of utter horror crept across his face. “By the One,” he whispered, “what have I done?” And then, so suddenly it made Shala jump, he let a howl of pain and rage and sorrow all mixed together.

“WHAT HAVE I DONE!?” he screamed, falling to his knees and raising his hands beseechingly toward the ceiling.

“Father!” shouted Shala, taken aback. “What is wrong?”

“Oh, Shala,” Neminatrix said, his voice breaking and a look of such sorrow appearing on his face that Shala almost burst into tears at the sight of it. “How can you say that? I’ve spent almost your entire life treating you like trash, and you ask me what’s wrong? How can you be so innocent after all I’ve done to you?”

“Oh, Father,” Shala said softly.

“When your mother died, it broke me,” Neminatrix whispered. “I blamed you for her death, but I also thought I could use you as a replacement. I hated you and loved you at the same time. But when Belfamor stole you away, it shattered what little grasp on reality I had left. I became convinced that you had died and that Trinia had lived, but that Belfamor Hemetal had kidnapped her. And now… Now there’s only one thing I can do.”

He stood up slowly, wavering slightly as he did so. He glanced around vaguely for a moment, and then his gaze hardened and he strode forward, toward the soldier holding his sword. He gestured for it, and the soldier handed it to him with a slight frown.

“Father,” Shala began in a worried voice, “what are you-” and then she broke off suddenly and screamed, “NO!” because her father had turned the point of the sword toward his own stomach and was about to plunge it in. She leapt up and grabbed his arms before he could do so, struggling with all her might to keep him from ending his life.

“What are you doing, Shala?” he yelled, his voice straining as he fought against her. “This is the only way! I don’t deserve to live!”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Shala yelled back, angry and terrified. “The one thing I’ve wanted more than anything else is for my father to love me! Don’t take that away from me now, when I know it’s possible! If you want to atone for your sins, then live! Killing yourself now would just be the last and greatest brutality you could afflict me with.” Slowly, the import of Shala’s words sunk into Neminatrix’s brain, and he gradually stopped struggling, allowing Shala to wrest the sword away from him and hand it back to the soldier, who looked utterly bemused by the whole scene.

“Oh, Shala,” Neminatrix sighed, and suddenly he began to weep. “My poor, little Shala. How can you ever forgive me for the torment I’ve put you through?”

“I don’t know, Father,” Shala murmured, wrapping her arms around him and stroking his hair. “But I do. Oh, I do.”

To be continued…