Written by Tim Bancroft and originally published as a serial, City of Exile takes place following the chaos that engulfed the Chryseis system and prior to the events in The Dronescourge Returns.
Batu Delhren and his band of exiled Freeborn have been captured by Ghar aboard a huge, ancient starliner under Shaltok, an old nemesis of Batu’s. After being Outcast from the Empire and fighting off the Rebels, Shaltok is forced to accept he has nowhere else to go and is in debt to, of all things, a human: Batu (well, temporarily, at least – even an Exiled Ghar has limits).
The previous episode can be found here.
Outcasts & Exile
Shaltok made sure the Rebels had left the system before trying to track down the human commanders. He replayed Dramak’s death to ensure the arrogant commander was dead. He had no regrets: Dramak had been arrogant and argumentative, had risked his own crew and ship. Shaltok was also pleased to see his Sheep checking in with the three traitors. They looked proud of their achievement as they showed the bullet-ridden bodies to a surveillance feed.
There remained a problem. I have rejected Fartok and I am no longer welcome under Karg’s command. What to do? He left the control centre and climbed back into his suit before calling up Tren and Dobat on a secure channel. They responded immediately, both with the sound of triumph in their tone. Success encourages a Ghar.
“Congratulations on your success.” Both sent a simple acknowledgement. “I have an awkward question to pose and you are my most trusted sub-commanders.”
“Thank you, sir,” both replied. “We will advise,” added Dobat.
“I am no longer welcome within the Empire. Karg has declared me Outcast.”
“An unwarranted act,” said Tren. “Fabrications and lies from what I could see, sir.”
“Agree,” said Dobat. “You still command in my eyes, Captain.”
“If I command as an Outcast in Karg’s eyes, then you and I and all our Ghar are mutineers.”
“Yet you still command,” replied Tren. “I speak for all my troopers: we follow your success.”
“Agree,” repeated Dobat. “All Ghar on this vast ship of ours will support you.”
Such loyalty, thought Shaltok. He had no words for his feelings. I can do nothing but speak the truth. “I am humbled by your loyalty, Commanders. However, I have also shunned Fartok: I cannot support his active revolt against the Empire, whatever his motive.”
“Captain, you have shown a knack for success and strategic thinking,” said Tren.
“Agree. Is there a third way?” asked Dobat.
“We may all be Outcast, now, but do we need Fartok?” added Tren.
It is a large ship, thought Shaltok. But it still needs maintenance and repairs and I have limited crew. He thought of the humans. “There may be a third way,” he said. “Shaltok out.” He sat in his suit a moment before releasing himself from its embrace and returning to the control centre and his command chair. The human Delhren saved my ship. There was no choice. Continuing a conflict against the humans who had saved his ship would only create more, possibly costly, damage. And I do not know what they did. He frowned at some dust from the arm of his chair and brushed it away. I have no choice.
“Ship, I wish to talk to the human called Batu Delhren.”
* * *
Shaltok stood in front of a surveillance feed, his combat array now discarded. The image showed corridors near the hangar bay, the Batu and the Baray. Behind them hovered a tentacled, constantly shifting, suspensor drone with one tentacle embedded into a damaged portion of a corridor wall. Shaltok had the feeling the drone was watching him. What trickeries do they have up their sleeves?
At a nod, a commtech opened a channel. Shaltok cleared his throat and tried to speak deeper. “You are the Batu and the Baray. You two are our prisoners, our slaves. Escape is an offence punishable by death under Ghar law.”
“It’s just ‘Batu’ and ‘Baray’”, said Batu. He shrugged. “We were never prisoners, anyway.” His voice sounded strained, almost as if he were exhausted. “We consented to be placed in your brig – you know how easily we escaped, so it’s not worth playing games. We restored functionality to your ship and saved your life.”
“From both the Rebels and the Ghar Empire,” said Baray.
So, they knew what they were doing. But why? “You only fought with my forces because you had no choice. You were trying to save yourselves.”
Batu shrugged. “Mutual interests.”
“Do you think we couldn’t have fled at any time?” asked Baray.
“And have your damaged ship attacked by three vessels?” snapped Shaltok.
The human female smiled. “I think not,” she said. “You were all too engrossed in your own, petty squabble. How very human of you.”
“I am not human!” flared Shaltok. He took a deep breath. “Whatever we may have been, we exist to wipe away the degenerate corruption that humanity has become.” Even to his own ears the statement from the training manuals lacked conviction.
Batu grinned. “And Ghar aren’t corrupted? I think we’ve seen the worst of Ghar behaviour, today. Karg, Dramak, Foornyn, Fartok’s rebels…”
Shaltok opened his mouth to snap a reply, then closed it. No reply would help. The human is correct.
Shaltok took a deep breath, suppressed his genetically-ingrained hostility towards them. “We need to move away from Karg’s interpretation of the law and corruption of Ghar ways. It is wrong.”
“Yet you still did not join Fartok’s rebellion.” Baray gave a half-smile. “Maybe you are a wise Ghar.”
“I do not need praise from humans.” The statement hung in the air between them.
“Will you keep your word and be an honourable Ghar?”
“Will you return full control of my ship?”
“After our ship is repaired, yes,” said the Batu. “Look, this is a big ship. You could use our expertise and factories. You will need friends.”
“Human friends? We need no friends. We will succeed: we are Ghar.”
“Yet you needed our help. Not all humans are the same. If not friends, then allies or”—he changed tack when he saw Shaltok’s reaction— “those who would have a truce with you, at least.”
Shaltok found him infuriating. He counters my arguments as if they are nothing. Such arrogance! Then a thought occurred to him. Am I responding as Karg has trained us? He pondered on the concept whilst the humans patiently waited. Perhaps Karg has changed us too much. “Not all Ghar are the same. Neither are they all Outcast.”
“Good,” croaked Batu. “Then we understand each other. In exile, you have to take what… allies you can.” He stopped for a moment, whether to think or gather his strength, Shaltok could not tell. “War between houses, clans: that’s the danger, Shaltok. It’s not humanity as a whole that endangers the galaxy, just a lethal few.” His voice trailed off.
“I cannot agree.” A human who does not regard Ghar as enemy? Shaltok physically shook off the unthinkable concept. I have tolerated them enough. Foornyn’s threat of self-destruction came to mind. Their frigate is small, but an antimatter explosion would cause devastation. What if they created a gravitic singularity with their engines? “I shall fulfil the terms of our agreement,” he said, quickly.
Baray saluted. “Thank you, Captain Shaltok.”
“Admiral now, I believe,” said Shaltok. He hesitated. “I shall think on your advice, Captain, but there can never be an alliance between Ghar and humanity.”
“I expect there can’t be,” said Baray. “But there might be an accord, a truce between us. We’re all reluctant exiles, you and us, just shards of our original people. Shards in exile.”
Shaltok nodded. “No alliance, but an accord between us.” Shards in exile, he thought. Maybe it is a thought I need to embrace. “Return to your ship. Complete your repairs. I will release you as soon as you return full control to my ship, The City …” He trailed off. City of what? “Shaltok out.” He cut the communications connection and jumped back into his command chair and contemplated his new future. We are neither Empire nor Rebel; we accept neither Karg’s interpretation, nor Fartok’s claim of the truth. The reality of the situation struck home. We can never return; we are exiles.
He smiled to himself, starling the commtech. “Opened a channel to all Ghar.” The commtech nodded. “Loyal warriors. We have succeeded in rejecting the depredations of both Karg and Fartok. In so doing, we belong to neither and are in exile, a new life apart from the Empire and the Rebels. As soon as we have finished repairs, we are to leave the Determinate and the dishonourable, feuding warlords behind. Accordingly, our ship, our home, has a new name.” He paused for effect.
“Welcome to your new home, our home. The City of Exile.”