The problem with following the rules, is that they can lead you to all kinds of places you don’t want to go. I pondered that as I waited my turn for sentencing. It was an annoying thought to chew on but at least it was better than chewing on the stench that wafted off the slime cauldrons which lined every office and corridor of the headquarters of the Supreme Magistrate of Halli.
Halli was a minor little backwater on one of the many edges of the Crystal Empire. If it had been just two star systems further from the core it would have been outside the jurisdiction of the Crystal Guardians and therefore not my problem to deal with. As one of the Crystal Empress’s sworn defenders though, I was duty bound to investigate all claims against any planetary government that involved the violation of the Imperial Rights granted to all of the citizens of the Empire.
In practice that usually involved showing up, telling the offending party or parties to knock it off and dragging one or two of the principal culprits back for trial before an Imperial Court. It wasn’t a smooth or stress free life that I led by any stretch of the imagination but it was interesting and rewarding in its own ways.
Standing in the sentencing line that lead to the Magistrate’s theater left me questioning those rewards though. On the positive side, I had power and privilege and loved ones who’d been with me for years. On the other hand there was the stench of Magistrate’s hall coupled with the fact that no matter how much I wanted to, I was not allowed to call down an orbital strike and obliterate the facility and everyone inside it.
“Prisoner ‘Mel Watersward’, step forward and receive sentencing,” the bailiff said.
I smirked. The Magistrate was about two minutes away from giving me all the evidence I needed and if I was really lucky she’d push the issue just a little farther than that.
The bailiff pulled me forward onto the rusty steel scaffolding that ran across the room to the platform that was suspended over the bubbling vats which packed the lower levels of the Halli Central Justice building. The catwalk swayed as we walked and with the lack of railings I was pretty sure more than a few defendants wound up in the slime smelting pots below before charges were even read against them.
Halli had once been the haven of a Warlord named Ney. It was the stinky jewel in his crown for two reasons; first, it was home to a rare form of goo that held destructive enchantments extremely well. Weapons fabricated with Halli-slime were more damaging than standard military gear by a noticeable margin. The slime was self-renewing too, in fact it was hard to come to Halli and not wind up splattered with the disgusting stuff at some point or other. It was pretty much everywhere.
For Warlord Ney’s purposes though the prime benefit of Halli was that it lay off the standard trade routes so most of the work done there was invisible to his rivals. The warlords he fought with knew he had a hidden base to work from but were never able to locate it, at least not before one of my predecessors found Halli and brought down Ney’s reign entirely.
Once Halli was accepted into the Crystal Empire, a new government was put in place, one that answered to the people of Halli and agreed to abide by the Imperial rules of conduct towards its citizens and neighbors. That practice worked better in some place and worse in others, with Halli being one of the “worse” places.
In Halli’s case, the Empire had simply failed to provide the oversight needed. Over twenty years ago, in the wake of the Galactic War, there’d been a million systems that joined together to form the new Empire. The Crystal Empress and the Prime Crystal Guardians had been at the spearhead of that and while they were inhumanely powerful, even they had limits in terms of how many problems they could deal with at once.
People often make the mistake of thinking the Crystal Empire formed during the few months of galactic scale warfare where the Empress swept the old Warlords outside of the star systems that make up the Empire. That was just the beginning though. Even two decades later, the Crystal Empire is still being built from the remains of the violent and lawless era that preceded it.
It’s not a perfect Empire, but it wasn’t meant to be. Perfection is something we work towards, not something we are. Usually that means striving to be better and looking for ways to improve what we do and who we are. With situations like Halli though, it’s more a matter of deciding if there’s anything left worth salvaging or if we should just burn it all to the ground and start over.
I was ruminating on that as the bailiff and I arrived at the central platform for my “sentencing”. The Magistrate was sitting above us on a separate platform. To her left and right a dozen bodyguards lounged in various states of inebriation. None of them were too drunk to fight, but it also wasn’t likely that any of them would have to thanks to the anti-armor turrets that were trained on the defendant’s platform.
If the guards decided to shoot me, I’d be facing about a dozen bolt casters that could punch holes in steel plates. If the turrets opened up, the platform I was standing on and everyone within about fifteen feet of it would be reduced to a fine mist unless they had personal shields that were stronger that starship armor.
I noticed the bailiff was quick to leave me alone on the platform.
“This one looks like she’ll fetch some coin,” the Magistrate said. “What are the charges against her?”
“Conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to incite rebellion and falsifying official documentation,” the bailiff read for a safe distance away from me.
“Ah, good a Class 1 felon,” the Magistrate said. “Any signs of mental deviations?”
“No,” the bailiff said. “The arrest was clean. No resistance and no delusional claims.”
“Good,” the Magistrate said. “The Zera Asylum is behind on their payments, better that we keep them out of the bidding on a good catch like this. What about witnesses, where’s our case against the convict?”
“I’m still here Magistrate!” the same witness the prosecution had called in the last three cases said.
“Do you have enough authorizations left this month Gurge?” the Magistrate asked.
“This will tap me out,” he said, “But I think it’s worth it.”
“You’re probably right,” the Magistrate said. “Enter your account.”
I saw Gurge type a code into a holodisk before beginning his testimony. Witnesses in trials on Halli couldn’t be paid for their testimony, but they could be reimbursed for the time away from work. Apparently many such witnesses worked on ludicrously profitable short term jobs right around the time of their testimony. Authorizations for such jobs were at a premium though since there was only so much demand for witness testimony to go around.
You’d think that would breed for a better class of witness. One capable of recounting their testimony in a compelling and convincing manner. Sadly with Gurge that wasn’t exactly the case.
“I was approached by that woman there,” he began and pointed at me. “to overthrow the Halli government and kill the senior government officials in the process. She said she was a member of the Devil’s Brigade and that she could use a strong guy like me when the time came.”
Gurge continued to spin an elaborate tale about the offer I made him and the incredible resources I had at my disposal. By the time his tale was done I was kind of wishing I was the person he described. I mean she had a fleet of cloaked warships at her disposal and was going to take over Halli and the whole empire if she wasn’t stopped!
Sadly, the reality of our meeting was a lot less exciting that that. It went kind of like this (our scene begins in a rundown spacer’s bar on Halli named “Mun’s”):
“Man, aren’t the import tariffs here a pain?” Gurge, aka the random guy sitting next to me, asked without any other lead-in.
“Eh, what are you gonna do?” I replied.
“I heard some folks might try to get the bums in charge kicked out,” Gurge said.
“More power to ‘em,” I said.
“Want to go back to my place?” he asked.
“Nope.” I said.
“You’re under arrest for sedition,” a uniformed guard said about fifteen minutes later. “Please state your name and planet of citizenship.”
“She said her name was Naru and she’s from Yedo,” Gurge said from behind the guard, making up both a name and a home planet that had nothing to do with me. I’m not sure “Yedo” is even a real place.
I went along quietly from there because the whole reason I’d been hanging out in the dive where I found Gurge was so that someone would arrest me. I hadn’t expected it would be as easy as “be in the wrong spot and look like a foreigner” but I’d decided to see how literal our informant was being.
Since there was still the outside possibility that the arrest was a result of Gurge’s trumped up charges and delusions, I stayed the night in the local jail cell and listened to the tales of the rest of the people who were there with me.
The other prisoners were all as new to Halli as I was, but the guards were more than willing to let us know what we’d gotten ourselves into.
It turned out that even slime has its limitations and thanks to the demand for it, the Halli slime colony had been over-harvested. They tried raising prices to make up for the dwindling supply but there were other alternatives so the buyers went elsewhere.
That’s apparently when the Magistrate decided that if they couldn’t sell slime, they’d become slime and start selling people instead. The Crystal Empress has this little rule about slavery being illegal though – to the point where active slave traders are on the short list of targets that I’m allowed “unrestricted judicial authority” in dealing with. That’s not exactly the same as saying I can kill them on sight, I still wind up before a review board if I do, but that’s one of the easier conversations to have with an Imperial judge.
The Supreme Magistrate of Halli found a clever loophole around that prohibition though. She never sold anyone into slavery. She just transferred convicted criminals to penitentiaries owned by private companies and received a “processing fee” to cover the transference costs. The private companies then put the convicted felons to productive use for the duration of their incarceration.
The difference between that arrangement and slavery was a slim one at best and was made completely irrelevant when the “felons” were falsely accused and convicted.
“The evidence is clear,” the Magistrate said. “We sentence the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Next case.”
“Oh, you’re not done with me yet,” I said.
“Guards, remove the convict and bring the next case in,” the Magistrate said.
“Do you need to see anymore of this?” I asked. The question wasn’t directed at the Magistrate. It was meant for my commanding officer, and childhood mentor, Captain Hanq Okoro of the Crystal Empress’s ship the Horizon Breaker, formerly “Master Hanq” when he was teaching me to fight and before that “Warlord Okoro” when he ruled a couple of star systems and fought against the Empress in the Galactic War.
Whenever I think of how strange my path through life has been, I just turn and look at my old teacher and see that it could be so much weirder.
“Oh, I saw enough of this place about five minutes after you landed,” Hanq said. “Fari, do we have recordings of the other trials that came before Mel’s too?”
“Of course sir,” Fari replied. Knowing my best friend, I was pretty sure she’d not only recorded the trials over the telepathic link that she established for me, but at this point had also raided every spell web and ship’s memory cluster on the planet.
“Shall I bring them in then?” I asked.
“Who are you talking to?” the Magistrate asked.
“Hush,” I told her. “I’ll get to you in a second.”
“I will not be spoken to like that!” the Magistrate said. “Guards, get her out of here.”
The bodyguards on the platform with the Magistrate stirred but it was the regular guards that jumped at their leader’s words.
“I’ve got warrants ready for basically everyone in that building with you except for the convicts,” Hanq said. “Take them all down.”
“No fair, she has a headstart!” Darius said. “Give us thirty seconds to get ithere at least!”
I loved Darius. We’d been together for the better part of two years and had somehow avoided driving each other completely insane. Technically his talents lay in working with mental and energetic magics but as far as I was concerned it was his abilities to understand me and put up with my particular brand of craziness that were his real magic powers.
Which wasn’t to say that we weren’t a little nuts in our own way. I was part of “Black Team”, basically the infiltration wing of Captain Hanq’s crew. Darius was part of “Blue Team”, basically the engineering and enchanting wing of the crew. Both teams had combat roles in a lot of the missions that we engaged in, so there was a bit of a running competition between the two groups, to the point where, though I loved him dearly, there was no chance in hell I was going to hold off on starting with the arrests and let the Blues catch up with us.
The first two guards reached the platform I was on and pulled out standard issue stun sticks. A talented caster could replicate the effects of one easily enough, but the stun sticks made it much easier to invoke so that even relatively weak and untrained troops could take down superior foes.
That of course assumed that they could hit their foes in the first place.
I was kind to them. No broken bones, no torn ligaments, just gentle holds and a simple spell to rob them of the energy that they needed to stay conscious. I couldn’t afford to hold back like that against serious opposition, but the armed forces of Halli seemed to be composed of swaggering idiots and poorly trained cannon fodder.
“Just so you know,” I said, “you are all under arrest.”
“Who are you to arrest us?” the Magistrate asked. I saw anger, fear and confusion warring on her face. I also saw her bodyguards getting up as their interest was peaked.
“I am Guardian Mel Watersward, of the Crystal Empire,” I said. “I accuse you of high crimes against the citizens of the Empire you have sworn to protect. Come along peacefully and you will be treated honorably.”
I’m not sure anyone on Halli had reference points for either “peaceful” or “honorable” but I had to make the offer anyways.
“A Crystal Guardian?” the Magistrate asked. “And you’re going to arrest all of us?”
“Technically I’ve already arrested you,” I said. “The only question now is whether I’ll need to use force to bring you into custody.”
“You’re one girl,” the Magistrate said. “Even if you are one of the Crystal Guardians, I have a planet full of troops at my disposal and the Empire is very far away. You’ve made a grave mistake coming here, one that I don’t think we can let you walk away from. Kill her.”
I heard the rotary motors of the anti-armor turrets that were pointed at me spin to life. In response, I raised a shield that was, as it turns out, significantly stronger than starship armor. That meant the sustained barrage accomplished nothing except to charge me up with the energy I leeched from away from it.
“You poor dear,” I said to the Magistrate. “You got two things wrong. First I’m not alone.”
Two of the other squads from Black team emerged from the shadows when I nodded my head.
“And second,” I waited a moment and heard the series of explosions I was expecting. “Your troops have no vehicles or equipment to fight with. In case you’re wondering, that means your reign here is over. The Empire’s going to shut Halli down completely, put you in a nice Imperial run facility, spring all the people you “convicted” and then arrest everyone that you’ve ever done business with.”
That didn’t go over too well with the Magistrate or her bodyguards. With the regular forces added in that put the odds at three-to-one against us. Sadly, that meant the next few minutes were disappointing ones for pretty much everyone.
The Halli forces were disappointed when they woke up (later) and found that despite numerical superiority they hadn’t stood a ghost of chance against us.
Black team was disappointed because there just weren’t enough targets to go around. We kept poaching each others arrests to the point where it got almost comical and people were escaping because we were “helping” each other with the arrests too strenuously.
Blue team was the most disappointed of all though. By the time they arrived there were so few targets left to capture that Black team’s victory was already assured.
“You could have saved at least a few for us,” Darius complained when he arrived.
“We did!” I said. “There were like four or maybe even five that got away!”
“Bah! You caught seven of them yourself!” he said.
“Well, they kind of…fell onto my fists repeatedly,” I said.
“Oh yeah, please try that one at the Captain’s debriefing,” Darius said. “I really want to see you sell that to him.”
“We may be skipping the debriefing,” Fari said. “We just got a communique from Guardian Clearborn.”
“Yael sent a message?” I asked. “What’s up?”
“It was an automated note,” Fari said. “It was scheduled to send in case she went missing or someone killed her.”
“We’re going to treat this as a Guardian down scenario,” Hanq said. “I want everyone back on the Horizon Breaker asap. I’ve got an Imperial dreadnaught inbound. It’ll be here in four hours. They’ll take over this situation and I want us to ready to move then.”
Four hours was pretty quick, but I had to wonder if was even possible for us to move fast enough now. Crystal Guardians, particularly fully trained ones like Yael as hard to stop much less take down. In Yael’s case she had a special advantage too. Zyla. The daughter of an immensely powerful warlord and a Guardian-class caster in her own right. Between the two of them, they should have been able to handle almost any threat that came up.
That hadn’t been the case and given that Yael had a note setup to cover their disappearance, they’d known how bad it would be even when they first went into whatever mess they discovered.
I looked out to the stars that awaited us and felt a chill run through me. Whatever else was true, I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.