El'Sha'nan had been fixing his dress uniform but paused as he realized how acclimated he had become to his artificial limb. The soft sound of the servos in the finger actuators contrasted against the backdrop of his calm breathing in his spartan quarters. The artificial fingers moved with as much if not more manual dexterity then he had ever known and he had even become accustomed to the delicate whine every time he flexed the prosthetic arm. He felt a strange detachment when he flexed remaining natural arm in relative silence. Weary of the time, he returned to quickly buttoning his dress coat. He tried to shake off the sensation with annoyance but could not. The summons to a high level debrief was making him more anxious than the inquiry. Yet it was he that had been pushing hard to gain information; harassing Shas'El'Tae'en's aides, the Au'taal sub-command, the Vash'ya Fire caste delegation; anyone that could provide him with more details. Up until now he had been politely but firmly ignored. It had been almost 40 rotaa since their return and as far as El'Sha'nan could tell, nothing had changed about the station's security level. He watched as fire warrirors and cadres practiced, drank, and went about their daily tasks as though there was no eminent danger. The inquiry had been a distraction, but now he could focus, observe it in the other cadres as they trained together. So many young shas'fann, naive of the danger they were in.
Still it had been almost 40 ro'taa, and not even a so much as an errant scan had revealed itself to the fleet. If the enemy was out there, why had they not made so much as a light probe? Many would ask if any enemy could be so well hidden from the fleet's powerful scanners? El'Sha'nan knew that his thoughts would seem like paranoia and that his actions and orders already reflected that. He was working his cadre hard. Rifle and confined quarters drills were now standard parts of the rotaa long training regime. He had staged drills to improve his teams' response time to the closest arms lockers. Recreation time was kept to the absolute minimum, but still despite his concerns, most of the cadre spent their waking hours not on duty, on the recreation decks. Pressured by his brother and Vre'Mua'da, El'Sha'nan attended, but to his brother's chagrin, he had refused anything other than mild teas or light meals.
His wrist comm chimed from under his left sleeve, reminding him that it was time to leave. He brushed away some of the creases in his dress uniform, being mindful of his wrist comm, the plugs of his body suit, and the sharper edges of his prosthetic. Outside his room, shas'fann leaned against walls and rails, having hushed conversations, courteous of those resting from their duties. His journey to the deck lift was a mix of obvious cold shoulders, warm salutes, nods, and obliviousness. He wondered if his two Shas'vre were already outside the briefing room or if he should wait, but a message chimed on his wrist comm, with the word "hurry", He activated the lift without further delay. He came to the same deck where the He'pha'n briefing took place and as he passed the vacant dark empty briefing room a strange nostalgic feeling washed over him.
Several groups of uniformed shas'fann were outside the appointed room, having hushed conversations. El'Sha'nan looked for his brother or Vre'Mua'da, finding neither among them. As he moved to the room's entryway, the low conversations around him fell off and he could feel their eyes on him. Many kept their faces neutral but the silence made the tension clear. El'Sha'nan chose to ignore them. The chamber was large and well lit. Several rows of seats were arrayed at the rear, farthest from the opening. Almost half were occupied, a mix of fire caste and water caste. On the opposing side, closer to the room's entrance, were seven empty high back chairs that were placed on a platform arrayed in an loose arc. Between the two groups of seats was a fiotek bench that that could be recessed into the floor and what El'Sha'nan assumed was a podium. This was far from the usual prompt short debriefs El'Sha'nan was used to, and had the unpleasant and familiar air more akin to that of an inquiry. Vre'Mua'da, Vre'Shais'ka, and to his surprise, El'Ol'Savon were seated on the bench. All of them were wearing dress uniforms and staring at the platform. His younger brother was studying the seven seats and wore a smoldering expression while Vre'Mua'da, concern etched on her face, kept turning, looking around. He wondered why they were not speaking to each other. El'Sha'nan frowned, resolving himself to meet this "briefing" head on, but as he moved forward, a small Por'la, wearing a similar uniform to his, barred his way. She was young, and her eyes were fixed on her wrist comm.
"You are Shas'El'Fo'tan'Sha'nan, yes? Of course you are, you have all the noble bearing of a commander returned from victorious battle. We are honored that you have attended the briefing. Please your seat is at the bench, closest to the podium. We politely ask, that in the interest of factual information gathering, you refrain from speaking until the beginning of the session."
She spoke so fast that it took a moment to process. The courteous words were practiced and not without some warmth but felt like empty platitudes as the young por'la posture was obviously bored and she never made eye contact.
"Yes. The commanders had agreed that more than one session will be required to determine our next course of action. In fact we have already had one earlier in the rotaa," she said, her eyes finally meeting his.
El'Sha'nan looked past her, realizing that no air caste were present.
"Where is Kor'El'U'ten? He should be here, as his testimony is important," he said, still scanning the room to see if he had missed the tall lithe form of the Regulant's ship master.
The por'la's focus returned to her wrist comm.
"hmmm....I do not see a Kor...ah you are referring to Kor'El'Tash'var'U'ten. He testified in the session prior and will not be required here. Can I show you to your seat?"
She looked up again, bearing a cheery expression, but again, El'Sha'nan could feel her insincerity as though the expression had been practiced enough times to become a convincing lie.
"No, I understood your instructions. Thank you Por'la."
She bowed and moved aside.
He moved to the bench and shared a look with his brother, and then Vre'Mua'da as he passed. Vre'Shais'ka was still a silent fuming storm, and Vre'Mua'da was indeed nervious. He tried to pass off calm, but was not sure if he had convinced even himself. He turned to El'Ol'Savon, but she refused to even look at him. As he sat down he tried to look straight ahead as well though the temptation to speak was more taxing than he thought. The thrum of conversations all around him made him feel the weight of the restriction. It was a few more agonizing moments before the singular tone told the assembly that the meeting was about to begin and shas'fann and water caste filed in to the seats behind him. The sorted conversations continued however till one of the fire caste stepped on to the platform. His face bore several light scars and he carried the poise of a stern veteran shas'fann as did his attendant fire warrior, both in white fio'tek combat armor. They both wore light purple in their scalp locks marking them as Vash'ya representatives. Another entourage followed, making El'Sha'nan repress a gasp. It was the commander that had greeted him when they had been brought on board. Her scalp lock was oddly patterned, or styled, he realized, with several of the strands stark white in contrast with her dark hair. Her \prosthetic arm was indeed a dark hue close to true black and contrasted against her immaculate cream armor. The flecks of green clearly marked her as the Au'taalian contingent commander. It was embellished to a degree that would have embarrassed El'Sha'nan but she seemed not troubled at all. She had a slightly bemused smile and made eye contact with him. Despite his best efforts, El'Sha'nan felt abashed, and turned his head. Her artificial eyes were dark pools of midnight but flashed blue as she and her attendant took their seats on the left of the platform. She still bore the smile and El'Sha'nan hardened his gaze in anger. This was evidently a serious matter yet she carried a look that made him think she was thinking on some inside joke. It was almost another rai'kor before El'Tae'en walked in, his two aides in tow. The senior security commander wore a stern gaze, and El'Sha'nan could feel his stare fall on him. He looked at the security commander, unsure if he was being measured or if the commander was just upset. During their earlier encounter, El'Sha'nan had failed to realize that both of El'Tae'en's eyes were augmented replacements and that a large section of his head was encased in burnt yellow fio'tek. The senior fire caste commander surveyed the room before he took the central seat. El'Tae'en activated something on his wrist comm before closing his eyes in a moment of silence, bowing his head. The room followed his lead. It was only after a long pause that El'Tae'en broke the silence and continued.
“I would like to welcome all present to this debrief session of the He’pha’n rescue mission. As stated in previous sessions, it is important to understand this is not an inquiry or a trial, but a true debrief. We, the senior-most commanders of the largest bodies of fire caste present, have reviewed many rotaa of logs, battle recordings, and are now proceeding with live testimony, which we plan to use in the security recommendation regarding the fleet’s next destination and route to the Zone of Silence.”
El’Tae’en paused, letting the room absorb his words. He in turn nodded in respect to the Vash’ya representative and the female commander and they did likewise.
“I mention this now because while this is not a trial, several issues demand further explanation and review, for while this mission is considered a success, it only succeeded in the rescue of a small fraction of colonists and sustained heavy losses in doing so. We must understand better, so that we can better protect the empire against its enemies.”
Again the senior commander paused, before his gaze fixed on El’Sha’nan.
“We shall begin with the actual initial mission. Shas’El’Sha’nan, the death of Shas’El’Aloh’ka is a regrettable loss, as he had shown so much promise and only risen recently to the rank. Being made mission commander was based on his service record and recommendations from several of his former commanders. We have learned that from recordings and datalogs, that you and mission commander had some form of disagreement concerning the deployment and distribution of the cadres. We eventually agreed that you ultimately obeyed the mission commander, but please elaborate on the nature of the dispute?”
The session had dragged on for several decs now. All four of the shas’fann on the bench had been subjected to questions. Vre’Mua’da had gained composure the more she was subjected to questions while Vre’Shais’ka held his anger in check through short grunting answers and scowling facial expressions. The senior most commanders asked for accounts concerning the entire journey, seemingly picking apart El’Sha’nan’s decisions, recommendations, and orders. Late in the second dec, El’Tae’en had pushed hard on El’Sha’nan’s decision to stay and combat orks at the alien station. The Fo’tan commander had defended his position, but wondered if the security commander was right, reflecting that in the end, the devious okeni had betrayed them, costing more lives then in just the battle.
El’Ol’Savon was thankfully close to completing her account of the internal defense of the Regulant Auspice. El’Sha’nan was sore from sitting on the bench and his head had started a slow dull ache. He wished that he had indulged in a larger meal earlier as hunger was also beginning to creep into his stomach. As El’Ol’Savon finished her report and again took her place, still refusing to look at any of the Fo’tan command team, the commanders on the platform began whispering amongst themselves. The conversation suddenly broke with El’Tae’en sweeping his hands in swift angry arcs.
“That will conclude the testimony portion of this session. I would like to state that I have not agreed with many of the decisions made by both the assigned mission commander and the acting one and as such, I believe that those poor decisions have resulted in the heavy casualties suffered by your cadres, the loss of Shas’El’Aloh’ka, and the dissolving of his cadre.”
The Au’taalian commander clicked in annoyance while both Vash’ya fire warriors stiffened but made no other expressions.
“If it had not already performed, I would have demanded an inquiry, though I doubt the results would have had the same outcome, nevertheless I digress. We would like to hear the status of Shas’El’Ol’Savon’s Cadre and then her recommendation regarding the potential threat we could be facing, if any.”
“As well as the status of the Fo’tan’s Cadre and their commander’s assessment of the threat,” said the Au’taalian commander, the sly smile returning to her face, though the gesture never reached her eyes.
El’Tae’en had been about to speak when, the stern looking Vash’ya commander spoke up as well.
“as would I.”
El’Tae’en’s head whipped around in frustration, but acquiesced, waving his arms in futility as he said, “and then the Fo’tan’s cadre commander will give us the status of his cadre and …assessment.”
El’Ol’Savon returned to the podium, nodding to each of the three commanders in turn as she had earlier.
“Senior security commanders, my cadre stands ready to serve. We are at 98% combat readiness and our performance scores are approaching our previous numbers prior to the He’pha’n mission. As you may know, I have been conducting a series of drills, some in concert with El’Sha’nan’s cadre, in boarding and counter boarding exercises as requested and recommended by my former instructors and commanders.”
She paused, taking a breath before continuing.
“I have also assembled a team who have been conducting a study, coordinating the efforts of dozens of our patrols, compiling their sensor data to see if any credible threat remains of the enemy, the Var’Sin’da, that we encountered in route back to the Path Resurgent. My team included several the hololith, earth caste, and kor’vesa. The ships we had encountered, had possessed a highly sophisticated stealth technology, but it was not completely able to defeat our detection or sensors. The team focused on those weak signals to see if any match could be found. As of this rotaa, our study has been unable to locate any sign, errant or otherwise, of their ships. It is my conclusion that the fleet that attacked the Regulant Auspice were responsible for the blocked the transmission in an effort to prevent us from calling for aid. They may have been aware of the fleet’s position prior to the last jump, but I believe they were deterred from action given the size of the Regulant’s escort fleet as their best opportunity to attack us would have come during the rescue of the Selim. This also corresponds with our knowledge of the Var’sin’da. They are a fractious race of small loose tribes and it is very possible that this tribe attacked the Regulant Auspice in retaliation for the losses they suffered on He’pha’n. Most of these tribes would not be able to match a fleet as large as ours and given that the race has engaged in infighting, their disunion would make it doubtful that that several tribes have banded together, though not impossible. There is also the matter that our fleet has made another jump, given the difference in technology, with regards to our enemy and even the Path Resurgent itself, it would be difficult for them to know our next position if any of this “tribe” are still alive. I believe that the threat is nonexistent.”
El’Sha’nan felt woefully unprepared. Her argument had been excellent and that she had been researching the enemy was more than he had done. He had been drilling the cadre hard, but had not mentally prepared for them, had not learned anything about their goals or previous tactics.
Still there were things he knew, as he had been following the prisoner interrogations and aside from a few abnormalities, one fact remained, all the prisoners had maintained that they knew nothing about the fleet, their mission, nor most importantly the missing ethereal.
He stood the moment El’Ol’Savon sat down and made his way to the podium.
“Senior commanders, my cadre is 94% battle readiness, as in addition to our reinforcements, several of my veterans are more than halfway through XV-8 pilot certifications. I have been conducting heavy training in conjunction with several cadre commanders, primarily in counter boarding operations and weapon preparedness drills.”
El’Tae’en gestured for him to stop, “and why is that commander? Your cadre specializes in mechanized armored deployment, namely vehicular and rapid response? Ship security is out of your specialty?
“Unlike my sister commander, I am unconvinced that the threat has passed. There is still the case of the missing Ethereal, we know that his shuttle went down on He’pha’n.”
“We know that a shuttle went down on He’pha’n. We have no confirmation that it was the Ethereal’s shuttle. There were no further investigation other than your initial incomplete survey,” said the Vash’ya commander.
El’Sha’nan regretted not having investigated further, but they had been called back by El’Aloh’ka. Later he had been recovering from injury and most of the fire caste were absorbed in the efforts to evacuate the colony and they had been forced from the planet by the Var’sin’da before even completing that.
“The fact remains that the ethereal, one with knowledge of this mission, is unaccounted for. The council of highest cannot disclose his route, for security reasons, but refuse to confirm his current location. In addition, none of the prisoners we captured, knew of the fleet or had any knowledge of the missing Ethereal. It is possible that the Regulant Auspice attackers are from a rival tribe.”
“The datalog and your own accounts show that most of the enemy were poorly trained, perhaps they use similar tactics to the Be’gel and used fodder troops for assaults and boarding operations. It may be that the prisoners were not privy to this information. As difficult as this may be, are you certain that the Ethereal did not…perish… in the crash or worse, in your mission’s engagements with these Var’sin’da?” asked El’Tae’en.
“We had been recalled before I could conduct a thorough search, but my initial assessment is that the orca was forced to touch down more than destroyed in flight. I believe they wanted live prisoners. If this particular group had captured the ethereal, why would they not have used him as a hostage during our battle? I think the answer still lies on He’pha’n. Perhaps we should return in force and survey the crash site.”
“Out of the question, we are too deep to turn back now, the delay would definitely jeopardize our security.”
“What of the other orcas and escort? Was there any sign of them? If they escaped they would have reported the loss of the ethereal,” said the Au’taalian commander.
“and the Council of the highest would have been alerted as well and would most likely alerted all commands,” said the Vash’ya commander
El’Sha’nan had not thought of that. The ethereal must have checked in at some point afterwards otherwise the entire empire would be alerted to his absence.
“Perhaps they are coercing the Ethereal into betraying us,” said El’Sha’nan. The words slipping out almost through impulse. He regretted it the moment he had said them. He knew that the argument reeked of paranoia and desperation.
The room was washed in gasps of shock. The entire senior staff sitting on the platform stiffened. El’Tae’en stood, raising his hands in a call for quiet.
“That is a serious accusation you level at the honored Aun, Shas’El. Take care with your words,” El’Tae’en said, leveling a scowl of disapproval at El’Sha’nan.
“My apologies to all present, I spoke without thinking. I know that the honored Ethereals would always act in the interest of the Greater Good,” he said abashed.
“I must ask if you believe that your judgment is not clouded Shas’El’Sha’nan. Do you not think that you are making more of the situation, out of some personal need for glory or to be heard? Might it not be arrogance in thinking that only you have perceived some threat, when most evidence indicates otherwise and other wise and experienced commanders think otherwise? You have been through an ordeal, perhaps one you were not well prepared for. It could be that in coping with the shock, you are not rationalizing the facts correctly? That this thin theory creates unnecessary panic and fear where we need unity and faith of purpose?” said El’Tae’en.
El’Sha’nan choler rose, but he pushed it down to ask himself the same questions. Was this selfish ambition, a cry for attention?
“No,” he heard the ghostly memory of his mentor’s voice inside his head. Something was off, wrong about the attacks on the colony, though he could not see it with clarity, not yet anyways.
“No,” El’Sha’nan said, echoing the ghost inside his thoughts. He continued, “My only concern is for the well-being of this mission and her success. There are many questions that I cannot answer, but something is not right and I urge that we tread cautiously, ready for anything.”
El’Tae’en stared hard at El’Sha’nan, but the Au’taalian commander spoke up.
“Shas’El’Tae’en, perhaps our kor’fann brothers and sisters have time to conduct a large range sweep. That would be likely to catch any hidden watchers and only cost the fleet a few additional rotaa.”
The chief security commander turned and looked at her, and then to the Vash’ya commander, who also lightly nodded.
El’Tae’en’s jaw clenched, but also shut his eyes, before nodding repeatedly as though he were concentrating.
The security commander sat back down.
“Given the testimony and the recommendations given by the assembled commanders, I will recommend that despite the costly delay, our Kor’vattra escort perform a detailed sweep of the area, though the ultimate decision will lie with Kor’O’Yama’nan. I thank the commanders that gave testimony today. This session is adjourned.”
El’Tae’en had starred out among the assembly as he spoke, only refusing to look at El’Sha’nan, but his words were metered and cool, leaving El’Sha’nan unsure of his standing with the security commander.
Others began to file out, only parting for the senior commanders as they departed. First to leave the security commander and his attending Shas’vre. The Vash’ya commander followed shortly after. Lastly the commander from Au’taal stood, staring at El’Sha’nan again with that knowing smile before passing through the chamber’s opening. On their heels, El’Ol’Savon left without a single word.
El’Sha’nan tried to talk to his brother, but Vre’Shais’ka raised his hand, “no brother, I need to calm my mind first. Today’s “briefing” has upset me, I do not wish to talk now.”
His brother walked away. El’Sha’nan turned to Vre’Mua’da, but she too stood and left with an annoyed snort. El’Sha’nan knew that expression, though he could not understand why Vre’Mua’da was upset. He thought to stop and ask her, but already the crowd migrating to the exit, separated them, keeping him from catching up to her. It had been a strange rotaa, he decided as he sat back down, waiting for the throng of tau’fann to thin. He decided to meditate, to calm his thoughts. This debrief or trial or whatever this had been at least shown his missteps and in the end, the fire caste would at least take precautions, he had convinced them of that. Against the growing tide of casual conversation, he sighed in relaxation, feeling as though a weight had been lifted and he could finally truly be safe.