Culmination, Part 41

Sound and light returned agonizingly slowly to Belfamor’s senses. He groaned and tried to move, but nothing seemed to happen. A wave of panic hit him. Was he paralyzed? Was he being crushed by something massive? He slowly opened his eyes, and shut them tight again as blinding light flooded them. The monotonous buzzing in his ears slowly coalesced into the sounds of explosions and gunfire and men and women screaming in rage and pain. Very carefully he tried to open his eyes again, and realized that the blinding light he was seeing was Meargetal, Trisitania’s sun. It was just past noon, and Meargetal was almost directly overhead. It was a clear summer day in Selorin, aside from the haze of smoke caused by the battle.

The sight of Meargetal in the sky gave Belfamor a small amount of clarity. It had been about an hour before noon when the 3rd Battalion had landed on Trisitania. He’d lost track of time after that, but considering it was only a little over an hour since they’d landed, he couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a few minutes. He tried to move again, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that his body was responding now. So he wasn’t paralyzed or pinned underneath anything.

“General!” a woman’s voice called suddenly. She sounded distant, but Belfamor wasn’t sure if that was because she was distant, or because his head was still fuzzy from the explosion. He groaned and tried to stand up, but movement was still difficult.

“General Hemetal!” the woman called again. Belfamor shook his head in an attempt to clear it

“I’m here!” he said, his voice sounding thick and slow to his ears. There was a sound of someone scrambling over a pile of rubble, and then a woman appeared in Belfamor’s vision.

“General!” she exclaimed, relief evident in her voice. “Thank the One you’re alive! Are you hurt?”

“I think I’m fine,” Belfamor said, shaking his head and trying once again to stand. “I don’t feel any pain.” He rose partway, and then slipped and fell onto his side.

“Let me help you up, sir,” the woman said, grabbing his wrists and guiding him gently but firmly to his feet.

“Thank you, Captain…?” Belfamor said, not knowing the woman’s name.

“Avredai, sir,” she replied. “Leatoreai Avredai. XO, 3rd Battalion.”

“Ah, yes,” Belfamor said with a grimace. “I thought you looked familiar. Apologies for not remembering your name, Captain Avredai.”

“No worries, sir,” Avredai said with a grin. Captain Avredai was a plain-looking woman, average height, with brown hair that was no more than an inch long and brown eyes.  “We both have bigger problems to worry about right now.”

“That we do, Captain,” Belfamor said, looking around. “What’s the situation?”

“We’re bogged down, sir,” Avredai said in a no-nonsense tone. “The enemy’s got barricades at every approach to the Palace. Heavily-fortified, with rocket launchers and mortars. Our vehicles are getting torn apart.”

“So I noticed,” Belfamor said wryly, eyeing the wreckage of his Adralack. “Air support?”

“Negative, sir,” Avredai replied, shaking her head. “Enemy’s got AA guns mounted on all the buildings around the Palace, and on the Palace itself. Any approach by air will get shredded.”

“Any word from Admiral Zomulin?” Belfamor asked.

“Last we heard, the enemy fleet had pulled back and she was resuming offloading operations.” Belfamor pursed his lips and thought for a second.

“Orbital bombardment would make short work of those AA guns, but I’d rather leave Selorin as intact as possible,” he mused. Avredai eyed him critically while he thought, but he ignored her. “Well,” he finally said, “if we can’t go by Adralack, and we can’t go by air, we’ll have to go by foot.”

“Yes, sir,” Avredai said, just barely suppressing her grimace. “I’ll spread the word, sir.”

***

Twenty minutes later, the 3rd Battalion had regrouped and was moving, slowly but steadily, toward the Imperial Palace. Neminatrix’s forces had prepared for an assault by ground vehicles, so they’d set up heavily fortified barricades at every intersection around the Palace, but either they hadn’t anticipated their enemies changing tactics, or they didn’t have enough manpower to do more than that, because they’d left the buildings around the Palace unoccupied. The 3rd Battalion was using that to their advantage, slipping into the buildings and flanking the enemy positions. Using these tactics, the 3rd Battalion was able to smash the outer ring of Neminatrix’s defenses, forcing his troops to abandon their barricades, and retreat to a smaller ring of barricades closer to the Palace.

The second ring of barricades was proving a tougher nut to crack, however. Neminatrix’s troops had learned from their mistakes, and were occupying the buildings immediately surrounding the Imperial Palace as they fell back. Unfortunately for them, they had been forced to abandon much of their air defenses as they withdrew, which gave the 3rd Battalion an opportunity to call in air support for their final push on the Palace.

Belfamor watched from the roof of a nearby building with a satisfied expression on his face as a squadron of MK71 “Venemear” Low Altitude Attack Fighters hovered just out of range of the Imperial Palace’s AA guns and bombed the Nerzaga out of the inner ring of barricades. The Venemear was in the same category of vehicles as the Adralack: only good for one thing, but very, very good at that one thing. In the case of the Venemear, that one thing was attacking ground targets that couldn’t fight back. Venemears were fairly agile, and absolutely loaded with weapons, but on the negative side, they were extremely lightly armored, meaning that they could easily be shot out of the sky with one rocket or missile. But when given adequate protection, they were devastatingly effective at tearing up ground-based fortifications.

“General Hemetal?” said a voice behind him. He turned to look, and saw Captain Avredai coming up the stairs behind him. He acknowledged her with a nod and turned back to watch the Venemears at work. “The Adralacks are ready to roll again, sir. Enemy forces are retreating into the Palace.”

“Excellent, Captain,” Belfamor said with a small, satisfied smile. “Let’s move on then, shall we?”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 40

“Admiral, the rebel fleet has pulled back and tightened their orbit around the planet,” announced the sensor officer in Magnificence’s CIC.

“Good,” Admiral Tred replied. “Order the fleet to stand down from battle stations, but stay on alert. As soon as the task force arrives, we need to go back to battle stations and go on the offensive. In the meantime, have the engineering crews on every ship repair as much damage as they can.” The communications staff in the CIC nodded and began sending messages to the rest of the fleet.

“Admiral, are you sure this is a good idea?” asked her XO in a quiet voice.

“I’m not, but I don’t see that we have any other choice,” Tred replied grimly. “We’re falling apart here, Captain. The rebel commander is better than anyone I’ve ever gone up against, and I can’t seem to do anything to counter her. If we keep going as we’ve been, we’re going to get destroyed. If we pull back and wait for the task force to arrive, at least we’ll be back on equal footing.”

“And in the meantime, the rebels land more troops on the planet’s surface,” her XO said bitterly.

“Which we’ll be able to do something about if we fight off the rebel fleet!” Tred snapped. “But if we keep pushing the rebels and we get destroyed, they’ll be able to land all of their troops with impunity! This is a choice between a slim chance and no chance, Captain.”

“Understood, sir,” the Captain muttered sullenly. “But I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I, Captain,” Tred replied softly. “Neither do I.”

***

Hana and Lotarien continued to creep swiftly through the halls of the Imperial Palace, making their way to the rendezvous point. So far, there still hadn’t been any sign of the battle between the rival Emperors, but that was unlikely to last. Valador’s forces had to be on their way to the Palace at that very moment. With any luck, Starfengt would be able to penetrate to the heart of the Palace and eliminate their target before they arrived. With even more luck, they’d be able to get out before Valador’s forces arrived as well. But that was much less likely.

***

“Targets at 10 o’clock!” yelled the sergeant over the Adralack’s comms.

“Got ‘em!” Belfamor yelled back, swiveling the Adralack’s gun to the left and opening fire. Several of Neminatrix’s soldiers died as bullets ripped through their position, but then the Adralack hit a bump, jostling the gun and causing Belfamor’s aim to go astray just enough to miss the last few targets. “Stay on target, Sergeant!” he barked, annoyed.

“Yes, sir!” the sergeant replied. “Sorry, sir!” Belfamor sighed, momentarily frustrated with himself. It wasn’t the sergeant’s fault that the road was pitted and cratered with combat damage. But there was no time to dwell on this thought. The Adralack swung around a corner and a whole platoon of Neminatrix’s soldiers appeared in Belfamor’s vision. Without a moment’s hesitation, Belfamor opened fire on them. They tried to fight back, but their assault rifles were no match for an Adralack’s armor.

“Rocket!” somebody suddenly screamed. Belfamor’s eyes widened, and he scanned the battlefield rapidly, looking for an enemy soldier with a rocket launcher. Almost immediately, he found his target, and swung the gun around to open fire, but he was too late. The enemy soldier pulled the trigger, a rocket came screaming toward the Adralack, there was an overwhelming blast of sound and light, and then darkness.

***

There was an almost feral gleam in Kryla Zomulin’s eyes as she gazed at the enemy ships highlighted on the display in Decimator’s CIC. They were just sitting there! What were they doing? She had imagined that they wanted her to chase them, but it had been half an hour since they’d withdrawn, and they hadn’t budged, even as Kryla’s fleet had disgorged tens of thousands more soldiers onto Trisitania’s surface. What were they waiting for? Were they clinging desperately to their trap, even though it had obviously failed? Or had Kryla guessed wrong, and they wanted her to ignore them? But what purpose would that serve?

“Admiral, we’re getting a message from Hibellia!” yelled out the communications officer suddenly.

“What?” Kryla replied with a puzzled frown. “Why now? We’re in the middle of a battle here!”

“Yes, Admiral, but I think you’re going to want to hear it anyway,” the communications officer said grimly. Kryla turned toward him slowly, hearing the note of doom in his voice.

“Tell me,” she said firmly.

“Hibellia has been raided,” the communications officer said softly. “By Neminatrix’s forces.” There was a long pause while Kryla digested this information.

“Casualties?” she asked quietly.

“Millions,” the communications officer whispered. There was another, longer pause, and then a look of cold fury appeared on her face.

“Send a message to the fleet,” she snarled. There was a moment, and the comm officer nodded. “All ships, prepare to re-engage the enemy. Enemy reinforcements are expected to arrive shortly. We are going to smash as many enemy ships as we can before they arrive.”

***

“Admiral!” called out the sensor officer in the CIC on Magnificence. “The rebel forces are breaking orbit and headed our way!”

“Dammit,” Tred muttered. “They must have received a message from Hibellia. How did they get anything through our signal jammers?”

“I don’t know, sir,” responded the communications officer. “I still haven’t received any messages from the task force.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Tred said, dismissing disturbing thoughts from her mind. “All ships, prepare to re-engage the enemy! We need to hold out until the task force arrives, and then we can turn the tide. Let’s do this! For the Empire!”

“For the Empire!” came the chorus of responses from around the CIC. Tred was glad for their enthusiasm, but personally she didn’t think there was any hope left for the 7th Fleet. The fact that the rebels on Hibellia had managed to get a message to their fleet, but the task force hadn’t sent any kind of update to her did not bode well. Tred didn’t want to say this out loud, but she didn’t think there was much chance that the task force was coming.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 39

Hana nearly let out a sigh of relief as she and Lt. Lotarien approached a massive door that led into the Imperial Palace. The two of them had encountered half a dozen more pairs of drones, but fortunately, now that they knew what to look for, they were not difficult to take care of. The disconcerting thing, other than the fact that they’d killed two of her people, was that they appeared to be of Fangalin design. It was possible that Neminatrix’s forces had simply reverse-engineered captured or destroyed Fangalin drones, but it wasn’t likely, as Fangalin’s drones were designed to disintegrate completely if they were disabled. No, the most likely conclusion was that Neminatrix had a spy inside Fangalin.

Which, of course, wasn’t terribly shocking. After all, Fangalin had been able to penetrate the Empire virtually at will. It wasn’t incomprehensible that the Empire would be able to return the favor at some point. But it did mean that a quick conclusion to the war was becoming more and more unlikely. After all, if the Empire was learning from its mistakes, and adopting Fangalin’s tactics, it would become more dangerous and more difficult to destroy.

All the more reason to finish this mission quickly and do whatever we can to keep hammering away at them, Hana thought to herself. She trained her assault rifle back down the way they’d come, keeping alert for any threats that might be following them, while Lotarien attempted to hack into the control mechanism of the door and unlock it. Hacking wasn’t his strong suit, but the hacker assigned to Hana’s team was dead now, and Lotarien was a better hacker than Hana, so he got the job. Everybody in Starfengt had a specific skill that they were expert in, but they also were fairly well-versed in all the skills necessary for an assassin, so that they could fill in as needed, in situations like this one.

“Got it,” Lotarien announced suddenly in a low voice, and a second later the door slid open. Hana whipped around and moved forward, taking point as the two of them advanced into the Imperial Palace. The halls of the Palace were quiet and empty, which might have seemed odd, except that Hana had deliberately picked an entry into the Palace that was largely unused these days. Between defections to Fangalin, Midigal, Hadramoris, and rival Emperors, and the general malaise of the Imperial citizens ruled by Neminatrix IV, there were many fewer people working and living in the Imperial Palace than it was designed for. Which certainly made sneaking into it a lot easier.

“Corridor up ahead is occupied,” Lotarien whispered as they proceeded.

“What about the one on the left?” Hana replied.

“Looks clear,” he said. They swept into that corridor like a silent whirlwind, aiming their assault rifles in seemingly every direction at once as they searched for threats that their motion trackers might have missed.

“Echo Two, this is Echo One. Respond,” Hana said suddenly.

“Echo Two here,” Arcten said.

“We have entered the Palace, Two,” Hana said. “What’s your status?”

“Still in the tunnels, One,” Arcten replied. “We should be in the Palace in ten minutes.”

“Good enough, Two,” Hana said with a nod. “Echo Three, come in.”

“Three here, One,” said Xeliana Merane.

“What’s your status, Three?” Hana asked.

“In the Palace, on Level 17, Residential Wing,” Xeliana replied.

“Excellent news, Three,” Hana said, satisfied. “Echo Four, report.”

“Just entering the tunnels, One,” said the voice of the number four member of Starfengt, Lieutenant Vedregela Holomein. “We got held up by some Imperial soldiers who lacked the proper respect for our timetable.”

“Any casualties?” Hana asked with a frown.

“Negative, One,” Vedregela replied, her calm voice containing a note of triumph.

“Excellent news, Four,” Hana said. “Keep moving.”

“Understood, One.”

Everything was almost in place now. The moment that Hana had been waiting over ten years for was so close she could almost taste it. The cost had already been high, but it would be worth it. She hoped.

***

The 3rd Battalion’s advance to the Palace was surprisingly uneventful. Belfamor, true to his guise as “just another soldier”, was manning the turret on a BR77 “Aldralack” Armored Personnel Carrier. The Adralack was a monstrous beast of a machine, more heavily armored than just about any vehicle in the Imperial Army, and that included the Empire’s tanks. Unusually for this day and age, the Adralack had wheels that touched the ground, as opposed to a hover engine. Because of its absurdly heavy armor, the Nexus drive that would have been needed to power a hover engine on the Adralack would have been so large that there wouldn’t have been any room left for soldiers to ride in it. The archaic design of the Adralack limited its usefulness, but in an urban combat environment, with lots of flat surfaces, it was the perfect APC.

“Picking up some targets ahead, General,” said the driver of the Adralack over the APC’s comm system. Belfamor could hear the bemusement in the sergeant’s voice over the fact that his gunner was a four-star General, and he didn’t blame the man a bit. It was a thoroughly bemusing situation.

“I see them, Sergeant,” Belfamor replied. “Lighting ‘em up.” And with that, Belfamor pressed a button on his control console, and the Adralack’s main gun began belching fire and death. It was satisfying to just be a grunt in this battle. It was something that he’d never really done before. As a lord’s son, he’d always been on the fast track to command. Even though he was still technically in command of this battle, he had subordinates who were handling the details, allowing him to pretend that, for once in his life, he was just a regular soldier. Once again, he wondered about the wisdom of his actions, but he couldn’t do anything about it now. He was right in the thick of things. It wasn’t as if he could just jump out of the Adralack and call a timeout. It was time to buckle up and put an end to the man who had tortured his wife and decimated his family. This day was the culmination of everything he had lived through up until this point.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 38

“Zyxos Group, intercept enemy destroyers at 9021.7,” Kryla ordered, frowning at the display attached to her chair. “Atarash Group, cover their left flank.” The battle was starting to wind down now, but that only made the situation more dangerous. As the enemy commander lost more and more ships, and the tide of battle turned against them, they would be more likely to attempt something reckless. After all, Neminatrix’s forces had nothing to lose at this point.

“Admiral, I think your presence might be needed in CIC,” said her fleet XO suddenly. Kryla’s frown deepened.

“What’s the problem, Captain?” she asked in response.

“I’m…not sure,” her XO admitted. “I’m sending you a report.” There was a moment while Kryla’s display updated, and then her frown deepened to the point where she was somewhat worried that her cheeks were going to drop off.

“I see what you mean, Captain,” she said, her voice not betraying a hint of the unease she felt. “I’ll be there shortly.” She turned to Decimator’s XO, Commander Farlen, who was sitting to her left. “Commander, you have the bridge.” Farlen nodded, and Kryla unstrapped herself from the command chair and strode briskly to the CIC. A few minutes later, she arrived and took the command chair that had just been vacated by her fleet XO. “Show me what we’ve got,” she ordered.

“Yes, sir,” her XO said with a nod, and began pulling up information on the many holographic displays suspended over the command console in the center of the room. The XO of Task Force Spearhead, as Kryla’s fleet was called, was a young captain named Trainia Lotoren. Captain Lotoren was tall and willowy, with skin so dark it was almost black and hair to match. She was one of the most efficient, courteous and professional officers that Kryla had ever served with, when she was on duty. Off duty, she was notorious throughout the fleet as a practical joker, and Kryla had yet to meet the person who could drink Lotoren under the table. Not only that, but she was also loud, raucous, and extremely crude, farting, belching and cursing more than anyone else Kryla had ever met. As much as Kryla appreciated Lotoren professionally, she spent as little time as possible with her off-duty.

“Here’s the current position of the enemy fleet,” Lotoren said with a slight frown, highlighting a specific display. “And here is their position as of ten minutes ago,” she said, highlighting a second display.

“It looks like they’re getting ready to retreat,” Kryla said, frowning so intensely that a slight crease appeared between her eyes.

“That’s what I thought, sir,” Lotoren said. “That’s why I called you down here. It has to be a trap, but I don’t see what it is.”

“Indeed,” Kryla said, not taking her eyes off the display. “There’s no way the enemy forces can retreat in this situation. If they do, Trisitania is lost to them, and if Trisitania is lost, the war is over. So they can’t retreat, and they must realize that we know this. If they really were retreating, normally we would just let them go, because the real objective is the planet. But since we know they’re not retreating, the logical thing to do would be to pursue them, because that’s the opposite of what we’d do if they were actually retreating. But since they know that we know that this is a trap, that’s exactly what they expect us to do. So, we will hold our position and resume sending troops down to the planet.”

“What if they figure that’s our line of thought, and it’s really what they want us to do?” Lotoren asked, one eyebrow raised.

“Captain, I can only reason in so many circles before I get dizzy,” Kryla said with a wry smirk. “If I knew exactly what the enemy was doing at all times, the war would be over and we would have won. I can only make decisions based on the information I have and my own gut. And this is what my gut tells me.”

“Understood, sir,” Lotoren said. “The fleet will hold position.”

***

“What’s the situation, Admiral?” Neminatrix asked grimly. He could see very well for himself what the situation was, but he needed to feel like he was doing something. Men and women who were loyal to him were out there fighting and dying at his command, while he sat deep in a fortified bunker, safe and sound. Of course, if those men and women failed in their mission, he wouldn’t be safe and sound for very long, but that wasn’t a very comforting thought either.

“Not good, Your Majesty,” replied Admiral Termaina. “Our fleets were pretty evenly matched, but the rebel commander is damn good. We’ve lost about half our strength, while the rebels have only lost about a quarter of theirs. Meanwhile, the rebel ground forces are slowly but surely taking key positions around Selorin and other major cities on the planet.”

“I see,” Neminatrix said coldly, grinding his teeth. Things were definitely not going well. He had thought that the plan he’d formulated with Admiral Termaina and Admiral Tred would be enough to defend the capital, but it was becoming apparent that it wasn’t so. If only there was some news about the task force. The task force was the key element of their plan, and if it failed in its mission, the entire plan would fall apart. But so far, there hadn’t been any news about it one way or another.

“I know the answer to this question, but have we received any word from the task force?” Neminatrix asked, trying to remain calm.

“No, Your Majesty,” Termaina replied, “but we have no reason to believe that they’ve failed so far. Indeed, they most likely have just arrived at their target.”

“I suppose so,” Neminatrix said, somewhat mollified. “They need to succeed. The capital will be lost if they fail. We cannot hold out against this force.”

To be continued…