Harold Zamona gingerly picked up the glass and began to drink. The poison within the beverage mixed well, creating an unusual flavor. He would still prefer to not take such measures in his endless quest to weaken himself, but he did take some wry pleasure from the knowledge that he probably had the most discerning palate of any human where strength-sapping poisons were concerned. The gauntlets were more effective by far, but when used in conjunction with other means he could feel like he wasn’t constantly on the verge of overpowering their capabilities.
The large monitor on the side of his meditation room crackled to life with an annoying chime. Harold glared at his beverage and made a pointed decision to finish his drink. The chiming grew more insistent in tone, volume, and frequency while he finished the last poisonous drop. He carefully set the glass back onto its table, and turned to face the screen.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said.
The computer knew enough of his moods to interpret that statement as an activation command. Emperor Dyson’s genial face appeared on the screen. His immaculate outfit and well trimmed beard annoyed Harold more than it should have.
“Harry,” said the Emperor. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No,” said Harold. “It’s not a bad time. Not as such. Morcala is trying my patience.”
“Oh? Is there no fight in you, then?”
“There’s plenty of fight in me. The Morcalans aren’t fighters. They’re play actors.”
“Quite committed to their roles, though.”
“Yes. They’ll march to their death even if ordered not to by a superior. I told you that having Admiral Cresh in our pocket wouldn’t be enough.”
“I concede that you were correct,” said the Emperor. “The Neural Guidance Facilitators are either not ready, or the Morcalans are made of sterner stuff. It took too long to affect just one of them, and even his position of power was not enough to sway the masses.”
“The Suzerain would have been more effective. She has less control over the military, but more influence on public opinion.”
“What’s done is done,” said the Emperor, waving his hand dismissively. “We have enough of a foothold to fight the Morcalans as we would any other planet.”
“I’m still not convinced of that. We may need to leave a greater force than usual here. A token military presence with automated troops won’t suffice.”
“Not yet,” said the Emperor. “My hope is that we will soon discover an internal conflict. Their personal pride will override their patriotism in due time.”
“Don’t underestimate them,” said Harold. “They’re already unorganized, and their guerila tactics are almost more effective than their standard military techniques were when they were following orders. They nearly destroyed the lens before extraction.”
“They did?” asked the Emperor. A look of genuine concern crossed his face.
“Did you not know? It was in my report.”
The Emperor looked crestfallen, as if the suggestion that victory had not been such a certainty was a greater loss than an actual failing would have been.
“That is… upsetting. I apologize, Harry. I hadn’t taken the time. That lens is nearly irreplaceable.”
“And essential for the final stage.”
“Yes. It is. Using it as a weapon now is, as always, a tremendous risk.”
Emperor Dyson slumped in his throne. Zamona considered, not for the first time, how much of an effort he put into the show of it all.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We got it out in time. And even if they’d been able to damage it, we would have been able to repair the damage. It would have slowed us down, but they wouldn’t have damaged it beyond the point of repair.”
“Good,” said the Emperor. “Excellent. I’m eager to leave Morcalan space and continue our great work elsewhere. Do you have our next targets in mind?”
“I do,” said Harold. “Other systems are finally beginning to take note, and governments within the Angelor Republic are considering you more than a local problem now. We can expect stronger preparations against our arrivals moving forward. But thanks to your technology, Emperor, we won’t have to keep moving in a straight line. Or even a continuous one.”
Dyson sat up in his chair.
“Oh, wonderful… we harvested enough energy for the entire fleet to use?”
“More than enough,” said Harold. “Once we finish establishing ourselves here, we’ll have our pick of any system in the Republic.”