Disarray gripped the streets and towns of Oanareth. Chon’ith could not believe the Council would continue to keep its doors closed, unwilling to kept them informed. They kept up the pressure, with some now bringing placards to demonstrate with. All the while the Resistance kept pouring doubt as to the Council’s motives, whilst in space the Chon’ith fleet continued to try and keep out of range of the enemy, a detail the Council desperately wanted to conceal.
That was why Markaret now stormed into the Naval Planning Conclave, escorted via one of many underground tunnels that connected the key institutions of the government. Chon’ith in gold, silver and bronze armour were in a mild state of panic as they tried to reestablish data links to the fleet, but they all stopped and stood to attention when the High Priestess entered the chamber.
“You…” She aimed her gaze and her voice at the gold-armoured yellow Chon’ith. “What is our status Superior Chief Obertan?”
Obertan steeled himself. “Our links to the fleet have been disrupted by the communications blackout. We’re still getting the emergency generators online.”
“Hurry. I wish to see the battle.”
“Yes your Eminence.”
“The wound is serious Supreme Chief.” The green Chon’ith with old eyes said. The medical profession wasn’t a terribly useful one on a warship, at least not in Chon’ith eyes, but Chief Medic Dekterat ran his instruments over Ike’reth’s leg with practised hands. “I would recommend you stand down temporarily whilst I remove the metal.”
“Do not be absurd Dekterat, I cannot withdraw command now.” He leaned against the bone railing, doing his best to mask his pain, though each little movement sent jabs of agony through his leg. “Ubireken…” He addressed a red Chon’ith in grey armour below him. “How are our efforts to reestablish contact with the Council?”
Ubireken looked pensive. “It does not go well sir. Very few comm links to Oanareth remain active, we are trying to get a signal through a civilian relay now.”
“Keep trying.” Ike’reth’s concern deepened, as did his frown. What is going on back home?!
The control panels had been opened up to expose the circuitry and wiring underneath, and cables stretched across the stone floor as Chon’ith worked feverishly to get some form of contact with the fleet. Markaret stood to one side, her guards just behind her, keeping watch on their efforts like a stern gargoyle. No one wanted to incur her wrath, so everyone did what they could to be busy. The minutes were ticking by with no obvious progress, and it was all Obertan could do to keep his composure. His temper was a powerful one, but it would not do to lose discipline before the High Priestess, even in such a tense situation. Instead he paced the chamber, a look of focus upon his face, jaw set tight.
He was about to begin his fourth lap of the room when a station beeped, and two engineers, one red, one green, exchanged a look of hopeful optimism. One of them cast a glance at Obertan, who walked quickly over to them.
“You have something?” He enquired in a low voice.
“Yes sir.” Replied the red-skinned one of the pair. “We’ve patched emergency power into the building’s main transmitter, and we’re linking to a satellite as we speak. We should have a signal in a few more minutes.”
“Very good. Let me know the second we can get a picture of the battle.”
Ubireken connected two cables together and nearly yelped as a jolt of power singed his fingers, but he took note of the hum of returning power and pride in the signal now being aimed directly at a civilian navigation satellite. Unbeknown to him, the Chon’ith on the ground were forging a link to the same satellite, and unbeknown to both, it was one the Resistance had successfully hacked.
“Superior Chief…” The red engineer spoke softly. “We have regained contact with the fleet. It is a strong connect – we think they’ve tapped the same satellite.”
“Excellent! I shall inform the High Priestess. I want every bit of tactical available right now.” He turned from the engineer and smiled. He could finally show Markaret the victory he was certain was inevitable, despite the early setbacks.
“Your Eminence, we are back in contact with the fleet, and tactical readouts will shortly be yours to view.” He bowed slightly. “If you would care to come this way…” He gestured to the main plot in the middle of the room, where other Chon’ith now began to gather.
“And…. now!” The engineer tapped a button in front of him, and at that moment, the latest scenes from the Battle of Oanareth became part of the public domain.
“This is Supreme Chief Ike’reth to Command, respond!” He said through gritted teeth, the pain in his leg becoming a constant, throbbing ache.
“This is Superior Chief Obertan, it is good to hear your voice sir.” Came Obertan’s voice through the speakers, though his image did not appear on the main screen, which carried a large crack.
“Obertan, it is good to hear yours as well. You are receiving the updates?”
“They are coming through now, but I am sure you wish to tell me, and the High Priestess, of the great victory you are about to win, in honour of Requeteran and the Makers.”
Ike’reth wished he had passed out from the pain of his wound. “I… cannot make such a statement. You will understand when all the data has been received, but the humans… they have destroyed over a third of the fleet, and…”
Fischer disliked the current direction, literally and figuratively, the battle was heading in. “If we both keep going, we’ll end up in range of their remaining defence platforms, and then things get dicey.”
“Yes ma’am.” Replied Williams, glancing at the Admiral. “But we can’t stop them from accelerating, and we can’t increase our own thrust. I don’t know what we can do to avoid this.”
“I have an idea Admiral.” Captain Cooper said. “We can’t catch them, but we still have some stealth platforms with warheads. They won’t do much against their battleships, but we should be able to get them into decent range of their weapon platforms and some of their lighter units, if we launch them in the next…” He turned to face his controls and tapped a few keys. “Eight minutes.”
“Even with Chon’ith systems, enough stealthies to do any real damage would be spotted if they’re heading straight down their throats… sir.” Said Williams.
“We aim our ECM suites at their fleet, blind them as much as we can. We’ll thin out their platforms, and take out a few heavy and light cruisers for good measure. We’ll have to face some, but we’ll be able to handle what’s left.”
Fischer looked at the two officers, then nodded. “Make it happen, get every ship to fire off their platforms at the appropriate moment.”
“… they have destroyed over a third of the fleet, and…”
Obertan wanted to rip his ears from his head, but more than that, he wanted the ground to consume him. Markaret’s eyes were like daggers, drilling into his soul as she turned her head slowly to look at him head on. When the data began to pour into the Command Conclave, the picture became even worse. Obertan didn’t hear what else Ike’reth was saying, for around him, chaos erupted. Markaret appeared to be ignoring it, focusing on him.
“It would seem the man who trained you and guided you has failed to fulfil his duty.” Her words like ice, in contrast to the fire in her eyes.
Obertan tilted his head in submission. “Your Eminence, we are still processing all the new information, and…” He paused as Markaret held up a hand.
“Is this what has become of the warriors who defend our people and expand our empire?” She asked. “Excuses, failures, defeats? This is Oanareth, our home, it cannot fall. Can Ike’reth hear me?”
“I… yes, your Eminence, he can.” He gestured to the central table’s display.
“Ike’reth, you are not worthy to wear your uniform.” She began coldly. “You have failed to meet the humans head on, and have allowed losses in battle to draw the courage from your heart. If you expect any form of redemption, be it in this life or the next, you will do your duty, and pray Requeteran forgives you.”
Silence greeted her.
Ike’reth had been ready to reply, and for the first time in his life, as reality hit him with hard, savage punches, he had been about to say things he’d never considered saying before, when one of the command crew mentioned the humans were launching missiles again. His eyes snapped to the plot, and sure enough, another wave of thousands of lethal warheads was streaking toward his fleet. The lives of his people were at stake, and right now, with fire and smoke and pain for company, he did not care for the honour of a hopeless charge.
“Divert power from all non-essential systems to thrusters and keep pushing for the defence platforms. I want… I need more power to our jamming systems, and I want our decoys deployed now.” He didn’t stop to think that the comm channel was still open, that Markaret was listening to every word. He didn’t know that nearly everyone on Oanareth could hear him. He had seen what Seluban had seen, had the same epiphany. The missiles would do yet more harm to his battered fleet, yet perhaps he could stave off the worst of it, draw the humans deeper into what remained of the system’s defences…
“What are you doing?” Markaret hissed. How dare Ike’reth defy her? She, the High Priestess, blessed by the Makers and their wisdom of power through strength, through unrelenting bravery in battle. “Should you ever return to Oanareth, you are a dead man!”
It had been only a few moments, but the voices of two of the most important people people in Chon’ith society jarring so much, so publicly, had left many Chon’ith slack-jawed with shock, and the battle was irrefutable evidence that the Resistance, with their clandestine reports and denouncement of the Council’s zealotry, had been right all along. Acklaran and his people made sure to press that message home through every available means, and the people were listening. Some began to eye up the Enforcers who were attempting to keep order, and some of the Enforcers began to put down their guns, stepping into the increasingly angry, shocked and stunned crowds.
The wall of interference that met the human missiles was indeed greater than any previously encountered, and the extra acceleration, however minor, gave that ECM more time to draw missiles off course, or simply disable them. It wasn’t enough to prevent scores of hits, but Ike’reth’s approach had prevented worse damage. It also ensured there would be a brief window where the remaining weapon platforms could add their firepower to his own, just for one salvo, but it was one the human fleet was travelling quickly toward, and one assisted by the additional ECM. For one instance, the Confederation officers were the ones left reeling, as the Chon’ith missiles found their marks, leaving seventeen battleships destroyed or crippled, and several more ships damaged.
Avalon staggered but continued through the waves of energy, hurt but unbowed. Fischer clutched the back of her chair and tried not to wince as she straightened her knee. “Report!”
“It looks like they suckered us a little Admiral.” Said a sheepish Cooper. “They found just a little more speed from somewhere, and that gave them an opportunity.”
“The Chon’ith don’t think like that.”
“We backed them into a corner ma’am. From their point of view, it was probably a desperate move.”
“Ma’am, we have damage reports coming in. Four sensor nodes, five missile tubes, two port, three starboard, and two starboard energy mounts have been destroyed. Twenty-two dead, and injury reports still coming in.”
“Make sure medical teams are attending to the wounded, and keep us on course. Cooper, are the stealthies ready?”
“They are.” Reported Cooper.
Fischer had hoped that more Chon’ith cruisers would perish, but in the end only a small number of support ships were destroyed as the stealthies exploded. The remaining Chon’ith defence platforms were wiped out, leaving a clear route directly to Oanareth itself – the only remaining impediment being the enemy fleet.
The Chon’ith fleet could not avoid a sustained missile exchange now, and were the humans to start firing again, Ike’reth knew it would mean his death, and more importantly, the deaths of thousands of Chon’ith, who looked to him for guidance. To throw those lives away in the name of honour was, to him, the most dishonourable thing he could do.
“Is the link to the Conclave still open?” He asked quietly.
“It is Supreme Chief.” Ubireken spoke firmly, with pride.
“This is Supreme Chief Ike’reth…”
“You are not fit to use that title!” Markaret’s angry voice spat.
“This is Supreme Chief Ike’reth, and as I am the one up here, being asked to needlessly sacrifice the lives of everyone under my command, to achieve precisely nothing, I think I am better qualified to use that title than anyone on the ground.” He pointedly did not address Markaret by her own honorific.
“You have failed to keep us safe! Worse, you have failed to do what the Words command! You…“
“I reject your narrow-minded interpretation of the Words. They are means to exerting your authority and your power, and that of the Council, and nothing else.”
“You spit on our faith!”
“How?” Ike’reth asked sincerely. “Since the Words were written, provisions were made for tactical withdrawals, for thinking, planning, strategy, and yet, for centuries we’ve rejected these ideas, because we have let the extremists like you pervert our society, and for what? It has led us to this, an alien fleet we cannot beat, because of the arrogance of the Council.”
“Our ways have kept us strong and powerful! You would have us be weak!” The anger in her voice was unfiltered now.
“No, I would have us be smart. There is a difference, and our people must know it if we are to avoid extinction.”
“They will reject your evil notions.” Retorted Markaret.
“No, they won’t, for they are not evil.” A new voice entered the conversation. “I am Acklaran, and just so you are both aware, this discussion has been transmitted all over Oanareth, as has footage of the battle. Oh, I know cutting the power to communications was meant to shut out the disastrous battle completely, but you both connected to a satellite the Resistance tapped into, and we took care of making sure every Chon’ith would hear what you had to say.”
Ike’reth was momentarily lost for words, caught completely unawares by this revelation. He found himself catching the eye of Ubireken.
“Sir, the humans are still closing, and it’s only a matter of time before they fire again…”
“Understood.” His attention returned to Markaret, and it seemed, all of Oanerath.
“So now it seems the whole world knows what’s really happening, perhaps for the first time in generations. All of Oanerath knows we have been out-witted and out-fought, and all we can do if we fight now is die. Is that what we should do Eminence? Die, needlessly, in a futile gesture?”
For a moment he wasn’t sure if Markaret would reply, but then her voice, quieter than before but still passionate, returned.
“You would not even try to fight, how does that honour and respect the Makers?“
“I have tried to fight, in the traditional ways, or at least, the version of them the Council accepts, and where has it led us? Not just here and now, but what of all the fleets that never returned home? The Council has sat on reports, it must have, abd and now we know the words of the Resistance are the truth.” Ike’reth paused, letting his speech filter across the planet. “So we can die now, needlessly, for ‘honour’, or we can live, we can learn, and we can thrive.”
Within the Command Conclave, no one quite dared to speak, and many were afraid to breathe. They couldn’t know it, but everything Seluban and Acklaran had strove for, every argument, every plan, was distilled into this moment. Obertan looked from the plot, then to Markaret, then back to the plot.
“I will not have thousands of years of history and devotion to the Makers end in this way.” Markaret began, but for the first time, uncertainty entered her voice.
“It won’t end, it will change, and change is important. Without it, we stagnate. You have seen with your own eyes the cost of clinging to one rigid interpretation of the Words. Please your Eminence, save our people.” It was Acklaran’s plea, once again cutting into the conversation.
“We fight and die or we live and learn…” Obertan said quietly to himself. The eyes of every Chon’ith in the room switched to him, including Markaret. She looked… Sad, pained, like a wound of the soul. Her eyes then swept the plot.
“Supreme Chief Ike’reth, Acklaran, indeed all of Oanerath, I… I defer the outcome of this battle, and the future of our people, to you.” Without another word, she turned, and with her guards by her side, left the Conclave.
“Supreme Chief, you need to contact the humans and stand down.” Acklaran’s voice said. “It won’t be a pleasant feeling, but you’ll be alive.”
“Agreed.” Ike’reth flicked a hand at Ubireken. “Signal the human fleet, tell them we wish to cease hostilities, and power down our defences, as a show of… hmm, faith.”
“Admiral, the Chon’ith fleet is signalling, they’re standing down!” Cooper couldn’t quite keep the shock from his voice.
“A trick, surely?” Fischer replied, but the screen began to show energy emissions reducing as the vast majority of Chon’ith ships dropped their ECM and cut power to their launchers. A trio of battleships did not, and a handful of lighter craft also remained at full readiness. They began to reverse, seeking to head back to the humans.
“What are they doing?” Fischer asked.
“Unknown, but there’s been a lot of comms traffic between the planet and the fleet, and we’ve almost deciphered it. That might clue us in ma’am.” Said Williams.
“Keep a lock on the ships heading for us. This might still be a trick.” Fischer kept her eyes on the screen.
Ike’reth forwarded the conversation with Markaret to the entire fleet, and for good measure Acklaran broadcast the scenes from the ground, but to a few of the more devout believers, there could be no other way. Death in battle was a far better choice than the suggestions now coming from home, even if not every Chon’ith on the rebellious ships agreed. They bought their broadsides to bear, hoping to go out in a blase of glory that would remind Chon’ith of who they truly were. Instead, they all died, swamped by human missiles, and not a single one of their paltry volley found a target.
If there could a final, telling death knell for the old ways, it was in the pointless, meaningless sacrifice the small scattering of ships had made, an image that would be seared into the memories of every Chon’ith watching on Oanerath and beyond. Home Fleet continued on a course for home, with the humans falling back, but continuing to follow. The future had suddenly become very uncertain.
Several hours later, Ike’reth disembarked from his shuttle, having landed on the outskirts of the Capital, and took the underground network to the Command Conclave. His wound had been properly tended to, though his leg was now bandaged and he was limping heavily as he entered the central chamber. Obertan was waiting for him, and at his request, Markaret had returned, despite her better judgement. One other was present, also invited…
“Acklaran.” Said Ike’reth, as though so much of what had happened could be summed up with the man’s name.
Acklaran inclined his head. “Supreme Chief.”
“We have a lot of work to do.”
Acklaran chuckled. “That is a considerable understatement.”
Ike’reth smiled, then his expression became more serious as he looked at Markaret. “Your Eminence, thank you for being here.”
“Just a few hours ago, I was raging at you before our entire world.” She said, full of misery. “Why did you ask me to return?”
“Because we will still need the guidance of our faith, and you have experience in that arena.” He replied.
“I was ready to send you to your death, to send all your warriors to their deaths…”
Ike’reth held up a hand. “And yet, when faced with everything, you came to understand you had to step down, and that’s why you need to remain High Priestess.”
“I do not understand…”
“You showed you can change, and if you can change, your Eminence, that gives hope that even the most fanatical Chon’ith can change. It won’t be easy, and we are all still learning – it’s been a few hours after all – but together, all of us, if we work together to change our understanding of the Words, can build a stronger future for all Chon’ith.”
Emotion was building in Markaret’s eyes. “I… I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you will accept, please.” Ike’reth’s voice became imploring.
After a moment of silence, Markaret spoke again, her voice threatening to crack. “So much has happened, so fast… I am not sure I am worthy of this… but I will try.”
“There is another that needs to be involved in this.” Acklaran said. “I need to make contact with Seluban.”
The eyes of everyone in the room went wide.
“He is alive?” Asked Ike’reth.
“Yes. I cannot yet tell you where, for I genuinely do not know, but he has been the driving force for the Resistance and its goal, we need him and his mind.”
“Can you contact him?”
Acklaran nodded. “I have means. I will make use of them and have him return home. In the meantime, we need to address the humans, and begin preparations for properly defeating the Cadj.”
“What should we tell them?” Enquired Ike’reth.
“The truth, that we need a truce, and when we do not have to look at our border with them, we can throw our might into dealing with the Cadj. We will need to fight smart, but we’ve seen how the humans fight, if we fight the Cadj like that, we can put an end to that threat, completely and utterly.”