Not for the first time, Seluban wondered if he’d made a wise decision. He stared down the narrow path, breath caught in his throat, and his eyes wide, alert to the tiniest hint of danger. When the first faint rattle hit his ears, he tuned out all other distractions, keeping his vision trained on the path, lined with tall wooden fences on the left and green and red bushes to the right. In the distance, but hard to see with the sun glaring behind them, a figure came into view. The jangling and rattling became louder, more insistent somehow, as the figure drew nearer, and began to resolve into separate components. A Chon’ith was riding a bicycle, at a fairly reasonable speed, down the uneven path, and would on occasion wobble, which made Seluban’s heart jump. Unsteadily juddering along the beaten track, the Chon’ith nonetheless kept upright and kept going.
They kept going until they had come to a gentle halt, just in front of Seluban, who could not help but beam broadly.
“Well done son, well done indeed!” He patted Crekitan on the shoulder as the small green Chon’ith dismounted his bike, and struggled to undo the strap under his chin that held his helmet on.
“I did not enjoy that father.” He said very matter-of-factly. “I wish you would put the stabilizers back on.”
“You did it! You were successful, more than successful, you just proved you don’t need the stabilizers.” Seluban replied, somewhat perplexed.
“I know, but I don’t like it.”
Seluban held back a sigh. “Sometimes, we have to do things we don’t like, in order to move forward.”
Crekitan considered this for a moment. “Is that why you went away for so long?”
His son hadn’t asked the question with anything other than curiosity, but it stung hard. Seluban had known that his long absence from family life would become a subject of conversation with his daughter, who was older and more attuned to the stress of adults. He had not enjoyed the reproachment Veri’tretha had directed at him, a few days after the initial euphoria of being reunited had worn off. To experience such a question from his son was a mild form of heartbreak, even if his son couldn’t possibly understand why.
In the background, Kel’aress and Veri’tretha appeared, on their own bikes, moving with more confidence and grace than Crekitan. Seluban chose that moment to change the conversation, pointing behind Crekitan. “Mother and your sister are coming.”
“Hooray, that means I won the race father!” Crekitan smiled from ear to ear, looking delighted as he finally escaped from his helmet.
“Racing already! I am very proud.” Seluban said, and meant it.
“Although…” Crekitan began. “They didn’t know we were racing. Is that unfair?”
Seluban could only laugh.
“I can only marvel at how you construct such meals my love.” Seluban said as he eased himself down into the sofa of their home, the dark brown liquid of Chon’ith brandy circulating in his glass.
“I have had many opportunities to hone the art.” Kel’aress replied, smiling. “During your… absence, I found my gift. In fact… I have been considering a possible career path, depending upon your own plans.” She sat down next to him and placed her own brandy glass upon the small wooden coffee table in front of them. Behind them, the purple and gold tapestries fluttered in the gentle breeze coming in from the open window.
“I… well… I am technically part of the Council. My leave from my duties will end soon.”
“And you feel a sense of duty, to see what you started come to fruition.” Kel’aress said more seriously. “Which I understand my love, and I am grateful you are here on Oanareth, close to us… but…” She trailed off, looking Seluban in the eyes, unable to form the words. He nodded in sympathy.
“I have been away for so long, and you do not wish for me to be gone for any length of time. I understand this, I do not wish to part from you like that ever again.”
“And yet that possibility remains. It looms over us. I know there are still opponents to the Awakening, people who would do us harm – ones who would threaten to use Veri’tretha and Crekitan against us, me against you.” Kel’aress blinked back tears and looked away. “I am weak and selfish for wanting you here, under my watch.”
“You are neither.” Seluban replied. “You have done the impossible, in the face of so much pain, pain that I subjected you and the children to. I know Veri’tretha does not truly understand what happened, but she understands enough to be angry at the past, and fearful of the future. I will not abandon you or them ever again.”
“Not by choice, and I know you did not choose to leave us last time… but my love, can the security the Council provides keep us safe from the fanatics who would do us harm? Can you promise that the direction you are sending our society will keep you out of harm’s way?” Kel’aress took his hands in hers. “You cannot walk away from your duty, I do not expect you to and I would not ask you to. I ask only that if the risk are too great, you step away, you allow someone else to take the risk and have the glory.”
“I…” For a moment Seluban was floored by the idea. Kel’aress was right – he had notions in his mind of where his path would go, ideas that he could not share with the soul he trusted more than any other, no matter how much he desired to. Those plans would take him far from home, with no guarantee of returning.
“I will do as you ask.” He said solemnly. “To fight a raging inferno with your fists is no fight.” Seluban quoted. “An obscure piece of Requeteran’s wisdom.”
“He was very wise.” Replied Kel’aress.
“Not as wise as you.”
Kel’aress smiled and released his hands. “When you return to work, you do so with my blessing. As for Veri’tretha…”
Seluban felt the familiar pain in his chest again. “She feels I abandoned her. In a way, I did. I chose to do something that took me away from her, from all of you. I know you said it wasn’t a choice, but if I’d…”
“No.” Kel’aress said sharply. “You saw a future where we would be destroyed as a people. You had no choice but to face and fight that future.”
“Didn’t I? I made you denounce me.” Bitterness crept into Seluban’s voice. “And whilst I know one day Veri’tretha will understand, for the moment, she is torn by what I did. To see her like that… it is more agony that any of the ceremonial wounds I have endured.”
“You are right, she will understand, one day.” Kel’aress’s expression softened once more. “And she will come to appreciate that you had a hand in saving our civilisation from its greatest enemy – itself.”
“Ha, my role was not as great as it has been made out to be. Acklaran, Rishareth, Zarthara, De’rata, they all took more risks than me. Ike’reth publicly denounced the old ways during the heat of battle!”
“You sell yourself short husband, but the hour grows late, and I am not going to stroke your ego all night.” She said with a wry grin. “Let us sleep, and tomorrow you can prepare to resume your duties.”
Reyes awoke slowly, his head throbbing slightly from the lack of sleep. He had found it difficult to nod off of late, having been weaning himself off the insomnia treatments. The desire to take some every night had become silly, overriding most of his other impulses, until, with the discipline his profession demanded, he’d used sheer willpower to resist for four consecutive nights.
Things would have been different within human-controlled environments, where everything would have felt more comfortable, but even within the walls of the embassy, there was still a sense of the distinctly alien. It had unsettled him, more than he had cared to acknowledge. Now he raised his head then his body from the bed, looking through weary eyes at the computer pad next to the bedside cabinet, which was making an insistent bleeping noise. It took a moment for Reyes to realise it wasn’t the regular alarm, but rather, the devices he’d planted had picked up on something.
Swinging his legs out from the side of the bed and kicking off the covers, Reyes grabbed the pad. He tapped the screen a few times, and began to read. As he did, his eyes widened. Something was happening, something quite intriguing. “Chon’ith fleets are being redeployed…. but why?” He wondered out loud to himself. They were heading for systems previously occupied by Confederation forces, and to locations where battles had been fought, not too far from the Confederation border. It didn’t make a great deal of sense, given the Cadj campaign was in full swing, for the Chon’ith to go back to war with humanity, especially since the tech gap was still so huge.
After a moment’s thought, Reyes tapped in some fresh instructions to his hidden devices, and electronic signals piggybacked along Chon’ith systems to them. There had to be a reason for the new orders, and he would find it.
It was by pure chance that the ripple of energy sent by Reyes’ command would cause a very brief blip in the data algorithms that Quilaret was working on. She stopped typing on her keyboard, her inquisitive mind wondering what had caused the most miniscule of surges in the system. It was probably nothing, a random surge, somewhere far away, but Quilaret didn’t like to leave things to chance, not when they could interfere with her delicate calculations.
Continuing to type, Quilaret ran the algorithm again, and she was surprised when again, the little ripple interfered with her computer. Another researcher might have shrugged it off as coincidence and carried on, but Quilaret was too naturally curious to ignore the same tiny hiccup, happening at the same point in her work.
Her workstation was one of several, arranged in a circle around a central computer terminal. Her colleagues beside her continued their own work, behind the large privacy shields that prevented anyone from easily spying, not that any Chon’ith would have any reason to spy on her anyway. She poked her head out from behind the shield and peered at the yellow Chon’ith sitting to her left.
“Atherita, has your computer been glitching lately?” She asked. The young woman was startled, not expecting Quilaret to suddenly speak to her, but when she had regained her composure she looked back, slightly annoyed that her glass of water had ended up over herself.
“No.” She replied curtly. “It has not.”
Quilaret made her apologies for the interruption and sat back down, staring at her screen. On a whim she typed in more commands pertaining to the fleet’s mission. The little energy spike happened again.
Her breath caught in her throat. Something relating to the plan (the top-secret plan) to find human technology was triggering the glitch. Suddenly feeling very anxious, Quilaret began to set up a new routine. She called up logs of the glitch, attempting to trace it, to track it. Once the program was running in the background, she typed in commands relating to fleet movements, but not the details of the mission.
Again the ripple occured, only this time her own program kicked in, quietly trawling the system for the source of the mysterious error. As it began to work, Quilaret locked her station and rushed to find De’rata.
There was a knock at the door, and Seluban sighed with expectation. It was time.
“Do you have to go father?” Veri’tretha looked at him from the table where they were eating breakfast. It had been two days since the family bike ride, and her mood toward him had shuffled several times in that period. Now she looked at him with mournful eyes, as though imploring him to stay home.
“I am only going to the Council Conclave Veri’tretha, I will home this evening.” He said, as soothingly as he could, walking toward the door.
“Wait…” She said, leaping from her chair and rushing to him.
“I will not leave without saying a proper goodbye to you all.” Seluban said, trying not to sound exasperated. “However, it would be rude to not open the door.”
“Ah, of course father.” Replied Veri’tretha, chastened.
Seluban turned the handle and smiled at Acklaran, who smiled back. Behind Acklaran, the presence of two guards was cause for both concern and comfort.
“Acklaran!” Kel’aress came up to the door. “Welcome. You look healthy.”
“Hah! I am not feeling healthy. My diet has collapsed since working for the Council.”
“If you would accept our dinner invitations…” Kel’aress began.
“And intrude upon your family? I cannot.” Acklaran replied. “It is bad enough that I come to take Seluban back to the murky world of politics. I will not bring politics to your home.”
“You could never intrude upon us.” Seluban said. “After what we have been through, you are family.”
“My husband is correct.” Kel’aress added. “You are always welcome here.”
Acklaran nodded in gratitude. “Be that as it may, for the moment I must take my leave, as must Seluban.”
“I understand. Take good care of him, and keep him from trouble.”
“That is like asking the sun not to shine.” Smirked Acklaran.
“Ha! In no small part because you help me find the trouble.” Retorted Seluban. “Come children… come wish your father a good day at work.”
Seluban embraced his children, then headed out of the door, his few weeks of family time over, and the return to the hard work now began in earnest.