Coward’s Forge did not tend to receive a great deal of news from the outside world, but channels existed. It was simply inevitable that information would be funnelled in and out of Tre’vik. Given that it took several days for news to travel from the front lines, and several more to end up channelled to the dregs of Chon’ith society, that meant the devastating news on the data chip in front of Seluban was very much out of date.
“Are we to assume this information is accurate?” He asked of the man sitting across from him in the dingy, tired tavern.
“It is accurate.” Replied Acklaran, eyes locked to the chip that rested upon the small circular table in their little booth. Dim lights hid the old mead and brew stains on the scratched and cracked wood, and allowed Seluban and Acklaran to escaped unnoticed into the groups of miserable Chon’ith that chose to drown their sorrows.
“Three systems, all ruined. That industry…” Acklaran shook his head, despair welling up within him.
“I know.” Seluban said abruptly. “And we both know what this will mean for the Cajdi campaign.”
Acklaran’s eyes met his friend’s for the first time since they’d sat down. “The Cajdi will be who doom our people.”
“Not if we can somehow act. The Resistance, do they still wish to meet with me?”
Acklaran gave a small, curt nod. “Yes. There are many who believe we are rapidly running out of time, so their schedule is being accelerated, but they remain cautious. Your profile is… it casts a wide shadow Seluban. They are wary.”
“Well, if they truly do want to meet, you will need to persuade them to take risks. I would think the data on this chip is persuasion enough.” Said Seluban.
“It certainly should be, but from my fleeting meetings, all I can say for certain is that they operate very carefully. Nothing is left to chance.” Acklaran sighed. “They are the polar opposite of what we were raised to believe.”
Mutual understanding had blossomed between them. To look into their own hearts and minds and realise so much of their core beliefs were in fact going to destroy their species was heartbreaking, but so was changing it all. Billions of people, emotionally and spiritually invested in a system that gave them strength and security, would not easily reject that in favour of what they’d learned was the way of cowards and the faithless. After all, it had not been easy for Seluban or Acklaran to do likewise.
“I shall stress to the Resistance the importance of your leadership my friend.” Acklaran said. “Wait for my signal, and then, perhaps, just perhaps, we can save our people.”
The hour had grown late, yet the humidity seemed to be rising, though part of that was the tension knotting itself in Seluban’s belly. He was dimly aware of a pair of ‘chaperones’ that looked suspiciously too well fed to be natives of the Forge, who had followed him across every back alley, street and path since he had left Acklaran. The two – one yellow-skinned, one green – had maintained a discrete distance, but not enough of one, for Seluban had been easily able to spot their clean, cream robes and hoods. It was an amateurish effort, if indeed what he suspected was true, and it made him all the more angry. He loved his people, he wanted only what was best for them, and yet, even after his banishment, ruling powers felt it necessary to degrade him further by spying on him. Even worse, their efforts were awkward and obvious, a sign of how badly Chon’ith needed to change in order to progress.
Losing them was supposed to be a simple matter, and it should have been easy, a reminder to Seluban himself that his own hubris had been costly. He was not trained in the art of hiding in plain sight, and his reputation made him notorious. Seluban ducked into a shrouded, dark alleyway, ignoring the pools of liquid that soaked the old cobbles, and hunched down near a pile of old rags, hoping his chaperones would fail to find him. He had to suppress his desire to gag; the rusted bins were overflowing with sacks of discarded food and other, unsavoury waste items, producing an eye-watering odour. Still, he dared not make a sound, just in case his ‘escorts’ were smarter than they appeared.
Before long, the pair had moved beyond the alley, but Seluban allowed himself a few minutes, in case they doubled back upon themselves. When there was no obvious sign of such a move, he slipped back into the street, gratefully gulping down lungfuls of relatively clean air. A quick glance in either direction did not reveal anyone looking out for him, so Seluban continued on his way to the rendezvous, only this time, he kept closer to the shadows, and to other people.
The ramshackle building perfectly matched every other building in the Forge – tired brickwork, old, rotten wooden beams and dirty windows signalled to the outside world that this was the home of another broken Chon’ith. Seluban rapped three times upon the door, and waited a few seconds, before knocking three times more. Slowly the door crept open, and a woman, a red Chon’ith of apparently many years, peered warily at him.
“Are you Requeteran’s Ward?” She asked in a gravely voice.
Seluban gritted his teeth. “I am no friend of his.” He hated saying that, not only because it was far too obvious a line for a ‘secret’ organisation, but because he did not believe it. There had to be a way to reconcile Requestary with his people’s survival.
The woman harrumphed at him, but opened the door and ushered him in.
Acklaran was already present, as well as several other Chon’ith, male and female of various colours and, from the looks of it, various ages. Some bore scars that ran across their faces, indicators of past conflict, that in turn, hinted at banishment similar to his own. Curious and nervous eyes watched him approach the circular table that they sat at, and he made for the one unoccupied chair, across the table from Acklaran.
A yellow Chon’ith, an older male, judging from the creases and lines upon his face, stared at Seluban from out of one eye – the left one had been ‘removed’ at some stage, rather forcibly from the looks of it.
“So…” A raspy voice spoke up. “This is the great and noble warrior who saved a fleet and earned himself a seat at this table.”
“I am Seluban, yes.”
“Are you an arrogant man Seluban?” Questioned the elder.
“I would hope I am not considered so.” Came his level reply.
The elder leaned back in his chair. “A surprise. To wish to defy the established order because you believe your way to be superior, usually implies self-belief verging on arrogance. Do you truly believe the way of Requestary is wrong, enough to desire to change it?”
“I would not sit here if I believed otherwise.”
“Hmm. So if you could save us from ourselves, but you had to publicly denounce the Makers as false gods in order to do it, would you? Could you?”
Seluban hesitated. He met the eye of the elder squarely and took a breath.
“I… do not know. I would like to believe I would do what I must, but until I am placed in that moment… I do not know.”
The elder smiled. “Honesty. That is appreciated.” His voice softened. “Many of us here were once devout. We knew in our hearts that Requeteran could not be wrong, that the Makers were all-powerful and wise, and that our faith was the source of our people’s strength. We knew it was unwavering and forever. Yet here we all sit, for we know a different truth. Every Chon’ith in this room has seen the bitter truth. Our people will one day pick a fight we cannot win, and yet, we will not change. Extinction or subjugation will be our fate. I cannot let that happen, and from your own actions Seluban, I know, neither can you. Yet, to face what we were taught so vigorously so for long, and know it to be full of falsehood, doesn’t mean we cannot draw strength from much of it. The hard part will be persuading our brethren to see that.”
The elder paused.”I am Faratarath, you may have heard of me.”
Seluban suppressed his awe. In hindsight, he should have recognised the famous wound, if not the face.
“I am familiar with your legend.” Was all he could bring himself to say.
“You do not know all of it. The day I lost my eye, is the day I saw half my fleet die in flames, so many brave Chon’ith wiped out, to satisfy the Makers, and at the end of it all, I stood upon a half-ruined planet, amidst the wreckage of my enemy, who had fought fiercely, and what did I have to show for it? I had my dead, and a world barely fit to plunder, much less rule, and I saw then the bitter reality of who we were. Even in victory, so much Chon’ith blood had been needlessly wasted, and in that moment, my sight through one eye was better than with both. We must change Superior Chief, in so many ways. Are you prepared to challenge the way we win as well as lose? “
Seluban nodded, still in awe.
“It will be hard. There will be much resistance. You will be asked to make many sacrifices.” Faratarath’s voice wavered slightly. “Any hope of redemption in the eyes of your loved ones will be firmly extinguished.”
Seluban lifted his head. “I am prepared to pay the price.”
“Then let us begin our work.”