Coward’s Forge held a natural advantage to anyone would wished to carry out clandestine activities. The mist, the low lighting, and in the case of a fallen watchtower, near complete darkness. There were still armour-clad guards to be mindful of, but Seluban, now dressed in a black hood and with dark drown trousers, and with Zarthara dressed in a similar fashion beside him, were keeping away from the sporadic spot lights that oversaw the reconstruction efforts. Cranes and bulldozers and trucks provided significant noise – their motors rumbled like angry insects, easily covering the soft footsteps of the two Chon’ith.
It wasn’t likely to be enough, given the builders and engineers and the guards, until in the distance, the familiar crack and pop of rifle fire started up. It was sparse at first, but quickly grew in frequency and urgency; angry yelling and the screams of the discontented could be heard from with the labyrinth of dirty wooden huts and uneven cobbled streets. Seluban wasn’t sure, but he thought he spied the flicker of flames – ominous, in such a dilapidated area.
The workers began to withdraw, with the guards drawing their pistols and moving off, barking orders for the workers to get to safety, as radios crackled into life, calling for reinforcements. Zarthara glanced at Seluban, who mouthed ‘move’ and gestured for her to head forward, toward the breaches in the wall. They scrambled up half-wrecked concrete sheets and pillars to the nearest hole, taking full advantage of the riots, that continued to draw the guards off. A quick scan of the other side revealed no patrols and betrayed no obstacles. As quietly as possible, Seluban and Zarthara slipped onto the uneven, rocky earth, and began their long journey away from the Forge.
The city of Tre’vik was gradually fading into the distance, but the sweat was mounting upon Seluban’s, brow, and back, and chest, and every crevice upon his body. On the horizon, a volcano was spitting bright orange lava in small bursts, and the ambient heat was enough to leave Seluban breathless.
Zarthara appeared to be slightly better off. Her smaller frame made it easier for her to cope with the temperature, though it was clear her own dark clothing was becoming stained with perspiration. She marched ahead of Seluban, clutching the small tablet computer she’d ‘liberated’ from the wreckage of the guard tower. The navigation system gave them the fastest route to a nearby military station, but Seluban had urged them to aim for one slightly further away. ‘They will be less expecting of an incursion’.
Zarthara had offered little protest, deferring to Seluban’s military wisdom. Now though, he found himself reconsidering his choice. The first outpost was less than a kilometre away; the second was over five kilometres away. There was another thing to ponder as well…
“Wait a moment.” Seluban asked, pausing to suck in lungfuls of air.
“Why do we stop? It will be dawn in a matter of hours. We must, if anything, increase our pace.” Zarthara sounded impatient.
“I… You may have been right.” Seluban hated to admit that, but he saw, or rather felt, a thread of new thinking, unravelling in his mind.
“What was that?” Asked Zarthara, just a trace of amusement in her tone.
“You were right.” Seluban puffed. “We should head to the closer outpost.”
“A man, admitting a woman is right, on a matter of strategy? You’ll forgive me if I savour this moment.”
“Bah.” Seluban waved a hand in disgust. “Do not grow accustomed to it. The closer outpost may have dispatched assistance to the barrier, but we must move quickly.”
“Yes, I know.” Replied Zarthara, allowing a note of frustration into her voice. “So let’s keep moving, shall we?”
The road they could have followed was too exposed, so they crept along the edges. Plants were scarce in the harsh landscape, but a few yellow shoots – the forerunners to the large, overbearing trees that provided minimal cover – were scattered across the plains, along with the crystallised remains of much older flora. A short distance before the entrance to the little silver construct, the road dipped, the result of a natural carving, produced by a river that had once cut through the valley. Seluban and Zarthara stayed upon the left bank, and headed out wide, preparing to flank the base.
It wasn’t an especially large structure, and Seluban estimated it would hold no more than a dozen Chon’ith, even when fully staffed. It pained him to admit, even internally, that Zarthara was correct, but there were few lights on in the windows of the circular dome.
“The signs point to a vacated outpost.” Zarthara spoke quietly.
“Yes. We must find a discrete way in.”
The installation had a large main entrance, a gate that permitted vehicles in and out. Seluban knew, from memory, a small personnel entrance also existed, for ranking officers. Even a diminutive outpost on the edge of the most miserable location on the planet would have an officer in charge of the grunts. With great care, the pair clambered down the side of the bank and edged towards the silent base. No sirens wailed and there was little in the way of visible external security. In a way, Seluban lamented the slack protection of the facility – it was further evidence of how his people needed change.
The small gold door was located more or less where Seluban had expected it to be. An alphabetical keypad was just to the right of the door.
“Let us see what we can do…” He muttered to himself, recalling his training and the standing orders given to every Chon’ith who became an officer. The code would be six letters, and the first letter would be capitalised. Part of him despaired, but part of him knew how easily he could exploit his own kind. He typed in ‘Makers’, and the door clicked. Seluban gently prodded it open, then ushered Zarthara inside.
The lighting was low, which suited Chon’ith, and the temperature was a lot cooler. A well-regulated environment felt like sweet, blessed relief to Seluban, who couldn’t help but sigh with delight. Zarthara looked at him and smirked. Seluban hastily restored his stoic, resolved appearance.
“This way.” He did not give Zarthara even a moment to enjoy what she had witnessed. The wide corridor curved, until on their right the pair came to another passage, lined with doors. Seluban kept himself sharp, ears listening for any signal that someone was approaching, whilst Zarthara cast her eyes over each door, looking for any room marked even vaguely as ‘communications’. At the end of the corridor it split into two directions, and Seluban began to feel uncomfortable. The deeper into the base they went, the more difficult their escape would become, and the more likely bloodshed would be.
“I do not like this.” He murmured. Zarthara peered down the left passage, straining to see the names of rooms.
“I see it!” She whispered. They made their way carefully down the path to the door, and Seluban eased the handle, cautiously pushing it inward. Mutual shock ensued as Seluban came face to face with a green-skinned Chon’ith guard, who was happening to be leaving. The two stared at each other for a moment, until Seluban reacted with a sharp left fist into the other man’s face. The guard staggered backwards, crashing into a chair, before trying to right himself. There was no opportunity to do so – Seluban jumped the guard, delivering another left jab to the face, followed by a ferocious right hook. Slipping from the edge of the chair, the guard groaned in pain, a sound silenced by a swift kick to the face.
“Close the door.” Seluban ordered of Zarthara, who dutifully did so. Her eyes wandered to the prone guard, and she unsheathed a small blade from a holster clipped to her belt.
“No.” Seluban spun to face Zarthara.
“He has seen you. When he awakens he will report this, and guarantee you will be hunted. That will inevitably expose the Resistance.” Her voice softened. “I know you wish to do things differently, to change the fate of our people, but you also know what will happen if you lack the resolve to do what needs to be done. I will make it quick and painless.”
Seluban held Zarthara’s gaze for a few moments. “Once we transmit this, I will be hunted anyway.”
“Then at least consider that escaping this facility is more important to our cause than your immediate capture.”
With a weary sigh, he nodded in acceptance. As Zarthara made to fulfil her grim task, Seluban grabbed her wrist. “I must do it.”
He thought he saw a glimmer of respect in her eyes. With a slight nod of her own, Zarthara flipped the knife over and handed him the hilt.
“Prepare the data chips.” He turned from Zarthara, and with a steely resolve, took the dagger and buried it deep into the guard’s chest.
He left the knife in, to restrict the flow of blood, as he and Zarthara began to access the computers in front of them. Three separate screens and control terminals with access points provided them with a direct link to the internal government communications network. Chon’ith had never been especially conscious of internal security – the needs of the state were the wishes of Requeteran and the Makers, and no one defied them, so elaborate encryption measures were simply not needed. Alien species had never prevailed long enough to crack Chon’ith systems, yet as Seluban accessed old command codes he had used as a junior officer, he was yet again appalled at how easy it was to circumvent security. Had no one thought to disable all his access?
“I am ready to upload the war reports.” Reported Zarthara stiffly.
“Do it. I will record my message.” Replied Seluban. Nerves knotted his stomach. There would be no turning back from this course. Was it truly the right thing to do? He angled the microphone on the desk and aimed the camera, before shooting a look at Zarthara. She nodded with encouragement.
Seluban tapped a button. “People of Oanerth, I am Seluban. I was once a Superior Chief in our navy. You may know my name, as the name of someone who withdrew from battle. I did withdraw, for I had no choice. My entire fleet would have been destroyed, every Chon’ith under my command killed, and in exchange, destroyed only a handful of enemy ships. The attached reports detail how the humans are using superior technology, but also superior tactics and strategy, to overcome our forces. The government does not wish you to know, but human fleets now dominate the space above Chon’ith worlds. For the first time in our history, we are the conquered, not the conquerors.” Seluban paused for a moment.
“Unless we change how we fight, we will lose more battles against the humans, and sooner or later, the Cajdi will take full advantage of this. We cannot win both wars; it is a truth the Council Chiefs do not wish you know, for it is a truth they deny even to themselves. I want nothing more than for Chon’ith to dominate the galaxy, but we will not do so if we continue on our current path. For many of you, this will mean defying the will of Requeteran and the Makers – to you, I say, it means seeing their will in a different way. Ultimate victory for our way of life means we need to adapt, or we will die.”
“Look at the reports. Ask why you are being told we are on the verge of victory, when in fact we face crushing defeat. We must challenge what we know, for the very survival of our species. Please, I implore you all, let us consider our path.”
Seluban switched off the equipment. He slumped back into the chair, feeling older, suddenly tired. His face turned to meet that of the dead guard, a victim – in one sense the first victim – of his revolution. His peaceful revolution.