I’d turned 18 while convalescing. All things considered it was one of my better birthdays. I finally had anima powers like everyone else (even if I couldn’t use them while I was healing), I had a boyfriend (even if I didn’t get to see him as much as either of us wanted too), and I had (arguably) the coolest job in the galaxy. There was a price to pay for all of that though; I also became an adult human.
Being an adult isn’t a bad thing of course, I’d basically acted and been treated like one for years. The catch with turning 18 was that I could legitimately be called upon to handle situations where my actions actually mattered. My apprentice status meant I wasn’t saddled with too much responsibility right away, but global disasters have a knack for tossing problems all over the place.
I was grumbling about that in a ‘why me?’ sort of mood as I made my way over to one of the Imperial transport ships. Thanks to my position, I was all on me to deal with Medic Illya and the unnecessary crisis that she represented. In theory the base commander could have taken over the matter but he was swamped with supporting the rescue work, and I preferred to have a shot determining Illya’s fate myself.
“I thought you were going to let me rot in here?” she said as I let myself into the transport’s small security area. The aid station wasn’t equipped to handle prisoners and I didn’t want to flag her as an official prisoner until I decided what to do with her.
That thought alone seemed alien to me. Thanks to my Guardian robes, I got to decide what to do with this woman who was at least ten years older than me and had a lifetime invested in helping the people of Hellsreach.
Or at least some of the people.
I didn’t respond to her question. I just sat down and looked at the personnel report that I’d had one of the base commander’s aide’s print out for me.
“You can’t hold me in here. There are still people who need me,” she said.
“Yes. There are.” I agreed and kept reading the personnel report. I didn’t need to; it was short and I’d read it on the way to the makeshift cell.
“You’re going to let them die?” she asked.
I kept reading. It made her uncomfortable and I was just angry enough that I didn’t care to offer her an reassurances.
“Look this isn’t about me. You have to let me help the people from Salmon Falls,” she said.
“The Garjaracks. What did they do to you?” I asked.
Silence was my only answer.
“There are people coming in who need help,” I said. “You’re a talented healer, but the fact of the matter is that you’re also an attempted murderer.”
“It wasn’t murder.” she said and went silent again.
“What did they do to you?” I asked again.
If hadn’t been hard for me to guess that Illya was the one who’d alerted the people from Salmon Falls that there were Garjarack at the Imperial aid center. She’d been one of the few non-Imperials to encounter them before they were brought to their tent. No one else who knew they were at the aid center had any reason to be hostile to them.
Fortunately, while Illya was a great medic, throwing together a plan to kill over a half dozen Garjarack’s wasn’t one her fortes. After she’d seen them she’d gone to the nearest scrying pool and used it to establish a link back to one of her friends from Salmon Falls. Discovering that had taken about five minutes and a simple replay spell to show the conversation she’d had.
Her friends had taken one of the fighters that was part of the base’s war cache and flown off to ‘eliminate their enemy’. The aid center didn’t have a squadron of its own for defense, so it should have been a simple mission for Illya’s co-conspirators. Except for the part where Fari turned the planet’s local defenses against them. Which, I suppose, they could be forgiven for not expecting.
That had ended the assault from the Salmon Falls area, and left me with a mess to sort out. The pilots were easy enough to deal with. They’d be bound for trial based on the recordings and their failure to communicate with the aid center’s flight tower. Illya would have to stand trial as well, again based on the evidence that was found. Trials take a long time to put together though and there were going to be people in need of Illya’s help landing within minutes.
So the question before me was could Illya be forgiven for attempting to murder Imperial citizens. At least enough to allow her the freedom she’d need to work on the wounded people who were brought to her.
If you’d asked me that question two months ago, the answer would have seemed clear. Combat trained anima casters are extremely dangerous. Releasing Illya from her bonds and allowing her full access to her casting abilities would mean risking the lives of those around her. Given the attempted murder charge against her, that should have made the answer a blindingly obvious “No”. Sitting across the table from her though, with my “adult” badge on, I was forced to admit that the answer was neither blindingly obvious nor likely to please people regardless of what I chose.
“They broke the peace. What I did wasn’t murder. It was war. We had to make it stop!” she said.
“How did they break the peace?” I asked.
“They attacked our town,” she said. “In the dead of night. With no provocation and no warning. They wanted our supplies and they murdered so many of us to get them.”
“If it was night, how do you know who was behind the attacks?” I asked.
“We saw their ships! We know what the Gar are like! I grew up my whole life listening to the sounds of them killing us. Before the Empire conquered us? After the Empire conquered us? It didn’t matter! The Gar are the murderers! Not us!”
“Is that why didn’t Salmon Falls report the attack that occurred after the ceasefire was declared?” I asked.
“We did report it! And you Imperials did nothing. Just like you’ve done nothing for the last twenty years!”
“Illya, no report of an attack on Salmon Falls has been reported in the last two months,” I told her.
“You lost the report? We’re dying because of bureaucratic incompetence?” she screamed.
“No. There was no report filed. At all. Not with Imperial command and not in the Exxion IV command web either,” I said, keeping my voice calm and measured.
“That’s impossible! Major Vunthar was there the next morning! He saw everything!” Illya said.
“Every weekly report from Major Vunthar’s office for the last two months says the same thing,” I told her and passed over one of the other print outs I had.
“Where did you get this?” she asked.
“My friend who hacked the planet’s defense systems to bring down your fighter? She’s very good at getting information from spell webs,” I said.
“This isn’t possible!” Illya said.
“I’m sorry Illya, but I have no reason to lie about this. For two months your Major Vunthar has been reporting ‘all actions proceeding as expected’, despite the fact that your people have been driven from their homes and are malnourished from running on three-quarter’s rations.”
“This doesn’t make sense.”
“Doesn’t it? Have you met Major Vunthar? I’ve only read his personnel file and his record practically tells the story for him.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“He lost his wife and three children to a Garjarack advance fifteen years ago. He lost all but one sibling over the last twenty years and he was one of the defenders of the town of Kelp’s Point when it fell to Garjarack hands and his parents were killed.”
“That not an unusual story,” Illya said.
“I know,” I said. Despite the war having raged on for over a century, the pattern of atrocities by each side on the other had been unbroken until a few months ago. “The unusual part are the commendations and the disciplinary notes he’s received.”
“I don’t see any disciplinary notes here?” Illya said.
“Right. Look at his earlier records,” I said. “Over the last fifteen years, he’s volunteered for some of the bloodiest campaigns on the planet and has been decorated in most of them. In the last few years though he’s received several disciplinary notes on his record for insubordination to superiors.”
“What did he do?” she asked.
“Argued against the peace process that was starting. With his fists.”
“Who could blame him. Peace is a lie here,” Illya said.
“It’s not,” I said. “And it never has been. Have you ever been to one of the native cities? I’ve seen humans and Garjarack living in peace with no problems.”
“That’s those humans and Gars,” Illya said. “They’re the freaks and aberrations that neither side wanted. We’re different. We’ve fought too hard and lost too much. The Gar are never going to forgive us and I’m certainly never going to forgive them.”
“That might be true. You might never be able to live together,” I said. “Your children, or your grandchildren might be a different story though.”
“I’m never going to have children,” Illya said. “Thanks to the Gar.”
“Spell damage, or they took someone close to you?” I asked. It was insensitive, but at this stage, I needed to understand what drove her.
“Both,” she said.
“In the attack on Salmon Falls?” I asked.
“The spell damage came from when I was young,” Illya said. “A toxic cloud spell that wasn’t neutralized fast enough. I pulled through, mostly.”
“And the one you cared about?”
“The first attack on Salmon Falls.”
“Illya, I know you don’t want to hear this, but look at the evidence before you,” I said. “I don’t think the Garjarack were responsible for that attack.”
“Lies. This is all lies.”
“It would be comforting if it was, wouldn’t it?” I asked. “Think about it though. We’ve been giving out relief supplies to everyone. Why hasn’t Salmon Falls gotten any?”
“There’s not enough to go around, so high priority targets are receiving the supplies first,” Illya said.
“Have you seen the supplies we have stockpiled here? At an aid base?” I asked. “Why would we stock up an aid base that might need to host refugees and not the town where they’re actually living?”
“You want everything under your control.” she said.
“No. We don’t. We’ve been giving ninety percent of the material we bring in to the existing supply chains. We can get food in easily. Replicating your existing distribution networks was too costly and pointless though. That’s what Major Vunthar and people like him are supposed to be in charge of.”
“We’ve been starving.” she said.
“Yes, because the human you depended on has been trying to wage his own private version of the war,” I said. “Or maybe he’s got broader ambitions. Maybe he thinks he can start it up again entirely? I don’t know what his story is. I don’t know that this evidence means he’s guilty. All I know is that there’s a good reason to think that the Garjarack family you tried to murder had nothing to do with what happened to Salmon Falls.”
“Why does it matter?” Illya asked.
“You tell me,” I said.
“Fine, I’m a murderer too then.” she said. “Convict me and let everyone I know die.”
“I can’t convict you,” I said. “I can’t even testify about what you’ve said, even that confession. My authority here covers emergency situations only. You’ll have a trial, in an Imperial court, and it’ll be a fair one. So why does what we’ve talked about matter.”
“Because you can decide whether I get to help the wounded,” she said.
“And?” I prompted her.
“And you need to know whether I’m going to try to kill the Gars again.” she said.
“Close, but not exactly it,” I said. “I need to know if you’re going to live to see the trial.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“The Gar have done horrible things to you, not the family out there maybe, but they all look the same to you right? They’re all responsible for the losses you’ve suffered,” I said.
Illya looked at me silently, trying to follow where I was going.
“We need your skills as a medic. I can unshackle you, but I can’t stop you from trying to kill the Gar family again,” I said. “To be clear; I can’t stop you from trying, but I can stop you.”
She was silent again, but she met my eyes. She’d seen the kind of response I could bring against a threat. She understood exactly how serious I was, but I didn’t want to leave anything unclear on that point.
“I want to speak at your trial Illya. I want to speak on your behalf and tell the jury that it was thanks to your work that lives were saved,” I said. “I want to do that, but if I have to, I’ll speak at your funeral.”
Illya nodded in understanding, and I could see the wheels turning in her head as she imagined the different futures that might be.
“Or you can stay here. If you don’t trust yourself. You’ve already helped out. If that’s all you can do, then that’s all you can do.”
She looked at me carefully, and then at the door behind me. I saw her gaze drift aimlessly into the middle distance as she looked inside herself. A moment later, she came back to the present and, with a sigh, looked me in the eyes again.
“Leave me here.”
I nodded and rose from chair.
“Is that what you really want?” I asked.
She was staring blankly ahead, but I could feel the force of her will holding back the worries and fears that were raging inside her.
I traced a small sigil on the air and cast some of my Physical anima into it. My hand felt like I passed it through a fire, but that faded as the unlocking spell dissipated. The chains that bound Illya fell off her with a solid clunk.
“Then come with me. We have work to do.”