We received the official report of the loss of the colony ship carrying the Common Council citizens an hour after Master Raychelle and I felt the brush of Fate that showed us its destruction.
“The colonization project is going to be halted,” Master Opal said.
“Everbright won’t be happy with that,” I said.
“He’ll be less happy with the investigation Verulia Industries is going to come under,” Master Raychelle said. “He sold the idea of the accelerated schedule with the promise that a smaller time window would let Verulia’s security forces focus their efforts more effectively. The first flight was supposed to the safest one.”
“What do you think happened?” I asked. I was angry at all sorts of things and wanted a good excuse to punch someone’s face into applesauce.
“It’s too early to jump to conclusions,” Raychelle said. “We’ll need to send a ship into warp space to investigate the site.”
“They’re not going to find that this was an accident, are they?” I asked.
“We don’t know what they’re going to find,” she said. “For now, we’ll focus our efforts on finding the pieces of Vunthor’s organization that are still on Hellsreach. It’s entirely possible that Vunthor himself is still here.”
I knew she was right, the plan she described was a smart one, but in my gut I couldn’t help feeling that she was terribly wrong too. I hadn’t been sidelined, but searching for Vunthor on Hellsreach still seemed like a step down from pursuing him across the galaxy.
Something troubled me about it too. Like there was a little voice in the back of my head that was sure he wasn’t still on Hellsreach, but I couldn’t place why I was so certain of that.
“I should go talk to Darius,” I said. “The Common Council is going to have questions and they might need our resources to get the answers they need.”
I stood to leave and Master Raychelle stood with me. She walked to the door of the room we were using before touching my arm to signal me to stop.
“This wasn’t your fault Mel,” she said, watching me carefully.
“Vunthor was the one responsible, and the people working with him.” I said. I’m sure it sounded like I was agreeing with her.
“Remember that,” she said. “There are going to be a lot of angry people, and they’re going to be looking for anyone they can pin the blame on for this.”
“You think they’ll blame us?” I asked.
“It’s the flipside to our reputations,” she said. “We can do more, so people expect us to be able to do everything. That’s never going to be the case though. We can make things better than they would be without us, but people will still get hurt. We can’t save everyone. Not all the time.”
“We can try though right?” I asked.
“To a certain extent,” she said. “But we have to remember that we’re worth saving too.”
I nodded. I understood what she was saying, and the message underneath it. I shouldn’t let myself shoulder too much of the blame or allow other people to put it on me, but knowing something and doing it are two separate things.
“I should talk to Darius,” I said, trying to get out before I had to make any promises that I wasn’t likely to keep.
“Let him know that Opal and I are both on this,” she said.
I nodded again and hurried down the hallway to the transfer hangar.
“I don’t see how this happened,” Fari said, appearing beside me as I jogged down the hallway. “I’ve got the inspection reports up and the Common Council ship was swept three times for any sign of sabotage, including immediately before launch.”
“What’s the story with the inspectors,” I asked. “Could any of them be on Vunthor’s team?”
“Not likely. They were all Imperial, and they’re all accounted for,” Fari said. “Security is already bringing them in for a debriefing.”
“What about the passengers on the colony ship? Could one of Vunthor’s followers have made it on to the wrong ship?” I asked.
“It’s possible but we were screening for that,” Fari said.
“Whoever it was, we should have caught them,” I said.
“I know,” Fari said.
I hadn’t noticed the pain in her voice until then. I’d been unconscious for two days and was blaming myself for not being there when I was needed. She’d spent that same time working to prevent this and things had still slipped by her. I stopped jogging and paused to consider that for a second.
“What Raychelle said to me, applies to you too,” I said.
“I know.” she said. She sounded like she was having the same trouble believing it as I was though.
I could have argued the point, I didn’t like seeing her feeling bad, especially when it wasn’t warranted. Instead though I decided to be honest.
“I hate getting beat,” I said.
“Me too,” she said.
“We’re going to get Vunthor,” I said.
“Will we?” she asked. “If he’s this far ahead of us, I don’t see why he’d stay around at Titanus.”
“You’re thinking he’s going to take over the colony ship and fly them somewhere else?” I asked.
“They’re out in frontier space. It would be all but impossible to follow them if they just went further on and knew how to obscure the trail they left behind.”
“So he takes off for a few years, builds up his forces and waits for Verulia’s security to grow lax?” It was a feasible plan, but only if enough of the other colonists were onboard with it.
“Or he finds a partner out there, one of the old Warlords, and makes his return even sooner,” she said.
“That would be close to the worst case scenario,” I said. “Verulia’s on the hook for providing security as part of their contract, so there won’t be any Imperial troops there a few years from now. With a Warlord behind him, Vunthor could stage an assault and wipe out all of the Garjarack’s on Titanus before anyone could mobilize to stop him.”
“Maybe Master Raychelle’s right though, maybe he hasn’t left the planet,” she said. “We had all of the checkpoint personnel looking for him specifically.”
“If he’s here, we’ll find him,” I said.
“And the others like him?” Fari asked.
I started to say that we’d get them too but I stopped myself.
“He’s only the first of many isn’t he?” I said. “Do we even have an estimate for how parties on each side didn’t want the war to end? Or how many are still fighting it?”
“The last poll had support for continuing the war at 42% for the humans offworlders and 44% for the Garjarack. The Common Council citizens ran lower but there were still about a third of them who want to see the other two sides kill each off entirely.”
“Maybe it would be simpler to just let them,” I said. “Let the mega-quakes get rid of them all and Verulia can have the planet fair and square.”
“Simpler, but that’s not an option is it?” Fari said.
“No,” I said and sighed. Nothing was ever simple or easy. “There’s the other half to two-thirds of the population to consider and even the war callers aren’t necessarily all bad.”
“So what are we going to do?” Fari asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Find Vunthor I guess. We’ve got to start somewhere and I think today puts him at the top of the list.”
“You don’t think he’s here do you?” she asked.
“That’s true, but I don’t know why,” I said.
“Let’s talk to Darius then,” she said.
“You think he’ll know the answer?” I asked.
“No, but I think if we can get your mind off it, and if you’re not thinking about it, your subconscious may be able to put the pieces together for you,” she said.
As it turned out, Fari was right, but not for the reasons we could have anticipated.
“There’s an emergency session of the Council going on now,” Darius said when we touched down in Zawalla City again. “They’re considering a resolution that will make it illegal to transfer property to Verulia Industries or any of its subsidiaries.”
“They don’t want another colony ship to be destroyed,” Fari said.
“It’s more than that,” Darius said. “They don’t want the citizens leaving their sphere of influence. I should have seen this coming.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You proved that the Council has as much rot in it as the other two factions,” he said. “I think this disaster may have been another ‘homegrown’ one.”
“What?” I asked. “How is that possible?”
“How can it be anyone else?” he asked. “The ship was searched top to bottom. They looked for everything that Major Vunthor’s group tried to do the Garjarack colony ship and the inspectors found nothing. It had to be an inside job.”
“But why?” I asked and before he could answer a flood of possible reasons poured into my brain. “Wait, the new cities, they’re not going to be organized the same way as the existing Council cities are they?”
“No. So a lot of the Council member’s constituencies are going to be jumbled up. There will have to be new voting regions drawn and put in place,” he said.
“And there are some people who won’t be elected again if their districts aren’t preserved,” I finished his thought. Power. One of the more common reasons for sapients being horrible to each other. “Who’s in favor of the resolution?”
“Most of the Council,” he said.
“Your Dads too?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “They don’t trust Verulia. I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the votes.”
“Are either of them in danger of losing their seats if the move to Titanus happens?” I asked.
“No one knows,” he said. “The new districting plan hasn’t been drawn up yet and Verulia hasn’t committed to a specific placement for the colonists yet.”
I sat down and started massaging my temples.
“I really need someone to hit,” I said. “This counter-planning and figuring out schemes is driving me nuts.”
“I know what you mean,” Darius said. “I volunteered for the Scout Corp because I wanted to make a difference. It was dangerous as hell and I’m an idiot for thinking this but now that I’m away from it, I kind of miss being a Scout. It was so much simpler.”
I lifted my head up to respond to him and froze. Words didn’t work for me for a moment and then the idea that my subconscious had been screaming at me finally broke through. I looked up at Darius with wonder and joy in my eyes.
“You’re brilliant,” I told him.
I was almost bouncing out of my seat as the pieces fell into place.
“Because I want to go back to being a Scout?” he asked.
“No,” I said, shaking my head and waving the idea away. “Not that. Vunthor! He did leave! He’s on the human ship!”
“You put something together, didn’t you?” Fari asked.
“Yes! It was his record, the one that I shared with Illya!” I said. “He never left the battle lines. Ever. He always led from the front. He specifically turned down any promotion that would land him a desk job or keep him out of combat. It was in his psyche profile. He didn’t delegate. Not the dangerous stuff. He has to be up there and in charge in person.”
“How would he have gotten an agent on board the Council colony ship?” Darius asked.
“I don’t know.” I said.
“And how did he get onto the Exxion IV forces colony ship?” Fari asked.
“Don’t know that either, but he’s definitely up there.” I said.
“So what are we going to do about that?” Darius asked.
“We’re going to go after him,” I said.
“Master Raychelle won’t allow you to,” Fari said.
“If she didn’t want me going into danger, then she shouldn’t have agreed to my becoming a Crystal Guardian,” I said. “This is what I do. It’s what I’m good for. Reviewing reports and coordinating security forces isn’t in my toolset. Smacking the hell out of people is though.”
“You’re good at more than that Mel,” Fari said.
“And you shouldn’t throw yourself into danger that easily.” Darius said.
“This isn’t about me. It’s about the human and Garjarack ships,” I said. “The smart move is to clean things up here so that no more problems arise and then deal with Vunthor’s forces in a permanent and overwhelming manner. You know that’s the option that Raychelle will pursue.”
“That’s probably true,” Fari said. “If you know it’s the right call why aren’t you willing to work with her on it?”
“It’s the smart call, it’s not the right one,” I said.
“You’re worried about Kallak’s family aren’t you?” Darius asked.
“Them and all the rest of the Gar,” I said. “And the human colonists. Without Vunthor in the picture there’s a chance they could start healing the wounds the war put on them. If he’s there to continue the battle though, both sides are going to get drawn up in it again.”
“Verulia’s security forces will be there to stop them though,” Fari said.
“Like they did this time?” I asked.
I looked at both of them and saw the concern they each had. I was more important to them than people they’d barely or never met. The same was true in reverse, except I knew we had the chance to remain safe, and no one on those ships did. I knew if I did nothing that some or all of them would die and I knew that giving up on them now would push me just a little closer to the emptiness I carried inside. I’d grow colder by degrees until what Echo had said would be true – I’d be alone because I just wouldn’t be able to care anymore.
“I can’t let those people die,” I said. “Raychelle has to look at the big picture. She doesn’t have someone higher up that she can count on to handle that. And she can’t ask me to handle something like this because it would be unfair to place that kind of burden on me, to ask someone who doesn’t have the training needed to handle a job this big.”
Fari and Darius both nodded in agreement.
“But this is my life. I have to live with the choice I make and the consequences it has,” I said.
“Even if they kick you out of the Guardians for it?” Fari asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Even if it means that.”