Hana Lodimeur’s expression was carefully blank and never changed as she pulled the trigger on her sniper rifle and obliterated the head of her target. Her expression stayed blank as she swept the battlefield through the scope of her rifle, selected another target, and did it again. Every time she pulled the trigger, she saw the head of Emperor Neminatrix IV explode, but she kept doing it anyway, because she did it better than anyone else in Fangalin. Maybe she should have allowed her memories of Neminatrix’s death to affect her, but why? She didn’t have any regrets about killing him. Yes, she had regrets about other things that happened that day. But that specific act did not dismay her in the least. And yet she saw Neminatrix’s face every time she killed an anonymous Imperial soldier.
“Echo One, this is Echo Two,” came a female voice over her in-ear radio. “Please respond.”
“Echo One here,” Hana replied. “Go ahead, Xeliana.”
“Command is ordering us to relocate to Sector Bravo Seven,” Commander Xeliana Merane replied, just barely keeping the irritation out of her voice at the fact that her CO had called her by her name instead of her code number, even if this was a secure channel. “We’re needed to support the 4th Battalion.”
“What? Why did they send that order to you?” Hana exclaimed in exasperation. “What happened to chain of command!”
“They’ve been trying to get ahold of you for the past 10 minutes,” Xeliana said, more patiently than she felt. “You haven’t been responding.”
Hana frowned silently in response to this, thinking, but then she shook her head and dismissed her thoughts. There was probably just a glitch in the radio system. It happened from time to time. “Understood, Echo Two.” She paused for a moment, and then said, “Echo One to Echo Team. We’re relocating to Sector Bravo Seven. Acknowledge.” She nodded in satisfaction as all 12 members of Starfengt voiced their acknowledgment, and then she picked up her sniper rifle and crept down off the ridge she’d been hiding on.
Her gaze swept across the desolate wasteland around her as she picked her way down the slope back to the base camp for the 9th Brigade of the 3rd Division of the Grand and Invincible Army of Fangalin. Although Starfengt wasn’t part of the Army, they’d been ordered to assist the 9th Brigade in their invasion of Weblish by the Supreme Commander himself. Once Hana would have been offended that Starfengt’s skills were being wasted on such a mundane battlefield, but now she didn’t care. She couldn’t make herself care about much of anything these days.
As she reached the foot of the slope, she handed her sniper rifle to her assistant and took off her helmet. Her short, brown hair was slicked down with sweat, and she ran a dirty hand through it, making it stand up on end. She looked around at the bustle of activity in the base camp, and spied Starfengt’s number three, Lt. Commander Vedregela Holomein, jogging toward her. Vedregela’s wavy red hair was streaming out behind her as ran, but the cheery glint that usually lit up her green eyes was missing as she glared at her commanding officer.
“What in Nerzaga were you doing up there?” Vedregela barked as Hana turned her emotionless eyes toward her. “Sir?” she added belatedly.
“There must have been a glitch in the radio system,” Hana replied coolly.
“That’s garbage and you know it, sir,” Vedregela snarled. She glared at Hana silently for a few minutes, while Hana gazed back at her impassively. Finally, Vedregela took a long, deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Look,” she said firmly, “we all miss Arcten. And I know you were closer to him than any of us. But you need to let him go, okay? You know better than anybody how pissed he’d be if he knew you were letting your grief for him get in the way of your job. He built Starfengt for you, and he’d be furious if he knew you were letting it fall apart because of him.”
“You and Xeliana give me this lecture at least once a week,” Hana replied, rolling her eyes. “And I’ll tell you the same thing I tell you every time. I’m done grieving Arcten, and Starfengt is not falling apart. The Supreme Commander wants us to shore up the war effort. It’s our duty to go where the Supreme Commander sends us.”
“The Supreme Commander knows you can’t handle anything tough, so he’s sending us to backwater worlds where you can sit on a mountain, pick off greenhorns from 3 miles away, and pretend you’re doing something important,” Vedregela shot back.
“That’s quite enough, Commander,” Hana said in a soft, dangerous voice, the color draining from her face. Vedregela’s face turned as red as her hair, and she dropped her eyes to the ground.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she whispered. Hana glared at her for a moment, and then the expression on her face softened.
“I know, Ved,” she said quietly. “And I know you’re frustrated. I’m trying my best, I really am. I hope, deep down inside, you realize that.”
“I know, sir,” Vedregela replied, still looking at the ground. “And I hope you realize that I care about you. I don’t want to see you destroyed by grief.” Hana just looked at her appraisingly for a moment, and then sighed deeply.
“Come on, Ved,” she said, starting to walk toward the center of the camp. “Let’s gather up the rest of the team and figure out what’s happening in Sector Bravo Seven.”
“Yes, sir,” Vedregela said with a resigned sigh, trotting after her CO. As they walked, Hana thought for a moment about what Vedregela had said. Was she being destroyed by grief? That was probably a pretty good assessment. But what could she do about it? Everytime she cared about someone or something, the universe stole it away from her. It seemed the only solution was to just stop caring entirely.
To be continued…