I flew out of the village with Darius, the medic Illya and two of our wounded attackers. Despite Darius and Illya’s best efforts, both of the attackers remained in serious condition. The Imperial transport had shown up less than twenty minutes after Fari called for it, which gave them a chance at making it, but it was going to take some difficult healing spells to repair the damage they’d suffered at a time when Hellsreach’s resources were stretched thin.
The mega-quake had destroyed more than the town of Salmon Falls. Supply towns and encampments on both sides of the war border had been flattened in its wake. Master Raychelle and Master Opal were going to be in the field for days dealing with fires both literal and political.
The one bit of bright news was from the negotiating team who was working on the peace process. On the border between the Gar and Human forces, the two sides had set up joint efforts to assess the damage and rescue any survivors who were trapped. From what Fari said the “joint efforts” most boiled down to “I won’t shoot you, if you won’t shoot me while we look for our wounded” but in some cases she was getting reports of former enemy units working together.
I’d seen a glimmer of that in the people of the village above Salmon Falls. Before we left with their wounded there had been a few beyond just Illya who’d approached me to find out what was happening. I could see the less trusting sorts hovering behind them, but no one had raised a hand against either Darius or I.
Part of me wanted to blame the light show Fari had put on when she freed the people trapped in the rubble. From the point of view of the villagers, I’d held out a gem and summoned living star fire. Someone who can do that isn’t the sort of person you generally want to annoy.
I hadn’t noticed fear or awe in them afterwards though. There was just concern for their family members, both the ones who’d been pulled from the rock piles and the ones who’d been hurt in the village during the quake.
There hadn’t been much that I could do for them though. The scale of the problem put it well beyond my capacity to fix as an individual. All I could do was let them know how widespread the damage was, and what the plans were for dealing with it as they developed.
I’d demanded to speak with the village chief when I arrived but Mayor Lakter, the civilian administrator, had been one of the attackers who hadn’t made it out of the rock pile alive. His second in command was one of the people we were flying back for emergency healing care. That had left leadership of the small village uncertain, until the woman who’d grabbed my arm stepped forward to speak for the rest of them.
“Was this you?” she’d asked me. “Were you responsible for this?”
It wasn’t hard to see in her eyes that she’d already decided on the answer to that question.
“Do you think I could be?” I said, challenging her. “And do you think if I was, I would use an attack like that on a town like this?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” she said and stared at me, daring me to contradict her.
So I did.
“Looks like you’re one of the smarter people here,” I said. “But you’re working from some bad information if you think I or any other Crystal Guardian on this planet go around flattening towns with earthquakes.”
“Maybe you weren’t trying to flatten the town.” she said.
That’s when it clicked. Someone had teleported an entire building into the center of the village in an effort to save the people inside it. That someone was almost certainly an extremely talented spell caster who was also almost certainly exhausted and unable to cast any additional spells for a while. Being vulnerable like that tended to make people cranky, and I was pretty sure the “someone” in question hadn’t been a huge fan of the Imperial forces to begin with.
I smirked. There was no chance I was going to talk her out of her paranoia. It might be justified after all. If she was actively working against the peace process, we would be enemies and if I came to stop her (and had my full anima powers back), I could make life extremely unpleasant for her.
“You might want to consider the control I just showed with the rock pile,” I said. “My attacks don’t tend to miss their targets.”
I saw her eyes widen at the less-than-subtle threat behind my words. I wasn’t trying to pick a fight, but I knew if I pushed her a bit more I’d succeed in getting one.
Under the circumstances that was both a good and a bad thing. With the teleport spell leaving her tapped out, this would probably be the simplest most straightforward fight that I could have with her. If I was certain we’d wind up as enemies then this was the time to take her down. The time, but not, perhaps, the place.
If it came to a fight, I’d throw both the first and the last blow. They might not be one and the same punch depending on her level of hand-to-hand training, but she was standing with her weight distributed in too sloppy a manner to respond well before I battered her into unconsciousness. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was all of the other people who were standing around her. I counted at least five people whose uniforms marked them as military reservists who were staying close enough to have her back.. Add to that the twenty people who were working to repair the village within fifteen yards of us and keeping a close eye on the verbal confrontation. The math was not in my favor, though after the display with the rockpile I wasn’t sure they knew that.
“So, if it wasn’t you, then who did this?” the woman asked.
“The quake tore through both human and Gar holdings,” I said. “No one benefited from this so I don’t think it was anyone’s fault.”
“Somebody benefited. Somebody always makes it out of situations like this richer than they went in,” the woman said.
“Maybe,” I said. “But the planet did get pushed out of its orbit and then dragged back. Surface quakes wouldn’t have been anything to the people who built this place.”
“What do you mean?” the woman asked.
“Have you watched the news?” I asked. “Hellsreach is a war world. It wasn’t designed for people to live on. It’s designed to crush other worlds.”
People started coming closer as we talked, which was unsettling, but I could see they were listening intently.
“A war world?” the woman asked. “No one’s told us about that.”
“Why do you think the Imperial forces are here?” I asked. I’d thought the story about what happened two months ago had become global news an hour after it occurred, but from the looks in the eyes of the people who surrounded me, I was wrong.
“You want to stop the war and take our homes,” the woman said.
“Ok, that’s screwed up. Where do you get your news from?” I asked.
“Major Vunthar gives us our orders,” one of the men from the crowd said.
“Orders? What about news? Holo-vids? Letters from the rest of the world?” I asked.
“This is a secure base. We don’t get holo-vids here.” the woman said.
I blinked. There were a thousand reasons for keeping people like this cut off from what was going on and I couldn’t think of any of them that were good.
“Lieutenant Tulk what does it mean if this place is a war world?” one of the girls asked the woman I was talking to.
“That means the whole planet is an artifact. One big gun. Am I right?” Tulk asked.
“Simple version? Yes. Complicated version? Its worse than that.” I said. There was so much information that had been released for public consumption I had no idea where to start.
“How can it be worse than that?” Tulk asked.
“A gun you fire at other people. A war world has local defensive systems too in order to repel invaders,” I said.
“So more guns?” Tulk said.
“No, the builders of this place didn’t think that small,” I said. “One of the defensive systems converts the planet’s surface to magma. All of the surface. That’s a first order defense. The kind that gets broken out before the battle gets really serious.”
“That can’t be real,” Tulk said.
“Why do you think you’ve been fighting over this place for a hundred years?” I asked. “Neither side knew how to activate the war world, but they were damn sure they didn’t want to give the other side the chance to figure it out first.”
“What happened?” Tulk asked.
“Someone figured it out,” I said. “A native.”
“Where’s her now?” she asked.
“In Imperial custody,” I said.
“So that’s why the Empire is here. They want to take the whole world from us?” Tulk said.
“No,” I said. “We showed up before the planet was activated. I came here to be part of the peace discussions. The Empire is staying here now to be sure the planet is not used as a weapon by anyone and to help all three sides come to an agreement on how the fighting can be stopped for good.”
“That’s easy. Kill all the damn Gar!” one of the guys in the crowd said. He used a humorous tone, but he wasn’t joking.
“Is that what you were trying to do in Salmon Falls?” I asked.
It was a dangerous and stupid subject to get into but I wanted to understand what justifications they used for the things they’d done.
Actually, if I was honest with myself, I wanted to hear their arguments so that I could tear them to pieces and convince them to be better people than the murderous idiots they appeared to be.
And that was the stupid part. Understanding other people is fine. Believing that you can argue them into being better people is the mark of a deluded fool. Nothing in my life had ever suggested that sort of thing would work. I’d never seen the Sisters do it, I’d never seen Master Hanq do it, and I’d never managed it myself.
But the desire was still there. This wasn’t a problem I could punch, but I still had to try to break it. Even if it meant breaking myself in the process.
“We weren’t doing anything in Salmon Falls,” one of the military reservists said.
I sighed and massaged my forehead with one hand. Apparently I wasn’t the only stupid one in the area.
“I have a lot of disaster recovery work ahead of me,” I said. “Can we cut to the chase please? You set up Salmon Falls as a trap for the Gar. You left poisoned supplies for them to take back, gave them a ship with a homing beacon to lead them to the town and then dropped bombs on them when they arrived to keep them distracted and on the run.”
“We didn’t…” the reservist began to say, but I cut her off.
“Shut up. Yes, you did. You evacuated the town’s population and brought them here, probably months ago. The bombs that were going off were being teleported into the town from the building that is currently a pile of rubble in your central grove. And, before the earthquake destroyed it, the town showed signs of having been bombed and repaired just enough to look like it was intact from the outside.”
“The town was bombed before the eathquake,” Lt. Tulk said. “By the Gar.”
“A raid?” I asked. “After the ceasefire two months ago?”
Tulk just glared at me.
“Of course. And that’s why you brought the townsfolk to the secure base. Except there were too many of them for the barracks. So you built the housing here as fast as you could using whatever supplies were available. Did your Major Vunthar give the order for that?” I asked.
Tulk didn’t need to speak to confirm that. I could see it in her eyes. She was loyal to her forces. Everyone here was. Everyone except maybe Major Vunthar, wherever he was.
“Just one last question then,” I said. “When the Gar raiders first bombed the town, did you see them, or just their ships?”
The Imperial transports arrived before anyone could answer me, but I caught the flare of surprise in Tulk’s eyes as the question hit home.
After the ceasefire had been declared there’d been a fair amount of looting between the sides as the organized military forces pulled back to the agreed upon positions. The raiders could have been rogue Garjarack troops striking one last blow against their hated enemy, or they could have been something much worse.