“Ódja! Tell us a story!” As if the eldest of Móra Šivák was sitting where that one was for any other reason. Most of the family was scattered about the tent – doing chores, playing Šáči or sitting in quiet conversation – but the children were all clustered about Ódja Gatéš in the open center of the tent.
“Ah, but which one, čabánye?” Gatéš said, grinning at the grandchild and throwing one’s arms wide. “There are so many!”
“Tell us the best one,” and everyone laughed because they knew Djánza loved one story best because that one’s namesake was in it, but, then, everyone in Móra Šivák loved that story. How could they not, when the hero was of their own family?
“Again?” Gatéš asked, eyes rolling in mock exasperation. “Well, OK, but only because it is the best story.”
And it is. It will not be the same without Ódja’s talent for storytelling, or the resinous citrus scent of nóva ičákor, but it will have to do.
Dzégi Kethóvi Šivák av Inádji stood on the Indáji’s bridge deck and looked out at the fleet arrayed around the Anyúvin flagship. The black, stealthed hulls were outlined in blue and green running lights. Without those lights, the ships would have been invisible, the čádramide hull plating faithfully reproducing the diamond brilliance of the stars beyond them. The fleet was still more than a day out from the Čórith system, which would be their new base of operations, and the planet selected for them promised to be delightful. I can not believe how much I long to smell the scent of life in the air and to look out over open sands, Kethóvi thought. To feel the wind ruffle my mane and warm sun on my fur. And a blue sun this time! Even without the distant red sun, some were comparing it to K’móra – not that anyone had seen the Anyúvin home world in over a dozen generations. Yet Kethóvi understood why they found the idea so attractive. To remember, if only for a while, how their ancestors had lived! This was, perhaps, an illusion worth indulging in.”
The sound of Djánza’s voice broke the reverie and Kethovi turned toward the XO and nodded.
“You will not get us there any faster by standing here all day,” Djánza said.
Kethóvi had known Djánza since they were born, they were karánya, siblings, and they had trained and come up through the ranks together. A lot of years had passed since they had left their birth family to marry into Móra Shivak and Móra Tomkótse. Now Djánza’s honey colored mane, like Kethóvi’s own black one, had large streaks of white which disappeared under the collars of their robes. The fur of their muzzles and at the tips of their ears were going white as well. Yet they were still alive when so many that they had known were not and Djánza knew Kethóvi better than most. Djánza was right about one thing – Kethóvi had been standing here for a long time and for no real good reason.
“You should come down to the edjóra,” Djánza continued. “We’ll spar a bit.”
Kethóvi started to say no, then noticed Djánza’s eyes go briefly dark. Long ago, the Anyuvin had learned how to speak silently with their čarkóde, the nictating membranes in their eyes that had once protected them from the harsh desert sun of K’móra. Now they were more useful as a way of speaking that their Číruk masters were unlikely to recognize. They called it kódebidj – ‘eye-speech’.
Important, Djánza signaled.
Kethóvi blinked in acknowledgement.
“Do you think you can do without me, Dícan?” Kethóvi said aloud, and the young tactical officer smiled. Dícan was still young, but had an easy going manner of command and a self-confidence Kethóvi would have loved to have had at that age. Kethóvi had sparred with the grey-furred, grey-eyed youngster a number of times and found Dícan physically fast as well as mentally, despite an otherwise languid demeanor.
“Yes, ván’thál,” Dican replied, “I believe we can manage on our own.”
“Then you have the bridge,” Kethóvi said and Dícan nodded.
“As you say, ván’thál, I have the bridge.”
Ten nevár later, Kethóvi and Djánza were dressed in kežáde and facing each other across the practice mat. Várši, the old Djoncári master sat crosslegged on a mat in the corner – not obviously watching – but everyone knew the old one saw everything and would be up and correcting you before you’d finished the move you were obviously doing wrong. Kethóvi smiled sadly. Várši’s fur was almost pure white. If they stayed on Čórith III for any length of time, Várši would likely die on this new world.
“I’m not dead yet, ván’thál.” Várši said, without looking up. Chagrined, Kethóvi bowed.
“My apologies, Várši’rádjo. I am humbled by your perception.”
Várši ears twitched in amusement.
Kethóvi turned back to Djánza. There was always a period of quiet contemplation before sparring started, but this time it was occupied by the silent conversation. Djánza’s eyes flickered again. The madjáš has locked itself in its cabin, Djánza said. I could smell its fear.
Kethóvi’s eyes widened involuntarily. The Číruk communicated with both sound and pheromones, the pheromones carrying the emotional content. The sharp Anyúvin noses could detect those scents, but usually found them muddled and hard to separate. If Djánza could identify the bitter citrus fear-smell, then something had their Číruk overseer terrified.
Any ideas? Kethóvi asked.
None. Although it had recently used the communications system.
I already asked. Nothing. This was high security comms – eyes only – and it used the Shroud. Žána could see nothing from any of the cameras.
It said nothing?
Djanza thought for a moment. I heard it cursing something, but I could not make out who or what. Although I did hear something that sounded like “disaster.” It was not clear and I don’t think it realized the translator was still on.
The rhythmic thrumming that emanated from the upper end of the Číruk thorax was very hard for non-Číruk to understand which was why their Číruk overseers wore a translation device. It not only translated Číruk into Anyúvin, but moved the source of the speech up closer to the mouth, where most species expected it.
Kethóvi and Djónza began to move, throwing familiar, well choreographed feints and jabs, while Kethóvi digested the news. The reports coming in from the fleet’s other ships had all had a remarkably similar feel to them of late. Carefully embedded codewords painted a picture of their Číruk overseers growing steadily more nervous over the last few weeks. Not for the first time, Kethóvi wished they could break into the Číruk communications system, but the highest security levels had tri-level authentication: password, an ident beacon embedded in the thorax, and a pheromone signature too complex to fake. No one but a Číruk was going to access their communications system at that level. There was nothing they could do, but wait and see what happened.
Kethóvi could not remember many times when the Číruk were anything but confident. And why shouldn’t they be? They had conquered hundreds of systems in their march to the center of the galaxy. In each, the population was forced to strip its own planet of resources and build a fleet – warships, to help the Číruk overcome whatever lay in their path, and colony ships to support them – and then to leave the gutted and polluted remains of their planets behind.
Send out code ‘Éva’, Kethovi blinked, withdrawing from the match for a moment and Djánza raised an eyebrow.
Kethóvi shrugged. It’s likely nothing, but chance favors the prepared. Č’cep! I wish I could speak to the other fleet commanders without the Číruk overhearing. Together we might…
Djánza nodded in agreement, and they began to spar in earnest. Their ‘conversation’ over, it was only a matter of moments before Várši was standing beside them, correcting the position of their paws as they attempted to break a mutual joint-lock.
“You have been too long away from class, ván’thál,” Varši said.
“A ‘thál’s life is not their own, rádjo,” Kethóvi said, but Varši simply barked in contempt and continued with the lecture.
Later, as they walked away, Kethóvi turned to Djánza. “You were right. I needed that.”
“As I thought, kára.”
“Your family is well?” Kethóvi asked.
“We are irtášo”, Djánza sighed, “our tent will soon be very noisy.”
“Hah!” Kethóvi barked, “Tell me you don’t love it,” Kethóvi said, putting a paw on Djánza’s shoulder. “You have always been happiest with children around.”
Djánza nodded and smiled sadly. “After we lost Korjín, Akádzi, and Úžek, everyone got so quiet. For a while, I thought…”
“That your family would fail?” Kethóvi asked. “I think not. Losing family members in battle is never easy, but Móra Tomkóce is stronger than that or it would not be in our clan.”
“Cávi.” Dánza agreed and, after a moment of silence, they parted ways in the corridor, each going to the tent of their respective families.
After the evening meal, Kethóvi took the nyurádje and ivóra from atop that one’s toríma, opened the chest and pulled out a reader. After unrolling the mat, Kethóvi placed the ivóra against the toríma, lay down, and pretended to read. Šándja looked over and frowned.
“You could at least take off your robe.”
“I may need to leave quickly.” Kethóvi said, not looking up.
“So quickly you won’t have time to put it back on? Are you going to sleep in it?” Šándja persevered. “How will that look when you go on watch in the morning?”
Šándja frowned, but moved off. Privacy was not easy to come by in Anyúvin families, which lived in a large common area reminiscent of the nomadic tents they had once used on K’móra. Individual toríma, the chests holding an individual’s personal possessions, lined the outside of the area. Inside that was a ring of low tables and mats for eating, gaming or just sitting around to talk. The very center was left open.
A request for ‘space’ was not ignored lightly, but could sometimes be seen as rude and Kethóvi decided to apologize later, but for now, that one needed the time to think. Eyes closed, Kethóvi remembered that first watch with Djánza – the first time they had faced a Číiruk majáš. The way it had stopped and tilted its head, antenna searching the air for scent. It had turned to Kethóvi, the thrum of it’s voice box overlaid by the translator.
“You are new,” it had said. Not a question, a statement.
“Are you loyal?” It had asked, cocking its head toward them.
They replied in unison, “Yes, ódji’thál. I live to serve the Číruk.”
The Číruk had clicked its mandible and said, “Good.” A wave of pheromone reminiscent of incense had washed over them. They would later come to recognize that as an indication that the Číruk were satisfied.
Then it had left, the hard clicking of its footsteps fading into the distance, and Kethóvi had sighed in relief. It was not unknown for young Anyúvin to be summarily killed for not answering correctly, or quickly enough. Yet from that time on, both Kethóvi and Djánza had lived with the visceral knowledge that the Anyúvin were slaves. The answer to that question had come easier every time it had been asked. Now, Kethóvi could utter it in half a heartbeat. Yet how, Kethóvi thought, does one stop being a slave? In their hearts and minds, most of Kethóvi’s people were free as could be, but if they remained bound to the Číruk and their Great Pilgrimage, if they were still forced to serve, and die for, their Číruk masters, the end result was the same. And the fear of genocide bound them tightly in that service.
The armadas were arranged with great care. Individual fleets were always crewed by people of one race, but no fleet ever went anywhere alone. Always there were two or three others. If one fleet should try to rebel, the Číruk would order the others to see to their destruction. And fleets were shuffled around regularly to prevent alliances from forming. At the moment, the Yunkyin flew alongside them and the Licu fleet had point as they headed to the uninhabited system of Čórith. Those races, preferring more temperate planets, would be sharing Čorith-IV, a green jewel of a world, while the Anyuvin would have Čorith-III to themselves. Čorith-III had a large central continent that was virtually all desert.
The fleet might live there a few months to a year or more depending on how fast the Číruk empire moved on in it’s pilgrimage to the center of the galaxy or whether or not the Čiruk thought two fleets were getting too ‘friendly’. If an imačíke – a jump point – leading to a populated system was found, the battleships of the armada would conquer the system, survey it, and then return to base. Once the neighboring systems were pacified, they would stay where they were, policing those systems until transferred or until the trailing edge of the Čiruk empire caught up to them, at which point they would move to the front and start again.
The Číruk had kept the Anyúvin leap frogging across the galaxy like this for generations, and all that time rebellion had waited impatiently just under the surface of the Anyúvin fleet. The network of discontent reached up to Kethóvi like the roots of a tree. Hundreds of thousands of Anyúvin crewed the battleships alone. The repair ships, transports and other support services more than tripled that number. And while only a few thousand of those may be actively involved, everyone knew about it.
But willingness and courage alone would not be enough. The catalyst Kethóvi needed to activate this vast network was hope. The hope that they could succeed. The key – and Kethóvi was sure of this – was the imačíkin. If they could escape. If they could outpace their pursuers long enough to find a system where they could hide. Or better yet, with a imačíke no one knew about. If they could just survive long enough to escape down that maze of interconnected systems! But how to know when that time had come? Or did one just say, this moment is as good as any other, and roll the dice? Either way, Kethóvi was afraid that “the moment” was closer than anyone thought.
Even deep in thought, Kethóvi was alerted by Kánya’s scent, though Kethóvi pretended not to notice that one’s approach.
“Óta.” Kánya said, and Kethóvi continued to pretend to read. Kánya was so much fun to tease.
“Óta.” Kánya repeated in a very serious tone and Kethóvi pulled the reader closer, mostly to hide the grin that was threatening to turn into laughter. Kethóvi would never think to favor one child over another, but Kánya had Málineth’s green eye’s and the same pale grey striped fur. That Kánya reminded Kethóvi so much of a favorite otánya, made it hard, sometimes, to be as fair as one would like.
“Ó-ta!” Kánya said again, stamping a foot, and Kethóvi relented, putting down the reader.
Kánya held out a baby. “Šándja says it’s your turn to carry Vanáš.”
Vanáš was barely big enough to fill Kánya’s cupped paws. Kethóvi sighed and, admiring Šándja’s tactics, removed the robe and took Vanáš, placing the baby on one’s stomach, just above the rátaš. With instinctive accuracy, Vanáš crawled inside the pouch – likely without even really waking. Kethóvi spread the robe out like a blanket and looked up.
“Was there something else?” Kethóvi asked, then, seeing Kánya’s expression, sighed, and slid over on the sleeping mat to make room for Kánya on one side. As Kánya fell asleep, Kethóvi swore that – if there was any hope at all – Móra Šivák, their clan, and all that was left of their race would make it to freedom. The only real question was how.
In the morning, Kethóvi found that someone had left a glass of nyakádj nearby. Vanáš was gone and Kethóvi could hear Kánya across the room, playing with the other children. Still, rested or not, this was Kethóvi’s favorite time of day, lying back and listening to the sounds of the family waking and going about their day. If only it could last, Kethóvi thought, then reached up and pulled the wrist comp from the top of the toríma. No messages, but it was time for Kethóvi to eat and go on watch.
Kethóvi reached for the robe and stopped suddenly. The chill of camadjána swept through that one’s body. Kethovi stood still for a moment as the premonition peaked, then kneeled down and opened the toríma. At the very bottom of the chest lay body armor. Kethóvi would normally only wear it into battle, but the need to put it on was overwhelming. Kethóvi stared at it for a few moments, then pulled it out and slipped it on. As Kethóvi started to buckle it, there was Šándja’s scent and the feel of someone helping. Kethóvi let Šándja finish buckling on the armor, then slipped the robe on over it, turning around.
“There will be a battle, then?” Šándja asked.
Kethóvi shrugged. “I do not know. I only know that I need to wear it.”
“I will see to the others,” Šándja said, nodding, and then, putting a paw to Kethóvi’s mouth stopped the imminent protest. “I will say it is a drill, but I trust your instincts.”
“Besides,” Šándja said, turning to leave. “You were restless last night. You always are before a battle.”
“Cávi.” Kethovi said. “Call Tomkóce first. Spread the word and, yes, say it’s a drill.”
“Of course, evádju. I will see to it before I go on duty myself. Now, get some breakfast.”
When Kethóvi arrived on the bridge deck, Djánza stood hunched over a screen at the communications station and looked up when Kethóvi approached, nodding toward the the ship’s madjáš. The Číruk stood stock still on it’s dais behind the command chair. Kethóvi had always found the Číruk’s compound eyes especially unnerving – one could never tell quite where they were looking. Assuming, that was, that they weren’t looking at everything, which Kethóvi found even more disturbing.
“Kethóvi.” The Číruk’s “voice” was clipped and mechanical, and the thrumming that underlay it beat at Kethovi’s ears.
“Yes, ódji’thál,” Kethóvi replied. “How may I serve the Číruk?”
“You will come here.”
“At once, ódji’thál,” Kethóvi said – already halfway across the bridge deck.
When Kethóvi stood before the Číruk, it looked down and spoke. “These are our orders. An enemy halts our advance to the Center where the Spirit Ancestors wait to greet us. This cannot be allowed.”
The Číruk stopped, as if it was trying to decide something, then leaned down to put its face near Kethóvi’s.
“These Šávor, Kethóvi,” it began, “are like nothing we have met before. They are nothing compared with the Číruk, yet they throw ships at us as if they could create them out of air. Seven armadas have thrown themselves upon the Šávor worlds and all have been beaten back.”
The Číruk drew itself up to its full height. “But together with our brothers, the Yunkyin and Licu, we will turn the tide! There is a jump point in this system that leads to the heart of their empire. Either they do not know of it or they do not realize we are here on the other side, but that is not important. What is important is that we can strike deep behind their lines – perhaps at their very capital – before they know what has happened.
“Your support craft will continue to the planet selected for you – all except the missile transports, minelayers and troop transports. We will make for the jump point as soon as possible. Glory awaits us, Kethóvi. We shall have victory or join the Spirit Ancestors in death!”
Kethóvi had never heard the Číruk speak like this before. But the thunder in its words was belied by the fear pheromone that emanated from its thorax. The smell was so strong it left a bitter aftertaste on Kethóvi’s tongue.
“As you say, ódji’thál,” Kethóvi replied. “With your permission, I will give the necessary orders.”
Here, Kethóvi paused. “It will take some time to get this organized, ódji’thál. Will you wait here? Or shall I call you?”
The Číruk inclined it’s head toward Kethóvi and, for a moment, one was afraid one had gone too far, but the Číruk turned to leave the bridge. “You will call when all is prepared.” It said.
“You will not take too long, Kethóvi,” the Číruk added as it passed through the hatch.
When the hatch had closed again, Kethóvi returned to Djánza and said in kódebidj. Send code ‘Teéže’, Djánza – but warn them that we may not stay there long.
Djánza nodded and walked over to ‘speak’ with Žána at the communications console.
Kethóvi felt fear course through that one’s belly. In four centuries the Anyúvin had helped the Číruk conquer dozens of systems. But never, in all that time, had they faced an enemy as fearsome as the majáš had made the Šávor sound. Seven armadas? That was two dozen fleets. Two dozen races that, in all likelihood, no longer existed. And now the Číruk wanted to send the Anyúvin into the same meat grinder?
Their options were limited. Rebel against the Číruk, and fight the other two fleets in their armada, or face the Šávor and almost certainly die in the process. If the Anyúvin were lucky, those on the support ships would be given time to rebuild the Anyúvin fleet and produce the crews necessary to fly those ships, but that was unlikely. The Číruk were not tolerant of failure and the sure and certain knowledge that those who remained behind were little more than hostages was one of the big sticks that kept the fleets fighting when they would otherwise retreat.
Djánza returned and blinked, it is done.
Do you think we stand a chance, Djánza? Kethóvi replied, pretending to look at the navigational console. Which would you rather fight, these Šávor or the Yunkyin and Licu fleets?
Neither, Djánza replied and nodded at the navigation screen. But there’s a perfectly good imačíke out there and nothing says that we have to fight whoever’s on the other side. Once we’re through, we could kill the Číruk and make a run for it.
I do not like the unknown, Kethóvi replied.
Neither do I, but when death surrounds you, the unknown can become inviting.
Kethóvi barked a short laugh. Cávi. But how do we get the transports and such through? The Číruk will never allow it.
Then we do not give them the choice, Djánza said.
Kethovi thought about that for a moment. If they could take all the majášin prisoner and then pretend to be following their orders, it might be possible to get through the imačíke and make a run for it. There was a plan for this, but if they failed in this, then the Anyúvin race would cease to exist. Then again, that looked fairly certain anyway.
You think now is the time for ‘Véžni’ ?
Djánza shrugged. I think we have no choice.
Kethóvi’s čarkóde closed in thought. This moment had occupied thgat ones mind ever since taking over command of the fleet and becoming rádo’thál, and even more so the last few weeks, yet all that time had not been enough to be sure, to be as confident as possible that oner had worked through all the possibilities. And then there was the unknown. Véžni, was the Trickster. Kethóvi had named their escape plan after Véžni both as a joke and as a reminder that fate could play tricks with the most well thought out plan.
But Kethóvi had seen far too much combat to believe in certainty, however desirable it might be. It was hard to place the lives of one’s people in greater peril than they already faced. Is it even my place to risk all those lives on what must be, at best, the faint chance of freedom? Yet if not now, when? And if not me, then who? However slim the hope, one could not remember more favorable circumstances. It must be now, Kethóvi thought, took a deep breath and nodded.
Send it. It’s time to roll the dice.
At once, Djánza replied, and the fear rumbled about in Kethóvi’s belly as the magnitude of that order sank in. For the next ten nevár one found it almost impossible not to pace back and forth across the bridge. As word trickled in from the other ships, Kethóvi’s mind cleared – as if the decision, or Véžni’s apparent success, had banished the fear.
A few nevár later, all the ships in the fleet appeared to have managed the arrest of their own madjášin without alerting any of the others. There were some casualties, but it was done and finally Kethóvi sent for their own madjás
The clicking of the Číruk’s feet sent chills up Kethóvi’s spine and one was suddenly grateful for the armor.
“You are ready, Kethóvi?”
“More than ready.” Kethóvi answered and the Číruk jumped back, startled, once it noticed the missing honorific. The bitter flood of fear pheromone filled the bridge deck. The Číruk was not stupid – it had to realize it was no longer in control. Now, there was only the question of what it would do about it. The answer came soon enough as the Číruk thrust it’s armored foreleg at Kethóvi’s torso. As Kethóvi was thrown against the navigation console, there came the whine of a flechette pistol followed by a heavy, metallic thud as the Číruk’s body hit the deck sole just to one side, a pale white ichor flowing from one of its compound eyes. Kethóvi looked up and saw Djánza smiling.
“I’ve always wanted to do that.” Djánza said as that one helped Kethovi up and nodded at Kethóvi’s chest. “The armor was a good idea.”
Kethóvi barked in relief and walked over to the communications console, rubbing where the Číruk had hit. “The Yunkyin commander, Žána, if you please.”
Žána nodded. “As you say, ván’thál,” and typed some commands on the console. A Yunkyin face appeared on the screen and a few words of radébi later, the bearlike face of Akadjin, their commander, appeared.
“It seems you have been – busy.”
“Indeed,” Kethóvi replied. “We grew tired of them.”
“One of your Číruk managed to get word out to one of ours,” Akadjin said, a revelation that gave Kethóvi’s heart a momentary stop.
“Fortunately for you, removing it sounded like a good idea” and here the Yunkyin gave a toothy grin. “It seems we think alike.”
“I assume you are as reluctant as we are to face the Šávor,” Kethóvi asked.
“It does not seem like a winning proposition.”
“Yet the only other way out of this system is back into Číruk territory,” Kethóvi said. “I do not relish that prospect either.”
“You have another idea?”
“We plan to escape through the jump point in this system. With luck we can get through Šávor space before they even know we’re there.”
“And without luck? The Yunkyin have not believed in luck since the Číruk found us,” Akadjin said, then snorted. “Well, not good luck, anyway.”
Kethóvi shrugged. “If they spot us, we might yet convince them we want no trouble, only safe passage out of their territory to someplace we can call our own.”
“I do not like the unknown,” Akadjin said, and Kethóvi smiled at the echo of one’s own feelings.
“Besides,” Akadjin continued, “if we can sneak past these Šávor, perhaps we can do the same with the Číruk while they are distracted by them. I am weary of war, Kethóvi, but with this fleet, I could maybe re-take our home world – and keep it this time.”
“You think there’s anything left worth going back to? Kethovi asked.
Akadjin shrugged. “It is our home and we have not been gone so long as you.”
“I understand,” Kethóvi said. “Though, I do not think I would care to see what has become of K’móra. And, to be honest, I rather like the idea of having these Šávor between us and the Číruk.
“ván’thál,” Djánza said, “The Licu fleet has reversed course. They are decelerating and will be within missile range in less than twenty-five nevár.”
“It appears the Licu have decided which side they’re on,” Kethóvi said. “It is possible they are running back into the empire, as you would do, but I think it best if we prepare for the worst.”
“Agreed,” Akadjin replied. “We will talk again afterwards. Good luck to you. If there is any of that left in this universe.”
“And to you,” Kethóvi replied as the connection was cut.
“I hope there is still some good luck – we’ll need it,” Kethóvi murmured and turned toward Djánza. “Order the transports to pull back and send the defensive screen to cover them. The battleships will take the brunt of any attack.
Kethóvi sat in the command chair, trying to look as calm as possible as the transports moved off to a safe distance. I have fought many battles, Kethóvi thought, but never before have the clans gambled everything. Was I right to do this? Kethóvi had several nevar to ponder this as the Licu fleet approached.
“Incoming missiles!” Dícan, announced. “I make it about 750 inbound in three waves.”
Kethovi turned to look at the tactical screen. From the Licu fleet’s quadrant three shoals of angry red triangles were moving steadily toward the Anyúvin and Yunkyin fleets.
“Link our computers with the Yunkyin, Žána,” Kethovi said. “Let us get a better view…”
With the two fleets spread out so widely, the sensor data could be used to build a better three dimensional image of the area of operations. The main screen changed quickly, the computers automatically rotating the image to give the optimum view of the three fleets.
After a while, Kethóvi spoke. “Djánza. Hold off on painting the targets. We’ll send the missiles out ballistic and illuminate the targets when the missiles are close.”
Djánza nodded and turned to the Inádji’s gunnery officer. “You heard the rádo’thál, Bájek. Adjust your fire plan accordingly.”
Kethóvi watched the bridge crew with some pride. Šórša’s, fingers seemed to fly as the sensor tech responded to the enemy jammers seeded among the incoming salvo, seeking holes in their jamming sequence to look through. Bádjek’s focus was impeccable and one target after another was identified and missiles assigned. And Djánza seemed to be everywhere. Barring disaster, the Inádji would direct the fire of the entire fleet, and Djánza took that responsibility seriously.
“We are ready to fire, ván’thál,” Djánza said, finally, and Kethóvi nodded.
“You may fire.”
The Inádji shuddered as volley after volley of missiles left its broadside tubes, thrown clear of the ship by massive rail guns. They moved slower than the incoming Licu missiles, but they were nigh on to invisible with their engines idle and the Licu fleet continued to advance into the teeth of the Anyúvin salvos.
The missiles crossed paths five nevár later and soon after that the Inádji’s rail guns started launching a hailstorm of canister shot. A wall of depleted uranium pellets spread out ahead of the Licu missiles and a quiet, almost inaudible stream of oaths came from the ECM console as Akádi launched one countermeasure after another trying to distract the incoming missiles.
Once the Licu missiles were within range, the Inadji’s chain guns opened up, but it was not enough. The perfect, iridescent spheres of nuclear explosions blossomed among the Anyúvin ships. Kethóvi sighed with relief when it became obvious that the Licu had targeted only the Anyúvin warships. If the transports did not stay safe, their plan to escape had no chance.
The Gedenídj, a ship just to port was hit. It’s shields protected it for a moment, then buckled and it split amidships, the two pieces taking off in different directions, trailing air and debris and bodies, though the latter were thankfully not visible on the screens. A missile, lured off course by one of Akádi’s decoys detonated not very far from the Inádji and, while the ship’s shields held, the ship rocked violently and Kethóvi could see the red outlines of damaged compartments on the engineering displays. There was a muffled curse from Akádi, who seemed to take each one of the explosions personally, but this one especially so. Kethóvi sympathized and watched silently as the blinking green arrows of the Anyúvin salvo marched slowly toward the Licu fleet.
At the edge of the Anyuvin fleet, the Kočaréce, a minelayer, disappeared in a fireball as two Licu missiles in a row hit it, the second penetrating to the magazines at it’s core. Kethóvi grimaced, and turned to see the same, hurt look on Djánza’s face as they both remembered that their last surviving karánya, the ever-cheerful Tóce, had married into a family on that ship. As other ships met their fate, Kethóvi began to realize that fighting a running battle to escape would do no more than slowly bleed the Anyúvin race to extinction. Even if they won through to some distant system, there would not be enough Anyúvin left to carve out a new home there.
Kethóvi’s attention turned to the tactical screen, watching as the Anyúvin missiles approached the Licu fleet, which was already taking hits from the Yunkyin missiles. Timing is everything, Kethóvi thought, mentally calculating how long one could wait before painting the Licu targets and engaging the missiles engines.
Djánza looked over, one eyebrow raised, and Kethóvi nodded. “Avéda!” Djanza commanded, and Badjek stabbed a button on the fire control console. As one, the Anyúvin fleet’s targeting lasers reached out to paint the Licu ships. Five hundred Anyúvin missiles lit up their plasma engines and bore in on the ships of the Licu fleet. With so little warning, the devastation was total. In the space of a few nevár, a wave of fireballs consumed most the Licu fleet’s battleships. The remainder, together with their support vessels soon turned and fled.
Djánza sent a questioning look at Kethóvi.
“Let them go, Djánza,” Kethovi said. “They no longer threaten us.”
The tent of Móra Šivák was quiet, a confusion of scents from fear to anger to sadness. Some of that family had lost friends and loved ones that day and, beyond that, Kethóvi’s orders to the fleet had angered some and saddened the rest. Kethóvi would stay behind with skeleton crews on the battleships, while the rest of the Anyuvin packed themselves into the transports and service ships and headed for the imačíke that led to Šávor space.
“We are not afraid to die, dóndji,” Ódja Kodéca said after the evening meal. As eldest, Kodéca spoke for the family, while Kethóvi surrendered the role of Šivák’thál and spoke as leader of the Anyúvin fleet.
“I know that,Ódja,” Kethovi replied, “but after all that we have lost, must we die as a race as well?”
“Would you have us go on defenseless? Begging our way from system to system?”
“Defenseless? Yes.” Kethóvi looked Kodéca in the eyes. “If we must fight the Šávor then we will die, like all the other fleets the Číruk have sent against them, and if we fly into their space with this fleet, they will fight us.” Kethóvi shook one’s head. “You must not be a threat to them if there is to be any hope of convincing them you desire nothing more than to find a new world to settle on.
“As for begging – when have we ever begged? Everything you need to colonize a new planet is on those transports. The farm ships will feed you while you search. The gunships will be enough to fight off pirates.” Kethóvi gestured at the display that showed the space around them. “Find warm sands someplace far away. Find New K’móra and let no one take our home from us again.”
Kodéca’s head shook sadly. “We have never been so helpless before.”
“You are wrong, Ódja,” Kethóvi said. “We have been helpless ever since the Číruk took K’móra. We have been nothing more than their puppets. Have faith, Ódja! You will live to walk warm sands as our ancestors did. This I am sure of.”
Of the thirty-six members of Móra Šivák, five would be staying behind to fight. Late into the night, the other family members came by to say their farewells. Kethóvi was polite, but that one’s mind was focused on composing a cárivek. It was midnight before Kethóvi was finished the ‘spirit verse’.
vášdji kožán óšan djóra
unyacári áže káža
váš širínko áže nyéba
vášdji kožán óšan djóra
djanadjúni áže káža
váš o’mošárko áže nyádj
íne vášdji banceréda
ád K’mórako votáše
“Not your best calligraphy,” Šándja said, then put the paper down, tears filling one’s eyes, and asked, “There is no other way?”
“No. Or if there is, I cannot see it,” Kethóvi said.
“And it has to be you, doesn’t it. You could never order others to do what you would not.”
Kethóvi shrugged. “Djánza would, I think. If I asked, but…”
“But you could not. I know,” Šándja said, nodding.
“No, I could not. It will be hard enough on Djánza to lead the fleet out of here. We have always fought together.”
“We have fought together as well,” Šándja said.
Kethóvi stroked the fur on Šándja’s cheek. “There is no lack of courage in this family! Everyone in Móra Šivák would go, if they could, but most must stay. The clans will need warriors wherever they wind up.”
Kethóvi sighed. “Evádju, even if the clans get past the Šávor, I fear for them. How many systems have we conquered for the Číruk? How many other ’empires’ have we seen?” Kethóvi shook one’s head. “No, Šándja, even if the clans survive and find another world to call home, eventually, some ’empire’ will come along to swallow us up. The clans must remain strong. And alone.”
“If I could give one piece of advice to future ‘thálin, it would be that. To remain apart. Make peace with whoever comes along, but seal the borders and remain apart.”
Šándja started to rise and take the paper with Kethóvi’s carivek to the scanner, but Kethóvi put a paw on per arm.
“No,” Kethóvi said. “No metal film or ceramic carimeza this time. Even if it is not destroyed outright, there will be no Anyuvin to read it over my body.”
Kethóvi spent the next fifteen nevár meticulously re-writing one’s cárivek in very small script, then reached into one’s toríma and pulled out a small utáča wood box and, from it, took out an antique glass cárimeza, into which Kethóvi placed the small slip of paper. Kethóvi held the cárimeza up to the light, watching the play of color through the glass. The artist who had made this had chosen blood red and pale blue – the colors of the K’móran suns – and pale white for sand. It created the illusion of a desert landscape at once abstract and, yet, somehow real.
“I had thought to wear this,” Kethóvi began. “If I cannot see our new home, I thought, I can at least have some part of the old one to touch before I die.”
Then Kethóvi sighed, “But it would be a crime. So little of K’móra remains.” Kethóvi placed the glass vial back into it’s blood red box and handed it to Šándja.
“I have always loved this box,” Šándja said, stroking gnarled grain of the centuries-old wood.
“When the clans find a new home, pick a nice place and set a stone for me,” Kethóvi said. “Then read this so that my passing is properly marked.”
“You will already be on K’móra, Evádju,” Šándja said, “but it shall be as you say.”
Šándja took the ceramic cárimeza from around that one’s own neck and put it around Kethóvi’s. “This is my message to our ikaninčére.” Šándja said, “you should have something to touch before you die and our ancestors should know who you are.”
They talked on into the night, Šándja curled up to one side, carrying Vanáš, and Kánya lay against the other. It was almost morning when the youngest in the family finally stopped crying and, in the quiet, Kethóvi slipped out of the tent. Šándja watched Kethóvi leave, but said nothing. What had to be said, was already said.
The bridge deck was quiet as well. Most of the crew that would be remaining,were saying their goodbyes and not yet returned to their duty stations. Djánza stood by the communications console.
“You should be on the Avénižok, Kethovi said. “There is much to be done before you leave.”
Djánza smiled. “I think I would prefer to stay here.”
Kethóvi bristled for a moment at the thought that Djánza would refuse an order, then sighed. “I need you to lead the fleet, kára,” Kethóvi said quietly pulling Djánza aside. “I need someone I trust to see them through.”
Djánza put a paw on Kethóvi’s shoulder. “Have you never wondered why I have stayed at your side, all these years?” Djánza asked. “It is because I cannot stand where you do. Trust me to stand by you? Yes, always! But to take your place? No, and you would be a fool to put me there. Let Avénižok’thál lead the clans to safety and then they can pick a new várin’thál if they wish.”
Djánza sighed. “The ‘fleet’ should die here, kára. It will never be anything but a symbol of our enslavement. Let the clans go on, but as clans. To live as we were meant to live.”
Kethóvi looked at Djánza for a long time. Yes, Kethóvi should have expected this. Djánza had, indeed, never left that one’s side, but Djánza had also not said “no” to Kethóvi since they were children. Then again, maybe Djánza was right. Kethóvi had thought to see the Anyúvin rebuild the fleet as a way of protecting themselves, but perhaps restoring the independence of the clans would work better. There was no way of knowing and, in the end, the clans would do what they would do and Kethóvi – and Djánza’s – job was to see to it that they had the chance, not to tell them how to face circumstances they themselves would not be there to see.
Finally, Kethóvi spoke.
“I do not know why you think you could not lead, kára, – you are often wiser than I – but perhaps you are right. Tell Avénižok’thál to lead the clans to their new home world – where ever that is. Let the ‘fleet’ die here with us.”
Djánza smiled, “As you say, ván’thál.”
“I would rather,” Kethóvi said, as Djánza walked away, “that you went with them. We are the last of all our karánya, you know.”
“I know,” Djánza replied, turning to face Kethóvi, “but who wants to live to be the last of anything? Besides, we have never lost, you and I. Let the enemy be afraid.”
Kethóvi watched as the bridge crew filtered in. Dícan, Žána, Akédi, Šórča, and Bádjek, all took their stations without a word. Shuttles moved back and forth between the battleships and the transport fleet, carrying the bulk of the Anyúvin to the ships that would take them to freedom. At least, that was Kethóvi’s hope. One of those shuttles had carried Móra Šivák to the troop transport Nóda, and Kethóvi sent out a fervent prayer for their safety. Slowly, Inádji’s complement dwindled until only a few dozen remained.
Žána, who had been carrying out a quiet conversation with that one’s counterpart on the Yunkyin flagship, said “Yúnkyin’thál is asking for you, ván’thál.”
“Send it to the command chair, Žána, if you would.”
“As you say, ván’thal,” and Akádjin’s image appeared on the small communications repeater build into the arm of the chair.
“We leave now,” Akádjin said. “What will you do?”
“There is only one other jump point in this system – the one we came in through. We will accompany you that far. It will be easier to catch our enemies unaware as they come out of translation.”
“A sound tactic,” the Yunkyin said, “and I will be glad of your company. I wish we had thought to establish communications earlier. We might have found some less costly path to freedom.”
“No,” Kethóvi replied, “it would only have gotten us killed. They would have found us out before we could move. Besides, without the Šávor to distract them, the Číruk would simply have sent another armada to wipe us out.”
“True, I suppose,” Akadjin replied. “Still, I would like to have known you better. The Číruk always set my teeth on edge and those hairless Licu…” Akádjin shook himself, “I felt cold just looking at them.”
Kethovi laughed briefly, then remembered the wave of fireballs which they had unleashed on those who had once been their allies. “True, but I would rather not have had to kill them.”
“We heard the Fates singing, you and I, and if they did not,” Akadjin shrugged, “that was just bad luck. And if they chose to side with the Čiruk, then they will get no sympathy from me.”
Kethóvi nodded. “Have your navigator send the course over. We will follow your lead.”
“Do you play Radjnadjok?” Akadjin asked, and Kethovi shook per head. “Do you play Šáčidjun?” And it was Akadjin’s turn shrug. “We can teach each other, then. It will help to pass the time.”
And it did. It took the better part of a five days to return to the imačíke which had brought them to the Čórith system and almost as long for the Anyúvin refugee ships to get to the one that led to Šávor space. As the communication lag stretched from seconds to minutes to hours, the conversations waned until, at last, only the computers could stand the delay. Kethóvi noted it when the computers reported that the transports had halted just short of the Šávor imačike, reluctant, one assumed to break that last link with those they would leave behind.
“Žána, send a message to Avénižok’thál. ‘Leave now. Fare well.’”
“As you say, ván’thál,” Žána replied and there were tears in per eyes.
A few hours later, the last transmission from the Avénižok came in. “Farewll, Anyúvin’thál,” it read and then the signal died. The bridge deck was silent. Anyúvin’thál – leader of all the Anyúvin – was a title that had never before been granted.
“Did they win, Ódja?” Djánza asked.
“Win?” Gatéš said, head canted to one side. “Of course they won čabánye. Did the clans not find their way to freedom? Do you see the Číruk here? Winning does not always mean surviving, but death is not the end and when our spirits walk the sands of K’móra, we will want to face our ancestors with pride. Do you think that Djánza walks the sands alone? That that Djánza does not dwell in the Great Tent of our ancestors?
“But,” Djánza said, still not satisfied, “what happened after that?”
“No one knows, čabánye,” Gatéš said softly, knowing Djánza always wanted a happier ending. An ending that did not exist, “but here’s what I think happened…”
“I see surprise is out of the question,” Akadjin said and Kethóvi smiled. Over the last five days Kethóvi had come to learn that Akadjin was a master of understatement as well as a brilliant tactician. Kethóvi would miss the games they had played and, not for the first time, one was glad not to have had to fight the Yunkyin commander.
“Indeed. I had hoped to catch them coming through and defeat them in detail,” Kethóvi said. “Although, as Číruk fleets go, these are rather on the small side.”
“True,” Akadjin agreed, “but let us make them somewhat smaller.” And that one’s grin grew somewhat toothier.
Once again, the Yunkyin and Anyúvin computers linked up and together, Akadjin and Kethóvi decided upon a strategy based on mobility, rather than meeting the incoming fleets head on. Smaller salvos followed by evasive maneuvers slowly whittled down the enemy numbers while they suffered fewer losses. Yet smaller losses are not no losses and as the hours passed, it became harder and harder to destroy the incoming ships as fast as they were coming through the imačíke. Many times they were forced to withdraw and regroup and, while the minelayers left a wall of destruction in their wake, there was a limit to how many times that trick would work. Besides, each time they withdrew, more ships came through unchallenged until, at the end of the day, they faced four fleets that were fanning out to envelop them. There was no place left to run and they had few ships and most were badly damaged.
The channel to the Yunkyin flagship crackled with EW interference, but Kethóvi could still make out Akadjin’s face amidst the smoke filling the bridge.
“I’m glad you got your people out,” Akajik said, “I wish now that I had taken your advice and sent mine with them.”
“There may still be time,” Kethovi replied. “If you send them now, we might yet delay the Číruk enough.”
“You are insane,” Akadjin said, “Look around us! No, it is too late. Too many of my people are dead for us to survive as a race. Besides, it would only lead them to your people. Your sacrifice should not be in vain.”
“You will fight on, then?” Kethovi asked.
“I am tired of war,” Akadjin replied, “but this is one battle I will not regret. You were right, my friend, it was time to roll the dice. We have lost, and we will not survive, but at least we have regained our honor. And we will die free. That has a good taste, does it not?”
Kethóvi touched Šándja’s cárimeza and thought, for a moment, of one’s family. Kethóvi’s heart ached to watch one’s children grow up free. If only it could be so.
“Yes and no, vážkan,” Kethóvi said at last. “Yes and no.”
Akadjin nodded. “You think of your family. I understand. Still, we might win. There is that hope.”
“It is a slim hope,” Kethóvi said, “but it is all we have. Perhaps there is still some good luck in the universe.”
“Perhaps.” Akadjin said, “To victory, then.”
“To victory.” Kethóvi agreed and cut the transmission.
Kethóvi’s eyes scanned the field of red icons that filled the tactical screens around the bridge and knew in one’s heart just how much good luck it would take.
“I hope it’s a clean death,” Djánza said quietly. “I cannot abide the idea of floating in space forever.”
Kethóvi nodded and considered their options. They could dive in toward the imačíke firing at the opposing fleets as they passed. They would not likely reach the imačíke, but they would inflict – and take – the maximum amount of damage. The fire would free their spirits to return to K’móra.
“Then let us make sure it is clean, kára. Make for the imačíke. Fire plan ‘Ódjáde ‘, if you please.”
“As you say, ván’thal,” Djánza replied, smiling. “It would be a shame to die with missiles still in our magazines.”