It had been a devastating campaign. The fleets of Ike’reth and Bertireth had divided into several sub-fleets, and recombined on a few occasions, racing from one Cadj system to another, ruining industry and resources across several major strongholds, and a few minor ones. Centres of supplies were raided, shipyards turned into molten slag, and in the end, the margin of victory was so great that it was decided half the fleet should return home.
Bertireth was given that particular honour, whilst Ike’reth’s fleet was to continue to cause chaos within Cadj space. Questions remained over how to achieve a lasting victory, one of unbreakable conquest over an enemy with such vast territory, but for the moment, keeping them off balance would suffice. The human vessels attached to Bertireth’s command would return home as well, with reports and meetings and committees no doubt ready to examine their excursion with the Chon’ith. Bertireth watched from his command deck as they headed into hyperspace, envious of their technology but proud of his people.
Quilaret typed away furiously on her keypad every morning, steering her little program as best she could, seeking answers to the mysterious glitch. The invasive bug continued to be triggered by terms like ‘deployment’ and ‘fleet movements’. As Quilaret worked, she noticed terms like ‘training exercise’ and ‘mission planning’ also set the giltch off. After a few days she’d compiled a list of terms, delivered it by hand to De’rata, and had then been given the arduous task of not only tracing the intrusion, but assisting other technicians and scientists in shielding their own work. More Chon’ith had to be brought into the loop, for the scale of the spying was greater than previously imagined.
“We need to keep up the illusion that everything is normal.” De’rata had said. “Meanwhile, I want us to build an isolated set of computers, completely off the grid. We need to be able to work on our primary missions.”
So construction began on a new set of offices and workshops, with terminals free of any links to the main system. It would take a few weeks, but it was a necessary step, one Quilaret agreed with. She’d hoped to have tracked the spy software by then, but as each day passed, the progress seemed maddeningly slow. Small talk with her colleagues felt awkward. Socialising wasn’t her desire. A part of her felt like she was missing out on… ‘something’, but another part of her simply wanted to be comfortable in her own space and her own skin. It was why after a couple of weeks of laborious coding, Quilaret took a deep breath and made the decision to take a walk.
It had become apparent to Seluban that politics had none of the glory and all of the boredom. It was a far cry from the exulted rank of Superior Chief, and carried none of the risk, and therefore excitement, of running the Resistance. He had found himself at the top of the command chain, delegating all the more interesting work to subordinates. Tapping keys on a computer and reading reports required him to heavily draw upon his military discipline, just to stay focused, and tours of Oanareth and the surrounding systems were more for public consumption than any meaningful duty.
I did press for this, in a way. He leaned back in the chair behind his desk, rubbing his temples as he read a report on the rise of Righcu Fever on the colony of Distre III. The non-fatal illness nonetheless produced a lot of unpleasant vomit, and it spread through the young at a rapid rate, disrupting schooling. Seluban had to look at economic assistance for the parents who had to take time off work, and help for business that were inconvenienced by it all. Hardly the dramatic work of a revolutionary.
To his left was the wall to Acklaran’s office, and Seluban cast an envious glance in that direction. Somehow, his friend had taken to his new role, relishing in the work. Experience as an executive officer has served him well.
Seluban’s weary thought train was halted by a knock on the door. “Enter.” He said, hoping the fatigue in his was wouldn’t be too obvious.
Obertan walked in, a slight smile on his face. “Forgive the intrusion Sir.”
“I am actually welcome of it – and as with Acklaran, the formalities are not required, unless you prefer them.”
“I believe I am, Sir.” Obertan replied. His smile widened. “I do not believe I have seen so many reports arranged in such a fashion upon any desk before now.”
“I have a system of organised chaos. It sometimes works. What can I do for you Superior Chief?”
“I wanted to make you aware that we’ve received news from the Cadj front. Superior Chief Bertireth is returning, whilst Supreme Chief Ike’reth will continue to attack targets throughout reachable Cadj territory to maintain our advantage. The report suggests we now have a decisive edge in the war.”
“Excellent news Obertan.” Seluban sat up and smiled. “As long as Ike’reth maintains the pressure, as I’m sure he will, we should find ourselves in a position to completely defeat them.”
“That is the belief Sir. Bertireth’s fleet should return to Oanareth in the next seven days. I’d like to draw up new deployments upon his return, perhaps detach elements of his command to defensive duties on the Cadj front, once they have enjoyed some shore leave.”
“That’s fine.” Seluban said. “They will have earned the opportunity to rest. Can we expect any word from the human forces?”
Obertan shook his head. “They briefly transmitted a message that spoke of their happiness at our cooperation, but their own ships are returning to their space.”
“Not surprising.” Replied Seluban.
“No Sir. Sir, Bertireth has requested to meet with you and Acklaran upon his return. He has raised concerns about our reliance on the humans during his campaign.”
“I share his concerns. We need to free ourselves from the shackles of their ‘help’, however useful it has proven to be.” Seluban said, slightly bitterly. “Of course, they have ‘helped’ us in ways they couldn’t have foreseen.”
“That much is very true Sir. If you will excuse me, I have some other duties to attend to.”
“Of course. Dismissed, Superior Chief.” Seluban said with a happier face.
Quilaret took in the clear sky and took in lungfuls of the air. It wasn’t often, but every now and then she would take a stroll around the local streets. Markets had began to open, and the major shopping district, only a ten minute walk from the line of government buildings, was starting to get busier. Spicy scents and sweet smells drifted from the food stalls, tempting Quilaret to head in that direction. Before long she had found herself a vegetable wrap with lashings of hot sauce. Those who knew her often said her taste in food was a direct inversion of her personality. She made no apologies for that.
As she munched, Quilaret looked up at the clouds, the pure blue sky, and let herself relax a little. The pressures of work were always there, but lately they’d felt worse, because she’d dared to suggest something important, and then the whole spy thing had happened…
It was at that moment, as she moved her gaze across the peaks of buildings, that Quilaret dropped her wrap. She paid no mind to the people around her who gave her funny glances, and she ran.
“… So if we redistribute these funds here…” Acklaran said, pointing to some numbers on his computer screen. “… we can…”
At that moment, the door to his office flung open. An out-of-breath Quilaret stood there, panting, placing her hands on the frame to steady herself. Acklaran had jumped from his chair, and De’rata had done likewise, both staring at the young woman with alarm – alarm which turned to a mild irritation at her sudden entrance.
“Quilaret, there is such a thing as knocking…” De’rata began.
“Apologies Science Chief, Councillor, but this is urgent. I know how the humans are doing it.” Quilaret said quickly.”
Acklaran and De’rata looked at each other. “Close the door.” Acklaran ordered.
“Sit down Quilaret, and quickly, before you fall down.” De’rata insisted. When she had done so, Quilaret looked at her two superiors.
“The communications tower at the edge of the shopping district. I was looking for software, and there’s definitely a software component to this, but when I saw the tower it made me wonder if there was something else… and there is.” She paused. “There’s a hardware component, a small device, very discrete, but it’s not Chon’ith. I would have removed it but…” She trailed off, looking at the other two.
“You found it.” Said De’rata softly. “Excellent work. They had a direct tap to a comms tower.”
“We should check the others in the Capital, in fact, we should check them wherever the humans have been.” Mused Acklaran. “But yes, amazing work Quilaret.”
“I’ll continue to go back through the software, but now I know what I’m looking for, I should find it and be able to isolate it a lot easier.” said Quilaret quickly.
“Get to it, please, and let us know once you’ve succeeded.” De’rata said. “I cannot tell you how pleased I am with this.”
“Thank you Chief, I will get back to work right away.” Quilaret nodded, backing out of the office as quickly as her legs could carry her.
“This gives us an advantage.” Acklaran stated. “Assuming the humans remain ignorant of us knowing their efforts.”
“Which is something we cannot begin to know.” De’rata responded. “But, proceeding on the assumption they are unaware we have discovered either their hardware or software, I look forward to feeding them false information.”
Acklaran smirked. “So do I. The question is, what would look authentic? We do not want to arouse their suspicions, at least, not in ways that harm our plans.”
“That sounds like a military problem.” De’rata smiled. “And thus outside of my expertise. I will leave you to ponder that particular issue, and I shall assist Quilaret and my people with the science and technology issue.”
“By all means.” Acklaran replied. He was still chuckling with himself as De’rata left, but after a few moments he was back to business, looking at the various reports upon his desk, considering how best to deceive the humans.
The return of Bertireth’s victorious forces was a cause for open celebration on Oanareth. Offerings of blood and flesh were made to the Makers, warriors were given gifts, spinsters and bachelors alike sought to attract the eyes of the soldiers who had delivered such a devastating blow to the Cadj. Transports began to ferry personnel home, and supplies to the fleet. Bertireth himself did not leave his flagship until the second day, busy with administrative duties.
His shuttle touched down at a naval side near the Capital, and a ground car delivered him to the Temple, for a personal message of thanks from Markaret herself. After she had publicly blessed him and his officers, to much joy from the citizens of Oanareth, Bertireth was free to escape the trappings of his success. He voyaged to his home, a small cottage on a different continent, removed from the hustle and bustle of city life. The opportunity to detach from his position, his rank and privilege was… invaluable.
Settling into his sofa, free from the oppressive trappings of his armour, Bertireth allowed himself to feel peace and satisfaction with a job well done. He was settling when there was a knock at his door, which jerked him out of his relaxed frame of mind. Easing himself up, Bertireth crossed the small living room and opened the door, coming face to face with Obertan.
“Apologies Sir…” Obertan began.
“We are the same rank.” Replied Bertireth wearily. “What is it that brings you here Obertan?”
“I wished to convey my respects and appreciation of your victory.” The other man replied, and he held up a bottle. “This is a vintage year, from the Flat Fields. I believe it would make an excellent way of toasting your triumph.”
Bertireth’s eyes narrowed. “How are you aware of where I live?”
“I… I may have examined personnel records.”
“To what end?” Replied Bertireth firmly.
Obertan hesitated. “I… I… I understand you have avoided… friendships, in recent times. I had hoped to change that.”
“I have tended to prefer my own company.”
“Which I appreciate.” Said Obertan. “I too have prefered solitude, though, I find myself reconsidering that position as I grow older.”
Bertireth leaned against the door frame. “What makes you believe I wish to reconsider my position?”
“Because… Bertireth… I am aware of what happened before. I understand why you believe you prefer to be alone. I have held on to a similar feeling, but I have come to realise, no one should be alone. Requeteran himself always believed everyone should have someone.”
Bertireth looked behind Acklaran, but in his mind he was seeing something else. “If you understand why I am alone, why are you here? There are few occasions where I do not see his face.”
Obertan looked crestfallen. “Perhaps you are right. I have made a mistake. I apologise Bertireth.”
The other man sighed. “It is not your fault. I am simply… not ready for a relationship, of any kind, with anyone, that is not professional. However, I will share a drink with you.”
Obertan inclined his head. “I am grateful. Let us celebrate your victory.”
Obertan stepped in, and Bertireth closed the door.