Episode 57: There are none left to challenge

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Renic was beaten at the Radiance, but his attempt at vengeance is not complete as he returns to Kestris City and his headquarters below ground.

Renic kept his eyes forward, unfocused, as he crossed the floor of the Naval Special Investigation Division. Operatives stepped aside as he approached, their blurred shapes seeming to glance at him, some saluting. He recognized none of them. Blank-faced and ignoring his surroundings, Renic continued his march in silence. There was nothing any of these people could offer him. Renic’s final symbol of any potential victory was waiting for him in the white room. Director Clarke, the man who had been behind Renic’s near-undoing, and whom he’d promised Samantha he would kill.

He reached the elevators at the far end of the division, their surface nothing but a blurred rectangle in his unfocused gaze. As he approached, the doors slid open and a pair of operatives stepped out. He ignored their perfunctory salute as they shuffled out of his way. 

He stepped inside the elevator and turned, staring into the nothingness of the floor, and only after a distracted moment, finally pressed the control panel to close the door. His hand hovered over the control panel, not yet pressing the button that would take him below. 

He stood in silence, sorting his scattered thoughts. The flight back to Kestris from the Radiance had been equally silent. There had been no sign of Samantha’s egress. By the time Kogan had brought Renic back to the ship, the Dai’Reen had mounted an effective defense against the Republic and forced them to reopen negotiations when several Republic politicians trapped behind the Radiance’s walls made their identities known to the press and asked for a cease-fire with their gracious hosts. The rumor circulating the Kestris newsfeeds was that the Dai’Reen had been paid healthy ransoms by their hostages to be allowed to make this public plea.

With the optics of Archer’s new presidency on the line, General Denton, the naval officer in charge of Republic forces had ordered them to stand down. But Renic hadn’t cared about the politicians. He’d been focused on accessing the orbital defense grid’s tracking logs. There was nothing there. The Nighthawk had slipped through and vanished. By the time interceptors were positioned in low-orbit directly above the Dai’Reen resort—now a wartime embassy—she was gone. 

While on the ship, Kogan and his commando squad had stayed out of sight. Renic had said nothing. He had been in no shape to confront Kogan, and from the look in his squad’s eyes, they’d have no problem defending their true leader. In the end, Kogan and his commandos were loyal to each other, and Renic was not one of them. Renic had retreated to his quarters, waiting for some missive from the Lord Ascendent’s office, a reprimand perhaps. A sanction. Something. Anything. Nothing had arrived. As far as Renic could tell, Gallow had no knowledge—and likely no concern—over what Renic had done at the Radiance. Renic simply no longer mattered.

He pressed the elevator button and took the short ride down. The elevator doors opened and Renic mindlessly walked forward. The lighting on level eight was dim. A pair of division operatives sat at the monitoring desks, their faces lit by the vid screens in front of them. As Renic approached, they quickly rose to their feet and saluted. Renic did not return the gesture.

“Commander, we heard you were away,” one of the operatives, a woman, said. Renic couldn’t recall her name at the moment.

“I was,” Renic said.

The two operatives exchanged a glance. “Of course, sir,” she said. Renic stared at the vidscreen on the desk, the dark shape of his prisoner visible against the stark white background.

The male operative cleared his throat. “Sir, is there… something you need?”

Renic held his gaze on Clarke for a moment, feeling his senses and coherence return to him as his anger built. He would not let Clarke see him in this state. The ‘director’ would die without ever feeling the satisfaction of having won. He’d lost his agents, then he’d lost his agency, and now he would lose his life. Renic might not have gotten everything he wanted, but Clarke had gotten nothing.

Renic summoned energy from the depths of his emotional torpor and focused his eyes. “Yes, I require some time alone with my prisoner. Disable all monitoring.”

The two operatives assigned to monitor the empty level exchanged a quick glance. “Sir, are you authorizing the termination of mandated monitoring of political prisoners?” the male operative asked.

Renic returned his eyes to the vidscreen. “Yes. No one is to enter or activate the monitoring. You will stand watch until I exit and relieve you of duty.”

The operatives quickly returned to their seats, entering commands into the computer. The vidscreen went dark. 

The female operative spoke. “Commander, do you want the sensory deprivation disabled as well?”

Renic approached the door to Clarke’s cell and stopped just before it. He pondered the question. “No. Leave it on.”

Renic took a slow breath, placing his palm on the entry panel into the cell. The door slid aside, revealing the infinite expanse of brightness. 

None were left who could thwart him; none were left who could save Clarke. Samantha was gone, likely half a sector away. She would not be interfering on Clarke’s behalf. As for Gallow, he had exhibited no further interest in Renic or anything Renic did. Clarke’s capture was nothing more than a two-sentence summary in a division brief that would never be worthy of the Lord Ascendent’s precious time.

Renic and Clarke had both lost everything and everyone—everything except this final retribution that Renic would savor. 

Renic stepped inside, allowing the door to seal behind him. His eyes burned at the intensity. The sub- and super-sonic tones emanating from all directions clawed at Renic’s senses, like an itch deep within his mind, impossible to reach. Across from him was Clarke, lying on his side on the impossible to perceive bench. He was on his back, one arm pulled up over his eyes. He wore a gray business shirt, the buttons at the collar and cuffs undone, the fabric wrinkled and torn at the shoulder seams.

Renic stood in the center of the room, hands clasped behind his back. “Sit up.”

Clarke’s arm moved at the command, a single squinting eye peeking out from beneath. He scoffed quietly, lowering his arm and slowly propping himself up to a seated position, back resting against the invisible white wall behind him. He looked beaten and worn, tendrils of graying hair hanging down over his forehead in damp clumps. His eyes were bloodshot and dark, with a rough growth of graying stubble on his face.

Renic titled his head. “Nothing exists except for you and me, Clarke. Just you and me.” He gazed around at the infinite white. “You’re in a limbo between your miserable life and whatever awaits us after we die. I’m the last person you’ll see.”

Clarke snorted, sneering back at Renic. “As long as you’re gone once it’s all over, I’ll be happy.” 

Renic hummed and smiled. “Do you think anything you did mattered? Your plot with Samantha and Julian. Did you think it would really matter?”

Clarke shrugged. “You got me, Renic. You got all of us. Congratulations, you’re a traitor who murders his own people in order to carry out the whims of your puppet master.”

Renic smirked. “Correction. I’d only be a traitor if the Republic hadn’t succeeded. But it did. They call people like me revolutionaries. Heroes of the restoration. That’s what Gallow is calling it. A ‘restoration.’”

Clarke shook his head, looking off into the distance past Renic. “I don’t mean a traitor to some fleet marshal or agency director. I mean a traitor to anyone who might have trusted you, such as your agency colleagues. Your unwitting Navy accomplices. All the civilians you sacrificed for Gallow’s cause. And yourself, hoping Gallow would finally give you the validation you thought you deserved.”

Renic shook his head. “Ancillary consequences necessary for a greater cause. If we were to total the casualties from the many 5E missions you’ve overseen, your personal death toll would be far greater.”

Clarke shrugged. “And I feel remorse for every one. How many families never knew what happened to their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters on the Dauntless? How many people were never recovered from Starview Station? You’re not a person any more, you’re just a spent, broken weapon.”

Renic smiled at Clarke. The old man still had some fight in him. “And what are you, Elias? An intelligence director who managed to miss sign after sign of the coming revolution, bungling your missions every step of the way as this ‘weapon’ undid everything you attempted. History will remember you as one of the incompetent relics of the dead Imperium, if anyone remembers you at all.”

Renic paced a few steps before turning and speaking, almost reminiscing, as with an old friend. “Can you imagine if 5E had been able to prevent any of this? So many times over the past year you could have intervened. Each time I met with Gallow, I wondered if any of my 5E colleagues would notice. As the day grew closer, I wondered if I’d be undone. None of you even came close.” Renic turned and gave Clarke an shrug. “Oh well.”

Clarke rubbed the side of his neck, grimacing. “I can’t deny that we missed things. It’s a testament to the lengths Gallow was willing to go. Tell me, Commander Tau, how would you have stopped this Republic?”

Renic laughed, glaring at Clarke with incredulity. “I would not have attempted to stop this. There was no rational reason to allow the Imperium and Edwin Sevent’s failed leadership to continue,” Renic said, narrowing his eyes. “It was the inevitable evolution of a failed system.”

Clarke managed to chuckle. “You sound like Gallow now. Everything is some sort of crisis of destiny. Did he give you scripts to repeat, or are you trying your hand at poetry? He’ll fail, you know. Most of his rhetoric you believe is just that. A patina of grandeur on a mad warlord’s search for meaning.”

Renic felt a flare of anger at being compared to Gallow, one he kept from showing on his face. He could not let Clarke know of the egregious embarrassment that was his and Gallow’s falling out. The director would laugh if he knew how Gallow had pinned Renic against a wall, making him flail, fighting for his life. 

Renic turned, slowly pacing a few steps back across the cell. “You fail to recognize Gallow’s achievement. There are none left to challenge the Lord Ascendent.”

Clarke raised his eyebrows. “Is that the title now? I hadn’t heard. Been busy with—” he gestured at the featureless void, “—all of this. I knew him personally, when we were younger. Friends in the service. I knew the person he was. We called him ‘Beckman’ back then. Did you know Gallow and I are the same age?”

Renic did not respond. Did he think that some distant connection the Gallow would impress him? Intimidate him? Renic had been Gallow’s right-hand man—all in secret. Clarke wanted Renic to know he’d served with Gallow where others could see it; he would not give him the satisfaction of reacting.

Clarke looked back to Renic and continued with bored indifference. “I fought with him. He was an excellent military leader and tactician. Watching him go down this path is tragic.” Clarke met Renic’s eyes. “What do you think drives him to do all this?”

“The restoration of his Creator’s glory in the form of this Republic,” Renic said flatly.

Clarke’s eyebrows raised in feigned surprise. “You think? Huh. You know what he lost just before the war ended, right? His wife and son.”

Renic remained still, remembering Gallow’s strange words on the Terminus about being a surrogate. Hidden beneath his mask of indifference, a simmering rage flared at Clarke’s taunts. He’d let the old man rile him up. It would make the final release only that much more satisfying. And violent.

“I never met them,” Clarke continued. “We were always deployed. But the boy, he’d be about your age now, if he’d lived. I remember when Gallow found out. He’d kept it a secret, but his son had a disease, some genetic condition. No cure, not even with the best Imperium medical science. His son passed while Gallow was out fighting for the Imperium, and he’d been too far away to jump back and offer support. He paid for that. His wife took her own life before he returned.” Clarke shook his head, more genuine grief on his face than Renic wanted to acknowledge. “After that, well… I think we’ve seen how Gallow chose to channel his grief.”

Renic exhaled audibly. He’d heard nothing of this. Was Clarke attempting to rattle Renic somehow with this ridiculous fiction? “Completely irrelevant. Even if true, we are all fueled by our past experiences. Gallow is a person with convictions and the courage to follow them.”

Clarke nodded. He took on a sympathetic tone. “Don’t blame yourself for being used by him, Renic. If you continue to put any trust or faith in Gallow, you’re a fool. Didn’t you ever wonder why he chose you to be his errand runner, or were you just so honored to be selected you didn’t bother to ask?” Clarke sighed, shaking his head in pity. “He’s had other proteges in the past. People he’s groomed, sort of like you. Groomed and discarded. Failed after failed attempt to regain the son he lost. You’re just another one of Gallow’s failed attempts now, Renic. I’d hate to live with that threat hanging over me.”

The memory of Gallow’s hand around his throat punctuated Clarke’s statement. Renic’s vision blurred, his rage reaching a new height of intoxication.

“Gallow is a complicated man,” he muttered, muscles in his neck tightening as his anger built.

Clarke’s expression of pity shifted to a bitter glare. “Feels simple to me. He was hurt, so he’ll hurt others. And somehow… saying it’s the ‘will of the Creator’ makes it all okay.”

Renic took a step closer, arms flexed stiffly at his sides. “You’re correct, it is simple, Elias. You’re here because, unlike Gallow, your efforts accomplished nothing. Now you will die because of your attempts to sacrifice Samantha to thwart both Gallow and me. I gave her a chance to have everything she wanted, and you held her back. All her potential, lost because of your lack of vision and ambition.”

Clarke appeared confused, looking around the white room as if he’d just realized where he was. “Still about her? Samantha? You’ve won, Renic. We’re, what, eight or nine levels underground by my count? You’re a commander in the new regime. Big. Important. Samantha lost interest you and, well… you’ve failed to impress her since. Move on.”

Renic glowered. Clarke knew about the Senali incident. It was a biting failure, and Renic had been punished for it. Clarke was probing for sore spots and he’s found one. It would not go unchecked.

Renic feigned bewilderment. “Excellent detective work. I did find her there, yes. Spoke with her at length. You know,” Renic took a slow breath, then pointed to Clarke. “She’d agreed to work with me. She wanted the Red Kestrels, and I could give them to her. Circumstances prevented that. Had her friends not interfered, she would have joined me. Maybe you’d have been spared.”

Clarke scoffed. “Circumstances. Right.”

Renic’s voice hardened. “You have no agency, Clarke. No career, no one coming for you, no freedom. You have nothing. You’ve been implicated as one of Sevent’s main conspirators, and so has Samantha and Julian. And this Lee I’ve learned of? Sergeant Bennet Lee, from the Terminus. He one of yours, too? All of them are now on the Republic’s most wanted list.”

Clarke’s face twitched at the mention of the agents, particularly at Lee. So he was one of Clarke’s. How many more were there? Renic continued, leaning forward as he spoke.

“What the Republic sees now is a disgraced 5E intelligence director who ordered the doctoring of mission files and the hiding of valuable information. You used one of your own agents, sending her to carry out Sevent’s failed attempt to frighten the Imperium with the Red Kestrels in order to tighten his control. How sad it will be for her name to be forever sullied. And after her father’s legacy as a noble Imperium diplomat, no less. The Mori name will be remembered as a legacy of traitors.”

Renic smiled, letting his rage drench his words in venom. “You know there’s even evidence of Samantha Mori on Starview Station the day of the attack? And I believe she was involved in your investigation into the Dauntless, the one you failed to record. I’ve already ensured that all of my crimes will fall on her. There is no one left to tell any story except the one I create. It is over.”

Clarke laughed. A convincing laugh. “Over? Renic, think. How many agents were off-planet? How many embedded in classified missions? You know how 5E works. I had agents in every part of the Imperium. On every ship. In Archer’s cabinet. In every organization, including your own.” Clarke pointed in the direction of the door. “They’re in this building, Renic. You know that, right? You’ll be dealing with an insurgency for a decade.”

Renic’s gut tightened. Clarke was lying. He’d screened all 5E agents who had joined the division, all had passed extensive psychological and neurological loyalty assessments. Clarke wanted to plant seeds of doubt. Renic would not let him.

Renic shrugged, forcing a mask of indifference. “All just problems to deal with. Martial law is declared across the Imperium. Fleets are taking control. No insurgency will stop the restoration.”

Clarke leaned back, rocking this head against the invisible white wall. “You still think I was trying to stop this? I already told you, I knew Gallow would win before I ever sent Samantha away. What could I have done? Arrest him? Arrest you? Appeal to the High Imperius and tell him there was a conspiracy being led by his fleet marshal? It was not a war that could be won.” Clarke met eyes with Renic, grinning triumphantly. “I accepted that months ago. And then… why then I made sure to inject enough venom into enough different places that everything would always be compromised.” Clarke’s grin turned sadistic, momentarily startling even Renic. “I made sure to corrupt you in Samantha’s mind, slowly turning her against you, filling her with doubt, steadily undermining your dwindling relationship with her so you would never, ever be able to turn her.” Clarke’s smile vanished, replaced with a vindictive, twisted sneer. “And I won.”

Renic’s dam of fury burst. He lunged forward, grabbing Clarke by the collar and lifting him to his feet. “You will tell me how to find her!” he shouted.

Clarke laughed, his arms hanging at his sides, not attempting to resit Renic’s pull. “She’s gone. You were distracted with Gallow and missed all the details. You couldn’t put acquiring her behind you. And yet, she cares nothing about you. You were an annoyance. Irrelevant. Even now, she is probably working against you, gathering resources. She has contacts and allies across the sector. Had you not been fixated on her, then maybe you could have actually done something to stop her.” Clarke shook his head in disgust. “You don’t get it, Renic. She’s not on the run from you. You’re an open target for her. You’ll be checking under your bed every night, waiting for that karambit to glimmer in the darkness.”

Renic threw Clarke into the featureless white wall behind him, the old man crashing to the floor in a heap in front of the door. Renic screamed into the void. “I will dismantle everything you built. I will hunt your agents and kill each more slowly than the last. I don’t care about Gallow or the Republic. I will erase you and 5E from history.”

Clarke rose to an elbow, shaking his head. “You’re an errand-runner, Renic. You need someone to guide you. Hunt all the people you want. You’ll always know you’re insufficient.”  Clarke’s elbow gave, and he fell to his back. Clarke’s voice hardened. He glanced up to Renic from the floor and growled. “You know, Julian and I were surprised when you showed so much interest in her disappearance. She hadn’t mentioned you in years.”

Renic screamed in rage and lunged forward, falling to his knees and pummeling his fists into Clarke’s head and face. He had to silence him. He moved his hands to Clarke’s neck. He squeezed and shouted, one long effusion of rage—rage at his endless failure, his hands gripping tighter as he remembered Samantha’s refusal in her apartment. On Senali. Tighter again as he remembered Gallow strangling him just like this. Tighter still as he remembered the bag and gag going over his head in the woods as Samantha left him behind. 

Clarke, even as he took his last breath, managed a smirk. Renic lifted Clarke’s head and slammed it into the ground. He could see nothing, the white room had turned red. 

“Commander Tau!” a voice shouted.

Renic’s head snapped up. The sensory deprivation lights in the room shut off, returning every surface to a dull gray. Uniformed Navy officers rushed into the cell, two grabbing Renic by the arms and yanking him from Clarke’s wheezing body. Renic struggled and pulled against their grasp.

“What? What is this?” Renic shouted, still pulling against his captors. Six officers stood before him, their bolt pistols holstered at their sides. Two were attending to Clarke, helping him to a sitting position. Renic’s face twisted in confusion, then recognition as he realized these were not Navy officers. These were the Honor Guard.

One of the Honor Guard came forward, his face stern and unimpressed. Renic sneered, making no attempt to hide his hatred and disgust for this symbol of Gallow’s power.

Renic nearly spat his words. “I ordered this room sealed. This is my prisoner. On what authority do you interrupt my dispensing of justice?”

“Commander Tau, we have been ordered to transport this prisoner. That is all you are allowed to know,” the Honor Guard said, returning Renic’s glower.

“Ordered? Ordered by whom?” Renic screamed, again pulling against the two Honor Guard restraining him.

“On my order,” a curt female voice said. The guard blocking Renic’s view stepped aside. Two more officers had entered, women, both wearing the same featureless, armor-capped uniforms as the rest of the Honor Guard.

Renic’s eyes widened. “Lieutenant… Meredessi. You’re one of Drake’s. You have no authority here.”

Meredessi stepped forward, eyes examining Renic with a subdued contempt. “Incorrect, Commander. I operate under the direct authority of the Lord Ascendent. And it is Chief Inquisitor Meredessi and Principal Adjutant Yadav.”

Renic nearly laughed, his eyes flitting back and forth between Meredessi and Yadav. Renic clenched his fists at the revulsion in each woman’s eyes, the urge to strike them overwhelming. “Inquisitor? What?” He looked to the Honor Guard, his mind refusing to believe what his eyes were witnessing. “What is this? Release me.”

The Honor Guard said nothing and stepped back, allowing Yadav to take a step forward. She shook her head in pity mere inches from Renic’s face. “We are the Lord Ascendent’s Bureau of Inquisition. OS-10. Do you not read your briefings, Commander? The situation has evolved.”

Renic’s eyes went from Yadav to Meredessi, then to the Honor Guard helping Clarke to his feet. Meredessi had been one of Drake’s. She was so young. He remembered her strange stares and eye-twitches in the closed council room, how she had examined him the day he’d found out about the Indigo investigation. And again how she had questioned him when he’d introduced Samantha into the investigation during Drake’s Indigo staff meeting. And how these two had been the ones to interrogate Julian in this very room. 

A sickening feeling crashed into Renic as clarity took over. Clarke’s threat of embedded agents throughout the Republic mirrored Gallow’s assembly of conspirators and confederates Renic had never known about. Had Meredessi been one of Gallow’s plants all along? While Renic had been working under a facade at Gallow’s behest, had she been doing so as well? The demure, reserved lieutenant he remembered was gone, replaced by this viper. Had it all been an act? Had Gallow used Renic as a weapon to carry out his errands, and now that he’d won, replaced him with a new protege, groomed just like Clarke had warned?

The strength drained from Renic’s muscles, leaving him cold and weak. “You can’t. You can’t do this,” he murmured.

Meredessi clasped her hands behind her back and approached him, serpentine eyes causing Renic to shiver as her face came to a stop inches from his own.

“Yes,” Meredessi said, her words like the slice of a razor. “I can.”

Meredessi and Yadav turned. Clarke was back on his feet, face bloodied, breath ragged, and with Renic’s handprints around his neck, but alive.

Meredessi stopped and regarded him with a pitying glare. “Elias Clarke, I am hereby placing you under the custody of the Republic Bureau of Inquisition.” She turned to the Honor Guard. “Get him to a medical bay and then take him to the facility.

The guard saluted and motioned for the rest to follow. Meredessi and Yadav turned and exited the room, neither giving Renic a second glance.

The Honor Guard holding Renic released his arms, following their comrades out the door. Renic slumped to the square section of bench that jutted out from the wall. His vision flickered, his hearing buzzed. He could still feel the effects of the room, even though it was not active. He knew it was not the room. It was the defeat.

Renic sat motionless on the bench, expression slack as he stared into the void of his life. There was no bluster, no response, no fight left. All that remained was the sound of Renic’s labored breathing and a smattering of Clarke’s blood staining the floor where Renic had almost killed him. Almost.

The two division operatives at the desk outside the cell did not enter. Renic’s comm was silent. He remained motionless, his thoughts disjointed and strange. The only thing he could do was sit and stare.

Unable to summon any reason to leave, Renic remained in the white room, silent and slumped against the wall for a long, long time.