Episode 53: These so dreadfully irregular times

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Julian and Lee are almost to the Radiance, so is Samantha, Decker and Eliza. Time to make contact.

Julian felt the gentle movement of the shipping container—the car, Lee, and himself inside—being hoisted, slowly swung, and set into place with a forceful thud, signaling the end to their trip from Kestris City to the southern hemisphere.

Lee exhaled. “That it? We’re here?”

Julian retrieved a handheld datapad, the car’s systems displayed on the screen. “According to the IDAP shipping manifest, we have been placed in a row of identical containers near the edge of the unloading yard.”

The car windows shifted from completely opaque to a medium tint, showing the interior of the shipping container. The large door at the front of the container slowly lowered on its hydraulic pistons, revealing the twilight outside.

Lee rose to a hunched position and turned around, seating himself next to Julian. “I want to see where we’re heading,” he said, tipping his head toward the forward window.

Julian raised his small datapad, showing it to Lee as he ceremoniously tapped the car’s activation command. “Into the night we go.”

The car’s hover generators hummed with life, li  fting the vehicle off the container’s stabilizer skids. They glided forward and skyscrapers of stacked crates came into view in the night, labels of freight companies and suppliers emblazoned on their corrugated surfaces. Towering silhouettes of cranes and lifts moved against the night sky, though none of them appeared to be operated by humans.

Lee looked to Julian and shrugged. “I’d say it looks clear, but I’m not sure what I’d expect in a place like this. How long until we establish contact with Agent Mori?” Lee asked, followed by a chuckle. “Or Samantha, I suppose I should say. Not sure how I’m going to adapt to all this first-name-basis business now that we’re all technically unemployed fugitives of the Republic.”

Julian tipped his chin toward the front windows, the view of the shipping yard’s large exit gates coming into view ahead. “IDAP is remarkably punctual. We will be able to establish our end of the connection in just a few moments.”

Lee stretched his legs across to the seats on the opposite side of the car, leaning his head back to look out the rear window. “They’re really coming down in a Nighthawk, huh? Been a while since I crammed into one of those. How’d she go about pulling off that sort of acquisition?”

Julian tilted his head, frowning slightly at the memory Lee’s question brought to mind. “Director Clarke was very effective at getting his agents what they needed.”

Lee pressed his lips together, realizing the topic he’d broached. “And when we get off Kestris and out of the system, figuring out how we can help him will be a top priority. Him and everyone else who will need strength outside the Republic.”

Julian nodded and drew a slow breath just as the car cleared the gates of the shipping yard and accelerated into the empty ground lane, nothing but the night and the tree-covered Kestris land around them.

Julian tapped a command into the car’s communications array, opening their side of the point-to-point channel that would wait for a direct connection to the Nighthawk. Julian frowned at what he saw.

“Uh oh. I don’t like frowns. Frowns aren’t good.” Lee leaned over to get a look. “Shit,” Lee said, frowning.

“Indeed. The civilian transmission spectrum is saturated to the point where signal-to-noise ratio would be more appropriately labeled as noise-to-noise ratio,” Julian said. He adjusted the car’s comm array, narrowing its reception signal to only what he was expecting from the Nighthawk. “This will increase the fidelity at the expense of increasing our own transmission profile. We will want to keep this as brief as possible to limit our exposure.”

Lee returned to his seat, narrowing his eyes out the windows. “We’re poking our heads out and hoping it’s Samantha who spots us and not the Navy. Lovely.” Lee adjusted his jacket, bottom of his bolt pistol visible in its holster beneath his arm. Julian felt the weight of his own weapon against his body. A last resort in a scheme that was growing more brittle by the minute.

Julian took a quick breath, redirection his attention to the immediate task. “We have reached the agreed upon time. Initiating point-to-point beam.” The readout on the car’s control panel showed a widely fluctuating signal attenuation meter.

Lee tipped his head toward the sky, looking up to the star-filled Kestris night above. He smirked. “Okay, Nighthawk, are you out there?”

“Initiating point-to-point beam,” Samantha said, tapping the command to hunt for Julian’s signal. The Nighthawk’s main cockpit display showed the beam sweep across the ground far below, the occasional dot from a Republic transmission visible.

“Anything?” Decker asked.

Samantha shook her head. “Not yet. The entire planet is nothing but noise.”

She looked out of the viewports, occasional specks of light set against mountains that appeared flat from low-orbit, the only evidence of a scattered population. Julian’s car would be too small for the Nighthawk’s optics at this altitude, but Samantha had to look, no matter how pointless it felt.

A beep drew her attention back to the display. The readout narrowed on a general heading, the sweep of the beam turning into a flickering line.

Samantha’s eyes flared open. “We’ve got him!” she said, surprised at the exuberance in her voice. Both Decker’s and Eliza’s faces brightened, a shared wave of relief filling the tiny cabin. 

Samantha initiated the point-to-point comm. Static crackled over the intercom speakers. The console showed a ‘connection unstable, audio only’ warning.

“Agent on the ground, do you copy?” Samantha said.

A fluctuation to the static resembled the prosody of a voice. The Nighthawk’s comm array displayed ‘isolating and amplifying signal’ as a familiar voice broke through amid the static.

“Agent in… sky, we copy… signal is suboptimal but… further instructions…”

A surge of emotion caught in Samantha’s throat. It had only been two weeks since she’d spoken to Julian, but she felt as if she’d been away for months. She swallowed the feelings, forcing her voice steady as she surreptitiously wiped a hint of a tear from the corner of her eye.

“The rendezvous location is the Radiance Hotel and Resort. They have been notified of your arrival. We can’t set down anywhere else without triggering the grid, so you have to get there. I am sending you a guest authorization to present to the hotel perimeter patrols and entrance systems. Confirm receipt.”

The audio crackled, no words audible.

Samantha leaned forward, enunciating her words into the console even though she knew it wouldn’t make a difference. “Confirm receipt of location and authorization. The Radiance.”

Samantha waited, static swelling in and out. The Nighthawks’s end of the point-to-point beam was strong, but Julian must have been limited by whatever ground-based civilian system he’d been able to access. She closed her eyes, listening for his melodic, matter-of-fact tone beneath the noise. 

“…confirmed… Radiance…” Julian’s voice sounded over the intercom just as a surge of static drowned out his voice.

Behind her, Samantha heard a soft clap of victory from her passengers. Samantha opened her eyes, quickly wiping another single drop of moisture from her cheek. “Get there, Agent. We’re on our way.” She hesitated. “Is… is the boss with you?”

Samantha waited for a response. The readout on the Nighthawk’s sensor array showed maximum attenuation, but the Republic jamming noise was too much. Without a stronger signal from the ground, Julian was drowned out no matter how hard they listened.

The comm array flashed a warning; the beam was raising their sensor profile above the Nighthawk’s stealth capacity. Samantha’s finger hesitated for a moment before abruptly turning off the beam. Julian had his orders now. A destination. There was no one better for breaking through whatever systems the Republic put up on Kestris. If it came to physical confrontations and bolt-fire… hopefully Clarke was with him. He knew how to handle himself in a fight. It was a flimsy hope, but it was the only one she had.

Samantha quickly wiped her hand across her cheek to rid herself of any evidence of emotion and looked over her shoulder. Both Decker and Eliza seemed calm, with confident gleams in their eyes. She started to say something, but no words came. What did she need to say? They each knew what was required of them. 

Samantha closed her mouth, faced forward, and watched as the peninsula that served as the expansive grounds of the Radiance appeared on the navigation display.

“Confirmed. Radiance guest authorization received. We shall proceed to rendezvous,” Julian said, smiling as he spoke. “It is good to hear from you again.”

The signal from the Nighthawk crackled and popped, the car’s underpowered comm array struggling to offset the flood of interference the Republic was dumping into the electromagnetic spectrum. Thankfully it had not stopped them receiving a crucial burst of data: their invitation into the Radiance.

 Julian brought up the guest-pass authorization on the screen, checking for any data corruption during transfer. It was intact. They were in possession of one preferred-plus invitation, the coded label for valued Dai’Reen allies like 5E agents. Or, in this case, former agents. 

Lee leaned across the armrest, softly clearing his throat. “You said ‘we’ just then. You want to give her a little warning on who the ‘we’ is if she’s expecting you and Director Clarke?”

Julian pondered the statement. He’d been so delighted to establish contact that he’d forgotten about Clarke. He took a quick breath and activated the car’s comm. “Agent, there is a matter I need to prepare you for.”

A surge of static crackled over the car’s speakers, but no words were audible. Julian checked the comm array panel. It was at maximum power and the interference was growing stronger the further south they went.

“Agent, your last message was not received. Please repeat. Agent?” On the comm display, new interference warnings appeared. Julian’s elation at hearing Samantha’s voice drained away. The static reached a uniform tone, any semblance of spoken language impossible to distinguish. “It appears the Republic’s adaptive algorithms detected our rogue signal and have increased the local interference to counteract it.”

A concerned look crossed Lee’s face. He sat forward. “Detected? How precise will their triangulation be? Are we going to need to get out and hike?”

Julian furrowed his brow, cycling through the car’s sensor capabilities. All were overwhelmed. “I do not believe a location can be discerned, but the Republic now has evidence of an unknown transmission within the province.”

Lee exhaled sharply, rubbing his hands together. “Okay, Jules. We have our exfil location, which means we push forward and don’t look back.”

Julian nodded, the memory of the Radiance bringing the twitch of a grin to his otherwise grimacing lips. “It was a place Samantha utilized many times when conducting operations on Kestris that 5E could not outwardly approve of. Though, given the tensions between the Republic and Dai’Reen, I suspect it will be a touch less hospitable than normal.”

Lee lightly smacked his hand against Julian’s shoulder. “As long as we’re able to get out of this car and into orbit, I’ll forgive them for leaving a mint off my pillow. How long until we’re near?”

Julian entered the Radiance into the car’s navigation. A route appeared. “One hour of drive time to the perimeter of the small town surrounding the property. However, due to the interference storm, we have no live data on the Republic’s response to the Dai’Reen resistance.”

A pained chuckle escaped Lee as he ran a hand over his face. “I’d almost rather be back in Kestris city, where there was cover. Alleyways, alcoves, dark passages and corners to hide behind.”

Julian sighed. He shared Lee’s apprehension. The Radiance was an effective egress point, as long as they could get there.

Julian and Lee sat in silence and watched the terrain go by from the darkness of the cabin. Slowly. Too slowly. Julian felt Samantha’s tendencies start to influence him. She would have insisted they trade increased exposure for increased expedience. Julian had to agree that this time, she would be right.

He tapped a command into the car’s navigation controls. The car rose into the air, occupying the lowest-altitude skylane a few dozen feet off the ground. Just enough they could pick up considerable speed. “We will proceed to the edge of the town outside the Radiance property and gather intelligence from a distance.”

Lee hummed in approval and glanced out the window to the terrain speeding by in the darkness below. “I’m not gonna argue, but you think it’s safe to cruise this high?”

Julian smiled weakly. “At this point, I do not presume that anything we do will qualify under the definition of ‘safe’.”

“Approach vector is charted. Moving to descent point,” Samantha said. She looked back over her shoulder to the strapped-in Decker and Eliza. “This is the meteor part.”

A grimace was Decker’s response. Eliza kicked his leg. “Come on, Deck. Just think, in a few minutes you’ll be ordering a drink at the rooftop bar with a little umbrella in it.”

Decker’s grimace deepened. Samantha smirked and turned back to the Nighthawk’s navigation display. The view of the peninsula with the Radiance was centered on the screen, the lights from its cluster of enormous buildings like a beacon urging them forward.

“The Republic interference is going to keep us from calling ahead, which means I’ll be transmitting our landing clearance using a line-of-sight laser after we enter the range of the Radiance’s low-altitude guns. It’ll be dangerous, but it’s our only choice. We don’t stop until we’re on the rooftop,” Samantha said.

She inspected the live camera view of the Radiance. The buildings were lit by the many multi-colored lights that covered the property, but something else felt different from what she remembered. She set the notion aside, focusing her attention on the landing procedure.

The Nighthawk’s four thrusters pivoted, and the feeling of accelerated freefall took over as the thrusters spun and blasted toward the sky. Warning lights flared to life, followed by alarms. On the operator’s console, messages detailing the various methods of detection appeared, along with bright-red text indicating that the Nighthawk was unable to counteract the intensity.

“The long-range detection has grid picked us up. We’ll be trading stealth for speed now,” Samantha shouted over the rumble. Decker shouted something back, his words lost beneath the din. Whatever he’d wanted Samantha to know would have to wait. 

The view of the Radiance was close enough that Samantha could see what had seemed different from the upper-atmosphere; the Radiance was under siege from the Republic. Where the peninsula connected to the mainland was a line of Navy dropships, barricades, mobile artillery batteries, and the elliptical dishes of long-range detection stations. The standoff between the Dai’Reen and the Republic was underway, and they were dropping right into the middle of it.

The Nighthawk flashed a new series of warnings; it was being hit with a focused concentration of both the Radiance’s and the Republic’s scanning beams. Samantha activated the line-of-sight communication laser and aimed it toward the rooftop.

This was it. Either the guns of the Republic got them, or the guns of the Radiance did. 

The communication beam’s status showed a steady ‘establishing connection’ as the view of the rooftop grew larger. Samantha could see the Radiance’s rooftop artillery begin to turn. 

The message changed. ‘Connection established. Transmitting. Transmission received.’

The artillery batteries broke off their targeting just as a new message appeared on the screen: ‘Welcome to the Radiance, honored guest!’

Samantha looked back over her shoulder. “We’ve got it!” she shouted.

The individual landing pad they’d been given lit up, the Radiance transmitting the guidance vectors to the Nighthawk’s navigation. All the Navy could do was watch as an unidentified slipstream-class vessel made a furious descent to the place they were currently besieging.

The view of the rooftop landing pad was clear, the tarmac already covered in row after row of scattered craft. The Nighthawk’s thrusters disengaged, rotating again to fire straight downward. The ship shook as their inertia was counteracted, crushing Samantha and her passengers into their seats. With a final surge of kinetic energy, the Nighthawk came to a stop as its landing pylons made contact with the Radiance’s rooftop tarmac. The Matilda strike-team had landed.

Samantha turned the operator’s seat, unbuckling her harness as she did. “Status check?”

The interior cabin lights came on. Eliza pretended to fan herself, while Decker was unbuckling his harness as fast as his hands would allow. “I want you both to witness this statement and relay it back to Manu, Hev, and Selli when we return: I hereby rescind any complaint I’ve ever made about the Matilda being a rough ride.” He tossed the harness off of his shoulders. “Is that what every descent in this thing is like?”

Samantha shrugged. “The goal is to evade detection, and if that fails, to move too fast for anyone to stop you.”

The hatch to the Nighthawk opened, revealing night sky and allowing the ocean-side air to flow into the cabin. A lifetime of memories flooded Samantha’s mind at the smell of her home planet. It was a place she’d spent her adult life defending, and in the end, it turned out she hadn’t been defending anything at all. The Imperium was gone, sold out and conquered by its own people. But she wasn’t here for the Imperium. She was here to help her friends, both the ones who needed to be evacuated and the ones she’d brought along with her.

Samantha jumped down from the final rung of the Nighthawk’s exit ladder, tacsuit boots smacking against the concrete. More than half of the landing pads were occupied. Some were luxury craft, others more utilitarian and bristling with weapons. Dai’Reen attendants walked along the tarmac, still dressed in their hotel uniforms as if nothing were amiss.

“So this is it, huh?” Decker asked, hopping down from the ladder. “Seems a lot more… normal than I imagined.”

Eliza sidled up beside them and pointed. “Look, Deck. I think that’s the bar.”

Samantha snorted in amusement; Eliza was right. At the far end of the rooftop was an outdoor cabana ringed with palm trees, one she’d neglected to notice on her previous visit. It even seemed to have patrons. “Fine. On our way out, after we’ve succeeded, we can make a stop.”

The declaration brought a clap from Eliza. Samantha smirked, turning to scan the area.

Decker tapped the back of his hand against her shoulder. “Hey, look,” he said, jutting his chin toward the front edge of the rooftop. Samantha squinted across the darkness to the Republic encampment. The glow of thrusters from several ships could be seen as they descended. Decker grunted in disapproval. “Those are Navy dropship. Not hard to guess that they’re bringing in reinforcements.”

Samantha watched the two dropships disappear below the edge of the rooftop. She started to turn when she noticed another ship, far larger, come into view from above. A proper warship was descending in the distance, the flare from its overpowered thrusters lighting up its dark hull before it too disappeared below the roof’s edge.

The claws of well-honed instincts scratched at the back of Samantha’s mind. A warship like that was useful in ship-to-ship combat in the endless void of space. They were not surface vessels. What would it be doing here?

Before Samantha could ponder further, a joyful voice exclaimed a greeting from across the expansive rooftop. A Radiance concierge, dressed in the formal uniform of pressed white fabric with two rows of shimmering gold buttons, approached from the building’s entrance. The only difference from Samantha’s last visit was that they carried a shining, gold-plated bolt rifle held comfortably in their arms.

Adoni strode forward, golden-white hair billowing over their shoulders, their unnaturally perfect, androgynous features as glamorous as ever. Samantha heard Eliza gasp, likely at the meticulously applied gold-and-black makeup that accentuated every crest of a cheekbone and arc of an eyelid.

“Honored guest, we are so glad you have decided to choose the Radiance as your destination during these so dreadfully irregular times.”

“Adoni. Thank you,” Samantha said, bowing deeply. Adoni feigned overwhelm at the gesture, raising a hand to their chest as they tipped their own head forward, waves of silken, white-gold hair falling down around their chest.

Eliza stepped past Samantha, daintily offering her hand. “The pleasure is all ours. You can call me Annabelle.”

Adoni took Eliza’s hand and placed a delicate kiss atop it. Eliza swooned. Samantha turned to Decker with a raised eyebrow. He shrugged.

Samantha gently pushed the affected Eliza aside. “What my friend here meant is that we appreciate you offering your tarmac here in an effort to jointly stand up to this Republic incursion. I saw on the way down the Navy has set up quite an encampment at the edge of the resort, and it looks like they brought reinforcements.”

Adoni hummed, nodding in agreement. The gold-plated bolt rifle shimmered in their arms. “Indeed, indeed. It is a most unsightly display they have constructed. They wish to enter the premises, but unfortunately, until the situation over my homeworld is resolved, the staff of the Radiance has been ordered by the newly sovereign Dai’Reen government to kindly turn away any Republic guests.” Adoni sighed, smiling. “As such, we have a bit of a hostage situation on our hands. Dreadful.”

Samantha glanced down at Adoni’s golden bolt rifle. “The Republic thinks they’re holding the Radiance hostage until their demands on Dai’Reen are met?”

Adoni laughed softly. “Oh! I apologize for not being clearer. No, honored guest, we have taken several hundred of their people hostage within our most hospitable and luxuriant walls. The Republic is quite upset, both at the detainment of their people and the fact that so many were here in the first place. Quite an embarrassment.”

Samantha glanced over her shoulder at Decker and Eliza and shrugged. “Okay then.” She turned back to Adoni. “This isn’t the welcome party I was expecting for my friends making their way here. They are valuable Republic defectors who can offer critical help to the Dai’Reen, both here and on your home planet. Allow us to move across your property to assist them, and I promise we can more than make up for the inconvenience.”

Adoni stopped, giving a dramatic hum as they pondered Samantha’s offer. “Interesting proposal, honored guest. I am quite confident that all parties will be made whole.”

Samantha forced a smile; whatever she’d just agreed to would be a negotiation for a different time. “Thank you. The transmission jammers kept us from giving them more precise instructions, but they’ll see the Navy encampment and try to circumvent. Knowing my friends, they’ll attempt to skirt around it. Which approach is most clear?”

Adoni turned, gesturing for them to follow as their halo of white-gold hair billowed in the night air. “As you witnessed, our grand front entrance is, rudely, blocked. The beautiful woodlands to the east are currently clear, but our formidable guest-services staff are presently occupied with maintaining a satisfactory defense opposite the Republic. We cannot offer you assistance should you venture outside our perimeter to meet your friends.”

Samantha nodded. “Understood. If you can authorize the three of us to move across your grounds, we will retrieve our friends and retreat back. Our guest passes are loaded on our comms, and I transmitted the same to my friends. I presume this will work for close-contact authorization, given the transmission jamming.”

Adoni smiled. “Of course, as well as giving you preferred-plus access to all spas, recreation centers, and of course our over one-hundred fully stocked bars.” A squeal of excitement sounded from Eliza. Adoni bowed their head and waved a manicured hand toward the doors into the hotel. “If you would please follow me, I will escort you to the ground floor where you can better evaluate the situation.”

Samantha nodded, Decker and Eliza right on her heels. Their impromptu mission briefing with Adoni had given them the final intel they needed. Julian and Clarke—hopefully Clarke—were on their way. The Navy encampment would force them into the woods, and she would be there to meet them when they emerged. With any luck, they’d be right back here in an hour and could have one final drink on Kestris at the Radiance’s rooftop bar.

Adoni led them through the doors into the lavishly decorated rooftop lobby and across to the gilded elevators. The doors parted and they stepped inside, Adoni and Samantha nearest the doors, Decker and Eliza right behind them.

Decker gave a low whistle. “Someday, when this whole Republic-Imperium war thing blows over, we’ll have to come back and stay here for real.”

Eliza snorted. “Deck, I don’t think we can afford it.”

Samantha felt a grin tug at the corner of her mouth. She raised her hand to pull the tacsuit visor down over her eyes, only to find it wasn’t there.

The urge to grin faded. That’s right; she’d been shot in the head.

By Renic.

The live view from Lee’s digitally enhanced binoculars appeared on Julian’s handheld datapad, another piece of 5E tech that had made it into Julian’s bug-out bag. They had arrived at the small town bordering the peninsula, usually populated by tourists and those looking for a relaxed, oceanside lifestyle.

After parking Julian’s car off the side of an empty road, the two had made their way up a tree-covered hill that overlooked the Radiance. The Navy had already set up an encampment in front of the property and were milling about beneath dozens of floodlights.

“They’re entrenched,” Lee said, peering through the binoculars. “Looks like a mix of MPs and some supplemental Navy backup. MPs are probably local to Kestris and haven’t seen a lot of battle. Though with the Terminus and the rest of the first fleet in orbit, they could be more seasoned vets from further out in the sector.” Lee pulled his face back from the binoculars, showing a rueful grin. “We won’t be making our way through the front doors. You sure Samantha can’t steer the Nighthawk down here to pick us up?”

Julian shook his head. “It might make it down, and we might make it aboard, but a swarm of Navy interceptors would ensure we never made it out.” He nodded down toward the Radiance. “It is their protection that will allow us to both safely arrive and depart.”

Lee grimaced. “Yeah. Figured. If that’s the case, we need a secondary ingress path.” He raised the binoculars again, sweeping them slowly across the Radiance’s property in the distance.

Julian followed the view on his small datapad. Though even mere feet apart, the wireless transmission was interrupted with moments of static from the Republic’s interference flooding the area.

“Here’s something.” Lee increased the magnification on the expanse of wooded land east of the Radiance. “The east approach is open forest. Good cover. No patrols I can see, and the guest authorization should let us onto the property before the Republic forces spread out to cover the entire peninsula.”

Julian inspected a map of the Radiance’s property on his datapad. “It does appear to be our best approach vector.” He looked back to where they had parked his car. “Though, our mode of transportation may be of limited utility.”

Lee joined him in looking back toward the car. “We can take it a few miles further and then hike in, double-time. I hope you’ve been keeping up on your exercise routine.”

Julian raised an eyebrow. “While not a Navy PT regiment, the relative value of calisthenics for an agent who spends most of his time in a chair—,”

The sound of kinetic thrusters suddenly grew and screamed overhead. Both men crouched and looked above. Two ships raced by on a direct path toward the Navy encampment. Lee raised the binoculars and focused the view on the ships.

“Damn. I recognize that kind of rig.” He turned to Julian. “Navy dropships. Either the Republic wants to make a show of force to prevent a conflict, or they’re gearing up to start one. My bet is on the latter.”

Julian watched on his flickering datapad as the ships slowed to a stop behind the lines of the encampment, lit by the dozens of floodlights.

“They’re unloading. Yep. They’ve brought the meat shields,” Lee said. Navy ground forces spilled out from the dropship ramps. Lee magnified the view through the binoculars. On the datapad screen, Julian saw the gray-and-black uniforms of the Republic, each trooper with an assault helmet and body armor.

“Agent Lee. I trust your exercise routine included small-arms training and close-quarters combat should we face any unexpected encounters of the Republic kind?” Julian asked.

Lee chuckled softly. “Of course. More than once I’ve daydreamed about how I’d successfully fight my way off the Terminus if needed. It’s thrilling heroics, Julian.”

Julian sighed, nodding in agreement. “Excellent. I do not believe that the Republic Navy will hesitate to eliminate us without warning. Until we are aboard the Nighthawk, I believe the ‘thrilling heroics’ must take priority over any lingering feelings of allegiance or regret for our former Imperium comrades.”

Lee nodded. He began to speak just as the roar of another ship hit them like a shockwave. Both men flattened to their stomachs as the deafening sound and glow of thrusters lit up the area as an enormous vessel sped by overhead. Lee scrambled to raise the binoculars while Julian pulled up the datapad. Centered in the view was this new ship, its matte-black surface visible.

“That’s… that’s a full-on warship. Some sort of corvette by hull configuration,” Lee growled softly.

Julian watched as the elongated shape of the corvette slowed in the distance, landing pylons extending as it lowered to a large clearing a few hundred feet behind Navy lines. The ship dwarfed everything else in the encampment. Julian’s stomach tightened at the portent.

“The gangway is extending,” Lee said, magnifying the view as much as the binoculars were capable. “Must be some sort of senior officer. Takes a lot of pull to get a warship to do a taxi run like this.”

Julian watched as the gangway touched the ground. The ship’s occupants wasted no time in marching down the ramp, their details of their faces hidden within the shadow from the ship.

A group of MPs jogged toward them. Both groups stopped beneath a bright floodlight, their faces finally visible.

Recognition hit Julian like a second shockwave. “No…” he whispered.

Lee scoffed into the dirt. “It… it can’t be him.” He turned his head to Julian. “Are we… is she made?”

Julian’s mind raced with probabilities. “Samantha is a professional infiltrator. She assessed and determined a method of ingress and egress based on her experience, training, and instincts… all three of which she honed under Renic’s mentorship.” Julian swallowed the lump of apprehension tightening his throat. “Renic could have used that same experience and arrived at the same conclusion as Samantha.”

Julian watched on the datapad as Renic, backed by his entourage of division commandos, appeared to argue with the MPs. Even through the distortion of the over-magnified image, the ire on his face was clear.

Lee rose to his feet, fist clenched. “Renic isn’t going to play by any Republic rules. We need to shorten our rendezvous timetable to right now.” He looked back to where they had left the car, a smirk still evident beneath his frustration. “There’s no way we can just cross our fingers, hit maximum acceleration, and fly up to the rooftop in that thing, is there?”

Julian smiled weakly at the suggestion. “I am afraid not. If the Navy did not shoot down the unidentified vehicle, the Radiance surely would.”

Lee growled. “Renic can crash our party, but we can’t crash his.”

Julian narrowed his eyes at the statement and looked back to where the car was parked. He retrieved the pencil from his jacket’s inside pocket and traced an invisible route in the air against the view of the peninsula in the distance. “Agent Lee, what is the distance reading from our present location to the edge of the woodlands?”

Lee shifted his view between the two locations. “Four miles.”

Julian looked out over the small town between them and the Navy encampment. The sky and ground lanes were clear, the town’s citizens likely ordered to stay put under Navy curfew. Any normal civilian vehicle would be easily detected should one attempt to approach the encampment. But Julian’s car was no normal vehicle.

 “Hmm. I believe we may have an opportunity to ‘crash’ the party, as you stated. It will require some extended running. Four miles, to be exact.”

Lee smirked beneath the binoculars. “Through rough terrain, I can run that in thirty minutes. Can you keep up?”

Julian sighed wistfully. “I do not believe I will have a choice.”

Lee swept his gaze across the encampment. “The troops are fanning out, probably fortifying the perimeter. Wait… shit. I’ve lost Renic. I can see his goons heading off with the MPs, but he’s gone.” Lee lowered the binoculars and looked over his shoulder to Julian. “That’s not good.”

Julian nodded in somber agreement. “It is time for us to deploy the tactical use of some ‘thrilling heroics,’” he said, walking back toward the car while he began programming a new route into his datapad. It had been a faithful companion, an excellent mobile safehouse that had been witness to many off-the-record conversations over the years.

It would be missed.

The gangway to Renic’s ship opened to the Kestris night in front of the Radiance. He wasted no time, marching down the ramp with Kogan and his squad of division commandos in tow. The person who Renic assumed was the commanding officer on the scene was already jogging toward them, a pair of military police at his side.

“Commander Tau, I’m Captain Makato, supervising MP officer in charge of this operation. We received your communique, but—,”

Renic stomped past, pointing up to the Radiance’s glass-covered central building. “Then you should already know, as I stated in my communique, the Naval Special Investigation Division has credible intelligence that this establishment is harboring at least one, potentially several more, high-value targets attempting to evade Republic apprehension. They must not be allowed to do so.”

Captain Makato grimaced, moving himself in front of Renic and forcing him to stop. “I have not been briefed on any high-value targets, Commander, but—,”

Renic scoffed. “You’re being briefed by me right now, Captain.”

Makato’s face wrinkled with impatience. “But we’ve received orders from General Denton to ready a forward push against the Dai’Reen in order to secure entry for the several hundred Republic assets being held hostage. You’re welcome to wait and see if your ‘one or more’ targets are processed during the assault, but a general far outranks an intelligence officer, Commander Tau.”

Renic bristled, jaw clenching so tight his vision vibrated. This captain had no idea what Renic had done for the Republic, how he was one of the few who Gallow had relied on to guarantee the victory Makato was now sweeping up after. None of which Renic could share.

Makato huffed. “Excuse me, Commander. I’ve got an operation to oversee. Log your concerns with the general’s office,” he said, giving Renic a final dismissive glance before turning back to the encampment.

Renic stood silently, rage burning beneath his collar. The Republic’s victory was marching forward, and Renic was no longer an integral part of it.

Kogan stepped forward. “Commander?”

Renic glanced at Kogan, then back to the assault preparations. The Radiance would not be an easy target, even with the additional Navy assault squadrons. Once the Republic started open hostilities with the Dai’Reen, the entire area would be an active combat zone.

“Back to the ship,” he said. He stalked back across the floodlight-lit scene. Kogan ordered his team to wait and hurried up the gangway after him.

They entered one of the many empty briefing rooms on the unstaffed ship. Renic brought up a live map of the scene on a vidscreen embedded in the wall, each Republic vessel and team represented with a floating label that moved about with them. He pointed up at the Radiance.

“The Republic intends to make a frontal assault against the entrance, here. The Radiance will be forced to defend and focus their attention to the front,” Renic said.

Kogan stepped to the vidscreen. “Agreed, Commander. And with the Radiance’s defensive capabilities, Republic forces will likely not divide their attack, and instead focus fire toward the front.” Kogan ran his finger against each of the Radiance’s flanks. “The western edge near the water, and the eastern woodlands will be ignored. Too much risk, not enough reward.”

Renic nodded, studying the view. The actions of the Republic assault forces and the Dai’Reen were predictable. What was more difficult to know was what Samantha was planning. He believed the Nighthawk could land behind Dai’Reen defenses. Renic could imagine himself making the same decision. This was the ‘how’ of her plan, but not the ‘why’ of it. Why return? It wasn’t for Renic. If that was the case, she’d be looking for him in Kestris City, a place that was under total lockdown. Getting into the city at this point would be futile, even for her.

But, if someone had already gotten out of the city, then the Radiance was an excellent place to meet with the Republic martial law.

Renic smirked. She’d asked him to stand-down on Agent Siddig, to promise not to harm him. A promise she would have known ended the moment those doors had blown open. She was on Kestris to try to rescue Julian, and he was likely on his way to the Radiance.

The weaselly agent had evaded the arrests at 5E headquarters, and Clarke’s ridiculous facade of a surrender had to have something to do with that. This was an exfiltration mission, playing out almost exactly as Renic would have planned it, had he been foolish enough to let these sorts of sentimentalities occupy him.

Renic turned to Kogan. “Samantha thinks she’s going to retrieve Siddig from the Radiance. How would you have advised Siddig to approach?”

Kogan shrugged, waving his hand at the continually evolving map. “Coming through the woodlands is the only viable approach. Front is occupied, and the water would require an amphibious approach, easily detected. Siddig and Mori will see this and presume the same. It’s the only covert vector available for a mobile, foot-bound trespasser.”

“Agreed,” Renic said. He turned to Kogan. “Take your team, circle around to the ocean side of the Navy encampment and engage the Dai’Reen. If Makato wants to get into a fight, we’ll help them get it started early. I want maximum chaos to keep both sides distracted.”

Kogan tilted his head. “Sir? Dividing the battlefield would put Republic forces at a disadvantage.”

“I know that!” Renic barked. He stabbed his finger against the vidscreen. “I want the Republic occupied. I am going to the woodlands to ambush Julian and Samantha and do not want any interference from the Republic. Once they and the Dai’Reen are busy with each other, separate from your team and regroup with me.”

Kogan’s eyes narrowed. “Commander, this is a disproportionate response for Mori and Siddig. They are of little strategic value to the Republic.”

Renic turned toward Kogan and shouted. “Disproportionate? Do you realize what Mori and Siddig know about us? What they can do? You are as guilty as I am in the birth of this Republic. We failed to neutralize the threat on Senali. We failed to locate the Dauntless.” Renic raised his right arm to Kogan’s face. “Remember our previous failure? You saw what Gallow does to those who threaten his victory. We must cauterize this wound before it bleeds us to death.” Renic sneered, forearm throbbing from the surge of anger. “Do not defy my orders, Operative.”

Kogan’s eyes burned. Renic met the stare with one of his own. 

Finally, Kogan nodded. “Affirmative, Commander. The squad will engage and I will regroup with you in the woodlands.”

Renic exhaled forcefully through his nose. “Good choice. All non-Republic comms will be jammed. I will send my coordinates to your comm once I am in position. Now go.”

Kogan nodded, turning on his heel and exiting the briefing room. Renic stormed out into the corridor and to his personal quarters. Kogan didn’t need to agree with his objective, he just had to follow orders. Renic would take care of the rest. All that mattered was that he stopped Samantha. She and Julian could not be allowed off Kestris. They could not be allowed to thwart him again.

Renic frantically pulled off his Republic uniform, his still-healing arm encased in its protective cast protesting at the jarring movement. He crossed the room to his gear bag resting on top of the desk, and pulled out the 5E tacsuit and visor. He also retrieved one of the injectors he’d requested from Doctor Gast. He pushed the injector’s diffusor against his neck and administered two doses of the painkiller. Immediately, the effects of the drug took over, numbing his pain and filling him with a violent euphoria.

Renic pulled on the 5E tacsuit, the black weave wrapping around his muscles like a second skin. He slid his rail pistol into the built-in holster beneath his left arm, and a bolt pistol into the one beneath his right.

Finally, he lifted the tacsuit’s visor to his head, remembering Samantha’s face just before he’d shot her, and just after. The slug embedded in the glass, the radiating web of cracks. The evidence of her survival.

Renic slid the visor’s metal strap over his head, pulling the perfectly transparent glass down in front of his eyes. The tacsuit computer came to life, scanning for his retinal pattern. The interface appeared in the space in front of him, the words ‘Welcome, Agent Tau’ floating just out of arm’s reach.

Renic scoffed at the title. It had been barely two weeks since he’d assumed the role of commander. He’d still been Agent Tau the day he’d confronted Samantha in her apartment. The day before Starview Station. The day before she’d rejected him, sneaking away from Kestris and nearly ruining everything. All Renic had wanted was for her to join him, to finally see how much her alliance, her approval meant. They had all rejected him. Samantha. Clarke. Gallow. Everyone.

How much would Renic have to do before someone recognized his value? He closed his eyes, feeling the rage galvanize his resolve. He would show them all. Everyone would suffer.