Episode 55: A regrettable means to an unavoidable end

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Aboard the Terminus, Qin adapts to a new life in the Republic.

Qin walked briskly down the bright corridors of the  Terminus toward her quarters, her third shift of the day finally concluded. Crew members passed coming the other direction, most maintaining neutral expressions and making no eye contact. A few still attempted a polite nod of recognition, only to quickly find some place else to look when Qin’s new persona infected their subconscious; the persona modeled after Lord Ascendent Gallow.

A crew member approached from the opposite direction. A major, male, late-forties, flight squadron emblem on his shoulder. He met eyes with Qin, the barely perceptible twitches in his expression cycling through a sequence now common from those who outranked her—dismissiveness, hesitancy, uncertainty, and finally, self-doubt. The major passed without offering Qin any acknowledgment, likely wondering why he suddenly felt as if he’d done something wrong but did not remember what.

Qin continued her near-march pace. Before adopting this manufactured aura of intimidation, she had observed in others the subtle, subconscious cues that revealed a breadth of human sentiment. The crucial hints of motivations behind behaviors which allowed Qin to make sense of human interaction, and the world around her, and to maintain her cover. Yet, in the short time since adopting this new cover personality, Qin had begun to feel an unexpected increase in her own paranoia. She was succeeding in projecting the aura of intimidation, but the aura came at the expense of never knowing more than that people were merely afraid.

Another crew member passed, someone Qin did not recognize. A sergeant, female, no older than Qin. Specialist first-class rank on her gray Republic uniform. The sergeant’s gaze shifted to Qin, making eye contact for just a moment as they approached each other. Qin projected the subtle cues with each new encounter, refining and adjusting based on how she was perceived. She drowned the sergeant in nonverbal signals: suspicion, derision, the confidence of knowing the sergeant had done something wrong and it was only a matter of time before Qin exposed her. The sergeant’s throat bobbed, muscles in her jaw twitching as she fought and failed to maintain a neutral expression—doubt, timidity, guilt. 

Qin narrowed her eyes slightly as the sergeant passed, their shoulder’s nearly brushing. The sergeant would remember Qin, the OS-9 officer who had given her a chill. Maybe later the sergeant would talk about Qin with some of her trusted friends—if she still had any left under Gallow’s culture of fear and distrust—and help secure Qin’s reputation as one not to be crossed.

Each crew member Qin passed was more of the same. The breadth of unspoken human sentiment was gone. Now, all Qin saw were indications of fear, hesitance, suspicion, anxiety, and in some cases, dread. Her fellow crew members on the Terminus reacted fearfully to Qin, but was it because they had ill-intent, or was it because they feared being mistakenly accused? Perhaps it was just a raw expression of the anxiety and mistrust within Gallow’s new environment.

Qin reached the door to her quarters, maintaining the aura even as she faced the door and tapped the newly mandated proximity unlock sequence into her comm. The door slid aside, and she stepped through, both her expression and shoulders falling only after she heard the door close behind her. 

Was this how Gallow experienced the world? Human interactions, nothing but a string of suspicions with no way of discerning between truth and false-positives? It had been only a day, and already the imposed isolation was suffocating her spirit. But even beyond that, Qin was starting to feel something else. On two separate instances, she really had believed her Terminus crew mates had been hiding something nefarious. What bothered Qin, was that aboard the Lord Ascendent’s flagship, the only safe assumption was that they were.

Qin let out a deep breath, feeling the muscles in her face relax as she did. Each morning, she practiced the expressions in her mirror, making adjustments as needed based on the reactions she experienced. It was not something she could simply ask Yadav about, as it would raise the larger question of Qin’s motivation in the first place. In fact, Qin had yet to emit the aura while Yadav was present. How would she explain it? Would Yadav assume Qin was genuinely embracing the Lord Ascendant’s culture of fear?

She crossed her quarters to her desk, pulling out the chair and collapsing into it. There had been little opportunity for her and Yadav to meet and speak in-depth, outside of routine team-member interactions. Each brief chance they had was interrupted, either by an urgent work matter or by the presence of others. Lieutenant Meredessi and Lieutenant Yadav maintained their professionalism. Even quick stolen glances were too great of a risk. Someone might see, and wonder if the glance meant they were secret lovers, secret Imperium defectors, or both. It was a wonder they could not afford.

The Imperium defectors Qin did know of—Lee, Julian, Agent Mori—had not appeared in the reports so far. All Qin could do was wait for either Lee and Julian to re-establish contact or wait for their names to appear in an official report. OS-9 had no information, but they were not the only source she had access to.

Qin activated her computer, reading the classified intelligence briefing now produced daily by the Naval Special Investigation Division for OS-9 and other high-ranking navy leaders. Since the fall of 5E and the Imperium, Commander Tau’s organization had acquired quite a roster of agency veterans. His division now sent well-written and expansive briefs each morning, clearly not the output of the commander himself. Today’s briefing told of several incidents throughout the eleven planets of the former Imperium, the conflict between the Republic and the resistance growing each hour. Qin scanned the summaries of each, looking for anything that might give her answers. One summary stood out. 

She opened the detailed report. The system required a confirmation of security clearance. Qin sighed at the data trail she was obligated to leave behind and entered her reason: close contact with a suspected defector who had served aboard the Terminus. The system confirmed that her request had been logged, then revealed the report. 

A scenario formed in her mind. During open conflict with the Dai’Reen of the well-defended Radiance resort, a camera in a Republic ranger’s helmet triggered a facial-recognition hit: wanted fugitive of the Republic, Bennett Lee. The report detailed the recovery of two dead Republic Navy rangers, bodies recovered from a forest fire resulting from the fight. The report said one had been rendered unconscious from energy bursts and then died from smoke inhalation, while the other died from a rail slug to the base of the neck. Both were being attributed to Lee as the perpetrator.

Qin lowered her eyes. There was no way to know how much of this report was accurate, presumed, or manufactured to mislead. Renic’s division was compromised by virtue of it being his division. Had Lee really committed these acts? Or Was he just doing what was necessary to escape? If the reports were true, Qin chose to believe that Lee had been forced to fight for his own survival, but envisioning the smiling sergeant committing these acts was still an uncomfortable reflection of the reality ahead—regrettable acts enacted through necessity.

Qin scanned the rest of the report, looking for any other names. None appeared. Lee had not been captured, and neither had Julian. Whatever transpired at the Radiance with Lee—and Julian—seemed to end with this report. She memorized the report number for later retrieval and kept looking. 

Another entry caught her attention, this one more expected, though far more dire. Director Clarke had been processed by the Naval Special Investigation Division and was currently a classified detainee being held for further questioning. The prisoner location status showed he was in the same underground detention facility where Qin and Yadav had found Julian.

Qin’s heart sank, a cold dread filling her at Clarke’s fate, the one he had chosen for himself. She remembered how she and Yadav had found Julian in the white-torture room. Renic had Clarke, and this time Clarke was no longer a director of the 5E intelligence agency. Now, he was a prisoner, branded as a traitor to the Republic with accusations of Clarke colluding with both the High Imperius and the Red Kestrels, awaiting whatever cruel revenge Renic had planned. Clarke’s actions in sending Samantha away and conspiring with Julian—and Qin—against Gallow were more than enough to keep him locked away forever, condemning him the moment the Republic succeeded.

The warning Julian had given Qin and Yadav about Renic’s ruthlessness played in her mind. Clarke had submitted himself publicly for surrender, forcing Renic to take him in and process him by the book. Now that Renic had him detained and out of public view, Clarke’s fate was unknown. He was an enemy combatant under the full jurisdiction of Renic’s division and not subject to civilian law. There would be no due process, no trial, no mercy. Where her Indigo privileges might have allowed Qin to exert some influence on Clarke’s behalf, those privileges were gone. The only person who could intervene on Clarke’s behalf and override Renic now was Gallow himself, and Gallow did not give stays of execution.

Qin flinched as her quarter’s visitor chime sounded. She rose instinctively, quickly accessing the door controls from her computer. It was Yadav… but Yadav should have reported for her first shift by now. Qin raced to the door, stopping just before it and composing her expression as she pressed the access panel. Yadav stood in the corridor, hands clasped behind her back, familiar stern-but-fair expression on her face.

“Lieutenant Meredessi, a word?” she said, a thread of a waver in her voice. 

Qin scanned the corridor behind Yadav. Seeing no one, she stepped back and gestured for Yadav to enter. “Of course. Please, come in.”

Yadav strode forward, proceeding into the room several paces as the door slid shut behind her. Qin turned and saw her face; Yadav was visibly shaken.

Qin rushed forward, feeling her own fears surge. “Esme, what is it?”

Yadav swallowed. “Someone is looking into me. I think it has something to do with Sergeant Lee, or maybe our talk with Agent Siddig. I don’t know. You saw the report about Lee being a defector?” Yadav took a quick, loud breath. “He was on my team, and now he’s defected to… to what? Some anti-Republic resistance movement? That doesn’t just happen, there was something there all along and I missed it.”

Qin lowered her eyes. She envisioned the Sergeant Lee that Yadav would remember, the jocular and frivolous data analyst. She deliberately did not address Yadav’s questions, questions that might turn to Qin. “What are they saying? Who is saying this?”

Yadav folded her arms tight across her chest and paced across the quarters. “Lieutenant Tarren. I overheard him muttering to his team about Lee. He must have just seen the division briefing that was posted. He was confident that Lee had been a dissident all along, maybe working with the Red Kestrels. He’s not supposed to be talking aloud like this, even behind OS-9 checkpoints.”

Qin shook her head and stepped closer, placing a hand on Yadav’s arm. “Lieutenant Tarren is an outspoken individual. I have witnessed him break protocol in this nature several times in the past. Are you certain he has connected Sergeant Lee’s unfortunate betrayal to you somehow?”

Yadav met Qin’s gaze, chin quivering. “Qin, he looked right at me. I pretended not to notice, but by the time I’d returned to my desk, I’d been summoned by the Honor Guard to report for an interview after my shift.” Yadav turned away, squeezing hands into fists and her eyes shut. “The Honor Guard interrogators don’t care about truth. If they see anything, I’ll be taken like you saw Poole be taken. No one has seen him since.

Qin shook her head rapidly. “No. They can’t. They…”

Yadav scoffed. “Qin, we worked with Lee. We conspired with Siddig. We hunted down Commander Tau and then covered up our investigation. Renic is still in charge of his division and now he has Director Clarke awaiting torture and interrogation.” She raised her eyes to Qin, fear behind her shimmering eyes. “Lieutenant Tarren has started something that can’t be stopped. What do we do?”

Qin steadied her breathing, keeping her hand on Yadav’s arm, letting the presence of a warm, flesh-and-blood person keep her grounded. Lieutenant Tarren’s suspicions were unfounded, but not incorrect. Yadav was the victim of wild speculation, which happened to contain an element of truth. Both Qin and Yadav’s proximity to Lee was problematic, but their interactions with Julian and investigation into Renic were secure. Were they not? 

If the Honor Guard felt Yadav was a risk, she’d disappear. And after interrogating more of Yadav’s co-workers, they would come for Qin. Evidence of treason against the Republic was not required. All someone like Lieutenant Tarren had to do was raise the level of doubt enough that it was better to remove the suspect rather than leave any room for subversion. There was nothing Qin and Yadav alone could do; the Honor Guard reported to no one.

No. Almost no one.

Qin placed her other hand against Yadav’s arm and pulled her close, speaking softly. “You need to resume your shift. Go back, act as if nothing is amiss. If the Honor Guard does come for you, do not resist. Comply, but evade answering any questions.”

Yadav reared back. “What? Why?”

Qin pulled back and locked eyes with Yadav. “I cannot share with you what I intend to do should you be questioned. Please, just hold on through the remainder of your shift and do not react to anything that happens.”

Yadav pulled away from Qin, brow wrinkled in confusion. “What do you mean? What are you going to do?”

Qin took a step toward Yadav, hand tightening around her arm. “I am going to fix this. ”

Yadav scoffed and pulled away. “Qin, stop. You can’t do this. I can go to Major Drake, explain things. He’ll—” 

Qin turned, flaring the aura of intimidation she’d been practicing. “No! You cannot go to Drake. We must do this.”

Yadav recoiled at this new Qin she saw. Qin lowered her gaze and released Yadav’s arm. Qin, plan still forming in her mind, turned to her desk and quickly picked up a blank sheet of paper and a pencil. Items in hand, she hurried Yadav to the door.

“Go. Please, you must. Remember, if the Honor Guard does come for you, do not resist. Do not answer questions. Wait for me. This is the only chance we have.”

Yadav’s eyes flitted back and forth—confusion, disbelief, fear.

Fear of Qin.

Yadav stopped just before the doors, turning and speaking just out of view of any crew member who should pass in the corridor behind her. “Qin… what are you going to do?”

Qin followed her into the corridor, turning her face away from Yadav as she summoned the aura again. “What is necessary for our survival.”

The screen on Gallow’s desk went black, the image of President Archer standing behind her podium at the temporary Republic capital blinking out of view. It was her first address from this center of government, having spent a few days looking for a suitable building on the capital compound that could accommodate her executive staff and growing cabinet. The chamber for the Imperium’s Council of Hundred had been chosen, since many of those representatives were currently in a Republic detention center until their respective home planets complied with Archer’s plea for unity. Whatever structure the new president would choose for her new legislative branch was not Gallow’s concern; none would defy the will of the Republic.

Gallow smirked. The sooner they passed the transition period of needing to pretend that this evolution—this ascension—was an unplanned turn of events, the better. He had a sector to dominate. A quadrant. Maybe even a galaxy. Gallow wasn’t sure. The Creator had offered no further guidance. Perhaps Gallow’s purpose had been fulfilled and nothing more was required of him, the remainder of his life only a long waiting period of self-guided achievement until he was finally called to the existence beyond death. 

Gallow retrieved a datapad from his desk and held it leisurely in one hand, reclining in his chair. His eyes narrowed while he reviewed the latest updates from his fleets across the divided Republic. Only three of the ten Imperium planets had immediately capitulated. That was fewer than estimated, but not outside his ability to remedy. The other six were stalling, hoping to build up their own defenses, and the seventh, Dai’Reen, was hoping to sell them those defenses.

He had predicted that the Dai’Reen governor and their cadre of profiteering actuaries would have been looking for a way to exploit the situation. To satisfy that need, Gallow had already prepared a budget of fifty-billion Republic credits to immediately engage them in new arms contracts, including developing an entire new class of prototype corvette light-attack vessels. But, he’d underestimated another resource the gaudy culture valued as much as money: image.

Being the first planet to declare total sovereignty from the Republic had made them the talk of the sector, with reports of new arms contracts with the other resisting planets measuring in the hundreds of billions. Even the Sellacans were praising them. Fine. If they wanted notoriety, they would be known as the first planet Gallow burned to the ground.

Gallow tossed the datapad on his desk and rubbed his palms against his eyes. He’d spent the last four days doing nothing but overseeing the tactical domination of all lingering Imperium resistance. He’d made no public appearance. Archer needed to be the one to galvanize the people, not him.

Gallow’s thoughts went to the clothing stand near his desk, the flowing black cape hanging from it. A subtle grin bent his lips. The Lord Ascendent was a figure who would influence from the shadows, even less visible than the spectral Fleet Marshal had been. When the Lord Ascendent was required to appear, he would be a demigod the likes of which the Fleet Marshal could never have achieved.

A chime sounded from Gallow’s computer. It was Captain Alaudae.

Gallow reached from his reclined position and tapped the answer button. “Captain?”

“Lord Ascendent, a crew member wishes an audience with you and has provided—” Alaudae paused, “—sufficient justification for why she should be permitted to speak to you directly.”

Gallow raised an eyebrow. An unexpected audience was irregular, but Alaudae would not have bothered to notify him had the captain felt there was the slightest measure of frivolity in the request. Gallow had spent much of the last four days seeing expected events unfold, an unexpected visit may offer a brief moment of curiosity.

“Send them in, Captain,” Gallow said. On his computer, a personnel file appeared. He gave it a quick scan. His guest was a lieutenant, but also a member of OS-9 with top-level clearance. Gallow hummed with interest. She reported to Major Drake, who himself reported to Intelligence Chief Colonel Alderman. It was a prestigious chain of command. 

Gallow gave a quick glance to the cape hanging from the clothing stand. He grimaced. No, not this time. He did not feel like standing. Besides, a single Terminus lieutenant did not merit the full presence of the Lord Ascendent. They would have to settle for Gallow.

The expansive double-doors to Gallow’s office slid open. The young lieutenant walked through them, her pace brisk and purposeful, hands clasped behind her back. She had cropped black hair combed in a neat, asymmetric fashion, and wore her gray Republic uniform well. She raised her right hand and saluted, fist over heart, before returning it behind her back.

“Lieutenant Meredessi, Captain Alaudae informs me you have something you believe justifies my focused attention?” Gallow asked, studying Meredessi’s face.

She met eyes with Gallow, her expression firm. “Correct, Lord Ascendent,” she said.

Meredessi broke eye-contact, her eyes narrowing slightly as her gaze slowly shifted from item to item in Gallow’s executive office. She seemed to be inspecting Gallow’s environment. Her visual tour ended on the cape hanging from its stand, a barely audible hum her only reaction as she returned her eyes to Gallow’s.

Gallow leaned forward, studying Meredessi’s face. He expected her to be anxious in his presence. But she wasn’t. She appeared to be annoyed. No, not annoyed. Impatient. With Gallow? 

Gallow waited. Meredessi’s eyes remained locked with his. Gallow felt a hint of his own impatience as he casually raised a hand. “Well?”

“Lord Ascendent,” Meredessi said, her tone curt as she quickly shifted her gaze back to him. “I am here to finally reveal myself as a key asset in your victory over the Imperium, and I come with a proposal that will ensure your continued success as the true leader of this Republic.”

Gallow felt the rush of his authority being challenged burn under his collar at Meredessi’s tone. He stared at her, projecting the essence of the Lord Ascendent while silently cursing the bright, overhead lighting ruining the drama of his words. “While your work in OS-9 is no doubt important, I believe I would have already known if a young lieutenant had been a… what did you refer to yourself as? A ‘key asset’? You are wasting my time.”

Meredessi stared back, her expression sharp and unflinching. Gallow felt a different sensation sneak its way past his annoyance. He felt the rush of a challenge. An opponent. Meredessi had the calculating eyes of a viper, and those eyes were centered on Gallow.

“Incorrect, Lord Ascendent. I am not wasting your time,” Meredessi finally said, her tone so matter-of-fact it caused Gallow to snort. If this lieutenant wished to spar, Gallow could allow himself a few minutes of entertainment before crushing her spirit. A few weeks in the brig should help Meredessi adjust her demeanor.

Gallow leaned forward, placing his elbows on the desk. “Is that so?”

“Yes, Lord Ascendant. With your victory on Kestris secure and the sector now bowing to your will, I determined this was the earliest opportunity to inform you of my part in your grand plan. In the course of my duties over the last few weeks as a member of the Indigo investigation, I became aware of the services Commander Renic Tau was performing for you.” A sardonic grin bent Meredessi’s lips. “He was your interface with the Red Kestrels who set up the Dauntless hijacking and the Starview Station attack. I know the Red Kestrel threat is a lie, and that you are the instrument of the Imperium’s demise.”

Gallow felt a blaze of rage so pure he could summon no expression to match it. His voice was flat. “I should kill you where you stand.”

Meredessi shook her head. “Unwise, and strategically unsound. Lord Ascendent, when I deduced that you were behind Tau’s actions, I hid the commander’s activities from OS-9. I reasoned that you were working through him, and that the leak aboard the Terminus, which you ordered Indigo to search for was not Commander Tau, but you. You were the leak, Gallow, for you are the only one with both the access to generate the duplicate Terminus encryption signature key Tau supplied to Kat Basara, as well as having the power to cover it all up. And yes, I know if Commander Tau’s ill-timed visit to Senali. Another instance of Tau’s reckless behavior I hid and kept from thwarting your plans.” Meredessi smirked, a glint of cunning in her eye. “As I said, I am a ‘key asset’ and can continue to be so.”

Gallow took a slow breath, regaining control over his deeply hidden and unexpected flare of emotion. Something about Lieutenant Meredessi was different from the others who seemed to use his power and position for their own gain. Most came at Gallow with two personalities, one they presented and one they thought they could hide. President Archer gave him a grudging facade of respect to cover the fear she felt. Commander Tau presented a mask of unquestioning eagerness to please to hide his belief that he was equal to Gallow, thinking this was a way to ease the deep insecurities that made Renic so easy to manipulate.

The same was true for all of his conspiring generals, politicians, and scattered collaborators who approached him with ulterior motives they believed they hid so well. Gallow allowed it; it helped keep them motivated and easy to exploit. But not Meredessi. He sensed none of this in her piercing stare. She was taking a different approach and hiding nothing, likely wagering that the audacity—and extreme risk of this act—would impress Gallow and give her request credence.

Gallow felt a sardonic smile tug at his lips. Was this what he was missing in his most closely held entourage of puppets and sycophants? Someone willing to hide nothing, even if it meant displeasing the Lord Ascendent? He took a slow, inward breath, eyeing Meredessi as he exhaled through his nose.

“I will permit you to share your proposal,” he said, feeling the thrill of a sparring match with an unexpectedly agile opponent. Meredessi nodded, just as Gallow held up a hand. “However, realize that the information you have shared means you either leave here with my acceptance of your proposal, or you never leave here at all. You’ve placed your wager.”

Gallow focused on Meredessi’s face, each muscle around her eyes, her mouth. She appeared completely confident in the wager of her life. Meredessi returned his stare. She gave him nothing. Not a twitch. Not a bob of the throat. Nothing but the focused eyes of a viper in the split-second before shooting forward to sink their fangs into their prey.

“Lord Ascendent, the intelligence community believes in a principle of known-leaks. No system is airtight. It is only through controlling where the leaks occur that we maintain the absolute integrity of the system. While you maintain a tight control through the Honor Guard’s interrogations, it is prone to mistakes. When crew members will report anyone they fear is a threat to them, leaks are plugged where none exist, and others go unnoticed amid the false-positives. If I may proffer an example?”

Gallow tilted his head subtly. She had his attention, more than Gallow wanted to admit.

“Thank you. During the course of covering up the information on Commander Tau, it became apparent the commander was preoccupied with members of his former agency, going so far as to implicate them as being in collaboration with the Red Kestrels. Director Elias Clarke seemed to be his primary fixation, along with several of Clarke’s agents. This led to the confrontation on Senali, where the commander attempted to silence both Kat Basara and assets working on Clarke’s behalf. I believe this incident was reported to you via an anonymous communique, correct?”

Gallow’s eyes narrowed. So, Tau had been on Senali trying to cover up his feud with 5E. Killing the Kestrel boss must have been a way to keep the Kestrels from revealing his involvement with them. What had Tau let slip that led to this confrontation with Clarke? 

Gallow grinned at the memory of his former comrade, and one of the few people Gallow had respected; Elias Clarke. How long had it been since the stubborn old hero of the Imperium had left the Navy? A decade? And Tau had been the one to rile him up. The commander’s erratic nature was wearing Gallow’s patience thin.

“Lieutenant, your recounting of known events fails to add any illumination to your proposal. Become relevant. Quickly.”

Meredessi took a step forward, nearly touching Gallow’s desk. She pulled her hands from behind her back and placed a sheet of paper in front of Gallow. He glanced down at it, then leaned forward.

On the sheet was string after string of equations, none of which made any sense to him. He recognized the symbols of arithmetic, as well as several terms related to psychology and behaviorism, but the combination of the two was beyond his comprehension. It was arcane. Perhaps he was wrong about the razor’s edge of boldness and stupidity the lieutenant walked.

“And this is?” Gallow growled.

Meredessi lifted the paper, pointing to the symbol as she spoke. “An algorithm I have sketched which uses several of Doctor Hawthorne’s principles of theoretical mathematics, combined with advanced concepts in precognitive psychology. Combining the two, I believe I can create a systematic way to analyze the behavior of any given crew member and assign them a confidence score as to the likelihood that they are a dissident. I have already tested it against a leak I believe exists within OS-9 and who is related to both Tau and Clarke.”

Gallow raised an eyebrow, his interest genuine. “Elaborate.”

Meredessi clasped her hands behind her back, still holding the paper. “I believe there is a member of OS-9 who had access to Indigo investigation files and was conspiring with Director Clarke. Using the method I sketched, I have confidence that they leaked information about Commander Tau’s whereabouts to Director Clarke. I believe Clarke instructed his agents to gather evidence on Kat Basara, and Tau nearly revealed your entire plan prematurely by intervening on Senali against orders. Were you aware it was Director Clarke who attempted to thwart Commander Tau by delivering this information to you?”

Gallow remained silent, anger simmering with the memory of Tau’s most personal of betrayals. How close he’d come to following through with the decision to end his life before Tau showed a sliver of redeemability.

He had to give Clarke credit; he’d nearly orchestrated Renic’s demise and Gallow had almost been the one to do it. Impressive. Clarke’s time away from the Navy appeared not to have dulled his edge. Gallow dipped his chin in silence as a prompt for Meredessi to continue. She spoke with hungry a confidence.

“According to my analysis, this OS-9 officer is now attempting to divert their own guilt onto another member of OS-9, a competent officer and one I know to be uninvolved. It is a diversion, and your Honor Guard will be apprehending the wrong person, thereby allowing the leak to remain. I am here to seal it for you, as well as any future leaks, by proposing you allow me to establish my own insulated team where these methods of detection can be honed without distraction.”

Gallow smirked, then grimaced. “Who do you suspect?”

Meredessi raised an eyebrow. “Are you accepting the potential of my methodology and proposal? I hope, Lord Ascendent, that I have proven I am capable of doing what is necessary to protect us all.” 

The razor’s edge of boldness and stupidity sliced through Gallow’s assessment of the audacious lieutenant. She refused to cower to him, but she had also gone to great lengths to protect his interests. Perhaps the Creator had guided her choices, providing Gallow with this hidden asset in order to offset the drawbacks of Tau’s erratic energy. With Tau’s most useful days behind him, perhaps the Creator was sending Gallow a new weapon to wield, one made for a more sophisticated time. While the fall of an empire may have required a dagger, perhaps the delicate nature of growing a Republic required a scalpel.

Gallow leaned forward and pressed a button on his desk, his eyes locked on Meredessi’s. The doors to his office immediately slid open, Captain Alaudae and a pair of Honor Guard marching into the room. Meredessi did not flinch. Gallow felt a rush of satisfaction. She was authentic.

“Lord Ascendent,” Alaudae said, glancing at the young lieutenant who refused to even acknowledge the Honor Guard’s presence.

Gallow slowly stood, nodding down to Meredessi. “I am delegating a special project to the lieutenant, and I wish for you to supervise its creation. Please see she is given modest accommodations for her and the team she selects.” Gallow narrowed his eyes at Meredessi, leaving no room for doubt in his tone. “I believe the early output of this project already has someone she would like for you to apprehend. Lieutenant?”

Meredessi nodded, turning to Captain Alaudae and speaking without hesitation. “It has been determined that Lieutenant Gustav Tarren should be apprehended at once.”

“Understood,” Alaudae said. The captain nodded to the pair of Honor Guard, both of whom turned on their heels and double-timed it out of the office. “Is there anything else, Lord Ascendent?”

Gallow pondered a moment. This conversation had been most unexpected, and yet invigorating. He could feel the Creator’s influence at play. The strict culture of duty Gallow had cultivated aboard the Terminus had rewarded him with officers like the young Meredessi. She deserved a small token of appreciation.

“Yes. Supply the lieutenant with an unadorned uniform and pair of shoulder caps. I wish for this project to report to the Honor Guard, not OS-9. Come up with a name that befits its status and see that all appropriate clearances and access are granted immediately.”

Alaudae turned, saluting Meredessi fist-over-heart. “Welcome to the guard.”

The doors to Qin’s quarters slid shut. She fell back against it, tears bursting from her eyes and streaming down her cheeks. Her legs buckled and she slid to the floor, unable to catch her breath, hyperventilating. The plain gray uniform in her arms with its armor-plated shoulder caps tumbled to the floor beside her. She could not be seen like this. She could not allow herself to lose control after what she’d done. 

There had been no other way to protect Yadav. To protect herself. It had been necessary. There was no way to go back. She had to make good on her grievous moral debt.

Qin rose and stumbled across her quarters to her desk, collapsing into the chair. Her hands shook uncontrollably as she activated her computer; the effort she’d exerted to become someone Gallow would believe had been too much. 

She looked at the crumpled paper still in her hand, the pencil marks wet and smeared from both her sweating palms and tears, the gibberish mix of math and psychology illegible. There had been no algorithm. The entire idea was preposterous. Only Gallow’s willingness to rely on faith and believe in the unbelievable had prevented him from considering this. Face to face, his micro-expressions and tells had been more visible than most. The Lord Ascendent believed himself above such concerns, giving Qin everything she needed to alter her act and proposal with each new clue. 

Qin wiped the tears from her eyes, forcing herself to focus on the screen and the immediate tasks at hand. Her interface was already changed to match her Honor Guard credentials and access. 

Qin retrieved Lieutenant Tarren’s record. Her breath caught in her throat; the Honor Guard had already apprehended him. He was in custody on a detention deck Qin had not known existed until now. 

What had Tarren done to deserve this? Was giving in to Gallow’s culture of fear and threatening Yadav’s life enough? He could not have had evidence on her. Yadav had not done anything wrong, she had been ignorant of Lee’s identity, which Qin knew because it was Lee who had revealed himself to Qin.

The grim truth was apparent. Tarren had wanted to increase his own appearance of loyalty to the Republic by sacrificing Yadav. Exactly as Qin had just done to him… only she had succeeded. Her continued survival aboard the Terminus was necessary for the promise she had made to Lee, and the commitment she maintained to Clarke, Julian, and the rest who would oppose Gallow. The sacrifice of Lieutenant Tarren to the Honor Guard, and her own moral integrity, was a regrettable means to an unavoidable end. Qin had traded someone she did not care about for someone she did.

How many more trades like this would she be required to make, now that Gallow had shocked her by assigning her to the Honor Guard? She had only wanted to maneuver herself into a position to protect Yadav and herself. She had done so, and had been entirely too effective. Qin had ample power to protect them now, all she had to do was continue to find suspected dissidents, defectors, and other traitors who would satisfy Gallow and the Honor Guard’s paranoid thirst.

Qin placed her shaking hands on the keyboard and opened a message to Captain Alaudae, writing her first order as the leader of this new team tasked with inventing a dissident-hunting algorithm. The words appeared on the screen, and with them the only salvation Qin felt at the horrible sacrifice she had made: Transfer request. Lieutenant Esme Yadav. Approved. 

Qin now had the power to protect Yadav. It had only cost her the person she was. She must make that price worth it. Hands steadying on the keys of her computer, Qin wrote her second order.