The High Marshall's Opening: Book One of the Quadrant Wars

The First Three Chapters:

Prelude

Captain Truvullo

     Ahead, the stolen Imperial Star-Skater Oblivion was coming into tractor beam range. Twisting and turning, its pilot was frantically trying to get clear of the asteroid field in which he’d been hiding so he could make a jump to try and once again lose the pursuing Imperial Light-Cruiser Endurance. Commanding the Endurance, Captain Truvullo stood at the bridgehead watching the pursuit on the central monitor. His posture firm, his feet set, hands clasped tautly behind his back, Captain Truvullo looked every bit as regal and commanding as an officer of the Imperial Navy should. Beneath his usual stoical countenance, however, a sense of unease at their current situation tightly gripped him.

     Pursuit of the Oblivion had begun shortly after entering Theta Sector and had been ongoing nearly twelve hours now, ship’s time. Though the Endurance could easily outrace the observational duty craft Oblivion, it mattered little as each time they’d closed within range of either weapons systems or tractor beams the smaller ship had made a jump. A commissioned ship of the Imperial Navy, the Oblivion had been unfortunately berthed with a full Terillium compliment, and so when the defector had stolen it he’d been immediately endowed with the ability to, if left to his own devices, travel clear across any of the four quadrants, or beyond—carrying with him military secrets of vital importance to Kerazaan Imperial security. 

     That was what he’d been told when, on routine patrol near the border of sectors Theta and Sigma, Captain Truvullo had received his urgent and abrupt emergency orders. The transmission had come directly from High Marshall Duraval, instructing either the apprehension or complete destruction of the Oblivion.

     An easy enough task, Captain Truvullo reflected for the tenth time since the chase had begun—if the defector would only stay still for the necessary half a moment.

     On the viewing monitor he could see that with the pilot’s latest maneuver he was nearing a slight clearing on the edge of the field, and that a jump, albeit a risky one, was certainly feasible.

     “Lieutenant Zuru?” Captain Truvullo questioned. 

     The hulking Blazneg officer supervising the six engineers in charge of the tractor beam embankments responded smartly from where he towered over the row of seated Ensigns working the controls and monitoring the displays.

     “Sir, the gravitational signatures of the surrounding debris are still preventing us from making a clean lock.”

     “Is the Oblivion’s signature strong enough for you make a general lock on the surrounding space?”

     “Yes, sir. But it won’t hold if he makes a jump, sir.”

     No, Captain Truvullo thought. What was more, he knew that if they latched on and the Oblivion subsequently jumped it was as likely as anything the force would throw the Endurance straight into an asteroid.

     “Understood, Lieutenant,” replied Captain Truvullo. “Navigation, prepare to lock trajectory and acceleration of the Oblivion. Helm, make ready to give chase.”

     Captain Truvullo’s eyes returned to the central viewing monitor just in time to see the momentary blurring outline of the Oblivion as it made its jump, the ship racing away and disappearing from visual range of the Endurance’s scopes in mere moments.

     “Lieutenant Commander Elrich,” said Captain Truvullo, turning to the expansive navigation console, and the lithe, insectoid, Trintifalon officer in charge.

     “We have his vector, sir,” responded Lieutenant Commander Elrich. His Universal was good, if not harsh and prone to occasional bouts of inadvertent clicking on account the large pair of pincers flanking either side of his mouth. “Bearing six-one-seven over five and nine.”

     “Speed?”

     “Half-jump, sir.”

     Slightly less than four million standard universal units an hour.

     “Very good. Lieutenant Orion,” said Captain Truvullo, addressing the young Periktoninon officer in charge of communications and sensor relays. “Stay sharp. He may be trying to get us to over-shoot him. Set coordinates. Helm, at your ready.”

     Captain Truvullo braced himself against the railing as the ship lurched slightly, the sudden surreal surge in acceleration momentarily overwhelming the onboard gravitational compensators, as the Endurance shot off in hot pursuit once again. 

     “Lieutenant Commander Eldrich,” Captain Truvullo questioned. “Does his vector take him near any Systems or Singularity Transit Conduits?”

     “Yes, sir, the Boruscon system, a quarter over one away. Given current speed he could be there in just under an hour. Bearing six degrees and just under one-thousandths distance there’s Singularity Transit Conduit I6T75-I4B43.”

     “I” for Imperial, “T” for Theta sector, where they were now, “B” for Beta sector, where they’d be if the defector took the transit conduit—an unlikely thing, Captain Truvullo thought, as Beta sector was much further to the quadrant interior. 

     A half-jump.

     Either the defector was hoping they would overshoot, or he was trying to conserve what was left of his Terillium. It was difficult to say. Already he’d used half his compliment according to the information Captain Truvullo had been provided.

     Where was he trying to go? What had he stolen? Who was he?

     His first questions to the High Marshall when they’d spoken over the subspace channel. His questions had, without exception, all been immediately rebuffed and the entire line of questioning shut down. Who the defector was and what he was carrying was all top secret, and couldn’t be safely discussed over subspace transmission. Reasonable thinking of course—the High Marshall was nothing if not a well-reasoned being. However, knowing nothing of his quarry’s background, motivation, or contraband, Captain Truvullo could make no guess as to a possible destination—making their current game one of, well, endurance. Fortunately, having been deployed on border patrol duty when the chase had begun in earnest the Endurance carried three times as much Terillium as it ordinarily would have. As long as they were able to keep in contact with the Oblivion eventually they would overtake and capture or destroy the ship. The real problem with this situation, and growing more pressing with each second, was that the Oblivion’s five previous jumps had all brought them increasingly closer to the border the Kerazaan Empire shared with the Corporate Holdings.

     There was a heavy Imperial presence along their side of the border of course, and all commanders had ostensibly been alerted to the situation. But opposite them was a probably equally impressive presence of Corporation vessels who would doubtlessly raise fiery objection to any encroachment of their space—almost certainly so in a situation such as this, when a ship being so urgently pursued by the Empire was attempting to seek apparent escape within their borders.

     The defector’s capture by the opposition, Truvullo had been told, would be nothing short of a disaster.

     Who was this turncoat? An exposed Corporate spy, Captain Truvullo wondered? Though doubtlessly there were moles within the Imperial government and military—as there were infiltrators on all sides in each of the ruling bodies of the four quadrants—the thought of them within the Kerazaan Imperial government or military was still a jarring one. Who, and for what reason, would betray the glorious Empire, the shining beacon of hope and progress and equality to all the beings of all the quadrants of the known galaxy? 

     “Sir!” From Navigation Lieutenant Sirig interrupted his thoughts. “Oblivion is at full reverse.”

     What in the One is he playing at, thought Captain Truvullo?

     “Helm, match full reverse. Drop us within tractor beam range. Weapons at the ready. Target engines.”

     The Endurance shuddered slightly as his commands were carried out, and the engines came to life, doing all they could to kill the large ship’s momentous speed. On the central monitor the Oblivion was coming quickly into visual range, the small Star-Skater rotating counter-clockwise. 

     “Estimated stop in thirty seconds,” Ensign Roruk, reported from the helm.

     “Navigation, be ready to chart a new vector and speed,” Captain Truvullo commanded, watching on the monitor as the turning ship grew ever closer. The ship had turned nearly about face 180 degrees. What was he playing at? “Tractor beam status?”

     “Tractor beam ready,” came Lieutenant Zuru’s affirmative.

     “How long until you can make a positive lock?”

     “Ten seconds, sir.”

     Captain Truvullo’s hands gripped each other ever more tightly behind his back, out of view of his subordinates. This was the best chance they’d had so far. Counting down the seconds in his mind until the tractor beam could be engaged his sense of misgiving increased. Now facing them at a dead stop, the Oblivion made no move. Surely he wasn’t out of Terillium—why had he not jumped? The light armament of a Star-Skater was a laughable match for any of the Cruiser-Class ships of the Navy, even a light craft such as his own—

     “Tractor beam engaged,” Lieutenant Zuru said triumphantly.

     An immediate, violent lurch forward followed, causing Captain Truvullo to be thrown forcefully against the slightly higher than waist-level guardrail. The immediate searing pain told him he’d broken at least a few ribs.

     “Report!” he barked, hoarsely, wincing mightily as he regained his upright posture.

     “Sir,” came Lieutenant Orion’s panicked voice. “Singularity dead ahead!”

     His hitherto lurking sense of unease broke over him in a flood of dread, threatening to drown his senses—but with the effort and experience of twenty years service in the Imperial Navy, Captain Truvullo successfully fought back the onset of panic. Dead ahead on the viewing monitor, where only moments before had sat the forlorn Oblivion, was the unmistakable shimmer of the event horizon of the stretching, gaping, blackness of the singularity.

     Stretching singularity?

     They were getting closer so it made sense the outline of the singularity would appear bigger the closer they got, but this was different: it was growing.

     How in the One, he wondered?

     But there was no time. The Endurance’s tractor beam lock, set to the coordinates now directly behind the singularity meant they were being drawn towards the black hole by the pull of their own tractor beam.

     “Kill the tractor beam!” Captain Truvullo ordered. “Helm, come about, starboard 45 degrees! Engines to full power as soon as the heading is set!” Captain Truvullo shouted over the sound of the proximity alert wailing over the bridge comm.

     A credit to the uniforms they wore, his crew, though shocked, automatically obeyed. Mere moments from disaster Captain Truvullo felt a surge of relief and pride as the ship swung about and the engines fired. But the ship, though now facing perpendicularly to the line on which it had been traveling, continued to fall in toward the singularity, the engines making only incremental progress along their new line. Their incoming speed was too much. The engines were overwhelmed. By the time they’d moved out of the direct line of the singularity they would already have passed through it. 

     “Time to horizon?”

     “Maybe twenty seconds, Captain. No more!” came Lieutenant Commander Eldrich’s strained, fraught voice.

     No time for the navigational computer to safely chart a jump—but he was out of options.

     “Helm, keep current course. One tenth jump!” he commanded.

     “Sir?” Ensign Roruk’s questioned uncertainly.

     “Now!” Captain Truvullo shouted.

     Obediently the ship lurched forward, and in an instant whizzed away from their former location.

     “Full stop!” ordered Captain Truvullo. “And come about.”

     The next several seconds were nerve racking as the engines strained to slow the Endurance, whizzing past interstellar debris that had time to appear only as a blip on their scanners before disappearing. Even such a small jump propelled the ship at speeds near 1,200 standard universal units a second. Much to his relief, Captain Truvullo was informed by navigation there were no known Class 3 obstructions in their direct line for 180,000,000 units, when the Deftali system would come into view. Two minutes later the Endurance had slowed enough to come about. Another tenth of a jump and immediate full reverse saw them back at the location of the bizarre singularity that had nearly consumed them only five minutes before.

     It was.

     Gone.

     So too was the Oblivion.

     Stunned, it took every ounce of control he possessed to maintain the perfect, unperturbed dignity of his station long enough to rap out his orders.

     “Lieutenant Sirig, scan the area, see if you can pick up a Terillium trail for us to follow. I want a message to Central Command giving the Oblivion’s last known coordinates. Lieutenant Orion, I want a full diagnostic of our scopes and sensor arrays. We depart as soon as possible.”

     Thankful that none of his officers had asked “where to?” Captain Truvullo slowly lowered himself into his Captain’s chair, wincing as he did so, some cracked ribs all he had to show at the end of a twelve-hour chase. While the bridge crew was already bustling to carry out his orders, on the small view-screen attached to his chair he pulled up the ship’s visual record of their encounter with the Oblivion and the emergence of the sudden singularity. Watching it again he could scarcely believe it.

     “What in the One,” he murmured.

 

High Marshall Duraval

     Approximately halfway between Bendani-Prime and the rendezvous point in orbit above Tringal-7, the running lights of the Indomitable were the only source of illumination for hundreds of millions of standard universal units in any direction. Standing alone at the large rectangular viewport of his lounge, High Marshall Duraval stared into the darkness of interstellar space as the Kerazaan Imperial flagship Indomitable sailed solitarily through the void. As was his custom before retiring each ship’s evening, High Marshall Duraval stood at the viewport of his lounge and attempted to empty his mind—to let go of all that had happened that day—to categorize and store anything useful that might have happened for use at a later date, and then to forget everything else. The ritual had begun, oddly enough, as a form of penance, an apology for the life he’d chosen for himself—a life of service to the Empire. An Abranthian, his people considered it the duty and fulfillment of ones life to eschew all material concerns, to concern oneself only with the inward journey of the soul in its attempt to gain union with the One. While the guilt over his choice of profession had long since faded, High Marshall Duraval had continued the practice as he found doing so to be a boon to his career. If ever he had a difficult problem at hand he would come to this place, his viewport, organize in his mind everything he knew about the problem, then empty his mind of it all and sleep. When he awoke he found nine times out of ten his subconscious had untangled the mystery for him and presented the solution.

     Meditation for material gain.

     Indeed, for all his success as an Administrator of the Kerazaan Empire, Duraval had always been a lousy Abranthian. 

     A buzzing on the lounge comm panel resounded in the empty chamber.

     “Enter,” he said, not turning. Spying the reflection of Captain Ternilia in the glass as the door slid open, the High Marshall greeted him. “Captain Ternilia, what news?”

     “Pardon the intrusion, High Marshall,” Captain Ternilia said crisply, coming to rest at sharp parade attention. “You asked to be informed when Imperial Cruiser Verdict reached Tarent-Prime—”

      “—I did,” High Marshall Duraval interrupted calmly. “And yet it has not yet done so. Tell me Captain Ternilia, what is the reason for their detour?”

     Trying unsuccessfully to hide his surprise, Captain Ternilia struggled to keep his composure. 

     “They—I mean, High Marshall Duraval, sir, they received a level one priority call from Tribali-3 requesting immediate transport.”

     “Interesting,” High Marshall Duraval said, nodding at his reflection in the glass. “Ambassador Plent, I presume?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “How unusual. He isn’t typically one to have much of anything to report—certainly nothing so urgent Imperial Intelligence hasn’t already found it out. Has there been any word as to his purpose in leaving Tribali-3?”

     “No sir. According to Admiral Bogat, Ambassador Plent has refused to speak of the matter via subspace transmission. He would only say he was making for Uritauua.”

     “I see,” said High Marshall Duraval. “Interesting news indeed. Let me know as soon as anything else comes through. Wake me if need be.”

     “Yes, sir,” saluted Captain Ternilia.

     “Very good. Oh, and Captain,” he said. “As this is your first tour aboard the Indomitable I shall save you the trouble of wondering. I am not omniscient. Nor do I spy on my bridge officer’s communications. Lieutenant Malar, can you explain how it was I knew Imperial Cruiser Verdict had been detoured?”

     The young Abranthian seated at the lounge table, hitherto unnoted, responded calmly.

     “Yes, High Marshall. Knowing from their last transmission that they arrived at Singularity Transit Point I3K1-904 at 0616 hours ship’s time, they would have emerged approximately .0027th of a second later. Assuming the crew hadn’t already plotted most of their jump coordinates ahead of time, it is estimable that no more than seven minutes elapsed before they made their jump toward the Tarent System. Imperial Cruiser Verdict has a maximum Terillium capability of just under eight million standard units an hour, meaning the earliest they could have arrived is thirty-five minutes from now, ship’s time.”

     His back still to the room, High Marshall Duraval allowed himself a small, proud smile. 

     “Well done, Lieutenant. And so you see Captain, awe-inspiring as my perceptions may sometimes seem you will find they amount to little more than logical calculations made from simple observations. I trust as your tour progresses you will become so accustomed to them as to not even take note of them.”

     “High Marshall Duraval, it is my honor to serve under you,” Captain Ternilia replied, clearly no less impressed. 

     “And my honor to command you. Dismissed, Captain Ternilia.”

     As the door slid shut High Marshall Duraval turned to his son. 

     “Your thoughts?”

     “I believe we lack enough information to form any thoughts not dangerously speculative,” Malar answered, cautiously.

     “Indeed,” nodded High Marshall Duraval, approvingly. “However, as we have discussed before the danger in speculating is not in the act itself, but in the inability to treat conclusions drawn from the activity as what they are: theories—some more educated than others, but essentially guesses nonetheless. Given the appropriate mentality I have generally found the activity of speculation to be a healthy one, as it lends dexterity to your ability to react with maximum efficiency according to situations as they develop. For example, given the nature of Ambassador Plent’s position as sole Imperial Ambassador to the Jakauan Imperium, along with the overwhelming haste and secrecy with which he comes bearing whatever news it is he brings, I feel, even in the absence of any confirming material fact, confident of one thing: whatever else it is, Ambassador Plent brings us an opportunity of some kind, something we could potentially exploit.” Glancing at the desktop chrono and noting the time, he continued: “The Verdict will reach Tarent-Prime in just over an hour and a half. As an Ambassador on a level-one priority mission he’ll be top of the flight log out. He should arrive in the Uritauua by 1545 hours at the latest, 1430 at the earliest. Return to your quarters and get some rest. Be up and have a bag packed and ready to go by 1300 hours at the latest. You’ll be accompanying me.”

     “I am honored, High Marshall,” said the young man, rising.

     “As servants of the Empire, so are we all.”

     “Of course, sir. If I may, what about our rendezvous with Commander Sellick?”

     “The benefit of having excellent and trustworthy subordinates—I have no doubt Captain Ternilia or the Admiral will handle things perfectly in my absence.”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Oh, and Malar,” he added, as his son turned to leave. “Make sure you pack your dress greens. I have something for you to do when we arrive at Uritauua.”

     “Yes, High Marshall.” 

     “That will be all then.”

     Turning back to the window, High Marshall Duraval smiled before dropping back into thought as the door of the lounge slid shut.

 

Zeram-El

     The aged freighter Sellstar was given permission to land on Tribali-3 only after four hours of waiting. Zeram-El, first son of Zeram-Ka, Scala of Horos, had counted as many as sixty-two ships of various size, design, purpose and origin in nearby orbital lanes circling the planet during that time—all awaiting clearance and designation of a landing platform. As the home of the Confederate Congress, Tribali-3 served as the unofficial center of the Confederate Quadrant, and as such experienced possibly the heaviest, and most multifarious, interplanetary traffic in the galaxy—apart from Uritauua, seat of the sprawling Kerazaan Empire. Though he’d never visited the Imperial capital, Zeram-El had been given to understand from his tutors that Uritauua dwarfed all other planets and moons by a considerable degree in every way imaginable. One tutor in particular, a Meriidan named Qeequeeng, had lived there for a time and even spent a year teaching at the prestigious Uritauua Academy. Often, at Zeram-El’s prompting, the naturally loquacious Meriidan would spend hours off-topic, telling stories of the Imperial Capital, and answering at length Zeram-Ka’s questions about the Empire and its Capital. Too many stories too often, Zeram-Ka suspected, probably the reason the inestimably over-qualified scholar had been relieved of his post and summarily sent off world. Speaking well of the Kerazaan Empire wasn’t illegal, but then many things that weren’t illegal were still highly frowned upon—some, including speaking too highly of the Empire, could be downright dangerous. An inopportune comment in the wrong company would cause his family, and all Horos by extension, embarrassment—maybe worse. The Jakauan were not known to be overly lenient or forgiving of their vassals, as the Marambi, Svriniiig, and countless other peoples could testify—or, in the case of the Svriniiig, couldn’t on account of having been completely exterminated. 

     Zeram-El fought to repress a shiver as he looked out the viewport at the crowd of workers milling around the landing pad where the Sellstar had just settled down. After a week of traveling Zeram-El had arrived at Tribali-3, the only place in all the Unified Quadrant to house a full Imperial Embassy. As the other passengers began stretching and rising and making their way toward the exits, Zeram-El, first son of Zeram-Ka, Scala of Horos, joined the throng of weary but excited disembarking travelers. Given the status Tribali-3, third moon of Tribali-Prime, held as the virtual center of the Confederacy, security was rather more thorough than it had been leaving Horos-Prime. Even so Zeram-El’s forged identification datacard passed him through customs without difficulty. He carried no baggage, and his only clothes were old, worn, and slightly dirty—as was their wearer after a week aboard the cramped Sellstar.  Zeram-El drew no more than a cursory glance from the inspecting customs officer before being scanned through, the middle-aged Tribalese officer not even bothering to ask what the obvious mendicant or refugee’s business on Tribali-3 consisted of.

      Recalling to mind his study of the city made while aboard the Sellstar Zeram-El exited the spaceport and began making his way toward the diplomatic district. Though he had been to Tribali-3 twice before, it had been on official business as part of a Horosian diplomatic team. As such they were given preferential landing pads and transports to fly them wherever it was they needed to go, and so as Zeram-El moved through the crowded city streets he now saw Tribali-3 in a far less glamorous way than he’d been previously accustomed. Zeram-El passed the expected shops, store-fronts and cafes, but also countless beggars, and long lines outside what appeared to be shelters of some sort—the sign above one indicated in Universal that it was a processing center for those displaced by the recent draught in the nearby Trin System. As he passed, one of the aid workers was arguing with a pair of disgruntled Agorinians who apparently couldn’t read Universal. 

      Trin—up until a few days ago he’d been all but unaware of the system, but during the course of his voyage he’d learned plenty—particularly of the mass hardship it’s people were currently experiencing in grips of the longest drought in a century. It was a small system—one habitable planet, no moons, mostly comprised of flatlands, the carbon rich atmosphere nearly too hot and cloudy to allow for farming as it was. If the refugees of Trin had made it this far, he reflected, it was doubtless an official delegation from the planet would’ve already made their way to Tribali-3 to help their Ambassador plead their case to the Congress. 

     Begging like the refugees or officially petitioning, it all amounted to about the same thing. If you had something of value to exchange someone would help you. If you didn’t, well, probably you were on your own.

Trin was on the fringe of the Delavite bloc. Under better circumstances it was likely some aid would’ve been forthcoming from the Delavites; however, Zeram-El knew from conversations with several leading members of his father’s economic cabinet that the Delavites were currently under intense financial pressure in the Congress by the Jakauan and Sperion factions. The situation being what it was, no help was coming.

     That was the problem. There was no central authority to care for and protect those who couldn’t either protect themselves or buy protection from others. And even among those who could afford it—like Horos—the price was high both financially and spiritually. And Zeram-El reflected on his recently arrived at conviction: for good of the people, the Empire must come. 

He was still several blocks away when he saw the green, gray, and gold flag flying high against the empty sky. Slightly larger than the adjoining structures, the squat, square, three story structure looked to be composed of the same opaque stone as those surrounding it. But it was within that particular building that the key to his people’s future resided.

     Selecting a place at the mouth of an alley just down the street from the front of the Embassy, Zeram-El settled down in the dirt to wait.

     Hours passed.

     While he caught no sign of the Kerazaan Imperial Ambassador, Zeram-El, first-born son of Zeram-Ka, Scala of Horos, heir to the throne of Horos, had, however, been the recipient of 2 Hinidian dramachs, 3 Imperials, and 6 Tribalian Arns.  When the first passerby had dropped a coin at his feet Zeram-El had been taken off guard and completely forgotten himself. 

     “You dropped this,” he’d called after the stranger. 

     The almsgiving Tribalian had turned and looked at him puzzlingly, before coming back and taking the coin from Zeram-El’s outstretched hand. 

     Fool, he’d realized upon reflection. Sitting in the dirt, dressed in his intentionally torn and dirtied clothes, what did he expect people to take him for?

     It was getting near the end of the day and Zeram-El tiredly stretched out his legs. Though dull, it had been rather a relief, he thought, sitting and watching the Embassy all day. After the immediate sense of purpose and urgency upon arrival had passed and the reality of the monotony of his self-appointed task had set in, the day had been one of meditation and relaxation. The stress and uncertainty of the preceding months, so carefully masked, had been taking their toll on Zeram-El and he thanked the gods for his afternoon respite.

     First there’d been acquiring the fake identification datacard. All interplanetary transit within the Jakauan Imperium was closely monitored, and falsification of documents was punishable by three years hard labor. After the stress and paranoia of acquiring the fake datacard on a covert trip to the Teandidi market, there had remained the not inconsiderable task of finding a way to escape the constant surveillance of the palace without arousing suspicion. Then had come disguising himself and attempting to use the datacard to sneak off world. Despite his most careful planning, Zeram-El had still been slightly shocked at the plan having come off without a hitch. Passing through security on his way off Horos had been the worst—sure that any second someone from security would haul him away for traveling under a false identity. His unmasking would be brief and his family’s embarrassment extreme, especially as his decided upon pretense for attempting to travel covertly off-world was to have had an illicit liaison with a commoner from Murodoan-Prime. Even more embarrassing, he’d timed this voyage to coincide with his annual Dom, the three-week spiritual period of fasting and isolation expected of members of the royal line, who lived in total seclusion for the duration of that period—the reason for his having been able to escape the supervision of the palace without arousing suspicion.

     Down the street the Embassy was emptying, the dark green uniforms of Imperial bureaucrats filling the street and heading in both directions. Over several minutes the dark green flow of traffic emanating from the building trickled to an end.

     Panicked, Zeram-El craned his neck as inconspicuously as possible.

     Had he missed the Ambassador?

     The distant, low churning of repulsorlifts firing drew his attention, as from atop the embassy a Kerazaan Imperial shuttle rose into view. 

     Fool, Zeram-El cursed himself as he watched the shuttle immediately zoom out of his line of sight over the buildings. Looking around wildly for several moments before realizing there was nothing he could do, Zeram-El dropped back down in the dusty alley—several passersby giving the dirty beggar an odd look at the strangeness of his sudden volatile actions—leaping up and looking desperately every which way. Zeram-El knew he should care, but couldn’t bring himself to worry about having called such attention to himself.

     He had failed.

     Sitting despondent, a relentless barrage of thoughts assaulted him, one after the other.

     The Ambassador traveled around the city in a shuttle—he should have foreseen the likelihood of that very possibility!

     He had thought he would approach the Ambassador in the street after leaving the consulate—what a fool!

     He would have to enter the embassy.

     He had hoped to avoid that at all costs. Who could say who was watching or listening or to whom they might be reporting.       A beggarly Horosian insisting on an audience with the Ambassador—that was madness!

     He couldn’t risk identifying himself to anyone but the Ambassador, but short of doing so he realized he had no hope whatsoever of being granted an audience with him.

     The sun was going down.

     His people needed him—he must not fail!

     Both terrifying and enervating, Zeram-El returned his attention to the building housing the Kerazaan Embassy. 

     How he was going to do it, he had no idea: but he was going to break in, and wait to speak to the Ambassador when he arrived the following morning.

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