Qin, Renic, and Gallow each experience the results of Samantha's action.
For the first time since being assigned to the Terminus, Qin awoke and was not alone in her bed. She turned her head against her pillow and saw the back of Yadav’s head asleep next to her. Their concerns about crew fraternization approvals were irrelevant now. As Qin learned when she accepted the armor-capped uniform from Captain Alaudae, the Honor Guard existed outside the normal set of rules aboard the Terminus, and the entire Republic. With this, Qin made her own shift schedules now, and she had decided that both she and Yadav deserved a moment of respite.
She rolled to her back, turning to look across her quarters. The only light was from the plant shelf, timed lamps giving light to those species on a schedule out of sync with the Terminus’s day-night cycle. Visible on the floor were haphazardly-tossed pieces of uniform forming a trail from her quarter’s entrance to the edge of the bed, evidence of the timeless refuge of those who found themselves caught behind enemy lines with only each other for support. Part passion, part desperate attempt to cope.
Yadav’s transfer into the Honor Guard had been processed before Qin had had a chance to warn her. Qin had explained their new positions to Yadav on the shuttle ride down to the capital to retrieve Clarke. Yadav had been stunned, but she had played her part before the Honor Guard and Renic perfectly. Yadav’s quick thinking and ability to adapt proved that she was the right person for Qin to share her life on the Terminus with, as much as she could share her duplicitous life at all.
When she and Yadav had returned from the surface of Kestris, Yadav had not reported back to her own quarters. If anyone disapproved of their relationship, the only office with which to lodge a complaint was the Lord Ascendent’s. So long as Qin led OS-10—the Bureau of Inquisition—she was above reproach. With that newfound power, her first order was to double the size of her team from only herself, to herself and Yadav. Then, her second order was to have the Honor Guard transfer their first prisoner into the bureau’s custody: Director Clarke.
Elias Clarke, former Director in the Office of Information Security—5E—was now held aboard the Terminus. Qin had designated him as a priority-zero asset for OS-10, not to be disturbed under any circumstances until she declared he was of no more use to her organization. And, due to Clarke’s high-profile status, she had arranged for him to be held in a locked-down cabin instead of a detention cell, its location only known to her and the Honor Guard. He had no access to the outside world, but he had several stacks of real paper books Qin had arranged to be waiting for him. It was the best she could do.
The thoughts pushed aside any notion of falling back to sleep, the daunting task ahead one that even a night with Yadav could not make Qin forget. She shifted to a seated position, placing her bare feet on the carpeted floor. Captain Alaudae would expect her first project brief soon. While a dissident-detecting algorithm was not going to be easy to create, simulating one and providing hand-picked answers would allow Qin to keep damage of the Honor Guard focused and deliberate. She could not stop the Honor Guard and Gallow’s culture of fear, but she could use it as camouflage to work against the regime from within.
She rose silently from the bed and retrieved a sleeping robe, slipping her arms through the sleeves and tying the belt around her waist. She could allow Yadav to sleep a while longer. The past day had been a trial for them both, with no telling what would be required next. She crossed to her computer, quietly pulling out the chair and sitting.
Qin activated her computer. Instantly, priority messages filled the screen. Qin’s stomach clenched; something was wrong. Every communication channel held multiple notifications, all of which were to the entire Terminus intelligence staff; the Honor Guard, OS-9, the Naval Special Investigation Division, and all senior officers.
Qin scanned through the information, eyes flitting back and forth. All notifications were timestamped within the last fifteen minutes, and all referred to the same incident, internally being called a ‘critical intelligence data breach.’
This level of response was irregular. Data breach incidents were usually kept highly classified; advertising that data had been hacked was against every Navy intelligence policy. But in this instance, there was no point; all the messages were referring to news on public feeds.
Qin’s heartbeat quickened. She forced a swallow through a tightening throat and retrieved a briefing meant for OS-9, her status as a member of the Honor Guard giving her universal security clearance. It told of an enormous cache of Imperium and Republic data leaked throughout the sector, including classified Indigo documents never admitted to exist before now. Qin did not have to speculate much as to what the documents were.
She closed the Navy reports and opened a list of news feeds from across the sector, both Republic and Fringe alike. They all reported the same thing. Earlier that morning, Kestris Standard Time, a transmission had been simultaneously received by hundreds of the largest news organizations across the sector, as well as by each of the Republic’s planetary governors.
Qin switched from feed to feed, her mind racing to chain together the events that started with her handing a datapad to Lee in this very room and ending with what she was seeing on the screen. How had all this data she recognized ended up in the hands of the press?
One feed caught her attention. Her eyes widened at the sight of someone she’d only ever seen in a personnel file photo: Agent Mori, Samantha. She was on a video message that had been included with the data leak, with a stern, fearless expression looking directly into the camera. Beneath the video, the news feed had included the name of the alleged perpetrator: ‘Samantha Mori: Imperium defector turned against her own?’
The full text of Samantha’s message was included. Qin read through it, marveling at the audacity of the statement. Samantha was telling the true story of how Gallow had engineered the fall of an empire. She included her never-before shared experiences on Senali, Director Clarke’s attempt to send her into hiding, intelligence gathered from Red Kestrels not recorded elsewhere, and a more than plausible timeline and sequence of events detailing how Gallow, Renic, and other unidentified conspirators pulled off the deception of a generation.
The allegations were beyond damning. It was an excoriation of Gallow and everything he and Archer had done. This could not be what Major Drake had intended when he’d left the datapad behind for Qin to take, could it have been? Qin’s presumption had been that Drake would want the Indigo information used tactically, exploring for small exploits and cracks. This was not an exploit, it was an explosion. Was Drake more like Clarke than he had ever revealed, even to Qin?
Qin quickly stole a glance back to Yadav. She was still sleeping. Qin turned up the volume to barely audible levels, leaning close to listen. Samantha’s voice was unafraid, almost as if to both goad Gallow and challenge her audience to act. Qin muted the audio, keeping the news feed playing in a small corner section of her screen as she hurried back to the Republic intelligence notifications. She scanned through the data more thoroughly this time, a strange feeling of dread mixing with excitement. It was not just a release of data and a message from Imperium-exile Agent Mori. Every piece of data was signed by the Terminus’s own signature key.
Qin looked to the door of her quarters, thoughts of her and Yadav’s safety an immediate concern as she envisioned Captain Alaudae and the Honor Guard storming in. She turned back to her computer and ran a search query for her and Yadav’s names in the data. Scattered results appeared, mostly showing Indigo files they had authored, but nothing unexpected. She tried her Honor Guard access. It was still active. Whatever Julian had done to the data, it was clean of any evidence of Qin.
She closed the computer and picked up a datapad from the desk. Given the secret involvement she and Yadav shared, Qin had to ensure that they both told the same set of stories to cover their tracks. Yadav did not know that she was partially responsible, and that lack of knowledge could lead her to reveal her and Qin unknowingly.
Qin rose and walked to the bed, sitting on its edge. Yadav was still asleep. Saving her from abduction by the Honor Guard by deceiving and Gallow had been dangerous, with long-term consequences yet to be realized. But, finally being able to be close to Yadav and knowing that she was safe brought a melancholic warmth to Qin’s heart. She had given up the person she was twice, once when she boarded the Terminus, and once again in Gallow’s office. It was an unjust sacrifice, but one she would make again if it meant she could protect Yadav.
Qin sighed, not wanting to break the peace of Yadav’s slumber. She placed a hand on her shoulder and gently shook her awake.
“Esme,” Qin murmured.
Yadav groaned, her eyes partially opening. She brought an arm up over her face.
“Good morning, if it is morning,” Yadav mumbled.
Qin smiled softly. “It is. Though, I suspect our moment of tranquility is over.” Qin squeezed her arm and held the datapad for Yadav to see. “Something has happened.”
Yadav propped herself up on her elbows, playfully wincing from the exertion. She took the datapad and scanned the screen. Her tired eyes widened, exhaustion chased away.
“This is… this is our work. The Indigo files. Starview Station records. Wait…” Yadav paused, pulling up a specific piece of data. “This claims the Dauntless was orchestrated by Gallow. He was the supplier to Renic and the Red Kestrels?” She looked up to Qin, eyes hardened. “How could he do that?”
Qin nodded. “Everything here points to them. President Archer, the fleet marshal, Renic. The Red Kestrels were never a threat. It was always Gallow. They all knew this.”
Yadav continued to scan through the mountain of information. She shook her head. “This was Agent Siddig. Julian. This is everything he had access to,” Yadav said as she continued to browse through the data. “Wait, this isn’t just Indigo data. This is our data, Qin, what we gave to Julian.” She laid the datapad on her lap, forehead wrinkled in confusion. “How did this get out? Was it Lee?”
Qin shook her head, stalling for a moment as she considered how much she could reveal. Lee wanted to be used as a shield. Serving him up to Yadav as a suspect was what he wanted, even if Qin felt remorse at dishonoring someone she knew to be an ally.
She sighed. “Lee may have been an asset of Director Clarke, but if we are to believe these reports, it was Gallow used the Kestrels, Commander Tau, even the Indigo investigation to engineer the overthrow. We have been manipulated from the start.”
Yadav stared at the screen. She exhaled deeply and slowly, shutting her eyes. “Meaning the story about the High Imperius is a fabrication. If this was all orchestrated by Gallow, then the people that, I mean the enemy is…” Yadav opened her eyes, looking up to Qin. “Are we the enemy?”
Qin took one of Yadav’s hands and held it in her lap. “I… I do not know.”
Yadav tossed the datapad onto the bed and stood, retrieving her scattered uniform from the floor. “We have to go verify all of this. If it’s true then… then I don’t know.” Her jaw clenched. “We can go to Major Drake. He knows that Indigo was looking internally. Maybe President Archer doesn’t even know. She could have Gallow arrested, or… I don’t know.”
Qin remained seated, the tension she felt pulling her apart. Yadav was a moral person and a good naval officer. So long as Yadav remained in the dark and would continue to act in the Republic’s best interests out of duty without realizing Qin’s motives, she would always be a threat to herself and to Qin. Yadav must be led to a different interpretation of the story and allowed to accept that what she had believed about her place in the Republic was false.
Qin stood, hurrying across the room and placing a hand on Yadav’s arm to stop her. “Esme, we know these allegations are not just allegations. This explains it all. Julian, Director Clarke, their collaborators, even Sergeant Lee. This is their strike against Gallow. Their message to everyone who will not support or condone the Republic’s actions.”
Yadav looked away. “But we are the Republic, Qin. Gallow led us all forward and we followed, serving the Imperium only to find out we were blindly helping assist in its demise? I don’t even know what side we’re on anymore.”
Qin lowered her head. This was not going to work. So long as Yadav believed Qin was Lieutenant Meredessi, now Chief Inquisitor Meredessi, they would forever be separated by the veil of secrecy and deception. Dropping the facade she had been in order to make the dark bargain with Gallow was not enough. For the sacrifice to be complete, she must drop all facades.
Qin remembered Samantha’s face on the recorded video, how she had stared at the viewer, unafraid and challenging. Samantha abandoned the anonymity of working from the shadows in order to inspire others.
Qin closed her eyes, letting the persona she’d maintained for the last two years fade, revealing the pure, unaltered essence of herself she hid from everyone. “Esme, may I tell you something? Something important.”
Yadav looked up, expression desperate for some sort of answer. Qin took Yadav’s hands in hers. Yadav narrowed her eyes. “Qin, what is it?”
Qin took a slow breath, for the first time feeling a true sense of freedom aboard the Terminus. “Esme, before joining the Imperium Navy, I was an agent for the Office of Information Security under Director Clarke. And I still am.”
Renic sat behind his desk in the Navy command compound, doors closed, glass walls set to their opaque privacy setting. His computer was off, its screen black as it had been since he arrived an hour earlier.
After Meredessi and the Honor Guard came and took Clarke from him, Renic expected a follow-up from Captain Alaudae, or maybe Gallow himself. Neither summoned him. Eventually Renic left the holding cell and wandered back to his apartment, a double injection of Doctor Gast’s painkillers giving him a few hours of sleep. He returned to his office early in the morning, still wearing the same disheveled uniform as the day before, and had sat at his desk in silence ever since.
Renic had told his newly promoted chief of staff, Operative Milinson, that he had important work and was not to be disturbed. Milinson had been one of the first to join his division and seemed to have a talent for administrative tedium, which took the tedium of that responsibility away from Renic. With his blind allegiance to Gallow as dead as the empire he helped Gallow to overthrow, Renic had nothing to do.
This command had been his reward—his own operation with his own objectives. He had that now, and Gallow was to thank. His throat twitched at the thought of the Fleet Marshal, the Lord Ascendent. Renic had done everything necessary to fulfill Gallow’s requests. The High Imperius was dead. Archer was president, even if disputed by half the former empire. The Navy had taken control of Kestris and laid siege to the unified planets. All loose ends were being tied up, snipped off, or burned away. Only one remained, a thorn in Renic’s mind, a bleeding wound that would not clot, would not heal.
With great effort, he raised a hand and turned on his computer, intending to enter Samantha’s name into the Republic intelligence networks, or maybe the XJ-class ship Kogan claimed he saw on Senali. Anything to give him a start, some thread he could cling to.
The screen came to life. Instantly it was filled with notifications. Renic’s eyes narrowed. The data on the screen was instantly recognizable. 5E files, OS-9 files, the Indigo data. There was a report about the hijacking of the Dauntless and the conspiracy on the Terminus. Even the duplicate key signature he’d given to Kat Basara was there, experts already declaring it validated the claims.
Renic’s jaw and neck began to tense and release, muscles in his face twitching as his gut realized something his mind had yet to grasp, the growing sensations of fear and rage too similar to distinguish. The data on the screen was a catastrophic intelligence leak, one that would not be easily managed or ignored.
And yet, another story was dominating the news feeds. Not the leak itself, but a video message that had been sent along with the data. An Imperium defector was claiming to be the source of the truth.
Renic selected the video and played it. A familiar face appeared on the screen. The chill in Renic’s gut spread to the rest of his body as Samantha excoriated Gallow and the Republic. She had revealed everything, including a written report specifically about her interactions with Renic.
Renic swayed in his seat. He closed his eyes and tensed his body, pushing away the panic. It was not an emotion he was familiar with, and this was not the time to introduce himself to it. These reports were new intel, nothing more. He must use it to his advantage. This must have been why Samantha returned to Kestris. Julian had somehow managed to smuggle all this data out. He and Lee must have been carrying it with them, just beyond Renic’s grasp on the grounds of the Radiance. They had harvested it all and smuggled…
A realizing hit Renic like a rail slug. A burning sensation ran across Renic’s skin, taking the edge off of the chill freezing him in place. The Terminus signature was not from Indigo or 5E. It had never been entered into any data by Samantha, and certainly not by Renic. It could only have come from the Red Kestrels.
Eddie Renner. They had taken the data Eddie Renner had copied from the Dauntless. It was never supposed to make it back to 5E. They’d had the key all along, even before Renic had approached Samantha in her apartment. Had she known then? Was that the piece of evidence that had tipped her off? Was this Renic’s fault?
No. This critical failure was not on Renic. It was Gallow. Gallow had made the mistake by presuming he could use the Red Kestrels without consequence. And now, one insignificant Red Kestrel was the puncture, the tiny leak that would now bleed them dry. Eddie Renner had been the unwitting cause of it all, and Renic had sent him right back home to the Kestrels and Reed Casto.
Renic placed his hands flat on the desk, forcing himself to breath. He had to know what he was implicated in. He quickly typed his own name into a query of the public news feeds. Hundreds of results returned from across the sector. He selected one at random, the image of a Fringe news anchor appearing on his computer. He raised the volume, slowly losing the ability to breathe as he listened.
“We have learned that voiceprint identification has authenticated the voice as Republic Navy Commander Renic Tau. Let’s listen to the audio.”
“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.”
It was Renic’s voice. The conversation he’d had with Samantha. She’d recorded him. He’d spilled his and Gallow’s plan to her like some vidscreen movie henchman. Was that her intent the whole time? To get him to talk? Well, he had talked. He had talked and talked, all to try to convince her to join him, to accept him, to recognize what he could offer her.
What had Samantha done?
What had Renic done?
Weakness spread from his chest down into his arms. He struggled to swallow, the pain from the damaged tissue in his throat amplified by the crushing tightening of his chest. He had to regain control. Control. Control of… of what? There was no control. Everything was out of control.
Renic checked his personal message box. There was no summons, no messages. Gallow would be aware of all this. Renic returned to the written report from Samantha about him and his actions. She and whoever had helped her expose this data had known almost everything, certainly having been watching him since he joined the Indigo team. Why not act then? What had they been waiting for?
Renic’s eyes went to the desk’s control surface. He could call an emergency meeting with his division, get ahead of the situation and start the denial process. Samantha was already on the most-wanted list of enemies to the Republic. These could be painted as more of her carefully crafted games, made to look authentic because she was being helped by the equally treacherous Agent Julian Siddig.
Yes. Change the conversation. Samantha and Clarke had been working with the Kestrels from the start, of course they would have this air-tight story to sully the integrity of Commander Tau. The very nature of its completeness is evidence of how far they would go to falsely accuse Renic. Lies. All of it.
Renic laughed, slamming his fists down against his keyboard. No, it wouldn’t work. They had his voice. They had the Terminus encryption signature. Even if he refuted her story, he had no explanation for the data. He did not have the political insulation of the president or the Lord Ascendent. He was an errand-runner. Gallow’s discarded, spent weapon with an edge so dulled he could not cut his way out of this. He was no one.
Renic had to do something. He burst to his feet and shoved his chair out of the way. He ran across the office, going to the recessed wardrobe where spare uniforms, civilian clothes, and other personal items were kept. He grabbed the hanging garments and ripped them down. On the wall was a featureless hand scanner that opened the hidden compartment in the wall.
Renic placed his hand on the scanner and a panel in the wall popped inward and slid to the side. Weapons and hardware were neatly arranged on a set of shallow shelves, above a pre-packed evacuation bag. He grabbed one of the silver rail pistols he preferred, as well as a short barreled bolt rifle. He tucked the rail pistol into his uniform pocket, then yanked the evacuation bag from the compartment and tossed it onto his desk.
Renic looked back to his office door. Did he think he would fight his way out from six levels of Navy command headquarters? Renic laughed, frantically searching the room for any other answer. There was none. There would be no escaping.
“Stop! Stop!” Renic shouted, bringing his fists to his temples. This was what Samantha had wanted to happen. She didn’t need to reach him physically. She had found a way to hit him even in the middle of the New Kestris Republic. This wasn’t a situation he could fight his way out of. There was nothing he could do. He had helped overthrow an empire, and she’d managed to throw it all right back on top of him.
Renic grimaced, feeling a reassuring sense of rage and spite push away some of the panic. This wasn’t how he envisioned himself going down. Even when he’d had Gallow’s hand around his neck, he had felt like he still had a chance to defeat him. Gallow had proven him wrong. So had Clarke. Meredessi. Samantha. All of them.
Renic sighed, slowly pulling the rail pistol out of his uniform pocket. He’d seen the instant, blank stares of countless victims he’d used it on. He knew it would be painless and over in the blink of an eye. They would not defeat Renic. He had done too much, sacrificed too much, to be defeated like this. If there was going to be someone to defeat Renic, it had to be the single person he respected, the only person he knew was worthy of finally taking down Renic Tau.
With a heavy sigh, Renic activated the rail pistol. He looked down at the weapon and saw his own face reflected on its silver finish. What was it he’d said to Reed Casto when he’d convinced him to attack Starview Station? The same phrase Gallow had used to convince Renic that what he did in service of the fleet marshal was of great importance.
‘A bloody means to a greater end.’
That’s right. What a stupid phrase.
Renic raised the rail pistol and placed it’s muzzle beneath his jaw. He closed his eyes, taking a slow, cleansing breath.
No; he’d do this with his eyes open. He wasn’t being executed. He was the executioner.
Just as his eyelids parted, so did the doors to his office. A group of figures stood in the doorway. He couldn’t tell who; his vision was blurred.
A voice shouted, hand outstretched as they rushed forward.
“Commander Tau, you are instructed to come with us.”
The request caused Renic’s trigger-finger to hesitate.
Gallow strode across the cantilevered walkway that extended from the top level of the Terminus’s cavernous, three-deck tall command bridge. The walkway stretched into the open space, ending in a circular dais. The multi-level high viewscreen showed him a breathtaking view of his entire conquest.
Set against the view of the sector floated the indicators of his fleets, the battles being fought and won, the orchestration of his victory. Standing there above what he had created, he felt not just like the Lord Ascendent, demigod of the Republic, but just like he imagined the Creator itself felt, looking down on what it had created.
Behind him, the bridge crew of the Terminus carried out their tasks, all bit players in his grand plan. He stood with his back to them, black cape hanging off his shoulders as if it were cut from the fabric of space and time itself. To them, he must appear as a towering specter set against the view of the war on the vidscreen beyond. Gallow had stood there many times, but this time was different. It was a symphony of victory, a live view of everything he had worked for and sacrificed so much to bring about, and he was the conductor. It was a glimpse into the future. A future Gallow would have wanted his son to see. The people of the New Kestris Republic would rebuild, repair, and learn in time to appreciate everything Gallow had done for them.
Gallow clasped his hands behind his back, feeling the fabric of the cape against his arms, letting the magnificent view overwhelm his senses. The victory was more complete than any he’d ever experienced. A smile formed on his lips. The Creator had nudged him down this path until he was ready to recognize his destiny, and now it was fulfilled.
Gallow turned and faced the multi-level bridge behind him, where his most elite officers and crew oversaw all of the Terminus, a testament to the Navy’s—and Gallow’s—absolute power over—
Something was wrong. There was a murmur from the crew, even from where he stood on the dais. A certain level of subdued, indistinct chatter was normal; there were no fewer than one-hundred bridge crew staffed at any given moment. But this was not chatter. This was a commotion, a commotion that was interrupting his moment.
The muscles down Gallow’s spine tensed. He took a few steps down the walkway toward the bridge. Still, the commotion did not cease. He marched forward, booted footfalls echoing in the enormous space as his cape billowed behind him. This finally got the crew’s attention.
Some shadowed heads turned to watch their supreme leader stalking toward them like a deity descending from the heavens. But many stayed adhered to their console screens, with some crew members peering over their neighbor’s shoulder. Gallow had the sudden impulse to grab those crew members and throw them over the balcony’s edge to the floor three levels below. What could be so important as to steal all of their attention from him?
From the station nearest the walkway, his senior bridge officer, Captain Everett, pulled her gaze away from her console and nearly leapt from her seat at his advance. Everett’s eyes were wide, the whites matched by her blood-drained complexion. It was not a look he expected from a veteran senior officer.
“Lord Ascendent,” Everett said curtly, not giving Gallow the opportunity to address her first. “There is a…” she paused. “Sir, there is… I am not sure what to call it. It’s something you need to see.”
Gallow glowered at the strange statement. He looked over Everett’s shoulder at the rows of consoles and crew. Each screen showed a similar collection of text and images. Whatever had captured his elite crew’s attention, they were all looking at it at once.
“Show me,” Gallow growled. Everett stepped to the nearest console, the crew member who had been sitting in front of it hurrying out of the way. Everett tapped in a command. A collection of images appeared, row after row of text, and the silent, talking head of a fierce blonde woman with the backdrop of Republic protests playing behind her.
Gallow bent over, scanning the screen’s contents. Classified data, sealed data, data he knew for a fact had never been spoken outside of face-to-face communication. It was all there. His eyes narrowed as a surge of fury vibrated through his hands. He was looking at a data leak that implicated him in the Imperium’s demise and included the Terminus signature key he’d replicated in order to sacrifice the Dauntless to the Red Kestrels.
Gallow turned to Everett, feeling a tightness in his chest as he spoke. “Who has seen this?”
Everett’s throat bobbed before she spoke. “Sir, it’s… everyone.”
Gallow straightened his posture, flinging the awkwardly dangling cape up over his shoulders. “What do you mean ‘everyone?’ This must be contained.”
Everett looked away, her lips pressed firmly together. “Sir. They sent it to everyone. The entire sector has access to it. The news feeds, each planet’s governor, the Fringe.” Everett swallowed again. “Sir, we have reports that the Sellacans have issued—”
Gallow raised his arm to silence Everett. She flinched. The image of the blonde woman played on the console. Gallow’s neck muscles tensed as he spoke. “The woman. Has she been identified?”
Everette carefully leaned forward and tapped the console, enlarging the view of the video. “Sir, it appears this is a 5E agent who went missing two weeks ago and is claiming to have uncovered some sort of conspiracy. She’s making claims about the circumstances around—”
“The audio of this woman, play it. Up there,” Gallow said through clenched teeth, pointing up at the enormous vidscreen behind them.
Everett did not hesitate. She tapped the console and instantly, the woman’s face filled the three-deck-high screen, her voice echoing through the cavernous bridge.
“…your new president and her warlord puppet-master have deceived you, and included with this message is the undeniable evidence to prove that.”
A strange sensation overcame Gallow, unreality washing over him as the woman on the screen spoke. The floor felt uneven, as if the Terminus’s gravity generators were misaligned. He took a step back toward the walkway, listening as the story this woman told echoed through the bridge. The story about Gallow.
Everett’s voice sounded behind him, distant and muffled. “Sir, should I end the playback? Sir?”
“No. Let it play,” Gallow murmured. He took another step toward the walkway, everything around him becoming strange and ephemeral. He recognized this feeling, it was what he felt in his prayer chamber when under the influence of the powder. It was what he felt when he communed with the Creator.
The woman’s mouth continued to utter words, though their meaning was lost. Gallow took another step toward the walkway, the bridge and crew fading from existence behind him. Something was wrong. Not just with what was playing on the screen, but with his body. His mind. The effects of the powder always wore off during the course of his ritual, and he had had none since he had lifted the dagger from the silk and used it to slay the High Imperius. Why was he feeling it now? Was the Creator speaking to him now, unbidden, on the bridge?
Gallow’s breath quickened. He felt sweat on his forehead, his cheeks. He squinted toward the dais where he had just been looking over his symphony of conquest. A small figure appeared at the far end of the walkway exactly where Gallow had been. The figure was short, an impenetrable black silhouette against the enlarged woman’s face lighting him harshly from behind.
It was him. It was his son on the dais.
“Marcus,” Gallow whispered, taking another step toward the walkway. “You’re here?”
Gallow sensed recognition from his son’s figure. He took another step, feeling as if gravity would overwhelm him. The woman’s words filled his ears, muddled as if underwater. The words seemed to be communicating for his son.
“…orchestrated by Beckman Gallow, former fleet marshal of the Imperium, current usurper, and war criminal…”
A torrent of disapproval emanated from the dais and crashed into Gallow’s soul. He took another uneasy step forward, raising a hand. “What? Marcus, no. I did what the Creator wanted. What you wanted.”
The words came again, and again Gallow felt the crushing weight of his son’s disappointment.
“…committed such a vile act of unspeakable treachery against those they promised to serve…”
Gallow fell to a knee, hand still outstretched. The bridge disappeared, surrounded only by a void of darkness, his son Marcus the only thing he could see, tainted by the voice of the speaking woman.
“This was the will of the Creator,” Gallow murmured, feeling his balance start to give way, his breath rapid and shallow. He placed a hand on the floor, cape flowing around his body and tangling his limbs.
“…the New Kestris Republic are violent, unlawful usurpers…”
“No. No!” Gallow growled. He lifted his head. Marcus was still there, a shadow splitting his view, condemning his father.
“Marcus,” Gallow whispered. “Son. This is what I was supposed to do. You must understand. I’m sorry. I did what was necessary. What else could I have done?”
“…They operated in secret, striking where they saw fit without fear of retaliation, opportunistic and cowardly…”
Gallow lifted his head. For the first time, unlike any of the times he had performed the rite in the prayer chamber, he could see Marcus’s face. “Is this not what you wanted me to do?” Gallow whispered.
The young boy met eyes with Gallow and slowly, with an expression of depthless sorrow, shook his head: ‘no’.
Gallow fell to his hands and knees. He squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t understand.”
Gallow raised his head, but his son was gone. The bridge of the Terminus had returned, the voice of the speaking woman still blaring in his ears. There was no sign of Marcus.
The weight of his son’s disappointment kept Gallow on the ground. He’d done everything the Creator had wanted, sacrificed everything he’d been asked to sacrifice, and made every move guided by the Creator’s will. What had he done to deserve this revocation of his only reward? Had he failed the task by allowing this woman speaking on the vidscreen to go unnoticed? Was the restoration—the ascension—now tainted by this lapse? If Gallow were not able to realize a complete, unsullied victory, would he be granted no peace at all?
Gallow slowly rose to his feet, cape hanging crookedly over his body like a shroud. He would not accept this failure. This rejection. He would not bend to this cruel trick of the Creator. Nothing will break Gallow, not even the Creator itself.
He flung it back over his shoulders, forcing his posture into an upright, defiant pose. If his task was not complete, then he would complete it. It was another test, another invitation to prove his worth. Gallow had held back with the Imperium; he would not hold back now.
He stalked forward down to the end of the dais, his hatred empowering each step with a renewed clap of thunder as his boots smacked against the metal. He reached the edge, eyes focused on the woman across from him.
The final words of the recorded message played, the woman’s piercing eyes filling Gallow with a new sense of purpose. No longer did he feel the presence of the Creator’s will. Now he only felt his own will. One bent on destruction.
“And to Beckman Gallow, leader of this hostile incursion into the lives of every free person in this sector: we are coming for you”
Gallow raised his arm and pointed, once again in control of his voice. “Her. Bring her to me.”
“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.
“There is no external threat. The people of the Imperium have been tricked into thinking the terrorist group known as the Red Kestrels were behind the attack on Starview Station, the bombing of the Imperium capitol building, and the classified hijacking of the Navy warship, the Dauntless. All these events were orchestrated by Beckman Gallow, former fleet marshal of the Imperium, current usurper, and war criminal calling himself ‘Lord Ascendent.’
“Included with this message is evidence gathered by Imperium intelligence agencies while investigating leaks within the Imperium which include Gallow, disgraced Defense Minister Erin Archer, and dozens of their conspirators. These accusations reveal a horrific truth that will be hard to accept, that those responsible for the leadership and protection of the populace would betray them so thoroughly. It is a grim day not only for the Imperium, but for everyone in the sector.
“In addition to the data, I have included a timeline of events and a summary of the situation witnessed by myself and others who attempted to thwart this ultimate betrayal. I realize that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which is why I have included something of such undeniable authenticity, it will remove any doubt. With these files you will find a copy of the encryption signature key from Gallow’s flagship, the Terminus. This signature was produced by Gallow himself and served as one of the critical exploits he used to betray the crew of the Dauntless and deceive the Imperium at large.
“No one should rely simply on my word. The authenticity of this key and data can be confirmed by security experts both within and outside the sector. The question is not if those accused are guilty, but how they could have committed such a vile act of unspeakable treachery against those they promised to serve.
“Those behind the New Kestris Republic are violent, unlawful usurpers and have played all of us from the start. The Red Kestrels carried out their attacks on Gallow’s orders, along with treasonous Imperium insiders who aided them along the way. You do not have to accept this illegitimate Republic. The citizens of Kestris and the rest of the former Imperium are being occupied by a hostile force, and you owe them nothing but full resistance to their encroachment.
“They have not won. In fact, they have used up all their tricks and are exposed. They operated in secret, striking where they saw fit without fear of retaliation, opportunistic and cowardly. An empire of billions did not know they were coming for us until it was too late. Now, the situation has flipped.
“The empire of billions has these murderers completely surrounded. Every single one of you is a potential threat to Gallow. Fight back. Subvert. Let them know that behind every shadow may be someone waiting for them. They will never know who they can trust, who is watching them, who has already betrayed them.
“You will not be alone. A resistance is forming. Wait for us. Watch us. Join us. You don’t need to be a believer in the Imperium. You don’t need to restore things to how they were. All you need is to reject the conquest of the New Kestris Republic and any notion that just because the Imperium is defeated that its people must be as well.
“And to Beckman Gallow, leader of this hostile incursion into the lives of every free person in this sector: we are coming for you.”