The Darkest Heart, Part 18

“Give me a status update, Commander,” Kryla Zomulin said as she strode onto Decimator‘s bridge.

“All ships are reporting in, Admiral,” Hosken Venrel replied. “All captains are ready to go on your mark.”

“Excellent,” Zomulin said, settling into the command chair. “As soon as we get the final word from the Emperor, we’ll be ready to depart.”

“Admiral!” called the communications officer, Lt. Halamai Otur. “We’re receiving a transmission from Trisitania!”

“That’s our ticket,” Zomulin replied, a wolfish grin spreading across her face. “Put it onscreen.” Immediately the Emperor’s face appeared on the huge viewscreen at the front of the bridge. “Your Majesty!” Zomulin said. “Is the mission ready to go?”

“Not quite, Admiral,” Valador replied. “I have a last minute change of plans.”

“Oh?” Zomulin said, carefully keeping her face still. “What sort of change?”

“I don’t want to tell you over a long-distance channel. I’m coming to the Rock to brief you in person.”

There was a slight pause, and the Zomulin said, “Understood, Your Majesty. We will await your arrival.”

“Very good, Admiral,” Valador said with a slight nod and a sardonic smile. “I will arrive in about three hours.”

Zomulin leaned back in her chair as the viewscreen went blank, a small frown on her face. “What do you suppose that was all about?” asked Commander Venrel.

“I don’t know, and I don’t like it,” Zomulin replied thoughtfully. “The Emperor gave me command of this mission. If he’s changing things up now, that can’t be a good sign.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Venrel said. “When has messing up a perfectly good battle plan at the last second for no reason ever backfired?”

Zomulin looked at him with a smirk, and just shook her head. “It’s a good thing I like you, Commander,” she said. “Not too many XOs could say something like that about the Emperor and keep their commissions.”

“Ah, Valador’s alright,” Venrel said, grinning. “He was a military man. He knows how this game is played.”

“You’re right, he does,” Zomulin said, her grin fading. “So why is he doing this?” She was silent for a moment, thinking, and then she shook her head. “Well, we’ll find out soon enough. Inform the fleet that our departure will be delayed. Have everybody run down their pre-drop checklists again. That’ll keep everyone busy until the Emperor arrives.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Venrel said, as Zomulin stood up.

“I’ll be in my office,” she said. “Inform me immediately as soon as the Emperor arrives.”

The next three hours passed both quickly and slowly. A few times Zomulin looked at the clock, sure that an hour had passed, only to find that it had been just five minutes. And then she got lost in her work, glanced at the clock after what seemed like only a few minutes, and was shocked to discover that it had been over an hour. Indeed, she was convinced there was still an hour left to go when her communicator beeped.

“Admiral!” said Commander Venrel’s voice. “The Emperor’s transport has just dropped out of subspace and is headed for docking bay 3!”

“I’m on my way,” Zomulin replied, standing up. “Meet me there, and tell Commander Sahrinae that she has the bridge.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Venrel said. A few minutes later, he fell in next to her as she was striding down the corridor leading to the docking bays.

“Here we go,” Zomulin muttered under her breath as the door to docking bay 3 slid open. The Emperor was just disembarking from his shuttle, surrounded by his usual retinue of advisors. “Your Majesty!” Zomulin exclaimed. “Welcome to Decimator! It is such an honor to have you on board.”

“I’m sure it is,” Valador replied with a smirk. “I won’t take up much of your time, Admiral. I’m sure you and your fleet are anxious to get started with your mission. Do you have somewhere we can talk in private?”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Zomulin said with a bow. “Right this way.” Zomulin and Venrel escorted the Emperor, minus his retinue, up to the top deck, where there was a large conference room that was secured against all known forms of eavesdropping. Once they were there, Valador sat at the head of the large conference table, and gestured for Zomulin to sit next to him. Venrel sat on Zomulin’s other side. No one else was in the room.

“I’ll be brief, Admiral,” Valador said. “I know you’re worried that I’m going to do something stupid and screw up your whole battle plan, so rest assured that’s not going to happen. The only change I’m making, is that I’m coming along.”

There was a brief pause, while Zomulin just stared at Valador, and then she shook her head. “No,” she said.

“No?” Valador repeated in a soft, dangerous voice. “I’m sorry, I must have misheard you. Did you just say ‘no’ to the Emperor?”

“Yes I did,” Zomulin replied, “and you can execute me or imprison me or whatever you want, but I’m not going to take it back. It’s ridiculous. What possible purpose can be served by you coming with us? Do you want to die? Do you realize how much chaos would result at this point if you died right now? The Senate has yet to meet for the first time since the Breaking. Do you really want their first session to be picking your successor? Especially when two men who despise each other are poised to go head-to-head in that fight?”

“I’m well aware of the political situation, Admiral,” Valador said wryly. “Probably even more so than you. Rest assured, this is not a decision I make lightly.”

“Then prove it,” Zomulin shot back, folding her arms across her chest and fixing the Emperor with her most determined stare. “Convince me that I should let you come on this mission.”

“I’m not accustomed to being the one who does the convincing, Admiral,” Valador said, the dangerous tone back in his voice.

“Then toss me in the brig,” Zomulin replied coolly. “Or throw me out an airlock. Because I will not give the order to commence this operation with you on board, unless you give me a good reason why you should be.”

To be continued…

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