Episode 16: Justice by whatever means necessary

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Starview Station orbits Kestris as a wrecked, uninhabitable reminder of the threat the Imperium faces. Samantha and Decker have jumped away, on their four day transit to the Fringe planet of Mentaryd. Back on Kestris, the Imperium has prepared its response. Renic watches from the Imperial Grand Auditorium as the High Imperius, Edwin Sevant, gives his first public address about the incident.

“…these irrevocable and grave actions. We, the honorable and just people of this empire, have created an unprecedented span of peace and prosperity in the sector. But the selfish discontent of those who seek to exploit the chaos of the past threatens everything that has been built since I took this throne!”

The crowd of thousands in the cavernous Imperial Grand Auditorium erupted into another round of mixed reactions at the High Imperius’s statements. There were cheers of support and shouts of furious disappointment, the sentiment throughout the upper tiers of Kestris society already split between supporting and condemning the early response to the tragic and unexpected events on Starview Station.

From the back rows of the stadium seating, Renic, dressed in his freshly pressed navy commander’s uniform, lazily clapped his hands along with the rest of the attendees, maintaining the appearance of his unflagging support of the empire. His reaction, like the words being spoken by the High Imperius, were all for show. 

It had been two days since Starview Station had succumbed to the unlikely attack from what was being portrayed as a generic hostile political faction that was supposed to be contained to the Fringe. Just enough time to have the right message prepared and the right commentators persuaded to keep the death toll and property damage counts in everyone’s mind every hour of the day. The message was not that the Red Kestrels were an imminent threat, but that those who had been charged with preventing an event like this had let an upstart group of irritants like the Kestrels accomplish something so audacious.

The imperial public relations teams had made sure to seed the notion that this would be a pivotal, history-making speech and was not to be missed, and so the image of the High Imperius standing with representatives of the government and military seated in concentric semi-circles behind him would be broadcast to every corner of the sector. Every Imperium planet, every planet in the Fringe, every foreign system outside the sector would be watching.

Renic had hoped Samantha would be here, seated next to him, witnessing the opportunity unfold before her. The attack on Starview Station was supposed to be the final evidence Renic needed to prove to her that her talents were wasted in 5E, and that his new organization would give her the freedom and purpose she needed. But she hadn’t shown, and Renic was forced to don his new commander’s uniform and attend alone. 

“…to preserve the fate of the Imperium during this turbulence, and to prevent further disruption…”

High Imperius Edwin Sevent stood before his people on the enormous stage, dressed in his formal costume—stark white, flowing robe with golden embroidery and a high collar jutting upwards behind his head; gold rings on his fingers; and a broad, segmented belt stretched across his rotund midsection. For this address, he had chosen to wear the simple coronet he had worn when first taking the throne rather than the modern, eleven-pointed crown that represented the unified systems of the empire. A gesture meant to distract from the fact that the rest of the outfit cost more than most of the empire’s citizens would earn in a lifetime. 

Seated in the specially reserved box-seats in the first row of the audience was the Council of Hundred, the ten groups of ten legislative representatives from the other systems that made up the empire’s commonwealth. Kestris might be the center of the Imperium, but it was these other ten systems that comprised most of its population. Making sure they felt sufficient levels of fear for their own security was the intent of the address.

The Grand Auditorium was on the capitol’s compound and was filled to maximum capacity. Anyone who had enough political or economic pull was present, and crowds of people were gathered outside, filling the streets, watching the address on enormous vidscreens that had been set up the day prior. Some showed their support, others protested from barrier-enforced zones, shouting their dissent and conspiracy theories. Renic had heard some of them, a few of which were impressively close. Traitors within the government? Absurd. Those had been the ones most patronizingly dismissed by the throne’s public relations team. The theory that the High Imperius was an artificial cybernetic replacement was being given more credibility than that.

“…what others see as weakness, we see as benevolence. What others see as ignorance, we see as an opportunity to teach. And teach we shall…”

Renic’s seat from high up in the back of the auditorium gave him an expansive view. Row after row of seats radiated out from the stage, forming semicircles that rose with the bowl-shaped auditorium. Attendants sat with their eyes forward on the man standing at the ornate white and gold podium, his dozens of ceremonial, halberd-baring Imperial Guard standing at attention in their gaudy uniforms around the outer-edge of the stage.

Renic took note of the crowd, how they reacted, how effective the plot to rile up and divide them had been. The speech was full of admonishments and emotions, lacking any real content. Scriptwriters were responsible for preparing these speeches. Renic suspected that the High Imperius did not even read the speeches in advance anymore, relying on the teleprompters and micro-earpieces for what he was supposed to say. A hollow man regurgitating a hollow message. No matter what was said, some groups would fervently support him and others vehemently detract. Reactions could be guessed by merely looking at those who stood to profit, and those who did not.

The High Imperius had grown—or shrunk—to be a figurehead, a gilded emperor propped up by tradition and laws that made his removal exceedingly difficult. The decisions about Imperium security were officially handled by the defense minister, the whims of whom were then carried out—supposedly—by the apolitical Imperium Navy. The seating behind the High Imperius was divided by an aisle; on one side were the government officials and ministers who did not wear any of the costumes or uniforms. Defense Minister Archer was among them, in her customary semi-formal business attire. Archer projected support, lightly clapping at all the inspirational points and nodding her head solemnly at the ‘difficult-but-necessary’ ones. The news analysts would do their part and spread the idea that Archer was a stalwart supporter of the High Imperius.

Renic watched in anticipation as Archer nodded at another sentiment she’d been prepped to agree with. She was a supporter, yes, of the fleet marshal. Renic looked to the other side of the gathered officials; the military leaders and judicial representatives, the structural supports that were meant to remain impartial. Fleet Marshal Gallow sat at the center edge of the first row, almost within arm’s reach of the embroidered hem of the High Imperius’s robe. Like all the military leaders present, he wore a dress uniform, the thick fabric tight against his broad chest and shoulders. But, unlike the other leaders who were covered in the medals, cords, insignia and awards that signified their status, Gallow’s uniform was bare. Just a single item was pinned to his jacket; the eleven-pointed star that each member of the Imperium Navy received the day they completed training. His was over thirty years old. Gallow’s decision to forego displaying his achievements was calculated. He was saying ‘I am not like the rest of you. I am superior, and I don’t need decoration to show it.’ 

Gallow showed no response to the antics of the crowd or any of the High Imperius’s more emphatic points. Dozens of cameras were capturing every moment of this address, every expression of the elite attendees’ faces. News analysts would pore over the footage, making assumptions based on how those on the stage reacted to the more controversial points. Anyone who tried to analyze Gallow would only see the face of a man as solid and unbending as his reputation. Not a twitch of an eyebrow or a curl of the lip. Absolute complete control.

There was so much he could learn from the man. Since Renic’s secret recruitment into Gallow’s inner-circle over the last year, he’d come to learn much about him. Everything Gallow did was part of a strategy, a machination, a gambit. It was a level of premeditation that Renic could only marvel at and one day hope to emulate.

“…our home, the heart of this empire, was targeted for these attacks out of envy for the prosperity we have cultivated. Let me remind us all, the war we fought against the Sellacan Confederation was bloody and exacted a toll across all systems, both imperial and Fringe alike. The victors were those who fought for the peace we have enjoyed since I accepted the responsibility of maintaining balance…”

Renic returned his attention to the High Imperius. It was almost time. 

“…and my duties as leader of this empire are to protect our eleven worlds, as well as our ever-expanding borders. The Imperium stands for progress, for the betterment of all who become a part of this fair and noble union.” The High Imperius raised a single finger. “Aggression from any source will not be tolerated. Neither will failure. And you have been failed, indeed, by those who are charged with the protection of the people and sovereignty of the empire! It is a failure I intend to rectify.”

The gathered crowd erupted into a deafening mix of applause and jeers. Supporters of the throne rose from their seats in defense of the message. Detractors rose to meet their cries with denouncements of their own. The High Imperius did not react. His soft, doughy face remained stern. Renic had to give him credit; even though he did little to actually govern behind the scenes, the man still knew how to rile up a crowd and deliver a convincingly impassioned address.

Renic folded his arms, watching the energy in the auditorium continue to shift in the fleet marshal’s favor; fear, anger, outrage, blame. The crowd was just as angry at their leaders as they were at the Red Kestrels. As the disruption reached a peak in the crowd near the front of the stage, the master of imperial ceremonies, Chamberlain Tolwin, rose from his seat and banged his ornamental great-staff against a metal plate on the auditorium floor.

“Order! Order!” the red-faced chamberlain shouted, long white sideburns bobbing as his weighted great-staff pounded the plate, the entire apparatus connected to the auditorium’s address system. Thunder-cracks reverberated in everyone’s chests. Voices hushed and people quickly found their seats. It was a dramatic custom, having someone else absorb the ire of the crowd while the Imperius stood back and maintained an air of superiority.

Renic knew better. The High Imperius might portray that image—and perhaps once embodied it—but not anymore. For seventeen years he’d led the empire, longer than anyone before him. Longer than anyone should. A political hero from the war against the Sellacan Confederation, the support behind him during his coronation had been overwhelming. Without ever personally pulling a trigger, Edwin Sevant had kept the empire united and brought the systems together. He’d let Gallow be the one to hold the guns and was about to allow the fleet marshal turn them toward a new target.

“…and action will be taken. However, this is not a wrathful empire. We must not allow revenge to cloud our judgement and force us to react with imprudent haste.”

Excitement stirred in Renic’s chest. Here it was.

“I come to you with this promise and proclamation,” the High Imperius placed both hands on the podium and spoke with supreme confidence, his gaze sweeping across the gathered crowd.“As of this moment, I am empowering Defense Minister Archer and her ministry to seek out justice by whatever means necessary, including engaging the assistance of the Imperium Navy, authorized to act as peacekeepers within our empire under the unilateral command of Fleet Marshal Gallow.”

There it was; High Imperius Edwin Sevant had just directed Gallow to turn the force of the navy inward, not just outward. It was the reason Renic was in attendance today; he wanted to feel the room. And feel it he did. A chill ran over his body. It was better than he had imagined.

The High Imperius’s voice was drowned out by a deafening roar. People leapt to their feet. Even some of the elite leaders and representatives on the stage took part in the shock. Renic remained seated. Concealed by the fervor of those standing around him, he let the corners of his mouth twitch upward. It was done.

“Order! Order! This hall will come to order!” Chamberlain Tolwin cried, the booming of his staff drowned out by the din of the crowd. More theatrics. Everyone—the speech writers, the leadership staff, the High Imperius—knew what would happen when this part of the speech was read. It was perfect. 

Order continued to deteriorate. Chamberlain Tolwin’s whiskers quivered with rage, and Renic’s eyes widened with glee as the chamberlain raised the great-staff with one hand, the other coming up in a fist.

“Imperial Guard, present arms!” he shouted, slamming the staff to the ground. The thunderclap echoed, each member of the costumed guard snapped into ready stances, creating a wall across the lowered front of the stage. Their ornate white and gold halberds came forward all at once, the butt of each weapon slamming into the ground in the same fashion as the chamberlain’s staff. The silver, shining axe heads of the halberds flared to life, energy tendrils crackling like a lightning storm. The two-handed bolt cannons hidden in the halberd’s shafts were as deadly as any infantry’s.

A hush swept across the crowd and soon only muffled, trailing voices and the crackle of the guard’s charged energy weapons could be heard. Renic suppressed a grin at the ridiculous gesture; did the costumed guard really intend to use their weapons on the government’s wealthiest and most influential supporters, over being heckled? If Renic didn’t know better, he would have wondered if Gallow had planned for that over-reaction.

Renic stood, straightening his uniform jacket as he scooted past the attendees in his row and made his way toward the auditorium’s rear exit. No more reason to stay; he’d already read the rest of the speech earlier that morning. The killing blow to the future of the Imperium had been delivered. It was just that no one else here realized it yet. Maybe historians would look back on this address and realize this had been the pivotal moment that tipped the balance toward the new republic, paid for by the lives on Starview Station.

Renic stopped at the exit and allowed himself one more look. Only one thing had spoiled this victory. Renic had wanted Samantha here with him, to watch her witness the High Imperius grant her permission to do everything she had ever wanted. This was supposed to be the second chance, to allow them to bond around a common goal. She was an ardent supporter of the Imperium and a ruthless enemy of the Red Kestrels, the enemy that Gallow had now propped up as the villain in this narrative. She was supposed to see the evolution take place, Renic’s new organization being the perfect place for her to do her work at his side.

Why hadn’t she shown? She’d given him no notice, no excuse. Maybe this was payback for monitoring her, she was letting him know she wasn’t persuaded so easily. Her involvement was not important to the grand plan, but it gnawed at Renic, an unanswered question that he wouldn’t be able to drop. Part of him was furious that she’d put him off, but part of him was equally furious he’d not been able to share this moment with her and secure her presence in his life. 5E would not survive the defense minister’s restructuring. Renic was to be her refuge.

But Samantha wasn’t here, and Renic had no idea where she was. Moment sullied, he turned and stalked away, voice of the High Imperius echoing behind him.

“…which can only be corrected by way of our actions. This august assembly of those fit to lead, those with the fortitude and resolution to protect this illustrious and historic empire at all costs…”

At all costs indeed; Renic was due at a closed-door meeting where the real response would be discussed.

Dozens of murmured conversations blanketed the closed-council situation room, below ground in the Imperium Naval Headquarters adjoining the capitol building. The room was well-lit and styled like the rest of the capitol; white surfaces, gold accents, Imperium heraldry emblazoned anywhere it would fit. One could never be allowed to forget where one was.

Renic strode confidently across the room toward where he had learned the intelligence community typically sat. Many of the military’s top leaders were already present, the High Imperius’s public—political—address inconsequential to what would be discussed here. Representatives from the navy, ground infantry, orbital patrol, even the merchant marines were all present, forming small groups of conversation. They had been called together to hear the briefing from their freshly empowered leader, Fleet Marshal Gallow. No remote participation was allowed. Anyone who had been within a day’s jump was in attendance. If not, they were left out and would have to find a way to debrief at a later time.

The conference room was like none Renic had ever visited. He walked the length of it, following the towering viewscreen that stretched floor to ceiling. On the room-sized display was a live map of the entire sector, the size and location of systems and planets greatly exaggerated. Around ten of the empire’s systems were glowing indicators of Imperium fleets being sent to stand watch around them. An image representing the Terminus and the fleet it led was positioned near Kestris. Whether the ships’ presence was to defend or besiege the rest of the empire was a question already being asked; the navy defends the empire from outside threats, is the empire now a threat to itself?

An array of smaller displays on the opposite wall showed news station’s reactions to the High Imperius’s address from around the system. There was no sound, but the faces of the news anchors and the scenes of each planet’s people made it clear—everyone was focused on the question that most of the newscasts had written boldly across the bottom of their broadcast: Archer in control; what is next for the Imperium?

Renic smirked at the headline; indeed, what was next?

He took the empty seat reserved for the Naval Special Investigation Division, here at the table that represented the true power of the Imperium, a table he now had a seat at. Those who mattered were able to sit. Those who didn’t were left standing around the room’s outer edges with the entourages and administrative assistants.

Renic grinned at the headlines on the displays again. ‘Archer in control.’ This is what everyone assumed. She was always in the right place at the right time. Her political victories were decisive and she had no patience for the government’s tendency to stall. Her supporters followed her passionatley, her detractors even more so. Her defense policies had come down hard on both the government’s intelligence community and military leaders, anyone she saw as slow and soft. There was little doubt about Archer’s tenacity. What most didn’t realize, though, was how much she owed to the person backing her, who ensured her victories. More than one tabloid had commented on how little Archer’s policies seemed to interfere with Gallow’s compared to the rest of the empire’s ministries.

A figure pulled the chair next to Renic out and seated himself. Renic turned, recognizing the middle-aged naval officer. It was Major William Drake, one of OS-9’s senior leaders.

“Commander Tau,” Drake said, not bothering to offer a handshake or make eye contact. Of those present, Major Drake was one of the people Renic wanted to see the least. Organizationally, OS-9 and Renic’s new division were collaborators. Pragmatically; competitors. Drake was a major and his assignment as a crew member on the Terminus placed him well above Renic’s planet-based rank of commander. It was a point he’d hoped to bring up with the fleet marshal when the time was right.

“Major, a pleasure to see you here,” Renic said, dancing between stilted respect and thinly veiled sarcasm.

“I take it this is your first time at a closed-council meeting?” Drake said, eyes on a datapad. He turned his head and smiled, giving Renic a patronizing little nod.

Renic smiled back. “Yes. I will be representing the division.” 

“Between the Office of Information Security, OS-9, and now this new division—I’m sorry, what are we calling it?”

Renic’s smile faded. “The Naval Special Investigation Division.”

“Ah, right. That’s it. As I was saying, between these multiple intelligence agencies, it is starting to feel a bit redundant.”

The major had been one of the most outspoken opponents of the creation of the Naval Special Investigation Division. He had seen it as an unnecessary distraction, arguing that specialized intelligence matters could be handled through OS-9 by just expanding its scope. In the end, Drake had lost the argument, Gallow needing his—what had Samantha called it?—personal wetworks agency to exist outside of OS-9.

Renic smiled through the venom on his tongue. Drake had served in active duty alongside the fleet marshal when Renic was still a child. Disrespecting a decorated veteran like Drake was something he knew Gallow would not look kindly on. Besides, Renic didn’t know if Drake had been turned on to the new republic yet; as far as Renic knew, Drake could be more in-the-know than he was.

One of Drake’s subordinates came to stand near his seat. She was young with cropped black hair combed in an asymmetric fashion, lieutenant marks on her shoulder.

“Sir, here is the report you requested. Air-gapped, also as requested,” she said, handing him a datapad and exchanging it for the one the major held. Her voice had none of the inexperience her age might have betrayed.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Meredessi,” Drake replied, browsing the datapad contents.

Renic gave her an expressionless stare. Her focus turned to him and lingered for a moment, just long enough to be out of the ordinary. Her eyes subtly scanned him, twitching back and forth like she was studying every detail about his face, body, attire. A strange sense of apprehension rose in Renic’s chest. He’d never seen her before, but he had the distinct impression that she recognized him. It was not impossible. Renic was a long-time agent—former agent—of 5E, and OS-9 worked with the agency frequently. Perhaps she had handled a mission he’d been assigned to in the past. Still, that didn’t explain the unease he felt.

Drake handed the datapad back to Lieutenant Meredessi. “Thank you. Dismissed.”

The lieutenant nodded sharply and walked back to her small group at the room’s edge, seeming to have forgotten Renic. Meredessi, he would have to glance at her file. Something about her bothered him.

Drake turned to Renic, a smug grin on his face. “Top talent, the lieutenant. I take it you’re still gathering your staff and… agents are you calling them?”

“Operatives, actually. And yes, the division is still filling out. Obviously we had to remain classified until the announcement of the fleet marshal’s empowerment. But,” Renic waved his hand over the table, “I am here now.”

Drake pursed his lips and nodded, raising his eyebrows as if he knew something but intended to let Renic find out on his own. “I trust you will learn quickly. The navy operates quite a bit differently than you’re used to back in 5E.”

Renic gave a smile so weak it bordered on a grimace. “I am familiar with the fleet marshal’s standards. I will have special counsel with him today, in fact.” Renic felt the statement’s embarrassing defensiveness just as it left his mouth.

Drake raised an eyebrow. “Is that right? On Terminus?”

Renic paused. Drake was on permanent assignment aboard the flagship, Renic mentioning he was invited aboard was hardly something to boast about. In fact, Renic wasn’t actually sure where, or when, Gallow actually wished to speak with him.

“I am awaiting confirmation. The fleet marshal’s schedule is, uh, carefully managed,” Renic said, fumbling over his sorry excuse. How was Drake doing this? His first official meeting hadn’t even started and this battered old intelligence-vet was already using conversational psy-ops against him.

Drake nodded, like a grandfather to a child. “Indeed it is. One can never quite be sure what the fleet marshal is up to.”

Drake turned his attention back to the datapad. Renic’s neck burned. Anywhere else, Renic would have had complete control of the room. But this wasn’t anywhere else. This was a room filled with leaders of the empire, all of whom were waiting for the arrival of a single person. For the first time in recent memory, Renic felt the gut-twisting sensation of being horribly insignificant.

The appointed time for Gallow’s arrival was near. People continued to enter the rapidly filling room. More government officials and military leaders filed in, each with their respective attachment assistants. Renic could hear pieces of conversations, all tangential to what was on the newscasts. Those gathered were interested in Archer’s plans, yes, but they each had a deeper question that the public did not think to ask; what were the fleet marshal’s plans? Archer may be the face of the Imperium’s defense, but this room knew Gallow dictated the strategy.

A conversation began just within earshot between a pair of men standing in front of the display wall. It was one of the representatives from the Hundred, wearing his planet’s customary formal attire of cascading draped robes and sashes. His conversation partner looked like any generic, mid-ranking member of government staff wearing a common business suit. The government staffer did not sound pleased.

“It’s preposterous! Archer has no experience with war. She’s a politician, good with words and manipulating the system. I’ve seen nothing that would lead me to think she’s fit to be elevated to such a position.”

The representative retorted. “War? War with whom? The Fringe? We are not at war. This is a situation that requires more than just firepower. An insurgency is…”

The staffer would have none of it. “The fleet marshal has Archer at his disposal. The High Imperius listens to her…”

The representative inhaled sharply, aghast. “Archer taking instructions from Gallow? I think you’ve got it turned around. Gallow must listen to her. Military sway is nothing if you don’t have the people’s goodwill to back it up. …”

Renic turned his attention away from the exchange, stifling his smile. Let them bicker. He knew the truth.

The wall display indicated it was the top of the hour, Kestris standard time. Right on cue, the sounds of synchronized footsteps outside the room started to swell. Voices hushed, and all heads turned toward the large double doors on the far end of the room. Renic turned his chair—along with everyone else—to face the doors. The real conversation would be starting shortly.

The doors swung open on silent hinges. Twelve of Fleet Marshal Gallow’s honor guard filed through the doors in side-by-side columns of six—seven men, five women. A pair of guards pulled away from the group and posted themselves on either side of the entrance and the rest continued forward to take up evenly spaced positions around the room, their backs to the walls, encircling the central table and everyone seated at it.

Each of the honor guards carried a special, compact bolt rifle on a sling over their shoulders. Their sharp, unadorned uniforms were the same deep blue as the fleet marshal’s with thick black belts across their waists, sheathed military daggers on the opposite hip from the rifles. Each of the honor guard’s expressions were blank, giving no outward indication that they were paying attention to anyone in the room. 

Government officials and high ranking military leaders had a protective detail, but Gallow’s were the honor guard first, navy personnel second. Where most security details blended in, background figures trying to remain discreet, the honor guard were paraded like some ancient warlord’s personal legion, most of whom held official ranks far higher than any common bodyguard. This distinction had earned them the disdain of many other leaders who saw it as unnecessary pageantry; Gallow rarely left the Terminus, who was he afraid of? The more perceptive of his detractors recognized that Gallow wasn’t the one with something to fear, and that the honor guard were not just a defensive detail.

The room was quiet save for the sound of rustling uniform fabric and the occasional nervous clearing of a throat. The rest of Gallow’s entourage entered. His aides and assistants, the officers in his executive reporting structure, their aides and assistants. Each shuffled into the room with an air of blatant superiority amid quiet murmurs from those already gathered.

Renic checked his posture. He quickly smoothed his hair and checked the front of his uniform for any stray pieces of lint or other debris. Perfectly clean. He put on his sternest expression and set his jaw. For his first official attendance of the closed council, he did not plan on disappointing.

The last group walked through the door. Renic lifted his chin to get a better view. Many of the people in this room may have had more overt power, more status, more wealth, but Renic had something they did not. He was special. He had Gallow’s trust and a responsibility that transcended the pedestrian goals of these uninspired, stuffed uniforms. He allowed himself the slightest hint of a smile—that faded into a grimace, then into an outright sneer.

Around him, voices raised, feet shuffled, datapads were dropped onto the table. Renic’s eyes darted around the room, looking for some sort of insight. This wasn’t right.

Striding proudly into the room where Fleet Marshal Gallow should have been was Vice Marshal Lenault, flanked by Gallow’s chief of staff—and head of the honor guard—Captain Alaudae. The rest of the entourage filed in and the doors slammed closed, no fleet marshal to be found.

Lenault wore a short, white beard that abruptly ended in a straight line at the top of his ears, giving way to his smooth bald head. His uniform—standard navy—was covered with medals from various campaigns going back decades. Gallow had served on one of Lenault’s ships early in his career. Now, Lenault served as Gallow’s spokesperson when the fleet marshal could not be available. Or chose not to be.

“Settle down everyone,” Lenault growled as he marched to the head of the table, a wave of swiveling chairs following him. “The fleet marshal is indeed elsewhere. I will be delivering his debriefing today. Each of your datapads will be updated with the summary and any specific individual instructions. I speak in the fleet marshal’s place, my words are his words.”

Renic’s jaw clenched. He had just seen Gallow in the grand auditorium. What could be a higher priority than this? He slumped back into his chair. He had no actual interest in whatever Lenault or anyone else had to say. He was here to hear Gallow address this crowd, to hear the inflections in his voice, to see his body language, to watch the people here react to a genuine show of power. Instead, he got the grizzled old Lenault.

Drake leaned over into Renic’s personal space; he’d forgotten the major was there.

“Schedule is carefully managed, indeed,” Drake whispered.

Renic heard, but was too distracted to pretend to smile. He met Drake’s smugly satisfied eyes. The bastard had already known.

Lenault prattled on. Renic didn’t care about fleet movements. He worked for Gallow on tasks that would never appear on any briefing. This was a waste of time.

“…the first fleet will be dividing up key strategic locations and positioning ships… maintaining a permanent jump interference pattern around each planet…”

Lenault went on and on. Renic sighed. This was one of the smaller trade-offs he had to make as a commander; he was now management. His first official order for his division would be to limit meetings like this.

Renic picked up the datapad on the table in front of him. He lazily pressed his thumb against the access scanner and his personal virtual profile was loaded. Lenault’s debrief summary was at the top of the inbox. He opened it and skimmed the contents. Nothing. He scrolled the screen, going down to the bottom where any instructions specific to him would be.

There was an order brief for him from the fleet marshal’s office. He pressed his lips together to suppress a smile. Perhaps he had underestimated the importance of being placed on this new assignment. He opened the instructions, and the smile faded. His eyes narrowed as he scanned the text.

Renic stared for a moment more. This would have been mandated directly by Gallow. He was the only person with the authority to give such an order. In unambiguous terms, Renic and the Naval Special Investigation Division were to begin a collaboration with OS-9, specifically the detachment that was stationed on the Terminus—Drake’s detachment—to discuss a joint investigation at the highest levels of classification. Code name: Indigo.

He didn’t need to read any details about Indigo. It could only refer to one thing; Gallow was having Renic help OS-9 investigate how Starview Station, how the Dauntless, could have happened. Renic was now assigned to investigate himself.

Renic’s jaw clamped shut. It wasn’t a foolish move. On the contrary, it would let Renic know exactly what OS-9 and the navy was on to. It was the surprise and the proximity to Drake that raised his ire. Not a word of warning from the fleet marshal.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the major looking his way. Drake leaned closer, brandishing the same smug grin, and spoke softly under the sound of Lenault’s droning.

“Commander, it appears we’ll be working together. I will have my aides arrange a series of standing meetings between our organizations. Welcome to the team.”

Renic pressed his lips flat. An addendum to his order had appeared. A ship was returning to the Terminus later that day, and Renic was instructed to be on it. It seemed the life he knew of keeping his own schedule was over.

A small sacrifice. At least now it wouldn’t look like he had lied to Drake about his special meeting with Gallow.