The beginning of the end took the form of a ‘Coward’s’ Forge that had become a hotbed of angry rebellion, and also of the rage of the Council.
Not for the first time, Enforcers kicked in doors to drag into the streets any Chon’ith who was even rumoured to have spoken against the purest teachings of Requeteran. By now it was an action taking place not only on Oanerath, but on several other Chon’ith worlds, as word of the Resistance and their demonstrations spread. The Council’s official statements likened the matter to poison in veins, threatening to kill the noble Chon’ith ways. To many ordinary Chon’ith, it was unprecedented. Chon’ith from all walks of life quietly expressed their shock – and fear – as to the Council’s actions. Even worse, as the Council was trying to justify their actions (it was after, displaying strength and force), they gave Acklaran and the Resistance a window to gain more influence.
One evening, as bone-clad Enforcers marched in pairs down the stone road, each cradling assault rifles, Acklaran watched from the corner of the street, then casually strode past them, inclining his hooded head as he did so. They glared at him, interpreting his nicety as mockery, for they had just kicked in the door of a nearby home, a home rumoured to hold sympathisers to the Resistance and their heretical teachings. A home that contained a mother and three small children, who had wailed with fear as the Enforcers held their mother at gunpoint to interrogate her.
Acklaran had watched through the windows, angry that the Council had resorted to bullying on a global scale, and angry with himself for not intervening, though he knew to do so would be too risky. Instead he applied a little brevity, much to the annoyance of the supposedly intimidating guards.
“You! Where do you think you are going?” One of them gruffly demanded.
“I think I am going home, as the time grows late.” Acklaran replied, letting a little condensation fall off his tongue.
“Watch your tone.”
Acklaran shrugged. “I cannot watch something I cannot see.”
The guard took a step towards him. “Disrespecting us is like disrespecting Requeteran.”
“Ha! I don’t think Requeteran would bully mothers in their homes in front of their children.”
There was a cock of the head, and a dangerous smile upon the guard’s face. “Are you questioning our authority? The Council’s authority?”
“Oh not at all, just your heavy-handed, obscene methods, ones we both know Requeteran would despise.” Acklaran replied calmly.
The guards clenched their fists in menacing warning. Acklaran simply smiled.
“You should learn some respect.” The guard snarled. Acklaran took a moment to look around, noticing people were peering out of windows and that others in the streets were stopping to watch the confrontation.
“I suggest you educate yourselves first. You are spitting upon the Words with your treatment of women, and your disgusting behaviour.”
The silence that fell was heavy with danger. The first guard’s eyes were aflame with rage. He lashed out, swinging a ferocious right hook, which completely missed as Acklaran stepped back, then forward, headbutting the guard and enjoying the satisfying crack of the nose as the guard fell backwards. The other guard had been less angry, but couldn’t sand idly by as his colleague got into a fight. He tried to charge Acklaran, expecting his enemy to do the typical Chon’ith thing of charging back. Instead, Acklaran stepped to the side, letting the guard charge straight into a brick wall. As the guard staggered, Acklaran swept his legs out from under him, and delivered a quick jab to the face to render him unconscious.
As he stood, he took stock of all the eyes upon him. He spread his arms wide.
“This is what the Council has become. They do not serve the Makers, or the Words, or the teachings of Requeteran. They have distorted and twisted our religion, and convinced all of us it was always the way, and they’ve used that to cling to power, power they abuse. They seek utter conformity to their banner, even if such a policy punishes many Chon’ith. There is more than one path to strength and no path involves invading homes to intimidate people.”
The headbutted guard stirred, propping himself up via his elbows and stared at Acklaran. His eyes narrowed, as though in recognition.
“I know you. You are Acklaran, one of cowards who ran away from the humans.”
And one of several to escape the Forge, a feat thought impossible.” Acklaran retorted. “You call me coward, yet I just took on you and your friend, by myself, and you oh-so bravely took on a woman and children.”
“You and your ilk are a disease.” The guard spat.
“Wrong, we are the cure. Look at yourself and what are doing! Is this the will of the Makers, or the desire of the Council?”
“You are still a coward!”
“Why?” Asked Acklaran earnestly. “Because I came to realise that pure strength on its own cannot win every battle? The humans outsmarted us, and they continue to outsmart us. You must know the rumours that our fleets are being easily destroyed, and more and more Chon’ith are mourning dead loved ones, and for what?”
Once again silence greeted him. It was a question that cut through the cognitive disassociation, forcing Chon’ith into unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory. Acklaran knew many would ignore it, simply to make their lives easier. He also knew some could not ignore it, especially any Chon’ith present who had lost someone in a futile pursuit of victory over the humans.
“Soon, the deepest truths and the most vile deceptions will be laid bare, and every Chon’ith will face a difficult choice, but it will be the right of every Chon’ith to make that choice, not the remit of the Council to dictate. Our survival depends upon it.” With that final remark, Acklaran helped the guard to his feet, and left.
The small transport hurtled through hyperspace, pushing the boundaries of the systems hard to attain as high a speed as possible. Seluban kept a close watch on the engine readouts, acutely aware that the output was pushing the danger marker. A few times it had exceeded it, but he wasn’t confident with repairing an overly energetic power core, so he had throttled back a little. Now the ship he’d stolen raced across space, in the general direction of human territory. A quick check of the astro-navigation charts told him that in another day, he’d arrive at his target. With a silent prayer to the Makers, he hoped he was on the right path.
Fifty-two Confederation battleships hung in space, lit up by their running lights and silhouetted by the system’s sun. Thirty-six battlecruisers hung with them, along with sixty heavy cruisers and twenty-seven light cruisers. Another seventeen battleships, seven battlecruisers, twelve heavy cruisers and fifteen light cruisers drifted nearby, representing a secondary fleet. Finally, six battleships, ten battlecruisers, fifteen heavy cruisers and sixteen light cruisers patrolled the system itself.
The significant gathering had been running training simulations for three days, preparing for the two major incursions into Chon’ith space that would hopefully deal a devastating blow to the enemy war machine. The plan was straightforward – the primary fleet was going to draw the attention of the local defences, and utterly crush them, whilst the smaller fleet would intercept transports and cargo ships, and deal with any industrial sites in the outer parts of the solar systems. Admiral Hawk looked out of the viewport at the assembled firepower and wondered if there would ever be another occasion when he’d command such a fleet.
“Admiral…” A young ensign in the corner of the command deck spoke up. “Sensors have just picked up an incoming hyperspace burst.” He said.
“Are we due any more ships?” Asked the Admiral as turned around.
“No sir. Replied the ensign. “Sir, it appears to be a Chon’ith vessel, but a small one, like some form of transport.”
“Dispatch a pair of light cruisers to intercept it!” Hawk commanded. “It might be a scout, we cannot allow it to escape.”
“Admiral…” A lieutenant seated at the communications terminal added her voice to the conversation. “We’re receiving a transmission from the Chon’ith vessel.”
“Let’s see it.” At Hawk’s command, the signal was displayed on the video screen at his personal terminal.
“This is former Superior Chief Seluban, of the Chon’ith Empire, requesting to dock at this station.”
Hawk exchanged a few puzzled looks with his colleagues.
“This is Admiral Ryan Hawk of CNSS Manticore. There are two ships on their way to intercept you. You’ll rendezvous with them, and they will board your ship, and bring you here.”
The green-skinned Chon’ith appeared annoyed. “That will add hours to my arrival.“
“Yes, it will, but if you expect me to allow you to dock your ship at my station, when for all I know your ship is a giant bomb, you are sorely mistaken.”
After a moment, Seluban nodded. “Very well. Please expedite matters, what I have to discuss with you is urgent.”
“My ships will hasten their approach. At the first sign this is a trick, or if you try to flee, they will destroy you.” Warned Hawk.
“Understood. Seluban out.” The Chon’ith cut the transmission. Hawk once again exchanged curious looks with the command crew.
“Well…” He said. “This is different.”
Four hours later, the light cruiser Whitehall slotted into a mooring at Manticore, and a trio of heavily armed marines escorted Seluban through the docking tube and onto the station itself. He tried to reveal how impressed he was – the tube had deposited him into a large semi-circular chamber, with a number of small auxiliary vehicles ferrying what appeared to be munitions and equipment to large ships, all just beyond a panel of transparent glass. His first guess was ammunition ships, quite a few of them, which suggested a major operation was in the works. A young human female (why did humans put women in danger?!) with ebony skin and a pristine white uniform stepped forward.
“I’m Captain Sachi Egwu, Admiral Hawk’s executive officer.” She held out her right hand. Seluban blinked at first, unsure as to what the hand meant, before recalling from some file somewhere that humans, often shook hands in greeting. He took the proffered hand and gently shook it, aware he could crush her fingers very easily.
Egwu appeared unaware of that. “The Admiral is keen to meet you, if you will come with me.” She gestured for him to follow her to a door, where four station marines waited.
The door slid open to reveal a corridor, that curved gradually. They walked in silence under the strobe lights, past several other doors, then turned right, heading deeper into the station. After a few minutes, Egwu stopped outside a larger double door. “Before you meet with the Admiral, can we get you anything?”
The offer of hospitality to an enemy baffled Seluban, but he nodded. “Water, please.”
“There should already be a jug in the conference room, but if not, I’ll arrange for it.” She tapped a button by the door. “Admiral, it’s Sachi, I’m here with Seluban.”
“Come on in.” Replied a disembodied voice. The doors parted, and the pair stepped into a rectangular room, with a long, black glass table and several chairs, one of which was larger, to accommodate Chon’ith build. The man known as Admiral Ryan Hawk rose from his chair at the head of the table, extending his hand in that same peculiar gesture. Seluban mirrored it once more.
“Please, be seated.” Said the Admiral. Seluban hesitated for a brief moment, then eased himself into the plastic chair and pointed to the water jug. “May I?”
Seluban took a glass and poured himself a drink. He looked across the table to see Egwu slipping into a chair of her own. A grimace creased his face.
Egwu cocked her head. “Is there something wrong Superior Chief?”
“I am… Unaccustomed to seeing a woman in a place of military authority. I will try to tolerate it.”
“Generous of you.” Egwu nodded slightly.
“I must also add, as per my earlier message, that I am no longer a Superior Chief.”
“Yes, you mentioned that.” Said Hawk. “Which makes your arrival here all the more unusual, assuming of course, you’re being honest with us.”
“Do not doubt my integrity Admiral.” There was a deep warning in Seluban’s voice. “I have taken many risks to be here, ever since my life was unhinged by the war.”
“We don’t mean to offend.” Said Egwu. “However, you understand our concern. You’d surely be cautious in our place.”
“Of course. I cannot offer easy verification for anything I am going to tell you, I can offer only my honour, and my desire to save my people.”
Hawk sat back in his chair. “I dare say that will be enough for me. From our experience with your people, honour and integrity is a fundamental part of who you are.”
Thank you Admiral.” Replied Seluban. He took a drink of his water. “When my fleet attacked the system you call Dallas, your forces destroyed me, inside and out. It was a defeat quite unlike any a Chon’ith fleet had ever suffered. It was a moment of epiphany for myself, and for a few other Chon’ith, but it would cost me my mate, my offspring, and my title. It would lead me to a rebellion, and to a realisation that my culture, my people, have been corrupted.”
He paused, the emotions of several months of turmoil churning within him. The humans looked at him, expectant.
“To free my people from the shackles of the Council that rules us, to change our society from one that values pure strength as the only form of power, to one that can see beyond such a destructive ideology. If we don’t change, if we don’t end our war with your people, we will give way to an ultimately more dangerous enemy.”
Hawk sat up. “You’re fighting another war?”
“Yes. The Cadj. They are on the other side of our space. Their technology is inferior to our own but their capacity to build ships is astonishing. We are waging an attritional war and we are winning, but our war with you is draining our resources. If we give the Cadj even a moment’s grace, they will overwhelm us. All the purity through strength in the universe will not save us.”
“So… Let me see if I’m understanding you correctly.” Hawk brought a hand to his chin. “You want to end our war, but you’re defying the will of your government, in fact you want to change your people’s society.”
“Correct.” Replied Seluban. “The Resistance is growing in influence and… Hmm, strength, but it is a slow, laborious process. Even with Coward’s Forge now acting in defiance of the Council, and my followers creating dissent all over Oanerath, to truly change the hearts and minds of enough Chon’ith to stop our self-destruction will take a monumental act.”
“What did you have in mind?” Hawk asked.
“Send your fleet to Oanerath. Demonstrate the superior quality of your strategy and tactics. I can grant you the means to transmit the battle to every home on Oanerath, and ensure it’s transmitted across the Empire. In the face of such a visible defeat of our tactics, my people and the Chon’ith will have to face reality.”
Silence reigned once more. Seluban noticed the humans exchange glances, but he could not decipher the nuances.
“Seluban, what you’re telling us…” (if true, was the hidden part of her sentence) “Is that you want us to help you overthrow your government. That’s a very bold, very dangerous course of action, for you and for us.” Said Egwu softly. “We need to consider this carefully.”
“I understand.” Replied Seluban, even though privately he bemoaned the indecisiveness of the humans. “Believe me, having to come here, to seek external assistance to save my people, has… Tested me, as much as it will test you.”
“We’ve prepared quarters for you.” Said Hawk. “Captain Egwu will escort you to them. I hope you appreciate that we need to discuss what you’ve told us.”
“Very well. For the time being, let’s bring this conversation to an end. Captain, can, you return here when you’re done?”
“Of course Admiral.” She replied.
Once Seluban was safely secured in his quarters, Egwu had indeed returned. Now she sat to the Admiral’s left, sipping water, waiting courteously for him to speak.
“So…” He began, clasping his hands together on the table. “First things first, the timing of this is remarkable.”
“Egwu nodded. “That was my first thought.”
“I mean, what a coincidence! On the eve of our biggest assault, we get a carrot like this dangled over our heads, luring us away!”
“You’re thinking trap?” Asked Egwu.
“Damn right. What else can it be?”
“Sir… The Chon’ith haven’t, at any stage during the war, displayed this kind of strategic nous. They haven’t demonstrated, in any form, the intelligence-gathering apparatus to figure out we were gathering a fleet here. In fact, it would seem to be culturally offensive to them to even try.”
“True. Still, I don’t like it. Something feels off, and do we really want to convert the Chon’ith from an enemy we can run rings around, to one that’s prepared to fight with at least some grasp of tactics?”
“We can’t patrol Chon’ith space forever – if we win the war but they don’t change, or at least, don’t change enough, we’ll have to maintain a peacekeeping presence in their territory, which will stretch us massively. Plus, if these Cadj are a genuine threat… “
“That’s if they even exist.” Remarked Hawk.
“It wouldn’t be the first time an empire has fought a war on two fronts.” Egwu pointed out. “But sir, this all boils down to one thing – do you trust Seluban?”
Hawk opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again as he considered the question. “I was about to say no, almost out of reflex, but their commitment to honour… And I have to admit, Seluban did strike me as sincere.”
“So assuming he’s telling the truth, what should our next move be sir?”
“I’ll send a message to Command, advising them an opportunity to end the war has arisen, one we cannot ignore. I want you and the chiefs of staff to work with Seluban and learn all we can about the defences of their home world, and we’ll need a redundancy option, in case it is a trap.”
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst?” Egwu said with a smile.
“Something like that. In the meantime, I’m curious to know what Seluban’s endgame is. What does he personally gain? I’ll have a talk with him.”
“He might not be forthcoming.”
“Perhaps. I have to ask though. Insatiable curiosity and all that.” Grinned Hawk.