“To capture an enemy’s army is better than to destroy it, to take intact a battalion, a company or a five-man squad is better then to destroy them.” — Sun Tzu
Three hoverbikes sped into the colony of New Zareshan. It had been only half an hour since eight columns of hoverbikes had left the city in a tremendous roar. In contrast, the three that returned came in a low hum.
And with them came the terrible news. People crowded around to hear their stories of utter annihilation, of panicked and frantic combat in the thick of the forests.
But Darek already knew. He had seen the battle unfold on his monitor. He had watched as the lights bleeped out one by one. He had watched as all his careful, meticulous planning had gone to waste, become useless and ineffectual, in a matter of minutes. There was one thing which was substantially less famous then Darek’s methodical methods which was a part of his character, but it was no less an important and viable part of the Cardassian, and that was his temper. His true temper, his bouts of insane rage, was something rarely witnessed or heard of.
But then, Darek rarely lost.
In the main government building, Darek ripped up a chair and flung it across the room. It crashed onto one of the bulkheads and crumpled down. The Legate swaggered from foot to foot, drinking in his fury. He wanted to rip out Entak’s throat with his bare hands.
Hell, he wanted to rip out any throat with his bare hands. The rage brimmed and boiled within the Cardassian. He wanted to explode. He wanted to kill every last one of those natives and he wanted to string their corpses up by their feet and disintegrate their rotten bodies by burning them.
With bloodshot eyes the Legate prowled across the room.
He then flew towards the other end of the room hit one of the bulkheads with his fist so hard it cracked the bone.
He stepped back and moaned in pain, cradling his broken hand. And the intense pain finally jolted him back to his senses. The bloodshot eyes faded to the typical, ruthless and cold Darekian norm. His face, once contorted with rage, returned to the original, devoid, impassionate and precise face those who knew him knew and feared.
What am I doing? Darek criticised himself. He looked around the room he had damaged, and tapped his combadge.
“Glinn Janar, report to the Government Building immediately to repair some damage which has evidently been inflicted.”
“Damage, sir? How?” Asked the disembodied voice.
“That is my concern, glinn. Not yours.” Darek could hear the quiver in the Glinn’s throat. It was a pity he was not there to intimidate him in person, but Darek couldn’t be everywhere.
“Yes sir.” The voice obediently replied.
“Good. Darek out.” And with that, Darek left the Main Hall to go to his office. His wild rage had been tempered to a brooding, calculated need for revenge.
Which was far worse.
I have work to do... Darek thought as he stepped into his office and sat down at the table and began to tap at his PADDs.
And do it, he would.
Entak was tossed onto the ground. He hit it with a thud. He moaned in pain and scratched his head. One of the natives had thrown Entak over his back and had carelessly held onto him as the natives scrambled back into the forest. Entak, dazed, had nearly passed out, and he couldn’t remember much. His hand trailed towards his phaser, almost subconsciously... but he found it wasn’t there any more.
He rubbed his eyes and groggily looked around. He was at an entrance. He was at the entrance to... well, to something.
He could hear the screech of something overhead. He looked up and saw the forest surrounding him, the dense nest of trees blocking out the sky entirely. He was still in the forest... although it was quite a big forest.
One of the large, strong natives then grabbed him again by the waist and continued to walk. Entak looked around. There were no others. Entak noted that the skin of the native as he felt it was smooth and dry — but also very cold. Had Entak not known better, he would have thought it was a corpse. I suppose that explains why they haven’t shown up as life on our sensors, Entak hypothesised. Heat was generally considered a requirement of life. Humanoid lifeforms usually had heat, and this was part of the basis by which they were detected. A humanoid lifeform which was as cold as this one would not read as alive at all.
The native knelt down and kicked some leaves out of his way — and he revealed a large hole in the ground.
The native went through the hole, bringing Entak with him, and Entak realised, far too late, why they had failed to find any settlement — they lived underground.
There wasn’t a known humanoid early species culture which had ever done that. Sure, some lived in caves, and some lived in caves which often descended deep underground, but Darek had geologically shown there could be none in the forest.
But the natives had done another thing entirely, as Entak could soon see as he was brought deeper beneath the earth’s crust. They had made their own structure, dug through the earth to provide for their home.
No cultures this early in their development had ever done it before. To Darek’s credit, he had anticipated it as a possibility but found it, using the statistics which were his sole and, as he well knew, highly unreliable guides, as highly unlikely.
Darek was right, mused Entak. Statistics and information from other cultures are no substitute to the facts.
Not that he was surprised. Darek was usually right.
The native being stomped through a complex, curling, twisting and turning set of catacombs. He passed by many, many other natives on regularity. Sometimes one of the walls would disappear and Entak could briefly look out at an intricate and interwoven series of catacombs and structures extending both above and beneath him, all connected by slopes which slanted in either direction.
Even he could appreciate just how much a beautiful work it was, as well as the sheer magnitude the undertaking must have taken. Their technology is deceptive, he considered. To organise that type of manpower and cohesion they must be more advanced then we thought. Entak also noted that the catacombs were lit by torches, hanging on the wall.
Finally, the native arrived at his destination. He stepped down a slope and Entak saw a huge room, carved out like a gigantic slab of mud had just been removed and with literally hundred of connections from the room to other areas in the catacombs.
It was among the largest rooms Entak had ever seen in his life. Hundreds of the blue-skinned natives crowded through the room — perhaps even thousands.
As the native who carried Entak strode through the room, and the denizens of the room gave Entak a wide berth, the Cardassian swallowed. Again, Darek was right. The natives vastly outnumbered their settlers. How many did Darek have? Two hundred? Three hundred? It wasn’t over five hundred, Entak knew for sure. And it was dwarfed by the amount of people in this room alone. They were talking animatedly to each other, and as Entak strained his ears he could pick up some of what they were saying — finding, to his relief, that his Universal Translator was still working and could decipher their language. “They have one of the demons...” “What does he want the demon for?” “I say we should kill it now...” Entak fished around the multitudes of voices, but the conversations all seemed to revolve around the same thing.
There was then a blast from what sounded like a primitive trumpet. The echo shook through the room. The sound was not that impressive in itself, but the room was instantly stilled and silenced. The natives all turned to one of the slopes, which, Entak noted as he followed their gaze, was longer then all the others. The native who had been carrying him walked over to it, and stood.
It was then that he appeared. Instantly, Entak knew that he was their leader. Even if he had not been wearing the flowing, rippling robes embroidered in fine fur as opposed to the mere loincloths of the other Nobua, even if he hadn’t entered with such a display, even if the voices of the thronging masses had not let loose, as if on cue, an eerie, bawling and largely unintelligible paen, which soon subsided, Entak would have known.
His serene and nearly otherworldly face was the race of a ruler. He walked with the arrogant, strutting gait of those who are in supreme power and control, and love it. The way he hung his head high, as if he could see above all those around him. And the mixture of fear and awe Entak could see evident in the eyes of all the natives who looked at him. He was muscular and well built, somewhere in his species equivalent of late thirties. He was square-jawed and had a symmetrical face. Entak finally here got to see a native clearly as he watched this revered leader descend.
He noted that his skin was blue, but also flaking — as seemed to be the case with them all. His blue skin looked distinctly reptilian in form, with the crevices and shapes typical of them. They were all utterly bald, with no indication of hair of any kind. The eyes of the leader and the rest were bright yellow, cat-like slits. The leader reached the end of the steps. He gave the burly native holding Entak but a glance, and the native dropped the Cardassian on the floor immediately. The noise from the crowds began to subside, and in seconds there was total silence.
The wounded Entak shook himself, and still lying haphazardly on the floor, gazed up at the lord who gazed down on him. A situation which, Entak was sure, both of them could appreciate the accurate symbolism of.
“I am Sharguruk.” The leader said in a deep, booming voice. Uncouth, thick with a primitive accent, almost like the grunt of an animal but clearly commanding and in its own way profound, the voice echoed across the massive chamber. “King of the Laztanai, and of the Daghe, the Menai, and the Lorkemo.” The impressive figure continued. Entak didn’t know if that was an elaborate title with this ’Sharguruk’ had given himself, or if it was a list of all the native tribes from which he was from and had subjected. “I am King of all Nobua of the Autanga Forest. You! What name have you?”
Entak licked his dry, brittle lips. “I am Entak.” He said with the most forceful voice he could command — which wasn’t much. His voice was hoarse, and as he spoke he could feel from the thronging pain that something was wrong with his lungs. “Commander of the Armed Forces of New Zareshan.”
Sharguruk turned to the burly native who had carried Entak. “Leader of the Guard.” He addressed the native. In response, the Guard turned his head to the floor — presumably a custom for when talking to the leader, summarised Entak, since the Leader of the Guard, as he was known, did not seem perturbed at all and Entak could see no vicious intent in Sharguruk eyes. “You have done your work, well. You will be rewarded, well.” Sharguruk said his ’wells’ in an almost tantalising voice, slightly softer. Their promising sounds wafted through the room, and the Leader of the Guard smiled. “Depart,” Sharguruk instructed, and he disappeared back into the throngs of natives.
But Sharguruk soon returned to his original stance. “Bring the demon to my chamber.” He said, his incredibly deep booming voice resounding through the room once more.
Another native picked Entak up and hurled him on his shoulder, lying in a semi-circular position, — Entak cursed as he reeled in pain from the experience — and the native began to ascend the slope, the King of the Laztanai, Daghe, Menai and Lorkemo leading the way.
Darek leafed through his data with painstaking precision, savouring one byte of information and evaluating it after another. Already, a plan was forming, as he needed one to be. Darek prepared for every contingency. It was a fact he was proud of. And he had prepared for the failure in the forest. Darek continued to re-check his latest tactical data, and updated his overall plan which he must soon put to action.
Darek knew the cost of what would happen if this final plan failed. New Zareshan would have to be abandoned. Those considered worthy would have to be evacuated to the Praklar II and the four Hidekis, which would then search for a possible safe port or abandoned facility which the twice-exiled colonists could put up residence in. But never another planet. They did not have the facilities and equipment they needed to colonise a planet for the second time — and only the gods, and of course Darek, knew what they would do if they found no safe port or abandoned facility... things which were highly unlikely anyway.
In short, on his next plan the colonists’ best hope of survival lay in the balance. If it teetered one inch...
The door to Darek’s office flew aside, and Gul Gacmar, Jakar, and Ochreg — the senior-most member of the surviving armed forces — entered. Darek turned away from his console.
He eyed them in turn, his chilling stares penetrating them to the bone. When he had finished, the Legate said: “I would have you debate the merits of your various strategies, but we do not have the time for niceties. I know which ones of your strategies will work and ones that will not. Gacmar, I want your Hideki craft ready to launch at a moment’s notice, day or night — that means you must rotate your crews so that they are always manned. This will require taking away a number of the portion usually assigned to the Praklar II, but since this craft is of no direct benefit to us considering the present threat, that is not a problem. Jakar, I want you and your specialists to work on constructing defences. Tell Kelkar and Zorat that the defences take precedence over everything else, and covert all industry and capacity to make the necessary defences and make them as quickly as possible. Ochreg, I want you to give all able-bodied inhabitants of New Zareshan from sixteen to forty the basics of military function and training. I need you to create a militia to serve as a support force for both our defensive systems and the Hideki craft.” Darek said his orders in his usual cool, calm, cold, precision. It seemed to all those present that Darek was utterly unfazed by their latest defeat and the very real prospect of the fall of New Zareshan. “Dismissed.” He commanded, and they departed.
As they walked across the main hall to leave the city altogether, Gacmar grabbed Jakar’s arm forcefully. Jakar turned to look at him. “What?” he asked.
Gacmar pulled Jakar closer. “Tonight. Outside the hangar.” He rasped into Jakar’s ear. He then released Jakar and went his own way.
“Why have you come to Ipnir?” Sharguruk boomed as he circled the prone Entak. Entak grunted and looked up. “Ipnir? I don’t know what that means...”
“Do not lie!” Sharguruk snapped, and he kicked Entak in the stomach. Entak reeled in more pain and turned over with a shuddering groan on the cold, dusty, dirty floor. If I get any more of this I’m going to lose it...
“You live on Ipnir! Ipnir is all around you, and you say you do not know what Ipnir is? If you will lie, you must lie better than that!” Sharguruk stormed off in the opposite direction and stormed back, pacing across the room and fuming. The very floor shook with the King’s anger.
Entak rubbed his forehead. Ipnir must be their name for the planet — or as we call it, New Traven... Entak rolled his eyes upwards until they faced the King. He had tried to lie to the King several times, make some fantastic story — but to a superstitious people like the Nobua, as they were known, believable — but Sharguruk had seen through each one. Coming from a species that only seemed to know the basics of fire, Sharguruk sure was an excellent judge of character. And he was an excellent tormentor. Every time he had felt necessary, he had attacked Entak. He had beat Entak. It wasn’t ’How many lights are there?’, but Sharguruk was physically in extreme good health, and a kick in the gut by this Nobuan King could cause extreme pain. And Entak had been getting these continual surges of agony delivered deftly by the ruler for many hours now, and the Nobuan showed absolutely no sign of tiring. The cold drafts that inexorably wafted into the room weren’t helping things either.
“I come from another land.” Entak tried, deciding finally that the truth — albeit, in a veiled form — was the best option. “A distant land. Our enemies took our land away from us. We decided to move here.”
Sharguruk stopped moving, abruptly. Nervously, Entak turned onto his back and allowed his eyes to shift over to the Nobuan. He stood almost utterly motionless, his back to the Cardassian commander, like a statue of solid rock, betrayed only by the heaving of his well-built chest as he breathed. He walked over to the Cardassian lying on the floor. He crouched down and bent his head above Entak’s. Entak looked up at the King’s square, muscular face. He could hear the low, grunted panting and see the smoke-like air wisp out of his nostrils. His cat-slit eyes narrowed. The dim lighting cut across his face and made him seem demonic.
“This land is the land of the Nobua of Autanga Forest.” He rasped in a low, threatening whisper which shook Entak to the very bone. “It is your mistake to move here. And it will cost your people their lives. Sharguruk does not share his power.” He snorted, studying the Cardassian with utmost disdain. “But perhaps if you tell me more about your people, I might spare your life.” He studied Entak for a moment longer, and he then stretched back up to a full, upright stand, and gazed towards the wall. “Your people have yellow spears that destroy. And they have roaring beasts that fly and obey their will. They have catacombs made unlike any other above ground.” He stated matter-of-factly, like a Stone Age Darek. “My people say you are demons. They say you come entrusted with the power of the Evil Ones.” Sharguruk glanced down at Entak. “I know better. I will not be fooled by such stories, and do not take me to be so.” Sharguruk said with the air of a man who knows more than was expected of him — which was the case.
“Now, Commander of the Armed Forces of New Zareshan, tell me, who are your people?” Sharguruk’s darkly determined expression was what finally broke Entak. He knew what he was about to say might seem incredible to the astute leader, but he felt he had no choice.
Besides, he knew how Darek would react to such failure of his if he ever saw the Legate again.
“We do not come from Ipnir.” Entak said with a sigh. “We are a people from a land far from Ipnir. We have knowledge of many things that you do not know. Our roaring beasts, our yellow spears... these are simply better tools then the tools you possess.”
Sharguruk titled his head slightly, but he was now gazing beyond, beyond Entak, beyond the room, into the abyss of the mind.
“I had thought it would be so. For a long time have we regarded the things of Ipnir with our stories of the Great Ones. Autanga, the Great One of the Forest. Tagoth, the Great One of the Dunes. Morzala, the Great One of the River. But where are these Great Ones? Where is Autanga pruning Forest as he did in the Olden Times? Where is Morzala riding the tides of River? Where is the mischievous Tagoth, stirring his sands of destruction? I have never seen them. There is no reason they should have gone by now. But they never left because they were never here. There is more to Ipnir, there is a different explanation. The Power of the Great Ones does not exist. The Magic of the Evil Ones is a lie. There is another reason for the trees, the river, the dunes... and for you.”
Incredible, thought Entak. Truly incredible.
“Some of my men have captured your roaring beasts.” Sharguruk continued. “You will teach them how to use them, Commander of the Armed Forces of New Zareshan.” Entak moaned as the King of the Laztanai, Daghe, Menai and Lorkemo beckoned his attentive henchmen with a sharp wrist movement. Two of them walked into the room, and Entak observed that their heads were reverently facing the ground.
Ochreg stood on guard at the edge of New Zareshan, and shook the bleariness from his eyes. He and the other two surviving members of Entak’s police force took turns observing the forest city frontier in-between training the rest of the population as the Legate had decreed.
It had been a long day for Ochreg. He had spent the morning preparing for the ill-fated assault, he had then fought right through the confused and desperate struggle in the forest, and he had returned from the excessively bloody battle and had then, with barely a time to gasp for breath, began to train a militia. Normally, Ochreg would never be able to handle so much in one day. But there was a driving factor far more powerful then his need to rest that had pushed him on. His fear of Elam Darek.
Ochreg rubbed his eyes again and tried to stay awake. He stifled a yawn. God, what I wouldn’t give for a kanar right now...
There was a fumbling, and Ochreg was alert immediately. He swung his phaser left, right, and left again. He couldn’t see anyone, or anything. He was about to shrug it off — when he spotted what had made the noise.
He saw a Cardassian disappear into the forest. No way am I going in there, Ochreg resolved, steadfast. If that poor bastard wants suicide, so be it. This time, Ochreg failed in his attempts to stifle a yawn as he grew steadily more tired. And he prayed that his shift would end, and soon, so that he could go to bed...
The eyes of the leader of New Zareshan alertly darted from file to file. It had been a long day for him — but in that respect, he had hardly noticed. He had watched a carefully laid plan that had taken countless painstaking hours of effort and elaboration to construct disintegrate utterly in a few minutes. He had begun to elaborate on the defences of New Zareshan and for the first time found himself in control of a country, only tenuously established to begin with, which was now dangerously near the brink of collapse. Darek did not yawn, and he did not go blearily eyed. And, having no sense of taste as it was, he did not crave kanar. Drink was a necessity, but for this situation, to be able to focus on his work and study it in his usual, obsessive depth was of much, much higher importance. Food was even more irrelevant that this time to Darek. It was a distraction, and unnecessary for the immediate moment. When Darek was deep into studying his various stratagems, Darek was so involved that he often simply forgot he needed to sleep or drink. A few hours less of sleep would not affect him that much anyway, he reasoned. But a defence plan with just one contingency unprepared for which the enemy took advantage of... could have disastrous repercussions. It could be his death, and the death of them all.
So Darek checked his defense strategies again. And again. No matter how many times he did it, no matter how many times he leafed over it, he did not tire from it. It was, in his eyes, a vital necessity. Some would even say that he enjoyed it. Those some would be right. And altered them for the various possibilities which he might face. Sometimes he found a minor detail that would need readjustment to compensate for a possibility, sometimes he did not, but he studiously slaved on in the anticipation that his plans can, no matter how detailed, no matter how elaborate, can always be improved on. He was facing a dangerous opponent, he knew that. Far more dangerous then any of the others which he had faced in the past. And Darek had faced many. It could be argued that perhaps the one he faced was equal, if not lesser, to some that he had faced before but had been able to use the uncertain information at Darek’s disposal to his advantage. But such arguments would be largely pointless.
It would be hard for him to estimate the mindset of whatever enemy commander he was facing, but from judging the recent battle he had a fair idea of what he was up against. They knew the terrain excellently, off by heart. Darek, no matter how much he slavishly studied orbital maps and commissioned detailed reconnaissance, could not truly match that, as he well knew. Nothing really beat long-term on the ground knowledge, and even if Darek was able to master that, it would be virtually impossible to ensure that all his forces, at every level, all the way down, mastered it as well and mastered it in time. The opponent clearly, as his studies of the recent failure indicated, had excellent co-ordination and at least an adequate grasp of strategy. They had motivated and disciplined troops, Darek theorized. The troops may even have had genuine patriotism as regards the war, and this was something Darek knew he could never instil in his own. The situation of his colony and the nature of its foundation precluded the possibility of him really instilling it. Patriotism, in times of war at its direst hour, could be more compelling and motivating than fear if available in large enough doses. No matter how much fear was applied to could not convince someone to become a suicide attacker. Patriotism, loyalty, and even blind fanaticism would be needed. Whether the forces of the natives had such qualities, Darek did not know. And he was still sure that they outnumbered him — and even if they didn’t, it was best to be on his guard concerning numerical strength.
When Darek had came to New Zareshan, he had wanted a challenge, something to stimulate his obsessive mind. Although Darek was unfamiliar with the phrase, he would have appreciated the all too apt human maxim: Be careful for what you wish for.
These natives he now faced were no longer an enemy to surround and crush. They were no longer merely an ostensible, largely invented excuse for purges and a methodical tightening of control on an already eerily united city. They had now become something far more serious and dangerous. They were something that affected the Cardassians’ very livelihood and threatened to destroy the final refuge he had constructed for himself. As Darek bemusedly noted, he had only briefly — that is, briefly by his standards — passed over the possibility of defending his colony from native sentient attack. He had specifically selected his planet because there was no hint, from the most detailed long range scans, of any sentient life. Even in his anticipations, they had sprung from the assumption that either an early form of sentiency developed during their voyage or the ship accidentally ended up at another planet. He had many more even lesser contingencies, but they had been planned over a labyrinthine broad spectrum, and most had involved merely survival possibilities. But for this particular situation, perversely, the anticipator of all contingencies had nothing. This possibility, perversely, did not occur to him because by all realisations and speculation it bordered on the impossible.
Oh, he had dozens upon dozens upon dozens of plans concerning them now, but that was only after the event.
Others might have panicked, or at least become anxious or wary. But not Elam Darek. He could be accused of paranoia, but he could not be accused of being too wary or hesitating in any form. He may have been brutal and shadowy, and he may have, for strategic purposes, decided to not go out into battle... but Darek was no coward, and he certainly was prepared to face the consequences of the actions he made. He had been in narrow straits before, but his unfailing devotion to his work had made sure that he had come out bruised but alive, and on top. He was facing a more dire situation now then he ever had before, but that did not change the basic situation. Those that panicked and those that lost faith where ones that lost. And if Darek was destined to loose, well then, he’d hang on determinedly, grimly, resolutely, unshakably, until all his options had been long drained.
Perhaps his plans had failed, which was highly unusual. But he had a lack of information as he had well known. He would still have a lack of information on his enemy when they came to New Zareshan, but he know knew more about them, and he also knew the ground with certainly while the forest had been an uncertain designation.
Two men who had never met, two men so different from where they came from and yet so alike in mind, made their final preparations. One intended to attack. The other, to defend. Both, with their like minds, knew that the coming battle was crucial. Both knew that there was much to lose, and much to gain. Both knew so little about each other, despite what the knowledge in the aftermath of their last battle had brought.
They were at war, but they only generally knew who they were at war with. It was a war that both fought blindfolded. But they were men of resilience and perseverance. And before such perseverance had bought them the victories that they had so badly needed.
It was a time of reckoning. It was a time when these two men, already legends amongst their people, would cross mind against mind in the greatest game of them all.