SIster Marilith gazed at the two smugglers into whose care she was entrusting the eleven young children that surrounded her.
“I’ve got to admit, we’ve never run a cargo like this before,” Zax, the smaller, smarter and less trustworthy of the pair, said.
“Not that we’re not up to it,” Willock, the more honorable of the two, said.
For Sister Marilith’s purposes, neither of her former wards were ideal for the task at hand, but should could only work with the tools she was given, not the tools she wished to possess.
“I’m am only concerned that your vessel is up to the challenge,” Sister Marilith said.
“It’ll be close quarters, some of the kids will probably need to ride in the gun turrets,” Zax said. This drew the expected grins of anticipation from the more martially inclined among the children. Zax knew how to make friends and influence people, regardless of their age. This was the trait Sister Marilith was most concerned with.
She had been raising cast-offs, orphans and foundlings for the better part of four decades, ever since she joined the Sisters of Water’s Mercy. She had felt the work to be her life’s calling, that her love of children required her to help the ones who had no else to help them. The calling was still there but the years had tempered her idealism and enthusiasm.
These children had many needs, from complex things like support, and counseling to simple necessities like food and shelter. To focus on only those would be a mistake though. Even in these early days, the children needed someone to set boundaries for them. To show them what was and was not acceptable, so that they wouldn’t run wild. That endeavor was made immeasurably more difficult with a rogue like Zax around to provide an example for getting away with all sorts of boundary breaking behavior.
“I am less concerned about your seating arrangements and more about your vessel’s capacity to cloak itself,” Sister Marilith said.
“Cloaks are illegal in this system, Sister,” Zax said. He saw the objection forming in Marilith’s eyes and rushed to add, “And also expensive, which is why we don’t have one.”
“How do you smuggle without a cloak?” Sister Marilith asked.
“You don’t need an invisibility spell to keep people from seeing things,” Zax said. “You’ve just got to get them to see what you want them to see.”
“The children are not to be seen at all,” Sister Marilith said. “If their whereabouts are known their safety will be compromised.”
As the children of a famous Warlord there were many in the local area of the galaxy who had cause to wish the children harm but the clearest danger came from their own clan. With the loss of the Karr Khan, the remaining elements of the clan needed someone to rally behind as the heir to the throne. The clan had many factions though, and no matter which child one faction chose as heir, another faction would strive to eliminate them. The factions knew this which was why several of them had decided to get a jump on the issue and eliminate all the viable heirs not directly under their control. The children had survived by taking matters into their own hands and escaping just a few steps ahead of their assassin’s arrival.
It had seemed like good luck that the Sisters had been waiting to take them in, but Sister Marilith didn’t believe in luck and had little use for Aetherial magics. She and the others had moved to intercept the children the moment they heard of the Karr Khan’s demise. People thought of the Sisters as kindly missionaries or simple caregivers. As though caregiving was ever simple, or kindness precluded seeing people as they really were.
The truth was, the Sisters routinely dealt with miscreants a dozen times more clever than most Planetary Intelligence services were forced to contend with and if they were kind, it was because they saw too clearly the sort of damage a lack of kindness produced in people.
“Relax Sister, no one’s going to be looking at these kids at all, I promise,” Zax said.
Sister Marilith wondered if perhaps she should have been kinder to the young Zax, or if the reverse was warranted. Raising children was more an art than a science and despite her best efforts, Sister Marilith wasn’t sure she’d produced all that many masterpieces.
“We’ll be discovered before we reach the ship,” Tchini said. She was one of the leaders among the children and was gifted with a talent for future sight. When she spoke the others listened, but there was always a current of mistrust as well. The girl had misused her talents in the past, Sister Marilith reasoned, and the others held that against her regardless of the present circumstances.
“Yes we will,” Zax said. “Hopefully sooner than later too. This place charges it’s docking fees by the hour.”
“So it is part of your plan to put these children in danger?” Sister Marilith asked.
“No, no, no,” Zax said. “The children are already in danger. That’s the great part of the plan. We really can’t make things worse!”
“I can think of several dozen worse situations we could be in,” Sister Marilith said.
“Sister, do you remember the time you disciplined me for stealing a parade float and driving it off the parade route so that I could impress Salle Evens?” Zax asked.
“No, I do not recall such an incident,” Sister Marilith said.
“But I bet you remember punishing me for sneaking out of parade duties to steal the answers to our mathematics mid-term don’t you?” Zax asked.
“Yes, you had a week’s latrine duty for that,” Sister Marilith said.
“The balloon ride with Salle Evens was worth it,” Zax said.
“Are you saying…” Sister Marilith started to ask.
“That I didn’t really care about my math mid-terms?” Zax said. “I believe I will allow my academic record to speak for me in that regards.”
“What he’s trying to say is that the kids will be safe with us Sister,” Willock said.
“I wonder if they shall,” Sister Marilith said, her eyes narrowing as the calculus of the dangers arrayed against her charges shifted.
A small light blinked on Zax’s left bracer and the smuggler nodded to his compatriot.
“We need to get moving now or we’re going to miss our appointment with your assassins,” Zax said.
Sister Marilith ground her fingers into her rod. It wasn’t too late to abandon this mad plan. If she’d learned anything in her years as a part of the clergy of Water’s Mercy it was that she wasn’t infallible and admitting her mistakes early saved a lot of trouble later on. All sorts of warning bells were telling her she needed to do so in this circumstance, that the children’s lives were too important to risk on the mad plans of a former student who’d clearly not amounted to more than a two-bit criminal.
As a responsible adult, it was on her to put an end to foolishness and chart a path that would see her charges safe and healthy at the end of the day.
She held her tongue though and nodded in agreement. It was difficult, far more so than taking control would have been, but she’d learned that sometimes, on admittedly rare occasions, you needed to trust that the children you’d raised could rise to meet challenges the world threw at them, no matter how difficult those challenges were.
“Ok, so, this is kind of going to be like a race,” Willock said to the children. “I’m going to assign you parters. You can only win the race if you stay together with your partner and go exactly where we say. Understand?”
The question was met with nods of agreement and one raised hand.
“What if we don’t like our partners?” one of the children asked.
“Then we’ll arrange for one of the assassins to be your partner instead,” Zax said.
There was still grumbling as Willock arranged the children into groups of two and three but since each group was sent off to follow Zax as they were formed there wasn’t time for them to try to reassemble into new formations on their own.
The mad rush of adults and children drew plenty of attention as they whipped through Naru Stations public areas. The disrupted crowds and the speed of the children’s passage did serve as a shield of sorts though. At least two assassins were forced to take pot shots from the crowd instead of the ambush posts they’d been attempting to secret themselves in. As ill-prepared as they were, the first shots went wild and their second shots never left their bolt casters. Willock was a much better shot on the run than he really had any right being, but everyone has a few skills that just come naturally to them.
The mad flight ended at the dock where Zax and Willock’s ship was waiting for them. Also waiting were a trio of Naru Station security officers looking for a fresh bribe after the original one Zax had offered on their landing proved to be counterfeit. Naturally the moment the security officers saw their quarry, they drew their own bolt casters. As did a half dozen previously unarmed people around them.
“Thank the stars you’re here! Clear a path for us!” Zax yelled to the armed people facing them and sent a pair of bolt caster blasts wildly over the heads of the assembled combatants.
From the officers’ point of view, their target was undeniably calling for aid from his associates, by whom they were outnumbered. The only logical move therefore was to reduce numerical advantage the enemy faced by switch to fully automatic fire and mowing down everyone but themselves. There were a few little creatures scampering about, but they weren’t armed so they were more cover to be shot around than targets to be aimed at.
From the assassin’s point of view, there was a local firing at them who was obviously working with station security. With their covers blown they had to eliminate all witnesses, starting with the witnesses who were capable to eliminating them back.
As all parties were primarily interested in surviving first and killing second, the barrage of bolt caster fire that exploded in the docks hit no one. Everyone was firing wildly and diving for cover and no one was in a position to stop the children from piling into the waiting crates which were being unloaded from Zax’s ship.
Sister Marilith watched as Zax keyed a command into his bracer and the dock’s loading golems activated and began lugging the crates back into the ship.
With the enemies under cover from each other, the bolt caster fire intensified and the damage to the station began to mount precariously.
This in turn brought in more security forces.
The assassins tried to concentrate fire on the boxes as they were moved, but the golems proved resistant to their caster bolts.
Sister Marilith’s heart soared at the apparent success of the plan when she saw the last of the crates the children had climbed into placed in the loading tube to the ship.
That feeling of elation lasted for ten precious seconds.
Then Zax’s ship exploded.
Outside the docking window, Sister Marilith saw the Karr Khan dreadnaught that had pursued them through multiple star systems. Its guns glowed in the aftermath of the utter destruction of Zax’s ship. They’d reduced the vessel, and the boxes it contained to a nearly invisible mist of fine particles.
The next several hours passed in a blur of disbelief.
Station security arrived in sufficient force to disperse the assassins and arrest Zax, Sister Marilith and all of the others caught in the firefight.
She was questioned, but the inquiry was perfunctory and terminated early once the proper bribe was delivered by one of her fellow Sisters.
“Where are we going to go next?” Sister Terizi asked.
Sister Marilith wasn’t sure. She’d never failed her charges as profoundly before. She was questioning her place in the order itself when a familiar voice spoke up from behind her.
“The next stop was Beta Arexus wasn’t it?” Zax asked.
Lightning shot out of Sister Marilith’s rod and pinned the man to the wall.
“You dare show your face to me?” she asked.
“This…is…”, Zax struggled to say. “Kind…of…familiar.”
“Get out of my sight,” Sister Marilith said, dropping the restraint spell.
“Well, I’d love to but you see, I’m kind of broke now and there’s the matter of services rendered,” Zax said.
“Services rendered?” Sister Marilith asked. “You’ll get not a single coin from us.”
“Aww, I thought the kids were worth more than that,” Zax said. “Ah well, I suppose I always wanted a little group of minions. Is it legal to fit them with slave collars though? They seem really mouthy.”
“The children are alive?” Sister Marilith asked.
“Uh, yeah, of course they’re alive,” Zax said. “Did you think I was going to let my ship get blown up for free?”
“I don’t understand?” Sister Marilith. “How? They were loaded onto your ship!”
“No, a bunch of boxes were loaded onto my ship,” Zax said.
“The kids were already offloaded onto our other ship,” Willock said.
“But how was that possible? I saw you both, neither of you got near the boxes,” Sister Marilith said.
“Yeah, that was a critical part of the plan,” Zax said. “It really had to look like we were pinned down, otherwise somebody might have looked a little too closely at those boxes and noticed they didn’t have bottoms.”
“But where did the children go?” Sister Marilith.
“I’ve got them,” Salle Evens said as she came up to join the group. “What, you didn’t think these two were dumb enough to work alone did you?”
“What are you doing here though?” Sister Marilith asked.
“Oh, we never split up, none of the kids from our graduating year did,” Salle said.
“Yeah, we may not have turned out quite the way you expected, but we never forgot the things you really taught us,” Zax said. “Stick together.”
“Take care of each other,” Salle said.
“And family is what you make of it,” Willock said.