Episode 12: A merciless, infinite pull

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Gallow has just received his final update of the day from one of his covert plants within the Imperium government, Agent Renic Tau. Aboard the Terminus far out in the sector, it is time for him to take a moment and reflect on what he must do.

The screen on Gallow’s communication display went dark, the last reports of the day delivered, none of which were on any official navy calendar. He had spent the last two hours alone in his office, receiving updates from around the sector, most of them brief, from loyal generals, leveraged politicians, purchased industry leaders, and an array of skilled individuals in critical roles throughout the Imperium’s government and military. Each had explicit instructions to follow, regardless of what they would witness in the coming days. Those who fulfilled their role would be rewarded; those who did not—their fate would be left to the Creator. Gallow was merely the extension of its will.

“Lights, full.”

The lights in Gallow’s private office aboard the Terminus came to life just as the harsh, directional light above his desk went dark. He relaxed his posture, letting himself rest against the seat-back for a moment. Agent Tau’s report had been the last of his appointments, his role being one of the most critical, a fulcrum upon which the larger victory balanced. His dedication was impressive, though his desperation to impress was a personal weakness Gallow did not believe Renic recognized. While the generals and politicians had all been promised substantial increases in their standing within the new republic, Renic had seemed merely interested in receiving Gallow’s approval. When his dependency on recognition became clear, Gallow found he could easily ask him to carry out tasks beyond those of any other mere errand-runner.

In a way, Gallow was reminded of himself in decades past. Though he had been a soldier, not a spy, the two men shared the same drive to succeed, the same ruthless commitment, the same willingness to see a greater purpose beyond what others strove for. Though, they did differ in one key aspect. Where Renic sought to receive the approval of an authority figure, Gallow only desired the approval of the figure he had lost. The fact that Renic was now nearly the same age as he would have been, had he survived…

Gallow stood, his chair pushed abruptly backward as he forced the useless comparison from his mind. Renic was no surrogate. Nothing was. The life Gallow had lost was gone and there was only one way to absolve himself of the guilt he carried, to finally succeed where he had failed twenty years ago. Renic was a weapon to be wielded, nothing more. 

The same was to be said about Reed Casto, hiding out a sector away amongst his loyal Kestrel followers. To Gallow, he was still Sergeant Casto, a subordinate to be ordered. Reed may hate Gallow, their bitter feud going back over two decades, but Gallow knew that he loved the idea of his little group finally getting revenge against the Imperium. Casto was just another person driven more by obsession than logic, playing his part perfectly in Gallow’s plan. 

No, not Gallow’s plan; the Creator’s plan. The strategy, the details, the decisions, yes, those were Gallow’s making. But the purpose, the true cause, that came from beyond. Agent Tau, Reed Casto, everyone Gallow had persuaded to serve whether they knew it or not—even Gallow himself—they were all just tools. When he’d been called upon to follow the will and correct the Imperium’s path, he had no choice but to obey.

Gallow reached down and pressed one of the illuminated virtual buttons on the glass surface of his desk. The image of one of his personal attendants floated in the holographic display.

“Fleet Marshal, how may I assist you?” said Captain Alaudae, one of Gallow’s most senior honor guard. 

“Schedule a meeting with the defense minister for one hour from now. When the time arrives, you will attend and inform her I was delayed, but that I will be available shortly and that she is to wait. I will join one hour late.”

Alaudae nodded. “Yes, sir. Do you require anything in the interim?”

Gallow exhaled. He did, but nothing the captain could help with. “No. I have matters to attend to without interruption. See that my floor is restricted to honor-guard only for the duration.”

“Of course, sir.”

Gallow tapped the surface of the desk, and the hologram vanished. Alaudae would carry out the request to delay the defense minister without question. Those who served on Gallow’s executive staff endured rigorous ideological screening—and conditioning—on a regular basis. Anyone on his staff would cut the throat of their comrade if asked. But Gallow’s personal honor guard? They’d cut their own.

Gallow crossed his expansive office, removing his plain, unadorned navy uniform jacket as he walked to his adjoining living quarters. Two hours, that is all he had. A longer session would have been preferable, but he must stay ahead of the impending situation. There was still time to abort the lighting of this fuse, if necessary. The sacrifice of the Dauntless had been classified as a military loss—regrettable, but still part of the tacit agreement those who served the Imperium had made to protect it at all costs, even from itself. The next sacrifice was different. Innocents would die. If the will of the Creator still demanded these lives, Gallow must be certain.

“Lights, ten percent. Initiate Omega Protocol.”

The lights in his residence faded to near darkness. There were no overrides to the Omega Protocol apart from a command from his own mouth. Short of a breach that ripped through the armored hull of the Terminus, Gallow was sealed inside his personal residence, all communication to the outside world severed. By conventional means, at least.

Alone and secure, Gallow stripped off his uniform and lay it on the bed, wearing only his standard-issue undershorts and shirt. He was not Fleet Marshal Gallow in this moment, only Beckman, a name that had not been used in his presence for longer than he could remember. There was no one on such familiar terms left.

The Fleet Marshal was an image he had cultivated; a specter; an unstoppable, inhuman entity to be feared. Most knew him as the reclusive, uncompromising figure who had led the Imperium to victory some seventeen years ago in a seemingly unwinnable war; or the terse figure who had led the conquests as the empire consumed what would become the unified eleven systems; or the young soldier from the Fringe who had joined the Imperium navy some thirty years ago and rose to attain the highest rank ever appointed—proof that those in the Fringe could be tamed, controlled. How wrong they were.

Gallow was known to the public as the unflinching face in the background of vidscreen speeches delivered by the High Imperius, the defense minister, and the coterie of military leaders and politicians he owned. All of these speeches only carried weight because of the power that Gallow lent to the speakers. Everyone in the Imperium knew that. The newsvid pundits and tabloids always second-guessed the officials and asked what the silent Fleet Marshal’s influence was, accusing the High Imperius of allowing Gallow to control more politics than any military leader should. But Gallow was not a mere military leader. He was a force of nature, boundless, like a neutron star whose gravity consumes everything around it in a merciless, infinite pull. If that is what the Creator desired, neither Gallow nor the star were responsible for the consequences of its will.

However, Beckman Gallow, the aging man standing unclothed in the middle of the dark room, had once been a father, still subject to the consequences of the Creator’s plan like anyone else. Even a neutron star must obey the natural laws of the universe, those of life and death.

Gallow approached a blank space of wall in his bedroom and spoke a phrase in one of the many dead languages from humanity’s ancestral homeworld. It was the language of the Creator, ancient and forgotten to all but the most dedicated. A pair of faintly illuminated white circles appeared on the wall, chest-high and shoulder-width apart. Gallow placed his palms against them, closing his eyes and breathing in slow, rhythmic breaths, initiating the rite that unlocked the chamber behind the wall. He let his thoughts come and go, making no effort to resist where his mind wandered. The meditative state surrounded him like a mist, blending thought and feeling into a featureless blur.

Dedicated faith was required for entrance to the chamber. The system was programmed to respond to Gallow’s unique biometric signature once he had entered the appropriate meditative state. Anyone trying to enter not in that state, including Gallow himself, would trigger a security measure that would incinerate everything on the other side of the wall. Better to lose it than have it fall into the wrong hands.

Gallow descended into the fog, his neurological impulses flowing into a specific, trained pattern. He let the state take over, surrendering to the lack of control. The sensors built into the wall registered his brain activity and allowed his passage. Where once had been a featureless bedroom wall was now the thin, rectangular outline of a door. Gallow removed his hands from the wall as the section of wall recessed inward and slid to the side.

Still in the meditative state, Gallow stepped forward through the opening. As soon as his body cleared the threshold, the door slid closed behind him, creating the featureless wall once again. The chamber was not included on any schematic of the Terminus. He had built it himself in total secrecy, using his access to classified and highly advanced Imperium technology.

The chamber was small, barely large enough for Gallow to lay on the floor if he chose, the walls nothing but smooth metal surfaces; a single, candle-strength light in the ceiling was the only source of illumination. On the floor was a simple woven rug. He seated himself cross-legged on it and reached into the small wooden chest just within arm’s reach. He took three slow breaths to cleanse his spirit, then silently opened the chest and removed the three items it held: a round, hand-carved wooden container that fit in his palm; a child’s worn stuffed bear; and a standard-issue military dagger wrapped in a length of silk. Each item was laid on the floor in front of his knees. He picked up the container and twisted it open to reveal its contents, a powder made from a fungus that had grown on humanity’s ruined, forgotten homeworld.

Gallow scooped a small heap of the substance onto his finger. There was no use in trying to access the Creator unassisted. Ingesting the powder allowed the mind to untether itself from the mortal constraints of thought. Those without faith insisted that any spiritual experience were just drug-induced hallucinations caused by the fungus. They were wrong. The powder removed the veil that blocked access to the Creator’s will. Under its effects, Gallow was the most rational he’d ever been.

He rubbed the powder across his upper gums, letting it dissolve into his system, then he set the container down and let his breathing become slow and even. The key was to surrender, something Gallow only did while in this chamber. 

The effects of the powder took hold, swallowing his consciousness. The universe shrunk down to the size of the chamber, taking away the rest of reality. The bare metal walls disappeared, revealing a black void reaching into infinity. Gallow was no longer on the Terminus. He was no longer anywhere; he was everywhere. The Creator had transported him to a private universe, all of existence merely an arm’s reach away.

Warmth flowed down from the infinity above, wrapping him in the sensation. He had been here before, a pocket-universe made only for this purpose. It was a part of the bargain the Creator had offered in exchange for his obedience and sacrifice. Gallow had given much—and would continue to do so—in thanks for the gift. Science and engineering had allowed humanity to jump through space across distances that ancient humans believed impossible, but no technology could compare to what the Creator could grant. Mastery over space and time were irrelevant when one was merged with space and time itself.

Gallow opened his eyes, golden light filling his vision. The chamber had vanished, and he was alone in an endless glow with nothing but the objects on the mat in front of him. Sensations swirled in his mind, no language adequate enough to express what he felt. He extended his hand, placing it over top of the stuffed bear. He touched his fingers to the toy’s worn, synthetic fur. It was still soft, still felt warm; the decades it had spent inside the chest not diminishing its power.

The question Gallow asked each time he entered the chamber floated to the top of his mind. It was not a question of words, but a feeling, a willingness to be open to an answer. To a revelation. The task that lay before him was violent. Bloody and unforgivable. A sin he did not wish to commit, but one he would if it paid his debt to the Creator and undid the failure that had resulted in the loss of everything he had loved.

The heat from the stuffed bear grew in intensity. Gallow lowered his hand, letting his memory absorb the feeling of his fingertips on this most precious of objects. Warmth spread from his hand, up into his arm, across his chest and through his body, drenching him in calm reassurance. It was the silent approval from the Creator filling his being, it could be nothing else. The light from the infinite horizon intensified. He was in the center of a star, and in every direction was its burning fury. All barriers were down. He was to receive his gift, the one that had been revealed to him at the start of this journey. On the precipice of victory, it was now closer than ever.

A figure appeared in the distance, a black silhouette against the glowing, golden nothingness. There was no depth to the infinite horizon, but none was needed to recognize who had appeared. Light surrounded the figure in a shimmering haze, making any detail difficult to make out. But Gallow knew the small round head on top of the skinny neck, spindly arms hanging loosely from rounded shoulders, all kept upright by wiry legs.

Gallow’s mouth opened to speak but emitted no sound. The figure did not react, remaining motionless in the distance. He had never spoken to Gallow during any of the other visits; he only stood there, out of reach. Nothing. His son would say nothing. No matter how many times Gallow came here, this was as far as he could go. Whatever veil the Creator lifted to make this glimpse possible was never entirely removed. He could only wish that upon following through with the plan, the veil would be lifted completely. That, or he would die in the process and join his son that way. 

He let his hand rest on the stuffed bear, eyes focused on the figure in the distance. The answer was clear; the restoration would commence.

The door to the chamber slid closed and disappeared into the wall once again. Gallow’s eyes adjusted to the comparative brightness of his quarters. He looked to the display panel near his bed. He’d been in the chamber for nearly two hours; just right. Defense Minister Archer would be waiting for him.

She had no knowledge of the chamber, or what he did in it. No one did. But, if she had, she would be wise to be grateful. No one knew the lengths he went to, what he sacrificed of himself, so they could benefit from the guidance of the Creator. They all looked to Gallow for their cues, but he looked above. And now, he had the divine confirmation he needed that the plan would move forward.

Moving to the bed, Gallow put on the blue, unadorned navy uniform and became the Fleet Marshal once again. The jacket felt rough against his skin. Whatever warmth he had felt in the chamber was gone along with any feeling of connectedness to something greater. After the powder’s effects wore off, the veil came back down, cutting the mind off from the natural birthplace of the spirit. The real world felt cold, a continual disappointment compared to what he experienced in that chamber.

A quick check in his bedroom mirror let Gallow arrange his appearance back into place, and he returned to his expansive office, settling into the seat behind the desk. He could see on his computer that there was an active transmission waiting.

“Cancel Omega Protocol. Desk light only. One hundred percent.”

The lights in the rest of the office went out, leaving Gallow harshly lit from the single overhead beam, his features carved in deep shadows. He rolled his neck and straightened his posture, setting his face into the stern expression he used when performing these interactions. And that’s what it was. He was the Fleet Marshal, and it was time to perform.

He pressed a finger against the illuminated interface. “Captain Alaudae, announce to the defense minister that I am ready to proceed.”

Alaudae’s voice came back over the intercom. “Yes, sir. One moment.”

Archer’s head and shoulders appeared in the hologram, seated in an Imperium-government high-backed chair, the embossed eleven-pointed star above her head. Natural light from a window hit her face from an angle.

“Defense Minister, I trust you are in a secure location?” Gallow said, knowing full well she was following his instructions for these undisclosed meetings just as everyone else.

Archer stifled a scoff. “Of course. And I trust you were able to take care of whatever it was that kept you delayed?” she said, allowing just a glimmer of her annoyance to show. She was dressed in the same style of formal business jacket she wore when appearing on the news vids, its charcoal color complementing the lavender button-down beneath. Her wavy hair hung neatly over her shoulders, a style copied by women across the Imperium who wished to emulate her casual appearance. She looked every part the humble public servant. Even her face seemed designed to tap into subconscious signals of trust and empathy with its tired eyes and placid smile that communicated ‘just how hard she was working for the people she served.’ It was one of the reasons Gallow had chosen her as the first president of his future republic, her facade was nearly as brilliantly manufactured as his.

Gallow felt the urge to grin, but held his expression rigid. “Indeed. Not long ago, I told you a time would arrive when you would be asked to play your part; that time is now. I am informing you that final preparations have been made. We stand at the precipice of a great restoration.”

Archer paused, taking a confident breath. “I understand. What is required of me?”

“All that is required of you is to wait and watch. I only give you this forewarning so you do not presume that events are outside of my control and act rashly,” Gallow said.

Archer gave him a joyless smile, looking away for a moment as she appeared to gather her thoughts. She appeared to pick her words carefully, speaking calmly. “Well then, aside from not acting rashly, I would appreciate more detail on what exactly I am watching for. If the people must see me react, I want to be certain to do so appropriately.”

Gallow touched his fingertips together, placing his hands on the desk. “You need not worry about your reaction. Simply react as you naturally would in your role as defense minister. Advanced knowledge may… dilute your response.”

Archer sighed and shook her head. “You underestimate my ability to stay on-message. I’ve maintained the public trust so far. I deserve to know what sacrifice I am making. Who I am sacrificing.”

Gallow felt an unexpected flare of anger at the word. His voice hardened, more than he would have liked. “Sacrifice? Erin, you know nothing of sacrifice. You are merely inconvenienced. Do not attempt to compare any hardship you endure to sacrifice. It is an affront to the Creator. You forget your role. Do not think you are indispensable. Your power is on loan,” he leaned forward, allowing his entire face to be illuminated, “from me.”

Archer blanched and cleared her throat, raising a placating hand. “Fleet Marshal, I do not mean to question your rationale or your sacrifice. I put my faith in you and your,” another throat clearing, “Creator.”

The last word fell awkwardly from her mouth, her streak of fear pleasing to Gallow’s ears. He returned to his normal, rumbling tone.

“Thank you, Defense Minister. All that is required of you is to stick to the narrative, the shock you feel at the deterioration of our government’s ability to protect its people.” Gallow allowed a sardonic smile to bend the shadows that lined his face. “Your shock will be genuine, that I promise.”

Archer squared her shoulders, nodding. “I am eager to move beyond the dark and necessary means.”

“A bloody means to a greater end,” Gallow said. Not so much to Archer, but to himself. “Defense Minister.”

“Fleet Marshal.”

Gallow shut down the link and Archer’s image disappeared, leaving Gallow alone in the dark once again. His limbs felt hollow, another aftereffect of the powder. He needed rest. But there was one more matter to attend first.

He opened a channel to the command bridge of the Terminus. “Helmsman Fortis, I am sending you a precise time that I wish the Terminus to arrive in orbit around Kestris. Please plot a jump that will accommodate that exact arrival.”

Gallow sent the time; two days from this moment.

“Received, Fleet Marshal. We will arrive down to the decimal,” Fortis returned.

Gallow closed the intercom channel and lounged back into his chair. Two days of rest before returning to Kestris, days that would eventually be known as the sunset of High Imperius Edwin Sevant’s rule. Not only his rule, but of the empire itself. 

Gallow went back into the darkened bedroom, his eyes lingering on the wall where the hidden chamber was. The meditative state could rest the mind, but his physical body still required sleep; a problem science had yet to solve. The days ahead would be taxing, there was no doubt of that. A few hours of healthy, natural sleep could be allowed.

Gallow removed the navy blue uniform once again. How many more days of relevance did it have left? A week? Less? It had been a good uniform, serving its purpose well, but it would soon be replaced by the new, gray one hanging in his wardrobe.

Sliding into the perfectly tucked sheets of his bed, Gallow stared at the ceiling. It was mid-afternoon according to the Terminus clock. Though, on the flagship it was never really night or day. Crews rotated in shifts like the hemispheres of a planet. Someone was always up and working. 

Fleetingly, Gallow considered ordering the time adjusted to midnight so this daytime reprieve would not be considered a nap. Even if intended as a jest, the moment he said the words, he knew the crew would adjust the ship’s central timepiece and midnight it would be. The first casualty of the Fleet Marshal facade was any perception that he had a sense of humor.

The perception that he had a sense of morality had been the next.