Episode 39: One disavowed, one disgraced

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Samantha, Renic, Decker and Eliza face off. Part 2 of a 2 concludes the Senali confrontation.

Decker dragged the unconscious body of the second Red Kestrel into the darkened alcove just as Eliza dropped the other, each having just experienced a jolt from her stun baton. Eliza’s organic hand darted in and out of his pockets, expertly flipping him over as she continued her search, cybernetic fingers still wrapped around the baton.

“Nothing of interest. Bolt pistol, some personal stuff, and the scarf.” Eliza let the length of red fabric still around the Kestrel’s neck flow between her fingers. “Shame they’ve sullied the color. I might have to change things up.”

“I’m sure they feel terrible,” Decker grunted out, pulling the body to lay beside the other. “I don’t want a repeat of Talius. How much juice did you hit them with?”

Eliza scoffed, standing with the Kestrel body between her legs. “Plenty. I’m not even sure this one is still breathing,” she said, gesturing with the stun baton at her victim. 

A soft growl rose from Decker’s chest. “The Kestrels might be Imperium enemy number one at the moment, but murdering two unsuspecting goons in cold-blood is not a transgression I want on my conscience just yet.”

Eliza frowned, sighed, then tipped her cybernetic ear toward the body. “Oh. There it is. Yep, he’s breathing. But they’ll be out for a while.”

Decker nodded, not entirely sure how Eliza could know this. They’d gotten the drop on these two after tracing Samantha’s route toward the Kestrel-owned building. An alcove set into a neighboring building had offered and a place to discuss strategy. During their ensuing debate over tactics, two Kestrels had emerged from the parking garage, walking as if on a lazy patrol of the area, mumbling to each other as they practically strolled. Eliza had activated a near-field communication jammer—one of the items purchased on Mentaryd, apparently—and they had watched the pair cross the street, do a circle around the block, and return just in front of the alcove. Eliza proceeded to unload her stun baton into each of them in quick succession. It was over in a matter of seconds. 

“Flip them over and zip them up,” Decker said, prodding one of the Kestrel’s with his boot. “If we kill their comms while they’re jammed, will it send out any sort of, I dunno, distress signal?”

Eliza shrugged. “Probably, but the jammer will keep it from reaching anyone.” 

“Good. Hopefully it makes a difference,” Decker said.

Eliza nodded, using her foot to turn the bodies over. She deftly looped an oversized plastic cable tie around their wrists and pulled them tight. Then, yanked off each of their comms with her cybernetic hand, crushing the devices in her grip and tossing them unceremoniously into the black recesses of the alcove.

Decker huffed, craning his neck to get a better look at the parking garage where the Kestrels had come from. “Well… shit. This can’t be all, can it? Two of them?”

Eliza raised the close-quarters bolt rifle to her shoulder, right eye looking through its holographic sight while her left eye did the real scan. Seeing Eliza’s body snap into the firing pose reminded Decker that some of them were actually trained to do work like this.

“Think about it, Deck,” Eliza murmured, still sweeping their surroundings, “we presumed that Basara would be caught unaware, so this does make sense if she just sent out some goons to stand watch and they just wanted to jaw about the score of last night’s game.” She turned to Decker, the muzzle of her rifle still trained at the parking garage. “Samantha probably slunk right under their noses with her kind of training. As for you and me, clearly they weren’t expecting to run into a few top operators like us.”

“Let’s not get cocky here.” Decker stood and spoke softly into his comm. “Manu, Selli, Heavy, we’re going to advance to a new position closer to the building. Give me a status report on the Matilda. Anything strange?”

Decker and Eliza made eye contact as they waited for a response. The comms were open, but their standard procedure was for the Matilda to remain silent while Decker and Eliza were on the ground. It was a rule that was instituted after a job had nearly been blown when one-too-many sarcastic quips in Decker’s ear had caused him to raise his voice within earshot of some very angry corporate gangsters they were supposed to be sneaking up on. After that, letting the ground duo concentrate was the new rule.

Manu’s voice sounded through the in-ear comm receivers, another one of the purchases made on Mentaryd. “Aside from this entire endeavor? No, nothing strange. The Matilda is nearly into low orbit, but we’re going to have to stay up here until we’re right over your location. Orbital patrol won’t want a ship like ours just cleaving through traffic.”

Decker sighed. He’d forgotten about Senali Orbital Patrol. “Right. So you’re going to be coming down like a meteor.”

Heavy’s voice blared in Decker’s ear. “That’s right Deck, but don’t worry. It’s nothing Matilda can’t take. Just don’t be too close when we land.”

“Selli, we locked in for Gaph?” Decker asked. It probably wasn’t where Samantha wanted to go, but she hadn’t given them a next destination. Again.

Sellivan’s voice sounded in their ears. “Ascent vector, jump entry, and jump exit near Gaph are all set. Whatever goes sour this time will certainly not be a result of my contributions.”

Decker grunted; Sellivan had a point. “As long as we make it. Gaph is the perfect place to lie low, or spread my ashes if the rest of this night goes poorly.”

Manu’s voice came back. “Got it. Spread your ashes on Gaph. Would you like Sellivan to give the eulogy?”

Decker grinned, unable to resist his next comment. “Maybe throw us a prayer right now, eh Selli?”

“Absolutely not,” Sellivan returned.

Eliza placed her cybernetic hand on Decker’s shoulder. “I’ll pray for you, Deck,” she said solemnly. The offer did not instill much confidence.

Decker eyed Eliza then pointedly directed his response back to the ship. “Keep the comms open and clear. We’re going to move in. And if Samantha’s comm comes back online, let us know immediately,” Decker said, adding under his breath, “she’s lost her mind.”

“Copy. To both sentiments.” Manu said.

The channel went silent. Eliza raised her bolt rifle and gave Decker the hand signal indicating she would be on point and Decker was to keep a broad watch on their flanks. Decker gave a single nod and Eliza pressed forward, moving quickly in a crouched run as they sped across the open street to the parking garage, the overhead lights and glow from the surrounding buildings making them conspicuous targets.

They reached the side of the building, hurrying to press themselves against the wall beneath the shadows. Eliza dropped to one knee, sweeping her rifle across the area. Decker stood behind her, bolt pistol held ready, looking for any sign of Samantha or the Red Kestrels. The car they had followed was visible inside the parking structure.

“Deck, place is clear. I can hear some indistinct sounds that could be voices coming from inside, but too hard to triangulate with just one ear,” Eliza whispered, nodding toward the door just in front of Basara’s parked car. “Here, watch this. Or listen, I mean.”

Eliza raised her comm and entered a command, and suddenly Decker’s in-ear comm was flooded with a torrent of noise. He winced at the static, closing his eyes and trying to pick out the meaningful sounds. A moment passed, and then he could pick out the telltale rhythm of a conversation.

“You’re piping your own hearing into the comms? You can do that?” Decker whispered. “How are we just finding this out?”

Eliza’s face soured. “Well, Deck, usually we’re embroiled in some half-assed commando stunt where we just go around hitting people with the baton and tying them up in alleyways. There’s a… finesse to spy stuff. And you never asked.”

Decker suppressed a groan and instead angled his ear with the comm toward where he presumed the sound was originating: the door that led into the building. It didn’t actually help him hear better, but having half of Eliza’s auditory sense piped into his ear was disorienting, and matching the sound to its origin helped. 

The pattern of speaking was still evident, but no words were distinguishable. It sounded as if he was deep underwater. He tapped a command into his comm, turning down the in-ear volume.

“Let’s move closer to the door. Eyes open,” he said. Eliza nodded, raising her weapon and proceeding with crouched steps. Decker kept half his attention on the stream of noise in his ear and half on the door that appeared to be open, its control panel glowing a soft green.

“Unlocked. They really weren’t expecting anyone,” Decker muttered. He pointed toward the door. “You’re the mobile sensor unit. You first.”

Eliza nodded and raised her weapon, taking careful steps forward. Decker turned and scanned back the way they had come. Still clear, a fact that gave him a shiver of apprehension. There was no way it was really this easy. Had Samantha just strolled right in?

Eliza crept through the door, it’s panels already wide-open and slid to the side. She passed the threshold and turned around, giving Decker the hand signal to follow. Decker crept forward, his very-much organic eyes having difficulty making out anything in the darkness. He could see they were in a lobby with dark blobs resembling large potted plants and various forms of seating. Nothing out of the ordinary. For being a Red Kestrel center of operations, it was not impressive.

Eliza stopped just before a corner that looked like the start of a wide hallway. She pressed her back against the wall and let the muzzle of her rifle lead, her head following as she peered around.

Decker crept up beside her. “Can’t see a thing,” he whispered. She pointed to her cybernetic eye, then pointed down the hall, making a walking motion with her fingers. Decker nodded, and the two slowly made their way toward whatever Eliza could see. The hall smelled like bolt fire, the telltale smell of ozone in the air. After a few steps, Eliza pointed to her cybernetic ear, then to a pair of doors toward the end of the hall. 

Decker squinted, his eyes now somewhat adjusted to the darkness. At the bottom of the doors where Eliza was pointing was a sliver of light. He tapped his comm and turned the signal from Eliza’s ear back up, listening.

This time, voices could be heard, words surfacing within the amplified noise. Soon fragments of sentences began breaking through with each slow step they took. Two distinct voices could be heard. A male voice, and a female voice. 

Samantha’s voice.

“…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…”

Decker and Eliza met eyes, each nodding and quickening their pace. The male voice broke through, the tone grazing against Decker’s memory, uncomfortably familiar.

“…the Imperium you loved, that your father served, died long ago. All that is left is a corpse…”

Manu’s voice cut through the comm, temporarily silencing the feed from Eliza’s ear. “Deck, what are we hearing down there? Is that her? You have eyes on Samantha?”

Decker spoke into his shoulder, doing his best to muffle his voice. “Yup. Keep the channel clear. Selli, record all of this.”

“Acknowledged,” Sellivan replied, usual cynicism gone from his voice.

Eliza crept forward, causing Decker to double-time to keep up. He kept listening as he scurried. This was Samantha when she wasn’t putting on a facade for them. This was the Samantha that he never saw, the one that wasn’t projecting a persona. For the first time, he heard a Samantha that sounded genuine, and genuinely in trouble.

“…Gallow… There is no insider who has breached the Terminus’s security, is there? It’s him…”

Eliza’s head whipped around at the name, mouthing the word ‘Gallow’ with eyes widened in glee. Decker managed a shrug, but felt his heart rate increase, his stomach tighten. Whoever Samantha was negotiating with on the other side of those doors was a big deal. It wasn’t Reed; he’d recognize that gravelly voice. But it also wasn’t Kat Basara. Was there another Kestrel, a man, who was important on Senali?

Decker growled softly to himself. It didn’t matter who it was at this point. He had to help Samantha because helping her meant he was at last attempting to undo some of the wrong his father and the Red Kestrels had caused. He’d hesitated on Starview Station, and he’d hesitated when Reed Casto had almost made him reconsider his legacy. He wouldn’t do that here. It wasn’t about Samantha, it was about Decker moving toward the danger instead of running away.

The two finally reached the double doors. Eliza posted herself on one side, Decker on the other.

Eliza mouthed words with no sound. “What do we do?”

Decker winced and shrugged his shoulders, silently mouthing back. “I don’t know.”

Eliza reached her arm up over her shoulder and fished around in her backpack, pulling something out. Decker kept listening, hearing the man’s voice clearly now.

“…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…”

“Psst!” Eliza sounded as she tossed something to Decker. He reached out and caught the object. It was one of the sticky breaching charges, designed to blow in a door and disorient whoever was inside. Eliza motioned for Decker to stick it to the door, then stand back, then motioned that she would enter and clear the room.

Decker shook his head, mouthing, “No. Too loud.”

Eliza waved off his comment, motioning for him to plug his ears. Decker grimaced, returning his attention to the conversation as Samantha’s voice broke through the noise once again.

“…Okay, Renic. Why did you ask me to join your side…”

The name hit Decker like a punch in the gut, his instincts putting the pieces together faster than his mind could put things into words. He waved his hand frantically at Eliza, whispering louder than a speaking voice.

“Eliza… Eliza!”

Eliza scowled as she silently mouthed back to him, “What? Keep quiet!”

Manu’s voice broke through. “Deck, did I hear that right? Is she talking to Renic? Like Renic Tau?”

Decker swallowed. His hands felt cold. It couldn’t be. He took a deep breath, holding it for a moment then forcing it out through his nose before whispering. “Yeah, Manu.” Decker looked to Eliza, her face having shifted from her usually playfully annoyed expression to a look of growing concern.

“Deck… who’s Renic?”

“Eliza, we’re in trouble. Big trouble,” Decker said, looking down at the breaching charge in his hand. He stuck it to the door and pulled off its detachable detonator remote. “Manu, Heavy, get the Matilda on the ground right outside the building. You need to get us out of here.”

“Affirmative. Matilda incoming,” Manu said through the comm, voice urgent. He knew who they were dealing with; this wasn’t part of the agreement.

Decker looked to Eliza, hardening his expression. “Eliza. You ready to go after a bad guy? Like a real bad guy?”

Eliza narrowed her eyes, cybernetic iris turning a menacing, glowing red—another function Decker had never before seen. A demonic grin bent her lips. Through the amplified channel noise in Decker’s ear, Renic’s voice broke through again.

“…Enough. It’s time to go…”

Eliza took a few steps back, lining herself up with the center of the doors. She nodded to Decker, mimicking pressing the breaching charge’s detonator, and lowered herself into a ready stance.

“Yeah, it is time to go,” she shouted.

Decker turned his head away, plugged one ear while jamming the other against his raised shoulder, and pressed the detonator’s button.

Samantha’s eyes widened at the sound, head twitching to the door where Eliza’s voice had come from. There was no time to explain; Renic saw the recognition in her eyes. Samantha watched his attention shift from her to the doors as his face contorted into rage.

“No!” he shouted. Both he and Samantha instantly snapped into mirrored fighting stances as they simultaneously went for their most convenient weapon. Renic’s hand went for the rail pistol beneath his jacket. Samantha’s hand went for the karambit in its magnetic sheath on her thigh. Just as each of their hands reached their weapons, a blast wave hit.

Samantha was thrown into Renic, both of them falling backward onto the surface of the conference room table. Chunks of door frame and debris flew past. The deafening pop—of what had to have been one of Eliza’s breaching charges—made her ears ring. Renic was beneath her, his arm pinned against his chest by Samantha’s body, hand still stuck reaching for his weapon. With his free hand, Renic grabbed the back of Samantha’s jacket and yanked, creating just enough space to begin wriggling the hand with the rail pistol free.

“You could have pursued your quest to its fullest extent. Now, you’re going to die for nothing,” Renic growled just inches from her ear. He yanked his trapped arm free, the silver rail pistol coming into view. Samantha didn’t know if the tacsuit would stop a solid projectile at this range.

Samantha used her left arm to push herself up, bring the karambit into striking position. “You chose this, Renic. Not me,” she spat, releasing her anger into the karambit as the blade shot down toward Renic’s neck.

Renic saw the attack coming and twisted his body beneath Samantha, releasing her jacket as he moved. His free arm came up to deflect her attack, using Samantha’s momentum to push the karambit wide. Samantha’s instincts took over, bringing the karambit-weilding arm back across her body, catching her elbow against Renic’s forearm and jerking both upward. The curved, inner edge of the karambit caught against the rail pistol, prying it from Renic’s hand and sending it sliding across the table.

Bolt fire erupted from both ends of the room. Streaks of glowing energy whizzed past Samantha and Renic. Her head snapped up to see four Kestrels rushing in through the door at the opposite end of the room, firing just over her and Renic. Samantha whipped her head around to look at the double doors. Decker and Eliza were returning fire—also just past Samantha and Renic’s head—and suppressing the Kestrels, keeping them from entering.

One of the Kestrels ducked and chanced a move into the room. He slid to a knee at the head of the table, right where Kat Basara’s body lay dead. “They killed Kat!” he shouted, firing a bolt pistol wildly across the room.

Renic turned, reaching for the rail pistol. Samantha pulled at his arm, but his hand was beyond her reach. His fingers wrapped around the weapon and then aimed—upside down while lying on his back—at the Kestrel. A slug silently shot across the room and caught the Kestrel in the forehead, dropping him to the ground on top of Basara.

The attack brought a new surge of bolts toward them from the Kestrels who now saw two of their own taken down. Renic raised his comm and shouted. “Kogan, rally to my position. Weapons free!” 

The distraction of the firefight was enough for Renic to shove Samantha to the side. He scrambled over the edge of the table and fell to the floor. Bolts streaking by, Samantha followed, rolling across the table and falling nearly on top of Renic. Behind her, Samantha heard Decker shouting something, but Renic wasted no time and resumed his assault on her from the floor, keeping her focus centered on where he wanted it; on him.

Samantha turned to check on her backup. Decker and Eliza’s silhouettes bobbed in and out of the open double doors as they fired from behind the cover of the wall. She’d told them to stay back, to leave her, but they’d come after her. She’d been ready to abandon them for Renic, for the crusade. But Decker, unable to let anyone down, had come back anyway. This was why he had been the only person she could hire. He was the only one who wouldn’t abandon her even when she deserved it.

The two continued to grapple. Flashes of their countless sparring sessions entered Samantha’s mind—how they had trained, how they had learned to attack and counter each other endlessly, neither ever maintaining an advantage for long. Memories of other interactions, passionate interactions, mixed with the fighting as she felt his body beneath hers. The rage on his face was not pure hate, but the blurred emotion of love and betrayal turned to fury.

Samantha reared upward, her free hand pressing Renic down while she raised the karambit near her shoulder. She straddled his chest, the weight of her body pressing down, her knees pushing up under his arms. Caught in the position, he was forced to shift his efforts toward escaping instead of attacking. For the first time during this encounter, Samantha had the dominant position and a clear opportunity to strike a lethal blow.

Then, she hesitated. It was only for a split second. An unanswered question stopped her attack: was killing Renic in this moment really what she wanted to do? If she did, what was next? 

Any chance of arriving at an answer was interrupted. Renic had used the fraction of a second to pivot his hips and wriggle beneath her, expertly using his grappling skills to roll to his side and pull his knee up through her legs, working it free and removing Samantha’s advantage. All it had taken was that single flash of a thought.

Renic met her eyes, a flash of remorse tainting his mask of rage. “I wanted you to join me,” he growled, nearly free as he pushed Samantha off balance.

Fighting beneath the table, he and Samantha made eye contact, the flash of bolts strobing in the room above them. Renic raised his shining weapon into firing position. Samantha reached for the bolt pistol holstered against her leg with her offhand, karambit still gripped in her other fist. But, the barrel of Renic’s gun swept past Samantha, aiming behind her. Renic caught her eye, a sadistic grin on her lips; he wasn’t aiming for her.

She turned to look; Decker was leaning out from behind his cover, focused on the Kestrels firing at him from the doorway across the room. 

“Renic!” Samantha shouted, rising from her position and throwing her body against Renic’s outstretched arm. It was just enough to steal a split-second of his attention. They each fired at the same time, the pop of the solid projectile and burst of energy from her bolt sounding simultaneously.

Samantha fell to the floor against Renic’s side, her shot having gone wide against the floor. She turned to look back toward the door; Decker was still firing, unharmed. He and Eliza were still suppressing the Kestrels—with the help of whoever Renic had summoned—and keeping them from entering the conference room.

Renic grunted and kicked at Samantha, silver rail pistol still in his hand. He brought it toward her body. Samantha dropped the bolt gun in her left hand and grabbed at Renic’s wrist, crawling across his body and forcing his next shot up into the ceiling. 

Samantha kept her body pressed against his, preventing him from standing or bringing his aim back to Decker and Eliza in the doorway. Renic had just proven he was willing to kill both her and them. Samantha had no other choice; if she did not stop him here, he would never stop. She would not let Renic control her; not in her apartment, not in the Imperium, and not in this moment. She would not lose to Renic.

The two former 5E agents, one disavowed, one disgraced, continued to grapple, bolts continuing to fly just overhead. Samantha brought the karambit up; Renic parried her hand away. Renic struck with an elbow; Samantha tucked her chin and absorbed the blow. Samantha reached her free hand for his rail pistol; Renic dropped it, shifting his weight beneath her and wrapping his arms around her to pin her blade-wielding arm against her body.

Samantha felt her energy start to wane, even with the pair of taze pills running through her blood. Their skills were equal, but Renic was larger and stronger, fueled by bloodlust and rejection. Fighting him after taking two bolt blasts was a losing battle. The most she could hope for would be to delay his eventual victory.

She crawled further up Renic’s body, laying a forearm near his neck to force him to defend or be choked. He obliged, and in that moment Samantha risked a glance back to the doors. Decker and Eliza were still firing, seeming to be arguing with each other beneath the sound of energy blasts. Samantha looked toward the other door; the Kestrels seemed to be engaged with another party coming from outside the room. Renic’s comrade—the one he called Kogan—must have arrived.

“Samantha!” Decker called out. She turned and saw him firing from around the wall, its surface covered with charred bolt impacts. “Leave him! We have to get out of here!” 

Samantha tried to disengage and create space, but Renic had regained his grip on the back of her jacket. If he had been another anonymous Kestrel, she would have ended this fight several times already with a surgical slice of the karambit through any number of exposed arteries. But, despite Renic’s onslaught, Samantha continued to hold back. It was instinct. He had been an ally for so many years, had trained with her hundreds of times. Each time the karambit had a chance to strike a vital artery, she hesitated, allowing Renic to easily block or parry. 

Renic was not some Kestrel thug. He had once been her lover. And despite his betrayal of the Imperium, Samantha could not bring a lethal strike against someone she had a bond with, however dysfunctional. A strange flash of panic accompanied the notion. The bodies of nameless mission obstacles littered her past, but never a friend. Never someone she had shared affections with. It was the personal connection that was preventing her from being effective, the type of connection she’d worked so hard to eliminate from her life. 

Samantha reared back and shifted her focus to escape techniques, any thought that she could subdue and apprehend Renic vanishing from her mind. She altered her attacks, looking for openings to wound and distract. She ducked her head and feigned a slash toward his body, then reversed to drag the karambit across the arm he was using to hold her jacket. 

Renic grunted through clenched teeth as the blade cut through. As his jacket fabric fell away with the slice, Samantha saw a familiar texture beneath; he was wearing a nanoweave tacskin under his clothes just like Samantha had worn on Starview Station. The karambit’s tip left a mark but failed to break the surface. She cursed, realizing that the only exposed, critical target would be his neck. Her only way out of this was to kill him.

Renic swung his hand in reverse across his body, backhanding Samantha across the eyes. Her head whipped to the side, visor still pushed up on her forehead. For a moment, Samantha couldn’t see. The half-second of distraction was enough for Renic to surge upward, flipping her over and reversing their positions to put Samantha on her back, one leg trapped beneath Renic’s.

Renic, teeth bared, slammed his open hand against Samantha’s throat, smashing her down against the floor, his back toward Decker and Eliza. A flurry of punches pummeled into Samantha’s body, each successive hit making it even harder to breathe. All she could do was attempt to block.

Unable to counterattack, she stabbed the karambit down into the floor and released it, bringing both hands up to pull on Renic’s arm, slightly weakening his hold on her throat just enough to gasp a few more breaths.

“This is the price for betraying me!” he shouted, his hand crushing down on her throat.

Samantha choked out her response. “I’ve… betrayed… no one.” 

She kicked at his body as Renic pressed her into the floor, his hand flattening her windpipe. Her struggling forced him to twist to the side, but he did not release his grip. She felt her lungs burning. It was becoming difficult to think.

“You had a choice. You made it,” Renic growled. With his hand still on Samantha’s throat, he reached with his free hand and yanked the karambit from the floor. “It didn’t have to be like this,” he yelled as he brought the weapon, Samantha’s weapon, up over his head. For a split-second, she saw a flash of true sadness in his eyes. He would never know that for a moment, she had genuinely considered his offer. Samantha made one last pull against his arm, her vision going dark. 

Out of nowhere, Renic’s grip around her throat loosened enough for Samantha to gasp for another breath. Vision returning, Samantha looked over Renic’s shoulder. Eliza was on his back, cybernetic hand wrapped around his forearm, keeping his killing blow from landing.

“Drop the weapon!” Eliza cackled, wrenching Renic’s arm back with mechanical force.

“What? No!” Renic shouted. Unable to deal with two attackers at once, he released his grip on Samantha to focus on Eliza. He swung a fist toward her, but Eliza dodged to the side. Renic turned his body, giving Samantha a chance to wriggle from beneath his legs as Eliza pulled him backward.

Samantha watched as Renic’s face turned from one of fury to one of horror as Eliza’s cybernetic hand whined and closed into a tight fist, his arm still inside its grasp. The tacskin he wore could protect his flesh, but the vice-like strength of Eliza’s hand crushed his muscle, sinew, and bone, the sickening sound audible even over the bolt fire.

Renic screamed, trying to free himself, his hand clawing at Eliza’s in a futile attempt to get her to release. She laughed and grabbed the collar of his jacket with her organic hand, pulling his face right next to hers.

“Time for a nap,” Eliza shouted in a maniacal glee. Samantha sat up, realizing what was about to happen. She reached a hand out to Eliza.

“No, it won’t—” Samantha shouted, but it was too late. The pop of electricity could be heard as Eliza released a surge of energy through the electrodes on her cybernetic palm. But instead of causing Renic to convulse, the shock was unable to find a path through the tacskin and instead arced around Renic and back into Eliza’s other, organic hand.

Eliza’s body seized and convulsed, her cybernetic hand releasing Renic as she fell back onto the floor. Renic, face twisted in pain as his right forearm dangled in a display of broken bone and pulped flesh encased within the tacskin, reached for his rail pistol with his left hand. Fingers curling around its handle, he lifted the barrel point-blank to Samantha’s head.

Through an expression of pain and rage, Renic muttered, “Goodbye.”

Decker leaned back around the corner, doing his best to keep the Kestrels occupied while Samantha wrestled with Renic. Each time Decker attempted to enter, another volley of bolts kept him and Eliza behind cover.

“Deck, I think she might be a little fixated on trying to win that fight rather than retreat,” Eliza shouted from her side of the doorway, popping her short-barreled bolt rifle around the corner to launch a few more bolts across the expansive room.

Decker chanced another look. Samantha was between him and Renic, he couldn’t hit him without hitting her. “Hey, sharpshooter, can you take him out?”

Eliza raised her weapon, then quickly pulled it away. “Negative. Not unless you want a repeat of our last extraction where we ended up leaving with a dead body.”

A round of bolts blazed past. Decker and Eliza both ducked back out of view, the bolts slamming into the wall behind them. What was Samantha doing? Why wasn’t she disengaging? She wasn’t trying to defeat Renic, was she? 

“This is the price of betraying me!” Renic shouted.

The situation was nearing a point of forced conclusion. Decker pressed his hand to his ear, shouting into his comm. “Manu, we need you now. How far out?”

“I’ve got a visual on the street outside the building. Orbital patrol is going to notice once we reach lane altitude, and they’re not going to like it. Be ready to board,” Manu said over the channel.

“We’ll be ready. Have the gangway down. We’ll jump on and climb while you blast off if we have to,” Decker called back.

Eliza fired another round across the room, each side at a stalemate, while the two Imperium agents wrestled and fought behind the cover of the overly large conference table. Decker tried again to target Renic, but there was still no shot. Samantha was too wrapped up with him. A fitting metaphor if ever there was one.

In the doorway across the room, one of the Kestrels who had been firing at them turned, aiming his weapon somewhere out of view down the hall. The flash of energy weapons discharging lit up the hall behind the Kestrels and one fell, struck by an attacker behind the wall. It had to be who Renic had called for. Maybe it was a whole squad of Navy commandos. Decker didn’t want to stick around to find out.

“Oh shit, Deck, he’s got her,” Eliza said, using the lull in Kestrel bolt fire to lean around the corner. Decker leaned as well; Renic and Samantha had changed positions. Now Renic kneeled over her, hand raised over his head, Samantha’s curved knife in his fist.

“It didn’t have to be like this,” Renic shouted. Decker raised his weapon and took aim at Renic’s back, but a bolt flashed from across the room, hitting his weapon.

Decker felt his hands burn with energy and he spasmed back, a fraction of the bolt’s energy surging up his arm, causing him to drop the ruined weapon to the floor.

“That’s it. I’m going in,” Eliza growled. Across from Decker, Eliza let her rifle dangle from its sling and sprinted into the room. Why she didn’t use her gun was something Decker would have to ask her about later, if there was a later. Instead, she raced toward Renic, leaping forward and landing on his back, cybernetic hand wrapping around his wrist, her other hand snaking its way under his arm and pulling back on his chest.

“Drop the weapon!” Eliza shouted, voice full of mocking authority. Renic and Eliza struggled as Samantha scooted her way back.

“What? No!” Renic shouted. Eliza cackled, climbing on him like an overstimulated child. Her cybernetic hand clenched closed, crushing Renic’s forearm. Decker recoiled at the sight and sound, well-aware of what the mechanical limb was capable of. Renic wouldn’t be using that arm for a while. Maybe never again.

“Time for a nap,” Eliza cried out.

Seeing an opening to grab Samantha, Decker charged into the room, reaching for the bolt pistol Samantha had dropped only a few paces away. Samantha shouted something, followed by what sounded like an electric pop and Eliza being flung off of Renic and falling onto her back.

Decker bent down and grabbed the fallen bolt pistol. He could help Eliza, or try to free Samantha. He looked to his crewmate, then to his half-sister. He clenched his jaw and lunged toward Eliza, only to see her weakly point behind him.

“Deck…” Eliza murmured through her stupor. Decker turned around. Renic had regained control of his silver rail pistol and was aiming it at Samantha’s head.

“Goodbye,” Renic said. 

“Ah, shit,” Decker shouted, shifting the bolt pistol to Renic and firing. 

The energy blast struck Renic squarely in the chest just as the sound of his projectile weapon popped. Renic shouted and fell to the ground, recoiling from the surge of the bolt. At the same time, Samantha’s head snapped back, her body falling limply backward. 

Decker froze, unable to even shout. Samantha had been shot point-blank in the head. He didn’t feel anger, or shock. To his surprise, he felt hollow, and a strange sense of wishing he’d been a little nicer to her back on the Matilda.

Forgetting what was happening in the room, Decker lunged forward and slid to his knees, reaching down to grab Samantha’s burned, bolt-shredded jacket and pull her back. Something was odd; the translucent visor she wore was now covered in a radiating series of jagged cracks that surrounded a single, central object: a rail slug embedded in the material. 

Decker’s mouth fell open. Her visor had stopped the slug. Whatever it was made out of, it had stopped it. A new surge of energy, and relief, flooded his limbs.

“Samantha, hey! Hey! Wake up!” Decker shouted. Samantha’s eyes fluttered open, then shut again, a soft moan her only sound. That was confirmation enough. He grabbed her jacket and pulled, dragging her back toward the doorway. Beside them, Eliza was getting to her feet, awkwardly firing her bolt rifle with her organic arm at the Kestrels while her cybernetic one hung loosely by her side.

“Deck, we’re ready to hit the street. Where you at?” Manu said over the comm channel. Decker pulled Samantha through the doorway, her body much lighter than he had expected as it slid along the carpeted floors, her feet catching on bits of scattered wall debris.

“We’re almost out,” Decker shouted into his comm. Next to him, Eliza had her backpack gripped between her chin and chest, right hand rummaging around for something inside while her bolt rifle dangled from its sling over her shoulder.

“Ah, here we go,” she said, still sounding half-drunk from the jolt she’d received. In her hand was the incendiary charge, and it was already armed. She looked to Decker and shrugged, tossing it into the room. “Fire in the hole!” she yelled.

Decker reached down and hooked his hands under Samantha’s arms, hoisting her over his shoulder. In the room, the man Decker assumed was Renic’s partner entered, sleek Imperium bolt rifle in hand. Renic had managed to rise to a knee. His partner rushed forward, firing a few wild shots across the room.

Renic’s eyes locked onto the incendiary charge, it’s ignition lights blinking faster and faster. He yelled, a guttural roar of rage as his partner helped him to his feet, both men making their way out the far door just as Decker, Eliza, and the comatose Samantha cleared the exit and rushed out into the lobby. A flash of light lit the area as a wave of heat overtook them, the incendiary charge a barrier of white-hot inferno between them and Renic. 

The three burst into the parking garage and onto the street. There in front of them, impossibly large and taking up the width of the six ground lanes and nearly the entire block was the Matilda, like Decker had never seen it before, hovering just feet off the ground. The edges of the enormous vessel nearly grazed the buildings Manu was so carefully lowering it down between, several streetside poles crushed beneath its mass like insignificant metal saplings. This time, the sight of his ship did bring an actual tear to Decker’s eye.

The Matilda’s stabilizers flared to life, stopping the massive ship just feet above the ground before the nacelles went dark. The Matilda fell the remaining distance and crashed to the pavement below, the shockwave nearly lifting Decker off the ground.

The rear gangway hatch flew open. Heavy appeared in the opening, shoulder-mounted bolt cannon—one that Decker had never seen before—aimed at the space behind them.

“Climb on. I’ve got you covered,” Heavy shouted. Decker surged forward, Eliza at his side, Samantha still limp. Heavy swept back and forth with the enormous weapon, eyes narrowed on the parking garage and building. The sound of frantic boots striking the gangway rang out, and in a matter of seconds, they were inside.

Heavy slammed the gangway shut, then jammed his hand against the intercom. “They’re in, Manu. Run the sequence I prepared.” Heavy looked to Decker, eyes wide with concern. “You’re going to want to hang on. This ascent is like nothing we’ve ever tried.”

Heavy stepped across the narrow platform and lifted Samantha from Decker’s shoulder, her already undersized frame looking like a child cradled in his arms. Decker fell to the metal floor, unable to speak, finding a length of conduit to hold on to for support. Next to him, Eliza had also collapsed, her breathing ragged, electricity burns visible on her clothes.

The Matilda began to rumble, the surge of upward momentum pressing them into the metal floor. The rumbling grew and grew. All they could do was hope they made it to the jump point before Renic, Senali Orbital Patrol, or the Red Kestrels shot the Matilda out of the sky for good.

“Deck… we were listening on the channel, but… what happened? Who was that in there that did this,” Heavy dipped his chin toward Samantha, voice low beneath the ever-increasing rumble, “to her?”

Decker looked at Eliza, her face sullen and slack. Then he looked at Samantha, unconscious but alive, rail slug still sticking out of her visor. Any surge of energy he’d felt was now gone, his body hollow, succumbing to the g-forces that pressed him into the cold, metal floor.

Decker had been okay with making enemies with the Kestrels, and the Imperium had never been a friend to begin with. But knowing that Renic Tau, a man he had learned to truly fear, would now consider him an enemy… there was not enough nether in the sector to ease that troubled thought.

“Hev… I…” Decker sighed. “I think we’re positively—,”

The rumbling clamor of the Matilda surging through the atmosphere swallowed Decker’s final, bitter curse.