Episode 20: To prove a point

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The Matilda is still in jump space. Both Decker and Samantha, with no place else to go, find other people to talk to.

Samantha finished rubbing her hair dry and tossed the soaked towel into the half-full laundry chute, then stood at one of the four, dull metal sinks bolted to the equally dull metal bulkheads. Being a working ship designed around utility, not comfort, the Matilda’s washroom facility resembled a locker room more than it did any passenger vessel’s accommodations. Everything was metal, even the mirrors were not glass but metal polished to a mirror-like sheen.

It was easy to see why Decker liked the Matilda so much; it was the opposite of the sleek Navy ships he’d spent so much time on. The Matilda wasn’t just a vessel to Decker and his crew. They worked together, ate together, and seemed to spend most of their time in the crew lounge together. With none of the same considerations for comfort that a civilian transport or Navy warship had, the Matilda seemed to have to turned into a home despite the ship’s lack of comfort. 

Samantha had stayed in her quarters the first day of the jump. The quarters were meant for working crew, not passengers. The quarters Samantha’d been given had a bed, a desk, some storage compartments, and what would have been a small area for some furniture had it not been stacked with boxes of things one step away from being ejected out the refuse chute. And, for the time being, it was Samantha’s new mission headquarters.

While the attack on Starview Station was nothing she could have controlled, it was understandable that her hosts might need some time to process. She did too. By the time she’d sorted through the events and was prepared to converse with Decker, it seemed he’d used that time to construct his own take on the situation. The result of their combined perspectives had left her alone on the observation bridge, and she had not seen him on her way to the showers. 

Samantha’s clothes felt especially dirty after three days, one of which had entailed a gunfight and sprint through a deteriorating space station. Everything she’d planned to bring was orbiting Kestris now, other than the computer Julian had given her, the karambit, and the other two items she’d had the foresight to put into the computer bag; her halo and taze container. In two more days they would arrive in Mentaryd, and she’d be able to purchase what she needed to continue to Senali. Unless Decker changed his mind about leaving her, securing new transport and backup would be a challenge. He’d be ready to talk again once he had time to think. The first conversation had merely been to open the communication channels. This is how they each dealt with obstacles. He needed time to ponder his life; she needed time to plot her next move.

Samantha leaned forward, inspecting her sleep-deprived, bloodshot eyes in the mirror. She ran her fingers through her hair, doing her best to smooth it out. A brush had also been one of the things in her travel duffel. The black hair-dye that anchored her flimsy Olivia disguise would need to be removed. Olivia would be circulating among all the data recovered from Starview. Might as well begin to distance herself from that spent identity as much as she could. Her typical missions did not involve appearing to be someone she wasn’t. Between the visor, tacsuit, and Julian in her ear, she usually wasn’t visible long enough to be identified at all. But, so far, there was nothing typical about this mission.

On a modern military or agency ship, a four-day jump would mean they were constantly receiving updates from their destination, new orders from command, real-time imagery from their insertion zones and eye-witness accounts from spotters already on the ground. Not now. Four days was how long she would be stuck here, unable to make any meaningful action or gather any new data. The amount of things that could transpire in four days was unthinkable. The Imperium would have reacted to the incident on Starview by now, and there was no telling how severe that reaction would be. 

Samantha stared at herself in the mirror, its metal surface not perfectly flat, giving her a slightly warped appearance. The attack on Starview and her rapid evacuation off of Kestris were tied to the same inciting event, the Dauntless’s disappearance. Without that, there would have been no Senali mission, and no discovery of the Terminus encryption signature. The Kestrels were being moved like a game piece by an unseen hand, forcing both her to react. 

Questions burned in her mind. Had Clarke withheld information that would have prevented her from leaving? It certainly would explain his urgency and insistence that she depart immediately. But, even if Clarke had known something, his orders were still the most rational course of action; get off Kestris, pursue the Kestrels as an external threat they will not see coming. Their window of opportunity was as thin as the edge of her karambit.

Samantha turned on the sink, wetting her hands and rubbing the frigid water on her face. The other question that gnawed at her was about Renic. He was an experienced operator and tactician. Arrogant, selfish, cold-hearted; all those things. But not foolish. He had appeared out of nowhere and dropped hints about Defense Minister Archer, Fleet Marshal Gallow, the Terminus, the Dauntless. He had claimed he wanted to recruit her to work with him to pursue the Kestrels. 

Renic’s intentions were harder to decode for one simple reason; his personal attachment to Samantha clouded his judgement. Decisions should be made based on their strategic significance, not personal feelings. He had let those feelings be known, which had given Samantha an early warning. If he had kept his approach objective, maybe she would be back on Kestris right now, working for him, too filled with bloodlust to care who she was working for. It was a miscalculation on his part, letting old romance be used against him. Regardless of his intent, had he also known something was coming? 

It seemed clear that all of these things were connected, it just wasn’t clear how. Or, the more aggravating question; why? The Red Kestrels desired to antagonize the Imperium, but that did not seem to be enough of a reason, especially if they were  willingly taking the fall for someone with access to the Terminus’s computer core as Julian had hypothesized. There was a goal in all this that she couldn’t see. The Dauntless, the Terminus signature, Starview Station. Just like Clarke had said, they were all setups to something. Destabilization, but of what? The Navy? The empire? And to what end? Leaders throughout history who have sought to weaken the internal scaffolding of their own government had always been the precursor to one outcome—an insurrection.

Samantha’s head dropped as she sighed; access to a repeater node couldn’t come soon enough. Julian and Clarke must be wondering where she was, what she thought of the event. A grin bent her lips; if only she could tell them how close she had actually been to the action; that she had been in the action. There had to be a way for her to let them know that the mission was still on without exposing herself or either of them.

Footsteps sounded on the metal floor leading into the showers. Soft steps, not booted feet. That ruled out three of the five crew members. Samantha kept her head bowed; no one on the crew was likely to want to converse. The arriving crew member stepped through the open hatch into the shared washrooms.

“Dye job, huh? Not too bad, could have probably done better for you myself, though. I can mix up just about any shade, hue, tint, sheen. Unless you’ve gene-modded, of course. But judging by how you missed your eyebrows, I am guessing this was more of an at-home rush-job.”

Samantha raised her eyes to the polished mirror. The distorted image of Eliza, Decker’s enforcer, could be seen undressing in the reflection, black-and-white cybernetic arm tossing her balled-up pajamas text to a neatly folded stack of fresh clothes on the metal bench bolted near the stalls.

Eliza pulled back the curtain to the center stall and turned on the water, standing with her natural hand in the streaming water. She caught Samantha’s eyes in the reflection and continued.

“It was a convincing job, apart from the eyebrows,” Eliza said, pointing back and forth to where her’s would have been with a cybernetic finger. “People always forget. That’s why I just go without. On the side that can still grow an eyebrow, I mean.”

Samantha raised her head, conversing through the reflection. “I suspected that chromatic red wasn’t your natural color.” 

Eliza smiled and rolled her eyes upward. “I go for the gene mods. I’m already part artificial; why stop now?”

Samantha watched Eliza reach in and feel the water, vapor starting to form beneath the metal ceiling. The wild makeup that swept back from Eliza’s eyes and across her temples was gone, revealing a face that was much more thoughtful and subdued, even with the sly grin present. Her eccentric appearance was likely a facade, something used to mask whatever personality she was hiding. Samantha could relate.

Eliza was small, roughly Samantha’s height, and had an athlete’s sinewy build. The full extent of the scar tissue and cybernetics were plainly visible. The damage was extensive. The left side of her head, neck, upper-body, and most of her left leg were covered in the same rough, pinkish-tan scar tissue. It looked especially severe where the cybernetic arm attached to her shoulder. A white, cybernetic mounting collar covered her shoulder, chest, and upper-back. The cybernetic arm couldn’t just attach to the shoulder socket. The mounting collar would be connected to her ribs and shoulder-blade through the skin. There was no way it didn’t keep Eliza in constant pain.

Water vapor indicating a scalding temperature had been reached, and Eliza stepped into the shower stall, yanking the curtain shut behind her. The sounds of splashing water echoed, a white noise that drowned out the rest of the ship’s creaks and groans.

“Ship life, can you believe it? Probably not what you’re used to,” Eliza shouted over the din, apparently happy to continue their conversation from within the stall. “We’re traveling through some sort of quantum wave of spacetime, and we’re still stuck using a locker room. I told Heavy to make sure we never run out of hot water.”

Samantha started to reply, but found she could think of nothing to say. Eliza didn’t seem to be conversing with her so much as at her. With nowhere else to go but back to her junk-filled quarters, Samantha turned and leaned against the sink. Besides, if she hoped for Decker to come back around, having some of his crew on her side could have been a vote in Samantha’s favor. Whether they liked her or not, Samantha needed them; this wasn’t the time to further alienate people.

Eliza’s voice called out from the stall, practically a shout. “You know Deck from back in his Navy days, yeah? Old war buddies or something? Post-war, I suppose. Not sure anyone out here would really consider anything over so much as on hold.”

The statement caught Samantha by surprise; had Decker not told his crew that he and Samantha were related? Manu knew. He’d been around when Decker first tried, then abandoned, life as an Imperium Navy recruit. The thought hadn’t occurred to her that Decker may have never mentioned he had an estranged half-sister. That she would feel a twinge of hurt at the fact hadn’t occurred to her either.

“Something like that,” Samantha shouted back awkwardly. “We’ve known each other since before he joined up. Been through a lot.”

“If the shouts I heard from the bridge are any indication, I’d say that’s an understatement!” Eliza laughed and stuck her head out from behind the curtain. “I’ve got one good ear, and one great one.” She disappeared back into the stall, a drawn-out chuckle audible beneath the sound of the rushing water.

 Samantha folded her arms, jaw pulling to the side. The Matilda’s metal interiors seemed to carry sound better than she had anticipated. The crew’s group dynamics were already starting to play out. Decker would sulk but find his way back to her side of things, eventually. Manu would follow Decker, so long as it didn’t appear Samantha was a direct threat to his well-being. The big one, he seemed open to her presence until she proved untrustworthy, and the navigator seemed willing to accept her as long as he had a chance of accessing her tech. Eliza, she didn’t seem to care either way, providing there was some excitement.

There was a camaraderie between the crew members that Samantha lacked with, well, anyone. She hadn’t needed to integrate with unfamiliar people for quite some time. She missed having Julian in her ear. They were tuned together, him watching the big picture so she could focus on the task in front of her. It had felt like an asset in the past, but now, Samantha had to accept the fact that it was now a liability; she did not have the experience to do what she needed to do alone. Friends may not be something she’d sought out, but in a silent war against the Kestrels and their collaborators, allies were going to be essential. If she wanted some, she would need to try to be one.

Samantha turned back to the mirror. Her eyes still showed the fatigue and her cheeks were still slightly sunken. Swallowing a taze would fix the tiredness, but the appetite suppressing side effect would leave her in an even worse state once it wore off. She needed to be mission-ready when—provided she could get Decker to agree—they got to Senali. That was four days at best, maybe five. The number of ways the situation could change between now and then were endless, and she couldn’t think of any that were to her favor.

Enough rumination. Samantha took a rapid, deep breath and considered stepping toward the corridor back to the crew quarters just as the water to the shower shut off. She remained leaning against the sink, a lingering curiosity gnawing at her.

Eliza pulled back the curtain and stepped out, pulling a towel off a hook next to the stall. She looked at Samantha and gave her a sly smirk, making no attempt to hide her appearance.

“Kind of you to wait,” Eliza said as she rubbed a towel down her body, cybernetic arm moving with unnatural fluidity compared to the one of flesh and bone. Even though the arm wasn’t meant to look natural, it was clearly not a cheap off-the-rack piece of hardware. Smooth, muscle-contoured white polymer plating partially covered thick black cables, wiring, and movement linkages visible between the gaps. The hand was made of thin finger-segments with some sort of grip-skin pulled over it, the semi-transparent black material looked almost vacuum-sealed to the dainty structure beneath. It was an elegant piece of technology, one that seemed built to prove a point and make a statement.

“Nowhere else to go,” Samantha said, waving her hand toward the ceiling. “We’re in a jump blackout on a ship that is mostly empty cargo space, and I haven’t exactly made the best first-impression with the crew.”

Eliza made a face. “Bleh. I’ve bugged Deck about getting a new transmitter for months now. Always something else to pay for. If the Matilda here was ever in ship-shape, it’s been quite a while. But,” she looked about in approval, waving her cybernetic hand at the metal pipes, conduits, and other industrial anatomy that covered every inch of the freighter’s interior, “being a little busted up is nothing to hold against something. Or someone!” Eliza looked down at her body, eyes widening as if she was seeing the extent of her injuries for the first time, then laughed as she brought the towel to her brightly colored hair and vigorously rubbed it dry. She swept it all to the right side, letting it hang down over her good ear, leaving the scarring on the left side of her head and the small cybernetic node in place of an ear exposed.

Samantha caught Eliza’s gaze and nodded toward the left of her body. “What happened?”

Eliza grinned, but her eyes did not reflect her smile. She looked down at her body and shrugged, waving her hands from shoulder to thigh. “Nothing interesting, just a bad day at work.”

Samantha nodded slowly. “What kind of work puts someone in a situation with that sort of risk? Mercenary life?”

Eliza tossed the towel onto the bench, then picked up a tank top and black pants made of shiny material. She spoke as she dressed, almost bored with her own story. “Well, Deck says you worked for Imperium intelligence. Investigations, interrogations, assassinations, yeah?”

Samantha caught herself uttering a bitter laugh. “Something like that.”

Eliza shrugged, shimmying into the glistening pants. “Well, I used to be sort of on the other end of that deal. I was system law enforcement, somewhere far away from here. A hard-nosed investigator rounding up the kind of folk that were probably responsible for things you might have been interested in if I didn’t bring them in first. Only difference is, everything I did to keep the peace was visible for everyone to see. All dagger; no cloak.”

Samantha shifted her position, posture straightening slightly. “It happened in the line of duty, then, before the hired gun life.”

Eliza grimaced, pulling the tank top over her head. “Line of duty. You could say that. We entered what we thought was an arms factory whose owners had caught wind of us and already bailed. Turned out the place was wired to blow, top to bottom. By the time we realized it was a setup…” Eliza made an explosion gesture with her hand and fingers. “They tell me my good side was pinned under a pile of warehouse. Old lefty here nothing but pulp. There was a fire. Obviously.” She chuckled, gathering her clothes and towel from the bench. “But hey, I was knocked out, which I suppose is better than the alternative. One minute I was shouting into my comm about the explosives and running to the exit. The next thing I remember, it’s four weeks later and I’m in an atmospheric isolation chamber, half the woman I used to be.” 

She brought up her mechanical arm and turned it over, back and forth, then gave Samantha a little wave with the fingers. “They had to cut off what was left right then and there. Never got those bones back.”

Samantha’s eyebrows raised slightly. The story was sanitized, just enough to invite elaboration. If Eliza was going to offer these openings, Samantha was going to take them.

“You say it was a setup. You and your partners get caught in the middle of something not meant for you, or were you the target?”

Eliza’s grin faded, her eyes cold and serious. “Never found out who tipped them off. I spent a year recovering after I got out of that chamber, another year learning how to live with these gizmos. I was given the option of a pension and early retirement, or sticking around knowing the person who did this could be at the desk across from me. I chose the former.”

Samantha let out a breath; the second life Eliza had built was admirable and not what she had expected. “I’m sorry that happened. Being betrayed is a special kind of hurt.”

“Hey, I’m still alive, right? This is who I am now. I don’t mind it. I’m thinking about getting the other side done, balance it out. You’d be surprised at how much faster you get drunk when you’re missing an eighth of your body.”

Samantha surprised herself with a single, stifled chuckle. “It still hurt?”

Eliza scrunched her nose. “It would, if I didn’t have this.” She tapped a small housing near the front of her mechanical shoulder. “Painkillers. Monitors my body’s response and keeps a little juice running through me all the time. Adjustable in case things get bad, or I’m feeling like having an extra good time.”

Low-grade, persistent drug use to ease unrelenting pain; another thing with which Samantha could empathize. “And without the drugs?”

For the first time since Samantha had boarded the Matilda, she saw Eliza’s face relax into a sober, self-aware lucidity. “A lot less fun. You’d hate her.”

Samantha held her gaze for a moment, then nodded. Eliza looked like someone had started to put her back together, but abandoned the attempt halfway through. The air of charm and impish unpredictability was a good facade, Samantha couldn’t fault her on that. Sometimes a person had to put on an act to distance themselves from themselves. Samantha felt a twinge of sympathy.

A moment passed and Eliza shrugged, the wild-eyed and spirited face returning. “I’ve got something for you.”

She went to one of the locker-style cabinets across from the shower stalls, retrieving something from a shelf. She walked to Samantha and held out a plastic bottle with a pointed nozzle on the top.

“This will take out that dye, in case you wanted to clean up. I can put some clothes in your quarters if you want to change into something a little less ‘imperial agent on the run after a grisly shootout.’” 

Samantha extended her hand, and Eliza gave her the bottle. 

“Welp, time to go recharge. Body. Mind. Battery,” Eliza said with a little nod to her arm. “You know, the bunk mattresses on this ship aren’t too bad. Decker knows how important a good nap is. Maybe take one. I may be only be three-quarters of a person, but I gotta tell ya, you look awful.”

Samantha frowned thoughtfully at the suggestion of a nap. Her body had not had the chance to readjust to Kestris time, and she’d lost track of how long it had been since she last slept without the halo.

Samantha raised the solvent bottle and nodded in gratitude. “Thank you.”

Eliza shrugged and sauntered toward the corridor. “There’s always drinks in the galley. It’s ship life. Any hour can be happy hour.”

Alone once again, Samantha brought a hand up to her cheek and pulled an eyelid down, examining the inflamed, web-like veins that reddened the whites of her eyes.

Eliza was right. She did look awful.

… Eight. Nine. Ten.

Decker let the handles of the cable-weights slam back against their brace. Free-weights were not ship-friendly, especially on a ship like the Matilda. They had enough rough-rides as it was; he didn’t need to see what a free-floating barbell could do when the grav generators were cut and then flipped back on. 

A vessel of the same volume as the Matilda designed to transport people would have at least half a deck dedicated to exercise and movement. Not the case on the Matilda; most of its volume was made up of the cargo bay. When you were trapped in a ship with nothing but the void of space around you, being able to keep your body active was a luxury. If the crew needed exercise, their options were running laps in the frigid cargo bay, or hitting a few of the exercise machines in the captain’s cabin-turned-gym, since Decker wasn’t using it for his own quarters.

As the cargo hold had just been the site of a man’s death and subsequent funeral, it was not a place Decker wanted to be right now. That meant sweating out his frustration in the tiny, makeshift gym.

… Eight. Nine. Ten.

That’s what it was called now—the gym. Originally intended as the captain’s cabin, separate from the rest of the crew and toward the ship’s bow, it was a multi-room setup; sitting room for hosting guests, bedroom with full sized bed, microkitchen for times the captain couldn’t be bothered to make it to the galley, and a half-office with a tactical console connected to the command bridge.

Of course, no one used it for any of those things. When he and Manu had purchased the Matilda, both refused to take the captain’s cabin. Neither wanted to be shouldered with that title, even if the crew insisted on foisting it upon them anyway. After being unable to convince the other to take it, they agreed  to rip out the furniture and turn it into an exercise room, adding a pair of omni-directional treadmills, stationary bikes with virtual-reality goggles, and a variable-resistance cable machine, which he was using now. It wasn’t much, but when his options were banter with the crew in the lounge and this, the combination of exertion and seclusion was what he needed after the conversation with Samantha he’d just endured.

… Eight. Nine. Ten.

“You and I can still make a difference together.”

Make a difference for what? The Imperium? Damn the Imperium. What did he care? They were no friend to the Fringe, to Decker.

“He killed them. You ran away from it. I ran toward it. This is where it has led us.”

Led us? To revenge? For what? His father was no saint. He and Reed had been cut from the same, red cloth. Sure, maybe Decker’s father had been honorable at first, and maybe the Kestrels were just a veteran’s activism group. His mother must have seen something in him. But that was over two decades ago. His father had run her off, lured by Reed’s thirst for retribution. If Decker should be mad at anyone, he should be mad at Ayen Mori, Samantha’s father and the man who rescued his mother from Dradari. He left Decker there alone with his father and the Kestrels, the tainted progeny of his new love’s youthful mistake.

Samantha made it sound like the entirety of the Red Kestrels had hunted down their parents and murdered them for political reasons. The reality was that it was a stupid, personal feud between a bunch of grown-adults who should have known better and controlled their tempers. Holding on to hatred and revenge had grown old a long time ago. So long ago, in fact, that Decker had to remind himself every day to forget.

Samantha knew Decker wanted to forget better than anyone. Was her generous payday just a hook to get onto the ship and then start working him? Appeal to finances. Appeal to morals. Appeal to the past. Appeal to the future. 

And why him? He believed her when she said she knew nothing about Starview. She couldn’t have known they were going to meet up right at the moment the Kestrels struck at the Imperium. Samantha may be capable of great violence, but she operated with a code. There was no reason to disbelieve the information she shared, but he knew she hadn’t told him everything. As long as she withheld information, she thought she was in control. That was how it worked with her. People were resources first, people second. Or third.

… Eight. Nine. Just one more.

Ten.

Decker let the handles drop, the resistance cables snapping back into place. He picked up the soggy towel on the floor and wiped his face, then threw it across the room. It smacked into the wall and slid down, the sweat-soaked fabric crumpling into a tired heap. That’s how Decker felt right now. A tired, soggy heap. He picked up the bottle of water next to his feet and took a long pull. Despite the claims of the stress-reducing benefits of exercise, he felt no better. He should have been puffing the nether-cartridge between sets.

“That machine owe you money?” Manu’s voice sounded from the doorway. 

Decker snorted, leaning his head back against the padded backrest. “Maybe we can add a punching bag to the set up. Or maybe Heavy will let me practice as a smashball lineman against him.”

Manu walked down the narrow central aisle between the various machines. He sat down on one of the short benches against the wall and folded his arms. “I don’t think you’d survive a scrimmage with Hev.”

Decker snorted. “Yeah. Probably not. How’s the trio?” he asked, figuring it was the best place to start. Decker hadn’t checked in with the crew since jumping from Starview. They knew he needed some me-time.

Manu rocked his head back and forth. “Eliza’s, well, Eliza. She has a dangerous new person on the ship bringing death and destruction in her wake—what more could she want? Heavy is just concerned about getting the Matilda here back in working order, and Sellivan—shit, I don’t know what that guy thinks even when we’re not in a mess. He’s been glued to his computers.”

Decker sighed. “Okay. Let me have it.”

“Have what?” Manu said, feigning bewilderment.

“Look, I know. I brought this onto us. I pushed it on you, on the crew.” Decker shrugged his shoulders to his ears. “To be fair, it’s not as if I could have known what our little pickup mission would turn into. Samantha either. I believe her story, the parts she’s sharing.”

“It’s an awfully opportune series of coincidences,” Manu held up a hand, “to be fair.” 

Decker took another long pull from the water bottle and sighed. “I know we can’t trust her by the typical definition of the word, but I trust she’s not trying to dupe us. In fact, this is reassuringly consistent behavior for her.”

Manu’s head flopped to the side. “Uh-huh. Okay, what’s the story she’s selling you?”

“Well, says she’s on her own. Not with the Imperium, she says there’s corruption and some sort of insider collusion with the Kestrels.”

Manu scoffed. “The Imperium eroding themselves from the inside? Now that’s what I’d call reassuringly consistent.”

“Apparently she’s gone absent without leave to take on whatever it is she’s taking on. Claims the Kestrels are the scapegoats and she wants to go through them to get to whoever’s using them as a smokescreen.”

Manu folded his arms. “She’s pissed the Kestrels got one over on her.”

“That’s what it’s looking like. A vendetta.” Decker took another pull from the water bottle. “And she thinks I’d want to help her.”

“Because of your parents,” Manu said flatly.

Decker grimaced. “Who knows? Yes. Maybe. I mean, who in the Fringe doesn’t have a few family members they’ve lost? Not everyone goes on a revenge rampage for twenty years.”

“I think there’s one person who did, and she’s looking to recruit you. You may have tried to leave it behind. Shit, Deck, you even joined the Imperium Navy to try and distance yourself from your father’s mess. Both of your lives are a reaction to the Kestrels.”

Decker glared at Manu. “Yeah, but then I left the Navy to do what we’re doing now. Let’s not forget about that.”

Manu shrugged, clapping his hands against his legs. “Either way, same thing controls both of you, just in opposite directions. You even been back to Dradari?”

Manu was leading Decker down a path he wasn’t enjoying. He shook his head. 

“Think about it, Deck. With that stunt she pulled on Starview with the computer, she’s got some pretty deep connections. This job we’re dancing around, what exactly is it?”

“It sounds like her job with information security evolved into something off the books. I am guessing she went the operator route. 5E. Probably black-ops. Something that someone with her temperament would be more comfortable with than the average person.”

Manu nodded slowly, seeming to remember something. “Spy stuff.”

Decker threw the empty water bottle next to the towel. “It was. Now, I think she’s, what, a vigilante? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“Nah Deck, it makes perfect sense. She’s got a cause. A mission. She’s trying to right the wrongs. You two share a bunch of traits.”

Decker opened his mouth, his mind lagging behind. None of his responses seemed adequate. “Yeah.” He paused. “It don’t matter. I told her when we reach Mentaryd, we’re done. We’ll give back half her money—I figure we earned at least half just getting her off of Kestris—and then she’s on her own. Then it’s back to normal business. Chasing down more work and ducking all the corporations we’ve pissed off.”

For once, Manu didn’t have an immediate rebuttal. They sat in silence, the ever-present hum of the ship’s systems a bed of white-noise.

“You’re not convinced,” Manu said, resting his head back against the wall.

Decker’s forehead wrinkled. “Convinced about what? Her story?”

“No. About returning back to business as usual for the Matilda. I’m not looking to run out and get killed by the Kestrels or the Imperium, but look at what we witnessed. I’m no fan of her approach, but when the Fringe is blamed as a whole for what groups like the Kestrels are responsible for, are we really okay letting our people be the collateral damage?”

Decker rolled his eyes. “Come on Manu, you sound like her. What we ‘witnessed’ is Imperium infighting and all-around treachery. Red Kestrels have been pulling this kind of shit for how long now? They probably already caught whoever was responsible.”

Manu’s grim laugh resounded against the metal ceiling. “Now, you know that’s not the case.”

Decker pressed his palms against his eyes; where was the nether when he needed it? “Yeah, well, what are you saying? That I should be entertaining her offer to join up, brother and sister, on a quest for vengeance?”

Manu leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees. “I’m saying that we’re going to drop out of this jump and into a conflict, and we don’t have much choice on whether we participate in it or not.”

“Fine, let’s go somewhere else, then. I’ve always wanted to see the Gulf, visit the confederation, run up debts in a whole new sector,” Decker said, wishing he had something else to throw against the wall. 

“I ain’t against telling Samantha to find another group of unwitting fools to endanger. If you say we ditch her, none of the crew are going to argue.” Manu let out a breath. “That doesn’t change the fact that I think you still want to do something about it.”

“Do you?”

Manu shrugged. “If the fight comes to us, I’m not backing down.”

Decker straightened himself, setting his hands on his legs, humor gone from his voice. “I already spent half my life feeling responsible for the Kestrels. I learned I wasn’t. I’m no more involved than anyone else.”

The two sat in silence, the white-noise of the ship continuing to hum. Manu’s voice softened. “Why did you join the Navy?”

Exasperation crossed Decker’s face. “Are you being serious?” he laughed. “To see the sector. To meet interesting people and learn important life skills. Everything the pamphlet said.” Decker scoffed at his joke, wiping a hand over his sweaty face. “You know why; it was a way off Dradari.”

“Lots of ways off Dradari. You joined to prove a point.”

Decker rolled his eyes again. “Is this what we’re doing now? Samantha kick you back a few thousand extra to come rile me up? I did join to prove a point. Ten years ago. And you know what? I didn’t prove shit. I joined as an engineer because I thought it would be a job that let me help out. Well, I helped kill a lot of people that I had once called my own, then was chewed up and crapped out the ass-end of the Imperium like all the other frings dumb enough to put any faith in it.”

Decker paused, raising his finger and shaking it in the general direction of the ship’s stern. “Now I’m here on my broken ship, at least two corporations are probably wondering where they can find us so they can extract whatever form of payment will entertain them for ten minutes before pitching us overboard. And you don’t think the Imperium is going to be interested in all the ships that jumped out of Starview in the middle of a Navy snow blockade?”

Decker stood abruptly and cursed something unintelligible. His breathing had become much heavier than he had realized. Had to be from the workout, not the incredulous tirade. 

Manu remained seated, elbows still on his knees. “If you felt that way completely, you wouldn’t be so bothered. Kestrels pulling all this, it pisses you off. And I know you’re going to stay pissed.”

Decker put his hands on his hips, mouth twitching, holding back the words ‘yeah, you’re right.’ As long as he didn’t say it, it wouldn’t be true. 

Manu pressed forward. “If you could have stopped whatever we saw on Starview, even with no love for the Imperium or the people of Kestris, would you have put yourself in harm’s way to stop them?”

Decker didn’t answer, but his mouth stopped twitching.

“The crew, me, anyone else? They’d have watched out for themselves first. But you, Deck, you’d have stepped right in front of them. And not just because of who the Red Kestrels are, but because of who you are. Everyone on this ship—even Samantha—would be stuck somewhere bad if you hadn’t christened this heap Matilda and set off to try to make a life you could be proud of.”

A chill ran over Decker’s skin. He saw the travelers on Starview that had been at the Matilda’s docking tube, how they had begged for passage. How he had acted too slow. How he had let Samantha turn them down and leave them to die. How he had not shoved her aside and followed his instinct. If there was ever anything he’d done he shouldn’t be proud of, it was that.

Manu stood, placing a hand on Decker’s shoulder. “It’s Casto, right at the top of all this. You know that. What’s next? He’s had this insane vision for almost twenty years, and now he’s built up his group enough to act on it.”

Decker’s voice was a murmur. “Yeah, my father’s vision.”

“No. This wasn’t your father’s vision.”

A grim laugh escaped Decker’s mouth. “Wasn’t it? He helped found the group. He helped Casto grow from a busted-up vet to a gang boss to… what, the leader of a multi-system terrorist organization?” Decker turned away, opening and closing his hands into fists. “I saw this with my own eyes. None of the rest of you were on Dradari. Samantha has a vendetta? She was back on Kestris growing up as a statesman’s daughter while I was living in the fucking sand being raised by gangsters, and now that gang is trying to take on an entire empire.”

Manu kept his hand on Decker’s shoulder. “Reed Casto killed your dad because your dad stood up to him when he took everything too far. Both of them were guilty of a whole lot of bad, yeah, but at least your dad tried to do something before things went from bad… to this.”

“And he failed. Are you trying to say that I should pick up his cause? Restore the family name I don’t even have?”

Manu shook his head. “No. No causes or quests or legacies to uphold, none of that shit. All I am trying to say is that however you want to play this, and whichever direction you want to go, do it because it lines up with something you believe is worth doing, and not just a reaction to your sister’s obsession.”

“Half-sister,” Decker grumbled.

“Even better, you only have to feel half as obligated. I won’t follow Samantha’s lead, but I will argue and question your lead as I follow it every step of the way.” 

Decker half-grinned, half-sneered. “So I’m the one who has to decide what we do?”

Manu clapped him on the shoulder—the injured one—and nodded. “You wanted one big job; it don’t get any bigger than this.”

Decker scoffed at his own statement being used against him. Manu gave him a final, rueful grin and left. He’d somehow managed to argue both sides and leave Decker feeling less confident in his decision to jettison Samantha than when he’d first stomped into the gym.

Decker was in this situation. There was nothing more he could do about that. What he did next, though, didn’t have to be just a reaction to Samantha’s intrusion into his life. Not a cause, not a quest, not a legacy. It could be a choice he made intentionally.

And a choice he could make later. He still had two more days of jump ahead. It was a lot of time to think; exactly what he was tired of doing. 

Decker rolled his way onto the floor, stretching out his back, and stared at the ceiling. He felt something in his pocket and reached inside; that’s right, he had brought a nether cartridge with him. He’d been so upset at the argument on the bridge he’d forgotten what he’d been planning to do in here all along.

Putting the nether between his lips, he gave it a deep, long drag. Enough thinking, enough talking; it was time to turn the brain off for a while.

As he drifted off, the one lie Decker had told Manu floated to the front of his mind. He did join the Imperium Navy to prove a point; that he was not just a pale imitation of his father, but that he was better.

Maybe this was a second chance to finally prove it.