Episode 18: Spy stuff

Click to see catch-up summary

The last thing the crew of the Matilda saw was Starview Station succumbing to the Red Kestrel attack. Two days into their jump to Mentaryd, Decker and Samantha finally take the time to sit down and talk about what is going on.

Decker stared across the center console of the Matilda’s observation bridge at Samantha, the black nothingness of jumpspace the only thing visible through the thick steel-glass behind her. It was a forced break, there was no way for either of them to learn what happened over Kestris after the Matilda had jumped until they arrived at their destination.

“I don’t even know where to start. I don’t. I really don’t,” Decker said, shaking his head. They’d been in jumpspace for one day since watching Starview Station disappear from the sensor displays. He’d held firm to his decision; they would not be dropping out of the jump. Decker and the crew had all retreated to their preferred spaces aboard Matilda and Samantha had been given the vacant quarters, with nothing in it but stored junk and a mattress.

Jump blackout, that was the term for when a ship was not equipped with an intra-jump transmitter. The Matilda had originally been outfitted with a rudimentary one, where live vid-feeds or full-time data connections weren’t possible, but sending and receiving messages or consolidated news digests were. Like many amenities on a ship of advancing age, though, it had died after one-too-many rough jumps or from absorbing hostile bolt fire. He couldn’t remember which.

The cost of a modern replacement was steep, not to mention the roaming fees for connecting to the corporate-controlled repeater nodes scattered throughout the sector. Decker and the crew had just learned to live with the blackout while they jumped. What could be so urgent that they couldn’t just unplug for a day here and there? As he stared at the person seated opposite him, it was a financial compromise he was sorely regretting. Needing to know what was going on in the sector had just never been that urgent until now.

“Okay. I can’t possibly understate this question.” Decker rested an elbow on the console and pointed directly at Samantha. “What. Is going on. With the Imperium?”

Samantha’s head tilted, her expression neutral. Before she could respond, Decker’s pointed-finger shifted to a halting palm, and he continued. 

“No, no. Stop. Three years, Samantha. You contacted me out of nowhere. Nowhere. I don’t know what you want, what sort of scheme you’re into, but I agree because I’m out of money and you’ve helped me out in the past. Before our last conversation, I actually thought—” he paused again, shaking his head at whatever he had intended to say. “Look, the past is the past. Fresh starts, right? You want to hire this ship because apparently you’re without any better options. Not that this crew and ship isn’t a good option, but you get the point. Last I heard from you—three years ago—you were working, I mean I thought you were working, for information security. Reading reports, tracking leads, compiling rundowns to send to your superiors. I am guessing that’s not the case?”

Samantha remained quiet, head tilted the other direction. Decker exhaled, maintaining eye contact. “What we saw on Starview, you’re not involved—”

“No.” Samantha said, her first word since joining him on the observation bridge. “I had no connection to the attack on the station.”

Decker leaned back, sinking into the seat. “Just a coincidence then, is it?”

Samantha bowed her head in acknowledgment. “Not a coincidence, no. My need to leave the Imperium was a direct consequence of my work on Kestrel activity, I won’t deny that. I picked Starview because I could not use agency resources and needed a convenient civilian station to depart from. The people I work with, we knew something was coming, but not what. The reasons I chose Starview are the same reasons the Kestrels must have; lots of people, easy to hide.”

Decker’s exhaled. He wanted to believe her. “Wrong place, wrong time. And you just ‘ran into’ them, snatched a scarf and gun, then hopped aboard the Matilda.”

Samantha shrugged. Decker took that as an invitation to explore.

“So it was an attack from the Kestrels, not some local group trying to make a point and using the red scarves to confuse everyone?”

“It was them. I have been pursuing the Kestrels for… for a while. There have been other incidents, classified things kept from the public. This was an orchestrated incident that goes all the way back to Dradari.”

Decker grimaced at the mention of the planet. He fidgeted in his seat, unable to get comfortable. “The three of us—you, me, them—we all converge during some sort of Kestrel terror attack? How is this possible?” He held up both hands to Samantha, fending off an interruption he knew wasn’t really coming. “I know what I was doing there; taking your job—act as a taxi, offer some muscle, let you have access to our fine facilities here. I needed the money, so that’s on me, I admit that. I left the navy to join the contractor life, and being hired to get into ‘predicaments’ with clients is expected. What bothers me is everything about this job you’re leaving out. You can’t use Imperium resources, but you have that computer and whatever that trick was that got us out of the snow.” Decker brought a hand to his face for a moment before continuing. “Samantha, I know you work in secrets, but even the bits you’re presenting don’t add up. You want to keep details from the crew, fine. You’re their client and they agreed to no-questions-asked business. But when you shoved that scarf in my face, you deliberately made it personal for me. Cut the bullshit and tell me what you’re really up to. ”

Samantha stared for a moment, then turned her attention to the windows. Decker had her backed into a corner now. 

“This job is something I am doing on my own. It’s not an Imperium mission,” Samantha said, resignation on her face as she stared into the void outside.

Decker leaned forward, eyebrows raised. “And?”

Samantha remained silent. Decker could see her jaw shift back and forth. He knew the look. She was playing potential responses in her mind, looking for the one that would satisfy whoever she was responding to and make them move on. Decker scoffed; not gonna work this time.

“Samantha, I left the Red Kestrels behind ten years ago because I never wanted to see a red scarf again. You knew that, and you brought them back into my life anyway. That deserves an explanation.” He relaxed back into the chair; let her evade that.

“You’re right,” she said, looking back to Decker and nodding in concession. “You know the Kestrels in a way no one else does. I needed someone with your history and connection to them.”

“Oh, I think I understand you need something from me. But why would you need to hire my ship? You’re an Imperium intelligence agent. Shouldn’t you have access to people, ships, contracts in every seedy corner of the sector? You could have dropped a fraction of the credits and paid me to have a conversation over vidscreen.” Decker gestured to his ship. “Not that the Matilda isn’t capable, if you ignore the current outstanding repairs. But even at our best, we’re no Imperium. I don’t even have a working transmitter!”

Decker held his stare, letting the sentiment sink in. These kinds of conversations had been all too frequent three years ago and had gained no appeal in the time since. He was starting to wonder if maybe she hadn’t changed at all. But the more difficult admission was, maybe neither had he.

“Imperium resources aren’t available. They have no knowledge about where I am or what I am doing.” Samantha met eyes with Decker. “I am not working for anyone. The job I hired you for is my job.”

“What does that mean? You ditch the government life to capitalize on your skills in the private-sector, and instead of leaving me to my own life, you drag me along into whatever this is?” Decker muttered an exasperated curse and stood, running both hands roughly through his hair. He paced to the far end of the bridge, his back to Samantha. He heard her take a slow breath.

“You are correct. The Imperium and I have parted ways. I am pursuing an investigation into the Red Kestrels on my own accord,” she said, her voice level and matter-of-fact.

Decker turned, expecting another half-truth. “Parted ways, after all you’ve done for your career? Why?” 

Using all the restraint he could muster, Decker remained silent, widening his eyes in exaggerated anticipation.

Samantha took a breath and nodded. “Because I would not be able to carry out this mission under the watch of the Imperium. The ‘Agent Samantha Mori’ you refer to, she’s absent without leave and a person of interest. Two days before the Starview attack, it was arranged that I should appear to have gone rogue. By this point, I’ve been burned by the agency and will be disavowed. The Imperium is compromised, someone on the inside is working against it, and the Kestrels are willing scapegoats. I don’t know more than that, Decker, but that’s why I contacted you.” Samantha’s expression softened. “There is no one else I can trust.”

Decker’s eyes narrowed. Her story made sense. Actual, cause-and-effect sense. It was full of gaps, and its wisdom was questionable, but it added up. Finally, something added up.

He chuckled, a grim laugh that covered a groan. “That’s what the black hair is about, eh? You went into hiding so you could pursue a vendetta against the Kestrels without Imperium support.”

A sad grin bent Samantha’s mouth. “Yes. Like I said, I have been following Kestrel escalation for some time, and a week ago, evidence was discovered that led me—and the people who have intentionally burned me—to believe that this could not be accomplished any other way. The Kestrels are being used by someone in the Imperium. We don’t know who, but they’re powerful enough they could have stopped me had I not left. I’m out here alone.” Samantha paused. She stood, taking a step toward Decker. “And I’m asking you to join me.”

She sounded sincere. Warm, even. That raised Decker’s suspicion.

He folded his arms. “Join you in what? You already hired me.”

Samantha took another step closer. “That’s right. I hired your ship to take me to Senali so I can pick up the evidence trail to find out what is really going on. But I can’t hire you for what I really need, that has to be voluntary. I’m going after them. You saw what they did two days ago. You know what Reed Casto is capable of, and now he has the support of an Imperium insider.”

Decker folded his arms, squeezing them across his chest, the bolt wound on his shoulder burning from the strain. “Yeah. I know. Which is why I changed my name. Cut ties. I haven’t even been to Dradari in… I don’t even remember how long. However you thought I’d react, I…”

Decker’s voice trailed off. Samantha stayed quiet. Decker’s eyes hardened. “We left those people to die in that docking tube on Starview. I let you make the decision, and I shouldn’t have.” Guilt clenched his gut, the faces and pleas of the travelers clear in his mind. “The last thing those people saw was the hatch slamming shut and me standing there, leaving them to their fates.”

Samantha nodded, regret in her eyes. “It was a no-win situation. But I chose the result that would allow us to fight.”

Decker threw his hands up. “That’s not the point, Samantha. The point I’m making is about you. In that ‘no-win’ situation, you determined those people were acceptable losses in the bigger picture and made your decision. I stood by and let it happen.”

Samantha nodded again. “That instinct to help those people, Decker, that’s what I need from you. They had no chance, you know that. How many more people like them—innocent people—are out there?” Samantha pointed to the void through the window. “The Red Kestrels and whoever is propping them up aren’t going to stop. This is the first spark.”

Decker glowered. “You may have saved us, but acceptable losses aren’t something I am comfortable with. I should have done something, even if it meant putting my life at risk. If I had known it was the—,” Decker’s words caught in his throat. “That’s why you didn’t mention the Kestrels in the job. Why you waited to pull out the scarf until after the doors to that docking tube had shut. You knew I wouldn’t have left the station.”

Samantha’s eyes locked with Decker’s. “Accepting loss isn’t the same as being comfortable with it. I hate what happened, but I made a decision and I can’t go back… if I could, I’d do the same thing.”

Decker’s face wrinkled in bemusement. “Yeah? That decision had nothing to do with me until you dragged me into it, because you knew I wouldn’t be able to ignore it once I was that close.”

Samantha shook her head. “Decker, I couldn’t have predicted the Kestrels would be on Starview. I had planned to discuss it with you once we jumped away from Kestris.”

Decker spread his arms, nearly shouting. “Yeah? Well, it’s a little late for that!”

The two sat in silence for a moment. Finally, Samantha spoke.

“You can judge my intentions as heartless and calculating; I don’t expect you to see things like I do. In fact, I don’t want you to see things like I do. I wanted to hurt the Kestrels; you wanted to help the people they have and will continue to hurt. That’s what I am asking you to do now. Help protect the people who Reed, and whoever is funding him, intend to hurt.”

Decker looked away. “You might not be wrong, but using my good-intentions as a way to ensnare me is low.”

Samantha’s voice evened out, almost pleading. “Decker, Reed Casto and Kestrel business resulted in the death of our mother and each of our fathers. I don’t care what they were involved in or the claim it was ‘just business.’ He killed them. Reed made it personal. You ran away from it, left Dradari, changed your name. I ran toward it, built my career off it. This is where it has led us, not defending the empire, but rectifying the past.”

Decker forced himself to believe that mentioning their shared mother and respective fathers had not been planned in advance; that was too low, even for her.

Samantha continued. “The Imperium is not like it was. It may have won a war seventeen years ago, but as the Imperium destabilizes, other groups will take notice. The Fringe will be next, and then the whole sector. When the Sellacan Confederation sees the Imperium imploding, they’ll be back to finish the war that never really ended. The last twenty years will just be an intermission.”

Decker was still, giving her no indication that he heard her. 

Samantha sighed and spoke, “The Kestrels are being used as a weapon against innocent people. If we can disarm whoever is holding that weapon, we can stop it before it starts.”

The acid in Decker’s stomach found its way into his words. “Who is this ‘we’?  The only ‘we’ I belong to is the ‘we’ that live on this ship. I am not of the Imperium. Never was. The Imperium deserves nothing.”

“Fair. I’m not asking you to align yourself with the empire. Not even with me. I am asking you to align yourself against the people who killed your family, who made you wear a scarf and endure a life I was spared from experiencing. Decker, you can’t even use your own name. The people who did all that are going to be Imperium enemy number-one when we exit jumpspace.”

Decker scoffed. “I fought for the Imperium already, thinking it could make up for the moral debts of my father that weren’t mine to begin with. I didn’t even like the guy, I don’t need to do anything to fix his mistakes.”

“Then don’t. Fight for yourself.”

“For what? I’ve moved on, Samantha. This isn’t my fight.”

“But it could be. I saw your face when I showed you that scarf. There’s a part of you that wants to correct the past.”

Decker folded his arms. “Why would I want that?”

“Why do you want this?” Samantha said, pointing to the outlined image of the Matilda on the display, her finger on the damaged nacelle. “You really want to roam around the sector, taking random jobs from corporations and acting as a glorified errand-runner, while Reed Casto terrorizes and murders people whose own government has set them up? You should want to stop the Kestrels on principle.”

Samantha knew where to push him. Decker spoke with no conviction in his voice, “I’m not responsible for Reed’s actions.”

“And when the fight comes to you? Incidents like Starview Station are only going to escalate. You’ll be flying around a sector in flames soon. Then what? You don’t love the Imperium? Fine. Don’t fight for them. But you and I can still make a difference together.”

Decker laughed. A single laugh of disbelief. 

“You and I? You almost had me, but that last line, that was a jump too far. We share a mother, yes, but there is no ‘you and I.’” 

Decker walked to the stairs that led back down to the ship’s inner compartments. “When we get to Mentaryd, you can go your own way. We got you off Starview—not giving us a jump exit for Senali was your own fault. I’ll give you back half the money. After that, do whatever you want.”

Decker waited for a moment, a part of him hoping for a response, some plea that would fix this.

But Samantha made no sound, so Decker shook his head and left her, alone.

The slightly outdated list of dry-dock equipped service stations orbiting Mentaryd had been on Manu’s borrowed datapad screen for the last hour as he sat in the Matilda’s lounge. The date-stamp at the top of the screen indicated the last time Sellivan had pulled this part of the sector’s vendor directory was over a year ago. A few stood out as candidates for where they could get Matilda back into flying shape, but without a transmitter, they’d have to wait until they dropped out of jumpspace to call ahead. Not much they could do about that. 

Every system, every planet, was different. Different laws, different customs, different agreements between the government and the corporations. Staying adaptable was what had kept his and Decker’s business alive the past six years. They never knew what they were going to find when they jumped to the next new job or the next system. This time, though, they really didn’t know given what they’d seen happen on Kestris.

Manu tossed the datapad onto the couch cushion and stared at the dormant vidscreen, the most recently added piece of tech on the Matilda. At the time of the vidscreen’s purchase and install, the transmitter had been operational. But now, Manu had watched everything stored on the vidscreen’s local files several times. Without a local network to hook into, that’s all they had. At this point, wishing they had invested in some of the more essential pieces of tech before the entertainment center had frequently passed through Manu’s mind.

Leaning over with his elbows planted on the galley bar was Heavy, idly consuming a salad-bowl full of re-hydrated vegetable stew, the ladle in his hand looking like a teaspoon. Their rushed supply run on Clarita station had been limited, and most of what was left was consisted of Sellivan’s restrictive food preferences. With only two days left in the jump, everyone else decided they could be picky until a proper re-stock could be done. Heavy, not being picky, was usually the one to cycle through the back-shelves of the pantry.

“Hey Man, dry-dock options panning out?” Heavy asked between loud slurps. 

Manu exhaled, stretching his arms across the back of the couch. “Maybe, hard to tell. I’ll go anywhere that will take anonymous credits and doesn’t check registrations. Between Talius and now Kestris, I think the Matilda might be getting itself placed on too many ‘ships of interest’ lists.”

Heavy shrugged, taking another ladleful. “Yeah. Might be time for a digital paint job. New serial number. Clean tags.” He leaned his head forward, ducking beneath the overhanging galley hood. “Hey Selli, what do you think about forging some new regs? File off all the old ones and get us something fresh?”

From his spot at the dining table in the corner of the lounge, Sellivan’s head turned toward Heavy, but his eyes remained on the computer display in front of him. “I might be able to create something passable for outer planets like Mentaryd, but nothing that would pass any type of Imperium scrutiny. The computing power required for that is well outside our current capabilities. I would suggest we stop doing things that get us placed on those ‘ships of interest’ lists.”

Manu snorted. “After what we witnessed, I am just glad we’re here to have this conversation. We were minutes away from being either orbital debris or taken to an Imperium prison. I’d take joining Jerith before that.”

Heavy’s brow lowered, ladle raised like a pointer. “Talius, yeah okay, I think a few planetary laws were broken there. Not our best work, but Talius is a free Fringe planet, they’re not going to be sharing records with the Imperium.” He sighed and slurped down another ladle’s-worth. “But on Kestris, I mean, we didn’t actually do anything. Matilda was there legally, and jumping out of a dangerous situation isn’t a crime, even if we did break the no-fly directive.”

A snort sounded from the dining table. “I think our new passenger and her tricks would have drawn sufficient attention to all of us if we were boarded, whether any of us were personally guilty or not.”

“Huh. Fair point.” Heavy tapped the ladle against the salad bowl. “How about that?”

“Yeah, how about that.” Manu turned to look over his shoulder toward Sellivan. “You got any insight on what she’s packing on that computer, Selli?”

Sellivan’s eyes slowly shifted up from his screen to meet Manu’s. “Why must we all have truncated names? Is there a syllable tax I am not aware of?”

Heavy smiled broadly and pointed his ladle at Sellivan. “Nicknames are fun. I’m Hev, which is like a double-nickname since Heavy is also a nickname. Decker is Deck or ‘Captain,’ and if we’re planetside, you can switch to ‘Boss.’ Manu is Man—which is a little confusing at times—hard to shorten it further. Eliza is E, Lyza, Liz, Elle, Za. I don’t even think Eliza is her real name.”

“It’s not,” Manu said lazily.

Heavy nodded at Sellivan, tapping the air with the ladle. “See? Fun.”

Sellivan shook his head. Manu could never tell if Sellivan was in on friendly verbal sparring or not. This was his second year on the Matilda, and he always seemed out of sorts, but there was no way a person could be annoyed all the time and want to stick around. Was he faking? Either way, Sellivan was essential to their success. He’d gotten them out of the last two jams under extreme pressure. Maybe in this instance he was justified in being a little more dour than usual.

Sellivan raised a bony hand and pointed to his screen. “I’ve been analyzing the transmission our guest sent during the navy’s attempted blockade. I can’t see what she transmitted, but I can see the external protocols used and the round-trip service routes. The request her computer sent through the secure tunnel was met with a near zero-latency response, an automated system. No human actually approved the Matilda’s request for the interference-pattern inversion algorithm.” Sellivan smiled, his eyes hungry for whatever he was seeing on the screen. “I have further analyzed the registration signature the Matilda broadcast to keep us off the interceptors’ targeting lists; it was not spoofed. As far as I can tell, for those few minutes, we were commandeered by an Imperium authority and were a legitimate vessel of the Imperium Navy.”

Manu brought his palms to his forehead. Heavy tapped the ladle against his chin, nodding sagely. “That makes sense. Like flashing a badge to get past a bar bouncer.”

“Indeed.” Sellivan’s expression brightened. Slightly. “As long as her computer is aboard, the Matilda could be considered one of the most advanced ships in the sector.”

Manu exhaled loudly and shook his finger in the general direction of Samantha’s temporary headquarters. “That explains the how and the what, but not the why. What necessitates a stunt like that for someone in her position?”

“That is a question for—” Sellivan looked to Heavy, thin-lipped mouth twisting into a grin, “—Captain Deck.”

Manu smiled; Sellivan was all right. “Well, I’m sure Samantha will be more than happy to talk and share.”

Heavy chuckled to himself, returning to the almost-empty salad bowl, repeating Sellivan’s attempt at a nickname with a chuckle. The big man’s temperament was enviable. He seemed wired for optimism, something they were as low on as they soon would be on vegetable stew.

Just then, a rhythmic stomp of angry, purposeful footfalls rang out from the metal steps that led to the Matilda’s central corridor and up to the observation bridge. Manu, Heavy, and Sellivan all turned to watch the owner of said footfalls appear in the doorway.

Decker stomped into the lounge, muttering inaudibly and shaking his head, expression contorting as he appeared to carry on an argument with himself. He made no eye contact; he didn’t seem to have noticed the other three men in the room as he weaved his way between the lounge seating and galley. Decker’s crossing took only seconds before he disappeared into the opposite corridor that led to the crew quarters, the same angry footfalls ringing out against the metal stairs once again.

Heavy whistled softly. “Boss ain’t happy.”

Manu raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “I think he’s realizing how justified our original doubts were. If he’d turned her down, Kestris would be something we’d be hearing about on the newsvids, half a sector away.”

“But we’d be on Clarita trying to figure out how to fix the ship, not a credit to spare,” Heavy added, making a little circle with the ladle. “Waiting for Fioli and IoCorp to come after us.”

Manu chewed on the sentiment; he wasn’t hungry for optimism right now. “We’re using the money from this job to fix the damage and debts from the last. We’ll have a working ship, yeah, but be back to empty accounts. We have no buffer, no room for mishaps like what happened with Jerith. Without a plan to operate this business in a sustainable way, bouncing from one job to the next and being subject to the whims of whoever is hiring us is as good as it’s going to get.”

Heavy leaned forward, sliding the empty salad bowl to the side. He lowered his voice, a rumble of conspiracy under his tone. “What do you know about her?”

 Manu turned toward the galley, refusing to join Heavy in the hushed tone. “She was some sort of intelligence analyst. Civilian employee, not military. Chasing down threats to the Imperium. We’d cross paths when that business intersected with navy business. Mostly things outside the empire.”

Heavy nodded in recognition. “So she did spy stuff.”

Manu shrugged. “Accurate enough. Imperium has to maintain their chokehold on the system. Her kind make sure things go down the way Kestris wants. No one knows exactly what they do. It’s all off the books, classified, black-ops, dirty work. Attracts the kind of people okay with a life of nothing but lies. That’s how I see it.”

“Yep. Spy stuff.” Heavy squinted in concentration. “You both left the Navy what, five years ago?”

“Decker’s been out for seven. Six for me. He convinced me not to re-up. When we bought the Matilda and started this business—not sure I can call what we do a business at this point—she hired us as contractors for jobs she had in the Fringe. Government is always outsourcing.”

“That’s where you met her?” Heavy asked.

“Yeah. Deck knew her from before joining up. She helped sell him on the idea that enlisting was a way off of Dradari. She also helped him leave the Navy when it turned out it wasn’t for him. Eventually her and Deck had a little bit of a falling out.” Manu paused, holding up a forestalling hand. “But he doesn’t like talking about it, so that means neither do I.”

Heavy nodded toward the crew quarters. “Why have we never heard about her. Were they, you know…”

Manu—the only crew member to know of Decker’s parentage—threw his head back and gave a single, bitter laugh. “Hah. No, they were not, ‘you know.’”

Heavy swung the ladle back and forth like a metronome. “So what’s she doing here if she’s still Imperium? Why try to skip out on this lovable rust-bucket when that computer could’ve let her take any ship she wanted.”

Manu rubbed his chin. “Heavy, your guess is as good as mine. Last Deck talked to her was at least three years ago, and it did not go well. Hadn’t heard a word from her until Clarita. I have my thoughts, but shit, her whole job is about layer after layer of secrets.”

“So she’s—,” Heavy stopped, ladle metronome frozen in place. Another figure entered from the far end of the common room, but unlike Decker, she had made no ‘stomp stomp stomp’ to announce her presence. She just appeared.

“Uh, hi Samantha. You need something?” Heavy said, doing his best to sound cordial.

Samantha stopped and looked at each of them. This was the first time they were seeing her since she had disappeared into the temporary quarters she’d been given the day before. She appeared to be wearing the same clothes as when she’d boarded. In fact, it looked like she hadn’t cleaned up at all.

Samantha hooked her head slightly, her face one of someone who arrives in a room and forgets why they came there in the first place. Her eyes focused and she looked to Heavy.

“Showers.”

Heavy pointed a thumb toward the aft of the ship. “Sure. Past crew quarters. Last compartment before the cargo bay. Water takes a minute to heat up, so let it run a bit first.”

Samantha nodded, eyes unfocusing as she silently proceeded toward the showers without another word.

“That was weird,” Heavy muttered under his breath.

Manu stood and crossed the room, arriving to stand behind Sellivan. On the computer was row after row of cryptic green-on-black text, nothing that Manu could begin to comprehend.

“Hey, Selli- er, Sellivan,” Manu said, clasping his hands together.

The gaunt man turned an ear toward him without looking. “Yes?”

“Can you quietly keep track of any attempts she makes to connect to our systems. And once we drop out of jumpspace and can connect to a repeater node, restrict her access to outside networks. If she’s not going to share, then neither will we. This ain’t her ship. And maybe you’ll get a sniff into some of that tech she’s carrying when she tries to get around it.”

Sellivan rocked his head side to side in contemplation. “I suppose locking down the Matilda’s systems is in-line with proper information security. It will be quite obvious that we’re blocking her.”

Manu patted his fingers on the table instead of Sellivan’s shoulder, remembering the man’s strict no-touching policy. “Good. Also, when we connect to the repeater, dig around any public info you can access on her. Probably scrubbed and redacted from here to the center of the galaxy, but she had to have some sort of life. No one can stay perfectly hidden.”

A wicked grin appeared on Sellivan’s lipless mouth. “So… spy stuff.”

Heavy chuckled. Manu folded his arms and smiled. “Yeah. Spy stuff.”