“I don’t want to keep lying for your Threedak,” Dormah hissed at her as she packed her diagnostic equipment into its carrying satchel. “Your daughters have clearly noticed that something is amiss, and now they’re turning to me. I won’t speak to them without your permission, but they deserve to know.”
“Dormah,” Threedak chuckled as she stood up from her couch. “I think you’re the only Dhajtel to refer to me by my name in over a decade. It’s always Mother, Grandmother or Empress. I do have to say that your impertinence is refreshing, the bowing and scraping grows old after a while.”
“Maybe I’ll start deferring to you when you actually take your health seriously,” Dormah snorted, snapping the latches on the satchel shut before slinging it over her shoulder. “This isn’t a game we’re playing here. Your daughters have the right to know.”
“They’ll just worry,” Threedak answered with a sigh. “There’s already just so much going on between the Maxist insurrection and the invader outpost. If I tell them they’d just fret over me rather than focus on the starvok at the empire’s door. I will not let some minor pains of the flesh become a distraction from our purpose and destiny.”
“Threedak,” Dormah put a grasper on her shoulder as she tried to step by the doctor. “They do worry. Bekai has been asking me more and more pointed questions about your health since yesterday, and Dahlass even brought something up. You know they’re almost out of their minds if Dahlass is mentioning it.”
Threedak stopped. The grasper on her shoulder weighed heavily on her. Thoughts swirled through her head. The past fifty or so years had been like walking a tightrope through a hurricane. Kahtash, Bekai, Dahlass, and in her own way Pinrakt provided her with the support she needed to keep their fledgling society on course, even during the darkest of times. It didn’t seem fair to dump more worries into their graspers now, when the empire faced its greatest test. But, Dormah was right. Her daughters worried and it wasn’t fair for her to keep them in the dark.
“How much longer do I have?” She asked the doctor quietly, turning her head slightly so that Dormah’s muzzle filled her view.
“It’s hard to say,” Dormah sighed. “It’s metastasized and spread through the entirety of your lungs. You’ve probably noticed an increased difficulty with breathing. That’s only going to get worse until-”
The communicator around Threedak’s neck chirped, interrupting Dormah. Frowning, she picked the small metal box up in a grasper and checked the sender.
“We have to go Dormah,” Threedak opened the door to her quarters. “Kahtash’s fleet is nearing the enemy outpost and she wants to speak to me before battle.”
She moved to exit the room but stopped. Turning to face Dormah once more, she continued. “I’ll call the girls to me and tell them once Kahtash comes back from the battle. Don’t worry about me old friend. I’ve survived too many years for this body to give out on me now. There’s still a bit of fight left in me yet.”
Dormah simply stood in her chambers, her muzzle set into a line and shaking her head as Threedak departed. Threedak sighed. They’d been over this argument so many times it made her head spin. She could stretch her life out further if she retired from public duty. Relaxed and sought treatment.
But that wouldn’t be her. Threedak’s life was one of motion. Every move had two planned after it as she pulled her race kicking and screaming toward its destiny. Dormah wanted her to retire, but to Threedak that would be just as much of a death as the one that awaited her if she kept working.
She cleared her face of the worries and indecision that dogged her just before entering Meridian Station’s command center. Bekai and Pinrakt were already waiting for her, standing next to the holographic display. Dahlass was still on Dhaj, reorganizing in the aftermath of the raid on the Maxist compound. She would participate via her own communication hub.
The entire battle and all of their reactions would be recorded for posterity. Pinrakt’s editors would be splicing it together into a vid drama for the masses. Part history and part propaganda, the vids would be the empire’s official response to the Maxist claims regarding the invaders. True, some of the fringe Dhajtel might think that the vid was doctored, but without an organized response from the Maxist propaganda wing, their numbers would be limited.
“Mother,” Bekai inclined her head to Threedak as she approached the holographic display. “We’ve received a signal from Kahtash’s communication officer. They’re ready to put you on fleetwide on ten seconds notice. Right now the fleet is just waiting for your address.”
“Very well,” Threedak replied, stepping in front of the cameras that would broadcast a three dimensional image of herself to the battlefleet and governmental offices all across the empire.
“This is Meridian Station,” Bekai said after pressing the transmit button. “Empress Threedak will begin transmitting in ten seconds.”
She stood as tall as her slight stature would let her on four legs and tried to ignore the bustle of the Dhajtel operating equipment behind her. She didn’t often speak to all of her people. Rather, she had become an almost mythological figure working behind the scenes to ensure the empire’s growth and success. Even if she was unpracticed as a public speaker, the memories of Jon Reaves and Franklin Mitchell were there to guide her. Her eyelids closed for a second as she mentally leaned on both of them, absorbing their thoughts and advice.
Then the light next to the camera turned green and Threedak’s eyes snapped open.
“Women of the Navy,” Threedak squared herself toward the camera, trying to look as formal as possible. “My name is Threedak and you may know me as the Empress of the Dhajtel. Others amongst you know me as their mother, grandmother or great grandmother. Whatever our relation, I am speaking to you from a place of immense gratitude.”
“As you know, everything we have created on Dhaj is transitory,” she continued, a grasper waving at the planet beneath her feet. “Our race’s legacy has always been the stars themselves. Any civilization tied to just one planet could disappear in the nictation of a membrane. Only by expanding our empire to multiple worlds can we give our daughters room to grow and the security they will need to join us.”
“Even before we touched the stars we knew that the Dhajtel were not alone,” Threedak’s voice lowered as her neck pouches swelled, the instinctive response of a Dhajtel responding to a challenge. “The galaxy is a vast and dangerous place. From Humanity we have inherited knowledge and purpose, a birthright like no other. We have also inherited their enemies. The invaders.”
“Everything we have built is in their shadows,” her voice vibrated as the pouches thrummed. “From the first day we smelted iron and fashioned it into a crude blade, we knew that the invaders were that blade’s eventual goal. We assumed we would have centuries. Our world is so far from Earth that we would have time to expand the empire and build up our forces before we encountered the invaders.”
“We were wrong,” Threedak’s voice quieted. Her eyes glistened with unshed moisture. “I never bothered to ask where the invader fleet that shot down the arks went. I never even thought that it still might be in the system, licking its wounds. Captain Laksheer due to that oversight. Sacrificed herself so that tens of thousands of your sisters and daughters might escape to Dhaj and live.”
“We were wrong,” her voice swelled, a bass thrum that almost rattled the equipment in the command center. “But we were not unprepared. Even before we expanded our solar colonies, we built up the navy to expel just such a threat.”
“Today,” her breath began to burn in her throat from the prolonged speech but Threedak continued regardless. “I envy all of you. You are taking up my mantle to avenge Captain Laksheer and protect our race. The enemy is vicious and well armed. Not all of you will survive the coming conflict, but the rest will return victorious with blood wetting your teeth and a song in your hearts.”
“Marshal Kahtash,” Threedak fought with her entire being to avoid coughing as the air burned and rasped through her lungs like sandpaper. “Though the stars may burn and the sky may fall, you will lead my daughters to victory. I would tell you to make me proud, but you already have. All of you have. Commence the operation, you have command.”
With a chop of Threedak’s grasper, Bekai pressed the button that terminated the transmission. Immediately, Threedak doubled over coughing, her entire torso shaking as her lungs spasmed in agony. Pinrakt stepped forward, extending her grasper toward Threedak only for Threedak to shoo her away.
“There will be time to talk of this when Kahtash returns,” Threedak ground out, furtively checking the grasper that had been over her mouth for blood. This time, there was none. “For now, edit my weakness out of the stream. To the people, I am a symbol. They can’t hear any word of this.”
The room swam around Threedak as she struggled to pull enough air into her aching lungs. If Dormah were nearby and they weren’t in public, the doctor could provide her with a facemask pumping pure cool oxygen to soothe her ravaged pulmonary system. Today, that wasn’t an option. The people needed their symbol standing tall and strong as they triumphed over their hated foes. For the moment, infirmity wasn’t an option.
After the delay enforce on their communications by light speed transmission, Kahtash’s image appeared on the holographic display, most of her body hidden behind the environmental suit designed to keep her alive in the event of sudden depressurization. Through the suit’s facemask, Threedak could see the resolve in her daughter’s face, highlighted by her dark orange markings. She slammed her armored forearm to the chest of her suit in clattering salute.
“The Empress has given her order,” Kahtash replied, steel in her voice. “Turn on active sensors so we can see what we’re dealing with. It’s time to pay back the invaders that butchered Captain Laksheer in kind. We might have been unable to collect her body for her daughters, but we WILL end this threat to our people today and we will do it in memory of her sacrifice.”
Beyond Kahtash, the bridge erupted into cheers. A far cry from the uneasy silence filling the command center as most of the staff looked at her worriedly. Threedak refused to let their worry trouble her. Kahtash was on the cusp of history, in a mere hour or so she would be the first being, Dhajtel or Human to defeat the invaders. Admittedly, the fleets the humans encountered dwarfed the handful of run down torchships Kahtash would be facing today. Still, even a lopsided win would be good for morale.
The data from the active sensor ping came back, and Threedak let out a sigh of relief. There were only five invader torchships around the moon. The only information the active sensors added to their scouting report was the moderate industrialization of the moon. Small craft periodically flew to and from the planetoid, likely carrying goods and materials. They were building something.
Threedak frowned. Whatever the invaders were building, it wasn’t done yet. The constant flow of cargo ships told her that. What worried her was the amount of time the invaders had to build whatever it was. She didn’t know when this particular moon was colonized, but the invaders had likely been in system since Ashley Koenig’s shuttle crashed into the great desert. That was a long time to build something that wasn’t yet working.
On screen, the great green oval representing the two kilometer bulk of the Empress Threedak surged forward surrounded by the six green triangles of her torchship companions. The time for indecision and worrying was over. If the invaders had built something capable of tipping the balance on the moon, Kahtash would find out shortly. For now, there was nothing to do but wait as the great warships burned toward the enemy base.