Episode 38: Time to go

Click to see catch-up summary

Samantha has abandoned Decker and Eliza and now stalks Kat Basara alone. Part 1 of a 2 episode continuation...

Samantha kept her body close to the wall as she crept along the edge of the alley, charged bolt pistol in hand, karambit in the magnetic sheathe on her thigh. Getting to Basara would require deliberate focus. No room for mistakes. No 5E to bail her out, no Matilda on the other end of her disabled comm.

Samantha came to a corner and leaned around, scanning the front of the building connected to the parking garage Kat Basara’s car had disappeared into. It was dark and quiet. Samantha’s tacsuit visor amplified the distant city lights, giving her a clear, though monochrome, view of the area. This was when Julian would have fed her information through her earpiece and visor’s optical overlay, scanning for electrical signatures, transmissions, and other activity from afar. Not now. All Samantha could rely on was what she could see herself.

It looked like the area was clear. Samantha took a few slow breaths, allowing her heart rate to settle. Earlier, she’d lost control in the van with Decker, and her outburst of emotion had surprised her. But learning from Julian’s message that Renic was attempting to interfere with her brought a new sense of urgency, one that was more personal in nature than just defending the Imperium’s interests. She had not clued Decker or the crew in. They didn’t need to know about Renic or why his meddling made it even more important she extract information from Basara. They didn’t understand what drove Samantha, but worse, she was beginning to wonder if she didn’t either.

From the start, back on Kestris, Renic had tried to manipulate her. She’d shut him down in her apartment, thinking that would be the end of it, but apparently it had only deepened his interest and set off a chain of events that must have complicated the situation for Clarke and Julian. It was her fault Renic was interfering. If she could get to Kat Basara and uncover where the Kestrels and Imperium were connected, it might turn the balance back in their favor.

Pushing the worries about Renic from her mind, Samantha imagined a path from where she stood to a shadowed spot near the building’s entrance. She pushed off from the alley wall and sprinted forward, her footfalls staccato thuds against the distant din of the city. She came to an abrupt stop against the wall of her destination, spinning to land her back against the building’s shadow. She paused, waiting long enough for anyone who may have seen her to reveal themselves, then waited some more. 

Nothing. Still quiet. It was the kind of quiet that would have made Julian extend his scanning sweep of the area, asking her to hold position until he could come up with an explanation as to why. Proceeding with caution was an unfamiliar feeling. Had she paused long enough to rule out any observers? This is what a controller was supposed to do; think ahead so she didn’t have to. She raised her comm, cycling through the tacsuit visor’s capabilities—bolt pistol still in hand—looking for something she could use. All she found was a repeated system message about requiring a connection to 5E field servers. Maybe she should have prioritized Sellivan figuring out how to connect the tacsuit to the Matilda. Too late for that now.

Fine, Samantha didn’t need it. Not everything required the level of planning 5E insisted on. Maybe if they’d been faster and more ruthless with the Kestrels a year ago—when Samantha had been collecting their scarves across the sector—the Dauntless would still be flying. Starview would still be full of happy, living travelers. 

Samantha was tired of playing by ineffectual rules. Kat Basara and the Red Kestrels had made their bed when they chose to conspire against the Imperium. Now, kill or be killed was the rule, not exception. Before, it had been only when 5E agency operational edicts allowed for the use of lethal force. But this time, there was no 5E watching. No Julian keeping Samantha in check, no agency rules of engagement restricting her actions. She could neutralize every single Kestrel in that building single-handedly if she wanted to. 

Those were the consequences that Basara, Casto, and whoever else got in her way had to face. When it was over, the trail of bodies Samantha left behind on Senali would end up being the bloody work of a disavowed agent who turned on her government, or the necessary casualties of a top-secret mission too important for normal constraints. Which version of the story it turned out to be depended on how the events of tonight played out.

Samantha clenched her jaw. Enough ruminating, it was time to find a way inside. She reached her free hand into one of the tacsuit’s jacket pockets and fished out a pair of taze pills. More than her usual dose, but being at peak acuity was more important than any possible, delayed health risks. By the time the comedown got her, she’d either be safely back aboard the Matilda and able to ride it out, or in a situation where the comedown was the least of her worries. This was an all-or-nothing mission. She tossed the taze pills into her mouth, chewed them up, and let them absorb into her cheeks.

Samantha crept toward the parking garage, keeping her shoulder against the wall. She peeked around the corner. The structure’s overhead lights were dark, but the visor’s night vision gave her a clear view of the car they had followed parked in one of the garage’s many empty bays. She paused for a few moments, listening. The place was silent.

Samantha ignored the imaginary sound of Julian’s voice in her ear urging caution and continued forward, hugging the wall, keeping the bolt pistol partially raised. The car was resting on its hover skids, no movement or light visible in or around it. Just behind the car was a set of doors that led into the building, black tinted glass giving no view of what was beyond. Samantha circled around the edge of the garage, keeping her eyes on the door. The tacsuit’s nano-weave boots were near-silent as she crept, her body tensing with each step, readying to spring into action. 

Samantha reached the corner of the wall, the last bit of cover she had between her position and the car before being exposed to anyone who might be watching from the doors. With no controller in her ear to do a sensor sweep, she leaned around the edge and looked. 

The entry panel next to the door had an orange light at the top of the display, indicating restricted entry. There might be something in the tacsuit computer code that could hack it, but Samantha didn’t have the expertise to do it herself. She stifled a bitter sigh; another drawback of being here alone.

The orange light on the panel changed to green, interrupted her thinking, and the doors slid aside silently. Samantha lowered into a kneeling position, bringing the bolt pistol up, the visor’s optics picking up the weapon’s aiming pattern and showing a targeting reticle floating chest-high where the doors had opened. 

A figure appeared, casually walking to the car. It was one of Basara’s entourage. The car door opened as he approached. Samantha waited, checking the building’s door behind him. It remained open, but no one else exited. The man ducked his head into the car and rummaged around, emerging a moment later with a datapad, glancing at it for a moment before shrugging and sauntering back to the building, the car door sliding shut behind him. The building’s doors had stayed open, the light above the panel still green as he approached. This was her chance. 

Samantha crouched and hurried across the darkened garage, coming to a stop against the vehicle. She peered around the side of the car. The door was still open, the silhouette of the Kestrel just behind the second set of interior doors. Samantha surged forward, keeping her body low as she closed the distance between her and the doors. Silent as a passing shadow, she crossed the threshold between outside and in.

No alarm sounded, no security gates slammed. A wave of relief washed over her. She was in. The next task: finding somewhere to stop and assess. 

The hallway was dark, but her visor allowed her to see the Kestrel disappear around a corner at the end of the hall. Samantha took that chance to dart to the side and come to a crouched stop against the wall. 

She was in a small entry lobby with a few waiting-room chairs and potted plants. No turrets. No sensor arches. No hidden scanners. There was no reason for Basara or the Kestrels to have enhanced security or vigilance in this place. According to the agency files Samantha had reviewed aboard the Matilda, this was just another of Basara’s commercial office buildings. There was nothing special about it. Samantha found herself grinning. Maybe this would be easier than she expected. One quick mission—in and out. No rules to limit her actions. 

Samantha crossed the small lobby, moving toward the light coming from the end of the hall. This was when Julian would have maneuvered the drone ahead to pick up audio and to peek around the corner. She would have to proceed the conventional way; one slow step at a time. 

Samantha continued forward, taze-enhanced senses buzzing. The hall had multiple darkened doors on each side, likely meeting rooms and offices. There was artwork on the walls, large plants in evenly spaced planters, and unlit light fixtures hanging from the ceiling on delicate metal chains. Another uninspired office building like many she had infiltrated in the past. At least Eddie Renner’s hackering den had had character.

Toward the far end of the hall, beneath one set of double doors was a pool of light, spilling out between a small gap near the floor that a naked eye may not have noticed, but her visor showed. This must be where they were.

Samantha brought her pistol up until its targeting reticle floated in front of her, gripping it with both hands. There would be no hesitating, no fancy karambit attacks, no clever quips, no bothering to pull red sashes from necks. Everyone other than Basara was to be eliminated as efficiently as possible. This time, there would be no one whispering in her ear to stop her, no witnesses to judge her after doing what she had been denying herself all along—ruthlessly ending the Kestrels. Her grin grew into a sadistic grimace; this was going to be easy.

The unmistakable sound of an energy weapon charging behind her jerked Samantha’s attention away from the door. She spun just in time to see the muzzle of a bolt rifle leveled at her chest. A flash of light, pop of energy, and being thrown backward all seemed to happen at once. 

The tacsuit dissipated most of the energy, but not enough to prevent Samantha from momentary incapacitation. Her visor reacted to the flash by darkening, preventing her from becoming completely blinded by the flash. Through the artificially darkened visor, she watched as two figures rushed her from the way she’d come. They grabbed her, forcing her to the ground as they wrestled the bolt pistol from her hand and pinned her arms to the floor. 

Samantha struggled against them, trying to work her hand toward either of her remaining bolt pistols or karambit, but it was no use. The two assailants grabbed her by her arms and dragged her forward, her legs scrambling to regain footing. She fought against their grip, looking for any weakness or opportunity to wrench her arms free. Had Julian been watching her, he would have activated the tacsuit’s apprehension countermeasures, sending a powerful jolt of electricity into her captors. Not this time.

Samantha was dragged to the double doors of the conference room and thrown through them, smashing them open and tumbling to the ground. She slid on her stomach, using her remaining strength to rise to a single knee. She lifted her head, taking in as much of her surroundings as she could, right hand reaching for the bolt pistol under her left arm. 

The room was lit by a series of overhead lights, but her visor again compensated by darkening its surface while Samantha’s flash-constricted eyes recovered from the bolt. She jerked her head back and forth, scanning the room, pulling the bolt pistol from its holster. There were more people here than had exited the car, all armed and all wearing red scarves.

 Just as she selected a target, another bolt slammed into her back, energy tendrils crawling across her body. The tacsuit again dissipated most of the energy, but this time enough made it through, causing her to cry out and fall to her knees, bolt pistol clattering to the floor.

The shock of the energy surges clouded her thinking, the anger she felt at her lapse mixing with the humiliation of being ambushed so easily. Where had they come from? She’d cleared the lobby. There had been no one else outside. Was there some sort of surveillance? Or just bad luck, arriving at the same time as two more Kestrels? It didn’t matter. Whatever the specifics were, the real reason she was here on the ground, seething as her body spasmed in pain, was because she’d gone at this alone. 

The temptation to wallow was overwhelming, even now. She had to resist it. She had to recover. Think. Think, Samantha. What would Julian say if he were here? He had talked her through countless situations where defeat and death were only a hair’s breadth away, always remaining calm. What would he have said now? That their bolts were set to stun levels. That they wanted her conscious. That they weren’t slamming fists and boot-heels into her. That she had options if she would focus on the situation.

Samantha counted her adversaries. Behind her, the two men who had grabbed her stood in front of the doors, closing them as they entered. At the front of the room, three more Kestrels stood, one woman and two men, along with two more that stood on either side of the room; one woman, one man. 

Samantha’s visor returned to its normal, perfectly translucent state. She raised her hands in a surrender pose, staying on one knee as she met eyes with the female figure at the front of the room.

“That’s it? The way Eddie told the story of you crashing his hideout, I was expecting someone a little more impressive,” Kat Basara said, sighing with a playful lilt in her voice, tossing her flowing dark hair while straightening her smart business suit. She stood at the head of the table directly across from Samantha.

Samantha’s gloved hand ached for the karambit, fist clenching so tightly it quivered. How did Basara so quickly know that Samantha was the same person who’d stormed Eddie Renner’s place?

No time to wonder. Samantha kept her breathing even, compiling all tactical options available to her. First; Basara was talking, not ordering her people to fire. That meant eliminating Samantha was not their primary goal—at the moment. Second; there were six Kestrels in the room, seven counting Basara, all armed. Third; Samantha still had the bolt pistol on her thigh and her karambit.

Samantha calculated potential attack patterns. She might be able to reach the two Kestrels behind her, but not before the others could easily open fire, and she had no cover besides the conference room table. She could forgo the offensive and instead try to use one of the kestrels as a human shield, but the chance of another Kestrel shooting one of their own was too high. 

Samantha thought of her deactivated comm. Decker and Eliza were still out there, but there was no way to signal them without alerting Basara and her Kestrels. She had the visor, but it was not calibrated for eye movement communication since that was another thing a mission controller would have handled. All these advantages she’d taken for granted kept crumbling away. 

That left only one strategy; keep Basara talking. Every added second was a chance for the people pointing guns at her to get distracted or lazy. She wouldn’t need tech if she could connect karambit with soft-tissue.

Samantha started to stand slowly, hands still raised. Kat Basara raised a finger, wagging it in disapproval.

“No, no, you’ll keep your palms on the floor or get another bolt,” Basara said. She put her hands on her hips. “You know, I have no reason to keep you alive. I know you’re Imperium, and I know you’re here alone. We could dump your body in a trash incinerator out back and that would be the end of it.” Basara sighed, shrugging nonchalantly. “But… you’re still breathing as a favor to our mutual friend.”

Samantha sank back down to her knees, letting her fingertips touch against the carpeted floor. She raised her eyes. “I’m sorry, Kat, but I think you’re confused. We have no mutual friends. Oh, wait.” Samantha pretended to think. “You know, I think I’ve actually killed a few of your friends recently. Sorry. It’s a habit.”

Basara chuckled and took a step toward the side of the conference table. “Oh yes, I’ve been informed about your little quest against us. The mysterious Kestrel hunter, taker of scarves across the Fringe. It’s a sloppy habit. But now we have a name for this hunter. Samantha Mori. And leaving Eddie behind to talk? Well, you probably realize that that didn’t matter, of course. We’re too far ahead, but… still sloppy.”

Samantha scoffed, hiding her surprise at the reveal of her identity; another obstacle to overcome at a later time. “I do realize, but only after my people uncovered that your stunts had nothing to do with your pathetic group’s capabilities. I know you’re the one carrying out the dirty work, but you’re being supplied by someone in the Navy. Sure, you were there for the hijacking of the Dauntless, a helpless vessel the navy sacrificed to you. What about Starview Station? That your chapter, too? Or was that Casto’s work?”

Basara feigned bemusement, tossing a thick wave of hair back over her shoulder. “Impressive guesswork. I presume you put this together from Eddie’s data. As for Reed, you can thank him for the chaos over Kestris.” Basara shrugged. “Who knows what he thinks? My orders were to work with our friend, who, by the way, you can thank for selling you out. Honestly, you never had a chance tonight. Our surveillance systems picked you up as soon as you entered the garage.”

Samantha’s eyes narrowed. What was Basara’s game? Was Eddie Renner the mutual friend she kept talking about? Was she implying he had something to do with this ambush? Or had someone else in the Imperium shared Samantha’s mission information with the Kestrels? Perhaps there was a leak on Kestris, even accidental. It couldn’t be Clarke or Julian. Could it be someone else in 5E who had stumbled on what they hid?

Whatever the answer, Basara could not leave this place alive, knowing Samantha’s name as she did. Without question, Samantha could withdraw and throw the karambit, embedding it in Basara’s forehead from this distance before any of these Kestrels hit her with more bolt blasts than the tacsuit could absorb. She’d go down, but at least Basara would be dead. That wasn’t the mission, though; she needed to deliver intelligence back to Clarke and Julian, her friends. Her real friends. Dealing with her identity being known was secondary.

Samantha let the urge to grab the karambit fade. “Like I said, we don’t have any mutual friends.”

Kat hummed, tilting her head. Behind her through a door at the far end of the room, a new figure entered.

“Come now, Samantha, I don’t think this situation is too far gone that we can’t still be friends.”

The contents of the room faded as a tall, handsome man in a long, black jacket came forward. Smoothed-back black hair, angular jawline, predator’s eyes, and his disgustingly smug, self-satisfied grin.

Samantha’s throat tightened, muscles in her neck spasming with rage. “So you’re the one,” she said softly. Their mutual friend. 

Julian had been right; Renic had found her. Everything was blown. Clarke had known that they were playing catch-up. Samantha’s mission was supposed to give them an advantage. It appeared that Renic and the Kestrels had been ahead of her all along. 

Samantha thought again to her comm; Decker was still out there. She could warn him to run. Renic must know they were out there, but Basara had said they’d been watching since Samantha entered the garage.

Samantha stopped herself, swallowing her shame, her anger. The plan was the same; keep Basara, and now Renic, talking. Thankfully, that would not be a problem as far as Renic was concerned.

“I can’t tell if you’re surprised or not,” Renic said, pulling down the cuffs of his jacket as he walked around the side of the long conference table. “You don’t look surprised. Then again, why would you be? Of course it’s me.”

Samantha shifted her attention, as well as her weight. Basara was no longer the primary target, Renic’s forehead was now where the karambit could find a home. He would need to move much closer, however. His inhuman reflexes would snatch the knife right out of the air. Ten Kestrels—Samantha might have a chance. But Renic? That more than stacked the odds against her, even one on one. 

Samantha straightened her posture, letting her arms hang at her side. “Surprised that you’re in bed with the Kestrels? You’re an opportunist, Renic. I am sure whatever price you gave the Kestrels for your betrayal wasn’t cheap. Though, I had thought you were the Fleet Marshal’s man, here to protect the Imperium with your new little division. That’s what you said, right, when we last spoke? So, is this how you protect the Imperium, by selling it out to…” Samantha glared at Basara, sneering as she spat out her words, “the Red Kestrels? What happens when Gallow finds out?”

Renic clicked his tongue, feigning subtle embarrassment. He turned to Basara. “Kat, do you think your people could give us the room? This conversation may be…” Renic hummed and sucked his teeth, “a little more than I want your average associate privy to. You understand.”

Basara raised an eyebrow. “I think I’m okay with my people here. After all, two Imperium turncoats against little old me? Not good odds. They’re my people. You don’t need to worry.”

Renic cleared his throat softly, smile dropping to the sadistic half-frown Samantha knew so well. “Your people. Will give us. The room. Kat.”

For the first time since entering, Samantha noticed Basara’s mask of confidence crack. She swallowed. “Fine.” Basara waved a manicured hand in the air, glancing at Renic as she spoke. “‘Give us the room.’”

The six Kestrels all exchanged wary glances, more than a few glowering at both Renic and Samantha as they all shuffled out the single door at the far end of the room.

Renic extended his hands, palms up. He smiled broadly. “See. Now we can speak freely.” Renic dropped his arms, hands clapping against his sides. “Samantha, you and I may have different approaches, yes. But to question my loyalties? I think you know that’s unfair. I’m like you. I have my convictions and I follow them. Protecting the Imperium has always been my goal.” Renic held up a hand, dramatically forestalling a retort from Samantha. “Please, Samantha, let me demonstrate.”

The movement was fast; the kind of speed only Renic was capable of. In a blur, Renic’s gloved hand reached behind the lapel of his black, knee-length jacket—the same jacket he’d been wearing the last time Samantha saw him, the same jacket he always wore as his 5E uniform—and withdrew a small, silver rail pistol.

Before Kat Basara had time to react, the soft pop of Renic’s weapon sent a low-velocity, expanding projectile into the side of Basara’s skull, Renic’s favorite weapon always calibrated so the slug would not exit the other side of his victim. Her face went instantly slack as she fell, her fashionably dressed body crumpling into a heap of misaligned limbs and flowing, dark hair. Already, blood began pooling beneath her.

Renic held up the rail pistol for Samantha to see. “Just like old times, huh? Though I presume you would have opted to use the knife.”

Renic sighed at Basara’s body, shaking his head in mock disappointment. He slid his rail pistol back into his jacket pocket, straightening the lapels of his jacket and deftly fastening the center button, which Samantha now realized had been undone when he entered. “I believe you were here for Basara and the Kestrels. Well, one enemy of the Imperium down. My treat.”

Samantha took a deep breath, letting her arms hang freely at her side. Kat Basara was supposed to be Samantha’s conduit into the Imperium. And now she was dead. But Samantha didn’t need her anymore; the information for the Imperium conspiracy was standing right in front of her. Renic had tried to invite her into his plans—his life—at her apartment the day she had left. All she needed was for Renic to believe he could win her over this time. 

Samantha gestured to the room. “What about her people? There were six, and I’m certain that they can summon more,” she said. She knew Renic would have a plan, but given Renic’s erratic nature, it could be anything. Getting him to share it was the objective now.

“The Kestrels?” Renic snorted, rolling his eyes. “Well, the pistol was silent enough. They’ll presume we’re in here talking until I decide to have my people eliminate them. It’s nothing you need to worry about. It’s just you and me, Samantha. You and me,” he said, casually glancing down at Basara. “Well, and her.”

Renic walked around to the end of the conference table, no more than an arm’s length from Samantha, and casually half-sat on the table. Samantha stood motionless, watching his eyes and waiting. 

Eliminating Kat Basara, that was unexpected. Samantha had to know what Renic’s motives were and how the situation had changed. Was eliminating Basara his objective all along as well? And if it was… were he and Samantha actually adversaries here?

Renic raised his arm, pulling back his sleeve to glance at his comm. He chuckled. “Samantha, you have no idea what it took for me to get here in time, especially after having to coordinate with Basara from Kestris about that fake press release and investor’s conference. Glad you noticed it.”

Samantha’s jaw clenched, vision vibrating from the tension. It had been bait. Julian would have recognized fabricated intelligence. Another advantage taken for granted. She hummed and forced a smile; she wouldn’t let Renic realize how badly being lured angered her. He continued, smug and arrogant as ever.

“I’m supposed to be on Kestris, you know. I dropped from jumpspace and came directly here. I’d wanted to be in the room when you arrived, but,” Renic shrugged, “better late than never. I must warn you, I do need to get back to my ship very soon if I am to return to Kestris on time. I don’t know if you realize this yet, Samantha, but…” Renic smiled, casting his eyes downward in false modesty, “I’m somewhat of an important person back home now.”

Samantha allowed a hint of admiration to color her tone. “Right. A Navy commander. You mentioned when we last spoke about how you wanted me to be a part of your division.” 

Renic nodded in agreement. “We were supposed to meet, remember? You were going to think about my invitation.”

Samantha turned to face Renic. She slowly raised her arm, making obvious movements as she lifted the visor up from her eyes to rest atop her brow, covering her forehead. “To join you in… whatever this is?” she said, nodding down at the body only a few feet between them.

Renic looked back at Basara, then to Samantha. “Well… yes, in fact. What ‘this is’ is the answer to protecting the Imperium. For good,” Renic said, voice swollen with pride. 

“By eliminating the Red Kestrels?” Samantha said, her eyebrows coming down. “You’re the one who was working with them. Did you personally orchestrate the Dauntless? Starview Station? Is it you who accessed the Terminus and duplicated the signature key?”

Renic reared back, a smirk of satisfaction on his lips. “You even know about the keys? I am flattered you think me capable of such a technological feat. I presume once Siddig got hold of Renner’s data, it was only a matter of time.” Renic waved off his remarks. “That discovery was unfortunate, but we can recover, especially since you and Julian never entered your discoveries into the official record. Luckily, I got Renner on my side before he could spill his story to anyone else, and he had a lot to say. I spoke to Siddig, too. Julian.” Renic shook his head. “Aggravating little snoop, that he is.”

Samantha’s eyes hardened. “Renic, I need you to tell me Julian is unharmed, or this conversation is over,” she said, now close enough that the karambit had a fair chance of severing one, if not more, of Renic’s vital arteries.

Renic rolled his eyes. “He’s fine. Alive and well. We had a little tussle, but I needed to keep him and Clarke in check so I could arrange for what I am here to offer you today. Sending you on this crusade was clever, but a mistake in the grand scheme of things. I can undo Clarke’s mistake and give you what you actually want.”

Samantha kept her expression flat, hiding the anger she felt at Julian being used as leverage against her. There was no way to know if Julian truly was safe, but he had managed to send the message to the tacsuit.

Samantha shrugged, relaxing her posture and taking a half-step back, projecting surrender. “So that’s how you did it? You flip Renner, shakedown Julian, probably get them to talk about Senali and what my next logical step would be,” she said.

Renic pressed his lips together and nodded as if he had forgotten about this question and was glad she asked. “How did I find you? It’s my job. The trail you left was quite obvious. A section-42… how long did you and Clarke think that would go unnoticed? A few days?” Renic uttered a single chuckle before locking eyes with Samantha, no hint of levity remaining. “Of course I found you. I’ll always find you.”

Samantha allowed her anger to show, eyes narrowing as she sneered, remembering how Renic had shown up at her apartment, how he’d strode into this conference room, how he presumed—twice—that she’d be seduced into joining him in his twisted view of loyalty to the empire. He’d expect her to be angry in this moment. That was why he wanted her so badly, both professionally and personally. He wanted her fire, her spirit, the way she matched him, but he only wanted it in the ways that worked for his agenda.

“I didn’t realize you were the one I should be looking for,” Samantha said, studying Renic’s face. “It makes sense, though. You’re the only one capable of being the fulcrum the empire’s downfall is hinged on.” 

Renic smiled, clearly not taking her insult as intended. “I will not disagree with you on that. But you were right. You should be looking for me, but not for the reasons you think.”

Samantha laughed, a cynical snort that escaped before she could stop it. “Oh yeah? What reasons?”

Renic leaned forward, resting an elbow across his leg, face close enough Samantha could clip him with an elbow strike. “Because I am the one who can help you complete your mission.”

Samantha’s eyes flashed wide. She drew in a sharp, incredulous breath. “Complete my mission? Stopping you and whoever you’re with is my mission. You just did half of it for me,” she said, gesturing to Basara’s body. “Looks like you’re next.”

“No. No.” Renic shook his head. “No, your mission—your true mission—is to protect the Imperium. You believe in it, and so do I. You’re simply targeting the wrong enemy. You’ve become too focused on the enemy outside the empire instead of the enemy within. The Kestrels mean nothing. It is corruption, incompetence. That is your enemy. Help me clean it, Samantha. Drain the abscesses that poison the heart of Kestris.”

Samantha shook her head at the twisted logic. “You’re talking of an insurrection?”

Renic jerked his arm off the table and pointed back at Basara’s crumpled body. “The Red Kestrels were never a threat to anything but themselves, and Reed Casto will meet the same fate as Kat Basara very soon. Who do you think empowered them, and who do you think can disempower them?”

“You. Isn’t that what this is all about? You amassing personal power?” Samantha asked, taking another half-step backward, watching as each increase in distance between them seemed to cause Renic to become more impassioned and desperate.

“No.” Renic exhaled in frustration. She was getting to him. That meant he would escalate, try harder to convince her, to get the final agreement from Samantha—his ultimate want. She knew as long as he believed he could still get it, he would talk. 

Renic continued, making a speech now more than having a conversation. “The Imperium empowered the Kestrels and any other potential enemy by signaling that it was crumbling. It is in need of restoration, only now in the form of a just, stable republic. Helping that process along is in the Imperium’s best interest. Empire, republic, what does it matter? The truth is, you want to protect the spirit of Kestris. That is what you are loyal to. What I am loyal to. Our goals are the same.”

“Okay,” Samantha nodded. “You use the Red Kestrels to make the Imperium look weak and broken. You blame the Imperium’s weakening on itself. You think that you’re the true Imperium, and the High Imperius and his leaders are now the unfit candidates. And the crew of the Dauntless, the civilians on Starview Station, they died as a consequence of the Imperium’s weakness, is that it? You and the Red Kestrels are just, what, midwives assisting in the birth of this new empire?” Samantha held up a hand. “Oh, I’m sorry, the new Republic.”

Renic’s expression soured for a moment before he raised his hands and gave her a nod. “You mock, but yes. The Imperium you loved, that your father served, died long ago. All that is left is a corpse, dressed up in the gowns of the High Imperius and his cronies. All the Kestrels did was help expose the rot.”

Samantha’s eyes narrowed. Renic wasn’t wrong, but he also wasn’t right. “It’s not how you change things,” Samantha murmured, less conviction in her voice than she expected.

Renic placed a hand around her arm, squeezing and pulling her closer in a mix of aggression and affection. “Isn’t it? You want to get your revenge on the Red Kestrels and restore the Imperium to the glory your father would have wanted? This is the way. Everything is in place. It cannot be stopped. You and I will be the republic’s new heads of intelligence. Above Clarke, above OS-9, above everyone. You will have absolute authority to pursue whatever you want—even the destruction of the Red Kestrels. And he will have the unopposed power to make this happen… the Fleet Marshal of the New Kestris Republic.”

Samantha jerked herself from Renic’s grasp and took a half-step backward. Though Renic was stronger, he didn’t resist her. She watched his face contort in frustrated desperation. The notion that he might be telling the truth about this potential future disturbed her; the way she saw the allure disturbed her more. 

“It’s Gallow,” she said. The realization that her hunt was over sapped the energy from her body. Samantha was speechless, remembering what Clarke had told her the last time she’d seen him: there’s not a compromise in the house; the compromise is the house. It had been over before she left Kestris. “There is no insider who has breached the Terminus’s security, is there? It’s him. He’s just… taking what he wants with no one who can stop him.”

Renic’s face hardened. He was reaching his limit of negotiation. “You see it backwards. The High Imperius is the one who thinks he cannot be stopped. Gallow is the only one who can keep the construct of the ‘Imperium’ together. Once he is finished, we will be seen as heroes of the New Kestris Republic,” Renic said, tipping his head forward. “You can be, too.”

Samantha snorted. “I’m already on the most-wanted list, implicated in both the Dauntless and Starview attacks. Thank you for that,” she said, nodding at Renic. His body stiffened at the reveal, a flicker of surprise in his eyes. “That’s right, I am not as completely uninformed as you presume. Was feeding me to OS-9 part of the heroics?”

Renic regained his composure and smiled. “It is all a part of the process. I have the fleet marshal’s blessing. If I say so, your departure becomes a part of the plan to lead us to Basara, a terrorist whom we have just eliminated together. Agent Samantha Mori, returned from undercover. A promotion, a commendation.” Renic eased himself off the edge of the table and closed the distance between him and Samantha to a mere inches away, bowing his head to speak softly in her ear. “This is what you want, Samantha. You can be a leader of an organization that will support you in your quest against the Red Kestrels. Are you really so loyal to the High Imperius and his lackeys that you won’t consider that his removal is in the best interest of the population you are sworn to protect?”

Samantha remained silent while the words sunk in. Renic had a brilliant way of presenting arguments that were true from a skewed perspective. Everything he said lined up with her motivations on the surface. And if Gallow was at the top of this plot, there was no way she could attack it from the outside.

However, if she were inside—if she were a part of what Gallow was orchestrating, there was no telling how much influence she could have. 

Samantha met Renic’s gaze, face just inches away. “Okay, Renic. Why did you ask me to join your side back on Kestris, and why again now after everything we have learned about each other?”

Renic spoke slowly. “I needed you and your talents. We had the same goal. I tried conveying this to you,” Renic shrugged, “minus some finer details.”

“Like mentioning that the next day a civilian starport over Kestris would be blown up?” Samantha asked, voice flat.

Renic snorted. “And I have just taken care of one of the perpetrators in a moment of true justice, have I not? Were you planning on leaving her alive tonight?”

Samantha was silent. 

Renic scoffed. “I thought as much. So, tell me, what did I do wrong here?” Renic leaned closer. “What. Did I. Do wrong?”

“It’s still treason until you succeed,” Samantha muttered.

Renic waved the comment away. “If you see the High Imperius as the embodiment of the Imperium, maybe. But did I betray the people who rely on the Imperium being strong? Did I betray Fleet Marshal Gallow, the man entrusted to protect the Imperium against its enemies, no matter where they originate? When the throne is vacated of its ineffectual occupant, will these actions be looked at as treason, or as a display of courage to do what was right.”

“Throne vacated?” Samantha’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about? What is going to happen?”

Renic sighed. “Samantha, I’ll share everything with you once you’re aboard my ship. I’m offering you the chance to restart, to pick up where we left off at your apartment. Samantha, this is your only chance to spare yourself, your director, and your partner.”

Samantha glared at Renic. “Threats against Clarke and Julian will not help sway me to your side.”

Renic shrugged, making himself comfortable again on the table’s edge. “All I am saying is that they have been a thorn in my side since you left Kestris. But if you join me, we can tell everyone that you were working with me and the division all along. You could even say they were part of your cover. I suppose then I could let their transgressions against me slide.”

Samantha took a step forward, letting her expression soften as she made the only decision she could. She had wanted to find out who the Imperium insiders were. One was standing in front of her now. Now, he had just invited her inside where she could protect Clarke and Julian, as well as Decker and the crew of the Matilda. So long as Renic believed she had been seduced to his side, he would not do anything to jeopardize that. Her handful of friends, both old and new, would be safe. And if not, she would be in the perfect place to exact maximum damage.

“This is all or nothing, Renic, for both of us,” she said, meeting his eyes. “You don’t go against anyone who has helped me. I’ll give you a list of people who are off-limits.”

Renic nodded emphatically, hunger in his eyes. “Yes, yes. Fine. So, you agree? That this is necessary?”

Samantha sighed. “You have alluded to the vacating of a throne. Gallow is going to remove the High Imperius? And he’s going to seat himself as the new head of this republic? I need to know what I am getting into.”

Renic frowned in disappointment. “There is far more than that at play. There are those who will resist, and, while we do not want a bloody civil war, you can help ensure if there is one, it is short. You’ll be saving lives.”

Samantha nodded again, slowly, her gaze drifting to the motionless body of Kat Basara on the floor. What was it that Julian had always said about not turning smoke and ash back into paper? “So that is what Gallow is planning, to divide the Imperium and set it against itself?”

Renic stood, irritation visible on his face. “Samantha… I can tell you more on my ship.” Renic stood and pulled up his sleeve, glancing at his comm. A worried expression crossed his face at what he saw. “If you want to be on the side of the victors, we need to leave now.”

Samantha took a step backward. Then another. Renic was still withholding something. Each step caused him to wince. “What victory? You speak as if you’re at war already, Renic. I have to know what Gallow is planning.”

Renic quickly stepped forward and closed the distance between himself and Samantha, placing his hands on the outsides of her arms and yanking her to him. This was not passion; this was desperation. “Enough. It’s time to go.” 

A voice called out on the other side of the conference room doors. A woman’s voice.

Eliza’s voice.

“Yeah, it is time to go!”