On the Matilda, its crew both new and old reflect on their journey and what is next. But not before a quick contest.
The observation bridge on the Matilda was Samantha’s last refuge for quiet conversation on the newly crowded ship. The wrap-around windows revealed the black nothingness of jumpspace, and the only light on the bridge came from the multi-colored plastic bulbs on the various control panels, display screens, and other antiquated hardware that powered the rugged and—Samantha was starting to admit—lovable ship.
Whether it was currently day or night according to the Matilda’s chronometer, Samantha wasn’t sure. The darkness out the windows and the gentle glow of the consoles made it feel like a quiet, subdued evening; something she couldn’t remember the last time she had enjoyed.
Julian sat across the central console from her, a datapad in his lap, in the same position Decker had been during their first conversation after jumping away from Starview Station. Remembering how right Decker had been to distrust her brought a wistful grin to her lips.
“You know, the last time I was up here, the conversation I had didn’t go so well,” Samantha said.
Julian raised an eyebrow, turning to face her. “Oh? Is there a part of the ship where that is not the case?”
Samantha pouted playfully, idly dragging her fingers against one of the square-edged plastic buttons that protruded from the console’s surface. “I wasn’t at my best, I’ll admit that. Something had been gnawing at me, throwing me off since we crashed Eddie Renner’s place on Senali. It was the way the Kestrels were always a step ahead, an enemy I couldn’t catch up to. Then, it turns out I was in a race that Renic had rigged all along.”
“Indeed.” Julian smiled softly. “After coming aboard the Matilda, I was quietly told I should pay careful attention to you. There were some… concerns.”
Samantha exhaled sharply, grimacing up at Julian. “Decker got to you then?”
Julian smiled and bowed his head. “You may be surprised, but no. It was the Matilda’s resident physician.”
Samantha reared back. “Sellivan?”
“He was none too impressed with your ‘coping’ habits.” Julian’s face sunk. “Samantha. I should have done more, before you left. I allowed… well, I allowed too much to get to you, and I ignored things I felt you wanted me to ignore for the sake of your duties to 5E. I should not have.”
Samantha turned her gaze out the blackened windows. “There was nothing you could have done. Had you tried to intervene on Kestris, I’d have resisted. It took getting a rail slug to the head and almost killing everyone on this ship for me to realize I wasn’t acting in anyone’s best interest, either the Imperium’s or my own.”
Julian looked away, brow furrowed. Samantha reached across the console and patted her hand against its metal surface. “What is it? Finding it hard to talk when you’re not coming through an earpiece?”
Julian looked to the floor briefly before returning his eyes to Samantha. “No, I have to apologize. When Director Clarke suggested to me that you take this mission on your own, it was logical given the information at hand. Combined with the director’s urgency to act, I gave him my support, knowing it was a mission with immeasurable risk. In retrospect, I admit the logic may have made sense, but was not very…” Julian sighed, letting his shoulders drop, “smart.”
Samantha shook her head, waving off Julian’s concern. “Come on, Julian. There’s nothing to apologize for. It was a viable plan. Clarke had to do something, and none of us knew how close to the edge we were until it was too late. The Imperium had already been defeated, we just didn’t know it yet.” Samantha leaned forward, catching Julian’s eye and grinning. “In fact, had we not made the right move based on the wrong assumptions, we’d likely be dead or in some Republic prison. We’re lucky we’re here. Now we can do something.”
Julian smiled, a subtle nod of reluctance accompanying his words. “Indeed. The end result of Clarke’s plan is the same. We live to fight another day.”
Samantha bowed her head, remembering the last time she’d seen Clarke in the Kestris slums. He’d been convinced of his method, and she’d walked out of there sharing that conviction. Maybe he’d really felt they had a chance, or maybe not and he simply needed Samantha to feel that they did so she would leave.
She exhaled, resisting the urge to ignore the grief she felt at the loss of Clarke. She looked to Julian. “Have you been able to establish contact with Qin?”
Julian shook his head, matching Samantha’s deep exhalation. “No. As yet, there is no signal. I do not believe this is something that will be quick.”
“She stayed behind in the Republic, on Gallow’s ship, with no support. That’s a rough assignment. Do you trust her?” Samantha said.
Julian gave a curt nod. “I do. Qin has the makings of someone with unlimited potential, though she herself may not realize it yet. I foresee a time when we look back and say ‘we knew her when,’ to use the saying.” He grinned, narrowing his eyes at Samantha. “Though, I suspect given your message to the sector, she may someday say the same about you.”
Samantha scoffed, rolling her eyes. “What I did was a strategic play. And as a result, I’ll be dying my hair and wearing disguises for the rest of my life.”
A chorus of distant voices sounded from the crew lounge, laughter and boisterous shouts muffled by the winding corridors. Julian looked back toward the sound. “Perhaps, but I think you have found at least one place where you can remain accepted among new friends.”
Samantha looked to the corridor. Julian’s phrasing caught her by surprise. Thinking of Decker and his crew as friends was not something she’d considered. They had been allies, certainly, even if they’d been paid. And they had extended more than one opportunity for her to redeem herself. Maybe they were friends; she wasn’t sure.
Samantha turned back to Julian. “I’ve always had a string of objectives, one after another. But now, I don’t know what my next objective will be. Maybe we should join this fight against Gallow, but dragging the Matilda along might be asking too much.”
Julian hummed, seeming to ponder the notion along with her. “Why did you choose Decker, out of all potential candidates who could have assisted you?”
Samantha scrunched her mouth to the side. She’d had a reason at the time, but repeating it here felt unfair to Decker. She decided to set the record straight, even if only for herself. “Because I think I knew, subconsciously, that he was someone who could take what I threw at him and remain steadfast. And that when I inevitably let him down, which I did, I think I knew he wouldn’t do the same.”
Julian bowed his head. “Then you made the correct choice. Whatever our next move, there is no reason to believe his resolve would be any different.” Julian sighed, something between a grin and a grimace on his lips. “I must admit, while I knew that an involuntary ousting like this was a probability in our line of work, being ejected from my life so suddenly is difficult to process. You have found a good home here, even if temporary.”
Samantha smiled, filling her lungs and loosening the tension she realized she always carried. “I suppose it’s our turn to be Fringe drifters now. Kestris life was easy. We lived our lives on the winning side of the last big upheaval. Now, we get to see the other side. Speaking of that, how is the sector reacting?”
Julian looked down at his datapad and tapped the screen. “Your metaphor about ‘blowing up the sector’ was apt. The data is being scrutinized from every angle. There are conspiracy theorists claiming it is too perfect to be authentic, and there are opposing technology experts claiming that it is too nuanced to be counterfeit. No one knows what to think yet. Gallow’s reaction will be what seals the Republic’s fate. Too strong, and he confirms its truth. Too weak, and he emboldens a resistance. He is quite tangled in a predicament of his own making.”
Samantha grimaced. “He’ll get his civil war, and the Fringe will be next. We taunted him, and he’s not going to let that go.” She looked to the black windows of jumpspace, envisioning the hundreds of planets that made up the sector. “Do we share some blame for what comes?”
Julian lifted the datapad, pointing to news feeds reporting of chaos across the Republic. “Gallow is a force of nature, and our actions are a breeze amid a hurricane. He was always going to advance, but now not as easily as I presume he planned. Several planets have used the data we released as justification for refusing to cooperate, telling Archer that her claim is illegitimate. We are part of what Gallow himself created.” Julian turned off the datapad’s screen, once again leaving the observation bridge in a multicolored glow. “We provided a fulcrum and gave it a nudge, but it is the collective weight of the sector that will determine the future of the Republic.”
She sighed, catching Julian’s eye. “Hey, do you think we’ll ever know what actually happened to the Dauntless? It just vanished, and I got the impression not even Renic or Gallow knows what happened to it. You think the Kestrels scuttled it? Cut it up for parts?”
Julian shrugged, sighing wistfully. “It may be that the fate of the Dauntless will never be known to, forever being what started a chain of events, while itself being inconsequential to the eventual outcome.”
Samantha nodded, more in acceptance of the unknown than in agreement. “I suppose. I just…” Samantha sighed, smirking back at Julian, “I just wish I knew. Eddie Renner, Kat Basara, Reed Casto, what were they thinking when they agreed to this? Maybe Casto planned on betraying Gallow and vanishing all along.”
Julian chuckled. “I have no doubt that this is only the start of something, not the end. We would be wise to enjoy the lull while it lasts.”
Samantha nodded and stared out the windows into the black. “A moral victory, or at least a symbolic one. We embarrassed them.”
“That we did. They will not be happy with us. Some far less happy than others,” Julian said.
Samantha frowned. “You mean Renic.”
“I certainly put him in the unhappy column, yes. Archer, Gallow, and the rest of the generals may be too insulated for direct retaliation. But Renic, well… I suspect he overestimated his importance. When someone endeavors to be so indispensable they are willing to do anything, they often only make themselves a collection of loose ends to be tied up and silenced.”
Samantha shook her head, shrugging. “Everything that comes Renic’s way he brought on himself. I can’t feel pity for someone who looked at the options presented to him and still chose what he did. Even if he believed Gallow would find someone else if he refused, he didn’t seem to feel any remorse at being the one to do it himself.” Samantha grimaced, shaking her head. “What I don’t understand, though, is that when Gallow gave him an opportunity to step into a place of tremendous power and influence, he risked it all in order to pursue, then punish, me?”
Julian shrugged. “Fixation does not require logic. Even Renic may not have known what drove him so.”
Samantha shook her head in disdain. “You know, I never felt it was about unrequited love or romance or anything like that. He never tried to rekindle any sort of passion. It was… something else, as if he wanted me to join him in his crimes as a way to justify them.”
Julian’s expression darkened, his voice more serious than Samantha was used to hearing. “I cannot answer with certainty, but my instincts tell me it was not about love, but approval. He sold himself out to Gallow some time ago, and I think he saw you as his lifeline. As irredeemable as he might be, holding onto you was his way of holding onto his last scrap of humanity. In his mind, who else could empathize with the sacrifices he made for power? For ‘the mission?’ If you were to approve of what he chose, then he would not have to face his choices alone.”
Samantha considered the notion. Had she been so like Renic that he identified with something in her, a darkness that somehow would make his actions okay? And if he was right, what had stopped her from accepting his first offer?
Another round of laughter echoed up through the corridor. Both Samantha and Julian turned to look.
Samantha smiled, nodding toward the sound. “Whatever happens to Renic, he’ll have to endure it without anyone looking out for him.” Samantha stood, feeling her mind clearing of the anger and corrosive drive that had pushed her forward for so many years. Another round of shouts and laughter echoed up the corridor.
“But it’s not just that he has no one looking out for him,” she continued. “He’s got no one he cares about to look out for.” She gestured for Julian to follow her down the corridor. “But I do.”
Decker leaned his back against the galley bar, nether cartridge dangling from his mouth. There was a certain amount of pride in knowing the message that rocked the sector had been recorded and sent from this very room. There was a lot of gut-twisting anxiety as well. And a dash of terror. The nether was taking care of that part, though.
When Decker had received Samantha’s strange message, his world had been a lot simpler. Find new jobs, try to get paid, repeat. Taking a payday from his estranged half-sister was supposed to be the ‘one big job’ that changed everything in his favor. Half that statement was true. Everything had changed, though if the responses to Samantha’s info-bomb crowding all the feeds were any indication, he wouldn’t say it was in his favor, but it was in the favor of the general well-being of the sector as a whole.
And, as reluctant as he was to admit there was a family legacy, he’d wanted to do something that helped offset the past actions of his father and the Red Kestrels. Reed had turned the group into something corrupt, but Decker’s father had started the group as a way to unite people and resist the Imperium’s thirst for conquest. After what Decker and Samantha had done in this very lounge, hopefully Jak would be proud of his son. And if not, well, at least Decker was still proud of himself.
Corporate debts and bounties didn’t feel so big in comparison to the fall of an empire. The crew was all together, the Matilda was space-worthy again, and they’d even made off with an intrajump transmitter of dubious origin and some new tech upgrades. Even the bolt wound on his shoulder was healing up. Ignoring the trail of loose-ends and unfinished business scattered in their wake, he didn’t feel too bad, and definitely was no longer bored. If the sector was going to go to shit, there were a lot worse places to ride it out than the Matilda.
Seeing that his gathered audience was ready, Decker smacked his hands together and stepped forward, pointing to the opposing sides. “If we’re doing this, we’re doing it right. We’ve chosen our sides, made our allegiances. Imperium defector versus the Fringe derelict. It’s time to go to war.”
Eliza slammed her empty glass on the galley bar. She stretched her neck from side to side, rolling her shoulders as she did. Her tight, black tank-top exposed both her arms, the white polymer plating on the cybernetics shining beneath the lounge’s overhead lights.
Everyone was gathered, save for Samantha and Julian. On the lounge’s vidscreen another of Heavy’s old smashball games played. The onslaught of news had threatened to implode the ship with its somber gravity. Eliza had turned on the game recording to fill the silence, which then led to Heavy and Lee discussing the finer points of the sport, which in turn led to boasting, which in turn led to this test of strength.
The bar was cleared for the event, Eliza standing on the tending-side, Lee on the patron-side. Manu stood behind Lee, Decker behind Eliza, with Heavy at the edge of the bar as volunteer referee. Even Sellivan had moved from his seat at the table and watched with a wry grin.
Lee gave each of the Matilda’s crew a skeptical glance. “I have a hard time believing this is a real part of crew tradition. I lived on Navy ships, and I know hazing when I see it,” Lee said, rolling up the sleeve on his left arm. “And, I’m right-handed, putting me at a clear disadvantage. I don’t think there’s much of a debate on who wins between muscle and machine.”
Heavy reached out and slapped Lee on the shoulder. “Look at her. You could pick her up and press her over your head, even left-handed! Nothing to worry about. Show me that game face.”
Lee paused and raised an eyebrow at Heavy. “I presume you’ve faced that arm of hers?”
Heavy reared back, looking down at his arms that were as thick as Eliza’s waist. “Face her? Hey, I was born big, not stupid. I’m more of a trivia and numbers type now.”
Sellivan smirked across the bar at Lee. “We have adequate medical supplies on board. If insufficient, I am sure we can supply you with any of the various mind-numbing substances this crew consumes.”
Lee shook his head, exhaling deeply. Decker took his place behind Eliza. He lifted a rag from the bar and started polishing the white polymer of Eliza’s shoulder. He winked at Lee. “Don’t worry, Sarge. It will all be over soon.”
Manu placed his hands on Lee’s shoulders and vigorously massaged them. “They’re trying to get in your head. Don’t let them. Stay focused. She’s agreed to limit herself to natural levels of strength. This is the championship. Everything we’ve trained for.”
Lee looked back over his shoulder at Manu. “My training consisted of the three-second walk from the couch to here,” he grumbled.
Manu grinned, clapping his competitor on the back. “And that’s all the training you need.”
Heavy smacked his hand down on the bar, the impact reverberating through Decker’s feet.
“Are the competitors ready?” Heavy bellowed, gruff voice echoing off the metal ceiling.
Eliza leaned forward and placed her elbow—the cybernetic one—down onto the bar, her natural hand gripped around the far edge opposite Lee.
“I need to warn you, holding back will result in a penalty, and possible maiming and disfigurement,” Eliza said, the white and black fingers waving with mechanically synchronized precision. “And in that event, I know a great prosthetics dealer I can refer you to.”
Lee placed his arm reluctantly on the bar. “I don’t want to know what that would entail.”
The two competitors met palms and found their grip. Eliza’s cybernetic arm was less than a quarter the diameter of Lee’s, which was an anatomy lesson in musculature, veins winding over the bulging muscles. Decker snuck a hand up to his own bicep, giving it a quick flex. More time in the Matilda’s makeshift gym was definitely going to be required. There was just no way around it.
Heavy wrapped his hands around the competitors’. “I want to see a fair fight. Cheating and winning will be ignored, but cheating and losing will earn you a lifetime of mockery.”
Lee sniffed and nodded, his muscles tensing and bulging beneath his shirt. Eliza only sighed. Heavy counted down and released.
The lounge broke into a chorus of taunts and cheers. Lee’s body twisted and pulled, his face a mask of wrinkled strain. Eliza’s face was placid, the only trace of exertion was the fact that she was not engaging in any banter.
“Come on, Lee! You’re triple her size!” Manu called out. “Stop toying with her and end this!”
“You can back out. It will be hard to lead a resistance with a torn shoulder. No shame in forfeiting,” Decker called back.
Eliza let out an exaggerated sigh while Decker used the cloth to dab off some sweat from her hairless brow.
Next to Lee, Sellivan’s face sunk into a scowl. “I had high hopes for you. A pity you’re not thinking logically.”
“Logic?” Lee grunted out between gulps of air. “I can logically see I am not budging her!”
Eliza narrowed her eyes. “What he means is….” Eliza slowly started bending Lee’s arm back, watching his eyes widen. Their hands continued to lower, Lee’s body almost bent in half as he struggled to maintain his posture, their hands frozen in place just above the bar’s surface. “You didn’t approach this as a technique sport.”
Eliza let out a yelp and slammed Lee’s hand down. Heavy and Decker both cheered and laughed. Even Sellivan managed a breathy wheeze which counted as an emanation of delight.
“Lee! I had my life savings on the line!” Manu shouted, dropping his head in despair. “Dozens of credits, gone.”
“Technique, eh? Are you sure that was natural levels of mechanical strength?” Lee said as he rubbed his shoulder, swinging his arm in a big circle. “No magnetic field generator pulling that arm down or some hyper-localized gravity manipulator under the bar rigged up for this grift?”
Eliza tutted, wagging a cybernetic finger in Lee’s face. “Now now now, the only grift here is counting on you not to understand the physics of the game, for the first round at least.” Eliza poured a pair of drinks, handing one to Lee. “Plus, the arm isn’t reactive to magnets. You can imagine the sticky situations that would lead to?”
Lee raised his glass. Decker saw the greenish liquid slosh about and reached across the bar, snatching the bottle away from in front of Eliza. “Whoa, Mr. B’s Rocket Fuel? This was supposed to be thrown out. The Matilda has a policy against trafficking toxic waste.”
“It was thrown out. This is a different bottle,” Eliza said, snatching it back.
Lee eyed the glass of green liquid in his hand. “If it’s all technique, then how do you plan to win a second round?” he said just before downing the shot of Rocket Fuel all at once.
Decker watched his face twist, but Lee held in whatever he was feeling. Smart move, considering the ridicule a wretch would have earned him.
Eliza shot Lee a sly grin. “By changing the game to a different one where I have the advantage.” She motioned for Lee to place his glass back down. He did—reluctantly—and Eliza filled both glasses back up with the greenish alcohol. “And if I still don’t have an advantage, then…” Eliza held up her cybernetic hand, palm-forward. A crackle of electricity arced across the hidden metal contacts. “I’ll make one.”
Lee threw his head back and laughed. “Ah, I made the mistake of assessing this situation at face value.” He raised his glass to Eliza. “Which is worse manners for a guest, refusing a drink, or losing one’s lunch on the deck?”
A new voice sounded from the corridor that led up to the observation deck.
“The latter. I know from experience,” Samantha said, appearing at the end of the lounge, Julian just behind her.
Decker clamped the nether cartridge between his teeth and waved them in. “Well, don’t just stand there, come have a seat,” he said.
“How are the feeds?” Lee asked, rubbing his left shoulder dramatically. Samantha looked to Julian and they both came forward, taking up two empty seats on the couch.
“Reactions are mixed, but none are weak. Some voices pledge support to President Archer, some condemn her. There are planets in the Fringe applauding her and Gallow, while others are warning them to stay away from Fringe space. Overall, people are a lot less afraid that I think Gallow had planned.”
“Sounds like we can mark one in the win column,” Eliza said, turning to Lee. “You remember what it’s like to win, right?”
Lee grimaced and bowed his head. “This ship have a human resources department?”
“Yeah,” Decker grunted, nodding to Eliza. “Her.”
Lee turned to Samantha, his dismay tainted by a lopsided grin. “Do you see how they treat defectors here. Didn’t you all see the feeds? Sergeant Lee is a sector-renowned infiltrator and spy now, and Agent Mori, why, they’ll be making action vids about her in no time.”
Samantha grimaced and slowly crossed the lounge, coming to a stop across the bar from Eliza. “We’re in jumpspace, there’s no heroes here. Technically, the other dimension is the one with the fall-of-an-empire problem.” Samantha patted her hand against the bar. “Sounded like there was another battle of sorts going on down here.”
Eliza, right in the middle of taking a drink, spurted and pointed across the bar at Lee. “The sergeant here wanted a lesson in humility. I am not sure if his arm will ever be the same. Selli, get this man emergency medical attention.”
Lee folded his arms and frowned. “Hey, I’ll have you know the ‘sergeant’ rank was a cover. My agency seniority is technically higher than both of these two.” Lee wagged his finger between Samantha and Julian.
An impish grin crossed Samantha’s lips. “Sure, if the empire and our agency still existed. But, it doesn’t. We’re all Fringe now.”
Samantha walked behind the bar and ran her hand across the selection of bottles, scrunching her mouth up before finally selecting one. She poured herself a tiny splash of something clear into a glass and downed it in one shot. She took up a position opposite Eliza and placed her right elbow down on the bar. “Picking on someone your own size teaches a certain humility as well.”
Eliza cackled and set her glass on the bar, waving Heavy over to referee once more. The crew, old and new, whooped and crowded around the new challenger.
Decker smirked and exhaled sharply. Samantha had been gone from his life for years, only to reappear with dyed-black hair and a bolt rifle in her arms on the deteriorating Starview Station. Since boarding the Matilda, this was the first time Decker had seen her join in any kind of crew socialization. It was unsettling and brought a giddy warmth to his chest as delightful as any nether. Maybe people do evolve.
Samantha and Eliza grasped their right flesh-and-blood hands together and planted their elbows across from each other. Samantha looked back at Lee, eyebrow raised. “Despite my own lack of humility, I do understand the difference between force and finesse.”
Lee placed his hands on his hips, a broad smile across his face. “By all means, show me how it’s done.”
“Sorry Imperium outcasts, but I’m going double or nothing on Eliza this time,” Manu said.
Julian raised a finger. “Any number times zero is still zero. However, I may be able to arrange a loan to float this wager.” Julian brought a hand to his chin. “Though, considering one of our competitors is still recovering from a self-inflicted coma, and the other appears to have drunk enough to put Heavy into a coma, I think the real winner today may be Sellivan’s resuscitation skills.”
Decker gave a low whistle at Julian’s multi-pronged jab. “I can see why you were paired with her.”
Julian bowed, extending his hand in a flourish.
Samantha rolled her eyes. “Facing a stronger opponent, it’s all about choosing the right angle.” She gave a quick glance back to Lee, then turned her eyes back to Eliza. “Besides, what kind of deranged individual would agree to face her left side?”
Lee puffed his cheeks. “First, I embarrass myself with Heavy, now this. Next time, we’re going to pick a game I know how to play. Maybe we’ll make a smashball court out in the hangar.”
Decker caught himself grinning. It had been a while since the Matilda had seen anything other than strife. It probably wouldn’t be long before it saw it again. For now, though, this was good. This was enough.
Heavy wrapped a single hand around Samantha and Eliza’s. “Like last time, keep your elbows on the table. And if you feel the urge to cheat, don’t get caught.”
The crowd gathered around their competitors. Decker looked back to the vidscreen. The recorded smashball game had ended, leaving a large black rectangle. What that screen would show when it was turned back on Decker knew wouldn’t be good.
He and the crew, Imperium defectors included, were tiny motes in the center of something so vast and convoluted it was hard to comprehend. Yet, their part could be reduced down to just a few obsessed individuals with old vendettas and unrequited attachments.
Decker wanted to think there was more, but in the dusty back of his mind, he couldn’t help wondering where they would be, where the entire sector would be, if he hadn’t been in such financial need that he took Samantha’s job, or if Renic had been an hour late to Senali, or even if Reed Casto had kept his cool that day Ayen Mori came to Dradari.
Decker grimaced at the musings, taking a slow drag off the nether cartridge. None of those things could be changed. Bad luck, random chance, or maybe Sellivan’s capricious Creator had pulled them together.
No way to know. And, if Decker were being honest, he didn’t really care. The Matilda was flying, the crew was still together, and some long-lost half-sister, his only living family, had been delivered to him via the overthrow of an empire.
Heavy eyed Samantha and Eliza. “Competitors ready?”
Samantha took a sharp breath and cracked her neck to the side. Eliza bared her teeth and growled across the bar.
Heavy’s voice bellowed. “Ready in three, two, one…”
Decker grinned. Yeah, things weren’t all bad.
Reed Casto reached into his vest’s inner pocket and pulled out a cigar. He gave it a deep sniff. Delicious.
Holding it gingerly in front of him, he eyed its golden band, the symbol of the Imperium stamped into the foil. This was a special one, one he’d been saving. He rocked the cigar back and forth for a moment, then slid it back into his vest. Not just yet.
A day ago, he’d expected to be sitting in this spot reading about Gallow’s coup, control of the Imperium violently changing hands, and listening to the accusations thrown the Red Kestrels’ way as the monster-under-the-bed threatening the new republic.
But instead of the Red Kestrels across the headlines, it was Gallow and his puppet president. Reed felt like he’d shown up to a duel, only to find out his opponent had already taken a bolt to the chest from someone else’s gun. A more petty person might have been disappointed, but fortunately, Reed was not above stabbing a person while they were down. If this Imperium-defector woman wanted to weaken the very body she thought she was protecting, Reed would give them all the space they needed before coming in to finish the job.
The chronometer showed that it was technically the middle of the night on his ship, though what standard the ship was set to he didn’t know. Whatever time schedule they eventually decided to synchronize with, it certainly wouldn’t be the sixty-hour Dradari day. He’d had enough of that, and he hoped that the planets in the Sellacan Confederation were far more hospitable than the desert planet he’d built—then sold—his Red Kestrel empire on.
The time for Reed’s appointment had arrived on the unfamiliar computer on the desk. He flipped through the various Sellacan interfaces on the screen; getting a feel for their conventions was something he would have to get used to, considering his new alliance. In all his years inhabiting Imperium space, becoming an honorary Sellacan general was not a possibility he had considered. His own sector was a big enough place; dealing with the politics of two sectors was going to be a challenge.
The computer chimed and the vidscreen in front of Reed cleared away the interfaces. A comm notification filled the screen—priority one from the Sellacan Confederation.
Reed tapped a button on the desk’s surface and the upper-body of a woman in a sharp, maroon military uniform appeared on the screen.
“Warlady,” Reed said, grinning and giving the woman on the screen a casual salute. She tipped her head to the side.
Admiral Rebecca Slade, leader of the Sellacan first fleet and special defense council to the Sellacan Prime Minister leaned forward with a wry grin. A thrill raced down Reed’s spine. “You know that name was given to me as a pejorative, right General Casto?” she said, Sellacan accent thick and seductive.
Reed reared his head back in feigned shock. “Pejorative? I could only hope to be referred to as a warlord. But, if it makes you more comfortable, given our rekindled relationship, I can stick to Becky.”
Slade narrowed her eyes, the corner of her lips tipped upward. “I’ll allow Rebecca in private, but if I hear anything other than ‘Admiral Slade’ around either of our people, I’ll see you mounted to the front of that ship and jumped into the center of a star.”
Reed grinned with a predator’s hunger. “As long as there’s more ‘private’ times in our future, that’s just fine by me.”
Slade sat back in her chair. Reed could tell she was on her flagship, the dreadnought Heart of Ruin, but where the Heart of Ruin itself was, the interface didn’t say. The movement of Sellacan fleets had been kept secret, even from him. Even if Slade trusted Reed, the rest of the confederation didn’t.
Slade’s face hardened. “Pillow talk later. Give me a situation report. I trust you’re paying attention to the news feeds just like everyone else within transmission-distance of your sector?”
Reed grimaced mockingly and waved the comment away. “I have people for that. Besides, I am the news. There’s nothing in there I didn’t know or—shit—didn’t do.” He paused, looking upward in contemplation. “The woman, though… I don’t think we could have asked for a better scapegoat.”
“Did you have anything to do with that?” Slade wondered.
Reed laughed; Slade didn’t know about Reed’s history with the Mori lineage and he intended to keep it that way as long as he could. He slapped his hand down on the desk. “Pure luck! It did move our timeline up a bit, but a little push in the right direction never hurt anyone. Every available Kestrel is already en route to the rendezvous point, weapons hot and eyes open.”
Slade nodded, a grin creeping across her lips. “The chaos she’s introduced is worth our acceleration. I’ve scrambled your support fleet, though crossing the Gulf will take time.”
Reed nodded. “My people on the inside tell me that Gallow is completely occupied with his insurgents. Apparently, people don’t appreciate being duped into a civil war. The Red Kestrels are not on the top of anyone’s list anymore.” Reed winked. “And neither are the Sellacans.”
Slade scrunched her mouth—an endearing affectation from someone known as the warlady. “I myself will not be arriving so quickly. Rushing a handful of ships to you is easy. Preparing our confederation for war is not. I have to manage the political conversation and keep it on the correct trajectory.”
Reed glowered, bringing a hand to his heart. “I’ll be lonely. No one gets me like you do, Becky.”
“You’ve got a whole new ship to explore,” Slade said, eyes narrowing for a moment at the nickname. “Gallow was generous. I’d have given you a barge with a beam-rifle glued to the bow.”
Reed’s face crumbled into further exaggerated despair. “Admiral, even a barge would be a luxurious pleasure-boat as long as you were on it.”
Slade ignored Reed’s comment. “I’m going to have a permanent link set up between your ship and my own. I want updates. The confederacy parliament is watching the Republic closely. When I need you to act, I want you ready at a moment’s notice. No delays.”
Reed raised a hand. “Everything is going to be fine. Gallow is drowning. We are unfettered,” Reed said with a flourish. “Though, when you show up, he may not be as excited to see you again as I will be.”
Slade grimaced. “I’m sure. Keep an eye out, Casto. A great deal is riding on this,” she said. Then a subtle, seductive smirk bent her lips. “Impress me, and we’ll see about if I can take a private tour of your ship.”
Slade reached forward, severing the link as Reed’s screen went dark.
Reed sighed. No one was around to see the weariness wash over his face, his hallmark grin collapsing. For five Imperium years he had been working on this plot to reclaim the Fringe, working with Slade to set up Gallow and the Imperium.
Twenty years ago, the Red Kestrels were a band of ex-conscripts forced to fight in the Fringe and then left to die. Those cast-aside vets and collateral-damage bystanders needed something to belong to. He’d just helped them channel that energy into a purpose. Slade and the Sellacans had been an enemy at the time, but they’d left. The Imperium, it stuck around, only taking, never giving. It wasn’t the Sellacans who had forced them to fight, it was the Imperium.
Gallow’s decision to overthrow the High Imperius certainly had helped seal his image as a ruthless, uncaring warlord, and whatever he’d done to anger the daughter of Ayen Mori, she really seemed to have it out for him. Oh well. Gallow’s problem, not Reed’s. Eventually, she’d be coming for Reed too. Killing someone’s parents tends to be something people don’t forget. He’d deal with that when the time came.
Reed stood, nudging the plush captain’s chair out from behind him. He crossed the white, Imperium carpets of the ready-room to the doors. They slid open, whisper-quiet, as he approached. He’d never had a ship as nice as this, certainly not on Dradari.
Reaching into his vest pocket, Reed retrieved his unlit cigar and stepped onto the bridge of what once had been known as the Dauntless.
Red Kestrel and Sellacan technicals scurried about the bridge, retrofitting systems and preparing everything for their first jump under a new name. As much as he hated the Imperium he had to admit they sure knew how to make a fine ship. Dai’Reen shipyards produced nothing like the old buckets he had cut his teeth on.
Reed walked across the bridge, the sound of technical jargon in the air bridging the language barrier between the two regions with the common language of math and engineering. In the center of the bridge was another plush captain’s chair which faced the arcing view screen on the far wall. He ran his hand across the suede headrest before swiveling it around once and lowering himself down.
Reed Casto bounced in his seat, feeling the supple material of the armrests, glass-paneled interfaces built into each. He squinted down at the Sellacan interface on one of the panels.
“Hey, Max, come here,” Reed barked over his shoulder. “I want to see the ship on the viewer.”
The Kestrel tech, Max, bounded over and tapped a series of commands into the sleek glass panel. He was a new recruit, young, good with the Sellacan technology that Reed didn’t understand. And, Max had a certain energy Reed appreciated. He was getting older, after all.
On the vidscreen, an exterior camera view of the Dauntless appeared. The ship was connected by a long, flexible docking tube to a much larger Sellacan Navy engineering tug, allowing for fast access without the need for shuttles. It wasn’t the best option, but a stolen Imperium warship couldn’t exactly pull into a dry-dock for its secret retrofitting. They needed to get the ship cleansed of the Imperium before he could make the jump to rendezvous with the Sellacan fleet halfway across the Gulf.
Reed placed the last Imperium cigar in his mouth, crunching down on it with his teeth. Barely visible on the screen was a host of drones that flitted about the ship’s surface, carrying out maintenance and using specially tuned lasers to burn off the white and gold coloring on the hull.
Already, the front portion of the ship was cleaned down to its gray, burnished tritanium surface. Even though the hull shape would be recognizable as an Imperium Navy corvette, altering its exterior would make a point; there had been a change in ownership.
Reed nodded up to Max. “When will we be able to disconnect and shove off?”
“Uh, we’ve got most of the, uh, mess cleaned out. The new computer core is online and systems are being recalibrated to it. Hull scraping is about twenty-five percent finished. You sure you want bare metal?”
Reed gave Max a sportive scowl, his voice low. “Bare metal. We’re everything they’re not, and I want this ship to represent that.”
Max nodded. “Okay then. I would say another week. Taking it like we did, pretty ingenious. Barely had a scratch on it. The bodies, though—”
Reed waved off the comment with a grunt. “And the new core?”
Max nodded. “It’s installed. Working on connections as we speak. Once it’s online, there’s no way Gallow or any other Republic can get in.”
Reed nodded and rubbed his hands together. “That’s good news. I want hourly updates.”
“Got it,” Max said. He spun on his heel to leave, then stopped, turning back to Reed.
“Boss, there is one last thing,” Max started. “The Dauntless designation has been scrubbed from all systems. This ship will need a new designation if you want it to be referred to by name when scanned,” Max said.
Reed raised his eyebrows. He crossed his legs, ankle-on-knee, and settled himself deeper into the chair, feeling the plush cushions mold to his bulky form. He reached into another of his vest’s inner pockets and pulled out his red-kestrel plasma lighter.
“Max,” Reed said, eyes fixed on the external image of the ship.
Max cleared his throat. “Boss?”
Reed’s eyes remained on the screen. “Can I enter it right now?”
Max scrunched his nose. “Enter the name?”
“Yeah.” Reed squinted his eyes in mock contemplation, his grin widening into a toothy smile. “I’m feeling… inspired.”
“Uh, sure,” Max said. He tapped the datapad he’d been holding, then handed it to Reed. “You want someone to get into an EV suit and smash a bottle of something expensive over the bow? Make a little party out of it?”
Reed shook his head. “Nah. It’s a little early for a party with what we’ve got ahead of us.” He lit the cigar and took a celebratory puff, then tapped the only name that befit Reed’s victory. He handed the datapad back to Max and grinned, taking another puff.
Max nodded and gave Reed a salute. “Well boss, let me be the first to welcome you aboard the Kestrel’s Revenge.”
Reed looked to Max and winked. “It’s Captain Casto now.”
Max grinned and shuffled back to his work. Reed looked down at the panel in the armrest, seeing the new ship’s name. Next time Gallow saw this ship, he’d know what a mistake he’d made in underestimating Reed Casto.
A chime sounded from the glistening display in the armrest. Reed’s eyes narrowed. It was the ship’s intercom. He squinted at the display, searching for the correct button to push. He considered calling Max over before deciding to try the green one.
“What?” Reed growled.
“Hey boss, it’s Tripp, over on the barge.”
Reed leaned back into the chair. “Yeah? Don’t give me bad news, Tripp.”
“No, no boss, It’s uh, Renner. Eddie. One of Kat’s guys. Used to be, I mean. He made it out of the Republic and, well, made it all the way here.”
“Renner? Made it out this far?” Reed chuckled, raising a single eyebrow. “He’s one hard to exterminate little vermin.”
“Yeah, well, he wants to talk to you. Says he has something important to share. You want me to ask what?”
Reed glared down at the armrest. “Is he standing right there? Let him speak for himself.”
A moment of silence passed.
“Hey, uh, boss. It’s Eddie.”
Reed grimaced. “Yeah, I got that. Spit it out, Renner. I warn you, I’m feeling good. Don’t dampen my mood or I’ll have you scrubbing the hull without an EV suit.”
“Yeah, boss. It’s the woman on the news feeds, the blonde. I know her. She was the one who broke my face on Senali and hacked my systems. One of her friends, the creepy guy you’d been working with, Renic, he told me all about her.”
Renner’s voice held the frantic tremble of a man who knew he had either just redeemed or damned himself. Reed sucked his teeth for a moment before taking another delectable puff off the Imperium cigar.
“Eddie, why don’t you come aboard the Kestrel’s Revenge and tell me a story.”
Relief flooded Renner’s voice. “Sure thing, captain.”
Reed took a deep, invigorating breath and sat back in the plush captain’s seat of what used to be the Dauntless. Would his luck ever run out?