Episode 54: He’ll never see me coming

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The battle on the grounds of the Radiance continues!

Julian dropped to the ground next to the cluster of broad-leafed trees, the four mile run to the outer edge of the Radiance’s woodland preserve thankfully concluded. His face dripped with sweat, and his lungs burned from overexertion. Next to him stood Lee, breathing heavy but otherwise looking no more spent than if he’d finished a light warmup jog.

Lee raised the binoculars to his eyes, aiming them back toward the Navy encampment to the southwest. “Looks like the assault teams are gathering at the far end of the entrance plaza across from the resort’s central building. Negotiations must be over.” He exhaled sharply. “I can’t see Renic’s ship from this angle, but we would’ve heard if a corvette-class took off from this close. We have to assume he’s going to try something.”

Julian pulled his handheld datapad from his pocket. The automated route he’d programmed into the car was visible on the display, as was the last warning the car had been able to transmit about its overloading and ready-to-explode power cells. A warning Julian was forced to gravely dismiss. He looked up to Lee. “Three minutes until impact.”

Lee smiled beneath the binocular’s curved viewfinder. “That means you’ve got three minutes to rest,” he said, magnifying the view to the area beyond the Navy encampment to the southwest. “Whoa. I see bolt-fire. Fighting must have started.”

Julian switched the datapad back to the shared view from the binoculars. Through the maze of tree branch silhouettes, they could see the silent flash and streaks from energy weapons firing, not much more than distorted clumps of jagged pixels on the interface-laden screen. Lee swept the view slowly to the side, arcing around to scan the northern hills they had just traversed. He stopped on a pair of helmeted combat troops in the distance, bolt rifles held low at their sides.

“Republic. Light-infantry body armor. Probably recon rangers here to keep watch for escaped Republic hostages or fleeing Imperium loyalists. No way to be sure,” Lee whispered. He looked down to Julian. “Either way, I think rest time is over.”

Julian nodded and rose with effort. “Final acceleration is starting. If Republic gunners don’t—,”

Julian’s statement was cut short by a burst of light from the southwest, followed by the telltale pop of a distant explosion.

“Which was that? The guns get it, or the timer go off?” Lee whispered, focusing the binoculars back to the encampment.

Julian tilted his head. “Both, likely. Though, I have no experience with power cells overloading while also under fire from bolt cannons.”

“Well, now you do,” Lee said as he scanned. “It’s got the encampment’s attention. They’re scrambling toward the blast.” He turned his view back the way they’d come. “Shit. The rangers are moving this way. We need to get into the trees, their helmets have thermal and EM capability.”

Lee tucked the 5E binoculars into his jacket, then withdrew the bolt pistol from his shoulder holster. Julian did the same. He took a deep breath, letting his lungs fill and replenish his burning muscles. They were almost there. The Republic was focusing their attention on the flat, open terrain of the sprawling entrance plaza. All Julian and Lee had to do was make the short hike through the woodlands and into the guarded resort property before the rangers caught up to them.

Lee lowered his voice, bolt pistol in a double-handed grip. “Okay, getting you and those computers into that big shiny building is my mission now. Stay low. You stay no closer or further than three paces behind me. We keep moving until we signal our authorization to the Radiance, got it? ”

Julian nodded, willing his breath to steady.

Lee grinned, his voice low. “Okay, Jules. On me.”

The two crept forward to the thick treeline, the trunks a wall of vertical black bars cleaving through the moonlit horizon. One of Kestris’s small moons was making its thrice-weekly journey from the northern horizon across the sky, giving them just enough scattered light to maneuver the terrain. 

Julian could just make out the view of the Radiance’s eastern property a mile away. Samantha would be there. All Julian had to do was follow Lee.

Julian felt his confidence rise just as a pair of bolts zipped over his shoulder and slammed into the tree right in front of him.

Samantha stepped forward through the large, sliding, glass doors that opened to the Radiance’s eastern grounds. The outdoor amenities were all bathed in the soft glow of multicolored lights. Adoni led her, Decker and Eliza onto a paved patio surrounding an enormous pool, deck chairs and tables lining it in perfect rows. Past the pool were terraced lawns that stretched to the edge of the woodlands, the entire area ringed with towering palm trees—not native to Kestris—spaced evenly along each terrace. 

Winding, brick paths, lit by small globes of light set into the ground, cut through the property. Adoni stopped at the poolside area at the edge of one of these paths, gesturing across the property with their gold-plated bolt rifle. “Honored guests, your passes will allow you to pass through the poolside gates to the award-winning terraced lawns, beyond which you will find the border of our woodland preserve. However, in order to keep the landscape unmarred, the walls to our property are not walls at all, but an invisible, radiological array of sensors connected to carefully disguised sentry turrets. I have arranged for the turrets to be temporarily silenced, for the dreadful Republic interference in the air renders the their targeting systems unable to distinguish between friend or foe. Please, do not dawdle.”

Samantha nodded at Adoni. “Understood. And there are no Dai’Reen ‘guest staff’ patrolling the preserve?”

Adoni bowed their head. “Correct. You will have the entire majesty of nature to yourselves. Please, be… mindful of where you fire your weapons. Much of the foliage is old-growth, from before the planet’s colonization.”

Samantha raised an eyebrow at the bizarrely banal request. “Uh, yeah. Sure. We’ll try to keep muzzles down.”

“This is weird,” Decker muttered. “I feel like we’re assaulting someone’s vacation.”

Eliza turned, smirk on her lips, and was about to speak when a flash of light lit up the night from behind the Navy encampment. Samantha, Decker, and Eliza all raised their weapons in unison, Adoni joining them with his golden rifle. Seconds later, a powerful pop echoed against the walls of the Radiance.

“Watch it folks, we got a fire in the hole!” Eliza yelped. Samantha and Decker turned where she was looking, but no further explosion followed. Adoni lowered their rifle and hurried to a nearby guest-services pedestal. They picked up a corded handset and held it to their ear.

“Look at that. A wired comm system,” Eliza said, turning to Decker. “It’s sort of like the Matilda. The old stuff still works.”

Decker gave her a crooked grin. “Hey, can’t jam the transmission of wired communication. Sometimes simple is best.”

Samantha kept her eyes fixed on the darkened woodlands. She hurried across the patio next to Adoni as they replaced the handset in its cradle.

“It appears our staff has been engaged by Republic forces past the western perimeter,” Adoni said, smiling with an illustrious bow, expertly activating the energy pack on their golden weapon with a flick of a manicured thumb. “My guidance is required elsewhere. I look forward to hearing the tale of your successful reunion in one of our many lounges upon your return.”

Eliza returned Adoni’s bow with a grandly exaggerated one of her own. “You can count on it.”

Adoni let out a graceful sigh and glided their way back toward the main building. Samantha checked her bolt pistols—one under her arm, one on her hip—and gave the handle of her karambit a reassuring push into its sheath on her thigh.

“Republic is getting impatient with the standoff,” Decker said, eyes in the direction of the explosion. “That blast could have been them trying to blow a fortification or artillery battery. I think I’d prefer to find out how tough this place really is by seeing it on the news vids from the Matilda’s lounge.” 

“If we stay alert and stick together, we will,” Samantha said. She raised her head to see both Decker’s and Eliza’s skeptical glares. “This won’t be like Senali. We’re getting Julian and Clarke back here safe and up to the roof, no distractions.”

Decker shrugged, holding his bolt rifle in a ready position just below his chest. “Fine by me, I’ve been in enough pitched gun-battles over the last two weeks to last me a good long while.”

Samantha nodded. A strange, unsettled feeling fluttered in her gut. It wasn’t fear, it was something else… the apprehension of extending trust. She took a slow breath, letting the apprehension exist alongside the unfamiliar sensation of actually trusting someone other than Julian.

“Eliza, your eye can see better than any of us, so you take point and call out targets and zones. Decker, you cover our retreat and lay down suppressive fire if needed. I’ll watch the lateral approaches and stay mobile. Hopefully this is a silent extraction and we all just disappear into the night.”

Eliza lifted her short-barreled bolt rifle, cybernetic iris flashing a blip of green. “And if we’re not that lucky, we’ll make sure it’s a loud and chaotic.”

Decker snorted. “Yeah, well, quiet or loud, how are you planning on us finding Julian? Can’t just use the comms with the Republic jamming everything.”

Samantha exhaled, looking out to the darkened woodlands. “We do our best and hope we find him before the Republic swarms us. Eliza? Take us in.”

Eliza nodded and gave the hand signal to proceed. Samantha and Decker followed, crouching and rushing their way beneath the Radiance’s multi-colored lights, the hunt for Julian and Clarke underway.

Julian pressed his back against the next trunk as another bolt flew past his head, slamming into a tree just beyond. Lee peered from behind another trunk next to Julian’s, bolt pistol raised.

“Still just the two of them,” Lee hissed across the gap. “I’m guessing since we aren’t transmitting a Republic signal, they presume we’re resistance sympathizers looking to sneak away from the fight, probably ordered to make sure we’re captured or—”

Lee’s statement was cut off as another bolt struck the tree next to him, a flare of white-purple energy arcing across its trunk and brightening the Kestris night for a split-second.

“Scratch that, Jules. They’re not looking for prisoners,” Lee shouted. He leaned from behind his cover and fired his bolt pistol back up the hill.

Julian lifted his own bolt pistol, his other arm clutching the bag over his shoulder that held the Indigo, 5E, and Imperium data he hoped to smuggle off of Kestris. He leaned out to get a better look, another bolt screaming past and keeping him from seeing anything of value.

Lee fired another round of bolts and lunged out from behind his cover. He continued to fire back up the shallow hill as he sprinted the gap toward Julian before coming to a stop directly in front of him.

“You need to keep moving toward the Radiance. I’ll slow them down and catch up,” Lee said, placing a hand on Julian’s shoulder and pulling him away from the tree while his other hand raised his bolt pistol and fired back toward their pursuers.

“Agent Lee, your safe egress is a part of our objective, and I am unsure if I am any safer separated from you than if we stay together,” Julian whispered.

Lee scoffed, a smirk visible on his lips through the jagged shadows of moonlit branches. “I’m a fighter, Jules. Expendable. You’re the brain, and you’ve got the assets in that bag that have to make it off Kestris. I’ll be right behind you.”

Lee winked and shoved the 5E binoculars into Julian’s chest, then gave him a light shove toward the Radiance before sprinting back up the hill toward the rangers.

Julian clutched the binoculars, watching Lee work his way from cover to cover. With his only options being to stay or follow Lee’s request, Julian took a breath and crept toward a cluster of trees lined up like a natural wall of bark and branches. He stepped around the outermost tree and raised the binoculars to his eyes. Lee may have believed that Julian would abscond without him, but Julian was a 5E controller. Bossy field agents were his responsibility.

The binoculars were no 5E visor, but their light amplification allowed Julian to keep track of the engagement. Lee was sprinting with unnatural speed up the wooded slope, zig zagging from cover to cover directly toward the closest helmeted ranger as they fired bolts wildly between the maze of trunks. The other ranger broke away, moving in the opposite direction from Lee. Julian felt his stomach tighten. It was a flanking maneuver, meaning he was the likely target. 

He needed to help Lee engage his target if he hoped to have help with the second. Julian raised his bolt pistol; he had no clear shot. A diversion would have to suffice. He fired a volley of bolts high into the leafy canopy overhead, eyes still watching the scene through the binocular’s digital eyepiece. The flash of energy caught the attention of both rangers, their helmeted heads jerking upward. 

It was enough. Julian watched as Lee slammed into the first ranger, deflecting the bolt rifle’s muzzle away as it fired a string of energy wildly into the treetops. Lee fired his bolt pistol twice into the ranger’s energy-resistant chestplate and blue tendrils of static arced across his body. Lee had set his weapon to non-lethal. He was exercising restraint against their former-Imperium colleagues, and watching his agent exercise restraint was certainly a new experience for Julian.

The disabled ranger fell back. Lee yanked away his bolt rifle, wrestling the retention sling over the ranger’s arm and neck. He raised the weapon and fired a string of bolts toward the other ranger, pulling their attention back away from Julian. 

Julian watched as the two parties exchanged shots, each bolt fired toward Lee causing Julian to nearly flinch. Lee lacked the body armor of the rangers and the protective 5E tacsuit an active field agent would have been wearing. And, Julian presumed the Republic had not set their weapons to non-lethal. He needed to do something more.

Julian swept the binoculars to Lee’s opponent, the thickness of the wood blocking his view as both Lee and the ranger moved from cover to cover. Julian raised his bolt pistol, searching for a clear shot that could cause another diversion when he saw something else appear.

A black-clad figure leapt from the shadows, jerking the Republic ranger back by the shoulders. The figure fired a weapon directly into the unarmored space of neck below his helmet. A silent, flashless weapon.

The ranger fell dead in a heap. The black-clad figure turned and scanned their surroundings, a sliver of moonlight reflecting off the unmistakable 5E visor over their eyes. Was it Samantha, geared-up in a tacsuit and there to rescue them? Julian squinted through the binoculars. The shadowy figure turned, their silhouette visible against the darkness before disappearing back into the shadow toward Lee’s position. Their tall, broad-shouldered, male silhouette.

Julian froze.

Renic had found them.

He willed his panic aside. He couldn’t freeze, not now. Lee had nothing but a common bolt pistol and the rifle he’d taken from the ranger. Renic was in a tacsuit, its visor only impeded by the density of the forest. It would not be long before he found Lee, and then Julian.

Julian forced his panic aside. He was a controller, his job was to alert his agent to unseen danger. Even if it meant exposing his own position.

Regaining control of his voice, Julian did what a controller does: helped his agent.

“Lee! Renic found us! He is here!”

A helmeted Republic ranger fell dead at Renic’s feet, slug from the rail pistol rattling around inside his skull. Renic wasn’t there to aid the Republic. He was there for himself. Gallow’s Republic would play no part in Renic’s victory. This was his moment of personal retribution, the final righting of the wrongs done to him by Samantha, Julian, Clarke, all of 5E. Even Gallow had turned on Renic because of them

“Lee! Renic found us! He is here!” a voice cried out through the still of the woods. Renic smirked, looking in its direction through the 5E visor’s enhanced view. 

That’s right, Julian. He had.

Renic looked down at the 5E tacsuit comm around his left forearm, the presence of the polymer cast around its opposite not forgotten. He tapped the dim glass screen and sent his location to Kogan, the tacsuit comm array using the Republic codes to slice through the interference. A location readout from Kogan’s comm showed he was almost to Renic, though without a proper controller, the tacsuit could not show a map, only bearing and distance.

“I have visual confirmation on Siddig, moving to apprehend,” Renic murmured. “Unknown secondary target is armed. Eliminate them.” A visual confirmation from Kogan showed on Renic’s wrist. Good. He seemed to have remembered whose orders he followed.

Renic scanned the area, waiting for the telltale glimpses of movement from his quarry. Julian was his primary target; he needed the weaselly controller as a hostage to use against Samantha when he finally located her. The other individual, the one Julian had called ‘Lee’, was a concern, if secondary. He had the bolt rifle now, but no body armor or ability to transmit for help. Renic’s visor alone would allow him to navigate the landscape with ease and evade any secondary annoyances.

Renic slunk back behind the tree cover and pressed a command on his tacsuit comm, jamming the rangers’ Republic tracking beacons to prevent backup from intervening. Using his skills against the Republic gave Renic a particular flutter of satisfaction; if only they’d shown him the proper appreciation. 

Renic began to lower his arm when another readout caught his attention. It was a different bearing and distance, not Kogan’s. The tiny values fluctuated, sometimes disappearing entirely. He tapped a gloved finger against it, more information filling the curved screen. Even with the flood of Republic interference, the tacsuit’s embedded comm array was picking up a weak, peer-to-peer mesh connection with something else, and it was in the direction of the Radiance.

A surge of bloodlust and euphoria overwhelmed Renic’s senses. The signal was from another 5E tacsuit in the vicinity trying to automatically establish a field connection.

She had arrived.

“We’ve got action,” Eliza shouted back over her shoulder as she raised her short-barreled bolt rifle.

Samantha rushed forward, looking over Eliza’s shoulder. “What do you see? Is it them?” 

Flashes from energy weapons flickered through the trees in the distance. Eliza kept her weapon raised, her cybernetic eye looking through its holographic sight. “I got… yep, I think that’s your Julian and… someone else past him. Another male, big. Looks like he’s rushing up the hill toward whoever was firing at them. I see helmets. Body armor.” Eliza glanced over at Samantha. “It’s a pair of Republic. Can’t see more.”

Urgency mixed with elation at the thought of Julian and Clarke being just beyond their reach, already under fire from Republic forces. Decker arrived next to her, his bolt rifle raised and aimed toward the strobing flashes through the dense tree cover.

“Hostage negotiations must be over,” Decker growled, sweeping his weapon back and forth across the darkened woods.

“They’ll be driving Julian and Clarke toward us. Let’s get there and give them cover,” Samantha said. She pat Eliza’s back and the three rushed forward, moving as quickly as their crouched positions would allow.

Eliza, weapon still raised and both eyes fixed on the source of the commotion, whispered as she continued forward, “Hard to walk with one eye zoomed and overloaded with brightening artifacts, but the one I think was Julian seems to have disappeared, and the other guy is engaging with their pursuers. It’s a fire-fight.” Two bright flashes of energy lit up the canopy. Eliza whooped. “Oh, Republic goon is down. Other guy is taking his weapon.”

Samantha huffed, hurrying her crouched run. Julian was taking cover, and someone else was engaging the Republic? Was it Clarke, playing the soldier to give Julian a chance to escape?

A new strobe of bolts flashed through the woodlands from two different sources. “Hey-hey, they’re exchanging fire,” Eliza said, sweeping her gaze and aim to the right. “I’ve got a visual on the second ranger and—” Eliza came to an abrupt stop, both Samantha and Decker stumbling into her. “Ohhhh no. I thought I got you!” Eliza hissed at something through her sights.

“What?” Samantha accidentally shouted. She grabbed Eliza’s arm, lowering her voice. “Who can you see?”

Eliza grimaced, lower teeth bared. “Our little stunt with the Hornet travelled fast, and so did Renic, because he’s here and I swear he has on the same suit and headgear as you did. He just took out the other goon for us.”

“Aw shit,” Decker muttered, sweeping the muzzle of his bolt rifle across the trees surrounding them. “This changes things. What’s the plan?”

A surge of anger and defeat churned in Samantha’s chest. Renic and his relentless pursuit was inevitable, but how? All the possible ways Renic could have traced them flooded her mind; unanticipated tracking of the Nighthawk, intercepted transmissions, unknown detection methods they hadn’t been prepared to evade. Maybe the Radiance had sold them out.

Samantha clenched her jaw, forcing herself to ignore the speculation and focus only on the situation in front of her. Renic was one of the best clandestine operators she knew. How he tracked them down didn’t matter, getting Julian and Clarke out of there was the only objective. Renic was an obstacle to be mitigated.

Samantha scanned the darkness ahead, the moonlit forest a mess of trunks and branches over uneven terrain. “Julian!” Samantha called out. “I’m here. Move to the Radiance. We’ll cover you.” She turned to Eliza and Decker. “You two get Julian and Clarke. If Renic is here, it means he’s here for me.”

“Samantha. We already did this on Senali,” Decker growled. “We can’t split up again, especially with Renic out there like some phantom.”

Samantha exhaled sharply. Renic could have shot at them from a distance, but he hadn’t. He wanted to make it personal. Close. Intimate. He was somewhere in the dense forest, stalking them like prey. Stalking Samantha like prey. If she had her visor, she could track him down.

A bitter curse escaped her lips. She raised her comm to search for any other advantages the tacsuit could offer without the visor. Before her finger reached the screen, she noticed a message: ‘establishing field connection’.

Samantha tapped the message and more information filled the screen. The tacsuit’s comm array had cut through the Republic interference with its localized mesh network to Renic’s tacsuit. The two field agents, once partners, lovers, and friends were still connected through 5E’s technology.

Renic could track her.

Samantha took a quick breath, letting the surge of fear and anger exist alongside her years of experience and training. Julian was just ahead. She imagined what he would have said in her ear were this any other mission. He would tell her to exploit her adversary’s unique weakness, to use a perceived disadvantage as leverage. So what was Renic’s weakness?

He was obsessed with Samantha, never letting go of his fantasy that they would be reunited as some sort of twisted power-couple, carrying out sabotage and assassinations together in the name of the Republic. He believed her to be the singular person who understood, respected, and admired everything he believed gave him value. She could envision him now, using the tacsuit bearing and distance readout to slowly creep toward her, savoring the hunt. Fixated on her.

That was his weakness. 

Samantha holstered her bolt pistol, then quickly unzipped her tacsuit jacket and wriggled out of it, her torso covered only in the tight-fitting protective undershirt, arms bare.

She balled up the jacket—and the embedded computer and comm array it housed—and shoved it into Decker’s arms, followed by both of her bolt pistols.

“Decker. Take this. Eliza, lead him toward where you think you saw Julian hiding. Stay low and slow. If Renic thinks he has both me and Julian, he’ll go straight for it,” Samantha said.

Decker glanced down at the tacsuit hanging awkwardly from his arm. “Wait, what? What is… am I bait? Samantha, no. No, no, no.”

“Decker. Trust me. This will work,” Samantha said, her voice steady and calm.

Decker grunted in exasperation. “What about your guns?”

“I don’t need them.” Samantha pulled the karambit from its sheath, curved blade jutting from the bottom of her fist. “If we do this, he’ll never see me coming.”

Decker’s brow furrowed. He glanced down at the tacsuit jacket, then grimaced and tucked it under his arm. Samantha smiled, then turned to the darkness.

Time to disappear.

Renic crept forward on the underbrush, keeping his footsteps soft. Kogan’s location readout showed the commando had arrived, veering off to flank this ‘Lee’ who had downed the first ranger. 

Renic kept his path steady. The tree cover was thick, and the tacsuit visor amplified the scattered beams of moonlight until they were bright as rays of sunshine. Every angle was broken up by the density of tree cover and the thin columns of light. But, he didn’t need to see them; he only had to follow the bearing his comm sent to his visor, its readout betraying Samantha’s every move.

Renic crept from tree to tree, keeping his body low, rail pistol held loosely in his hand. He could hear voices now. They were conspiring. Plotting against him. Renic grinned. Let them. He remembered the cyborg and the Navy deserter from their surprise intrusion during the moment he’d won Samantha over on Senali. They would not surprise him this time. He’d kill them both and then deal with Samantha and her pesky controller. He’d already captured Clarke. Soon, he would have all three of the 5E conspirators who had betrayed him, who had turned Gallow against him.

Renic increased his pace, feet crunching against the underbrush. Maybe he’d kill Samantha this time. Or, maybe just Julian, and then he’d lock Samantha up for eternity in the white room. Maybe he’d see her publicly tried, found guilty, and executed live on the news vids, a gift to the New Kestris Republic from rising-star Commander Tau.

Glimmers of movement showed between the trees. He was almost upon them. He could hear the voice of the red-haired cyborg, his arm aching in time to her grating Fringe accent. Another glimmer of movement showed the broad shoulders of the deserter, the same one he’d seen on Senali. A third, slighter figure was with them.

It had to be Samantha. 

Renic’s heart quickened. She was just ahead, obscured by the maze of trees. He had her. He tensed his muscles, envisioning how he’d place a slug from the rail pistol in each of Samantha’s friends’ foreheads before finally grabbing her. He gripped the rail pistol in his right hand, weakened from his injury, but still his most accurate. He would not miss.

A loud pop sounded in the canopy overhead, with a brilliant flash of light that caused his visor to immediately dim as its blindness safeguards activated. Excess light from the flash spilled around the visor’s edges. Renic ripped the visor from his head, its readouts and displays a distraction he no longer needed. The agency’s intrusive technology would not tarnish this moment.

The glow of orange flame lighting up the forest gave him a clear view of his prey. In a clearing just ahead, he saw the cyborg who had crushed his arm, Samantha’s male deserter friend, and the lanky figure of.. Julian?

It wasn’t Samantha. Renic abruptly stopped, turning to survey the scene as his fury—and confusion—reached a peak. If that isn’t her, then where…

Renic’s instincts took over, his arm rising reflexively in a defensive posture. On the edge of his peripheral vision, the blur of a curved blade shot forward from the shadows.

Decker kept his bolt rifle raised as best he could, clutching the tacsuit jacket awkwardly under his elbow. He squinted through the darkness, moving quickly as Eliza led them forward. 

“I can’t see shit,” he said. “Are you sure this is where we saw him?”

Eliza snorted. “No, but we’ve got to move somewhere.”

The two kept moving, the curve of the hill getting steeper the further from the Radiance they went. The distant sounds of sporadic bolt fire echoed through the trees. The Republic was making their presence known. Decker hoped they’d keep their focus on the Radiance and that those rangers hadn’t sent reports of conflict back to the Navy encampment. A squad of Republic drop-troops would make short work of the Matilda strike team. They already had Renic to deal with. Wasn’t that enough?

Decker growled. This was all taking too long. He hissed into the darkness. “Psst. Hey. Julian. It’s Samantha’s friend, Decker. You know me. Where you at?”

Eliza snorted, adding her hissed whisper. “We’re here to get you out of here. Move toward our voices!”

They both stopped and listened. The sound of crunching underbrush sounded from an indeterminate direction. Decker and Eliza met eyes.

“Decker, it is me, Julian Siddig. Samantha’s friend,” a demure and anxious voice called softly from somewhere nearby.

“That ain’t Renic,” Eliza muttered.

“No, it’s not,” Decker said, agonizingly aware of what the tacsuit jacket under his arm meant. “Eliza, I know we’re supposed to stay quiet, but that was before we had the murderous super-spy hunting us. Any ideas on how we can, I dunno, help even up the odds and get us all out of here?”

Eliza rummaged through the many pockets of her tactical outfit. “Well, this might do it.”

Decker leaned close, squinting at the object in her hand. “What is it, a flare or something?”

Eliza shrugged. “I mean, it’s flare-like. Adoni… well they’re not going to be too happy about this. If they ask, say it was the Republic’s fault.” 

She drew her cybernetic arm back, the impossibly powerful limb hurling an object into the air above them. As it left her hand, Decker grimaced as he recognized the incendiary charge. Eliza’s tongue poked out the side of her mouth as her rifle’s muzzle followed the charge’s arc through the air. Then, she fired one perfectly placed bolt.

The forest exploded with the glow from the incendiary charge bursting above their heads. Decker whipped his gaze around them. Julian sprinted toward them from between the trees, bolt pistol in-hand clutching a bag next to his body.

Decker rushed forward, grabbing Julian’s arm and yanking him behind himself and Eliza. “Got ya!” He turned to where he hoped Samantha was and shouted, “Samantha! We got him. Let’s get out of here!” He turned back to Julian. “The other person with you, that’s Clarke? Where is he?”

Julian’s expression fell. Breathing heavily, he looked back the way he’d come. “I am afraid Director Clarke chose to remain in Kestris City. Who you refer to is Agent Lee, another defector of the Republic. I do not know where he is.”

Eliza walked backward, sweeping her rifle back and forth before locking it in a direction, the shimmering orange of the growing flames shining off her white-polymer fingers. “I’ve got half an answer for you. I don’t see this Agent Lee fellow, but Samantha and Renic are right there.”

Decker and Julian both turned to look just a flash of bolts from deep within the trees screaming past their faces. Eliza turned away from Samantha and fired her own weapon back toward the source of the new bolts.

“It’s another one! It’s…” Eliza jutted her head forward. “Oh, we already fought this guy too.” She groaned in disappointment. “It’s the Kogan guy who carried Renic away after I pulped his arm on Senali. These goons don’t know when to quit!”

Decker shoved the tacsuit jacket into Julian’s arms. “Put this on. It’s the best protection you’ve got.” Then he fired back where the bolts had come from, the orange glow of fire from the burning canopy lighting up the forest. “Let’s use this light to circle around, the time for hiding is over.”

Eliza kept walking backward and firing. Julian slid his arms into the tacsuit jacket, his eyes lingering on where they’d glimpsed Samantha. Decker grabbed his sleeve. “Hey, she wanted us to get you out of here.”

Julian hesitated. “But, Samantha—” he started. Decker cut him off.

“If I let anything happen to you, she’ll kill me. Eliza, keep up that suppressive fire. First, we create some space and get out of bolt-range, then I’ll go back and get her.” Decker growled. “Again.”

Samantha slammed into Renic, the karambit’s tip embedding in the curved screen of his comm as he lifted his arm in defense. They crashed to the forest floor. Renic screamed and struggled to bring his hand holding the rail pistol into firing position, the orange glow of flames reflecting off its silver surface.

Samantha smirked at the sight of the familiar weapon; not this time, Renic. She yanked the karambit free from the cracked comm screen and slid its curved blade up along Renic’s tacsuit-covered forearm. The blade glided across the impenetrable tacsuit up to his hand. Samantha expertly slipped the blade’s tip into the rail pistol’s trigger-guard, hooking it and ripping the weapon roughly away. Renic shouted as the pistol flew from his hand, arcing through the air before falling silently to the dense underbrush well out of reach.

Samantha shifted her position, her bare arms moving freely as she drew the karambit back for another strike. Renic swung a wild backhand blow at her face. Samantha felt a rush of wind as it whistled past, dodging the imprecise flail of a blow.

She kept the karambit out of Renic’s reach while she maneuvered into a dominant position. Something was different with Renic. His movements were wild and imprecise, expending energy at an unsustainable rate, ineffectually attempting to shove Samantha from him. The methodical combat expert was gone.

The glow of flames overhead lit up his expression as he shouted and grunted. His face was twisted with rage, teeth bared as he struggled. Gone was the smugness, the poetic words, the taunts, and feints. Renic was changed. He was fighting on pure emotion.

Samantha felt a change in her methods as well. The hyperactive aggression she usually felt from the taze was gone. She felt slower, but more precise. Renic’s attacks were predictable and easily avoided. 

Renic threw a wild punch; Samantha dodged. Renic attempted to throw her off balance; Samantha used his momentum, conserving her own energy, and shoved him back to the ground. He raged; she responded. The need to punish Renic was gone. He was an obstacle to be dealt with.

Renic turned over, maneuvering to his hands and knees. Had this been a training exercise, Samantha would have ordered a restart, explained the tactical error, and forced her opponent to go again. But this wasn’t training, and Renic would never have a chance to benefit from any lesson. Samantha moved to his back, one arm around his neck, the other with the karambit at her side. 

Renic attempted to stand. Samantha found her footing and dragged him backward onto his knees, standing behind him with one arm under his chin. She brought the karambit up, moving it into position to slice across his exposed neck, the one place the tacsuit didn’t cover.

Renic was an obsessed madman. All he had had to do was stay in Kestris, live his life in the Republic, and let Samantha go. But now he would die.

Renic twisted his head to look up at her. Words gurgled forth.

“I… I have Clarke. He’ll die if you kill me.”

The karambit froze inches from Renic’s neck. “What?” Samantha hissed, glaring down at Renic’s reddening face. She’d been wrong about the smugness; even now, he smirked.

“Drop the commander!” a rough male voice barked out. Samantha looked up, the disabled Renic still wheezing in her clutches.

Across from her, someone was being led forward as a human shield. Flames still burned overhead, making visible the single hand of the black-suited commando on the hostage’s shoulder. Samantha didn’t recognize the hostage. He was tall, well-built with a determined expression on his face, almost grinning. Samantha recalled the thick goatee of his captor from Senali. It was Renic’s muscle, the one he’d called Kogan.

The hostage locked eyes with Samantha. “Don’t listen to him, Agent Mori. Use Renic as a shield and then kill him. Don’t worry about me,” the hostage said, not a trace of fear in his voice.

Samantha’s eyes narrowed at her name. She couldn’t argue with the hostage’s logic; was it a trick? Where was Clarke?

“Who are you? Does he really have Clarke?” Samantha called back, her grip tightening around Renic’s neck. His shoulders bounced as if he were laughing. There was no time to negotiate. She tensed the muscles in her arm, pressing the karambit into Renic’s skin, choosing to draw the blade across flesh as she had so many times before.

Then, a familiar voice arose from the darkness behind her. “His name is Agent Bennet Lee, Samantha. And yes, I am afraid the director wished to sacrifice his freedom so that I, yourself, and Agent Lee could ‘live to fight another day’, as one might say.”

The sound of Julian’s voice brought a swell of tears to Samantha’s eyes, while the news of Clarke caused her grip around Renic’s neck to tighten. She stole a quick glance over her shoulder. Julian stood a few paces behind her, Decker and Eliza rushing behind him with their weapons raised across the clearing at Kogan and Lee.

“I told him to stay back, Samantha. He wouldn’t listen,” Decker muttered, stock of the bolt rifle pressed against his shoulder.

“Release Commander Tau, Agent Mori. Him for Agent Lee,” Kogan shouted.

“Do not free him, Operative,” Renic commanded. “You do not have the authority to make that call.”

Lee shrugged back against Kogan’s grip in defiance. “I’m on-mission, Agent Mori. My objective was to deliver Agent Siddig to you. I’ve done that.” He grinned. “Give me the word.”

“Kogan, engage the enemy. You are not authorized to negotiate,” Renic growled.

“Negative. I can’t trade a Navy commander for a 5E fugitive. Bad trade and bad strategy,” Kogan said. He peeked out from behind Agent Lee. “Mission is blown. I advise we retreat and cut our losses.”

“Cut our… cut our losses?” Renic practically shrieked. He craned his head back up to Samantha, manic edge to his voice. “You’ll have to kill me then, Samantha. There’s no other way out of this for any of us. We’ve always been destined to either live a life together, or die together.”

Samantha shook her head, not recognizing the mentor she’d once admired. “Your obsession is toxic, Renic.”

“And yours isn’t? You hunted the Kestrels, and for what? For your father?” Renic scoffed. “And when you could have unraveled it all and stopped this coup, your obsession with the Kestrels made you hide the Dauntless intel, the Terminus key, all of it from your own people. Had you only done what was right for an agent to do, Gallow would have been revealed. But no, you didn’t because you wanted the Kestrels for yourself. You even let Eddie Renner go, hoping he’d spread the fear of the great Kestrel hunter.” Renic laughed again, pulling against Samantha’s grip. “That’s what caused all of this. I captured Renner, flipped him. He’s the one who told me about your raid. It was Renner who allowed me to ambush you on Senali. Your weakness led to all this. I would have made you strong.”

Samantha winced at the memory. Eddie Renner, the meaningless Kestrel computer tech who she’d left behind with a karambit shoulder wound. Of course. Renic was right. Had she eliminated Eddie Renner, Renic never would have known about her mission. She’d have Kat Basara. Maybe she’d have discovered that the Imperium insider was Gallow himself, working through Reed Casto. She could have alerted 5E, other Navy commanders, even the High Imperius. Even if to only give them an extra day of warning. 

And maybe Clarke wouldn’t be in Renic’s captivity right now. Renic was right. She’d made a mistake with Eddie Renner. Was she doing that again with Renic?

“Samantha.” Julian’s voice in her ear interrupted her thoughts. Not through an earpiece—his real voice. “Gallow could not be stopped. We made the best decision we could at the time. Director Clarke would not want you to murder a prisoner in cold blood, even Renic. And especially not at the expense of Agent Lee. Without him, I would not have made it to you.”

Renic spat a mouthful of blood on the ground at his knees. “You have no choice, Samantha. I have Clarke. Your only option is to kill me or take me prisoner. If you don’t, I will kill Clarke and it will be your fault.”

“Samantha.” Julian’s voice again sounded over her shoulder. “Director Clarke wanted to protect you. He said you’d done a good job, and there was still more to do. Do not let revenge make his sacrifice be in vain. Let him have the honor of fighting this last fight for us in his own way.”

“I’ll kill him, Samantha,” Renic hissed, saliva like venom spitting from his mouth. “I’ll murder the old man with my own hands, slow and painful, and no one will ever know. Not even a footnote in the Republic’s history. He’ll just vanish. There’s no honor in that. You’re dooming him. Kill me or take me prisoner, there are no other options.”

A surge of anger flowed from Samantha’s gut into her karambit-wielding hand. What was Renic’s game? First he demanded that his operative fight, then demanded to be killed, then he demanded to be taken prisoner. Did he even really have Clarke? It made no sense. He seemed only to want to control her at any cost, even if that cost was his own life. He was beyond logic, only looking to inflict pain, and to control her.

Samantha raised her gaze and met eyes with Lee. He shook his head in defiance. “Don’t let him manipulate you, Agent Mori. I signed up for this, and I am pretty sure I can still disarm this guy. Just give me the word,” Lee said, rocking his head back at Kogan. Kogan grunted but remained impassive.

A breathy chuckle escaped Eliza’s lips. “Ohh I like him. Can we keep him?”

Renic laughed, a madman’s laugh combined with a shriek. “You can’t win, Samantha! Gallow has already beaten us all. Nothing you do will matter!”

“Hey, Samantha,” Decker said, stepping forward and gesturing to Lee with his bolt rifle. “If that were one of my crew over there, there’s no enemy I’d choose to punish if it meant having to sacrifice one of mine. Clarke already made his choice, you can’t undo that. But if this Lee fellow helped Julian, he sounds like a good guy to have around. The sector is full of thugs no different from Renic, and he’s right about one thing: killing him won’t matter. Let’s get back to the crew, eh?”

Samantha stared across at the captive Lee, Kogan still out of view behind him. She took a slow breath, bringing the curved edge of the karambit to Renic’s neck. She’d been a blade in the hand of the Imperium for so long, she’d forgotten what it was like to take her own orders. So had Renic. He’d let Gallow control him and this was where it had gotten him.

Samantha pulled the karambit away. “Eliza, restrain him.”

Renic cursed Samantha, struggling against her grasp. Eliza rushed forward, producing a pair of plastic restraints from one of her many pockets. She grabbed Renic’s right arm—the one she’d already broken once—and wrenched it behind his back. Renic screamed as Eliza’s cybernetic arm fished both his wrists through the cuffs, zipping them tight.

“Kogan, kill them! Do not let them do this!” Renic commanded. Kogan remained silent, rifle still pressed against Agent Lee’s back.

Eliza glanced up at Samantha. “You know, I’ve got the bag and gag, if you want.”

Samantha nodded. Eliza cackled and forced Renic’s mouth open with mechanical fingers, jamming the gag inside before tying it roughly behind his head and then slamming the black bag over his head, pulling its drawstring tight.

Renic struggled and screamed, his words unintelligible through the layers of fabric. Eliza raised her weapon at Kogan, muttering to Decker, “I was wrong about gags. He’s definitely not pleading with us.”

Samantha kicked the struggling Renic forward. He fell onto his chest, his feet fighting to gain purchase in the brush. Samantha stepped over him and approached Agent Lee. Kogan lowered his rifle, removing his hand from Lee’s shoulder. Lee gave Samantha a gracious nod and crossed the clearing to join the others. Samantha stared at Kogan, karambit still in her hand.

“Are you a zealot, willing to sacrifice yourself for your boss’s cause?” Samantha asked.

Kogan stared, saying nothing, his expression firm and fearless. He glanced down at Renic and took a half step backward, shoulder shrugging slightly. Samantha nodded at the momentary truce, walking backward to rejoin her friends, Renic still kicking and screaming through the bag.

“Psst. Hey, uh, Samantha. I can take them both out right here, no witnesses,” Eliza muttered. She glanced back at the gathered audience. “I mean, other than all of you.”

Samantha took a deep breath. She looked over her shoulder at Julian, alive and well, if covered in sweat and dirt. “No. I think Selli would counsel that that’s not the Creator’s will. Renic’s fate isn’t up to me.”

Eliza shrugged. “You heard her, Renic. Have fun dealing with an all-powerful Creator.”

Kogan approached Renic and lifted him to his feet, though Samantha noticed he did not make an effort to remove the restraints, bag, or gag. 

Samantha, Decker, Eliza, Julian, and Lee each backed their way into the woods, canopy slowly burning out overhead. They exited into the clearing and crossed back onto the terraced lawns.

Samantha stopped, the rest of the group giving her and Julian a few paces of space. She turned to Julian and placed a hand on his arm. “I said I’d see you around.”

Julian placed his hand on top of Samantha’s and bowed. “I never doubted you for a moment.”

Samantha nodded, a sad smile on her lips. “Clarke… he really wanted to stay with 5E?”

Julian nodded. “He wished to hold the line as a soldier, not a spy.”

Samantha exhaled, staring back at the growing flames of the nature preserve. “Renic is going to kill him.”

Julian shook his head in quiet acceptance. “Yes. He will.” He glanced pointedly down at the bag hanging off his shoulder. “But the director’s sacrifice is not without meaning. We have much to catch up on.”

Samantha gave Julian one more pat on the arm. “Right. Let’s get out of here.” She turned and walked back toward their waiting companions—Decker, Eliza, and the person taking Clarke’s place in the Nighthawk, Agent Lee. “I think we’re done with Kestris.”

As she walked, Samantha heard Eliza’s voice under the distant sound of battle and crackling flame.

“Hey Deck,” Eliza murmured.

“Yeah?” Decker grunted back.

Eliza sighed, gazing at the burning treetops. “I don’t think we’re going to be getting those umbrella drinks.”