Aboard The G'vara, the Eish-class Battleship placed in command of the Gateway Sentry, the Assembly navy-men who were tasked with monitoring the Gateway of foreign activity shuffled about the deck of the ship, nervous and attempting to portray dilligence in the wake of existential fear. Admiral Hakim, head of Gateway Command, paced about the monitoring room, when suddenly one of his men spoke up.
"A vessel-two vessels have made it through the Gateway!" The Admiral rushed to view the intelligence officer's monitor. There is was-the first vessels to pass through the Gateway into the Tifara system in three hundred years. Of course, to him, they were two blips on a radar map, but the occasion felt momentous.
"What are they doing?" Hakim inquired.
"They've entered Da'lu's orbit, Sir. It seems the Gateway must've shot their comms and their navigation systems.
"Use it to our advantage, quick, tell the fleet to move forward, surround these foreigners before they try anything funny." Within moments, the fleet was mobilized, systems armed and the two foreign vessels surrounded. As they got nearer, it became clear that these two ships were not of the same make by any means. One looked of a similar origin to those of Salome. The other...a bit too similar to the Askari mothership to the Admiral's liking. Hakim prepared to make contact, shouting behind him, "Kadima
, soldiers! Bring me a robot!"
A Shemi Translation Automaton scurried into the command room, and approached the Admiral. "You wanted to see me, Admiral Hakim?"
Nervously scratching his nose, Hakim replied, "Yes. Prepare this message in every known Human and Nukhari language to be sent out to the foreign vessels as soon as they're back online-'Salome Al'akam, Welcome to Salome! I am Admiral Gedi Hakim of the Navy of the Salome Assembly. If you come in peace, please respond accordingly. If you do not, know you are far outnumbered and outgunned!'"
Soon power was slowly restored in the ship, the once darkened CIC now illuminated, the table coming back online, showing an endless sea of error and uncharted signs, the only noticeable blips being the Endurance, their Yulzan counterpart, and a small group of unknowns that now had them surrounded. Moments later a beeping sound rings out as comms have been established. The message from the Salome fleet being played back on both ships.
“Well, they ask before shootings.” Captain Grayson said with a sigh of relief, looking to the Comms officer. “Try your damndest to send a reply…tell them we them no harm, and we come in peace..”
Elsewhere, on the Janissary carrier Divine Resolute, Captain Zrixx was more cautious of these strangers. “Send a reply and hold fire for now…but keep our guns ready and all pilots on standby…if we go down, we can at least take them with us..”
Shortly after the Salome fleet sent their message, both alien vessels sent their reply, both offering to stand down for the moment, although the same can’t be said for the two opponents for one another, ready to strike at the other if the opportunity rises.
After recieving replies from both ships, Hakim relaxed a bit, and turned back to his assistants. "I'm moving to the command deck. Prepare to establish communications. Robot, you're coming with me." Soon, the Admiral was back in his seat. It was decided that direct communications would be established with the Janissary carrier first since they seemed less at ease. The other ship meanwhile would be sent a message to stand by.
The holo-table projections flickered off as communications opened up with the Salome flagship, the command crew and Zrixx on edge as the image of Admiral Hakim materialized right before them. The insectoid Zrixx standing at attention. “This is Captain Hirix Zrixx of the Janissary Carrier Divine Resolute, faithful servant of the great Yulzan and their Ascendancy."
After the Robot translated for him, Hakim nodded...albeit trepidatiously. Nukhrin. Of course the first people through the Gateway are Nukhrin. And bugs at that. "Hello, Captain. I am Hakim...welcome, to Salome. We have many, eh...foreigners, such as yourself, here. What brings you and your friend here-" he motioned to the other ship, "-to Salome?" And how are you speaking a human language?
he thought to himself.
“Others such as myself? Intriguing….” Zrixx thougt out loud, already this systems shows promise for the masters, and they will surely find this intel that more humans have been found outside of the Americana System, this alone could prove both promising…perhaps worrying. Zrixx snarled his mandibles, if one could call it that, it sure looked like it, once the Admiral mentioned the Americana ship. “Forgive my rudeness, Admiral, but they are far from being “friends”, they oppose my masters, and therefore, are the enemy and are to be crushed.” He cleared his throat, answering the other question. “As for our arrival….it wasn’t by choice. We were locked in pitched battle against our enemy, then out of nowhere, this energy blast trigger all around us, sucking us in. The next thing we ended up here.”
Hakim chuckled. "The Gateway opens on top of a naval battle? Eh, that is bad hazal
." The Admiral stopped for a moment. He didn't like the way the alien was talking, 'opposing masters', the way it menacingly clicked out the word 'intriguing'...it all felt like something that would make a Shemi soldier like himself nervous. "Eh, look, captain, what are your intentions here? I know you came here by accident, but I can't have you two start fighting right over Da'lu, I'm afraid you'll have to wait until you get home to em...'crush your enemies'."
“I can assure you, Admiral; I have no intention of starting a war with our new neighbors, the higher ups would hang me for it. Our quarrel is with the Americanans alone.” At least…for now, Zrixx thought to himself. This system is a potential pool for new converts to the Ascendancy ‘s cause, the High Ascendants will find this pleasing.
"Uh-huh," Hakim doubtfully replied. He wasn't getting a good feeling from these Nukhrin. There were two sides to every story, this much is true. "Okay, Captain, thank you for your time, please stand by," he concluded, before shutting off communications. He rubbed his hand over his face, before turning to his comms analyst. "Alright, let's hope this other ship is a little more, eh-familiar. Open communications with the 'Americanans.'"
Captain Grayson fixed up his uniform, making himself look presentable as the holo-image of the Admiral materialized. He still couldn’t believe that other human colonies had survived….for once, he felt hope in mankind’s survival. “Admiral Hakim, this is Captain William Grayson of FRS Endurance. To be honest, I can’t tell how relived I am, we thought we were all that was left of humanity.”
Admiral Hakim smirked as the robot relayed the human captain's message. Human being the key word. So the Mission...the Mission is still alive. "Salome Al'akam, Captain Grayson. Welcome to Salome, you are among friends here." He waited while the robot translated his Shekhekhani words into Old Imperial, watching the lines of Grayson's face. In the distance, he could hear his men cheering at the word of first Ghari contact. If these Americanans were humans and the Yulzan were trying to crush them...well that certainly raises some questions. "I had the eh...pleasure of meeting your Nakhuri rivals, and I'm struggling to tell if they can be trusted."
Grayson already was liking this Hakim, he certainly has enough common sense compared to the old URC government a few decades ago. “In short, sir, no. They cannot be trusted. The Yulzan, and their little yes-men, the Aldzir, came with the sob story of losing their homeworlds in a supernova…there might’ve been truth to it…and for a time, they were cordial enough.” Grayson paused, taking a deep breath. “They slithered their scaly fingers into every facet of our society, roping people up in this crazy cult, worshiping them as literal gods…I’m getting off track. Short of it, they backstabbed us decades ago, took my homeworld, and we’ve been fighting tooth and nail ever since.”
Hakim started scratching his beard. "Well..." he thought for a moment. The people of Salome have feared an alien invasion for decades, if not centuries. And the people of Americana have had that fear come true. It'd be nonsensical for The Admiral to allow the same thing to happen to his people. "What would you recommend I do?" He paused. "If you were in my position, facing the Yulzan for the first time, what would you have done?"
Grayson had a mischievous smile forming, looking a little fidgety at the thought. “In my honest to God opinion? Blast the fuckers into oblivion.” Grayson did not hold back, years of loss, anger and frustration spilling over in a span of minutes. If he truly could turn back time, he would shoot down every single vessels in the fleet, nuked it even. “You give those bastards an inch, they’ll sure as hell take more then a mile, they’ll subvert your very society to their bidding, all part of their invasion strategy to be more “subtle” as they say.” He paused once more, calming himself down, letting the emotions get the best of him. “Don’t give them the chance.”
The Admiral's heard all he needs to know, and sighed. "It's too bad," he said, feigning disappointment. "If only these aliens hadn't come through the Gateway attacking my fleet, perhaps this would be an opportunity for diplomacy." He smirked a bit, hoping Grayson was catching on. "Don't you agree, captain?"
“Oh yes Admiral, such a tragedy, you could’ve learned so much, tis the nature of war I suppose.” Captain Grayson said, barely keeping a straight.
"I'm glad we've come to an understanding," Hakim replied with a chuckle. "Captain Grayson, when this is over, please follow my escort, this is a time for celebration. There are introductions to be made." He waved goodbye, and after dismissing the communication screen, he got up from his seat and began walking to the gunnery deck, announcing, "Have all ships fire at the Nukhrin on my signal." The translation robot followed behind, closely and tepidly. I'm built for diplomacy,
it thought. This doesn't feel like diplomacy.
Within moments, all of the assembled Assembly ships had begun firing torpedoes and laser cannons at the Yulzan ship, projectiles and lights flashing through the void.
“Treacherous humans!” The Aldzir captain shouted out, falling to the floor as the ship came under continuous attack. “Fire everything! Launch all fighters!” From the outside of the Divine Resolute, a swarm of various fighter and support craft came pouting out from the hanger bays, all the while, the carrier’s main batteries and torpedoes fired at all directions, making one last, desperate, but futile stand against a far more numerous foe.
“Support our new allies!” Captain Grayson ordered. “Point whatever guns we got at the carrier, launch all ships!”
Now at the gunnery deck, the Admiral waited patiently, hand on his face. His ship hadn't come under fire yet, and he saw the enemy carrier deploying their fighters. Luckily, he had a couple carriers of his own in his fleet.
The Salomi fighter crafts zoomed in from opposite ends of the Yulzan carrier, attempting to catch the alien fighters in a pincer, the only route of escape leading directly into the firing path of the Americanan fighters entering the fray. Intelligence operatives aboard Hakim's battleship, meanwhile, attempted to hack the navigation systems of the Yulzan torpedos, while the rest of the fleet maintained their barrage on the Divine Resolute.
The combined assault from the Endurance and the Assembly Fleet proved to be hell for the Divine Resolute’s shields, slowly coming down as several of their own torpedoes were turned against them, acting as the last straw as the shields came down.
Meanwhile, the space inbetween was pure chaos as allied fighters duke it out with Janissary craft in a fray of missiles, plasma, and bullets. The Janissaries however, were pushed to the brink, as pilots witness the mothership going down, as she is endlessly battered by the fleet.
Within the command deck, it was hopeless, most of the command staff lay dead, sparks and smokes filling the air, followed by muffled screams of the crew, with repeated cries of “abandon ship!”. Meanwhile Zrixx could only contemplate his own failings, his failure to serve the High Ascendants, his failure to ensure victory, he wasn’t fit to ascend at this moment. A torpedo soon blew a huge hole in where the command deck was, Zrixx and what was left of his staff left to die in the void, his last moments watching his forces and ship being decimated.
Hakim watched as his forces succeeded, the Shekhekhani fighters returning to their carriers. He waited for a bit, before asking to his aids, "Casualties?" There was a brief pause as the numbers came in.
"Three deaths, sir," The aid finally responded. "All pilots." The admiral nodded.
"Inform their families," he said as he began walking back to the command deck. "Their children died heroes. In the meanwhile, get me an escort from Da'lu. Inform Captain Grayson we'll be going to The Ark."
“Carrier down! I repeat! Enemy carrier is down!” One of the officers declared followed by rapturous joy and cheers that filled the deck and every corner of the ship. Victories weren’t a rare sight…but this was a special occasion for so many reasons. Not only have the crew of the Endurance discovered that humanity is alive and well beyond their home system, they have found a new ally in their fight against the Yulzan, for many, the thought of reclaiming Columbia was just wishful thinking at best, but now? Not anymore, there is a real chance this may very well turn the tide of the war in their favor.
Another officer snuck up on Captain Grayson, tapping his finger on his shoulder. “I’m sorry to interrupt sir, we just received new instructions from the Admiral, we’re to rendezvous with him at some place called the 'Ark'."
Tifara had begun to lower over the village of Ein Tzariah, and with it, her villagers set about their tasks that had been saved for the brief respite from the heat. Seigu melons were plucked from their vines while the village's camels were brought to the oasis, the grey-turbaned soldiers keeping watch with their rifles from a guard tower and on their foot patrols all the while. Lev eyed their movements carefully from underneath the shade of a canvas which had been set up above an assortment of rugs to create a shaded seating area that Lev and Roshi could rest in while they waited for their repairs to be complete. Suddenly, his milita gazing was interrupted by the sight of Sughaz lifting up the canopy to speak to them. They hadn't seen the silver-haired man for a few hours, as he was off with his men discussing the ongoings of the Gateway's return.
"Pardon my interruption," he began, "I hope your accomidations are to your liking."
"Of course, of course," the scout replied, "Really, far beyond expectation."
"I am humbled to be your host, Gershan, but eh...what is a Shemi soldier doing this far out in the desert?" Lev's heart stopped a bit at the question. It was an obvious question, of course, but one he expected far sooner, if the question would be asked at all. He played it off as a joke.
"Ah, I thought you were a man of tradition, you should feed me before asking my business, no?" Sughaz's eyes were cold in response, but he nodded with a smirk.
"Of course, I was just about to eat with my men. Wouldn't you join us?"
An hour later, Lev was breaking bread with a bunch of terrorists while Roshi was trying desperately to pet a camel, who didn't reciprocate the desire for affection in the least. "Pickle!" Lev shouted between intermingling bites of bread and sheep stew, "Is this really how you want to spend your time?"
"Yes!" the automaton replied as he wiped the camel spit from his lens.
Sughaz grunted. "You know, Samal
, you can't let your property disobey you like that." He stabbed his dagger into a piece of lamb, using it as a fork. "If the army is gonna make you use one of them, fine, but it isn't alive. It isn't a person. It's metal, it's property." The other assorted soldiers, along with the town's Baal, grunted in agreement, while an flute player played slowly in the background with a drummer accompanying.
Lev shrugged, trying to shift the conversation. "Maybe you have a point." After letting silence settle for a second, he asked, "How did you know I was a sergeant?"
"So was I," Sughaz replied gruffly. Lev felt his heart begin to beat faster. Military background...early fifties...
he scanned once again over his face, careful to notice every possible detail, when he saw it. Faint, small, barely noticeable. But he saw it, a scar on his neck, supposedly from a childhood run-in with a Raml-zev
. This is him. Ha'Lahash, leader of the Grey Turbans. Lev began coughing, and Sughaz looked at him, concerned, like a worried father. "Are you alright, Gershan?"
The scout cleared his throat. "Yes, yes, I'm fine...any update on my bike?"
"It's far too late for you to be worrying about such matters, Ai'khi
, please, stay the night," Sughaz replied. His tone was polite and hospitable, but it was clear he wasn't asking.Whether he thinks I'm a Shemi soldier or an Assembly soldier,
Lev thought, The head of a genocidal terrorist organization certainly doesn't to eat dinner with me. So what does he want?
His thought was interrupted by the Baal raising a wooden cup as a jug of Saigu wine was passed around, and after filling his own cup, Lev followed suit.
"Our guest's dry throat reminds me it is time to give thanks!" He began, the assembled Grey Turbans chuckling among themselves. "To the Ascendant One, blessed be He, who blesses his people Shekhekhan with the milk of Redemption!" Lev and the soldiers gave a resounding "Amen!" before the Baal continued. "To the village of Ein Tzariah, who feeds us and nourishes us in our war against the Nukhrin!
"Amen!" The people resounded.
"And of course, to our Host and Fearless Leader, Sughaz ban Sadat!" The men cheered and applauded, as Sughaz rose with his cup in his hand and waved them to be quiet.
"Please, please men, you humble me, but you embarass me." He smiled to them, and they began to laugh. He stood silent for a moment, and began to speak. "Thank you, Baal Natanav, as always, your words are tinged with holiness. We are lucky to find ourselves in a town of such wisdom, love, and purity." He stopped, looking among the men who watched their leader silently, eyes resting on Lev for a moment before moving on. "Nearly, we did not. Barely more than a month ago, this humble oasis was filled with Nukhri filth, the bestial Askari who swear fealty to 'Hamagdal.'" He stopped, and tears flooded his eyes, and when he spoke again, his voice strained with emotion. "They killed children. Women. Left their fields burned, fathers slaughtered. And why?" He looked straight at Lev. "Because that is what Nukhrin do." He switched his gaze and the focus of his pointing hand to the door of the tent. "But look at the roads and the heads of this filth mounted there. Look to the liberated families of Ein Tzariah, the free sands which surround her. That, my friends, that is what we do!" The men began to cheer and Sughaz started to shout over them.
"And soon, the winds of Shem will beg us to free her from her Bonds! And the waters of Nereid will be sweetened by the blood of the unclean! Men, we look to the Gateway and we see promise! And hope! We see the future of Am, the future of Humankind! And it not one where we share beds with Alien marauders! 'Nor shall the dagger bend in the name of progress, nor the bullet drop in the name of armistice'!" The Baal cried out his praises as the Scripture was quoted. "The future, my friends, my men, my brothers in blood, is one of Peace. But a Peace that must be wrought from the claws of the Nukhrin!" As the men cheered, he again found his seat, cup raised in anticipation.
"There is a piece of news I must share with you. Two ships have entered Salome through the Gateway." At this, nervous whispers and murmurs spread among the crowd. "One was human, one was Nukhri. And the Nukhrin were giving chase to the Human, who sought from us refuge from their plight." He waited as the men discussed this worriedly amongst themselves. "The Ascendent One be Praised, Admiral Hakim of the Assembly made the right decision, and those humans are safe. But we know that this is a fluke in the system. For I was there thirty years ago. I saw how Adama gave the Askari their riches. I saw, and I know, that the Assembly is built on the backs of betrayal. And now we know that the experience of Nukhri violence is not just in Salome; in Americana too, the Yulzan Nukhrin bare their fangs at the Human Mission. But with us-" He raised his cup as far as he could. "They shall not succeed!" With that, Ha'Lahash threw the Saigu Wine to the back of his throat, and after a loud 'AMEN!', the rest of the men followed suit.
While the Saigu flowed and the festivities resumed, Lev sat there nervously, but finally managed to begin to drink and blend in. He was sitting at the back of the tent when Sughaz approached him, clasping him on the shoulder. "Gershan," he began, "Come with me, I need to speak with you." And Lev's heart rose into his throat.
The stars were shining bright, and Salome and the other moons hung high over the two Shekhekhanin, illuminating their path as they walked deeper and deeper into the desert. Sughaz had informed Lev that a vital piece of the hovercraft was missing, and that they needed to go retrieve in. Lev asked him if 'Pickle' could come with them. He said no. He had also told him to leave behind his rifle-he wouldn't be needing it. They trudged through the desert finally coming to the sand dune that Lev had fallen over, and Sughaz turned to him. He had been silent since they left.
"You better start looking." His eyes were implacable, but his hand was on his pistol. Lev gulped and nodded, and began to search on the floor. Soon after, he felt a boot press down into his neck, and heard a handgun click above his head. Sughaz stood over him, a crazed look in his eye. "Who are you?" He snarled down at the scout below him. Lev sputtered and coughed, breathing in the cool desert sand.
"What are you doing?! I am *cough* soldier! I'm in the Shem-"
"Don't talk shit, Gershan. You're not in the Shemi army, because Shem doesn't FUCK with me. But you...you Gershan. You FUCK with me. So if you don't tell-"
"I'M AN ORPHAN!" This was...true. A trait that Gershan and Lev would come to share. Sughaz paused for a moment, and removed the boot from the young man's neck, who came to his knees and began violently coughing up sand. He kept the gun trained on him.
"My...my parents." He started wheezing. "Were killed. By Nukhrin, the Askari, in the war. I was just a baby." He finally began to catch his breath, and started to struggle to his feet. "I'm sorry I-"
"Where did you get the uniform?" The gun was pressed lightly to Lev's chest now. The violent craze had left Sughaz's eyes, replaced by the old familiar implacability.
"Stole it. Same with the gun. Same with the robot. Same with the hovorcraft. I'm a nobody, a scavenger, a-"
"Yes." The two were silent for a while. Lev could feel the cool night air blow against his bloody face. Finally, Sughaz spoke up again.
"I don't deal too well with thieves Gershan. Those who steal from me...they end up much like those Askari dotting the road into town."
Lev gulped. "I understand."
"How did it make you feel? Seeing those Nukhrin's heads displayed like that." Lev waited a bit, pondering before answering.
"Good," Sughaz responded. "If you're lying to me, boy, you'll get to spend more time with them." Suddenly, he removed the pistol from his chest and placed it back in its holster. "But for now, I think I could make use of a thief." Lev sighed in relief, and the two began to walk back to camp, and Lev took off the Shemi soldier's jacket, leaving it behind to be buried in sand.