Episode 17: We all have our routines

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Lieutenant Qin Meredessi, intelligence analyst reporting to Major Drake, just exited the closed-council meeting where Vice Admiral Lenault addressed the military leaders of the Imperium in Fleet Marshal Gallow's stead. Business concluded, it is time for her to return to the Terminus. Meanwhile, Julian reacts to the Starview Station situation and does his best to help keep Samantha protected.

Lieutenant Qin Meredessi ducked her head and entered the white-and-gold capital autocab, joining her three companions already seated in the pair of inward-facing bench seats. The door slid shut behind her, locking and shifting the windows from transparent to one-way. Qin and the other passengers had just left the closed-council meeting with many of the Imperium’s top military officials. Their commanding officer, Major William Drake—fifty-five, efficient, level-headed, stern—was among them.

Qin settled into the plush seat, her attache and the multiple datapads it held resting across her lap as the autocab pulled away from the curb and joined the procession of identical government vehicles driving away from the Imperium Naval Headquarters on the capitol compound. Qin watched the government buildings grow smaller, the revelations from the closed-council meeting still on her mind. It had been her first time accompanying Major Drake to a meeting of such importance, and her first time on Kestris in fifteen months, seventeen days, and eleven hours.

In the pair of seats across from Qin were two established members of her team from OS-9’s analyst division. Lieutenant Esme Yadav—thirty-two, principal intelligence analyst, fastidious, sticks to protocol—and her adjunct, Sergeant Tony Benes—thirty, intelligence specialist, athletics enthusiast, engaged to a shipmate, short-temper, recently promoted. The fourth passenger, seated next to Qin, was a recent addition to the team.

“Lieutenant Meredessi, Sergeant Lee will be joining us on our return to the Terminus,” Yadav said, her disappointment at the assignment unhidden.

Qin smiled, turning to acknowledge their new teammate. “Good afternoon, Sergeant.”

Sergeant Bennett Lee—twenty-six, systems analyst, prone to verbosity, distinct lack of social awareness—was a temporary resource assigned to their team in anticipation of OS-9’s increased workload as a result of the High Imperius’s address just hours ago. The contents of the address had not been a surprise to the OS-9 members, they maintained one of the highest security clearance levels within the Imperium. Since Lee was an appropriately skilled resources and had already been aboard the Terminus, he was available for immediate transfer to Major Drake’s command structure. His previous team had seemed overly eager to let him rotate out.

Qin retrieved a datapad from her attache and scrolled through its classified contents. Next to her, Lee sighed, tapping a knuckle against the one-way glass. Since the capital compound autocabs were unidirectional, the seating prompted conversation even when not desired.

“Too bad we’re leaving so soon. I’d like to have toured the city, maybe taken a trip out to one of the natural beaches, seen something besides just the inside of headquarters.” He turned to Qin, raising a single eyebrow. “I think they design the ships and buildings to all feel the same, you know? Keeps you from remembering where you are. Ship? Planet? Doesn’t matter; you’re on duty.”

Lee chuckled and looked for someone to join him. Neither Yadav nor Benes reacted. Qin smiled and turned her gaze away from the datapad. Qin had learned over the last two days that if no one responded to Lee, he would carry on. She was still working out the best strategy for interacting with him, but seeing that neither Yadav nor Benes shared her interest in accommodating their gregarious new teammate, Qin decided she would humor him.

“Indeed, sergeant. I believe with the unexpected deviation from the Terminus’s current deployment schedule, we are fortunate to have been selected to make planetfall at all, given the graveness of the situation that brought us here so abruptly,” Qin said, hoping it would satisfy Lee’s need for banter.

It did not. Lee continued. “I’ve been at my assignment for six months up there and only had one leave,” he raised a finger to emphasize his point, “and that was just two days on… I don’t even remember. Some Fringe planet. Orders were to stay close, the locals weren’t real happy seeing us there so not a lot of leeway. But I figure, if it’s my vacation, I don’t need to wear a uniform if I just want to sneak out and have a few drinks.” Lee smirked at his comment, eyebrows raised—bravado, deception—in another attempt at gaining audience agreement.

Sergeant Benes scoffed. “Only six months? You couldn’t have seen more than a fraction of the Terminus’s available amenities. The ship is a floating city; try harder. I’m sure you’ll find some way to entertain yourself.”

Lee waved off the comment—deflection. “Promenade decks may have real grass, but a fake sky with no sun doesn’t give you the proper feeling of the open air.” Lee lowered his head, attempting to look through the glass up to the Kestris sun. “And there’ve been no new people down in neighborhood twenty-two for a while. Same faces every day. After six months, I feel like I know everyone around there.” He sunk back into his seat. “I’m used to more variety.”

Qin smiled at the comment. Lee was not lying about that. Qin had used her OS-9 security clearance to read Lee’s file when he’d been assigned to their team. The sergeant was competent in his role and had no reprimands, but his frequent reassignment history—Intrepid, one year; Sovereign, eight months; Addison Station, three months; Gallant, eight months; Expedition, eleven months; and now Terminus, six months—told a patterned story.

Qin continued to engage Lee. He seemed well-intentioned, though Yadav and Benes may have additional experience with the sergeant Qin lacked. “There’s one-hundred thousand, four-hundred and three full-time crew members aboard the Terminus, with likely more joining as the fleet marshal’s operations accelerate. I am sure you can find new friends if you apply yourself.” Qin thought for a moment. “Maybe try a new promenade on another deck. Or the library. The fleet marshal had it added shortly after he took command. He hoped it would encourage more physical reading. Its selection of replicas, as well as originals, is impressive.”

Lee’s expression sunk. “Paper books? Who has time to read? I can’t even stay caught up on my vids.” He turned and nodded to Qin. “How long have you been aboard?”

“Two years, one month, six days,” Qin replied.

Lee’s face soured. “Two years! Same post?”

“Same post.”

Lee shook his head. “I didn’t even know there were assignments that long, at least in one place. This is my third ship—” fifth ship, Qin mentally corrected, “—and I don’t even know how many assignments. My skills seem to always be in high demand elsewhere.” Lee squinted at Qin. “You don’t look old enough to even be out of the academy for two years. The Terminus is your first ship then?”

Qin smiled. “It is. Is that peculiar to you?”

“Huh, no. I mean, not really,” Lee said, shrugging a shoulder—insecurity—and looking back out the window. “I’d think you’d be the one itching to take a break then. Two years…” Lee leaned forward, lowering his tone unnecessarily. “Hey, I hear we could be going deep soon, like past the Gulf. The Sellacans were bristling before this, but now that this Starview thing has revealed—”

Yadav found a renewed interest in Lee’s statement. “The fleet marshal has indicated no such thing,” Yadav interjected. “Save this speculation for the next time you and whoever you cavort with are kicking a smashball around the N22 rec-field. As you stated earlier, Sergeant, we’re still on duty. Even if Major Drake isn’t around to hear you, please let me remind you of the present hierarchy.”

Lee scrunched up his mouth—embarrassment—but didn’t push the issue. Across from Qin, Benes looked pointedly at Lee and frowned, then turned to Qin and gave her a pleasant smile.

Lieutenant Meredessi, any interesting updates to that screen there?”

Qin looked up to meet Benes’s eyes, nodding at the change of subject. “Kestris Orbital Patrol has secured the no-fly zone around the planet, the navy has extended the protective zone to the outer orbits, and the first fleet has established a spherical sentry grid around the system with an average radius of 1 billion, 73 million, 600 thousand miles from our location.”

Benes pursed his lips in satisfaction. “No one’s getting in or out of the system without us knowing now.”

Qin nodded. “Yes. However, a number of vessels were able to depart Starview Station during the incident, including ones that are suspected to be those of the Red Kestrel collaborators. All are being investigated.”

“Can’t blame people for wanting off that nightmare. Can you imagine being stuck up there during that?” Lee said under his breath. Everyone ignored him.

“Also, it appears that the fleet marshal has ordered all fleets, including the Terminus, to maintain operational readiness.” Qin looked to Lee. “Sadly, shore leaves are restricted until further notice.”

Lee groaned, rocking his head back in anguish. “Well, still got my holovids.” He looked back to Yadav and gave her an impish smile. “And my smashball. Gym will still be available. Gallow wants us all in there as much as he does the library.”

Qin smiled. Lee did not seem as bad as Yadav had warned her the week previous. That, or Qin’s own peculiarities were compatible with whatever it was about him that bothered her other teammates.

The procession of government autocabs turned and crossed through the guarded entry gates to the navy shipfield just outside the central ring of the capitol compound. Stretching into the distance, perfectly straight access lanes formed an enormous grid of berths, domed maintenance bay connected to every one. Row after row of varied, planetfall-capable vessels were lined up, personnel and maintenance crew coming and going, tending to the ships’ needs. 

Qin looked out the window to where the procession of Drake’s staff were heading. The Cataphract—personnel tender, fifteen permanent crew, two-hundred passenger capacity, jump-capable—was on a landing pad with its stair-stepped gangway extended. This was their ride back into orbit.

Qin returned her eyes to her datapad. “Also, it appears that Fleet Marshal Gallow will be joining us on the Cataphract today.”

Lee sat forward, suddenly very concerned with the contents of Qin’s datapad. “You can see that?”

Benes grunted—patronizing. “She’s OS-9, sergeant. Full access. You’re only cleared for need-to-know, so get used to her knowing things you don’t. In fact, if you pulled that datapad away from her, it would probably explode in your hands. Top secret. Eyes only.”

Lee frowned at the reminder of the disparity in access levels. Qin waved the datapad in front of him, holding the screen where he could see it clearly, knowing it would appear blank to him. “Nothing to be afraid of. It will not explode; you just would not be able to see anything.”

Qin widened her eyes, letting the light catch her irises. Lee scrunched his nose and leaned forward, the wave of recognition on his face indicating he had noticed the angular patterns of circuitry woven into Qin’s corneas that allowed her to see the encoded information on the datapad.

“They give you augments for this job?” Lee clicked his tongue, whistling in appreciation. “I need to look into getting an OS-9 posting.”

An uncharacteristic snorting laugh—surprise, amusement—sounded from Yadav’s direction. Even Benes was caught stifling a crooked grin beneath his thick goatee.

“Well, Sergeant Lee, OS-9 is known for its careful observation of a situation. I can assure you that you do not need technological augmentations to see what is plainly visible outside your window.”

Qin returned to looking at her datapad and casually gestured toward Lee’s window. Lee looked and groaned in realization. Fleet Marshal Gallow’s honor guard were already lined up, forming a human wall around both sides of the Cataphract’s gangway. The deep blue of their uniforms stood out from the rest of the standard white navy uniforms that surrounded them.

“Well, look at that. You’re right. Gallow is heading back. I guess it’s true what they say about him and the Terminus. Shows up, looks scary on the vids, then back to work.” Lee chuckled and turned to Qin, tapping the back of his finger against her arm—solidarity. “You know, I bet the High Imperius is already in a bubble bath—”

“Sergeant Lee, enough,” Yadav snapped. “I will not tolerate any disparagement of the High Imperius in my presence, on or off duty. Need I remind you we are on Kestris. You think these cars aren’t monitored? You would be wise to take note of when you’re surrounded by friends, and when you aren’t.”

Lee averted his gaze, turning to the window and mumbling. “I was just saying…”

Yadav appeared to have reached her limit of banter. “You’ve said enough.”

 Qin gave Lee an apologetic smile. The procession of autocabs slowed to a stop, forming a neat line some ways away from the Cataphract.

Yadav sat upright and smoothed the front of her uniform jacket—assiduous, self-conscious. “Finally. Look alive, the fleet marshal may have already arrived.”

The doors on each side of the car slid open, letting the din of the shipyard break the silence of the soundproofed interior. Qin packed the datapad into her attache and ducked out of the car. Major Drake was already at the head of a two-column line of his staff, walking with purpose toward the Cataphract.

Qin took her place beside Yadav, Benes and Lee falling in behind them. The sun radiated off Qin’s white and gold uniform as she walked across the tarmac. She was grateful for even this short moment in the open air. Sergeant Lee may take a peculiar approach to social interaction, but he did make a solid point about the real sky and sun. During her single-day visit to the surface of Kestris, her only time in the sun was walking from one navy command building to another.

Qin would never admit it aloud, but she did feel a slight remorse at having to leave the planet so soon. Two years was a long time, far longer than any normal assignment. While the individual circumstances around Sergeant Lee’s frequent transfers may not be appealing, the opportunity to experience something different held appeal. But a posting to the Terminus was a coveted position. Many lobbied for years to be assigned such a career-defining transfer. With the escalation of readiness due to the Starview Station attack and OS-9’s elevation to the forefront of intelligence operations, she doubted she would be leaving her post aboard the Terminus any time soon.

Major Drake led his retinue past the honor guard and to the edge of the gangway. He stopped and stepped to the side, motioning for his staff to proceed and greeting each with a subtle nod or pat on the arm. Qin stepped forward next.

“Lieutenant. I presume a few more hours of this weather would have been preferable?” Drake said, the corner of his mouth upturned in an apologetic grin. Qin bowed her head.

“I feel fortunate to be returning to serve. It is a time of mourning. There are many people who are relying on us to do our work.”

Drake nodded. “Very good, lieutenant.”

Qin smiled softly. “Major.”

She took a deep breath, letting her shoulders raise and lower slowly as she strode past the honor guard and up the carpeted gangway steps. There was no benefit to lamenting a lack of authentic sunshine. Focusing on her job had become more important than ever.

Her statement had not been a platitude. There were people relying on her to do her work.

Julian tapped his pencil against his desk’s surface, staring at the computer in front of him; another day of nothing but Starview Station analysis filled its screen. He’d been spending most of his time in his office over the last two days, the entire agency working day and night. Technically, this was only one of his offices. When he had a need for deeper focus or more isolation, he used his remote office in the outer edge of the capitol complex in one of the agency’s auxiliary buildings. That building was occupied by accountants, legal advisors, and other non-operation personnel who rarely bothered the operatives. It allowed him to get away from the frantic business that consumed 5E headquarters when he wanted to work alone and not be seen. 

However, the Imperium was in a crisis. Though his partner may have vanished, Julian was right here for all to see, interview, and observe that he was just as shocked as the rest of them and had nothing to hide. That meant sneaking away to the auxiliary office was not an option. Instead, he was at 5E headquarters, the one across the hall from Samantha’s, her office door dark and locked, left that way after internal affairs had rifled through it.

Just as planned, after their last face-to-face meeting, Samantha had missed the next routine agency check-in, then the next. Then, priority messages from Julian acting in the capacity of both concerned friend and controller had been ignored, followed by escalated requests for a status report and appearance before her supervisor Director Clarke. Julian had then formally expressed his growing worry. When Samantha proved unreachable, they had been forced to follow agency guidelines and notify personnel management that Agent Mori seemed to have cut off communications. As expected, they did a hard-pull on her 5E-issued comm and discovered it had been deactivated, its last known location her apartment the morning she appeared to have vanished. With that final breach of protocol, her status had been changed to section-42. Absent without leave, whereabouts unknown.

Then, word reached the surface that Starview Station was under attack, and early indicators reported to the Red Kestrels. The quiet section-42 became a lot louder after that. The coincidence of having the Red Kestrels as the key suspects in an attack on one of Kestris’s most prominent civilian space stations had immediately made Samantha a person of interest.

Of course, Julian had anonymously accessed Samantha’s agency status and file—all done by a series of automated scripts he had programmed in advance, keeping his digital fingerprints off of it. Any data that would have aided in locating Agent Mori was tampered with, and misinformation added to send investigators down time-wasting paths that led nowhere.

Samantha’s office was opened by internal affairs, torn apart from top to bottom, and all of her electronic devices confiscated. Her apartment had been next, the local judicial magistrate not hesitating to issue a search edict at the agency’s request. And, again, Julian had already made sure none of these locations had any information that would indicate Samantha’s actual whereabouts, or his and Clarke’s involvement. Samantha seemed to have just vanished without any outward indicators as to why. The answer to that question was supposed to have been slowly doled out bit by bit until the agency would finally conclude, with a little nudging from Julian, that Samantha had gone rogue as a reaction to 5E defunding and was acting in her own capacity.

Of course, that was before Starview Station was attacked by the widely known obsession of the section-42ed agent. That complicated things. There was no evidence of her being involved, so she was not—yet—a suspect, but the parallel incidence of the two events cast her in a very troubling light.

Internal affairs had questioned Julian within hours after their searches. Clarke as well. Neither supplied any useful information, their stories well-rehearsed and airtight, and any distress they expressed was understandable. Their valued team member seemed to have destabilized and they couldn’t have prevented it.

It was a regrettable deception, but as Clarke had made abundantly clear, the house was compromised. The audacity of the attack on Starview was all the grim evidence both he and Clarke needed to confirm that they could risk trusting no one until they knew more. Until then, they maintained the act that they were as distraught and suspicious of Samantha’s disappearance as anyone else.

A figure appeared in the doorway. “Agent Siddig, the Kestrel dossier. You got it ready?”

Julian’s head popped up at the request. He slipped the pencil back behind his ear and put on a placid smile. Agent Barton, bright-eyed and eager to impress, stood expectantly.

“Ah, the dossier, yes. It is nearly compiled. It has been slightly more chaotic than normal due to the situation we are all dealing with,” Julian said, smiling and looked pointedly toward Samantha’s door. “I have been… distracted.”

Agent Barton patted the side of the door jamb. “Chaotic, yeah, that’s an understatement. You seen anything like this before?”

Julian shook his head; he could be honest about this one. “Nothing this close to home.”

Barton cast a glance over his shoulder, then leaned further through the doorway. He nodded subtly toward Samantha’s darkened office, lowering his voice. “Um, Agent Mori. Is she… I mean, you were partners, and she was pretty upset with the announcement about the defense minister. You don’t think she, you know, snapped?”

It was a question Julian was prepared for. “Any information I have on Agent Mori has been collected and reported to internal affairs and Director Clarke. Beyond that, I am under strict guidelines to ‘keep my mouth shut,’ as they say.” A pang of guilt jabbed his gut; he couldn’t appear to have too much faith in his seemingly unstable partner, selling the idea she had destabilized was how he helped protect her. “I hope the attack is just an unfortunate coincidence, but… perhaps I missed something. I should have reached out to her sooner.”

Agent Barton nodded, shaking his head in remorse. “If one of our own had something to do with this, that’s… that’s not good for agency business.” Barton sighed. “Anyway, I’m supposed to be coordinating data sharing with OS-9, and they want that Kestrel dossier. No idea why Director Clarke chose me. I’ve never done anything like this. I feel like an unnecessary administrative go-between.”

Julian frowned and nodded in solidarity. Barton did seem overwhelmed with coordinating between 5E and OS-9, just as intended. When the mandate came down for the agencies to interface with each other, Julian had made sure that Clarke knew who would be uniquely unqualified to fulfill certain roles. According to Barton’s academy file, he’d received top marks in sidearm and rifle proficiency, unarmed combat, tradecraft, languages, and slightly below-average marks in administrative composition and research synthesis. It wasn’t much, but it would slow down the process. Anything to give Samantha more time.

“Agent Barton, no matter how tedious or trivial it may seem; every contribution matters.” Julian used his pencil to salute Barton. “You will be the first to know when I am finished. I do not want to deny OS-9 access to our agency’s unique knowledge.”

Barton nodded. “Right, right. Well, I am not so sure they feel the same way.” He took a step towards Julian’s desk, checking back over his shoulder. “OS-9 has been stingy with requests on my end. They’re cataloging information first, then sharing it after they’ve had their people review it. They were especially interested in knowing who was on the station, both people and ships. They pulled every log and record they could from security and orbital patrol. And I mean pulled it, as in deleting the originals. Civilian comm chatter, what people purchased in the shopping centers on the station, even seizing and deleting all personal photos off of survivors and recovered comms to scan for faces in the background; everything. Whatever happened up there, they want it contained.” Barton lowered his voice, barely moving his lips. “The data is being put into a system I’ve got access to, and if you wanted to add your Kestrel dossier to it yourself, I can accidentally give you access.”

Julian raised his eyebrows; Barton did not disappoint. “Indeed, Agent Barton, I would appreciate the convenience.”

“We’ve got to work together.” Barton returned to the door and exhaled, patting the jamb once again. “I better get going, I’ve got… I’ve got a lot to do. I don’t want to let Director Clarke down.”

“I will be sure to relay the extent of your efforts.”

Barton scurried into the hall and Julian turned back to his computer. Moments later, a new access token appeared in his personal inbox from Agent Barton, requesting he upload the dossier on the Red Kestrels. Julian smiled. The database permissions were not write-only; read access was given as well. Perhaps Barton had unknowingly helped their mission in more ways than simply slowing OS-9’s progress.

Julian sighed, letting his shoulders drop; his work was more fiction now than not. He and Samantha had been working the Red Kestrel cases for quite some time. Having him supply his uniquely personal analysis on a group he was experienced with was a standard request. What was not standard was the level of discretion Julian was employing on what he left out. Discretion was too weak of a word; omission and obfuscation were better fits. The official mission record of their encounter on Senali and what they’d found on Eddie Renner’s computers had already been scrubbed before Samantha had left. Everything in this new report would have to reflect that. He would make the dossier dense and useless, one of many transgressions against his own agency and his good-faith OS-9 counterparts.

Julian leaned forward onto his elbows, tapping his pencil on his desk once again. In front of him was the computer connected to 5E systems with the dossier he had promised Barton half-finished on the screen. He removed a pile of papers and revealed a second computer next to his agency-issued one, a private computer that held the tools he needed to maintain his primary mission, the one Clarke had given him. This computer was segregated from Imperium networks and inaccessible to anyone but himself.

Two missions, two mandates, two conflicting intentions he must hold in his mind at once. If he believed the Imperium and the navy were compromised, which he did, then Clarke’s operation took priority. Any effort or intelligence he fed into the official systems could be exploited and used back against him. Against Clarke. Against Samantha. Like it or not, Julian could only trust himself for now. Well, and perhaps Agent Barton, to a point.

The Kestrel dossier could wait. As far as he knew, he’d be feeding it to the Imperium collaborators who had coordinated the attack on the Dauntless and Starview Station. What was more interesting at the moment was this Starview security data Barton had gifted him access to.

Julian navigated to the database on his agency computer. Sure enough, the data Barton had retrieved was there, being accessed and scrutinized by untold numbers of interested parties, his own agency included. He began downloading the data to his 5E computer, and on the other he initiated a hyper-local, wireless, one-way transfer between the two. The agency computer had no way to detect that it was being accessed. It was a serious breach in protocol, but a minor infraction given everything else the agency must contend with. Besides, the spirit of 5E’s mandate was to uncover the conspirators, and that is what he was going to do. In a sense, he was being more loyal to the Imperium in acting against it. 

Julian scrolled through the containment database’s files and noticed a preliminary report. It had been cross-referenced against known Red Kestrel members, associates, or anyone else who had any history with the group. There were a few minor hits, tangential and largely irrelevant. Several known Kestrels had been killed during skirmishes with station security and the navy assault teams who had breached the station. It was clear why OS-9 wanted to suppress this data from the public; it was full of gaps large enough to fly a warship through. 

Staff records were missing or incomplete, video footage corrupted or non-existent, records of security protocols ignored or skipped from top to bottom. It was far too much to be a mistake or coincidence. OS-9 and other 5E analysts would realize this, as would whoever was behind it. Measure, countermeasure. Back and forth, two sides moving the pieces without knowing who they were really playing against.

Julian clicked his tongue, his eyes drifting to the unfinished Kestrel dossier on the 5E computer. Someone else had already gotten to the Starview data, perhaps before the attack. Whatever OS-9 and their 5E counterparts were looking for, it would not be found. Just like Julian’s report, most of this was useless noise.

Julian began tapping his pencil on the desk. He needed a fresh angle of attack. If the obvious data would have been scrubbed, what was not obvious? What was he looking for? Or a better question might be, what were the others not looking for. 

He looked across his desk to the darkened office across the hall. Samantha’s office. He already knew she wouldn’t be in the data. One of the first things internal affairs had done was search for the usage of Samantha Mori’s Imperium identity in every Imperium-controlled region. The most recent time she’d been spotted on the grid was the last night they had spoken; a public autocab had her paying for a ride outside her apartment. After that, nothing.

If Julian looked for her, he knew he would also find nothing; she—Samantha—hadn’t been there. What he did not know was if one of her identities had.

He tucked his pencil behind his ear and began typing. He compiled a list of the names that had passed through station security or had been present at any checkpoint on Starview Station. All of these had already been cross-referenced against known agency and navy databases. But Julian had another database.

He ran the list from Starview against his own, private list of fabricated identities that no Imperium system had ever accessed.

A match instantly appeared. Female, one of Julian’s finest manufactured identities.

But, then, something else appeared; a second name. Male. One of his older creations, but one just the same. He ran the verification again; it checked out.

He tapped the end of his pencil against the screen. This was not something he was to have expected to find.

“Well. Hello there.”

Julian’s autonomous car eased its way out of ground-traffic and into the short term parking just down the street from 5E headquarters. Government employees had access to the capital’s fleet of autocabs, but this car was different. It had the appearance of a low-cost, nondescript, civilian vehicle, selected to be as unremarkable and commonplace as possible. But it was the inside that mattered. Julian had modified it to be a sealed and transmission-shielded mobile office, great for conversations he wanted to keep completely private and out of any Imperium-controlled property. Julian had learned that the best safehouses were the ones he kept to himself.

“I’ve got ten minutes,” Clarke said as he ducked in through the car’s open door. He sat in the forward-facing seats across from Julian, ragged and worn from the past two days.

The door slid shut, and the car eased its way back into traffic, blending into the rest of the vehicles cruising near the capitol compound.

“Ten minutes will be sufficient. We have a development that combines our agency mandates along with our… how do we refer to it? A side mission?”

Clarke raised an eyebrow. “Depends on which side your asking. Continue.”

“Yes, of course.” Julian tapped the datapad that had been resting on the seat next to him. “Data retrieved by OS-9 from Starview Station has been made available, courtesy of Agent Barton. We are receiving it second-hand. Apparently OS-9 wants it to flow through them.”

Clarke narrowed his eyes. “They’re containing this fast. I suppose that’s expected. Findings?”

Julian raised two fingers. “Yes, two things. The first, and most obvious, the data is incomplete; it shows signs of careful alteration and deletion, as well as signs of never having been captured in the first place. Security measures were mysteriously disabled or malfunctioning, station workers inexplicably replaced without warning. All gaps and voids that point to careful premeditation. I do not foresee the data being of any material value to the agency. Knowing there are those within the navy actively working to cover their own tracks, I suspect that all evidence will point to the Kestrels, not to any conspirators.”

Clarke exhaled and motioned for Julian to continue. “Inside job; we knew that already. I am guessing this is just the setup to your real insight?”

Julian nodded. “Indeed, sir. While I do not think we will find anything useful to lead us back to the inside with this data, I did uncover something of value to you and I. Here.” Julian handed Clarke a datapad, information already loaded on the screen.

Clarke scanned it, then raised an eyebrow at Julian. “Olivia, huh? You’re telling me she was there? The time on this log entry is not even a half-hour before the reports of the attack. Do you think she gained knowledge and was trying to stop it?”

Julian shook his head. “No, I believe there is a far simpler explanation. If someone is looking to skip out of the system with no operational support, Starview is a rational choice.”

Clarke flipped the datapad around; a photo of Samantha, smiling, was centered on the screen. “What about non-automated systems? This photo is in the data?”

Julian nodded. “Yes, though facial recognition would not link Samantha’s face with Olivia’s. Our non-official cover safeguards prevent agents from being accidentally picked up and identified by Imperium systems. If a pointed investigation were made into the people present on the station, she would have to be recognized visually.”

Clarke handed the datapad back to Julian. “Even still, how much of that can you hide?”

“This is already in the hands of OS-9, I cannot prevent Olivia or this photo from entering the official record of the event. When, or if, they start checking each name that was present on the station, there is nothing to indicate that this woman is a lead to pursue. If she is recognized, however…”

Clarke cursed under his breath. “This indicates she was on Starview two days ago; what about now? We have a lot of dead people up there. Did you check ship manifests? Commercial ticket sales?”

“This identity was not on any of the recovered manifests.” Julian raised an eyebrow. “Sir, another name in my files did appear on the cross-reference, a name that will not turn up a result on any OS-9 analysis. It is not conclusive, but I think we can tolerate lowering our threshold of reasonable assumption.”

Julian accessed a new file on the datapad, a doctored identity from several years past. Not a complete fabrication, but one that had been just enough to allow someone to start a new life outside the Imperium.

He handed the datapad back to Clarke. The director studied it for a moment.

“Derek Corelith?”

“That is the falsified name on the registration of his ship, a ship that was legally berthed at Starview during the attack. You’d remember him by his given name; Decker Sagan.”

Clarke grunted. “Smart. For going after the Kestrels, he’d be one to enlist. And this Matilda, it make it out?”

Julian nodded. “There was no positive identification. There were many ships that evacuated successfully. The Matilda was not among any vessels whose departure was prevented by the blockade, nor was anything matching its description or registration tags recovered from the debris. I believe this was Samantha’s solution to her mission constraints; she has hired a support team.”

A hint of a grin appeared on Clarke’s mouth. “Since OS-9 has this data too, are they going to make the same connection?”

Julian shook his head. “I do not believe so. I only made the connection myself because I, well…” Julian paused. “I suppose we are past the point of worrying about minor infractions; I helped Samantha scrub Decker’s Imperium records seven years ago to let him out of the navy so he could fade back into the Fringe. There is no data link, only a personal one.”

“Minor infraction?” Clarke said, raising an eyebrow.

Julian shrugged. “Compared to what I have not shared with you, yes. I do know how you prefer to keep things well compartmentalized.”

A reluctant nod of agreement was Clarke’s response. He turned his attention to the window, jaw clenched. “Whoever is behind all of this is still working beyond a horizon we can’t see past. If it’s Gallow, he’s just been given more power to control the situation than we predicted. If Samantha got out, we need to give her as much space as we can. I want you to do an inventory of everything she and Decker left behind as a trail. His ship, too. Doctor it, scrub it, corrupt it, whatever it takes. We treat this as damage control. If she was on Starview, she knows better than any of us what happened. We have to make that count.”

Julian may have been Samantha’s controller and friend, but Clarke had enlisted Samantha for this mission. As much concern as Julian had for Samantha’s wellbeing, Clarke must have felt doubly responsible.

“Sir,” Julian said, placing the datapad gently into his bag. “I know that Samantha is not the first agent to be disavowed and exiled as part of a larger mission, but disavowing and exiling an agent the day the group she was investigating assaults a civilian space station,” Julian straightened his posture, “sir, we could offer indirect assistance. The mission has ventured outside of any predictable parameters–”

Clarke held up a hand. “No. Maintain the presumption that Samantha continues to be successful in her mission. Deviating only shifts us to a different set of problems. She found help she trusts.” Clarke locked eyes with Julian. “How much faith do you have in her?”

Julian did not hesitate. “I have total faith.”

“Stick with the faith, then. The hijacking of Dauntless was the first step; assaulting Starview Station was the second. A third step will be coming and if Samantha can disrupt it, we need her to have that freedom. We must keep our promise to work this from the inside.” Clarke’s stern demeanor faded. “Julian, I didn’t pick her because she’s expendable, I picked her because she isn’t. If she saw what the Kestrels and these insiders did firsthand, she would not want us to back down from this one bit.”

Julian exhaled slowly, nodding. “No, she would not.”

Clarke had an interesting way of presenting unpleasant information in a sensible way. The difference between a soldier and the spy; Julian was always looking for new angles, Clarke was always looking to press forward.

The car descended and pulled to the side of the street, the exact spot from which they had departed.

Julian gestured grandly to the door. “Back home with nary a minute to spare.”

Clarke scoffed. “You set this car for an exact ten minute loop. Am I really that predictable?”

Julian shrugged. “We all have our routines.”

Clarke adjusted his suit jacket. “Keep on mission. She will be.”

Julian bowed his head. “Understood, sir.”

Clarke stepped out, the door slid shut. Julian pulled the pencil from behind his ear and placed its end against his chin. He entered a new destination into the car’s navigation computer; his offsite office. 

Agent Barton’s report could wait. Clarke wanted Julian to keep on mission, one aspect of which was conducting activities that the director would not necessarily approve of.

Time to keep things well compartmentalized.