Highly polished dress boots carried him down the shining white halls of the Imperium Naval Headquarters on Cafizin. Pictures and murals of deeds great and past lined the walls between doorways, offering him a glimpse of the Navy’s pride. There was a storied history kept here, one which continued to grow as the Imperium expanded. Here were images from the first battle of Tenuid, where the Imperium managed to salvage victory at the final moment. Opposite was a large painting of the Vengeance leaving dry dock, the pride of the destroyer fleets. Metallic silver and armed with seventy heavy ion cannons, she could well prove to be the hammer the Imperium needed to break the Xempsarillian fleets. The further he walked the more those images on the walls turned into past admirals and brilliant combat strategists in their finest dress uniforms.
Lesser ranking officers and enlisted stepped aside for him; some from fear, others respect. He was all but a legend to many. Untouchable and never seen. Yet it was his genius that kept them winning battles. Like him or not, all could agree that there was no one closer to a god than the Grand Marshal.
Grand Marshal Vitor strode through the halls with an impassive look. The Navy’s pride was the last thing on his mind. He was the highest ranking military official in the Imperium and the very mention of his name sparked assassination attempts. Vitor took it as a form of flattery. There wasn’t a known enemy in the galaxy who hadn’t been bested by his plans. Wanting him dead was a great honor. Regardless, Vitor wasn’t overly concerned about death. Too many had just paid the price for a blunder that should have been avoidable and he was here to find out why.
He’d been on his way to meet with General Paedian Gulluette, chief of insurgent divisions, when a secret communication came in from Cafizin. His staff had been briefed on situations like this and they normally would have sat on the intel while trying to determine if it was a threat to the Grand Marshal. Vitor’s insistence forced them to turn it over and he was on the next transport out.
Walking down the halls left him with many thoughts, almost too many to sort out. Joneth Pierce’s name kept circling in his head. He’d met the man on a few occasions but couldn’t put a face to the name or deeds. Pierce’s reputation was pristine, rivaling that of his own twenty years ago. His loss weighed heavily on Vitor’s mind, for he still had trouble figuring out why the 76th had been sent to Telgeise III in the first place.
The desert world was of no tactical importance to current or future military plans and was light years away from the nearest front. Sleep didn’t ease the problem. He’d lost one of his best assault divisions for nothing. One he’d been planning to use to counter the next Xemp offensive. Now Imperium intelligence was scrambling to keep news of the defeat, the slaughter, under wraps until another unit was built up for the campaign. The more Vitor thought of it the more he was convinced Gulluette had a major role to play in this mess.
Paedian was an underachiever yet most capable of making clandestine deals without the proper authorities catching wind. He was after something on Telgeise, Vitor just wasn’t sure what. No actions could be taken against the man until there was proof linking him to the disaster. If Vitor got his way Gulluette would be tried and executed for treason.
Vitor summed up the young captain facing him and returned the salute. Judging by the way he wore his uniform, the man had never seen battle. Vitor had a knack of smelling combat experience in a man.
“Ah sir, we weren’t informed of your visit,” the captain covered.
“Save it,” Vitor said. “This is an unofficial inspection that is not to appear in any records. I was never here.”
“Yes, Grand Marshal.”
Vitor nodded. “Good. Now take me to Admiral Ibroo.”
The staff exchanged curious looks while watching Vitor storm away down the hall. His presence wasn’t considered healthy among the military community. Wherever he went, trouble followed. Whispers of a new war began circulating.
Ibroo’s door hissed open without his consent and Vitor strode in. The Admiral went to attention, doing a convincible job of hiding his shock. Inside his body was in turmoil. There could be no doubt why the Grand Marshal was here.
“Don’t fault your man, Biyo. I forced him to do my bidding,” Vitor smiled.
“Of course, Grand Marshal,” Ibroo nodded. He turned to his aide with a sour look. “You are dismissed, Captain.”
The door hissed shut, leaving the pair staring at each other. One wanted to know why he was summoned light years out his way while the other struggled with what to say. A deep breath later, Ibroo started.
“I must apologize for causing your detour, but I learned you were meeting with General Gulluette this week.”
“I still intend to. Cut to the chase, Biyo. We’ve known each other too long to play games. What’s so important you had to see me in private like this?”
Still reluctant for his own sake, Ibroo said, “A great deal has been done to the Imperium and I’m afraid I had a hand in it.”
Vitor’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. He’d been expecting to find Gulluette’s fingerprints rooted at the bottom of the Telgeise debacle, not one of the top admirals in the fleet. Ibroo’s involvement led him to question just how many high level commanders were conspiring against him.
“Go on, Admiral, and make sure not to leave anything out.” Vitor’s voice was cold as winter’s heart. He leaned closer to catch every word Ibroo said.
A dozen armed guards wearing the crest of the Grand Marshal marched down the pristine white halls with impunity. Their uniforms and body armor were navy blue, sharply offset by highly polished black boots and gloves. Each wore his helmet with the visor down to deflect any potential pieces of shrapnel. They were answerable only to the Grand Marshal and here on personal business.
Techs and orderlies in the standard military grey uniform hurried to get out of their way. Rumors would come later, as they always did. For now, the mere presence of Vitor’s personal guard was enough to inspire total silence.
No one noticed the smallish officer striding at the head of the squad. He was dressed in a rich black uniform, as spotless and perfect as any in the command building. His face was grave, emotionless. This was a duty. He along had the voice to speak for the Grand Marshal.
A grizzled, old sergeant slowly rose from his desk to block their path. “Can I help you, sir?”
“We have been sent by Grand Marshal Vitor to see General Seolig,” he answered in a humorless voice. His left hand was already on his sidearm.
Eyes flicking back and forth, the sergeant swallowed hard. “May I ask what this is about?”
“You may not. Open the door, sergeant. Now.”
His last words came out slow, menacing. A threat had been issued. The sergeant, for his part, didn’t hesitate to obey. Guards shoved him into a nearby corner with the ion rifles and held him in place. The rest streamed into the general’s office.
Durm Seolig looked up from his stack of daily reports, somewhat astonished to see a full squad of armed guards bursting into his office. He hadn’t been expecting them so soon. Vitor was moving faster than anticipated. Seolig set the reports down and waited while the guards formed a semi circle around his desk, training their rifles on his chest.
“What’s the meaning of this?” he asked politely.
“You know why we are here, General,” the Captain said. “You are being arrested on charges of conspiracy against the greater Imperium and a willingness to commit harm to Imperium soldiers. Stand slowly and keep your hands where I can see them. Make this as harmless as possible. For your sake.”
Seolig was an old, proud man. He’d joined the service right before the pup of an officer with the audacity to order him about was born. He’d given all for the Imperium. And this was to be his final reward.
“I think not, Captain,” he said. Inside, his nerves threatening to tear gaps in his flesh. “What I did was for the good of the Imperium and all those who live under out blanket of protection. I have no regrets about the past, only that we did not succeed. Do you want to explain to your children why they can’t live with the same liberties we enjoyed in our youth, Captain?”
“I don’t have children, General.”
“I thought not. Vitor never liked hiring family men. Easier for me, I suppose.”
The General dropped his hand down to draw his blaster. Echoes from ten ion rifles rattled down the long halls of Seolig’s headquarters. The Captain cursed silently as he walked over to the body and checked for a pulse. His hand grasped Seolig’s wrist, though he knew the man was beyond dead. His guards rarely failed to hit their mark. Warm blood was splattered against the bookcases and curtains, painting obscure patterns on the walls and windows. A look of bland disgust on his face, the Captain tossed Seolig’s wrist down in disgust and paused to wipe the blood from his own.
“Police up the body. Grand Marshal Vitor will want to see it personally.”
“What about the blood?” a guard asked.
The Captain took a final look around the office. “Leave it. I think it’s going to be a long while before the next man who uses it decides to betray the Imperium.”
Grand Marshal Vitor looked up from his morning coffee and his own reports. The latest in a never ending series from across the galaxy. That’s all his life was these days. The fighting was done by troops half his age on worlds he seldom heard of. There were times when all Vitor wanted was to grab a rifle and ruck up for a combat patrol. Wants seldom agreed with needs however.
A slender female in dress uniform eased into the office, reminding him of his accelerated age, and halted precisely two paces from his desk. Her sleeve swished as she saluted.
“Are such formalities necessary, Major Sholth?” he asked, returning her salute. “One a day would do nicely. All of this saluting wears my arm out.”
Sholth dropped her arm and returned his smile. “Protocol is always necessary, sir.”
“You never fail me, do you?”
“I try not to,” she replied.
Sholth was young enough to be his daughter. Perhaps that’s why he decided to keep her on staff. The father in him took a liking to her the moment they met. He liked to believe they’d become friends, of sorts, over the course of their service together.
“I trust this is important. You seem to bring me more of these damned papers than I can remember. I would hate to be pulled away for no reason,” he said.
“Captain Uyut’s report just came in, sir.”
Her face turned stony, rigid. Enough for Vitor to guess, but he still needed to hear it aloud.
“As we feared, sir. The General did not allow them to take him alive. His body is being transported back to Forlus as we speak.”
The mention of the Imperium morgue world send chills through the air. Vitor had had the unfortunate duty of visiting on too many occasions. Each time he vowed it to be his last.
“I don’t think I would either, Sholth.”
Vitor tried to smile. “Seolig died in the service of what he believed in the most. We should all be so fortunate. I’m not sure I could stand living in a cell for the rest of my days. I want Durm Seolig buried with full military honors. Keep the ceremony private. Relatives only. The man deserves a decent funeral after an honorable death.”
“I’ll see that everything is arranged, sir,” Sholth said.
“That’s all for now, Major,” he added. “Oh, make sure the guards are well rested. We have one more mission to undertake before this deplorable task is finished.”
Vitor leaned back as fast as the chair would let him the moment the door hissed closed behind her. Durm Seolig had been a good man. Power and corruption led him down dark paths and he wound up paying the ultimate price for that ignorance. But he wasn’t the one responsible. Durm was proud and arrogant, but the further thing from being a traitor. Paedian Gulluette was to blame.
His maniacal quest to overthrow the ruling power in the Imperium by secretly abducting an army of genetically created monsters for personal reasons led too many good people astray. Thousands had paid the price in blood. He, and he alone, was responsible for all that was happening. An entire division lost. Seolig. Biyo Ibroo. Several other lower ranking generals and admirals. Vitor vowed Gulluette’s fate would be worse than any of his fellow conspirators.
Just to ensure there were no foul ups, Vitor was personally going to lead the mission. Justice would be served.