A Preview of A Greater Duty
What am I doing here? Nayasar Khariah resisted the urge to lean her lithe, leonine form back in her chair and rest her feet on the console in front of her, instead settling for tapping the desk in front of her with the clawed tips of her fingers. She was the grand admiral of the Royal Felinaris Navy, its highest ranking officer; there was decorum to maintain. Which meant that this would be another day of sitting, not moving much, and going over reports. It made her miss the more hands-on command roles she’d held as a more junior officer.
Not that Nayasar disliked her position. Far from it, she’d wanted this more than anything. Her appointment almost exactly one year earlier had been the culmination of over eight years of hard work—not counting all of her time in training—dedication, and some luck. Well, as much as luck truly existed. Most other Felinaris would prefer to say divine intervention or guidance, but Nayasar didn’t like automatically attributing everything to the will of the Omnipresent. Though she had to admit, things had worked out pretty well.
An indicator flashed, indicating another report had arrived. Nayasar sighed, brushed a few strands of golden hair away from her face and scratched at an itch just behind one of her tufted ears. After a moment’s thought she pulled an elastic band off of her wrist and tied her barely shoulder-length hair back in a tail. Felivas liked it loose, he said it gave a nice glow to her face and complemented her matching fur. Well, it would be easily let out later, once Felivas got back from his inspection. It was remarkable how much more hands-on even his position as admiral was than hers.
Nayasar pulled on the edge of her desk to roll her chair into a better position to read the report that had come up on the monitor. Inspecting a newly completed and staffed fighter base was below Felivas’s station as an admiral, of course, but he’d never been able to fully remove himself from his first love, piloting. Nayasar shook her head as she scanned the report. Maybe she should do the same, find a way to go inspect some combat units, spend some more time with the regular soldiers, somewhere that smelled less… sterile. It would technically be even further below her to do so, but as much as she loved her position, the fact was it really was a desk job. That was the trade-off, she supposed, for doing the most she could to serve her people—and of course, stepping down at any point would look bad, considering the minor controversy that had accompanied her appointment. As the oldest child of the current king and heir to the throne, some had worried that a bit too much power would be in the hands of one family. And after the lengths her father had gone to to mollify those critics, Nayasar could not—would not—disappoint him.
But still, the sheer monotony of regular daily activity wore on her, the fact that she didn’t get to do anything beyond sit at a desk reading reports or repsonding to messages and requests, or holding meetings with people ranging from other officers to government officials to civilian defense companies. All important tasks, to be sure, but none of it felt remotely military, at least not as she saw it. Of course, she didn’t hope for a conflict, but she was by nature a fighter, not a figurehead, and sooner or later—probably sooner—she’d have to make a decision about what she truly wanted, and what was best for Felinar.
She rested a hand for a moment on the picture of Felivas that sat on her desk, then spun around and stood up, which caused the other officers in the room to follow suit. Nayasar forced herself not to grimace, and to keep her tail from twitching; it wasn’t so much the constant show of respect that made her uncomfortable, it was just awkward for so many people many years her senior to do so. “Come on, I thought I made it clear that this was unnecessary,” she said mostly to herself.
Nayasar motioned to one of the officers, a lieutenant who didn’t seem particularly busy at the moment, to join her as she walked toward the back of the large operations room.
“Do you feel bored, Lieutenant?” Nayasar asked as she tried to match a name to the young, brown-furred officer. Taris, that was it.
Lieutenant Reisah Taris raised an eyebrow. “Bored, Srei Felitzvah?”
Even after almost a year in the position, it still felt weird to be referred to by that title; to much of her mind, that title belonged to some unreachable officer far above her. “You heard me, Lieutenant Taris,” Nayasar replied as she clasped her hands behind her back. “Not bored at the lack of conflict—I thank the Omnipresent daily for our current peace—but at the fact that most of us officers are occupied with desk work all day, with no time spent drilling, and barely any in the firing ranges.”
“I suppose so, maybe a little, then, Srei Felitzvah,” Taris replied. “I can still remember the feelings from my first time at the range, and those early combat exercises. I’d never felt more alive. But why are you asking me this?”
Nayasar smiled. “Because I wanted to hear it from someone else before I admitted it myself. I’m considering implementing some kind of regular training for officers, to keep us fresh and get us out of these rooms sometimes. I don’t suppose you’d object, then?”
Taris smiled as well. “Not in the slightest.”
Nayasar nodded. “Excellent. Dismissed, Lieutenant.” Nayasar gave Taris a brief salute, raising the first three fingers of her left hand to the right side of her face, where they rested next to her mouth, eye, and ear, respectively—yet another aspect of civilian Felinaris culture that had become a military custom. Taris returned the gesture, using her right hand, as Nayasar was her superior, before returning to her station.
Nayasar was about to continue her walk around the room and back to her desk when an alarm blared. The proximity alarm. She made her way to the center of the room, where space traffic was monitored. “Report!” she ordered as her heart began to race and her ears flattened atop her head unconsciously. “Get me the identity of this ship!” Was it smugglers again? Or an escaped convict hoping for sanctuary on Felinar, now that the world had been expelled from the Galactic Alliance?
“I’m trying, Srei Felitzvah, but it’s proving difficult. For some reason I can’t get a clear reading on the ship—ships, and I can’t tell exactly how many there are. I don’t know how or why, but they slipped past our long-range detection systems.”
“How long until they arrive in our space?”
“Less than five minutes, Srei Felitzvah. Once they come out of hyperspace we’ll be able to get a good scan in, no matter how they jammed our long-range sensors.”
“Understood. Order the nearest warships to move to intercept. I will have an answer from these trespassers.”
“Acknowledged. The Golden Claw, Vaneil, and Deviras should be just quick enough to meet the unidentified ships as they leave hyperspace.”
“Very good,” Nayasar replied. “Keep me informed.”
This wouldn’t be the first time a handful of ships had slipped close to Felinaris space; smugglers made a living on being able to evade detection as long as possible. Perhaps it would turn out to be nothing, but her tail still twitched slightly.
Of course, she’d never been particularly good at relaxing. This would be the first successful incursion so deep into their space since Felinar and its colonies had been expelled from the Galactic Alliance over an exaggerated trade dispute and hurt feelings, after the Felinaris had once again embarassed some of the Alliance’s most favored and influential members—stupid politics. They’d really just been looking for an excuse to be rid of the Felinaris for years. Things had been peaceful, if tense, but she had upped security a bit just to be on the safe side. But what if she hadn’t done enough?
Don’t be stupid, she said to herself. The Alliance would never launch a large-scale invasion of Felinar; it was still just a relatively loose central government of often conflicting interests, more a coalition than a true greater society. Besides, they knew full well that an attack here would result in very heavy losses, even if they did succeed. And, of course, Nayasar still had enough ears in Alliance space that she would have significant warning of a major movement.
“Srei Felitzvah, the ships are exiting hyperspace now.”
Nayasar glanced back at the screen as the proximity alarm continued to sound, though at a slightly lower volume than before. As she watched, a ship appeared. Then another. Then another. They just kept coming. This was no smuggling run.
“How could there be so many?” she asked as a pit formed in her stomach.
“They masked themselves very well while in hyperspace, Srei Felitzvah,” one of the officers replied. “They must’ve known they couldn’t escape complete detection.”
“I want information on those ships! Magnify images as much you can. I want names, owners, planet of origin, now!” she ordered. “And someone open a channel.”
“They are ignoring all attempts at communication,” stated an older officer stationed a short distance away.
They were getting closer to Felinaris space. On the screen, Nayasar could see her three warships approaching the mysterious new arrivals, who numbered somewhere in the thirties or forties, a mismatched bunch of small to mid-sized vessels. When the display finally zoomed in, Nayasar could easily make out weapons on their hulls.
“Warships within firing range in sixty seconds,” announced one of officers.
“Open a channel to these ships one more time,” Nayasar ordered. One last chance.
Once she was notified that the channel was open, she began. “Unidentified ships, you are entering sovereign Felinaris space illegally. Stop where you are and establish communications, or we will open fire.” Nayasar waited a few tense moments that felt like hours because her heart was beating so fast, but the ships did not respond.
“Unidentified ships within weapons range.”
“Give the order to fire at will.”
On the screen, Nayasar watched as the warships unloaded on the intruders. Almost immediately several disappeared in flaming explosions, while others veered off course, away from the main group, too damaged to continue.
But the rest of the ships didn’t stop. They flew through the barrage and continued past the warships, toward the planet. The volume of fire wasn’t enough.
“Order pursuit!” she shouted, her right hand clenching into a fist.
There was no question now, this was an attack. Everyone in the room knew it, and the eyes of everyone not immediately doing something were drawn to the display.
“What are the nearest military staging areas to the intruders?” Nayasar asked.
A few seconds later, a female officer replied. “The nearest one would be over an hour’s flight at their current speed.”
That was good. There were few defeats worse than those incurred while your forces were still in their bases. But surely these ships knew they would never last another hour so close to Felinar. What was their game?
“Srei Felitzvah, we have some information on the intruders. All ships reported as privately owned, no governmental affiliations. Some have records, most do not.” A lieutenant read the report as another ran a portable display to Nayasar. She didn’t recognize any of them.
“Worlds of origin?”
“They are listed as from several different systems, but most of them are from Darvian space. Just about half of them.”
Darvians. Longtime enemies of her people, and the ones who had played the biggest role in Felinar’s ousting from the Alliance. There was no question about their intentions.
“Can we predict their course?”
“Yes, Srei Felitzvah, but… it doesn’t make sense. They are not moving toward any major military installations, or any tactically significant areas at all. If they follow their current course, the first populated area they will reach is Selban.”
Selban? Selban was as average a city as there was on Felinar; not large, not home to anything militarily or economically crucial. Just a lot of ordinary people… no… they wouldn’t—yes, Darvians would.
“Broadcast a high alert notice to all forces!” Nayasar snapped. “Get everything we have in the air; I want those ships stopped before they reach Selban! Inform the local authorities of the situation, have them clear the sky of civilian aircraft and get as many people as possible into shelters or out of the city. Now!”
After a split second of silence, the command center erupted into a flurry of activity as her orders were carried out. The others had probably figured out what she had.
“Srei Felitzvah,” said the quiet voice of her direct subordinate in the command center, the elderly High Captain Felikhar Terias. “I gather from your orders that you believe these intruders mean to attack Selban.” Over the many years she’d known him, Felikhar had always been calm and collected in any situation. But now there was fear in his voice. He probably knew better than she how long it would take both the intruders to reach Selban and Felinaris ships to intercept them. It would be too close.
“Yes, High Captain. That is correct.” Nayasar felt her hands clench into tight fists. “Whoever is behind this intrusion knows that they have no hope of hurting us where we are strong, so they go after our weakest.” She clenched her fists harder, until she felt her claws digging into her skin. “I should have prepared better for this. They should never have been able to reach the planet.”
“No one can plan for everything,”
Nayasar was contemplating what to say, as she watched a display track the ships’ movement, when her personal communicator began to ring. Felivas.
“Nayasar, what’s going on?” Felivas asked as soon as Nayasar accepted his call. “What ships breached our space?” His breathing was faster than normal, as if he’d been running.
“Unknown, but many of them originated on Darvia; not Alliance forces, but all ships are of Alliance species. They’ve evaded our initial interceptors and are heading directly for Selban. I believe they mean to attack the city.”
Felivas hissed in a breath and muttered a curse. “This base is the closest to the city. We’ll stop them.” Nayasar heard him shout that he was assuming command of the base’s fighter squadrons, and called for a ship to be readied for him. “Nayasar,” he continued, “I’m going with them. We’ll get there as quickly as possible and stop these attackers.”
“Be careful,” was all Nayasar could think to say.
“Always,” Felivas replied, then ended the transmission.
Nayasar turned back to the display. There was nothing more she could do apart from watch. Watch and pray. Fly quickly, Felivas.
The minutes passed by agonizingly slowly. The circles representing the intruders steadily moved over the still wild areas of Felinar, ever closer to the city, while fighters launched by warships in orbit flew in pursuit, gaining too slowly, and the fighter groups led by Felivas streamed toward Selban from the remote base.
“Intruders will reach the city in three minutes,” announced an officer.
“And the interceptors?”
A heavy silence settled over the room, only punctuated by the damned alarm and bleeps from the tracking display.
So useless. There was nothing more she could do here, nothing any of them could do. Nayasar looked around, and saw in addition to many people staring at the screen, many others had their heads bent and eyes closed, mouths moving in silent prayer.
Nayasar considered doing the same, offering a prayer to the Omnipresent, but all she could think of was that it was her responsibility to protect her people, not His. She clasped her hands tightly behind her back, to project a confidence that she did not feel and to give her hands something to do.
“Intruders sixty seconds from Selban. Interceptors still nearly two minutes out.” Someone stated. Had it been nearly an hour already?
“Any visuals?” another asked.
“I think so… yes. Receiving a visual from one of the interceptors, magnified, as well as a visual from the ground.”
Nayasar forced herself to unclench her hands before she cut herself, and first looked at the image sent from one of the fighters’ cameras. If they had a visual, then soon they could begin to fire missiles.
“Open a feed to the fighter channel,” Nayasar ordered.
Just as they did, she heard Felivas’s voice. “Targets in range, weapons free.”
Missiles screamed out from the fighters in great numbers, slamming into the leading enemy ships just as they reached the city. Even as several of the mismatched ships became fireballs, however, she saw others launching projectiles and unguided munitions at the city below, and her heart caught in her throat.
The visual display from the ground showed the true damage as massive, fiery explosions erupted throughout the city. Nayasar couldn’t bring herself to look away as buildings collapsed, fires spread, even as the fighters continued to eliminate their targets, which were completely ignoring the military craft.
Any hit that was not immediately fatal the savages turned into more damage. Ships that were losing altitude would direct their descent to impact into the largest nearby building and deploy any remaining munitions. The pilot chatter indicated that they noticed this as well and began unloading far more firepower than normal into the attacking craft to completely annihilate them in the air. Nayasar felt her hands clench again.
Then the visual from the ground cut out after another huge explosion. Nayasar heard others in the room gasp or utter prayers, but all she could do was watch and focus on staying on her feet.
Before long, the battle was over, and the interceptors reported that every intruding vessel had been destroyed. No one in the room cheered.
The view from the fighters showed the devastation wrought on the simple, innocent city; nearly every tall building was damaged if not destroyed, fires raged unchecked, and bodies… Omnipresent preserve, the bodies. Nayasar did not bother to try and hold back tears.
Failed them. She had failed in her duty to protect her people, and now how many were dead? Hundreds? Thousands? Her communicator began to ring; Felivas, again.
“I failed them,” she said before Felivas could utter a word. “I was supposed to protect them.”
“There was nothing more you could have done,” Felivas said evenly, though it was clear he felt much like she did. “Nothing more any of us could have done. The people that did this are dead. Now our people need you to lead them through this.”
Nayasar didn’t respond, barely able to keep herself upright, watery eyes still staring at the destruction and death. I’m sorry I failed you.
“Nayasar?” she heard Felivas say. “Nayasar, are you there? Are you alright?”
No, Nayasar decided as Felivas called her name again, she was not. And she could not even say for certain that she ever would be again.