Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 25

Chapter 25.

Dajzail ripple-walked from the airlock down the ramp; Alztanza himself waited there, holding his fighting-claws rigid in salute. “Guard not,” he said to Alztanza, who immediately relaxed his stance. “It is good to see you again, ‘Tanza.”

The Fleet Master clattered a smile at him and they briefly clasped claws. “And you, Daj. How was your journey?”

“Well enough, though it took me homeyears, it seemed, to extricate myself from the Embassy. I have selected temporary representatives, but they all needed individual instruction… so in any event it took me a while to get here.”

Alztanza rattled his claws in sympathy. “I do not envy you the administrative duties, Daj. For my part, it took me some time to reach here as well, as I traveled with my ships, and it takes no fewer than three Sky-Gate transitions to get here, one of them quite a long ride. Oh, greetings to you, Kanjstall,” he said as Dajzail’s Salutant stepped up near them, carrying the most vital of Dajzail’s luggage. “But in some ways, Daj, the time was well spent. I was able to complete arranging the basic strategy and drill our forces prior to your arrival, which is good. You know how the presence of an actual ruler can disrupt perfectly good training exercises.”

“True enough. So the entire two Forces are assembled?”

“All four thousand eight hundred and two vessels are here, yes. Of the original Force there were five not really suited for deployment, but I have received fine replacements for them. I would be honored if you would take Claws of Vengeance as your personal warship.”

Claws of Vengeance? That would be a Twinscabbard vessel, yes?”

“It would,” said the Fleet Master, clearly pleased he remembered naming conventions well enough to make that deduction.

“Then I accept. A fine symbolism to lead from a vessel of the same class they destroyed, and such ships are excellent combinations of firepower and speed.” He saw Alztanza’s eye flickering in its scan. “No, I have no one else in my party.”

“Really? I had expected the Master of Forces, at the least.”

“Malvchait remains on the Homeworld, and is directing the assembly of the Fleet which will take their lowspace system, once we have secured their Sky Gates. That will be a matter of several turnings, I think.”

“I would expect so.” For a few moments Alztanza was quiet as they walked towards the military docking areas. “Faction Leader, might I ask if the secondary force is necessary?”

“In truth, I hope not,” he answered after a moment. “It will mean diverting a significant portion of our current military resources to one target which cannot be engaged for several homeyears at least, depending on how close we can Transition. That Fleet will have to come here and deploy, and deploying it will take a long time as well. If by terrible chance we are defeated here in Arenaspace, we would prefer to merely send near-lightspeed projectiles to destroy their worlds, but…”

Alztanza nodded. No military member of the Molothos could be unaware of the limitations the Arena imposed even in lowspace, including eliminating in one fashion or another any cataclysmic-level weapons or simply negating their effects. Fractional-lightspeed projectiles were one such weapon. “Still… if I may speak with all bluntness?”

Dajzail felt his head tilt, in the manner of a savaziene trying to find the best viewpoint. He and Alztanza had been second-nest friends, and even though they had been separated for a long time, he was startled that his friend would be so formal with him, especially in person rather than via official communications such as the one that had started this venture. “Always, ‘Tanza. Quicksand, friend, do you need to be so nervous around me?”

“You are not just Dajzail, the lightweight moltling that I kept from being pushed around by my nestmates. You’re the Leader of the Faction of the Molothos, and that means that yes, I have reason to be nervous — as you will probably see.” Alztanza took a breath so deep that Dajzail could hear it, and then spoke. “Daj… I am not sure this is a wise thing that we do.”

Dajzail stopped so suddenly that Kanjstall almost ran into him. He studied his friend and Fleet Master carefully with the full regard of his eye. “Kanjstall, please carry the luggage ahead and arrange transfer of the rest to Claws of Vengeance.”

Kanjstall, flicking his attention between them, asked no questions. “As you command,” he said, and ripple-walked away as fast as he could.

Once he was gone, Dajzail surveyed the quiet corridor carefully before turning back to Alztanza. “Explain your statement, ‘Tanza.”

His friend’s tension was — just slightly — less, realizing that by ensuring no witnesses Dajzail was also ensuring that there would be no one to tell him that he had failed to act properly. “Daj… first, the lowspace intrusion will reduce our ability to project force elsewhere. Especially in lowspace, since the majority of our forces are highspace-focused. We may be taking only a seventh of our total forces — which still is nothing to take lightly — but closer to fifty percent of our lowspace forces.”

Dajzail restrained an annoyed retort that of course he knew these things. Alztanza would realize that, and so there had to be more to it than that. “Say onward.”

“A lot of the undercreatures in our various systems may become restive if they believe we no longer have sufficient resources to control them,” Alztanza said bluntly. “Our lowspace military resources are outfitted for invasion, yes, but pacification and security are their other two missions, and we’re cutting those forces in half for a significant period of time for this mission.”

“But even if our current attack succeeds, ‘Tanza, we’ll need a lot of forces to send in and pacify the humans’ star system. Perhaps, I’ll grant you, not nearly this many, but it is also a statement, one that we will want to make known. But you’re right — we could at least wait until we know the outcome of this first strike mission. We’ll keep the forces assembling but they won’t deploy until we’ve secured the Upper Sphere and destroyed all exterior resistance. Better?”

Alztanza still did not look entirely happy, but he rocked his claws to indicate some level of assent. “Better, yes, Leader. But…”

“Place it all before me at once, ‘Tanza! Don’t draw it all out!”

“As you say, Daj, but then remember you asked and don’t strike at me without thinking.”

What in the name of the Homeworld?

Alztanza raised himself a bit higher. “In all honesty, Daj… I don’t know if this entire thing is a good idea.”

“You…” He felt his eye flicker. “You mean teaching the human undercreatures a lesson?”

“I mean exactly that, Daj. Remember, you promised!” That last was said with a sharp warning buzz, as Dajzail found his fighting claws rising of their own accord. He forced them down with difficulty as Alztanza continued. “Daj… Leader, we already have conflicts with several Factions. None of the Great Factions at the moment, although relations with two of the others are very strained and there are skirmishes, but several others. Speaking as a Fleet Master, I truly do not relish the thought of opening a new war-front without having eliminated at least one of the ones I already have. Especially doing so while drawing down our forces significantly. A single Force, or even two, that’s nothing to worry about, but a Fleet is many orders of magnitude more likely to cause problems.”

Dajzail waited; it was clear that Alztanza was not finished.

“And… we get into these wars so easily, Daj. Let us look clearly in the water and see what it reflects, not what we would prefer to see there. These First Emergents came out, found us on their world, and managed — through methods we do not know — to defeat our scouting force. They have won multiple other Challenges and lost none, to our knowledge. I studied what is known of these ‘humans’ carefully — if I am to lead a force against them I must know them. And…”

He paused, then sighed loudly, a whistling sound, and continued. “And we do not know enough, Daj. We do not know how they defeated a scout force with two and only two of their number. We do not understand how their Leader was able to gain the power to defeat Amas-Garao. Her defeat of the Blessed Leader Sethrik seemed due to utter insanity. And their most recent victory is even more inexplicable, implying that some of their number have learned how to evade some of the Arena’s most well-known restrictions. Truthfully? I would rather have a less conflicting interaction with them, perhaps to learn some of these truths.”

Less conflicting…? Dajzail heard the whistle-shriek of a breath drawn suddenly, knew it was his own. “Alztanza… you of all my people, you cannot be … a Beast-Talker?

“What? No! Daj, I’m cautious, not insane!”

He felt a tiny bit of relief. “Well, they claim to be sane, you know.”

The Nest of Accommodation, more familiarly and insultingly called the ‘Beast Talkers’, were a small faction of Molothos who claimed that the undercreatures weren’t really under-creatures, but actually PEOPLE, hard though that was to believe, and that the Molothos should learn how to “go past” their usual behaviors and start treating these beings as equals. Of course, what they wanted everyone to “go past” was the obvious and inarguable truth that the Molothos were the only truly civilized species in existence and start consorting with undercreatures little better than mindless beasts.

The Beast-Talkers were a splinter movement from the Rational Reward movement, which was fairly radical but had shown some good results from creating a system of more generous rewards and privileges for undercreature slaves, and they had been a splinter from the Maintainable Nests, who were perfectly respectable and had created the current system that provided more sustainable undercreature service resources rather than the traditional methods which even Dajzail felt had been ridiculously wasteful. Because of this line of descent, there were a small — but unfortunately increasing — number of people who thought this implied there might be something to the Beast-Talkers’ ravings. This was the classic fallacy of the Extreme, similar to someone noting that you needed two milligrams of silicon carbide every day to keep your exoskeleton strong and from that claiming that you could be invincible if you just ate forty grams of it.

“That said… I am close to converting to the Rational Rewarders. Their results are impressive. But no, my point, Daj, was that we’re going up against a species that’s got too many unknowns in it and I’d rather try to trick, steal, or buy some of those secrets first before throwing my people into a mouth-grinder.”

“The longer we wait,” Dajzail said after a moment, “the more the humans will expand and fortify their position, Alztanza.”

He could see that his friend had no immediate answer to that, and went forward. “I’m not being overconfident here, ‘Tanza. Even the Master of Forces thought we could probably do it with a Seventh-Force, but I told him not to be stupid, and I’ve made it two full Forces. These are First Emergents, Alztanza. They’ve had a turning and a half in the Arena, and some of that was just getting home. They’ve got a few allies, and are trying to gather more. Right now they only have whatever they’ve been able to build on their own, which will be far from optimal for highspace Arena operations, and perhaps a few loanships from the Survivor.

“But if we wait and maneuver and try to bait them into revealing secrets, they will only be getting stronger. And we cannot allow these undercreatures to get away with their prior insults; you must agree with me on that?”

Alztanza stood immobile for a moment, then dipped all legs and his claws. “As you say, Leader. They cannot be permitted to do this with impunity.”

“And …?”

The Fleet Master gave a buzzing sigh, then laughed. “And you’re right, Daj. A full Force is probably ridiculous overkill, but if we wait a few more turnings we could find that they’ve made alliance with one of the Great Factions that’s willing to fight for them, or they get new Spheres, or something else. Sorry for bothering you with my misgivings.”

Tremendous relief washed over Dajzail. I absolutely feared getting in an argument with him — and if I had, I’d have had to remove him from command, something we might never have been able to forgive each other for. “Do not apologize, Alz; your points made sense. I just think this is the best course, and you seem to have agreed in the end. So it’s just been a good chance for me to face the reflection myself.”

He linked claws with his friend for an instant, and the two of them began to move up the corridor again. “Then let me get settled into Claws of Vengeance while you give the Seventh-Masters their final instructions prior to departure.

“Tomorrow we begin our mission of purification!”