It taken nearly a further week of patient waiting, which had frayed the nerves of every Chon’ith on Sharpened Blade II, and Seluban suspected the entirety of 2nd Fleet. He had asked much of his people, expecting them to hold station in the inky blackness of space for so long, and he was proud of their discipline and resolve. Now, as 2nd Fleet watched the human force protecting the Sisko system start to accelerate away, preparing to enter hyperspace, Seluban was ready to reward that discipline.
It wasn’t going to add up to a significant blow to the humans, but it was one more successful strike to add to the rest. His fleet began to head in system almost at the exact moment the humans left. Seluban smiled as he imagined the face of human Overseer, watching the Chon’ith advance, knowing years of hard work and toil were about to become rubble.
A few days later, the fleets that had delivered such crucial opening strikes against the humans converged on the site of the now destroyed Manticore base. At Seluban’s invitation, the fleet commanders and their executive officers took shuttles to Sharpened Blade, preparing for some solemn, difficult conversations. There had been many casualties, many ships destroyed, and the weight of that would play upon Seluban’s mind for years to come. He sank into a rigid chair in one of Sharpened Blade’s new conference rooms, a circular rustic wooden table placed in the centre of the room, oil lamps burning brightly around him. Etched into the walls were verses from the Words, designed to encourage and inspire. Right now, they added to the pressure upon his shoulders, the burden of the deaths he had ordered so many Chon’ith to.
Bertireth was the first to join him and Zelkarat in the conference room. Resplendent golden armour shimmered in the light of the lamps, as did his vivid yellow skin. Behind him stepped a green Chon’ith in the armour of a Second Chief, Lerikat. They both nodded respectfully to Seluban as they took their seats.
Acklaran was next, and Seluban greeted his old friend with a small, bitter smile. Acklaran was followed by another green Chon’ith, a young-looking Chon’ith, Wiristan. They slipped into their own chairs, and stared in quiet dismay at the pair of empty seats.
“Welcome everyone. Firstly, I wish to commend everyone on the successful first stage of the campaign. Several human worlds have now lost valuable infrastructure, we have destroyed far more ships than we have lost, and we have created considerable confusion in their ranks. We are all aware of the cost…” Seluban cast a glance at the empty chairs, gritting his teeth. “And we must honour the fallen. Forgive me for not inviting anyone from 4th Fleet, but a new Superior Chief will need to be selected… and we will need to choose a new Supreme Chief.”
Acklaran was shaking his head in disbelief. “I cannot fathom it. Ike’reth gone… but, he completed his mission. He went out fighting like a true Chon’ith. May the Makers bless him.”
A wave of agreement went around the table. When it was done, several eyes turned to Seluban. Not for the first time, he felt the expectations upon him.
“We are all experienced, we are all acquainted with our new ships, and any one of us in this room would be worthy of promotion. I will make it clear that I do not wish the title of Supreme Chief for myself.” Seluban said, hoping to nip that particular notion early on.
Bertireth stared. “You are the most qualified choice. No Chon’ith has adapted to our new philosophies as well as you.”
“There is one who offered far more direct and important leadership.”
“Oh no…” Acklaran began… “You pushed me into a position of importance on the Council, you’re not doing so again with this. I’ll fight you to avoid the role if I have to.”
Seluban smiled. “You would be the best choice.”
“No, I wouldn’t. My place is commanding a fleet, not directing multiple campaigns and war fronts. You brought different strands together during the Awakening, and made it happen. I say we vote on it.”
“Agreed.” Said Zelkarat quickly.
“I concur.” Lerikat added.
Wiristan was next. “I also agree.”
Seluban shot Zelkarat a dirty look. “Hmm, it appears I am being expertly maneuvered. Alright, we should take a vote, but I’ll be sure to be a harsh and merciless Supreme Chief if you do this.”
“So no change from your normal operations then?” Acklaran said with a smirk. Seluban gave him a mean look.
“My first act will be to demote Acklaran to the lowliest position imaginable.” He said in jest. “But in all seriousness, as you all seem committed to this idea, my first official command will be to request reinforcements from home. We’ll need to shore up the fleets, and prepare our next set of objectives. It wouldn’t hurt to find out how our ship-building efforts are coming along.” He paused, taking in the enormity of the task at hand, and reflecting upon the past. “We should also make sure Chon’ith across the Empire pay their respects to Ike’reth. He has earned that.”
Everyone at the table nodded. A moment later, they got to work.
In the two weeks that had passed since the Chon’ith had launched so many quick and damaging raids into Confederation space, smaller assaults had taken place across border worlds, which had been left virtually defenceless. A few further forays to Rios had taken place, albeit they had been more to spook the humans than anything else. Deep scouting operations had flown to Felix, and also Earnhide, and several other human worlds – and Seluban had pushed the importance of keeping the humans in the dark. What the reports revealed had troubled him. He looked over the myriad documents that were strewn at his workstation in his quarters, and not for the first time regretted taking on his new role.
The humans hadn’t moved to counter-attack, which wasn’t entirely surprising, given the disparity in resources. Instead their primary worlds had received the reinforcements from the fringes, and fleets had arrived from elsewhere to help shore up their important locations. Right now, the systems Seluban wanted to strike at were among the most fortified locations in human space.
He needed an edge in numbers, but fortunately the last courier from Oanareth had informed him newly constructed warships were undergoing final shakedown runs and would be with him in a week. Labour in former Cadj systems was producing parts and equipment for ships faster than assembly runs could put it all together, and four new shipyards were being hastily built. The question was whether or not it would all happen quickly enough to deliver the advantage he needed.
Another deliveries had arrived as well – messages from home. Kel’aress spoke of her pride at his promotion, whilst also needling him – she knew him better than anyone, knew he would hate being seen as the right man for the role. Veri’tretha had written of her delight at being accepted into her chosen school, and Crekitan described his wargames, displaying tactical prowess that made Seluban feel very proud. He had read their letter several times, absorbing every word and distilling it to memory.
Once again though, his enemy was time. Seluban knew his people could build new ships at a ferocious rate, but the humans could too. The humans had allies, and they would be plotting and scheming all the time, looking for a weakness to exploit. Chon’ith space was vast, which meant it was hard to successfully attack, but it meant communicating important messages took a long time, and some of the new warships had to remain at home, to protect the Empire. He needed his reinforcements quite urgently, as well as fresh munitions, and his warriors needed to get back what they did best.
There was a knock at the door, and Seluban blinked in surprise. The hour was very late, and any important messages could have been buzzed through directly. Who wanted a face-to-face meeting now?
“Enter.” He said, and the door slid open. Acklaran stepped in.
“My friend.” Seluban smiled. “I believe I have a bottle of ale somewhere… and please, be seated.”
Acklaran gave the cabin a glance, noting the various print outs that were just about everywhere. “Now you see why I did not want the position. You are drowning in bureaucracy.”
“Yes, and one day, I shall thank you properly for that. What can I do for you?”
Acklaran pulled up a chair and gratefully received the bottle, taking a deep drink. When he finished, he sighed and closed his eyes. “That was very much needed.”
“Feeling the pressure?” Seluban asked.
“In a way. De’rata’s letter made it clear she is under a degree of it back home, organising the new yards, managing research and so forth.” There was a strange, slightly resentful note in Acklaran’s voice.
Seluban looked at him, beckoning with his hand. “And…?”
“Something else… You forget how well I know you.”
Acklaran looked at the bottle. “I had hoped for some mention that she was missing me. Her letter was focused entirely upon her work.”
Seluban was silent for but a second, then laughed. When he caught the sour look on Acklaran’s face, his laughter became more boisterous. “I am sorry my friend, but you are behaving like a love-sick adolescent.”
“Why thank you…” Acklaran replied tartly. “Surely if Kel’aress had responded with no words of encouragement, of love, you would have been… put out, by it?”
“Oh perhaps a little…” Seluban conceded. “But we both know De’rata is guarded about her feelings. She is most likely anxious about you, and distracting herself. She would not be the first to do that.”
“I… by the Makers you’re right.” Acklaran went quiet. “She is committed to her craft, and as you say, shields herself. I know she loves me…”
“… You just wanted the assurance.” Seluban finished. “Which is understandable, but unnecessary, given the strength of your bond.”
Acklaran managed a wry smile. “And you questioned whether or not you should be Supreme Chief. Clearly you have the wisdom to lead us!”
“Hmm, if I can resolve romantic problems, I can certainly command our entire fleet.” Seluban chuckled. “Though planning our next move is proving quite the challenge. I am grateful you decided to pay me a visit. Was there anything in particular you wanted to discuss?”
“Not especially.” Acklaran said, shaking his head. “I felt the need to relieve the tedium.”
“I hesitate to talk work…” Seluban was stopped as Acklaran held up a hand.
“It is alright. It will make me look good when plans are presented and I’ve miraculously anticipated your ideas.”
“Not if I reveal a completely different set of plans tomorrow, out of spite.”
It was Acklaran’s turn to laugh. “Dooming us all to spite me. I would probably deserve that. So, what are we thinking?”
“We need to break their second line, and soon. I am concerned about their allies. We should send scouts to where we believe their territories are, scare them into believing their worlds are threatened, so they hold off sending their ships to join the humans.”
Acklaran nodded. “That might also create tensions within their alliance.”
“It occurred to me we might even try to convince some of them to join us.” Seluban said. “Though I suspect the humans have done a good job of… what was their expression, ‘poisoning the well’.
“Agreed. Better to have them run scared, into their own borders.”
“That would be the first step toward leaving the humans vulnerable.” Seluban continued. “But we would still need to throw large fleets at worlds like Felix, if we are to breach their defences. We should expect serious losses.”
“That which weighs most heavily.” Acklaran said softly.
Seluban met his eyes. “Yes. However there is no other way. We might need, with much irony, to look to the old ways, at least in part. A large fleet, wielded as a brutal hammer, smashing through their lines and ripping apart what lies behind.”
“Many warriors would still appreciate such an approach.”
“They may yet get the chance to enjoy it, within a few revisions.” Seluban looked to his papers. “It isn’t just Felix. There are other strong, heavily industrialised worlds. We cannot waste our fleets on one bold mission, only to be too badly depleted to strike again, or worse, leave ourselves seriously vulnerable to an attack on the Empire. I fear I am being too cautious, waiting for reinforcements…”
“And at the same time, you fear rushing in too recklessly, for you know that could yet undo all our progress.” Acklaran replied. “So why not bluff the humans again?”
“Send scouts to several of their strongholds. Send a couple to earth itself. Perhaps even to one or two worlds the other side of earth. Have them think we have the means to at least consider striking multiple strong targets. They will have to give due thought to that possibility. Their worry and fear will paralyse them.”
“Acklaran, have I mentioned before that you have a devious mind?”
“I believe you have.” Acklaran smiled. “The scouting missions will help us refine our data and in addition to tying the humans up, frantically worrying how we might attack, we can follow through with your idea to scare their allies. It will also buy us more time to get more new ships ready, so we can launch two or three major operations, instead of just one.”
“I believe Ike’reth would be proud of such a move.” Seluban said, raising his own bottle in a salute. Acklaran returned the gesture.
“I believe he would. It is hard to believe…”
“That he is gone. He was the first of us, in a way, to embrace the new thinking. You know of how he acted on impulse to trick the humans at the Battle of Oanareth?”
“Yes. He gave the humans a small demonstration of what we could be.” Acklaran replied.
“I am grateful they did not heed that lesson. Such an arrogant species, with too much faith in technology.”
“And yet, if we had forged on with our previous ways, their technological prowess would have defeated us.”
Seluban snorted. “Well, now we have married the concepts. I just hope we have the time we need.”
“If we can convince the humans we do indeed have the means to attack several key worlds, they will give us the time.”
“I am glad of your counsel Acklaran.” Seluban said. “Without it, I do not know what plans I would put into place. Are you sure you do not want the title of Supreme Chief?”
“Very sure. I will return to my ship, make sure any final repairs are completed to my satisfaction. Good night my friend.”