Chapter 31

“Desperate times call for desperate measures”

For hours, Valaal kept pouring through more and more reports. Unfortunately, no matter how much he re-read them, they didn’t tell him anything new. He’d have to adopt a different approach.

“Commander.”

His assistant’s call brought him out of his reverie. For once, Zaada didn’t have to give any explanations, her facial expression and demeanour conveyed her worries more clearly than her well educated voice could have. It was at those times that he thought the female had potential. If he could understand human thinking, and understand what the Empress was doing, he may still have some more uses of her.

“There is a problem, Zaada,” he said, and she opened her eyes strangely wide at the direct familiarity he had used. “We may have to think about our own survival very soon.”

Zaada assented, but remained silent, while Valaal laid back inside his cocoon and closed his eyes, thinking. As she had expected, it wasn’t long before her Commander came up with a plan of action.

“Go through all trackers and intelligence agents. Find me someone skilled, who has been recommended by the Empress, and who has not been promoted due to disciplinary issues,” he said, opening his eyes and looking at her; she looked like she hadn’t even listened, and a moment later she approached him directly, licking her sharp teeth and with a very hungry look in her face.

Well, it can wait, Valaal thought, grinning wickedly.

An hour later, a scruffy-looking Livuan was dragged in front of the Supreme Commander’s presence. Tall, broad shouldered, unkempt green hair over a long narrow face, and unusually large sharp teeth in a wicked-looking wide grin. There was something deeply disturbing about his elfin appearance, much too elfin even for Livuan standards.

“I believe you are Tikaae?” Valaal asked directly.

“What do you want?” the Livuan replied, just as directly.

“You know who I am,” Valaal said, getting no answer; he turned to his secretary and gestured with his head. “Remove his restraints.”

“Commander!” She gasped. “Security aboard our ship is to be kept following carefully planned protocols, specially in sensitive command and staging areas where the most important personnel and equipment is found. No restraints are put in place without-”

“Just close your tiny mouth already,” Tikaae interrupted, earning himself a shocked and annoyed look from Zaada.

She looked at Valaal, who merely assented wordlessly. After only the smallest hesitation, she produced her master key and, with some fiddling, released the restraints, which fell with a hollow metallic noise on the ground.

Less than a heartbeat later, Tikaae had thrown her aside with a backhand on her face, sending her skidding several yards on the floor, and had rushed at Valaal. The Supreme Commander waited calmly, and as his opponent lunged, fast but clumsily, he sidestepped and took him by the arm and shoulder. He could feel the power under the crazy exterior of that man, the kind of raw potential that could surpass even his own if nurtured properly. With a quick move he sent Tikaae crashing down on the floor face first, breaking several bones in the process.

“Good!” Valaal said.

Tikaae grunted in pain on the floor, refusing to scream.

“Commander,” Zaada spoke as she painfully got up, nursing a blackened bruise on her left cheek, “discipline on the troops is of the utmost importance, and if anyone should fail to observe disciplinary measures…”

Valaal let her speak on and on, aware of how angry she was due to how meticulously she was reciting security protocols and disciplinary actions in the ship. All the while, he kept an eye on the tracker in front of him. There was no doubt, he was very strong, the Empress must have empowered him something fierce. But for whatever reason he didn’t fit in her plans. Demoted on every promotion, fights – more than the usual at least -, and no respect for authority.

Perhaps respect for strength would do.

He was perfect to gain insight on the Empress’ plans, and as a tool to find that place that so had interested Her Exalted Highness.

What fascinated Valaal was his directness. That was the sign of a tainted Livuan, one who had spent a lot of time on missions in the human enemy lines. Most of those who did so and survived earned promotions and honours, front-line experience is invaluable in any war. But that meant experienced people were out of reach for him, as promotion meant being brought into the sphere of the Empress.

There is something about this human taint. I’ve felt it myself, though not as bad as this poor fool. If there are more people like him, I may have a chance.

While he mused, Zaada had finished her detailed recount of the rules and regulations for discipline and safety.

“Stand up,” he ordered, ignoring his assistant for the time being. “I’m not looking for a weakling who can’t take a few scratches.”

“Commander!” Zaada protested.

Without a word, Valaal raised his hand to silence her. Mumbling something unintelligible, Tikaae slowly stood up as ordered, and even with his wobbly, uneasy step, he didn’t lose his fierce look.

“I see you have a problem with authority,” Valaal said.

“By the regulations of Her Exalted Highness,” Tikaae spoke in a hoarse voice, “acts of insubordination are to be dealt with by removal of rank privileges, and corrective measures for the restoration of the harmony within the ranks.”

Valaal ginned and, without answering, sat back in his cocoon, turning to the information terminal. After the initial surprise, his secretary did the same in hers. A moment later, he was showing his rebellious underling the recovered footage from the spybug.

“We are currently in the process of collecting information pertaining a new development by the humans, a new power which could cause some concern, or even prove useful if it were to be properly harnessed. The lack of information is rather embarrassing, but as evidenced by the uncommon loss of quality equipment in the region,” Valaal waved at a control, and the large map of the communication-blocked region came into view, “it would be best to investigate using unorthodox methods. A small team with full autonomy and responsibility.”

Tikaae’s expression lit up. “Answerable?” he asked eagerly, and the sharp directness of his question delighted Valaal.

“To me, directly,” he said, staring into Tikaae’s eyes. “Choose your team and equipment, and get the job done.”

After the initial eagerness, Tikaae appeared unsure for a moment, scrutinizing Valaal’s expression as he looked for signs of a lie.

“You’re serious,” he concluded.

“I believe this arrangement would be to your liking.”

“Very. But I work alone,” Tikaae said, straightening up despite the broken bones.

“Something I will believe once you complete your mission.” Valaal gestured at the projection. “These are the only clues we have at the moment. The images of the place, which appears to be hidden somewhere in this region, and the young female humans involved.”

Valaal replayed all recordings, while Tikaae examined them very carefully. One of the faces appeared in all recordings, the others were varied, and their weapons were unknown. All very mysterious, and as Tikaae had correctly surmised, far too tempting for a tracker.

“I’ll do this.”

“Good. Go to the medical bay and get yourself fixed before you leave. Take any equipment you may require. But remember, no senseless killing. We want to recover this power.”

“Not a problem,” he said, licking his sharp teeth before doing a mock salute and turning away, leaving the room with a determined look on his face.

“Commander, is it wise to rely on individuals of dubious fitness to achieve important objectives?” Zaada asked. “I appreciate that unorthodox approaches have proven successful against these humans, but there is an increased risk associated with such strategies that should, perhaps, be evaluated before action is taken.”

“I know his type well, Zaada,” Valaal replied offhandedly. “Stubborn individualists who want to achieve by their own hands. They are a poor fit for our ranks, but they are not without their uses. Their actions put them close to those of humans,” he looked at his secretary and grinned wickedly, “I can control him, and they are most useful when dealing with humans.”

Valaal reviewed the list of lost equipment in the region. Foot soldiers, several manned and unmanned bipedals, a few spybugs, but even more surprisingly, a beetlefortress with a full compliment of assault units. Disappeared without a trace.

Not the first time we lose one, but it has always been with great cost to the humans.

“Zaada, start searching for potential replacements for him.”

“Yes, Commander,” she answered, clearly relishing the prospect.

And I hope he dies a horrible, painful death, she thought, nursing the bruise on her cheek.

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