The unexpected visitors on the Verulia colony ship could be there for any number of reasons. They might even have a valid right to be in possession of an Imperial transport. The the colony ship’s spellweb didn’t know where they were though so I had to bet we weren’t going to have a cordial exchange of pleasantries when I found them.
“Imperial Flight control, do you have a tracking link on an Imperial shuttle in this vicinity?” I asked via a private telepathic channel.
“Checking now,” Clar, the flight controller, said.
To my left, Gan was describing the various features of the colony ships. The people of Hellsreach would call the ship’s home for a month during the voyage and then another month once they made landfall on Titanus. Illya asked some sharp questions about the logistics of the operation and, to his credit, Gan had answers ready for most of them. I was a little disturbed though by how often his response was a variation of “Verulia’s local personnel will be coordinating that”. It wasn’t like they could relocate a planet full of people and expect them to sort of their new living arrangements on their own, but I got the sense that Verulia Industries was going to be very much in control of the colonists new lives. What incentive they would have to relinquish that control was unclear.
“No tracking link on any Imperial transports in your immediate vicinity Guardian. Do you have visual on one?” Clar asked.
“Yes. It’s a Red Sand model,” I said. I’d studied weird things as a kid. Crystal Empire warships and transports had been a craze for a few months and even half a decade later I remember a lot of the ship types that I’d been into. The Red Sands were a standard troops transport model. Fully enclosed, with light armor, a decent flight engine and room for a squad of twelve. There were a few famous ships that were conversions off the basic frame, but the one attached to Gan’s ship looked like one of the stock ships that we had in service for the last several months on Hellsreach.
“We have a report of a stolen transport, Red Sands model,” Clar said.
“Where was it’s last known position?” I asked.
“The Laris Central Processing Base,” Clar said.
I groaned. The Laris Central Processing Base was one of the larger human controlled military centers in the southern hemisphere of Hellsreach. There were dozens of transport ships there and tens of thousands of people who had access to them. The list of potential culprits was too large to determine who was waiting for us or what their goals were.
“Thank you Flight Control. I’ll see about retrieving our errant craft.”
Dealing with the thieves was going to involve a some serious risks. No one else on the transport with me had signed up for that sort of thing but I suspected some would feel like they were required to “help me out”. In Cadrus’ case that would be out of gratitude, but in Gan’s it would be to protect his investment. Whatever their reasons, I didn’t want to expose any of the people with me to that kind of danger.
Gan was talking with Cadrus while the seals between our transport and the colony ship were established and tested. I waited till he paused to take a breath (which took an annoyingly long time) and cut into the conversation.
“I want to go on ahead and talk to the inspection team before anyone disembarks,” I said. “If they’ve found the place safe enough then we can transfer Kallak over. If not then we’ll head back to the Imperial station while the issues are corrected.”
It was a valid cover story and I was pretty sure no one in the group was running a truth detection spell. Eirda looked at me suspiciously but then that was the way she looked at everyone so I was pretty sure she hadn’t picked up on my subterfuge.
The automatic checks on the seals finished and the passage between the two ships opened in time to punctuate my words. I stepped through without waiting for anyone to object to my plan and found Illya tailing after me.
“I’m supposed to stay with you right?” she asked.
I didn’t have anything to worry about in terms of her escaping custody from the transport shuttle, but I could see the nervousness in her eyes. She couldn’t stay with the Garjarack family.
“Right,” I said and proceeded inwards. I wasn’t exactly happy to have her with me, but some part of my brain wasn’t displeased with the notion of having a combat medic along when I might get banged up.
Not that she’d be able to heal me easily, given my relationship with Void anima and what it did to receiving spells from others. I’d been working on that while I convalesced but I still got less than a tenth of the energy from a healing spell as restorative anima. It kind of sucked but it was still better than nothing in dire cases.
“We’re not going to find the inspection team,” I said when the portals between the two ships closed again. I didn’t want to scare her but it definitely wouldn’t have been fair to lead her into a situation where violence was likely without prior warning.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“The Imperial shuttle that is docked here was stolen,” I told her. “I don’t know what the thieves are up to but I’m not thinking they’re going to be super happy to see me.”
“Why not wait for support?”
“Best case scenario, they’re peaceful but desperate and just need someone who will listen and help them out. Worst case, they intend to escape after destroying the colony ship and our transport if we don’t stop them first. Either way, Imperial support’s not going to get here in time.”
“Do you know what you’re facing? Are you sure you can handle them?” Illya asked.
“We’re in one of the auxiliary docking chambers,” I said. “That door leads to a pressure cabin. Head in there and you’ll be safe ok?”
“You want me to stay behind?” she asked.
“I want you to stay safe,” I said.
“What about you though?”
“I’m going to head to the engine room. Once I’ve dealt with the thieves, I’ll come back and collect you and the others.”
“And if you don’t come back?”
“I’ve come back from a lot worse that this,” I said.
That didn’t convince her, but I couldn’t blame her. Taking on an unknown number of unknown adversaries was the hallmark of a bad plan. I felt the remnants of the Fate weaving tugging at me and recognized this as the “stupid moment” I was being led to.
Even without magical coercion helping them, plans that are put in motion have a tendency to continue barreling on until someone gets in their way. With my spell casting limited and too many unknown’s to count lined up before me, I was perfectly situated to be crushed beneath whatever avalanche someone had setup.
Of course that all assumed I wasn’t more powerful than the avalanche.
Illya either saw the gleam of insanity in my eye, or decided that fighting me on this point wasn’t going to lead anywhere she wanted to go. Whichever was the case, she nodded to me and headed over to the pressure cabin.
“Fari, would you be so kind as the warn me if I’m doing anything stupid here?” I asked.
“Ok. Warning, you’re doing something stupid,” she said. “You’re under no orders to keep Verulia Industries property safe. Let them blow up the colony ship if they want. No one’s in it now. The safest move is to get back in the shuttle and wait for a squad of Imperial soldiers to arrive as back up.”
“They’ll get away if I do that,” I said.
“We can track their shuttle,” she said.
“Like it was tracked on its flight here?” I asked.
“That’s a fair point. Allow me to counter it with this though; I’ll be paying attention to it if it tries to leave.”
“Can you tell if they teleport off the ship before it lands?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she said. “I can probably detect a departure, if they’re not careful to disguise it, but I probably won’t be able to determine their arrival spot. I’d rather they get away though than lose you.”
“I appreciate the sentiment but you know I can’t take that risk. There’s Fate magic involved here. If they get away something unpleasant is going to happen, and it’ll be hard to see it coming.”
“So what’s your plan?” Fari asked.
“I’m guessing you’ve already hacked the colony ship’s spellweb right?” I asked.
“With the security they had on it, I’m not sure I can even justify calling it hacking,” she said.
“Can you make out the spells the thieves have in place to cloak their presence?” I asked.
“No. They’re actually pretty good. The local scrying nodes all show the ship empty and running automated tasks,” she said.
“Exxion IV covert ops personnel?” I asked.
“Very likely. Could be Gar military too, but the odds favor the humans given where the shuttle was stolen from.”
“Excellent. I don’t need to hold back then,” I said.
“I can’t locate them for you,” Fari said. “And the colony ship doesn’t have any internal defenses. Anti-boarding is going to be handled by Verulia security once the ships are underway.”
“All I need is for you to work the environmental controls,” I said as I wrapped a strip of cloth around my eyes.
With the blindfold on I couldn’t see anything. Not in the normal spectrum of light. That meant Fari was free to douse the lights throughout the ship and then strobe them at blinding intensity in random patterns.
She couldn’t detect the thieves, but she was able to project an overlay on my vision of the ship’s interior. Wandering around a wireframe version of the ship’s corridors was a little strange but I was able to make good time to the engine room. I figured the thieves either wanted to steal the colony ship or sabotage it. Stealing the ship would lead them to the control room but that was trivial to deal with. Fari had the systems locked down and I could call up an Imperial Cruiser to take them into custody long before they jumped out of the system. Sabotage was more problematic, The engine room was where they had the best chance of doing the most damage there so I headed there to catch them in the middle of whatever they had in mind.
As it turned, out the sabotage guess was the correct one. I found the first two covert-ops guys guarding the door into the engine room. Bolt were holding fully charged bolt casters. I’d switched to Void anima vision on the way, so the men and the guns stood out against the dark corridor as radiant beacons of light.
Between the darkness and blinding lights plus random air horn blasts over the ship’s communication system, they never saw me coming. Ten steps from the corner of the hallway, seven punches and two kicks and they were sprawled on the ground while I was barely breathing hard.
I rolled through the doorway into the engine room and dodged the another attack. The two outside the door had a third as backup.
“Hostile! My position!” he shouted.
I spun and caught him with a flying elbow to the face that mashed his head into the wall. The impact knocked the sense out of him and the guard went limp as a soggy noodle.
That was the good new. The bad news was that I felt my arm burn where I struck him. I paused as I understood what that meant. He’d had a shield up. My Void anima had instinctively ripped it away. I felt my hands and feet burning too and realized that I’d done the same thing to the two guards in the hall.
Subconscious casting, especially with Void anima, was something I did fairly often. From what Master Raychelle said, I’d probably drilled on it from a young age. Like just after I started walking. When I’d lost my mother, I’d repressed a whole lot of things, including my powers. I’d hidden inside my Void anima, all the while unconsciously practicing how to to suppress the other magics that I was developing. Most people who use Void anima on themselves manage to die horrible and brief deaths. It’s seriously dangerous stuff. Yet I’d coexisted with it for well over a decade.
Given the kind of control I had with Void anima to do exist with it for so long, I couldn’t understand where the burning was coming from. It wasn’t Energetic anima. I didn’t have a ton of that, and I could have controlled it better if I did. The obvious answer was that it was psychosomatic, lingering trauma from my fight on the volcano but it felt terribly real. And I’d seen real smoke come up from my hand. I could be hallucinating too but I didn’t think I was that far gone.
Fari’s flashing lights bought me a second to get out of the line of fire of the rest of the soldiers. They couldn’t cast their light amplification spells for nighttime work and even heat sensing spells didn’t do them much good in the warm confines of the engine room. They all had plenty of anima though, so I was able to see them with no problems whatsoever.
I watched as one cast a Mental anima spell, to locate me by detecting my thoughts.
“That one’s clever,” I said to Fari. “Care to punish him for it?”
“Certainly”, she said with glee.
I watched the energy of the spell bend to report my position as being behind the next storage chamber over. Clever boy signalled his compatriots to circle around the containers and catch me in the crossfire. They did succeed in setting up a crossfire but, unfortunately for them, I wasn’t the one in the middle of it.
The soldier’s confusion over almost shooting one of their own gave me the opportunity to dispatch another one, but I could feel the cost of fighting beginning to add up.
My breath was hot. It felt like the fire had climbed inside my lungs. It was a unique experience. I couldn’t see any flames on me, but heat on my skin had moved past discomfort and onto pain. Not agonizing pain, but enough that I needed it to stop. Balanced against that was the need to put down the rest of the covert ops before they killed me.
“Ready anima blades,” their leader said. “Spread out and engage the hostile in melee.”
It shouldn’t have surprised me that they were armed with anima blades. I think I’d just really really hoped that they might have forgotten to bring their death swords along on the evil covert mission they were running.
“Better idea, throw your weapons down and surrender and I won’t make you eat them.” I had Fari pipe my words over the engine room’s comm speakers so they couldn’t identify where I was hiding.
“Who are you?” the leader asked.
“Guardian Mel Watersward of the Crystal Empire,” I said. “This is the only offer I’m going to make. Disarm and surrender now. You will be treated fairly and given a proper trial before an Imperial court.”
“One of the Guardians?” the leader said. “You are a human are you not Watersward?”
“Surrender now,” I said. “I have only disabled your personnel so far. Any further aggressive action on your part will be met with increased force.”
“You have no place here Watersward. Leave now and you won’t be part of the reckoning that’s coming.”
One of the other soldiers crept around the corner of warp gate capacitor I was hiding behind. He had his anima blade held warily in front of him and his reflexes were hyper-enhanced with Physical anima.
So I drained all of that delicious magic and planted his face into the floor hard enough to knock him out completely. I knew he’d need medical attention – you don’t KO someone without doing sigificant damage, but I had a medic and a doctor on call back where my transport was docked, so I wasn’t too worried for his long term safety.
The soldier’s anima blade (and then head) hitting the deckplate was enough to bring two more of his teammates scurrying to my position. The blaring horns had covered the noise of the engagement but the squad was tracking each other’s vital signs from what I could see by the spell links between them.
I moved to tackle one and drag us both behind cover from the other one, but I wasn’t able to drain his reflexes before he got a snap kick off into my chest. That knocked me back into his partner, who I all but devoured. The kick had hurt but the lingering pain was more from the burning of erecting my own shield than the damage the soldier had done.
I was shaking from the pain, but at the same time I felt stronger than I had in months. Between the two soldiers and the anima blade that I’d partially drained I was carrying around a lot of force. With it channeled into my strength and speed I knew I could end the fight within the next three heartbeats.
That’s when Illya shot me in the head with a force bolt.
It was a great shot. Plenty of power to get through my shield but with a rippling effect so that the blow wouldn’t splatter my head across the deck. It was as potent a non-lethal shot as she could have put together.
Unfortunately for her, I felt it coming.
Through the burning in my body, I felt the cold talons of danger grip my chest. Instinct as much as anything else got my Void anima circle up in time. I absorbed Illya’s attack completely and took no damage at all from it.
No physical damage anyways The extra energy and spell casting pushed me over the edge.
Fire, literal flames, exploded from my body and I screamed. It wasn’t a scream of pain though. It was rage. Pure inhuman rage.
I tried to hold myself back but, around me, metal started to melt into slag as the whole world blurred into a brilliant orange haze.