For all of Hellsreach’s problems, I had to admit it was beautiful from far away. From the edge of space the only thing visible of the people who inhabited the troubled planet was the light they sent into black expanse that surrounded them.
“Can I give you a refill?” Darius asked. He was holding a fresh brewed pitcher of tea and from the aroma wafting through our small command ship, I hazarded a guess that he’d also popped another batch of sweetfruit cookies into the oven.
“Mmm, I know four cups should be enough but I can’t see ever getting tired of this,” I said.
“The galley’s well stocked,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll run out any time soon.”
“Oh, yeah, the tea’s nice too,” I said and let a mischievous smile play across my face.
Even with the steady infusion of tea, I was so tired I was feeling giddy. Echo – I couldn’t call her my Mom – had been right about the cost of spending time in a Void cocoon. It had taken me nearly a full day of rest to recover the strength I’d burned away with that trick. The good news though was that my healers had investigated me thoroughly and concluded that I hadn’t done any permanent damage to my anima reserves and that I was recovered to the state I’d been in before we arrived at Hellsreach.
The bad news was no one had any idea why or how I’d managed to slag the engine room of the Verulia colony ship, so I was still on restricted spell casting.
Apart from my continued lack of magical development though a lot had changed.
Fari was officially Imperial Overseer for the Colonization project. Opal and Raychelle hadn’t been able to make her a Crystal Guardian (that took a more thorough review and a board of at least five existing Guardians). Confirming her Imperial citizenship had been a breeze however and from there the Imperial Ambassador was able to appoint her to the Overseer role directly.
As I’d expected she took to it several hundred times better than I would have. In theory the actual work was being done by auditors from the ambassador’s staff, but Fari dove into it and within twelve hours had them caught up from the backlog they were crushed under by the advancement of the departure timeline. The best part though was that she seemed genuinely happy.
Since I’d met her on Belstarius, we’d been close, but apart from me I hadn’t seen her develop many other friendships. We’d talked about it and that was just who she was in part. From what she could remember, she’d always been someone who formed a few close friendships rather than many lighter ones.
In the auditors, it looked like she’d found a few other kindred spirits though, which wasn’t too surprising. Fari was a genius with Mental anima. We could talk about a lot of things, but I didn’t have the talent or understanding to follow the details of the more esoteric things she could do. Imperial auditors on the other hand are selected specifically for their intelligence. Even the ones who weren’t wizard class casters of Mental anima were so frighteningly good at dealing with data and information that it might as well have been magic.
Her success as Imperial Overseer didn’t entirely get me off the hook though. Any endeavor as large as relocating a planet’s entire population had lots of oversight positions that needed to be filled. My lack of training and spell casting capacity was an issue for some of them, but there were left plenty of roles where what was needed was simply someone trustworthy and, somehow, I still qualified as that.
“We got another set of dispatches in from the Council,” Darius said. “Unless you need a hand, I’m going to see if there’s anything in there that will interfere with the latest list of cargo restrictions that Verulia posted.”
“Go ahead, I’m down to a dozen personnel files to review before I get to dive into the real fun stuff,” I said.
“The open arrest files?” he guessed.
“Yep. All the criminals that no one knows where to find, and no one wants on the colony ships.”
Verulia Industries had a team dedicated to preventing known war criminals from using the colony transfer as a method of escaping to a new world. With the insane rush the accerlated schedule put everyone under though, Master Raychelle had asked me to act as an “unofficial” Overseer for the Verulia security efforts.
“How many are there?” Darius asked.
“Tens of thousands,” I said. “But the auditors have narrowed the list down to a little over a hundred who are likely to still be alive and could pass through the screening systems without being recognized.”
“A hundred ghosts,” Darius said. “They give you the bestest jobs don’t they?”
“I’d rather deal with literal ghosts to be honest. At least I can take a punch at them.”
“Based on past experience, I’d like to wager some money that you’ll be taking a punch at these ghosts before too long too.” he said.
“Oh, I’ll take that bet!” I said. “Either way I win!”
“I should bet you a kiss then.” Darius said. “That way both of us win.”
I tugged on his shirt and he dutifully bent down so that I could caress his lips with my own.
“I don’t know how you managed to pull Liason duty for the Common Council but I am so glad you’re here with me,” I said.
“There are certain perks that come from having two parents on the Common Council,” he said.
“Have I mentioned I love your Dads?” I said.
“They’re kind of fond of you too,” he said. “Which reminds me, when you’re feeling up to it they’d like to have an official private dinner with you.”
Darius and I had gone to dinner with his Dads a few times already. Normally they were casual affairs. Neither Hector nor Osgood were big on ceremony or formal ranks. Our conversations also tended to focus more on the mundane elements of our lives rather than anything we dealt with in our official roles as Crystal Guardian or Common Councilmember.
Not that our lives outside our official roles were all that mundane. Darius had plenty of stories from growing up on Hellsreach but it was Hector and Osgood who I was really amazed by.
They’d met as rival politicians, both having been elected to the Common Council the same year. Hector had been in the party that favored developing a native military force that would be sufficiently armed to drive the non-native factions off the world. Osgood had been the most outspoken member of the party that favored an appeal for off world support.
Things had changed between them the year Darius was born. Hellsreach had been officially inducted into the Crystal Empire two years prior, but Imperial support was slow to arrive. Some of the worst fighting in the history of Hellsreach raged in the interim as all the sides tried to secure their position before Empire locked things down.
Darius’ mother was killed when fighting broke through Mapston, the former capital for the Human and Garjarack natives of Hellsreach. It was Osgood who rescued the infant Darius and kept him safe in the destroyed city through the long siege that followed. Osgood had thought that Hector had been killed as well and initially planned to protect and raise Darius as a tribute to the opponent whom he respected and admired.
Little by little though, Osgood began to feel the loss of his old rival and, seemingly too late, discovered that his feelings ran a lot deeper for Hector than he’d imagined.
Their reunion should have been been a happy occasion but life’s never quite that simple. The phrase “and I’ve still got the bolt caster scars to prove it” factored into that part of the tale more than once. In the end though, after events that make Hector cringe when he remembers them, they sorted through the misunderstandings and wound up together, happily, for the last sixteen years.
Wheedling out additional details from them was a fun game to play, especially since they often deflected the story in tales about Darius’ childhood that were delightful to listen to!
None of that was likely to be on the agenda for an “official private dinner”. If Hector and Osgood had requested that, it meant they needed to speak to me as members of the Hellsreach Common Council to a representative of the Crystal Empire. Nothing we said would be binding, but it was a chance to speak under the protection of a privacy screen, and I knew they wouldn’t invoke that unless they’d discovered something they weren’t free to act on themselves.
“Dinner would be wonderful,” I said. “When were they thinking of having it?”
“Tomorrow,” Darius said, “At our place.”
‘Our place’ in this context was Darius’ home. Having lost one spouse to violence, Hector had invested a frankly unreasonable sum of money to ensure that his home wouldn’t allow such an invasion again. It wasn’t the most secure facility on the planet, but that was largely because Hellsreach was a war world built by hyper-advanced aliens. Short of ancient artifact-level wards, their house was about as well defended as you could get and still be on Hellsreach.
I was about to agree to the dinner date when I flipped open the next personnel file on the colonist that traveled with the first wave of settlers the day before.
“We have a problem,” I said, double checking the file to make sure it was tagged correctly.
“What did you find?” Darius asked.
“The first colony ships that left, they held humans right?” I asked.
“Yeah, they took the townsfolk from Polsgard,” Darius said. “It was one of the human towns that got destroyed in the mega-quake. There wasn’t any housing for the people and all their stuff was destroyed, so there wasn’t much to be transported aside from the people themselves.”
“And Verulia security was responsible for cross checking that everyone who got on board the ship was a Polsgard resident right?” I asked.
“Actually we had an Imperial team and a couple of teams from the Council’s military working with them,” Darius said.
“Would any of them have been briefed on the latest additions to the Wanted list?” I asked.
“All of them should have been,” he said. “Who do you think they missed.”
I passed him the personnel file.
“Illya lived there,” I said. “What has me worried is that the ship departed with 509 colonists ‘confirmed by witness’. Meaning someone with proper ID confirmed to security that the other person was a resident.”
“So you think Illya found someone to lie for her so that she could escape on the colony ship? That would explain why Fari wasn’t able to find her.”
“Titanus is far away, but she won’t be in a better position there. In fact we could almost find her more easily on Titanus than here on Hellsreach,so why go?” I asked.
“Verulia security should be keeping a close eye on the colonists that were only partially confirmed,” Darius said. “There shouldn’t be much that she can do there to get away any further.”
“They should be, but they’re rushing. Gan said they accelerated the timetable to bring a swift end to the in-fighting that remained but that doesn’t add up. By moving this fast Verulia has left open huge holes in its security net.”
“You think they’re under some other kind of pressure?” Darius asked.
“Yeah, spending things up wasn’t a trivial choice to make. It’s got to be costing Verulia a large portion of the profits they plan to make from their research here,” I said.
“Unless they plan to profit off more than what they showed you,” Darius said.
“That would make sense but I’ll need to track it down later,” I said. “For now there’s a more significant problem to handle.”
“How much damage do you think Illya can do on Titanus?” Darius asked.
“By herself, not much, but there were 509 colonists that were ‘verified by witness’. I think we have to assume that she’s not at all alone there.” I said.
“That’s not good,” Darius said.
“It gets worse,” I said. “The colony ship made it to the stellar warp gate twelve hours ago. We can’t contact them until they’ve landed on Titanus, which means Illya and her crew will have almost a month to prepare for us.”
“And we can’t stop the colony ships from leaving because we have no proof that they’re on board.”
“So we’re going to be walking into a trap, laid by highly trained and experienced professionals who have a fanatical hatred for the people we’re trying to protect,” I said.
“That sounds like fun. Shall I book us on the next ship out?” Darius asked.