The Darkest Heart, Part 19

There was a long, cold silence in the room after that statement, as Admiral Zomulin and Emperor Valador just stared at each other. Meanwhile, Commander Venrel was fidgeting and looking around the room, as if he was desperately looking for an escape and knew that there wasn’t one to be found. Finally, Valador broke the silence.

“I should throw you out the airlock for your impertinence,” he said in a harsh voice. Zomulin just looked back at him impassively. He stared coldly at her for a moment more, and then finally he sighed and looked away. “But you’re right. Maybe I am being a foolish old man. So I will explain my reasoning for wanting to come, and I will leave the decision in your capable hands.” He looked at her again with a wry grin, but she just looked back at him, her facial expression unchanged. The Emperor’s grin faded slowly, and then he sighed again.

“Okay, here it is,” he said, “this mission might be the most vital mission the Empire has carried out in the past twenty years. Certainly it’s the most important mission of my career. If it fails, it could spell the end of the Empire, whether or not I survive. I want…no, I need to be here, to see this through. If we win today, we will be on a solid footing to recover our strength and weather the storm. If we lose, it won’t matter if I’m alive.”

“And what if we win, but you still die?” Zomulin asked grimly.

“Then whoever takes my place will be in a strong position to build on my legacy,” Valador replied with a smirk. Zomulin stared at him for a moment, a searching look in her eyes, and then she sighed heavily.

“I don’t know,” she said wearily. “It just seems so risky.”

“Please, Kryla,” Valador said in a pleading voice. “I need this.” Zomulin was so startled at his words and his tone that she just stared at him, wide-eyed, for a long time, and then, finally, she nodded her head. Valador exhaled slowly, and then grinned. “You know, there aren’t many people who could get away with what you’ve just done,” he said.

“To be honest, I thought you really would throw me out an airlock for a second,” Zomulin replied, the surprise slowly fading from her face. “I still think this is a terrible idea.”

“Maybe it is,” Valador said with a harsh laugh, “but I’m doing it anyway. And may the One have mercy on our souls.”

***

“Admiral on the bridge!” announced Commander Sahrinae loudly, standing up and moving out of the way as Zomulin and Venrel strode back onto Decimator‘s bridge.

“Man your station, Commander,” Zomulin replied, settling herself in the command chair that her navigation officer had just vacated. “Comm, send a message to all ships. Prepare to drop on my command.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” replied Lt. Otur. For a few minutes, everyone sat in silence, waiting, and then Otur turned to Zomulin. “All ships reporting in, sir. The fleet is ready to drop.”

“Send the signal to drop, Lieutenant,” Zomulin ordered. Otur nodded, and a few seconds later, Decimator shuddered slightly, and the view on the main screen shifted from black studded with stars to a kaleidoscopic swirl of every color imaginable. “Let’s do this,” Zomulin said in a soft voice, staring intently at the view of subspace outside her ship.

***

Deep in the bowels of Decimator, Ensign Neskatrai Dradital was sitting at her station in engineering, monitoring the energy output of the cruiser’s Nexus drive. It was an important job that took most of her concentration, which was good, because the small corner of her brain that was not engaged was utterly terrified. Despite having the best training the Empire could offer, there was no substitute for actual combat experience, and that was something that Neska was about to experience for the first time in her life. She kept stealing glances at the other people working in the ship’s vast engine room, and none of them seemed nervous at all. She wondered how they did it. Actually fighting in a battle was the most terrifying thing she could imagine.

Which was ironic, because she’d wanted to join the Imperial Fleet ever since she was a little girl. She was young enough that she couldn’t remember a time before the war started, so the idea of joining the military and doing her part to defend the Empire seemed natural. Plus, she’d grown up idolizing her aunt, one of the youngest starship captains in the Imperial Fleet, so it was almost a foregone conclusion that she would someday join up herself.

Her mother, Lucila, hadn’t wanted her to join the Fleet. Lucila and Kryla were sisters, and while they got along well, they were very different in temperament. Kryla was bold and confident, whereas her sister was quiet, reserved, even meek. And if Neska was going to be honest with herself, she was more like her mother than her aunt. Maybe even a lot more. But she wanted to be like her aunt. She wanted to be able to stand on the bridge of a starship while everything was falling apart around her and hold it together by the sheer force of willpower. She just didn’t know if she was ever going to be able to pull it off.

So here she was, sitting at a console in the engine room of a massive cruiser, so nervous she felt like she was probably going to pee her pants. She wondered how her aunt had felt on the eve of her first battle. She realized that she’d never asked her that before. The idea of her aunt being nervous was…difficult to imagine.

“Ensign,” said a male voice behind her suddenly. She jumped, and then blushed and turned to see who it was. The red on her cheeks deepened when she realized it was Lt. Commander Allavade Moskoren, the chief engineer on Decimator. “How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m…I’m just fine,” Neska stammered.

“No you’re not,” Moskoren said with a knowing smile. “We’ve all been there. It’s okay. You’ll get through this. Trust me.”

“I…um…yes, sir,” Neska replied. Moskoren nodded, and moved on to the next station, while Neska turned back to her work. Oddly, she did feel a little bit better.

To be continued…

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