There was nothing but solemn silence within the command deck’s walls. The crew busied themselves with damage control duties and other responsibilities, seemingly oblivious to the absence of both Superior Chief Seluban and Chief Acklaran. The most senior officers in the Chon’ith battle group had retired to Seluban’s quarters, in theory to discuss the fleet’s next move, though as Acklaran stood to attention in the spartan cabin, silver armour gleaming in the light of the torches Seluban had lit to honour Chon’ith dead, his overriding thought was that Seluban was not fit to light those torches.
“So we are running?” Acklaran asked after a few moments, but it was less of a question than a statement. It had been over half an hour since the order to jump, and in that time Seluban had simply asked for an update on the fleet’s condition and then withdrawn to his quarters. After a short while, when it had become apparent there was no possibility of returning, Acklaran had placed his subordinate, Lesser Chief Pesteral, in command to ‘have words’ with the Superior Chief.
Seluban looked up, holding the bundle of rags (via a stick of course) that still burned, ignoring the heat. The flame cast an ominous shadow across his face.
“Consider it a tactical withdrawal Chief.” The warning in his voice made it clear that to suggest anything else was unwise.
Acklaran stepped forward, arms wide, not making any effort to conceal his incredulity. “A ‘tactical withdrawal’ is merely another expression for ‘running away’, Superior Chief.” He did not hide the venom in his voice.
Without a word Seluban stepped to the small basin of water located on the small stone table beside his bed, and dipped the rags into it. Steam billowed into the air around him. “As opposed to what? What other course of action would you have recommended? In what plan of yours could have achieved anything other than our complete and utter annihilation?”
“It is not our way to run from a fight! We should have stayed to inflict as many wounds upon the humans as we could! We should have…” Acklaran’s voice was becoming raised, but Seluban cut him off sharply.
“What wounds? You saw what was happening! If we had stayed they would have picked us off with contemptuous ease! Our counter-fire would dwindle with each new, depleted strike, thanks to the massive losses we’d have taken, until we would all be dead! That is not glory Acklaran, that is suicide.”
Acklaran was sullen but silent. His eyes tracked Seluban as he stepped toward him.
It was the will of the Makers for the strong to dominate the weak, that was the guiding principle that governed every aspect of Chon’ith life. When the Makers had first gifted Requeteran their Holy Words, handed to him the framework to spread to the rest of their home world of Oanerth, they had made it clear it was the duty of him and every single one of his followers to dominate the weak, in order to protect them. It was about achieving the power to rule in order to govern those who were incapable of governing themselves. The weak could not be shown mercy, not until they had come to understand their place, and why it was necessary. Obviously the discovery of alien life had forced some… adjustment to Chon’ith thinking, but as Requestery had spread across Oanerth until it held the entire world in its honourable, iron grip, so would it spread across the galaxy.
To be strong meant not backing down in the face of confrontation. It meant staring into the eyes of your enemy and having them realise the warrior before them would die before being defeated. It meant never ever running from a fight, which Seluban had done.
Yet it also called for not being wasteful. Those who followed Requestery had a duty to ensure it survived to be spread. Followers were prepared to die for their beliefs, yet death had to serve a purpose; needless sacrifice was not to be courted. The two ideals were contradictory, for never running from a fight entailed, almost inevitably, avoidable death, so as time had gone by, the more prominent rulers of Chon’ith civilisation had simply pointed to their own history, in which Requestery had become the dominant faith, because of a stubborn refusal to surrender in any battle. Fighting to the last had to mean something, and it did – it meant the weakening of an enemy, either physically or psychologically. It meant damaging their infrastructure in some fashion, or damaging morale. There became, in the eyes of the followers of the religion that had come to completely control Chon’ith culture and society, no grounds upon which running from battle was acceptable.
Yet Seluban knew there were texts that implied exactly that, even if Acklaran didn’t, and Seluban suspected the younger Chon’ith was aware, because every Chon’ith learned the holy ways from the moment they could read. Indeed, many a Chon’ith commander had referred to ‘tactical withdrawals’ in the past, though admittedly none of them had ‘withdrawn’ all the back to a Chon’ith staging post. Still, the thunder was clear in Acklaran’s eyes.
“I am a Superior Chief. My duties – my honour – require me to ensure our people have the most glorious, noble deaths that they could possibly ask for. There is nothing honourable in a one-sided slaughter. If you should wish to distance yourself from me and my orders, that is your decision Chief, and I will accept that, for I am fully aware that it appears as though I ran.” Seluban did not admit, even to himself, that the appearance of running would certainly filter back to his commanders, and to the people at large. Cowardice sealed a fate worse than death, one that would forever haunt Seluban if such a charge bore any chance of sticking, and it was certainly possible. For a fleeting moment, he gave a discrete glance to the image of his wife, son and daughter. If they maintained any loyalty to him were the charge of cowardice to hold, their lives would be ruined alongside his. If they rejected his actions, he would never see them again. Pain twisted his heart, but he met the fierce look of Acklaran.
“If, as I suspect, the other fleets have been broken, then we must re-evaluate everything we know about the humans. We cannot do that if we are dead, but whether that argument holds any weight, I do not know. On reconsideration, Acklaran, I am ordering you to distance yourself from me and my orders.”
Acklaran’s eyes widened. “You cannot…”
“I can and do. Think! I know this action does not sit well you my friend, that you would rather have stood and fought to the last. I know you interpret the Words differently, and that is no disrespect to you or your views. I also know you to be an honourable warrior. I do not want to see your life destroyed because of me.”
There was silence for a moment, before Acklaran’s eyes narrowed. “My life is already destroyed. I did not challenge your order to leave. The records will show that. No one on the command deck voiced objections. That equates to being complicit.”
“No.” Seluban shook his head. “You obeyed the lawful, if concerning order of a Superior Chief. You could not know my true intentions, until now. Even now, I do not know my true intentions.” Seluban allowed a little of his contrition to enter his voice. “Should we have turned around, tried again? Part of me wants to, even now. We still could.”
Silence engulfed both men once more, until Acklaran raised his chin.
“Do you think we have a chance at victory?” He asked quietly.
“No. Their technology…” Seluban shook his head again. “They out-ranged us, out-manoeuvred us, and out-smarted us. We had twice the broadside yet we barely scratched them.”
“Then perhaps the Makers will see this as a chance for our strength to grow, in a different way.” Acklaran replied thoughtfully.
“The Makers are wise and strong in ways we cannot conceive…” Remarked Seluban. “They test us, always, test our faith and our courage. Have I failed that test by fleeing?” Seluban hated himself for sounding so… pleading, yet he needed absolution – or at least assurance.
“Did I fail by obeying?” Acklaran answered, with a lop-sided grin. “I have committed myself to your commands, that could be the greatest mistake I have ever made.”
Seluban considered this, as he took a seat on one of the small chairs beside his desk, and gestured for Acklaran to do likewise.
“Once it becomes clears to the crew we are not returning to the Dallas system, some of them may decide to… punish us.”
“If that is the case, they are free to make the attempt.” Acklaran replied calmly. Under the letter of Requestery, acts of cowardice could be dealt with by soldiers and servants of their superiors, if they could justify doing so. The targets of any would-be assassination or attack were entitled to defend themselves, which had entailed one more than spectacular bloodbath in Chon’ith history. Whether or not the crew of Sharpened Blade would risk decapitating not only the command of the ship but the fleet remained to be seen, whilst the Chiefs of other ships had yet to make their voices heard, though Seluban suspected they would be screamingly angrily for clarification before long. Those passionate requests for certainty would then have the benefit of being public record, shielding those Chiefs from any fallout from Seluban’s decision. As flag Chief, Acklaran would have no such protection, unless he outright stated his own disagreement. Seluban once again wished his friend would distance himself.
“Will the troop transports have moved on their targets yet?” Asked Acklaran quietly.
“They would have been waiting for the specific order. Without such orders, I would hope their commanders would return home. We can signal our own detachment, but if I am right, the rest will have to act on their own will.”
“What happens if the other fleets have been destroyed?” Trepidation entered Acklaran’s voice.
“Then our superiors must come to realise the manner of the challenge we face.” Answered Seluban flatly.
“And if we receive word that we were victorious in the other engagements?”
“Then I will be a pariah, and if you do not publicly renounce me, so will you.” Seluban said, somewhat harshly. “And I do not wish for that to be your fate.”