Flying a spaceship takes practice and training. There’s less need for finesse than with an airship, but far greater need for efficiency. Even the biggest spaceships still need their engineers to provide the base spark of anima for propulsion and to keep the inconsistent spell engines in line. It takes a special talent and a lot of time to become really good at it. Flying through warp space on the other hand took only one thing; pure insanity.
“It all comes down to numbers,” Master Hanq said as he finished explaining what the engineers would have to do to get us to the site of the colony ship wreckage in warp space.
We were on the bridge of his command ship, which turned out to be more luxuriously laid out than I’d expected. I hadn’t been on many spaceships yet, but I’d been a fan of them when I was younger. Most ran towards the utilitarian end of the spectrum, especially warcrafts like Hanqs. Plain steel bulkheads and simple scrying pools, unadorned crystal resonators; those were the kind of things I expected to see on a military space ship.
Master Hanq’s command ship, by contrast, boasted smooth wood fixtures which pulsed with inner veins of light. From the wood, decorative plants grew and flowered, providing both color and a soothing fresh scent to the command deck. Hanq’s captain’s chair was cushioned and solid and looked like a cross between a comfy recliner and a throne. Given that it was placed towards the back of the bridge and was elevated about a foot above the rest of the positions, I guessed that the throne-elements of its motif weren’t unintentional. Some parts of being a Warlord are apparently harder to leave behind than others.
From the bronze and gold trim that accentuated the other bridge stations though, it didn’t look like Hanq was placing himself too high above his crew. If anything, I suspected that the display of wealth and power was meant for visitors. With the Crystal Empire in its current state, it had more use for negotiators than strike forces, but things were still shaky enough twenty years into the Empresses reign that reminding people that the Imperial mandate to play nicely together was more than just a suggestion was valuable too.
“I’ve learned my numbers,” I said, thinking back to the mathematics lessons the Sisters had inflicted on us and how I’d never understood why people whined so much about it. Numbers are simple, it’s people you have to work at figuring out. “But I’m used to two and two equaling four, not two and two equaling berry flavored pudding.”
“We’ll need to have Guardian Blackbriar sign you up for a course in Esoteric Calculus when we get back,” he said.
“I don’t recommend it,” Fari said. “About six months into studying any of the Esoteric Maths, you lose all sense of what numbers mean. That’s basically where the real studying begins. Then you keep going until one plus one makes sense again. Usually you’re old and grey by the time that happens though.”
“Fortunately, you don’t need to go that far to be a good engineer,” Hanq said. “And most of them like berry flavored pudding.”
“I think I’ll leave the engineering to the folks who are good at it then,” I said.
“And thus does the teacher impart wisdom to the student,” Master Hanq said.
“I thought your job was to show me to hit people better?” I said.
“No, my job is to keep you in one piece,” he said. “Making sure you know how to hit people is only one part of that. From what Guardian Blackbriar described to me, I’m beginning to wonder if I didn’t go a little too far on that side of your training at the expense of the other parts.”
“Did you notice that I am still in one piece, more or less?” I said. “I don’t think my training’s let me down yet. I just needed more of it.”
“Oh, I agree,” he said. “For example, training in when its ok to let things go.”
I frowned at him. I’d been thinking we were talking about how I hadn’t been trained in even the basics of anima casting like everyone else I knew. Apparently he had a more current issue on his mind,
“I can’t let go of mistakes I’ve made if there’s still a chance I can fix them,” I said.
“Not being perfect isn’t a mistake,” Hanq said. “We all have our limits. We can exceed them sometimes, but there’s usually a price to pay for it.”
“There’s a price to pay for not exceeding them too,” I said.
“And that’s why we learn to cheat,” he said. “You have to understand Mel, the kind of people you’re going to be dealing with are always going to be playing games that they’re set up to win. It’ll always be an uphill battle to fight them. They’ll make it so that unless you sacrifice as much as possible, you don’t even get to play.”
“So you’re saying the right move is not to play at all?” I asked.
“No, you don’t have to forfeit,” he said. “You just have to find another game.”
I’d been debating with him by reflex but I stopped and let his words sink in. He was trying to get me to think, and as usual, it worked. I wasn’t sure what I was missing but I felt a great hole in my plans somewhere.
I’d been focused on Vunthor so closely, I knew the larger picture of what was going on was escaping me.
“Do you think we’ll find any clues to the game that’s being played at the wreckage?” I asked.
We were cruising through warp space towards the last known point of the destroyed colony ship. Master Raychelle had agreed to allow me to accompany the forensic team as show of support for the Hellsreach Common Council. She and Opal were taking the issue seriously, but as I’d expected, they had to deal with the immediate threats that remained in the Exxion system first.
“I’ll be honest with you Mel,” Hanq said. “I think the best that we can hope for it to find the ghosts of the passengers and put them to rest. Accidents in warp space don’t usually leave much evidence behind. Even the ghosts, if we can find them, aren’t likely to be…complete.”
His pause in describing the condition of the ghosts led my imagination to all kinds of unpleasant places.
“Do you think they’ll be dangerous?” I asked. “The ghosts I mean.”
“I don’t know that there’ll be enough of them left for that,” he said. “But we should be careful anyways. I’ll take a security team in first, then we’ll send for the forensic wizards to check the area out.”
“I want to go with your security team,” I said.
“I believe we were just discussing how it’s my job to keep you in one piece?” he said.
“I have some special skills when it comes to working with ghosts,” I said.
“And you’re still on restricted casting as per your healer’s orders, so you’re not allowed to use those skills,” he said.
“I’ve got that problem under control,” I said. “And anyways, if we find some monster-ghost there what are the odds that I’ll be safe in the ship compared to surrounded by a security detail?”
“Better than the odds that I’ll get any peace if I try to keep you away from this I suppose,” he said. “Ok, you can come along, but only because I’ll be able to keep an eye on you directly.”
“Thank you, Captain,” I said. “I should go see how Darius is doing with the forensic team. He was briefing them on the details that the Common Council wanted them to explore.”
“We should reach the site in about an hour. I’ll page you then,” Master Hanq said.
I nodded and turned to go, Fari falling into step beside me.
“What happened with the plan you’d put together to send an inspection team to Titanus?” I asked as we got into the elevator that ran down from the bridge. It was furnished with the same rich and natural trimming as the bridge was though it was small enough that only a handful of people could ride in it at the same time. Better for repelling boarding parties I guessed.
“The Ambassador liked it, but it was put on hold until the colonization issue is sorted out,” she said.
“Is there still discussion that it might go ahead?” I asked.
“Exxion II and IV are pushing for it,” she said. “They’re both viewing the return of the forces that are “deployed” on Hellsreach as a disaster for their economies.”
“That’s right, most of the regular forces are on lifetime deployments aren’t they?” I asked.
“Some of the officer grades too,” Fari said.
“So now that they represent the legacy of a war effort rather than the active tools to wage one, the home planets want nothing to do with them because it would be too hard to find another job for everyone?” I said. “That’s disgusting.”
“That seems to be the general sentiment,” Fari said. “There are protests on both of the homeworlds calling for new areas to be opened up for the returning troops, so not everyone is onboard with shutting the troops out, but the “resettlement” bills that are under discussion are pretty ugly on both sides.”
“They’re trying to encourage the Hellsreach forces to take the offer to move to Titanus,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “The net result of that though is that groups like Major Vunthor’s are gaining members like crazy.”
“Brilliant,” I said. “They’re taking people who have every reason to hate each other and want to part ways forever and telling them that there’s no escape.”
“The Ambassador is somewhat stuck too,” Fari said. “He has the right to demand that the homeworlds take back their forces, but if that happens by Imperial mandate then the backlash against the returning soldiers will be even worse.”
“And again I find myself wishing I could hit someone,” I said.
“I think Raychelle and Opal are putting together a list to that effect,” Fari said.
“A personalized ‘Punch the Stupid Out of Them’ list? For me? That would be just about the best birthday present ever!” I said.
“You already had your birthday,” Fari said.
“I accept belated presents too, or really early ones,” I said. “I’m guessing what you meant though is that they’re putting together a list of the primary leaders of the “Let’s Ignore The Peace Treaty” teams so that they can deal with them all at once rather than taking them down one by one.”
“That’s the game plan,” she said. “Some have backgrounds where we might be able to negotiate them over to a more reasonable stance.”
“And then you’ve got the one’s like Vunthor who are too filled with hate to listen to anything except the voice in their head that’s screaming for blood.” I guessed.
“Unfortunately he’s not alone. And it’s not just the humans either. There are at least three groups operating on the Garjarack side that don’t seem to be interested in leaving anyone else alive – human or Gars who are ‘human sympathizers’ or Gar who might be human-sympathizers.”
“Am I wrong to want to pursue Vunthor then?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “Your point about abandoning the other two ships is a good one, but it may not be realistic.”
“I can do more good focusing my efforts here you think?” I asked.
“Maybe? I mean it looks like that, and it looks like trying to stop Vunthor is a lost cause at this point, but if you think you can catch him, I’m behind you,” she said.
“You’ve got other responsibilities too now though,” I said.
“I’m responsible for overseeing the Colonization efforts,” she said. “That means taking care of all the colonists, and I have to chose where the important spots to direct my attention are. Vunthor will be able to poison Titanus politically, militarily and literally if he’s not stopped. The only problem is, I don’t know how to stop him.”
“But you think I do?” I asked.
“I think stopping Vunthor is a lost cause, but I thought I was a lost cause too and you saved me,” Fari said. “So, yes, if you chose to go after him, I’m going with you.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling a little overwhelmed by her show of confidence in me. I was used to barreling ahead against crazy odds, but I rarely did so out of the belief that I could actually win. Having someone who really believed in me and wasn’t afraid to say so felt good in a way that was hard to describe.
We arrived at the planning room just as Darius and the forensics team were finishing up their meeting. I nodded in greeting to a few of the forensic casters who I was familiar with in passing from general Imperial personnel meetings that I’d attended over the last few months. As they filed out, Darius collected his forms and gave me a weary smile.
“Have you slept? Ever?” I asked. “You’re starting to look a little rough around the edges there.”
“Busy night getting ready for this trip,” he said. “We had to put it all together as fast as possible before the debris drifts too far apart or disintegrates or phase shifts back into plain space. I’ll be fine.”
“Captain Hanq says we’ve got about an hour until we reach the site,” I said. “Maybe you can catch a quick nap?”
“That’s an excellent idea,” Darius said. “I’m just afraid if I close my eyes I’m going to sleep for a week though.”
“I’ll watch over you,” I said. “No bad dreams and no oversleeping.”
“That sounds wonderful!” he said.
So of course that’s when Master Hanq had to call us.
“Mel, Fari, Darius,” he said on a private telepathic link. “Come to the bridge immediately. There’s been a new development. Long range scrying indicates that a portion of the colony ship is intact and has an bio-suspension field active.”
The three of us looked at each and understanding passed around our circle instantly.
This wasn’t a forensic investigation anymore. This was a rescue operation and given the attack that caused it, it was a rescue operation that we needed to keep very quiet about.