Spiritum – Chapter One

1.

The galaxy could be such a lonely place. Quite ironic when you consider how full of life it is. So many worlds, so many teeming with all manner of life; it should be inconceivable to ever feel alone. And yet, there were some places that could be so cold and barren. In the darkest reaches of space, it was easy to feel alone, even when surrounded by those you’d come to call friends. It was a bizarre feeling, to be lonely when you’d never been alone at all. These were the thoughts that had gone through Oluss’ mind every day for the past three years.

He awoke to the same ceiling he did every morning, in the same bed he’d slept in every night for almost three years. Oluss reflected on those years. How each day seemed a mirror image of the last, how he could be surrounded by so many others and still feel lonelier than ever, and how a place as wondrous as the Sea of Spirits could possess the power to be so cold and soul-crushing. It was almost enough to keep him from moving entirely, and instead spend the whole day lying there, staring at his dull, metal ceiling. It was a common thought of his, when the day would finally come where he wouldn’t be able to drag his sorry carcass from his bed, the little motivation he had left sapped away. But of all the days that could happen, it wouldn’t be today, for today was a very important day.

Oluss sighed and got out of bed, body creaking like an old automaton that needed some oil in its joints. He headed for the bathroom. The door disappeared into the wall as he neared. He started his day like every other. First, he stood at the sink with his hands cupped beneath the running faucet before bringing them to his face in an effort to ward off the lingering drowsiness. Then he stared at his reflection in the mirror, and wondered how much more he could take. He sighed again, then stripped and stepped into the shower, the water raining upon him as soon as he entered. Oluss savoured its warm kiss, forehead rested against the wall as it ran down his neck and back. It helped him pretend he was somewhere else, anywhere but here. The water shut off and the driers took over, blasting him with cool air. In a few seconds, he was bone dry. Oluss returned to the sink and gazed into his tired eyes. The shaver glided over his cheek, the skin tingling as the morning stubble was burned away. He stared some more after he was done, absorbed by the age in his eyes.

He wasn’t an old man by any means, but the past three years had more than taken their toll. Dark circles and bags betrayed his tiredness. It’d been so long since he’d had a decent night’s sleep. The prolonged lack of natural light and fresh air had left him with the complexion of a corpse in a mortuary. Wrinkles stretched across his forehead and from the corners of his mouth. His white-blonde hair was turning a noticeable grey.

The main area of his quarters was little more than a cramped metal box. The furnishings were sparse. Just the bed (inside the wall) and desk with personal computer and chair. Oluss went to the panel on the wall opposite the bathroom, waved his hand over the scanner. It slid aside to reveal the compartment behind, Oluss’ face bathed in the blue light that poured out. His clothes were inside, held still and rigid in the light of the gravity binders. He took the nearest outfit, the material going from hard and stiff to soft and pliant as it left the light. With another wave, the compartment was hidden once more.

Oluss dressed at the centre of the room. The jacket was slightly too big. He usually didn’t pay great attention to the finer details of his appearance, preferred to get ready quick so he could get on with his duties. But on this occasion, Oluss was particularly attentive. If there was a single day he needed to look his best, this was the one.

He went to the mirror by the wardrobe. Seeing himself in uniform still provided a small amount of pride. It reminded him his job was of significance, even if it didn’t feel like it most days. The nametag at his right breast made him feel important: Pegren, Oluss Pegren, Captain in the United Confederate Navy, and commanding officer of the Assemblage Station.

Before he left his grey box, Oluss stared out of the window beside his desk. It was something of a tradition of his, to take one last look at the darkness before attending his duties. He wasn’t sure why he still did it. Sometimes it’s good to remind yourself where you are. There was nothing past the glass, save for the spattering of distant stars like specks of white paint on a black canvas, all of which were probably far more exciting places to visit. If there was a place more isolated, Oluss didn’t want to know about it.

Held in deep space by gravity binders far more powerful than the ones in his wardrobe, the Assemblage Station was the official meeting place for representatives of the Imperium Siderum Et Caeli and the United Galactic Confederacy. It was located directly in the middle of the Neutral Expanse, the strip of space separating both sides and claimed by neither. The station itself was nothing to look at, a ramshackle tube with a trapezoidal meeting chamber atop it and a series of hangers and maintenance bays at the other end. The whole thing was covered in a patchwork of mismatched metal sheets that did little to hide its shoddy construction. It had been the Confederacy’s idea. The Imperium wanted nothing to do with it, forcing the former to foot the bill and rely on cutthroats from the Free People’s Republic who pocketed their cash and did the quickest job they could before disappearing back to the lawless hell from which they came. No one complained. What did they expect working with denizens of the FPR?

As he walked the same corridors, Oluss was greeted by the faces he saw every day: technicians, officers, soldiers, custodians. They all appeared to be enjoying their time aboard the Assemblage Station, but Oluss knew the smiles disappeared once they passed. He wasn’t the only one feeling lonely. The only ones who seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves were the automata. They were always upbeat whenever he crossed paths with them, beaming with their lit-up, plastic faces. Of course, they were programmed to be that way. If the human-like robots could feel human-like emotions, they’d be as miserable as everyone else.

Oluss came to a door that split when he got near. The dark room on the other side was the command centre, illuminated by the emerald glow of the holo-computers across most of its width. At each sat a technician in a grey uniform and headset. They were all too focused to notice Oluss as he passed, fluttering their fingers over their displays, interfacing with the station’s systems. He went to the nav-screen, the big frame with the holographic display projected within, doing his best not to look weary in front of the crew as he stared up at the various blips and numbers.

“Status Report”.

“All systems normal, Captain. Nothing to report”, replied a nearby technician. Oluss remembered being that enthusiastic about his assignment to the Assemblage Station. It lasted about two months. She was new. She’d soon learn.

The numbers in the upper right-hand corner of the nav-screen only agreed: air pressure, core temperature, gravity, life support, all exactly as they should be, everything normal. Many a time, Oluss wished the numbers would show something else, something not normal. At least then something interesting might be happening. Anything to break the boredom. The last thing of significance to happen in months was the arrival of their latest shipment of Spiritum to keep the binders and core running. Practically everything in the Sea of Spirits ran on Spiritum, from the warp drives on their starships to the batteries in their communicators. The galaxy would fall apart without it.

The door opened, and in walked Lieutenant Aeda Molinda, the station’s second-in-command. Oluss did his best not to be too obvious with his ogling as she approached. The Lieutenant was a very good-looking woman; Ralenta, one of the dark-skinned humans from the continent of Eradutan.

“Captain”. Either her two years aboard the Assemblage Station had done little to dampen her optimism, or Lieutenant Molinda was a lot better at hiding it than he was.

“Lieutenant”. Oluss eyed her uniformed body from the corner of his eye.

“Did you get much sleep”?

About the same as usual”, he said, which meant barely any. He couldn’t remember the last time he got a good night’s sleep.

The Lieutenant gave him a sympathetic look before turning to the nav-screen. “Has there been any messages”?

“Not yet”.

“What do you make of all this”?

Oluss shrugged. “Not a lot. I doubt anything’ll come of it. They’ll argue with each other for a while and then it’s back to the regular program of twiddling our thumbs in the middle of deep space”.

“Are you not worried? There’s been talk on the net. They’re saying there could actually be war this time”.

“We’ve been at each other’s throats for decades and there hasn’t been a real war yet. I don’t see that changing any time soon”.

The Lieutenant didn’t look convinced. “I wish I shared your optimism, Captain”. Oluss had to smile at that. It wasn’t everyday someone told him he had optimism. If only she knew how often he wished for an all-consuming galactic war.

The quiet of the command centre was broken by a high-pitched beeping that bounced off the walls and stabbed Oluss’ ears. A big red dot had appeared near the top of the nav-screen.

“Captain, warp space opening, ninety-two miles northwest of our position”, announced the enthusiastic technician.

“Yes, I can see that”, Oluss muttered, staring at the red dot.

“Class three cruiser-type vessel on approach, Captain”, reported another technician. “Matches confederate signatures. Ship I.D., The Pricinta. Requesting permission to approach”.

“Permission granted”. Class three type vessel? A ship that size was nowhere near big enough to carry the council, not to mention their entourages. They must be coming separately. Another reason Oluss hated his job; no one told him anything.

“They’re on approach to Hangar B, Captain. ETA three minutes”.

The Lieutenant turned to him. “You best get down there and give them a warm welcome. I’ll keep an eye on things up here”.

“Thank you, Lieutenant”.

Oluss arrived at Hangar B with a pair of soldiers in their standard-issue light armour, just in time to see the craft pass through the blue energy field and come to a stop near the centre. It looked like the kind of ship a member of the Executive Council would travel in, sleek and luxurious with its glossy white hull and red trim that shimmered in the pale hangar light. It hung like a toy on a string as a set of legs emerged from the bottom before touching down. The engines fell silent and a staircase appeared from beneath the airlock. The door opened and a pair of burly, stern-looking men in dark suits stepped out, bodyguards from the look of them.

The next person to emerge needed no introduction. It was Marsa Calsen, the Chancellor of the Human Sovereignty. She was Haelqen, one of the light-skinned humans from the continent of Halaq, a very good looking one at that. In her late thirties, her milky white skin was just beginning to show signs of age. Her dark brown hair was tied up in a bun. She wore a black long-sleeved jacket with white shirt, a matching pencil skirt and thick-rimmed glasses. She radiated confidence like heat from a star as she descended the steps. Oluss couldn’t help but find her attractive. He could tell there was a great body beneath her straight-to-business exterior.

As the Chancellor made her way to the floor, the rest of her entourage stepped out of the airlock. First came a young man in a grey suit. He looked like an assistant. Then came an older man in full military dress, followed by a short, stocky man with darkened skin, wearing a creamy white suit. Oluss instantly recognized the older military man. General Mikan Stell was the highest-ranking officer of the Human Military, and one of its most beloved heroes. He wore his olive-green uniform with yellow badges on the shoulders to denote his rank, the left breast covered with decorations. Oluss detected weariness in the General’s steely eyes, as if he’d seen too much war and death, and secretly had had enough of life in the military. He didn’t know much about the short man: Vice-Chancellor Nill Langton. He was Kukinicia, one of the little humans originally from the continent of Unopghucul. He looked pretty strong despite his short stature, as was common for his people. His head looked almost like a piece of rock cut into a perfect cube: shallow jaw, big nose, and small eyes that were as green as summer leaves. He wore his hair slicked back so to shine white under the lights. The air of entitlement about him was so plain it might as well have been a luminous cloak.

Oluss and his soldiers stood to attention and raised their hands to salute the Chancellor and her people. “At ease, men”, said the General, meeting their salute with his own.

Oluss relaxed and approached the Chancellor. “Chancellor Calsen. Captain Oluss Pegren. Welcome to the Assemblage Station. It is an honour to have you aboard”.

“The honour is mine, Captain. Might I present General Mikan Stell”?

“I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting you in person, General”. It was a little daunting speaking to someone with a reputation such as his. The General’s was legendary. A hero of the Last War, tales of his bravery and brilliance had circulated through the galaxy for decades. “It is truly an honour”.

“Good to meet you, Captain. I take it we are the first to arrive”?

“Yes sir”. Oluss could hardly believe he was speaking to such an icon, careful not to trip over his words.

“Might I also introduce Vice-Chancellor Langton”? Oluss looked to the short man scowling up at him, apparently annoyed he wasn’t introduced first.

“It’s a pleasure to have you aboard, Vice-Chancellor”.

“Has there been any word from the Imperium”?

“None as of yet, Vice-Chancellor”. He’d heard the Vice-Chancellor speak many times on the news. He’d never been particularly fond of him. Meeting him in person did little to change that.

The Vice-Chancellor shook his head. “They better show. I didn’t drag myself out to this rust bucket to get stood up”. The more he spoke, the less Oluss liked Vice-Chancellor Langton. The Assemblage Station might be a rust bucket, but it was his rust bucket. 

“They’ll be here”, the Chancellor assured her colleague.

“You better be right. Take us to meeting chamber, Captain. I have no desire to stay here longer than necessary”.

“Of course, Vice-Chancellor”.

“First, might I introduce my personal assistant, Toma Avenum”? The Chancellor motioned to the young man in the grey suit. “And my bodyguards, Ravim Seva and Dexus Lokin”.

“A pleasure”. As he shook the last hand, Oluss caught the Vice-Chancellor’s eye. He looked like he’d rather be anywhere but there. Already, he couldn’t stand him. “Shall I show you to the meeting chamber now”?

“Lead the way, Captain”, said General Stell.

“Don’t worry, Captain”, The Chancellor said as they crossed the hangar. “I’m sure it won’t be long before we’re out of your hair”.

“That’s if they don’t keep us waiting very long”, the Vice-Chancellor grumbled. “Imperial dogs. Never on time”.

“I must admit, Chancellor. I was expecting the rest of the council to be here”.

“Are we not good enough for you, Captain”? Apparently the Vice-Chancellor had a habit of seeing insults where there were none to be found.

“Of course, Vice-Chancellor. I only meant-”

“Don’t worry, Captain”, the Chancellor interrupted. “I know what you meant. Suffice to say, the issue we are here to discuss particularly concerns humanity, and the others were not inclined to travel all the way here to be subjected to racist drivel from the Imperium”.

“I see. Thank you, Madam Chancellor”.

They came to the lift that would take them to the meeting chamber. It was a tight squeeze, especially with the two mountains for men at the back. Oluss stood closest to the doors. He had some questions, but wasn’t sure whether to ask given the touchy nature of the Vice-Chancellor. He decided to bite the bullet. “Our connection to the net isn’t the greatest; news of what’s going on in the galaxy can sometimes take weeks to reach us”.

“You do know why we’re here, don’t you”? the Vice-Chancellor demanded.

“I must admit, Vice-Chancellor, I’m not aware of all the details”.

“That fucking group! Freedom for All. That’s why we’re here, Captain. We’re here for those idiots”.

“I thought they were just some student protest group”.

“Initially”, the Chancellor said. “But once they realized peaceful protest gets you nowhere with the Imperium, they moved onto other tactics”.

“The fools started smuggling Non-Haelqen out of the Imperium and back to our space”, the Vice-Chancellor added. “And now they’ve gone and gotten a bunch of their people caught by the Imperial navy and expect us to get them back for them. Morons. We should let them rot”.

“They’re our people, Vice-Chancellor”, said the General. “We can’t leave them to the Imperium”.

“It was their own fault, General. We told them what would happen. Anyone dumb enough to try a stunt like that deserves everything they get from the Imperium, who we now have breathing down our fucking necks thanks to those bastards”.

“That is enough, Vice-Chancellor”. The Chancellor’s calm exterior briefly slipped in the face of her subordinate’s brusqueness though was quickly regained. “Like the General said, they’re our people despite what they’ve done. We can’t just leave them to such a fate. I admit our chances of success today are slim but we have to try. If you don’t want to be a part of this, you’re more than welcome to wait on the ship”.

“And miss a chance to be insulted by the Imperator himself? I don’t think so”.

The rest of the way was silent. Oluss didn’t ask any more questions, happy he had a decent understanding of the situation. He also didn’t want to risk setting off the Vice-Chancellor again.

The meeting chamber was like the rest of the Assemblage Station: simple and bare; an atrium with sloping glass walls held together by a metal frame. A balcony with railings and a raised seating area stretched along each side, separated by a recess in the floor. Strips of pale LEDs provided illumination, badly. They barely dispelled the darkness from outside, only adding to the dreariness.

“I apologise for the lighting”, Oluss said.

“No need, Captain”, the Chancellor replied. “It’s always been like this”.

The next few minutes were spent mostly in silence. Oluss installed himself at the edge of the balcony, badly wanting to lean on the railing but resisting the temptation. The General was whispering to the Chancellor but he couldn’t make anything out. The Vice-Chancellor grumbled to himself. He turned away from them, the need to yawn too great to ignore but not wishing to appear bored in front of the leaders of the Human Sovereignty. He was sceptical of anything coming of this meeting. The Confederacy’s track record of negotiating with the Imperium was poor to say the least. He didn’t see that changing any time soon. The Vice-Chancellor mentioned the Imperator himself was coming. That struck Oluss as both strange and terrifying. The leader of the Imperium rarely interacted with his confederate counterparts in person. If he was coming, it could only mean the situation was a lot graver than he’d initially believed.

Oluss’ train of thought was interrupted by a flash from the skylight above, and he looked up to see the immense blue portal form from nowhere over the station. A swirling whirlpool in deep space, turning like a pinwheel and spewing an iridescence that engulfed everything below. Oluss’ mouth hung agape. In all his time aboard the Assemblage Station, he’d never seen anything so beautiful. But the moment was spoiled by a familiar voice in his ear.

“Captain, warp space opening seventy-seven miles directly above us”, announced the overenthusiastic technician through his earpiece.

“I can see that”, Oluss muttered after making sure his comm-line was closed.

He couldn’t tear his eyes from the portal, despite the growing ache in his neck. Holes in space-time, they were the entrances to the area known as Warp Space, the only known method of traversing the vast reaches of the Sea of Spirits, and only possible through manipulation of the element, Spiritum. Where travelling from one end of the galaxy to the other through conventional means would take millions of years, the use of Warp Space cut the journey down to about a week. There was an indescribable wonder attached to these structures, so much still not understood about them or the mysterious area of time and space they led to. Most starships preferred to exit Warp Space far from their intended destination, what with the effects of time dilation in the immediate vicinity. He may be a brutal and tyrannical dictator, but the Imperator knew how to make an entrance.

Oluss’ eyes expanded further at the sight of the starship that began to emerge, dwarfing the station and blocking their view of the space above. Even with his neck aching the way it did, he couldn’t help but gawk at the vessel, the monotony of the previous three years becoming a distant memory. A great lover of starships for as long as he could remember, much of his childhood was spent outside spaceports and shipyards, hiding in the long grass, watching in awe as the freighters and transports embarked on and returned from their voyages across the stars. He’d seen several Imperial vessels but never one so close. They were some of the most impressive in all the galaxy. It was sad to think he’d likely never get to see the inside of one.

Again, the moment was ruined. “Captain, Tetrireme Class Super Carrier exiting Warp Space directly above us. Matches Imperial signatures. Ship I.D. Indignatio”. Indignatio? Everyone in the navy knew that name. Indignation, Righteous Fury. Indeed, the Imperator would be here for that was the name of his personal carrier.

It took a few minutes for the ship to fully emerge. The portal closed up, returning the meeting chamber to its gloomy state. The vessel glided silently over the station, its bottom hull metallic blue and encrusted with a dusting of twinkling diamonds.

Look at that thing”, Oluss heard one of his soldiers say in equal parts amazement and horror. “What chance do we have fighting something like that”?

“None”, the other replied bluntly. “They’d just have to fly it into us and that’d be it”.

They watched as three much smaller craft emerged from the parent ship, shooting by the chamber like metal raindrops. “Captain. One Liburnian class shuttle-type vessel and two Liburnian class transports on approach to Hangar A”. It dawned on Oluss that he should be there to greet them despite how little he wanted to. He’d been so preoccupied with making the Chancellor and her people feel welcome that he’d completely neglected their other set of visitors.

Lieutenant Molinda’s voice chimed through his earpiece. “Captain, I’m at Hangar A, ready to welcome our visitors from the Imperium”.

Oluss hit the button on his wrist interface, opening the comm-line. “Thank you, Lieutenant”. He had to feel sorry for her, having to deal with the Imperator and whoever he’d brought with him. The Lieutenant’s kind weren’t well-liked in the Imperium.

It was another few minutes before they were joined by the other party. The first thing Oluss saw when the doors at the opposite end of the chamber parted were the soldiers with blazing rubies for eyes who came marching out. They took up positions along the edge of the balcony, carbines rested against their chests, faces hidden behind their helmets. The sight of them in their heavy armour set Oluss on edge. Next came two tall figures in jet black armour. Their faces were also hidden behind helmets although theirs depicted grimacing faces that made it look like they were leering at you. He’d never seen one in person but Oluss recognized them too. Praetorians; arcane warriors; some of the most powerful and feared in the galaxy, and personal bodyguards to the Imperator. They didn’t carry firearms, armed instead with a pair of long swords in scabbards at their waists, hands rested upon the hilts as they exited the lift. After them, a tall, big-breasted woman emerged, skin like snow, hair black as oil and tied in a braid that almost reached her waist. She wore a blood-red stola and matching undershirt that covered her arms and shoulders but left much of her upper chest exposed. Oluss recognized her as Demetria Benedicta Alrianius, some high-ranking religious figure within the Imperium though he wasn’t sure. All he knew for certain was she was gorgeous, maybe even better looking than the Chancellor. The High Inquisitor, as she was known, projected cool confidence as she strode from the lift, fixing everyone on the opposite side of the chamber with a stare so cold it might have turned them all to ice.

Once everyone else had taken up their positions, the Imperator himself emerged. All Oluss had ever seen of him were pictures from Imperial propaganda, all painting their leader as a formidable warrior and handsome man filled with vigour. The man who came hobbling from the lift seemed the exact opposite. He was short and scrawny, skin old and with a texture like that of aged leather, littered with scars and sore-looking red blotches. The blood vessels of his eyes were all broken, leaving only two red pools contrasted against bright yellow suns. The bottom half of his face was hidden beneath a black breathing mask to match his robes. He walked like his bones were made of glass, the pommel of a cane clutched in one hand. He coughed and spluttered the entire way, scratching the skin around his mask like there were bugs biting him. He was nothing like Oluss had pictured. Was this really the leader of one of the most powerful empires in the galaxy?

The Imperator took a few moments to compose himself. He stared at Chancellor Calsen, blinking like someone was shining a spotlight in his eyes. The Chancellor took a breath, and stepped up to the railing.

“Imperator”.

The Imperial leader drew a long, wheezy breath. “Where are Cemma and Sevanota”? The mask reduced his voice to a gravelled, metal-tinged mess.

“They aren’t here”, the Chancellor replied, drawing a bitter growl.

“My demands were clear. The leaders of Freedom for All for your captured prisoners”.

“The Confederacy is not in the habit of handing over its citizens to a power that would see them tortured and murdered, especially when they have broken no laws”.

“Then there will be no deal! I will see your captured prisoners nailed to crosses for their trespasses against my Imperium, and for your wasting of my time. If you have nothing to give me then this meeting is at an end”. The Imperator turned and began making his way back to the lift. Oluss breathed a sigh of relief.

The Chancellor looked disappointed, though not particularly shocked. “The release of the prisoners is not my only concern today, Imperator”.

The Imperator stopped, and there was silence. “What more is there to discuss”?

“We’ve come to negotiate an end to Imperial aggression against the Confederacy”.

“Exactly what aggression are you referring to, Chancellor Calsen”? Demetria asked as the Imperator returned to his original spot. “All acts committed by the Imperium are in the interest of protecting its borders”.

The Chancellor opened her mouth but it was the Vice-Chancellor’s voice that echoed across the chamber. “Aw don’t give us that, lady. You know exactly what we’re taking about. We’ve got tons of reports of Imperial ships in the Neutral Expanse and testing of weapons of mass destruction on the border, both of which are direct violations of the Assemblage Treaty. We all know what’s going on here. You’re looking for a fight but you want us to throw the first punch”.

Oluss wasn’t comfortable with the Vice-Chancellor hurling such accusations around in front of the Imperator. He may not know all the details, but he understood how delicate the situation was. One wrong word could mean war, and get them all killed.

The High Inquisitor maintained her cool demeanour. “Why would we want that? We have nothing to gain from destroying you. You have nothing that we need or want. The Imperium is superior to the Confederacy in every way. We could wipe you from the face of the galaxy whenever we please. So why have we not done so, little man”?

“I was wondering which of them would say it first”, the Vice-Chancellor whispered to the Chancellor who didn’t answer.

“As Vice-Chancellor Langton stated… the Neutral Expanse is off limits to the Imperium, as agreed in the Treaty of Assemblage, and it is a violation for your ships to enter it for any reason. If you refuse to honour the terms of the treaty, how can the Confederacy not feel threatened by your actions”?

“My ships enter the Expanse in search of the murderers and terrorists your government has failed to bring to justice. Any acts of aggression committed by the Imperium are in response to those committed against the Imperium”.

Again, the Chancellor was about to answer when her subordinate beat her to it. “What acts of aggression? You already said you could destroy us whenever you want. Why would we provoke you knowing that? What acts of aggression are you referring to, Nero”?

“You dare to speak the Imperator’s name, you wretched little imp”? Demetria snapped, coolness replaced with madness and rage. “Have you no respect for your betters”?

“He’s not better than anyone, you ugly old bitch”!

Oluss couldn’t believe what he was seeing. In an instant, his heart was pounding faster than he’d ever known. With a scream that cut like blades of ice, the High Inquisitor threw up her arms. Waves of energy radiated from her palms, the air around them rippling like she was holding fire in her hands. Her voice devolved into a distorted clamour that sounded like it came from the mouth of a demon. Her eyes glowed red like the soldiers’. The chamber was filled by the crackling of the red bolts of electricity discharging from her fingertips. Oluss had never been so scared. He’d never seen Arcana with his own eyes before.

The Vice-Chancellor backed away from the railing, a look of sheer terror upon his face. The Chancellor looked frightened too, but stood her ground. Her bodyguards drew their pistols and took aim at the screaming, demonic woman though Oluss wasn’t sure what good they would do. The General drew a pistol of his own, and the station’s soldiers raised their weapons. Oluss drew his own sidearm and took aim. He wouldn’t die a coward. Beads of sweat dripped down his forehead, finger quivering against the trigger.

The Imperial soldiers raised their carbines and the Praetorians drew their swords, rushing forward and taking up defensive positions in front of their leader. Oluss noticed the Vice-Chancellor and the Chancellor’s assistant retreat toward the elevator, wished he could do the same. He silently prayed for something to make it so he wouldn’t have to pull the trigger. His eyes met Lieutenant Molinda’s across the chamber, hand on her pistol at her waist.

Silence descended, both sides refusing to back down. Every moment was like an eternity. Oluss’ hands shook. He’d been in a combat situation before, but nothing like this. They were just shitty little pirates; this was the Imperium, not to mention he’d never fought anyone who wielded the awesome and terrifying power of Arcana. They were all about to die. The only person who didn’t seem fazed was the Imperator himself. In fact, he looked like he didn’t even realize what was happening.

The Chancellor raised her arms. “Lower your weapons”.

“They can lower theirs first”, the General growled.

“I didn’t come here to fight, Imperator. I came to seek peace between our societies. I implore you to listen to me. There is much that can be accomplished if we set aside our differences”.

“I seek no peace with your heathenish kind”, The Imperator replied softly, as if finding tranquility in the carnage around him. “Our differences run too deep. You turned your backs on the destiny of your own species. You and your people are traitors to your own blood. There can be no cooperation between us”.

“There is much progress to be made if you would put an end to your persecution and oppression of those who weren’t born to the same kind as you and me”.

“You would have me dishonour my forefathers by treating those infinitely our lesser as equals. You would have me abandon my principles, my values. Your slander offends all those of noble Dranast stock. I walk the path of righteousness while yours is one of ignorance and heresy. There will be no alliance between our kinds and there will be no end to my aggression against those who seek to undermine my Imperium. My ships will remain in the Expanse, your prisoners will not be returned and will be nailed to crosses if you do not give me Cemma and Sevanota and, if you or your people continue to disrespect the Imperium and its boundaries, there will be war and I will see you all burn. This exchange is at an end”.

Before the Chancellor could say another word, the Imperator was storming toward the lift, paying no mind to Lieutenant Molinda still with her hand on her pistol. Demetria lowered her hands, the energy emanating from them vanishing and her eyes returning to normal. She fixed the Vice-Chancellor with a venomous glare before following her leader. The soldiers lowered their carbines, and the Praetorians sheathed their swords, then headed for the lift. The Chancellor’s bodyguards and the General returned their weapons to their holsters. Oluss did the same, hand still shaking. The Imperator gave the Chancellor a parting glare, then the doors closed.

Nobody spoke, all likely shaken to their cores; Oluss knew he was. He’d been in dangerous situations before, but nothing like that. The monotony of the previous three years now didn’t seem all that bad. He hoped the Chancellor and her people would be leaving soon. He needed a lie down.

“Captain”, the enthusiastic technician’s voice chirped through his earpiece. “The Imperial visitors are leaving the station”.

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