Darius and I watched the sun set behind the shattered mountain top to the west of the Joint Encampment. With the chaos and bustle of setting up a new colony, neither of us had been able to scrounge up a free minute in weeks. That didn’t look likely to change until the Imperial enchanters arrived to create the high speed warp corridor that would bring in proper supplies and personnel to support the colony. Rather than letting us burn ourselves out completely though, Fari pulled a few tricks and cleared an entire evening of free time for us.
“Is it strange that this place feels like home already?” Darius asked. He was sitting against a tree and I was cuddled up beside him, our blanket and dinner spread out before us. The night was warm but a cool breeze was wafting over the top of the ridge, and from the valley below us the scents of thousands of cooking fires and ovens mixed into a heady and mouth watering aroma.
“Not at all with how much work you’ve been doing to give people places to live,” I said.
“They’re going to need it,” he said. “We got lucky that this area of Titanus was entering summer. Six months from now this place with be elbow deep in snow.”
“Eh, worst case we’d just fly them to the other side of the planet,” I said.
“Yeah, you saw how that suggestion when over the last time it was brought up at a Council meeting,” he said.
“Funny how one little life-and-death struggle can make people think a patch of land’s got some inherent value,” I said.
“One little life and death struggle plus a bunch of falsified records from Verulia coming to light,” he said.
It came as a surprise to no one that Verulia’s inspection reports of Titanus had left out a few crucial details. The Life Crystals would have been pretty easy to hide, but I couldn’t imagine why they thought we wouldn’t notice the native kilo-fauna species. To be fair, the proposed city settlements were outside of the grazing lands of Titanus’s native answer to the deca-beasts we’d brought to it.
Dubbed “Collosi”, the native monsters were fifteen foot tall, quadrupedal walls of muscle, teeth and ornery attitude. They looked something like an oversized rhinoceros with a few dozen extra spikes and a maw of teeth meant for rending through steel plate to get at the yummy morsels inside (or at least that’s the assumption the first colonists to encounter them made based on their observed behavior).
The farm lands that Verulia had planted to support the Human, Council, and Garjarack cities were expansive, well stocked and, unfortunately, attractive to the Collosi. That meant that none of the three developed sites were actually viable as locations for colonial development.
After all the colonists had been through I couldn’t fault them for staying together for safety in numbers. Our problem was dealing with the fact that those numbers were in the hundreds of thousands and would continue to grow as more ships arrived.
With the transwarp beasts taken care, we’d been able to dispatch a message beacon to Hellsreach to inform them of our situation. Two months later we’d gotten the answer back that more colony ships were being outfitted.
Master Raychelle had accompanied the response ship and brought enough supplies in tow to allow the Joint Encampment to flourish into a true city. Every day a new building was erected through the combined efforts of the craftsman, human and Garjarack, who were well practiced fast fabrication of sturdy dwellings. A lifetime of repairing infrastructure in the wake of massive battle damage served the new colonists well as they carved a spot for themselves on their new home world.
“I notice you’re using ‘they’re’ rather than ‘we’re’?” I asked Darius.
He paused before answering and started to run his fingers lightly over my head. He let the tips of his nails drag with just enough force to make my scalp tingle. It was an incredibly relaxing sensation and I decided that even if was a sign he was struggling with something he wanted to tell me, for that moment, I really wasn’t going to worry about it.
“This place feels like home, but I don’t think I’m going to stay here,” he said.
I let him keep playing with my hair for a bit longer before saying anything. I didn’t want to avoid the topic of conversation, I just wanted to draw out the lovely head massage as long as I could.
“Feeling the call to head back to Hellsreach?” I asked. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of him returning to a world that was both a super weapon and actively hostile to human habitation, but I could understand how much he had invested in it.
“No, I think Hellsreach is in good hands with Opal and her crew,” he said. “It hasn’t been a place anyone should call home for a long time now.”
I wanted to turn and look him in the eyes, but that would have meant giving up on the head massage and that was a sacrifice I wasn’t prepared to make.
“You have plans,” I said. “Are they one’s I’m going to object to?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess it depends how you feel about me?”
“These sound like interesting plans,” I said with a smile and turned so I could get a glance at him without giving him an excuse to stop.
“We’ve been kind of dating for a few months, right?” he asked.
“Almost half a year now,” I agreed.
“So this is going to sound extra stupid then,” he said. “But I can live with that better than I can live with not knowing; do you like me?”
I turned to face him completely, scooting up so that we were face to face.
In the dim light of day’s end, he was as beautiful as any man I’d ever seen, but I didn’t notice that anymore. I’d looked into his eyes often enough and seen the curve of his cheekbones and the strength of his chin so many times that his features blended together into a single image that represented so much more than flesh and blood could show.
“Do I like you?” I asked and settled back into a kneeling sit to put a little distance between us. “You’ve seen me at my worst and my weakest. You’ve been there for me when I needed someone to lean on and made me laugh when I was feeling miserable. I get to be someone with you that I haven’t let myself be with anyone else, ever.”
I leaned forward and ran my hands up his chest to cradle the sides of his head.
“I feel a lot more than like for you,” I said and pulled us together for a long slow kiss.
I didn’t rush the kiss, but I did pull away after a minute or so since I didn’t want to totally lose the thread of conversation.
“The question is, what does that have to do with your plans?” I asked after we parted. My mind was curious to hear the answer even if it had to shout down other parts of me that had very different ideas for how we should be spending a rare evening together.
“Captain Okoro has offered me a position on his crew,” Darius said. “He’s looking to expand Blue Team and I guess I impressed him with the work I’ve been helping them with.”
“That would be because you’re very impressive,” I said. “Master Hanq’s good at spotting talent. And good at developing it.”
“Or he’s just had great students,” Darius said.
“Not likely,” I said. “You should have scene how badly I sucked when I started out.”
“Weren’t you about six years old then?” he asked.
“Yeah, but I was wretched even for a six year old,” I said.
“You know I’m going to ask him about that, don’t you?” he asked.
“I’m sure he will lie kindly for me,” I said.
“Have you met Captain Okoro?” he asked.
“Ok, you have a point,” I said. “But why were you worried about how I felt? Did you want my blessing to work for him?”
“No,” he protested. “I just wasn’t sure what your plans were and if you wanted me to, you know, tag along like that?”
“Why in the name of all the stars in the sky would I not want you to ‘tag along’?” I asked.
“Well, I know you’re not staying here,” he said. “You can’t as a Crystal Guardian right?”
“That’s true, but you didn’t think I was just going to leave you did you?” I asked. I had to kick myself as I said those words given that I’d never actually told him what my plans were.
Communication. It’s the simplest thing in the word and yet basically impossible to get right. Even in the face of the planet-size object lesson of the humans and the Garjarack coming together thanks to being able to speak to one another, I’d still missed the point that I kind of needed to tell the guy I cared about what I was planning to do once our work pulled us apart.
“I…I wasn’t sure what options you had,” he said. “Crystal Guardians aren’t supposed to get involved with people are they? I mean not long term, right?”
I laughed. It was mean, the poor boy was so nervous but he was also being deeply silly so I couldn’t help myself.
“We’re supposed to be impartial, not uninvolved,” I said. “That just means that we’re expected to reveal any conflict of interests when we take a mission and look for options to avoid even the appearance of being unduly influenced by one side or another in a diplomatic situation.”
Thoughts started percolating through Darius’ face and I saw a smile cracking its way out through his confusion.
“The Crystal Empress would have to be insane to say her Guardians were forbidden from loving people,” I said. “She’d be left with a bunch of crazy, repressed people and maybe a few naturally unromantic types who’d be stuck managing all the insanity.”
“So you’re not supposed to be repressed or unromantic then?” he asked and slid an arm around my waist.
“Did you think I was ‘cheating’ on my job this whole time?” I asked pushing him away lightly.
“No,” he said. “I just thought it wouldn’t count if you broke it off when you left…and gods does that sound stupid now that I saw it out loud.”
I laughed again and smothered him in another kiss.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have told you all of this a lot sooner. I was never thinking we’d just break it off when I had to leave.”
“What were you thinking then?” he asked.
“I was figuring I’d finagle things so that I’d just happen to have missions within a system or two of Hellsreach for the next few years and then rack up some hellacious charges on fast courier ships on the Empresses tab so that I could visit on weekends and unexpected week nights,” I said. “Once I’m done with my training period, I’ll be free to go looking for trouble wherever I want and can recruit whatever crew I need, which I was kind of hoping you’d join me for.”
“Ok, so now I feel really dumb,” he said.
“Don’t,” I said. “It’s my fault for not mentioning it. We’ve been so busy lately and it looks like we’ve got months of work left here so it fell to the back of my mind. That the only excuse I can offer.”
“No excuse necessary,” he said and pulled me in for a kiss for a change. “So you really like me then?”
I let my hand trace down his chest and then back up to glide over his neck and circle his ear.
“You have your agreeable points,” I said, not even attempting to hide my mischievous grin.
By the time the next wave of colonists arrived we had the housing situation pretty well worked out. Two of the cities had been reclaimed and the Collosi harnessed as beasts of burden for the new settlers.
Master Raychelle and Master Opal had managed to calm things down on Hellsreach pretty well in my absence. Treaties had been worked out with Exxion II and IV to allow some of the Hellreach citizens to return to their original homeworlds, which took some of the worst tension off the population there. There was also a faction of people who decided to stay and became part of a global archeology effort under master Opal’s direction, which further reduced the efforts needed to relocate people. The majority of the populace though chose to emigrate to Titanus and make a fresh start of things, especially once word got back of how rich the land was there and the kind of effort the Empire was putting into making the colony world a viable place to live.
Verulia Industries played no part in that process of course. They’d been stripped of all their rights to Titanus and were under severe investigation and asset seizure for the charges of corruption they faced and the violations of their contractual obligations.
Gan Everbright vanished behind a web of Verulia legal defenses the moment they got a ship out to Titanus. I’m not sure if that worked out better or worse for him though. On the one hand they managed to protect him from direct Imperial trial in the short term, but on the other hand I’m not sure if their displeasure meant that he had a “long term” to look forward to.
My trial went pretty much how I expected it would. I was cleared of most of the criminal charges with the exceptions being assaulting a fellow officer (for stabbing Master Hanq) and a Failure to Preserve Life charge (for letting Vunthor die). The latter charge was one that only the Imperial courts had an interest in and the verdict there was “Allowed” which was somewhere between innocence and guilt. Basically the court agreed that my actions were reasonable, but also acknowledged that there was a chance I could have saved him. I wasn’t fined or penalized for it but it was listed as part of my official record as a Guardian.
When the Empress and her advisors were setting up the code of conduct for her Guardians, they acknowledged that there would be times when we couldn’t get it right, or do things perfectly. A Crystal Guardian is expected to go above and beyond though so we’re evaluated on more than just a case-by-case basis. Patterns of behavior are important too and if I got too many “Allowed” entries on my record that alone would be enough to warrant a deeper review of my actions.
The assault charge, was in some sense the more serious matter though. I was flat out guilty of that one and the court knew it almost immediately. The punishment however was tailored to the crime: sessions with a counselor (which I was required to do anyways for all the rest of the craziness I was involved with) to bring up, evaluate and work on strategies for dealing with the emotions that prompted me to attack Master Hanq rather than travel with him.
On top of that I was transferred from my apprenticeship under Master Raychelle to work as part of Hanq’s crew. That was his idea and his suggestion to the court, which they decided on after consulting with me, Master Raychelle and with the counselor that I was working with.
Master Raychelle continued on as my anima instructor for the next few months while we all worked on the infrastructure and peacekeeping for Titanus. That gave me plenty of time to learn more about Void casting and the other remedial anima skills that I hadn’t picked up on as a kid.
Master Raychelle wound up leaving about two weeks before we did to deal with a planetary government that was cutting off Imperial access to its people. There were reports leaking out that there was a whole class of citizens which the group in power didn’t want to admit to existing so that they could continue to deny them the basic rights guaranteed by the Imperial Charter. From the documents I read it didn’t seem like there was much question what was occurring and I didn’t suspect it would take Master Raychelle long to deal with it, but I knew it was still likely to be a while before I saw her again. A Crystal Guardian’s life is one where crises aren’t exactly hard to come by or spaced out all that much.
On a related note, Fari surprised me a bit by formally declaring that she was not going to petition to be named as a Crystal Guardian herself. After she wrapped up her official work as Imperial Overseer of the Titanus colony, she turned her authority over to the local government that was in place (as the colonial treaty called for) and went to work for them in a purely advisory capacity.
When I asked her about it, her explanation was simple.
“If I become a Guardian too then we won’t be able to work together,” she said. “As long as you don’t mind me tagging along, I’d like to see what kind of trouble we can get into next.”
“Since it seems I don’t tell the people I care about how I feel clearly enough, let me say that I would love that and that I will never mind you ‘tagging along’, ever,” I told her.
Master Hanq wound up putting together a fairly terrifying crew on top of the three of us. He also got a new Courier ship assigned for our use and I couldn’t help but notice when it arrived that it was packing a lot more armor and weapons than the last one.
“Thinking to go toe-to-toe with a giga-beast again?” I asked him.
“Let’s just say I’m learning from past mistakes,” he said.
Given that we were intentionally going to be looking for trouble, I found the new ship design rather comforting.
On our last day on Titanus before we left for the stars, I got to meet with the new Titanus Council government. Darius’ fathers, Hector as Osgood had relocated by that point and had taken on the burden of reclaiming the last pre-developed city for the rest of the incoming colonists to use. The Titanus Council had agreed to schedule the next election cycle for the following year, after the final round of colonists were settled on the planet. Hector and Osgood were acting as part of the interim government while the Hellsreach Council colonists were transferred, though both of them were talking about getting out of the politics business once the move was over.
Eirda wasn’t able to attend our departure party because she was busy with official business as one of the head speakers of the Council but Cadrus and Nenya were there to say goodbye. Where Hector and Osgood were talking about stepping down from their posts, Nenya was eager to fill their shoes, a position her mother supported and her father seemed to greet with a more “restrained” level of joy.
We left them all with contact links so that if trouble came looking for them again they’d have someone to call on. From what we had accomplished over the course of the last year though I didn’t think we’d hear from them too soon either. Anything that came looking for trouble on Titanus was going to wish it had looked somewhere else in a big hurry.
The real surprise for our departure however was a face I hadn’t expected to see.
Illya was waiting for us when we boarded the shuttle to the Horizon Breaker (Hanq’s new ship).
“Going our way?” I asked her as we settled in to the travel couches.
“Yeah,” she said, smiling like a school kid with a secret.
“I can’t help but notice you’re wearing the new uniform for Gold Team?” Darius said.
“Yeah,” she said, her smile widening.
The tumblers fell into place in my head.
“Captain Hanq spoke at your trial too didn’t he?” I asked.
“Yes I did,” Hanq said.
“You are such a pirate,” I said. “Your whole crew is felons and ne’er-do-wells!”
“Hey!” Darius protested, “I wasn’t convicted of anything I’ll have you know!”
“Just give it time,” I told him. “We’ll corrupt you yet.”
With delightful thoughts of exactly how I could corrupt my boyfriend, I looked out the shuttle window and watched Titanus fall away beneath us.
Everywhere I looked there were signs of new construction, new life, and new growth. We were leaving behind a world full of promise for an uncertain sky, but all the promises I needed were right there in the shuttle with me and that was all that mattered.