Episode 11: The fleet marshal sends his thanks

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On Kestris, Renic has a few more tasks to carry out under the guise of being a 5E agent like Samantha. He gave her a chance to think about his offer, knowing that if he came on too strong it would push her away. She isn't convinced yet, but she will be, especially after she sees what Renic is helping orchestrate. Fleet Marshal Gallow's plan is coming together perfectly, there are just a few more things Renic has to take care of.

Renic walked down the steps of the 5E headquarters toward the private car that was waiting for him, one of many lined up end-to-end against the curb that circled the plaza. The sleek, luxury vehicle glistened in the midday sun, it’s one-way windows and surface the same depthless black. It was neither a government car nor a public autocab. Renic had procured the vehicle specifically for this one-time use. He’d finished with the day’s necessary appearances and meetings under the guise of being a loyal 5E agent, but this final, unofficial meeting was one that, once concluded, would be like it never happened to begin with.

He arrived at the car and pulled a small handheld datapad out of his pocket, tapping a button on its screen to open the door; no government-issued comm for this. The door slid open, Renic paused and let the sun warm his face. It was a beautiful day here on the empire’s homeworld, and also one of the last days it would be called an empire at all. He watched the people go about their days here in the capital—the business people buying their politicians, the politicians accepting their bribes, and the government employees ensuring that the systems allowing this ran without interruption. The spirit of Kestris itself would endure, yes. But these who have mismanaged their charge? They’d had their moment.

Renic entered the car and initiated its route on the datapad, a winding path that would take him from the city’s center into the congested outer rings with their towering skyscrapers. The people of Kestris were fortunate to live here. All of them enjoyed a standard of living that billions of people across the sector would never experience, even though the billions were the ones paying for it. It was a rich society on Kestris, yes, but weak. Those at the top needed to be replaced, and when a new, competent government stepped in to take the place of the current corrupt leaders, how could the people be anything but grateful?

The explosive climate in the Imperium was something that had come about despite the fleet marshal’s best efforts. Now, he would use the Red Kestrels to light a fuse that was destined to be lit. Best it be done with intentional control. That’s what Renic was for.

While the fleet marshal was an architect, Renic was entrusted to make certain that the spark found the fuse at the right time. Reed Casto had made good on his end and provided the Red Kestrel confederates, some of whom were already living on the planet in secret. None of these Kestrels knew who they were really working for, of course. Renic had made sure that everything appeared to come down from Casto. 

It was imperative that everyone believe the picture the fleet marshal was painting. The Imperium was under attack, and only he could defend it. The High Imperius had allowed the empire to reach this fragile state, a state which could not be allowed to continue. Once the Red Kestrels played their part, the people would certainly believe that. 

Striking a blow in the heart of the Imperium was unthinkable. If groups like the Red Kestrels moved from being a distant annoyance out in the Fringe to a threat right in front of their faces, the people would have no choice but to question, ‘how could those who were supposed to protect us allow this to happen?’ 

Yes, the people would believe it, but there was one specific person he needed to believe it more. Samantha was like him, a person who held powerful beliefs and would let nothing stop her from defending them. 5E’s days were numbered. Renic had already seen Defense Minister Archer’s secret plans for dismantling the agency and splitting all of its funding and resources between OS-9 and the fleet marshal’s new Naval Special Investigation Division. As soon as Samantha saw what the Red Kestrels would do—what the agency would have allowed to happen, how the entire system she was loyal to had failed—she would have nowhere to turn but to Renic. And he would be there, ready and willing to accept her talents into his new command structure. The Kestrels would be hers to eliminate, and she would never need to know that it was Renic who had set it all up for her.

Having Samantha back in his life, however, was not entirely incidental. One thing at a time, though. She had agreed to meet with him once the Terminus had arrived. By then, Renic would have all the persuasive leverage he needed.

The car slowed and moved toward the side of the street, pulling toward a pair of strolling men who seemed to be minding their own business. Renic straightened his posture as the vehicle came to a stop on the street’s shoulder, not far from the oncoming pedestrians. He watched them through the black, one-way glass. Just as the pair were about to pass the car, they abruptly turned and approached. Renic pressed a button on the control panel and the door slid open. His guests ducked inside and took their places in the rear-facing seats across from him.

Renic said nothing as the door closed, and the car pulled back into traffic. Both men wore nondescript clothing, plain suit jackets over business-casual attire. The first man, Hannen, was lean with sharp features, his expression calm and neutral. The other, Ludo, was shorter and well-built, and had an aggressive enthusiasm he could barely contain. The recruitment process for selecting the liaisons between Renic and the Red Kestrels in the capital had been elaborate. These two were the only Kestrels that knew where their orders actually came from. Both men watched Renic eagerly.

“Everything as I specified?” Renic said, his tone making it clear there was only one answer he was willing to accept. 

Hannen countered this with a nod. “Yes. All required staff members are replaced by our people and we have confirmed access to all necessary systems. We will have no trouble getting through checkpoints. Weapons and explosives have been delivered and are in position.”

Ludo leaned forward, a hungry gleam in his eye. “The whole place is ours. Security rotations have been altered, automated systems set to malfunction. Everyone knows how to make it look.”

Renic nodded, suppressing a grin of satisfaction. “Did you encounter anyone resistant to the mission? Anyone I should know about who seemed to lack the appropriate commitment?”

He couldn’t interact with the Red Kestrel foot-soldiers directly, but he had to make sure that the average member of Reed Casto’s group believed this was their boss’s master stroke. Another seemingly impossible follow-up to the hijacking of the Dauntless, a feat they could presume was made possible by their leader’s sudden surge of tactical genius. It made severing this final link that much easier.

The two men looked at each other briefly. Renic raised his chin to signal that he had no patience for deliberation. Hannen took notice and answered, “There were a few that questioned the plan. Some we were able to persuade once the greater purpose was made clear. The ones who didn’t, well…”

Ludo smirked. “Nothing points back to you. They all believe this is the result of Reed’s own plan, his big show of power,” he said, the corner of his mouth bent into an impish grin. “And anyone that looked like they’d be a problem, we made sure they won’t be.”

Renic nodded slowly and leaned forward, looking each man in the eye. “Some resistance was to be expected. We appreciate the sacrifices made in order to further the great cause. Though your contributions can never be publicly acknowledged, know that the fleet marshal sends his thanks,” Renic said, selling the lie with practiced ease. The fleet marshal was not interested in the details of Renic’s work and had rarely asked about the unsavory deeds required. He told Renic what was needed, and Renic would accomplish the objective. The fleet marshal had yet to be disappointed.

Renic extended a gloved hand. Hannen and Ludo looked to each other, pride glowing on their faces. Ludo reached out first and gave Renic’s hand a firm shake. Renic took a slow breath, and, without warning, yanked Ludo forward while his other hand drew a small rail-pistol from a holster just inside the flap of his jacket. He brought the weapon up and fired it against Ludo’s forehead, the low-powered projectile making nothing more than a subtle popping sound as it penetrated Ludo’s skull. Without releasing the collapsing man’s hand, Renic shifted his arm to the side and aimed the weapon at Hannen, firing again and placing another shot directly in the center of the man’s forehead. Hannen slumped back, bleeding from the small, open circle between his eyebrows, same calm expression still on his face; he’d never had a chance to comprehend what was happening.

Renic released Ludo’s hand and sighed at the two bodies slumped in their seats across from him. It was unfortunate these two had to die. They had carried out their tasks without complaint or mistake. Reed Casto should be proud of the commitment he’d engendered in his people. Even still, the risk of discovery was too great. These two were the only link on Kestris between him and the Red Kestrels. Once the fleet marshal took control of the empire, and replaced it, none of these crimes would matter. But until then, the fleet marshal must remain blameless.

The car arrived at its predetermined destination and pulled over, parking behind one of identical make that had been waiting since before he’d left the capitol complex. Renic tossed the rail-pistol to the floor, then pulled out another device from his front jacket pocket, a handheld incendiary charge. The charge was military-grade, used against armored assault vehicles and ground-based artillery. He’d linked the charge’s arming sequence to the instruction script he’d given the car. Now, the vehicle would continue on its route until it reached the remote, empty warehouse outside the city where it would pull inside and shut down, activating the charge, which would incinerate the vehicle and everything inside beyond recognition; there would be nothing left for the police to investigate other than a glowing puddle of melted slag sunken into the warehouse floor. That is, if he hadn’t already made sure the police would be motivated to consider this nothing more than a tragic vehicle malfunction. Either way, the trail dead-ended here.

Renic placed the incendiary charge on the floor next to the rail-pistol and exited the car. The door slid closed and the vehicle casually pulled away, resuming its route as it carried its lifeless passengers toward their final destination. Renic looked to the sky, letting the sun warm his face as he walked to the other car. It was a beautiful day. The people of Kestris truly were fortunate to live here. It was a shame none of them would be able to appreciate how the fleet marshal was ensuring that their society remained strong and allowed their standard of living to endure, empire or not.

No matter; they weren’t doing this for the adulation. Everyone would play their part. Renic would carry out his tasks as required, Defense Minister Archer would be the face of the new republic, Reed Casto and his Kestrels would give the people something to fear, and standing behind them all was Gallow, executing his plan to perfection. When it was all over, historians would look back at the coming week as the painful, but successful, birth of a new and prosperous era. Today’s sins, like all the rest that were required, would be burned away and forgotten in the fires of victory.

Renic entered the second car and relaxed into the seat, inputting his destination; back to Navy command headquarters at the capitol complex. He had a report to deliver and wanted to use his new office to do so.

The elevator doors opened and revealed the dark, furnished-but-unoccupied office floor that would be the new home to the Naval Special Investigation Division. Located several levels beneath the ground floor of the navy’s central command building on the capitol compound, very few outside of the fleet marshal and defense minister’s inner circles knew the new space’s purpose. The government workers who had renovated the space were not told who the new occupants would be, only that it was an organization with enhanced security clearance. The offices and floor space had been set up and now waited for their purpose to be revealed.

Renic strode onto the floor, rows of desks stretching before him, closed doors of offices lining the outer walls. Soon the floor would be populated with all manner of new personnel, the first class to enter this new division and be a part of the navy’s forthcoming era of power and control. But not today. Today, it was just Renic.

He crossed the dimly lit room and approached the frosted glass front of his expansive new office. The doors sensed his approach and opened, silently gliding aside to reveal his new sanctum. A long, curved desk faced the doors, its black-glass top ringed with dark wood accents, a high-backed chair centered directly beneath it. Renic took a moment to envision the triumphs he would experience from that seat once he was officially allowed to sit in it. No office in the entire 5E headquarters was as nice as this. Not that anyone in the agency would deserve it if there were.

Keeping the lighting turned low—it felt presumptuous to illuminate this place before its official unveiling—he turned and sealed the doors behind him, inputting a protocol that only the fleet marshal could override. After all, it was the fleet marshal who had created the protocol just for conversations such as the one starting in mere minutes. Should anyone unauthorized try to access the office while Renic was delivering his report, the system would cease all transmissions and lock down the entire floor. This was a conversation for the fleet marshal alone, delivered from this office through a private intra-jump transmitter connected directly to the Terminus.

Renic walked to a wardrobe built into the wall on the far side of the office, opened it and stood in front of the mirror affixed to the inside of the door. He smoothed his jacket, tugging at any areas that were slightly rumpled or uneven. Any specks of lint or debris were picked off and disposed of. The jacket had been his informal uniform as a civilian employee at 5E. Now, hanging in the wardrobe was an unworn, perfectly tailored, blue naval uniform that matched what the fleet marshal and his honor guard wore, waiting for the day when he would be able to wear it in public as a commander in the Naval Special Investigation Division. That was the first transition. There was a second to follow immediately after.

He touched the sleeve and felt the fabric between his fingertips. Its utility would be short-lived, just a bridge between the life he had now and the one awaiting him on the other side of the Imperium’s demise. For that, there was a second uniform hidden in his private residence. Not blue, but gray and lacking any of the expiring empire’s ridiculous heraldry. It was the uniform of a republic, one that could only be revealed once the fleet marshal’s ultimate plan was realized. While he may only wear the colors of the Imperium Navy for a week, he expected to serve the imminent New Kestris Republic for a lifetime.

Satisfied with his appearance, Renic turned to face the communication panel in the wall behind his desk. The computer had a perfectly capable conferencing system, but sitting would weaken his posture and wrinkle his jacket. He must appear unblemished to the fleet marshal; there could be no doubt of Renic’s attention to detail, nothing other than ruthless, calculating confidence. A few brave people had commented behind Renic’s back that he had modeled his own appearance after the fleet marshal. They presumed he would take offense, but he considered the comparison a compliment. Though nearly twenty years the fleet marshal’s junior, and not nearly as muscular, Renic did admit he bore a passing resemblance. Soon, he would be granted enough rank and privilege that none would question his choice of role-model, behind his back or not.

He glanced at his comm; it was time. Renic squared his shoulders and faced the communication panel as the viewscreen on the wall came to life, the Imperium symbol of the eleven-pointed star appearing on the screen as the system went through its confirmation routine. Renic quickly gave his uniform one last look, adjusting anything that looked the slightest bit asymmetrical. He ran a hand over his slicked black hair, took a deep breath to puff out his chest, and stood motionless while waiting for the link to establish. He forced his anxiety aside. There was nothing to be worried about; he’d performed his tasks exactly as asked.

The system beeped and Fleet Marshal Beckman Gallow appeared on the screen. He was in a darkened room; Renic could not tell where he was connecting from. His face was harshly lit from above, ominous shadows carving his face into chiseled creases, hiding his eyes beneath the shade of a powerful brow. His hair was parted from the side and combed neatly into place, a black widow’s-peak at the center of his hairline. He wore his navy uniform, featureless and devoid of any badges or rank insignia, its blue fabric vibrant against his warm, sandy-beige skin.

“Tau. Report.”

The serrated edges of Gallow’s baritone cut through the air, his square chin and jaw barely moving in the shadows. There was no greeting, no preamble. Even though Renic had known the fleet marshal was about to speak, he was still caught off guard. It was a voice that he felt more than heard. The fact that it was being transmitted light-years through the jump dimension did nothing to diminish its resonance.

Renic cleared his throat to stall for a fraction of a second. An embarrassing tactic, but less embarrassing than stammering. 

“Yes, sir. I personally conferred with our collaborators and guaranteed that every step has been taken to ensure our success. All required assets are in place and system tests have indicated we have complete access.” Renic lowered his eyes. “I foresee magnificent things on the horizon, Fleet Marshal. We cannot fail.”

Gallow’s hands came together on the desk in front of him. Even while sitting, the fleet marshal’s posture was rigid and unbending. Powerful shoulders stretched edge-to-edge across the screen, the unadorned, blue uniform taut against his upper-body.

“I trust you have the resources you need for the next phase?” Gallow said.

“Yes, sir.” His mind flashed to Samantha, the single missing element of his personal plan. She could be a significant asset, but the fleet marshal had said need, not want. While Renic would prefer her partnership, he would continue forward regardless. “The division headquarters are operationally capable and ready to accept incoming personnel. Uniforms, equipment, security. We only require your order.”

Gallow’s head tilted slightly. “Good. Both OS-9 and your agency are going to be on high alert, scrutinizing every interaction and exchange.” Gallow paused. “Be prepared to counteract their efforts.”

“Understood, sir. I serve you and the republic you will bring. I am humbled and honored to be a small part of your grand design.” Renic bowed his head, then raised his gaze and stood at perfect attention. 

The sharp shadows across the fleet marshal’s cheeks bent slightly in what Renic could only presume was a smile. “Indeed. You have done well so far. I expect great things from you, Commander Tau.”

Renic’s shoulders pulled back, the rush from the approval burning in his veins as he resisted a telling bob of the throat. He knew the fleet marshal’s statement was both a compliment and a threat, but he chose to interpret it as the former. Expectations would be met—no, exceeded. Only death could cause Renic to fail.

“Thank you, sir. It is my privilege.”

Gallow sat forward, his face coming into view. His eyes shifted to something that seemed to be off camera, as if he were making eye-contact. Renic’s rush turned cold and his jaw tightened imperceptibly. Was someone else with the fleet marshal, listening to their conversation? Renic’s throat tightened. The fleet marshal could have anyone present he wished, there was nothing Renic could do about that. The power differential between the two men was too vast to measure. While the thought that someone was listening-in shook Renic’s confidence, the knowledge that the fleet marshal would know this and intentionally allow Renic to notice shook it further. He must want to see how Renic would react. Anyone who spent significant time with the fleet marshal reported the same feeling, like they had done something wrong but didn’t remember what, yet somehow Gallow did.

Renic held his gaze firm, giving no reaction whatsoever. Instead, he envisioned his forthcoming promotion and his elevated position within the fleet marshal’s plans. If there was someone eavesdropping, he’d show them that the fleet marshal had made an impeccable choice in who he relied on for his most sensitive and important tasks.

The fleet marshal’s focus returned to the camera, his face retreating back into shadow. “There is another matter. When you visited Mr. Casto on Dradari, was there anything you inferred about his long-term allegiance to our agreement, or any other information that may be of value to discuss. Without any written reports, it is difficult to keep track of what you have shared with me and what you have not.”

Renic’s thoughts locked up. Dradari? What compelled Gallow to inquire about Dradari now, as an afterthought? Did he know something? Was this the thing that Renic had done wrong in the fleet marshal’s eyes? Was that why he had looked to whoever was with him? 

Renic’s mind raced over what Reed had said, searching for anything that the fleet marshal might want to hear. Nothing was coming to mind; he’d told Gallow everything of relevance. Except for the 5E agent who had raided the Kestrel hideout on Senali. Samantha. 

Is that what Gallow was testing him about? The fleet marshal would have access to mission records and files even Renic couldn’t get his hands on. If he’d wanted to know about every detail of 5E missions, all he had to do was look. It didn’t matter now, though. Renic had already neglected to include that detail the first time he’d reported on his visit to Dradari. Remaining consistent could be what he was being tested on.

“No, sir. I did not sense any indicators that would make me doubt Casto.” Renic affected a wry grin. “In fact, he was quite enamored with the gift of the Dauntless. I believe the desire to fund his organization, due to your generosity, supersedes any impulses to betray you. Casto knows who will be left to judge him once the Imperium is gone.”

The fleet marshal was unmoving. For a moment, Renic wondered if there was a problem with the video feed. Finally, Gallow spoke.

“Very well. Maintain your vigilance. ‘Thank the Creator.’”

Renic’s neck twitched at the surprising mention of the banned religion’s deity. The fleet marshal had never shown any indication of his adherence to the ancient faith before. Was this another test? A preview of what he would bring back as a part of his new republic? Renic could either return the invocation and be guilty of professing faith, or dodge giving a response and appear to be less-than-fully committed. Ultimately, though, it wouldn’t matter how he answered. He also knew that Gallow enjoyed seeing people react to no-win situations. Renic would give him a response straight down the middle.

“Yes, fleet marshal. Give thanks.”

The screen went dark. Renic’s shoulders slumped. He exhaled deeply and closed his eyes for a moment, the slips of his reactions burning in his mind. Gallow respected action and results, minor errors in decorum would not be penalized. Renic knew this, but it didn’t stop him from feeling imperfect in front of the fleet marshal. Next time, his answers must be quicker, more concise, more powerful.

His mind had been elsewhere, a sliver of his thoughts still preoccupied with the promise Samantha had made to meet him for the Terminus’s arrival.

Renic had respected her request; he hoped she did not make him regret it.