Episode 22: Welcome to the Fringe

Click to see catch-up summary

Samantha has no options left. Either she win over the crew of the Matilda and Decker, or she is on her own. Time for Samantha to try a new approach.

The screen on the Matilda’s command bridge tactical station showed the empty void of jumpspace surrounding the ship, their final exit coordinates just minutes away. Decker’s eyes were locked on the screen, waiting for the moment when it would show the Mentaryd system after they dropped back into normal space, four days since they’d entered.

“Helm, ready to drop?” Decker called out.

“Helm is ready to drop,” Manu replied.

Decker looked over his shoulder to Sellivan. “Navigation, coordinates confirmed?”

“Coordinates confirmed. Telemetry is on-target,”  Sellivan replied.

Decker pressed a button on the tactical console, directing his voice toward the wire-grilled microphone port. “Engineering, ready to disengage?”

“Affirmative, drive is prepped for drop,” Heavy’s voice said through the speakers.

Decker looked over the console to Eliza, her face covered with the targeting headgear. “Weapon systems?”

“Trigger-finger is itchy. Can’t actually see anything until we drop, though, so I’m not making any promises.”

Decker returned his eyes to the tactical display. “Well, try not to scratch that itch. We’re giving this drop a lot of breathing room. Still four hours of flight time out from our coordinates. If someone is waiting, I’m hitting self-destruct. The universe is sending us a message.”

“If the Creator calls us back, I am ready,” Sellivan said, no hint of levity in his voice.

Decker waved away the comment, searching the console buttons for the ship-wide intercom he rarely used. Samantha had been asked to stay in her quarters; no reason for her to be on the bridge. Plus, her body reacted to jumps worse than Decker.

He found the button he believed would pipe his voice to the crew cabins. “Uh, Matilda passengers, please prepare yourself to drop,” he said, releasing the button and muttering to himself, “Might as well do something captain-like.”

The crew of the Matilda each returned their focus to their stations. Decker took a loud, deep breath. “Okay everyone, we don’t know what the sector will look like. Could be nothing. Could be something. I don’t think there’s any way for the Imperium to know where we’ve jumped, but at this point we’re not taking any chances. Maintain jump readiness until we get the all clear from navigation.”

Decker watched the jumpdrive counter tick down. Half of him was waiting to see what had happened since they had left Kestris. This half was in direct conflict with the other half of him who wanted to crawl into a secluded nook somewhere deep within the Matilda’s innards with a fresh nether cartridge and forget about the Imperium, the Red Kestrels, his family, all of it.

Manu’s matter-of-fact voice sounded from the helm. “Dropping… now.”

There was no gradual feeling of jump sickness when dropping out. The wave of drop nausea hit Decker like running face-first into a pane of steel-glass. Vision narrowed. Stomach heaved. Ears popped. Equilibrium went haywire as if gravity was pulling in every direction at once, and at the same time not pulling at all.

The tactical display came to life, the Matilda’s sensors pulling in the public data being broadcast into the system. Decker held himself upright on the console, using one arm to brace as he pulled his nether cartridge out of his pocket. He placed it in his mouth, closing his eyes in misery and taking a drag. Jump sensitivity seemed to be hereditary. He could only imagine how bad Samantha felt. Whatever sensitivity he’d inherited, she’d gotten it twice as bad.

“Sellivan, readings?” Decker croaked, watching long-range scanner data populate on the curved glass display of the antiquated tactical station.

“Receiving local system beacons… no Imperium ships on long-range scanners. No orbital patrol restrictions. No news bulletins. All traffic patterns and approach vectors are within normal expectations.” Sellivan looked over his shoulder to Decker. “Mentaryd appears to be safe.”

Decker let his forehead collapse onto the console and took a long drag off the nether cartridge. “Crew, stand down.” He reached up and felt for the intercom button. “This is what’s left of your co-captain speaking. Welcome to the Fringe.”

The halo had reached the end of its fifteen-minute timer and shut itself down not long ago. Samantha wasn’t sure exactly how long she’d taken to wake, the halo’s effects still leaving a mental haze. Her bedroom was dark, the power indicator lights on the various devices in the room like tiny, randomly scattered stars. The artificial constellations did not seem familiar.

Samantha rolled onto her side and pushed herself up, letting her legs swing over the side of the narrow bunk. She pulled the halo off her forehead and placed it on the mattress. Her conscious mind may not have experienced the drop, but her body had. Tiny beads of sweat dotted her arms, and her stomach felt as if it was up behind her lungs.  She didn’t know how Decker’s stomach could endure this every time.

Wait; Decker? Why had she thought of Decker?

“Light’s, full,” she said, a growing sense of uncertainty pushing aside her disorientation. Nothing happened. The fog from the halo obscured her thoughts. Where was she? Not Kestris, she knew that much. Senali? No. She’d been on Kestris, then Starview, and now…

Mentaryd. That’s right. The events of the last few days flooded her mind. There would be no voice-commands to turn on the lights on this ship; she was on the Matilda.

Samantha stood and felt her way to the light controls on the metal wall, bringing them partially to life. After realizing the age of the Matilda’s jump technology and lack of field dampeners, letting the comatose state from the halo absorb the worst of the drop had been a necessity. Next time, she may have to leave the lights on.

They must now be on an approach path to Mentaryd. What did she know about this system? It was a busy commerce junction, right in the thick of the Fringe, far enough away from the Imperium to avoid any significant influence, but still close enough to other systems to be on the winning side of the Fringe’s economic disparity. 

She took a mental inventory of her personal possessions; the clothes she was wearing, the protective bodysuit, the computer Julian set up and its shoulder bag, the sheathed karambit, the halo and its case, and the few remaining taze tablets rattling around in their metal container. As nice as it would be to sweep away the jump- and halo-sickness, better to save the taze for when she needed to take action. There was no telling what quality of pharmaceuticals she would encounter without access to Imperium chemists.

Samantha glanced at the change of clothes Eliza had been kind enough to leave for her, and from the looks of the plain black pants and gray fitted shirt, it was from a rarely-used selection of subdued wardrobe options.

Another object caught her attention, and with it a surge of adrenaline. The bolt rifle she’d taken from the Kestrels on Starview Station leaned in the corner of the cabin, a grim reminder of what had transpired. Normally, it would have been submitted to 5E forensic specialists for analysis and committed into evidence. Now it was just a souvenir.

Not wanting to push the combination of jump sickness and halo fatigue by standing, she leaned out from her bunk and retrieved the computer, opening it on her lap. It was time to tap in to the local system feeds and find out just how far the events on Starview Station had reverberated throughout the sector. It would be the top news story, but the real question was, would the story just beneath it reveal anything she didn’t already know?

The computer attempted to connect to the Matilda’s wireless network. The connection was refused. Samantha raised her chin off her hand. Refused? She tried again, and again it was refused. 

It was not an error or incompatibility. She’d already connected to the ship’s systems when they’d left Kestris. Her computer was being blocked intentionally. She exhaled, controlled and slow.

Decker must have asked Sellivan to set up a block for this computer, using the connection she’d made before they jumped out of Kestris to identify it. A slight inconvenience, easily worked around. The computer generated a virtual identity that could be changed at any time. She entered the command to change it and tried again.

Blocked again. He’d gone farther than just blocking the computer, he’d blocked every computer, probably allowing a whitelist of known crew devices only. Samantha sighed, tapping her fingers against the top of the screen. Decker seemed to be following through with his promise of terminating their working relationship, starting with access to his ship’s services.

A surge of irritation pushed the halo fog aside. Samantha could wait until they arrived at whatever station they chose to take care of the Matilda’s repairs and access the feeds from there, but that didn’t solve the larger problem of Decker proclaiming he was through with the job. He’d said he would give back half of the money, so offering more credits wouldn’t be what swayed him. The computer had programs and tools on it that the navigator, Sellivan, would appreciate, but Decker didn’t seem to be too concerned with his ship’s outdated capabilities. What did he want? She didn’t have anything else to give him. 

Samantha stood, closing the computer and placing it back into the bag. She was incorrect about what she had to offer. She did have something Decker wanted, but it was not exactly her first pick when it came to bartering. What he wanted from her was transparent communication, a show of openness with him and his crew after having withheld the nature of why she’d hired them. 

Well, if he wanted her to be forthcoming, then that’s what she would be. She mindlessly picked up the karambit and slid it halfway into her waistband behind her back, but stopped. Why did she need this? There was no one here that would threaten her, and even in the improbable event that she did somehow arrive in an altercation aboard the Matilda, this weapon would not be an answer she’d be willing to use.

Still, her arm would not respond to her mind’s commands to remove the weapon. What if there was another reason she needed it? What if they were boarded, maybe by a ship with superior stealth technology bypassing the Matilda’s decades-old sensors sneaking up on them. Or, what if there was an emergency and she needed to use the near-indestructible blade as a tool to pry something apart or cut something free…

Samantha stopped her thoughts, huffing as she yanked the sheathed weapon from her back and tossed it onto the bed. She needed to make an effort to be trusted. The Matilda crew was her team for now. Without them, she had no one. It was time to go and be agreeable, or at least not ill-disposed.

Dammit. She would kill for an extra taze right now.

“With over seven hundred dead or missing, the tragic attack on the Starview Interstellar Spaceport is the worst civilian…”

“…though no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, we have learned that the Fringe activist group, the Red Kestrels, are the primary suspects…”

“…We have to ask ourselves: did the people of Kestris deserve this? No. But, did the Imperium invite something like this? I’d say yes. You have to admit that as long as the High Imperius and his Navy push into places they’re not wanted…”

“…exactly what they deserved. We’re supposed to feel bad that a few hundred people in luxury liners had their vacations ruined? Over the last three months, over a two thousand Fringe citizens have been killed in resource harvesting accidents by Imperium-owned corporations illegally occupying territory…”

“…any Imperium vessels seen approaching Sellacan space will be met with maximum force. We will not tolerate incursions or encroachment. While the systems of the confederation do not condone these attacks on civilian targets, the political upheaval in the Imperium is one they have brought upon themselves…”

Reports from around the sector had been streaming in through the Matilda’s local transmitter for the last hour. The sentiment around the events over Kestris varied depending on which feed the crew lounge vidscreen was turned to, but all the pundits and reports were on the same topic, the—what some were still calling alleged—Red Kestrel attack on the Imperium.

Decker leaned against the far wall furthest from the vidscreen. He’d already seen the attack up-close and knew some of the story. Samantha’s version lined up nicely with the newsvids, the commentary putting an almost suspicious amount of focus on the failings of the Imperium and not the attack itself. If this were an orchestrated event to rile up fear and doubt about the state of the Imperium’s leadership, it seemed to be working.

The rest of the crew were all gathered in their usual spots. Sellivan was devouring information on his computer from the corner dining table, Eliza was draped sideways across the easy-chair, Heavy took up two-thirds of the sofa as if it were an easy-chair, and Manu was seated on one of the bolted-down galley stools, back against the counter. None of them had seen what Decker saw. He was grateful for that; the memories of the faces and screams of the stranded passengers being cut-off by the airlock doors wasn’t something any of his crew should have to carry.

All the reports felt off to Decker. Every feed had a different take, but a pattern was emerging. The farther away from Kestris the feed originated from, the less sympathetic the story became. And, there had yet to be any eye-witness accounts from the station. More evidence that supported Samantha’s claim that this was a planned event playing out like choreography.

“Only seven hundred? It looked a lot worse from the outside,” Eliza said, leg bouncing over the edge of the easy-chair. “Considering what we saw at the end.”

“I thought it would be a total loss,” Heavy said, anxiously wringing his huge hands together. “That’s a lot of people, but that means thousands survived. Deck included.” 

Decker sighed, folding his arms. “The station’s emergency systems had finally activated as we were leaving. Escaping really. After that, I gotta assume the intact segments were just a big chain of isolated compartments, some with air, some without.”

Manu shook his head at the vidscreen. “How many attackers were there?”

Eliza shrugged. “Haven’t said anything on these feeds. Maybe they don’t know. I bet they don’t know. Deck?”

“I didn’t see any attackers.” His mind went to Samantha and the scarf she’d shown him. “Is that what they’re calling them? Attackers?”

Heavy looked over his shoulder, counting each label on his fingers. “We’ve heard ‘attackers,’ ‘terrorists,’ ‘activists,’ ‘dissidents.’ Some feeds are just referring to them as ‘the alleged group that attacked.’”

Manu gestured to the vidscreen, his frustration evident. “Everyone is focused on the High Imperius’s reaction. He ordered Imperium ships into protective positions around all the empire’s systems like they’re going to war.”

“Only seven-hundred people?” Eliza said, holding up her cybernetic hand. “Not to be insensitive, but it’s not that many people.”

Decker growled from his spot at the far end of the lounge, unfolding and folding his arms again. “Out here in the Fringe, yeah, that many people might starve to death or be killed in resource harvesting operations every day. This is about fear. Everyone knows that seven-hundred people is not significant in a sector of billions, but everyone also knows they don’t want to be included in the next seven hundred, seven thousand, seven million. If you’re not safe on Kestris, you’re not safe anywhere. In the center of the mighty Imperium, seven-hundred dead, that’s a sucker-punch meant to give the High Imperius a black eye. ”

“The homeworld gets a black eye and the entire system gets to feel it,” Sellivan said. “The Imperium needs to send a message to the Red Kestrels, and any other group thinking of trying the same thing. The system is no longer safe; everyone is going to soon realize that.”

Heavy caught Decker’s attention, jerking a thumb back at the vidscreen. “You think there will be more attacks like this?”

Decker scoffed, flailing an arm at the news. “Hey, don’t look to me for answers. I don’t know anything about the Red Kestrels or what they’re up to.”

“No, I didn’t mean anything by that Deck, just that you were…” Heavy started. Decker’s eyebrows lowered and Heavy quickly found somewhere new to look.

Samantha’s voice sounded from the corridor that led from the crew quarters. “Yes, there will be more. And yes, it is the Kestrels. The question being carefully managed by the paid-off media is who else is with them.”

For the second time since her arrival, all heads turned to Samantha standing in the corridor, hair restored to its natural white-blonde this time.

“So, it was more than just them?” Heavy said, slowly raising his chin. Samantha walked into the lounge—wearing new clothes—and stood in front of the vidscreen. 

Samantha continued. “It was. What we witnessed on Starview Station was not something I had any foreknowledge about, but it is related to why I hired this ship. I know information has been scarce; this isn’t how I wanted this job to start. But if you’re interested in hearing the briefing I had hoped to deliver, I can tell you what I know.”

Samantha looked back to Decker, along with everyone else. Decker stayed silent. He hadn’t told the crew about his decision to abandon the job. If Samantha wanted to try her story on the crew, she had a few more hours left. It was time to see how her story compared to what she’d shared two days ago.

Decker shrugged, trying to look disinterested. Samantha nodded and continued.

“I was an intelligence agent for the Imperium Office of Information Security. You may have heard it referred to as 5E, the group that carries out missions that never make it into the public record. If our activity did appear in the newsvids, it was in the form of a cover story or planted disinformation.”

Heavy muttered something and nodded; Decker could have sworn he said something like ‘spy stuff.’ Samantha did not correct him.

“I talk about it like it’s in the past because my time working for the Imperium officially ended the day I set foot on this ship. It became clear to a very small group within my organization that the Imperium had an inside threat, and that the normal expectations of trust were compromised. It was decided that I should appear to have gone rogue, operating in complete isolation from any Imperium resources or contacts. I have collaborators who are aware of this, but not about where I am or who I am with. I am being literal when I say I am out here alone.”

Manu tilted his head, brow furrowed with skepticism. “That’s an exceptionally drastic move. Do you have a just as exceptionally drastic cause you want to share?”

Samantha took a deep breath, eyes focused on the floor. She raised her head, face devoid of its usual sternness. “What I am going to tell you isn’t public knowledge. It’s not even widely known throughout the Navy. Roughly three weeks ago, following a classified patrol route in the Fringe, the Navy corvette Dauntless was hijacked while answering a distress call near the Protus Nine asteroid mining colony. A call that was designed to be one they would not refuse. Shortly after, communication was lost. We do not have any information on the whereabouts of the Dauntless, but my agency, as well as the Imperium Navy, received credible intelligence that it was the Red Kestrels who perpetrated the hijacking and disappearance.”

Eliza’s eyes widened and she sat up in the chair. “Whoa, wait. Are you saying the Red Kestrels stole a Navy warship? With crew on it?”

“Yes. There are no confirmed reports on the crew’s status, and the Dauntless left no debris that would indicate it is no longer space-worthy, but,” Samantha paused, her expression hardening, “it’s reasonable to assume they were killed in the assault and the ship was commandeered.”

Heavy whistled, leaning forward on the couch. “That doesn’t add up. A modern Navy ship would have safeguard on top of safeguard, not to mention that it’s—I mean—a warship armed from stem to stern.”

“Yeah. There’s been nothing like this on any feeds. If a ship went missing, people would notice. Friends, family, colleagues,” Manu added. Decker grinned; his crew had a point. How much was Samantha willing to share?

“Correct. The Imperium Navy took the loss very personally and have gone to great lengths to cover up the nature of the Dauntless’s lack of communication. My information is stale, but the official stance is that the Dauntless is still officially on classified assignment.”

Manu scoffed. “They’re covering it up because they know it’s an insider setup, is that it?”

Good Manu, Decker thought, keep pushing her. The crew were all watching Samantha now, even Sellivan, as she stood in front of the vidscreen full of silent commentators, delivering this ad-hoc mission briefing.

“I don’t have the answer to that question. They might suspect it, just as those who gave me this mission did, but I have no information on what Navy intelligence is doing. My people and their people weren’t exactly the best at sharing with each other. But there is something…”

Samantha found the same spot on the floor and stared. Decker knew the look, it was the same look she’d had on the observation bridge. She was deliberating. Decker found himself unfolding his arms and taking a step forward. Finally, she looked up and met eyes with each of them, Decker included.

“What I am going to share is not known to anyone in the Imperium outside of those who helped me leave Kestris. This is dangerous information; it is the reason why I am not back on Kestris, and why I had to leave the way I did.”

Decker’s head jutted forward, involuntarily turning an ear toward Samantha. Was she really going to do this? Whether she had noticed his reaction or not, she continued.

“One week ago, while carrying out an investigation on Senali into the Red Kestrel involvement with the disappearance of the Dauntless, information was uncovered that indicated the Dauntless setup was planned by Imperium insiders. The information was so damning that we felt it could not be reported for fear of alerting these insiders and making ourselves targets. I believe that the attack on Starview Station, while carried out by the Kestrels, was a plan conceived by the same insiders who arranged for the Dauntless to be hijacked.”

Decker’s mouth dropped open. Samantha appeared to be taking a new approach, one that involved the actual sharing of information.

Eliza sat up in her chair. “Oh shit… so, you’re saying that the Kestrels are being used as a big, scary monsters by people who want these things to happen for yet-to-be-determined, nefarious reasons?”

Heavy rumbled in apparent agreement. “This makes sense. You don’t know who these insiders are, so you cut yourself off from everyone who could be compromised and hired Decker as someone you know you can trust. Smart.” He turned back to Decker. “Quite a vote of confidence in you and the crew, Deck.”

Decker grimaced at Heavy’s attempt to encourage him. Samantha grinned, seemingly surprised at the summary. “Yes, actually. That’s exactly it.” Samantha turned to point at one of the news feeds behind her, words on the screen about the Imperium government’s reaction. “Look at the fleet movements, the redistribution of power. The High Imperius has granted the Navy almost total control, just short of empire-wide martial law. I believe, as do those who sent me, that this originated in the highest levels of Imperium leadership.”

“Destabilization to prepare for an insurrection,” Sellivan said, normal cynicism replaced with a gravity that chilled Decker’s blood. “I believe we are witnessing the first steps of a hostile takeover.”

Manu exhaled, slapping his hands on his legs and standing. “If that’s the case, what are you expecting to do? Or any of us to do?”

Decker folded his arms and emphatically nodded in silent agreement. Samantha clasped her hands behind her back, pacing a few steps as she continued the improvised briefing.

“The trail picks up on Senali, with the same Kestrel leads I was investigating when evidence of Imperium insiders was uncovered. There are people who stayed behind on Kestris who are depending on me to make progress. That path goes through a known Kestrel collaborator named Kat Basara.”

Decker’s eyebrows raised; this was new information. The crew seemed to be considering Samantha’s words. Maybe he shouldn’t have stayed so quiet if he’d really wanted to be done with her. Now… he wasn’t so sure.

Eliza turned in the easy-chair and sat upright. “Okay, easy enough. I’ve arrested plenty of people in my time. We get to Senali, track down this Basara lady, hit her with a stun baton, throw a bag over her head, and drag her back to the cargo hold for some enhanced interrogation.” Eliza pointed fiercely at Decker. “Alive this time.”

Samantha held up a hand. “I’m not opposed to forcible abduction, but I want to start out more subtle than that. Basara turning up missing or dead doesn’t move us forward or set the Red Kestrels back. The priority is information we can leverage to prevent whatever is going on, which is what I hope Basara will be able to shed light on since she is the only connection I have back to the Imperium insiders.” Samantha raised a single finger and drew a line between two invisible points in the air in front of her. “She is the line that connects to the next step.”

“And what step is that?” Manu asked.

Decker found himself unable to hold back. He stepped forward, coming to a stop just behind the couch, hands on his hips. “Yeah, what is that next step? Even if this Kat person reveals something of value, what are you going to do with it?”

Samantha nodded at the comment. Her agreeableness set off more alarms in Decker’s head than if she’d been obviously trying to manipulate them. And yet, he felt himself wanting to know more. Dealing with honesty was not something he had been prepared to mitigate.

“I don’t know. She’s where the trail ends.” Samantha again met eyes with each of the crew. “But, if you help me establish a new trail on Senali, I will consider that the extent of this job and a continued engagement contract can be evaluated. I am certain the situation will evolve fast enough that any further promises would be rendered meaningless.”

Decker folded his arms and strode past the galley, past the couch and easy-chair, and ended up leaning against the wall opposite his starting point. “So that’s it, huh? We help you out and then just wait and see what happens next?”

Samantha shrugged. “It’s the best I can do. As you all saw, I barely made it off Kestris before things spiraled. Getting onto this ship was my only focus.”

“Okay, if we’re all caught up on current events, what is the actual plan you’re proposing for us?” Manu moved one hand to his hip and gestured with the other toward the command bridge of the ship. “We’re going to coast into Mentaryd’s orbital patrol range soon. We got a busted ship that needs at least a few days in a dry dock, and at least two corporations we’ve pissed off to watch out for. And apparently the empire, the most powerful force in the sector, is readying itself to collapse.”

“And the fact that this ship could be identified as the one that broke the no-fly directive at Starview and jumped out,” Sellivan added, his voice carrying the same gravity and lack of cynicism as before.

“Yeah. That too,” Manu said, planting his hand back on his hip.

Samantha switched from clasping her hands behind her back to clasping them in front of her. Somehow she’d managed to turn this into a real mission briefing.

“Repair the ship as you planned. If you decided to continue with me to Senali, we can’t be restricted to vacuum only. We will need to put down planetside. As this mission is my only priority, I can cover additional costs to accelerate the repairs.”

Heavy raised his hands. “Wait, if you’re out here solo, where do the credits come from?”

Samantha grinned for the first time since stepping into the lounge. “Many of my former agency’s targets were very wealthy, very bad people. Sometimes when these people have no more use for their wealth, some of it goes unaccounted for and is later put to good use, Imperium accountants none the wiser.”

Eliza bounced with excitement, speaking more to the room in general than anyone in particular. “So the Imperium seizes money from its enemies, but then other Imperium folk skim some of it off the top for off-the-books purposes, and now you’re using that same money to fund a rogue operation that is acting against the Imperium, which is itself apparently infiltrated by insiders trying to overthrow an emperor no one even likes, and making it look like a terrorist group from the Fringe is behind it?” She cackled with glee. “This is amazing! I don’t even know who we’re fighting for or against, I just want to get out there!”

Decker glared at Eliza, which only seemed to encourage her salivation at the presented opportunity. He couldn’t totally blame her; this was quite a step up from their last job of nabbing a second-rate, corporate art-thief.

Decker sighed and turned to Sellivan. “How long until we’re in orbit?”

Sellivan entered a command into his computer. “Three hours, twenty-six minutes until we are within range of any station that will serve our repair needs.”

Samantha looked to Decker. “If I’m not evicted from the ship yet, I would appreciate my computer being granted access to the Matilda’s local transmitter.”

Decker raised an eyebrow. “Computer access? I haven’t touched access. Selli?”

Sellivan turned his seat to face the group directly. “Routine security. I was not able to inspect the computer when it was brought aboard, and after the trick on Starview I suspect that is no ordinary computer.”

Samantha pointed back toward the crew quarters. “If I share some of the tech, is that enough of a trade to let me back online.”

Sellivan’s voice filled with the comforting cynicism Decker had not realized he’d come to rely on for his own sanity. “If you intend for this ship to act as a support vessel for your mission, I would expect you to want it as capable as it can be.”

Sellivan looked to Decker. He grimaced, but nodded. Samantha had done it. She’d presented her ask in an open, rational way, and he had no choice but to hear out this version of his estranged half-sister.

 Samantha spoke through a wry chuckle. “Okay. You let me connect, I’ll run you through some of the utilities, like the one we used to jump out of Kestris. No guarantees. I don’t necessarily know how it works. I usually have a partner for that.”

Sellivan entered some commands into his computer. “Access restored.”

“Thank you.” She placed her hands on her hips. “Once the Matilda is docked, I’ll head to the surface, pick up any operational hardware we might need on Senali.”

Eliza’s head snapped to Samantha. “Gun shopping? I’m in.”

“Decker—you, Eliza, and I can take a shuttle to the surface. We can stay on the planet until the ship’s repairs are complete. The rest of the crew can make planetfall to be sure the ship is problem-free before finding out the hard way on Senali.”

Decker shook his head. “As pleased as I am with you giving orders on my ship, I can’t come along. I’m going to help Manu and Heavy get the dry dock squared away. It’s my ship and I want to make sure it’s going to be in good hands. Once that’s done, I’ve got appearances and relationships to keep up on Mentaryd while I’m in the area. I’ll meet up with you and Eliza when the Matilda sets down.

Samantha bowed her head. “Understood. Sellivan, give me an hour to review the data feeds and I can show you some of what I have on the computer before we disembark.”

Eliza stood and cracked her knuckles, the bone ones at least. “We’re making plans, taking orders, assigning roles. It’s like we’re a real mercenary outfit now!” She looked to Decker and grimaced. “No offense.”

Decker only groaned and dragged his hand across his face, nether-cartridge somehow finding its way into his mouth as he did. “Time for a crew vote,” he said.

Eliza jerked her head back dramatically. “We can vote on things? Because I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

Decker scoffed, nether cartridge bouncing between his lips. “This time, yeah, we vote. If any of you are opposed to moving forward, speak up now.”

Decker gave everyone a few seconds. It was Manu who finally spoke out. “We started this outfit as a way to live the lives we want on our own terms. If we want to take the job, then we take it as a paid job, not a crusade.”

Decker shrugged. “Fair enough. No crusades. Anyone else?” 

Heavy stood, head nearly reaching the ceiling. He’d been silent, brow furrowing in thought with each new detail; he could always be counted on to think things through. “We work for you, Deck. You decided this job was worth taking, and until you say otherwise, I’m with you.”

From the dining table, Sellivan opened his response with a sigh. “The Creator put me here for a reason, and he’ll take me out when it’s my time.”

Decker opened his mouth to reply, then realized he wasn’t even sure how to reply to that. He was spared by Eliza’s interjection. “I want to see where this goes, and honestly, bottom-feeding on the corporate mercenary market was getting a little sad.”

Decker growled, the growl of someone who knew this was what he had wanted to happen from the beginning but hadn’t wanted to admit it. “Okay. Matilda is ‘go’ for Senali.”

Just as promised, Samantha’s computer was able to connect to the local transmitter and access the Mentaryd data feeds. She sat on the bed of her temporary quarters, computer on her lap. Publicly available information about the Starview incident was already saturating almost every feed. 

She scanned most of the news originating from Kestris; the conversation had already turned to the political divide and where to place the blame. The opinions of the pundits and analysts were meaningless; the only people who knew who to blame were the players controlling the pieces. 

Samantha noticed there wasn’t a report or newsvid that didn’t mention Defense Minister Archer and Fleet Marshal Gallow, but were they simply the largest pieces being moved, or the guiding hands themselves? Whether they were directly responsible or not, the attack had done wonders for their reach and influence. Hopefully Julian and Clarke were working this angle; a few buried stories had already mentioned the defunding of several antiquated government programs, not bothering to name which. They didn’t have to. This was all unfolding just as Clarke had cautioned it would.

Samantha tapped the table next to the computer. Julian. She could try to construct a message, but her technical knowledge was nothing compared to his. Breaching protocol now could expose them both. She was out; she was safe. A painful aspect of this line of work was that every move you made left behind a clue. The trick wasn’t to worry about the clues you left, but to outrun your pursuers and never, ever return to the scene of a crime.

Okay. No Julian. She couldn’t access Imperium systems either. Her credentials would be burned and guaranteed to be flagged if she did try to use them. Until she had something of value to deliver, all she could hope was that Julian and Clarke were assuming the best.

She pulled up the information database already loaded on the computer. Julian had left her with a very recent, expansive download of intelligence from around the sector, less than a week stale. She created a query.



Red Kestrels.

The screen filled with a handful of results. A predator’s grin bent her lips. If she was stuck on Mentaryd for a few days, she might as well make the most of her time.