The Darkest Heart, Part 22

Ensign Neskatrai Dradital wasn’t nervous anymore. In fact, she was too busy to be nervous. If she’d been able to think at all, she probably would have realized that she was terrified, but as it was, she was far too busy trying to keep the ship running while it fell apart around her to have any time to think at all.

“Shift auxiliary power to the number five coupling!” yelled her immediate superior, and she did it, without thinking. She was one with her console. There was no one in the universe but her, her console, and the voice yelling in her ear, telling her what to do.

So it came as a complete surprise to her when her aunt’s voice came across the ship’s communicator, ordering all hands to abandon ship.

“You heard the Admiral!” yelled Commander Moskoren immediately. “Non-essential personnel, get to your assigned escape pods, now! Senior staff, wait for my order. Let’s keep this tub afloat long enough for everyone to get off!”

Neska was too stunned to move for a moment, then a hand grabbed her by the collar and pulled her out of her seat.

“Are you deaf, Ensign?” screamed her superior officer, Lt. Hatalmor Longavei. “Get moving, now!” Lt. Longavei practically threw her toward the exit, and Neska just barely caught herself before she sprawled face-first on the deck. As soon as she regained her balance, she was running, along with a few dozen junior officers, headed for the escape pods nearest to engineering.

A few times on the way, the ship rocked so hard that Neska and a few others were thrown to the deck, but she immediately picked herself up and kept running. She was on autopilot now. Her training had taken over completely, and she wasn’t even thinking about what she was doing. Which was good, because if she’d stopped to think, she’d probably have been too paralyzed by terror to take another step.

Before she knew it, she was in her escape pod, and it was launching out into space. Looking through the small viewport in the pod’s side, she was able to get her first look at the state of the battle. Deep in the bowels of the cruiser, she hadn’t had any idea what was going on, until the call came to abandon ship. That alone told her that things were going badly, but now she could see for herself just how badly. The Imperial Fleet was badly outnumbered, and losing ground quickly. At first, she couldn’t understand what had happened, but then she saw something that made it all click into place: a second Starfortress. Suddenly, it all made sense. The Imperial Fleet had fallen into a trap. Neska felt like icy fingers were grasping her heart. She may have escaped from Decimator before it was destroyed, but her troubles were just beginning.

***

As the Imperial marines crept through the corridors of Heart of the Galaxy without encountering any resistance, Colonel Nerevor became more and more convinced that the Hadramorans had an ambush waiting for them somewhere. Either that, or there weren’t any soldiers on the ship, and the captain of the ship was unwilling to throw lives away defending her vessel, but that option seemed more like wishful thinking than anything. A man could hope, though.

After all of the narrow corridors that Nerevor and his troops had passed through, it was almost a shock to open a door and end up in a huge, open chamber. It looked like some sort of courtyard, with a second level high above that circled the entire room and had a railing all the way around. The second level was high enough and dark enough that Nerevor couldn’t make out what, if anything, was lurking up there. He was just thinking that it was a perfect place for an ambush when another door opened nearby and another squadron of his troops came out. This only deepened his suspicions, and they were confirmed when two more doors opened and the rest of his troops entered.

“Fall back!” he yelled, waving his arm in the direction they’d just come. “Find another route!” But no sooner had he said this then the doors slammed shut automatically.

“They’re sealed!” yelled a soldier who was still right next to the doors.

“Imperial soldiers!” boomed a voice that resounded throughout the vast chamber. “This is Admiral Chieria Peltoren, commander of the Republican Navy. You are trapped. In the level above you are 2000 Republican marines, all with their guns trained on you. If you fight, you will all die. If you lay down your guns and surrender unconditionally, you will live. You have two minutes to decide. After that, my troops will open fire.”

Colonel Nerevor looked around at his soldiers. They were all good men and women, highly trained, and ready to die for the Empire. They would not hesitate to fight, if he gave the order. But if he did give that order, they’d be dying for nothing. Even on the off-chance that the Hadramoran admiral was lying, whoever was up on the balcony still had a commanding field position. Even if there were less troops up there than under Nerevor’s command, they could still tear his soldiers apart. And from the way this ambush had been laid, Nerevor suspected that the Hadramorans had known full well that the Empire was coming, and had prepared accordingly. In other words, if he surrendered, the mission would be a failure, but he and all his troops would be alive. If he fought, the mission would still be a failure, and he and all his troops would be dead.

“All right!” he yelled suddenly. “I agree to your terms. We surrender unconditionally.” To emphasize his words, he laid his assault rifle on the ground, pulled his sidearm out of its holster, put it down next to the rifle, and held his hands up in the air. He nodded to the troops nearest him, encouraging them to do the same, and one by one, all 400 Imperial soldiers laid down their arms and held their hands up in the air.

To be continued…

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