We make our way along the boardwalk of the fortress. The wrath of the sea drenches us as it churns and rages, spitting froth at us from far below. Looking down, I see a sheer drop hundreds of meters into a swirling mess below me. Jagged rocks jut from the reinforced barrier, threatening to carve me up before I even hit the waves if I fall.
I still don’t have a plan.
Each second changed the parameters. My lack of information is paralysing. Without details, specifics on enemy numbers and locations, I can’t form any plan. I cannot decide what to do and just hope for things to go well.
This is what Kaldratos was good at, thinking quickly. Making snappy decisions and damning the consequences. I don’t have that luxury. If I screw up, everyone dies, and everything I’ve worked for dies with us.
“Hannibal,” Monika walks up beside me, a confused look on her face. Her eyes hold a daunting fear in her, only matched by the wildfire of anger. “We need to talk.” Her eyes lock with the mask. “Eleusis,” she whispers.
I falter, nearly stumbling against the edge, but she grabs me and pulls me back.
She said it
My real name.
I cannot speak. It’s like I’ve been shot through the head. My mind goes blank. Everything slows for a moment as the gravity of her knowing who I am weighs down on me like a planet.
“Go on ahead,” I command my guard. “Clear the path ahead, and prepare to breach the hangar., I must speak with Commandant Monika alone.” A few of them look confused at my order to leave us alone, but they carry on all the same, obeying without question.
When they are out of earshot, I turn to her, to see a pistol levelled at my chest.
“All this time, you’ve been using us!” She spits the words at me. Her anger takes me by surprise, I step back as if I’ve been punched.
“Using you?” I’ve been trying to save you all.” I move around her, circling like a shark. I smirk beneath the mask, and I tap the side. It retracts to the sides, revealing my face.
I feel the sting of the cold sea air, smell the salt and the eternal displeasure of the sea. I breathe, letting the air, the true air, fill my lungs. When I exhale, I feel at peace.
“How did you know?” I question. My voice sounds different now, darker. But it still sounds like me. I hold on to that feeling, knowing that soon I’ll have to take up this mask again, and my voice will change again. Everything will change again.
“The pulseblade for one, I’ve seen it before. I wasn’t supposed to, but I did. I never asked you about it, never wanted to. And your name, Vixiua. Your grasp of strategy was second to none in our army, and your body was never recovered. I knew that you’d fled from some Imperial planet, but you never told me who you were. Now I know that you’re an Imperial sympathiser. You’re here, manipulating us, so that you can take the Universal Collective over for yourself, and destroy us.” She raises the gun to my head, her hand shaking as she declares herself.
“I have to kill you,” She says, her voice wrecked with sorrow.
“An Imperial sympathiser?” I laugh at her. “Your people stole me from my home, murdered my family and friends. It’d serve all you bastards right if I truly did intend to destroy the Universal Collective.” I flex my hand, trailing my fingers over the hilt of my pulseblade.
“But, no, Monika. I don’t intend to destroy you.” I take a step towards her, “All that this has done has expediated my rise to power. I will morph this Universe into my own vision, because that is what it must become. I will break stars, obliterate planets and conquer every last person alive, and then there will be peace.”
“Under you? An Emperor?” She snarls at me, a symbol of her hated autocracy.
“If that’s the most effective rule of government, then yes. At least for a little while.” I smile at her. “My goal is to bring equality, to bring justice to a universe so filled of violence and discarded lives.”
Now it’s her turn to mock me.
“Equality? You want equality, but under autocracy?” She lowers her gun and laughs at me. “Your vision for the future won’t work because you wish to merge two conflicting ideals. Autocracy cannot reign with equality. Either one rules, or the people rule.”
I take another step.
“You won’t live to find out,” I whisper.
Her eyes widen, and I take that final step, my blade swinging out. She raises her arm to aim and fire the gun, but she’s two slow. I slice through her upper arm, severing the limb from her body. She falls back, scrambling away and grabbing at her cauterised wound.
She looks up to shout, but my blade pierces through her chest.
There is a smoky, burning smell that comes from her body as she looks down at my blade. Blood wells from her mouth, and she spits it at me.
She tries to gurgle something, but she spits blood again.
I deactivate the blade and kneel beside her. She tries to crawl away, her blood flowing through the cage-like walkway. I look at her with all the sorrow of my heart.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her, trying to soothe her in her last moments. “You are just another casualty in this war for a better tomorrow.” I sigh as I gently lay a hand against her shoulder. She jerks as if she’s been stung and looks at me with hatred and fear. Pure terror in her eyes as she realises that she’s going to die.
“I wish you’d never found out, Monika.” I close my eyes, and activate my pulseblade again as I bring to her head.
Grabbing her decapitated head and body together, I release both over the swirl of water below. Her head cracks and bursts against a rock, but her body tumbles into the hungry waves, being devoured in an instant, never to be seen again.
I stare out at the sea for a moment, watching as it rages, watching as my enemies spit plasma from the seas. Observing as battle roars and life goes on, despite the fact that I murdered one of my closest friends, without hesitation.
And, without regret
This is the monster I must be.
I tap the side of my mask, and the encasing metal slithers back around my head. It screeches as it bolts into place again, trapping me beneath it.
I turn and start walking along the boardwalk, leaving what remained of Eleusis Vixiua behind, embracing Hannibal.
Within a few minutes, I can see the hangar in front of me. The heavy steel doors are closed, my troops have readied tools for breaching. A few of them jog to me when they notice I am arriving.
“Sir, where’s Commandant Monika?” One asks.
“Dead,” I tell him. “She wanted to kill me and take my position. So, she died. The waves have her now.”
No one answers, so I move over them.
“Breach!” I command, and their training takes over immediately.
The door screeches as it is burned through, and my guard tumbles through. I hear a few shots, shouts for people to lower their weapons on the ground. More shots. Silence.
I stalk through the crater of the wall. I keep my focus forward, refusing to look back. I will not mourn her. I will not allow that guilt to grip me. I will move forward, and I will win.
I nearly breath a sigh of relief when I see three Imperial Frames still in the hangars. Judging by the look of them, they look to be more advanced version of the Chraedus, which was the Frame that my father had shown me when I was growing up.
I walk among the corpses of the dead, and spy the key to one of the Frames, a small golden sword.
It hits me like a punch to the gut.
I killed her.
I killed her.
I killed her.
The words ring in my skull, over and over like a drum echoing off the walls.
“Are you alright, Hannibal?” A woman asks me. The soldier grips her rifle tightly, looking at me with concern. I realise that I’ve frozen in the centre of my soldiers, holding the golden sword that allows me to drive one of the Imperial’s Frames.
“Yes,” I clear my throat, “I’m fine, thank you. Two of you, grab the keys from the corpses. They’ll look like this.” I hold up the sword, “You’re escorting me out of this hellish place.”
Monika died thinking I was going to destroy everything she had fought for, all her life. That I was going to erase everything she had been taught to cherish and hold faith in.
She died thinking I was the enemy.
And how could she think anything differently? I killed her. I didn’t tell her why. I didn’t explain what I wanted to accomplish. I murdered her.
I shake my head. I will hate myself later. For now, these soldiers depend on me to save them.
I click the key, and a ladder descends from the centre Frame.
When I reach the cockpit, it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a Frame before. All of our Frames, and all the Frames I had seen when I was younger, had seats. You had a control panel, you steered with sticks.
This was something completely different.
Instead of seats and a control panel, you have a cylinder filled with gel.
I place the key into a small hole, and the cockpit comes to life. The gel glows red for a few moments, but then green.
How the hell has the war lasted this long if they’re so much more advanced than us.
The cockpit is cramped, with nothing aside from the tube of gel and wires coming from it. I don’t know how much I’m supposed to wear in the gel, so I strip off my coat and mask.
Taking a breath, a step inside.
The cpld liquid envelops my body, a cool sensation as I fall into it. It’s like a bite of cold, but quickly changes to be something more comfortable.
I’m afraid to try to breath, but there was nothing suggesting I needed a mask or any sort of aid.
I open my mouth and breath.
The gel morphs, forming around my body, encasing me in a cocoon, just centimetres from my lips. When I move my head forward, the gel retreats away from me, as if it’s scared.
I close my eyes, and breath in.
When I open my eyes, I am looking out at the hangar. I raise my hand, but it isn’t my own that moves. But a large, metal arm that greets me. When I close my fist, the Frame’s hand clenches also.
It’s perfectly in-tune with my body? My mind?
I let out an excited chuckle, and my soldiers look up at surprise.
Communications set to private? I try.
“Can you hear me now?” I ask.
Set communications to external.
“For the two of you getting into these things. It’s okay to breathe. You’ll understand.”
My analytical mind takes over. No wonder they are such an effective fighting force. With this one-to-one information relay, any combatant can be doubly effective in battle. No flipping of switches or dragging a control ring. Everything is neurological. It reads my senses, the signals that my brain is sending to my body, and amplifies them to the Frame.
I mentally push off from the ground, and my Frame rises from the floor. I twist, and it turns towards the hangar.
“Good luck getting a hang of this.” I whisper a blessing to my soldiers.
I fly from the hangar, nearly crashing into the side of it, and out into the fresh, stormy air.
We’ll have to lay low for a while, until the second attack comes. But that could take anywhere between another twenty minutes and an entire day.
I relay this back to my entourage, and we decide to wait atop the hangar, forming a defensive position, just so that we look like we’re true soldiers of the Imperium.
We get small bursts of chatter from the Frames that are within a kilometre radius of us. The Frames have in-built local communication relays, specifically designed for a situation like this. But my shutting down the communications still means that no overall strategy can be formed coherently by the Imperium’s forces.
We wait for twenty minutes. Just as I’m about to decide to try something more radical, my options are taken away from me.
A large bolt of plasma shells the ocean in front of me. I can see the moment where the water resists, and then when it bursts through anyway. I see the flurry of light as it explodes hundreds of meters down. So bright it can be seen from all the way over the surface.
It was a Devastator round, a bombardment round that is usually used to eradicate high density areas. But, when the right parameters are set, it can be used to detonate within a liquid surface, such as an ocean, at incredible velocity and wreck immense carnage.
The planet of Caeta has a small landmass, and people do live on it. But the Imperium had long ago discovered how to create under water cities, and the planet of Caeta was one such example. First there is the Oceanic Shield, which blocks the water from the city. Furthermore, there are a great many air tubes and tunnels, so that the populous can travel anywhere quickly, and without fear of the water.
But if the Oceanic Shield was to falter due a blast from some weapon of mass destruction, those tubes and tunnels and domes would be vulnerable. A stray boltor shot or piercing round and an entire city could be drowned before the lockdown process would take effect.
I am wrath incarnate.
What the hell is going on? The fear surges through me like a river. I specifically ordered for them to not bombard the planet! I wanted this to end bloodlessly!
A second round hits the ocean and travels through, exploding deep below. I can’t see the damage its caused, whether the shield has been breached, whether millions are dying all because my own fucking plan cut me off from my army.
This can’t be happening. I feel bile somewhere inside me. But then it’s gone. As if the sensation just disappeared.
“It’s beautiful.” I hear one of my soldiers comment of the short-range-communications relay.
“Beautiful?” I snarl back, “Billions are going to die!”
I hear someone scoff at my concern. “Serves them right. They oppressed us for thousands of years. This is what they get!”
“These civilians down there aren’t the fucking ones who enslaved you. Most of them live harder lives than you! You want to blame them? The very people that we claim to be freeing from the oh so oppressive and murderous Imperium? Want to talk about massacre? Discuss the one that’s happening around you, you witless cur!”
I kick off from the hangar roof. I’m not letting this happen!
If I can get into range of the ships, if I can order for the bombardment to stop, then I can force it to end. I can punish whoever disobeyed me and save those people.
I know that doing this may get me killed. I know that there is a very likely chance that my own soldiers will fire on me, thinking me an enemy who wants to be a hero. But, I have to try! I can’t just let all those people die!
I burn through the clouds, narrowly missing getting erased by one of the Devastator charges.
My guard follows me, someone hailing me over the comms, telling me to come back. I keep going.
When I breach the atmosphere, I make way immediately for the Basphenn. I threw my rifle away as I was flying, hoping that me being unarmed would provoke a less violent response.
A small burst of fire greets my hopes, and kills them by bashing their heads against the ground. Shit.
But it cuts short just as I dodge and weave. A few seconds later, I am commed by the Basphenn. I answer, and a familiar voice greets me.
“Halt Imperial Frame! This is the Basphenn’s Bridge Communicator. Who are you and why are you approaching us unarmed?” I stop my Frame, hoping that it implies I really am not a threat.
“Ashley, it’s me, Hannibal.” I answer, “Please respond! Who ordered the bombardment?”
“General Hannibal?” She sounds relieved, but also very worried. “Why the hell are you in an Imperial Frame? What happened down there?”
“There’s no time for that, Ashley! Get me communication to the whole fleet! I need to order a cease on the bombardment immediately! And who the hell even gave the order to bombard anyway? I gave express orders. They’re civilians!”
A grave voice responds to my plea. “I’m sorry, sir. You do not have the authority to give such an order.”
Excuse me? “What? I’m Commander of the entire fleet. I have more authority than anyone else here!”
“I’m truly sorry, sir.” I wait for her to explain, “Supreme Commander Ignatios Caspar arrived. He is the one who gave us the order to bombard the planet, and ordered us to not send any soldiers to try to extract you.”
I barely heard anything after Ignatios Caspar.
He’s come here.
Ignatios Caspar. The man who stole me from my home. The man who brutally murdered my father in front of me and had my brother blown apart. He has come here.
“Sir?” Ashley asks.
I will kill you for this, Caspar. Everyone you care for, everyone you love. I will kill them all. To avenge the innocent people you will kill today, to give some meaning to Monika’s death. And, for my father, and for Kaldratos. You will die.
I sit on a comfortable leather chair. I am aboard Quietus, the flagship of the Supreme Commander. I offered for him to come join me on the Basphenn, but he less-than-politely declined.
From this chair I watch a light show of death that falls on the planet below. I feel a tightness in my chest as I watch it happen, knowing that I had failed to stop it. This massacre will be on me. No one will know that Ignatios gave the order, it will be told that Hannibal butchered a planet for the sake of efficiency.
I have been waiting for twelve minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Yet it felt as if I had been kept here for a year. Unable to do anything, unable to command. Just watch.
The door opens.
“Ah, Hannibal.” Ignatios greets, “It’s a true pleasure to see you, such a hero of our nation.” Hannibal. So he isn’t alone. I know Randera told him, so that has to be it.
I turn, and find that I am right. Behind Ignatios three people enter, a woman and two men. One of the men is blonde, the other is black haired. The blonde one looks angry, while the dark haired one looks curious, intrigued by me.
“These three are my most trusted advisors, and soon to be yours!” He says cheerily. He points to the bombardment, a bright smile on his face. “Don’t you just love it? I saved you. I killed your enemies and saved you, and I’m not even taking the credit for it! This is all on you, glorious Admiral. Or are you a General? Or both? Hell, I can never remember with all these titles.”
He looks back at the three people, clapping his hands enthusiastically. “The girl here is called Nevra. She’s pretty good with her hands, very good with a pistol. But she prefers a rifle. The blonde lad is Agarov. He’ll kill you in your sleep if you piss him off.” He steps towards the black haired one, and claps him on the shoulder. “Now, he, he’s really special. This man is Tristan Draena, he’s my Military Advisor, and now yours. He’s a strategic genius, possibly as good as you. But, who can tell? I sure as hell can’t, and I’m better than you!”
I resist the urge to punch him straight in the throat.
“Supreme Commander,” I stand and bow. I look to each individually as I repeat their names and my greeting. His subordinates are not him, I cannot hate them for that.
“Agarov is the one who persuaded me to kill Magnus Vixiua even though Randera wanted him alive.” Ignatios interrupts my thoughts.
Or maybe I can hate them.
The man named Tristan rolls his eyes, obviously unimpressed by his leader. Maybe you won’t be so bad.
“What do you want, Supreme Commander? Or may I get back to my ship and oversee the rest of this ‘battle’ ?”
Ignatios lets out a smile, and sits in the chair opposite me.
“Not just yet, Hannibal.” He smiles, amused by my fake identity. “I need you to do your duty to the Universal Collective of Allied Planets and Systems.”
I tilt my head expectantly, and he elaborates.
“We received word that the tyrannical Empress of the Imperium has been placed in a medically-induced coma. We don’t know why. Maybe she’s just bored with being a little bitch and wants to sleep for a while? Anyway. This means that the administrative head for the Imperium has been incapacitated.” Her Majesty has been placed in a coma? Assassination? No, that couldn’t happen. The First Knights Royal would never allow that to happen.
I follow his train of thought. “So, now is the perfect time to eliminate the military figurehead as well, yes? Destroy the hopes of the Imperium. With the administrative head incapacitated and the military head killed, the Imperium will be in disarray as rival factions vie for supremacy and power.” Ignatios nods vigorously.
“Yes. Kill Her Majesty’s Champion, and you kill the Imperium, effectively.” I nod beneath my mask, it isn’t a poor strategy. It would work, the Champion is a hero within the Imperium, and his or her death would cause catastrophic morale loss, and public faith would plummet drastically.
“Very well. Who is the Champion?” I ask.
Ignatios Caspar waves his hand dismissively. “Nobody important, some up-jumped Lord that gained favour with the Empress when she was still just a Princess. He’s a good fighter, but not the greatest strategist, he generally leaves that to others.”
Despite my hatred of this man, I can recognise that he is not a complete fool. He tries to hide it, underneath his mirth, insults and bitter hatred of me because he knows who I am. But, he isn’t stupid. He has my respect for that.
Tristan steps forward, “I have a plan, if you’ll allow me, on how to corner and kill the Champion of Her Majesty.”
I gesture, “Well then, let us begin.”