Episode 28: Some sort of double-cross

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Decker wanted to get a message to Reed Casto. It appears that Braithwaite helped arrange more than just a message. Somewhere on Mentaryd, Decker is now going to get what he asked for.

Sellivan held the mug of hot water up to his mouth and let the steam warm his face for a moment before taking a delicate, scalding sip as he walked back to his cabin. The water was filtered and recycled through the ship’s system to a state of unnatural purity. It had no taste to speak of. All he could detect was the temperature. 

When he’d first come aboard, the rest of the crew had been bemused by his beverage of choice, unable to accept that a person would choose to drink nothing but hot water. No teas. No flavors. No additives. Never warm, never cold. Only hot, a reminder of the discomfort one must endure to maintain mental and physical cleanliness.

Sellivan stepped through his cabin door, into the bastion of personal space, and let it shut behind him. The Matilda was in a rare state of quiet. No thrumming of the ship’s systems, no low vibrations from the powerplant, and—finally—no unabating banter from the rest of the crew who all seemed to have been in an endless conversation since Sellivan had boarded three years previous.

The events of the last few weeks had pushed his tolerance for clever retorts and dry wit to its limit. Did they ever stop talking? He appreciated the need for a crew to maintain a congenial relationship, locked inside the Matilda for days or weeks on end. The thought of suggesting a scheduled, mandatory quiet hours had crossed his mind. It was not a suggestion he believed would be met with much agreement.

At least their new passenger seemed to be on the quiet side, and rightfully so; she had a lot to hide. Samantha was an intersection between two competing conspiracies; one being facilitated by alleged Imperium insiders seeking to betray their empire, the other instigated by her anonymous sponsor who had sent her away to prevent the undoing of that empire, which—as far as Sellivan was concerned—was not worth saving. Personal misgivings aside, however, it was time for him to make good on his agreement with Manu to look for more information as to what their new passenger was leaving out of her story.

He crossed the short distance to his workstation, setting the mug on the desk next to his multiple keyboards and displays. The cabin was an austere blend of his three duties aboard the Matilda; technologist, medical officer, and chaplain. Maintaining the limited and almost entirely aftermarket technology aboard the ship alone was a full-time responsibility. He took care of the modern additions while Heavy took care of the aging mechanical components, blending the different ship design approaches that spanned several decades. While the Matilda lacked the modern technological advancements of any ship built within the past four—possibly five—decades, it made up for it with its toughness and redundant systems meant to endure long periods in uncolonized space where dry-docks, like they one it was currently berthed in, might be few and far between.

Next to the technology station, in the remaining corner of his cabin, was the ship’s medical locker. Most of the time, it remained closed. There was normally not much of a need for medical attention when they were simply jumping from one job to the next. The last week had given Sellivan reason to do an inventory and make sure they were stocked with everything short of surgical equipment. Most of their previous jobs had not involved so much mayhem, which was good, because there were limits to Sellivan’s medical talents. Should the crew require more than basic field-medicine, they might have need of his third role, the one he had silently appointed himself to.

On the ground next to the bed was a round cushion, prayer beads, and a handwritten volume from one of the many forgotten texts about the Creator; this was the entirety of the Matilda’s chapel. While none of the crew seemed particularly interested in his religion, neither did they seem particularly disdainful. Like most who had abandoned the ancient belief system, they saw his allegiance to the dead religion as more of a superstition, a habit or mental crutch. So far, his self-appointed role as ship’s chaplain was still awaiting its first devotee. That was fine; he hadn’t expected the crew to overtly employ his services in this capacity. The silent prayers Sellivan sent to the Creator during the Matilda’s recent near-catastrophes was evidence enough that his faith was well-placed.

Sellivan sat at his workstation and activated each of the three displays that spanned the desk. The Matilda’s rudimentary computers all routed into Sellivan’s cabin, giving him access to the ship’s systems as well as everything else that had been added or replaced by the ship’s various owners. The display screen to the left showed the same readouts as the navigation console on the command bridge. The center display was Sellivan’s own computer, the one he used to perform the tasks the Matilda’s systems were not equipped to handle. Decker had discussed retrofitting the entire ship with a modern system backbone, but as with every intended upgrade, time was long and money was short. For the time-being, Sellivan was the human interface between old and new.

On the display on the right of his personal terminal was something else entirely. Sellivan called it the ‘Brain’. It was connected to a military-grade, mobile processing core mounted in a nondescript metal case just under the desk. He had salvaged it during a job where the Matilda crew had been asked to pick up high-value wreckage after a corporate feud had turned into a small regional war over some Fringe planet Sellivan couldn’t remember. When boardroom tactics had failed, the corporations had taken to space with their private fleets of military-grade vessels to fight it out in orbit.

Among the haul had been the Brain, the processing unit from a corporate warship that had been shredded to scrap during the battle. The rest of the ship’s systems had been destroyed beyond use, but the processing core was intact, and such a find seemed too valuable to simply give back to the same corporations who had let it nearly be destroyed. So, using his own personal funds, Sellivan purchased the salvage rights to what everyone else had presumed was a head-sized piece of space junk and added it to his modest complement of technology aboard the Matilda. The fact that he left out that this piece of space junk was still operable was an omission he forgave himself for, and hoped the Creator would too.

Sellivan checked the Brain’s display. It had been running at full power for several hours. Unlike a complete computer system, which could do nearly any task the operator asked of it, the Brain was only the data processing core of a much larger system; it still required a system to tell it what to do. Currently, it was acting on instructions from Sellivan’s computer to bombard the Imperium Navy pattern-inhibitor inversion algorithm Samantha had given him with every known analysis tool he had access to. So far, the analysis had turned up nothing. There was little chance the Brain would find any holes or exploits in the Imperium tech, but like all things built by man and not the Creator, it would have imperfections. If the Creator wished for him to discover something, it would be presented in due time.

Sellivan turned to his personal terminal on the center display and connected to the Mentaryd public system networks. Manu had wanted to see what sort of information on Samantha was out there, and Sellivan was the closest thing the ship had to an investigator. While some of what Samantha shared seemed to have elements of factual accuracy, much was missing, obscured, or intended to misdirect. Her endgame—if she had one—was still hidden by whatever was motivating her to take on such an impossible task. One person staving off the fall of an empire was a game that was lost before it started. She may have portrayed her quest as being about duty, but Sellivan knew an adherent when he saw one. Samantha was in this for blood, not just defending her empire, but looking to hurt someone.

All the same, this is something Decker must already be aware of. Sellivan was paid to be a tech and a medic—the chaplain job he did for free—and he was perfectly capable of doing his job whether the crew was being strung along by a vendetta or not. The Creator would guide Sellivan as required, along with everyone else whether they had faith or not.

Sellivan’s hands flew across his console keyboard, issuing commands to use the Mentaryd networks to connect through jumpspace repeaters all the way to the public Imperium networks, making sure to pay the distance fees with anonymous credits from Manu’s provided account. Running an investigation on someone was a task that he did not have much experience with. A typical person would have plentiful indicators of their existence available for anyone to see; education records, work history, public citizen directories. He suspected Samantha would be different. 

Sellivan did know a few things; Samantha was from Kestris, had worked for the Imperium for her entire career, and “Samantha Mori” was, in fact, her real name. That was a start. He entered the name into the Imperium public records database. Nothing.

Not surprising. His next step was to connect to the public records databases on the rest of the ten unified Imperium systems. Nothing again. 

No one was naturally this invisible; clearly her former employer went to great lengths to keep their agents’ names and information out of public records. Obviously, it would not be good if an enemy could discover an Imperium agent’s name and simply pull up a public record profile. Sellivan guessed that Samantha’s DNA, fingerprints, facial-, vocal-, retinal-, and gait-patterns were all protected by the Imperium as well, but he had to be certain that someone at some point in the past hadn’t slipped.

Sellivan leaned back in his chair, taking a sip from his hot water. Samantha was a specter, but the level of protection her agency gave her seemed to have left some blind spots. For one; her name. Mori. A bland name, common enough to be widely used, but unique enough to be easily searchable. Samantha may be erased, but she had to have had family in the past, people who would not have been erased as effectively as her. Knowing her name would return no information meant Samantha had not bothered to consider it something that should also be kept secret.

How old did she look? Thirty? Sellivan ran a search for anyone on Kestris in the last thirty-five years with that name. Several hundred results appeared. He saved the list to narrow down against it. What else did he know? She was likely born on Kestris by evidence of her accent and, given her advanced position within the Imperium government, had enough primary education and social pedigree to be admitted into the kind of prestigious academies required for such a career. In the Imperium, a place of nepotism and off-the-record favors, that meant her family must have had the right connections.

Sellivan turned to the Brain’s display and paused its analysis of the Navy algorithm. This next query would require more abstract analysis power than his personal computer was capable of. He sent the list of names from the Kestris public data over to the Brain.

The construction of the query was important. Too specific and the results would be too limited. Too broad and he’d be right back where he started. He needed a dataset that could allow a human mind to make connections a computer—even the most advanced—simply could not. The Creator had endowed humanity with intuition and insight. If Sellivan was going to be successful, it would be through the Creator’s guidance.

Sellivan entered the query parameters to cross-reference the Mori surname, historic residents of Kestris between forty and thirty years ago, Imperium government officials, Navy officers or personnel, prominent business leaders, academics, and a variable for anyone publicly known to be in the top fifteen-percent of wealth; she seemed to have the attitude of someone used to getting what she wanted. With the query built, he pointed it towards the dozens of Kestris datasets for the Brain’s fuzzy logic to scour.

Sellivan took another sip from his hot water. No telling when the Brain would return any results. It could bring back a match instantaneously, or never. A quantum computing core would have made quick work of this. Though if he had access to something like that, he most certainly would not have been aboard the Matilda.  Probably most of what the Brain returned would be useless. He considered asking the Creator for more direct assistance, but decided against it. Best to make a divine appeal only in times of genuine emergency, when a request for an alteration of the Creator’s grand plan might be necessary for continued survival.

While he waited, Sellivan checked ship communications on his computer. No new messages. Manu and Heavy were on the station, likely keeping a close watch on the ship’s repair. Samantha and Eliza were on the surface, obviously up to something they had attempted to conceal behind their too-agreeable expressions earlier, and Decker’s flimsy attempt at a cover story had been as transparent as steelglass; to Sellivan, at least. People who were up to something were always, well, up to something; he glanced at the Brain’s display. Not that Sellivan had room to point fingers at the moment.

Records and information appeared on the screen, filled the space, then kept automatically scrolling upward as more were added. The subset of potential matches slowly built, most of which were quickly discarded by Sellivan as false-positives. Then something caught his attention; a name, situation, and level of public record that was significantly more high-profile than any of the rest.

Sellivan selected a particular record and opened it. It was the transcript from a news report from Kestris City, dated twenty-four years ago. The story was about an inter-system Imperium diplomat named Ayen Mori, killed during a diplomatic visit to the Fringe gone wrong by a—at the time—growing group of anti-Imperium activists calling themselves the Red Kestrels. Sellivan scanned through the story, feeling a twinge of excitement as his brain put pieces together.

Due to the nature of Ayen Mori’s position, this public report was light on details, but it did include the location of the incident; the elder Mori had met his end on Dradari, the Red Kestrel planet of origin. If Samantha was the child of this particular Mori, that would be ample motivation to have a vendetta against her father’s alleged killers and follow her father’s path into Imperium servitude.

Sellivan sipped at his water. It was no longer hot, only warm. He grimaced and set it aside, then paused the Brain’s search and constructed a new query, focused only on Ayen Mori. Information flowed in. Mori had been a public figure of moderate note during the years of the search query’s parameters, on quite the trajectory as a politician and statesman. During his years at Kestris’s most prestigious academic institution, the University of the Imperium, he had apparently been an accomplished amateur athlete as well.

A “where are they now” alumni feature grabbed Sellivan’s attention. Dated only a few months before his death, the University of the Imperium had done a story on Ayen Mori, highlighting the accomplishments of the up-and-coming political figure.

Sellivan selected the article and filled his center display with the text, videos, and photos, scanning the information for new clues. The story told of academic achievements, professional accomplishments, personal interests—all the usual meaningless details in a feel-good piece of university journalism. Then something of value appeared.

A video interview was included in the report. In it, Ayen was seated in a plush chair in what looked like a reading room or study. Ayen had the shoulders of an athlete and the jawline of a statue. His voice was confident and strong as he answered the interview questions with a glimmering smile, interspersing his answers with self-deprecating laughs and good-natured witticisms. It was clear; Ayen wasn’t just a member of the Imperium’s academic and political upper-echelons, he was the model of everything the Imperium wanted the rest of the sector to see them as. Noble, refined, and quite the opposite of the current sitting High Imperius. How might the empire have matured had someone like Mori risen to power?

Sellivan’s eyes narrowed, and a smile formed on his lips. The content of the interview was all surface-level smalltalk, but the implication of what the interview revealed gave him a great deal of information from which to infer. He could see Ayen Mori’s body language, mannerisms, speaking style, and other subtle cues that would have been modeled to an impressionable young child emulating her father. Already, he could see Ayen’s influence in the person who had delivered an impromptu mission briefing in the Matilda’s crew lounge.

He scrubbed through the video’s timeline, looking for any other information of importance. Towards the end of the interview, the video cut to a series of recordings from Ayen’s workplace in Kestris at the Imperium capitol, then of his home. It ended with a shot from behind of him and his family playing outdoors. It showed Ayen, a woman the interview indicated was his wife, and a young daughter whose pale blond hair matched Samantha’s. Judging by the girl’s height, she would be between five and seven years old. Just old enough to comprehend the news of her father’s death a few months after this video was recorded.

Sellivan sighed. Suffering such a loss at this age would alter someone’s trajectory. Whatever Samantha had become, whatever actions she had allowed her role in the Imperium to justify, this child—if it was indeed Samantha—had been innocent at the time. Now? That was for the Creator to judge.

Sellivan entered a new query, searching for an obituary. With this narrow of a search, a result came back almost instantly.

No, two results.

Sellivan leaned forward, face inches from his screen. Ayen Mori’s obituary was on the screen, but so was another, dated the same day. Allison Mori. Ayen’s wife. It did not include details, which was odd. It had likely been scrubbed. 

Not only the loss of a father, but a mother as well. An entire family, wiped out.

Again, Sellivan brought up a new query, this time creating parameters to search any Fringe news from the Dradari region about a political incident, a high-profile killing, and the names of the Mori family, all constrained to the week around the date of Ayen’s reported death. The Imperium might have kept a tight grip over the deaths of a diplomat and his wife, but Fringe planets would give them no such consideration.

Multiple stories appeared. Sellivan scanned through them, pinpointing the consistent facts. According to the reports, a small conflict had arisen at a shipfield on Dradari between an Imperium vessel and the Red Kestrels, at the time only active on the single planet. The reports all indicated that this Imperium ship was not sanctioned to be on-planet, and that the diplomat aboard was allegedly acting outside of Imperium instructions. But there was no information as to the events that led to the conflict, though it did include the names of those involved.

Ayen Mori and Allison Mori, killed during the confrontation.

Reed Casto—alleged perpetrator, though unconfirmed by local Dradari authorities.

A few more names Sellivan didn’t recognize were included, likely more Red Kestrels assisting Casto. The news reports from Dradari did not seem concerned with the incident, and the details were sparse, just another skirmish between Fringe and Imperium, with Ayen Mori and his entourage seen as unwanted aggressors with no right to be there. The tone was almost celebratory, another Imperium trespasser downed by the freedom-fighting Fringe activists.

Sellivan scanned the rest of the reports. While it may not hold up in a court of law, this was sufficient evidence to presume Samantha’s history and intent—at least for him. She was the daughter of Ayen and Allison Mori, two Imperium citizens killed in what appeared to be a personal feud with Reed Casto and several of the early Red Kestrels. More than enough reason for her to adopt a life seeking revenge.

There was one more story, this one from a smaller Dradari news source, focused on the system’s local politics. This one talked about Reed Casto, and the growing influence of his activist group. It was dated only a day after the other report, but the story here was not about the briefly mentioned Imperium diplomat Ayen Mori who was slain, it was about the Red Kestrels. According to the story, Reed Casto rose to singular control of the group as a result of the previous day’s confrontation, when his group’s cofounder, Jak Sagan, was killed during a shipfield skirmish with an Imperium diplomat’s entourage.

Sagan. The final piece of logic fell into place. Decker and Samantha were not just former Imperium colleagues who shared a professional past; they were half-siblings, and estranged ones at that. They both lost their parents on Dradari that day. And now, decades later, were brought together on Starview Station once again as a result of Red Kestrel and Imperium conflict. For the first time since being introduced to this mystery job Decker had presented, everything finally made sense.

Sellivan continued to read through the varied reports and stories. It was unclear who was responsible for Sagan’s death. Casto was portrayed as a heroic figure, a defender of the people against Imperium incursion. Judging by the phrasing, Sellivan would not have been surprised if Reed Casto had exerted a level of editorial influence on the report, making sure history recording this insignificant event in his favor.

A final story from a defunct Dradari tabloid filled in the final piece. According to rumors, Jak Sagan was killed while allegedly attempting to relocate his son—no name given—off Dradari by delivering him to his birth mother, Allison Mori, Imperium apologist and wife of a loyalist diplomat. The story indicated that Casto had branded Sagan a traitor to the Fringe, dealing with the empire and acting against his people. Casto had quickly used the event as a catalyst to strengthen anti-Imperium sentiment and pro-Kestrel support, pointing to the incursion as an example of what would happen if the Fringe did not maintain their position in the sector as free people. 

Now, all these years later, it appeared that the children of these tragic individuals were picking up where their parents had left off. Sellivan glanced at his prayer beads hanging on the wall; to think some believed there wasn’t a hand guiding them all.

Decker grunted as the black cloth bag was yanked off his head. Why did kidnappers always have to yank the bag off like that? He was already sitting, hands bound behind his back. It seemed unnecessary. If the disaster on Talius hadn’t already sworn him off taking bounty jobs ever again, he might have considered having a talk with Eliza about how they handled captives.

Decker blinked, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. It hadn’t been too long of a trip. He’d been thrown into the back of a vehicle and taken to wherever he was now. On a planet like Mentaryd, the Kestrels would have dozens of secure, secret locations for this type of business. Odds were if he’d tried to use his comm, it would be blocked. Not that he could use it, with his hands cable-tied behind his back.

A single overhead light was the only source of illumination. Decker could just see the shapes of three captors visible against the shadows of crates and boxes surrounding the room; a quick glance over his shoulder revealed the fourth, still clutching the black kidnapper’s bag. The room smelled dusty, the air warm and stagnant. Overall, it was the perfect place for a secret, impromptu meeting. That, or a hit. Decker hoped it was the former.

His eyes had adjusted more and he could make out the other people in the room. At the edge of the circle of light was a thin-nosed man and a taller man, the taller holding a datapad. To Decker’s left, a woman stood with a bolt pistol held in her hands, clasped together in front of her waist. The fourth person was still directly behind him. He couldn’t tell their gender or size. Not that it mattered, they all wore red scarves, and “one-against-four” were fights only won in action vids. For the time being, Decker would be doing nothing but sitting and talking.

None of the Kestrels gave any indication they were in the mood to talk. Decker adjusted his position in the seat, arms pinned against the backrest. He sighed, glaring up at the thin-nosed Kestrel. “I just got a new tattoo before you picked me up. Itchy. Think you could at least free one of my hands?” Decker grunted.

Thin-nose stepped forward and bent at the waist. “We’re here to facilitate a call. Boss said to get you and wait, so we’ll wait. He didn’t say anything about your comfort.”

Decker grunted. “Hey, I’m flattered you four think I’m dangerous enough to warrant this sort of scrutiny, but this is a conversation I asked for. Do you think Reed just randomly sent you to pick me up?”

Thin-nose snorted and righted himself, turning to the Kestrel with the datapad. “It’s time.”

The Kestrel stepped forward, angling the screen toward Decker, the glossy black surface momentarily acting as a mirror, showing Decker’s worn-out, tired face and messy hair. On the screen, a small interface showed that a video feed was being initialized. Decker took a deep breath. This is what he’d asked for, though each passing moment made him question the wisdom of his ill-conceived plan. Didn’t matter; backing out was not going to be an option now.

The datapad screen came to life, and a person appeared, well lit, seated in a high-backed red leather chair, framed from the chest up. Reed Casto. He looked older than Decker remembered. His hair was almost totally white, matching the thick goatee that hung off an unusually prominent jaw. Reed might have aged, but his eyes had lost none of their cunning. Deep-set beneath an overhanging brow, predatory and calculating, they stared across jumpspace through the datapad and locked with Decker’s. A wisp of smoke snaked up from the bottom of the screen, likely one of his signature cigars just out of view. 

Reed shook his head in mock disbelief. “My, my, Decker Sagan. Now, that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. You know, kid,” he raised the cigar and took a puff, the end lighting up bright red, “it takes a lot to surprise me. Living how I do, every day something unexpected comes up. But you? You requesting an audience with me? Strange times, indeed.”

Decker tilted his head, the familiar gravel of Reed’s voice brining him right into the past. And with it, a surge of confidence. Reed might be big news to the Fringe, but Decker knew him. At his core, he was still just an ego-driven bully.

Decker raised an eyebrow. “That name is sort of retired. Just Decker now.” 

Reed chortled. “Right. Just Decker.” Reed took another puff from the cigar. “You’ve put me in an interesting predicament, Decker. When I received the word from Braithwaite that you’d showed up saying lots of things you probably shouldn’t be saying, it took me a minute to remember when it was I’d last seen you. Ten years?”

Decker forced an affable smile. “Closer to fifteen. I haven’t exactly been back to Dradari, though, so it’s understandable that the years might have slipped by without you noticing. You’ve been busy.”

Reed shifted in his chair, mouth scrunching to the side as he appeared to contemplate something of great importance. “Well, seems you’ve developed some connections during that time, happening upon the information you shared like you did. As to why you thought of bringing it to my attention… that got me curious. It’s the only reason we’re having this talk.”

Decker held Reed’s gaze firm, ignoring the Kestrels in the room. He didn’t have to fabricate a story this time. “Look, Reed, I’ve spent my time with the Imperium as a way to see if my father’s Red Kestrel legacy was also mine. Turned out, empire life wasn’t for me. So, I’ve spent my time wandering the sector ever since, trying to carve out a tiny slice of independence and not making a lot of progress. I’m out here, scraping by, surviving day to day. I want to say I’m self-sufficient, but I’m really just a drifter with an old ship and debts I can’t outrun.”

Reed puffed out his cheeks, wincing in mock pain. “Tough when you have to face the truth about yourself, ain’t it kid?”

Decker swallowed the retort he almost uttered. “Something like that. But seeing the way the Imperium consumes and exploits the sector from the inside, how it treats the Fringe… I dunno, maybe I made a mistake in running away from Dradari. I can’t say I’ve seen a whole lot of reasons to view the Imperium as redeemable.” Decker paused, his face darkening at the ease with which these half-truths seemed to come out. He swallowed, letting his hesitation sell his next fabricated statement. “Could be you and my father had the right ideas.”

Reed nodded, taking another puff off the cigar. “No ‘could be’ about it, little Sagan.” Reed paused, giving Decker a chance to react to the slight; Decker held firm. Reed continued. “Braithwaite told me what you witnessed on Starview. Like everything else we’ve done, it was necessary. The Imperium made itself the biggest target in the sector, no such thing as an unfair fight when you’re facing a beast with no morals. It invites this hatred with how it treats the rest of us, and it’s time for the empire to go.”

Decker cleared his throat; he’d forgotten how the propaganda soundbites of zealots like Reed sounded when coming direct from the source. He almost found himself swayed. “Yeah… well, that’s the same conclusion I came to. Seeing the Imperium from the inside, I won’t feel any remorse if it falls. That’s why I wanted to come to you with what I know,” Decker said, surprised at how authentic his words felt. It was still an act, right?

Reed pointed toward Decker with the cigar. “Whatever you think you know, I can promise you’re mistaken,” Reed said, his smile fading somewhat, smoke curling up in front of his face. “As pleasant as catching-up with the son of Jak Sagan has been, I need to cut this conversation short. You may have noticed on the news vids that I’m in the middle of something big right now.”

Decker nodded, slow and resolute. The ride to this warehouse had given him time to come up with a reason for contacting Reed, one that would mask his real intention. “I know that the Kestrels carried out the attack on Starview Station, that much I witnessed myself. The Imperium Navy warship, the Dauntless, I also know that was a setup by someone in the Imperium. I don’t know who, but it’s a secret that seems to have gotten out and those same people who facilitated it are trying to keep it contained.”

Reed shrugged. “Leaks are bound to occur. With the culture of treachery that infects the empire, I’m not surprised that its corroded shell can’t hold in all its vermin.”

“It’s not just that,” Decker said, chewing on his words. He was making a lot of assumptions based on Samantha’s limited information. “Whoever, you know, helped you from the inside… I think they’re going to try and eliminate the Kestrels entirely once you’ve served your purpose. All of you. Whatever promises they made you, I don’t think you can believe them.”

Reed took a long puff off the cigar, its end lighting up and casting its red glow on the aging man’s face. He lowered his hand and released a long, extended stream of smoke. “Not going to be a problem,” he said through a crooked grin.

Decker tilted his head. “What? Uh, it’s not? I mean… you knew this already?” Decker broke eye contact with Reed, quickly thinking through the scenario. “So, is this some sort of double double-cross? A… triple-cross between you and whoever helped you?”

Reed sucked his teeth. “Kid, I know you’ve been gone a while, and I know you don’t have your father’s same streak of principles. You might not understand who I’m dealing with, but I do. You ain’t one of us anymore, little Sagan. This information you hoped to bring me, while I can understand how you assumed it would have potential value. It’s nothing I didn’t already know. What did you hope it would buy you?”

Decker grimaced at the question. This was supposed to be an intelligence hunt, something to help him make his next decision regarding Samantha’s plan. He’d lost track of that, caught up in his old family business. He was turning himself into a loose-end that Reed would have to tie up if Decker didn’t make himself useful in the next few moments.

“When I saw the Starview—” Decker searched for words other than attack, but came up empty. “After Starview,” he began again, “I realized that being alone in the sector with what is coming was the wrong choice. I knew that Jak Sagan’s exiled son trying to worm his way back into the fold would never be accepted without your endorsement. You’re the only person who could vouch for me. Unless you agreed to help me out, no Kestrel would take me seriously. Even Braithwaite was ready to dismiss me, had I not shared what I know. I’m asking for you to lift the exile and let me make up for my father’s failure, as well as my own. Let me put things right and help the Kestrels come out of this on top.”

Reed scowled and used his cigar-laden hand to point at the camera. “You chose to exile yourself. I’ve got no obligation to undo the consequences of those actions. Many feel like you betrayed us. Decker Sagan, running scared. A disgrace to Jak’s legacy. We may have disagreed in the end, but at least your father stuck to his principles.”

Decker felt a flash of heat on the back of his neck. “I didn’t betray anyone. I was ten years old when you and my father and…” Decker paused, the name of Samantha’s father catching in his throat, “and him had your feud that killed them all. Wanting out of that environment is not a betrayal of anyone, it’s a kid looking for somewhere safe to sleep.”

Decker swallowed his bitterness; his reaction had come out stronger than he had intended. Reed’s mouth was pressed tightly closed. It had been a long time since Decker had interacted with Reed, his instincts on where to push, and how hard, might be off. 

“And as soon as you were old enough to leave, you take off to the Imperium Navy? The people you knew your father would have despised the most?” Reed said, voice sharp with scorn.

“I had to go somewhere. Everyone else was gone. It was that or join up with some freighter crew or work the asteroid mines off some other back-sector Fringe planet. I learned skills from the Imperium I can still use. I also learned what the empire really is, and when I did, I left it behind. I’ve been wandering the Fringe ever since, looking for somewhere to land.” Decker looked away from the datapad. “Ten years now, still haven’t found whatever I was looking for. Maybe with the Kestrels is where I am supposed to be.”

The words stung Decker’s pride. This was supposed to be a ruse. But to help Samantha’s mission? How? Instead, Decker was finding that with each new layer he added to convince Reed of his returning loyalty, he was actually convincing himself that maybe his story wasn’t as fabricated as he wanted it to be. What did Decker care about the Imperium, and why should the Kestrels be his enemy? Jak Sagan was no one Decker mourned. No, he mourned the loss of the years he’d spent running from his past. Staring across from Reed Casto, the closest thing he had to a family besides Samantha, Decker began to wonder if maybe…

“So the son wants to return home, after all this time?” Reed said, interrupting Decker’s thoughts.

“I have to be who I am,” Decker said. “I’m running from the past and getting nowhere. Being on Starview made me wonder, maybe I am a Red Kestrel,” he added, letting Reed interpret the implication of the statement. It was not a lie, but being a Kestrel by heritage did not mean he was loyal to their actions or decisions. Insiders turning against their own institutions seemed to be a theme for his family. Maybe he could adopt Samantha’s approach and fight from the inside. If he even wanted to.

Reed took a long puff on his cigar and blew the smoke out with a forceful breath. “I am glad you’re finding your inner-Kestrel. And to be honest, kid, I respect the audacity of coming straight to me. What I can’t figure out, though, is what benefit do I get by reconsidering your exile? You already played your hand and it turned out to be a bust.”

Decker straightened his posture. If he’d ever needed to project a pure, belligerent confidence, this was the time.

“I know the Navy and the Imperium, what makes their culture function. I also know the Fringe and what makes their cultures function. And… I know the Kestrels. The history, the purpose, the mission.” Decker tipped his chin down and lowered his voice. “I know you’ve got plenty of Imperium defectors. They will all know the same things I do. But there’s only one son of Jak Sagan. Founder’s lineage stops with me. You’re getting ready to thrust the Kestrels into something big, to follow through on the original principles my father helped carve into this group. Imagine, having the Sagan name back as a part of that. Your people would look at you as the great uniter, responsible for the restoration of the Kestrel legacy.”

Reed remained silent, eyes slowly narrowing. He looked away for a moment, head rocking slowly back and forth. “You know what, kid? I’ll forgive your little lapse with Braithwaite, and I advise you to keep your mouth shut about anything you think you know, which I promise isn’t much. This whole stunt of yours… it reminds me of Jak, the type of crazy bullshit he would have tried to pull. I like that. The sector has become too tame.”

Decker nodded, forcing himself to grin through his disgust at the comparison. “Of course. I haven’t spilled a word of any of this to anyone. It’s only me. I had to make sure Braith knew I wasn’t bluffing or pumping him for info.” Decker gulped. “That’s how serious I am about this.”

Reed sighed, shrugging heavily as he did. “Okay, kid. If you want to come home, get back to Dradari. Your idea has some merit. Having Jak Sagan’s son back in the fold would be… a moral victory,” Reed said, growling out the last few words. “It took a good deal of nerve to contact me like you did, I’ll give you that much. Truth be told,” he took another puff off the cigar, a slow one, letting the smoke drift out between his teeth, “I’d told Brooks here to kill you after I found out how much you knew. I suppose I can rescind that order. Hear that, Brooks?”

Thin-nose—apparently named Brooks—stepped around into the datapad’s camera view. “Understood, boss,” he said, quickly stepping back into the shadow.

Decker could feel sweat beading on his forehead. “I appreciate your invitation, and the stay of execution.”

Reed leaned back into his chair, taking on a benevolent air. “I wouldn’t do this for anyone else. You gotta believe me, kid; I didn’t want to kill your dad. But he got into things with the Imperium diplomat that a child wouldn’t have understood. They both agreed it was kill or be killed. I know you didn’t know her well, but your mother’s death was an unfortunate accident. Now that you’re older, I am sure you can see how it was.”

Decker forced himself to nod; he did see, but not how Reed presumed. Any nostalgic loyalty Decker might have felt earlier in the conversation was wiped away by Reed’s despicable lack of accountability. Decker forced his anger down, keeping it from entering his expression. 

Reed’s arm seemed to be entering something into a computer out of the camera’s view. “I’m sending you a clearance code. One-time use. Expires in a week. If you decide to drop into Dradari space, send it to the transmitter address included. That’ll let you come down to one of my shipfields. We’ll see if you can be of some use.”

Decker exhaled. He’d done it. He’d acquired something of actual material value; landing codes for Dradari and an invitation from the leader of the Red Kestrels. If Samantha wanted access to the Kestrels, it didn’t get any closer than this. Whether or not Decker would actually share this with her, though, was something he was going to need to think through very carefully. His plan had to been to better arm himself with information, not rush headlong into his half-sisters blood feud.

Decker smiled, doing his best to sound casual and confident. “You’ll be seeing me soon.”

Reed grinned, bringing the cigar to his mouth. “You better hurry. I can’t promise I’ll be around to receive you. This sector won’t be the same soon enough.” He smiled one last time, fiendish eyes narrowing just before the screen went black.

Decker scoffed, turning his gaze to his captors. “Well, you heard him, Brooks. The founder’s son is returned. Now release these restraints and treat me with some respect. As you can see, I’ve got your boss’s favor.”

Across from him, Brooks grinned, gesturing with his chin to the Kestrel behind the chair. Decker turned just in time to see the black bag come back down over his head. Again.

“Oh, come on, Brooks!”