Authors: Trista Ann Michaels
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Vagoran Sector -- Present Day
Damn, I hate the sight of that thing.
Sidious Marcone almost turned his small ship back in the other direction. The closer he got to Prime Minister Rigora
s pride and joy, the
, the more tense and irritable he became. He hated coming back to this ship -- this life.
He flipped a switch, turning on the microphone. “
, this is four-nine-seven
, requesting clearance to dock.”
“Clearance granted. Proceed to docking bay ten. Welcome back, Captain Marcone.”
Welcome back to hell.
With movements born of habit, he finalized the approach procedure. Rigora's Destroyer loomed before him like something out of his worst nightmare. Only this nightmare had been his home for the last ten years. Once his job was over, he hoped to never see another spaceship, much less live on one again.
A voice broke through his thoughts, and he blinked at the computer screen where the approach vectors flashed.
“Cargo door ten-B is open, my lord.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.
He flipped the radio off and proceeded to door ten-B. Docking the ship, he powered down the engines and leaned his head back with a sigh. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to get his frame of mind back to where it needed to be. He was so tired. Tired of this place, these people, this life. Some days he wanted so badly to throw up his hands and leave.
But they need me.
The voice in his mind continued to remind him why he
d done this. Why he'd chosen to lead this life. He'd put everything he'd ever wanted on hold -- a life, a family, a woman to love -- all that forgotten for the sake of the cause. He could have his dream
he finished this. If he survived.
The commotion outside the ship reminded him he had a job to do -- a persona to uphold. The men loaded the cargo freighter next to him, while the lieutenant shouted orders from the observation loft above. The fumes from the numerous engines that idled in the bay invaded his lungs, and he crinkled his nose in distaste. He would always hate that smell. It would forever remind him of this ship.
With a resigned sigh, he decided to stop feeling sorry for himself and do what he came here to do. He climbed out of his ship and stretched legs that had long since become stiff from cramped quarters. Looking up, he saw Ensign Barker approach, a weary expression in his eyes. Sidious was tempted to yell “boo,” just to see if the man would jump.
“Are there any special instructions for the ship, my lord?”
“No. Just do the usual.”
“Yes, sir.” He bowed slightly and turned to signal the refuelers.
Sidious rubbed the muscles at the back of his neck and rolled his shoulders, trying to work the kinks out and get the blood flowing again. The long flights always exhausted him.
Slowly, he made his way through the mass of soldiers milling around the bay. To his left, a group of men immediately came to attention upon seeing him. They swallowed visibly, and Sidious wanted to roll his eyes in disgust.
Coming to a stop, he raised an eyebrow. “Isn
t there something you need to be doing? Unless I'm mistaken, it's still first shift.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The men dispersed quickly, and Sidious continued toward the turbochute. He hated being the hard-ass, but he didn't have a choice. The cold, hard mask of indifference could never fall. There was too much at stake.
As he climbed the stairs to the second level, he noticed his brother's ship secured at the other side of the hangar. Sidious was younger by two years, but everyone assumed Stefan was the younger one.
Sidious dragged a hand over his face. Stress over the last few years had aged him prematurely. Acting as commanding officer of the Imperial Militia demanded intense responsibility, but simultaneously serving as a mole for the rebel forces drove him damned near insane.
Playing both sides in an armed conflict could, at the very least, get him killed, but the risk was worth it. He
d decided a long time ago he'd give whatever it took --
including his life -- to help end the tyranny that had kept Tilarus in a death grip for the last fifty years. And Stefan was in just as deep as he was.
He glanced back at the sleek little runner, then exited the shuttle bay. Sidious had used Stefan's diplomatic status to get him clearance to the ship. That made it easier for them to remain in touch and pass important information. But why was Stefan here?
Was it for diplomatic reasons or something to do with the rebels? Before he went to his debriefing, he needed to find out what his rabble-rousing older brother had been up to, and why he was here on the Destroyer.
Sidious came to a stop outside the door of the turbochute. He unhooked his communicator from his belt and called Stefan.
“Yeah,” Stefan said.
“What the hell is up with you, grouch? No hello, brother? How are you? Is there anything you need?”
Sidious shook his head, a grin tugging at the corner of his lips. Stefan had always been the smart-ass clown of the family. A stark contrast to Sidious's more subdued, serious demeanor. His brother would just as soon find ways to push his buttons as anything else.
“If you're here, then I know it's either something you need or something we need to talk about. Which is it?”
“I had just about given up on you and was about to leave.” The doors of the turbochute opened. Stefan stepped off and flipped his communicator closed. His ever-observant gaze raked over Sidious, and his lips lifted in an amused grin. “You look like something Taron dragged in from Veenori.” His brows drew together in a concerned frown. “How long has it been since you've slept?” Sidious flipped his communicator closed as well and accompanied Stefan to his ship. “By sleep, do you mean a good night's sleep or any sleep at all?”
“Sidious.” Stefan came to a stop and pinned him with his best older-brother, no-nonsense look. “You've got to get some sleep and relax. The last thing we need is for you to run yourself to the point of exhaustion.”
“I'm already past exhaustion.” His gaze traveled around the bay, making sure no one was close enough to hear their conversation.
“Do we need to get someone else in here?” Concern laced Stefan's voice as his eyes narrowed.
The desire to take Stefan up on his offer tempted him, but he knew it was also unrealistic. They could never hope to get someone to take his place that quickly.
Besides, his rank and position were perfect. Stefan was the firstborn son of a monarch, so his admittance into the militia was forbidden.
“No.” He shook his head. “I started this; I'll finish it. Besides…” He noticed the bay personnel watching them, so he put his hand on the back of his brother's shoulder and moved him along. “There's not enough time for that.” In hushed tones, Stefan growled, “This is your life we're talking about, damn it. If you're exhausted, you're going to make mistakes. I would hate to have to explain to our father why you were executed for treason.”
The corner of his lips twitched in amusement. “I would think the trial would be self-explanatory.”
Stefan scowled. “That's not funny.”
“Yeah, well, you always did have a lousy sense of humor.” Stefan stopped next to his ship, gazed at the big scratch in the side, and frowned at him.
“See.” Sidious shrugged and indicated Stefan's dour expression with a wave of his hand. “Prime example.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “Why are you here?”
“I need you to work your magic.”
He inwardly groaned. No doubt his brother had another ridiculously dangerous plan hatched. Every time he pulled these stunts, his heart stopped. If anything happened to his brother, he would never forgive himself.
“What the hell are you up to now? Wait.” He held a hand up, then rubbed his eyes. “I don
t want to know. How many and what rank?” Stefan rubbed his fingers over his upper lip and chin. “Two, with a rank of at least captain. One of them needs to be female.”
With access to the militia mainframe, Sidious created false identities for Stefan
s rebel infiltrators whenever they needed access inside a compound for supplies or intel.
Once their jobs were finished, he would then erase the identities and all traces of their activities.
Sidious shook his head. “Yours and Taron's stunts are going to contribute to my death faster than the fatigue.”
Stefan snorted. “You love the challenge, so don't even think about trying to make me believe otherwise.”
“By when?” he asked with a sigh.
He nodded, then pinned his brother with a stern look. “Whatever it is you're doing, be careful.”
“I'm always careful. Taron is the one you have to worry about.” Sidious sighed. He knew what Taron was like. If anyone did something stupid, it would be him. He was a risk taker. He loved the rush. The more dangerous the better.
Unfortunately, more often than not, Stefan was right there with him.
“I'll see you in a couple of weeks,” Stefan said, climbing through the open hatch to his ship.
Sidious slapped the back of the hull twice to let Stefan know he had the all clear behind him, then watched the ship fly out of the bay. He glanced at his watch. Twenty minutes until the debriefing. He wondered what planet the prime minister was going after now.
* * * * *
Sidious was the last to arrive at the conference lounge. He strolled in, taking his place as the ninth officer at the oval table in the center of the room. At the head was Carlone, assistant to the prime minister, or to his way of thinking, more like a love-struck fool. The way he followed Rigora around was the subject of jokes throughout the ship.
Next to Carlone was Lieutenant Commander Alonis, an older man in his fifties and in command of all militia scouts -- in other words, Rigora
s planet hunters. To his right sat Commander Woods, better known as the pain in his ass. Woods had been trying for the last five years to catch him spying -- unsuccessfully.
You’d think by now his techniques would have improved.
And then there was himself, Captain Marcone. He had the illustrious job of commander of all troops, flyers as well as ground. The other six were various officers in different areas of command, all below him in rank.
“It's about time you showed up, Marcone,” snapped Commander Woods. “We've been waiting on you for quite some time.”
“I've been busy working, Woods, but I'm sure that's a concept you're unfamiliar with.”
Woods narrowed his eyes, hatred sparking from the beady orbs. Sidious raised an amused eyebrow as he tossed a file onto the table.
Clearing his throat, Alonis brought the room back to the business at hand. “As you all know, scouts have been searching for M-class planets within the Delta sector.
They believed they had found one, and a surveillance team was sent in about six months ago.” Bringing everyone
s attention to the view screen at the end of the room, he pulled up a stellar map that displayed the planet's location.
Carlone stood and handed out files containing general information about the prime minister's newest target. “This planet is much more advanced than some of the others Rigora has taken over. Although nowhere near our technological capabilities, they are advanced enough that they could give us problems.”
“Does Rigora still wish to invade?” Sidious asked, although he already knew the answer. The prime minister never turned his back on a planet that would benefit him in some way.
“He does.” Carlone nodded. “He has gone over the information the scouts have sent to us, and he feels this planet would be an asset, not only for its resources, but for its people as well. Naturally, he feels whatever it takes to get the planet will be acceptable.”
Sidious raised an eyebrow in interest. “Judging by that statement, am I right in assuming that you expect a fight?”
“Yes, my lord.” Alonis pulled out the seat next to Sidious and sat down. “These people appear to be very independent. It is unlikely they would give into slavery without resisting.”
“What do we know of their defensive capabilities?” Sidious swiveled his chair to face Alonis.
The lieutenant commander picked up a sheet of paper and handed it to him. On it was a list of weapons. The scouts had not just named them but described their destructive capabilities as well. He looked it over, his brow creasing in thought.
Carlone cleared his throat. “I understand you have been away handling a problem in the Rineah system, my lord, but the prime minister would like to speak with you as soon as possible about your strategy.”
Sidious nodded his head to let him know he had heard him, but still continued to study the list.
“Something that you might consider…”
Sidious turned his gaze to Carlone when he heard his pause. “What?”
“This planet is divided up into several different countries that do not get along.
We could use that to our advantage by getting some of the countries to side with us and turn on the others, sort of a divide-and-conquer situation. It worked before on one of the other planets.”
Sidious shook his head as he set the list aside. “The planet you're talking about was an exception. The two factions had hated each other for generations, and one was only too happy to help wipe out the other.” He turned to look at Alonis. “You've been studying the reports. What do you think?”
Alonis shook his head. “I really haven't seen anything in the reports that would indicate that scenario working here.”
Sidious placed his elbow on the armrest and scratched at his chin. “How soon does he want to get started?”
“Rigora expects to leave for the planet as soon as he is done here, probably within the week.”
“All right.” Sidious stood. “Send everything you have on the planet to my quarters, and I'll get to work on some defense strategies for their weapons. If there is nothing else, I have a lot of work to catch up on.”
“Of course, my lord,” replied Alonis.
Sidious left the conference lounge with the same feeling of dread and disgust that always plagued him. He half wished this planet would be strong enough to defeat the prime minister, but he knew better.
They might be able to hold their own against the ground troops, and even the flyers, but unless they could get into space and attack the Destroyer, they didn
t stand a chance. The ship was protected by a shield even the rebels had not been able to penetrate. As long as the prime minister and his Destroyer were around, troops would continue to arrive.
As he stepped into the turbochute that would take him to the level his quarters were located, he looked down at the folder Carlone had handed him. Across the front, written in big black letters, was the name of the planet.