Mel woke to darkness and screams and the smell of smoke. Forcing her heavy eyelids open she saw what looked like the after effects of city busting bomb. Clothes were strewn all over the place. Around and underneath their garments, piles of vague clutter were clumped in unrecognizable shapes in the dim starlight that filtered into the small room.
Ten thousand miles away, voices were crying out, their owners bereft of all hope of surviving the monsters of deepest night that surrounded them. Mel struggled to drag herself out of a fatigue that had filled her bones in place of the marrow and that coursed through her veins in place of the blood they should have held. Dragged down by sleep’s legion of hands, her brain desperately sought to understand the cacophony that surrounded her.
All had been quiet and normal when she lay down, and yet everything was loud and horrible as she awoke. She wound a thread of Physical anima between her fingers to claim the jolt of energy she needed to claim full consciousness but was stopped by a single thought. Just one glorious, wonderful realization.
“It’s your turn to get up for the twins,” Mel said without the slightest trace of remorse as she poked Darius.
Watching him wake was comical enough that staying awake held some appeal.
But not as much appeal as the blissful embrace an all-consuming slumber offered.
She smiled as she drifted back to sleep in Hector and Osgood’s home on Titanus. Tomorrow would pose new challenges, but she was already recovering from the frankly epic labor the twins put her through and she knew her little family would be able to meet those challenges.
Millions of light years away, another part of Mel’s little family was busy cackling with evil glee as she watched a killer hard at work.
Fari had assembled Captain Okoro, Yael, Zyla, Bo and most of the Chinuri delegation on the bridge of the Horizon Breaker. On a view screen in front of them they watched the Junior Tactical Delegate “successfully” disenchant the lock to crew quarters where “Mel” and “Darius” were sleeping. The Junior Tactical Delegate was someone who had been content to fade into the background throughout their entire discussion. The few remarks he’d made had been solidly in support of the Senior Tactical Delegate who took the lead for most of the conversation, so it was easy to pass off the younger delegate’s silence as being due to respect for his mentor.
Watching the delegate creep into Mel and Darius’ room an alternate interpretation played out in most of the observer’s minds.
“He came along on this mission to kill them?” the Senior Tactical delegate whispered in disbelief.
“I don’t believe so,” Yael said.
“Right,” Zyla said. “The attack on the space liner was shielded from Aetherial foresight. There was no warning it would occur, so he couldn’t have been planning for this.”
“What we’re watching is an opportunistic attack,” Fari said. “He has access to someone his masters thought they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near.”
The Junior Tactical delegate stepped into the room and closed the door. Once he was concealed from the hallway, he produced an ornamented cylinder from inside his robes.
“What is that?” the Chief Financial delegate asked.
“An anima blade,” Captain Okoro said. “I find watching this disagreeable. Can we end this now or do these delegates really need to see blood spilled?”
“They won’t believe it without confirmation,” Fari said. “So far all our assassin is guilty of is being a creepy trespasser.”
Hanq scowled and turned away from the display. He understood what was really happening but that didn’t make it any easier to bear.
When the Junior Tactical delegate struck, he was at least clean and precise about it. In three quick motions everyone in the room beside himself bore fatal injuries. Fari adjusted the low light vision on her sensing spell to show the results of his work. He hadn’t sent a warning, or showed any mercy. There was no chance a healer was going to undo the damage that he’d wrought on his victims
With a horrifying, and clinical sort of detachment, the Junior delegate sheathed his blade and collected samples from his victims. From their room, he proceeded to the ship’s aft where the docking bays were.
“You are monstrous,” the Lead delegate said. “How could you let him slaughter your crew like that? Just to prove a point to us?”
“You had to believe,” Fari said.
“We would have believed you after he entered their room,” the financial delegate said. “Or certainly after he drew his blade. There was no need for anyone to die here.”
“No one has,” Fari said. “Not yet anyways. Ilya will you collect our doppleganger bodies and bring them up to the bridge?”
“Yes sir,” the ship’s Chief Medical Officer said.
“What is this?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked.
“Proof for you,” Yael said. “That we can protect our citizens.”
“And that our assassin truly believed that he was killing Imperial personnel,” Fari said.
“This was all theater?” the Senior Tactical delegate said.
“Yes,” Fari said. “But your Junior delegate was no more in on it than you were. The role he played was one he chose for himself.”
“I don’t understand why he wanted to kill your personnel though?” the Financial delegate asked.
“Because the real version of me is carrying a special child,” a woman who looked like Mel said. Behind her stood a man who looked like Darius and Ilya, the ship’s Chief Medical Officer who had repaired the bodies to their original undamaged state.
“How is this possible?” the Lead delegate asked.
“They’re doppelgangers,” the Senior Tactical delegate said. “Although magic puppets might be a better name from what I can see. Who’s controlling them, the anima threads are a beastly tangle to make out?”
“Commander Ilya and I are both controlling them,” Fari said. “She handles supplying them with the Physical anima they need to maintain those forms and move around while I direct their movements and speak for them.”
“Like this,” Far said, through the false Mel’s mouth.
“That explains why you would let this play out as it did,” the Financial delegate said. “But I’m still lost on why it all occurred in the first place. How is this child you speak of special?”
“She’s a potential subject of a prophecy which a rather far flung death cult has been murdering people over for quite a while,” Bo said.
“At the moment, she’s not a potential subject, she is the only subject of the prophecy,” Zyla said.
“You should know that the creature which destroyed our space liner is at the other end of that prophecy,” Yael said. “We learned that because it made the mistake of coming close enough to us for Zyla and I to catch some of the Aetherial threads that were left in its wake.”
“Somehow it seems Commander Fari deduced that too,” Zyla said.
“We’ve been expecting someone to take another shot at Mel and Darius for a while,” Fari said. “The cult pursued us very aggressively until we got back to the Horizon Breaker, and it didn’t seem like they were going to give up that easily.”
“So you were working off of a hunch?” Zyla asked.
“When an unexpected distress call came in from the two of you, and I heard that we’d have a number of passengers with special privileges on board, plus you’d had an encounter with the kind of creature referred to in the prophecy, it wasn’t hard to put things together,” Fari said. “Also, I trusted there was an excellent chance that you’d engineered the events after the wreck and were trying to get as much return on the disruption as you could, by drawing together the key players to one location.”
“You sought to profit from our distress?” the Lead delegate asked.
“They worked to salvage as much as they could from a calamity,” Bo said.
“That is unacceptable!” the Lead delegate said. “We are not pawns for your little games.”
“You were never pawns,” Fari said. “You were closer to lab rats.”
“What do you mean?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked.
“We knew that one or more of you were servants to the organizations we are investigating,” Fari said.
“But we didn’t know which of you that might be,” Yael said.
“So you used my sister as bait to lure out the cultists you were after?” Bo asked.
“What?” Fari asked. “No, your sister is perfectly safe. We used her doppelganger here to lure out the assassin we were expecting and send the cult a message.”
“What message?” Bo asked.
“Mission accomplished, the threat is neutralized,” Fari said. “The easiest way to get a death cult to lose interest in you is if they think they’ve already managed to kill you.”
“Well, that’s a viable strategy for this death cult at least,” Zyla said.
“Why all the theater for us though?” the Financial delegate asked. “We could have been informed much earlier as to what was about to transpire.”
“That would have been an option,” Fair said. “Except that there’s still one question that remained unanswered.”
“Why was the assassin in our ranks in the first place?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked.
“Exactly that,” Fari said.
“We could ask him, but it appears that he has sabotaged the security locks on the ship’s fighters and is exiting the docking bay in command of one of them,” Bo said.
“It took him long enough,” Fari said.
“I thought Imperial spellcraft was second to none,” the Financial delegate said. “How did he overcome your security.
“He found a hole in it at one of the unused access tubes for the docking bay,” Fari said. “Fortunately he didn’t seem to notice that the security spells on the access tube had been rendered inert a few seconds before he found it.”
“You let him escape?” the Lead delegate asked.
“Of course,” Fari said. “We need him to report in and provide the tissue samples to his higher ups. They won’t believe that his mission was a success without that.”
“Also, we have various contagious tracking spells on him,” Yael said. “So once he makes contact with his superiors, we’ll be able to track them as well.”
“Within a few months we’ll have their entire organization outlined and should be able to move against it all at once,” Zyla said.
“How does that help us understand why he was here though?” the Financial delegate asked.
“By giving him only a short window of time to act within, we were able to force him to leaves his principal gear behind in his room,” Fari said. “As soon as he entered Guardian Watersward’s room, I instructed the crew to seize his belongings.”
“You suspected he’d be carrying a toxin?” Yael asked.
“It seemed likely,” Fari said. “His attack on Mel and Darius with the anima blade would have been suicidal against any of the other delegates because none of them were planning to sleep tonight.”
“If he planned to kill us all, perhaps suicide was a viable option for him?” Lead delegate asked.
“I don’t believe so,” Fari said. “That he planned to kill us all. He had opportunities and passed them up.”
“Perhaps he was waiting for the right time?” the Senior Tactical delegate said.
“Or the right person,” Fari said. “Like us, he didn’t know who his target was.”
“How can you know that?” the Financial delegate asked.
“Because he had plenty of opportunity to eliminate any of the other delegates or the Imperials when the space liner was destroyed and he didn’t strike then,” Fari said.
“So who was he looking for?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked.
“A traitor to the Chinuri.” Fari said. “If you read his personnel file, you’ll see that he is very devoted to your world. I would guess that’s why he became involved with the death cult in the first place.”
“He wanted to kill anything that would threaten his home,” Bo said.
“How did you gain access to his personnel file?” the Financial delegate asked.
“We’ll talk about your abysmal spell web security later Ambassador,” Fari said.
“Why would he want to kill one of us though?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked. “We represent the hope for the Chinuris’ future.”
“All of you except for one it looks like,” Fari said. “Guardian Clearborn, can you trace the link between the poison in the assassin’s room and the delegate it would have been administered to?”
“I already have,” Yael said. “Chief Ambassador, you are under arrest.”
“You must be joking,” the Lead delegate said. “I am not subject to Imperial law.”
“I make this arrest under Chinuri law,” Yael said. “You are the one the assassin was here to kill, and I’m wondering if perhaps we shouldn’t have let him.”
“This is ridiculous,” the Lead delegate said. “What possible reason would he have to kill me.”
“Because you are a senior member of the Red Running River and you’re here to ensure that our attack does not go off as planned,” Yael said.
“That’s preposterous!” the Lead delegate said. “What proof do you have?”
“We said we were going to give you access to our comm net,” Hanq said. “Did it not occur to you that we might notice who it was you called?”
“We can give the rest of you a full set of transcripts of the calls if you like,” Fari said.” This is my favorite bit though.”
The holo image shifted to a view of the Lead delegate in his room speaking with another Chinuri. After a second, audio sprang up to expand on the visuals.
“The Empire is launching their full strike tomorrow,” the holo-image of the Lead delegate said. “But they’ve sent in a special operations team early. Be on the look out for them.” the Lead delegate said.
“We’re transferring the contents of the base to our primary fallback position now sir,” a man wearing the emblem of the Red Running River said.
“Good,” the Lead delegate said. “Do it quickly and then get out of there too. If they find nothing they may not look around here for many years to come.
“By the Rushing of the Red!” the holo of the River cultist said.
“By the Rushing of the Red!” the holo of the Lead delegate echoed.
“This is ridiculous,” the Lead delegate said. “Those could have been forged!”
“You may wish to try that argument at your trial, but by then the Chinuri Police will have been able to unearth more details surrounding who your really are.” Fari said. “I’m streaming them the information on where they need to look into already.”
“These are serious charges,” the Senior Tactical delegate said.
“With serious consequences,” Yael said. “Consequences that could be lessened if the Ambassador was to direct the River forces on Bleakwater to stand down.”
“Before you spout off any angry bluster denying your ability to do that Ambassador, please take a look at these reports,” Fari said and had “Mel” hand the ambassador a viewing glass. “You’ll find the names and connections of every River member on Bleakwater in that report, including the several hundred of them who are under your direct employ. That report is being transmitted to the Chinuri congress as we speak. By my count that gives them close to five thousand solid cases to prosecute.”
“In case you haven’t received your daily report, there are only thirty nine hundred River personnel left on Bleakwater,” Zyla said. “Fari is including the one’s who’ve already escaped off-world in the number of those who we are tracking.”
“I’m missing why a member of this death cult you spoke of would be targeting a member of the River?” the Financial delegate said.
“This particular death cult isn’t obsessed with death,” Fari said. “They’re killing off people they believe may trigger a galactic scale apocalypse. In their own minds I think they believe they’re making the hard decisions the Empire won’t in order to keep people safe.”
“How does that align with the River?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked.
“The Red Running River is part of a consortium of other cults dedicated to overthrowing the Crystal Empire,” Yael said. “Their ultimate aim is to hasten the arrival of creatures called the Galactic Devourers.”
“They believe the arrival of beasts like that, while the Empire is still in its early stages, will be enough to overwhelm the Empress and return the galaxy to a state ripe for them to move in and assume control,” Zyla said.
“That’s insane,” the Senior Tactical delegate said.
“What are you going to do about it?” the Financial delegate asked.
“Be ready for them,” Fari said.