The Emperor’s ceremonial barge orbited high above Salusa Secundus, in the midst of huge, ominous warships. Its interior glittered with gold and precious gems; its flashy hull was sculpted with curves and adornments that served no purpose. By far the most ostentatious vessel in the fleet, the barge was a stunning sight to those who were easily swayed by such things. Salvador had adored it.
Even though Roderick Corrino, the new Emperor, found it much too gaudy for his tastes, he understood the necessity of ceremony, especially so soon after assuming the throne following the death—no, the murder—of his brother.
Another Imperial necessity was for him to bring justice to Directeur Josef Venport, the man who had engineered Salvador’s assassination. His warships were gathering.
Roderick had thick blond hair and chiseled features, and stood tall in the scarlet-and-gold robe of his noble house. Feeling regal as well as powerful, he faced a wide viewing window in the barge’s multilevel command center. Gathered in orbit, his assembled strike force—hundreds of battleships—prepared for a surprise attack against the Venport stronghold.
Roderick was eager to see them launch, but this had to be done with absolute precision. The Imperial Armed Forces would have only one chance to overwhelm Venport by catching him unawares.
The Emperor watched his warships glide into holding arrays within an immense foldspace carrier that orbited ahead of the barge. The carrier’s Holtzman engines could traverse great distances in the blink of an eye, although the carrier pilot was effectively flying blind without the guidance of an advanced Navigator.
Only Venport Holdings knew how to create Navigators, advanced beings who could foresee safe pathways through the vast reaches of space, and Josef Venport had withdrawn them all from Imperial service when his crime was exposed. As soon as the outlaw Venport was defeated and his assets seized, though, the entire Imperium would have Navigators. That was merely one more benefit—and an important one—of crushing the Directeur. Roderick clenched his fist.
General Vinson Roon, commander of the strike force to Kolhar, stood at crisp attention beside him. He held his red-and-gold officer’s cap in his hands.
“I anticipate a swift and glorious victory, Sire.” Roon acted indignant on the Emperor’s behalf. The noble-born General was in his late forties, Roderick’s age, though he was shorter and more muscular. Roon had dark skin, jet-black hair, and an intense manner. The two men had a tumultuous personal history, which Roderick did his best to ignore right now.
“Yes, swift and glorious would be my preference, Vinson.” He used the General’s first name intentionally. He and Roon had been boyhood friends until an unfortunate falling out—over a woman, of course. Since then, they had spoken only during formal military meetings with other officers and high-level advisers, but it was time to put all that nonsense behind them. The Imperium was at stake.
Roderick knew he could count on this man, whose loyalty and dedication to the Imperium had never been in doubt. Without turning from the viewing window, the Emperor said, “Venport Holdings must be struck down before they have time to entrench themselves further. We need to move soon.”
This strike force had been assembled hastily in secret, and would launch within the next few days. The Emperor was gambling a significant portion of his military defenses that were normally stationed around Salusa Secundus, but a successful crackdown on VenHold would greatly increase security all across the Imperium, making it worth the risk. Roderick intended it to be a swift decapitation mission to kill or capture Directeur Venport, seize his operations on Kolhar, and cripple his widespread business operations.
Then Roderick would be in firm control of the Imperium.
Two months ago, just when his guilt was revealed, Venport had escaped with the aid of Norma Cenva. Since then, the Directeur had abruptly withdrawn all VenHold commercial ships, cut off trade, and left many planets in dire need of provisions. The repercussions were only beginning to be felt, and they would grow much worse. Private fleets scrambled to pick up the slack, but no other interstellar transport company was as reliable as the VenHold Spacing Fleet—because no one else had Navigators.
Venport also held part of the Imperial military hostage, thanks to a disastrous circumstance. One entire battle group of the Imperial Armed Forces—seventy warships—had been traveling routinely aboard a VenHold carrier when the whole crisis began. The Imperial ships were powerful, but did not have Holtzman engines, so they needed to be delivered to their destination via spacefolders. For years, VenHold carriers had transported the Emperor’s battleships as part of their service to the Imperium, but now a key portion of those powerful vessels were being held by the enemy, locked away and taken off the board like pieces in a galactic chess game.
Roderick muttered, “He means to hamstring us, and force us to bow to his demands.”
“Do we even know what his demands are, Sire?” asked the General, still watching the ships move aboard the gigantic carrier. “He has been silent since he withdrew to Kolhar. I thought he was on the run and hiding from justice.”