Qin has been activated, though she isn't entirely sure for what reason. With nothing more than orders to observe Renic, she now must navigate her life as an OS-9 intelligence officer and keep her story straight; is she with the navy, 5E, or something in-between?
Qin gave a shallow nod to the crewmate as he passed her, his eyes—suspicious, skeptical—briefly glanced at her as he returned the acknowledgment. Qin kept her expression neutral, suppressing the flutter of panic in her stomach as she casually adjusted her uniform jacket for the third time since exiting the elevator into the labyrinth of identical corridors that made up the Terminus’s decks.
Datapad gripped firmly in one hand, Qin replayed the crewmate’s passing by, removing her own projected anxiety. He wore the uniform of a petty officer, junior grade, and there was no suspicion in his glance, only subdued deference and a hint of curiosity. Even if Qin were under suspicion, that particular crewmate would have nothing to do with any investigation. If anything, he would be wary of the OS-9 analyst taking note of him. Unless he was also working undercover, in which case…
Stop. Errant speculation about every glance, every hesitation, every moment of uncertainty served no purpose. There was no mathematical chance that someone already knew about her activation. The method was impenetrable, and she’d made no mistakes. Everything was fine. She would merely continue her role as Lieutenant Qin Meredessi, maintaining her duties and quietly gathering surveillance on Commander Renic Tau, former 5E agent and current senior officer in the newly formed Naval Special Investigation Division. Her first mission.
Having given a cursory research into Commander Tau’s personnel file after she’d received the coded order, it was not difficult to see why Director Clarke would have suspicions. Though exactly what the director was suspicious of, there was no indication. Tau’s record was a long list of classified and partially redacted mission commendations that extolled his efficiency at carrying out industrial sabotage, high profile assassinations, incitement of riots, as well as facilitating the buying and selling of weapons with dubious parties. Very few of his missions involved any sort of disguise or undercover work. He seemed to be a human weapon, sent in secret to conduct the most unsavory of field operations. Whatever the reason Director Clarke had for enlisting Qin to monitor Tau, it was not hard to envision the former 5E field agent—now suddenly installed directly within Fleet Marshal Gallow’s chain of command—being capable of almost anything.
Qin straightened her uniform jacket for the fourth time. The ship felt different. Everything felt different. Her routines, though they started out as carefully planned behavior patterns for avoiding suspicion, were now habits. Had it really been so long since her training in the Rosewood Program that her original mission now felt unfamiliar? The Terminus itself had not changed, but it was no longer just her home. It was also her mission field.
Finally, the corridor opened into a wide landing connecting several other corridors and elevator banks. A waist-high steelglass partition gave a view into an atrium stretching vertically through the center of the decks, the sunlight-simulating ceiling six decks above and the landscaped bottom level twenty-four decks below. Distributed throughout the Terminus, similar atriums honeycombed the interior of the massive ship, creating these pockets of open-air and artificial nature throughout the hundreds of decks. Far below, crewmates walked back and forth, carrying on their duties.
Qin took a slow, deep breath, letting the ship’s purified air fill her lungs. Nothing had changed. No one was watching. This was just a brief phase of paranoia; an unfamiliar mood that would pass. No need to panic. She was still Lieutenant Qin Meredessi, 5E deep-cover agent who had successfully maintained her persona for the last two years.
Qin repeated these thoughts as she crossed the landing to where the person who was waiting for her was standing with her back turned, looking down into the atrium with her hands clasped behind their back, datapad tucked beneath an arm. Qin’s objective was to show Lieutenant Yadav that absolutely nothing about her was suspect.
Qin approached Yadav from the side, allowing her the chance to notice. Yadav turned, smiling.
“Lieutenant Meredessi,” Yadav said, voice carrying a playful and overly formal tone.
Qin bowed her head. “Lieutenant Yadav.”
Yadav turned to face Qin. “I trust everything is okay with your plants?”
Qin forced herself to smile. “Yes. They are doing very well.”
“Good to hear.” Yadav waved down to the trees that grew in the enormous planters at the base of the atrium below. “If word gets out, they may reassign you to the ship’s landscaping crews.”
Qin looked over the steelglass partition to the enormous open space, then turned her attention back to Yadav. “I believe my hobbyist’s talents would be wasted. The Terminus employs twenty-five full-time landscaping personnel to maintain the atriums, specializing in artificial environments. I fear I would be quite unqualified.”
Yadav laughed—endearment, inclusion. “Perhaps, Lieutenant. Anyway, I believe the major likes you just where you are.”
Qin—again—forced a smile. “Yes. I believe so.” She glanced once more at the artificial landscaping below, the meandering paths that twisted around, and the tiny figures of her crewmates walking about, carrying out their lives. Just like she was. Just like she had. Just like she would.
Qin looked back to Yadav. “Speaking of the major, shall we proceed?”
Yadav nodded and gestured toward the landing behind them, and the two walked in the direction of one of OS-9’s briefing rooms where Major Drake had scheduled a late-notice meeting only two hours earlier. There had been no agenda included in the invitation, only that it was mandatory and high-priority.
Crew members bustled about on the open landing, conversing, carrying datapads and computers. The events of the Starview attack had put the ship on high-alert, and most crew were pulling extended or additional shifts while the Terminus was in orbit over Kestris, meaning nearly everyone was on duty at all times. As the command-center for the entire Imperium Navy, the Terminus was an extension of the planet below, or, depending on who was asked, the planet was an extension of the ship.
The two women passed into a corridor, the foot-traffic thinning out as they progressed away from the common area of the atrium. The subtle buzz of white-noise became more apparent as the sound of voices faded behind them. The shipbuilding techniques used when constructing the Terminus were so sophisticated—and classified—the ambient sounds of systems that normally created a bed of white-noise on other ships had been virtually eliminated. On trial voyages during its first year of service, the Terminus was so silent that crew aboard complained that it felt unnatural and disconcerting, even resulting in reports of scattered auditory hallucinations. Artificial noise that simulated less-advanced ships was added to give the expected auditory ambience.
“Interesting time for a briefing,” Yadav said, giving Qin a sidelong glance, her voice soft beneath the artificial noise.
“Elaborate?” Qin returned, tilting her head at the comment.
Yadav shrugged. “Middle of the night.”
Qin processed the comment, her step hesitating slightly as she calculated the time. Yadav was correct, though it was Qin’s realization that she herself had lost track of the hour that concerned her. “Ah, yes. It is night in the capital. Though, the rotating shifts have rendered the concept meaningless for us in orbit. All day, all the time.”
Yadav snorted. “I hadn’t forgotten. Limiting the night cycle to four hours has been more of an adjustment than I had anticipated. I expect stimulants will be made available soon if this continues, and then the mandatory health screenings.” Yadav looked up to the full-spectrum lights that ran along the corridor ceiling. “How long since we arrived in orbit?”
“We dropped into Kestris space approximately five days ago.”
“No hours and minutes?” Yadav lowered her voice, peering at Qin as she walked. “Did a detail slip past you?”
Qin resisted the urge to gulp and turned her gaze to meet Yadav’s. “Five days, eight… eight hours. And, in case you were wondering, we have been walking together for six minutes.”
Yadav grinned, returning to a normal speaking volume. “Impressive. I always want to know how you do it. Part of me wonders if you spend your time alone in your quarters, memorizing things and practicing to keep us all fooled into thinking you really can calculate things on the spot.”
Qin smiled, feeling her stomach tighten. Thankfully, Yadav had not been paying close enough attention to realize Qin had made a guess as to their transit time, another unusual lapse in attention.
As usual, Yadav’s flirtations were playful and endearing. Qin’s responses should feel like those of a day ago, but responding adequately to Yadav’s pleasant advances was more than she could calibrate while occupied with maintaining her base composure in each interaction. Was she Qin the navy officer, Qin the 5E spy, or Qin the shipmate who was being pursued as more than a friend?
Qin turned her head forward, relying on feigning a flash of embarrassment to mask her hesitation. “Unfortunately, I am not sure I can tell you how it works. I have always been this way. I simply see quantitative data in my mind as if it were something that could be touched and felt. Though, sometimes I do wish I could stop noticing as much and just let it all pass. There is only so much a mind can process at once.”
Yadav raised an eyebrow. “When you put it that way, I am glad to say I can’t relate. Either way, it’s quite the party trick.”
Qin smiled thinly at the thought of attending a party, let alone one with tricks. She had found that her ability often made her feel more out of place than like a source of entertainment. Once such an odd ability became widely known, the line between interesting and strange became thin.
Qin and Yadav exited the corridor into the broader outer lobby of the restricted OS-9 section of the deck, the final common area before elevated security clearance was necessary. The uniforms of the scattered crew denoted a much different blend of designation and rank than in the atrium, the presence of senior officers far more common.
At the last set of doors was a hand scanner. Yadav placed her hand on the scanner, watching it turn green as the doors to slid open. Qin approached the scanner and placed her hand on it as well; green again. All crew were required to scan in at every secure door, every time. The ‘no tag-along’ rule was strictly enforced. Comms were already monitored, but a second, far more difficult to counterfeit means of verification was also required. Anyone the biometric systems caught passing through a secure door without scanning first would set off a silent alarm and then be forced to answer to ship’s security, whether it had been a mistake or not. Qin had never made this mistake, and now would make doubly sure she never did.
Qin and Yadav passed through the doors and into the comparatively dimmer interior of the OS-9 offices, the softer ambience more conducive to the cognitive-heavy tasks of intelligence analysts. They were now in a restricted section, a place where access and need-to-know was strictly enforced. Crew was not permitted to enter freely without elevated and regularly checked clearance levels. For the first time, Qin was acutely aware that on OS-9’s deck, she—as a 5E sleeper—was essentially behind enemy lines.
“What’s this?” Yadav said softly, motioning toward the briefing room’s open doors and the armed security guards posted on each side.
Qin’s throat tightened. The guards were a new addition and seeing visible weapons aboard the Terminus—aside from the fleet marshal’s honor guard—was an uncommon sight. She kept her expression neutral; whatever the reason for these guards’ presence, it could not be for her.
Yadav approached one of the guards and addressed him, her voice full of authority. “Officer, what is the purpose for having guards posted within a secure checkpoint, outside a restricted briefing room?”
The guard met eyes with Yadav. “Lieutenant, sir, these were our orders. A reason was not specified,” he said. His voice was neutral, but Qin noticed a tinge of uncertainty. He was telling the truth; he didn’t know why he was posted there.
Yadav huffed and continued. “I surmised that. I should clarify. Are you keeping people out, or in?”
The guard shifted his eyes away from Yadav; both knew he had no ability to answer any questions, literally or figuratively. “I advise you to direct questions to your commanding officer, Lieutenant,” the guard said. The other guard, only a few feet away, had not acknowledged the exchange. Yadav gave Qin a wary glance, then walked into the briefing room. Qin made an attempt at eye contact with both guards as she passed, watching for any flashes of recognition in their eyes; neither took her up on it.
The briefing room was arranged like a large classroom, with seating for one hundred and fifty. Long rows of tables with neatly tucked chairs curved gently inward, five rows of thirty seats each. Aisles split the seating into thirds, and each row of seats was one step higher than the one in front of it as in an auditorium. At the front, facing the audience, was a wide podium with the Imperium eleven-pointed star, and a wall-sized vidscreen acted as a backdrop.
Yadav stopped near the first row of seats and surveyed the room. “Hmm,” she said, eyes narrowed in scrutiny.
“Something wrong?” Qin asked.
Yadav grimaced, nodding toward the rows after rows of empty seats. “Low turnout, and the major is certainly not one to tolerate tardiness.”
Yadav was correct on both points. With only three minutes until the meeting’s scheduled start time, the room would normally be full, but over three-quarters of the seats were empty. That this many people were late to a priority briefing by Major Drake was not likely.
Qin paused a moment and let her mind work. What did those already seated have in common? Ranks varied—seniority wasn’t it. Assignments varied as well, ruling out specific operation personnel.
Qin’s mind clicked. There it was.
“Clearance,” Qin said softly.
Yadav turned. “Lieutenant?”
Qin shook her head, breaking her momentary reflection. “Clearance level. Everyone present—ourselves included—is cleared for top-secret, restricted compartmentalized access or above.”
Yadav scanned the room, folding her arms. “Huh. I think you’re right. Everyone is cleared for beyond top-secret.” Qin was right, though she resisted pointing that out. Yadav nodded back toward the door. “Doesn’t explain the guards.”
Qin sighed. “No, but I suspect the major will handle that part.”
The two lieutenants made their way to the second row and scooted toward the center. There were plenty of empty seats. They sat and placed their datapads on the table in front of them. At the front of the room Major Drake and one of his staff—Lieutenant Anjali Kirkland, thirty-five, principal analyst—conversed softly. Qin and Yadav settled into their seats and watched as the major seemed to conclude his conversation and cross to the podium.
The doors to the room slid shut, only twenty-two people in attendance in a room that had a capacity of one-hundred. Qin and Yadav had not been early; in fact, it appeared they had been the last to arrive.
Major Drake moved to stand behind the podium, and the lights over the audience dimmed slightly as the vidscreen behind him came to life displaying the symbol of the Imperium against a black background.
“Everyone, you all saw the guards. I shouldn’t need to explain this is a closed briefing, but protocol mandates I say aloud what you already all presume so there is no room for confusion. Those doors are shut and will not open until we have concluded.” Drake paused, meeting eyes with everyone in attendance. “What we discuss today is strictly classified and not to be shared unless you receive both verbal and written authorization from me. I don’t care if Fleet Marshal Gallow or the High Imperius himself probe for information. If you don’t see my name authorizing the discussion, you report the conversation to me and ship’s security immediately. Each of your datapads will be receiving locked briefing reports, individually tailored to provide need-to-know details only. Look around, folks; the faces you see in this room are the only ones cleared for you to discuss this with, and only in secured locations.”
A low murmur arose. Drake paused, giving the attendees a moment to process. Yadav gave a sidelong glance to Qin. “This is odd,” Yadav said under her breath.
Qin nodded in agreement. In all of her time serving within OS-9, this level of access control was unprecedented. Though if meetings like this had occurred, by their very nature no one but the attendees would have known about it. Whatever the topic, there was a level of comfort knowing that if there was any suspicion about Qin’s deep-cover status, she would never have been told about this meeting’s existence, let alone made it through the checkpoints. Qin was safe. For now.
Drake let the room settle back down before continuing. “To the matter at hand; we are all acutely aware of the investigation into the Red Kestrel attack on Starview Station and their larger goals. That attack was thought to be beyond the capability of any outside aggressor, and the possibility that the Red Kestrels received inside help is being explored under Defense Minister Archer’s orders. For those of us whose duty is to protect the Imperium, this attack was an unforgivable embarrassment.”
Drake turned and gestured to the vidscreen. The Imperium eleven-pointed star vanished, replaced by a three-dimensional map of the sector, including a wide expanse of Fringe space. On it, an indicator pointed to a spot well-outside of the Imperium, the Protus Nine asteroid mining colony. The major turned his attention back to the room, the map zooming in so the colony took up the entire screen.
“Only three weeks before this attack, the Navy also suffered the loss and subsequent disappearance of the warship—”
“Dauntless,” Qin heard Yadav whisper in sync with Drake. Yadav’s service record entered Qin’s memory; she had served aboard the Dauntless as an intelligence officer for eighteen months, leaving that posting after being promoted to the Terminus ten months ago. Qin looked back to the vidscreen where an image of the Dauntless hovered near the colony, large block-letter status text above it indicating that both ship and crew were gone.
Qin looked back to Yadav. Given an average length of Navy assignment, it was all but clear that Yadav had known dozens of the seven-hundred crew who were missing and presumed dead. Friends, colleagues, people who made this a personal matter for her. Qin returned her attention to the Major.
“Again, this is believed to be at the hands of the Red Kestrels. While the Starview Station incident is public knowledge, the status of the Dauntless remains classified and has not been shared with the public. All Navy personnel who inadvertently received access to this information have been briefed, compartmentalized, and given strict gag-orders. Let me be clear. Both of these incidents are top-priority investigation and being pursued by the defense minister, Imperium intelligence, as well as the Navy. That means us.”
Qin’s stomach relaxed slightly. She had already known of the Dauntless, and with Starview Station, she had been taken by surprise as much as anyone else. If the defense minister and fleet marshal wanted a compartmentalized investigation into how these attacks were orchestrated, OS-9 and Major Drake’s organization was the correct place to start.
Drake looked to the floor for a moment, then returned his gaze to his limited audience. “The nature of those investigations is ongoing and well-staffed. I will tell you right now; this briefing you’re sitting in is not about Starview Station or the Dauntless. Those of you gathered here today were selected to be a part of a parallel operation in addition to your existing workloads. We’re calling it the Indigo investigation and its needs will take priority over anything else.”
Yadav leaned close to Qin and whispered. “Indigo? Have you heard of that?”
Qin shook her head, whispering back. “No. I am unfamiliar.”
Drake placed both hands on the edges of the podium. “I am deeply disturbed to have to share this, but Indigo exists because we have reason to believe there is an intelligence compromise aboard the Terminus that facilitated both of the aforementioned attacks. Not a missing datapad or a system intrusion. A person, and high level at that.”
Any calm that Qin had had disappeared. She was vaguely aware of Yadav leaning over and speaking to her, but the words were muffled and she did not comprehend them. She felt her chest tighten and vision narrow. Wait. Stay calm. Breathe. Gather information and stifle assumptions.
Qin forced herself to acknowledge Yadav politely and pretend to focus on the major. Drake’s eyes moved from person to person in the room as he spoke. Qin shifted in her chair.
Again, she reminded herself to breathe. If Drake had suspected anything was amiss with her, Qin would not be here. She would be in the brig, or worse. She had to keep listening, keep gathering information. She was placed on the Terminus so that she could be close to critical intelligence, to situations that 5E needed to have access to. She was right where she needed to be, she herself an intelligence compromise aboard the Terminus, sent to spy on her own people by those who appeared to have predicted the need.
Around her, the room had broken into a low, urgent din. Questions were thrown to the major. The voices all blended together, and Qin forced herself to concentrate on the major.
Drake held up his hands to calm the room, speaking over the commotion. “I will be taking questions at the end of the briefing.” He waved his hand at the screen and a slowly rotating image of a ship appeared. “This is the Dauntless…”
The major recapped everything the room already knew. The Dauntless had been lured and captured under unknown circumstances. Starview Station had been attacked in what could only be characterized as a suicide mission by a small contingent of assailants. The Red Kestrels were implicated in both but had not claimed responsibility for the Starview attack, and the loss of the Dauntless was still a military secret whose containment was reaching its breaking point.
Drake arrived at the end of his presentation and the lights came back up. His face looked more worn than when he’d started. That, or Qin’s own mental strain was not only affecting her thoughts, but her vision as well. Drake continued, his voice heavy.
“The attack on Starview Station was heinous, but the attack vectors are already being worked out and it is becoming clear how the Red Kestrels choreographed the incident. However, the disappearance of the Dauntless is an egregious betrayal. Throughout the Imperium’s history, ships have been destroyed in battle, boarded and hijacked, sabotaged, suffered mutinies, scuttled, and even intentionally sacrificed. But this time, it was handed over as a gift. And figuring out how that was accomplished, and by whom, is one of Indigo’s first priorities.”
The moment Drake’s voice stopped, Lieutenant Yadav raised her hand.
“Lieutenant,” Drake said and pointed.
“Major, the circumstances surrounding the Dauntless, Starview Station, and the connection to the Red Kestrels is well established, but what is the connection back to us here on the Terminus?” Yadav said, pointing her finger at the desk surface in front of her.
Qin felt her face start to wince at the question, but held it still. This is what she’d been waiting for Drake to address for the last eight, no, nine. Eight? Not more than ten minutes. She forced her automatic calculations aside. This was not a time for, as Yadav had called them, party-tricks.
Drake’s mouth pressed into a thin grimace, hesitating a moment before taking his hands off the podium. He walked around it and stopped a few steps from the first row. His voice was low and tinged with reluctance. “This is a closed door meeting. Locked door, actually, so I’ll drop decorum for the sake of clarity, but I expect you all to refer only to the information in your reports and what was said behind that podium.”
Drake interlocked his fingers and sighed. “The Red Kestrels are not capable of either of these incidents on their own. Help from the Sellacan Confederation doesn’t add up either, these acts only prime the Imperium for war readiness. The opinion of both the Fleet Marshal and the Defense Minister is that someone from the Imperium offered direct assistance to the Red Kestrels for both the hijacking of the Dauntless as well as the attack on Starview Station. The evidence we have, which is not a lot, points to a security compromise that originated on the Terminus. A coordinated effort by those who are either stationed here or have access privilege to come and go with little scrutiny.” Drake pointed to the ceiling, unleashing his next words with unhidden anger. “It was one of us.”
Qin’s thoughts went to her secret orders and Commander Renic Tau. Tau being a person of interest for 5E might not be a coincidence. Her activation orders from Director Clarke were the first piece of this new puzzle—the Indigo investigation was the second. If Drake was becoming aware of the intelligence leak, that meant that Director Clarke likely was as well. A fraction of Qin’s anxiety abated. Her orders to investigate Commander Tau could be a way to divert any scrutiny away from herself, should the need arise. She had no evidence that Tau was compromised, but at least she knew that she herself wasn’t.
“Why hasn’t the fleet marshal ordered a complete lockdown?” one of the attendees asked from the back row.
Drake shook his head. “All that would do is warn the conspirators and put this ship out of commission until every part of it is inspected and every person interrogated. We just suffered an attack over the capital, the Terminus cannot appear compromised, not to the public or even its own crew. The fleet marshal wants this contained and I cannot stress that word enough. Contained, people.” Drake replied. “Until we know where to look, and what profile to look for, there can be no visible indications that this investigation is underway.”
Another question, this time from the far side of the room. “What is the risk-analysis of another compromise occurring while we are investigating?”
Drake grimaced at the question. “We will be relying on this group to set up monitoring protocols to gather evidence and identify the source should one occur, with rapid response teams in place to act.”
The same voice retorted, incredulity apparent. “Major, is that a way of saying we want to wait for them to try something again?”
Qin didn’t recognize the voice, but she didn’t recognize any voices at the moment. All she could do was focus on acting natural and keeping her face impassive.
Drake frowned at the question. “No. That is not a way of saying it, and I recommend you choose your phrasing more carefully in the future. Any leads we discover will be pursued immediately and any imminent threat will be addressed, but we are holding back preemptive action. We are not the only group of people on this, and it is our job to find the sources, not police the entire ship.”
Yadav spoke up again, her voice insistent. “Major, pardon my pushing on this, but you have not shared what the compromise actually was.”
It was an obvious omission. Either Drake and his higher-ups didn’t know, or they were holding that information back even from Indigo.
Drake took a slow breath before answering. “At this time, the nature of the compromise is not known. We know it allowed the Kestrels to take over the Dauntless and bypass nearly every safeguard meant to protect a warship from such an attack, as well as infiltrating the staff and systems on Starview Station. But, no, Lieutenant, the exact methods used to accomplish this can only be speculated. It’s this group’s job to find out.”
Another murmur spread through the group. Drake returned to his place behind the podium. He waited for the room to go silent.
“Further assignments will be coming to each of you. As this situation will involve us investigating any or all the crew on the Terminus—including our own people—resources will be limited and information tightly controlled. Please stay alert and expect evolving orders, coordinate with my office on any logistical matters. You are dismissed.”
Everyone got to their feet, including Qin. She pressed her lips together; it felt like a good way to control her expression. She gathered her datapad, gripping it tight with both hands. Next to her, Yadav’s eyes were narrowed. She was staring past everyone else at the large vidscreen where the image of the Dauntless had been.
Yadav exhaled and turned to Qin, her voice thick with disdain. “Lieutenant, it looks like we’re on a hunt.”
Qin forced herself to smile and nod, unable to vocalize any adequate response.