“… So in accordance with the information you’ve provided, you have full authority and our backing to launch the assault on Oanerath. Good luck.” Hawk finished reading the message on the data pad, and looked at the assembled ship captains, both the ones physically present in CNC and the ones on the main viewer, and smiled thinly. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a go. You depart in four hours, so make all your final preparations. Let’s end this war.”
Sixty-nine battleships, forty-three battlecruisers, seventy-two heavy cruisers and forty-two light cruisers raced between the stars, their three-week voyage to Oanerath now underway. Every captain would spend the journey running drills and exercises to best prepare their crews. Seluban, travelling on the flagship, the battleship Avalon, sat alone in his assigned quarters, watching the traces of light from the window, wondering how it would feel when the fleet would emerge in the presence of Oanerath’s sun.
De’rata walked slowly up the hill, keeping to the little dirt road, and doing her best to appear casual. A few days of observation had revealed the normal maintenance schedule for the tower, and no one was due to inspect it for a few hours, plus she had waited until cover of night. When she reached the computer terminal at the base, she took from the pouch around her waist a small data stick, inserted it into the port on the side. A few taps of the touchscreen interface later, her program was ready, secreted in the lines of code that governed the system. All she needed now was the word, and she’d remotely trigger the program.
Zarthara and Risharath wore matching jackets and strode with an external confidence neither of them particularly felt, as they headed for the broadcast station. Risharath’s enquiries had yielded the sympathy of one other, a woman who worked on monitoring the civilian satellites for planetary and system-wide communications. She had pledged to leave a security pass under some rocks near some bushes on the side of the main approach road, but as they now walked, Zarthara felt uneasy. The road was quiet, which was ringing an alarm in her mind, but they needed to be ready. She kept her thoughts to herself, not wanting to disrupt Risharath’s confidence still further, but kept an eye on her surroundings. The walk was for a period exposed, which meant they’d easily spot anyone (or anything) out of the ordinary, but they be easily spotted themselves.
Risharath was perspiring, and gulping a little as he tried to contain his anxiety. Zarthara took his hand in her own and squeezed, and he seemed to calm, just a bit. Still scanning the buildings, open areas and the road for anything unusual, Zarthara led Risharath. They walked for a few more metres, then Risharath stopped as they approached a small pile of rocks, next to a tangle of vines with small blue and pink flowers blossoming upon them.
“Here.” He said, kneeling down, looking like he was adjusting his boots. For a few moments he scratched at the soil, and produced a small rectangular piece of plastic.
“This is it, our way in.” He started to move again, but Zarthara put a hand to his chest.
“Something does not feel right.” She said. “Why would she conceal a security card in this manner, why not simply give it to you?”
“Perhaps she was worried about being seen to give it away? It might be more plausible that she lost it.”
“Surely she would not have attracted undue attention if she were even remotely careful.” Zarthara studied the security card, and her eyes swept their surroundings again. “I think we are walking into a trap.”
“Zarthara, with respect, you are being paranoid.” Remarked Risharath.
“We survived the Forge Risharath. Paranoia kept us alive for years.”
“I see no one that could present a threat.” Risharath span around, taking in their location.
“Precisely. This is an important Council communication hub, and as such, normally a hive of activity. Now it is silent.” Zarthara studied Risharath’s face. “This mission cannot fail.”
“Wait, what do you mean?” Asked Risharath, puzzled.
“If this is a trap, I will trigger it, whilst you stay back. If there is a conflict, you and the security pass will be kept out of the fighting. Here, take this…” She pressed a data stick into his hand. “All you need to do is access a terminal, plug this in and run the program.”
“You cannot seriously…” He began, rattled.
“I can Risharath, and I am. You need to double back and approach the station from another angle. Go, now.”
“Now.” Zarthara snapped. After a long, lingering look of fear and sorrow, Risharath nodded, and began to trot off, back down the road and towards the town. Zarthara watched him go, then began to jog along her original course.
She had travelled just over a hundred metres when the armoured vehicle pulled out of the garage at the facility and began to speed towards her. At the same time, a set of doors opened and several heavily armed Enforcers marched out. Their rifles glinted in the morning sun as they were trained upon her. The small, shallow valley to her left was reachable, though it was poor cover. Better than no cover…
Zarthara dove into the valley, just barely concealed, and drew the small pistol from the holster hidden under her jacket. Her heart was racing, and the Chon’ith equivalent of adrenaline surged through her veins. A very quick glance over the top of the dirt mound showed a red-skinned Chon’ith in blue and gold bone armour leading the procession of troops, whilst the car brought up the rear.
“There is nowhere to hide!” He bellowed. “Whatever the aims of the cowardly Resistance here, they have failed! Reveal yourself and face your destiny head on, like a true Chon’ith!”
“And die pointlessly, like a ‘true’ Chon’ith!” Zarthara shot back.
“The people have rejected your hersey! Your insidious tactics have failed you! Your new breed of Resistance will die, just as you will die by my hand, like the old Resistance did!”
“Brave words from someone backed up by a small army.” She retorted. “Do you lack the courage to face me on your own?”
“I will not fight a woman in direct combat, there is no honour in that.” The voice shouted.
“You mean you’re afraid to.” Zarthara hoped her words would sting, and hoped Risharath was taking advantage of the scene. With a careful look back towards town, she hoped the people would be curious enough to turn their attention on the excitement too. Maybe I can use the crowds, if they ever appear.
“No one calls J’rekarath afraid!” The Enforcer sounded furious.
“Then prove it! Put down your rifle, fight me before your men, and we shall see who is victorious.”
There was a brief spell of silence as J’rekarath stood before his forces, contemplating the challenge. Zarthara wasn’t sure if her life was about to end in a hail of bullets, and was bracing herself for that possibility when J’rekarath spoke again.
“Very well. I will fight you in unarmed combat, and when I have beaten you, you will give me the names and locations of your co-conspirators. Swear upon the Words.”
Zarthara clenched her teeth. To take such an oath and then break it was as awful an act as any, but she couldn’t give away her friends. “I swear.”
There was the sound of armour being released and falling to the floor. Zarthara cautiously rose from her hiding place, stepping back onto the road. In front of her stood J’rekarath, now bare-chested, rifle on the tarmac beneath him. Zarthara squashed the dread in her stomach. J’rekarath was physically impressive, and victory over him now looked impossible. I suppose that depends on how you measure victory…
“I look forward to handing you to Ike’reth and his team.” J’rekarath grinned. “You will make a fine prize.”
“We’ll see.” Zarthara began to walk in an arc, encircling her opponent. “Well, what are you waiting for?”
J’rekarath charged, aiming to wrap his arms around Zarthara and squeeze the air from her lungs, but Zarthara was nimble. She rolled to her left, and drove her elbow into the small of J’rekarath’s back as hard as she could, though the blow didn’t seem to register. She rolled again to keep out of range of any counter-attack, and had to jump to avoid a huge right hook. J’rekarath swung for her again, but Zarthara was quickly ducking under the meaty fists and delivering a jab to the man’s jaw. J’rekarath’s head was knocked back slightly, but then he smiled. Well, that didn’t work…
Zarthara took a kick to the stomach that sent her sprawling. Winded and sore, it took every bit of her strength to get out of the way as J’rekarath tried to pin her. She ran, ignoring the jeers from the assembled Enforcers, and prayed to the Makers Risharath was, fulfilling the mission. Turning, she saw J’rekarath come charging at her again, and leapt to her right, but left her left leg out, tripping her opponent and sending him sprawling across the road. The act was painful; the jarring of limbs left her own leg bruised.
Come on Risharath…
His fear clawed at him, guilt gnawed at him. His legs had carried him briskly to the town’s streets, and now he hurried back up another, ignoring the strange glances he got along the way. Risharath dared not consider that Zarthara was truly right, and that because of his foolishness, might be captured, or worse. He could but run, as once again the domes of the communication station appeared before him. It was now that he caught sight of the gathering of Enforcers, and the armoured vehicle, with a large, high-calibre cannon on its roof. They were all facing away from him, but exactly what they were doing didn’t become clear until he’d taken a few more steps. One red Chon’ith was confronting Zarthara in direct combat, a terrifying prospect to Risharath. He wanted to shout out, to make noise, to divert the attention of the Enforcers, but he was too afraid – and Zarthara was counting on him to complete the mission. Loathing himself, Risharath nonetheless pressed on, approaching a door with a card reader and keypad beside it. A quick swipe of the card bade him entry, and he stared down a grey and blue corridor, lined with several more doors. With haste he began to walk, hoping no workers would emerge from a room or another corridor to interfere with his mission.
Any terminal… Uncertainty was choking him, but Risharath pushed it away and carefully twisted the handle on the nearest door to his left, creeping inside. The bright room was lit up largely by several banks of computer monitors, and on the wall on the right stood a row of machines with blinking lights and switches. Facing away from him was a chair, where a single yellow female Chon’ith sat, studying the information on the screens. Risharath grimaced to himself, knowing he had to incapacite the woman somehow, but to strike a woman was an abhorrent notion. The only other option was a distraction…
The fire alarm! There was one in corner of the room. The handle only needed a hard yank and every Chon’ith in the facility would swiftly leave. With soft, measured footsteps, Risharath reached the lever, tugging it downward, then scurried to the corner of the room as the siren began to wail. The woman at the controls jumped as the angry sound blasted throughout the room, and hurried to the exit, not spotting the crouching Risharath. The sound of several people shouting and running reached his ears through the walls, and feeling a bit more confident, he sat down at desk, looking for a data port. After a few moments, the data stick was plugged in, the clandestine program was installed, and now all Risharath had to worry about was escape…
Zarthara had been slow, and J’rekarath’s fists had caught her stomach a few times. Now she wheezed, feeling the effects of deep bruises, but she took satisfaction from the blood bubbling from J’rekarath’s nose, the darker shade of red under his right eye where it was starting to puff up. It almost made her forget her limp.
They about to engage in more combat when civilians came peeling out of the facility, the fire alarm singing its loud, annoying song. The other Enforcers looked at each other, confused, then barked orders at the new crowd, shuffling them away from the conflict. Zarthara resisted the desire to smile, confident that Risharath was responsible for the fresh injection of chaos. Her eyes ran over the scene, hoping to spot him, and sure enough, behind the crowd, a single red Chon’ith was gesturing, and Zarthara’s soul felt lifted.
But it was also drawing her focus away, and she was caught unawares as J’rekarath charged, knocking her to the ground and pinning her. Zarthara struggled, kicking out, but couldn’t shift J’rekarath’s weight.
“I wish I could kill you, as I did the coward Faratarath, all those months ago. It would be a fitting way for your pathetic tactics to end.” He growled. “But your surrender and interrogation will have to suffice.”
“All…. Your strength…. And you cannot see how it’s failed you…” Zarthara managed to say. There would be no return from what she was about to do. Her right hand found the small firearm in its holster. She looked J’rekarath in the eyes, and prayed Risharath would understand what he needed to do. “For… Faratarath… And our future…” Before J’rekarath could fathom what was happening, Zarthara had pressed the cold metal of the pistol to his abdomen and pulled the trigger. There was a loud pop, a grunt of pain and surprise, and Zarthara felt warm, wet blood splash over her clothes. J’rekarath slackened and she pushed up, rolling him away. As she stood, she caught a glimpse of Risharath once more. He was too far to see his eyes, but as she aimed her pistol at J’rekarath’s chest, she believed he understood, for he began to run. Zarthara closed her eyes as J’rekarath struggled to rise, and fired again. It was the final act of her life. In retaliation, the Enforcers opened fire, cutting her down, but J’rekarath was dead, at the hands of a woman, outsmarted. No one who had witnessed the scene could deny it.
Tears stung Risharath’s eyes and blurred his vision as he fled from the station. He hadn’t seen Zarthara fall, but he knew what the Enforcers would do. Feeling powerless, he did the only thing he could, and ran for the small flat he called home in Z’Tretch. Once there, he began to hurriedly pack his things into his rucksack, then paused when he looked at the small communicator. He considered sending a message to Acklaran, but that triggered a fresh wave of guilt and pain. He couldn’t face explaining it, not yet. All he knew was the mission was complete. Remember the cause… Duty to ensure its success was now all he had left. As much as Risharath wanted to pummel the communicator to pieces, he had to tell Acklaran their part of the plan was finished. That would be all he would say, for now. Tapping a few keys on the little handheld device, Risharath sent the encoded message, then crumpled in a sobbing, heartbroken heap.
An hour after receiving word from Risharath, Acklaran had also received word from several Resistance cells that their efforts had been successful, whilst some were silent, which implied failure. Acklaran hadn’t expected a 100% success rate, and he was quite pleased with the results the Resistance had enjoyed. Revealing to the world the folly of the Council would not now fail because of that particular angle of the plan. Instead, it might run asunder if he could not discover when the human fleet arrived. All he could do was guess roughly, and that wasn’t going to be good enough. So for that reason, Acklaran would have to pay a visit to a military office. He took in the beauty of expertly tended gardens and flowerbeds in the Capital’s central plaza, doing what he could to memorise them, just in case he never returned. Then he stood up from the wooden bench, and took a casual stroll towards the government buildings to the city’s south.
Rows of tall domes tried to block the sunlight, casting huge shadows that many Chon’ith felt naturally drawn to. They went about their normal lives, but Acklaran couldn’t help but wonder how many of them had seen or heard the messages from the Resistance, and whether those messages had moved them in some way. He also noted several Enforcers on the streets, an unheard of notion several months ago. Ignoring them, Acklaran approached the glass double-door entrance to the Naval Recruitment Conclave , which he knew also held the Naval Planning Conclave, hidden underground. His access codes had long since been revoked, but Zarthara’s computer hacking had revealed several other codes, for officers both living and dead. He keyed in a code at the security doors behind the reception desk, offering a polite smile to the green Chon’ith woman who sat behind the desk, and entered the facility.
The lift took him two levels down, and from memory he walked to the main command room, but refrained from entering. He kept his head down, avoiding eye contact with anyone, lest he be recognised, and instead looked to the small door to the command room’s right. He slipped into the maintenance room, and peered at the network of cables, wires and computers.
It was brazen to a degree that Acklaran had never been, but now he pulled his personal communicator from his pocket and pulled up the files Zarthara had sent him for cracking computers. Hooking up the device to the computers themselves took a few minutes whilst he located the appropriate slot, and then he got to work. The program was buried deep within the code, virtually invisible. Acklaran let out the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, and cautiously made his exit from the Conclave. If the Council knew he’d effectively walked through their front door with contemptuous ease, it would fill them with rage. It was a sweet thought.
As he walked back down the street, Acklaran caught side of a monitor reporting on a breaking news story. There had been an incident in Z’Tretch, when a young woman had tried to infiltrate a communications facility. In her fanaticism, she had shot and killed a high-ranking Enforcer before being shot dead herself. Acklaran paused as the image of the woman was displayed, and had to fight to hide his shock and dismay. Zarthara couldn’t be gone, she just couldn’t… And why had Risharath neglected to inform him? The other man’s message had spoken of the mission’s success, and only its success.
“You’ll be avenged.” He whispered to himself.