Qin and Yadav have returned to the Terminus after their time on Kestris, hearing the High Imperius and attending the closed-council meeting. Renic has as well, but he's there for an entirely different reason.
The Cataphract’s one-hour, twenty-seven minute ascent into Kestris orbit ended with a sweeping trajectory as it approached its final destination. As a transport vessel with space for two-hundred passengers and twenty-four crew, each side of the Cataphract was lined with thick, steel-glass windows that offered a view of whatever planet it was currently transporting navy personnel to or from. Presently, through all of the starboard windows was the same view for everyone aboard.
From her seat in the forward passenger section, Qin watched the Terminus slowly grow larger, a pillar of black set against Kestris’s expanse of cloud-covered green and blue. Major Drake and the other executive command personnel—Fleet Marshal Gallow included—were in the spacious, restricted section at the front of the ship, well-insulated from the listening ears of their reporting chains. It was rumored that whenever the fleet marshal was aboard, he ordered the ship to take a wide approach-path back to the Terminus, allowing the passengers and himself to marvel at the wonder of this central jewel of the Imperium Navy, the symbol of ultimate force in the sector.
The Terminus was a single ship whose armaments and capabilities rivaled that of entire fleets. It was capable of besieging a planet all on its own, entirely self-sufficient in both energy and resources. Like the name Fleet Marshal Gallow had christened it with when he’d taken command, Terminus was meant to be the final, supreme stop in the empire’s quest for dominance.
Next to Qin, Yadav leaned to get a better view, the side of her arm crossing into what could be considered Qin’s personal space—familiarity. Qin did not pull away.
“Home again,” Yadav said. She shifted her gaze from the Terminus to Qin. “Will you be reporting for your shift immediately after boarding?”
Qin shook her head. “I am not due to report for another hour. I have some personal chores to attend to, and my plants of course.”
“Ah, yes. The plants.” Yadav smiled, settling back into her seat. “An interesting pastime for someone who lives permanently on a starship.”
“It gives me something simple to do besides this,” Qin said, holding up the datapad she had been studying. “Tending them helps remind me there are still places out there that are not purely metal and glass.”
Yadav nodded toward the Terminus. “It’s remarkable how we can live and thrive in these environments. Can you imagine space before jumpdrives? The generation arks with entire lives lived in transit, or in cryo-stasis sleep for centuries while crews of A.I.-powered robots tended to people like you tend your plants. Calling it the dark ages feels like an understatement; entire lives whose only purpose was to just wait to be woken up.”
Qin hummed in agreement and joined Yadav in observing the ship they both called home. “I am certain those ancient ancestors would have never presumed humanity would choose to live and travel about the stars aboard something like the Terminus.”
Yadav smiled again, maintaining her slightly closer-than-normal proximity. Qin had started to notice Yadav’s extra attention four months, three-weeks, two-days ago. Yadav had made no inappropriate advances, and Qin had felt no desire to dissuade her. Life on the Terminus was no normal tour, and personal relationships were allowed; better to permit people to seek companionship in a controlled environment than invite outside interference. When every moment of one’s life was consumed by the dedication it took to maintain life aboard the Terminus, personal connections were just as important for survival as any other resource.
Outside the window, the view of the Terminus had grown, taking up nearly the entire view. It wasn’t so much a ship in the conventional sense of the word as it was a mobile citadel. Bound permanently to a life in space, the Terminus had no need for atmospheric entry, it’s deck layout was oriented vertically like a city skyscraper, four flat sides with no notion of front or back, only top and bottom. In the center of the monolithic rectangle was the enormous spherical section that contained the sixty-four synchronized jump drives—powered by sixteen antimatter powerplants—with the upper and lower super-structures wrapping the sphere and extending to form the square towers that each supported a maximum of 125,000 personnel.
The entire surface was matte-black, an oddity among the white and gold trim that made up the majority of the Imperium Navy’s warships. With nothing to gauge the ship’s size other than the entire planet below, people who viewed the Terminus for the first time often mistook the scattered rectangles of light across its surface for windows, presuming the scale of the ship to be the same magnitude as the other largest navy vessels—the dreadnoughts, the battlecruisers, the carriers. It was only when the Terminus drew nearer that they realized the spots of light mistaken for windows were in fact entire open hangar bays, and the ships presumed to be small shuttlecraft or fighters were the Terminus’s first fleet dreadnoughts, battlecruisers, and carriers. By volume, it was the largest mobile object to have ever been built. Qin knew the numerical values of its statistical features, but even she felt a sense of wonder at the scale.
The Cataphract made its way to one of the—twelve—oversized hangars that could accommodate the vessel. In contrast to the matte-black exterior hull, the view of the polished metal decks drifted into view as the ship touched down, a subtle thump of gravity equalization felt as the ship’s systems transferred that responsibility to the Terminus.
Qin peered behind her between the seatbacks; Benes was engrossed in something on a datapad. Lee was asleep, head lolled to the side and mouth ajar. It was poor form to be caught sleeping in uniform—or at all—but those seated nearby were happy to trade the lapse in propriety for an hour of freedom from Lee’s chit-chat.
A figure strode past them, the first of the Cataphract’s passengers to make their way toward the ship’s exit. He wore the same plain blue uniform as the fleet marshal and his honor guard. As he turned to stand next to the hatch, his face came into view. It was the commander who had been seated next to Major Drake in the closed-council situation room during Vice Admiral Lenault’s briefing earlier that day. Qin had not been introduced, and the commander had not seemed interested in supplying a name.
“Lieutenant Yadav, the commander there at the hatch, are you familiar with him?” Qin said.
Yadav tilted her head as they watched the commander stand with what appeared to be a simmering impatience. “I don’t think so. Not aboard Terminus, at least. Looks eager to disembark. Maybe he’s a surface-dweller.”
The commander’s hands were closed, not quite fists, but not relaxed. Other crew members turned their bodies to scoot behind him, the commander either unaware or unconcerned with how he was obstructing the aisle. He stared at the hatch, tension apparent around his eyes—anticipation, apprehension. Finally, the Cataphract’s intercom sounded the arrival chime and the hatch opened, sliding to the side as the sound of the hangar’s air-pressure equalized with that of the cabin. The commander was through the opening before the door finished sliding into the hull.
Yadav turned to Qin and shrugged. “Looks like he had somewhere to be.” She leaned in close. “You notice something else?”
Qin pondered the question and searched her memories from earlier in the day. The commander had been seated next to Major Drake, and had been visibly irritated by her presence, but no particular concerns presented themselves. Qin’s read of the commander in the closed-council meeting had been filled with clues that signaled deception and misdirection, but that was to be expected in the compartmentalized roles they each served in. Without more data, she could not speculate as to the source of his discontent, or if it had anything to do with her at all.
“Nothing concerning. I presume with the increase in readiness, we will be seeing many unfamiliar faces come aboard the Terminus throughout the foreseeable future.”
Yadav nodded. “I think your presumption is accurate.” She rose from her seat and stepped into the aisle, gesturing toward the forward exit. “Lieutenant, after you.”
Qin nodded and stood. In the row behind them, Benes gave Lee a quick elbow to the arm, jolting the snoozing sergeant awake. Lee cleared his throat and appeared to be doing his best to look alert. The two of them fell into line behind Yadav and followed Qin down the aisle. The rest of Major Drake’s entourage followed suit, making their way out the exit hatch and walking down the stair-stepped gangway.
The hangar bay was alive with activity, flight-deck crews attending to the Cataphract and the other vessels occupying the cavernous space, now sealed inside by the hangar’s outer doors. The procession from the Cataphract walked across the charcoal-colored carpet that had been unrolled leading to the Terminus’s interior.
The group exited the hangar and stepped through to the corridor; it’s curving walls and high, illuminated ceilings resembled the interior of a planet-side luxury office building rather than a navy warship.
Yadav stepped to the side and stopped, clasping her hands behind her back as she nodded toward the perpendicular corridor that branched in two directions.
“Well, Lieutenant Meredessi, please give my regards to your plants,” Yadav said, seeming to ignore the presence of Sergeants Benes and Lee. “Maybe I can see them sometime.”
Qin gave her a slight bow. “Of course, Lieutenant Yadav. Though, I must caution you not to set your expectations too high. It is a modest collection, well-suited for this artificial environment. Maintaining healthy growth while living aboard a starship is an effort unto itself.”
Yadav grinned. “For the plants, or us?”
Qin pondered the statement. “Both, I believe.”
Yadav returned the bow, then shifted her attention to Benes and Lee, smile already fading from her face. “Sergeants, the major is holding a senior staff meeting at the end of second shift. I want your reports processed and sent to me within an hour so I have time to review.”
Lee clicked his tongue, shoulders slumping. “Lieutenant Yadav, I was planning on—”
Yadav’s head snapped toward Lee. He stopped mid-sentence, mouth slowly closing.
“Sergeant? You are aware we’ve returned to the Terminus, the flagship of the Imperium, correct? Stepping into these corridors mere minutes after Fleet Marshal Gallow himself, during a time of imperial crisis? I cannot imagine what you would need to do that would take priority over readying reports for a meeting with one of this ship’s senior intelligence officers. Can you?”
Lee’s head did a circular cross between a shake and a nod, appearing unsure if he should answer in the affirmative or the negative. “Yes. I mean, no. No I cannot imagine anything. And yes, report within the hour. It will be done, lieutenant.”
“Excellent. Sergeants. Lieutenant,” Yadav said, nodding to each person as she walked away.
Qin seized the chance to excuse herself as well, smiling calmly toward Benes and Lee. “Sergeants. It was pleasant traveling with you today. I must take my leave now.” She took a half-step toward her quarters, then stopped and turned on her heel to catch Sergeant Lee’s eye. “And, Sergeant, I do recommend visiting the library. You never know what you may find when examining a good book.”
Lee’s expression sunk—dejection. Qin gave him a consoling smile and nod, then turned on her heel again and proceeded to her quarters. After tending to her plants, examining a good book was exactly how she intended to spend the time before the major’s staff meeting.
Renic stood silently as the elevator sped to its destination, having made no stops since he’d entered it on the hangar level. Inertia compensators removed most of the feeling of motion, and after only a few minutes, the elevator doors slid open and revealed the restricted deck on the Terminus where Fleet Marshal Gallow’s personal residence and executive command facilities were housed. It was where Gallow spent most of his time aboard the Terminus, everything he needed to rule the Imperium Navy accessible from this deck. There was no unauthorized access; the countless elevators that ran the length of the vertically-oriented Terminus would not take anyone to this deck without explicit access granted by Gallow’s honor guard. In fact, no one was even sure which deck number it was; the rumor was that the elevators even shifted their velocity imperceptibly, making it difficult to estimate where exactly they stopped. The closest anyone could guess was that it was toward the top of the upper super-structure; that much was obvious by looking out any window.
Renic glanced at the member of the honor guard who had escorted him from the hangar—a young man appearing to be in his mid-twenties. Renic maintained eye-contact for a moment, smirking at the guard. The guard did not avert his gaze, maintaining the same stoic stare all the honor guard wore. Renic had been on the fleet marshal’s restricted deck before, and each time it was the same procedure; anyone who wished to enter got an escort. Until Renic stepped out, they would both be stuck here. How long would the honor guard wait before prompting him? Ten seconds? One minute? Five? Renic held for a moment longer, then gave the guard a single, breathy laugh before striding into the corridor, just in case the guard forgot who was the ranking officer here.
The corridor led to a large foyer that served as a waiting area for the fleet marshal’s conference chamber. The wide double-doors to the chamber were already open, a pair of honor guard standing watch on either side as guests made their way in. Renic recognized most of them, a collection of high ranking admirals, generals, military and government leaders in critical positions of power. There was no Vice Admiral Lenault this time, no Major Drake, no staff of the High Imperius, and no entourages. Renic felt a rush of excitement as the purpose of this meeting became clear. It was a gathering of Gallow’s collaborators, the true stewards of the new republic, where the fleet marshal would speak about the actual future of Kestris and the Imperium—and Renic had been invited.
Renic and his escort crossed the well-lit foyer, eagerness quickening his step. As they approached the doors to the chamber, one of the honor guard stepped forward. A young woman nearly as tall as Renic, with hair pulled into a tight bun, nodded to the escort.
“I will take Commander Tau to his seat in the gallery.” She turned to Renic. “Commander, please follow me.”
Renic gave his escort a look of dismissal and fell in line behind his new one. She seemed unconcerned with the power-play of making the escortee walk in front. And why would she be concerned? None of the honor guard had anything to fear in this place; Renic could count at least two-dozen of them between the foyer and chamber. All the attendees may technically be on the Terminus, but the reality was they were no longer in the Imperium. They were in Gallow’s world where he reigned as the single, supreme power, and this entire gathering was a carefully orchestrated power-play.
The honor guard leading Renic brought him into the darkened chamber, taking him up a short set of stairs to the box-seat gallery that lined the back wall. While the chamber served the same purpose as a conference room, calling it as such would have been a disservice to its immensity and grandness. The chamber’s ceiling arced high overhead and was drenched in shadow. The entire far wall was one, unbroken pane of steel-glass just as armored as the rest of the Terminus’s hull and could function as a display screen. At the moment, it was set to the transparent setting, the surface of Kestris filling its entire field of view. It gave the impression of looking out to the planet, as if its gravity would pull one forward through the windows to the swirling cloud-covered continents and oceans below.
The honor guard gestured to an empty seat near the back row of the gallery; most of the row had already filled. Renic nodded and took his place in the empty seat. He turned and surveyed the rest of the gallery. Major Drake was nowhere among the attendees. Apparently Renic did have that advantage over the smug man.
Seated next to him was another uniformed officer he didn’t recognize, a colonel. Most of the people here he didn’t recognize. Renic’s life in 5E had been on isolated missions with tightly-controlled, need-to-know restrictions. The Imperium Navy, and its associated military branches, had personnel numbering in the millions. It was no surprise that these elite collaborators would be strangers to each other. The colonel next to Renic noticed his glance and gave him a subtle nod, but returned his view to the chamber floor. Renic did the same. Gallow’s plan required careful coordination between many parties, carried out in total secrecy and compartmentalization. Renic did not know what anyone else had been asked to do, only that everyone in the chamber could be trusted to remain silent or they would have never been here in the first place. It was a vetted, loyal, and equally culpable gathering of conspirators. Renic felt his neck tighten at a new thought; how many other operatives like him was Gallow working with?
More visitors were shown to their seats. Renic estimated at least thirty people in the gallery with him. There was very little light on the gallery. The focus of the chamber was the long, polished, black table in the center of the floor, arranged parallel to the massive display window.
A single vacant seat was on the far side of the table, its back to the enormous display window. Taller and more elegant than the rest, this must be Gallow’s throne and he was about to hold court. On the other side of the table were ten additional seats, nine of which were currently occupied. Renic couldn’t see their faces, but the identities of these nine were obvious; they were nine of the highest ranking Imperium military officers, the guests of honor for this macabre address. Eleven systems in the empire, eleven chairs around the table; one of which was vacant.
Renic scanned the chamber for anyone who might fit the profile of someone elevated enough to fill the vacant seat. While there were many officers whose reporting chains would number in the tens- or hundreds-of-thousands, none seemed to be making a move toward that seat.
Renic shifted in his seat, a strange feeling of unease grazing the edge of his awareness. No one alive would be late to a chamber meeting like this. Whatever the reason for the tenth seat’s vacancy, it did not bode well for the missing guest. The thought of someday sitting there himself came to Renic’s mind. He smirked; someday.
The top of the hour arrived. Eight honor guard entered the room, shutting the chamber doors behind them, the light from the foyer collapsing into a thin line before vanishing completely. The chamber was lit only by the reflection of Kestris through the towering window and the overhead lights that flooded the table and its nine occupants. Four honor guard took positions in front of the exit to the foyer.
A few of the leaders’ heads turned toward the activity. Renic willed himself to remain expressionless, forcing the tickle of anxiety to the back of his thoughts. Were those in attendance just now realizing that the honor guard were here just as much to keep then in as they were to keep others out?
On the wall opposite the entrance, a new, previously unnoticed set of doors opened, their presence having been hidden in the shadow. A dim pillar of light grew across the floor, split down the middle by the back-lit shadow of a figure striding in. The room fell silent as all heads turned to watch Fleet Marshal Gallow enter, the sound of his steps echoing off the domed ceiling. Renic’s neck tensed; he had never been in Gallow’s presence like this, their meetings having been conducted in private or over video transmission.
Gallow turned to face the room. He stood at the end of the table, near the vacant tenth seat, his back to the planet through the window. All in attendance were forced to view his silhouette, his face and body darkened by their own shadows. Renic felt those in attendance all shrink involuntarily at the display, their anxiety palpable. But not just theirs. For the first time in Gallow’s presence, Renic himself felt a genuine sense of fear.
Above the expansive table, spotlights shone down in focused columns of light onto each chair. The fleet marshal’s eyes and expression were hidden in shadow; Gallow could see everyone clearly, but the reverse was not true. The only wise choice was to assume he was always looking at everyone and to never let one’s own expression or body language falter for even a moment.
From the black outline of his silhouette, Gallow’s voice reached out like gravitational pull and ensnared the attention of the audience.
“Each of you in attendance today know why you are here and understand the importance of what we must accomplish. Earlier today, you heard the High Imperius give his address and admonish those he wishes the people to believe are their enemy. While the main agitators that reside both within the empire and the Fringe are a threat, the Red Kestrels being the most audacious but certainly not the only, it is only a symptom of the real affliction that plagues the heart of this empire.”
Gallow raised an arm and pointed to the surface of Kestris through the window behind him, the capital city clearly visible as a growth that stretched across the northern continent. “That is the source of the disease. So long as our heart is weak, the body gathered here today has no hope of defending it. The heart must be excised and replaced with one that beats anew.”
Gallow let the statement hang in the air, voice echoing off the domed ceiling. Renic stared, transfixed by the words, feeling himself pulled in by the gravity. Of all the people gathered in the chamber, Renic was one of the handful that knew the Starview Station attack was entirely manufactured. While the gathered leaders might agree on the slowly worsening—but easy to ignore—disease of incompetent leadership, it was the imminent and frightening threat of the Red Kestrels that pushed them to join the fleet marshal.
With no visible signal from Gallow, the enormous window and view of Kestris darkened, replaced by a lifelike expanse of star-filled space. A three-dimensional map of the Imperium and its eleven systems appeared on the screen, each of the planets rendered in exquisite, exaggerated detail.
“You are looking at the totality of this empire.” The ten planets shrunk and moved to form a circle around Kestris, orbiting it like a series of multicolored moons. “Billions of citizens all loyal and dependent on us to protect them. Yet, even the most generous estimate of the Red Kestrel membership is in the hundreds, with sympathizers throughout the Fringe estimated to be in the tens of thousands, nothing more. If we cannot even protect a station that orbits Kestris itself, how can we expect the people to believe we can keep the empire secure.”
The map on the screen zoomed out to show the expanded sector, the Imperium territory shrinking to a tiny fraction on the display screen. The planets of the Fringe slid into view all around the Imperium, each planet popping onto the map with a label above it denoting its name and population. On the far edge of the display, the empty expanse of the Gulf was a starless sea of black, the protective buffer zone between the Imperium’s sector and that of the Sellacan Confederation.
It was a sobering image. The combined population of the Fringe was several times that of the Imperium, and the confederated systems of the Sellacans, with their non-centralized governments, were equal to both the Imperium and Fringe combined. While no single member of the confederation was larger than the Imperium’s combined eleven systems, the threat of a unified coalition forming had begun on the day of armistice seventeen years ago. Adding Fringe systems to the empire had been the Imperium’s goal ever since.
Seeing the vastness of what Gallow was attempting to defend caused a shudder of trepidation beneath Renic’s stoic exterior. There was no one in the Imperium who could be trusted to face such insurmountable odds other than Gallow.
“This image is what our leaders refuse to acknowledge. The Red Kestrels are a hairline fracture compared to the potential collapse our empire will face should any opposing force mount against us. Defending our territory against external threats is meaningless until we fix the problem within the core. Here.” The entire image zoomed in until Kestris was the only planet left on the display, nearly as massive as what had been visible through the window only moments previous.
“The Imperium is incapable of defending itself under its current leadership. If an organization of only hundreds can send as little as a dozen of their zealots to hit us here, at our home, what could a few-hundred-thousand Fringe discontents do? Or a few million, funded by Sellacan sponsors and provided with weapons and ships, all allied against us? As we speak, our spies deep within the confederation report increased mobilization of the Sellacan war machine. We claim to have defeated them seventeen years ago, but it was a stalemate. One that the High Imperius has spun into an epic victory. I was there, as were nearly all of you at this table. The reality is that both sides exhausted themselves before either could conquer the other. This is the greatest lie the Imperium has told. Ask yourselves a single question. Is Edwin Sevent who you trust to sit at the head of this empire?”
The gathered generals looked to each other for signs of confirmation. Heads turned from neighbor to neighbor, but none spoke. Renic’s eyes narrowed, his silent satisfaction safely hidden in the darkness. How would an empire claim superiority when fewer than a dozen terrorists—Renic knew for a fact it was only ten Red Kestrels—were able to stab the Imperium right in its diseased heart? The fact that Gallow guided the knife was irrelevant. The fact that Renic was the knife, even less so.
The map zoomed back to show the capital planets of each system lined up in a neat row in the star filled void. Above ten of the eleven planets, the names of those seated at the table and the fleet they were being assigned appeared, Gallow’s name and the Terminus over Kestris. The eleventh planet, like the eleventh seat, had no one assigned to it.
“Each of you have been granted stewardship over a system, with myself acting as steward over Kestris. You will position the fleet you have been granted around the system and maintain vigil until you receive your final orders in the coming days. When you execute those orders and successfully protect the system you are entrusted with, you will be installed as the provisional governor of the system until after we have quelled the forthcoming turbulence. Once each system is secure, you may install a replacement of your choosing if you wish.”
One of the leaders seated at the table lifted a hand, mere inches above the table’s surface. It was General Marcy Nayman, one of the ground infantry’s highest ranking officers. Gallow looked to the general and lifted his chin.
“Fleet Marshal, sir. Your logic is undeniable. I am eager to fulfill my role in your grand plan. I only wish to ask; protect these planets from whom? Are you expecting a threat we are not aware of?”
Everyone in the room looked to General Nayman, then to Gallow. There was a drawn out silence in the chamber, rustling fabric and shifting in seats the only sounds.
Gallow seemed to ponder the question. He extended an arm and gestured toward the doors he had entered from. “Why, General, from those who would attempt to prevent the birth of this new Kestris Republic.”
Everyone at the table and in the gallery turned to where Gallow indicated; everyone but Renic. Renic’s eyes were on the eleventh planet that had no name assigned to it, the vacant eleventh seat. Now he understood.
Gallow continued, an edge of malice in his voice. “We are in the midst of a crisis, caught between an enemy we can see, and one we cannot. Each of you are the vanguards for the new republic and the champions of doing what is right, regardless of consequences.” Gallow’s voice rose, conviction blending with accusation. “It is with much disappointment, that I must share that not all of us have the resolve to ensure the creation and success of the Kestris Republic. Before we can move forward, we must cauterize a wound that would threaten to bleed our efforts to death.”
Several of the generals shifted in their chairs. A nervous throat-clearing slipped out from an unidentified source. From the same doors that Gallow had arrived through, a pair of honor guard forcefully escorted a man into the chamber, holding him under each arm. He was in a white and gold admiral’s uniform.
Gallow stared directly ahead, his shadowed face directed at those present. The only sound was that of the honor guard’s heavy boots ringing through the chamber. The honor guard led the man across the room to where Gallow stood. Though the man was obviously a captive, he held his head high in defiance.
The footfalls stopped in perfect synchronization, the final smacking of boot-heels allowed to ring in the air until the room returned to complete silence. Responding to some unseen cue, the honor guard presented the admiral to Gallow and took a single step backward.
The admiral stood directly beneath one of the harsh overhead lights, grim lines of shadow carved into his aging face. The missing eleventh leader had arrived.
“Admiral Marcos Elliot, you stand here today charged with treason and high sedition. You have betrayed your chain of command and sought to undo all that we have sacrificed and will continue to sacrifice. Have you any defense for your actions?”
Admiral Elliot snorted softly, lifting his chin. “You dare say that my actions are treasonous? You are deluded. This is a mockery and pageantry constructed for your own sadistic entertainment, as well as being outside the bounds of your military authority. I will not engage in this farce. If you seek to try me and make a mockery of justice in this room, Beckman, you’ll get no contrition from me. I do not consider my actions insubordinate.”
Gallow did not respond. Renic knew of Admiral Elliot’s reputation. He had served the Imperium Navy for decades and was a decorated war hero who controlled the sixth fleet, or he had until this moment. Elliot had a lengthy history of being loyal to the office of the High Imperius, not necessarily the man. How anyone could attach themselves to the current High Imperius was a mystery to Renic, but it appeared that Elliot did not agree with taking matters into one’s own hands. Renic felt a twinge of pity for Elliot; he was a capable asset who had let misguided loyalties cloud his wisdom and would now pay for it.
Gallow took a step toward Elliot. “Do you deny that you were caught conspiring against me—and all those seated at this table—in an attempt to alert the Hundred to the coming turbulence this empire must face?”
Elliot relaxed his shoulders and smiled. A pained smile. “Cut this pomp. As I said, this is not a court and you are clearly no longer my leader. Unadorn your language so it matches that ridiculous uniform you insist on wearing and get to the point.”
Gallow stepped into the circle of light imprisoning Elliot, the fleet marshal’s face clearly visible for the first time beneath the spotlight. He was half a head taller than the admiral, his powerful frame eclipsing the smaller man’s average, untrained physique.
Gallow scoffed, clasping his hands behind his back. “Very well, Marcos. You were caught interfering with my plans to station your former fleet around Dai’Reen. Had you not so foolishly conspired with someone already committed to our cause, you may have actually influenced our trajectory. Fortunately, you were reported before you could do any actual damage.”
Elliot laughed bitterly. “You are the damage. You were an exceptional leader of people once and served the Imperium with honor. Your victories on the battlefield were legendary, and the confidence you instilled in the people after the war was genuine. It’s a tragedy that you let power corrupt you.” Elliot’s face hardened, chin lifting in defiance. “Maybe you’ll unseat the High Imperius. Maybe you and the rest of these traitors will take control. But, taking control is not the same as victory. I may not have been able to thwart you, but your actions will be unforgivable. And your Creator will know it.”
Gallow’s head snapped back to face Elliot, “You know nothing of the Creator’s will.”
Elliot smiled. “I know the Creator is supposed to be just. You’ll have to live with the knowledge that you came into success as a traitor, an unrepentant monster, and a liar.” Elliot pulled his shoulders back, breathing deeply and keeping his chest inflated. “I see you, Gallow; you don’t even believe yourself.”
Gallow’s jaw quivered. A trill of panic gripped Renic. It was impossible; Elliot had gotten to Gallow.
Gallow turned to address the nine seated leaders. “If you agree with the admiral’s words, speak and he will receive my full pardon, his protection and freedom guaranteed once we are victorious. All will be forgiven.”
Gallow clasped his hands behind his back and waited. Not a single word was spoken. Renic’s fingers dug into the armrests of his seat. Gallow did not say things he did not mean. If any of the other leaders spoke up, Elliot would be pardoned.
“No one? If raising your voice concerns you, a raised hand or a twitch of a finger will suffice. I also guarantee no retaliation against whoever speaks up. You will have full, unequivocal immunity. Elliot and his defenders will be kept safe and transported to a location in the Fringe of their own choosing once our victory is secured.” Gallow paused. “No one? Is there no one in this entire chamber who will speak up for the admiral?”
Not a sound was heard. A few of the leaders stole sidelong glances to their neighbor, but none came to Elliot’s aid. Gallow’s control over them was complete.
Gallow turned back to Elliot, releasing his hands from behind his back and clasping them in front of him. “It’s a shame this is what you chose. Your last thought will be knowing that your body will never be found, your family will never know what happened to you, and that your efforts are lost to history, serving only as an example of what happens to those who defy me.”
Gallow nodded to one of the honor guard standing behind Elliot and extended a hand. In a blur of movement, the guard handed him a bolt pistol and with no hesitation, Gallow aimed the weapon and fired a bolt into Admiral Elliot’s chest.
The energy tendrils from the bolt arced around Elliot and he dropped limp to the floor, his body’s systems overloaded from the surge. There was no blood; the bolt pistol must have been set to maximum neural overload. It happened so fast, even Renic flinched at the sudden movement. No one had been prepared to watch a man’s execution against the backdrop of Kestris shining through the window, not even Renic. Gallow’s willingness to bloody his own hands to make a point was remarkable and terrifying. Renic forced himself to release the breath he’d been holding.
No one spoke. Gallow handed the weapon back to his honor guard. The same two guards who had brought the admiral in now each grabbed one of his arms and dragged him back through the same door. All of the guests seemed to be in a stupor, seeing the honor guard at the doors, seeing Elliot’s body being dragged away. It was clear now; there was no going against the fleet marshal.
Gallow straightened his uniform and turned back to address the seated generals. “There is a vacancy on this council,” he said, his words serrated as they ripped through the silence. “I would like to introduce Admiral Elliot’s replacement, General Yvonne Sonia.”
From the front row of the gallery in a seat too convenient to have been unplanned, General Sonia rose and silently walked to Gallow, shaking his hand and then taking her place at the central table’s vacant seat just as her name appeared on the eleventh planet on the display. The insurrection was ready.
Renic’s apprehension was replaced by a manic sense of elation. This was the fleet marshal in his element; taking control, dispensing justice, ensuring victory through necessary sacrifice. The time for hesitation and doubt was long past, anyone who was not fully committed at this point was only prolonging their own execution.
Gallow surveyed the seated leaders for a moment, silently scanning each one of them before finally taking his own seat on the other side of the table. Without warning, an additional group of honor guard entered from the door Admiral Elliot had just been dragged through. Renic counted twenty. They walked in unison across the chamber and lined up behind the chairs, two behind each of the ten gathered leaders. One general turned in his seat, confused shock on his face as he stared up at the pair of blue-uniforms standing just over each shoulder.
Gallow spoke from within the shadows, his seat free from the exposing lights overhead. “As a token of my appreciation, I am gifting each of you a pair of attendants selected from my personal honor guard. They will stay with you throughout the coming weeks, ensuring you are free from threat or distraction. They will serve you with the same loyalty as they serve me.”
Renic’s mouth dropped open. It was a brilliant move. Gallow had placed an extension of himself on every ship, sending a final message of control to each of the ten leaders.
“Return to your ships. Orders will be granted within the hour to assemble the fleets around your assigned systems. You are to ignore all orders that do not come directly from the Terminus itself, at which point you will execute the orders you are given without deliberation. You are dismissed.”
Gallow stood and strode back through the same door he had entered through, the same one Admiral Elliot had disappeared into. No one stood until Gallow had cleared the doorway. An indistinct murmur of voices arose, but with the honor guard still present—and now permanently present—what could anyone say? None were willing to risk incurring Gallow’s wrath after what they’d witnessed, and certainly not for the High Imperius’s sake.
Renic rose with the rest of those seated in the gallery and shuffled toward the exit. The smell of bolt-fire lingered in the air, a reminder to everyone present of what would happened should they attempt to thwart the fleet marshal’s plan. Failure had never been an option, but Renic felt a renewed urge to make sure he never found himself in the position of letting Gallow down.
Admiral Elliot died because he talked to the wrong people. As Renic’s gaze shifted from the elevator’s that led back into the Terminus’s decks and the doors to Gallow’s private offices, Renic decided to ensure he does not commit that same mistake.