The guards walked in pairs, cautiously moving down one of Santariv’s crowded thoroughfares, acutely aware of the many hostile eyes that met them as they walked. There could be no weakness nor fear, nor even suggestion of such, for dominance over the weak was central to the Makers and Requeteran. Traitors to the faith had to know, in no uncertain terms, of their place. Failures had to understand, there could be no forgiveness, only self-repentance. Hence why armed troops kept watch. No one would be foolish enough to challenge them anyway. The Coward’s Forge was named for a good reason, and to expect an assault from the horde, no matter how much they bayed, was absurd, especially in the holy territory of the Parchment. The semi-circular patch of space was enclosed on the straight side by a large grey awning, casting shadows upon the ground.
By now, two pairs of guards strolled within the holy location, taking into account the small bronze statue of Requeteran, and the bronze casting of the Book of Words, kept in the shade, nestled within an alcove for extra protection. The mats strewn in front of the brickwork that contained the statue were old, ragged and dusty, but no one would ever permit the Book or Requeteran to be anything other than resplendent.
Alleyways branched off in various directions, and Chon’ith of various colours and ages came and went, some pedalling wares at stalls. Hoods and other garments kept out the harsh glare of the sun as it rose into the sky, and other than the occasional insult, the aggression toward the guards appeared to be subsiding. Their patrol began to look back around, and the two sets of troops nodded curtly to one another as their paths crossed.
At that point, bedlam erupted.
Seluban and his Resistance had few weapons, but he and Acklaran had combat training, and De’rata and Zarthara had experience of the dirty, brutal nature of fighting in the Forge. Word had spread of the carnage in Tre’vik, and when a cry went up that one of the guards had butchered innocents in that city, the eyes of every Chon’ith in the Parchment snapped around.
It was an entirely false claim, but that didn’t matter. Zarthara’s idea drew fresh anger from the people, passion that was flamed further by a rock hurled at one of the guards, striking him on the side of his helmet. That acted as a sign of encouragement, and more stones, and foodstuffs, pelted the suddenly nervous guards.
“Back away, now!” One of them barked, and he fired his sidearm into the air for emphasis, but as he did so, another rock, this time aimed with more purpose and force, struck one of his colleagues with enough power to send him staggering.
“Murderer!” Someone cried.
“Butcher!” Somebody else screamed. More objects, of various sizes and levels of danger, were thrown.
“We need assistance in the Parchment, now.” One of the guards spoke into his radio. Another burst of sidearm fire went into the air.
“We will not hesitate to use deadly force if you do not withdraw!” He shouted.
“Like you did to defenceless Chon’ith in Tre’vik!” One of the swelling crowd spat in return.
“No one in our guard was there!” He replied, which was met with cries of ‘liar’.
“Enough of this. You have ten seconds to withdraw or we shoot to kill…”
The guard had barely finished his sentence when a Chon’ith slipped around the corner of one of the alleys and slammed himself into the nearest guard. Another Chon’ith, and another, and two more, charged forward, and then another, and the guards were too slow, too surprised, despite the rage of the crowd, to have gotten their weapons to bear. Only the one guard had drawn his sidearm, and he was too stunned that anyone in Santariv would dare to openly attack. Fists and feet slammed at him and his colleagues from every angle, overwhelming them despite their armour. It was only the blaring of an alarm, coming from an approaching transport, that gave the crowd cause to rapidly disperse.
The four guards lay beaten to near death, bloodied and bruised, and Seluban directed his people to quickly remove their armour.
“You must wear a set.” Acklaran said plainly to his friend.
Seluban nodded. “As must you. Risharath, you as well. Only the males can wear it, otherwise we give away ourselves.”
Risharath did not appear pleased but did not argue. A fourth male, whose name Seluban could not immediately recall, was also instructed to dress himself as a guard. The bodies of the guards were quickly dragged down the alleys and concealed under cloths and rags, and then the transport trundled around the corner.
Four more guards quickly marched out from the rear of the vehicle, confused as to the scene.
“Apologies brothers, we have brought everything under control.” Said Acklaran. The newcomers did not look impressed to have been summoned for nothing, but muttered platitudes as they returned to the transport – with Seluban and his people right behind them.
Quickly and suddenly they moved, driving daggers into the side of the exposed necks of the fresh guards. Each one fell, gurgling horribly, as De’rata scooped up a dropped sidearm and aimed it squarely at the head of the transport’s driver, beckoning him to exit his cabin. The driver was at first stunned at the pace of events; already the newly arrived troops were being stripped of their armour – and his shock turned into sheer incredulation as Acklaran pulled open the door, dragged him out and flung him into the dirty cobbled street. A knife found his neck, and his body, like the others, was quickly hidden away.
Santariv’s embittered population began to filter back into the Parchment, a few witnesses watching in disbelief. Acklaran shot Seluban a look, who turned to watch the faces now staring with a mixture of awe and horror.
“I know why you are here.” He began. “You are here, because you are told you are not good enough, not strong enough, not brave enough. Yet you have just witnessed those who are ‘not enough’, take down nine apparently worthy Chon’ith and seize control of a transport. Now you should know why.” Seluban took a breath and removed the helmet he’d taken, and the crowd gasped in recognition.
“The authorities would tell you I am a terrible traitor, and they would like to believe I am dead – I believe that is the message from official channels – yet here I stand, fighting. I fight because if we continue as a people, to believe only in pure, brute strength, we will become extinct. Our war with the humans is not going well, something the government will not admit, but that is the truth. If we lose that war, we lose to the Cadj as well, and then, we will all either end up as slaves, or we will all die.” Seluban spread his arms wide.
“I believe in Requeteran. I believe in the Makers. I believe in strength and power. I just believe these things in a different way, and I believe that is true for many of you here in Santariv and in the Forge. Because we do not have blind, rigid adherence to the Words, we are ostracised and condemned, which is not right. Know now, all of you, that you can win battles through more more than raw power. Sometimes, you have to win through other means. You have just witnessed this. When we escape the Forge, you will have witnessed the impossible. Spread this message, and know that you are all worthy Chon’ith.”
Seluban retired to the transport, leaving the disbelieving crowd behind.
“The supply ship will be here soon, let’s move.”
The transport rolled into the base without fanfare, and parked with the rear of the vehicle positioned near the building tentatively identified as the mess hall, if the smells were anything to go by. With the vehicle stationed as it was, there was a reduced chance of discovery for the undisguised members of the group. Timing was critical; nerves made Seluban’s stomach knot as the distant rumble of the dropship grew louder.
“We’ll succeed, and from there, our true mission will begin.” He said quietly to the others, attempting to ease both their tension and his own.
The first food and supply shipment landed. The craft was quite large, easy fifty metres in length and fifteen in width, able to accommodate large stores. In fact, it was bigger than Seluban had expected, giving rise to concerns about crew size. Making Chon’ith ‘disappear’ without arousing suspicion would become increasingly difficult, as more and more went missing. One small advantage befell them – the cargo ship’s main hanger was facing them. The disadvantage was that several Chon’ith were directing anti-grav platforms laden with large crates and containers.
“On my order, and only my order, we will rush the hanger. Dispatch any potential threat, and so quickly.” Seluban’s command voice was in full effect. He watched, his mind processing tactics and strategy, until, as it appeared the task of unloading was virtually complete, a window of opportunity finally presented itself. Two of the workers were talking between themselves as they climbed back up the ramp, oblivious to anything else as they walked. A third maneuvered a trolley of small canisters down the ramp and turned to join in the conversation. No guards, or anyone else, appeared to be paying any attention to the proceedings. After all, it was a daily, normal procedure.
“Now.” He hissed, and his group sprang into action. They were hardly a drilled unit, but each of the three workers met a swift end as they were grabbed from behind, and their necks twisted into impossible angles. The cockpit would be next, which would present a new problem, but Seluban was confident enough from years of various forms of training.
The ship’s pilot joined his companions in the afterlife, his neck also snapped, his lifeless body removed carefully from the chair, with Seluban enforcing a measure of dignity to those they had been forced to kill. He had a duty to personally steer the craft out of the base; the controls were quite unlike the helm of a warship, but like any modern craft, auto-pilot features were embedded. A few quick commands were entered into the on-board computer, and the ship fired thrusters, rising into the air.
It became apparent that the launch wasn’t expected. Some of the guards on the ground started to gesticulate, arms waving in concern. Seluban ignored them, and continued to do so, even as the guards raised their weapons. He thumbed a button and the thrusters belted out more power, quickly rising beyond the reach of anti-personnel weaponry.
It wouldn’t take long for reports of a stolen transport to be reported, which simply wasn’t tolerable to Seluban.
“Do we have any weapons?” He asked of Zarthara, who had joined him up front.
“Twin cannons, fore and aft.” She replied.
“Get them armed and stationed. We need to destroy the base.”
If this order troubled Zarthara she gave no sign of it. “I shall see to it.”
Seluban was left unaware as to which two Chon’ith had the duty of slaughtering their brethren. He suspected Acklaran would be one of them, for Acklaran would do his duty. Weapons normally designed to warn off crowds fired up, spraying large caliber ammunition at a rate of two hundred rounds per minute, piercing the concrete and steel structures and barracks below – and shredding even robust Chon’ith flesh. The small communications tower took the bulk of early fire, to the stage where the struts supporting the dish shattered, sending it crashing to the dusty floor. Guards were scattering but Seluban put the transport into a steady spin, allowing the gunners a wide arc of destruction.
When the screaming guns fell silent, and the harsher screams of dying Chon’ith also fell quiet, Seluban gazed upon the ferocious carnage he had wrought. The buildings of the encampment were in tatters, each holed in several places, and the blood of yet more Chon’ith souls flowed across the potholed earth. A necessary evil… he told himself. He wasn’t sure he believed it.