It was quickly apparent to the small Confederation raiding parties that the three new target worlds of the Chon’ith Empire would not be so easily hurt. Then again, as the clusters of battleships approached the space-borne industrial centres and orbital facilities of the inhabited worlds, it also became apparent that the Chon’ith were not learning. Human ships ran silently, stealthed sensor platforms filled with nuclear weapons drifted toward defensive networks, and the Confederation fleets were able to use their platforms to punch huge holes in Chon’ith sensor nets. Layered defences made deeper penetration difficult, but enough strategic detonations of the powerful charges in the platforms provided an important window.
Missiles launched and counter measures raced to meet them. Density was heavily on the side of the Chon’ith, and it showed in the results. Only a handful of Confederation missiles survived to get within range of manufacturing plants and ore processing structures, but in each star system, these industries were scratched, needled and knocked. Each injury was minor, but there were numerous such blows.
The humans skirted the edges of Chon’ith defences for a few hours, careful not to stray into range of overwhelming firepower. They couldn’t avoid some casualties – this was war, and the sheer scale of incoming fire made losses inevitable. The return though, was vastly in the Confederation’s favour, the Chon’ith just didn’t know it.
After a few days of rest and recuperation, the Resistance found itself in dire need of a plan. A dozen people sat around a simple pine-coloured table, strewn with computer pads and papers. In the corner sat a stone shrine to Requeteran, depicting him on his knees, hands raised and cupped, ready to receive the Makers’ wisdom. Within his cupped hands burned the Sacred Flame. Soot painted the corner of the room and carried in the air, making already tired eyes sting.
“Are we any closer to formulating the next phase of our mission?” De’rata, the yellow-skinned female, asked.
“Patience De’reta.” Urged Acklaran. “We are carefully developing plans.”
“When Tektereth hesitated, his fleet was sundered across the reefs” Quoted De’reta.
“No one is suggesting we dither here.” Replied Acklaran, a little tartly. “There is much to do and without doing it properly, we will destroy ourselves.”
“We need to be clever, cleverer than we have ever been. Our enemies are wedded to a system that sees brute strength as the only means to victory. We must use our minds as well as our brawn.” Announced Seluban. “Each time we do so and win, it will show our people this is the way forward.”
“I do not like waiting.” Said De’rata plainly. “I feel like we are waiting to be hunted down.”
“Open action here will draw already-tense and nervous authorities to us. Santariv is too consumed by the despaired to serve our cause in any meaningful way.” Zarthara interjected. “I believe we should leave this place at the earliest opportunity.”
“There two issues…” Began De’rata. “How do we escape, and where do we go? We will be hunted throughout the Forge.”
“We leave the Forge.” Replied Zarthara.
Everyone’s eyes turned to face her. A red-skinned male, quite young by Seluban’s reckoning, was the first to address the startling suggestion.
“None of the condemned leave.”
“So we shall be the first. It will be a powerful statement, and it will weaken the government’s position if we accomplish the impossible.”
“It cannot be done.” Replied the male.
“That is propoganda Risharath.” Retorted Zarthara. “We will be bold, in a new way, a way that would truly make the Makers proud. What say you Seluban?”
Seluban brought a hand to his chipped incisor and stroked it as he considered the idea. He’d always thought of building a large force in the Forge, but Zarthara’s notion had merit…
“We would need to discretely acquire transport out of the Forge. That would mean stealing a cargo shuttle somehow, or stowing away.”
“Stealing it would act as a beacon to what we had done. Even if the authorities didn’t know it was us, they’d know people had escaped the Forge and they would never tolerate that.” Acklaran said.
“How would we all stow away without being noticed? How would we disembark without being seen?” Risharath asked.
“We escape in plain sight.” Said Seluban bluntly. Now all eyes turned to him, expectant.
“We become guards, or officials, and leave as they normally would.” He added.
“So… We would take Chon’ith life to acquire uniforms and equipment?” Asked Risharath, more aggressively.
For a moment regret tinged Seluban’s eyes. “If we leave survivors, we ensure we will be found.”
Risharath shook his head. “We begin a woeful path with this. The Makers will forever condemn us.”
“I wish our quest would be bloodless. I wish this beyond measure, beyond any prayer.” Seluban raised his head and met each one of the assembled Chon’ith squarely in the eyes. “I have read the Words, and reread them, for any clue, any way, we can save our people, without harming our own.” He paused, reflecting upon his own words. “It is inevitable that Chon’ith blood will be spilt. It has already happened. Our people know strength and power as the measure of worthy we are. There is honour in that, but strength and power without restraint, without thought and direction, will get us all killed. It will destroy our people. I do not believe in this unyielding interpretation of the Makers and their Words. There must be another way, but as long as our people value brute force over anything else, we will have to make painful choices.”
Another female Chon’ith, older than Seluban, and like him, green-skinned, turned hazel eyes upon him. “The Council think us cowards, or we would not be here. A show of strength of our own would be a very visible demonstration to all of Oanerth that we are not cowards. If strength is all our people respect, we shall show them strength.”
“The right kind of strength Miraset. We combine power with thought, wits with strength.”
“So… We will take Chon’ith life.” Queried Risharath, interrupting.
“Every effort will be taken to avoid doing so, but as I have said Risharath, it is inevitable.” Seluban lent his authority to his voice. “The alternative is extinction, which none of us want.” He added pointedly.
Risharath fell silent, but his face remained sullen.
“To return to your original query De’rata, we shall soon leave the Forge.” Seluban once again brought his command ‘voice’ to the table. “Shuttles and transports regularly deliver supplies, and we shall observe their procedures, and watch the guards for their work patterns. We shall deduce the best time to strike, and plan accordingly. As we carry out our work, we must keep low profiles. Check to see if you are being watched.”
“To that end…” Acklaran interjected. “Should you repeatedly spot the same Chon’ith, be it at a market or tavern, assume they are a hostile.”
Seluban nodded. “If confronted, use the crowds. Use their anger and resentment against their incarcerators. Are there any questions?”
“We should move in pairs.” Acklaran said. “It will be harder for anyone to pick us off.”
“Agreed. We’ll organise that after evening meal. Any further questions?” No one spoke, though Risharath continued to look uncomfortable. Seluban stared at him for a moment, then addressed the table once more.
“Make the Makers smile upon us. You are dismissed.”
Everyone got up to leave, though Acklaran remained seated. When the others had left, he stood and walked around the table.
“You have concerns my friend?” Asked Seluban.
“Yes, about you.” Acklaran replied.
“Me? In what way?”
“I see the anguish in your eyes, even if the others don’t. I know it’s there.” Acklaran’s voice softened. “This is not a burden you carry alone.”
Seluban allowed silence to fill up the room for a moment, wondering how best to begin, before settling on a path.
“Guilt gnaws at me. At the outpost, Zarthara and I were discovered by a young Chon’ith, a guard. We had no choice, I had no choice…”
Acklaran rested a hand on Seluban’s shoulder. “If you had not taken action, you’d be dead, we might all be dead.”
“I started this with the desire to avoid bloodshed, to show our people a new way, and now, I have already personally killed, triggered an assault that cost the lives of countless Chon’ith in Tre’vik, and the best idea I can conceive of is to take further Chon’ith life. Listen to me – I speak of changing our ways, yet all I can think of is to fight force with force.”
“I will always be honest with you Seluban. Your proposal for a peaceful revolution was noble, but privately, I had my doubts. I did not give them voice, out of fear of undermining you, and driving a wedge between us. I truly believe that strength and courage, displayed by those whose strength and courage is doubted and even mocked, is the best plan we have.”
“Not everyone agrees.”
Acklaran nodded, and sighed. “Risharath could be a problem.”
“My instinct fears he will betray us.”
“Then I shall watch him.” Acklaran smiled. “I have seen how he looks at Zarthara, he will not enjoy being paired with me.”
It was Seluban’s turn to grin. “And I have seen how Zarthara looks at you.”
“You are not serious?” Acklaran replied, startled.
“I am very serious.” Said Seluban, seriously, before smiling again. “The Words are clear, the battle of life can forge love in unlikely ways.”
Acklaran laughed. “Risharath will have greater cause for jealousy.”
“And perhaps greater reason to be loyal to the Resistance, though loyalty through love, in this instance, might create more problems.”
“I shall keep a close watch on him.” Acklaran bared his teeth. “It is only prudent when dealing with a love rival.”
Seluban roared with laughter.
Teklerat had to resist the desire to smash the control console in frustration. The little clusters of human ships had continued to scatter and skirt around the edges of his formation, firing off a few shots and nipping at his heels, for days. In return, his cumbersome vessels had barely been able to get within range, scoring only a few scant hits every so often. The failure of the humans to do the honourable thing and actually fight was irritating him beyond measure.
His anger was rising, but it evaporated suddenly as alarms wailed – his comrades reported new sensor contacts, many contacts, had suddenly appeared on the scopes. Two groups of eighteen battleships and one group of nineteen battleships, along with their support vessels, had dropped their stealth systems and powered up, and they were almost within their missile range – and therefore well outside of his.
No single individual fleet could beat Teklerat’s force, if he could only charge them down, one at a time. His problem, though his mind refused to see it, was that each human fleet was coming in at a different but converging angle of approach, allowing them to outflank him with ease – and the combined strength of the human fleet was superior to his.
Teklerat gave orders to target the closest fleet and close to attack range, even as the first human missile salvos began to race toward his ships. He and his commanders remained ignorant until nearly the very end, as the humans fired at his ships from multiple directions, confusing his defences and not allowing him to bring broadsides to bear with any meaningful potency. Some human ships were inevitably destroyed, but Teklerat’s entire fleet was ruined, his ships left as battered wrecks, leaking atmosphere and life.
Teklerat himself then had to endure further shame. He became one of a number of Chon’ith to face one of the greatest dishonours his people could receive – capture.