As the crowds scattered and the Enforcers drove their armoured vehicles deeper into the city, it became only a matter of time before Superior Enforcer J’rekarath had personally executed several apprehended members of the Resistance who had dared cross him. Their bodies lay behind him, blood seeping between the dirty cobblestones, as the ferocious Chon’ith marched toward one specific shack. Behind him, two armour-clad guards awaited his nod, and when it came, one of them smashed the door in with a heavy kick, and opened fire, liberally spraying bullets across the interior of the building’s ground floor. As the first guard rushed in, the second swiftly followed, with J’rekarath joining them a moment later.
The wooden panels, table and chairs had been viciously smashed by the hail of bullets, and the bullets had done far more damage than that. Several Chon’ith lay dead or dying, their clothes and the flooring stained with their blood. J’rekarath’s eyes swept the room, looking for his quarry. Disappointment coloured his eyes, but with a flick of his head the guards stormed up the stairs, even as he continued to scan the faces of the dead and wounded.
“Sir!” One of the guards shouted down the stairs. “We require your presence!”
J’rekarath quickly climbed the stairs, came around the corner at the top – and stopped. His eyes narrowed at the sight of the old man in a single small chair, and the pile of burnt documents, now reduced to ash, that drifted in the faint breeze.
“You have committed so much evil this day, yet it will not be enough.” Faratarath said quietly.
“It is you who has committed evil. You who has encouraged heresy.” Rising anger tainted J’rekarath’s voice. “But now your insolence and intolerance of our ways is at an end.”
Faratarth smiled thinly. “I doubt you will ever appreciate the irony of what you just said.” He shook his head. “But that does not matter. The seeds of change have been planted, and if my blood should help them bloom, I am happy to provide it. You cannot stop it.”
“You and all who follow you will be freed from your cowardly bondage, and your ’cause’ forgotten.” J’rekarath spat.
“My cause, or at least, my version of it, dies today, but when the rest of Oanerath learns the truth, you shall become the pariah.”
J’rekarath took a step forward. With a sneer, he raised his pistol, pointed it squarely at Faratarth’s forehead, and fired.
Four small cars, old and littered with half-cleared insect webs, failed to gleam in the sunlight, for they had long lost their shimmer. A yellow Chon’ith stood watch by them, but to an outside observer they resembled broken down antiques, and they were half-buried in dirt and earth, just outside the boundaries of Tre’vik’s western gate. The guard towers had been abandoned as reinforcements directed themselves to the chaotic scenes at the northern gate, providing a relatively easy escape for Acklaran and the handful of insurgents that had been most prepared to work under a new set of ideals. The hut the tunnel had led to had been collapsed, making any exit from the tunnel difficult, but Acklaran had refused to destroy the tunnel itself, in case Seluban and Zarthara should avail themselves of it. Secretly, he had hoped Faratarath might use it, but many hours had passed, the forces at the northern wall were continuing their assault, and it seemed resistance to their incursion was waning.
“We must leave soon.” A young yellow female said quietly.
“A few minutes more De’rata.”
De’rata looked at him and heeded the desperation in his eyes. “A few minutes more.”
The first suggestion of even the vaguest form of hope came when one of the Resistance members, equipped with a pair of stolen binoculars, spotted shapes moving in the distance. A route outside the city was possible, just not necessarily wise, yet a pair of Chon’ith appeared to have taken such a journey.
“Sir! Sir!” The young red male was eager to impress with good news. “It is Seluban and Zarthara sir!”
“What are we waiting for? Ready the vehicles. Have everyone get aboard, and let us meet them.”
A few minutes later, Zarthara and Seluban, sorely parched, considered the blessing of water as they drank gratefully from the bottles Acklaran provided. Seluban had clasped Acklaran’s wrist in the traditional greeting, but his expression was sombre.
“It is good to see you my friend.” He began. “Even if I have brought such a fire down upon us.”
“We did this Seluban, and to save our people, I would do it again. Seluban…” Acklaran sighed. “Faratarath gave his life for our cause, for us.”
Seluban’s eyes were sad. “Then let us make his sacrifice mean something.”
Zarthara looked even more unhappy. “He was like a father to me, to many of us. They called him coward, but I shall make certain his bravery on this day is remembered.”
“There will be time to mourn properly, but for now, we must go.” Acklaran gestured to the GPS system. Ideally, we need to escape the Forge.”
“Escape is impossible.” Zarthara said flatly. “And yet, if we can position ourselves in one of the border cities, we may have an opportunity.”
The car’s engine sputtered into life, and the small convey began to move.
Not a single Chon’ith leader cared for the defensive nature of the war they found themselves in. Even more of an affront was the presence of human warships in the skies of their worlds. A move to drive the Confederation Navy out of Chon’ith space was devised. The patrols and sector fleets from deeper within Chon’ith space, originally earmarked for the Cadj campaign, were redirected.
Thirty battleships, flanked by sixteen battlecruisers, twelve heavy cruisers and seven light cruisers, emerged from FTL on the outskirts of the Ikicieth system, lit up their sublight drives to kick them in the right direction, and then cut their emissions down to near-zero. The fleet drifted quietly toward the human vessels that now dominated the system, which had positioned themselves in a loose arrangement, near the densely populated Ikicieth IV. Orbital facilities that served a military purpose had long since been destroyed, but initial scans suggested the humans had seized, rather than destroyed, the valuable mining and manufacturing operations in the system. To the fleet’s Superior Chief, regaining those assets would likely ensure his prestige and glory.
His cause was aided by the relatively weak human fleet. By now the realities of human technological superiority were known, but they had just four battleships in the system, and a small support fleet, to enforce their rule. Quite why they’d left their spoils of war so undefended was a mystery, but lack of interest in defending a system they’d worked hard to capture was hardly of interest to the Superior Chief. Teklerat’s blue eyes narrowed as, after many hours of silent running, his fleet was nearly within range to pick off the first small cluster of human ships.
Two enemy battlecruisers, four light cruisers and just one single destroyer made up the small flotilla that were now less than 50,000km from his clutches. At such a small distance, even factoring in human electronic trickery, they would not stand a chance. Teklerat raised a hand, ready to give the command to fire… then his world abruptly shifted, as the first of the orbital weapon platforms the Confederation Navy had secreted in the system send a swarm of missiles at the heart of his fleet. At that moment, several small nuclear weapons that had been seeded in the system, weapons Teklerat’s fleet had sailed into the midst of, detonated.
The cumulative effects of the firepower the humans unleashed were not actually that impressive. Their military had determined a major push to retake the system was inevitable, and to hold it would expend too much in the way of resources, so a plan was hatched to once again use Chon’ith strength in their favour. As powerful energies pummelled the lead ships of the Chon’ith armada, retaliatory salvos, overwhelming in size, raced toward the small detachment of human vessels, that had already began to accelerate hard, away from the enemy.
They were prepared to make sacrifices, but only for the greater benefit of humanity. The ships had been gutted of all but the most skeleton of skeleton crews, and they kept firing even as a wave of missiles hit home. The Chon’ith were so focused on chasing down the humans, they failed to realise the rest of humanity’s presence was spreading out, ensuring maximum time to reach each little nest of targets. As the first small group of Confederation ships was either blown to pieces or reduced to charred hulks, their little trap had taken out two battlecruisers and two heavy cruisers, a reasonable return, when evaluated in the cold, hard light of military exchange.
There would be no attritional victory, but the Chon’ith would soon learn, that wasn’t the point.
Two groups of eighteen battleships (and one of nineteen) had left the Ikicieth system when their sensor buoys had detected the arrival of the Chon’ith fleet. Each fleet would spend a couple of days travelling to their destinations, and none had the strength to take and hold the systems they now targeted. As Teklerat’s fleet chased down the ships that pestered his forces, and as other Chon’ith leaders did likewise in other systems, Confederation raiding parties hurtled toward eight Chon’ith worlds.
The city of Santariv had a reputation for being the most unruly of all the townships in the Forge. As four small cars carried Seluban’s embryonic Resistance towards the city’s eastern gate, after nearly a day spent travelling, Zarthara had become quiet and pensive. “Most of the Chon’ith here are in denial of their actions. They are new to the Forge and cling bitterly to memories of their previous lives.”
“This can work for us…”Acklaran began.
“No. Many here are true zealots, wedded to Requeteran and the Makers, and unable to understand why they have been cast out. They would one day make for good members of old-style rebellion, but they tarnish our new Resistance. We should gather supplies and pass through, quickly.”
“I concur.” Said Seluban. “We do not need to attract the wrong kind of attention.”
“There is a bigger problem we have not addressed.” Acklaran said. “We need to escape the Forge itself.”
“One thing at a time my friend.” Replied Seluban with a small smile. “I for one, am focused on food above all else.”
Zarthara actually chuckled. “There are several places of note. At least, there used to be.”
“Then let us find them, and quickly.” Seluban patted his stomach, and unfortunately for him, belched.
Their convoy found that the ‘gate’ was in a terrible state of disrepair, holed in several places. “The result of numerous escape attempts.” Zarthara had said quietly.
Seluban and Acklaran exchanged a look. For whatever reason, they’d been spared Santariv. They weren’t quite prepared to ask why Zarthara hadn’t.
“At least getting in should be easy.” Acklaran remarked.
He was soon proven right. If the guards had been inept in Tre’vik, they were harried beyond all reason in Santariv. Violence against their mere presence was a regular occurrence, with bottles, rocks and other objects hurled at them and their installations on an hourly basis. Supervising such a place was ignoble, a duty given to the least-admirable Chon’ith to still actually fulfil their duty to the Makers and their ways. As the cars approached the gate, they opened swiftly, granting them entry without so much as a ten second inspection. Then the gates clanked shut, and the Resistance found itself in bedlam.
The smell was oppressive in a way armed Enforcers couldn’t match. A low-lying fog seemed to hang in the air, mingling with the embers of smouldering fires. In fact, to Seluban’s eye, the fires seemed to be the means by which the stench was produced – rubbish was being burned. Food waste, packaging, flora and worse was being dumped onto raging log fires, creating a mist that the locals had clearly adapted to – but the newcomers had to do everything in their power to suppress their gag reflexes.
It was swiftly apparent that the odour was matched by the dingy accommodations. If the construction in Tre’vik had been the bare minimum, this was in constant disrepair. Stone buildings appeared to be only one minor impact away from collapse, and the wooden huts (and they were only huts) that were sandwiched between the larger buildings contained rotting beams throughout their structures.
Small, furry rodents scurried across the uneven, cracking roads and pavements; sometimes they scurried across the Chon’ith that had truly given up; tucked under blankets and dirty rags, laying in the alleyways and even the streets. It was desolate in a way Seluban simply hadn’t been prepared for.
“How can we treat our people like this?” He asked quietly as he continued to peer from the windows of the vehicle. “This is obscene.”
“The wrong type of Maker worship is their downfall.” Replied Zarthara.
“This has to change.” Said Acklaran forcefully.
Their cars came to a rest at a street corner, slightly removed from the stench near the gates. A stone-walled building stretched to the daunting (for Santariv) height of three floors, and had the benefit of a series of slightly smaller buildings providing darkness and cover. The dozen Chon’ith to have escaped Tre’vik had little time for niceties; the existing occupants of the rooms thankfully had no children, but the choice was a simple one – leave willingly or leave unwillingly. It pained Seluban still further to watch as his followers ushered people out of their homes, and his heart ached as he watched them grab their meagre possessions and flee to the streets. He suspected such acts were commonplace in Santariv, but to sink to such a level was hardly the example he wished to set.
Exhausted beyond all reason, physically and emotionally, he picked a room and a bed, and as he lay upon it, Seluban prayed silently to the Makers that it would all be worth it.