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  • Writer's pictureMilton Davis

The End of the Known

Khalid Cassad was nothing like his father. He was conservative rather than opulent; compassionate rather than ruthless; cautious rather than impetuous. Some said he was not the man his father would have chosen to take the Stool and many agreed Khalid would not have suffered from the slight. But some-times life and circumstances give few choices and fewer freedoms . . .

-Samake. Cassad djele/historian. From The Cassad Chronicles

Khalid threw the covers aside and sat up on his cot. He gripped his head and clinched his teeth, a mixture of pain and fear filling his mind. The headaches were not new; they were known among the imperial physicians as ‘The Cassad Curse.’ There was no effective treatment, only the gnashing of teeth and gripping something durable for the duration of the attack. The only consolation was that they were infrequent and brief.

But this attack was particularly violent. Khalid felt as if he was experiencing physical damage, as if his mind was being ripped apart. He wanted to cry out but he would not; he was a Cassad, heir to Ose XXIV, Balogun of the Sons of War and commander of eight hundred ships streaking across the Telian Gap to confront the latest alien insurgence. He had no time for this. He tried to stand but vertigo sent him back to his cot. He would have to ride it out as he had the others. If that was not possible, he would resort to other means, means that would compromise his actions and jeopardize his mission.

The Known burned. The colonies were in rebellion, led by the very families granted title and status by the Stool now armed and calling for Cassad blood. The aliens had also risen, finally putting their deep hatred of one another aside to unite against a common enemy. Cassad forces battled throughout the Empire, fighting foes that had once been friends while Empire intelligence sifted through millions of cryptic signals to discover who would betray The Stool next.

But the alien threat was clear. Emboldened by the revolt, the aliens rose to shake off the imperial yoke, led by Gendala, a half-Cassadite claiming lineage to the Stool. According to Khalid’s father her claims were legitimate. So it was only appropriate that the future heir of the Stool deal with the threat of an unruly sister.

Khalid gritted his teeth as his door slid open. Thomas Keel, his bridge captain, stepped into his room.

“Sir, long range scanners have detected the alien fleet,” Thomas said.

Khalid stood, forcing himself not to sway. “Good. Let’s end this thing once and for all.”

His headache subsided as they walked to the helm. Kha-lid studied Thomas, trying to dampen the suspicion rising in his head. Thomas was descended from the First. His family accepted an off-world appointment reluctantly but had managed Thrace well, always meeting the quota while increasing the prosperity of the locals. They’d trained together with the Royal Guard and entered the secret rituals of the Oshun society, emerging as brothers. If there was anyone he could trust, it was Thomas. Or so he thought. The rebellion had changed everything.

As they reached the helm Khalid reasoned away his fear. Every man, woman and A.I. in his fleet had been evaluated and screened down to their genotype. Every last one of them was capable of commanding their own fleets and signed on voluntarily to deliver what was to be the deathblow to the alien insurgence. Once the alien threat was eliminated the Stool could concentrate once again on the betrayers. Despite his logic, a hint of doubt remained. His headache increased.

The crew stood as he entered and he waved them back to their stations.

“Warriors,’ he said calmly. “We’ve been here before. You know what you have to do. You know what I expect. When we leave these stars, there will be no alien threat. The end of the war begins today.”

He settled onto his command chair. Alien holograms appeared in his vision. They were outnumbered three to one, impossible battle odds under conventional military thought. But this war was anything but conventional. One of his ships possessed twice the firepower of the alien attack ships and three times the hacking capacity. In addition, the aliens, while united in theory, were still separate entities. He saw each fleet as an individual segment of an uncoordinated whole, their distinct ship configurations revealing their distrust of each other.

“Sir, we have a problem,” Thomas said.

Khalid turned to look at his scanner officer.

“An unidentified fleet has emerged from the Gate.”

“Give me visuals,” Khalid commanded.

The fleet appeared before him. His eyebrows rose as he clutched the arms of his chair.

“Rebels,” he said.

It was a credit to the discipline of his crew that no one responded. Their mission was to be secret. Apparently, it was not.

“Battle analysis suggests we are in an unfavorable position,” Thomas said. “The alien fleet won’t disperse unless we attack. Our calculated losses would reduce our odds against the rebel fleet considerably.”

“Decrease our speed,” Khalid said.

“Sir?” Thomas asked.

“I’m not in the habit of repeating orders,” Khalid replied. “Our odds are favorable. “

“Sir, begging your pardon, I disagree.”

Khalid grinned. “You depend on your toys too much, my friend. Your analysis is correct. The odds are not in our favor. But our system fails to include the fact that the aliens do not know that the fleet emerging from the Gate has come to destroy us. To them, the rebel fleet is reinforcements.”

Thomas grinned. “Excellent.”

“We’ll let them come close enough. It will seem as if we are merging. Keep them on the edge of bolt range.”

“Yes, sir,” the helmsman replied.


The hacker commander’s image appeared before Cassad.


“Focus your attack on the center of the alien force. I need control of their navigation programs.”

Rheem was silent for a moment. “That will take some time, sir. Navigation is usually flooded with reactive counter hacks.”

“You have ten minutes,” Cassad replied.

“Ten minutes is . . . ”

“. . . not enough time,” Cassad finished. “It’s all you have.”

“Yes sir.” Rheem’s disgruntled face disappeared.

He wiped Rheem’s holo image away then replaced it with Sundiata’s hard stare.

“Weapons assessment,” he said.

“The rebel force skews our advantage as you know,” Sundiata replied.

“Program ninety percent of our defensive array to the rear,” he said. “Concentrate aggressive fire forward. Wait to fire until the rebel force is within attack range.”

Sundiata’s stare broke. “Our range?”

“Their range,” Khalid replied.

“Sir, there is a high probability we will suffer considerable losses if the rebels decide fire upon us.”

Khalid hesitated before answering. He knew every per-son under his command. His plan put a considerable number of them at great risk, but he had no other choice. If a rebel fleet was here, it meant the situation among the core worlds was not going well. He had to save as many of his ships as possible to return to the core to assess the situation. But he had one more tactic in his bag that might delay any assault.

“Adjust the weapons array,” Khalid confirmed.

Sundiata’s hard countenance returned. “As you wish, sir.”

Khalid wiped him away then summoned Aria, his communications commander.

“Aria, open a line to the rebel fleet.”

Aria looked away for a second then back to him.

“They are refusing connect,” she said.

“Hack it,” Khalid replied.

Aria’s eyebrows rose. “We might expose secret technology if we . . .”

“Hack it,” Khalid repeated.

“Yes sir,” Aria replied.

Her face melted away, replaced by the face of the rebel fleet commander. Khalid controlled his anger as he looked upon her face. She was One Million, no doubt. Ntanga bloodline, which mean she was descended from the first group of administrators sent to rule over newly subdued planets after the end of the consolidation.

“Identification,” Khalid said.

“Commander Folasade Agani,” Aria replied.

“Open vocal communication.”

A low ping echoed in the command bridge.

“Commander Agani, what is the meaning of this?” Kha-lid said.

The commander jumped as a chorus of curses broke out in the rebel ship. The commander looked around as if looking for annoying bug.

“They’re applying counter measures,” Aria said.

“Keep the link,” Khalid replied. “Open visuals.”

Folasade finally focused on his face.

“Khalid Cassad,” she said, bitterness in her voice.

“Sade,” Khalid answered. “How is your father?”

Sade’s expression became more severe. “By the Authority vested in me by the New Regime Council I demand you surrender your fleet to me. We are awaiting link procedures.”

“The Authority of the New Regime?” Khalid smiled. “The New Regime has no authority. You are rebels, nothing more. And as you can see, I have a situation to deal with.”

“I suggest you update your information feeds,” Folasade replied. “You’ll discover the political situation of the Known has changed.”

A piercing pain emerged at the base of Khalid’s skull. He tried his best to mask it, closing his eyes slowly as in thought.

“Your threats are useless,” Khalid replied. “The Empire stands. It will never fall.”

Folasade grinned. “It already has.”

Thomas touched his shoulder. “The aliens have launched their attack.”

Khalid broke communication with the rebels.

“Begin evasive formation,” Cassad commanded. “Rheem?”

“We’re guiding the alien LMF through the pattern. Impact on the rebel fleet in two minutes.”

“Keep them cloaked until impact,” Khalid ordered. “Retaliatory assessment.”

“The rebels are close,” Rheem replied. “We will suffer damage.”

Khalid frowned. He was not the type of commander that factored loss into his strategy. He calculated on bringing everyone back from an operation, but this was his first time leading such a large operation. Loss was expected; as a matter of fact, it was inevitable. Still, it did not sit well with him.

“How much?” he finally asked.

“Twenty-eight percent,” Rheem answered.

“Increase attack speed,” he said. “I want to be as close to the alien force as possible when the rebels retaliate.”

Thomas leaned in close. “What are you planning?”

“I’m trying to reduce our losses,” Khalid replied.

“I thought our purpose was to defeat the alien force.”

“That was our operation until the rebels appeared. You know as well as I do that the odds are not in our favor. Rebel tech is either slightly below or equal to ours. That decreases our battle factor considerably.”

Thomas smiled. “Now who’s being too analytical?”

“I trust every last one of my comrades,” Khalid replied. “But ferocity and skill will not get us out of this situation. This is a time for calculations.”

The mass of alien missiles appeared on visual, a swarm of metallic death approaching at near light speed. Rheem’s hacking proved almost perfect; the missiles weaved through the Imperial fleet then slammed into the rebels’ ships.

“Damage assessment!” Khalid shouted.

“Fifteen percent to our fleet, thirty-eight percent to the rebel force!” Rheem shouted back. “The rebels are arming their weapons.”

“What’s there target resolution?”

“They’re changing formation,” Rheem answered. “Fifty percent of the ships are focusing on the alien fleet. They’re hailing them, sir.”

“Can you override them?”

“On it, sir. I’m changing the message to an ultimatum.”

“When the aliens refuse, send them a gift,” Khalid answered.

Rheem smirked. “Yes, sir.”

Thomas touched him on the shoulder.

“Sir there seems to be a disturbance in the engine complex.”

Khalid’s eyes rose. “Disturbance?”

Thomas face took on a worried look. “Yes sir.”

He handed Khalid his earpiece. Khalid held it close to his ear.

“Is that gunfire?”

The ship lurched to the left. Khalid grasped the arms of his command seat as the other lurched to the side.

“Report!” he shouted.

The first to respond was Aria.

“Sir, we’ve been hit by a massive virus,” she said. “It’s attacking our systems on every level. But that’s not the worst of it.”

“What’s going on, Aria?”

“Our A.I.s have been compromised. They been given an imperative command to shut down this ship . . . and kill you.”

“Hack the A.I.s?” Thomas said. “That’s impossible!”

“Apparently not,” Khalid replied. “Seal off engineering and medical. Prepare an assault team. We’ll enter engineering through the Shute.”

“They’ll be waiting,” Thomas said.

“I know,” Khalid replied. “We’ll send a surprise to clear the way.”

“You should stay here,” Thomas advised.

Khalid shook his head then almost passed out.

“Are you alright, sir,” Thomas asked.

“Yes, and I’m going with the team. They expect me to either be here or attempting to leave this ship. Rheem!”

“Sir!” Rheem replied.

“The alien navigation?”

“Is ours,” Rheem replied.

“I want a hole in their center large enough to get our fleet through,” Khalid said. “If my memory serves me right there’s a Gate three parsecs ahead of us. When we’re in the midst of the alien fleet, we jump. Every last one of us.”

Rheem’s smile was joyous. “Excellent, Balogun!”

Khalid looked at Thomas, whose smile was just as wide.

“You’re mad. You know that, right?”

Khalid managed to smile back despite the increasing pain. “Let’s take care of the engine room.”

Thomas and Khalid rushed over to the chute hatch. The pathway led directly to engineering, a barely used portal for emergency response and evacuation. Two other assault members joined them draped in shock armor and carrying throwing knives.

The ship shuddered from a nearby blast. Khalid wanted desperately to survey the battle but he had to retake his ship first. He tapped the comm on the side of his helmet, linking him to the team.

“Make a hole,” Khalid ordered.

The swoosh of the pods echoed through the chute. The first explosion shook the ship; the second was less violent but more effective.

“Vital monitors indicate all engineering personnel are down,” Aria reported.

“Okay!” Khalid shouted. “Let’s . . .”

A cloak of blackness swallowed him. He fell, his mind spinning like a damaged fighter ship in freefall. Had the drop pods destroyed the ship? Was he in the lasts moments of consciousness before joining the ancestors?

Khalid opened his eyes to his father’s meeting chamber. Sitting before him was a group of men and women that should be impossible for him to see. They looked upon him with grim countenances.

“So, the rebels have succeeded,” he said. “I’m dead.”

A woman stood, her stern face just as familiar to Khalid as his own. Ziara approached him then placed a firm hand on his shoulder.

“You are not dead, son. But the possibility is imminent. What you see before you was planted inside you during your initiation. It is an emergency protocol which none of us hoped you or any of your family would ever see.

Khalid knelt before the elder, totally submitting to her authority.

“How can I serve you, Elders?” Khalid asked.

“If you are seeing us, the Empire is lost, at least for now,” the woman said. “Your family is most likely dead and the New Regime in the process of consolidating its control of the Core worlds.”

Grief threatened to overwhelm him. He clinched his fists.

“The One Million can no longer be trusted,” the woman continued. “This was inevitability.”

Khalid raised his head. “If this was such a certainty, why did you not prevent it?”

The woman’s expression remained unchanged.

“That which is fated to be cannot be altered,” the woman said. “Every calculated scenario led to the same conclusion.”

Calculated. Khalid’s grief was tempered by anger.

“Human nature cannot be calculated,” he said. “Is this a plan based on statistical probabilities?”

The woman said nothing.

Khalid stood. “This is flawed. I will not . . .”

The searing pain burned through his mind. He felled back to his knees.

“This is not an option, Khalid Cassad,” the woman said. “Failure to follow this plan will result in the total collapse of the Empire and the sacrifice of your life.”

“If I die there will be no one to continue the legacy,” Khalid said.

“There are others,” the woman replied.

Others? Gendala was known, but she had been compromised. He knew of no others.

“In order to proceed, you must acquire Djele,” the woman continued. “The griot contains information that is vital to the next step.”

“That’s impossible,” Khalid said. “Djele is on Ziara. If what you say is true and the New Regime has prevailed, Ziara is occupied.”

“Djele is necessary,” the woman said. “You will acquire him.”

“I don’t have the forces to retake an entire world,” he said.

“We are not ordering you to retake a world,” the woman replied. “We are ordering you to acquire Samake.”

The pain increased hi Khalid’s head.

“I will do it,” he said, succumbing to the threat. “I will acquire Djele. And then what?”

“We will return to give you further instructions.”

“I wish to know now,” Khalid demanded.

“You will not,” the woman replied. “In order to protect the plan, it will be revealed to you in stages.”

Khalid grinned. “You don’t expect me to succeed?”

“Failure is always a possibility,” the woman answered.

The pain diminished with the ancestors’ images. When Khalid opened his eyes, he lay on his cot. Emergency lights doused him in a blue hue. The ship vibrated with an erratic pulse. He sat up slowly, hanging his head as he rubbed his head. Blood splattered on his boots; he touched his nose and smeared blood on his hand.

His room door swished open and Thomas and Rheem entered. Thomas looked relieved; Rheem looked annoyed.

“What’s our situation?” Khalid asked.

“Not good,” Rheem replied. She was about to continue but Thomas cut her off with a wave of his hand.

“What is your situation, Khalid?” he asked.

Khalid looked up at his friend and managed to smile.

“If you are assessing my ability to lead this mission I can assure you that I am fully capable to fulfill my duties,” he answered.

“I’m asking you as a concerned friend,” Thomas replied.

“I could be better,” Khalid said. “I will be. Now get me up to speed.”

Thomas nodded to Rheem.

“We’re currently in the Shona Quadrant beyond the Sundiata Gate,” Rheem said. “Fleet effectiveness is down sixty-five percent.”

Khalid closed his eyes. “That many?”

“Yes, sir,” Rheem answered. “It was the jump. We only sustained ten percent due to it. It was the debris shower afterwards. We dragged the alien fleet with us. Our shields failed. Of our remaining ships ninety percent are damaged.”

“Enemy assessment?” he asked.

“The alien fleet was completely destroyed,” Thomas said. “The Regime fleet refused to pursue us through the Gate.”

“That was blessing,” Khalid said. “Rheem, I need a complete evaluation of the remaining ships as soon as possible. We need to be prepared to move in two hours.”

Thomas eyes widened. “Begging my pardon sir, we’ll need more than two hours!”

Khalid looked past Thomas to Rheem. “You have my orders.”

Rheem smirked as she saluted. “Yes sir. I’ll have your report in an hour.”

“Excellent,” Khalid replied.

Thomas and Rheem turned to exit his room.

“Thomas, stay,” Khalid said.

Thomas turned, a curious look on his face as Rheem went about her duties.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Have we had a chance to confirm what Folasade said was true?”

“No,” Thomas replied. “We’ve been out of communication since we jumped the Gate. We remained so to avoid detection while we repair.”

“What do you think?” Khalid asked.

“I don’t know, sir,” Thomas replied. “It’s possible, but it would have to be from some sort of betrayal. The Core is well defended, especially Ziara. It would have had to come from within and based on circumstances could most like have occurred that way. There’s also the matter of the size of fleet sent to apprehend you. I don’t think the rebels would have sent such a large force unless they felt they were secure on other fronts. But then the message may have been a ploy to convince you to surrender. They then could use you as leverage in negotiations with the High Family.”

“I believe she tells the truth,” Khalid replied. “I believe the rebels have captured Ziara.”

“How can you be so sure?” Thomas asked.

A flash of pain was his reason why, but he could not re-veal his condition to Thomas, at least not yet.

“I have my reasons, but I need to be sure,” he said.

Thomas’s eyebrows rose. “We’re going to the Core. We’re going to Ziara.”

“Yes,” Khalid said. “At least some of us are.”

“Sir, we’re not strong enough for such a mission.”

Khalid stood. “We have to be. We’ll go in covert.”

“And how will we accomplish that?” Thomas asked. “We don’t have any cloak ships in our fleet.”

“Pick your men,” Khalid said. “Be ready to depart in an hour.”

Thomas stared at Khalid for a moment before answering.

“By your command, Oba.” He touched his fingers to his chest then exited.

Oba. Khalid let the word simmer in his mind. Everyone in the fleet assumed the worst was true and he was now ruler of the empire, at least what was left of it. He’d imagined his coronation as a splendid affair, an event that would go down in history for its extravagance. Not that he would have wanted it that way, but he knew his father well and the old man would not miss an opportunity to display Cassad wealth and power. It was those displays that raised the anger of many in the empire, the anger that eventually led to the revolt.

The familiar pain registered and he closed his eyes to let the ancestors speak.

“You have made arrangements to acquire the djele?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Good. We will inform you of the next stage after completion.”

Khalid opened his eyes then reached for a napkin, wiping away the blood that trickled from his nose.

The men were assembled on the deck when Khalid entered. He took a quick glance and smiled. Thomas chose well.

“I don’t know if you were informed, but we have a mission to complete. We’re going to Ziara to retrieve a valuable item. Since we are at this point wanted men, our approach must be discreet. We will therefore travel to the Uhuru Belt to obtain merchant ships for our journey to the Core.”

The men looked among each other. They were not happy.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Khalid continued. “We’ll be traveling into what will be enemy territory with unarmed ships. To top it off you’ll have the most wanted man in the empire among you. Not the best situation, I agree.”

The men grinned. Thomas did not.

“We’ll pack as many weapons necessary for our mission. Although we’re going in unarmed, it doesn’t mean will return that way.”

“If we return,” Thomas said.

Khalid’s eyes narrowed as he looked at his friend.

“We will return,” Khalid replied. “Are the ships ready?”

Thomas nodded.

“Then let’s do it. May the ancestors guide our way.”

The men prostrated then hurried to their duties.

“Thomas, a word,” Khalid said.

Thomas strode to Khalid. “Sir?”

“Never question my authority before the men,” Khalid said. “I shouldn’t have to say this to you.”

“My doubt was not for them,” Thomas replied. “It was for you. This is a dangerous mission that may fail. If it does, you’ll be either killed or executed if captured. You should not go with us.”

“I have to,” Khalid said. “No one can retrieve the djele unless they are of Cassad blood. Since I am the only one among us that fits the qualification I must go.”

“Then we should come up with an alternate plan.”

“There is no other plan!” Khalid immediately regretted his outburst. Thomas’s eyes went wide.

“I ask you again, Khalid, is everything okay?”

“No Thomas, it’s not. But there is nothing either of us can do about it. I need you focused on the mission, not me. You understand?”

“I understand, oba.”

“And stop calling me that,” Khalid said.

“Yes . . . commander.”

Thomas turned on his heels then marched away.

Three gate jumps brought them to the outskirts of the Uhuru Belt. Khalid joined the others on the bridge as the main station came into view. Soon afterwards they received hailing inquiries.

“Open communication,” Khalid ordered.

The smooth face of the docking officer came into view. He smiled as he brushed back his hair.

“Welcome, Jamal,” the officer said.

“Hello Jad,” Khalid replied.

“It’s so good to see you,” Jad said. “Things have been crazy. I guess you heard.”

“Yes, we did,” Khalid replied. “Is it as bad as they say?”

Jad nodded. “They said the entire royal family was killed. Coalition forces are scouring the planet for Khalid Cassad, but the rumor is he’s hiding in the Unknown.”

“I see,” Khalid said, hiding his anger. “Permission to dock?”

“Of course,” Jad said. “The more security teams here the better.”

Khalid turned over the ship’s control to the docking tug.

“Remember why we’re here,” he said to his men through the intercom. “We’ll gather as many weapons as we can. Try to gather as much intel as possible without being conspicuous. You have three hours.”

The ship docked and Khalid exited into Uhuru station. The massive ring was one of the oldest stations in the Known, built during the Empire’s first wave. Khalid was very familiar with Uhuru; he relaxed as Jad walked to him, a grin on his face.

“How long are you here?” Jad asked.

“Not long,” Khalid replied. “We’re here to replenish supplies then we’re heading to Njaro.”

Jad frowned. “Are you sure you want to do that? Rumor is Njaro’s hot.”

“That’s why we’re going,” Khalid replied. “You forget who we are?”

Jad shrugged. “Better you than me. Need some help?”

“No, we’re good,” Khalid replied. “But you can fill me in on what’s going down on Ziara.”

“I don’t know much more than I already shared,” Jad said. “I can’t believe the Empire got caught flat-footed. It’s not as if . . .”

Uhuru station went dark. Emergency lights kicked in immediately, filling the station with a dim blue glow.

“What the fek?” Jad exclaimed.

An amplified voice boomed.

“Khalid Cassad, you are hereby ordered to surrender to the Authority of the New Regime. Any resistance to our order will result in deadly force!”

“Everyone back in the ship now!” Khalid shouted.

Jad looked bewildered. “The Regime? Here? How did they…”

Pulse fire erupted throughout the station. Jad flinched then his face went slack. He fell aside with a smoldering hole in his back, revealing a squad of armored men running toward Khalid, pulse rifled lowered. Khalid dropped to one knee as he snatched his shongo from his waist. He twisted the handle to activate the blade then threw it sidearm. Three more shongos flew over his head. The blades appeared simultaneously as they streaked toward the squad then attacked with coordinated precision, burning through the reactive armor and cutting the men down in seconds. Khalid opened his palm and the shongo returned to him, slapping into his palm. Thomas stood before the carnage, staring down at the smoking heap.

“Hurry, Thomas!” Khalid shouted.

Thomas bounded over the men and ran to the ship with a provision box bouncing on his shoulders. Khalid and the guardsmen who joined his shongo attack formed a rearguard as the others returned. There were very few.

They backed into the ship. The crew was at work, cutting any physical and programmed links to the dock.

“Get us out of here hot,” Khalid ordered.

Rheem nodded. The ship lurched backwards, throwing everyone not seated to the floor.

They were throwing into the midst of scrambling ships and attacking fighter drones. The Regime mothership sat off a distance, discharging its lethal cargo in waves.

“Strap up!” Rheem shouted. “I’m going to jump!”

“Fek!” Khalid said. He managed to reach his seat and strap in just before jump. The jolt caused him to black out for a moment, and then he stood before a sight that was becoming familiar.

The ancestors studied him with disapproving eyes. They were no longer obscure figures, he could recognize them all. Standing at the forefront was Ziara Cassad, her severe expression well known to all Cassads. Beside her was her son, Shaka Cassad. He smirked as he sat on his stool, his confidence still prominent as a spirit. The third spirit confirmed what he had heard and hoped not to believe. Ose XXIV, his father, sat on his stool with a solemn gaze.

It was Ziara who finally addressed him.

“You have been betrayed,” she said.

“Yes,” Khalid replied.

“You know the culprit. You must set an example,” Shaka said.

“Yes,” Khalid replied.

His father stood and approached him.

“You would not have been my choice,” he said.

Khalid didn’t reply.

“Be the man I tried to make you,” Ose continued. “Take back our Empire!”

The ancestors faded and Khalid’s vision cleared to the bridge of his ship. They were in empty space, the crew and others looking about with uncertainty. Khalid unbuckled then stood.

“Rheem, I need an assessment of what we were able to salvage. I also need a head count.”

“Yes sir,” Rheem said.

Khalid’s eyes fell on Thomas.

“Come with me,” he said.

Khalid proceeded to his cabin, Thomas close behind. The door opened this swished close behind them.

“Sit,” Khalid said.

Thomas took a seat.

Khalid folded his arms across his chest. He studied his friend for a moment before speaking, knowing his next words would destroy everything.

“Why?” he finally asked. “Why did you do this?”

“What are you talking about, Khalid?”

Thomas’s denial angered him.

“Fek, Thomas! If you’re going to stab me in the back at least be honest about it. The Regime troops were waiting for us at Uhuru because you told them we were coming! Good men died because of you!”

Thomas looked away. When he looked at Khalid again his expression was resolved.

“I’m One Million Khalid, but I am Thracian first.”

“Since when did Thrace become part of the Regime?”

“Three years ago, when it became obvious to our leaders that the Empire would fall.”


Thomas stood. “The Alien Wars have drained Cassad resources to a dangerous level. In addition, the energy spent identifying and eliminating covert threats within the Empire have diminished Empire intelligence. The only way a takeover could have been aborted would be employing extreme measures. In other words, wiping out those worlds considered central to the Regime’s efforts. Ose would not allow that.”

A bitter taste formed in Khalid’s mouth. “My words.”

“Yes,” Thomas replied.

Both men pulled their shongos. Khalid kicked Thomas over the chair before arming his knife. He swung down; Thomas blocked with his blade and they sparked. Thomas rolled to his feet then attacked, striking at Khalid desperately. Khalid parried his attacks easily, fighting the sadness that threatened to overtake him. The Empire was mad. The Known had become chaos. His family was dead, and his best friend was trying to kill him.

He sidestepped Thomas’s knife thrust then sliced his blade across Thomas’s neck. Thomas jerked then gurgled. He collapsed, blood flowing from the razor thin gash across his neck. Khalid turned off the shongo then reattached it to his belt. He went to his desk then pressed the button to his comm.

“Rheem, I need you to come to my cabin. Bring a medic.”

Moments later his door slid aside. Rheem strode in, followed by Cerilius.

“What’s the mat . . . by the ancestors!”

Cerilius dropped to his knees then examined Thomas. He looked up, his face a mix of shock and certainty.

“He’s dead,” he said.

“Get rid of him,” Khalid said. “Make sure no one else sees you.”

Both men looked at Khalid as if waiting for an explanation.

“The Regime will no longer know where to find us,” he said.

Anger twisted Rheem’s face. She looked down at Thom-as then spat on him.

“I’ll do it,” he said.

“No,” Khalid said. “I need you back on the bridge. We need to go to Ziara immediately.”

“We don’t have the fuel to make it all the way,” Rheem said. “We’ll have to stop at Njaro.”

“Understood,” Khalid said.

Cerilius sealed Thomas’s wound. Together with Rheem he lifted the body onto his shoulder then carried it from the cab-in. Khalid sat on his bed then covered his face with his hands. He yelled, letting out the frustration and rage in those few moments. Then he lowered his hands and adjusted his clothing. He stood before his mirror and inspected himself. A slight pain crept into his head; behind his reflection he could see Ziara, Shaka and his father looking on in approval.

“You are Khalid Nkrumah Cassad, twenty-seventh emperor of the Known,” Ziara said. “We stand behind you.”

Khalid nodded his head. He opened his cabinet then took out a small cup then filled it with water. He took the cup in both hands then poured it into the base of the ficus tree in the corner of his cabin.

“I pour libations in your honor,” he said. “I am, because you were. I shall not fail you.”

He replaced the cup, inspected himself once more, and then left his cabin.

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