Updated: Jan 15
[This story introduces “Chief” Laèrtes Kamkàlion and the shadowy Office of Naval Intelligence, giving us an idea of their unconventional practises and manner, perhaps]
I am going to die. Smoke. Red flashing lights. Sirens. Smoke. I smell the blood and the rancid toùl of my shipmates. They are all dead and it will be my turn soon enough. They haven’t found me yet but they will; the pirates, the Ghokhai.
The RMS Bhuèlfère, a medium displacement merchant runner along the spinward corridor of the Kiskin system, delivering machine parts from Bàcharik, the best New Albion uisge, tsaì from Neo-Cathay, and pure Virlýb-Tìka belt tàbak between Ceres Minor and Jotunmur, regular as clockwork, three times in each Gaian year. Served on her for a dèksak without incident but the gods had clearly frowned quite heavily on this voyage, which looked to be her last. I didn’t know that when we loaded up on Jotunmur’s frozen gaèd else I’d have done a few things different, I’d have stayed on Jotunmur and frozen my skoùl off gladly for a start!
They had come out of nowhere. One second,we’d dropped back into normal space out of the Mirkalos Delta `Gate to a whole lot of empty black, the next these bhanda Ghorkai were on top of us like they’d been there the whole time. No warning, no aethè readings, our Pilot felt nothing. One moment we were alone, the next our engines were hit, and we were being boarded. That quick. We didn’t have time to bab nà bam, at least half of the crew were dead before I was even aware of how frightened I should be. I could hear them now, their vvàrvàr chatter over our fòno like it belonged there. They’d hacked our fòno so’s we could hear the screams of our gages as those harak butchered them and laughed. I’d learned a bit or two of their vàrvàr skat over the years, here and there. In spite of being hopelessly caught in Oizys’ net, I dared to hope I could find a way off this wreck and make it clear and complete my mission, listening to their grunting in the chance I heard something that’d get me out of here alive.
“Grezzkah mekkah kulo rekh hakjlak levels two through ninteen. Rakkha tuhk gakh melh secured and under control.” I picked the bits that I recognised out of the grunting kaos but they were not encouraging bits. Those choì controlled every part of the ship and were meeting brief though ineffective resistence here and there which meant my team were all dead. There were fifteen of the exos toùl three decks above me and they’d be surely making their way down to where I was soon enough because I’d had the stunningly brilliant idea of hiding myself among their prime objective here with the stupid idea of jipping a cargo lifter and getting down onto one of inhospitable moons of Mirkalos as a starting point. Yeah, that was going to happen, skoùl brain!
I had maybe five minutes until they were all over me and me, even with my half-charged custom uranos pistol against their reaper cannons and big swords; the little bhanda could pack a punch but I’d left my spare cells back in my bunk and they were, obviously, of no use whatsoever there! I was chipàtloufà and the worst part is I knew how badly, this wasn’t my first time in a tight situation, but I’d always had either backup or a way out before, a plan or two, decent kit. Not even a sotithorax or good straight black on my person against monsters in armour close to as good as a chartòn Kalshodar. If I’m lucky, they’ll find my attempts at resistance amusing and keep me as a pet.
I’m like Odysseus only I know where my home is, I just don’t like it there.
Oh, yes! “Chief” Laèrtes Kamkàlion, of Erebus Nýx, from the Founder’s City of Hesiod. Ex diamond miner and hunter. Ne’erdowell, solver of problems, and self-extricator from impossible situations extraordinaire, though currently quartermaster on this shards cursed bucket for much longer than I had anticipated. I sail the kòsmos because I don’t know any better and the lure of the black is my only true love. I’m like Odysseus only I know where my home is, I just don’t like it there. Erebus Nýx was well named as it turns out, a hellhole of a planet where the daytime surface temperature can melt lead, we were forced to bury our cities deep under that charred crust, digging across and down like some kind of masochistic worms chewing through a rotten, burnt apple. Now I’d give my right pieca - both of them in fact - to be able to get back to that orròida in the loùf of Hades for just five minutes...leave me on the surface even for the star of Nýx to burn me black and crispy, I do not care; I’d die happy on the soil of my home and not out here at the hands of these harak. I’d die with a smile on my face before it was burned off by the radioactive fury of Nýx as the new day dawned.
So wrapped up was I in my morbid fantasies that I nearly did not hear the heavy yet furtive tread of an armoured foot on the deck no more than a dozen cubits away from me. Let them be cautious! My crew of hardened ex-riggers and experienced operators, most of them from the tunnels of Erebus, had slowed the yakkhas down a bit. The tunnelling Bastar-Skolex of Erebus were constantly intruding on our mine workings (or those same workings opened up on a nest of them one day) so we learned a lot about improvising traps on the fly. I think we’d managed to seriously injure, maybe even kill, ten of the yakkhas with some of Nestor’s best. Of course, Nestor was dead now, just like Patros, Brosin, Nikos, Inaris, Delos, Temon....
Two hundred men and women, two hundred members of the only family I really knew, among them some of the best and most irreplaceable operators I’ve had the honour to work with, torn to shreds by those harak’s swords or that evil kinetic ammo their reaper cannons use. Little alloy pellets no bigger than a lentil and weighing not much more than a fart, are blown out of those massive guns in a cloud that’s accelerated so fast it increases their mass a hundred times exponentially before they hit you. Get in the way of that and it’ll turn your bones to slivers and leave nothing recognisably human behind, just a mess of shredded meat and aerosolised blood. I smell the sharp copper tang of that bloody mist following the Ghorkai into the cargo deck now. There are three of them and I can hear them talking. I can smell the rank musk of their sweat, the oils they annoint their armour with, and the stink of the dead pelts they rivet to their suits as trophies. I hear them talking and, for some odd reason, they are talking Glòsta, after their brutal fashion.
“His gotz to bees over here somewha,” one began, its voice like two rocks being rolled together. “Kazalekh said we’z to a-find ‘im an bring the fakhar in to ‘im pronto.”
Yak! While one of them was talking and keeping my ears busy, another had come up behind me, as silent as smoke and was looking down at me now. Let me not be the last to tell you that Ghorkai areugly. They’re tall - the top of their head can reach a Kalshodar’s chin - and broad, something their heavy armour may exaggerate a little. What skin one can see is a greenish-bronze colour with all kinds of bristles and spines growing from it. Long bone-coloured spines grown flat to what we would recognise as cheeks over thick plates of chitin like this of an insect or lizard. More curve up the bridge of their flattened nose to their forehead, where they form a sort of crest that runs down to the the back of their otherwise bald skull. I am told the size of this crest indicates the importance or rank of the individiual Ghorka, and this fellow’s was barely worth a mention. It looked like someone had tried to grow a mohawk but changed their mind halfway through. Its face was all teeth, chitenous plates, and malicious intent. Broad and brutal looking but there was serious intelligence lurking in its piggy red eyes. Their brutal appearance made them easy to underestimate and dismiss as vàrvàr but nobody made that mistake twice, in fact few got the chance to make it more than once.
I know I’d learned very fast after the first time.
as I learned the last time, a storyteller is a much-esteemed resource in their surprisingly nuanced society
Ghorkai are the most disciplined and serious military force we have thus far encountered in the galàksia, well trained, well equipped, and well-motivated. Yes, they are vicious, yes, they are brutal, but they are detached and professional in how they prosecute their surgical cleansing of ships they wished to claim the cargo of. They would leave no-one alive, but the merchandise was not to be damaged. They also hated to waste a valuable resource if they found one by way of a bonus and, as I learned the last time, a storyteller is a much-esteemed resource in their surprisingly nuanced society. They remind me of the legendary Spartans back on Gaia, only bigger, more brutal, and less human, though as full of surprises and contradictions. They are a warrior society and have honour, of a sort. Clearly it was this sense of honour in operation now, as the Ghorkai was doing something with its face that I guessed was an attempt towards a reassuring smile. The result was much more terrifying with all of those spines and teeth. It stowed the glowing scimitar like sword blade fixed to the left arm of its armour and extended its hand in my direction, gesturing with its head for me to get up.
“On yar feets, nah, monkey-man!” It said in that stygian voice. “Tha Kazalekh wants to see ya.” Its eyes glazed slightly, and I realised it was deep in thought for a moment. It straightened and thumped its now-swordless left arm across its chest with a dull clang. “Yar people fought well.” It added. “Gar Hakarekh!”
I knew those words, they meant something along the lines of ‘great honour to your name’. I found that I actually enjoyed the compliment, I didn’t get those very often.
“Laèrtes Kamkàlion, Erebus Nýxá grabakh” I answered without thinking, trying to hide the wince of dismay realisation of that slip elicited.
The Ghorka said nothing but it did smile again, even less reassuredly than it had before. It rose to its full height and turned back towards the cargo bay doors, obviously I was no threat it considered worthwhile. “C’mon, intrestin' monkey-man. ‘Im’s a-waitin.”
Into the forge it is, then. I thought, fighting to keep anxiety off my face. I knew there were two things these Ghorkai respected: martial prowess and honesty. I had precious little of the former, by their standards, I’d always been better at organising combat than participating in it and had to make sure I put all of my not insignificant talents into making them see the latter.
The Kazalekh was imposing even by Ghorka standards. He was easily a spear tall if he was a dactýls, and his armour was a deep burnished sea-green and blue affair of pure spàta-atsàli!. This armour was sleek, well-made and very well-maintained, all neatly interecting angular planes where Kalshodar armour was rounded curves. It was festooned with brazen chains, red painted glyphs of his vàrvàr tongue and culture, and dressed with the skins of unknown animals. A large, furry body with almost as many teeth as he had was draped casually over one shoulder but that was not what drew my attention. a long tassel belt with a thick panel of pale tanned leather extended beween his legs to the knees, moved by the hot breeze that served as an aftermath of the violence he had initiated here. The tanned hide had, I could not help but notice, tattoos on it, markings I recognised from my time as a rigger. I even knew the regiment, my gorge rising and, taking a shuddering breath, I fought to control my pulse. He was a clever one, this Ghorka, he was baiting me. I had to be on my guard and very, very careful in his presence. Too much work and life would be wasted if I blew this, my life foremost among them. This Ghorka had a spined head-crest to be proud of and clearly, he was. The spines were dyed red at the tips and yellow along the shafts, his cheek spines were long and appeared to have been carefully waxed and polished. But no dandy was this because his armour and weapons, though well maintained, showed signs of regular use, in fact blood was curdling its way down the blade of the scimitar sword-blade attached to his right arm as I watched.
He had a murderers’s eyes, which was to be expected, but they were also calm, measuring, and dangerously intelligent
Around him was organic devastation of the rather impressive thought distressing kind. My associates were probably among that mess but I’d no way to identify them. It was just a brutalised, pulverised, mess of meat, blood, and fabric. The smell was what came close to breaking the composure I was fighting to maintain. I forced down bitter bile and put every erg of will into meeting the Kazalekh’s eyes which was, perhaps, a task even more challenging than ignoring the smell and the rage. He had a murderers’s eyes, which was to be expected, but they were also calm, measuring, and dangerously intelligent. Like his lackey had tried to do while bringing me here, the Kazalekh was smiling but, while the other Ghorka’s failure had been unsettling, his success was terrifying. It was a barely there, knowing and mocking smile.
“So, you are Nipper, I right?” was voice was so deep, it made my teeth judder; though his grammar and fluency were not good, he forced the enunciation of each word out with care, unlike his brutal companions. He was making a point here but I had no idea what it was. I froze as what he’d actually said struck me. Nipper: how did he know that, somewhat insulting, slang? NIP, Naval Intelligence with a rather insulting play on words at the end (NIP is short forNàvtika Irafèi Plòrafon which means Orifice of Naval Intelligence, when the correct term, clearly, is Nàvtika Irafèi Orafòn or NIO), NIP becomes Nìpa when you add agent on the end and, as we all know, nipper is a slang term for a small child. So the ratings chuckle and call us Nippers behind our backs and trust us not at all. How did this mòr-chartòn of a vàrvàr know this?
“Ýpoarchos Laèrtes Kamkàlion, Naval Intelligence of Alexander’s Empyraeum.” was all the answer he was getting for now. It was the standard response to an enemy, rank, name, branch, master. Pulling everything I had in tight, I stood as calmly as it was possible to fake at parade rest and waited.
“Yes, I thought you to be this,” he replied, that smarmy smile never leaving. “I, too, represent similar disciple, with similar goal and similar slandered reputation, in my society.” He gave me a nod of acknowledgement. “You me same, we confederate of a sort.”
I simply nodded in reply, words were failing me which is quite the novelty.
“I knew you be here; I expect you; I wait for you. I let my - my men - get practise on your men but I tell them to bring you to me unharmed.” His smile changed as something else occured to him. “Your men fought well in protecting you and you should be proud. Though, if had they knew what they protect, perhaps less enthusiatic they would have been in the protection!” He made a noise then, like something a Gaian seal might do when alarmed or irritated, if it had something eventually deadly lodged in its throat, that is. His broad shoulders were dancing up and down and his curved teeth were almost completely uncovered so I was sure that he was laughing. I joined in, just in case. If it was a joke, it actually hadn’t been a bad one.
“You were looking for me?” I managed after an approriate pause for levity.
He nodded and I could see his eyes moving from the organic nastiness to my face and back again, clearly enjoying my discomfort, he’d planned it, in fact, organising this meeting here quite intentionally. He wanted me on edge and, more importantly, he wanted to read me while my energy was being spent on maintaining any form of composure. The implications of this almost made that composure slip but I decided to let it happen, and simply spread my hands and smiled in response, letting him fill the silence.
“Our people, we need to talk.” He said and shook his head. “Your Alexander, we respect him. Good leader, good warrior, good for monkey-man. We like and we respect. Him dead though or gone away far. Him who speak for Gaia now, him Apateon, him we not like, him like garakha.... like snake.”
“Some of us believe Alexander is still alive and work to prepare for his return.” I crossed my open hands over my breast and struck my chest with both palms three times. “Aleksandròs anoìrái!”
“Alexander forever.” He said, his voice rumbling around the words, nodding slowly. “Many hope not but me, me I hope he does, that he endures.”
So sure was I that my jaw had dropped to the gory deck that I checked, ready to lift it as unobtrusively as possible. I rubbed it thoughtfully in a vain attempt to hide the clearly stupid and revealing gesture. This Ghorka was a genius among his kind, and I’d have been disappointed if he’d missed it, he was playing me like a cheap lyre afterall. Maybe the loss of so many resources, the work and....yes, of course the terrible loss of life, had been worth it. If this Ghorka spoke with any kind of authority...
“We see signs, bad signs, of an enemy greater than even us.” I could see how much the admission cost him. “We lose ships, we lose colony, we lose many bound to our service, we lose children.”
I had never been able to figure out whether the Ghorkai have genders as we understand them and been, quite judgementally, classifiying them as a I might an unfamiliar animal or object, despite thinking of my “colleague” as a he. I realise what that might reveal about me but I’m not sure I care, I’m too old for that.
What enemy could make the Ghorkai afraid, as this one clearly was, though he fought to hide it and was deeply ashamed that he could not.
“What enemy,” I felt the fear these words generated flow out of my mouth as if made of ice, taking any warmth I had left in me with them. What enemy could make the Ghorkai afraid, as this one clearly was, though he fought to hide it and was deeply ashamed that he could not. Not even the Dracograth frightened the Ghorkai. I had been starting to hear rumours, rumours our home office on Sèlene were filtering out, bits and pieces coming in from operatives left over from the last Union War who, like me, hid themselves among the merchant shipping lanes of the galàksia, gathering what we could, seeking and sniffing out anything we could find. Some of these rumours couldn’t be true, they sounded like the fireside tales of times log forgotten...dead moons, ravaged planets, and monsters....no, it was frontier foolishness, ignorant superstition. Or was it?
“We see, we hear of your Kalshodar. Your Kalshodar going somewhere and they looking. They looking hard, we think. We think that soon, maybe, they find. They find either what we have found or they find what they seek. What you also seek. Connected these two things are, some of us believe.” The sincerity, the implications, and the shock of this exchange were close to overwhelming, but I tried, in Alexander’s name did I try but the effort struck me dumb. I simply stared at him and blinked like an idiot, fighting tears.
His smile somehow kinder, the Ghorka regarded me carefully. “You Nippers no, we not trust.” he said evenly. “Them Union, no we not trust. Trinity no not trust either. Alexander, Kalshodar, yes we trust.” He gestured to my friend with the aborted mohawk, who stood behind him, and accepted a device from their hands. It was a compact, flattened cube of matt black metal which bulged out at the sides but was more concave at the ends. Lights winked at various intervals on it though I have no clue what it was for. Almost with reverence, he presented this device to me.
“You find Alexander, you next find us, see?” He looked into my eyes with sobering intensity, pressing to device into my hands. “Me, I think when you find Alexander, him already know what we got to tell him and he want to speak. You tell him and we speak, the Ghorkai and the humans. Right good?”
My mind, unable to respond properly under the pressure of these revelations, simply parroted his last words. “Right good.”
That seemed to satisfy him, though, and he nodded with satisfaction. “Gar muarekh.” He intoned almost solemnly...Honoured be His name...
I repeated his words and, as in if in a dream, allowed Abandoned Mohawk to guide me to a waiting shuttle, and did not focus until it had settled me inside, showed me our location and that of the nearest NIO station on the displays before leaving without another word. I engaged the shuttle’s drives and guided it out of the docking bay of the RMS Bhuèlfère without conscious thought getting involved in the process. It wasn’t until I was half way to the automated broadcast station that it hit me....how did they know? As I aligned my shuttle with the open end of the modified asteriod, it dawned on me that I had either just helped the Empyraeum or doomed it.
Only time would tell though I’d probably be executed for this. I weighed the odd artifact the Ghorkai had given me in my hand, surprised at how dense it was, and realised I didn’t care.
Alexander was coming back, our Hègemon was returning, I was sure of it and I was also sure that the Ghorkai knew more than they were telling.
Gar muarekh indeed...
Notes: in Glòsta The Office of Naval Intelligence is Nàvtika Irafèi Orafòn (NIO). Orifice of Naval Intelligence is Nàvtika Irafèi Plòrafon (NIP), which is a easier play on words than it is in English, though it means the same
[Please follow this link to translate the Glòsta words used here and to download a current copy of the working document for this constructed language]