Culmination, Part 37

For a few moments, it seemed as if the very air around Hana and Lotarien was crackling and vibrating with energy. The drones’ guns were erupting with all of their fury to try and purge the tunnel of all unauthorized personnel. Fortunately, there were thick concrete barriers at regular intervals in the tunnel which provided convenient locations to take cover. The drones kept on spitting fire in Hana’s direction for what seemed like an eternity, but she knew that, if these drones were anything like Fangalin’s drones, they would have to pause their firing shortly or risk overheating.

Sure enough, there came a moment when the drones’ guns went silent, and immediately Hana and Lotarien popped up from behind the concrete barrier and blasted both drones into oblivion. As soon as they were smoking wreckage, Hana and Lotarien dropped back behind the barrier and watched their scanners carefully.

“Looks clear to me, Captain,” Lotarien said after a moment.

“Agreed, Lieutenant,” Hana replied. She reached up and pressed the button on her helmet to contact Arcten. “Echo Two, do you copy?”

“Loud and clear, Echo One,” Arcten responded immediately.

“Be advised that there are drones in the tunnels, Echo Two,” Hana said. “Echo Alpha and Echo Bravo are down, repeat, Alpha and Bravo are down.”

“Understood, One,” Arcten said, frustration evident even in those two brief words. “Two out.”

Hana stared straight ahead for a moment, lost in frustration of her own. Two of her team members were dead already, and they hadn’t even gotten into the Palace or encountered any sign of the battle between the two rival Emperors. What would happen when things heated up? Were they all destined to die here, on Trisitania?

Irritated, she growled silently at herself and stood up. What was wrong with her? She’d lost people on missions before! Death was part of her job! This is different, a voice whispered in the back of her head. Before, it was always somebody higher up who was responsible. This mission is all yours. This is the mission you dreamed about, that you lusted after, that you’ve fought for, tooth and nail, for the past ten years. The deaths that happen today, are solely on your shoulders.

A look of horror came over her face as this realization dawned on her, but then she scowled and shook her head. She had no time for self-doubt. Neminatrix was a threat and a menace. Even if she hadn’t wanted to kill him so desperately for personal reasons, the galaxy would still be a better place with him dead. She would carry on. No matter what.

***

The engines of the landing craft roared as it slowly descended to the ground inside Vermitas Park, and then quickly went silent as the craft set down. Belfamor was the first person out of the craft, ignoring the protests of the pilot and Captain Felane. He already had his assault rifle out of its holster on his back and was sweeping the area for targets, but he didn’t expect to find any. The fighters escorting the 3rd Battalion had made short work of the minimal defenses set up in the park. Any enemy forces that had survived their sweeps of the area would have retreated by now. Of course, if any enemy soldiers had known Belfamor was there, they would likely have believed it worth giving up their lives to take him out. But what were the odds that the first member of the invading army to set foot on the planet’s surface would be the overall commander of the operation? Besides, Belfamor was wearing a standard ground forces uniform and body armor. There was nothing to set him apart as a general.

After a few moments, and a number of other landing craft touching down and disgorging the soldiers they carried, Belfamor relaxed. Holstering his assault rifle, he made his way across the park, to where the commander of the 3rd Battalion, Lt. Colonel Sadric Motoia, was just climbing out of his landing craft.

“General!” Motoia exclaimed, saluting sharply as Belfamor approached. Like Belfamor and so many other officers in the Imperial Army these days, Motoia was younger than a Lt. Colonel would normally be. Nonetheless, he bore the scars of at least two dozen battles fought all over the galaxy. Tall and clean-shaven, with short salt-and-pepper hair, Motoia’s brown eyes gleamed with energy and determination. He was one of the best soldiers in Valador’s army, which was why Belfamor had chosen him to lead this particular mission.

“At ease, Colonel,” Belfamor said, returning Motoia’s salute. “Remember, today I’m just another soldier under your command.”

“Yes, sir,” Motoia responded crisply, and then smiled crookedly. “Sorry.” As soon as it appeared, the smile disappeared, to be replaced by the scowl of a veteran commander. “Alright, ladies and gentlemen!” he bellowed. “Let’s get this show on the road! We have a Palace to storm, and a pretender to dethrone!” The soldiers nearby cheered heartily at this, and the bustle of activity in the park kicked into another gear. He began striding forcefully among his troops, barking orders, followed closely by Belfamor.

It was nice to be just a face in the crowd for once, even if it was an illusion. Most of the soldiers in the 3rd Battalion knew exactly who he was, and even if he hadn’t been a general, his wealth and the prestige of his family name would have caused the rank-and-file in Vermitas Park to treat him with deference. But every soldier who knew who he was also knew why he was here, and they liked him and respected him, so they also respected his desire for anonymity.

Even so, it was nice to pretend that he wasn’t in command, at least for the moment. This entire operation was his idea, and he had planned it and carried it out in defiance of the SCIAF’s wishes. The fate of the hundreds of thousands of troops that had followed him to Trisitania rested on his shoulders. For a few minutes, he wanted to act as if that burden belonged to someone else.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 36

“New target off the starboard bow!” yelled the tactical officer on Decimator’s bridge. “It’s a battleship!”

“Adjust heading 9924.1!” ordered Kryla in response. “Fire phased pulse charges on my mark.” She waited just a few seconds, and then yelled, “Fire!” There was a few moments while the sensor officer waited for data to come in.

“Direct hit!” she yelled suddenly. “Enemy battleship is venting plasma into space from their port fuel lines!”

“That’s one more ship out of the battle, then,” Kryla said, permitting herself a small smile. That was the best kind of kill, at least in this situation. The enemy battleship was too badly damaged to continue to be a factor in the current battle, but not so badly damaged that it couldn’t be easily repaired once the battle was over. Hopefully, once she won this battle, she would be able to incorporate that battleship into her fleet.

She looked down at the latest report from the CIC. Things were looking well, overall. The two fleets were fighting a battle of attrition, their numbers depleting slowly, but the enemy fleet was disappearing less slowly than Kryla’s. Of course, Kryla was under no illusion that she’d be able to force the enemy to retreat. This battle was do-or-die for them. If Trisitania fell, the Emperor that they served would have no hope of holding on to the Throne. There was no place for them to retreat to now.

***

In the CIC on Magnificence, the mood was considerably grimmer. Admiral Tred was looking at the same numbers that Kryla was, and coming to much the same conclusion. The 7th Fleet was losing a battle that they couldn’t afford to lose. She tapped her fingers on the console in front of her, deep in thought.

“Captain Solmain!” she barked suddenly. Her XO, Captain Venegar Solmain, looked over at her.

“Yes, Admiral?” he replied.

“What is the current status of the task force?” she asked, thinking fast.

“Assuming they have not had any problems, they should be dropping out of subspace and engaging their target any minute now,” Solmain answered with a slight, puzzled frown.

“I see,” she said softly, drumming her fingers even faster. “Send them a message,” she announced suddenly, her mind made up.

“Sir?” Solmain said, his puzzled look deepening. “It’s too late to recall them if they’ve already engaged their target. And if we send them a message, we risk exposing them and ruining the element of surprise.”

“I understand,” Tred replied, “but their mission doesn’t matter if Trisitania falls. Besides, I have no intention of recalling them. They are to carry out their assigned task. But I want them to set a course for Trisitania as soon as they are done.”

“Yes, sir,” Solmain said with a sharp nod. “It will be done.”

***

“We’re approaching the Palace now, General,” announced the pilot of the landing craft.

“Good to hear, Lt.,” replied Belfamor. “How is the LZ?”

“Pretty hot, sir,” the pilot admitted. “The Palace’s defenses are all fully operational. Recommend we abort and find some other place to land.” Belfamor thought about this for a moment, and then nodded.

“Agreed, Lt.,” he said. He bent down and looked over the holographic map of Selorin that was displayed in the cockpit. “How about here?” he said, pointing to a park about a mile from the Palace. “It’s not too far away, and it looks relatively undefended.”

“Looks good to me, sir,” the pilot said.

“Good,” Belfamor replied, nodding sharply. “Signal the 3rd Battalion to land there. The rest of the ground forces will proceed as planned.”

***

Neminatrix scowled as he looked over the dozens of holographic displays in the command center of the Imperial Palace. The battle was not going well. Despite everything, the plans that he, Admiral Tred, and Admiral Termaina had put in place were not working. The rebel fleet was larger and more powerful than Neminatrix’s fleet, and while Zhiala Tred was a decent commander, she was clearly outmatched by whoever was in charge of the rebels.

Ever since he’d woken up, a disquieting feeling had been nagging at him, scratching at the back of his head. A feeling that today was the last day of his reign. He’d been trying to ignore it, but it wouldn’t go away.

“Perhaps, I should embrace it,” he muttered to himself.

“What was that, Your Majesty?” asked Termaina.

“Oh, nothing, Admiral,” Neminatrix replied, waving a hand dismissively. He hadn’t meant to speak out loud, but it was such a powerful thought, he couldn’t help but give voice to it. Embrace death. Maybe that was the key. After all, if he was going to go down, he might as well go down fighting.

***

“I need visual confirmation of those drones,” Hana whispered determinedly, glancing at one of the members of her team, a young woman named Kella Morvalis.

“Yes, sir,” Morvalis replied, nodding sharply. She was the youngest and least experienced member of Starfengt, and therefore the most expendable. Not that Hana expected much of a threat. Imperial drone technology had always been laughable compared to Fangalin’s. As clever as it was of Neminatrix to station drones in these tunnels, making it seem to the Fangalin operatives scanning the tunnels that there were no guards, Hana didn’t expect to have much trouble getting past them.

Which was why it was a total shock when Kella Morvalis stuck her head around the corner of the corridor and it immediately exploded.

“Take cover!” Hana bellowed to the two surviving members of her team, and immediately took her own advice. A roar of automatic gunfire soon filled the tunnel, as a pair of drones swooped around the corner and attempted to obliterate everything in their path. The fourth member of the team, another young lieutenant named Hanagor Columin, was a split second too slow, and three arminium rounds ripped through his torso armor as if it were made of butter. Just like that, Hana and Lt. Lotarien were the only members of the team left alive.

“Switch to EMP rounds!” Hana yelled to Lotarien with a snarl. Suddenly the feeling of confident triumph that had filled Hana since they’d arrived at Trisitania was gone, replaced with hollow shock and cold rage. Hana didn’t need any more reasons to kill Neminatrix IV, but she had just gained two more anyway.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 35

Belfamor Hemetal frowned as he gazed out on the rapidly approaching skyline of Selorin. It had been a long time since he’d last been here. Oddly, he was doing the same thing this time as he’d done last time; rescuing his wife from her father. Although, she hadn’t been his wife at the time, but that didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that this time, Belfamor was going to end this.

In reality, he probably shouldn’t have even been on this landing craft. As the overall commander of the operation, he wasn’t even supposed to be with the fleet, much less with the ground forces. But he needed to be certain. Certain that his wife was okay, and certain that Neminatrix was dealt with, once and for all. He didn’t trust anyone to complete this task aside from himself. Somewhere deep inside, he knew that was an insane thing to think, but he didn’t care. Neminatrix needed to die, and his wife needed to be back in his arms. That was all that mattered, and once those two things happened, everything would be alright again. He just kept telling himself that.

“General, are you sure this is a good idea?” asked a voice suddenly. Belfamor glanced over at a young Captain sitting nearby. She was the commander of the unit occupying this landing craft, and her name was Melizca Felane. The fierce expression on her face as she looked at Belfamor belied the mildness with which she’d spoke. She was one who would treat a commanding officer with utmost respect, but wouldn’t hesitate to speak her mind if she thought said commanding officer was doing something stupid.

“No, Captain, I’m not sure,” Belfamor replied drily, “but I’m doing it anyway. One of the prerogatives of being a general. If you want to do something stupid, there aren’t many people who can stop you.”

“Must be nice, sir,” Felane said with a smirk.

“It’s alright,” Belfamor replied, returning her smirk. Then he went back to looking out of the viewscreen of the landing craft. Probably, he should have been sitting down and strapped in like the rest of the soldiers on the craft, but he felt like if a person was going to do something stupid, they might as well take it all the way. Besides, Neminatrix’s ground defenses were no match for these new landing craft.

No, as stupid as his actions were, he was committed to this, and he needed to see it through. He would make sure that his wife was safe. Nobody else could do this.

***

Since the dawn of time, humans had lived on Trisitania. And as long as humans had lived on Trisitania, there had been a settlement on the site of Selorin. Over two millennia of constant habitation meant, among other things, that there was an extensive series of tunnels underneath the city. As long as you knew where you were going, it was possible to get from any point in the city to any other point, without ever poking your head above ground. Including the Imperial Palace.

And Hana Lodimeur knew exactly where she was going. For three hundred years, Fangalin had hidden within the structures and organizations of the Empire, biding its time and gathering information until they could come out into the open and begin their war to claim their rightful place as rulers of the galaxy. One of the things they did during that time was create a complete and exhaustive map of the tunnels under Selorin. It was believed by some that Fangalin had more extensive knowledge of the Selorin tunnel system than anyone in the Empire.

Intelligence reports from Fangalin operatives on Trisitania had indicated that there was a relatively short stretch of tunnel that was unguarded and led straight into the Palace itself. How Neminatrix could be so lax about security that he wouldn’t even post guards on such a direct route into the heart of his power, Hana had no idea, but she wasn’t going to complain about it. Maybe he was just so secure in his egotism that he figured nobody would dare to attack him directly. Whatever the reason was, Hana thanked the Dark Presence that it existed.

Quickly and quietly, she poked her head around a corner and scanned for guards. “Clear,” she whispered as she moved out into the tunnel. The intelligence reports indicated that this tunnel was unguarded, but intelligence reports weren’t always correct. Hana was too close to her goal for it to be thwarted now by carelessness.

She and the rest of her team crept silently down the tunnel, moving much faster than any outside observer would have imagined, considering how little sound they were making. Hana and her team members kept their eyes and ears open, doing their best to make sure that if there were guards in this tunnel, they wouldn’t be caught by surprise.

Bringing up the rear at this point was the young lieutenant with the rocket launcher. Tall and muscular, with short black hair and bright hazel eyes, he was one of the newest members of Starfengt. An expert in demolition and explosives (hence the rocket launcher), he was also well versed in computer technology and information warfare. His name was Valdamich Lotarien, and he was bringing up the rear so that he could keep an eye on the motion/heat tracker that was strapped to his left wrist.

“Captain, I’m getting some anomalous readings here,” he said, suddenly and quietly. Hana signaled for the group to stop, and she turned to him.

“What do you mean, Lieutenant?” she asked with a frown.

“I mean I’m detecting some motion up ahead, around the next turn, along with some heat sources, but…I don’t think they’re human,” he replied, looking puzzled. Hana’s frown deepened as she looked at Lotarien, and then she pulled up the display on her own motion tracker. For a moment, she studied the anomalous readings that Lotarien had noticed, and then suddenly it dawned on her.

“Drones,” she breathed. “Neminatrix, you clever bastard.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 34

“The 7th Fleet has just arrived, Your Majesty,” said Admiral Termaina, a note of relief creeping into his voice. The IDF had been forced to retreat beyond the orbit of Calexis, the farthest of the three moons that orbited Trisitania. The Emperor and his advisors had hoped that the IDF would be able to hold out longer, and the fact that they hadn’t meant that part of the rebel fleet had managed to achieve a stable orbit around the planet and had begun landing ground troops. But the 7th Fleet had finally arrived, so the rebel forces would be forced to cease, or at least slow down, landing operations in order to defend themselves. It was something, anyway.

“That’s good news, Admiral,” Neminatrix said with a small smile. “What about the enemy ground troops?”

“Looks like 11 dropships managed to unload before they were engaged by our fleet,” Termaina replied. “We’ve attempted to engage the landing craft, but we’re not having much success. Valador’s got some new landers that we’ve never seen before, and they’re much more maneuverable than we’re used to. The ground defenses are having a surprisingly hard time targeting them.”

“11 dropships,” Neminatrix said, musing. “So, at most, 55,000 troops.” He thought for a moment, gazing off into space, and then his eyes refocused and he looked at Admiral Termaina. “They will come straight for the Palace.”

“Of course,” Termaina said, meeting Neminatrix’s gaze, calm but intense.

“I will not flee,” Neminatrix replied, his eyes mirroring the intensity of Termaina’s.

“I would never even suggest such a thing, Your Majesty,” Termaina replied, not looking away. Neminatrix held his gaze for a moment, as if he was searching for something, and then he nodded sharply and turned his attention back to the displays showing the progress of the battle.

***

“Helm, adjust heading to 5542.9 and intercept enemy destroyers at 3926.1,” Kryla ordered, not taking her eyes off of Decimator‘s viewscreen. Commanding the fleet from the bridge rather than from the CIC was proving to be more challenging than she’d anticipated. She was finding that it was necessary for her to leave most of the tactical decisions to her XO, because the bridge simply wasn’t equipped to give her a good view of what was going on in the battle as a whole. Fortunately, as far as Kryla could tell, her XO was handling the job with aplomb. But, she couldn’t help but worry a little bit.

“CIC, status report,” Kryla ordered.

“Understood,” responded her XO over the intercom. A few seconds later, a detailed accounting of the battle appeared on Kryla’s personal information screen. Kryla scanned it quickly and nodded. Yes, her XO did indeed have things under control. Hopefully, “under control” would prove to be enough to win this battle.

***

In the CIC deep inside the battleship Magnificence, “under control” was about the best that Admiral Tred could say about the progress of the battle. The opposing commander knew what she was doing. A lesser commander would have attempted to push the weight of her heavier ships on Tred’s fleet, which would have given Tred’s smaller and faster ships an opportunity to slip in between the rebel fleet and the planet. But whoever was in command of the rebels was patient, and more than willing to let Tred come to her and keep from ceding the planetary orbit.

“Gamma Wing, alter course by five degrees and engage the two cruisers at 2916.4,” Tred ordered, studying the holographic map of the space around Trisitania carefully.

“Admiral, Alpha Wing is being hard pressed by enemy battleships,” called out one of her tactical officers.

“Tell them to pull back to rally point Enterial,” Tred responded, “and form up with Beta Wing. Together, they can push back against those battleships.”

Yes, this battle was winnable, but only if the rebel commander made a mistake and Tred was able to capitalize on it. So far, the rebel commander had given no indication that she was liable to mistakes.

***

For a moment, Hana just watched and waited. The moment she’d been waiting a decade for had finally arrived, and she wanted to savor it. But she couldn’t savor too long, or else it might pass her by. She looked at the other three members of her team, and nodded. It was time.

“Echo Two, you are clear to engage,” she said.

“Copy that, Echo One,” replied Arcten. “Preparing to engage.” For a few moments, nothing happened. And then there was a flash of light and an earth-shaking rumble. Beyond the Imperial Palace, a great cloud of smoke could be seen billowing up into the sky. Hana watched it for a moment, and then she unholstered her assault rifle from its cradle on her back and fired a few rounds through the window, shattering it. Then she gestured sharply to one of the members of her team, who was carrying a rocket launcher.

Smoothly, the young lieutenant stepped up, hoisting the launcher onto his shoulder as he did so. He crouched down on one knee, took a moment to aim, and then pulled the trigger, sending a rocket zipping across the plaza to slam into the front gate of the Imperial Palace. As soon as it did, he stood up, slung the launcher back across his back, and looked at Hana. She nodded sharply, and gestured toward the stairs to their right. He nodded in reply, unslung his assault rifle, and led the way out of the building, with Hana and the other two members of her team following close behind.

A few moments later, they were outside the building and slipping through deserted streets and alleys. As they moved, they could hear another explosion from the direction of the Palace. After a few twists and turns, they reached their destination. The young lieutenant bent down, pulled out a laser cutting tool, and used it to slice through the lock on a manhole cover. Then he picked it up, dragged it aside, and dropped down into the sewers below. As Hana and the others followed, a fourth explosion could be heard ripping through the air near the Palace. Hana grinned. Neminatrix had no idea what was about to hit him.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 33

Kryla stared at Decimator‘s viewscreen intently, watching the progress of the battle unfold. So far, Attack Pattern Volmin was working exactly as it was supposed to. The IDF was crumbling before Kryla’s furious assault. It had only been half an hour since the fleet dropped out of subspace, and the IDF was already breaking orbit and retreating beyond Trisitania’s farthest moon. Moving the bulk of the fleet into orbit around the planet and taking up a defensive perimeter around the dropships carrying the ground troops, Kryla ordered a detachment of ten ships to pursue the IDF and either finish them off or force them to drop into subspace. Kryla did not want those ships lurking in interplanetary space if reinforcements showed up.

“Speak of the Dark Lord,” Kryla whispered as an alarm blared and the viewscreen lit up with contacts. She leaned forward, her body almost quivering with anticipation as the sensor officer called out that 84 warships had just dropped out of subspace. “Now we get serious…”

***

“Report!” Tred barked as Magnificence shuddered back into normal space.

“The IDF has retreated beyond the outer moon,” announced her tactical officer. “Enemy forces number…103, sir.”

“Composition of the enemy fleet?” Tred asked.

“Looks like…mostly battleships and cruisers, with a few frigates and a smattering of destroyers,” the tactical officer replied.

“Dammit,” Tred growled in response. “We underestimated.” She paused for a moment, considering. She had 84 ships in her fleet, and the IDF had 15 ships left. That meant her forces’ numbers roughly matched those of the enemy fleet, but her fleet had relatively few battleships and cruisers, and instead was mostly comprised of destroyers. The result was that she was heavily outgunned, despite the numerical parity.

“Should we recall the task force?” asked her XO, contemplating the same numbers she was.

“It is tempting,” Tred mused. Recalling the task force would give her a large numerical advantage, and close the gap in regards to heavy ships. The task force had a vital assignment, but their success would be meaningless if Trisitania was lost. On the other hand, recalling the task force wouldn’t necessarily guarantee victory, and she didn’t want to start second-guessing herself. “No,” she finally said. “The task force will continue on its current mission. The 7th Fleet will defend Trisitania.”

***

“Clear!” yelled Hana as she rounded a corner. She and three other members of her team were in an office building on the opposite side of Citizen’s Plaza from the Imperial Palace. The streets of Selorin were surprisingly peaceful considering that the largest battle in 400 years was unfolding in orbit. Hana had not yet seen a single Imperial Army soldier, but most likely they were concentrated in the Palace itself and other important installations. It was too much to hope that Starfengt would be able to get all the way to their target without meeting any resistance.

Fortunately, the battle had one positive consequence for Hana and her team, which was that Selorin seemed as if it had been, for the most part, evacuated. Hana couldn’t imagine Neminatrix caring at all about the fate of civilians, but she thanked the Presence that he, or at least someone with authority in the city, did. Not having any civilians around would make it a lot more likely that Starfengt would make it into the Palace undetected.

She and her team rounded another corner, and Hana was confronted with a sight that filled her with powerful and conflicting emotions. They were in a large, open office space, and on the opposite side of the room was a huge window that afforded a spectacular view of the Imperial Palace and Citizen’s Plaza.

Citizen’s Plaza. She hadn’t seen it for almost fifteen years. Not since that fateful day when the Empire killed her old self in a storm of blood and artillery shells, and she was reborn as something new. No longer an idealist dedicated to reforming the Empire and bringing it back to its former glory, she was now a bringer of death, devoted to the Empire’s destruction. Because of the devastation she’d experienced back then, she had renounced her old loyalties and pledged allegiance to a new power.

That was all well and good. She had no regrets about the decision she’d made that day. Subsequent events had only strengthened her revulsion for the Empire. But what she hadn’t expected was to be reminded of all the good friends who had died at the hands of the Imperial Army that day. Veshryk Jilorin, Niven Umior and Shilmek Aladia had been three of her best friends while she was a student at Imperial University. Together they had planned to remove the pretender Adlamor Finegal from the Imperial Throne, and restore the Senate so that a true Emperor could be elected. But they had failed miserably, and all except for Hana had paid with their lives.

What would they think if they could see her now? Would they be proud of her? Would they be thrilled that she was finally going to get into the Palace and eliminate a false Emperor? Or would they be mortified that she had turned against the Empire and joined Fangalin? Vesh, in particular, had been so devoted to restoring the Empire, but then so had she, back then. Would he understand? Or would they be on opposite sides of the war if he had survived?

She shook her head and strode forward to the window. It didn’t matter. Her friends were dead, and so was the man responsible for their deaths. She had one last bit of business to take care of before all the ghosts of her past were expunged.

“Echo Two, we are in position,” she said over her communicator.

“Copy that, Echo One,” replied Arcten from his position on the opposite side of the Palace. “Awaiting your signal.” She nodded, even though Arcten wouldn’t be able to see it. It was time. Vengeance would be hers at last.

To be continued…