Episode 31: All on the same team

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Renic joins Major Drake aboard the Terminus, attending one of the official OS-9 staff meetings for the first time. He's a trained assassin and saboteur, how hard can sitting through a meeting be?

Renic stepped through the open elevator doors, Operative Kogan following as they exited onto the landing. This was Renic’s first visit to the Terminus as a collaborator with OS-9. His previous visit, in which Admiral Elliot met his ignoble end, was not a part of any official record. Neither had Elliot’s been. Renic had checked. Elliot’s personnel file currently indicated he was on classified assignment, unable to be reached. Half of that was true, at least.

On this visit, Renic was free to walk the corridors of the Terminus openly, a guest of OS-9, there to conduct business critical to the security of the Imperium. The Indigo investigation was starting up, and OS-9 was in charge of coordinating it. This was to be Renic’s official introduction to the Indigo team, but Fleet Marshal Gallow had already made him aware. Renic knew who the Indigo investigation was looking for—him. It was his unofficial job to thwart them.

 Major Drake’s invitation to attend his recurring staff meeting had arrived the day before. Meetings like this could easily be attended remotely, but if Drake thought that commuting into orbit twice a week was going to prevent Renic from attending in person, the major would be sorely mistaken. Renic was a Navy commander, free to come and go from the surface of Kestris to the Terminus as he pleased.

A navy officer approached Renic and Kogan from across the landing at a brisk pace, hands clasped behind her back, hair pulled into a tight bun at the base of her neck. She stopped a few paces away, nodding curtly to each of them.

“Commander Tau, welcome. I am Lieutenant Yadav. I work for Major Drake as a senior analyst on our,” Yadav paused, turning her eyes momentarily toward Kogan, “joint effort. Is the rest of your attachment on their way?”

Renic exchanged a bemused glance with Kogan. “Excuse me, Lieutenant?”

Yadav tilted her head. “The rest of your staff, commander. We were not told how many to expect.”

Renic scoffed. More bureaucratic nonsense from desk-bound analysts. He and Kogan probably had a body-count that was higher than the entirety of Drake’s staff.

“It will be only us today,” he said, chuckling as if Yadav had made some mistake.

The lieutenant nodded, giving no reaction. “Of course. If you would follow me, I will escort you to the conference room.”

Renic smiled. “Lead the way.”

Yadav spun on her heel, and proceeded across the landing with the same brisk pace as before. Renic gave Kogan a satisfied grin, and they fell into line behind her. OS-9 had a presence on every Navy ship and every Navy base, but Major Drake’s division was special. They were stationed aboard the Terminus, the very place they had failed to protect from compromise. Not that they could have stopped Gallow. Or Renic, for that matter, and they were now inviting him right inside their own home, unaware of his true intentions as an agent of the empire’s downfall.

As they passed, the eyes of Terminus crew members flitted to Renic and Kogan, each in their unadorned Navy Special Investigation Division uniforms. The glances of the crew did not linger; the NSID uniforms might not have displayed rank or station, but they did send another, more powerful message—who you are looking upon has the fleet marshal’s favor.

Lieutenant Yadav led them across the landing and into a corridor, leaving the scattered onlooking crew behind. She turned her head as she walked, catching Renic’s eye. “I trust your journey from the surface was without incident?” 

“Yes, thank you, Lieutenant,” Renic said with a forced smile. He had to keep up appearances of cooperation with Drake and his team, even if it felt like a distraction from his real duty. But this was what Gallow wanted. Besides, Renic had planned a way to make today’s meeting interesting.

The corridor opened into the lobby outside of the OS-9 offices. Yadav led them across the room to a closed door with a security checkpoint. She placed her hand on the pedestal near the door, the light on the scanner turning green as the doors slid open. Renic followed, placing his hand on the black-glass surface, and the light turned green once again.

Kogan followed, placing his hand on the surface. A gentle chime sounded from the checkpoint panel, the light now softly pulsing orange.

Kogan looked to Renic. “Commander?”

Renic huffed, glaring at Lieutenant Yadav. “Lieutenant, is there a problem with the checkpoint?”

Yadav double-timed it back to the checkpoint, confusion on her face. Renic turned, catching a member of ship’s security approaching from across the lobby.

“Excuse me, Commander Tau,” the security agent said, voice lacking any actual remorse, “but our records show that Staff Sergeant Kogan does not have clearance pre-approval for RCA—restricted compartmentalized access. He will not be permitted beyond until that is granted.”

Renic glowered at the agent. “I know what RCA is. Operative Kogan has top-secret clearance granted to him through my organization. Your system is mistaken.”

Lieutenant Yadav took a step forward, holding up a placating hand. “Commander, while this is true for standard restricted areas, Major Drake has placed a status of restricted access on the content of our joint project. I am afraid that without the major’s express approval, no one can be allowed to enter without relevant business beyond the checkpoint. Did your office receive the major’s request for enhanced access privileges?”

Renic’s eyes narrowed; he had no idea if his office had received it or not. “I have no time to personally check every request that comes through my division. It must have slipped past my administrator. I’ll be sure to rectify that.” He turned to Kogan. “Operative, wait here until we are finished.”

Kogan nodded, giving a baleful eye to the guard before turning and taking up a position at the edge of the lobby. 

Lieutenant Yadav politely cleared her throat. “Apologies, Commander. The nature of the project has very little precedence, as I am sure you are aware. We are all adjusting.”

Renic was aware, more than she could ever guess. He adjusted the cuffs of his jacket and motioned for Yadav to lead. She led him through the OS-9 outer offices, a large room with rows of desks and closed offices lining the walls. Its decor was nicer than his underground offices, better staffed as well. The lights were dim, giving the place a more serious, authoritative atmosphere. Perhaps he could try adjusting the lighting for the division offices. After all, he didn’t just have a single office any longer, the entire facility was his to control.

“We are in here, Commander,” Yadav said, gesturing to an open door that led into a large conference room. Several other OS-9 staff passed, giving Renic a slight nod as they entered, but otherwise offered no further show of respect for the commander who surely outranked them all. 

Yadav led Renic into the room, gesturing to a chair near the front, with several more empty seats next to it. “Commander. We had more available for your staff, but… well, your seat is next to the major’s,” Yadav said, bowing her head and proceeding to her own empty chair at the black-glass table that stretched through the center of the room. 

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Renic said as he seated himself, pretending the empty seats next to him did not exist. The meeting room had the same slick, smooth features of everything on the Terminus. Displays were embedded seamlessly into the walls, and the lighting was soft and warm. Soft. Renic reversed his idea about adjusting the lighting of his division’s headquarters. The sleepy feeling in this room now made him want to make them brighter. 

A dozen or so officers were already seated, some studying datapads, others talking softly to each other. Renic glanced at the empty seat next to him where Drake would be sitting at the head of the table. It figures the major would be late to his own meeting, that was the privilege that leadership granted.

Renic took a moment to scan the rest of the attendees. He did not recognize any, but he did not expect to. These people were strangers to him, meaningless and…

Renic paused. He did recognize one person. At the end of the table was a young woman with cropped black hair, a blank expression on her face as she studied the screen of her datapad. She had been in the closed council meeting with Drake, the day of the High Imperius’s address. The memory of her strange scrutiny arose. What was her name? Meredessi, that’s right. A lieutenant. She bothered Renic, an unusual thing, and the fact that he didn’t know why bothered him more.

Curious and bored, Renic picked up the datapad on the table in front of him and entered his personal credentials. The screen came to life and routed his individual profile to the display. He opened a program to access the naval records database and pulled up the record for Lieutenant Meredessi, scanning for anything of interest.

Qin Meredessi. Graduate of the Imperium Naval Academy with the highest honors, special commendations in digital forensics, linguistics, mathematics, statistics, psychology, and behavioral economy. Renic snorted at the list; Meredessi was a walking computer, an intelligence officer who had probably requested a tutor for the weapons range in order to meet the lowest criteria needed in combat training. He knew the type. All work, no play. 

Out of curiosity, he looked through her qualifications, grimacing. She had also been a competitive university grappler. Renic rolled his eyes; that didn’t mean anything. Anyone could learn to grapple.

He scanned further. Meredessi had been placed on the Terminus shortly after completing her mandatory rotation upon graduation and had not left since. Altogether a model naval officer, if not a dreadfully boring one. She would be swept aside by Gallow’s new republic like all the rest if she chose not to accept her place. Renic tapped the screen and the record disappeared. He brushed any more thoughts about the strange lieutenant from his mind, setting the datapad back onto the table with disinterest as a voice sounded from the door behind him.

“Commander Tau, I see you found your way here. Welcome to OS-9.” 

Drake strode into the room, four separate staff members trailing behind. He pulled out his chair at the head of the table and sat, scanning a datapad and muttering something in hushed tones to one of his aides. Renic smiled pleasantly at the conversation he was obviously not invited to participate in; if this was how their game was going to be, so be it.

Drake was out of his depth. He was an administrator and people-manager with graying hair and a career whose best days were years, if not decades, behind him. Drake might have seniority, but Renic had the secret graces of the most powerful man in the Imperium. If Renic had had the capacity for pity, he would have felt it for Drake and the rest who had no idea what was in store for them. But he didn’t. Feeling sorry for the weaknesses of others was a trait he’d excised from his psyche long ago. Those gathered would fall into line with Gallow’s wishes, or suffer the same fate as Admiral Elliot.

“Everyone, let’s get started,” Drake said. He turned to one of his attendants. “Corporal Prado, any absences?”

“Two. Lieutenant Blake is on a medical stay and Sergeant Rang is having her clearance level reviewed. RCA had not been renewed for Indigo.”

Drake harrumphed. He tapped his datapad a few times, finger thumping against the glass. “There. Renewed. She can be briefed later. Waiting on clearance elevation is a waste of our time.” He gestured to the conference room door. “Okay. Lock it up.”

Prado nodded, tapped a few commands on his datapad, and the doors slid shut, a red light turning on above the doorway. Closed doors were mandatory, but the locking seemed extreme. Drake couldn’t think that this deep in the Terminus there was any risk of unauthorized entry. Besides, the major’s biggest threat had already walked right in, unimpeded.

Drake interlocked his fingers, placing his hands on the table and addressed the attendees. “We are here to talk about Indigo, joined by our collaborator from the surface, Commander Renic Tau. The commander is the newly appointed acting leader of the Navy Special Investigation Division, per Defense Minister Archer and Fleet Marshal Gallow’s Imperium defense edict. Commander Tau has been granted top-level security clearance and full RCA. Please cooperate with whatever requests he and his division may have, within Indigo guidelines. Commander, this is the OS-9 Indigo team.”

Drake nodded at Renic, who then smiled graciously at the attendees in the room, hiding his irritation at Drake’s phrasing; newly appointed, acting leader, per Archer and Gallow, granted clearance. If Drake wanted to undermine Renic’s authority, he would have to try harder than using dismissive wording.

“I appreciate the introduction, Major,” Renic said, bowing his head slightly. “I look forward to a productive collaboration between our groups.”

A thin line that approached a smile—but wasn’t—was Drake’s only response. “Let’s get to current business,” he said, pointing to the agent on his right. “Lieutenant Sykes?”

The lieutenant looked to her datapad and began recounting the details of whatever OS-9 thought they knew about Indigo. Irrelevant and boring. Renic half-listened, nodding when certain points were made, occasionally making eye contact with others in the room to project engagement. OS-9 was making progress, but at nowhere near a rate that should worry him. Gallow was being cautious by placing Renic in a position to interfere, but from the sounds of it, OS-9 had established only a broad set of questions and had little in the way of answers. Perhaps their eventual failure to prevent Gallow’s coup would be cause enough to dissolve their organization along with 5E altogether. Major Tau, singular commander of the Republic’s Navy Intelligence. It had a wonderful ring to it.

The updates continued around the table, each new person droning on about the little details of whatever pointless avenue they were pursuing. Drake nodded as the final update was presented. He muttered something inaudible to Corporal Prado, who nodded vigorously as he entered something into his datapad. Drake turned his attention back to the room and gestured an open hand toward Renic.

“Thank you all for your updates. I know it may feel like Indigo is moving slowly, but progress is occurring. This is a multi-departmental effort, and moving with caution is of the utmost importance. With that, our guest today has an update of his own from the Naval Special Investigation Division’s operation. I turn the room over to you, Commander.”

Renic bowed his head. “Thank you, Major. And thank you, everyone, for your updates and continued focus into this investigation.” Renic carefully shifted his expression to one of determined remorse, letting a small sigh escape his lungs. “I come today with new intelligence I take no pleasure in sharing. It involves one of our own, an Imperium intelligence officer.”

Heads around the table turned to their neighbor, accompanied by raised eyebrows and whispers of confusion. Even Drake’s brow was slightly furrowed. Just the response Renic was looking for. If Drake had presumed Indigo was going slowly, the major was about to receive a surge of unexpected acceleration.

Renic tapped something on his datapad. The vidscreens embedded in the walls all came to life, each showing the same thing—a 5E agent’s personnel file. Not the one accessible to normal clearance levels, but the one Renic had requested through proper channels after his spat with Director Clarke.

The displays on the wall all showed Samantha’s official government photo, full name, her previously undisclosed government classification, and chain of command. Seeing her face on the screens triggered an unexpected twinge in Renic’s chest. Saying that he felt no pleasure in this was not a lie; of everything he’d done in service to Gallow, this was one of the most regrettable actions he’d taken. But Samantha had done it to herself. If she, Clarke, and Julian wanted to play this game, Renic had no choice but to join. And he would win. Far too much was at stake to allow those three to interfere.

“Shortly before the attack on Starview Station, a 5E operative with elevated clearance and compartmentalized access to several Red Kestrel operations ceased contact with her agency and dropped off the grid.” Renic turned and looked at the vidscreen over his shoulder, pointing to the face repeated on each screen. “Agent Samantha Mori was last seen on Kestris two days before the attack on Starview Station. According to agency guidelines, her status was changed to section-42—absent without leave, whereabouts unknown—the morning of the attack when every attempt to establish contact with her failed. While she is presently flagged as a person of interest in a 5E internal affairs investigation, no announcement or distribution of this information was made. I believe this was an error in judgement on the part of 5E.

“Agent Mori has advanced training and experience in all manner of clandestine activities, including deep-cover espionage, with special attention on Fringe counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism. While Agent Mori has closed countless missions successfully, she has a history of increasing mental instability, and a tendency toward erratic behavior including,” Renic sighed, “pursuing interests outside of those mandated by her agency. I believe Agent Mori may be acting against the interests of her government and may be in collusion with the Red Kestrels in a yet-to-be determined capacity.”

There was a low murmur in the room, exactly like Renic had wanted. The Indigo investigation was looking for suspects. Now, they had a credible path to pursue. Putting the focus on Agent Mori would keep them off of Renic. Samantha had just the right skills, resources, connections, and psychiatric history to provoke any half-capable OS-9 analyst’s suspicion. Renic just had to be sure that when the time came, he got to her before they could. She could still be turned, especially when she realized what Renic could offer her in the new republic.

“Commander, I have not been briefed on this. Why was it not sent to my office per interdepartmental guidelines?” Drake said, contempt coloring his voice. “What reason do you have to suspect that this agent’s activities are directly linked to Indigo?”

Renic put on a frown at Drake’s reaction. “This is a development so recent, I have not had the chance to properly distribute it to the appropriate partners.” Renic tapped his datapad and waved it in a short arc in front of him. “According to classified agency documents I have obtained and shared with you all just now, the last mission Agent Mori conducted involved a Red Kestrel collaborator on the Fringe planet of Senali, one suspected to be involved with the hijacking and disappearance of the Dauntless—a criminal technologist named Eddie Renner.”

Samantha’s photo and information shrunk and slid to the side, allowing space for Eddie Renner’s photo, along with his name, known aliases, suspected crimes, and current whereabouts marked as ‘unknown.’ Renic met the eyes of everyone in his rapt audience before continuing.

“Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we have been unable to locate Renner. But, I am confident we will find him in time. Agent Mori was in contact with Renner on Senali only days before the attack on Starview. However, details of this mission and its outcome are unavailable. There is no evidence of information tampering, but the depth of omission and absence of a detailed record we know occurred leads me to believe there has been. It’s too clean. Indigo is looking for insider conspirators, and I believe we may be on the trail of not one, but many.”

Drake scoffed audibly and shook his head at the comment. “Commander Tau, this conjecture, while compelling on the surface, is still that. This link is tenuous at best, recklessly speculative at worst. Classified records are tightly controlled by their very nature. This is not unusual, only inconvenient.” 

Renic pressed his lips together and nodded as if he felt sorry for Drake’s clear lack of understanding and imagination. “I understand your hesitancy, Major, and share it. I spent many years in 5E, and a mission report that omits known facts means it was intentionally scrubbed, another act which there would be no record of, for obvious reasons. Therefore, in the interest of expediency and Imperium security, I exercised the authority granted to me by the Naval Special Investigation Division’s charter to widen my exploratory purview.”

Renic tapped his datapad and Eddie Renner’s photo and information shrunk and slid next to Samantha’s. The remainder of the screen was now filled with a new record.

“As a part of my division’s independent case on this matter, two days ago Agent Mori’s longtime controller and operational technologist, Agent Julian Siddig, was identified by one of my operatives under suspicion of aiding and abetting Agent Mori in her disappearance and its subsequent cover-up. I believe Agent Siddig is responsible for doctoring government records as well as intentionally obstructing investigation routes directly connected to Indigo.”

Drake grunted, looking up at Julian’s personnel photo. “Commander, can you inform the group of what exactly you’re accusing Agents Mori and Siddig of doing and how it is connected here? I have faith in 5E’s ability to investigate and pursue any areas of concern on their own. But, once again, link this to Indigo and the Terminus or we will need to move on to relevant matters. I must remind you, Indigo is not a free-for-all. Your suspicions of Mori and Siddig, while interesting, are better directed toward their own agency’s internal affairs unless you can tell me when either of these two would have had access to the Terminus.”

Renic met Drake’s glare with one of his own. Fine; Renic wasn’t finished anyway.

“Major, Indigo is centered on an information and security breach that led to the hijacking of the Dauntless and the presumably related attack on Starview Station. If the Red Kestrels have a source in the Imperium, Mori and Siddig have plenty of connection to the terrorist group to be that source. While neither has ever been recorded aboard the Terminus, it is foolish to presume that they would need to be.” Renic placed a hand flat on the table, emphasizing his next words. “But the critical matter is how the Red Kestrels received this information, not how it was obtained. These two are the link between your compromise and the Red Kestrels.”

A soft murmur arose in the conference room. Several of the faces seemed to be moderately convinced. Renic would have been, had he not already known it was fabricated. 

Lieutenant Yadav spoke up from the far end of the table.  “Commander Tau, this is an interesting accusation, and the Dauntless disappearance is the key to all of this, but I must agree with the major. Indigo is charged with finding leaks on the Terminus. Has their chain of command in 5E been notified and involved?”

Renic frowned, hesitating with a carefully calculated pause of pained disappointment. After all, this was his former employer he was talking about. He must look at least a little sad and surprised.

“Unfortunately, the commanding supervisor of both Mori and Siddig is not above suspicion himself. Director Elias Clarke was uncooperative with my requests for information and access to Agent Siddig, as well as denying me information about the operation on Senali.” Renic tapped his fingertips lightly on the table’s surface. “While a director in the Office of Information Security has the necessary protections to prevent immediate apprehension, I was forced to leverage my division’s investigative prerogative and detain Agent Siddig before he could cause further damage to this operation.”

Drake turned in his chair toward Renic. The fact that he was hearing all of this for the first time filled Renic with delight. This was Renic’s meeting now. All eyes were on him, including Drake’s.

“Commander, where is Agent Siddig presently?” Drake said, voice hovering just below that of a demand.

Renic shrugged. “Siddig is in custody in the secure holding facility within the division headquarters beneath the capitol. Unfortunately, he was resistant during his arrest and needed some time to… cool down.”

Drake brought up his datapad, swiping his finger across its surface. Whatever he was looking for, he would not find it. “Has Agent Siddig been charged or evidence presented? I’m not seeing anything on his file or within any project dossier.”

“At this time, Agent Siddig has not been charged and is awaiting questioning and a threat assessment. Pursuant to the edicts granted to my division by the fleet marshal and defense minister, anyone suspected of treason may be detained as a precautionary measure.” Renic pulled on the cuffs of his uniform. “This is a time of crisis,  Major. Best to be proactive.”

Drake looked around the room. He tapped the surface of the table. “I want to have access to this Agent Siddig. Immediately.”

Renic leaned forward and shook his head. “I’m afraid I must restrict all access to–”

“Commander, I appreciate your caution around this matter, but part of the Defense Minister and Fleet Marshal’s orders were complete transparency and cooperation between groups. There will be no problem with letting a select few of my staff speak with Siddig. As you recommended, we must be proactive.”

Renic scoffed quietly. “Fine.”

“Good.” Drake turned to his attendant. “Corporal Prado, send a request for surface transport to hangar nine and have them prep for departure in one hour.”

Renic remained quiet. Everyone in the room had their attention fixed on the two men. Drake had cornered Renic on this one; the major’s insistence was in line with Gallow’s orders. And, Julian was up to something, Renic just didn’t know what. There was little chance that Julian would incriminate himself if the OS-9 agents spoke to him, his only option was to deny everything and remain silent. Besides, he certainly had no friends among OS-9. Better to let the major have this one in the name of cooperation, lest Gallow get word of Renic’s lack of compliance.

Renic smiled, raising his hands in mock surrender. “Of course, Major. Forgive my reaction. I merely wish to protect the Imperium’s interests and limit access to only the most relevant of parties.” He turned to the rest of the room. “I am happy to host guests from OS-9.”

“Good,” Drake said, patting his hand on the table. He looked to his gathered team around the table. “If there is a link between this section-42, Agent Siddig, and Indigo, I want to know. And if there isn’t, I want to know that even sooner.”

A hand was raised at the end of the table, and everyone’s attention shifted. “Lieutenant Meredessi?”

“Sir, may I clarify some details with Commander Tau?”

Drake looked to Renic and raised his eyebrows.

Renic shrugged, ignoring the twitch in his gut. “Please.”

“Thank you, Commander. I can see here,” she tipped her datapad forward, “that you are correct in your summary of Agent Mori’s status, but as the status was silently updated with no notification, can you share how Agent Mori’s disappearance and involvement in the redacted Senali mission came to your attention?”

It was an obvious question that Renic had made sure he was prepared to answer. “Yes, Lieutenant Meredessi. Agent Mori was a long-time colleague of mine during my tenure at 5E. A friend, really. I have long been familiar with her work on the Red Kestrels, and when the earliest reports from Starview pointed to them as the perpetrators, out of concern I attempted to contact Samantha—excuse me—Agent Mori.” Renic broke his gaze with Meredessi, letting his eyes stare through the surface of the table. “That is when I discovered all of her Imperium access and records had been locked and her status changed to section-42. You can imagine my surprise. It was… sad, but not altogether surprising.”

“Yes, I see,” Meredessi said, her eyes twitching like they had the first time Renic encountered her, like he was being scanned. The same odd feeling of apprehension tensed his neck. 

The lieutenant continued. “You mentioned that she had been in contact with the man called Eddie Renner during a mission on Senali. I have accessed the 5E records you mentioned regarding that mission,” Meredessi held up her datapad—had she actually accessed the record during the meeting?—“and there is no mention of Renner or Mori in it. In fact, there are no details other than the confirmation that there was an operation on Senali around the time you mention. Furthermore, no Imperium Records on Eddie Renner include any mention of the Dauntless, and the last update to Renner’s file was one year, two months, seven days ago.” Meredessi’s head tilted quizzically. “Where are you sourcing your information?”

The room all focused on Renic. It was deathly quiet. Too quiet. Renic’s mouth twitched. He raced through everything he had said and everything he knew. His sources were Reed Casto, Eddie Renner, and himself, three people involved with both the Dauntless and Starview Station he could in no way reveal. These desk jockeys were supposed to be glad Renic was serving them a promising lead, not scrutinizing every word he said. He was not the one under investigation here.

This Lieutenant Meredessi was sharp, and sharp was dangerous. Renic may be required to keep up the facade of congeniality with  Drake, but a rookie lieutenant with no field experience deserved none of the same false-respect.

“Lieutenant, I have a long history in Imperium intelligence and the ways by which we come about our information are varied and often not as clear-cut as you might be used to. The network of informants, off-the-books contacts, and flipped assets used is vast, full of far too much nuance and detail for this conversation.” Renic held out his hand to dismiss her. “Rest assured, my information is reliable and your team here will get a chance to speak to Siddig to verify all of this as the situation develops.”

“Of course,” the lieutenant said, pausing as her eyes once again scanned Renic back and forth before lowering, “I mean no disrespect, sir. I simply wish to obtain as complete a picture as I can.”

Renic waved off the comment with a congenial smile. “I would expect as much. We are all on the same team.”

The tension in the room eased, multiple heads nodding in agreement. Drake gave Renic a sidelong glance. The man didn’t trust him, and this performance had not helped. The point of polluting Indigo with the suspicion of Samantha and Julian was to introduce a promising, but ultimately misleading, distraction into OS-9, not invite scrutiny onto Renic and his methods. Lieutenant Meredessi’s zeal would need to be dealt with, along with anyone else who got too close.

Major Drake grunted, pointing across the room. “Very good. Lieutenant Meredessi, Lieutenant Yadav, you’ll be heading to the surface to speak with Agent Siddig. If this matter is unrelated to Indigo, I do not want any of us spending any more time on it. The safety of the Imperium is at stake.”

Renic smiled and nodded in agreement. Drake had no idea how right he was. And how wrong.

“And Commander Tau,” Drake added nonchalantly, “due to your personal history with both Mori and Siddig, I need to request my agents be allowed to conduct their interview alone. We can’t have any bias in the room.”

Renic’s head snapped to Drake. “Absolutely not. The integrity of my investigation with–”

“Come now, there’s no risk of my officers compromising the integrity of your investigation by having a conversation, is there? As you said, we are all on the same team.”

Renic did not bother painting a smile on his face this time. Instead, he burned a hole in Drake with his stare. Without a word, he pulled down the front of his uniform to smooth out any wrinkles.

“Your agents can have thirty minutes. After that, they are out.” Renic shot a glare down the table towards Lieutenants Yadav and Meredessi. If Drake wanted to annoy Renic, fine. He could have this small battle; it meant nothing to the larger war.

“Excellent. I suppose we can adjourn,” Drake said.

Renic stood before anyone else. He walked to the door. It did not open. He turned his head slightly towards Drake. The major nodded to Corporal Prado and the red light above the door darkened. The door slid open and Renic stepped out, stalking back to the checkpoint where Kogan was still waiting.

Renic’s first meeting with OS-9 had won him no friends. Not that he needed any. This was a time for action, not meaningless collaboration. Let them have Julian. Renic had his eye set on two forthcoming victories. One for the fleet marshal, and one for himself. Eddie Renner had given him enough information to capture two prizes at once. Both the Dauntless and Samantha would soon be in his hands.

Drake could have Julian. Besides, how much damage could these two oblivious lieutenants do?

Qin took a slow breath, straightened her shoulders, fixed her expression, and confidently walked through the door to Major Drake’s office. There had been no indication why the major had requested this conversation. It had simply appeared on her comm shortly after the staff meeting. She and Lieutenant Yadav were due to take a shuttle to the surface of Kestris in less than an hour; whatever the major wanted, he wanted it before she left.

Major Drake was seated behind his desk, his eyes fixed on the computer screen in front of him. Qin stopped just short of the polished black surface, hands clasped behind her back.

“Major, you wished to speak with me?” Qin said.

Drake looked at his computer screen for a moment more, then turned it away and extended a hand towards one of the guest seats in front of the desk. Qin bowed her head and sat, her back straight, body just on the seat’s edge.

“Lieutenant, I’m giving you an assignment, an assignment just between you and me,” Drake said, voice unusually casual.

Qin tilted her head, confusion genuine. “Sir?”

Drake smiled. “Qin, I don’t believe you’ve ever been assigned to any black operations during your time with OS-9.”

Qin felt her face flush, an involuntary reaction. No matter, she must keep up her persona. “No, sir, I have not. Most of my work is upfront and quite observable.” Qin smiled, using her surge of panic to simulate embarrassment. “I am not much of a covert operator.”

“Well, I’ll be the first to welcome you to the club.” Drake exhaled—contemplation, introspection—and pointed to a framed photo of a warship that hung on the wall next to his desk. “See that ship? That’s the Outrider. Nothing compared to what we have today. It was all metal, nothing but blocky utility and exposed conduits, built by the lowest bidder the infant empire could afford. But it was a stout ship. Reliable. I served aboard it for two years. Saw my first real battle while stationed on it out on the edge of the Gulf. We ran into a pair of Sellacan frigates.” Drake held up a hand as if he expected Qin to interrupt. “Mind you, this was before the war had started. Probably before you were born. We had a ‘only fire if fired upon’ mandate. The Outrider outmatched a single Sellacan frigate, but two on one… those weren’t the kind of odds you wanted to face as far outside the empire as we were.”

Qin nodded. The major was building rapport with her, an intriguing way to introduce whatever his real topic was. Qin smiled politely and Drake continued.

“I was a recruit, working an ops console. Boring stuff, but it was on the bridge, so I was just happy to be there. Those Sellacan ships ordered us to stand down, claiming we’d made a hostile incursion into their space. We knew it was meant to provoke us—they wanted a fight. Their ships opened fire, and we fired back. But one of those frigates had a beam cannon. We didn’t have the sensors like we do today to register the energy surge. It carved a canyon along the Outrider’s hull, overloaded the entire system backbone. Our ship had nowhere to divert the beam’s energy. The bridge lost power for a moment, and the only light was from showers of sparks and fires from ruptured conduits.”

Drake looked to the image of the Outrider—wistfulness, regret. Qin adjusted her analysis; Drake wasn’t so much building rapport with her as he was with something in his own memory. He turned back to her, seeming to refocus.

“Then emergency power came on. Several of the bridge crew had been burned or hit with shrapnel. Every alarm was sounding, the ones that hadn’t been blown out, at least. The captain, Captain Katherine Traynor, was dead. So was the X-O. I didn’t know what to do, didn’t seem like anyone did.” 

Drake smiled, a subtle laugh under his breath. “But then… one of the lieutenants stepped forward. He was a new transfer from a few weeks earlier. He’d been in a number of scraps throughout the sector and had far more bridge experience than me. Without hesitating, he took command of the bridge, gave orders, and something in his voice made everyone listen. He knew how to fight when the options were win or die. Told us to put all power into weapons, taking it from propulsion, hull polarizers, even life support. Either we would push the Sellacans back with whatever air was left on the bridge, or die after the next shot from that beam either way.

“Well, we focused on the frigate with the cannon, hitting it with everything we had. Saw the whole thing light up and discharge back into the ship, glowed like a miniature sun. The second frigate knew that without the cannon evening the odds, the Outrider could still take it out even damaged as it was. They were looking for an easy win, and that lieutenant who’d taken over was not going to give it to them. So they retreated. The Outrider served for another decade before being decommissioned, and that lieutenant who took control of the bridge was given a medal, though you’d never hear it from him. We ended up staying with the ship for another year together, into the war itself.”

Drake paused, giving the warship’s photo a final glance before returning his gaze to Qin. “The lieutenant who took over was Elias Clarke.” Drake leaned back in his chair, narrowing his eyes at Qin. “Lieutenant, why am I telling you this?”

The question caught Qin off guard. Her thinking stopped for a moment—an unfamiliar feeling. She blinked rapidly. “Ah, sir?”

Drake smiled, eyes still narrowed. “I am familiar with your talent, Lieutenant. Tell me your read.”

Qin opened her mouth to talk, but paused. It felt like a test, but of what? Try as she may, Qin could not determine why Drake would want her reaction other than that he genuinely wanted to know. No ulterior motive. Just her authentic response. If that was the case, then she would give him a raw, unfiltered view.

“Yes, sir. You wanted me to hear a personal anecdote about your experience with Director Clarke during a stressful and dangerous time in your life in order to illustrate your trust and respect for him. Your tone did not indicate that it was a cautionary tale, which means you still trust and respect the director, even though you have not spoken with him in quite some time.”

Drake raised his eyebrows. “What gives you that idea?”

Qin took a slow breath. The major wanted her to prove herself as capable of handling what he was asking, and like the Outrider, Qin’s best option at the moment was to hit the major with the overwhelming force of her main weapon.

“Just now, when you looked at the image of the Outrider, you conveyed a nostalgic longing for the past, and your expressions while speaking of the director indicated that you were remembering something from your time then. That tells me that you may not have as many newer memories as you do old. It is reasonable to conclude that he is a friend from your past, but not your present. A falling out, perhaps. One you regret.”

Qin bowed her head and continued. “In addition, when Commander Tau brought up the name Elias Clarke, your face registered recognition, followed by contempt toward the commander. You do not believe Director Clarke to be guilty of transgressions against the Imperium, and therefore will not take Commander Tau at his word and jump to conclusions about those in Director Clarke’s command. Is this correct, sir?” Qin had phrased it like a question, but she knew she was correct. She always was.

Drake grunted, then scoffed. “Correct enough. Go on.”

“Sir?”

“I asked why I told you that story, which you answered remarkably well. Now that you understand my motives, what do you think I’m going to ask you to do next?”

Qin thought for a moment, letting her mind quickly assemble the information into a form she could analyze. “You want to hear my reading on Commander Tau, and you want me to pay special attention to him and his operation while Lieutenant Yadav and I visit Agent Siddig. You would like me to focus my investigative interests on Commander Tau, using Agent Siddig as a diversion.”

Drake smiled, a tired smile. “Well done. Now tell me, what did you get from the commander?”

Qin hesitated. She was now working for Clarke and Drake on the same goal. Were they collaborating? Or had Commander Tau inadvertently garnered the attention of two separate intelligence leaders in parallel?

“Well, Major, the commander is hiding a great deal. Which is to be expected. That is the nature of all our roles. But when presented with the wholly reasonable request of more information, he presumed his position would preclude him from having to offer an explanation. He does not have experience with the level of accountability and scrutiny a naval commander should, and I do not believe his explanation about where he came upon his information about Agents Mori and Siddig. I cannot say what he is lying about, only that he is. He uses the fleet marshal’s support as a means to intimidate others, but also resents that he has to rely on it. In essence, Commander Tau appears to be an extremely effective and capable field agent promoted to a position outside of his experiential base, and his methods do not transfer as well as he presumes.”

Drake hummed, tipping his chin upward. “All that from a single encounter.”

Qin smiled. Double-agent, triple-agent, or whatever she was now, she took pride in her work. “People broadcast their intentions with every action. What someone says is usually the least reliable. Watching how someone moves, how they react, what they choose to say and what they choose to omit all paints a picture. Very few people can conceal when their behaviors do not match their motives, even if those motives remain opaque. Why I can see it so plainly when others do not,” Qin shrugged, “I do not have an answer. I stopped questioning that long ago.”

Drake chuckled. “Well, Lieutenant, can you do this for me?”

Qin bowed her head. “Of course, sir. I will regard Commander Tau as a person of interest and observe him in that context.”

“Good. Keep it all off record. No datapads, no paper pads, nothing. I trust you don’t forget things?”

Qin kept her head bowed. “I do not, sir.”

“Excellent. You’re doing a good thing, Lieutenant. We’re going to find the compromise on this ship and we’re going to stop it.”

Qin forced herself not to gulp. She was a compromise on the Terminus, but for now, not the compromise Drake was concerned with. “Yes. Indeed we will, sir.”