“Echo One to Echo Leaders,” Hana said over the radio. “We are in position. Report in, Echo Leaders.”
“Echo One, this is Echo Two,” replied Arcten. “We are approaching our target. ETA five minutes.
“Echo One, this is Echo Three,” chimed in Xeliana. “We are in position and ready to go on your mark.”
“Echo One, this is Echo Four,” said Vedregela. “We’ve just entered the Palace. Echo Seven is down, repeat, Echo Seven is down.”
“Understood, Four,” Hana replied with a scowl. Echo Seven was Sholin Ilimace, the young man who had told her she was the best just before they’d disembarked. She wondered if he had still thought she was the best in his dying moments. Could a commander who led her team to their deaths in pursuit of personal revenge really be the best? She shook her head and cleared the scowl off her face. Was she going to have these thoughts any time one of her team members was killed? That was a cheery thought. Why would she even assume that any more of them would die?
“Two and Four, report in as soon as you’re in position,” she said, and then she looked at Lotarien. “Now we wait.” He grimaced at her slightly, nodded, and then turned away to watch for threats.
“What’s the situation, Admiral?” Neminatrix said, already knowing the answer.
“Not good, Your Majesty,” Admiral Termaina replied, just as he had an hour ago. “Things are crumbling fast. The task force reached Hibellia, and it sounds like they did massive damage, but they haven’t reported in yet. Admiral Tred thinks we’ll never hear from them again, and I’m inclined to agree with her. The military might of Valador’s rebels has been greater than we anticipated thus far. Meanwhile, most of Selorin is in rebel hands. Both the outer and inner defensive rings around the Palace have been breached, and we’re bracing for an assault on the Palace right now.
“I’m also getting the suspicion that some sort of infiltration team has made it inside the Palace itself. Several of our drones in the tunnels have gone dark, and a patrol unit just outside the Palace has failed to report in, and they were scheduled to report before the rebel forces hit the outer defensive ring. There were no rebel forces reported anywhere near the Palace at that point, so either the rebels sent in some sort of elite scout force, or someone else is taking advantage of the situation.”
“So, in other words, we’re screwed,” Neminatrix said with a wry smile. Termaina was silent for a moment, and then he gave a heavy sigh and turned toward Neminatrix slowly. He appeared to have aged ten years since the battle began.
“I hate to say it, but yes,” Termaina said grimly. “We’ve been outmatched at every turn. Despite our best efforts, Valador has soundly beaten us.” Neminatrix opened his mouth to reply, but just then the door of the command center opened and Shala walked in.
“Shala!” Neminatrix exclaimed, fear and anger warring in his expression. “What are you doing here? You were supposed to be on the evac transport!”
“Do you really think I’d run away and abandon you, now of all times?” Shala shot back, her expression determined. “No, my place is here, with you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Neminatrix exclaimed, exasperated. “There is a battle going on here! What do you think you can do to help?”
“You’d be surprised what I’ve picked up from Belfamor over the past decade,” Shala replied. “But-,”
“Even if I were to let you stay,” Neminatrix cut her off, “are you really going to be able to choose between me and the rebels? You’ve sworn loyalty to Valador! Your husband is one of his highest ranking generals! I can’t ask you to choose between your husband and your father.”
“I have no intention of doing so, Father,” Shala said calmly, “because I’m going to ask you to surrender.” There was a long pause while everyone in the room processed this comment.
“Surrender?” Neminatrix finally said in a quiet, dangerous voice. “Did I really just hear you say that?”
“I would never suggest it if there was a possibility you could win,” Shala replied. “But you heard Admiral Termaina. The battle is over. You’ve lost. No matter what you do now, Valador’s forces are going to get in here, and they’re going to capture or kill you, and even if they do capture you, you’ll just be executed for treason. Your only hope of survival now is to abdicate and declare your loyalty to Valador.” There was another pregnant moment of silence after this statement.
“No,” Neminatrix finally said softly, and then he repeated it more firmly. “No! I will not abandon the Throne! I am the rightful Emperor, and I will die the rightful Emperor!”
“Dammit, Father!” Shala snarled, her calm composure suddenly shattering. “I don’t give a slylark’s ass about the Throne! I’ve spent my entire life wishing that you would love me, and now that you finally do, I’m not going to lose you because of politics!” If Shala’s suggestion that Neminatrix surrender had let the air out of the room, this outburst was like opening the airlock on a starship. Nobody moved, nobody even seemed to breathe. It was as if Shala’s desperate anger had smothered the very atmosphere in the command center.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Neminatrix drew a long, deep, breath, and then let it out slowly. “You’re right,” he said quietly. “I’ve spent my entire life worrying about what I want, and putting myself ahead of you. It’s time I started making up for my mistakes.” He smiled then, a weary but joyful smile, as if the burdens of three decades had suddenly fallen off his shoulders. A broad grin lit up Shala’s face, and she opened her mouth to say something, but just then a massive explosion rocked the building, and she had to grab onto a nearby desk to keep from falling over.
“Report!” Neminatrix barked.
“Perimeter breach!” one of the technicians yelled back. “Enemy forces are inside the Palace!”
“Dammit,” Neminatrix growled. “We need to get a message to them. If I’m going to abdicate, then this battle is just a waste of lives and resources. We need to let them know soon, or this day is going to turn into an even bigger disaster than it already is.”
To be continued…