Jen paused a moment to catch her breath. Her plan had worked to about 90% efficiency, which was a fair bit better than she’d been expecting it to work. That last 10% though? She was going to be feeling the bruises from that for the next several days.
“I didn’t think they’d fight quite so hard,” Connie said, panting harder than Jen. She’d taken a few nasty hits too, but nothing appeared to be broken or busted, which was something of a miracle given the sort of armaments the Preservers had been packing.
“You should have let me help,” Aranea said, rubbing her fingers together as though to sharpen them.
“No, Jen was right.” Sarah avoided the need to pant for breath by remaining collapsed on the ground where she’d tumbled at the end of her banishing spell. “This had to just us mundanes. If you’d joined in, we’d have to deal with the Preserver’s gods too.”
“They have my Val,” Aranea said. “They will have to deal with me shortly anyways.”
The party was still outside the limits of the farmhouse sanctuary the Preserver refugees had fled too. Following the Jen’s declaration that they would not be allowing the Preserver War band to drag the refugees back into slavery and/or death, a minor scuffle had arisen. There were trees left standing in a half mile radius anymore, but Jen still counted it as a far more restrained conflict than several of the worst cases that she had planned for.
“No worries there,” Val said as she pulled herself through a faintly shimmering field in otherwise empty air. Jen suppressed a chuckle at the weird struggle. She would have offered to help but Val managed to pop herself out of whatever the obstruction was that was blocking the partially formed gateway. Tam followed a moment later, slipping through the portal with the quicksilver slipperiness of an accomplished escape artist.
“You made it back!” Cynthia shouted, glomping Tam into a hug before the magician could answer.
“This wasn’t meant to be a one way trip,” Anna said, pulling herself free from the portal as the air fizzed with light and grew still. Zoe helped her up from the ground where she’d stumbled and raised an eyebrow at the disheveled state of Anna’s mountaineering clothes.
There were burn marks on each of the three and bright red stains that could only be one thing.
“Don’t worry,” Anna said, noticing the detail Zoe had picked up on. “None of its ours.”
“You folks had some fun too?” Sarah asked, no rising from the ground or even turning to look at the new arrivals.
“A little bit,” Val said. “Looks you had nice little dust up here too. I take it the ambassadors weren’t feeling very diplomatic?”
“Not after we explained they weren’t going to get their people back,” Jen said.
“I still think carrying a pocket nuke counts as cheating,” Sarah said.
“Pocket nukes? Lovely. Are we going to need a radiation scrub if we stay here any longer?” Val asked.
“Sarah dealt with the device before it went off,” Zoe said. “The devastation you see around us came from some of the other devices they carried.”
“Sent it down a transdimensional warp?” Tam asked, looking over to Sarah without leaving Cynthia’s embrace.
“Just the fissionable material within it,” Sarah said.
“Clever.” Tam said.
“I asked myself ‘what would Tam do’ believe it or not,” Sarah said. “The misdirection seemed to keep them guessing for a a few extra moments.”
“They were willing to destroy themselves to get at their runaways?” Anna asked.
“Not exactly,” Jen said. “The bomb was on a timer, and they had some means of recalling back to the Tower of the Sky. I think the plan was to arm it on a short timer and then head back to their own world to avoid the blast.”
“Those are pretty nasty tactics,” Val said. “Fighting them’s going to be all kind of fun.”
“I’d hate to do it on their homeworld,” Connie said. “They could barely deal with the air or the gravity here and they still put up a hell of a struggle, even after Sarah rendered their weapons inert.”
“What did you do with them in the end?” Anna asked.
“Sent them home,” Sarah said. “Just like we’d talked about. Connie had just finished planting the last of the Banishing Mines when they arrived. Knew we’d have to use them on somebody and fortunately I think it turned out to be right people that we sent back.”
“Good. Were any killed or seriously injured?” Anna asked.
“No deaths – and that made fighting them more than a bit tricky I have to confess,” Jen said. “Serious injuries? If we don’t count their prides then nothing too serious. They’ll all be able to walk again, eventually.”
“Even better,” Anna said. “That leaves the chance of finishing this up peacefully still on the table.”
“You just assaulted both their primary stronghold and a fully armed diplomatic team,” Zoe said. “Peace seems like an odd thing to be hoping for at this point.”
“She’s right,” a giant of a woman said, appearing before them as she stepped off the farmhouse’s property. “They’re not going to let us live in peace. They can’t.”
More giants joined her as a contingent of the Perserver’s refugees emerged from hiding.
“Oh, I think we’ll find they’re more than capable of letting the matter drop,” Anna said. “It’s largely a question at this point of what it will take to convince them of that fact.”
“If they let us go, others will flee too,” the giant said.
“Then we should help you prepare for that,” Jen said.
“I can arrange for a number of new Club membership applications to be drawn up,” JB said over their comms.
“We do not understand this,” the giant said. “Why did you fight with them?”
“Because what they intended to do to you is abhorrent,” Connie said.
“Why should that matter to you?” the giant asked.
“Because how we react to actions that are unconscionable determines who we are,” Cynthia said.
“The history of our people contains an uncountable number of hideous crimes,” Anna said. “We’re a species drenched in massacres, and oppression, and hatred. We know those things all too well.”
“Some of us are unwilling to allow that continue,” Zoe said. “The mistakes of our past have to be something we can learn from. We have to better than we were. Striving for that is the definition of what makes us human.”
“Those sound like your words, Duinella”, one of the other Preserver refugees said.
“We have not met many on your world who feel as you do,” Duinella, the refugee’s apparent leader, said.
“There’s more humans out there who would agree with these people than you might imagine,” Aranea said. “Most of them seem to be content to lead their lives quietly and enmeshed in their own problems. It’s strange given Earthling’s reputation for violence, but if you engage with enough of them it becomes easy to see.”
“The answer seems obvious but I must ask anyways,” Anna said. “Do you wish to request asylum on our world?”
“We do not know how to do that,” Duinella said.
“Or what it costs,” another refugee said.
“Why would the Earth want us?” a third refugee asked.
“I can’t speak for the Earth,” Anna said. “The words I can offer come only from myself.”
“No,” Jen said, putting a hand on Anna’s shoulder. “She speaks for all us too.”
“All of us,” Aranea said.
Anna smiled at the support.
“There are those who will disagree with me, “Anna said. “There are people who will raise valid concerns and ones who thrive on fear and hatred who will find you the perfect scapegoats to target. I cannot claim that any solution we can offer is perfect, but what I can offer is this; if you ask for our aid, we will work with you to bring you into our fold. If you need housing, we will find communities you can live in. If you need food, we will share our surplus and help you find jobs and a means to support yourselves. I’ve left notes in your previously dwellings making similar offers to any of your other people who are still assembling or remained behind, and you are free to accept or reject it as individuals or as a group.”
“And what do you ask in return?” Duinella asked.
“The same things that we ask of each other,” Val said. “Try to make this world a better place. Help out the people around you who need it. Give what you can and stand up for the people who can’t stand up for themselves.”
“And when the others come back?” Duinella asked.
“We just showed them that we can pass in and out of their most secure stronghold,” Anna said. “The note I left with Ambassador Bram explains that our visit was a polite one. If they refrain from further hostilities they won’t need to see what an impolite visit looks like.”
“All they need to do is wait and our two worlds will fall out of alignment,” Tam said. “We can be a temporary problem or a long term one. The ball’s in their court on which way things go on that front.”
“What if they demand our return before the alignment ends, as a price for peace?” Duinella asked.
“Peace can’t be bought with injustice,” Jen said.
“If they come back looking for a fight, we’ll dissuade them,” Tam said. “There’s lots of tricks that can thrown off their aims.”
“And if that doesn’t work, we’ll spread the world about the kinds of resources the Tower of the Sky has,” Val said. “Open warfare’s not going to go well for anyone, and if it takes a massing of troops from every world that’s even barely aligned with theirs to get them to realize that, then so be it.”
“We place nice when we can,” Anna said.
“And when we can’t, we play to win,” Zoe said.
Charlene sat in her customary seat at the Council’s convocation. Being called before the assembly for the second time in a year was an interesting change from the decades where she hadn’t seen them at all.
The current session was better attended than even the case brought against her by PrimaLux had been. There might have been a few open seats left, or their owners could have been obscured by concealments of one kind or another. Charlene had no interest in piercing the veils of emptiness in either case. She wasn’t in attendance to listen to anyone else. She was there to make sure they listened to her.
“Potestates,” the Chairman said, calling the meeting to order with the mere mention of her name. “We are gathered again due to your actions.”
“Yes,” Charlene said.
“You do not seek to evade your responsibility this time!” one of the PrimaLux founder screeched. “You’re not going to blame it all on your little humans?”
“My agents carry no blame here,” Charlene said. “Even the ones who formerly swore their allegiance to you.”
There were muffled guffaws from the chamber, but Charlene paid them no mind. Even the oldest of the council’s members could appreciate a few dramatics but clever quips decided very little in the grand scheme of things.
“The charge against you this time is violation of another realm’s sovereign rights.” the Chairman said. “What answer do you make to this?”
“I could answer that the incident in question involved both a conflict within my realm and one provoked in a foreign realm by the powers there in violation of diplomatic protocols. That would be answer enough.”
According to the Council’s laws, Charlene’s people had every right to defend themselves while under a diplomatic charter, and every right to banish the Preserver War Band once the War Band attempted violence.
“But you are not going to make that answer?” the Chairman said, a note of uncertainty hanging in his otherwise calmly eternal voice.
“No,” Charlene said. “That answer supposes that I am willing to accept that status quo we have engineered. That is no longer true.”
“What do you mean by that?” the Chairman asked, his tone turning grave.
“Plainly, if my realm, if the Earth, can be a haven to anyone who is oppressed, who is enslaved, who is beaten, or degraded, then we will stand on the shore of the sea of worlds and welcome them,” Charlene. “Too many of those here, too many of those in power everywhere, draw their power from debasing others. That will not stand any longer.”
“There are those here you are declaring war upon with such a pronouncement,” the Chairman said.
“Then they should run,” Charlene said and with that she left, a single white feather drifting through the air the only mark of her passing.