An Empire to Build: “The River of Blood” (Second in the Series)

By Hadrian McKeggan

Published March 10, 2002

“War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin.”

Sun Tzu

Later, it would be nothing but a footnote in New Zareshan’s history. The first meeting of the New Zareshan Military Council.

For few would have any idea, then or later, just how pivotal that meeting was.

Entak, the head of New Zareshan’s Police and Security Force, was present.

Gul Ochgenck, the commander of New Zareshan’s first and only warship, the Praklar II (which was the name that the dreadnought section of that craft retained). Gul Gacmar, the commander of the four Hideki shuttlecraft. Gul Jakar, the planetary defense minister.

And, of course, the Head of State and Government, Legate Elam Darek.

Darek sat at the head of a long table in what had one been the Praklar II’s Observation Lounge, his hands folded shut. He arched forward in a brooding position. His eyes stared at the wall to the far end of the room. It seemed like he was shut off from the world.

But perceptions are often wrong.

“It’s far too early for a strike.” Jakar was saying. “We’ve barely begun to construct defenses around Zareshan, and we have virtually no knowledge of where precisely their base is — if they have one at all. If we attack now, we’d be leaving New Zareshan vulnerable to attack.”

“Not if we assign our forces correctly.” Entak countered. “The longer the wait, the more these beings — whoever they are — will learn of us. The last encounter exposed the location of our city to some of them. That could spread, and for all we know they could construct a proficient attack plan themselves. We must strike while they are still disorganised. If we assign most of our ground forces to the operation, and keep the Hideki craft on the defense —”

“Ridiculous!” Gul Gacmar spat. “All you want is glory for yourself — and you wouldn’t be getting glory, but suicide. If those beings are disorganised, we are more so. Sending all of our forces into a forest we have barely scouted, looking for a location we do not know, and don’t even know exists, could result in the total destruction of our armed forces! If we send the Hideki craft overhead for a detailed reconnaissance, we could find out whatever base they have and destroy it from the sky, swiftly and efficiently. We would then have them at a disadvantage, and we could then use your forces to break apart whatever resistance remains.”

“I concur with Gacmar.” Ochgenck chipped in as he leaned lazily back on his chair. “We know that our enemy, for whatever advantages he has, is very primitive. We have the advantage of air power. I suggest we use it.”

Entak laughed — a response hardly expected by Ochgenck, Gacmar, or Jakar.

“A Hideki assault, Gacmar? Now look at who’s behaving vainly.” Entak chuckled. “The undergrowth in the forests is immense and heavily dense. If there are any settlements in there — which there would seem to be, if these natives have a base anywhere — it would be impossible to detect from the sky or orbit. We’ve already tried to do that, Gacmar, and we’ve come up with no results. There is only one way we can find them: From the ground. Does the plan have flaws? Some, yes, and there are risks. But it is far more efficient then anything you’ve proclaimed.”

Gacmar opened his mouth to respond — but he was cut short by a voice that resonated far more with authority, a deep but not overly so, sharp and cold, fleeting but precise, powerful and unforgettable, a voice that instilled terror instantly.

“Despite his exaggerated boasting, Entak’s plan is the best one possible for this contingency.” Darek said. He said it in a voice quieter then the others, quietened from his intense brooding, but it was a voice that made itself heard.

The room fell instantly silent. Ochgenck suddenly snapped upright. All eyes, obedient and fearful, turned to the brutal Legate. Darek slid out of his brooding posture and became upright. Instantly, he seemed to be bigger somehow. More central. More focused. More dignified. He could have been idly passed over just moments before, but now there was nothing one could do but be enraptured by the cunning and sadistic leader.

“We have a gaping information void on these natives, and since there is little way for the moment we could gain information about them through anything other then immediate armed intervention, I was forced to study the histories of several other primitive native species and variants known to us.” Darek’s voice made it clear he detested this kind of study. Darek knew that situations invariably varied from race to race, no matter how alike, and assumptions drawn from literary studies from planets light-years away from their presence could easily be wrong. There may be similarities between them, but there was bound to be differences. A miscalculation between the two could be fatal. Darek had taken pains to formulate a generic structure of what similar early native cultures and societies were like, something that was usually recurrent or at least appeared more often then other things. Statistically, it stood a good chance. But Darek knew better than to trust statistics.

But with so little information on his hands, he had no choice.

“Natives with the current level of technology that we know them to have — for example, spears — are usually non-nomadic, or at the least, establish bases which they may move from later. Therefore, it is likely they have built some kind of villages or something similar. Since there is no indication of this on the entire planet from orbital scans, these must be constructed where it is harder for such scans to penetrate — such as the forests, which we got very few readings from. It could be anywhere in the forest, and we have no idea how much of them are there and to what degree of organisation they have. We could be dealing with a handful of ambitious natives who will take a short while to flush out, we could be walking into a hornet’s nest of thousands.”

“Jakar has suggested we stay within the confines of New Zareshan and construct our defences. This is, as Entak suggested, also not wise. The longer we stay without striking the more intelligence these beings may gather on our city. There is an extremely high probability that they outnumber us, and if they outnumber us enough, not even our advanced technology will protect us from an onslaught.”

If said by virtually anyone else, Darek’s speech would have sounded like a lecture, or maybe even a briefing.

But when said by Darek, it was twisted to become a concise series of unchallengeable demands and commands, with a subtle threat shrouded within in the way he said it.

Darek then began to stare at each of the military advisers in turn, and they shuddered slightly as his glare seemed to pierce right through them, as if it uncovered them, as if suddenly, with an instant, Darek knew their innermost thoughts.

His cold eyes seemed to know all. They never seemed to have lids of any kind — and within those instants, those whom Darek pierced right through the heart with his glare felt like he had been staring at them all their lives.

They were eyes that instantly commanded respect, reverence, and fear — and always got what they wanted.

When Darek had passed to each one in turn, he leaned slightly backwards on his chair and then said: “Dismissed. Entak, stay here.”

Instantly, his command was obeyed, as Jakar, Gacmar, and Ochgenck quickly filed out, eager to leave before Darek’s mood might turn sour at them. Even Jakar, who had previously found Darek to have been little more then an overweening leader, was badly shaken by the experience he just had.

Entak stood to attention, with an uncertain expression on his face. He didn’t know whether he should feel elated or terrified.

And as Darek silently stared at him, Entak began to persuade himself that the latter was far more likely.

If there was one thing Darek did not like entrusting to others, it was tactics. Tactics was his area of expertise. He had sharpened his skill in it to an almost slavish degree by long periods of study.

But he had always been a space commander, used to moving starships and fleet formations, to fighting in orbit of planets and utilising spatial anomalies.

He was not a used to commanding ground forces, to assigning battalions and infantrymen. He had studied it extensively, sure enough, but Darek prided himself in knowing his weaknesses.

He continued to stare at Entak and appreciated the irony of the situation. Twelve years before — more, if he counted the years he had spent in cryogenic freeze, Entak had been an assistant to a man Darek had also placed his trust in for ground affairs: Malec.

Now the erstwhile assistant would fill that role.

“I believe you have the sensor readings and map chartings of the forest from above at your disposal.” Darek said, breaking the silence.

“Yes sir.” Entak said, standing upright as best he could, still uncertain where exactly Darek was heading with this.

“Good. I want you to formulate a battle plan and determine the formations and units we will need at our disposal, as well as the equipment.”

Darek handed him a PADD. “This is my estimate of the most likely areas the base might be located, and the possible sizes and populations. The evidence is based off studies of other cultures and a careful observation of the terrain as it is known. Do not consider it in any way unalterable, but use it as a guideline. When you have determined how you believe the battle plan should be assembled, come to me and we shall review it. After that, train and assemble the units necessary and I will have our industries produce whatever they can which meets your requirements but it currently not available.” Darek said in a measured, terse voice, said in a way so that Entak would not forget it. “Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” Entak responded and nodded emphatically.

“Good. Because remember ... the success or failure of the engagement depends on you.” Darek said, with more than a hint of a threat.

Entak swallowed tensely, and sweat began to drip slowly down his forehead.

Darek’s eyes bored into Entak once more. When he had made his position quite clear, Darek then said:

“Entak, you are dismissed.”

Entak, relieved but not wanting to show it for the fear of provoking Darek’s wrath, left.

Darek then arched downwards towards the table and clasped his hands. His folded hands reached his face and began to support it, and once more he began to brood. His eyes stared at the wall to the far end of the room. It seemed like he was shut off from the world.

But perceptions are often wrong.

Entak began to look over the files. It was true — the Cardassians really did have no idea what they were up against.

Entak sighed as he viewed file after file after file. Darek had obviously forgotten to mention he didn’t just put in one estimate, but virtually every single estimate he seemed likely.

And when the paranoid and obsessive Darek did that, the result was a nearly insurmountable swathe of comprehensive information.

It was turning out to be a long day.

Zorat sat in his office, studying the rising and falling of the currency he had implemented. To create self-sufficiency on a newly founded industrial colony was a challenge for him, to be sure, but Zorat didn’t become one of the ten richest men in Cardassia — as he’d previously been — by not taking on challenges.

“Sir, there’s someone here to see you.” The voice of his secretary came over the comm. The gruff and petulant Zorat looked up to the ceiling.

“Send them away.” Zorat snapped. “I’m busy.”

“Sir, he says he was commanded by the Legate himself to come to you.”

Though none could see it — Darek would have certainly basked in it if he did — Zorat visibly paled.

“Send him in.” Zorat said abruptly, and turned off the comm. The door slid aside to reveal a Cardassian glinn.

“What is it?”

“Orders from Darek, sir.” The man stepped forward and placed a PADD on Zorat’s desk.

“He wants these constructed.”

The Glinn then promptly excused himself. Zorat looked down at the PADD.

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

Now there’s something the Cardassian military hasn’t used in a long time... Zorat shrugged the thought off. It didn’t matter what the Legate wanted done or why, but that it got done.

Zorat had lived by that motto, too, because the wrath of any Cardassian despot was to be feared. But Darek’s was legendary.

Zorat hit his com system.

“Get Kelkar in here on the double.” Zorat said, tersely and with an arrogant tone, to his secretary. “We have some things to discuss.”

Entak sat in New Zareshan’s first — and for the moment, only — barracks, and watched his forces train laboriously. They were both policemen and troops. Once, they had been among the up-and-coming finest of the combat divisions in the Cardassian military.

Which was precisely why Darek had chosen them.

Entak had remembered when Darek had come to him. At the time, Darek still held his rank of Legate, but had been in semi-political exile and deprived of all commands — not the first time that had happened to Darek, but that didn’t stop him from being any less vindictive about it. Technically, Entak had no need to obey him, and the Cardassian military strictly forbade treason as Darek’s plot, revealed to Entak, most certainly was.

But Darek had a way with people. It did not matter what rank he had or what the position was, he dominated. Instinctively and unconsciously or deliberately and willfully, Entak couldn’t tell, but he simply did. He gave those who he spoke to no choice. They were swept up in his twisted and threatening charisma, thrown into a course they had no desire to follow but all other options forcefully barred.

Entak watched on, as his men did push ups and tried weights. As they hunched over computer panels and examined the land they were about to go into. As they made the preparations for war.

In the distance, Entak could hear the low hum of the hoverbike. Hoverbikes, although they had been used in the early days of the Cardassian Union, were later abandoned in favor of more space power and fighter-shuttlecraft.

But such tremendous, destructive air power was not an option for New Zareshan. She had four Hideki class shuttles, and they were rendered inoperable by the terrain. The Praklar II could fire a bombardment at the forest, but they’d need to know where to hit, precisely — the dreadnought was saving her torpedoes since New Zareshan currently was unable to provide her with replacements.

And mobility was the key. The Cardassians were entering into a dangerous situation, Darek had told Entak. They had to keep a decisive advantage, and phasers alone would hardly do that.

Darek and Entak went over the plans which Entak had assembled. They discussed and considered the complex possibilities, point by point, piece by piece. And as they did so, Darek continued to become increasingly concerned.

They had very little information on their enemy, and Darek had long prided himself in correct interpretation of whatever information he had... but sometimes the margin of error could be seen as simply too wide.

He usually, at the very least, knew the name of the species he was up against in all his previous engagements. He did not get that luxury here.

There were too many ways it could go wrong... but, as he noted grimly, of all the possible plans he had reviewed it had the least amount of difficulties.

It was his best choice.

The people of New Zareshan stood in the streets, watching with apprehension. With a roar that echoed throughout the small city a mechanical roar followed by a high-pitched whir, the hoverbikes powered up and charged out of the city, uprooting plants and leaving trails of dust in their wake.

It was then that the peace and tranquillity of the forest was disturbed. A low hum, increasing in crescendo, began to filter into that densely wooded area. Curious animals looked up in its direction, but the more intelligent ones scurried for cover.

The hoverbikes plunged into the forest. They shot into the thick undergrowth of that reservoir of peace, travelling at hardly advisable speeds and ramming through whatever got in their way. They broke up into separate columns. One division would wheel about one way and again continue their descent into the forest, another would whirl around and press on in an opposite direction. Entak, sitting in a two-seater hoverbike, observed their progress as the driver in front of him sped on towards what Darek had predicted was their most likely hiding place.

Entak watched his tiny monitor and observed the different teams and the direction they had headed off in.

From the confines of the Government Building, Darek also watched the engagement unfold, observing the blinking lights on his substantially larger — but very similar — screen. He monitored their positions, but at present, he could do no more. The undergrowth was too thick for him to be able to use a comlink to direct the forces as he saw fit.

This irritated him. He knew it would be the case but he was irritated nonetheless. Sure, he had meticulously gone the plan, constructed its base and reviewed and assembled it in Darekian detail with Entak.

For Darek, this was good, and was among the things he enjoyed most — and there were few things Darek could really be said to enjoy.

But for Darek, planning was simply not enough, not sufficient.

Darek was a very ’hands-on’ person — he wanted to be able to control movements of his forces, make the adjustments and quick, necessary decisions as the enemy approached, and simply still be having a hand to play while his plans are being executed.

But the only way he could have done that for this battle was to go into the undergrowth personally on a hoverbike, and he knew that he was too valuable an asset — to himself, if not to anyone else — to lose.

And so he watched, and he knew that, even then, though few had yet to wake up to the prospect, what he was watching was to be one of the defining moments of New Zareshan’s history.

But he was now powerless as to play a hand in deciding how that moment would define New Zareshan...

Entak continued to hear the five-minute reports from the various division commanders as they charged deeper into the forest. So far, it had not been very encouraging. A good number of hoverbikes had been lost out of a mere moment of laxity, and there was still no indication of any signs of these natives.

Many of the convoys, his included, were nearing the precise spots in which settlement was likely that they had been targeted for... and there were still no signs of settlement, and none of these blue-skinned natives were to be found anywhere.

With a whir Entak’s driver spun to avoid a tree as they frantically dashed through the undergrowth.

Impulsively — he was already getting a hang for it — Entak dodged out of the way of a stray brush.

And then his comlink, stuck in his ear, flared to life. It was the next five minute report.

“This is Column Two. No sign of natives.” One division commander’s voice stated blandly. Entak yawned. Why am I not surprised?

“This is Column Three. No sign of natives.” Entak scratched behind his ear.

“This is Column Four. No sign of natives.”

“This is Column Five. No sign of —” And then came the noise that woke Entak up.

It was a scream. Entak, as a soldier, had heard it many times before. It was the scream of the dead. “— hey!” said the voice of the instantly startled fifth division commander. “What? Turn us around, turn us around!”

“Column Five, this is Column One.” Entak snapped immediately. “Report. What’s your status.”

“We’re under attack —” There was another gurgling scream, and Entak knew that this time it was the commander. The link became static. Instantly, Entak hit a button on his seat.

“Column One to all columns. Column One to all columns. Column Five is under attack. Repeat: Column Five is under attack. Change direction to Column Five immediately. Entak out.”

The hoverbikes stopped, allowing the forest to breathe — but only for a moment. They swung about in one direction and with a ripping roar barrelled towards it. Perhaps the petrified animals would have not thought it possible — or at least hoped it wouldn’t — but they became faster. If their previous speed had been hardly advisable, this was nothing short of suicidal.

And as a few pelted onto trees, smacking full force and exploding in a frenzied fireball, the description of the speed fitted the facts.

But most got through. They nimbly darted through the trees and the undergrowth, shattering once more a once placid environment, and spun onwards towards their goals.

And they prepared to join battle...

Entak peered out from behind his driver’s back and then gave his small screen another check. They where not at the Fifth Column’s position yet, but they were getting close.

A spear was flung overhead and Entak barely avoided.

“Back off!” Entak yelled at his driver. “Back off!” Entak’s hoverbike wheeled around and retired as the rest of the first column flew by.

And for one instant, it seemed that the Cardassians were alone in the forest. But the illusion was shattered when a hail of spears blasted from people unseen and hidden in the undergrowth, spiralling upwards and swooping through the air inexorably towards their targets.

Entak watched as the spears pierced right through the skulls of more then a dozen of his men simultaneously, and the sheer force of the spears carried the corpses right off the Hoverbikes. They were flung onto the ground and their Hoverbikes sped on without them like rider-less horses.

Entak swung his head back and forth, frantically looking. But he could see none of his assailants.

And as he heard high pitched screams in the distance he realised that they were also attacking the other units.

They didn’t stand a chance in the undergrowth... quickly, Entak checked his computer screen. The quickest route out was...

“Column One to all columns. Column One to all columns. Change direction to the river...”

The Cardassian hoverbikes sped by the forest at breakneck speeds, desperately trying to get out of an excellently laid and sprung trap — but even those speeds were not enough. The throbbing noise of the Cardassian hoverbikes was joined with the gargles of the Cardassian dying.

They darted across the forest, rarely seen and never caught. Often the only evidence they were there at all were the spears plunging out of the wooded areas and ramming themselves into their luckless victims.

With a burst, the Cardassian hoverbikes ripped out and away from the forest and to the riverside.

Or what was left of them. Entak swept his eyes around in a quick head count. Of the eight columns which had gone into the forest, the fifth, sixth and seventh columns had been utterly annihilated. The eighth column was the next best thing to annihilated and the first, second, third, and fourth columns were at a pale shadow of their former strength.

But even now, after those first frantic minutes, it was not over. A storm of spears shot out from the forest, exploding outwards and impaling many of the handful of remaining forces instantly.

Entak was about to yell into his comlink — when a spear hit his leg. He fell off his hoverbike and stumbled onto the green, lush ground. It might have been a welcome sight — at another time.

Entak looked up to his driver — but a spear dove itself at an angle from his head to his neck, and the prone body slumped over the controls. He struggled to stand up, or to even move — but he couldn’t. The pain throbbed relentlessly through his leg.

The other Hoverbikes darted away in a final attempt to escape — but the ruthless natives now plunged out of the undergrowth, finally visible — and threw their spears at the retreating forces.

The wounded Entak looked on, helpless, as the final remnants of his army were decimated.

The natives then began to carelessly pick up the many Cardassian corpses felled on the ground, and more of them came out of the undergrowth carrying still more corpses.

Entak watched as the natives threw the Cardassian bodies into the stream. The corpses floated downriver in their hundreds, their open wounds pouring their blood into the stream.

They had polluted the forest with their noise. Now they polluted the river with their fluids. Entak was sickened by the sight. He was an officer in the Cardassian military, and he had seen some horrible things inflicted in his time. He’d inflicted horrible things in his time.

But for some reason, for him what he had seen and done then paled to what he had seen today.

And the natives began to walk towards him...

Unlike the first meeting of the New Zareshan Military Council, the Battle of Autanga Forest — as it was later known — was hardly a mere footnote in New Zareshan’s history. Though the events which had, by their decisions, decided what would occur and doomed the battle to fate, those decisions had not been known by the populace. But there was no way even Elam Darek could hide the battle beneath a veil. It was one of the turning points in her history. One of the most monumental of all the incidents that happened to New Zareshan. The cream of its army swiftly and efficiently destroyed by the natives. The city lay bare and exposed. It lay vulnerable to attack, and for the first time the citizens feared something other then their sadistic master.

But it was not just a momentous historical note, either.

It had been the first time Darek had been defeated. The situation may have been against him on an enormous scale, but like Hannibal at Zama, it had been crushing.

And the future of not just New Zareshan, but Darek himself, was cast into doubt...