The Darkest Heart, Part 9

“Haven’t we been down this road before?” Kryla asked, arching an eyebrow. “The last time you wanted me to help you shake the foundations of the Empire, a lot of people died.”

“Perhaps, but we also succeeded in unifying the Empire under one ruler for the first time in almost twenty years,” Belfamor replied.

“This is true, but it would take a more detached mind than mine to decide whether that was worth the cost or not,” Kryla responded coolly. Belfamor just eyed her with a flat expression on his face for a few moments. Kryla stared back at him, her expression just as neutral as his, but then she finally sighed and looked away. “All right,” she said, “tell me what you want.”

“Nothing too terrible,” Belfamor said with a slight smirk. “As you know, our beloved Emperor is not long for this world. Whether he dies in battle, or on an assassin’s blade, or simply from old age, his death is imminent. And as he has no heir, the Senate will be meeting to decide on his successor. When that time comes, I would like your support for my candidacy.”

“That’s it?” Kryla asked, looking skeptical. “You don’t want me to lay siege to the capital, or send my troops to assassinate the Emperor?”

“Of course not,” Belfamor said with a scowl.

“Well, supporting you for Emperor is hardly shaking the foundations of the Empire,” Kryla said with a slight shrug.

“You might be surprised,” Belfamor said. “I am not in as much…favor, as I once was.”

“Is that so?” Kryla replied. “I had heard that you were suspended, but I was under the impression that it was temporary.”

“That’s what the Emperor would like people to think,” Belfamor snarled. “I know the truth. Emelien Fanas has been trying to wrest control of the Army from me for years, and now he’s finally succeeded. But his victory won’t last. Once I’m Emperor, he’ll regret crossing me.” There was a fevered light in Belfamor’s eyes, and his handsome features were twisted in such a diabolical way that he didn’t look remotely handsome to Neska anymore. She was actually quite frightened, but she tried desperately to hide it.

If her aunt was at all alarmed at the transformation that had overtaken Belfamor, she hid it well. She was silent for a moment, sipping her wine, and eyeing Belfamor coolly. Belfamor, for his part, seemed to have forgotten that anyone else was in the room. A sort of savage pleasure crept over his features as he contemplated his coming victory over his hated enemy.

“So, is that it then?” Kryla asked quietly, making Belfamor jump and stare at her as if he’d forgotten she was in the room. “All you want me to do is support your bid to become Emperor?”

“I…yes, that’s it,” Belfamor said, blinking rapidly and shivering. “Your support would be…greatly appreciated.”

“I can see that,” Kryla replied, stone-faced.

“Then, do I have your assurance that you will support me in front of the Senate?” Belfamor demanded. Kryla gazed at him for a long time, seeming to weigh her answer.

“You have my assurance that I will support you in whatever way I can,” Kryla said finally. Tension seemed to visibly drain out of Belfamor’s body, and he sat down hard in a large, plush armchair.

“I was afraid you might say no,” Belfamor said, laughing shakily. Picking up his glass of wine, he swirled it around for a moment, and then downed a great quantity of it in a single gulp. Kryla’s expression was still flat, her eyes glittering like gemstones.

“We are old friends, are we not?” she said calmly.

“Old friends are the best positioned to stab you in the back,” Belfamor replied darkly. He drained his wine glass slowly but steadily, set it down gently, and then grinned unexpectedly. “Anyway, that is a weight off my shoulders.” His grin grew wider, and he eyed Neska as if he’d never seen her before. Neska suddenly felt the urge to cover her breasts, as if Belfamor’s gaze could pierce her dress uniform. She willed her hands to stay still.

“Say,” he said, his gaze becoming hungry, “you’re a pretty one, aren’t you?”

“You could say that,” Kryla interjected. Her tone was conversational, but her eyes were as hard as diamonds now. “She’s also my niece.”

“Is that so?” If anything, Belfamor’s look grew even hungrier, and Neska didn’t think he looked handsome at all anymore. She wanted to tear her eyes away from his, and curl up into the fetal position, but instead she tried to imitate her aunt’s cool gaze. She didn’t know if she was succeeding or not.

Neska didn’t know how long she and Belfamor sat, staring at each other, before Commander Venrel spoke up. “We should probably be getting back to the ship, shouldn’t we, Admiral?” he said.

At the sound of Venrel’s voice, Belfamor shook his head and looked away from Neska. His expression became mostly neutral, but there was a trace of his leering grin still on his face. Neska looked over at Venrel. His tone had been conversational, but there was definitely a look of worry on his face. Kryla’s face, on the other hand, could have been carved from granite.

“Yes, I think it is time for us to take our leave,” Kryla said, a hint of iron underneath the calm tones of her voice.

“So soon?” Belfamor exclaimed. “Ah well, I suppose the work of a naval officer is never done. I will be contacting you soon, Admiral.”

“Of course,” Kryla replied. She stood up, walked over to Belfamor, and shook his hand, and as she did so, she leaned over and whispered something in Belfamor’s ear. Neska couldn’t hear what it was, but whatever it was, it made Belfamor’s eyes widen and his face go white, and then red. As Kryla pulled away from him, he stared at her in anger and shock, but Kryla just looked back at him impassively. Then she turned to Venrel and Neska, and motioned for them to follow her. Neska had never been so happy to obey an order in her life.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 8

Ensign Neskatrai Dradital was less than happy to be accompanying her aunt to this meeting with Lord Belfamor Hemetal. It wasn’t that she had anything against rubbing shoulders with nobility. Just the opposite, in fact. She was extraordinarily nervous to meet one of the most powerful men in the galaxy, because she wanted to make a good impression, and she was afraid she’d screw it up. Neska’s family wasn’t poor. In fact, they would probably be described as upper middle class. But someone like Belfamor Hemetal was as much higher on the social scale than Neska, as Neska and her family were compared to someone digging in a field in a plantation on Birefal.

As she walked behind her aunt down the perfectly sculpted walkway leading toward Hemetal’s sumptuous manor, she felt like she had a smudge of dirt on her nose, even though she knew she’d washed her face thoroughly. Her aunt glanced back at her, and although she tried to look perfectly calm and composed, she knew it was no use. Auntie Kryla had always been able to read her like a book.

“Remember what I said,” Kryla muttered in a low voice, before she turned back to face the manor. Neska frowned slightly at the memory of the conversation she’d had in the Admiral’s quarters a few hours earlier. Of course, Kryla had said a lot of things in that conversation, so it was hard for Neska to pick out exactly what her aunt was referring to, but there had been one particular statement that had stuck in Neska’s mind. “Nobles are just like us.”

Which was all well and good for Kryla to say. She was practically nobility herself. One of the most decorated starship captains in the Empire, commander of the largest and most powerful single unit in the Imperial Fleet, and one of the main reasons that the Empire was still standing and hadn’t been completely swallowed up by Fangalin yet. If there was any commoner in the Empire who could stand toe-to-toe with a nobleman and feel like an equal, based on what she’d accomplished, it was Kryla Zomulin. But Neskatrai Dradital was a nobody. The greatest thing she’d accomplished was graduating from the Imperial Military Academy. Big deal. Lots of people had done that, including Belfamor Hemetal.

Her train of thought was interrupted by the fact that the three of them had reached the front door of the manor. Almost immediately the huge double door was opened, and an elderly chamberlain was welcoming them in. The sheer opulence of the massive entryway just about took Neska’s breath away, and only confirmed her fears of embarrassing herself in front of people who were clearly better than her in every way. As if reading her mind, as soon as Kryla finished exchanging pleasantries with the chamberlain, she looked at Neska firmly, willing her to remember their conversation, and then turned and followed the chamberlain down the vast hallway. Neska just swallowed hard and followed.

The chamberlain led them into a magnificent dining room that was both large and full of tasteful and expensive decorations. Belfamor Hemetal himself stood at the head of the table, and Neska swallowed hard again. Belfamor had to be almost 50 years old, but he looked to be just a little older than Neska herself, and breathtakingly handsome, to boot. Nobles are just like us, my ass, Neska thought to herself wryly. Belfamor greeted Kryla warmly, Commander Venrel respectfully, and Neska with little more than polite dismissal. At least I didn’t embarrass myself, she thought ruefully.

Belfamor next introduced his wife, Shala Votalin. She made Neska think that maybe there was something to her aunt’s insistence that nobles were just like commoners. Neska’s first impression was that she was a plain-looking woman with sad eyes and mousy brown hair that looked just like Neska’s, but when she rose to greet her guests, her smile was so genuine that it lit up her whole face and made her at least a thousand times more beautiful. But as soon as everyone was seated and no one was paying any more attention to her, Neska noticed that Shala’s expression reverted to plain and sad. Neska felt bad for her, which was not something she’d expected to feel for a noblewoman. Envy, yes. Pity? That was something of a shock.

The conversation over dinner consisted of pleasant but dry small talk, and Neska found herself focusing mostly on the food. The food was magnificent, both more delicious and more plentiful than Neska had ever experienced before. Neska was largely ignored by the other four, which was fine by her, as it gave her a chance to enjoy the food without worrying about having to come with something clever to say. Neska desperately wanted to impress Lord Hemetal, but she was also terribly worried about making a fool out of herself, and so she decided that being quiet and eating her food without getting it all over herself was about as impressive as she was capable of being at the moment.

Once all the food was eaten (or at least as much of it as anyone could handle – Neska found herself wondering what would happen to all the leftovers, and hoping they didn’t just get thrown out), the party retired to a nearby sitting room, where drinks were served. As soon as they were poured, Belfamor dismissed the servants, leaving him alone with the three Imperial Fleet officers. Shala, Neska was surprised to note, was also missing from the room.

Belfamor stood up and paced slowly around the room. He looked relaxed, but Neska noticed a tightness to his eyes, as if he was stressed about something and desperately trying to hide it. Neska also noticed that her aunt was watching him shrewdly, as if she knew he was going to ask her for something and didn’t want to give it to him.

“Kryla, we’ve had a good relationship over the years, haven’t we?” Belfamor asked suddenly.

“For the most part,” Kryla replied carefully, still eyeing Belfamor shrewdly.

“What if I asked you to do something that would shake the very foundations of the Empire?” Belfamor said, in a neutral tone that belied the content of his words.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 7

Kryla Zomulin frowned slightly as Decimator dropped out of subspace and moved into orbit around Medradi. She had been the captain of this cruiser for many years, and she knew it better than the back of her hand. A ship always shook slightly as it transitioned to or from subspace, but that shudder seemed more…pronounced, somehow. She looked over at her XO, Commander Hosken Venrel, but he didn’t seem to have noticed anything. Her frown deepened, and she made a decision.

“Engineering!” she barked.

“Yes, Admiral?” came the voice of Decimator’s chief engineer, Lieutenant Commander Herezel Motain, over the ship’s intercom.

“I need you to run a level 2 diagnostic on the subspace interlink coils,” she said. “Make sure you check for elevated levels of infazain.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” responded Commander Motain briskly. Zomulin looked over at Venrel, who was staring at her with a bemused expression on his face.

“Interlink coils?” he asked. “What do you know that I don’t know?”

“Possibly nothing,” she said with a thoughtful frown, “but I know this ship better than anybody, and something didn’t feel right about that last drop. It could be that the interlink coils are out of phase.”

“If you can tell that just from the motion of the ship, I will be even more impressed with you than I am now,” Venrel said, his eyes widening slightly.

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Commander,” Zomulin said, rolling her eyes. “You’re still coming with me to meet with Lord Hemetal.” Venrel sighed theatrically and then grinned.

“At least the food oughta be good,” he said.

“Considering House Hemetal has more money than the rest of the Empire combined, yeah I think you’re right about that,” Zomulin said with a snort. “If Belfamor Hemetal can’t afford a good chef, then no one can.”

“Man, do you ever think about what it would be like to be a noble?” Venrel asked wistfully.

“Nah,” Zomulin replied dismissively. “Too much responsibility.”

“Says the most decorated starship captain in the Empire,” Venrel said, rolling his eyes.

“Yeah, but this is different,” Zomulin said. “If I was a noble, I’d spend all my time behind a desk, sending out orders to people hundreds of light years away. It’d be so hard to tell if those orders were actually carried out or not. On the bridge of a starship, everything’s so much more immediate. I give an order, and I know right away whether it’s been carried out or not. Nobles think they have so much power, but put me on the bridge of a starship anyday. This,” she said, slapping the arm of her chair, “is real power.”

“You said it, Admiral,” Venrel replied with a grin.

“Incoming message from Lord Hemetal,” interjected the communications officer.

“Put it onscreen,” replied Zomulin. A moment later, Belfamor Hemetal’s face appeared on the screen. “Lord Hemetal, good to see you again.”

“And you, Admiral Zomulin,” he replied. “Thank you for responding to my message on such short notice. I know that the commander of the 7th Fleet must be very busy.”

“Not too busy to make time for an old friend,” Zomulin said with a slight smile.

“Good to hear,” Hemetal said, returning her smile. “My staff is putting the finishing touches on the preparations for tonight. Everything should be ready by 1900 hours.”

“Excellent,” Zomulin said. “If it’s not too much trouble, I would like to have my XO and one of my aides attend me tonight.”

“Not at all,” Hemetal replied. “I would be pleased to entertain them as well.”

“Very good,” Zomulin said. “I will you see you at 1900 hours then.”

“Indeed,” Hemetal said, and then his face disappeared and was replaced by a view of the reddish-blue orb of Medradi.

“1900 hours,” Zomulin mused. “Well, that gives you at least four hours to freshen up. That oughta be almost enough time.”

“You wound me, my captain!” Venrel said, clutching his chest and putting an expression of mock pain. “I am the cleanest, most stylish man on this ship!”

“Sadly, you might be right about that,” Zomulin replied, lifting an eyebrow and frowning, although there was a twinkle in her eye that told Venrel she wasn’t being entirely serious. “Well, impressing a lord is a much different game than impressing a group of ensigns fresh out of the Academy. I expect you to approach this challenge with the same level of enthusiasm and mental fortitude as you have every other challenge you’ve faced under my command.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” Venrel said, standing up and saluting with a wink. “Right away, sir!” Giving Zomulin a rakish grin, he turned and strutted out of the bridge. Zomulin watched him leave with a rueful grin on her face, and then shook her head.

“That man is something else,” she said softly, but not so soft that the rest of the bridge crew couldn’t hear it.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?” asked the navigation officer, Lt. Commander Edgrain Sahrinae.

“I know what you’re going to say, Commander, so you might as well get it out,” Zomulin said wryly.

“You really should marry him, sir,” Sahrinae said with a grin, her green eyes twinkling.

“I should, shouldn’t I?” Zomulin mused, stroking her chin. “Ah well, who knows? It could happen. In any case, Commander Venrel isn’t the only one who needs four hours to get ready for a fancy dinner. Commander Sahrinae, you have the bridge.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” Sahrinae said, taking the command chair that Zomulin had just vacated.

“Oh, before I forget, tell Ensign Dradital to meet me in my quarters as soon as possible,” she said just before she reached the bridge’s exit.

“Right away, sir,” Sahrinae said with a nod.

A small, satisfied smile played around the corners of Kryla Zomulin’s mouth as she strode through the corridors on the way to her quarters. It was time for her niece to get a lesson on some of the subtler points of being a great captain. There was nothing better for getting what you wanted than having a friend with power, wealth and influence.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 6

She had been the commanding officer of Heart of the Galaxy for almost three years now, but walking onto the bridge still made Chieria Peltoren’s heart swell with pride every time. Heart of the Galaxy was the largest, fastest, most powerful ship in the galaxy, and the bridge reflected its greatness in every sweeping line and graceful curve. There was still a twinge of sadness in her thoughts whenever she remembered that the country she now served was not the country that had built this magnificent ship, but that was a small detail. The country she served now had treated her better in the past two years than her previous masters ever had.

“Status report!” she barked as she sat down in the command chair.

“All boards are green, Admiral,” announced her XO, Captain Ernain Lomor. Lomor was average height and rail-thin, with a shock of bright blond hair and striking green eyes. He’d been Peltoren’s XO for several years now, turning down at least two offers to command his own ship in order to stay with her.

“That’s what I like to hear,” Peltoren said with a grin. “Set a course for Hadramoris.”

“Yes, sir!” said the navigation officer. A few minutes later, the huge ship shuddered slightly and the view on the main display changed from the inky black void of space into the swirling kaleidoscope of colors that was subspace. Peltoren’s grin grew broader as she gazed at that mesmerizing sight. Heart of the Galaxy was on its way to the capital to take part in a very special ceremony. Ever since Heart of the Galaxy and its crew had defected to the Republic two years ago, Hadramoris’s best engineers and technicians had been hard at work reverse-engineering Galaxy and its systems in order to copy it. Today was the first fruits of that work: the test flight of the Republic’s own Starfortress, Iron Dragonfly.

It made Peltoren prouder than she could say that her ship and her crew had been invited to take part in this momentous occasion. With two Starfortresses, the Hadramoran Navy would be more than a match for any other fleet in the galaxy, and it wouldn’t have been possible without her crew. Defecting from one country to another had been a difficult decision, but it had been the right decision, and it pleased Peltoren immensely that her people had been willing to follow her this far, and that they could have made such a massive contribution to their new homeworld.

After about twenty minutes, there was a slight shudder, and the view on the display changed from swirling colors back into mostly black, although there was a large blue and green planet surrounded by starships in the middle of the screen. Hadramoris, the capital of the Republic. It had only been Admiral Peltoren’s home for two years, but she already felt more affection for it than she had for her old home, Numoris, the capital of Fangalin.

“We’re receiving a message from the President’s transport ship, Admiral,” said the communications officer.

“Put it through,” Peltoren said. A moment later, the face of the President of the Republic, Badadum Trilis, appeared on the screen. He was in his mid-50s, with short, dark hair that was just starting to go gray, a square jaw, and a winning smile.

“Admiral!” Trilis said, “How good to see you again! You got here just in time for the big show!”

“Happy to be here, Mr. President,” Peltoren replied, inclining her head slightly.

“Of course you are,” Trilis said with one of his famous smiles. “If it wasn’t for you, none of this would be possible.”

“To be fair, Mr. President,” Peltoren said, “I do believe that Admiral Lodimeur deserves more of the credit than I do.”

“You’re so modest, Admiral,” Trilis said, grinning. “Admiral Lodimeur’s defection was a momentous occasion for the Republic, but we wouldn’t be on the verge of launching our own Starfortress if you and your crew hadn’t come with her.”

“Fair enough, Mr. President,” Peltoren said with a slight smile.

“I knew you’d see it my way,” Trilis said with a wink. “Alright, Captain Fonzen and his crew are ready to go, so now that you’re here, we can get started.”

“Glad to hear it, Mr. President,” Peltoren replied, her smile broadening. Trilis gave Peltoren another roguish wink, and then his face disappeared from the viewscreen, replaced by the view of Hadramoris.

“What’s the status of Iron Dragonfly?” Peltoren asked her sensor officer.

“She’s spinning up her Nexus engines, sir,” the sensor officer replied. “Should be ready to drop in about five minutes.”

“Keep an eye on veritol output,” Peltoren warned. “I want to be able to start getting people out of there ASAP if anything goes wrong.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” the sensor officer said.

The next five minutes zoomed by slowly. Peltoren was about as excited and anxious as she’d ever been. If Iron Dragonfly successfully dropped into subspace, it would be a massive triumph for the Republic, and a huge step toward having a second battle-ready Starfortress, AND being able to mass produce them. If this test failed, well, one Starfortress was still more than any other fleet had.

Iron Dragonfly is initiating drop!” announced the sensor officer suddenly.

“Come on,” Peltoren muttered under her breath as the massive ship disappeared from Galaxy’s sensors. She held her breath for what seemed like an eternity, although Dragonfly was only traveling to the edge of the Hadramoran system, a journey of a few seconds in subspace.

“We’re picking up Iron Dragonfly’s signal!” the sensor officer practically squealed in delight. “Right where they’re supposed to be!” The cheers that broke out on Galaxy’s bridge were almost deafening, and nobody was yelling louder than Admiral Chieria Peltoren.

“Yes!” she yelled, standing up and thrusting a fist into the air. “We did it!” She grabbed Captain Lomor and gave him a big hug, leaving him looking slightly dazed as she released him. Giving him a mischievous grin, she turned to the communications officer. “Send a message to Captain Fonzen and his crew. Tell them… Welcome to the club.”

To be continued…