The crew of the Matilda makes their decision on what to do next.
The crew and passengers of the Matilda, both old and new, gathered in the lounge. Decker leaned against the galley bar, nether cartridge between his teeth. The strain from their incursion on Kestris had eased, and now Fringe-drifter and Imperium-defector alike found ways to step back from the mayhem they’d left behind. Everyone was together but Samantha. She had requested some time to think alone in her cabin, only after promising there would be no self-destructive funny-business. Decker had agreed; he’d already had Sellivan check her quarters for any hidden contraband.
Decker took a long drag from the nether, watching how his crew and their new guests interacted. Sellivan had made fast-friends with Julian. The two sat at the bolted-down dining table in the corner of the lounge, each with one of the fancy Imperium computers. A new Sellivan had emerged, his normally sour face lighting up with each new trick Julian showed him. Even Manu stood with arms un-folded over Julian’s shoulder, asking about flight trajectory algorithms and what the Imperium software efficiencies could do for the helm controls.
Julian seemed glad to share, gesturing with a genuine wooden pencil, dispensing information with the patient smile of a humble university professor surrounded by eager students. At least, Decker presumed that was what a professor would do. He’d never been to any formal school.
Decker looked to the lounge’s large couch and vidscreen where a different kind of learning was taking place, something a little more Decker’s speed. Heavy, Eliza, and newcomer Lee were engrossed in an old smashball recording Heavy dug out of his archives. Decker couldn’t remember ever seeing any of these old games. Heavy had kept all this closely guarded since joining the crew. Looked like he had decided to loosen up a bit and satisfy an old fan.
Lee narrated each play, brimming with enthusiasm as he pointed out the nuance of the sport, glancing up at Heavy each time the big man appeared somewhere on the screen in his zero-g suit and helmet, much younger but no-less massive. Eliza seemed content in cat-calling the players and yelping at each hit and tackle that put the ‘smash’ in the name. She was draped across her easy-chair, drink in hand with a little paper umbrella popped over the top, ‘Radiance Hotel Resort’ printed on its side. How she had sneaked away on Kestris to grab a handful of those was a mystery. Decker glanced down at the nether hanging from his mouth and shrugged. They all had their vices, he supposed.
And Heavy, well, Heavy exhibited something Decker had never before witnessed from the big man; a red-faced embarrassment each time his athletic prowess was displayed on the screen. Heavy was still strong now, but the bulging muscles in his arms and shoulders under the smashball suit gave Decker a whole new perspective on the source of his nickname.
A cheer from Lee—and a cackle from Eliza—signaled the end to whatever old game they’d been watching, Heavy’s sweating face beneath the clear faceplate of a smashball helmet filling the screen. As the uproar began to die down, Samantha emerged from the corridor to the crew quarters, one of the three computers Julian had brought aboard tucked underneath her arm. She crossed the lounge and leaned against the bar next to Decker, observing the scene with him.
Decker glanced down at Samantha. “News from the front?”
Samantha shrugged, placing the computer on the bar behind her. “Plenty, though what good it does us is debatable. The Republic has removed outside access to any intel. All I can pick up is either obvious Republic disinformation or unconfirmed reports from Fringe news sources.” She shrugged. “What I know to be true about what has transpired, no one is talking about that.”
The voices in the crew lounge quieted, attention turning toward Samantha. Heavy picked up the vidscreen control datapad and shut off the old game vid, unhidden relief on his face, followed by Eliza spinning in her chair, umbrella twirling in her drink. The conversation at the dining table died down as well, the faces of Sellivan, Manu, and Julian turning away from the computers and whatever had engrossed them for so long.
Samantha raised a hand. “What? No, this isn’t a briefing. Everyone is free to just… talk.”
Decker snorted, taking a half-step to the side. “When you stand at the front of a room, I think we’re used to you having something important to say.”
Samantha shook her head. “I’m a spectator in all this, like everyone else. Once we drop into Fringe space and can assess the situation, I suppose we’ll be forced into a decision.”
Lee unwedged himself from Heavy’s side, standing and giving the big man a clap on the back. “Might as well look at our options early.”
Decker turned toward Samantha, resting one elbow on the bar. “Looks like it’s a briefing.”
Samantha shrugged, a grimace on her lips. “Okay, but don’t blame me for interrupting the fun. The Republic is moving against all the former-Imperium planets who did not immediately concede. Dai’Reen is putting up a fight. They’ve declared total sovereignty and are encouraging others to do the same.”
“And I bet it comes with with conveniently extended contracts to sell them ships and weapons. This is great for business,” Manu said.
Decker nodded. “They’re like the Fringe now, back to being independent. They might even consider their systems an extension of the Fringe, given their proximity to the edge of the old empire.”
Eliza snorted, spinning the little umbrella between a cybernetic thumb and finger. “I don’t think someone like Adoni is going to consider themselves a ‘fringe’ of anything.”
Lee smiled, pointing across the lounge at Decker. “His point still stands. My intel from the Navy is a little stale, but before I departed the Terminus, I caught wind of Republic fleets moving toward the Fringe. Gallow doesn’t want any outsiders forming alliances with the old Imperium.”
Decker gave Lee a nod of gratitude. Having someone chime in to back up what he said was refreshing.
Manu folded his arms and took a step toward the center of the room. “If the Republic is looking to create a stalemate, then everyone out here, including us, will be locked out, and everyone in Republic space will be locked in. Even if Dai’Reen is claiming independence, they’re cut off as long as a Navy blockade surrounds their system.” Manu looked to Decker. “We need to find a place to lay low and stabilize. Jumping from crisis to crisis is going to wear us out until we make a mistake we can’t recover from.”
Julian rose from his seat, nodding slowly as he walked toward Manu. “A prudent observation. Establishing our next destination while still ‘on the run’ gives us little chance to evaluate the most effective course of action.”
A smile of indulgent self-satisfaction formed on Manu’s face. “Thank you for recognizing my wisdom.” He pointed back and forth to Decker and Eliza. “It can be difficult to counterbalance these two.”
Eliza rose to her elbows, propping herself up against the armrest of the easy-chair. “It’s not my fault that Deck’s suggestions are so much more interesting than yours, mister ‘play it safe and boring.’”
At the dining table, Sellivan rose from his seat and stood next to Julian. “This is not getting us any closer to having a next step. We should set down somewhere safe and make the modifications to the ship’s systems we’ve been talking about. If we can acquire hardware in addition to software, even better.”
“Before we go looking for parts,” Manu interjected, “we need to discuss finances. Unless there’s a second cache of Imperium credits available, we’re in no position to start planning upgrades.”
Julian turned to Samantha, single eyebrow raised. “The funds supplied when you left Kestris, I trust there is still some remaining?”
Samantha winced and shook her head, followed by Julian giving her a single, slow nod of pained acknowledgement.
Julian hummed, head tilted slightly. “I see. Well, even with budgetary constraints, there are still many Fringe-friendly places we can evaluate for performing the modifications ourselves. The Imperium was not known for making friends within the sector.”
Decker scoffed. “At this point, knowing the Kestrels were nothing but a cover makes me wonder what things will be like on Dradari. The average Kestrel may not even realize what Reed has done to them.”
From the corner of his eye, Decker saw Samantha slowly turn to face him. “Decker, you’ve still got the access code from Reed, right?”
Decker raised an eyebrow. “Huh? Yeah, but…” He turned to face Samantha. She had a calculating glint in her eye. Decker held up a hand, shaking his head. “No, no way.”
“Ah, Dradari, yes,” Julian said. “Your home planet, from what Samantha has mentioned.”
Lee took a step forward, eyes narrowed. “Dradari is the Kestrel planet. Who extended this offer?”
Decker exhaled, giving Samantha a brief glance. “I’ve got some old ties there, but no friends, and certainly no family. Sure, if we’re avoiding the Republic, and one angry Renic, that’s the last place where anyone who knows Samantha’s old vendetta would look. Though she’s not exactly going to be one of their favorite people, should her history become known.”
Lee shook his head, slight frown on his lips. “The Kestrels are the public face of the enemy, regardless of who is really behind them. There won’t be any recovering for their reputation, and no one will want to harbor any known Kestrel once Gallow makes good on his promise to eradicate them.”
Samantha shook her head, waving back Lee’s comment. “Even if they want to keep propping up the Red Kestrels as the enemy, the Republic needs to regain control of its own people first. They have half a former-empire revolting against them. Using the Kestrels as a buffer gives us space even if they’ll be hunted down, as long as we can keep old grievances in-check.”
Lee shrugged. “I’m not opposed to going undercover as a Kestrel. I only want to make sure we aren’t going somewhere we can’t come back from should we find ourselves surrounded by red scarves with no way out.”
Decker grunted and held up both hands. “Before we get too attached to any destination, I think we need to figure out what we want to do. There’s eight of us, five of whom weren’t even a part of the Imperium apart from a stint in the Navy. Helping the three of you,” he nodded once each to Samantha, Julian, and Lee, “contact your comrades is a lot different than helping fight a civil war I’m not even sure we have a part in. And even if we did, we aren’t exactly equipped to make much of an impact.”
A chorus of reluctant grumbles of agreement filled the lounge. Decker took a long drag off the nether. “Look, none of us here are friends of the Republic, and the Red Kestrels aren’t worthy of our pity. I suppose that puts us closer to the side of anyone who resists Gallow’s regime, but not by a lot. What’s our stake in this?”
Heavy turned sideways on the couch with a determined look on his face. “Samantha, you’re the one with the biggest stake, and you’re the one who hired us. If you were to hire us again, what would you want to do?”
Samantha took a deep breath, narrowing her eyes and speaking with subdued conviction. “I would want to bring justice to the real perpetrators who have hurt the people I was meant to defend. As the Imperium’s military leader, Gallow betrayed everyone he was supposed to protect and sacrificed lives that were not his to sacrifice. Average citizens are just trying to live their lives while people like Gallow play behind the scenes as if they don’t matter.” She turned to Decker. “Like the people I condemned in that airlock on Starview Station. You were right, Decker. I was wrong.”
Decker glanced at Samantha warily, her admission of regret going a long way. “Okay, Agent Mori. How do we bring justice?”
Samantha met eyes with Decker and shrugged. “I’m not sure. We have the data smuggled off the Terminus along with everything Julian took from 5E. It’s enough to be a major nuisance to the Republic for a little while, but eventually none of this data will be relevant. What we do have is insider knowledge and connections, thanks to the work of Lee and Julian and—who was it on the Terminus?”
“Qin,” Lee said somberly.
Samantha nodded. “Qin, yes. That might make the Matilda the strategic center of the resistance, simply because we might be the only group who knows both sides of the story. The more time that passes, the less relevant it all becomes.” She turned to Decker. “But the job I hired you all for is over. This isn’t my ship. It’s yours and the crew’s, Deck. The rest of us spies and defectors, we’ll adapt. You all should decide where the Matilda goes.”
Decker gave Samantha a sidelong glance. The focus in the room shifted from her to him. “Uh, well, not sure I wanted that responsibility but, okay. The only place in the sector I really know the intricacies of top to bottom is Dradari. Reed is expecting to see me within two days, so it’s no stretch to believe that I’d be looking for refuge there. I say we continue to Gaph, gather information, and if we need to hide out, consider the Dradari Kestrels as camouflage.”
Samantha placed her hands on her hips. “Okay. We’ll finish the drop and attempt to contact other defectors for more intel, then evaluate Dradari as a hideout. Until then, there’s nothing actionable we can do from here.”
Lee paced across the lounge, determined expression on his face. “To make anything actionable, we need allies. Finding the Imperium loyalists should be our first step.”
Manu paced the opposite direction, shaking his head. “And if we find these contacts, what do we tell them? That we have a bunch of stolen Imperium data that may or may not still be relevant, and some salacious rumors they can use to try to win a civil war? Anyone who is resisting the Republic won’t need any convincing that Gallow is a pretty bad guy, and the tech you and Julian smuggled out, while helpful to a rig like the Matilda, was easily accessible to many potential Imperium defectors. It’s a slight advantage, but it’s not a plan.”
Decker grunted. “Manu isn’t wrong. The folks in this room might feel strongly about the Republic, but that’s because we’ve all had some personal stake in what’s going on. The average folk in the Fringe and the parts of the Republic already under occupation, they’re not going to want to get involved.”
“Until the Republic makes them involved,” Eliza said, twirling the mini umbrella. “Face it, Deck. The whole sector is getting dragged into this whether they like it or not. We just got a nice early warning thanks to little sis there. Or big sis. Which one of you is older again?”
Samantha raised an eyebrow at Eliza, then turned pointedly back to Decker. “Eliza is right. Gallow will reconquer the old empire, then spread out. He was born in the Fringe. He won’t let it remain out of his possession.”
Decker growled, shaking his head. “Same Imperium, same threat to the sector, just a new name. You know, the Kestrels weren’t exactly wrong about the empire, they just focused on the wrong individual. The High Imperius wasn’t nearly the threat to the Fringe that Gallow will be.”
Manu exhaled, shaking his head. “And Reed Casto is the one who sacrificed the Fringe to him. How are the rest of the Kestrels going to feel when they find out their boss served up the Fringe for the warlord’s taking?”
Decker winced at the suggestion, rubbing his palms against his eyes. “Wait, are we now allied with the Kestrels who will oppose Reed’s actions?” He let his hands fall. “Eliza, I am going to need a shot of that rocket fuel.”
Eliza cackled, extending her drink to Decker; he raised a hand to refuse, remembering the last decision he’d made under the influence of the toxic green liquid.
Samantha exhaled, stepping toward the center of the lounge. “I don’t have the answers. For now, we will use what we have. The one thing we can’t do is nothing, because Gallow and the Republic sure won’t be.”
The conversation continued. Suggestions were made and shot down. Opinions shared, then rejected. Everyone wrestled with the urgency of the moment and the frustration of always coming back to the same conclusion; they were eight banged-up enemies of the Republic, with no support and no place to turn.
An hour passed. Suggestions dwindled. Lee proposed they turn on the Fringe news feeds to see if anything could inspire a direction. The vidscreen was split into a grid of nine feeds, each showing different reports from around the Fringe.
Lee crossed to stand near the screen, pointing to one of the feeds. “The second fleet has taken back Belsar, that’s the closest planet to Kestris,” he said, voice dour. On the feed were Republic warships—still white and gold—in orbit, followed by cuts to Republic ground troops in the streets, Belsar citizens lined up and marched with bolt rifles aimed at their backs. “That’s four of the eleven claimed by the Republic. Soon, it will be five. Then six. Once Gallow has control of a majority, he’ll send a few fleets to Dai’Reen, maybe the Terminus itself, and Dai’Reen will fall. Any inertia a resistance has will be stopped, then reversed.”
Decker lowered his gaze. Would the Republic come for Mentaryd? Senali? Dradari? When would it stop? He looked at Samantha, her eyes were fixed on the vidscreen. She might have been part of the Imperium before, but this was what she, Julian, and Clarke had been trying to stop. In a way, their efforts were closer to the Red Kestrels’ original mission than what Reed had allowed the group to become. This was everything Decker’s father had feared, and Reed Casto had made it happen.
Heavy rose from his seat on the couch, turning to stand in front of the vidscreen. His expression was serious, which caused Decker—and by the looks of it, everyone else—to pay attention.
“Okay, team. I’m not gonna lie, it looks bad out there. Our opponents outweigh us, outmatch us, and at this point have outscored us to the point of embarrassment. Coming at this with brute force won’t work. We need to move to a finesse play.” He held up a fist, then placed an open hand against it. “With a fulcrum and long enough lever, you can move anything back in the right direction. We’ve got smart folks and all that data you smuggled out. We just need a fulcrum to balance it on, and then push.”
Heavy met eyes with everyone in the room. Heads turned, brows furrowed. Heavy raised his voice, hands clapping together like a thunderbolt. “Come on, team! What’s our advantage? There’s got to be something. What trick play can we run that the opposite team won’t be expecting?”
Decker sighed, his lack of any answer conflicting with his desperate frustration to provide one. His shoulders fell. “Hev, I am not sure—”
“I know what we have,” Samantha said, stepping forward. She crossed the lounge and came to a stop next to Heavy, her head barely reaching the center of his chest.
Her eyes narrowed. “We have the truth.”
Lee narrowed his eyes back at her. “The truth? What do you mean?”
Decker joined Lee. “Yeah, what do you mean?”
Samantha smirked, pointing down to a feed that showed recent video of President Archer and several Republic military leaders, Lord Ascendent Gallow conspicuously absent. “This is a game of spy stuff. Cloak and dagger. Gallow has maintained the advantage by keeping access to information as limited as possible.”
Heavy nodded beside her. “He’s rigged the game. Cheating from the start. Go on.”
Samantha’s voice became more energized. “That’s right. Everything is hidden, obscured, buried beneath layer after layer of deception and diversion. By forcing everyone to play in the dark, he was able to stay ahead of us every step because he knew where he was going to step next.”
Heavy grunted and nodded along. “Spy stuff is a game where the rules and score aren’t revealed until you’ve lost.”
Samantha scanned the room, eyes bright. “And playing it that way is what has weakened us from the start. We hid the Terminus key when we found out the Kestrels had been given it by an Imperium insider. That helped Gallow. Then, we hid what I was up to from our own agency. That helped Gallow. Keeping Renic’s appearance on Senali from Julian and Clarke, that helped Gallow. It’s a game that is already so lopsided and lost there is no point in continuing to play with the existing rules. So we stop. We start a new game and rig it from the start against him.”
Lee folded his arms. “You said we have the truth. Do you mean the data from the Terminus and 5E? You yourself said that its tactical value is dwindling every minute.”
Samantha shook her head. “No, not the data, and not just to organized groups of resistance.” She turned, pointing to a feed that showed protesting crowds across the former Imperium. “We give the truth to them. The story that only we know. Eight people can’t stop this. But if we can nudge eight billion or eighty billion, then Gallow is no longer facing pockets of resistance. He’s facing everyone with all the reprehensible things he’s done brought into the light. We take away the advantage he’s had from the start and put everything we have, including my personal account of the events as I know them, into the sector for all to access.”
Manu came forward, placing both hands against the back of the couch. “Who is going to believe five Fringe mercenaries and three Imperium defectors? Renic already set you up as a traitor. We’ll be instantly discredited.”
Samantha exhaled sharply. “It will introduce doubt. Gallow will have to contend with a version of the story that doesn’t match what he and his President Archer have sold. It taints everything.”
Lee shook his head. “Manu is right. It’s not enough. Renic already set you all up, and there’s no one left in the Republic who can validate anything we’d share. All the information can be denounced as fraudulent, laughed off as an attempt to sully the Lord Ascendent’s rescue of the empire. Then, the data won’t just be worthless. It will be actively used against us.”
Decker took a long drag off the nether, staring into the ceiling. Maybe they were simply outclassed, lucky to even be alive after how close they’d been to Gallow’s plot. Without Heavy’s fulcrum, they really were stuck.
Samantha glared across the lounge at Lee, scenes of the developing civil war still on the vidscreen behind her. “It’s still something. We will be able to refer to top-secret information that can’t be falsified. If even a few people believe what we’re saying—”
“Samantha, if I may provide an alternative,” Julian said, stepping around the couch. “I believe I have the fulcrum required.”
Samantha exhaled and nodded, giving Julian space near the vidscreen. Julian smiled at the group. He reached up and pulled the pencil out from behind his ear, holding it out for everyone to see. Decker’s eyes went from the pencil to Samantha; she looked just as confused as he was.
“Observe,” Julian said, twisting the bottom of the pencil until the end came off; it was hollow. He pinched at something that was sticking out and pulled slowly, as if it might explode if handled too quickly. A small, rolled-up scrap of paper emerged.
Decker’s eyes went from the weird object to Samantha. Now she was reacting. Her eyes were wide and full of disbelief.
“I don’t believe it. You kept that? In there? How did you know to keep it?” Samantha said, a hand reaching toward Julian.
Julian shrugged, pressing his lips together. “While I did not have any specific plan, this was a piece of data so unique, the circumstances under which it was created would be impossible for any of us to ever replicate. While Gallow may have already prevented this from being of direct use, indirectly it may still hold an irreplaceable value.” He held the scrap of paper up between his fingers. “Mister Heavy, may I present to you ‘the fulcrum.’”
Decker cleared his throat. “Anyone want to fill in the rest of us?”
Julian smiled and bowed his head. “Of course. But I must ask that everyone please only look, do not touch.” He walked to Decker and held the unrolled scrap in front of him.
Decker looked at it and hummed. “I have no idea what this is. Selli, get over here and give this an eye, eh?”
Sellivan rose from his seat and hurried over, crowding Decker as he leaned in close. “It resembles an… an encryption key signature. No data itself, but validation of data.” Sellivan’s eyes shifted to Julian. “The question is, to whom does the signature belong?”
Julian turned toward the vidscreen, pointing down to one of the feeds showing a scene from the orbit over Kestris, the black monolith of the Terminus in the center. “This is the Terminus’s duplicate encryption key signature, the one Gallow created and provided to the Red Kestrels so they could hijack the Dauntless. Since it was created from one of the Navy’s quantum computing cores, it cannot be a counterfeit.”
Eliza let out a low whistle. “It’s the key to the castle.”
“What are the odds that it still works? Seems like something that would have been shut down as soon as it served its purpose,” Decker said.
Julian shook his head. “It is not a ‘key’ in the sense of opening a lock. Even if Gallow covered up its creation and rotated the keys within the quantum cores, this will always maintain a historic authenticity of when, where, and how it was created that cannot be invalidated. Even if no longer in use, this was generated on the Terminus in the correct timeframe by an exceedingly small group of potential perpetrators. Any cryptographer in the sector will be able to validate the authenticity of its origin.”
Decker paced across the room. “I am going to assume we’re not going to use it to park the Matilda in one of the Terminus’s hangars. So, what will it do?”
Lee pointed at the slip of paper. “We use it to intercept their transmissions. Listen in, collect information, let us stay one step ahead.”
Manu stepped forward, waving off Lee’s idea. “No no no. If it is the key to the castle, let’s get rid of the castle. If this was used to disable the Dauntless to hijack it, could the same be done to the Terminus? Maybe trigger the detonation of an antimatter warhead while Gallow is still on the ship?”
Sellivan stepped to the center of the circle, a wry grin on his gaunt face. He raised his hand. “You have all failed to understand what Julian said. It is not a key to the castle. It is the royal seal the monarch presses into the wax. If the message arrives from the monarch with the wax unbroken, you know it is from royalty.”
Julian bowed to Sellivan. “Precisely. Gallow has given us something that when ‘pressed into the wax’ of the data we have gathered, cannot be refuted. Every journalist in the sector can have their technicians validate it within hours.”
Lee squinted at the slip of paper. “This is good. But, they are already pinning it on the High Imperius, which is quite convenient since he and his people are either dead or in Republic custody. It could be spun as evidence that Archer and Gallow uncovered his treachery and made the hard decision for the good of the Imperium. Us blaming Gallow will be easy to discredit.”
Samantha shrugged, an impatient grimace on her lips. “It may. It may not. Drawing attention to it will put them in a paradox. Bringing the focus back to the scene of the crime gives everyone’s eyes the chance to discover evidence they might not have seen otherwise.”
“Scene of the…” Sellivan muttered. He gasped, then turned and hurried back to his computer, frantically typing something into it.
“Uh Selli, you okay?” Decker asked. An exclamation of glee so pure from their surly navigator, Decker questioned everything he’d presumed about the man.
“Ah!” Sellivan yelped. He tapped a final key on his computer and triumphantly pointed to the vidscreen. “Listen to this.”
The group all turned to the vidscreen. On it, an audio wave bounced to the sound of muffled voices and static. Decker recognized a voice. No, not just any voice. His voice.
“Sellivan, is that…” Decker started. He looked toward Eliza; she shushed him loudly.
The lounge went silent, the sound of a muffled voice filled the lounge.
“There is far more than that at play. There are those who will resist, and, while we do not want a bloody civil war, you can help ensure if there is one, it is short.”
“It’s him,” Samantha murmured. “That’s Renic.”
Sellivan skipped ahead to a new section of the recording.
“When the throne is vacated of its ineffectual occupant, will these actions be looked at as treason, or as a display of courage to do what was right?”
Decker’s mouth fell open, nether cartridge nearly falling to the floor as he scrambled to catch it. “That’s what we heard outside the doors on Senali before we blew them open.”
“The High Imperius is the one who thinks he cannot be stopped. Gallow is the only one who can keep the construct of the ‘Imperium’ together. Once he is finished, we will be seen as heroes of the New Kestris Republic.”
Lee’s head slowly turned to the group. “He named him. Gallow. Renic actually said it. Voice-print forensics will be able to authenticate that.”
Heavy exhaled. “Spy stuff basics. You never name names.”
Samantha smiled, a predator’s glint in her eye. “We combine everything we have with a Navy commander’s own voice condemning Gallow.” She looked to Manu. “You had the right idea. We are going to detonate a warhead, but not on the Terminus. We are going to blow up the entire sector.”
Samantha sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the oversized vidscreen, a loop of the civil unrest through the Republic playing behind. Sellivan had assembled the video clips from the available news feeds while Julian collected all the smuggled data, edited versions of Eliza’s recordings of Renic’s voice, and the written account of Samantha’s firsthand experience. On the lounge table directly across from her was a small camera, positioned so that her head and shoulders would be framed against a background of what Gallow’s Republic had wrought.
“Everything is here. Categorized, sorted, verification checksums intact. All scrubbed of anything that would lead back to this ship,” Julian said, handing the datapad to Samantha. “And of course, the key signature to validate it all, especially since I included instructions on how to prove the origin. There will be skepticism about who it originally came from, but not that it is fake. It will introduce doubt about everything Gallow has claimed.”
Samantha nodded. “And the sleeper, Qin, how easily could the Indigo data leak be pinned on her?”
Julian looked to Lee. Lee sighed, concern evident on his face. “Qin is smart. Real smart. She’ll know how to cover her tracks and stay safe. But, just to give her a little more breathing room, I had Julian put a few of Sergeant Lee’s fingerprints on the Indigo data.” Lee grinned, looking wistfully to an invisible horizon. “Everyone will wonder ‘how did he do it?’ A legend is born.”
Decker crossed from the galley, kneeling down to be eye-height with the camera. He looked to Samantha, skepticism in his voice. “About creating legends… are you sure you want to do it like this? We have the, uh, signature thing. You put your face out there, you’re going to have more new friends and enemies than you could ever count.”
Samantha stared into the camera. The level of concern he showed might have been meant to dissuade her, but realizing someone was concerned about her only instilled more confidence. “This is my contribution. Gallow’s victory feels complete. Every day that passes the population will grow more complacent. I can poison his efforts if there is a face to the resistance. I can give people someone to identify with that isn’t afraid of him.”
“You’re not afraid of him?” Decker asked.
Samantha smirked. “Of the man? No. All he has is the power of fear. We show we’re in control and that we’re not afraid, and he’s just another administrator who gives orders from behind a desk. We give him and Archer a few prominent black eyes for the entire sector to see. It’ll shake the faith of their supporters and instill courage in all who oppose them.”
Decker raised an eyebrow. “Entering politics then?”
Samantha shrugged. “It fits a narrative. I’m the daughter of a diplomat killed while serving the people. Easy to believe.”
“Yeah, except the glory and honor of the Imperium isn’t what your father died for, and never what you fought for either,” Decker said, punctuating his plea with a loud exhalation.
Samantha smirked. “Like you said, I’m entering politics.”
Lee whistled. “I hope someone has a camera pointed at Gallow when it hits. To see his face sink… it would be worth sneaking my way back on the Terminus.”
Eliza hopped over the back of the couch, taking a seat behind the camera. “I always wanted to be a part of a ‘where-were-you-when’ moment. I will tell people I watched it live. We’re doing it live, right?”
Julian chuckled. “No, not live. The final product will be sent out once it is also clean of any identifying data that could lead back to the Matilda.”
Samantha smoothed back her hair, then glanced down at the datapad with her written statement. “Are we ready to do this?”
Sellivan approached, computer held in his arms. “Yes. A transmission routing sequence is ready, it will be routed through the Nighthawk, making it impossible to trace back to any original location. We are sending it to all news outlets on Kestris, the unified planets, several public feed-repeaters in the Fringe, and a blind broadcast into Sellacan space. And, for good measure, to the Terminus itself.”
Samantha nodded. “Good. I’m ready.”
Samantha took a slow breath, letting her mind clear. She looked to Decker, her only family member left, who had risked his life to come back for her three times in the past two weeks. To Manu, Decker’s friend and partner who had kept him from giving in to Samantha’s demands she wasn’t now proud to have demanded. To Eliza, a new partner in crime who had helped her see that sometimes a person has to walk away from an old life. To Heavy, who kept the faith in her redeemability even when she didn’t deserve it, and to Sellivan, who helped her realize that she was in control of whether there would be anything left to redeem.
Samantha looked to Lee, who had been willing to fight to make sure Julian got to her and kept his integrity as a 5E agent. And finally, to Julian, who had been the voice in her ear she didn’t always listen to, but had never lost faith in her even when he should have.
Sellivan gestured to the camera. Samantha nodded, her expression hardening into the clear-eyed, calculating hunter she knew so well. This was the person she remembered herself as, and hoped others would, too.
“My name is Samantha Mori. Up until two weeks ago, I was a member of the Imperium government, working as a covert operative tracking external threats to imperial security. I discovered information about an insider working within the Imperium to overthrow the High Imperius. The truth was uncovered, but too late. Your new president and her warlord puppet-master have deceived you, and included with this message is the undeniable evidence to prove that.”