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…

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