Of all the descriptive terms to describe the Chon’ith home world of Oanareth, ‘harsh’ would have been one of the tamest. Slightly more massive than earth and with a diameter just slightly bigger too, the planet span around a type K star, a slightly orange behemoth at one-point-three solar masses. Although the star was actually more luminous than earth’s own Sun, Oanerth was far enough away that it lay quite deep into the Goldilocks zone, producing a system that was naturally cooler than one humans would have found comfortable. A slightly eccentric orbit did produce periods where the frost and ice that grew to become dominant features of both hemispheres retracted slightly, as well as flooding several coastal regions of nearby continents. The water would recede quickly enough, and leave behind a combination of fertile land for farming, but also devastation to any structures built in the area. As such, early Chon’ith had retreated to the warmer and more stable equator, with only a few proving hardy enough to brave the extreme climates further north and south.
Despite the relative warmth and stability the equator offered, the temperature rarely exceeded 20 degrees Celsius, and usually sat between 10 to 15 degrees. The Chon’ith had evolved, both physically and metaphorically, to cope with the cool environment, and this partly explained their naturally aggressive tendencies. Big and powerful, akin to what humans would describe as ‘Orcs’, the Chon’ith had faced a lot of competition for the prime real estate of their home world. Many mammals, and reptiles, and amphibians all preferred the climate of the equator, and it had become a case of survival of the fittest very early on Oanareth. In addition, the Chon’ith had come into conflict with each other, as different tribes and factions fought to control the most resourceful lands. In fact, according to the historical records, if not for Requeteran and the Words of the Makers enforcing unity through strength and courage, there was every chance the Chon’ith would have been so divided they would have become extinct. Thus, every Chon’ith had reason to hold Requeteran and the Makers in reverence.
Owing to the eccentricities of Oanareth’s orbit and the presence of two moons that applied a certain measure of tidal pressure, the planet also ‘enjoyed’ a fair degree of volcanic activity. The lava flows from the chain of mountains known as ‘Coward’s Forge’ made for a spectacular sight every few years, when the moons and sun aligned to afflict maximum torment on the crust of Oanerth. The impact of such events, located near the north pole, meant clouds of steam from vaporising ice that contributed to the unusual and hostile weather by rapidly cooling an already chilly environment. The Chon’ith actually celebrated this – it was roughly analogous to the Christmas celebrations on earth. Offerings were made to the Makers and to one another, once every three years, alongside feasts that would, to human minds, conjure up images of Odin and the Norse pantheon. The average adult male Chon’ith usually ate more or less his own body weight in food over three days, and drank twice as much.
It was still a year and a half to the next Making Ceremony, yet normally any occasion to return home would have been cause for celebration to Seluban. Not this time.
A pair of silent, green-skinned Chon’ith, clothed entirely in the dull-nickel armour of the Council Guard escorted him down a winding corridor, one of a labyrinth of tunnels that ran underneath the Great Chamber. Torches provided the traditional lighting – though these were fed by natural gas – that illuminated the tapestries telling the stories of traitors and cowards. Seluban did his best to ignore the drapes that narrated past failures as the guards marched him toward the Sanctum. The written words were relatively easy to block out – graphic imagery of ritual executions lined the walls, which was harder to avoid.
The enormous dome-shaped building referred to as the Great Chamber stretched to over a kilometre in diameter. From above it gleamed, despite the comparative lack of sunlight Oanerth received, due to the materials and alloys it had been constructed from. Every Chon’ith had a right to assemble here, so every Chon’ith should be able to find it with ease. Every path and road in the capital city of Gre’tith led to the Great Chamber, and beacons hovered above it to direct air car traffic. From here, the Council directed Chon’ith military and political activities, so the Great Chamber was always a hive of action.
Beneath it, the warren of tunnels and corridors would lead to research centres, interrogation chambers and the Sanctum. Whilst the existence of the Sanctum was scarcely a secret, it was inaccessible to most Chon’ith, because most would never run from battle, dishonouring themselves and therefore requiring a visit to the place. Whereas most of the Great Chamber was kept in the cool, mild lighting that befitted Chon’ith eyes, those hauled before the Sanctum would stand in a small circular room, bathed in harsh, artificial light. From behind two-way glass, they would be psychologically dissected, to determine if there was any justification for their actions. Seluban, stripped of his golden armour and wearing merely the traditional bone-woven armour of any minor underling, did his best to keep his head held high, determined to keep within himself the knowledge that he had done the right thing. As he and his guards arrived at the magnetically sealed door that would bid him entrance to the prisoner’s part of the Sanctum, his confidence wavered, though he refused to show it.
Without a word the guards ushered him through, then sealed the door. Bright white light bathed him; for Seluban, there would be no escape from his sins.
On the other side of the glass, virtually impossible for Seluban to see, the Sanctum waited. The semi-circular room was lined with red and grey stone, and ornate wooden seats provided comfort for the Council across several levels. In the centre, at ground level, sat the only female in the room, garbed not in the bone-armour worn by the others, but in a simple red robe, denoting her status. In front of her, a stone gavel waited on the smooth stone worktop. Her grey eyes were serious and cold.
For Seluban, he could only read her presence as a bad sign. Women, whilst not permitted on the battlefield, had been decreed by Requeteran to be the true custodians of the Makers and their Words. After all, if men were duty-bound to fight, someone had to provide an education to the children. Someone had to be involved in running businesses and in developing tools and machinery. Most importantly of all, as men could not be priests, women were the spiritual guardians of Chon’ith society.
I suppose it was inevitable a priestess would be here, mused Seluban. He had shown – or was supposed to have shown – great weakness. Who better to judge than a priestess who had spent her entire life in living service of the Makers?
As the Sanctum ascended, the rank and important, in an ironic twist, decreased. Two men – both in gold and red armour, sat behind the priestess. Above them, yet slightly behind them, four silver and red-clad Chon’ith sat. They were a combination of red, green and yellow Chon’ith, marking a cross-section of society, and all were decorated military veterans.
Above them were Chon’ith in simple robes and leather armour. They were the political masters, the four who made up the Council’s chiefs. The civilian leaders rarely sat in on military tribunals, so once again the seriousness of Seluban’s actions was carried home.
“Superior Chief Seluban, of the Eighth Battle Fleet, you know why you are here?” Hidden speakers carried the voice of the priestess to his ears. She sounded… old, yet her voice carried steel.
“Yes Priestess. I know.” He kept his own voice measured.
“You stand accused of cowardice. Of fleeing in the face of the enemy to save yourself.” Her voice dripped with contempt.
“I did not flee. I judged the tactical situation at Dallas II. The Council has seen the data. We would have lost our entire fleet and inflicted very few casualties upon the enemy.”
“In running you displayed to the humans weakness. They will question our will to fight. They will doubt the wisdom of the Makers.”
Seluban knew he had to tread very carefully. Something inside him had… changed? Or had he always held little seeds of doubt about the Words? Certainly here and now, in this moment, he knew the Words had made provisions for strategic withdrawals, as he had discussed with Acklaran. He also knew the radical interpretation of the Words that had compelled so many Chon’ith to stand and fight was a powerful one. He’d felt that urge himself, more than once. And yet…
“The humans already doubt the Makers. If they did not, they would never have challenged us. What they are is clever. They knew we could be baited. They did exactly that, and destroyed three fleets – no, not destroyed, slaughtered, and if the data from my ships is anything to go by, at very little cost to themselves. I realise how the Words are the lifeblood of our world, as they should be, but would Requeteran and the Makers wish us to sail headlong into slaughter, without so much as pausing for thought?”
The Priestess did not reply immediately. Seluban could not see clearly under the glare of the lights, which was having the added effect of raising his body temperature, though he wasn’t entirely sure his nerves weren’t responsible for that. Tiny beads of sweat began to form on his brow, though he did not so much as move a muscle. He could not show discomfort.
“What Requeteran wished was for Chon’ith to conduct themselves without cowardice or fear. You ran, Superior Chief. You ran because you were afraid.” Anger joined the disdain in the Priestess’ voice. Murmurs of agreement came from the gallery above.
“We have provisions for strategic withdrawal do we not? This is also in the Words. I honoured those Words, and in doing so, have returned valuable information on enemy defences. Is this not important?” Seluban asked.
“A ‘strategic withdrawal’ to Oanerth is not what the Makers had in mind Superior Chief. You are aware of this. You ran away, that is the simple truth.” Seluban could hear the sneer in her voice.
“I did not run. The Words grant me the authority to judge the situation and react accordingly. What would be the consequences of staying and fighting? We would have lost, inflicting only miserly casualties upon the enemy, and then our troop transports would have followed, and been destroyed or captured. We would then…”
“SILENCE!” The Priestess bellowed, the sound reverberating across the Sanctum, carried by the speakers but also by the natural echo the hall had. “You make excuses! You saw a strong enemy and you lacked the stomach to fight them! You turn to the Words yet you use them selectively, hiding behind parts of them like a snivelling weakling! The view of this Council is that you are beneath contempt!”
In that moment, Seluban came to understand, with more clarity than he had wished, the folly of his people’s society. The future was revealed to him, and it held only the demise of everything he held dear.
“If I have already been judged, what is the point of this?” Seluban asked quietly.
“To give you the opportunity to show contrition, understanding, that might at least mitigate your sentence – yet you are unrepentant. That much is clear.” The Priestess stood, as did the other assembled Chon’ith. “It is my judgement that to execute you would be a kindness. Had you been prepared to at least acknowledge your behaviour disgraced yourself and the Makers, you might have been granted that mercy. Instead, the name Seluban shall be deemed dishonourable, your family shall disown you and you shall retire to Coward’s Forge in shame. Never again shall you carry any military rank, nor any position of any importance. You are ex-communicated from every holy site on Oanerth.”
It had been expected. In his mind, Seluban knew he would be an outcast. Mentally, he had done what he could to prepare for that fact. In his heart, pain knifed at him as the reality sunk in. His wife and children would shun him, as would every friend he ever had. The average Chon’ith, if they knew who he was, would spit at him. The ones banished to Coward’s Forge were marked, physically, to ensure they stayed within their little quarter, afforded nothing except what they made for themselves, and kept as a virtual slave force. Death would have been welcome, and yet, that would have been an escape as well.
Seluban heard more words fall from the lips of the Priestess, but he was no longer truly listening. The realities of his culture had been laid bare before him, giving him a thread upon which to pull, one that might see to it war with the humans did not destroy his people – but he would be in no position to do anything. His first priority now was survival.