Fast Response ships were not the place for children. While the Horizon Breaker wasn’t, technically, a warship, it logged more combat time than a half dozen planetary navies combined. Plasma arc spells so routinely pounded its shields that during hull repairs the crew worked around the more interesting ones to produce a mural of battle damage on the ship. Concussion waves slammed through the structure so often that every chair was enchanted with its own tiny capture field to help the crew remain seating through the worst battle storms. Boarding actions were rare for the ship to suffer, but that didn’t mean the internal corridors weren’t laden with more traps and counter-intrusion spells than most Royal Palaces.
“There is no sane reason I should let you back onboard this ship,” Hanq said. His words would have carried more weight if he wasn’t speaking to Mel’s back as she settled two tiny infants into their crash-cradles.
“I agree,” she said. “It’s selfish and short-sighted of me to demand this of you.”
“Your family is going to be in too much danger…wait, what did you say?” Hanq asked.
“I said it’s selfish of me to come here,” Mel said. “I’m exposing the crew and the ship to danger that they have no part in.”
“Exposing us?” Hanq said. “No, that not…what are you talking about?”
“I think my baby shower gift for her didn’t last quite as long as I hoped it would,” Fari said, appearing behind him.
“It got us through the first six months,” Mel said. “That was a godsend. Really it was.”
“What baby shower gift?” Hanq asked.
“Do you remember the mission we had to Bleakwater half a year ago?” Fari asked. “Ilya and I were piloting doppelgangers of Mel and Darius and we let their ‘killer’ get away?”
“Yes,” Hanq said. “I thought that was resolved though. Guardian Blackbriar filed a report five weeks later saying she’d led a force to apprehend the cultists that were targeting Mel.”
“Master Raychelle is good, amazing even, but it looks like our friendly little death cult is a bit more widely distributed than we knew,” Mel said.
“We kind of suspected that,” Fari said. “The problem was we saw their agents moving against seven other women whose children could fulfill their prophecy. We had the choice of acting on what we knew or letting those women die to draw out a bigger piece of the cult.”
“You did the right thing stopping them,” Mel said. “And thanks to your warning, Darius and I were able to turn over the thirty cultists who tried to blow up the city we were in to the authorities on Titanus.”
“And that’s why you need us to ferry you in for an Imperial Review?” Hanq asked.
“That’s the first thing I need you for,” Mel said. “The review should come up clean though. I’ve been through enough of them now, and no one important hates me at the moment, and this was so clearly in self-defense that I’m not worried about the verdict.”
“But you’ll need a place to stay afterward,” Fari said. “Somewhere safer.”
“Right,” Mel said.
“And where would that be?” Hanq asked. “This ship is fast but I’m not pulling a crazy black hole slingshot maneuver like the one you three did.”
Mel laughed and Hanq’s blood ran a little colder. It wasn’t a joyful laugh, it was a gleeful one. The kind of laugh someone makes when they get to give someone else news that the someone else is almost sure not to enjoy, but which they may, perhaps richly, deserve.
“We were hidden away on Titanus pretty well,” Darius said. “We arrived in secret, and we stayed hidden away in my parents house for most of the time we were there.”
“Which, to be fair, with two babies isn’t hard to do,” Mel said.
“Even with my Dads’ connections, and Mel’s magical stealth capabilities though, they found us,” Darius said.
“Thirty of them?” Hanq asked.
“Yeah, they really should have sent more,” Mel said.
“More?” Hanq asked.
“Mel’s had some frustrations she’s needed to work out,” Darius said.
“I still think you should have let me burn that diaper factory to the ground,” Mel said. “Seriously, the rashes from those things were just…” She made an unintelligible growl of anger and disgust that no one else in the room wanted to dig any deeper into.
“Galen and Kai have fully recovered from that ordeal,” Darius said.
“I think she still wants to hit people,” Fari said.
“I restricted myself to the people who tried to blow up my city,” Mel said. “I feel I deserve a world of credit for that.”
“And instead you get to sit before a review panel and defend your actions,” Fari said.
“Like I said, that part doesn’t bother me. It’s nice to deal with people who can cut through lies like a knife through paper. They ask the questions, I give the answers, and none of us wind up turning into the kind of people who would try to blow up a city in order to specifically kill two helpless children.”
“You did bring the cultists in alive didn’t you?” Hanq asked, hearing the anger that still lingered in Mel’s voice.
“Yes,” Mel said. “Not undamaged, but alive.”
“We have a guard posted on them on Titanus and an Imperial prison transfer ship en route,” Darius said. “Since these people are affiliated with a branch of the cult we haven’t encountered before there’s potentially a lot we can learn from them.”
“Enough to take down the rest of the cult?” Hanq asked.
“Doesn’t seem likely,” Mel said. “Fari’s plan was an excellent one, but this cult is very compartmentalized. I’m betting we’ll need to spend years tracking them all down, and even then we’re likely to miss a few until their galactic apocalypse comes to pass.”
“Why are they so fixated on your children?” Hanq asked.
“They know we spoke to Kai back before she was born,” Mel said. “That’s right in line with part of the vision they receive, hence she’s a high priority target for them.”
“They don’t know exactly who will cause the calamity that they’ve foreseen to come about so they don’t take any chances,” Darius said. “Any viable candidates they can find are eliminated.”
“We’re especially likely to be the targets they’re looking for thanks to some work that Yael and Zyla did,” Mel said.
“I thought that was supposed to be temporary!” Hanq said.
“It was,” Mel said. “I asked them to leave the changes they made in place though.”
“Why would you do that?” Hanq asked.
“Because every thread of fate that leads to Galen and Kai is a thread that doesn’t lead to another expectant mother,” Mel said. “And all of the threads run to me before they go to either of the twins. If these idiots want my kids they are literally going to have to come through me first.”
“And that’s why we want to move back in here,” Darius said.
“Move back in here? I thought you’d found a safer place to live?” Hanq said.
“They did,” Fari said. “Here. With us.”
“This ship isn’t a safe place,” Hanq said.
Mel took Hanq’s hands in her own and looked her old teacher in the eyes.
“Nowhere is safe,” she said. “I could cut all of the lines of fate that surround us and we could go live on the most remote planet in the galaxy and we’d still never be safe. But that’s ok, that’s not what life is.”
“This is a far cry from the most isolated planet in the galaxy,” Hanq said. “We fly into the danger that other people run away from.”
“Because we know that we can fly out again,” Mel said. “We’re not martyrs Hanq. We help people because we can, and we can because we work together. As good or better than anyone else in the galaxy. I’m not coming here because I want you to run away with us and keep us safe. I’m here because I’m going to take the fight to this cult and all of the other ones out there that I can find and there’s no one I’d rather have at my side while I do that than you and the people on this ship.”
“So you’re not just coming back as passengers then?” Hanq asked. “You’re here in your official capacity as a Crystal Guardian?”
“Yes, and no,” Mel said. “Yes, I am still a Crystal Guardian, with all of the responsibilities that comes with the position. But I could give that up.”
“There’s a general clause for any Crystal Guardian who needs to go on inactive duty to raise a family or for medical leave,” Darius said.
“I’m not here as a Crystal Guardian though,” Mel said. “I’m not making this as a formal request because this isn’t an Imperial matter. This is you and me.”
“Then I should probably say no,” Hanq said. “I grew up in this world Mel. It made me someone I spent years learning not to be before I met you.”
“That’s why I’m asking this of you,” she said.
“You don’t get it,” he said. “The twenty year old me? The guy I was then? I wasn’t a Warlord because I was nice, or because I was wise, or because I was strong. You don’t get to be that kind of person without being mean, and vicious and more broken in the head than anyone should ever be. I got lucky I got beat when I did. And how I did. Even with the stars aligning just perfectly, it still took years before I was able to pull things together and look myself in the mirror again.”
“But you did,” Mel said. “You’ve made that journey, you’ve paid that price. Do you think you shouldn’t be around kids? Do you think the environment you’ve created here isn’t the right place for them?”
“Of course it isn’t,” Hanq said. “Those two little ones shouldn’t be raised on a warship, surrounded by catastrophes and violence and fear. They should be raised somewhere quiet and peaceful and happy. Somewhere with open skies and a good environment. Somewhere with good people around.”
“Do you hear how often your crew laughs?” Darius asked. “I’m not talking nervous laughter or gallows humor. I heard plenty of that on Hellsreach. I’m talking about the real, happy to be alive, happy to be here doing what they’re doing sort of laughter. The Horizon Breaker may not be quiet or peaceful, but you’ve made this ship a happy place when things are under control.”
“And how often do we have things under control?” Hanq asked. “We move from problem to problem. That’s our job.”
“And we’re good at it sir,” Fari said. “I could pretend to be modest here, but the reality is we get sent in to do deal with problems other people can’t because we’ve proven we’re capable of doing so. Some of that comes from the Imperial grade equipment we have, some of that comes from the unusual skill sets the crew possesses but by my analysis most of the reason we do so well is that everyone works together as a team. I’m not saying we don’t get into hairy situations, but a lot of the time we keep our strengths hidden and let things look worse than they really are so that we can get to the source of the problem we’re facing rather than just dealing with a symptom of it.”
“You know the reason we work so well together is that I recruited most of this crew from my old band of retainers, right?” Hanq asked. “Are those really the sort of people you want to raise your children around?”
“Yes,” Mel said. “I want Kai and Galen to grow up around people whose focus in life is helping others. People who are brave, and giving and maybe not entirely slaves to following the rules. You might have recruited a crew of scallywags Captain Okoro, but they’re my kind of scallywags.”
“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into here,” Hanq said. “Kids raised by a crew that’s just short of being pirates are going to turn out to be a terror.”
“I’m counting on it,” Mel said. “It’s how I was brought up after all, and I think the guy who raised me did a pretty amazing job of it.”