Ten weeks on from the Awakening, a simple cultural exchange with the humans began, and at the request of the Confederation, a small number of humans were permitted to come to Oanareth and establish a base of operations, from which they would be better able to assist in the war against the Cadj.
“What is… an ’em-ba-ssy’?” Asked the boy, looking up at Seluban with big inquisitive eyes.
“I think it’s a place where humans talk about things.” Replied Seluban, looking up at the big metal shapes that were now fastened to the front of the small concrete structure. He reached down to scoop up the little green Chon’ith into his arms.
“Why is it here father?” His son said, looking at the building suspiciously.
“Because we are helping each other to fight another enemy.” Seluban answered, turning his gaze to his child. “We are learning from them, so we can fight smarter, much as you learn at school Crekitan, to do things better.”
“Oh.” Crekitan considered this for a moment. “So the Empire is at school?”
Seluban laughed. “In a manner of speaking.”
Crekitan looked back at the sign, and the building, with its strange alien lines, then looked back at his father, curiosity clear in his eyes.
“Can we get food now?”
Another laugh escaped Seluban’s lips. He envied the ability of a child to change their train of thought so easily.
Consul Tycho Jansen pulled his jacket tighter around him, muttering curses about Arctic conditions and broken heating. He stomped across the makeshift office, impatiently waiting for the structure to be finished, especially the heating. Workers – human workers – in thick coats continued to put the offices together, whilst Gabriel Reyes looked on with a mixture of amusement and contempt. He was prepared to concede, as he turned his grey eyes upon the older man, that he was being a little unfair. Jansen was quite thin; some might have said wirey, others would use the term gaunt – and felt the cold. It didn’t help that he had barely any hair upon his head, so he was rendered exposed to the elements.
Jansen stared back at Reyes with slightly envious eyes. Sixty-six was hardly old, not by the standards of modern human medical technology – but Reyes had the vigour of youth. Broad shoulders, sun-kissed skin, part of his Filipino heritage, chocolate eyes and a perfect complexion upon his face. He moved with the ease and grace of a man in his prime, seemingly impervious to the bitter chill in the air. Reyes had also come highly recommended for the role of his assistant, given his previous roles with diplomatic cores. It meant Jansen was saddled with him, and his annoying, perfect, happy smile.
“This was supposed to be finished two days ago!” Jansen grumbled. “I don’t know how much more I can take of this!”
“It’s a drag, I agree.” Reyes replied, leaning against an unused ladder. “I want to get to work.”
“Bah. ‘Work’. What are we expected to do here? These… beings don’t want to know us, they are using us.”
Reyes suppressed a sigh. He didn’t want to have the same worn-out conversation, hear the same old narratives. Yes, the Chon’ith were new to diplomacy, yes, it was a strange request to receive advisors right in their Capital, and yes, the request for cultural exchanges was unusual for such a species, but the Senate saw it as an opportunity, and Jansen knew that.
But he doesn’t know all of it. Reyes rotated the little coin in his pocket around and around. In fact, Jansen would probably be furious if he knew the truth.
“There was always going to be an attaché Tycho.” Reyes began amicably. “We can’t coordinate attacks without being in the loop.”
Jansen harrumphed. “Yes, well, fine, but…” Reyes pushed down on the urge to finish the other man’s sentence. ‘Why me?’ Maybe using your office’s privelige to conduct personal business wasn’t a smart move? He kept his comment to himself as Jansen waved his arms dismissively. It struck him, not for the first time, that if the Senate wanted to develop a working relationship with the Chon’ith, sending Jansen was one of the worst things they could have done.
Still, it wasn’t something he could change, and in the end, it wasn’t his mission. He would just have to play his part, and hope Jansen didn’t do anything to get everyone killed in the meantime.
Acklaran welcomed De’rata into his office, smiling broadly. “Welcome, Science Chief.”
“My official title is Chief of the Research and Development Conclave.” She replied airily, before breaking into a grin of her own. “But Science Chief is not inaccurate.”
“Please, be seated.”
Acklaran waited until De’rata was sitting, then sat behind his desk. “I understand you have begun several new projects since assuming your office.”
“I have. Already I believe we are making progress in many areas. It is most gratifying to finally a voice in society, especially in a role that can make a difference.”
“It is a position you richly deserve De’rata.” Acklaran took a breath. “How is your research progressing?”
“We are still some way off closing the gap to the humans, but my people are making great strides in the fields of targeting systems, propulsion and computing. We are however looking at many months, probably years, of intensive study, before we would reach a level of development I am happy with.”
Acklaran leaned forward. “An annoyance, but it would be a prudent lesson in patience.”
De’rata nodded, but carried a glimmer of a notion in her eyes. “Perhaps.”
“I sense a question, or perhaps… A plan?”
A wry smile crossed De’rata’s face. “We need an opportunity to study human technology up close.”
Slumping back in his chair, Acklaran shook his head. “You know as well I that they will never allow us to examine their systems. They see us as a threat to be contained.”
“Which is an affront to the Chon’ith ways, an intolerable one.” Replied De’rata, a hint of passion entering her voice.
“I agree, but this doesn’t affect our current reality. We cannot breach their security, and they are not about to allow us any access to their ships or weapons.”
De’rata smiled. “We must manufacture access.”
“I do not see how that will be possible.” Acklaran replied. He put his hands on the desk. “Unless you have an idea?”
“Well… it may not assist with accessing their military technology, but they have built a civilian structure for their… diplomatic team. They have civilian craft here.”
“The humans keep people stationed to keep an eye on their equipment. They will cite… what was the phrase? ‘Diplomatic immunity’.”
De’rata shrugged. “Why should we care?”
“Because unfortunately, we need them right now. Their involvement with the Cadj, as limited as it may be, has allowed us to score several significant victories, and preserve our fleets.” Acklaran sighed. “I do not know how I can give you access to their transports or facilities, without jeopardising what we are trying to accomplish.”
“Then I will… deliberate as to how to get what I need.” De’rata said, somewhat cryptically.
“I can only imagine what arrangements you will make.” Replied Acklaran with a chuckle.
“It is perhaps best if you do not know.” De’rata stood. “If you will excuse me Councillor, I have some work to attend to, research to direct and organise.” She inclined her head, a knowing grin upon her face.
“By all means, but please De’rata, do not cause an incident!”
Bertireth found himself, not for the first time, admiring (albeit unwillingly) the quality of human technology and thinking. Their scout ships had been able to slip, unnoticed, through Cadj defences, penetrating deep into their space and uncovering the locations of their strongholds. The quiet, measured intelligence gathering was at complete odds with the traditional ways of the Chon’ith. Now he studied the plot from the command deck of Fury and allowed himself a small smile.
His ship was one of three hundred battleships, and a flotilla of support ships, that stood ready as one of the largest gatherings of Chon’ith vessels in history. He awaited the arrival of Supreme Chief Ike’reth and looked forward to being part of the force that would bring a decisive end to the campaign.
The bright green paint on the hull of Reckoning was fresh, all of her battle scars were coated in shades of darker green, red and yellow, the damage underneath from previous battles fully repaired. Ike’reth stood on her command deck, his seat behind him, now decorated with bones, skulls and the time-honoured warpaint. A new tapestry of gold depicted his victory over the Army of Faith, a tapestry that for the first time showed the wisdom of tactics over the blind charge. As Reckoning emerged from hyperspace to approach the glorious fleet ahead of her, Ike’reth believed he might burst with pride.
That feeling was punctured by the presence of several human ships. The need for the Confederation’s assistance was a constant source of pain. It was however, something he knew would be rectified when the time was right.
Reyes had grinned when the heating had finally fixed, for it meant Jansen had finally stopped moaning – about that at least. He had stomped about his office in a manner more befitting a sulking child, muttering now about ‘working with savages’ and ‘ignorant wretches’. Now Jansen was seated at his desk, shuffling data pads around, glaring at aides and assistants and doing his best to feel important. On the first day of the embassy’s opening, he’d been inundated with requests for human history, literature and art. He’d also been given stacks of Chon’ith books, texts and stories to go through, many of which happened to be actual physical books which were as thick as any dictionary. Reyes had discretely run a scanner over them, seeing if any of them had been bugged, but it was always unlikely – the Chon’ith were too new to the idea of espionage, if they even had such a concept.
After a couple of days of studying the lore, literature and history of Oanareth and the Chon’ith Empire, Reyes was becoming convinced there was always a thread of… resistance – to the ways of bold, brave frontal attacks. It was delicately woven into some of the more recent novels and even historical analysis, and it was even more noticable the further back in time he went.
History is written by the victor… He mused to himself as he sat on his bed, turning over the coin in his fingers. It was a distraction to be reading the books, but he had little choice but to exercise patience, which was being tested more and more by Jansen and his sour disposition. The politicians who were hoping for a lasting diplomatic relationship with the Chon’ith would be mortified by all the under-the-breath remarks Jansen had been making, without much discretion. It was extremely unlikely the Chon’ith had managed to plant listening devices anywhere, but if they were listening to Jansen, his commentary would probably enrage them.
Not my problem, not my problem… Reyes kept reminding himself. If the Chon’ith knew what I was doing, they really would be angry… He had to give it another few days, and so he turned to his training, and his meditation regime, and waited for his moment.
Mulan stood out like a sore thumb, a blue and grey cylinder in a sea of green Chon’ith constructs. The Confederation ship, and several other battlecruisers like her, moved through hyperspace alongside their ‘allies’, aiming for a star many light years away. Captain Kindle did her best not to glance uneasily at the Chon’ith ships that were either side of her, knowing they only a few hundred kilometres apart, and well within range of the deadly Chon’ith energy weapons.
She also had to resist grinding her teeth in frustration. Supporting the Chon’ith was important, and she didn’t exactly relish war, but she was a Naval officer, with the focused, sharp mind of a combatant. She was heading into a battle where she was not expected to actually fight, and that annoyed her.
She looked at Ricciardo, who was seated, and caught his eye. She could see he had the same thoughts running through his head, equally irritated that they were a warship, going to a warzone, that almost certainly wouldn’t fire a single shot. In fact… the enemy won’t even know we were ever there. It was a strange feeling.
At least the ship was fully prepared. They weren’t going to overtax anything, weren’t going to take any damage, lose any lives, which was a big counterweight to her consternation. And we’ll deal a potentially very dangerous enemy a huge blow, might even force them to rethink their approach, like the Chon’ith did.
The fleet surged onward, the stars smeared into streaks of light around them.
Not a single Chon’ith could deny Markaret looked resplendent in ceremonial robes of gold and silver, as she walked into the Capital’s Parchment. Every Chon’ith who had managed to get into the vast open assembly, that a human might call a stadium, looked upon her with the reverence that her position was due, though none had forgotten her initial, very public rage as the Battle of Oanareth unfolded. Her change of heart had been the same experience as for many, but her decision to remain High Priestess was a surprise. Few knew it was at the urging of Seluban and Acklaran, who took their seats in the altar with the other Council members. Markaret herself stood behind a podium carved from old wood and ancient bone, and looked out at the crowd, before facing the camera in front of her.
“My people. We begin a new cycle of rebirth and renewal this day, as is decreed by the Makers.”
The crowd murmured as one, offering their thanks.
“This time, it is more than a symbolic gesture, for we have, as a nation, as an Empire, arrived as one people to a new mindset, or perhaps, an old one that we, and I, forgot.” She spoke solemnly, slowly. “I have had my eyes opened, not merely to a different way of interpreting the wisdom of Requeteran, the Words and the Makers, but to reality.” Markaret paused, letting her speech sink in.
“As we celebrate the Bloom, we are reminded not only how important it is to nurture new life, but how we influence young minds. We are the guardians of Requeteran’s wisdom, and it falls upon each and every Chon’ith to pass that wisdom down in the right way, so that future generations will be able to celebrate the Bloom. We have learned some harsh but necessary lessons about ourselves, and we are continuing to learn, but Requeteran himself said that we should never believe we have learned all there is to know, much as the grass and trees never stop growing.” There was a moment of silence, then Markaret carried on.
“I will lead us now in prayer.” She placed her right hand over her chest, and her left hand over her right. “To the Makers we offer thanks and tribute…”
“They had a holy day today? And we failed to realise?” Jansen had stormed into his office, slamming the door behind Reyes almost before the younger man had squeezed through it. Jansen had yet to sit, so Reyes stood, impassive, waiting for Jansen to calm down.
When Jansen finally sunk into the little sofa in the left corner of the room, Reyes took a seat in one of office chairs. “We’ve been here what? A week and a half, and we weren’t ready to begin work for most of that time.”
Jansen glared. “I thought you’d read these Words of theirs.” He spat angrily. “You should have warned me they were going to be celebrating a holy day!”
“Now hold on just a second…” Reyes decided to bite back. Their missions were different, but the goal wasn’t, yet Jansen wasn’t doing the work he was supposed to, and it was growing tiresome. “If a Chon’ith read the Bible it wouldn’t tell them when to celebrate Christmas. I’m doing the best I can, without much input from you, and you’re supposed to be in charge!” He saw Jansen’s face turn red, saw the other man open his mouth, ready to deliver a rebuke, but Reyes kept on talking. “Have you read the Words yet?”
Jansen closed his mouth. His face slowly drained of anger, returning to its normal pale complexion. “I… I haven’t had time.”
Reyes shook, his head, but his tone was more conciliatory when he spoke again. “Boss, you and I both know we’ve had time. We both know the Senate is watching us, and they want this mission to succeed. It’s both our careers in danger if we screw this up.”
“I… okay Gabriel, you have a point, but dammit, this is embarrassing for us! How will the Chon’ith take it, and how did we not notice preparations for this thing?”
“I don’t know boss.” Reyes said, and he genuinely meant it. There had been a curious absence of regular Chon’ith activity in the Capital, but then again, what was regular activity when you’d been there less than two weeks? “The Chon’ith don’t seem upset, if that’s any consolation.”
“I hope they aren’t. We need this, as you say. Another war…” Jansen trailed off.
“That won’t happen.” Reyes said confidently. “But even if it did, we’d be fine.”
“You seem very sure, given you were lecturing me about the importance of this mission a few moments ago.” Jansen remarked sardonically.
“Well, I was thinking more about our careers, but we still hold the edge. Better ships, better weapons, and better minds for war. What do we need to worry about, in that respect?”
Jansen got up from the sofa, stretching his legs. “I for one don’t want to find out what the Chon’ith would do to us personally, if we offended their beliefs somehow.”
Reyes laughed. “They wouldn’t attack us boss. They wouldn’t dare. The response would be swift and crushing.”
“Well, I hope you’re right. In the meantime, we’d both better study their texts and books and try to get ahead of the next major holy ceremony.”
“Agreed boss, but perhaps we start that work tomorrow? I for one am tired.” Reyes said.
“Fine, fine. We’ll get some sleep, and tomorrow, we start our work in earnest.”
Reyes turned the coin in his pocket over a few times. You don’t know how true that this…