I wish I had the kind of luck where problems only appeared one at a time. Instead I was blessed with the “opportunity” to resolve at least a half dozen impossible issues and I was gifted with something less than an hour to manage those miracles in.
“Remind me to ask for a raise when this is all over,” I said.
“You get paid?” Darius asked me. His smile hid his concern as long as I didn’t look too closely at it.
Fari rolled her eyes at both of us.
“I’ve got Colonel Beva on the line again,” she said.
“Please tell me you have a plan Guardian,” Colonel Beva said.
“I do,” I said. I wasn’t lying, but I did hope she wouldn’t press me on it. I hadn’t claimed it was a good plan. “I’ll need you to hold out for as long as you can though.”
“I don’t know how much I can promise there,” Colonel Beva said. “Overseer Fari has been giving me the data she scanned from the Deca-beasts that are inbound. We don’t have many people who can fight one of those things, much less five thousand of them.”
“I know. This is well beyond any of our worst case scenarios,” I said. “We’re moving towards their controller now.”
“How long will you need?” Colonel Beva asked.
“Depends on how hard he tries to hide from us,” I said.
“If he’s smart he’ll hide until the Deca-beasts have finished us off and then call them back to kill you.” she said.
“He’s not that kind of smart,” I said. “If he was, he wouldn’t have sent them away in the first place.”
“Maybe he doesn’t need to be,” Colonel Beva said. “Can you get through Vunthor’s regular forces to take out the controller?”
“Yes,” I said. “But we’re going to need time.”
“You’ve got until the Deca-beasts reach us,” she said. “Then people are going to start dying. Fast.”
“Can we get any of Captain Hanq’s forces there in time?” Darius asked.
“I’ll get him on the line too,” Fari said.
A moment later the voice of my childhood mentor joined the telepathic call.
“Mel, where have you gotten off too?” he asked.
“We’re on Vunthor’s doorstep,” I said. “Was kind of expecting more of a party to be waiting for us here, but it looks like this will be a smaller, more private engagement.”
“All the party guests are headed our direction,” Colonel Beva said.
“So I see,” Hanq said. “Fari’s giving me the synopsis now. This doesn’t look good.”
“Do you have the portal sealed?” I asked.
“Yes, the rest of the giga-beasts are sealed away in warp space,” he said. “Black team is nearly spent though.”
“What about Red, Blue and Gold teams?” I asked. “Can they hold out against the horde that’s headed towards the Council colony module?”
“The crew of a Courier ship isn’t selected or geared for heavy combat missions like this,” he said.
“Yeah, but you selected and geared them,” I said. “Can they hold out?”
“For a while,” he said. “We won’t make it till Imperial support gets here though.”
“Imperial support is here,” I said.
“Mel, you can’t do this. It’s suicide,” Hanq said. “Vunthor has a small army backing him up.”
“Would you go after him if you were here?” I asked.
He was silent for a long moment.
“Have some faith Captain,” I said. “I’m not throwing my life away, and I’m not the little girl you started training a decade ago.”
“I know that,” he said. “Guardian Watersward.”
I felt a little glow of pride at his recognition of me.
“I’m getting another call,” Fari said. “Everbright wants to reconnect with us.”
“Put him on,” I said.
“Guardian Watersward, Overseer Fari, I am filing an official objection,” Everbright said. “I demand that you release the spell locks you’ve placed on our colony ship and vacate the region you are in to a minimum safe distance of fifty miles.”
“Mr Everbright, you are in no position to demand anything,” I said.
“This is a planetary crisis,” Everbright said. “Imperial Oversight is suspended. You are in violation of the charter agreement which governs Titanus. I will have you tried in the High Celestial Court if you impeded our efforts to reclaim the planet and save the people on the surface.”
“You arrogant, brainless…” Colonel Beva didn’t get to finish her rant before Fari cut in.
“Verulia Industries no longer owns Titanus.” Fari said.
The call went quiet following her declaration.
“I’ve reviewed the original charter and the colony contract,” she said. “Under the articles agreed upon there, it is the Imperial Overseer’s prerogative, in times of planetary crisis, to conduct an investigation and determine if Verulia Industries has been deficient in its responsibilities in any criminal manner. If so, the ownership and development contract of Titanus is subject to Imperial seizure and redistribution.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Everbright said. “There’s been no investigation. Those take months.”
“I think you’ll find my analysis of the situation is quite detailed,” Fari said. “And I look forward to proving that to an arbiter of the High Court.”
“What does that mean? That Verulia no longer owns Titanus?” Colonel Beva asked.
“Verulia is still subject to its obligations under the Colonization contract but they have no command authority over Titanus or right to remain in the system,” Fari said.
“Can you order them to jump back to Hellsreach?” I asked.
“I can order them to jump out of the system,” Fari said. “The Colonization contract only stipulates that they must land the colonists on an Imperial chartered world, so they could go anywhere but I imagine they won’t find many worlds willing to accept one hundred thousand colonists except Hellsreach.”
“You will regret this,” Everbright said.
“What I regret is not finding these clauses before you dropped the Ghost Bombs,” Fari said as Everbright snapped off the connection again. It seemed like it was his favorite thing to do.
“We’re coming up on the main cavern entrance now,” I said. “We might lose our connection if Vunthor is shielding the caves.”
“I don’t know if he’s doing that but there is something weird up here,” Darius said.
We’d been hiking to get to the cave, where “hiking” meant making anima assisted leaps to cross wide sections of the mountains between Vunthor’s lair and our landing position. Flying would have been faster but would have given away the element of surprise that we needed. An invisibility spell would have been nice too, but with Higgs on Vunthor’s side the chance that they could detect the spell was too high for me to risk one.
So instead we hopped over the mountain, one precarious jump at a time. Darius was in the lead, since he traversed the path already, which meant he was the first to see what awaited us around the initial bend in the tunnel that lead down to into the mountain.
I followed him in and was dazzled for a moment. It wasn’t bright in the tunnel, we were deep enough in that most of the natural light from the entrance was cut-off, but the sight that awaited us was breathtaking nonetheless.
Along the walls and ceilings, at irregular intervals, there were crystals in every hue and shade that twinkled and gleamed with living light. The fanciest churches back on Belstarius were less impressive or well decorated than the simple tunnel we were in.
“This can’t be natural,” Darius said.
I felt my flight pack grow warm and heard the fire spirit within it shift around.
“Oh wow,” Flames said. “There’s a lot of people here.”
“People?” I asked. I flipped my vision over to Void sight and looked around. Aside from the anima that Darius, Fari, Flames and I carried I couldn’t see anything special. The crystals looked like they were lit with purely natural light.
“Flames is speaking of the spirits in the crystals,” Fari said. “This is what Everbright was trying to keep us away from. It’s probably why Verulia went into this deal in the first place.”
“What have you found?” Hanq asked.
“Life crystals,” Fari said. “Fully charged, sapient life crystals.”
“I’m not familiar with those, why would Verulia want them?” Colonel Beva said.
“They’re a protected resource within the Empire,” Fari said. “The crystals form natural homes for spirits, elementals usually, and protect them from changes in the anima flows of a planet. Each of the ones we see here is the home to a sapient entity.”
“Why would Everbright have wanted them?” Colonel Beva asked. “And why would he try to hide it so hard?”
“In a lot of places outside the Empire, Life Crystals are treated as the best source for fuel and power that’s available,” Fari said. “It’s fairly simple to enchant the crystal into a cage for elementals and then tap them like you would any other anima battery.”
“What does that do to the elementals?” I asked, already knowing what the answer would be.
“The same thing converting a human to fuel does,” Fari said.
“I see why they’re illegal in the Empire,” Darius said.
“And that’s why Verulia needed a cover for their operation right?” I asked.
“Yes, Verulia couldn’t move the Life Crystals off the planet in mass quantities without attracting a lot of Imperial attention,” Fari said. “Unless of course they had some other reason to be sending hauling ships out to the far end of space.”
“Like for supply runs for a new colony world,” Darius said.
“How much trouble will Verulia be in when we bring this before an Imperial court?” I asked.
“If we can build a solid enough case, we could take every asset Verulia has in penalty payments five times over for even conspiring on this scale,” Fari said.
“That’s all fine for payback on Everbright, but we have more immediate problems,” Colonel Beva said. “Can these Life Crystals do anything to save us from the Deca-beasts?”
“We can’t use them as a power source without killing the elementals inside,” Fari said.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my people alive,” Colonel Beva said.
“We aren’t going to trade one species for another,” Hanq said.
I thought about that. It would be gross and unfair of us to sacrifice a helpless native population to save ourselves, but I couldn’t say it wasn’t tempting. I’d survived a lot of encounters by absorbing more strength than my opponents could deal with. If Vunthor didn’t know about the motherload of anima that he was sitting on then I could smash him and Higgs like the fist of an angry god if I drained a mountain full of elementals. Or, if Vunthor was aware of the power that surrounded him, we’d be facing the power of an angry god and I wouldn’t stand a chance of fighting him unless I was similarly boosted up.
I looked at Darius and Fari. The weak part of me argued that I couldn’t protect them if I didn’t have the power stored in the crystals. My hand twitched towards the nearest one before I caught myself.
I’d done some questionable things, but there were lines I discovered I wasn’t willing to cross yet. Believing in my own strength was tough, especially after I’d lost the last several fights I’d been in, but believing in the people close to me? That was easy.
With the lure of phenomenal, transhuman power off the table my mind spun outwards searching for other alternatives and in about three seconds had a new plan put together.
“We don’t have to use them as batteries,” I said, breathless with the excitement of a new idea.
“What are you thinking?” Darius asked. He knew the look I had in my eye. He was familiar with the hospital stays that usually followed it.
“Hold that thought,” Fari said. “We have another call from the Garjarack colony ship.”
“Everbright again?” I asked, annoyed at the interruption.
“No, Eirda,” Fari said.
“Eirda?” I asked, taking a moment to place the name as the mother of the Garjarack family I’d met and Cadrus’ wife. The one who seemed to hate me and all humans with a cold, unyielding passion. “What does she want?”
“The situation has changed on the colony ship,” Fari said. “I’ll let them explain.”
“Guardian, we have assumed control of the ship,” Eirda said.
I thought back to the conversation I’d had with Cadrus. Had I instructed them to overthrow the Verulia personnel? I wasn’t unhappy they had, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t actually voiced that thought.
“We have another problem though,” Eirda said. “One of the giga-beasts is ascending from the planet and is on an intercept course with us.”
“Fari, how fast can the colony ship jump out of the system?” I asked.
She had already called up a dozen analysis circles and in less than heartbeat had an answer for me.
“With only five warp generators? Not fast enough to escape the giga-beast. It’s acceleration is increasing and I’m pretty sure it will be able to follow them into warp space.”
I looked at Darius and Fari. There was no way the three of us were going to be able to save all three of the groups that were under attack. Even the brilliant plan I had in mind wasn’t going to cover it.