Episode 45: No sense of victory

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Aboard the Terminus, Gallow prepares his final decree.

Twenty-five. That was as many steps as Gallow could take before needing to turn around while he paced back and forth across the sitting room of his expansive Terminus residence. It was meditative, a rote, mechanical task he could allow his body to do while he thought. Many devout monks in humanity’s history had used winding, labyrinth paths as a way to contemplate the questions of life and the divine. Gallow knew where his path ended, however, and it was exactly where he intended.

 He mouthed silently to himself, occasionally glancing down at the sheet of paper where his own handwriting displayed the speech he was preparing to give within the hour. It was the first where he would be introducing the Creator back into the minds of his conspirators. Hopefully that passage received a few subdued gasps or wary looks. It would signal that the republic would be different. He was not bringing about mere evolution, but… an ascension. Gallow hummed with satisfaction. Perhaps he could include that line in the speech. He scribbled the addition on his sheet of paper.

The act of writing by hand gave him time to consider each word before committing it to the page. Additionally, there was no risk of his incendiary words being compromised in the digital systems before he had the chance to speak them. The document vaporizer may burn away the words on the page, but the words from Gallow’s lips would burn away the empire.

Gallow reached the end of his twenty-five paces and turned, reviewing the final lines of the speech one last time. Politicians used speechwriters; the High Imperius had not spoken his own words in public in over a decade. Even Defense Minister Archer had a team of public relations experts who screened everything she wrote, informing her how the polls predicted her words would resonate. Their words might be powerful, but they were not their own. When Gallow spoke publicly, he spoke his own message, and the honing of his message honed his mind, leaving it sharp and determined. No one else’s words would escape his mouth, save for the Creator’s.

Gallow reached the center of his sitting room, satisfied. Every pause, every fluctuation in volume, every moment of emphasis and restraint was carefully planned for maximum tension. His audience was, quite literally, a captive one. All of his gathered collaborators would be listening to him whether they wanted to or not. The speech was meant to remind them of their allegiances in the days to come when Gallow the man was no longer on Kestris. By then, it would have to be Gallow the image, and the memory of what they heard, that would keep them in line.

The intercom chimed.

“Yes?” Gallow said.

Captain Alaudae’s voice came back over the speaker. “Sir, Defense Minister Archer has arrived. She is in the lobby awaiting your invitation.”

Gallow’s replacement for the head of the empire was here for her appointment. Right on time; she was learning.

“Have her escorted to me,” Gallow said, walking to the expansive desk he used when working from his residence, even though his offices were no more than a minute’s walk away. He dropped the sheet of paper into the slot of a document vaporizer, watching as the invisible lasers superheated it into atoms. The page’s contents only existed in his mind now, and soon in the minds of all who heard his words. 

Gallow adjusted his uniform, making sure to fasten the top of the collar tightly against his neck. The blue fabric he wore was not long for this world. Soon, the uniform and all the other imperial heraldry would be replaced, including the High Imperius himself. 

Across the expansive sitting room, the double doors slid open and the soon-to-be former Defense Minister Erin Archer strode in, her long, wavy hair billowing slightly as she walked. She was flanked by two honor guard on either side, their faces impassive. 

Gallow smiled as she approached. Despite Archer’s persistent stubbornness toward him, his confidence in choosing her was bolstered as she entered the room. She looked genetically engineered to tap into the hearts and minds of the people with her understanding and empathetic eyes, her warm-and-carefree smile when needed, and her stern-but-fair scowl when not. Gone were the varied colors that normally made up her wardrobe. Now, she wore a sharp charcoal suit and high-collared, muted-gray dress shirt. The shades of grief. She might push back against Gallow, but she did know how to be on-brand when needed. And it would be needed, for she was about to usher her people through a difficult period of mourning. State funerals and memorials would be filling her calendar for months to come.

Archer and the two honor guard came to a stop.

Gallow gave her a fiendish smile. “Defense Minister, welcome to the Terminus.”

“Thank you, Fleet Marshal. The escort is a wonderful touch. I feel so safe in your private quarters aboard a flagship that rivals some entire fleets,” Archer said with the expected acidic sarcasm, nodding to the honor guard at her side.

Gallow smiled. The caustic pluck Archer reserved only for their private conversations was as biting as ever. Gallow nodded, and at once, his honor guard turned and exited. Archer smiled pleasantly until the doors slid shut. Then, her pleasant smile shifted to a familiar one of impatience and grudging respect. That was fine by Gallow. He did not need to be liked; he needed to be respected. Gallow could return her sarcasm just as well. It was an inelegant verbal tool, used by those felt the need to draw a veil over their aggression.

“They are there only to assist if you should need them. Rest assured, you are perfectly safe aboard the Terminus,” Gallow said, clasping his fingers together behind his back as he resumed his pacing. “However, in the coming weeks and months, I cannot guarantee your safety when you are carrying out your new duties as president. I am assigning a detail of honor guard to you. Bodyguards, drivers, pilots. All in plain-clothes. They have been instructed to obey you and interfere as little as possible.” Gallow stopped, looking back over his shoulder at Archer and smiling. “My gift to you.”

Archer folded her arms, head tilting as she spoke. “A gift of your honor guard? It is unnecessary. I already have a security detail I am quite pleased with.”

Gallow turned to face Archer, narrowing his eyes. “Drop the pretense that this is a discussion, Erin. The honor guard have been instructed not to interfere with you in any way, but do not underestimate the ire of imperial loyalists when forced to accept a new president who came into power without an election. You will be a target for assassination the moment the announcement is made.” Gallow resumed his pacing, his smirk hidden from Archer’s view. “The last thing I need is to have to find a replacement for you. If you insist on protesting every action you know you have no choice in, this is going to be a very slow, annoying presidency.”

Archer huffed, but, ever the skilled politician, recovered and gave Gallow a near-perfect facsimile of a genuine smile. “Despite your continuous reminders of our special collaboration, I will need to govern in a legitimate capacity to keep this new republic from falling apart before it begins. While the High Imperius was content allowing his government to run without his supervision, I intend to steward from a place of genuine leadership. You must extend a modicum of trust.”

Gallow stopped his pacing, raising a quizzical eyebrow at Archer. “Trust? Erin, I trust you, just as I trust everyone to be self-serving opportunists ready to betray their allies in order to accumulate power. Trusting someone, and believing in their virtues, are not synonymous.”

Archer nodded slowly. “That is a sentiment about which I am sure you are an expert.”

Gallow held eye contact for a moment, then broke it to resume his pacing. He appreciated her fire. So few were willing to upset Gallow that often he wondered if anyone would ever offer him constructive criticism again, let alone outright defy him. His culture of fear and intimidation was almost too perfect; he had no one left he could rely on to advise him of pending mistakes. Thankfully, Gallow did not make mistakes.

“Do not worry, Erin. I have no intention of meddling in politics, nor do I plan on remaining on Kestris. The Terminus and I will be more than occupied out there,” Gallow said, gesturing to the expanse of space they both knew he intended to conquer. “The day to day affairs of governing I happily leave in your capable hands. Your moment is coming. The pains of this birth are nearly complete.”

Archer took a deep breath, calmly clasping her hands together. “Indeed, Fleet Marshal.”

“Good,” Gallow said, ceasing his pacing directly in front of Archer. “I summoned you here not only so those gathered in the conference chamber would see you in attendance, but so that I could get a sense of your resolve. To see if the pending turmoil you know your people will face has gotten to you. Weakened you. I am a difficult person to work with, Erin, and the times ahead? They’re going to get worse before they get better. And if you are going to break, I wanted to see if there are any cracks showing, while there is still time to prevent the crumbling.”

Gallow stared at Archer, slowly scanning each feature of her face, her clothing, her posture. She would never have believed him had he told her, but Gallow did already have a candidate ready to replace her. Should he see a crack in this moment before he sentenced the empire to death, his honor guard had been given instructions for if Archer did not leave the room alive.

Archer narrowed her eyes, staring back at Gallow without fear. She looked… irritated. “Well?” she asked, single eyebrow raised.

Perfect. Arrogant enough to push back; ignorant enough not to believe Gallow would snap her neck where she stood.

Gallow tipped his chin downward. “As unmarred as ever.”

Archer held his gaze for a moment more, then smiled and found someplace else in Gallow’s residence to look. Her gaze eventually rested on a tall, steelglass case in the corner that held two objects in its hard-vacuum interior: an ancient wooden spear with a hammered, bronze tip affixed to the top. And, on a pedestal next to it, a badly damaged helmet, also hammered bronze, diamond-shaped hole in its side matching the outline of the spearhead. Whoever the owners of these ancient implements from humanity’s homeworld were, they appeared to have been adversaries. 

Gallow saw Archer’s smile waver. Perhaps she was starting to understand what he truly valued: victory at any cost.

Archer regained her composure, returning her attention to Gallow. “If I may be excused, I would like to take my seat in the conference chamber. I presume once you arrive, there will be little chance for me to engage in the politically advantageous conversations you have entrusted me with.”

Gallow gave Archer a subtle, sardonic smile and gestured to the exit with a sweep of his arm.

Archer bowed her head. “Fleet Marshal.”

Gallow tipped his chin. “Madam President.”

A sly smile crossed her lips at the new appellation; and to think Archer tried to deny she was just another opportunist. She strode to the exit with as much pride as she had entered. The doors parted as she approached. Her head turned to the honor guard that had been waiting just outside the door. When she spoke, her voice had an impatient edge of command reserved for everyone but Gallow.

“Well, I presume you two have your new orders. Let’s go,” she said to the honor guard just as the doors slid shut.

Gallow let out a breath, resuming his pacing. Archer was getting what she wanted, and though the slight pushback was mildly irritating, it was a good sign. She’d played her part with minimal protest, just enough for Gallow to be sure she wouldn’t roll over for the first politician who pressured her once he left Kestris. She had been the perfect blend; driven enough to cross boundaries most wouldn’t, but just insecure enough for Gallow to intimidate her. 

Gallow reached the twenty-fifth step of his pacing and turned around just as the intercom chimed again.

“Yes?” Gallow said.

“Sir, all guests have arrived. The conference chamber is ready for you at your convenience,” Alaudae said.

Gallow closed his eyes and drew in a breath as slow as he could manage, held it, then released just as slow. “Very good, Captain. Please prepare the chamber’s lighting sequence for my entrance.”

Gallow walked to the sitting-room desk and gripped the recessed handle on one of the desk drawers, letting it register his unique biosignature, then pulled it open. Inside was a small medical kit, the only item the drawer contained.

Gallow withdrew the kit and set it on the desk. He flipped open the hinged lid and withdrew the dull metal injector kept inside, which held a mix of stimulants, synthetic androgen hormones, a neurological concoction that inhibited both pain and the body’s natural safeguards against muscle fiber over-contraction, and anti-inflammatories to offset the damage it caused. As the years caught up to him, maintaining his significant muscle mass grew more difficult with each day. The hormones helped keep up the illusion of his imperviousness.

Soldiers called the mixture suicide-juice for the delusions of invincibility it tended to cause. Nothing Gallow needed to worry about, of course. The Creator’s hands guided his path. The concoction would simply give him the appropriate energy and vitality needed to sell the tone of his speech. He was about to send this empire into war. Best look the part of the supreme and invincible commander. 

Gallow pulled open the front of his uniform jacket, hammered the injector into his chest, and depressed the plunger for exactly one dose. A quick glance indicated this cartridge had three left. His personal physician and chief-of-medicine aboard the Terminus had warned against overuse.

The recommendation had been noted.

Satisfied and already feeling the rush of euphoria from the cocktail, Gallow placed the injector back into the case and closed the drawer. He fastened his uniform closed once again and took a powerful step toward the doors when the computer on his desk chirped.

Gallow stopped. It was not the intercom chime Alaudae used. This was the sound of his emergency channel that bypassed his administrative staff. 

Gallow eyed the door, his attention pulled both toward it, and the message, simultaneously. Nothing this message could say would be important enough to delay him from delivering his address. And yet, if that were the case, there was no harm in satisfying the curiosity generated by the message.

Curiosity won. Gallow growled and impatiently tapped in the commands to retrieve the message, his fingers slamming into the computer like tiny fists. The list of anonymous sources this could have originated from was short, but not short enough to make a guess without further distraction. It was irrelevant who sent it. It was someone Gallow had entrusted with this contact method and it was only the content that mattered at the moment. With a pained sigh, he opened the message.

A haze of red blurred his vision, drug-enhanced fury coursing through his veins like liquid fire. Gallow’s hand closed into a fist, quivered, then slowly relaxed. He shut his eyes, forcing the information into a mental compartment. He had more important things to attend to at present. Taking care of this would have to wait. 

But he would take care of it.

Permanently.

All critical members of the restoration were gathered in the conference chamber in Gallow’s executive deck of the Terminus. Security had been increased to unprecedented levels—honor guard stood at every door of the restricted deck, each attendee had been searched and scanned, and transmission jammers were set to block any and all signals for the duration of the address. This was the final call-to-arms before the birth of the New Kestris Republic.

Renic was dressed in his division uniform, the same unadorned blue as Gallow and his honor guard. He sat in the auditorium gallery as he had before, calmly watching with the rest of the audience invited to witness this moment. Beneath the sleeve of his right arm was the regeneration cast, the triple dose of Doctor Gast’s painkillers made the pain almost nonexistent. Renic’s mind floated atop the pain. He felt… buoyant and… alert. Yes. Alert. He would not appear to be operating at anything other than peak efficiency. This was the fleet marshal’s moment of glory, and Renic would not taint it.

Unlike the last time Renic had been in this chamber, the large table that occupied the center of the cavernous room had chairs around each side. On the wall-sized vidscreen that ran the length of the chamber were the faces of the ten generals and admirals, beamed live across jumpspace, each next to the planets they had been entrusted with watching over. Their fleets were already in place, ready to take necessary measures to reduce an inevitable civil war to a mere blip in the sector’s history. Each of those ten faces had seen what happened to Admiral Elliot in this very room. None wished to meet the same end. They simply had to follow Gallow’s orders for one more day, and then all would be right. Just like Renic. One more day.

Around the large table were the second-tier of trusted admirals, generals, warship captains, and other high-ranking officials crucial to the successful execution of the restoration. Even Defense Minister Archer was at the table; her first appearance among the collaborators, and a testament to Gallow’s influence. If the Defense Minister backed him, the rest of the rank-and-file politicians would follow. 

At the center of the table with its back to the vidscreen was the single, empty seat—Gallow’s seat. Renic looked to the door he knew Gallow would soon emerge from, the same that Admiral Elliot’s body had been dragged through. A wry grin bent Renic’s lips. It was a shame about Elliot, but that was what happened when one crossed Gallow. Thankfully, Renic had made it back to Kestris, addressed his broken arm, and was here in the auditorium for Gallow to see that he, Commander Renic Tau, was loyal and ready to serve.

Renic took a breath, feeling almost giddy through his drug-assisted euphoria. Everything was going to be fine.

In the seat next to Gallow’s empty one was Vice Admiral Lenault—no, Vice Marshal Lenault. He’d been promoted. Renic scanned the room for Major Drake. No sign. Maybe a promotion to Major Tau was more likely than he realized, if Drake still was not a part of this elite inner circle. 

Without prompting, Vice Marshal Lenault stood, causing the low murmur of voices that filled the chamber to go silent. The lights in the chamber lowered, leaving only the overhead spotlights above the table illuminated. How Lenault knew to stand was anyone’s guess. Renic presumed he had a hidden earpiece, facilitating Gallow’s penchant for dramatic entrances. 

Lenault turned, facing the hidden door at the opposite end of the chamber’s entrance. Some in attendance—likely first-time attendees—looked to Lenault as if they expected him to make an announcement. Renic knew there would be no announcement. The man they were here to witness did not require one.

A sliver of light appeared as the door opened, quickly widening into a solid rectangle. The backlit silhouette of a powerfully built figure appeared, cleaving through the light. At the table, the rest of the attendees suddenly stood, finally realizing there would be no announcement. Those seated in the auditorium rose as well, the sound of rustling fabric and creaking seat backs the only noise. Renic, his thoughts light and ephemeral, hurried to his feet, a brief instant of light-headedness causing momentary unbalance. 

Gallow marched forward, emerging from the private entrance with powerful steps that echoed against the high ceiling. He strode across the chamber, proceeding directly to his empty seat, giving those gathered at the table nothing more than a passing glance. He arrived next to Lenault, giving the new Vice Marshal a single nod. Lenault returned the nod and sat, followed by the rest of those at the table, who were followed by those in the auditorium seating. Renic again hurried to follow their lead, making certain he was not caught drawing unwanted attention to himself.

Gallow turned to face the room, shoulders pulled back in a pose of absolute authority. Everyone gathered gazed up at the standing fleet marshal, the time for doubt in his plans long past. All had cast their lot with him. Even Defense Minister Archer appeared to have an expression of genuine reverence. She knew what Renic and all the rest knew; there was no backing out for any of them. Either they all succeeded and the history of the republic regarded them as brave revolutionaries of the restoration, or they all failed and the history of the empire branded them as traitors and cowards.

As if on cue, Gallow slowly clasped his hands behind his back, his voice drenching the chamber like distant thunder rolling in.

“We are on the precipice of the most important day in the history of the Imperium. The empire that conquered this system and spread humanity throughout the sector faces a trial. A trial of determination and resolve. Those who led the billions that call this system home stand accused and are found guilty of the highest crime any leader can commit: willfully neglecting to protect those they serve for their own benefit, their own greed, their own quest for amassing power and wealth at the expense of those they serve.

“They, at the top, the High Imperius and his cadre of fawning cronies, are no longer leaders. They are parasites, an overgrown minority, attaching themselves to the populace and feasting on the blood of the people, unconcerned with whether they will drain their host dry. And dry the host has become. Dry of the willingness to accept this exploitation any further. We, gathered here, are the immune system, the cure for the disease of these parasites. We will save the body of this republic.

“These parasites will be exterminated, given no quarter and no chance of redemption. The days of the Imperium as we know it, and the reign of the High Imperius Edwin Sevent, must come to an end while there is still blood left in our veins. 

“This is the restoration, the evolution of empire to republic! We are the guardians of the New Kestris Republic and will serve it with true honor and reverence as it deserves. You are all heroes.

“History will judge me. Some of you judge me now. I accept that as part of my own sacrifice. Understand that I am not a heartless person. A child of the Fringe, I have served the Imperium my entire adult life. I have fought for it, killed for it, and put myself in harm’s way so that I might be able to die defending it. But there have been none who have bested me in combat, be it physical, mental, or spiritual, and I have been denied the chance to make that ultimate sacrifice. It is not what the Creator has planned for me, and when the time comes for me to be taken back into the Creator’s arms, I will go willingly. As I hope all of you will too, when your times come.

“This restoration we are carrying out is a painful but necessary task. None of us wish to harm our fellow citizens, and we do so with great remorse. I care for the people of the Imperium, and for the Imperium itself, which is why I am helping it evolve, to cast off its parasites and begin anew. The Imperium will be laid to rest, given the proper burial it deserves so the New Kestris Republic can grow in the soil that its decaying body enriches.

“Accusations will come, claiming that I acted out of self-interest, out of a lust for power and control. They will say that the incoming president is a puppet and that her claim has no validity. Know that you stand on the side of righteousness. The more hatred you endure without retaliation, the more faith the people will have in you as leaders. They will see that they are no longer led by the weak. The violence we commit against our own will be swift, decisive, and fair.

“This is day-zero of the restoration. For Kestris below, this is the last day you will see it under the rule of the Imperium of old. Each of you, as well as all the others with the courage to make this restoration possible, are the stewards of a future era unrivaled in known history. Generations will thank you. They will remember you. The discomfort of the coming weeks will fade and we will all look back on this and appreciate how necessary it was. We are not bringing about mere evolution, but an ascension!

“Orders will be issued to all involved in the coming hours. You are to follow them, no matter how distasteful they may seem. It will not be easy, but in the end you will be glad. You have my gratitude, my respect, and may the Creator watch over all of us.

“You are dismissed.”

With those final words, Gallow turned and strode back to his private entrance, the slap of his bootheels echoing against the chamber ceiling until the fleet marshal disappeared back behind the door. A murmur broke out in the chamber, hushed voices beneath the rustle of fabric and footsteps. Each in attendance had known this was coming—though likely not the re-introduction of the ancient religion—but hearing that the time had arrived was different. Now, it was real.

Renic let the hint of a smile cross his lips as he made his way down the gallery steps. He had made it. The last year of effort and dedication was culminating in this, the ultimate of payoffs. Acting as a hidden, unrecognized instigator had been a satisfying experience, but it was time to embrace his new life. He’d done what Gallow had asked and would serve the New Kestris Republic with the rank and privilege he deserved.

As Renic’s foot left the final step and touched down on the chamber floor, one of the honor guard appeared directly in his path.

“Commander Tau, the fleet marshal would like to have a word with you.”

Renic swallowed. “Of course,” he said, face twitching between a grin and a scowl as his instincts seemed to short-circuit. He had not been aware that Gallow would request a private conversation, and there was little chance the honor guard would allow him to defer and slip away into the hall.

The honor guard turned, stalking back toward the door. Renic stole a glance down  the right sleeve of his uniform. The cast was not visible. He wiggled his fingers, clenched and unclenched his fist. He felt a dull ache, but the painkilling drugs were doing their job. It would have to be enough.

They proceeded through the conference chamber, the small crowd parting as they moved against the flow heading the other direction. No one blocked their way, even the highest ranking admirals and generals. The honor guard made a straight line for the hidden door that Gallow had disappeared through, the same door where the body of the late Admiral Elliot had been escorted out of alive, and then dragged back through, dead.

Renic wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but the private room behind Gallow’s grand conference chamber was devoid of any furniture or decor. It was a vestibule, a staging area that seemed to serve no purpose other than facilitating Gallow’s entrances. There was a single, floor-to-ceiling window, the Terminus currently looking down on the Kestris City’s night. Otherwise, the vestibule was dim and empty, no one present but Gallow, Renic, and six honor guard standing at attention.

Gallow stood at the window, back turned to Renic, hands clasped, looking to the planet below. The door behind Renic closed, the room’s acoustics deadened and eerily silent. Renic chanced a glance over his shoulder; the honor guard who had escorted him stood in front of the door. The other six were split three on each side of the room, each staring forward. 

“Fleet Marshal, sir, I—” Renic started. Gallow lifted a hand, still facing away. Renic felt his throat tighten, Gallow’s sculpted back muscles that stretched his uniform shifting slightly, all framed against the darkened Kestris beyond.

Gallow sighed, bulging shoulders rising and dropping. The window went dark; it was a vidscreen like the one in the chamber. On it, an OS-9 intelligence report appeared, the text of the document white against the blackened surface, the report filling the entire window-turned-display. 

Renic squinted, reading the summary title across the top: Indigo Report 317, Unexplained Absence of Red Kestrel Activity. A tickle of relief almost caused him to scoff; he resisted. This he could talk his way out of.

Gallow turned his head, not quite looking over his shoulder. “It appears that Reed Casto has gone back on our agreement. Across the sector, the Red Kestrels have gone dark. I presume your Kestrel confederates on the surface have ceased communication as well?”

Renic cleared his throat, attempting to catch the eye of one of the honor guard. They only stared forward. None would offer him a glance. “Yes, sir. The intelligence is just coming in, but it does seem that Casto has betrayed you. Predictable, but… still unfortunate.”

Gallow remained facing away, a low hum preceding his words. “I presume the Dauntless was never located. I had hoped to use its recovery and declassification as a symbol of our victory. Proof that the republic delivers what the empire could not.”

Renic feigned concern. What was Gallow’s obsession with this ship? He had hundreds of corvette warships of the same configuration. Any could be renamed the Dauntless and none in the new republic would be the wiser.

“No, sir. I mean, yes. Casto has denied you that victory,” Renic said, realizing as he spoke that Gallow had not actually asked him a question and likely did not require Renic’s consolation.

Gallow turned, hands still behind his back, eyes cast toward the floor, brow furrowed in contemplation. “There was still a task that required the Kestrels as a proxy,” he said.

Renic lifted a hand slightly, his left hand. “Sir, I am certain we can find…”

Behind Gallow, the OS-9 report on the window display blinked away, replaced by something else. Bits of information jumped out at him. Senali. His Imperium identification number. Comm beacon logs. The ship Gallow had given him to use.

Renic’s mouth went dry. This was all information from his trip to Senali. Kogan erased this. Had Gallow been tracking his movements with the ship all along? How could this have happened? 

Renic pushed the speculation aside, focusing on his immediate needs. Mitigate the damage. Justify actions. Deflect blame. Convince Gallow that he, Renic, had made the right move despite disobeying him. Focus on the outcome—that was what Gallow would appreciate. Eliminating Kat Basara had been a necessary tactical victory and had nothing to do with the Red Kestrels going dark.

“Sir, the-” Renic started. Gallow raised his gaze, his eyes quickly shifting from a stare of disappointment to one of twisted rage.

Renic took an instinctual, fearful step backward. It was too slow. Gallow lunged, arm shooting forward, his hand wrapping around Renic’s throat. Renic stumbled backward, Gallow pushing him with inhuman strength. Renic’s body slammed into the metal wall behind him, Gallow’s grip holding him firmly in place. Renic raised his left arm, injured right still hanging at his side, and attempted to pull Gallow’s grasp away from his throat. Renic felt his feet leave the ground as he struggled, Gallow lifting him from the ground like a child. 

Around them, the honor guard stood motionless. Renic choked and sputtered, finally bringing up his broken right arm to try and loosen Gallow’s grasp. He swept his gaze across the room. This time, one of the honor guard, a young woman, met Renic’s eyes, then returned to her forward stare. They would not be answering his plea. 

As his lungs began to burn, Renic kicked back against the metal wall, hoping someone in the chamber behind might hear his desperate request for assistance, a profoundly foreign act for Renic. He had done countless solo missions and never once needed, or wanted, help. Even if someone heard his feet pounding on the wall, who could offer him assistance? Who would? Even if there were someone in the sector who would stand up against Gallow, they certainly would not do so for Renic.

“You defied me at the cusp of victory!” Gallow shouted, fury burning in his voice. “I had thought you could serve as a stand-in for him. Someone I could watch grow in the future I have created. Don’t you understand?” Gallow crushed down on Renic’s throat, muscled arm rippling beneath the fabric of his uniform. “I was wrong. You are no surrogate. My son died for nothing and now you will too.”

Gallow’s hand crushed down further. Even in Renic’s desperation, Gallow’s words confused him. Stand-in for what? What was Gallow talking about? That he was some sort of surrogate… for who? A son? Gallow had no family Renic knew of.

There was no time left to wonder. He could feel the cartilage of his trachea pop and deform. He ignored the surge of pain in his right arm and pulled harder at Gallow’s hand around his throat while his feet struggled beneath him. Renic’s vision grew dark. He’d failed Gallow and this was his punishment.

Except… it wasn’t fair. He’d done everything Gallow had asked and had only ever taken one moment for himself on Senali. Kat Basara, the Red Kestrels, Reed Casto, they didn’t matter. Gallow had won. Why did he care what Renic had done? Renic had not betrayed Gallow. In fact, in this moment, it was Gallow who was betraying Renic.

A dam of rage burst in Renic’s chest. He let go of his admiration for the man before him—the man killing him—and let his instincts take over. He met eyes with Gallow, his own face twisting into a mirrored mask of rage. If Gallow was through with him, fine. He might die at his hand, but not like one of the many disposable lackeys Renic had executed so many times in the past. Not like this. 

He was not a lackey; he was Renic Tau, and Renic Tau did not go down without a fight.

Renic slid his hands from Gallow’s wrist to his elbow, pulling down with all the force he could summon while simultaneously lifting his feet from the ground, bringing his entire bodyweight against Gallow’s extended arm. Searing pain burned from Renic’s energy, but the cast and tritanium bone-weaves held it together.

Gallow’s arm dipped, even his superhuman strength could not support that much weight. The grip around Renic’s throat weakened, allowing Renic to take a new gasp of air as his vision returned. Feet finding the solid metal deck, Renic yanked Gallow’s hand from his neck, freeing himself from the choking grasp.

Renic cried out, the rage he felt amplified by the pain exploding from his right arm. He shoved Gallow’s arm aside, dropping back into a fighting stance. The seven present honor guard rushed forward. Gallow raised a clenched fist.

“No! Do not interfere!” Gallow shouted. The honor guard all slid to a stop, encircling Gallow and Renic, their normally impassive faces scrunched in confusion. The distraction lasted only a faction of a second, but it was enough for Renic to press his foot against the wall behind him and lunge forward. 

Renic smirked; good. If the aging Gallow wanted a fight, Renic would give him one. Renic’s combat training took over, his reactions outpacing his conscious thought. Gallow met Renic’s launch with one of his own, swinging a fist toward Renic’s abdomen. Renic sidestepped, deflecting Gallow’s strike and landing his own left fist against Gallow’s side. He felt his knuckles crunch against the fleet marshal’s ribs as Gallow grunted; so he was human. Renic couldn’t kill a god, but he’d killed plenty of humans.

Renic followed his strike with a kick against the side of Gallow’s knee, assuming that the larger, older man’s strength did not mean his joints were any stronger than his age allowed. He was right. Gallow’s leg buckled and he stumbled to the side, honor guard scrambling back out of the way. Renic caught the eye of the nearest guard. What if Renic defeated Gallow? Would he be the new fleet marshal? Would this turn into some sort of archaic ascension-through-combat? Would they obey Gallow’s orders, or defy him—embarrass him—and come to his aid. Renic smirked at the honor guard; were they willing to give their lives to save Gallow’s?

There was no time to wonder. Gallow recovered and barreled toward Renic, lowering his shoulder and crashing into him. Renic attempted to dodge, but the fleet marshal tackled him and sent them both crashing back into wall.

Gallow slammed his fists against Renic’s body, alternating from side to side in a flurry of imprecise yet ferocious blows. One slammed into the cast and Renic’s breath gushed out of him. The polymer was too strong to crumple, but the pain was more than Renic’s mind could take. He screamed, falling to his knees while his left hand instinctively cradled his right forearm.

Gallow’s assault was unrelenting. Renic attempted to stand, only to be met by Gallow’s elbow cracking down on his spine between his shoulder blades, sending Renic crashing to his hands and knees. The toes of Gallow’s boot kicked Renic’s ribs again and again, cracking the bone and toppling Renic onto his side. 

Finally, Gallow took a step back, the sound of his ragged breathing filling the vestibule. Renic gasped for air, finding it nearly impossible to breathe through the sharp pain in his ribs and the excruciating throb in his right arm. He knew he would not win this fight, but he refused to die on his hands and knees. With every ounce of strength and willpower he had left, Renic rose to one knee, then two. One foot, then both.

Renic locked eyes with Gallow, coughing and choking as he spoke. “This is how you repay someone who gave you everything? I betrayed no one.”

Gallow narrowed his eyes, sweat covering his face. He held out his hand and one of the honor guard drew their bolt pistol and gave it to Gallow, just as they had with Admiral Elliot. He looked down at the weapon as he walked forward. Renic managed to sneer, unwilling to display any fear or regret.

Gallow came within arm’s-reach and raised the weapon, its end only inches from Renic’s chest. “It’s a shame this is what you chose,” Gallow growled. Renic looked down to the bolt pistol. Amateur move, Gallow.

Renic used his final shred of energy and summoned the instincts of thousands of close-combat disarm drills. In a blur of movement, Renic sidestepped and pivoted his upper body, smacking the bolt pistol with open hands and dislodging it from Gallow’s unprepared grip. The weapon spun in place, Renic’s left hand finding the handling. His finger reached the trigger and pulled, muzzle nearly grazing Gallow’s face.

Nothing happened.

Renic tried the trigger again. Nothing.

“Grab him,” Gallow ordered. Two honor guard rushed forward and grabbed Renic by the arms, the pain from his broken ribs and arm like burning fire across his body. The bolt pistol clattered to the ground. Renic screamed in fury, his cry gurgling out from his crumpled throat. 

Gallow bent down and picked up the weapon. He held it in his hand and examined it, clicking his tongue. “Is that all it took?”

Renic paused. Gallow was not advancing, instead he was regarding Renic with a look of satisfaction. With no strength left to struggle against two, well-rested, strong, and uninjured honor guard, Renic was held up only by their arms, his legs unable to keep him upright any longer.

Gallow stepped forward, regarding the bolt pistol with a strange appreciation. He looked to Renic, anger gone from his eyes. “Commander, I know when someone has the will to kill in their eyes, and I saw that in you just now.” Gallow chuckled, turning the bolt pistol over, holding it up for Renic to see. “I admit, I have not seen that look toward me in a long time. It is refreshing. Invigorating. I had my doubts on whether you would cooperate.”

Realization burned in Renic’s gut; Gallow had allowed himself to be disarmed. It was another deliberate injury. Renic would never know if he truly could have bested Gallow, leaving the memory as a constant burr of doubt. Just as Gallow intended.

Gallow sighed and fixed the places Renic had rumpled his uniform, then did the same for Renic, tugging and pulling at the matching blue fabric. Renic could only struggle to breath and stare, enduring this final humiliation. Gallow had defeated him.

Gallow rolled his shoulders and neck as if he’d just stood up after sitting for too long. “You know, I still frequent the wrestling mats. None refuse a match with me, but I can tell that even the biggest and strongest opponents hold back. Even when ordered not to. All I do is win. Difficult to practice when no one will challenge you.” Gallow looked down to the bolt pistol and snorted. “Not you, though. You are different from the rest, Renic. When you believe something, you really believe it. That sort of… zealotry, it can’t be bought with credits. Tell me, did you believe the gun would fire?”

To be honest, Renic hadn’t fully thought about it. 5E agents were not trained to show restraint, and the muscle memory reinforced that. But when it hadn’t fired, he had been surprised.

“Yes,” he croaked out, dismayed at the broken sound of his own voice.

Gallow harrumphed. “And then?”

Renic swallowed, words like broken glass ripping through his throat. “We both die and the republic falls.”

Gallow leaned close, eye to eye with Renic. “And is that what you want?”

Renic exhaled deeply, letting his gaze fall to the floor. He shrugged against the honor guard, his feet finding their balance beneath his wobbling legs. Gallow nodded to them and they released Renic’s arms.

“No,” Renic whispered, standing on his own. “It is not.”

Gallow righted his posture, then brushed off Renic’s shoulders. “Good. Heal up, Commander. With Reed Casto refusing to participate further, I need you to carry out the task I had hoped the Kestrels would. You are going to flush the High Imperius from his palace and onto the Terminus. When morning breaks tomorrow on the capital, you will plant a bomb I had engineered to cause a very specific pattern of destruction to the capitol, after which martial law will immediately be declared.”

Gallow let his arms fall, evaluating Renic with a look of mild amusement. “Also, it appears there are holes in our intelligence community, as you’re now painfully aware. The facade that is the Indigo investigation will be moved to your division, and I’ll see that OS-9 has its concerns directed elsewhere. This will coincide with Defense Minister Archer approving the defunding and dismantling of 5E as the final consequence for their repeated failure to stop the Red Kestrel threat. I know how much your former colleagues have bothered you.” Gallow exhaled, breath like the sound of receding thunder. “You’ve won, Commander, as soon as you finish this final task.”

The redemption fell flat on Renic’s ear. He was still alive, but he felt no sense of victory. He was reduced to carrying out the tasks they had previously designated to the disposable Red Kestrels. This had all been a way to break him. His life had been taken from him, then given back. He was nothing to Gallow but the edge of a blade. All of this was a test to see if he was still sharp enough to keep, or discard.

“Sir,” Renic managed to croak.

Gallow raised an eyebrow. “Yes, Commander?”

Renic’s eyes went to the bolt pistol. “If the weapon was disabled, what would have happened if I hadn’t disarmed you?”

A sadistic grin bent Gallow’s mouth. “Commander, in your fury, you failed to notice the gun was not disabled, only that its safety was engaged. Anger dulls the instincts, in your fury, you missed it. A flick of your thumb and neither of us would be here. I hope you remember this lesson.” Gallow nodded to one of his honor guard. “Take him to the medical bay. My personal physician. See that he receives treatment and return him to Kestris.”

The honor guard nodded. Gallow took a step forward, bringing himself shoulder to shoulder with Renic. “You’re a valuable asset, Tau, and I am not through with you. I trust all distractions are now cleansed from your mind, and you are ready to fulfill your purpose?”

“Yes,” Renic said, forcing the simmering hatred from his voice. He knew his purpose, and it was not what Gallow presumed. “I am.”

Gallow smiled, a sadistic grin that caused the muscles in Renic’s neck to tense around his damaged throat. “Good. Do not fail me again.”

Renic kept his stare on the floor as Gallow exited the room, the honor guard following him, all but the one Gallow had given instructions to. 

Renic stood in silence, his breathing ragged, each breath more excruciating than the last. He felt a new emotion. A mix of shameful gratitude and searing rage, a rage so intense his slack, listless face could find no expression for it.

 Renic’s eyes narrowed. His spine was cracked, ribs shattered, arm broken, throat nearly ripped from his neck. It was a high cost to pay, but these injuries were payment in exchange for a lesson. Not the one Gallow presumed he’d learned, but two others.

First; that Gallow was willing to dispose of Renic once his usefulness was up.

Second; that Renic was willing, and capable, of returning Gallow the favor.