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The Hostile Stars

XIX. Retreat

Tlienjpraviashav slammed his fist down on the desk. "How? How did they liberate Engineering?"

The Guards Captain swallowed nervously. "I do not understand it myself, nobly born. Their forces were inferior to ours..."

"And yet they won all their encounters! And yet you lost over sixty percent of your officers! And yet, and yet, and yet..."

He left the final thought hanging. Too many excuses! He had never known a Zhodani force to do so poorly against the Imperials.

There could be no excuse for what had happened. Not to the ship, and not to...

He snapped his eyes back to the captain. "What is the status of our troops?"

"They have fallen back towards the starboard airlocks. The Marines are following them closely."

"What is your assessment of the situation?"

"We...we must withdraw, nobly born."

Tlienjpraviashav nodded. "I thought that would be your recommendation."

"Yes, nobly born." The captain paused, then continued grimly: "We cannot hold our position. The men will not fight. We must return to our carrier and flee. We can be off the vessel in a matter of minutes..."

"Enough!" roared Tlienjpraviashav. "I have never seen such conduct in a Zhodani officer. Are you now so afraid of these Imperials, these beggarly schemers and conspirators, that you will abandon the field to them? I tell you, we will not, cannot surrender!"

"Nobly born...the men will not fight."

"I will lead them myself. And as for you," he said contemptuously, "you are relieved of duty. Stand watch in the medical bay over the Imperial prisoners. We shall at least have some spoils of war."

When the captain had left, Tlienjpraviashav allowed himself a moment to give into his emotions. He sank his head into his hands and gave free rein to his grief.

How...how had they done it?

A retreating patrol of troopers had found the body, in a heavily damaged corridor forward of the engineering section. The body had been carefully laid down on the corridor floor, hands folded across the chest and its eyes closed. There were some worlds of the Imperium, he knew, where that was the fashion of preparing a body for its funeral. The Zhodani preferred to face death with their eyes and arms open.

The shock of it still seemed to dull his senses. Killed, alone, with no one to help him! But how? The boy was a fully trained psionic, a Zhodani officer well-skilled in the combat arts, still in the first flush of his youth.

And why was he alone?

There was a report from one of the officers he had sent as escort. He lifted his head from his hands, glanced at what was lying in the couch across from his desk, and then read the report. The boy had detached his escort to act as commanders for the badly demoralized troops he had found outside engineering. One of them had managed to escape with several soldiers; the other had been captured.
But why had he left them in the first place? And why had he cut himself off mentally from Tlienjpraviashav? What was so important that he would risk his life to tell him face-to-face?

He was weeping. He hadn't even noticed it. Wiping away his tears, he looked up again at the couch.

My, my...son, what have they done to you?

He went over to the couch and sat down on it. He placed the boy's head in his lap and stroked his long, straight hair. Such promise, taken away so cruelly! He would never know the powerful psionic that the boy had shown every sign of eventually developing into. In time, he might have become a worthy successor to Tlienjpraviashav himself. He could have taught the boy much about dealing with the Imperials, how to subtly tamper with the submerged forces buried under the autocratic fašade of humaniti's largest empire to keep it indecisive and introspective, unwilling to try to interfere with its most feared neighbor.

So much opportunity, now lost!

He bent down and kissed Plieznabr's cool forehead. Unfamiliar emotions boiled up within him, nearly blinding him with their intensity.

Vengeance! You shall not die unavenged, my son!

The captain rushed into the room and stopped, shocked. He had never seen the Consul so emotional. The look of hatred that was scrawled across his face as he sat clutching the body of the dead Intendant to him was deeply disturbing to a man who had spent his entire life confident of the supreme, detached rationality of the nobility. "My lord, I must report -"

Tlienjpraviashav looked up slowly, his face falling gradually into its accustomed mask of command. "Yes, captain. You must forgive me. The strain of the last few hours has taken its toll. If I was harsh with you before, I apologize."

If anything, the apology, from one born to command absolutely the fates of all Zhodani, shook the captain even worse. "No, no, nobly born. It was I who failed you -"

"Forget everything. We must all work together to fight our enemies. Are we not Zhodani? We shall not fall into pointless backbiting like the Imperials would." He stood up, lowering Plieznabr's body to the couch with care. "Now," he said, turning to face the captain, "what must you report?"

"O my lord, disaster! Two sections have surrendered to the Imperials! All is lost!"

"What! Impossible! A few troopers, perhaps - those too weak for our noble cause - but never two sections!"

"It is true, nobly born. The rest of our men are scattered and disorganized. They attempt to reach the starboard airlocks, and do not respond to the commands of their officers."

At that moment, a voice came over the ship's intercom, speaking poor Zhodani: "Troopers of the Zhodani Consulate: surrender now, and no harm will come to you. By command of His Majesty, our officers will show all possible mercy to you."

"My lord, what shall we do!" the captain wailed.

"Do? We shall do our duty!"

"We have no duty left, but to escape or surrender."

"No!" shouted Tlienjpraviashav. "I shall not give in to these ignoble slaves! Barbarians whose cruelty knows no bounds! Slayers of boys - "

The captain was backing away, afraid. "Where are you going, fool? To your new masters?" Tlienjpraviashav said contemptuously. "We shall not honor the honorless. Accompany me."

The captain had composed himself again. "Yes, nobly born." Any command was welcome to him.

Tleinjpraviashav led him into the medical bay where the Marine officer and the Imperial First Officer were being held. He needed certain information from them - information that would at the very least rob the Imperials of the glory of their victory, and at the most could salvage the entire mission.

He smiled coldly to himself for a moment. Why not give in to his emotions?

If all else was lost, at least he could have his vengeance!

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