Everything seemed to be going Vydor's way, until the Dragon Claw was sent on a rather unusual assignment to investigate a minor incident deep within the Empire's space. That would send Vydor down a path filled with fantastically powerful enemies and extraordinary friends that would obliterate everything he ever understood to be true and threaten the very foundations of the Empire itself.
"All senior staff report to the conference room for mission briefing," came a call over the ship's loudspeaker.
I had been serving on this ship for a while now, but this was our first serious mission since I joined the crew. I did not know why the captain accepted my appointment to his senior staff, but I knew that I must perform beyond expectations if I wanted to stay. Some other senior staff members were unhappy with his choice; partly because he passed over people they felt were better qualified, but mainly because I was an outsider to their group.
This mission was very unusual for a ship of this caliber, and that seemed to make the crew uncomfortable. There was an almost tangible sense of unease everywhere I went on the ship. That bothered me. I could not put my finger on the feeling but it did not seem natural, and I did not like it when things were not the way they should be.
The conference room had big double doors which, apart from their size, were completely unremarkable. An honor guard made up from the captain's personal security forces flanked the doors. Deep in the heart of the flagship there was very little chance of any security risks; the position was more one of honor than necessity here.
The honor guard was extremely dedicated to their job and those who desired this position spent their entire lives working to achieve this high distinction. Only the best of the best were considered, and even then there was intense competition among those few for that position of honor. An outsider looking in might think they were statues; they did not even blink as I passed them and entered the conference room.
In this room there was a large oval table. I had been told that the captain wanted a round table instead of the traditional rectangle, but the room was too narrow to allow it. I did not know if this was true, but it fit in with the captain's desire to encourage everyone to take part in these meetings. The room was barren except for the table, a few personal monitors, and a large viewing screen. The idea was to make sure that nothing would distract anyone from the tasks and responsibilities given to us by the Emperor.
By the time I arrived everyone had already taken his seat, with the exception of the captain who had not yet arrived. First on the right of the captain's chair was the big and powerful presence of Zalith. He was the Chief Tactical Officer of the Dragon Claw. His primary function on the ship was to lead the military operations and to advise the captain on all matters referring to weapons and combat. In addition, the infantry on board reported directly to him and through him to the captain. If anything happened to the captain, he would assume command.
Zalith was a Zalionian, a member of a reptilian race that was one of the first races to join the Empire. They made up the bulk of the military might of the Empire. Their loyalty was without question, but they tended to favor a strong aggressive stance, and lived by the motto, "The best defense is an overpowering offense."
Zalith had served with the captain for several decades, far longer than any other member of the senior staff. Together they had served on countless missions, and as a team they had never failed the Empire.
Seated next to Zalith was Dr. Rannor, Chief of Medical Operations for the Dragon Claw and each of our support vessels. In addition to that, he was in charge of any biological samples that we collected or used as weapons. While his primary function was handling the healing of our crew he, like all of us, was on the ship for one reason only: to crush the enemies of the Empire. He had joined the staff about five years earlier when the famous Dr. Smith retired.
Dr. Rannor, like most of the executive crew, was human. Humans founded the Empire in a time lost to history. To this day, humans tend to be found in all the key positions of authority throughout the Empire. Indeed, with the exception of Zalith the entire senior staff of the Dragon Claw was made up of humans.
My seat came next. I was the youngest member of the staff; indeed, I was the youngest member of the Imperial Navy ever to serve on the captain's senior staff. My youth was the reason that most of the staff did not fully trust my judgment. I think they saw me as a child trying to play an adult game.
Next to me sat Larath. He was the Chief Morale Officer. Because of the vast distances and time involved in space travel, people started to think of their ships as home, and their crewmates as family. This bonding proved to be very beneficial, as it encouraged loyalty and sacrifice, yet at the same time very troublesome for the Navy. From time to time fights would break out, or weddings occur. To handle this, the Empire determined that there needed to be a department whose job it was to handle interpersonal issues. These issues ranged from homesickness to mental breakdowns, weddings and funerals. If it was a personal problem, it fell in Larath's department. Larath was also fairly new to the staff, but was a well-respected veteran of the fleet.
Commander Jones, Chief of Alien Relations, or head diplomat, took the final seat. He was an expert in all alien peoples and cultures. All peoples not part of the Empire were considered to be aliens. It was his primary responsibility to handle any and all contacts with the aliens, and to advise the captain on all matters relating to them. The captain specifically chose Commander Jones for his staff less than a year ago, but like Larath he was a well-respected veteran.
The captain, as always, arrived last. I had been told he did this so the staff could talk before he arrived and have time to make final preparations. Normally the staff would take advantage of this time to chat about random topics. I, of course, could do nothing more than listen, since they never included me in their conversations; even if they did I would not know much of what they were speaking of, as it always related to their long service in the Navy.
This time not much was happening in the way of talking. The uncertainty and unusual nature of this mission seemed to have everyone on edge. The situation we were heading into did not make sense, and no one liked that, least of all me.
The captain entered the room, and immediately what little conversation there was ceased. Even amongst his inner circle the captain had an aura that spoke of the power of the Empire. He was in charge of the Dragon Claw, the most powerful ship ever to be built. The Empire had never suffered a defeat when the captain brought the Dragon Claw to bear. Despite the fact thathe was human, his reputation was as ruthless and deadly as any Zalionian. At unofficial functions his senior staff would have no problem talking to him like an equal, but this was not one of those times. The seriousness of the situation was made all the more apparent by the look on his face and his gruff silence as he took his seat.
"Okay, men, we've got quite a problem on our hands," said the captain. "I am going to play the last transmission we received from Arken IV, then Zalith will bring everyone up to date with what we know." The captain started the transmission on the main screen with a touch of his console.
[Begin transmission] "... I don't have much time; they'll be here soon. I am Lieutenant Tom of the Imperial Navy. I was part of the preliminary task force sent here to attempt to bring peace to the colony... I can hear them coming, not much time left ...When we arrived the place was in shambles, far worse than we expected. We thought we could handle it, though; that was until we learned of them. They wiped out the entire class-three task force before we could establish a secure base. They were unstoppable, came from every direction at once. Wait, what's that noise? . . .They're at the door ... By the Emperor!" [End transmission]