Samantha has finished her task on the Fringe planet of Senali and is in jumpspace en route back to Kestris. Meanwhile, an unlikely conversation across the sector is about to take place between two unfriendly individuals...
Reed Casto bounced in his seat as his spaceplane lurched downward, the suspension system of its landing skids absorbing the vessel’s weight against the pull of Dradari’s gravity as it touched down on the cracked asphalt tarmac. The sound of the atmospheric thrusters died down, replaced by the telltale patter of sand and grit blowing against the ship’s outer hull. Exhaling from somewhere deep within his chest, Reed placed his hands on his knees and pushed himself up. He summoned a smug grin for his three bodyguards, lest they think the boss had lost his edge, each of whom were visibly armed and wearing some form of red scarf that hung loosely around their necks, just as Reed wore.
“Back home, eh?” he said, his voice a growl that matched the grating sound of the winds outside. The bodyguards each grunted, standing to join their boss. Even here, on the Red Kestrel planet of origin, where he ran this family of his own creation, safety was never a guarantee. Especially with whom Reed was waiting to meet.
The narrow spaceplane door swung downward, its inner surface doubling as a stepped-gangway that led to the ground below. The trio of human shields went first, familiar with the routine. Reed, pausing at the top of the steps, took in the sight. The Dradari sun was a particularly furious orange today, casting a reddish tint over everything the sand-filled winds blew across. The tarmac below was a blinding tan-white. Reed pulled a pair of black sunglasses from his vest’s inner pocket and slid them onto his ragged, line-etched face. He ran a hand across the thick, graying goatee that covered his chin and throat, grains of sand already getting trapped in the whiskers. He’d been standing in the sun for only a moment and—even though his shirtsleeves had been cut off—his thick arms were already covered in a sheen of sweat. That was Dradari. A place as harsh and punishing as its people.
Reed shot a grimace at the sun and proceeded down the ramp. There were hundreds of planets in the Fringe, and few people considered this one worth inhabiting. Dradari was where people went when they didn’t want to be bothered by the ever-increasing influence of the Imperium. It had no real resources of note; there was no strategic benefit to its location in the sector to attract military conquest, no wealth or bustling industries to attract the corporations. All of these disadvantages kept Dradari off of any rational person’s lists of places to set up shop, but not Reed. For him, this was a frontier, a place where the laws were few and he could trade comfort for absolute freedom. On the far end of the Fringe, next to the empty expanse of space known as the Gulf, it took a special type of person to maintain order and survive in a place as inhospitable as this. The only thing Reed considered harsher than the scorched planet was his own willingness to do whatever it took to thrive here.
Approaching from the large, domed building across from the tarmac was Bopo, Reed’s personal enforcer and top man. Large and built like the blunt face of the Dradari desert cliffs, his loyalty was only matched by his thick-headedness. Bopo returned Reed’s grimace and gestured with his head to the building, indicating what Reed already knew; their guest was waiting. Bopo fell in line next to Reed and the four men stalked across the sweltering sea of cracked asphalt, brimming with the kind of confidence that only being on one’s home turf could bring.
They reached the domed building and stepped through a wide set of doors large enough to pass a ship through. Designed in the same, squat, rounded shape engineered to shield its occupants from the harsh environment outside, as most surface structures on Dradari were, the structure had been an enormous hangar that Reed had purchased and converted into a headquarters decades ago. In the expanse of the hangar’s sun-protected interior, several Red Kestrels were busy working on damaged spaceplanes, a few scattered land vehicles, and even a salvaged energy turret taken off a Sellacan assault skiff.
Reed waved to his people as he passed and they waved back. The four men walked to a metal staircase leading to an upper level of rooms that lined the outer edge of the building. A set of windows faced the outer walls that endured the worst of the Dradari winds with another set that faced the interior of the expansive hangar. He could have used the vast underground structure that extended several levels below the planet’s surface for today’s meeting, but Reed enjoyed seeing the desert and hearing the constant patter of sand blowing against the glass. He often found it set those unaccustomed to the din on edge, though he suspected that something as benign as a gust of wind wasn’t likely to rattle today’s guest.
The group reached the top step and followed the path of the suspended metal walkway that ran along the hangar’s edge. They came to a set of closed, windowless double-doors. Reed stopped, gesturing for his entourage to do the same. He reached behind his back and pulled out a compact rail-pistol, its silvery surface polished to a mirror-like shine. Reed thumbed the switch that turned off the gun’s safety; he knew who was behind those doors. He also knew that this gun wouldn’t do him a lot of good if he had cause to draw it. Without a doubt, at this very moment, there was a heavily armed Imperium warship with its weapon systems trained on this location.
Reed shrugged at Bopo and tucked the weapon into his vest. “Eh, better than nothing. You stay put,” he said to the three bodyguards, voice low beneath the din of the sandy wind. “Sensitive business in there. But… shouldn’t be any problems. Just talking.”
The three bodyguards nodded and took up positions on either side of the doors. As usual, the order to stand down didn’t apply to Bopo, who squared his shoulders and fell in line behind Reed. Stealing a quick glance overhead to where he imagined the orbiting ship was monitoring them, Reed plastered a wide smile across his face and pushed open the doors to his makeshift conference room.
The air inside whooshed from the force, rustling the hair of the three people already seated around the enormous table in the center of the room. Two of the people were his, Josephine and Alix, part of his most tightly controlled inner circle of advisors. Both Kestrels stood as Reed strode to his high-backed seat at the head of the table. The third person at the table, the special guest, made no move to stand and only followed Reed with hard and impassive eyes, calmly using a gloved hand to smooth the few disturbed strands of his black, slicked-back hair.
“No, no, sit. Sit down. Sorry I’m late. Overslept,” Reed said with a chuckle, pulling off his sunglasses and tossing them onto the table where they clattered and slid to a stop. “It’s the damn daylight here. Can’t sleep right. Sixty hours? Are you shitting me? People aren’t built to deal with that. I don’t care how long I’ve been here, I’ll never get used to sleeping when the sun is out. My body says it’s night, but my mind can’t let go of the fact that the orange bastard is still up there.” Reed dropped himself into his chair, sighing with satisfaction. He pointed at the guest, speaking as if it was just the two of them. “You know, I even got one of those little sleeping masks you can wear over your eyes. You ever use one of those?”
Reed paused as if he expected an answer. Bopo, taking his seat at Reed’s right hand, smirked and turned to the guest. There was no response. Reed shrugged and pulled a cigar out of his vest’s inside pocket. He tapped its end on the thick wooden table—a rare material on Dradari—then pulled out a plasma-lighter, its side stamped with the flat silhouette of the long-extinct bird that was the symbol for his group, a red kestrel. Reed lit the cigar and took a puff, raising an eyebrow in satisfaction.
“I have these shipped in, you know. Nothing like this grows here. Too hot,” he said through the exhalation of smoke. Reed gestured with the cigar at the sleek, black jacket and matching gloves his guest wore, puffing out his cheeks in mock surprise. “But, I probably don’t need to tell you about the heat, what with the, uh, getup you got there, Renic.”
Renic Tau sat statuesquely upright, no part of his body coming into contact with the chair back. His appearance was unperturbed and immaculate, with space-black hair contrasting against the smooth, pale skin of someone who spent most of their time on ships, skin that was pulled taut against a powerful jaw and carved cheekbones. No one exposed to the sands of Dradari came indoors and still looked that pristine. He must have taken a moment to freshen up before Reed arrived.
Renic planted his arms on the table and touched his fingertips together. “No, certainly not Mr. Casto. Dradari’s reputation for harshness precedes it,” Renic said, smiling with undisguised insincerity. “I suppose out here in the Fringe, though, you have to make the best of things. Thankfully, I won’t have to endure the misery of this rock for long.”
Reed grunted at the slight, smile slipping from his face. His eyes darkened as he took another puff on the cigar, staring at Renic for a moment before speaking.
“Yeah, what a shame,” Reed said through a slow exhale of smoke.
Renic gave a polite nod to the other Kestrels in the room. “Will your associates be joining us? I’d hate to bore them or take them away from more important duties.”
“They stay with me. This is our house. What I hear, they hear.”
Renic paused, smiling only after the moment became too silent. “Of course. My mistake.”
Reed held his cigar out in front of him and drew little circles with the smoke, puffing out his cheeks as he contemplated. Renic remained still, his face impassive.
“You know, Mr. Tau. Renic, if you don’t mind. Speaking of mistakes, I got a little matter to discuss first.” Reed sniffed loudly and cleared his throat, an exaggerated wince crossing his face. “See, Kat tells me we got two bodies and a guy all busted up on Senali. The one that survived, he’s saying that someone raided his place, someone with a lot of real specific knowledge about the Dauntless asking a lot of questions. Said she stormed the place, alone, and killed two pretty tough guys before interrogating him and ripping all the data off his computers. You know anything about that?”
Renic shrugged, a glimmer of incredulity wrinkling his brow. “The navy took the Dauntless loss very personally, as we intended. Basara knew the risks and was well compensated in return. There’s bound to be Imperium attention, and we needed to know who was watching. Retaliation is unfortunate for your people, but… expected.”
Reed nodded slowly, scrunching his mouth and bringing a hand up to scratch his chin. “Yeah? Yeah. Unfortunate. But you see, my guy, he doesn’t remember much. He does say it was some woman with a bunch of fancy tech that claimed she wasn’t with the navy. Sort of a rough operator. He said she seemed to really be enjoying herself and…” Reed’s voice went low, all gravel and grit. “She took their scarves. He says she waved them in his face and laughed. That don’t sound like proper navy manners to me. That kind of disregard sounds like one of yours.”
Reed locked eyes with Renic. Not a muscle on Renic’s face twitched. It was a face so unnaturally still that it had to be hiding something. Then, there it was; a slight bob of the throat. So, this was the first time Renic was hearing about the Imperium operation on Senali. He did have vulnerabilities.
Reed raised an eyebrow. “Well? This woman sound familiar?”
Renic’s mask returned. He smiled, but his eyes betrayed a fury that even Reed found frightening. “The agency keeps its operations and respective operatives well insulated from each other. If there was an operation carried out against your organization on Senali, I had no foreknowledge of it.” His expression saddened artificially. “Of course, had I had any foreknowledge, I could not have done anything to stop it. Far too much is at stake to worry about three misplaced scarves. This is a very dangerous time for all of us.”
Reed stared across the table, tendrils of smoke curling off the cigar. Neither man moved. He’d scored one on Renic, and Renic had scored one back. The gun in Reed’s vest felt heavy against his body. “Yeah. I supposed that’s right.”
Renic’s face softened, returning to its normal level of impassivity. He raised a hand in truce. “All the more reason we need to move forward with the fleet marshal’s plan. Be assured, when we succeed, the agency-”
“Your agency,” Reed snapped.
Renic sighed sharply. “Yes… that agency will be under his control, along with whoever your man says they saw, if it was an Imperium operative at all.”
Reed nodded, shrugging at Bopo who grinned stupidly back at his boss. “Well, okay! Let’s get to it!” Reed said, smacking the table and letting out a single laugh. Reed had been dealing with Imperium-types for decades. It was going to take more than a superiority act, piss-poor attitude, and menacing stare-down to intimidate him.
Renic relaxed his posture just enough for his back to finally touch the chair. “Indeed. This unfortunate incident with your man notwithstanding, the fleet marshal is pleased with the Red Kestrel’s performance in the tasks he’s given you. The Dauntless operation was well-executed, but merely a test of your follow-through. Now, he wants to extend his deal further.”
“I’m not surprised. We’re damn good,” Reed said as he raised his cigar in mock salute. “And now we have one of your ships to prove it.”
“Indeed, Mr. Casto, and your organization has benefited greatly from this arrangement. Letting the Dauntless go is quite the show of faith by the fleet marshal. His confidence does not come lightly.”
Reed grunted. “You forget, I’ve known Gallow since you were in diapers. He sent you to me, remember?”
Renic’s eyes narrowed at the remark. “Yes. Right. Well, I hope what he is proposing now isn’t too much that it gives you second thoughts.”
“The Kestrels don’t play games. If the ‘fleet marshal’ wants us to do his dirty work—to, what do the news vids call it? ‘Antagonize’?—we’re happy to assist as long as the deal remains mutually beneficial.”
Renic leaned forward, speaking to Reed as if it were just the two of them, “Exactly what I was hoping you’d say.”
He reached into his jacket and took out a data card, placing it gingerly on the table just out of Reed’s reach. Reed grinned. These little mind games kept things interesting, and indicated to Reed that Renic didn’t feel he had as much control of the situation as he wanted to project.
Reed nodded to Alix. The man picked up the card and, while glaring at Renic, pulled a computer out from the bag that was slung over his shoulder. He inserted the card into the computer, lifted the lid and—without looking at the screen’s contents—slid it in front of his boss.
Reed smiled and turned his attention to the screen. His eyes flicked back and forth, smile fading. He brought his hand up to swipe through the screen’s contents, cigar still wedged between his fingers. The only sound in the room was the din of the sand blowing against the hangar’s surface.
Reed looked up, leaning back into his chair. Across the table, Renic smirked.
“Renic, this…” Reed paused, waving his hand at the three Kestrels around the table. “I need you all to step outside a minute.”
“Eh boss, you sure?” Bopo started, leaning forward defensively.
“Go,” Reed barked, not breaking eye-contact with Renic. The three Kestrels stood, each stalling for a moment to shoot threatening glares at Renic before sauntering to the doors and stepping out into the hall.
“Problem with the data card?” Renic said, voice drenched in venom.
Reed took another puff on the cigar, buying himself a moment to think. “This is… this isn’t just antagonizing. Hitting a navy ship, well, they’re military, fighting is expected, and that ship was not in Imperium space. Fair game. But this here…” Reed tapped the screen. “This is something else. It doesn’t fit us. The fleet marshal—Gallow—knows that.”
Renic scoffed, waving his hand in dismissal. “Suddenly you lose your enthusiasm for the cause? Come now, Mr. Casto. Certainly the storied co-founder of the Red Kestrels isn’t afraid of a little bloodshed. This is an outlaw organization, is it not?”
Reed frowned and straightened in his chair. “Outlaws? Maybe in the Imperium’s eyes. To the people out here, the Kestrels are what stands between us and the likes of you. I’ve got plenty of blood on my hands, but it was blood I shed for a purpose. What you’re asking for is senseless. It’s terrorism. We’re willing to fight the Imperium, but this ain’t a fight. It’s a massacre.”
“Such labels! Don’t you see, this will be helping your people. The Imperium needs to be sent a message. To be put off balance. The Red Kestrels have been instrumental in getting us this far, but it’s not enough. For this task, we can ensure that everything is staged for your success. No checks, no resistance. Any head that matters or who could put up a fight will be turned the other way, just as they were when we allowed you to take the Dauntless.” Renic leaned back in his chair. He’d dropped the mask of impassivity and anger flowed into his voice. “If we hope to replace those who stand in our way, the people must be afraid. Afraid that the Imperium can’t protect them. They must feel that they are in danger. They need to see the High Imperius and his kind for what they are, fragile plutocrats who will exploit Kestris and the entire empire for their own gain, only to fail to defend it when threatened.” Renic’s eyes widened with a touch of frenzy. “The people of Kestris and the Imperium need to look up to the stars and see a savior, someone who can loosen the grip of malice and incompetence that is around the throats of so many.”
“And that’s Gallow, huh? The savior that’s going to loosen the grip he’s spent decades helping to tighten?”
Renic shrugged, holding his hands up, palms forward. “The fleet marshal only seeks what is best for the Imperium, even if that means having to excise its rotting heart and replace it with one that beats anew.”
Reed leaned back in his chair, puffing the cigar which was almost out. It was distasteful to admit, but Renic—Gallow, really—made sense. The High Imperius was a useless, diseased organ. If the Kestrels had to be the scalpel to help remove it, perhaps that was a worthy cause, being the tool in the hand of a great surgeon. After all, they were Imperium citizens, not Reed’s people. Other than the ones he’d need to send on this suicide mission, of course.
“You know, a small group of us, we formed this thing,” he pulled at his red scarf, “some thirty years ago, at a time when people like me had no power. We were conscripted into war, made to fight to defend worlds that weren’t our own. We were disposable. And the Fringe, we’ve never had any actual strength. Always at odds, fighting each other while the Imperium colonized and took what they wanted because we were too weak and divided to do anything about it. Well, we’re not weak now. We’ve grown strong and the Imperium has grown weak.” Reed threw his cigar stub to the floor and ground it with his heel. “What are you offering?”
Renic smiled. “You already have the Dauntless. That was the first gift. In addition, the fleet marshal is prepared to see that your group receives fifty-million credits, untraceable and secure, to support your efforts. With that, you can fund an army even the Imperium would think twice about provoking. Then, once the fleet marshal has succeeded and taken control of the empire, he will have the ability to ensure that you maintain control over the Fringe and that the navy eradicates just enough of your group to make it look like we put up a sufficient effort to quell you.”
“‘Eradicates just enough?’ You want me to sacrifice my people for show?”
“Now, now, Mr. Casto. We have to keep up appearances. If we want the people to believe that the fleet marshal is here to act as a guardian, he can’t just turn a blind eye toward your ‘terrorist’ activities. Rest assured, we’ll allow you to select who you wish to gift to the cause. You understand.”
“I understand that you want me to carry out one of the most despicable attacks on a civilian target in recent history, then let my own people be hunted down to take the fall.”
Renic clicked his tongue. “You must think of the long term strategy. To the Imperium, yes, you’ll be regarded as monsters. But to the Fringe, the people you actually care about? Why, you stood up to the Imperium and hit them where it hurts. You made a difference. Yes, it cost some innocent lives. Lives on both sides. But, compared to the billions of lives who will benefit from the fall of this empire, what is the loss of a few thousand? Not even a blip.”
Reed felt his stomach tighten. The authenticity behind Renic’s impassioned rationale was compelling. Reed had killed plenty of people in his time as a soldier, as an outlaw, as a leader. But, it hadn’t been as merciless as this. He could sense a line beneath his feet he hadn’t known he’d be willing to cross.
“Imagine,” Renic pressed forward, clenching a fist in triumph. “Being given the Fringe as a gift for you to rule over as you see fit, without Imperium interference. You’ll be able to finally have what you want. Sovereignty. Knowing you were a part of something greater than you could have ever done alone.” Renic paused, standing and leaning forward to place his hands flat on the table. “You’ve already committed great crimes against the Imperium. When it comes time to pay for those crimes, who do you want making that final judgement? The High Imperius? Or whoever the fleet marshal chooses to rule as his puppet? This is the only offer the fleet marshal will be making. It is,” Renic paused, considering his next words, “a bloody means to a greater end.”
Renic walked to the doors, pulling his jacket cuffs down over his wrists as he moved. Reed stared at the computer screen, taking in a slow breath. A bloody means to a greater end. What a stupid phrase.
“Okay,” Reed growled, not bothering to hide his reticence. At least there was no one around to witness this.
“Good.” Renic stopped at the doors, smiling as he opened them. “Don’t blame yourself. You never really had a choice in any of this.”
Far above the sweltering, cracked ground of Dradari, the nameless, unregistered ship that had been monitoring the Red Kestrel headquarters broke orbit and proceeded to its jump coordinates, its purpose for being so far out of Imperium space concluded. Outfitted with a navy corvette’s complement of weaponry and defensive countermeasures, it bore no identifying marks, no digital signature. It was constructed from bow to stern to be a ghost, able to supply unlimited forged credentials to any system that hailed it, credentials that any Imperium system would blindly validate. In the event that it was captured, the ship was programmed to scuttle itself with an explosion so powerful that the captors would be reduced to subatomic particles along with it. The ship didn’t officially exist, and neither did anything that its primary passenger did while making use of it. And while under Gallow’s private employ, that primary passenger was Renic.
Exclusive use of this experimental vessel had been gifted to him by the fleet marshal as a way for Renic to carry out all of the sensitive business he was asked to do without using any navy resources that might leave a data trail. As far as anyone on Kestris was concerned, Renic was simply nowhere.
He removed the black, uniform-like jacket he had been wearing since departing earlier that day. It did not agree with the miserable Dradari heat, but appearances must be kept up. Just because Reed Casto had decided to headquarter his little group in such an inhospitable place was no reason for Renic to break with habit. As he handled the jacket, orange sand fell to the floor of his stateroom despite his best efforts to keep the wretched planet’s residue off of his ship. Hanging the jacket in the wardrobe next to several more of identical cut, he crossed and settled himself into the plush seat behind the curving, wood-edged desk that also served as the housing for a holographic computer display. It felt good to be back in a climate-controlled environment; he’d made certain his suite was cooled in advance, well below normal comfort levels. It invigorated him.
Upon arriving from the surface, Renic had notified the captain to await his command to initiate the jump. He had an important report to make and wanted to deliver it without distraction. He touched an illuminated interface on the desk’s glossy, black surface and a communications display appeared in the air in front of him. The system had already recognized his identity and indicated that the channel, cabin, and entire ship were secure and segregated from every Imperium system save for the one on the other end of the connection. Renic was as good as on the Terminus itself. He created a new message, voice only. This was one he wanted the fleet marshal to hear.
He rolled his thoughts in his mind for a moment, taking a deep breath so his words would come out smooth and unlabored. After a quick, silent rehearsal, he started the recording.
“Casto has agreed. He was resistant, as you predicted, but when properly incentivized he arrived at the correct decision.” Renic paused the recording. The business with the Kestrel on Senali being raided by an Imperium agent was a significant factor, but nothing the fleet marshal need be bothered with. He and Renic expected agency interference. The fact that it was her who instigated said interference was incidental and not worth mentioning. “All resources were delivered. I believe that Casto’s confederates will have no problem executing the set of instructions they were given. I am returning to the capital immediately to oversee the final preparations. I serve the New Guardians at your pleasure.”
Renic stopped the recording. The last sentence was too presumptuous. He thought for a moment, then started again, ending this time with, “I serve at your pleasure.”
Sufficient. It was the fleet marshal’s privilege to usher in a new era for the empire, not his. All Renic needed to do was fulfill his duties and do what he was told. Had Casto denied the offer, Renic’s orders were very different from just sending a confirmation back to the Terminus. A mission-blind commando squad was in the ship’s aft crew section. By now, they would have received word that their services were no longer required and they could continue to play cards, watch vids, and idle about without ever knowing where the ship had taken them or what they may have been asked to do. Reed Casto had extended his life, and those of everyone in his compound, by cooperating.
Urgent matters concluded, he signaled to the bridge that he was ready to make the jump. Reed had been convinced, just as the fleet marshal had desired. There was another party, though, that Renic still needed to convince, and he did not foresee that conversation being nearly as easy as Casto’s had been. And given her considerable abilities, a commando squad would be of no help if she chose to not comply.
Renic scoffed. Reed had thought he’d gotten one over on him, mentioning the agent that had raided his Senali tech’s hideout. The news was upsetting, yes, but not for the reasons Reed had presumed. Reed had let the information slip in order to prove a point, that he had an edge over Renic. In reality, he’d given Renic a gift.
Renic connected the desk computer to standard Imperium channels and then to the agency system with his genuine government credentials; Renic Tau, field operative for the Imperium’s soon-to-be dismantled black-ops intelligence agency. He was still an official employee for a few more days. May as well make use of the access while he had it.
Reed hadn’t mentioned the name of the Kestrel who had survived the encounter, but Renic knew the encounter had happened on Senali. Detailed agency mission files would be compartmentalized, but general, new intelligence on Senali or the Red Kestrels would be made available to all agents with clearance once it had been cataloged.
He entered a query that would notify him if any fresh information about Senali, the Red Kestrels, Kat Basara, or the agent he knew had been there were updated in any systems. Renic needed to pay her a visit as quickly as possible to persuade her to see what her beloved Imperium had become, and what it could be if she helped him.
If he couldn’t flip Samantha, once Reed’s people carried out their plan, there would be no turning back for any of them.