Gan’s announcement should have been good news. A new home for the people of Hellsreach would solve a lot of problems. The cold talons in my chest that warned me of danger seemed weirdly out of place therefor. I scowled for a moment as I tried to work out what was wrong with the offer before a more obvious reason for the frosty alert presented itself.
“We’re triggering the next quake early,” Fari said. as she reappeared beside me.
“Why would you do that?” Cadrus asked. “Aren’t there still people being rescued?”
“The disaster response teams are bracing the buildings they’re still working on,” Fari said.
“How much time do we have?” I asked.
“About a minute,” Fari said. “We’re going to catch the aftershocks that are following the last one to help relieve the stress that’s set to power the next mega-quake.”
“Did you warn Darius?” I asked.
“Yes,” Fari said. “I’m warning as many people as I can.”
She flickered as she spoke, and I felt a stab of entirely non-supernatural worry course through me.
“Don’t spread yourself too thin,” I said. “Just let me know afterwards that you’re ok.”
She nodded and vanished again, returning to the planetary control system.
“Cadrus, Nenya, you should head back to your family,” I said. “You’ll be safe in the tent.”
“How bad is this quake that’s coming?” Gan asked.
“Bad enough that I needed to be warned about it,” I said.
“Looks like the fate casting we did worked perfectly then!” Gan said.
I stared at him for a moment in disbelief.
“You wanted to be here during a mega-quake?” I asked. My brain was spinning to put things together and clicked onto the answer before Gan found the words to explain himself. “Ah, of course. That’ll make it easier to talk people into leaving.”
“That’s what I’m here to speak with you about,” Gan said.
“Why me?” I asked.
“It’s unusual to find two Crystal Guardians working on a planet, much less three,” Gan said. “You are the one the Imperial Ambassador directed me to speak with. He said that Guardians Kinsguard and Blackbriar were fully engaged with the rescue operations that were underway.”
I wasn’t a full Guardian, but if the Imperial Ambassador wanted me to act as one in order to preserve Opal and Raychelle’s time then I wasn’t going to correct Mister Everbright on the subject.
“We should find somewhere safe to wait out the quake,” I said.
“If you’ll allow me?” Gan replied. Without waiting for my response he wove a shielding dome around us. It was beautiful work and he finished it with time to spare before the quake hit.
The ground shake was barely noticeable inside the dome but watching the way the buildings around us moved I could see it had been a strong one. The building didn’t fall down however which meant it was much weaker than the mega-quake that leveled Salmon Falls. Fari and Opal had timed the quake well. The rumbling lasted for over a minute, but diminished in severity almost immediately. Once it was done, everything was still and the planet had expended a lot of the energy stored in the local faultlines.
“That was more powerful than I expected it would be,” Gan said as he let down the shield bubble.
“You should have been here for the last one,” I said. It was a reflexive boast but it raised a question in my mind. Why hadn’t Gan been here for that? Or here a few weeks earlier? If he was working under a fate casting it meant he was trying to ensure his actions precipitated or canceled out some dramatic events. Showing up in the wake of one wouldn’t cancel it out, but he might be focused on reacting to a larger event that was still impending.
“We’ve been scrambling for two month to get the approvals in order,” Gan said. “It’s a miracle we made it here today at all.”
“Approvals for what exactly?” I asked as I led Gan back into the aid center building. I didn’t want to go running back to someone with real authority but I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of negotiating for unknown stakes on an issue I was unfamiliar with and having no one to back me up.
“Planetary property transfer,” Gan said.
“You’d said you were going to take the people here to a whole new world,” I said. “You meant that literally didn’t you?”
“Yes,” Gan said. “Exxion III is barely habitable. That’s been true for decades due to the war but even with the peace you’ve created this planet isn’t ready to support the population that’s here. There’s too much damage that needs to be undone. The mega-quakes you’ve seen are making that clear to everyone.”
“So what are you going to do with the people?” I asked.
“My company, Verulia Industries, intends to offer habitation plots on a world newly opened for colonization in exchange for land rights here on Hellsreach. We’ll provide transport to Titanus and the materials for colony development.”
“And in exchange you get ownership of Hellsreach,” I said. “So, if this planet is unlivable, how does this benefit you?”
We’d reached the Aid Center building and people were scurrying around to deal with the impending arrival of the wounded from Salmon Falls. The third time a medic bumped into us I got the hint and dragged Gan into one of the unused conference rooms.
“There are artifacts that can be recovered from Exxion III. We’ve calculated they will be equal to the value of the land and supplies we’re providing, with a tidy profit left over for our troubles,” Gan said.
I thought about that for a moment and picked at the parts of it that felt wrong.
“If there’s value here why should people leave it to you and travel to somewhere that might collapse before it becomes viable?” I asked. Developing new colonies wasn’t easy. With as many populated worlds as there were in the galaxy, there was usually a good reason why an empty world was uninhabited.
“Verulia Industries is fully committed to the success of the Titanus colony,” Gan said. “As for value of the artifacts I spoke of, the people here lack the resources to exploit the opportunity that is literally under their feet.”
“Why not make a partnership of it then?” I asked.
“Partner with who?” Gan asked. “Even if we could get the locals to agree to that arrangement we wouldn’t be able to compensate them fairly.”
“Why?” I asked, though I could see a few of the problems that would stand in the way.
“Let’s say we find a medium value artifact beneath a Garjarack settlement,” Gan said. “That might be enough to pay for a hundred other dig sites. The Garjarack won’t be willing to take a 1/100th share though, especially not if the other 99 are all human settlements.”
“If you own all the settlements though, then the problem goes away,” I said. “What about the people who refuse to move.”
“We’ll be making a very attractive offer,” Gan said.
“And what about the one’s who get to Titanus and want to come back?” I asked.
“That will not be part of the offer,” Gan said. “We’re not going to require that anyone stay on Titanus. They’ll be free to sell their plot and travel anywhere they can afford to go, but the property exchange will have to be non-cancelable. Otherwise, as soon as we find an artifact site, the people who owned the land around it will want their property back to look for artifacts there too.”
“I thought you said the people didn’t have the resources to do that on their own?” I asked.
“They don’t, but if we do the preliminary work and identify a viable site, our competitors would jump at the chance to piggyback off that. They’ll back anyone with a claim that strong,” he said.
“How are you going to transport the people? That’s an enormous effort isn’t it?” I asked.
“We’ve contracted a personnel shipping company. They’ll be here by the end of the week and will be ready to transport the first batch of one hundred thousand colonists to Titanus within two weeks.”
“You’re moving very quickly,” I said.
“We’re a business Guardian Watersward,” Gan said. “We only survive by staying ahead of our competition.”
“I see. And what do you need me for?” I asked.
“Any project of this size requires an Imperial Overseer,” Gan said. “It’s not glamorous I’m afraid, but we’ll need your sign off at each of the gated stages of the project in order to proceed.”
“I’ll be getting reports and doing inspections I take it?” I asked.
“We’ll provide you with a staff to help with that if you like.” Gan said.
That sent up a few warning bells, but I let them pass. I could ask Master Raychelle about it once she wasn’t busy saving lives.
“I’ll confer with Guardian Kinsguard and Guardian Blackbriar on this, as well as the Ambassador, but for the moment I have no problem with filling that role,” I said.
“Good! Would you like to see our initial presentation? I can show you holo-vids of what Titanus looks like and how our proposed colonies will be set up,” Gan said.
Before I could answer an aide burst through the conference room’s door.
“Guardian Watersward?” she said as she processed that I was indeed who she was expecting to see. “The commander needs you in the communications center.”
“What’s happened?” I asked.
“There’s a fighter approaching,” she said. “From the direction of Salmon Falls.”
That got me up.
“I’m sorry. We’ll need to continue this later,” I said to Gan and followed the aide through the corridors to the aide center’s command room.
“Commander,” I said as I caught sight of him over one of the scrying pools in the room. “What can I do?”
“We have a link open to the craft but they’re not responding to us,” the commander said. “You met with them in person, so I’m hoping you can get a response out of them.”
“What’s their ETA?” I asked.
“Five minutes,” he said.
I turned to the aide who’d come in with me. “Can you run to the recovery wing and get Medic Illya. If I can’t reach them, maybe she’ll be able to.”
The aide virtually disappeared she took off so fast.
“Let me see if I can talk them down,” I said. “Which scrying pool has the link open to them?”
“This one,” the commander said, indicating a basin that was covered with a red velvet cloth.
I pulled the cloth free and dipped my fingers into the water. The sounds of a ship in flight sprang to life around me. I spent a second listening for conversation but whoever was flying the ship was doing so silently.
“This is Guardian Mel Watersward to the pilot of the approaching fighter craft please state your name and intention,” I said. “Do you have wounded. We will have clerics waiting when you arrive if so.”
I knew it was a longshot, but hoping the ship was flying here for a peaceful purpose seemed like a decent way to start a dialogue with them. As it turned out though all I got back was silence punctuated by the thrum of the fighter’s engine.
I wasn’t supposed to cast spells but there were some that weren’t terribly dangerous to work with. Sense enhancing spells for example. I wasn’t terribly good with them, but they took only a trifling amount of anima to pull off so the chance that I’d overcast one was all but non-existent.
Or at least that’s what I told myself as I went ahead and violated my healer’s orders for the first time in months.
Feeling my physical anima moving at my command again was glorious, as was the sense of completing a spell and the magic of it rising through me. I’d selected an auditory enhancement spell to let me hear through the link with superhuman ability. I could tell got it right because I was able to make out subtle creaks in the fighter’s airframe. With the spell cast correctly though I was at a loss to explain the burning sensation I felt on my skin.
I thought back to the last time I’d cast a spell. On the slopes of the volcano over the primary control site for Hellsreach’s weapon systems. I’d channeled so much force from the lava that I had literally caught on fire. I’d also nearly lost myself in the process. My recovery period had been as much about restoring the damage the fire had done to my mind as it had been healing the wounds to my body. The first thought I jumped to was that my physical recovery wasn’t complete and that I was about to self immolate again. When that didn’t happen, I had to start wondering if the problem was in my mind.
On the chance that the burning was a product of my imagination, I did what I always did with unpleasant memories and pushed the burning sensation to the back of my awarenessso that I could move forward. I’d have time to be crazy later.
“I repeat, identify yourself and your mission,” I said and then listened as intently as I could.
No heartbeats either.
“You wanted to see me commander?” Illya said as she and aide entered the room.
She looked nervous, which was natural for someone who’d been summoned to the commander’s office at a run. What wasn’t natural was how she was looking at me. She was angry, scared and guilty, and some part of her knew I would figure out what she had done.
“Illya, why is there an unmanned craft flying here from Salmon Falls?” I asked.
“An unmanned craft?” she asked. Her face was a carefully guarded mask, but I could hear her heartbeat speed up at just the wrong moment. She wasn’t surprised at all by the aircraft. She was surprised that I knew it was unmanned.
“Where did you find Medic Illya?” I asked the aide.
“She was outside on break,” the aide said.
“Near the tents?” I asked.
“Yes, how did you…?” the aide started to ask but I cut her off.
“Fari, we have a problem, can you bring one of the defense systems online?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “What’s happening?”
“There’s a fighter on an approach vector to the aide station. It’s unmanned. I need you to disable it,” I said.
“Is there any chance there’s someone inside it?” Fari asked.
“I don’t think so. No heartbeats, or are they under a silence spell, Illya?” I asked.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“Ok, Fari, feel free to disintegrate it,” I said.
In the distance there was sound like thunder.
“You…you destroyed the ship?” Illya said, her mask crumbling.
“You said there was no one onboard right?” I asked her.
“I didn’t say anything. Why did you destroy the ship?” I saw her blinking back tears as she spoke.
“It was unresponsive. Clearly enchanted to carry out a specific attack pattern, probably on the refugees that we have here,” I said. “Though that sort of enchantment is tricky. It takes a while to set one in place from what Guardian Blackbriar has told me. Silence spells are a lot easier. Give a soldier a mission and hit him with one of those so no one can countermand the orders and it’s pretty much the same thing as the enchantment with far less time wasted.”
“But why did you disintegrate it?” she said.
“It was a fighter. You don’t fly one of those at an aide center unless you want to hurt someone,” I said.
“I see,” she said and her mask came back on. “Can I get back to my patients?”
“Not yet,” I said. “Come with me.”
Again I was glad that killing with a look wasn’t an easy trick to pull off. Illya said nothing, just fell into step behind me.
I dropped the sense enhancing spell and felt the burning sensation fade with it. Losing the enhanced hearing took away one of my potential defenses and with Illya walking where I couldn’t see her, she was in a perfect position to ambush me. I didn’t think she would though. She was withdrawing into herself not raging out of control. She could change her mind but I didn’t intend to give her long enough for that to occur.
We walked out to the landing area for incoming ships and found Gan waiting there.
“We were supposed to have clearance to land next,” he said. “What is this ship doing here?”
Illya’s eyes lit up at the sight of the craft before us. It was an Exxion IV fighter ship. Unremarkable in any sense, except for the fact that it wasn’t disintegrated at the moment.
“But you said…” Illya turned to me, her mask of anger shattered by her confusion.
“I said Fari was free to disintegrate it,” I said. “It’s not like she wasn’t going to check for herself though.”
“What was the explosion then?” Illya asked.
“Backfire from the warp guns firing,” Fari said and turned to me. “Oh, we’re down one battery of warp guns now by the way. It’ll take at least a week for them to recharge from a quick firing like that.”
“Thank you.” I said on our private telepathic channel.
“You’re welcome,” she replied. “Just remind me to take a week off after all this.”
“I can recommend a good recovery center!” I said.
The commander and a trio of Imperial guards exited the building after us.
“You’ll want to question the pilot of that ship,” I said. “And detain Medic Illya please. I’m going to need to speak with her.”
“There are injured arriving soon though!” Illya said.
“I know,” I said and nodded to one of the guards to take her away. We couldn’t afford to be down a medic, but I also couldn’t afford to let an attempted murderer roam free.
“I’ll call off my ship and let the wounded take our landing slot,” Gan said.
“Thank you,” I said. “I may have to keep you here longer than you planned.”
“Plans can change,” he said and smiled at me.
He was being so reasonable it was hard to mistrust him, but every time I looked at Gan Everbright and thought about the gift he was offering of Titanus, I felt the cold talons of danger digging into my chest. My time as an Imperial Overseer was not going to be easy, or safe, from what I could sense.