Samantha wakes up aboard the Terminus after her dreadful decision with the halo.
Samantha stared through half-closed eyelids at the lights in the metal ceiling of her bedroom. She did not remember when she had laid down. In fact, she did not remember where she was. But the lights were blinding. Three circular suns, furious above her bed. No, this wasn’t her bed. Her bedroom didn’t have lights like this, and its ceiling wasn’t metal.
Samantha lifted her head off the pillow—she didn’t normally use pillows—and looked down at her body. Now she knew something was wrong; covering her was a sheet, tucked up nearly to her chin. She didn’t use sheets when sleeping, either.
“You’ve recovered quickly. I take it this wasn’t the first time you’ve abused the device?” a familiar voice said.
Samantha turned her head, the simple movement taking more energy, and producing more pain, than expected. She was in her cabin aboard the Matilda, and it was apparent now that its lights had been turned to full intensity on purpose. Sellivan was seated on a small chair next to the bunk, his computer and a medical kit on the desk behind him, both open. Hanging from a clothing hook above her bunk was a bag of fluids, clear tubing running down the wall and beneath her sheet.
Samantha summoned the strength to raise the sheet. The tube connected to an intravenous needle taped to her forearm. Medical sensor pads were stuck just above her collarbones, and as could now see in her peripheral vision, to her forehead. She was wearing what appeared to be a fresh set of sleeping shorts and what had to have been one of Eliza’s plain tank-tops.
Samantha rolled her head back and stared at the ceiling. “No. It’s not,” she murmured, answering Sellivan’s question. “How long since we left Senali?
Sellivan looked toward his computer, checking what appeared to be the readouts from the medical sensors. “You understand the cognitive deterioration that device will cause you over time,” he said, more statement than question.
Samantha closed her eyes. “Yes, I know what the halo can do. How long since we left?”
Sellivan turned away from his computer, leaning in to examine her face. He brought a hand up and pulled her eyelid down a bit and inspected, humming at whatever he saw. Samantha could smell the antiseptic on his hands. He appeared to take his role as ship’s medic quite seriously.
“It’s been nearly a full day,” Sellivan said, entering something into his computer. “You’ve absorbed nearly two bags of fluid.” He turned back to her, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Do you also realize that using the device after a concussion, while on a stimulant drug withdrawal, is exceptionally dangerous? You know, I downplayed my concerns to the rest of the crew, but I did not believe you would make it. Your brother cares a great deal about your well-being, and your death was not news I wanted to deliver. I thank the Creator I didn’t have to.”
The strange statement took a moment to process; she had forgotten that Sellivan was a believer in the banned religion. Banned in the Imperium, at least. But they weren’t in the Imperium, and maybe there would not be an Imperium as they knew it for much longer. Maybe it was already gone.
Samantha pulled the sheet down and rose to her elbows, lifting herself up until she was seated at the mattress’s edge. A wave of dizziness washed over her and she pressed down on her palms for balance, feeling her body’s many superficial injuries cry out at the exertion. Then she lifted the tube running from her arm and scoffed, letting it drop back by her side. “I’m harder to kill than that. This was a miscalibration,” she said.
Sellivan laughed subtly through his nose. “The device was set to remain active with no timer. If Decker had decided to indulge in his nether and take a nap for a few more hours, a likely scenario, you’d be dead. It was he who found you as you were.” He turned in his chair so he was parallel with Samantha, sitting as a mirror image across from her. “You do not have to hide behind bravado with me, I know about the feelings of darkness better than anyone here. It is why I am such a devoted follower of the Creator. I have to be.”
Samantha glanced at Sellivan, narrowing her eyes at what sounded like the start of a lecture. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like some privacy.”
Sellivan chuckled. “Oh, I’m afraid I can’t permit that,” he said, matter-of-fact tone causing Samantha to tense. “Your brother has ordered the locking capabilities of all doors on the Matilda disabled. And you’ll be saddened to know that both your halo device and your stimulants, the taze, have been disposed of.”
Samantha’s eyes flared open. Her head whipped around to face Sellivan, her neck screaming its agonizing stiffness. “What? Where are they?”
Sellivan sighed like an exasperated parent. “Disposed of. I am happy to administer drugs that can help counter the stimulant’s comedown effects, but you should expect to feel quite awful once the full withdrawals start. I won’t have this sort of reckless activity while I am the ship’s medical attendant.”
“You can’t do that,” Samantha growled. She started to stand, but found she did not have the strength or balance and clumsily fell back into a seated position.
“I assure you, I can. You may intimidate the others. But… I’ve seen your kind in the past, most of your bluster is to hide the truth from yourself. Do not waste your energy trying to bluff me. You are not going to do anything to me or anyone else here. Now, please, you need to recover enough that you can still offer assistance.”
Samantha frowned. “Assistance? With what?”
Sellivan returned the frown. “Despite your best efforts to rid yourself of the current predicament, there are five others on this ship who are in danger because an Imperium operative, and your ex-lover, has likely put them at the top of his termination list.”
Samantha’s gaze slowly shifted to Sellivan. “Did you say… ex-lover?”
Sellivan nodded. “Indeed. Your brother has told part of your story. We expect you to complete the rest.”
“I don’t…” A wave of delayed realization hit her, a buried notion finally climbing up through her multiple layers of concussion-, withdrawal-, and halo-induced delirium. “Brother? You said brother. A few times.”
Sellivan pressed his lips together and smiled. “Your profession makes you very difficult to research, for certain. But there was enough publicly available information about your parents’ unfortunate demise to put the pieces together. However, much is still missing. We know that this quest against the Red Kestrels is not merely about serving your oath to an empire, as you portrayed. And your obsession has now placed us all in a very inconvenient crossfire.”
Sellivan’s words felt more barbed than she wanted to admit. She had not yet processed any of the ramifications of their encounter with Renic. Samantha shook her head as she spoke, “I didn’t place you anywhere. I hired you for a job, and you all accepted it.”
Sellivan raised an eyebrow. “If you believed that, you wouldn’t have tried to escape your guilt by using the halo so recklessly.”
All expression left Samantha’s face. Refuting Sellivan’s accusation felt pointless. Not because he was right, but because she wasn’t sure if he was wrong.
Samantha looked to Sellivan, her voice flat. “There’s nothing else to do. Trying to scrape a plan together, to regroup against what is coming, there’s no point.” She let her eyes return to the floor. “It’s all a foregone conclusion.”
Sellivan let out a slow breath, letting silence fill the cabin for a moment. When he spoke, there was a sincerity in his voice that did not fit the character of a cynical ship’s navigator as much as it fit the exiled, but faithful, man-of-the-cloth he claimed to be.
“I do not claim to know the Creator’s will, nor does the Creator share it directly with anyone. But, I know that means you are certainly not qualified to determine what is a foregone conclusion and what is not. Only the Creator is.” Sellivan sighed, turing his body toward Samantha. He looked different. Approachable. He raised a hand as he spoke. “Each of us on this ship are here because the individual trials and struggles of our lives brought us to a point where we needed to recover. We may appear jaded. Cynical, even. Myself included. But, the fluctuating temperaments aboard this ship act as something of a release valve, a way to let out the anger and bitterness at feeling that the universe has treated us unfairly. By allowing the cynicism to escape, it allows a desire for carrying-on to take its place. And in that way, we make progress.”
Samantha scoffed quietly, staring into the metal deck below, her voice a low murmur devoid of conviction. “Progress? Taking on corporate contracts and mercenary work to earn just enough to make the next debt payment, and then jumping into a contract identical to the one you just fulfilled? I wouldn’t consider that progress.”
Sellivan regarded her with pity, shaking his head slowly. “Is it not? Is progress not measured by the distance between where one was, where one is, and where one is going? One among us was a professional athlete, until his enormous size and strength caused the death of an opponent, resulting in equally enormous guilt. Another, she nearly lost her life, and did lose some of her body, when people she trusted betrayed her. She is left with pain which will never abate. Another, he was conscripted into the service of an empire and watched his family die when the empire invited a foreign invader to do battle on his homeworld. And of course, I do not need to recount the trials of the one who brought us all together, as you are well aware of what led Decker to provide this place where all of us could move forward, even a little. By comparison, the progress that a life aboard the Matilda has allowed each of us to make is significant when looking at where we were the moment before we first came aboard. All of us but you, I suppose.”
Samantha looked away. “You’re implying I haven’t strived? That what I’ve done with my life is not progress?”
Sellivan shrugged. “Correct. It was a long, selfish tantrum of violence that the Imperium was happy to use to their advantage, and you simply moved this tantrum to the Matilda because you know of no other way.” Sellivan scoffed, cynical chuckle under his breath. “But, you are not very good at being selfish, as it appears you’ve never really gotten what you wanted out of any of your endeavors.”
Samantha turned to Sellivan. Was he trying to goad her into action? To re-engage? His message was a more caustic and blunt version of the wisdom-laden lectures Julian used to try to influence her with. However, despite the content of his words being difficult to hear, hearing someone offer concern about her well-being was comforting. She hadn’t believed she deserved that.
Samantha’s shoulders fell as she spoke. “I left behind my life, the few people I consider friends, the chance to return to Kestris, all so I could make my dedication to protecting the Imperium mean something. Renic showed me that it’s all for nothing. This mission, everything I’ve worked for.”
Sellivan nodded, clasping his hands in his lap. “Well, after all these years, what did you change? Did any of those missions stop the Red Kestrels from hurting people? Did it even slow them down? Did any of your efforts slow the deterioration of the Imperium? The Creator is giving you a chance, Samantha, to release the illusion you’ve held since you decided to avenge your parents’ fate.”
Samantha’s jaw tightened. “And what illusion is that?”
Sellivan met her gaze, unflinching. “That a life dedicated to punishing a group whose leader hurt you so many years ago was ever going to amount to anything but, well…” Sellivan shrugged. “You are living what it has amounted to. A life where you have let the cynicism and anger turn inward for so long it has almost corroded you completely. It is not ‘all for nothing’ so long as you do something different with what you’ve learned.”
Samantha closed her eyes, letting the conversation sink into her. Had anyone ever spoken the truth to her like this? Not to convince her to take a mission like Clarke had, or to push back against her plans like Decker had, but to simply lay bare the truth that her life—as Sellivan had illustrated—had amounted to nothing of substance. She had been raised by state-appointed caretakers paid for by her parents’ estate, but had no family she had grown with. Friends had only served as props to help her reach her goals. And those goals, once accomplished, had been hollow, the hurt and abandonment she continually outran always present the moment after victory was achieved, her efforts creating no more distance between them than when she had started.
And yet, Samantha was alive aboard the Matilda. Decker had pulled her back from the choice Renic had presented her. She would have been freer than ever to pursue the same, hollow crusade, and likely continue to throw herself into harm’s way and to alienate those around her in the process until someday there was no Julian in her ear, no Decker outside the door to keep her from going too far and ending her quest permanently.
Samantha had hired Decker because he could be manipulated into helping her. She had been wrong. He wasn’t easy to manipulate, he was a person who had something she didn’t. Resilience, and the willingness to create a life of purpose even when he wasn’t sure how. It was more than Samantha had done. Her life to this point, here in the spare cabin aboard the Matilda, had amounted to nothing of substance.
Sellivan was right. She’d done nothing of substance so far.
Samantha looked to Sellivan, the ship’s cranky medic, chaplain, and apparently counselor. She felt a distant glimmer of energy beneath the haze of the concussion, the kind of motivation she would have felt when presented with a new mission. But, there was no new mission. The obsession was her adversary, and now she had a chance to turn her attention to where it needed to be: someone other than only herself.
Samantha stood, allowing herself a moment to stabilize before picking up a fresh shirt and a pair of pants. “Let me get dressed,” she said, holding out her arm and allowing Sellivan to remove the IV needle. “I owe the crew something.”
Sellivan smiled, bowing his head. “See? Progress.”
Samantha rolled her eyes, pulling the shirt over her head, then stepping into the pants—bright blue—which Eliza had helped pick out. She sighed, taking a step toward the cabin. She stopped, looking back over her shoulder. “You didn’t mention what brought you to the Matilda, Sellivan.”
Sellivan nodded, a flash of sorrow darkening his expression. “No. I did not.”
In all the years Decker had known Samantha, embarrassment was not an emotion he’d witnessed her display. He’d seen contrite glimmers of remorse, a few glimpses of regret. Even guilt. He couldn’t remember when, or what it was about, but he knew that he’d seen it. Looking at her now, half-slumped in Eliza’s easy chair with a half-drunk glass of water in her hands, Decker was seeing for the first time something that resembled a fraction of real, human shame.
About ten minutes before, Sellivan had brought her out of the crew quarters and called everyone together. Apart from Eliza, the rest of the crew were in their usual spots; Decker and Manu leaned against the galley bar, Sellivan was back at his table in the corner, and Heavy shared the couch with Eliza who had changed her hair from red to a brilliant blue.
Samantha did not look good. Not in the normal sense of a person who had pushed themselves too hard too often, but truly unwell. Her face was drawn and pale, new bruises visible along the bottom of her neck and wrists. She didn’t just seem embarrassed, but defeated, a state Decker never thought he would witness.
“Uh, Samantha, maybe you shouldn’t be out of bed so soon,” Decker said. He turned to Sellivan. “You sure this is okay?”
“She is going to be fine. She is fortunate that her particular habits have built up her tolerance for the type of abuse she has inflicted on herself.”
“Right. I’m not sure that’s better, but okay then.” Decker rubbed the back of his neck. The rest of the crew were all looking at him. He snorted, gesturing back toward Samantha. “Hey, I’m not the one who needs to start talking here. Look at her.”
A series of grumbled acknowledgments crossed the crew lounge like a wave as all eyes turned back toward Samantha.
“Um, thanks,” Samantha said. She set her jaw and took a breath, nodding slowly, staring at the floor a few feet in front of her. “I—I’ve lost track of what I’ve said or haven’t said, or what I hid. It doesn’t really matter any longer. Like you’ve been informed, Decker and I are half-siblings, but we shared very little of our childhoods. At the time my father and our shared mother were killed on Dradari, we hardly knew each other. Reed Casto, he was responsible for their deaths, and later Decker’s father…”
Samantha paused, taking a drink of water from the glass. She swallowed, exhaling deeply before continuing. “I pursued my career because of what happened to them, blaming the Red Kestrels and their ideology. It was a way for me to take out the anger I’d felt since the day I was told my parents were killed on those I felt were responsible. And at first, it was. Then, that notion faded and it was only about the hunt. It didn’t matter what I accomplished because it was never enough.”
“Makes sense,” Heavy said. “Hurting people was in your job description. Perfect place to act out without having to feel bad.”
Samantha slowly nodded. “It was. Now, I’m an Imperium exile. I may have been able to salvage my agency status before, but not now, after what happened with Renic. He has Gallow backing him, and if what he told me about their plan to overthrow the High Imperius is true, there won’t be an Imperium to go back to at all.”
“And this Renic guy? You were…” Eliza widened her eyes dramatically and tilted her head.
Samantha sighed at the insinuation. “Renic and I had a relationship, yes. Professionally and otherwise. He was a 5E agent with a long history of successful missions, most of which were of the never-to-be-shared variety. He’s one of the best agents I’ve ever known when it comes to dirty work, and his ability to carry out any task without scruples or remorse made him infamous among our ranks.”
Manu folded his arms. “Decker’s already explained this much. What does that make him now, given what we heard over Eliza’s comm channel?”
Samantha shrugged, hands gripping the glass of water. “I only know what he told me, but it appears that Gallow has recruited him to act as head of a new intelligence organization under Navy control, while going behind the back of the Imperium to interface with the Red Kestrels. I believe he was responsible for assisting the Red Kestrels in hijacking the Dauntless as well as enabling the Starview Station attack. Even as good as he is, with something as widespread as this, Renic can’t be alone. Gallow has to have conspirators hidden throughout the empire.”
Eliza clicked her tongue, shaking her head back and forth. “It’s an inside job that starts at the head and rots all the way down. Renic is just an errand runner jumping around the sector poking at just the right places.”
Samantha nodded. “As far as I can tell. And, Renic is in a position where he is essentially untouchable. Publicly, he’s a commander in the Imperium Navy, and privately, Gallow’s support affords him protections that allow him to work with impunity alongside the Kestrels. But, after seeing what he did to Basara, I am guessing any deal Renic had with them is over.”
Decker frowned, the impassive nature of Samantha’s delivery more concerning than if she’d frantically begged them to return into the fight. It just wasn’t right. While Decker was sufficiently troubled about the position they were in, seeing Samantha so dejected was almost worse. If she had lost her drive, what hope did he have?
“We heard that part through the door. He’s going to blame us for… for everything sort of, yeah?” Decker asked, knowing the answer already but still hoping Samantha would have some sort of out for them.
“Yes,” she answered, dashing Decker’s hope.
“Okay, and?” Decker paused, waiting for a response. None came. “We know that. How we get out of this is what we need to know.”
Samantha exhaled, nodding with lethargic agreement. She tipped her chin toward Sellivan and shrugged. “My computer is a start. Sellivan has been granted access to integrate everything into the Matilda’s systems. To start, one of them is a signature generator that will allow the Matilda to broadcast a legitimate new identification signal so it won’t be flagged any time you visit a new planet or station. That will keep you from showing up on any automated Imperium watch lists in regions they control, not that I suspect you’ll be visiting the Imperium any time soon.”
Manu grunted. “What about our names? Offering your computer to Sellivan is encouraging but doesn’t fix that since Renic sort of knows who Decker is, we are probably already on wanted lists.”
Samantha nodded, the regret in her face deepening. “There are identity packages for me, and we may be able to generate some for the rest of you. I can’t say for certain. These aren’t things that I usually do myself. If I can contact my partner on Kestris, he can help. But not quickly and not soon. In the meantime, I can transfer most of the remaining funds I have for the mission to your accounts. It can help buy some new counterfeit identities. Our best course of action is to get to…”
Heavy leaned toward her. “Gaph,” he whispered.
“Gaph,” Samantha repeated. “To get to Gaph and cover as much of our tracks as we can with the resources we have. After that, we can part. I hired you to get me off of Kestris and to Senali. You did that, you’ve got no more obligation to me,” Samantha said, briefly making eye contact before returning her gaze to some distant point far outside the Matilda’s hull.
Decker paced the length of the galley bar. Samantha really seemed dejected, and that dejection was messing with his resolve. It was his personal paradox; the more someone needed help, the more he felt compelled to offer it, even if Samantha was the one to bring it on herself. Had she waited for him and Eliza, maybe they could have ambushed Renic, or at least prevented Samantha from being jumped by the Kestrels. Was being ambushed by Renic really her fault? He would have been there either way, whether Decker and Eliza had been present or not.
Decker grunted, pulling out his nether and sticking the cartridge between his teeth. “What about your people back on Kestris? The ones who sent you out here, arranged for the ship we’ve got in our cargo hold, all that. They’ve got to be of some use. And I am guessing if they’re friends of yours, Renic’s going to be targeting them soon as well.”
Samantha shook her head. “No, the goal is for you to become less involved, not more. Knowing who is working behind the Imperium’s back is a liability you don’t want to carry. I will handle it from here. Once we drop out of the jump, we can unload the Nighthawk in zero-G and you can repressurize on the surface of Gaph,” Samantha said.
This caught Heavy’s attention. “You mean with you in it. You’re going to head out in that little thing for good?” Heavy rubbed the tops of his legs, seeming to go over the phrasing of his next statement in his mind. “No offense, but we sort of had to resuscitate you from a pretty bad accident about an hour ago. Flying off in a ship with barely enough room for a person to stretch out in doesn’t sound like the, um, safest idea.”
Samantha sunk back into the easy chair, her expression and voice growing flatter as the conversation progressed. “I have contacts in the sector. I plan to establish contact with my people on Kestris and go from there. It’s fine. I’ll be fine.”
Eliza raised her cybernetic hand to her chin. “Yeah, but… where can you go? You’re much more of a target than we are, and you’ve burned a lot of bridges back at the place you called home. Wherever we travel, at least the Matilda is our home.”
“That’s for me to worry about,” Samantha said, avoiding eye contact. “I’ll do whatever I can to help the Matilda make a clean escape. I brought you into this. Renic is my responsibility. I will handle him.”
“Now, now,” Eliza wagged her cybernetic finger slowly back and forth, the mechanical movement perfectly timed and unnatural. “So far it’s Eliza one, Renic zero. He might have an arm like mine now if he didn’t get to a hospital, believe me on that. Should he come back around, we’ll deal with him again.”
Samantha did not respond, but her face did seem to relax. Decker couldn’t be certain as to why. Maybe she was internally shocked at how much goodwill even a pinch of vulnerability had garnered her.
Manu crossed the lounge, hands on his hips. He turned to Sellivan. “Selli, how long until we exit?”
“Ten hours,” Sellivan muttered from his corner.
“Ten hours. Well alright then,” Manu said, crossing back around behind the galley bar and browsing the row of bottles Eliza maintained. “I think I’m going to have a drink. I’m sure once we drop, there’s going to be something else that comes up that needs our attention.”
Eliza clapped and hopped up from her chair. “I’ll drink to drinks.”
Heavy shrugged, rising alongside her. Samantha smiled politely, remaining in the oversized chair.
Decker remained where he stood, slowly taking a drag off the nether, one thought on his mind. Samantha had admitted her quest against the Kestrels was not as noble as she’d made it sound. On Decker’s computer was an access code to touch down on Dradari, where Reed Casto might still be. If they jumped straight from Gaph, they still had time to get there before Reed’s deadline expired. But, like Samantha had said, Fleet Marshal Gallow had won. What did scrambling to go after Reed and the Kestrels accomplish now?
Was dangling Dradari in front of Samantha an option he really wanted her to consider, just when she seemed to have loosened her grip around the Kestrel obsession? He could keep it to himself and she’d never know that Decker had withheld her chance to potentially get to Reed Casto.
“Deck? Nether got you paralyzed?” Eliza called out from behind the galley. “I got some of your favorite: Mr. B’s Rocket Fuel.”
Decker roused himself from the thought. “Huh? What? No, just… thinking.”
Decker turned and sauntered behind the bar. He wasn’t just withholding Samantha’s chance to get to Reed… he was withholding his own chance as well.