The Game of Puppets and Devils
The edge of the Pale Cousins system
“Captain! The 17th Heavy Fleet is backing off! Their ships are retreating into warpspace!”
Captain Asari Hellspark waves a cloud of acidic, black smoke away from her face. “Thank the Powers!” she coughs, her words lost amid the bursts and pops of damaged instrument panels and the cries of wounded crewmembers. “Contact the other captains!” she barks loud enough to be heard. “We’re backing out! We’ll rendezvous with Admiral Orangeblack’s fleet at Coriolanus Minor!”
Her second officer–now acting first officer, after the death of Commander Rainsinger–salutes awkwardly with his broken arm, holding back a grimace of pain, and shuffles off to execute her orders. When he comes back within earshot of the captain, she shouts to him, “Why in the Hundred Hells did the Imperial fleet leave before they could finish us off? We’re damned lucky they did, but…” She wipes sweat and soot and blood from her forehead. “Why?” Her subordinate shrugs and shakes his head.
* * *
Shraun, capital world of the Dragon Empire
Chinedu Bluemaker doesn’t bother struggling against his bonds. Even if he could break free through strength and desperation, where would he go, what could he do? Here in the middle of the Torture Arena of the Great Dragon Palace, surrounded by the scarlet-clad Imperial Guard and a hundred thousand cheering spectators, there is nowhere for him to escape to. His death is a surety. The only question is how long he can last at the hands of the Royal Torturer, Grinzishka Ta. The bent, crooked torturer hobbles towards Chinedu, her face placid, but with a ghoulish glint in her pink eyes. “Agent Bluemaker,” she says with a voice equal parts sugar and vinegar, “you know what we want.”
“The codes to the Republic’s Auric Shield,” Chinedu says, keeping his tone calm, almost bored. “You won’t get them.”
“I think we will,” Grinzishka says. “We’ll begin with some small nervebombs. If the excruciating pain from those don’t melt your resolve and loosen your tongue, we’ll move to the mindlash. And it only gets worse for you from there.” A small chuckle escapes her.
“I’ll see you in the Hell of Blackened Souls first, Ta!” Chinedu spits. He mentally reaches into a deep memory in his brain and activates the Zed Equation. His eyes turn charcoal black, he coughs phlegm and blood into the face of the torturer, and his body goes limp like a broken doll. The audience gives a collective gasp, followed by a long chorus of boos and jeers.
* * *
In orbit of Coriolanus Major
Ensign Yemisi Skyfade strides up to Admiral Orangeblack and salutes. “Admiral, we’ve received reports from the 23rd Lancer Fleet and Void Outpost 9. Agents of the Empire have stolen the Inferno Sphere from the Mirrored Library and taken it into the Labyrinth of Dust. The Imperial Cabinet has also released the Hungriest Wolf from its cage in the Fifth Universe and set it on a direct course for homeworld.”
Admiral Tombari Orangeblack maintains a rigid demeanor, but his eyes betray despair. “Thank you, Ensign,” he says through gritted teeth, exhaling a rough sigh like steam from a rusty kettle.
“Oh, and,” Ensign Skyfade continues, “Captain Hellspark is bringing the entire Pale Cousins Defense Fleet here. They’re damaged, but they’ve lost no ships. Apparently the Empire’s attacking fleet retreated before our ships could be finished off.”
Admiral Orangeblack’s hands grip the arms of his chair tighter. “Retreated, you say?” The ensign nods. “Before their attack on the Pale Cousins was complete?” The ensign again nods. “Well, I’ll be damned. Get me the Minister of Illumination on a secure channel. And send the order to Viridian Base to deploy the ultranauts to Galaxy 12. If I’m right, we may have a chance of getting through this war after all.” Ensign Skyfade gives another salute and strides off to the communications center. The admiral doesn’t allow himself to smile, but his eyes lighten with hope. Hope, a luxury he has so far rejected during this war.
* * *
Hive-001, shadow world Zulqarzyl-59
In the dismal, buzzing folds of underspace, Hiluis Tarak Po, Emperor of the Crimson Throne, Exalted Monarch of the Dragon Empire, humbly bows before the Most Astute Triad of the Hidden Unity. His wrinkled face, framed by a wild mane of white, white hair, looks up wearily at the Triad. “I come before you,” he says, his words leaden and dry, “to beg a favor. There is little I can offer now, I have no more resources–”
“Which is why you kneel before us now,” the Triad hisses in unison.
“Yes,” the Emperor says, “which is why I kneel before you now. You are my last resort. Just as my empire was yours in the conflicts of your last cycle.”
“What do you beg of us?” the Triad asks.
Emperor Hilius Tarak Po swallows hard and says, “I need you to kill me.” He wipes a tear from the corner of his eye. He’s so very tired. “I need you to kill me and my entire cabinet of ministers.”
“Because,” he says, “it’s the only way I can stop this damned war.”
* * *
Dunlanium Prime, capital world of the Sunburst Republic
President Shanumi Hold watches Galaxy 12 burn on the holodisplay, stars exploding and winking out. Hot tears streak down her face. “How did we ever let it come to this?” she wonders aloud, her voice cracked and faded. “How could we have been so proud, so foolish, so destructive?”
Co’oshem, the slathnik Minister of Illumination, places a warm, furry hand on her shoulder and purrs, “There are signs of promise. Signs that this conflict will end. Signs of peace and rebuilding. The storm will end, and after the storm, rebuilding.”
“Yet we who survive must live with all this death and fire, all this blood on our hands,” President Hold says.
Co’oshem nods. “And so it goes.”