Julian has his orders; activate the sleeper agent aboard the Terminus. Renic's intrusion into Clarke's plan has created a new sense of urgency, they need eyes on the Terminus now more than ever. All he needs to do is carry out the activation protocol, easy as can be...
The auxiliary 5E office building near the outer edge of the capitol complex was quiet at night. Compared to agency headquarters, at least. While the surge in activity kept the analysts, operators, and leadership of 5E busy day and night, the lawyers, accountants, and other administrative personnel that worked out of the auxiliary offices were still able to go home at the end of the day. Other than the full-time security staff posted at the entrance, Julian had seen very few of his 5E colleagues on his way up to his remote office. Upon entering, the door had locked behind him, and for the first time in days, Julian was effectively alone.
This was the reason Julian had requested an additional office here. It was somewhere to get away from the hive of activity and reduce the odds of being bothered face-to-face. Julian turned on one of the incandescent standing lamps he’d brought in when first taking the office, the warm, orange glow of its filaments a needed break from the standard full-spectrum white lights normally overhead.
He inhaled deeply through his nose, taking in the comforting smell of his surroundings. Paper. Paper everywhere. Books. Notebooks. Pads. Crisp loose sheets. Wrinkled scraps. Both the expensive, dead-tree type as well as synthetic. All arranged in neat stacks and piles according to an organizational system that only Julian knew.
Paper was a hobby that computers couldn’t simulate. The ease, the simplicity, the time-tested reliability. Digital technology may have taken humanity to the stars, but paper had done most everything before that. A computer could be hacked from half-a-galaxy away, but a scribbling somewhere inside the pages of a notebook, tucked into a drawer collecting dust, offered its own kind of security.
Julian walked around the desk and took a seat, pulling his computer out of his bag and placing it on the perfectly-sized patch of blank space between stacks of books and papers on the desk’s surface. Clarke had given him orders to activate one of the sleeper agents the director had placed throughout the Imperium. Julian didn’t know who it was, or how many others there were. Normally, this would have gone through agency activation channels where the sleeper agent’s status and routine would be recorded and monitored.
Not this time. This time, the sleeper was being awoken without realizing they were now a part of Clarke’s other mission, the unofficial one that—as far as Julian knew—only he and Samantha were a part of.
Julian turned in his chair to the bookshelf on the wall directly behind him. The activation protocol was one he’d developed himself, a convoluted series of complex links in a chain designed to never be traceable or used more than once.
In the world of espionage, every measure had a complementary countermeasure. When a new form of encryption was introduced, new decryption followed shortly after. When a counterfeit-proof identity-system was implemented, detection-proof counterfeit identities appeared right behind it.
No matter what changed in the field of spycraft over the centuries, one pattern remained: smart people built initial measures, and smarter people engineered a countermeasure negating the efforts of their predecessors and starting the cycle over. Julian, in his role as both a loyal government employee and rogue asset working against the same government, liked to believe he was both smart and smarter.
He inspected a row of books on the middle shelf, sliding his finger across the spines and reading each title. There were volumes on history, language, geology, astronomy, poetry, biographies, mathematics, physics, chemistry. There were volumes of plays and novels. There were reference guides and technical manuals. Old books, new books, authentic books and replica books. It was a respectable collection considering the limited room in the office. Of course, his home library was much larger and held volumes dating back centuries, including many printed on actual ink presses from humanity’s abandoned homeworld. Those he kept in hermetically sealed display cases.
Julian’s finger stopped on a title. The Essays of Hawthorne & Wittaker: A Collection of Theoretical Mathematics. It had been several years since he’d looked at this title. He gently slid the book out from the middle of the row, and turned the book over. It was in fine condition. He turned to the table of contents, the spine making the familiar cracking sound of a book being opened after a long time, and looked for a specific entry, dragging his finger over the list until he found what he wanted. He turned to the page-number indicated; three-twenty-seven.
There was a short introductory paragraph to the essay, followed by an equation that illustrated the paragraph’s premise. It was a complicated one. He knew how to enter the numbers into the required variables, but beyond that, even he couldn’t explain the equation’s real-world application. However, he did know what his personal application was.
Julian set the book down, leaving it open, and retrieved a small, hand-sized, paper notepad from beside a stack of datapads. It was a one-time pad, an ancient method of encoding information that, if only used one-time as the name implied, was not reversible. He opened the cover of the notepad, it’s pages nothing but endless, hand-written truly random numbers that he knew corresponded with dates, only because he had been the one who wrote them after generating them on a quantum computer core.
Julian’s eyes scanned the pages, rapidly flipping from one to the next until finally stopping at the number that corresponded with today. He pulled the pencil from its place behind his ear and copied the numbers from the pad to a loose scrap of paper, then closed the notepad and placed it back in its spot.
Of course, anything written could be read, if found. That meant information you wanted to keep analog had to be disguised or, at least, too obscure to draw attention. Evidence of rudimentary encryption methods dated back to the very beginning of known human history. Even those ancient people had known if someone didn’t know what they were looking for, or looking at, it was far more difficult to find anything of value—if anything was found at all. There were ancient stories from humanity’s homeworld of messages being hidden in printed newspaper advertisements, appearing in remote cities far removed from any battlefield, copies of which would be sent to operatives. The operatives would scan the inked pages for the codes that only held meaning if the recipient knew what to look for. This was the basis for the activation protocol Julian had developed for this specific activation.
It was based on a brilliant system, one he wished he had been the original creator of. Subtle and relatively easy to employ once it was set in place, yet maddeningly difficult to decipher. The metaphor he had used to describe it in the past was turning smoke and ash back into wood.
Julian opened a mathematics program on his computer and entered the equation from the book, replacing the needed variables with the numbers copied from the notepad. The computer instantly returned a result. He had the code of the day, the one-time code his counterpart on the Terminus would also derive. He copied the number back to the piece of paper with the rest.
Next, Julian opened a communication program. Nothing special, just a regular, common program that anyone, civilian or otherwise, would use, leaving it open while he turned to the back of the mathematics book where the reference citations were. Once again he dragged his finger down the page until he found what he was looking for, a citation that referenced a university on Perrera, the home planet of the eighth system in the Imperium’s unified eleven. The Perraran Institute of Reason and Science.
Keeping his finger on the citation, Julian picked up a stack of notebooks with his other hand from another shelf on the wall, reading the hand-written labels on each cover. Four notebooks deep was the one he wanted. It was full of demographic notes on various planets, dreary writing that recounted mostly outdated facts and figures from worlds half a sector away. One such entry happened to be about the planet Perrera, the same location as the university. Scanning the citations once again, he saw the single, final piece of information he needed. An address.
The address didn’t belong to a particular building or person. It was a digital address that pointed to a single, specific server on Perrera, maintained in some forgotten corner of a datacenter. The actual server was a virtual machine housed inside of the datacenter’s shared computer core, but Julian liked to picture an ancient little machine covered in dust and cobwebs in a forgotten basement, humming away. It was a shame that when it received Julian’s message, it would be one of the last things the computer ever did. The last thing it would do would be to pass this number to the next computer in the chain before wiping its own data and shutting down irreversibly, just the same as the next thirty-eight machines in the chain after it would do before reaching the final resting place where the code of the day would wait for the sleeper to access it. A self-destructing chain-reaction that would end on the Terminus.
Julian pressed his lips together. Who the final domino fell in front of, that had not been shared with him, per Clarke’s strict system of compartmentalization. He let out a small sigh. Whoever it was, he hoped they were ready to wake up after two long years asleep.
He entered the four specific pieces of information for this sleeper agent. First, the six-character activation code that would indicate it was time to wake up. Second, a government identification number; Commander Renic Tau’s. Third, the order code for ‘observe and report,’ though there was presently nowhere for them to report to. And fourth, the code of the day from the one-time pad. He pressed the send button. One simple action and the activation signal was away.
The signal was nothing complex. The activation protocols were meticulously memorized by the sleeper agents; they checked in on regular intervals for an activation. If nothing was there, they went about their lives and returned on the agreed-upon interval. But once activated, the sleeper would know to be constantly ready for further instructions. Clarke hadn’t said what those would be.
Julian stood, holding his computer in one arm and typing with the other as he paced. His mind went to the other agent he had helped to rogue, though this one had at least known that is what they were doing. It had only been a week since Samantha had departed and he already felt strange. He didn’t mind the planet-bound desk-duty; it was more critical than ever that he maintain a close watch on their operations. But the pool of resources he could trust was shrinking by the day, and the one person he did trust implicitly was out there working on her own.
Despite knowing that Samantha had been warned—ordered—to make no attempts at communication, Julian still kept an eye out. She was known to change the rules of the game to fit whatever she felt she needed in the moment. If she did try to reach him, Julian would put that in one of the compartments he knew Clarke would prefer not to have access to.
Finished with this task, Julian retrieved the scrap of paper he’d written the code of the day on and slipped it into the slot of a document vaporizer. The sheet fell through the slot, the invisible lasers super-heating the material to the point that it did not smoke or even burn. The atoms merely separated and were blown through a collection filter. Not quite as poetic as turning wood into smoke and ash, but far more effective.
He picked up the one-time pad, hesitating for a moment. Despite all the work invested into the system, its name was quite literal. Any contact with this sleeper would have to be carried out through alternative channels. With a quiet sigh, he released his grip and dropped it through the slot. Only atoms now.
Julian picked the pencil up off the desk and slid it behind his ear. Behind him, the sound of his office door opening caught his attention.
Julian jerked around just in time to see a stun pistol flash and fill the room with light. The shot surged across his body like acid along his nerves. His body spasmed in pain, crashing backward into the book-and-paper covered desk. Material flew in every direction. The pencil dislodged from his ear, his computer crashed to the floor, and his body fell helplessly alongside them both.
Through the spasms and fluttering sheets of paper, Julian could barely make out the image of three, uniform-clad figures blocking the doorway. He made an attempt to reach his pencil. A boot coming down on his forearm prevented him from doing so.
Renic stepped through the office door, scattered paper floating to the ground. Kogan was already inside, his booted foot across Julian’s arm as he spasmed pathetically on the floor.
“Agent Julian Siddig, you are being detained for your suspected involvement in recent events relating to Agent Samantha Mori and the terrorist group known as the Red Kestrels. You are being taken into custody by the Naval Special Investigation Division under my authority. Do you understand the terms of your detainment?” Renic said, staring down at Julian’s prone body writhing on the floor.
Julian grunted unintelligibly; Renic hadn’t expected much of an answer from a person whose jaw was involuntarily clamped shut. He stepped forward and dropped to one knee, his face inches from Julian’s.
“Clarke may be able to use his position to protect himself, but a senior analyst and the controller of an alleged traitor? I have more than enough justification to take you in.”
Renic gave Julian’s head a shove into the floor, then grabbed the fallen computer, making certain to keep it open and powered on. Next to Julian’s hand was the pencil he always carried, his fingertips seeming to try to reach it. A ridiculous, antiquated affectation.
Renic picked up the writing implement. “Is this what you want?” He looked at it for a moment before flicking it across the office, hearing it clatter to the ground behind the desk. “Sorry, I can’t allow you to have anything that could potentially be used as a weapon.”
Renic stood and straightened his uniform jacket. He stepped close to Kogan. “Take him to level six,” Renic said, his voice low. “Keep it quiet. No processing; I will handle that myself. Straight to a holding cell.” He waved his hand around the room. “Have a collection team come and gather all of this and take it to secure storage.”
Kogan furrowed his brow. “Commander, the division has not staffed any collection teams, nor have we arranged for secure evidence storage,” he said, flatly and without reservation.
Renic clicked his tongue, scowling at the mountains of potential intelligence that surrounded him. Kogan was correct. Another drawback of requesting his division have as little government bureaucracy as possible.
“Fine. Have…” Renic thought back to someone in the office who had helped him before, “Operative Millinson coordinate the collection. Tell her to use a vacant observation room for storing this junk. Have her and whoever she wants to enlist catalog it. When they’re done, atomize it all.”
Kogan nodded. He motioned to his partner and pointed to the man crumpled on the ground. They hoisted Julian up by his arms—he had stopped spasming—and dragged him out of the room.
Renic smoothed back his hair and examined Julian’s computer in his hand. It was not damaged, but it had detected the sudden acceleration of being dropped and put itself into a protected mode. No matter. Despite it being locked, there might still be useful information about Samantha’s whereabouts he could infer. He had access to navy supercomputers now. The way someone tried to protect their plans could reveal a great deal of information about said plans. Clarke’s deception would be discovered somewhere in the mess.
Renic turned and exited the office. He took a small datapad out of his pocket and held it near the door’s control panel. A light on the panel flashed red. The room would now be secured by the orders of a commander in the Imperium Navy. If Clarke wanted to play games, he could explain why the former partner of his missing agent was under investigation for records tampering and obstruction of justice by the Naval Special Investigation Division.
Of course, putting an official lock on the office wasn’t necessary; Renic didn’t plan on returning to this rat’s nest. He just wanted Clarke to discover that red light on his own when he learned that Julian wouldn’t be reporting to work tomorrow.
Qin placed her hand on the entry panel to her quarters, and the door—locked by default—slid to the side. She stepped through and, as soon as her body cleared the threshold, the door slid closed and locked once again.
All crew quarters automatically locked whether there was anyone occupying the space or not. There could be no breach in security due to someone forgetting, and in fact, it was not possible for a crew member who was not part of the ship’s security to leave a door unlocked. If a crew member wished to advertise their presence, they could choose to display that they were away, present, or present and did not wish to be disturbed.
Qin, most of the time, elected to set the status to whatever best reflected her mood. Today, however, she set no status. Her crewmates would be given no indicator about her whereabouts, and only her chain of command and ship’s security could pull her location. For the time-being, Qin was effectively alone.
She closed her eyes and took a slow breath, letting the smell of her plant collection sooth her senses. She had finished her last shift of the day, a double, and was ready to settle down for the night. Though, having the Terminus in a state of perpetual readiness rendered the concept of day and night meaningless.
The normal dimming of lights and noise-cancellation during the evening hours had been suspended per the fleet marshal’s orders. While Kestris City, on the rotating planet below, might still follow a light and dark cycle, on the Terminus it was a singular, never-ending day. Only here, in her private quarters, could she escape into a temporary night.
Qin opened her eyes and shrugged the computer bag off her shoulder, laying it on a simple chair near the door. Next, she removed the navy uniform jacket and folded it lengthwise in half, draping it over the armrest next to the bag.
Qin’s rank and enhanced security clearance allowed for private quarters, albeit small. Her home aboard the Terminus consisted of a sitting room that doubled as an office, a bedroom, a bathroom and shower, and a kitchenette, though most meals were expected to be eaten in the nearest cafeteria. She didn’t mind. Shared mealtime was one of the few chances she had to socialize.
Setting the lights to low, Qin crossed the room to the table where she had two rows of plants; one whose containers rested on the table surface, the other whose baskets hung from a rod just above her head. Neatly organized on the table were several terrariums, each with their own carefully calibrated lighting, water, and atmospheric controls. Some were even sealed, maintaining their own barometric pressure that was different from the standard single atmosphere of her quarters.
Qin had specimens from all around the sector. Orange and red Senalise dragon flowers, violet Dradari succulents, a Strathome dusk blossom which had flowered nicely, and even a meter-tall kindness tree from Dai’Reen just to the side of the table. All together, she had nine different species. Keeping the plants growing optimally in the windowless living quarters with recycled air had its challenges. It was an ongoing puzzle she maintained in her mind, purposefully foregoing the use of computers or written systems. Each time she entered her quarters, processing the schedule was a little mental exercise.
Each plant needed different light cycles simulating their native planets, different watering schedules, specific mineral additives. Qin pictured the schedule for each plant in her mind—sorting through the data, determining which plant needed what, how long it had been since the last watering or adjustment of the individual lamps—and began to tend each specimen, mentally updating the schedule in her mind.
Finished with the plants, Qin crossed the sitting room and sat at her desk. She had one more routine to complete before she could truly relax, if relaxing was even possible amid these times of crisis. The Imperium was in a state of constant vigilance and tension, the Terminus being at the center of the action. She had been taking extra care to get the required rest needed, but when double shifts soon turned to triple, she may not be able to meet her body’s rest needs no matter how many extra-curricular and socialization activities she cut.
On Qin’s desk was a series of neatly arranged objects, each placed meticulously. Directly in front of her was her personal computer. Behind it, a row of neatly-placed hardback books were held up by bronze bookends, next to a neatly-placed pad of real paper, which itself was next to a neatly-placed authentic, wooden pen holder. There was a neatly-placed jade sphere on a small, three-legged metal stand; and a neatly-placed, antique lamp with a green shade and small, pull-chain switch. Qin pulled the chain, letting the cone of soft yellow light illuminate the desk.
The computer on the desk was nothing high-powered or impressive. It was a standard model, one that could be found in a family’s home office, or a students dormitory. As part of her privileges as a security-cleared member of OS-9, she could schedule time with the Terminus’s quantum computing core whenever she wished, provided she made a request in advance. It was one of the most powerful computers ever created, matched in the Imperium only by the one in the capitol building on Kestris. The OS-9 deck of the Terminus had hundreds of workstations and thousands of datapads she could use at any time. With access to that much computing power, this personal computer was regarded by others as sentimental, something from her relatively recent time as a student in the naval academy.
This was true. It was a computer from before her time on the Terminus, though the assumption about her sentimentality toward it was an error she chose not to correct.
Personal devices were permitted aboard the Terminus. Everything brought onto the ship was scanned by ship’s security, and all access to internal and external networks was under constant scrutiny by digital security teams, with high enough clearance to monitor even OS-9’s transmissions. Unlike on other ships in the Imperium Navy where random inspections of personal devices and files were rare, with most harmless infractions overlooked, the Terminus’s security staff conducted randomized inspections so frequently that nearly all crew had given up on being able to keep anything private. Qin was familiar with these inspections; she’d volunteered to have her quarters ‘randomly’ inspected twice since taking this position. There was no right to privacy, and Qin wanted to make it clear she had nothing to hide.
Yes, it was virtually impossible to smuggle aboard or hide anything on the Terminus, digital or otherwise. However, taking from the available resources that already surrounded her and making of them something more was a different matter altogether.
Qin opened the computer and turned it on, allowing it to load the standard, personal operating system that had no Imperium files or sensitive information, hidden or otherwise. She had performed this routine every week since taking her assignment. The last time she had completed it had been just before the Terminus had arrived in the Kestris system. This would be the first time she’d done it since the attack on Starview Station. And, for the first time, she felt a hint of trepidation.
Qin took a slow breath, calming her mind. She had no definite cause to be afraid. Errant speculation was not a luxury she could afford. Reaching across her desk, she retrieved one of the hardback books from the row between the heavy bookends, the same book she retrieved every time. The Essays of Hawthorne & Wittaker: A Collection of Theoretical Mathematics. Time to settle down with a good book.
Placing the book on the desk, she turned her attention to the computer and disabled all connectivity to the ship’s systems, air-gapping away from digital intrusion. Just as she had done each time previously, Qin opened a simple programming interface and created a blank file. With this, computer code could be written, compiled, and run on her computer without Terminus security being able to detect anything since she was not accessing the ship’s networks. Whatever program she created would only remain until the temporary system memory in the computer was reset by Qin when she finished the routine.
Qin slid the book of theoretic mathematics next to the computer and turned to page three-twenty-seven. She began typing the temporary program from the book’s equation, converting the written expression of the formula to one that the computer could process. Writing scripts and computer code was something she had done since she was a child, creating this program from scratch each time was a rote, mechanical activity.
If anyone looked at the book, it would appear to be exactly what it was; a series of essays on theoretical mathematics. There was nothing out of the ordinary. That was until this formula was programmed into a computer along with the memorized alterations that Qin had been trained to add. Only then could it decode the next piece of data she needed.
Finished writing the program, Qin compiled the code into a working application and retrieved a new computer from a drawer in the desk, a navy-issued one. She placed it next to her personal computer and opened it, letting it connect to the ship’s systems where it presented all the standard notifications and messages she saw every time she used any ship computer. On the screen of her personal computer, the coding program showed it had compiled her code and was ready to run whatever data she input.
Qin took another slow breath, calming her nerves. Everything was as it should be. This was her routine. Carrying it out should bring her a sense of normalcy. It was the reason she was on this ship. Nothing to fear. She was Lieutenant Qin Meredessi, trusted and well-regarded member of OS-9, Imperium Navy Intelligence.
With that, Qin pulled up an information browser on her navy computer and went to the same data feed she went to every time she performed this routine. The information would pass through the Terminus’s firewalls, and analysis software would scan each data packet for prohibited information. If a transmission was encrypted or the data unreadable, it would be blocked and flagged for deeper inspection whether being sent or received. Anything the computers flagged as out of the ordinary would be examined by a technician, at which point it would be allowed as a false-positive, or the offending crew member would be summoned for questioning.
Qin continued her routine. Despite these safeguards, there was an easy way around these limitations; do not transmit anything that you do not want to be examined. For the last two years, she had frequented an online community for ship-bound botanists, populated with information, articles, and videos for people interested in maintaining a thriving personal garden aboard spacecraft. Each time she followed this routine, she read through updates on new plants and flowers available to purchase on nearby planets, and checked on new hydroponic and oxygen-based techniques for successfully cultivating plants in a contained space, such as her quarters aboard the Terminus.
One of these botany feeds was more obscure than the others. It hosted articles written by an enthusiastic botanist who regularly posted new methods of raising particularly sensitive flowers in non-native environments. Photos of the flowers and videos of the techniques were included in every article. The newest article was about the particular difficulties of getting Strathome dusk blossoms to flourish.
Qin’s hands stopped, and she felt a tingle burning on the back of her neck. Her throat tightened. For the past two years, Qin had cultivated her collection of very specific plants based on a list she had been given before setting foot on the Terminus. This was the first time this particular floriculturist had written an article about one of the plants she had cultivated from the list.
Qin read the article, studying each photo and description, noting every numerical value contained within the information and entering them into the predetermined set of variables that the program she had written required. Each entry was a number, long enough to carry data that the program would convert into readable messages, should they contain a message in the first place. It was the way the creator of the activation method solved the air-gap problem; Qin was the medium through which the message passed.
When she reached the final variable, her hand hovered over the final entry key. This was no different from any of the other times. Her instructions were to perform the routine. This was why she was here. Delaying served no purpose. Despite the strange sense of unease she felt, the final entry must be made. Nothing was different about this time from all the rest.
Qin took another slow, calming breath. Then another. Then entered the final numbers and ran the program.
The program’s interface blinked away and was replaced with the simple, two-pane interface that resembled a message inbox, nothing more than white text on a black screen, the same as each time she ran the program. There had never been a message yet, but there had also never been an article written by this obscure botanist about one of her more exotic plants either.
Something was different. In the top pane was a single message, it’s timestamp from earlier that day—two hours, thirty-seven minutes ago. A feeling crept over her—limbs cold, heart-rate elevated, tightened stomach. Anxiety.
Block it out. Follow your routine. Maintain your duties. Open the message.
Qin forced her hand to select the single, unopened message and click, its contents appearing in the lower pane. There were four pieces of data.
The first was six characters; zero, zero, f, f, zero, zero. The hexadecimal value for green, and the color she had been assigned that represented an activation order.
The second was an Imperium personnel identification number. Five characters, a dash, two characters, a dash, seven characters. Everyone within the Imperium Navy was assigned one of these.
The third was one of the memorized mission orders that had been drilled into her during her many months of training in the Rosewood program, the Office of Information Security’s secret deep-cover infiltration academy. It represented orders to ‘observe and report’ whoever the personnel identification number indicated.
The fourth was the final signal she had to verify. She pulled open a drawer and retrieved a small paper notebook, one she had been carrying since she came aboard the Terminus two years ago. It was a random series of numbers that had no meaning, nothing to infer from them. Even the quantum core of the Terminus could derive no data from the notepad because it contained no data of value. It simply let Qin authenticate the message. Whoever had initiated the message would have an identical copy of this notepad. If the message was genuine, she could verify using today’s date and this notepad.
With shaking hands, Qin flipped through the notepad and calculated the code of the day. It matched the fourth number in the message and validated the authenticity of the other three.
Qin’s heart-rate doubled. The edges of her vision darkened. She shook her head rapidly and regained enough of her senses to commit the personnel identification number to memory, then terminated the program on her personal computer, removing all traces of the activation message, the formula, the orders, everything. It only existed in her mind now. She stood and hurried to her plants, slipping the one-time pad into a refuse atomizer she normal used for plant clippings.
She forced herself to breathe. Slow. Steady. Four seconds in. Hold four seconds. Four seconds out. Repeat. Repeat.
Qin turned and stared at the Strathome dusk blossom sitting on the table. After two years of waiting, she was finally being asked to do her job. Her actual job. Agent Qin Meredessi, 5E Project Rosewood recruit posing as an Imperium Navy Intelligence analyst aboard the Terminus, had just been activated and given her first mission.