Episode 23: A bit of an intelligence incident

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Clarke has been dealing with the fallout from the Starview Station attack. Samantha is gone, he doesn't know where she went, only that she made it out. It's his job to keep anyone else from interfering with her mission. Renic has other ideas.

Clarke’s computer chimed the unique tone that indicated another priority message had arrived from somewhere within the upper levels of the Imperium intelligence community. It had been three days of non-stop activity. The attack on Starview had occurred mid-morning, no-doubt coordinated so the news would reach the capital city just after mid-morning.

Clarke and his staff had worked through the first night and into the next day. The second night was not much better, but he’d managed to sleep in his office for two hours before another priority message demanded his attention. He’d visited the agency locker rooms to shower and change, but other than the ten-minute ride with Agent Siddig, Clarke had not left the building.

There was no end in sight, and since the defense minister had yet to follow through on reducing 5E’s funding, Clarke, and everyone else, was on the clock.

Clarke set down the datapad he’d been reading and checked his computer. It was another OS-9 priority brief; this one was a summary of Starview system logs and a hypothesis on how attackers made it onto the station without passing through any checkpoints. This brief had an elevated classification level; directors and above. Apparently OS-9 was proposing a hypothesis around Imperium insider facilitation and collusion. Big surprise.

Clarke grunted and closed the report. At least they were catching up. OS-9 had good people, quality analysts, and leaders he trusted. Not all of them could be compromised.

He sighed, squinting as he pinched the bridge of his nose. Agent Mori had barely made it out. But she’d made it; that was what mattered. Agent Siddig’s clever sleuthing into her whereabouts had given them a sliver of hope. She was out there, able to move without eyes on her. He couldn’t say the same for himself. Here on Kestris, Clarke was completely surrounded.

The score was two to zero. First the Dauntless—that was egregious, but the impact on the empire was insignificant. It still had not been made public. He could award Agents Mori and Siddig a point for recovering intel that implicated a source on the Terminus, but Clarke kept his own win column at zero. He was supposed to stop these things before they happened. Whoever was orchestrating these attacks was working so far over the visible horizon that the Starview Station attack, the second point scored, completely shocked the public and filled Clarke with a bitter, impotent anger.

It wasn’t a fair fight. Most of the fights Clarke had faced in the past hadn’t been fair either, but at least they’d been fights. If powerful forces inside the Imperium wanted to sabotage it from the inside, that wasn’t even a fight. It was an unwitting march to their own execution.

And it was working, too. It had been three days and the empire was already mobilizing. Not just against the Red Kestrels, but against any possible future hostility as well. A terror attack on a major civilian transport hub that orbited the Imperium home planet was a decisive political victory for an enemy of the Imperium. However, the Red Kestrels remained silent. They’d issued no statement and made no denials. Perhaps they’d realized the magnitude of what they’d done and were having second thoughts. By this point, anyone behind the plot would know they’d be seen as irredeemable in the eyes of the public once their identities were confirmed and broadcast to every corner of the sector. Win or lose, they’d be branded as Imperium enemy number one. As for him, Clarke wondered if he’d always brand himself as irredeemable as well for missing it.

The intercom chimed, rousing him. Clarke felt as if he’d been asleep with his eyes open. It was Agent Birch. Clarke reached forward and tapped the answer button.

“Yes?”

“Director. Agent, er—pardon me, Commander Renic Tau is in the lobby demanding to be let past security. He has been informed that due to his recent move to military command structure, he no longer has authorization to enter restricted civilian areas. He was invited to schedule an appointment.”

Clarke settled back into his chair, feeling a rush of energy sharpen his mind. He had figured Renic would show up. In fact, he was a little surprised it had taken him this long to react. 

“Oh? I take it the commander wanted something a little more immediate?”

Birch continued, “Indeed, sir. For reasons he will not share, he has brought a master-at-arms and a Navy police arrest team with him. Our security has stopped them, and from the looks on the master-at-arms’s face, he’s as confused as we are. Commander Tau does not have any warrant, nor have we been informed of any arrest order. How would you like us to proceed?”

Clarke grinned. He had been looking for a more straightforward fight; this should prove to be a stimulating encounter. “By all means, send him in.”

“Yes, sir.” Agent Birch’s voice lowered. “Would you like security posted at your office door?”

“No need. I suspect Commander Tau will realize he just wants to talk. Please instruct security to let him through. Alone.”

Clarke looked at the closed door to his office, imagining Renic making his way through the halls, the stares and looks from his estranged former 5E colleagues filling each step with a new sense of indignation. He should have known that this stunt would never fly. The fact that he’d tried it anyway was a clear indicator this was the perfect chance for Clarke to probe the potentially erratic Renic for intelligence.

Clarke had not had any meaningful interaction with Renic in quite some time. Renic had left his chain of command for another 5E director’s group over three years ago and had spent most of the time since distancing himself from 5E as a whole, working himself into the fleet marshal’s world. At the time, Clarke had assumed the goal of moving into OS-9 was Renic’s way of skipping rank and attaining a hefty promotion. He had to admit, bypassing that altogether and jumping into the command of an entire division was impressive.

That the timing of this jump coincided with the Starview attack was a fact not lost on Clarke.

The office door slid open, its edges barely retreating in time to miss Renic’s shoulders as he marched through wearing a military uniform, deep blue and plain like the fleet marshal’s. 

Uniform styles had evolved since Clarke had worn one, and Renic’s seemed to be cut like something he would expect to find in a fashion boutique rather than a barracks. The shoulders were more square, the collar higher, and two rows of buttons ran from collarbone to waist down the outer edges. The sharp, angled lines matched the infuriated ones of Renic’s expression as he launched into his predictable opening question, the tightness in his voice a clear indicator his mouth was in front of his thoughts.

“Where is she?”

Clarke leaned slightly to the side and watched until his office door slid closed, then turned his attention back to Renic. “Commander Tau. I suppose we’re on the same paygrade now, with your unprecedented promotion and all. But, you understand if I need to keep this impromptu meeting short,” Clarke said flatly, gesturing casually to the intentionally blanked-out screen of his computer.

Renic came right up to the desk, his legs touching its edge. “I will not play games with you, Elias. You don’t understand the influence of my new position. Now, the section-42. Where is she?”

He’d used Clarke’s first name. Was Renic really using first-year interrogation training tactics? So much for not playing games. Clarke was happy to engage.

He glared at Renic, his irritation unhidden. “‘She’? I am afraid you’ll need to be more specific. I’ve got a bit of an intelligence incident occupying my thoughts.”

Renic’s eyes burned as he spoke, a sharp contrast to his frozen face. “Samantha.”

“Ah.” Clarke nodded, expression saddening. “Agent Mori. You are correct, we recently were forced to classify her as section-42, which is standard protocol when an asset doesn’t respond to an escalating series of attempts to establish communication.” Clarke paused, confusion wrinkling his forehead as if he’d just realized something. “I’m sorry, Commander, why were you looking, again? I understand you may be concerned for your former colleague; I can answer any questions you may have, provided the answers are cleared for inter-agency collaboration. OS-9 has clearance, but I don’t believe the Special Division of Navy Investigators have filled out the proper forms.”

Renic’s eyes tightened at the jumbling of his division’s name. “Drop this pretense. Samantha would not turn against the Imperium. This is a part of some sort of… some deception.” Renic stumbled over the last words, his face flaring.

Clarke had never seen him so impulsive. Renic couldn’t possibly think storming into Clarke’s office would result in anything other than embarrassment. If he wanted to know about Samantha’s status, he could have made the proper requests and had everything sent to him within hours. That he’d come all this way revealed a serious lack of premeditation. 

Perfect.

“Commander Tau,” Clarke said, keeping his patronizing tone just heavy enough to be noticed. “I can assure you there are no deceptions. You are mistaken, reading things into an unfortunate situation; the disappearance of a former colleague.”

Renic leaned forward, placing a hand flat on Clarke’s desk, his words clipped and matter-of-fact. “Her status was updated to section-42, but there was no alert, no announcement. A lost agent is a matter of Imperium security. Why was I not informed?” 

Renic seemed to be finding a voice that matched his new military uniform; too bad Clarke had thirty more years experience with these kinds of discussions. He summoned a tone fit for admonishing a recruit caught asleep on guard duty.

“Informed of what? A section-42 is a matter for agency internal affairs. It does not concern the Navy. Agent Mori was a friend to many here, and it is unfortunate we are put in this position. Further detail will be made available when a proper investigation has been conducted according to established agency guidelines—”

“Bullshit, Clarke!” Renic outstretched his arm and pointed aggressively across the desk. “You know exactly where she is. I know how you work, how this agency works. This big act about protocol and propriety is what we used for keeping outsiders off balance. I know Clarke. I can recognize a doctored mission record when I see it.”

Clarke’s eyes looked to the outstretched finger, then back to Renic, a genuine disgust filling his voice. “You resigned your position in this agency, Commander, and are no longer a civilian employee. You wanted to sit in the big chair at Gallow’s table? You’ve got it. You’re in the Navy now, sailor, which means you follow rules and regs. Or didn’t you read the brochure? It also means you’ll respect that I cannot discuss internal affairs with unauthorized personnel.”

Renic snorted, face wrinkling. “Unauthorized? I spoke to Samantha personally not four days ago. She was happy to invite me into her apartment. There was no indication of any of this.”

Clarke smiled. “Wasn’t there? Well, sounds like she wasn’t as interested as you had assumed. I thought you were supposed to be a spy.”

Renic placed his other hand on the desk, nearly leaning across the entire thing. He broke eye-contact, his face barely containing his rage. Oh, the artificially elevated commander should have played it cool, backed off, shown Clarke that he wasn’t on the hook. That would have been the smart move. Instead, Renic was feeding Clarke volumes of information through his body language alone. It appeared that Samantha’s disappearance had inadvertently accomplished something normally difficult to do—put Renic off balance.

Renic narrowed his eyes, voice drenched in venom. “Perhaps I did misjudge. Perhaps you’re involved. A has-been 5E intelligence director aiding one of his agents in committing an act of treason, covering her tracks, putting up obstacles. You’re right, I’m not a part of this agency, but I trained Samantha. You think I can’t recognize the absence of evidence that points to blacker-than-black ops that had no time to create a proper cover?” Renic stood straight, looking down at Clark. “It is within my power to question members of your organization in regard to the still-active 5E Dauntless investigation, a Navy matter my division has unrestricted access to. Actually; the Naval Special Investigation Division and OS-9 have formed a new partnership. I believe Agents Mori and Siddig were hunting something down about the Dauntless on… Senali was it?”

Clarke scoffed, using an angry glower to mask the grin he felt forming. Renic must not realize how much he had just slipped; Clarke had not known Renic was tapped into OS-9 resources… but now he did. He continued, using his deep reserve of genuine anger to mask his growing satisfaction.

“Commander Tau, if you can provide some sort of reasonable cause for suspicion or an evidence trail and connect it to a military matter, that would be within your power, yes.” Clarke locked his fingers together and placed them on the desk, leaning forward as he spoke. “But I would caution you to think carefully. You want to accuse and harass a 5E intelligence director in the middle of an imperial crisis, based on… I’m sorry, what are you basing these claims on?”

“An inexplicably missing Imperium asset,” Renic said.

“One of my agents is unaccounted for, yes. And this agency is handling it. It does not warrant this personal attention from you, it’s not as if you and her…” Clarke feigned being struck with an epiphany, allowing his patronizing tone to be set free. “Oh, I see. You still thought she was… Renic, I know it is unfortunate that Samantha, your friend, appears to have made this choice. I presume you were still friends, at least. I won’t lie; she never really spoke of you. Private person, Samantha was.”

Renic took a step back from the desk with a sinister, breathy chuckle. Calm washed over his face, everywhere but the eyes. There was the old Renic regaining his balance. “Well, then, Director, if you wish to involve our respective organizations, I will have Major Drake issue an order that you transmit all information and control over investigations regarding the Dauntless and Agent Mori to OS-9 and my division.”

Clarke shrugged. “Fine. I know Major Drake. We served in uniform together. If he sees fit to send that order, I will have no other option than to comply with what is best for the empire.” Clarke leaned forward, his voice low and rough. “But, I don’t think I’ll be hearing from Drake. See, I think this is a personal bruise you’re trying to nurse, and if Fleet Marshal Gallow, arguably the most powerful man in the sector, found out one of his new intelligence commanders was using his position to dig up dirt on an old and long-extinguished flame? That would not be a good look for you, Commander. You forget; I served in uniform with Gallow, too.”

The two men stared at each other across the desk. Clarke sat confidently; there was no conclusive evidence about Samantha’s deception, other than the knowledge locked in his and Julian’s minds. Renic may have suspected something, but he’d revealed far more during this conversation than he’d gotten out of Clarke. Had Renic stayed calm, kept to the periphery, used his considerable new influence to hunt from the shadows, maybe he’d have found something Julian had missed. And maybe Renic would have even fooled Clarke into believing that he wasn’t a suspect.

Not now. Sure, Renic snooping around Samantha’s personnel file as a dejected ex-lover was a possibility. As was a legitimate interest in her activities from the vantage point of his role as a division commander. But, add in the fact that Clarke knew—as would any Imperium conspirators—that Senali was the location where the evidence linking the Terminus to the Red Kestrels was discovered, that triangulated to a point that was too plausible to ignore. As far as the mission-record Renic claims to have read stated, the Senali operation had been a dead-end… unless one had already known what might have been discovered and was scrambling to do damage control.

Either way, Renic would need to be blocked; he was one of the last people Clarke wanted looking deeper into Samantha for any reason, conspiracy or not. 

Renic seemed to have rallied, regaining his sense of tactics. He took a step back, composed again. “Apologies, Director. I am concerned about my friend’s whereabouts; that is all. I would appreciate being included in the sharing of any information you see fit to authorize. As you said, I too have got ‘a bit of an intelligence incident’ occupying my thoughts.”

Just concern for an old friend. Right. Maybe if Renic had opened with that story, Clarke might have bought it. Too late. 

“Of course. I will see that all approved information is made available to both your division and OS-9. I am sure our administrative go-betweens are still getting accustomed to having a new party to keep informed.”

Renic smiled, more of a grimace. “I will be in touch with your people. Director.”

“Commander.”

Renic spun on his heels and stalked out of the office, the door sliding shut behind him. 

Clarke sat back into his chair. He’d known that Samantha’s departure would flush something out. This was exactly the kind of intelligence windfall he had needed to advance the game pieces he still controlled.

He leaned forward again and pressed a button on his computer. “Agent Birch, locate Agent Siddig and have him report to my office. Priority zero.”

Clarke sighed, relaxing back into his chair again, and added a single tick to his column on the mental scoreboard.

Clarke’s office door slid open, Agent Siddig stepping through, computer under one arm, pencil tucked behind his ear.

“Director Clarke.”

“I just had a visit with the newly appointed Commander Tau. He’s seen Samantha’s status and was very interested.”

Julian raised a hand to his chin. “Ah. How did he appear?”

Clarke scoffed. “Rattled. I did not know he still had such an attachment to her. It has to have been years.”

Julian nodded. “His concern with Samantha is, well, concerning. Though I suppose it is better to have it made accuratley apparent.”

“Not only that, he brought a master-at-arms with him.” Clarke shook his head in disbelief. “I honestly think he presumed he would cart me out of here in restraints. He accused me of covering something up, then threatened to use his new connections with OS-9 against us.”

Julian pulled the pencil from behind his ear, tapping it on his chin. “So, he suspects we have information about Samantha’s status we are not sharing. This leads me to ask, what did he say his interest regarded?”

Clarke exhaled, replaying the conversation in his mind. “He knows her well and his instincts are sharp, most of the time. I don’t think he realized what his reaction would say about him. I got the impression he was angry at her—and hurt—that she left him out of whatever he assumes she’s doing, and he’s got a gut-feeling it could bring unwanted attention to him. I think Renic just proved he’s a person of interest.”

Julian paced across the office, pencil still tapping. “He has had access to the fleet marshal’s ear for quite some time, and his rank of naval commander does give him permanent authorization to come and go from the Terminus as he pleases, unlike his previous civilian role with our agency. And of course, he certainly has no love left for us.” He waved toward the office door. “The agency, I mean.”

Clarke folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “What is your hypothesis?”

“Too early to say,” Julian said with a subtle sigh, indicating at the ceiling with his pencil.

Clarke grunted. “There’s no one listening. Humor me.”

Julian raised his eyebrow. “Well, Renic knows of Samantha’s interest in the Red Kestrels as well as anyone. She was on the trail of something that dead-ended in Senali. While we did not share what we actually found on Eddie Renner’s computer, anyone who knows how the Dauntless was compromised would also know that Senali might lead back to the origin of the collaboration, the Terminus, where the duplicate encryption signature was generated. Renic has worked his way into the fleet marshal’s organization, which is housed on the decks of the Terminus. As Renic will have access to OS-9’s information and hypothesis about a possible Imperium insider, it is no stretch for him to presume Samantha’s disappearance might involve a similar hypothesis. But, if Renic is involved with the subject of said hypothesis, then he is just now realizing that Samantha, without her knowing it, is on the hunt for him.” Julian said, ceasing to pace and tapping the pencil on his temple, staring at nothing. 

Clarke raised an eyebrow. “You don’t sound convinced.”

Julian shrugged and resumed his pacing. “Well, Director, there is another factor that confounds things. Ignoring coincidence and synchronicity, we cannot rule out the equally plausible, but far less interesting, hypothesis that this is just the ill-timed, irrelevant tantrum of a jilted lover.”

Clarke wagged a finger at Julian. “You know, if Samantha heard you say that, I’d recommend wearing some body-armor.”

Remorse crossed Julian’s face. “Sadly, Director, given the recent escalations, I do not foresee Samantha being around to hear anything for quite a while.”

Clarke nodded. “Maybe, but I’m glad she got out when she did. It gives her and us a chance. We need to know more. If Renic is this interested in Samantha, any interference is a threat to her success regardless of his motivation. We told her we would work the inside, so let’s work it. Renic is dangerous, either directly or indirectly. Let’s do more than just track him; let’s get eyes on him.”

“He will undoubtedly be on high alert, especially after your conversation,” Julian said, raising his finger.

“I don’t mind. He’ll presume we are monitoring him. Might as well take advantage of that and oblige. Let’s put the obvious stuff on him, just enough standard surveillance so he’ll notice. We probably won’t get anything of value, but finding no tracks where you know someone has tread is a good indicator of someone covering up their tracks too neatly.”

Julian pressed his lips together and nodded. “Director, if this trend of operation against our supposed allies continues, I fear we may need to form a new agency composed entirely of our own people.”

Clarke chewed on the notion. “Agent Siddig, you might be right. We do need some more help. I think it’s time for us to activate our friend aboard the Terminus.”

Julian held his pencil to his chin. “‘Us’ as in the agency, or ‘us’ as in, ‘us’?”

Clarke shrugged. “‘Us’ as in ‘you.’”

Julian nodded. “Sir, they will not be aware their activation is unofficial. They will be, without realizing it, working for a rogue operation.”

Clarke exhaled, sitting with the notion for a moment. “They’re already in deep-cover aboard the Terminus, that means they’re already willing to step around the rules. Doing it this way helps protect them the same way we helped Samantha, by keeping their efforts out of the system. It has to be done; we’ve got a bit of an intelligence incident on our hands.”

So much for following rules as regs.