Renic is back on Kestris, and he's not in the best shape of his life.
The articulating medical chair Renic had spent the last four hours in slowly raised his body from a reclined position. His right arm lay outstretched and immobilized on the surgical pedestal attached to the chair, a neural inhibitor cuff around his upper-arm paralyzing all sensory and motor nerve activity. Tucked beneath his forearm was a two-piece polymer cast, its curved outer shell opened wide, compact medical technology packed into the casing. The halves of the cast were molded to resemble a three-dimensional scan that had been done of Renic’s near-identical left forearm. Once closed, as long as Renic kept his uniform jacket on—and didn’t need to use his hand for anything other than wiggling his fingers—his injury would be hidden.
Doctor Nathaniel Gast, a civilian, checked a medical datapad in his hand as the chair clicked into its upright, seated position. The procedure to repair Renic’s crushed forearm was complete, though regaining full use of his hand and arm would be a much longer journey. But, Renic did not need a complete recovery at the moment, he only needed to present himself aboard the Terminus in the coming hours without revealing the extent—or existence—of his injury. After that, he could attend to the long-term realities of healing.
When Renic’s ship had arrived in Kestris space, the first thing Kogan did was contact Gast and inform him that an emergency surgical procedure would be required and that the doctor should expect to drop whatever he was doing and meet them at a private medical facility outside the Kestris City capitol compound. Gast knew not to ask any questions about context, only inquiring about the nature of the injury and providing a private bank account where his fee was to be deposited.
The doctor had offered Renic a surgical halo for the procedure, but he’d refused. The drug-induced state he’d spent nearly two days in aboard his ship had been enough. Spending that time drifting in and out of coherence, visions of Samantha and burning buildings consuming his thoughts, had been a waste. Only here in Doctor Gast’s private office, after four hours, two tritanium-mesh bone wraps, several units of cellular regrowth accelerant, and a skin graft printed from Renic’s own DNA sequence, had he finally been able to think.
Steps needed to be taken. First was how he would present himself when he appeared aboard the Terminus for Gallow’s final address to the new Kestris Republic collaborators. This is what he’d thought about as the doctor had operated. Second was covering up what had transpired on Senali. Kogan had taken on this task, returning to the Naval Special Investigation Division headquarters the moment Renic had first laid back in the medical chair. He was to start tampering with any information coming in from the Fringe that might reveal Renic’s presence. Kogan was no data technician, but he was the best Renic had, and entrusting anyone else with the task was too big of a risk.
Alone with the doctor, Renic had endured the procedure in furious silence, staring at the ceiling while Gast repaired the damage to his arm. The doctor had built it back up on the cellular level, using technology that the average citizen of the Imperium could not have paid for with a lifetime of wages. Repeatedly, the doctor commented on the extent of the damage to the appendage. However, the extent of the damage to Renic’s ego, and his future in the Republic, had yet to be assessed.
Renic had been so close to obtaining his goal—her. Samantha had been there on Senali, just as expected. That was the only part of their encounter that had gone the way Renic planned. But he’d had her the moment before the conference room door had blasted inward, he remembered seeing true acceptance in her eyes. He’d won her over, and then it had all slipped away. Now, Renic scrambling to cover up this mess, enduring the pain of his arm, the pain of his defeat, and the rage he felt at Samantha, himself, and everyone else.
As Renic had laid in a drug-induced stupor aboard his ship, he had relived his last moment with Samantha again and again. The moment when the rail pistol had been leveled on Samantha’s forehead, he’d been content with killing her. She could not be left to interfere with the future of the republic. His future, because if Gallow’s plan failed, Renic would have no future to speak of. He’d given Samantha chance after chance. She’d refused.
But had she refused? Before the room had erupted into chaos, she had been ready to join him. Had she been tricking him again? Leading him along like she had at her apartment? Had her companions been waiting for a signal to blow the doors open?
Renic couldn’t remember. Everything was a jumbled memory. The moment his arm had been crushed. The blast of heat from the incendiary charge. Kogan dragging him onto the ship. One of the commando medics administering the knock-out drugs.
What he did remember was the moment just before all of that. How his finger had felt around the trigger of the rail pistol. How time seemed to slow down as he pressed it back. How in that infinite second between when he felt the mechanism click and when the rail slug exited the barrel, the thought of losing his only, truly worthy adversary had rent his soul. And the instant he had committed to ending Samantha for good, Renic regretted it.
Had he flinched in that moment? Did he remember pulling his hand up? Thinking back to the pain-obscured memory, watching her companions carry her away, he didn’t remember blood running down her face. If the slug had found its mark, there would have been plenty of it. But, there wasn’t. He was certain. Had he missed?
He didn’t know. Kogan hadn’t pursued Samantha and her companions on Senali, and Renic had been too delirious to give him new orders. Kogan said as they had evacuated the burning building, he had seen a ship ascend from the industrial district, but the veteran commando had prioritized Renic over keeping up the pursuit. A good decision for Renic’s health, but a bad one for their cover-up. Had their positions been reversed, Renic would not have reciprocated.
The monitors in the surgical chair beeped, reacting to Renic’s surge in heart rate and blood pressure. Gast walked around to inspect Renic’s arm, the articulating light positioned just above his arm strong enough that the rest of the procedure room appeared black, keeping Renic’s face hidden from the doctor.
Gast tapped a command into his data pad, and the form-fitting polymer cast closed around Renic’s forearm, its tone and shape resembling the natural curves of the muscles it shrouded. The microscopic fasteners on the cast’s edges clicked, returning the mangled length of repaired bone and flesh to a somewhat normal shape and appearance, weeks of healing still to come.
Renic rocked his head back in the headrest, forcing himself to keep his anger silently contained. Hovering over Renic’s arm, Gast tapped a final command into his medical datapad, watching a small interface panel on the cast flash a white light. The doctor hummed with satisfaction.
“There you are. You will need to come back to have this removed in four weeks. I can only accelerate the cellular growth so much before the risk of tumors becomes too high, and I would prefer not to have to open this back up before you are fully healed.” Gast raised an eyebrow at Renic. “I presume you will be needing to avoid a Navy physician for the removal.”
Renic gave him a glare. “You presume correctly, Doctor. And I presume you’ll forget you ever saw me, considering the kind of amnesia your fee can purchase.”
Gast chuckled, his thin mustache curling over a sardonic smile. “You jest about my discretion, Mister Tau, but I can administer a cocktail for retrograde amnesia calibrated almost to the hour, should you want to forget the experience that led to this dreadful injury. Even with restrictions around memory alteration, it is a process I’ve nearly perfected.”
Renic glowered. “It’s Commander Tau. And no. This is not something I can afford to forget.”
Gast shrugged and returned to his datapad. He knew when to stop asking questions. The doctor had worked with Renic in the past when his 5E missions had required medical expertise. When a dignitary needed to collapse dead for mysterious reasons, it was Gast who sold Renic the undetectable poison. When a routine surgery had a one-in-a-million complication that resulted in a politician flatlining on the operating table, Gast was the one who instructed Renic on how to tamper with the surgical equipment to guarantee the failure.
Even though Gast was one of the top nano-surgeons and medical professionals on Kestris, his need for fame in the medical community was surpassed only by his willingness to sell his expertise to whomever could pay his exorbitant fees. While spending 5E’s black-ops funds, Renic had been happy to pay. This time, it had come out of his own personal finances. The Naval Special Investigation Division did not yet have the same coffer of seized, discretionary funds as the agency he’d once belonged to.
Gast raised his datapad, tapping in a series of commands as his gaze went from it to the cybernetic cast around Renic’s forearm. “I am ready to activate the cast’s local nerve inhibitors. You may feel a strange buzzing sensation as the surgical chair’s paralysis transfers the responsibility over to the cast. It will leave you paralyzed from the elbow down until pain levels can be managed—”
“No,” Renic growled, eyes staring straight ahead. “I need to be able to move my hand and arm like normal. No paralysis.”
Gast furrowed his brow, frustration in his voice. “Mister Tau, when the paralyzer is removed, the pain will be quite severe. I think you underestimate the level of cognitive impairment this level of pain can induce.”
Renic turned his head toward Gast, his eyes narrowing. “It’s Commander! And once I put that uniform jacket back on, there can be no visible indication that I underwent this procedure. If anyone were to notice, I would hold you responsible. I will deal with the pain.”
Gast scoffed, shaking his head in incredulity. He picked up a diffusion injector from the tray. “Fine. I can administer a dosage of narcotic—”
“None of that either,” Renic said, returning to stare straight ahead. “I have to be able to think clearly. You worry too much, Doctor. I will be fine.”
Gast exhaled sharply, placing the injector back down, a curt shake of the head his only protest. Whether Renic could endure the pain was irrelevant. He had to endure it. Comfort was not the priority; preventing Gallow from noticing the injury and asking questions was. There was no explanation, however plausible, that would keep Gallow from demanding to know how—and why—Renic would have put himself in a position to sustain such an injury this near to their victory. The pain would subside, but disappointing Gallow would be an injury he would never recover from.
Gast gave Renic a skeptical look. “Have it your way. I am going to disable all nerve inhibitors now. This is normally when I would tell a patient who was unable to take advantage of pain-reducing methodologies to think of their happy place, but… I am guessing a happy place isn’t where a mind like yours seeks refuge.”
Renic snorted, keeping his gaze forward. No, he did not have a happy place. The scattered memories of the last two days were enough to occupy his thoughts completely. The paralysis began to weaken. As the excruciating sensation of pins and needles grew in his arm, Renic forced himself to recount the events from Senali and the situation he now found himself in. It was not a happy place, but it was effective.
The jump back from Senali was mostly a blur of memories, flashes of lying half-conscious in his bunk on chemical painkillers, unable to do much more than drift in and out of lucidity while replaying his conversation with Samantha over in his mind. Renic briefly remembered a surge of pain that even the drugs had not deadened when Kogan and his commando medic had to remove his jacket, but the 5E-issued tacskin had remained on, its impenetrable material the only thing that had kept Renic’s arm together so that Doctor Gast could repair it.
The classified, experimental Navy corvette had a medical bay, but with the flight operations crew kept to a minimum for Renic to carry out his tasks, having a trained physician on board had not been a consideration. Keeping the medical bay properly stocked for the type of surgical intervention needed to treat Renic’s injury had not been a consideration either.
The pain in Renic’s right arm grew as the artificial paralysis continued to fade, traveling from beneath the cast, up his arm, and into his mind. He pushed it away, letting his anger do battle with the physical sensation. For nearly two days, he’d remained immobile in his cabin, both his waking and sleeping thoughts a drug- and pain-induced hallucination that alternated between how to keep this incident from Gallow’s knowledge, and what he could do about Samantha. He’d nearly won her over, nearly convinced her that he was what she wanted, that he was the one who would make her ultimate victory possible.
And then, she’d denied him.
And then, he’d shot her.
Renic closed his eyes, again summoning the last image of her being dragged out of the room, her eyes partially closed, her face free of blood or any entry wound. Yes, it had been free of blood. He could see her face in his mind clearly now. She’d survived. She had to have survived, because wondering if she’d been ready to join him was a question Renic could not allow to remain unanswered.
Renic knew that Samantha was like him, driven to accomplish her objectives by whatever means necessary. She’d had confused her obsession with the Red Kestrels as being part of serving the Imperium, but she could have pursued them just as well as an agent of the republic, had Renic succeeded in bringing her along on his path. No, it wasn’t her obsession with the Kestrels that had pitted her against Renic.
It was Clarke, the old man’s misguided notions around loyalty and duty to the empire had clouded Samantha’s ambitions. Clarke still treated the hierarchy of the Imperium as if it were a military chain of command, where one followed orders regardless of whether they were intelligent or not. He’d sent Samantha on this mission to thwart Renic, Gallow, and the grand plan, all to preserve the Imperium as a hollow, corrupt shell of what it once was.
Now, Samantha would be given no further chances to join Renic in the New Kestris Republic. She had made her choice and had witnessed Renic pull the trigger on her. Had he failed to kill her as he presumed—as he hoped, she would still be forever exiled, a traitor to her empire, to the republic that had invited her to join, and to the one person who could have restored her life to what it was… or what it should have been, with him.
A beep from the surgical chair coincided with the end of the paralysis. The lights around the nerve inhibitor blinked off, the pain from Renic’s forearm now pulsing through his body. It was a pain that enveloped his thoughts, took command of his mind and demanded his attention. Renic waited for the gaps between pulses, using his anger at himself, at Samantha, at everyone to temper the pain. He would use it to fuel his ambition, not be distracted by it.
Gast pressed a button on the cuff that held Renic’s upper arm in place, the apparatus opening and releasing him. Renic lifted his arm, feeling each movement amplify the raging ache that synchronized with his pulse. The cast’s synthetic shell was a virtual mirror-image of his left arm. Beneath his uniform sleeve, it would be undetectable. He could board the Terminus, attend Gallow’s address, and no one would suspect anything.
All he had to do was make it one more day, to Gallow’s final move against the empire that would make all of Renic’s sacrifice worth it. When the republic was in place and Renic was in full command of his division, Gallow’s time and attention would be turned to the civil war he would have to fight. Renic would be free from scrutiny, and free to wage his own war against those who attempted to thwart him. He would be a commander in the republic’s Navy, free to give his injuries time to heal with no one around to question him. Besides, who could question him? No one.
A chime sounded from the entry panel next to the locked door of the procedure room. Gast lifted his white, luxury-brand comm and pressed a button, turning off the surgical light that had blinded Renic for the last four hours, the windowless procedure room becoming visible again.
Renic kept his gaze fixed forward, the sound of booted feet audible on the sanitation-tile behind him. Operative Kogan appeared, dressed in civilian clothes with a computer bag slung over his shoulder. He walked around the chair and stood at rigid attention, giving Renic a single nod of acknowledgement.
Renic kept his expression flat and turned his attention to Gast. “Doctor, your services are appreciated. If you would excuse us, my associate and I can find our own way out.”
Gast shrugged, picking up the formal business jacket he’d been wearing when he answered Kogan’s call from orbit. He placed a diffusion injector on the tray next to the surgical chair. “If you change your mind, this is dosed to your body weight. Once every four hours,” he said, patting his hand on the injector. Renic glanced at the device, refusing to let either Gast or Kogan see him acknowledge the pain surging through his body.
The doctor tipped his head and left. The sound of the doors closing signaled that they were alone. Kogan’s posture eased.
“Report,” Renic said, the slight dizziness when he turned his head leaving him wondering what would happen when he tried to stand. Kogan nodded. If he noticed Renic’s state of barely contained agony, he did not show it.
“I did what you asked and pulled everything we have on Derek Corelith. It’s like you assumed, his records end with his dismissal from the Navy, and there’s nothing on that name in any Imperium or Fringe databases after. Either that name was a counterfeit, or he has assumed a new identity without a single slip,” Kogan said.
Derek Corelith. Samantha’s friend from the Navy. Why had he been the one to barge into Kat Basara’s conference room? Samantha was not working alone. That wasn’t like her. Was he another anti-Kestrel activist? Did he know about Samantha’s true mission, or was he just hired help, another disgraced Imperium deserter trying to sell his talents out in the Fringe where his betrayal of the empire would not be held against him. Renic remembered him as being a frivolous young crew member, somehow always turning up when Samantha had 5E missions that intersected with Navy business in the Fringe. If he’d assumed a false identity this impenetrable, there was a good chance someone like Samantha may have assisted.
Renic nodded down to the polymer cast around his right forearm. “Anything on the one who did this to me? Or the ship? You said it looked like an XJ of some sort.”
Kogan shook his head. “I created a query profile based on everything you described. Her height, weight, the cybernetics, the Fringe accent. I also added a query to flag any intelligence involving XJ class vessels, but in the Fringe there are thousands of them still in operation. No hits yet, but it’s all in the system now.” Kogan paused, clumsily clearing his throat. “Nothing on Agent Mori, either.”
Renic frowned, nodding along, pretending his grimace was from the news and not his arm. “Was there any indication we’ll be able to retrieve surveillance data from Basara’s building? We had Samantha on camera. What about the other two?”
Kogan nodded, delivering his answers objectively like the trained soldier he was. “Commander, you had ordered the surveillance recordings to be disabled so that, you know… so that we weren’t also on them in case the Kestrels decided to use that as leverage. They might have kept recordings anyway, but—”
Renic sighed. “But the Senali Kestrels are certainly not going to want to cooperate with us now. Yes, I get it. What about other Kestrel activity? Did any of our contacts on Kestris answer your hails?”
Kogan shook his head, growing increasingly reluctant to share the cascade of disappointing news. “No, sir. They’re all dark. I expanded the scope and pulled all recent entries by both 5E and OS-9 on Kestrel activity, and any public news across the sector and any Fringe law enforcement feeds. There’s nothing. Kestrels have gone to ground across the sector, and I am assuming if all the chapters are acting together, then it’s an intentional move directed from Casto at the top.”
Renic grimaced at the notion. Kogan was avoiding mentioning that perhaps it had been the killing of Kat Basara that had triggered the change in Kestrel behavior. It couldn’t be. It had not even been two days, Casto could not mobilize hundreds of Kestrels across the sector that quickly. It had to be a coincidence, because when Gallow realized the Kestrels were no longer willing to play their part, it could not be linked back to Renic’s Senali disaster.
Renic nodded, letting the information work its way through his pain-addled consciousness. Reed Casto was pulling back. Not surprising, given the distrust he had of Gallow to begin with. Perhaps the Imperium’s reaction to the Starview Station attack had been too effective and Casto no longer wanted to sacrifice his little band of Kestrels in exchange for the kind of power and influence Gallow could give him over the Fringe. Or maybe he suspected Gallow never intended to follow through with his promise.
Renic took a breath, slowly lifting himself up out of the surgical chair. Kogan took a half-step forward, his hand flinching nearly imperceptibly. A glare kept him at bay. Renic finally stood, motioning for Kogan to hand him his Navy commander’s uniform jacket.
Renic lifted the jacket with his uninjured arm, sliding his wounded right arm and the cast into the sleeve. A cry threatened to escape him at the movement, but he kept his mouth closed. His hand emerged from the sleeve, the worst of the contortion over. He slid his left arm through the other sleeve and gingerly hoisted the jacket up over his shoulders. He could feel a sheen of sweat on his forehead at the effort, but he forced his hands, both of them, to fasten his uniform jacket closed. He felt his vision start to close-in from the pain just as he finished, his forehead damp from the effort. He looked down at his right arm; the jacket sleeve was smooth, no sign of the cast beneath. Good enough to make his appearance on the Terminus, let Gallow see him and know he was at his side, and leave. It was going to be easy.
Renic took a slow breath, letting his arms hang loosely by his side. “The shuttle to the Terminus, is it the Cataphract again?”
Kogan nodded. “Affirmative. It departs in two hours. Your ship has been maintained and scrubbed. Ground crews had already serviced the jump drive, but I made sure that the ship’s data was deleted. Everything is clear.”
Renic closed his eyes, letting that small victory ease some of his burden. Some of it. “Good. I want you to remain on Kestris while I am on the Terminus. Go back to headquarters. I want you to design an evacuation plan for us. There are… turbulent times ahead.”
Kogan narrowed his eyes. “Sir? A bug-out plan? Do you feel that’s now necessary?”
Renic sighed. “It is necessary because I requested it. The Fleet Marshal’s victory is certain, but…” Renic glanced at his right arm, “accidents can still happen. Slips. Go down to the car and wait for me. And put your uniform back on. We’re no longer skulking about the Fringe.”
Kogan bowed. “Understood,” he said as he strode out of the procedure room. Renic waited until he was alone before allowing himself to try opening and closing his right hand. His fingers moved, but the pain was overwhelming, like the tendons that ran from his fingers up his forearm were bolts of electricity.
One more day, then it would all be over. Gallow’s plan would be complete, the empire would fall, and Renic’s crimes would be forgotten. One more day until this birth of a new republic. Get to the Terminus, witness Gallow’s final speech, return to the surface and wait for the dawn of a new age. And then, then he could decide what to do about his Samantha problem. His Clarke problem.
Renic glanced at the diffusion injector on the tray, forcing himself to suppress an involuntary shudder of nausea at the pain. Using his left hand, Renic picked up the injector. This was not weakness. This was necessary to complete his next task; to sit in the audience of Gallow’s address and keep his injury a secret.
Doctor Gast had said one dose every four hours. Renic placed the diffuser tip against his neck and pressed the dosage button once, then once again.
Within seconds, the pain that had overtaken his body lessened. He felt his thoughts become clear, his senses again experiencing more than only pain. And in the momentary twilight between agony and relief, he recognized the dread and fear he’d been denying since leaving Senali. A flash of panic, of terror, threatened to break through.
Renic raised the injector and dosed himself a third time. The panic faded. He slipped the injector into his jacket pocket. One more day. That was all he needed to endure. After that, everything was going to change.
Everything would be made right.