I was an outlaw. A rogue agent. The Empire was going to hunt me down. Fari’s words washed over me and a sick wave of dread followed them.
For a moment I was seven years old again and being scolded by the Sisters of Water’s Mercy. I’d stolen a fruit tart from one of the street vendors. It was stupid. The thing tasted like cardboard. I knew it was going to taste like cardboard too but I was bored and one of the other girls dared me to do it so I did.
I’d thought I was too clever to be caught. I’d been training with Master Hanq for a little bit at that point so I was sure I had the moves and enough speed that no one would notice me. I thought with my mighty “fist anima” (I was a stupid kid, it sounded cool at the time) I was powerful enough to take what I wanted and be the Queen of the town.
I’d been wrong. Of course.
I’d been caught. Of course.
And the Sisters had chewed me out. Of course.
The worst part of it though was the way it broke the illusions I had. “Fist anima” wasn’t going to see me through. I wasn’t powerful. I was just a little girl.
I’d cried myself to sleep that night, not because of the Sisters’ insane punishments (I can’t even remember what they were) but because of how weak I felt. I gave up going to Master Hanq’s place too.
Standing in the Council chamber, all those feelings came back to me. I wasn’t a Crystal Guardian, one of the most fearsome warriors in the galaxy. I was Mel. Just Mel and I had no business telling people who were in charge of a planet what they should do.
The fire elemental essence I was carrying jumped into the gap of weakness in me. I could show them I was important. In fact, if I was going to be hunted down, I’d give them a damn good reason to come after me. Flames crackled along my skin and I felt my vision glaze over with waves of heat.
“Fari. Help. Get the elemental out of me!” I said on our telepathic link. I couldn’t keep myself together and fight off its influence.
I felt the flames rise in me, overtaking the last vestiges of rational thought I had. A cool wind whipped through me pulling them off my skin before I could burn. That stoked them higher and brighter but the more they were pulled away from me the more wisp-like they became, until they fluttered out entirely, absorbed into Fari’s gem.
In a way that helped. I sobered up in an instant with the elemental’s influence removed. The problem was, my sober eyes could see just how bad the situation I was in was.
I had a lot of anima, but the Council had an army to work with. I might be able to escape them, but I wasn’t going to be able to beat an entire planet’s worth of armed forces. What was worse though was that I’d dragged Fari down into the mess with me. If I was an outlaw, anything she did would fall under the “aiding and abetting” category of crimes.
“We have offered a solution to the dilemma you present us.” Makkis said. “Under the circumstances, this is more than you have any legal right to request, but in the interest of beginning proper relations with the Empire we are willing to move forward. Councilman Breeg is going nowhere until this matter is addressed. This should be more than sufficient for you, unless you are unwilling to deal with us in good faith?”
Makkis smiled at me as he finished the question. His expression had all the friendliness of a dagger to the heart.
I paused to find my answer and I saw his smile deepen. He had me. Every path I looked down was one where he emerged victorious.
The delay was going to strengthen the people on the council who opposed him, but he was in favor of it. A five year old could figure out what that meant. If he didn’t mind the delay it was because his plans were going to run to completion before the hearing began. All he needed to do was buy time.
If I opposed the delay, he could call off the whole trial on the basis that I wasn’t willing to deal with the Common Council as a legitimate governing body. I couldn’t say I respected their authority if I ignored it because I thought my goals were more important.
Of course, they were more important. Or at least I believed they might be. I didn’t have solid proof that Makkis, Breeg and their conspiracy had a plan in motion that would affect the planet though. That was all intuition and basic reasoning on my part.
He’d claimed that he’d ‘already won’, the first time I talked to him. That was a lie. If he was secure in his victory, he wouldn’t have destroyed one of his own bases and burned down a building full of people to keep me off his tail. So he had to still be working on whatever scheme he was playing at.
I wracked my brain to find some clue about what it could be that I could share with the other council members. Once my outlaw status became known I wouldn’t be able to stop Makkis but, if I put Osgood and Hector on the right trail, they’d have every reason to bring him down for me.
It couldn’t be a personal scheme, I decided. The Empire was isolated from the situation on Hellsreach by the Joint Exxion Congress, the Human and Garjarak governing body that reported to the other two planets in the system. With them unwilling to recognize the Hellsreach Common Council or report on its existence, Makkis could have been planning to run any sort of racket imaginable and we wouldn’t have heard of it. Unless it affected the entire planet. Then, one way or the other, we’d find out what was going on and get involved.
Makkis had claimed that he was trying to send a message to the Empire to stay out of Hellsreach’s affairs. That was a lie too. There was no better way to have the Empire slam down on Hellsreach than killing one of the Crystal Guardians.
Even if I was a criminal and a Wanted rogue agent, the Empire, and maybe even the Empress, would react poorly to the loss of Master Raychelle.
So Makkis scheme had to have planetary, if not system-wide, ramifications. In fact it had to be something that would allow the Makkis to stand against not only his enemies on the Common Council but also the military might of Exxion 3, Exxion 4, and the Crystal Empire.
“If you’ll pledge to deal in good faith, and keep Councilman Breeg here, then I’ll accept the delay.” I said. My voice had lost its otherworldly quality. Several council members sighed in relief at the defusing of tensions. Even Osgood and Hector seemed pleased. Only Makkis looked like he understood what I was really saying.
We both knew he wasn’t dealing in good faith. I hadn’t accepted the delay, I had only admitted that I didn’t have a play to make yet.
What I wanted to do was run. They hadn’t heard the broadcast of my rogue status yet, but I knew it was a matter of minutes before someone brought the news in. Then Makkis’ victory would be complete. The hearing would never go off if Breeg’s accuser was revealed to be a galactic criminal.
I saw Makkis smiling at me still. He was ecstatic behind his hardened gaze. He knew he’d won.
He shouldn’t have known that though. Not with that much certainty. I’d surprised him too many times so far. He should have been worried still. If it was Master Raychelle in my position, he would have been terrified.
But it wasn’t Master Raychelle. It was me. A soon-to-be fugitive.
And he knew that! I could see it in his eyes!
Understanding blossomed from the depths of my subconscious and a brand new wave of fear rolled through the my guts.
I shouldn’t have been branded a criminal and I wasn’t a rogue agent. Master Raychelle was the one who’d left me. Everything I’d done since then had been to protect people or find the ones responsible for hurting them. More importantly, most of it had occurred when communications back to the Imperial station were jammed. They couldn’t brand me a criminal for my actions because they had no way of knowing about them!
That wasn’t just reassuring, it made sense with something Fari had told me earlier.
“You tried to establish a communication spell to the Imperial station while we were on our way here didn’t you?” I asked Fari telepathically.
“Yeah. I couldn’t get through.” she said.
“I remember. You thought it might have been destroyed. There was another possibility though wasn’t there?” I asked.
“Yeah. If all of the communication spell matrices were taken offline for repair.” Fari said.
“Can you connect to them now?” I asked.
“Yes.” she said and added “Oh no.”
“Let me guess.” I said. “They weren’t down for repair were they?”
“No. They were down for reprogramming.” she said.
“Makkis controls them now, doesn’t he?” I asked.
“Not directly. The one who hijacked them is named Unlew.” Fari said. “Of course the two of them share controlling interest in a few different businesses, off-world businesses in fact, so I think it’s safe to say Makkis’ conspiracy holds the Imperial station now.”
“Anyone left alive onboard it?” I asked.
“Yes. All members of the crew are captive in the landing bays, which are sealed.” she said.
“So anyone who wants to reclaim the station will need to spend extra time or risk killing the hostages.” I said.
“That’s a bad sign. Hostages won’t buy them much time if an Imperial battle cruiser shows up. They must be really close to whatever they’re trying to do.” Fari said.
“I know.” I said. “I can’t believe how stupid I am though.”
“You’re not stupid. Makkis shouldn’t have been able to take over the Imperial station. You couldn’t see that coming. None of us could have.” Fari said.
“I know. I don’t feel stupid about that. I just…” I choked back the words at first. It was hard to even think them, because they sounded so childish in my head. “I just can’t believe with all this that what I feel happy about is not being a criminal.”
“Mel! Why would you think…” Fari started to say and then caught herself. “Oh. I’m sorry! I didn’t even think about what I said to you. I knew the report was bogus. It had to be. I just wanted to warn you about it.”
Somehow the relief was almost harder to bear than the fear had been. I thought back to being a seven year old. Maybe crying it out like I had then would have done some good. In front of the Common Council was not the place to revert to pre-adolescent behavior though, however good it would have felt.
I swallowed hard and forced myself to as calm of a state as I could muster.
“It’s ok.” I told Fari. “I needed the heads up, and it kind of doesn’t matter that I’m not really a wanted criminal. Once the report reaches the Council, they’re going to treat me like an outlaw no matter what.”
“And with the Imperial station down, we don’t have any backup from the Empire that could arrive here in times anyways.” Fari said.
“Yeah. Not unless they were already here and the one person I know of who fits that description is still missing in action.” I said.
“I’m starting to get worried about that. Master Raychelle should have contacted you by now, shouldn’t she?” Fari asked.
“Yeah, probably. I can only think of a few reasons why she wouldn’t have and none of them are good.” I said.
The muttering among the council members stopped when Makkis cleared his throat.
“We must assemble the entire Council if possible. I know several members are absent because they were not able to travel to the emergency meeting on short notice. I propose we authorize suppressing the anti-teleportation wards and diverting city power to the transport pads in the Council Building to facilitate their arrival.” Makkis said.
“Council by-laws forbid leaving this building undefended while a quorum of council members are present.” Osgood said. He was fighting the political battle of getting the right council members into position to take down one of Makkis’ supporters. I wanted to yell at him that it wasn’t going to matter, but I knew that move would leave me too open to Makkis’ counter attack.
I didn’t have a plan, but every moment until the report of my “outlaw status” came in was time for me to come up with one.
The council members fell to bickering over points of order and related by-laws and precedents for exceptions. They were wasting time in exactly the manner that Makkis needed them to, but with their focus off me I was able to step back and think too.
That is until I heard a soft chime ring in my ear.
“It’s Darius.” Fari said. “He’s trying to reconnect to the telepathic link we had setup.”
“Can you keep it secure?” I asked.
Fari huffed in disbelief at the question.
“Ok, ok. Let him in then please.” I said.
“What are you doing here?” Darius asked, the moment the communication spells were joined together.
“Getting in trouble.” I told him. “What are you doing here?”
“Testifying about what happened at the base. About you specifically.” he said.
“What have you told them?” I asked.
“Nothing yet. They hadn’t called for the witnesses yet. The emergency meeting was just getting going when you burst in.” he said. “What happened?”
“A lot. An assassin tried to kill me at the base. Two of them in fact.” I said. “I tried to beat one of them back to their home but Breeg torched it. He killed everyone inside the building to keep me from finding anything that would lead to them.”
“How do you know it was him then?” Darius asked.
“Fari and I summoned the elemental that he used. It lead me here. Right to him in fact.” I said.
“That’s impossible.” Darius said.
“No. Not impossible. Just very difficult. And very dangerous. Sorry for the grand entrance there. I wasn’t entirely in my right mind with the elemental egging me on.” I said.
“And now?” Darius asked.
I saw a page enter the Council chamber room at a breathless run. He looked around. Caught sight of me and went white as a sheet. He paused on the doorway for a precious pair of seconds while I wished him away with all of my meager mental anima skills. I knew what was on the sheet of paper he was carrying.
My mind control skills being non-existent, I watched him cast his gaze down, pull up his courage and start marching towards Makkis.
I’d run out of time to come up with a plan.
“And now, I’m about to kidnap a Council member.” I told Darius.