Episode 21: Total control

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Renic has witnessed what Gallow is willing to do, Admiral Elliot's fate being a permanent example. Still aboard the Terminus, Renic wishes to make sure he does not meet the same fate.

Renic’s walk from the conference chamber to the lobby of Gallow’s personal offices did not take long. Renic had no business with anyone else who had attended the meeting, they were merely conspirators whose faces he would pretend not to recognize until after Gallow’s plans came to fruition. Renic’s only present concern was speaking with the fleet marshal, the single person who mattered. The honor guard standing on either side of the doors into the fleet marshal’s administrative floor appeared to feel the same way as they continued to ignore Renic entirely.

Renic had not seen Gallow on his way from the conference chamber. All attendees had made a cautious, controlled rush for the foyer, visibly eager to leave the Terminus, their new honor guard escorts right behind them. Gallow’s message had required no further deliberation: do what you were asked and be rewarded, or choose to suffer the consequences as Elliot had. Simple.

Renic’s experience in covert operations was extensive, skulking about the perimeter of a situation and striking accurately without warning was why he had been chosen. Working solo, carrying out the tasks needed to ensure that the plan went the way it should was easy enough. But maintaining the false pretense that he was working with OS-9 and Major Drake’s staff, though, would be a distraction. Best he minimize that opportunity for error now.

Besides, Drake and his people would not matter once the final phase of the plan was implemented and Archer was installed as president. Renic needed to be in the thick of things, taking action, not attending meetings. He was too valuable to the plan for that. Gallow would understand.

Renic checked his comm. He’d waited long enough. Quickly straightening the jacket of his uniform and striding across the lobby, he stopped just shy of the doors he knew led into Gallow’s personal office suite. Neither honor guard acknowledged him.

“I am here to see Fleet Marshal Gallow. Please notify him.”

The honor guard turned his head, his voice firm and self-assured. “The fleet marshal is not taking unscheduled appointments. If you wish to speak with him, inquire with his staff about his availability.” He shifted his eyes away from Renic and returned to staring straight ahead. 

Renic stifled a reaction. The honor guard was correct about the unscheduled appointments; Gallow did not entertain unannounced visitors. But, since Gallow had invited Renic aboard the Terminus already, this unscheduled visit was not necessarily unannounced. Unlike the other collaborators who had only part of the story, Renic was on the inside; some rules didn’t apply to him.

Renic stepped in front of the guard and forced eye contact. “I am aware of the policy. You are his staff, and I am inquiring with you right now. I do not have time to debate this. I realize these uniforms do not convey rank, but do you realize who I am? The capacity in which I serve the fleet marshal?”

The honor guard’s eyes tightened, a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice. “I do, Commander Tau.”

“Then you know that my business with the fleet marshal is not to be interfered with. I carry critical, face-to-face intelligence that the fleet marshal must be made aware of immediately.”

It was a plausible lie, one the honor guard would not want to risk. The honor guard looked to his companion, receiving a near-imperceptible nod. He looked back to Renic, speaking as if their conversation had just started.

“Commander, you have been extended an invitation to enter.”

The honor guard took a half-step to the side, continuing to stare straight ahead. Renic paused, confused at the lack of communication. “Do you not need the fleet marshal’s response?”

The honor guard’s head turned slowly, a deliberate exhalation audible as he moved. “Yes. And I have received one. He has granted you permission, as I just stated.”

Renic felt a lump in his throat. Of course; embedded comms. How long had Gallow been listening to the caller at his door? Renic now had only a few seconds to come up with the critical intelligence he’d promised. 

Summoning a caustic smile, he gave the honor guard a curt nod and stepped towards the doors. They slid open without a sound. Renic squared his shoulders and strode forward, seeing for the first time Gallow’s open-floor office space, several administrative staff seated behind broad desks covered in display screens, holographic projections, and piles of datapads and computers. The sound of technology and the murmur of voices created a drone of sound that had been completely inaudible from the other side of the doors. 

Directly opposite Renic was another set of doors, flanked on each side by enormous windows, the fleet marshal visible at his desk inside. Renic quickened his pace, none of the administrative staff paying him any attention. At the largest, semi-circular desk in front of Gallow’s office was Captain Alaudae. Renic had seen him earlier that day on Kestris accompanying Vice Admiral Lenault to the closed-council meeting, but not in the conference chamber. Was the captain of the honor guard not a part of Gallow’s plan?

Alaudae looked up, met eyes with Renic, then turned back to his display screens. The doors to Gallow’s office slid open just as the windows frosted over to their opaque setting.

“Tau,” Gallow’s voice called out from within the office.

Renic cleared his throat and hurried forward. He stepped into Gallow’s office and the doors slid shut behind him, instantly cutting off the sound of the office floor and drowning him in a unnatural silence. Fleet Marshal Gallow was seated at his desk, reviewing something on the display screen.

Renic did a quick scan of the area, the exclusive residence. He could see a galley, living chamber, personal gym, and several closed doors he assumed were restricted corridors or private elevators. Everything visible was utilitarian. The rumor was that the fleet marshal allowed no one to be present in his residence without his supervision. He even did his own cleaning, just as he would have as a low-ranking recruit in decades past. Gallow was a true leader, demanding from himself just as much or more than he demanded of others.

Gallow turned from his screen. His desk had several displays, a collection of books, a stack of datapads, and a pencil-and-paper set. Each of these items was carefully aligned and evenly spaced, with nothing in any sort of disarray. However, the same could not quite be said of the fleet marshal; the top fasteners of Gallow’s uniform were undone, a light sheen of sweat visible on the man’s neck. Renic found himself momentarily distracted by a few strands of gray chest hair peeking up from beneath the collar. He did not usually appear this casual over vidscreen.

A curt growl from the fleet marshal brought Renic’s attention back to the matter at hand. “Commander, you need not fabricate any supposed ‘critical intelligence’ you used to dupe my guard. I allowed you in because your arrival aligns with an incidental matter I wish to discuss.”

Renic bowed his head in gratitude and approached, using the time to force his voice to function and hide the surge of panic at Gallow’s unmasking his intentions.

“Thank you, Fleet Marshal. I apologize for this unexpected visit, but–”

“Don’t bother, Tau. You are advised not to start a habit of lying. To me, at least.” Gallow’s voice came out cool and low, like a dense fog clinging to the ground.

“Of course not, sir. I would never deceive you,” Renic said, adding with a hint of macabre levity, “though it is my job to deceive. Hazard of the profession.”

Gallow’s expression was bored and impatient. When he wasn’t shrouded in shadow or intentionally harsh lighting, his features were far more balanced. He still had the same powerful visage, the same calculating eyes, but the lines and edges weren’t as severe. Instead of being a demigod, he now appeared merely superhuman.

 “Well, Tau? Say what you came here to say.” 

Renic yanked his attention back to his reason for being there. “Yes. Thank you, Fleet Marshal, sir. I would like to propose a modification to the arrangement between my division and OS-9 regarding the Indigo investigation. I will be able to better do my job with more freedom and less outside involvement from competing agencies.”

Gallow huffed, disgust furrowing his brow. “Commander, I realize that you are new to an administrative role, but managing the overhead of cross-departmental collaborations is essential to being a fit leader. Are you incapable of handling Major Drake and his people?”

Renic stifled an involuntary scoff; anyone else speaking to him this way would have quickly regretted it. The image of Admiral Elliot on the floor came to Renic’s mind. Gallow had made it clear he would speak to anyone in any manner he saw fit.

Renic felt his face redden; he chose his words carefully. “No sir, of course not. I am capable of handling Major Drake and OS-9.”

A thread of the same malice Renic had heard in the conference chamber colored Gallow’s voice. “Then what is the problem?”

Renic nodded in agreement, realizing as he did how foolish it must look. He must look. He had been wrong about his exemption to the rules, and the weight of his error in judgement slowed his thinking. Either he recant and act as if he’d come here for no reason and look like an imbecile, or present a well-reasoned-but-flawed argument and hope to salvage some respect. He chose the latter.

“The Indigo investigation. Its charter is to investigate potential insiders in the navy, and aboard the Terminus, who supplied aid and access to the Red Kestrels, for both the hijacking of the Dauntless and the attack on Starview Station. Indigo is looking for me.” Renic stopped himself from saying ‘us.’ It was unnecessary. Both men knew the chain of guilt may start with Renic, but it was Gallow who held the final link.

Gallow sighed. “Indeed, Commander. What better place to put you than right within the team looking to find this supposed source. There was no preventing the investigation turning inward. Indigo is OS-9’s top priority, and therefore your top priority. You must keep the investigation going, fill their days and nights with leads to explore, data to crunch, suspects to profile who aren’t you. Just be sure they fail. You did well with Starview. Your role is just,” Gallow’s mouth almost twitched into a grin, “evolving to meet the needs. Was that all?”

Renic nodded. That was the end of the discussion about Indigo. Renic accidentally shifted in his chair; he should not have come here. Had he really expected Gallow to take a suggestion from his personal, off-the-books hitman? Renic was a weapon to be wielded, nothing more.

Gallow turned back to his desk’s display. “Regarding your evolving role, have you made any progress in finding the location of the Dauntless? Casto was supposed to have made sure it was spotted by now. I do not like having this lapse in intelligence. The gift to Casto was contingent on his group being visible as perpetrators.”

The question caught Renic off guard. What did Casto’s failure to parade the Dauntless through the Fringe as a trophy matter in the overall scheme of things? The Imperium was already convinced, whether Reed Casto gloated or not. Renic nodded, regaining some confidence; at least he had a legitimate answer for this. 

“I have division operatives pursuing suspects in active Red Kestrel operations, courtesy of 5E’s shared mission files. In fact, I received intelligence that an asset was left alive on Senali after a 5E raid, one of the low-level players who helped orchestrate the hijacking of the Dauntless. They have been apprehended and are en route to Kestris as we speak.”

Gallow’s eyes narrowed. He had known Casto for a long time, even before the birth of the Red Kestrels. Was this Casto’s way of showing Gallow he did not have the complete and total control over the situation, with Renic acting as their unwitting intermediary? 

Gallow’s hand closed into a fist. “I want the location of the Dauntless. Track it down.”

The fleet marshal’s shoulders shifted away from Renic and back to his display. Renic stood, bowing his head. “Yes sir. I will make locating the Dauntless the highest priority of our division.”

“See that you do, Commander. You have done well so far, and that uniform is evidence of your reward.” Gallow raised his chin. “Do not presume that what is given cannot be taken away.”

Renic found himself nodding, resisting the urge to apologize, and walked back to the double doors where the honor guard waited outside. His reason for coming here had been an embarrassing miscalculation of Gallow’s sensibilities, but the chance to make up for it with the Dauntless was a new way to regain the fleet marshal’s favor.

It would take a pivot of his plans for the division. Finding the Dauntless had not been on his list of priorities. There had been no reason to care. But Casto himself had given Renic a clue when he tried to goad him about Senali. The man who may have the answers about the Dauntless was the same man left alive after a knife-wielding, female agent raided the Kestrel operation on Senali. And, he just happened to have been apprehended by some of Renic’s new operatives two days ago.

Renic stalked past Gallow’s office staff, past the honor guard, past all the eyes that deliberately ignored him as he approached the lobby to the elevator that would allow him to exit Gallow’s world and return to one where he was in control. It was time for Renic to make use of the Naval Special Investigation Division’s underground interrogation facility for the first time.

The elevator doors opened and Renic stepped onto the floor of the Naval Special Investigation division headquarters. The first class of his operatives milled about at the half-filled desks that occupied the space. Renic had made certain that personnel would be called operatives, not agents. He didn’t need that lingering influence of 5E ruining his new command. Here, several levels below ground under the Imperium navy headquarters on Kestris, he was the one in complete control.

Renic strode across the well-lit space, division operatives briefly pausing what they were doing to acknowledge him as he passed. Renic had made it clear during recruitment that the focus of the division was on results, not on formality. No salutes, no rituals, no pomp. This was a place of action that would soon serve a republic, not an empire.

The person Renic was looking for approached from a set of doors at the far end of the expansive room. Operative Kogan, the man’s muscular frame stuffed into the same blue division uniform, had been hand-picked by Renic to serve as his adjunct. Kogan had been a navy commando squad-leader with a long history of successful assaults. If Renic were to entrust his priorities to a right-hand, he’d prefer a warrior over an administrator as his personal assistant.

“Commander. The prisoner is waiting for you. Level six, observation room three,” Kogan said, arms flexed stiffly at his sides. Renic smiled; this was the kind of respect he deserved.

“Excellent. Condition?”

Kogan raised an eyebrow. “He’s in one piece. Not terribly happy about it.”

Renic smirked. “Him, or you?”

Kogan shrugged. “I told him the orders were to take him alive and that he could make it easy or hard, but that our ship’s medical bay could keep him alive long enough for questioning if he wanted to make it difficult. He chose easy.”

“Humane of you. Let’s go.”

Renic and Kogan proceeded to the elevator and level six, a level not accessible from any surface elevators. None of the division’s facilities were accessible without passing through this floor first. When the fleet marshal had ordered the space converted to serve as Renic’s headquarters, the request had required no approvals, no oversight committees, no budget constraints. Gallow had wanted it, and it was made so.

The incoming class of operatives and personnel were excited to join the well-funded and prestigious new division, completely unaware of Renic’s special place in the birth of the republic. Among those in this first group, only Kogan knew of Renic’s shadow objectives. Renic had  chosen him specifically, Kogan having been among the commandos who had been prepared to storm Reed Casto’s Dradari compound had Renic’s visit gone poorly. The man knew how to keep secrets and follow orders without needing a reason. Despite what the warrior lacked in administrative experience, Kogan’s time as a black-ops commando had proven he would never, ever, open his mouth about anything he saw.

The two men entered the elevator, leaving a wake of respectful nods from the scattering of operatives, and descended the four levels in only a few seconds. The doors opened and revealed the empty hallway of level six, the observation facility. Kogan stepped out first, walking with purpose down the darkened hallway to the third door, the only one with a light on.

“In here,” Kogan said, stopping at the door to the control room where a row of chairs were pushed beneath the observer’s desk, row after row of display screens showing the empty, stark-white room on the other side of the wall and its single, restrained occupant seated and hunched over the interrogation table.

Kogan nodded to the screens. “It was like he was waiting for us on Senali. And, he’s got a stab wound over his left clavicle. Deep.”

Renic scoffed. Of course she had used the knife. Imagining the conversation that must have transpired nearly brought a smile to Renic’s face. Samantha’s escalation curve was abrupt. The 5E mission files about Senali had made no mention of this Kestrel, but Reed Casto had. Samantha must have left him alive to intimidate the Kestrels, to tell his story. He’d be telling it now, but not to whom she had intended.

Renic turned to Kogan. “I want this room dark. No recording, no observing. You’ll stay here and ensure that the floor remains undisturbed until I am finished.”

Kogan nodded once. “Yes, sir. You will not be disturbed.”

Renic entered the control room and crossed to the desk where he entered a command into the computer, the interview room just on the other side of the technology-covered wall where his guest was waiting. The door to the hall behind him slid shut and the display screens each went dark. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out a handheld datapad, one he had loaded with information on his way down from the Terminus. Gallow wanted to know about the Dauntless, and this man might have answers. He might also have answers about something much closer to Renic’s personal interests.

Renic pressed a button on the control room console and the door to the interview room opened. As he strode inside, Renic was careful to let his sigh of exhaustion announce his presence.

The interview room was a featureless white cube with one featureless white table and two featureless white chairs. In one of the chairs was Renic’s guest, hands in restraints magnetically bound to the table, his crumpled body the image of abject, total defeat. 

Renic crossed to the far side of the table and half-sat casually on its surface. “Eddie, do you know why I am here?”

Eddie Renner looked up, his expression crumbling as he stared up at Renic. He seemed to recognize the question.

“Yes. No. I don’t know. Your people already got what they wanted out of me a week ago. Why come back?”

Renic nodded at Eddie’s shoulder. “The blade; I apologize for that. We do not condone the use of torture without proper authorization and a physician’s supervision. I assure you, you’ll receive no mistreatment from me today.”

The look on Eddie’s face did not reflect any sense of reassurance. Renic pulled out the chair on his side of the table and sat, making a special point to move slowly and predictably. He placed his hands on the table and locked his fingers together, mirroring Eddie’s restrained hands that were clamped in place.

Renic began calmly, “Eddie—actually, do you prefer ‘Mr. Renner’?”

The confusion on Eddie’s face intensified. “Are… are you serious?”

Renic turned a hand palm-up. “You’re a guest here.”

“Uh, Eddie, I guess,” Eddie mumbled, eyebrows scrunched in confusion.

“Eddie, good.” Renic stared silently. It was difficult to resist playing interrogation games. Build rapport, repeatedly use first names, offer hope and act as an ally. The difference today was that Renic already knew everything Eddie had done. After all, unbeknownst to Eddie, Renic had arranged for the whole caper.

“Eddie, nine days ago, an unidentified assailant broke into the building where you were attempting to decode classified Imperium Navy data you acquired during the assault, hijacking, and subsequent disappearance of the Imperium Navywarship the Dauntless.”

Renic paused. Eddie’s mouth opened. He stared at Renic as if he was trying to find a question in the statement. Renic waved off the effort and continued. “This is information that has been confirmed by several sources. You need not bother denying it. I was merely informing you of the facts before we start.”

“Hey, I wasn’t—I mean–” Eddie stammered. Renic activated the datapad he had brought with him and slid it in front of Eddie’s hands, the man’s face clearly visible in a frame of video footage taken during the original handoff of the information needed to compromise the Dauntless several weeks past. Eddie’s face sunk as he recognized himself in the image.

“It’s okay Eddie. No one is watching us. Cameras, sensors, any recording devices, all off. It’s only me, Eddie. Just you and me.” Renic tapped his interlocked fingers on the table, appearing to be in deep contemplation. “There is a lot happening you aren’t aware of. I’ve been in contact with your boss. Not Kat; the real boss. Reed Casto. I spoke to him only a few days ago on Dradari. Still finding orange sand everywhere. Reed provided me your name and whereabouts so you could be plucked from the jaws of the Imperium and taken to safety.  He was very proud of you. You understand how we had to make it look.”

A slow dawning of realization crept across Eddie’s face. He’d been given a little hope and was clinging to it.

Renic leaned forward, speaking only to Eddie. “You’re a competent technician, you knew that the access to the Dauntless had been provided from elsewhere. I am the elsewhere.”

Eddie’s head jerked to the side, looking back to the interview room door. “Wait—you? You worked with Kat?”

Renic smiled at Eddie’s reaction to this revelation, ignoring the question. He picked up the datapad and navigated to a new photo and held it up for Eddie to see. “Do you recognize this person?” Renic asked.

Eddie’s eyes widened in terror at the blond-haired woman posing in front of the textured background that all 5E agents had their public government identification photos taken against.

“I thought you might. This person gained entry, killed two of your Red Kestrel associates, briefly questioned you, then left with copies of your personal data just as more Red Kestrels you’d alerted arrived. All I need from you is to answer my questions to the best of your ability.” Renic shrugged. “That’s it.”

Eddie nodded slowly, then more vigorously. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”

“Good. Can you confirm that my statement about the events nine days ago is accurate?”

Eddie hesitated, one eye squinting as he thought. “Yeah, yeah that’s what happened.”

Renic nodded, opening his hands to Eddie. “Anything else important come to mind?”

“No. It was just like you said. We were at one of my, uh,” Eddie looked away for a moment, “hacking dens we call it. We were running over the data we had taken from the navy systems. Everything had already been copied before the ship was sent off to Reed. I was doing more of an exploratory analysis, looking for anything else of value that could help us.”

“‘Us’ meaning the Red Kestrels?” Renic said, allowing Eddie to invest in their growing rapport.

“Yeah. My job was done, you know? I’m a regional guy, working for Kat. Reed’s business is sector-wide.”

“And the Dauntless, do you know where Reed is hiding it, or why he hasn’t been seen flaunting it as agreed?”

Eddie winced, shaking his head. “No one told me. I mean it. The only people on the ship when it jumped out were Reed’s inner circle, trusted people from the Dradari chapter only.” Eddie looked back to the interview room door. “You gotta know how these types of operations are run. If Reed don’t want me knowing, then ain’t nothing getting to me.”

Renic nodded. “Eddie did you have foreknowledge of the brutal terrorist attack on Starview Station?”

Eddie reared back, attempting to lift his hands only to jerk against the restraints. “Whoa. Hey, no. No, no. I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t even know it was being pinned on the Kestrels until I heard it on the newsvids. Look, when I saw that shit go down, I made my peace and was just waiting for you guys to come back just like she said.” Eddie gestured to the datapad with an immobilized finger.

“Good, Eddie. I didn’t think you did. Tell me what you remember about the person who broke into your hacking den.”

Eddie’s face scrunched up, he blew out a little puff of breath. “I didn’t even know she was there. Building was wired top to bottom, supposed to be secure. Not Imperium-grade stuff, but enough I always felt safe.” Eddie closed his eyes, his body reacting to the memories. “All I remember was lights out, then turning around to see some sort of scuffle. She hit me with a stun charge, and the next thing I knew I was being smashed into the wall.”

“You didn’t fight back?” Renic asked, hiding his inward amusement.

“Fight back? By the time I could see again, I was on my ass with some—what was she—an Imperium assassin standing over me with that curved knife.” 

Renic tapped the datapad. “And it was the woman I showed you in the photo, yes?”

“Looks like her to me. She was wearing some sort of getup, all black, augment visor was pushed up on her head. It was dark, I just remember she was mad and had that knife. And some drone, little flying thing she’d talk to.”

Renic’s eyes narrowed. Julian. It was too easy to forget that Samantha was not alone. Her controller may have been irritating and dreadfully boring, but that would explain the ease of Samantha’s infiltration.

Renic nodded in understanding. “The drone was remotely operated by someone speaking into her ear. What did they talk about?”

Eddie shrugged, a wave of shame filling his eyes. “Gets sort of fuzzy after she put the halo on me.”

Renic’s throat tightened. He lunged forward, momentarily forgetting his facade. “A neuro-interference device? What did you tell her?” 

Eddie reared back in his seat, pulling against the restraints. “I don’t know what I said to her! She fried my brain, okay? I don’t know what I remember, or if my imagination is creating memories of things that didn’t happen. It’s all just… man, she scrambled me bad.”

Renic’s stomach dropped out from under him. He forced his breathing to slow. None of these details had been mentioned in any 5E mission reports about Senali or the Kestrels, details that would have been standard, critical additions in any report. The realization chilled his blood; Samantha was only of average skill when it came to technology, covering her digital tracks was well beyond her capabilities.

But not Julian’s. 

Renic’s voice squeezed out through his constricted throat. “Do you remember anything she said to her counterpart on the other end of the drone?”

Eddie’s head swayed to the side, pulling back with confused apprehension. “She said something about Kat. Like she wanted to talk to her, or stay on Senali. Whoever she was talking to changed her mind.”

Renic leaned forward. “She mentioned Kat Basara?” 

“Yeah.” Eddie’s eyes wandered the room, searching for something. He settled on his hands. “I think… I think I mentioned the Navy… to her, while that thing was on my head.”

The chill in Renic’s blood froze him in place. Samantha’s apartment. The put-off. The lack of any records. Her absence from the High Imperius’s address.

Had Samantha already known?

Renic willed himself to regain control of his reactions. “What else happened?”

“Uh, the rest of my crew showed up and scared her off. The whole ordeal was maybe ten minutes. It’s all scrambled, I still don’t feel right.”

Renic’s mind was putting pieces together faster than he could make sense of them. He needed to do damage control. This intel could not be allowed to reach Gallow.

Eddie leaned forward, face just over his hands. “I—what am I doing here? She said she’d find me. Is she one of yours then?” Eddie glanced down to the restraints. “That’s what this is about?”

Renic exhaled slowly. “No. She is not here.”

Eddie sighed, visibly relieved. “But she’s one of you? I mean, you sent her, right? Some sort of task force?”

“You don’t need to worry about her. She’s gone. All you need to worry about is what you did, Eddie.” Renic pretended to think, stalling while he constructed a plan on how to deal with Eddie. He was no good to the Imperium now that he knew Renic’s involvement with the Kestrels. He could kill him and have Kogan dispose of the body, but something about that didn’t feel right. Eddie was just as culpable as Renic, and he had just witnessed Gallow leverage dozens of people working for him throughout the military’s leadership, all in secret, all culpable. The same tactics could be employed here.

A plan crystalized in Renic’s mind; moving Eddie under his employ was his way to the Dauntless.

And Samantha.

“Eddie, these crimes you’ve committed against the Imperium should result in a swift execution. Possibly public. And yet,” Renic waved his arm wide across the observation room, “you’re here. Not charged, not in a cell. No one knows but me and my associate outside. You still have a way out of this.”

Renic snapped his fingers and the restraints released. Eddie jerked his hands back and rubbed his wrists, his face wrinkled with subdued amazement, having completely missed Renic’s other hand on the datapad which was connected into the restraint’s controls.

“You’re here by my grace, and my grace alone. That means you work for me now, Eddie. Not the Imperium, not Kat, and certainly not Reed Casto.”

“Wh–” Eddie started, but was cut off by Renic’s forceful interruption.

“You’ve been found by my people now, what, twice in a week?”

Eddie sputtered. “Look, I–”

Renic summoned Gallow’s essence, remembering his threat to Admiral Elliot and everyone around the conference chamber table. “Eddie, I’m going to let you go, but if you try to hide, I will find you, I will kill you, and your body will be disposed of. No one will know you’re gone. Eventually, when the people you know start asking each other ‘Hey, have you seen Eddie? Where’d Eddie go?’ they’ll finally realize that no one has seen you for weeks. They may look for a few days, but then they’ll stop, faster than you’d guess. And Eddie Renner will be just another vanished political dissident that no one cares about, forgotten forever, a meaningless end to a meaningless life.” Renic exhaled heavily, tapping his fingertips lightly on the table. “Or, you avoid all that and play along with what I ask.”

“Ah, fuck.” Eddie looked to the ceiling and squeezed his eyes shut hard. “Can’t you people just be through with me?”

Renic frowned and layered his voice with concern. “Why did you choose this life? You have talent. But you chose to join the Kestrels. Why?”

Eddie looked back to Renic, a sign of life sparked in his eyes. “I got tired of my people being treated like nothing but resources to harvest or as disposable soldiers. All for this place.” He jerked his chin upwards.

Renic clasped his hands together, settling back into a listening posture. “And who are your people?”

“The Fringe. There’s a hundred planets in this sector and yet your eleven ‘unified’ worlds are all that matter.” He chanced a glower. “My people fight in a war as your conscripts. We die, and to this day, we’re treated as an enemy even after all we give. Nothing but a buffer between the Imperium and the Sellacans.”

Renic narrowed his eyes. “Yes, but you’re far too young to have fought in the war. Even as a child.” 

“You think I didn’t have family? Friends? Senali was one of the first planets to be conscripted. Both parents and my brother were sent to the Gulf. The Promontory Nebula.”

Renic nodded, a new respect for Eddie finding its way to the surface. “The Promontory Massacre.”

“That’s right. Imperium ships fired on the Sellacans as well as all the Fringe conscripts. They didn’t care. If it wasn’t white and gold, it was expendable.” Eddie’s voice lowered, a murmur in the acoustically deadened room. “I never saw them again. No social welfare out there. I was a beggar in a sector where we can fly between stars, yet I could barely eat. I learned to get good with tech. The corporations wouldn’t hire me. But the Kestrels did. Kat supported me.” Eddie’s eyes hardened. “What would you have done?”

Renic slid his hand across the table, fingers splayed, shifting his tone to one of encouragement. “You’re alive Eddie. That can’t be said for many your group has left in its wake. Be valuable to me. Our goals are not that different. You can still help your people out in the Fringe and help get justice for the crimes of this empire.”

Eddie’s gaze fell to the open restraints. “Okay.” He sat upright, squared his shoulders, and placed his unrestrained hands on the table. “What do you want me to do?”

Renic stood, picking up the datapad and slipping it back into his pocket. “You’re going to Dradari. I’m going to have my man standing outside get you safe passage and an anonymous transfer of credit for your trouble. You’re going to resume your life and you’re going to watch the Kestrels. You’re going to notice things and you’re going to tell me about them. At some point, I’ll ask you to carry out tasks for me. Simple tasks, nothing dangerous.” Renic walked to the door and stopped, turning to Eddie. “And, who knows, perhaps when this is all over, there’s a chance you could be rewarded for your service.”

Eddie’s confused gaze went to the floor, then back up to Renic. “When what’s over?”

Renic smiled grimly and exited the room.

The doors to Renic’s personal office slid shut. He’d walked—double-time but still walked—across the division floor, nodding at the personnel who nodded at him. But now, inside his office, he sprinted around the desk to the computer, shoving the thickly padded chair out of the way.

Senali. Both the division and OS-9 had access to all 5E records. Typing furiously, he pulled everything created over the last six months about the Fringe planet where Samantha had raided Eddie, scanning everything from the date of the raid to the present. He could hear the sound of his labored breathing through his nostrils, air being forced in and out with each new revelation.

Gaps. Holes. Omissions of things he knew had occurred. It was useless. Everything was useless. The sequence of events became clearer. Eddie had tipped Samantha and Julian off without realizing it, and they’d already had their hands on all of this data. 

Samantha’s reluctance to continue their conversation when he had visited her apartment suddenly seemed so obvious and contrived. When he’d steered the conversation to the Kestrels, she’d quickly steered it away. Why had he trusted her? Samantha had asked him to give her a few days to think. He’d allowed it. He’d given her space; avoided checking in on her location; made sure she did not see his digital footprints on her records, on access logs of her missions, on her use of agency resources. It was meant to be a sign of respect, a sign that he was the right choice for her.

She had played him.

The urge to hurl his computer across his office swelled through his limbs. With shaking hands, he navigated to her 5E record. Not her government profile, but her actual record only accessible to senior leadership within the Imperium intelligence organization, like a commander in the Naval Special Investigation Division.

Her photo appeared on the screen. Not the one he showed Eddie, but her agency operations photo, several years older than the photo on the datapad. Gone were the bright eyes of the cadet who had entered government service after her father’s untimely death as an Imperium diplomat to several Fringe planets; Dradari included.

Renic remembered the first time he’d met Samantha, lined up on the training grounds of Imperium Academy of Logistics and Operations. The instructor had been barking at the new recruits.

“And your name?”

“Mori, sir. Samantha. Reporting for assignment.”

“Mori? Like Ayen Mori?”

“Yes. My father, sir.”

“What’s the daughter of a man like that doing here? We don’t pay shit, and most careers here end up in a casket.”

“I’m defending the Imperium, sir.”

“Really? How interesting. All by yourself?”

“If that’s what it takes.”

“That’s the spirit, Cadet Mori. Let’s see how long you can maintain it. You’ll be training with Agent Tau, here. He’s one of my best. See if you can learn something from him.”

“Yes, sir.”

They’d become friends then, and remained so for many years after. But no more.

Renic’s eyes lingered on the photo, then shifted to the block of personal information just to the side.

“No,” he breathed.

Beneath her name next to the ‘status’ label was the answer he needed. Section-42. Person of interest. Whereabouts unknown.

Renic cursed and shouted, slamming both fists down onto the computer, bits of glass and plastic spraying out. The screen went dark and he hurled it across the room. It smashed into the wall and burst apart. 

What had she done? 

Renic shouted again and ripped his chair away from the desk, throwing it into the wall where it fell to the floor, rocking unevenly as it settled onto its side. 

Heavy breathing filled his ears, the fierce inhale-exhale cycle punctuated by the rapid pounding of his pulse. Strands of his normally slicked-back hair had fallen over his eyes. He placed his hands on the desk and looked down to himself in the reflection of the black-glass surface. Losing control would serve no purpose. When control was lost, one must do whatever it took to regain it. There was nothing more important than control.

He closed his eyes and took a deep, controlled breath. Four seconds in, hold for four seconds, four seconds out. Repeat. Control must be maintained. Control must be maintained.

Control. Control.

He smoothed his hair back into place and straightened his uniform jacket. Himself once again, Renic strode purposefully to his office doors, which retreated at his approach. He scanned the floor and zeroed in on the closest operative with a computer.

“You,” Renic barked at the operative, Tess Millinson, standing at her desk removing personal items from a box. “Connect to compound security, tell them I need a master-at-arms and arrest team to meet me on ground level immediately.”

Millinson froze momentarily, small potted plant still in her hand. “Commander Tau, your comm can–”

“Operative Millinson, I will not repeat myself!”

All division personnel within earshot stopped what they were doing to watch. Millinson set the plant down hastily and got on her computer. Renic turned and stalked off toward the elevators. Behind him, he could hear her repeating his orders, adding a flustered “I don’t know… he’s heading up right now… just make sure they’re there…”

Renic stepped into the elevator carriage. He needed to calm down. He was under Gallow’s employ, the fleet marshal would not tolerate being embarrassed or having any unwanted attention drawn toward anyone in their scheme. Stay calm, stay in control.

He looked at the state-of-the-art comm around his wrist. He hadn’t stopped to think that he could have ordered the arrest team himself.

He smoothed his already-smoothed hair back again, straightened his already-straight jacket again, and pulled down his already-pulled cuffs again. Control must be maintained. He clasped his hands behind his back and waited, jaw clenched. 

Renic felt something along the outer edge of his hand and pulled his hands around in front again. A few small bits of plastic and glass were stuck to his skin, along with a scattering of small, bleeding cuts. His jaw clenched harder. He must retake control.  

Samantha’s voice played in his mind.

“I’m defending the Imperium, sir.”

“Really? How interesting. All by yourself?”

“If that’s what it takes.”