Episode 32: Now is the time to cooperate

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Julian finds himself somewhere unfamiliar, awaiting whatever Renic had in store for him. Who is going to be coming through those doors?

In. Hold. Out. Hold… hold. Repeat.

Julian completed another breathing cycle. He was nearing ten-thousand of them now; he had lost exact count somewhere past eight-thousand. This meant he had been in the cell for almost a day and a half. 

Julian’s body ached from the stun and the subsequent full-body drop to his office’s floor. Renic and his goons had not seemed concerned with his well-being when transporting him here, either—wherever here was. Julian assumed it was wherever Renic’s new division operated. He was still on Kestris, at least. That was good; Clarke should have grown concerned after a day of Julian’s absence. Thankfully, due to Renic’s outburst, the Naval Special Investigation Division would be the first place Clarke would look. Julian was still alive. Although the cell Renic had arranged for him to endure this imprisonment was doing its best to make him question just what “alive” meant.

In. Hold. Out. Hold… hold. Repeat.

The cell was not a cell in the typical understanding. There were no bars, no energy fields, no flimsy cot with a tissue-thin mattress, and no rusted metal sinks bolted to crumbling brick walls. In fact, there was nothing in the cell at all, or at least that was what it was designed to make you think, as it slowly broke down the captive’s mental stability. This was not a place where one was put because a captor wanted to forget about them. No, this was a place where one was put when a captor wanted to break their prisoner down because they intended to return once the room had done its job.

In. Hold. Out. Hold… hold. Repeat.

Every surface was white. The walls, the ceiling, the floor, the rectangular bench Julian presumed he was sitting on because he could feel the corner his knees were bent over. Everything in the cell was made from the same material—a photonic polymer that, when energized, emitted an uniform white light that removed all shadows, all sense of depth, any notion of space and presence. The lighting was set to oscillate at a frequency that made everything appear to buzz, the luminosity changing so subtly and so rapidly that the conscious mind could barely notice. But it wasn’t meant for the conscious mind.

In. Hold. Out. Hold… hold. Repeat.

It was neurologically impossible to relax. If he tried to close his eyes or block the light with his arm, that’s when the cell’s other sensory deprivation property became even more maddening. The room was perfectly insulated, completely void of white noise or outside sounds. But it could not block the noises Julian made inside the cell, which were exacerbated by the unnatural silence. Every sound scraped across his ears—the sound of his own breathing, the sound of his pulse, the sound of the fibers of his clothes rubbing together interrupted every thought.

In. Hold. Out. Hold… hold. Repeat.

Julian was familiar with this method of psychologically breaking a captive; torture, really. It was one of the most effective and agonizing ways to break a person’s will without causing physical harm. Extreme isolation and sensory deprivation was something all agents were trained to endure. Renic would know this, although the idea that he would have put Julian here simply to make him suffer was not out of the realm of possibilities. Either way, Julian knew that the cell’s goal was to get him to lose his sense of identity, his connection to the real world as his mind replaced it with an imagined world in a desperate attempt to make sense of the featureless white void.

In. Hold. Out. Hold… hold. Repeat.

Julian grinned. Yes, he could see how Renic would believe that the white, silent torture was something no one could endure for long. The man was incapable of reflection. To Renic, being alone with oneself must seem like torture. His mind would have been bent on nothing but figuring out how to escape, no matter how futile. Julian knew that there was no way to free himself, so he had not bothered fantasizing about escaping into the exterior world, and instead retreated into an interior one.

In. Hold. Out. Hold… hold. Repeat.

The mental environment Julian replaced the cell with was a musty, dimly lit library, the inky night sky and its hundreds of pinprick stars visible out the arching window. The cavernous room was filled with bookshelves, carved wood that reached to the ceiling, row after row of leather-bound volumes lined up with their uneven spines, a square-wave pattern that jutted in and out, up and down. Julian had begun arranging the books not by author, and not by topic, but by publishing date, the oldest of the books starting on the far left of the top shelf of an empty bookcase he had summoned into being.

When he had first entered the cell, the bookshelves had been empty. He had started with the oldest book he owned, a hand-written tome made of thin strips of wood bound together with a primitive silk. Carbon-dating had put its publishing—if you could call it publishing—at nearly four-thousand years old. Of course, outside of this imagined library, the book was in a hard-vacuum display case, having never been touched by Julian’s hands. It was—quite literally—irreplaceable. But here in the imagined library, well, here he could allow himself to imagine what it felt like. The grain against his fingers, the smell it must have, the sound it must make when cracked open.

In. Hold. Out. Hold… hold. Repeat.

Each movement he imagined in real time. If sorting through the cart of uncategorized books looking for the next-newest volume took ten minutes, he would imagine himself sorting through them for—what he hoped was—ten minutes. Each breathing cycle took approximately eight seconds. It wasn’t a perfect clock, but precision was a worry far below his current set of concerns. So Julian breathed and sorted. Climbing the ladder, which took four cycles—about thirty seconds. Climbing back down, about three cycles. Row after row of the shelves grew as Julian sorted the stacks on the carts below. 

Some volumes required a little thinking; was this published two-hundred years ago, or two-hundred and five? These were the most enjoyable. It meant he could take a few extra minutes to piece together what he knew about the author, how it would have related to the other volumes in the same time period. And, if he got it wrong, that meant he could burn a few more breathing cycles climbing back up the ladder.

In. Hold. Out. Hold… hold. Repeat.

Julian snuck a sigh between breaths. No, Renic would not be able to break him. Not with this method, anyway. Julian would collapse from exhaustion or thirst before the cell penetrated the walls of his own mental refuge. But Renic would not let him reach that state; he wanted something out of Julian—Samantha’s location—and when he assumed Julian’s mind had been softened enough, he would be back. Renic may be able to far more invasive methods to eventually extract Julian’s knowledge about the duplicated Terminus key and what he had done with Eddie Renner’s data taken off Senali, but as to what Agent Mori was up to, that was kept—as Director Clarke had ordered—well compartmentalized. Samantha was safe, which was more than Julian could say about himself.

In. Hold. Out—

The lights in the cell dimmed as the brilliant polymer surfaces de-energized. 

Julian opened his eyes. The floor, bench, and walls all faded to the matte white of the polymer’s neutral state; only the ceiling remained lit. Depth returned to Julian’s sight. Corners, angles, distances. Without the brilliant, uniform lighting, everything looked gray as his eyes adjusted. He could see the outline of the door across from him, a thin line that broke up the otherwise featureless surface, allowing his senses to soak in the different visual and audio cues they could find; even the sound deadening appeared to be disabled. 

Julian finished his breathing cycle, resting his hands calmly in his lap and closed his eyes one more time. It appeared that the softening of his mind, and organizing of his books, was over. He placed the final book, a series of plays, on the shelf and froze the mental refuge as it was for the next time he would need it.

Again, Julian opened his eyes. The door to the cell shifted backward an inch and slid open into the wall. The hall outside was dark to his light-bleached retinas, but he could hear a murmur of voices, at least three. Shapes of bodies materialized in the darkness; the figures were smaller than Renic, and none of them had his imposing stature. He could see two, one taller and one shorter, but the third was out of view.

Julian’s curiosity overtook his worry. It was hard to imagine Renic allowing anyone to enter before he had had a chance to question, or torture, Julian himself. It was not Director Clarke; if he were to be having a conversation just outside of earshot, it would certainly not have been of the hushed and restrained variety. Then who? The image of Samantha hurling a guard through the door and bounding in, karambit in hand, to free him played briefly in his mind. He smiled. It couldn’t be her, she definitely would not be having a hushed conversation.

“…thank you. Yes, please,” one of the voices said. Someone else, one of Renic’s subordinates judging by the unadorned uniform, brought in two chairs and placed them near the center of the room, facing Julian on the bench. The operative—that was what Renic called his people—left without a word and two Navy personnel stepped through the door, both wearing the standard white Imperium Navy uniform with all the proper adornment and insignia.

One was medium height with pale brown hair pulled into a bun, the other much shorter with glossy black hair chopped across the eyebrows. Neither wore any visible weapons, and both had the OS-9 pin on their lapel. Navy intelligence? Julian felt a flutter of amusement; this was a twist he had not been expecting. He sat up straight, feet flat on the floor. The two women walked to the center of the room and seated themselves, each giving the cell’s unusual appearance a glance before speaking.

“Julian Siddig, we are with OS-9. I am Lieutenant Esme Yadav, Principal Fleet Security Specialist. This is Lieutenant Qin Meredessi, Principal Fleet Security Analyst. We are here under orders from Major William Drake regarding an ongoing investigation regarding the group known as the Red Kestrels and the events on Starview Station. The major authorized this room to be sealed, all monitoring devices have been deactivated. We are alone.” 

Lieutenant Yadav looked to her partner for a moment before continuing. “Agent Siddig, we know that you’re an intelligence veteran and understand the procedure. Your organization, 5E, and OS-9 have a long history of working together, so we’re not going to treat you like a flipped asset or a hostile bagged on some Fringe street corner. We can get straight to the conversation and treat each other as peers, if you wish to cooperate.”

Julian smiled, nodding to each of the lieutenants. “Ah, yes. I have much respect for OS-9. I was not aware you were working so closely with Commander Tau, though I am happy to see you, and not him, sitting there,” Julian said, glancing up to the uniformly lit ceiling.

Yadav looked to Meredessi, then back to Julian. “Oh? Can you elaborate?”

“Yes. I can.” Julian pointed to the burnt stun marks on his shirt. “See, I am not here legally. I have not been charged or accused of any crime, nor have I been given the opportunity to contact legal counsel. According to the Imperium legal system regarding military organizations detaining civilians, the Navy does not have the right to detain me unless I am an active combatant or dire threat to Imperium security, of which I am neither. However, in the event I were, I would be turned over to Kestris law enforcement, not the Navy.” Julian let his hands fall back into his lap. “You can understand why I would be wary of Renic’s return.”

Yadav turned to Meredessi; the silent lieutenant nodded once. Yadav exhaled audibly through her nose, lips scrunched to the side as she seemed to be evaluating the predicament Renic had placed them in. That answered Julian’s first question about these two; they weren’t aligned with Renic. It also answered his second question; they weren’t field agents. Violent arrests and operational compromises were not a part of their day-to-day desk jobs. If they had been, they would have known that this sort of off-the-record business was standard 5E procedure, not that the agency would have ever admitted to it.

Yadav regained her flat composure and continued. “Yes, well, boundaries have been blurred due to the Starview incident and the defense minister’s insistence on justice. Commander Tau acted… proactively.” Yadav tilted her head. “Even though you have not been charged, do you understand the commander’s interest in you?”

Julian chuckled. “Oh, yes. But, the commander has shared nothing with me regarding the circumstances of my detainment. However, it is not hard to guess at his motivations. I am Agent Mori’s controller—or was—and Renic and her were close. I can understand how he would react so… proactively. I presume that is why you are here as well?”

Yadav’s eyebrows lowered. Interesting; so Renic had used his personal history with Samantha in whatever story he had fabricated for OS-9. A bold and short-sighted move, exactly as one would expect from someone as arrogant as Renic. He must assume it would add an element of authenticity to his tale, when instead it likely only made him appear biased.

Julian shifted his eyes to the other officer, Meredessi. She was staring straight at him, her mouth pulled slightly to the side, obviously deep in concentration. This mouth-twitch was likely a habit she did not realize she had. Add that to her eyes flitting back and forth rapidly, and it was the look of someone quickly working through a problem, like an algorithm working over permutations of data and discarding the bits that didn’t fit and looping back over the ones that did. Yadav may be the one talking, but it was Meredessi who was validating his responses. If Meredessi’s goal was to appear subtle, it was not working.

No matter; fooling a human lie-detector was simple enough. Julian merely had to tell no lies, and as his 5E interrogation training had taught him, the gulf between truth and fact was vast.

Yadav patted the tops of her legs. “Okay, Agent Siddig, if the commander has not explained your detainment, what is your assumption of why you are here then?”

Julian grinned and looked to his feet, glad to be able to speak with unfiltered truth when answering this particular question. “Oh, I am quite certain this is a reaction to my former partner’s sudden section-42. He believes I have something to do with it. See, he has a special interest in Agent Mori. I will make a leap in logic here and presume he would like you to believe I am a Kestrel sympathizer.” Julian looked up and smiled softly. “And, I presume, he is also linking her—and by association, me—to your Kestrel problem regarding the Dauntless’s hijacking and how the Terminus may have been involved.Information that you presume is contained only to OS-9’s knowledge. I can assure you, neither myself nor Agent Mori have anything to do with that.”

Julian watched for a reaction. Yadav and Meredessi looked to each other, subtle head movements conveying silent conversation. Meredessi shook her head. Yadav grimaced. She turned her attention back to Julian.

“I am not aware of any problems on the Terminus, and if there were, we are more than capable of handling them,” Yadav said. It was not a convincing denial; it did not need to be. After all, they were the ones asking the questions here, not Julian. The more he could do to disrupt and pollute whatever story Renic had fed them, the better. Of course, Julian was a co-conspirator, just not in the conspiracy they were asking about. So long as they kept their focus away from Director Clarke, he had no need to deceive them on any particular fact.

Julian shrugged, allowing himself a sad grin. “Perhaps I am mistaken then. And, if that is so, may I ask what you and Lieutenant Meredessi are investigating?”

Yadav’s expression hardened. “Commander Tau has an interest in Agent Mori’s whereabouts, and during an exchange of information between the Naval Special Investigation Division and OS-9, the timing of her disappearance and proximity to the Red Kestrels became a matter we could not overlook. You’re an intelligence veteran, Agent Siddig. You know how bad this looks for her. And for you.”

Julian hummed in agreement. Agent Yadav did have a point, but she seemed to be more concerned with ruling him and Samantha out than ruling them in. A good sign. It seemed while they were technically working with Renic, they did not appear to be on the same side. He must have already poisoned their perception of him.

“I do not deny facts as you have recited them, Lieutenant Yadav. I will state up front that I do not know of Agent Mori’s whereabouts, nor of her current intentions. I was as saddened and angered as anyone else when I received the alert that Starview Station had been infiltrated and attacked by the Red Kestrels, despite their silence thereafter.” Julian turned his attention to Meredessi, the one who was really questioning him. “But, I assure you, Agent Mori was not involved.”

Yadav leaned to the side, trying to catch Julian’s attention. “Agent Siddig, how can you be certain of that?”

Julian nodded, returning his attention to Yadav. She was asking good questions, but she should know that an intelligence officer with Julian’s experience would know how to navigate a tame, exploratory interview like this without giving anything up he did not intend. This meant she was either incompetent—which he doubted—or that the goal was not to extract verbal information, but instead to keep him talking while Lieutenant Meredessi observed for subtle, non-verbal communications.

Julian’s eyes shifted back to Meredessi. She was still watching him with the same intense interest. Time to throw some noise into the signal she was attempting to hone in on.

“Lieutenants, I cannot be certain of that. None of us can, and you both know why. I also cannot be certain that the two of you are not responsible for the intelligence lapse aboard the Terminus—the one you denied earlier—that you suspect facilitated both Kestrel attacks. Perhaps you are here to create a diversion by focusing on me. You each would certainly have access to the Terminus at clearance levels far exceeding any planet-bound 5E agent. Or perhaps, it is the commander who wished to create the diversion. He was recently promoted, yes? Strange for a black-ops assassin with virtually no command or leadership experience to be plucked for such a high-profile position. The type of clearance he must have now…” Julian shrugged. “All I can be certain of is that I am not who you want, and I extend that same certainty to Agent Mori. The level of premeditation needed to fit the profile of your infiltrator, well… it is just not her style. That would require someone far more duplicitous and—do not tell her I said this—charismatic.”

Yadav snorted. She turned to Meredessi. The other lieutenant did not return her gaze, however, and instead continued to stare at Julian. He had managed to overwhelm her systems for a moment. The two OS-9 representatives were following the orders they were given, and Julian was happy to move the conversation where it needed to go; OS-9 needed to find the Terminus compromise, not be dragged into Renic’s personal fixation. 

Finally, Meredessi turned to Yadav and shrugged. Yadav placed her hands on her legs and leaned forward. “Julian, if I may? We are here to rule you out as being involved in any misconduct that led to the Dauntless hijacking and Starview attack. Outside of those things, we are not interested in you or Agent Mori, regardless of any other alleged crimes which can be handled by your agency’s internal affairs or Kestris legal authorities. Please, give us something that will let us resume our focus on things that matter.”

It was an interesting proposal. Revealing Director Clarke’s plan would definitely give OS-9 ample amounts of evidence to rule out both Samantha and Julian, but while they—Clarke included—were working for the greater good of the Imperium, they were all still guilty of high treason. Julian could not come over to OS-9’s side of the table, no. But, if he could persuade them to come over to his…

Julian smiled, a genuine smile. “I want nothing more than to help. I can understand the pressure on you. In fact, I felt the same when my own organization, a non-military one, was unable to prevent the intelligence lapse that led to the disappearance of the Dauntless by the Red Kestrels, who we were chiefly responsible for monitoring at the time.” Julian’s expression softened; Yadav and Meredessi were not his enemies, but he needed to keep pushing them off balance and it was time for an abrupt shove. “I imagine you feel similarly regarding the Terminus insider who you suspect is providing key advantages to the Red Kestrels from within your ship, an unthinkable feat occurring on your watch.”

Yadav’s face did not move. Julian looked to Lieutenant Meredessi. She was still watching him, but her expression had shifted away from scrutiny. Puzzlement was the closest to it, but not quite. This answered Julian’s third, biggest question; they were aware of the intelligence compromise and collaboration with the Kestrels as the precursor to the Dauntless and Starview incidents.

Yadav sat upright, exhaling slowly. “Agent Siddig, if you have information you wish to share, we can have you safely transported to the Terminus to speak with Major Drake himself. As a guest, not sitting in a cell.” Yadav’s eyes narrowed and her voice lowered. “We both know that the person we shouldn’t trust is the one who brought you here and will be coming through that door as soon as our thirty minutes is up. If you want out of here, now is the time to cooperate.”

Yadav sounded sincere. Julian quickly sorted his options. Wait for Renic to return—not his first choice—or go with Yadav and Meredessi and take his chances with Major Drake. The memory of Renic’s stun charge made him shudder involuntarily. Julian’s mind may be well trained, but his body still reacted like anyone else’s. He sighed; it looked like he would be heading into orbit.

Before Julian could speak, the door to the room slid open and two armed men rushed inside, taking up defensive postures near the door, followed by another figure in a state of rage.

“Agent Siddig, stand up. We’re leaving,” Clarke ordered. The two OS-9 lieutenants turned just in time to see Clarke’s finger pointing aggressively in their direction. “This is over.”

Clarke stood in front of the two armed 5E agents with their short-barreled bolt rifles held tightly at their waists. 

Yadav glared at the guards, rising from her seat to face Clarke. “Excuse me, what is the meaning of this? We are here on orders from Major William Drake on a classified, top-priority–”

“I said this is over,” Clarke barked, eyes burning through the lieutenant. He took a step towards Yadav, who involuntarily took a half-step back.

Yadav’s eyes flitted to the guards Clarke had brought. “Like I said, we are here on Major Drake’s orders to speak to Agent Siddig on an ongoing investigation and…”

Clarke sneered and walked past Yadav. “Julian, are you okay? Can you walk out of here?”

Julian took a deep breath, wasting no time in standing. “I have been in better physical shape, but I would be delighted to walk out of here before my host comes back.”

“Good. Let’s go,” Clarke said, glaring at Yadav. Julian had never seen him so expressive, even if the singular emotion was anger.

Yadav seemed to have found a reserve of courage as she stepped in front of Julian. “I am Lieutenant Esme Yadav, OS-9 Principal Fleet Security Specialist. I must insist you identify yourself. Need I remind you that you are on Navy property? We are working under orders from Fleet Marshal Gallow’s office directly. This… show of force is quite unnecessary and inappropriate.”

Clarke’s eyes narrowed at the lieutenant. “You don’t know Tau. I should have brought ten more guards with me” he growled.

Julian took the opportunity to sidestep his way behind Clarke, smiling politely as he sidled past. While there may be more to learn about OS-9’s purpose here, he’d rather do that from a secured location.

Lieutenant Meredessi finally rose from her chair and turned to face Clarke, placing a hand on Yadav’s arm. She did not seem rattled by Clarke’s intrusion.

“Lieutenant, there is no need for any antagonism here. This is Director Elias Clarke, Agent Siddig and Mori’s supervising officer. The director only wishes to release Agent Siddig from this unlawful detainment.”

Clarke’s head turned sharply towards Lieutenant Meredessi. Until now, she had remained seated and facing away. When Clarke saw her, a flash of recognition crossed his face, quickly stamped out, but not before Julian had the chance to catch it. Clarke’s eyes narrowed; something had changed, but Julian didn’t know what.

“I am Lieutenant Qin Meredessi, OS-9 Principal Fleet Security Analyst. As Lieutenant Yadav stated, we are here under the express orders of Major Drake to speak with Agent Siddig regarding an ongoing naval investigation. We were not aware of the illegal nature of this detainment until Agent Siddig informed us. Director Clarke, you are familiar with the major, yes?”

Clarke hesitated a moment. Much of the anger had faded from his face, leaving only a stern, calculating stare. “I am familiar with the major, yes.”

Meredessi bowed her head. “Excellent. The major sent us here to rule out Agent Siddig of wrongdoing in our investigation. I am not authorized to release any further information, but I can assure you we had no part in his arrest and detainment and have no accusations or charges against him. He is released. Should you need more information, I would recommend you speak to the major directly,” Meredessi said, tipping her head. 

Clarke let his eyes linger on Lieutenant Meredessi for a moment before turning to Julian. “No more talking. This entire conversation is illegal and I will see that everything said is stricken from all records.” He turned to the two 5E commandos at the door. “Stick to Agent Siddig. He is not to leave your sight until we’ve secured him outside of Navy jurisdictions.” He turned back to the two lieutenants. “The major will be hearing from me.”

Julian started toward the door, but turned and took a step towards Yadav and Meredessi, leaning close and whispering. “If you want to talk about the issue with your ship, let me know. I believe I can be of some assistance.”

Yadav maintained eye contact, but did not otherwise acknowledge his statement. Julian shrugged and followed the group out of the room. Standing by an elevator at the end of the hall was a single member of Renic’s staff, a young woman in one of the unmarked blue uniforms. Julian recognized her; it was former 5E Agent Tess Millinson, a recent 5E recruit who had been lured away by the hefty promotion offered by Renic’s new division.

Clarke leaned toward Millinson as he passed, voice just soft enough for Julian to hear. “He’s not going to be happy with you. Take measures to protect yourself.”

“Director, I was complying with all Imperium guidelines regarding our organization’s collaboration. Commander Tau can lodge his complaints with the fleet marshal if he does not want his operatives to obey navy rules and regulations,” Millinson said, voice conspicuously stable.

Clarke gave Millinson a single nod; Julian gave her a look of gratitude. As they entered the elevator to freedom, Julian could see the silhouettes of the two OS-9 lieutenants exiting the cell. He stole a glance at Clarke; the director’s eyes were fixed on them.

Renic glanced down at his comm. He smirked; Clarke had taken longer than expected. The old man must be overwhelmed with his agency’s failure to make any meaningful progress after Starview Station. Hopefully, he had received the message—Renic could still hurt him should he interfere. Clarke cared about his agent’s well-being, and that meant he’d expose himself in order to protect them. The better strategy would have been for Clarke to leave Julian to the fate of the cell’s white void. But now, Renic had them both on the defensive, and OS-9 was another factor Clarke would have to deal with. It was just the kind of diversion Renic needed for a few more days.

The doors to the fleet marshal’s private office on the Terminus slid open, a pair of honor guard stepping through with Gallow himself only a few steps behind. After Renic had exited Major Drake’s Indigo staff meeting, it had taken him a few creatively embellished tales of urgency to learn Gallow’s schedule from his aides. When he finally did, he was told the time it took the fleet marshal to walk from his offices to his private elevator that led directly to the Terminus’s bridge was all the time he would have, otherwise the fleet marshal was booked solid. Renic could not risk Gallow refusing him an audience. His only choice was to ambush the fleet marshal and make it look like, due to Drake’s staff meeting, Renic was just in the neighborhood and was happy to sneak into the only gap of time available.

 Gallow did not slow his pace, causing Renic to double-time to keep up with the taller man. “Make it fast, Commander.” 

“Yes, sir. I have an actionable lead regarding the Dauntless. I believe I can retrieve the information we need as well as cauterize an open end on Senali.” Renic eyed the honor guard; he presumed that anything he could say to Gallow he could say in front of them, though he strongly wished for a private audience.

Gallow cast a sidelong glance at Renic, the corner of his mouth curling. “Senali? The Fringe? Commander, you are required on Kestris. Any threat the Red Kestrels pose will soon be made irrelevant. Your chance to produce the Dauntless has passed.”

Renic suppressed his scoff of disgust. Instead, he nodded in acknowledgement, buying himself a precious second to prepare his rebuttal. He had to get to Senali. That was where Samantha must be going next. Eddie Renner had divulged enough that Renic was all but certain that Kat Basara was Samantha’s next target. He had to get there.

“Understood, but my ship can make it from Kestris to Senali and back before–”

Gallow stopped, his honor guard taking another few steps before noticing and shuffling back. Gallow scowled at Renic. “Do you forget your place? You carry out the tasks you are given, nothing more.” Gallow broke eye contact and continued his march forward. “You are dismissed.”

A flush of rage burned on Renic’s cheeks. He remained standing in the corridor, knowing there was nothing left he could say to change Gallow’s mind. Why the Dauntless was suddenly no longer of interest to Gallow, Renic had no idea. But that meant Renic did not have the complete picture and that Gallow was no longer keeping him informed of the ultimate plan. This was dangerous.

The elevator doors opened at the end of the corridor, and the honor guard entered, followed by Gallow. The fleet marshal turned, his eyes locked with Renic’s until the doors slid closed. 

Renic looked to his comm. He tapped one of the buttons on the curved glass display, sending a pre-configured request to the captain of his ship to prepare for interstellar travel. It was the ship Gallow had granted him unrestricted use of to carry out the tasks that were never to be spoken of, a ship that was unable to be monitored or tracked.

Not even by Gallow.

The doors to Clarke’s office in 5E headquarters slid shut, the same pair of armed 5E guards having escorted them the entire way remained outside. Julian eased himself down into one of the chairs facing Clarke’s desk, grateful for the comparatively ample padding to the cell’s built-in bench.

“That was a terribly unpleasant experience,” Julian said, feeling the tension of the past day and a half ease, replaced by the inevitable comedown shock. Clarke circled around behind the desk, leaning against the wall and folding his arms.

“It was my fault for taunting him. Renic wanted to hurt me, and he used you to do it. He probably never intended to question you.” Clarke huffed, eyes narrowing. “I hope Drake realizes who he’s dealing with.”

Julian sighed, contemplating the statement. “Indeed, sir. I did get the impression that this detour was not a part of OS-9’s plan. They appeared to be more concerned with due-diligence. Renic must have presented quite the story for OS-9 to take the allegations as seriously as they did.”

Clarke grimaced, flipping which arm was folded atop the other. “I know Major Drake. I can try reaching out to him as a professional courtesy. I have a hard time believing, though, that Renic makes many friends anywhere he goes.”

“I do not think Drake and his subordinates are blind to the situation. They seemed aware of the possibility that a Navy asset aboard the Terminus has been compromised. Though, they were genuinely surprised when I seemed to know something about that as well,” Julian said as he absentmindedly rubbed the spot on his chest where the stun baton had hit him. 

Clarke’s mouth pressed into a thin line, eyes focused on something only he could see. “Agent Siddig, there’s something else. Now… I don’t want to drag you right back into work after having been assaulted like you were, but I need to ask about the last task I gave you,” Clarke said.

Julian blanked for a moment, completely unsure of what the director was referring to. He walked his memory backward, through the interview, into his imagined library, into the white void, into… his office across the capital compound.

“Ah, yes. The sleeper activation protocol. It was accomplished, and not a moment too soon. I do not believe the one-time pad had even cleared the vaporizer before I was so rudely interrupted.”

Clarke stepped away from the wall and paced across the office, looking out the armored steelglass window that overlooked the plaza below. “Good work. I think we may have an interesting advantage on our hands.”

Julian tilted his head. “This is about the sleeper?”

Clarke clasped his hands behind his back, looking over his shoulder to Julian. “Yes. It’s not something I could have planned, but the sleeper was in the room with you.”

Julian closed his eyes and thought for a moment. “Oh, yes, I see it. Lieutenant Meredessi, of course. Her detached scrutiny makes sense. She was having to protect both sides of the situation.” He nodded in approval, reaching up to grab the pencil behind his ear, only to find it wasn’t there and awkwardly letting his hand fall back to his lap.

Clarke narrowed his eyes. “And your summation of this situation is what exactly?”

Julian raised his eyebrows, inhaling deeply. “Well, Agent Qin Meredessi is an intelligence compromise herself, officially investigating the source of the Terminus compromise that is collaborating with the Red Kestrels, and Renic, whose inexplicable promotion and proximity to the Terminus, fleet marshal, and untold levels of elevated security access, is trying to turn OS-9 onto the trail of our rogue agent Samantha, drawing attention away from himself and hurting us by setting her up as the Terminus’s compromise, all while she is out there trying to pick up a trail, which, I will not hesitate to say, likely leads right back to Renic himself as he continues to be the only person who can link all these occurrences together,” Julian smiled. “I hope you’re keeping track of this.”

Clarke grunted, turning back to the window. “I am guessing Agent Meredessi was as surprised to see me barge through that door as I was to see her, but she kept her cover. If we use her proximity carefully, we may be able to get out in front of this for the first time and use Renic’s attempts to pollute the investigation to our advantage.”

Julian raised a finger. “Sir, if I can state the obvious.”

“It’s your gift.”

Julian bowed his head. “Thank you, sir. If Renic is trying to pollute—as you put it—the OS-9 investigation by provoking them into following false leads, it is plausible he is trying to deflect his own actions on to someone similar enough to fit the story. Most of what he is saying about Samantha could be said about himself. The access, the history, the flouting of rules and allegiances…” Julian raised his eyebrows.

Clarke nodded, finishing the sentiment. “If we’re fitting people to a profile, Renic is likely a part of the Terminus compromise and one of the insiders working with the Kestrels. He’s taken his own story and is trying to flip it onto Samantha, and us sending her rogue into the sector set her up to almost fit exactly what he needed.”

Julian stood, joining Clarke at the window. “Yes. An unfortunate series of coincidences.”

Clarke shook his head. “And coincidences won’t help us. We’ve got no evidence on Renic and can’t risk taking a shot at him and missing. I do not doubt for a moment that Renic is compromised in more ways than one, but there’s nothing solid that actually links him to anything. And if there were, he’s still only an errand-runner. Who is giving him the orders? Gallow?” Clarke brought a hand up to his face, rubbing his eyes. Julian could see the director’s forehead tighten. Clarke brought his hand down in a swift motion, words drenched in anger. “If Gallow is orchestrating all this, he’s not just pulling the strings of this puppet-show, he owns the whole damned theater. The scope of what we’re up against is only growing, any weak point we could attack vanishing before we have a chance to exploit it.”

Julian shrugged. “Perhaps, but Renic has exposed his intentions and invited outside scrutiny into the fleet marshal’s realm that, without his personal fixation, would not have occurred. If Renic is unwilling to recognize that this obsession jeopardizes whatever he is being asked to do, Samantha can be a lure, forcing him to act against the integrity of the, as you put it, puppet-master’s wishes.”

Clarke exhaled, forehead wrinkled in a rare state of surprise. “You’re not suggesting we use Samantha to draw Renic out into the open?”

Julian held up a forestalling hand. “No. But, if Renic is fixated on her, Samantha will still be a target. We know Renic has put OS-9 on her trail, and it is clear the lengths he is willing to go in order to pursue her. If we can warn Samantha, she can evade both Renic and OS-9 more effectively. If not, well… we have essentially sent her into a sector where every encounter she has is now a potential ambush. And right now, she does not know it.”

Clarke grimaced, turning and pacing back across the office. He turned, one arm folded, the other pointing a finger back at Julian. “If we contact her, that’s proof-positive of our involvement with her after the section-42. We’re implicated, and there’s no coming back from that once Renic uses it against us. If caught, we’re given life sentences or executed and hung up as the perpetrators of the Red Kestrel collusion, releasing Renic, Gallow, and whoever else from any suspicion.”

Julian thought for a moment, cataloging every potential avenue. He had done a good job when he had cut Samantha off from the Imperium. Almost too good. He recounted everything they had done and spoken about since the return from Senali. The computer he had given her was of no use—it truly was inaccessible. But that was not all he gave her, not yet at least.

Julian paced across the room toward Clarke. “Sir, there may be a way to avoid contacting her, but still get her a message.”

“Elaborate,” Clarke said, raising an eyebrow.

Julian paced back to the window. “In keeping with the trend of layering deception on top of deception, there is a little—call it a ‘detail’—that I have left out in our conversations around this mission. May I, sir, decompartmentalize something I think can help?”

Clarke’s eyes narrowed. “Siddig…”

Julian took that as an affirmative. “Sir, I could not send her out completely without assistance. So, while I was preparing the mission assets we provided before her departure, I also arranged to have a collection of operations equipment—a tacsuit, visor, her preferred 5E weapons and tech—deposited on Senali in a civilian shipping facility. Delivery was confirmed. It is there waiting for her to retrieve it.”

“Damn it, Julian,” Clarke exclaimed, planting his fists on his hips. “So you did know where she would end up. Imagine if Renic had gotten that out of you?”

“Yes, Director. It was a calculated risk. I believed the chances for the overall success of this mission would be increased enough to counterbalance the risks, including disobeying your orders.” Julian raised a finger. “I will point out that in this case, chance tipped in our favor. A battlefield decision, if you will.”

Clarke glowered. “Have you ever been in a battle, Agent Siddig? I don’t mean a few stray bolts or a botched mission. I’m talking ground infantry. Capital ships. Watching what happens when someone makes a bad call and dozens, hundreds, thousands die because of it?”

Julian cleared his throat, finding a blank patch of floor to stare at. “Well… no, sir. I mostly sit in a chair and say things into an earpiece while hacking into computer systems,” Julian said. He was not about to compare being a controller to actual fighting, not to Clarke.

The director glared at Julian. “What is your idea on how to leverage this ill-advised insurance plan you left for her?”

Julian nodded, eager to get past his blatant insubordination. “We have no way to contact Samantha directly, the computer I sent with her is truly blind. But I believe I can connect with the tacsuit’s communication array. I can send it information that she will receive the first time she activates it, or if she already has, the next time she connects the suit’s onboard computer to any public system network.”

“You’re betting on her actually going to Senali, retrieving the suit, and doing any of this before potentially being ambushed. That’s a brittle assumption,” Clarke said.

“It’s the best we have. When she left Kestris, reaching Senali and locating Kat Basara was her first mission objective. With the escalation of the Starview Station attack, I believe that Samantha would now feel only more certain that Basara will have the answers she, and the rest of us, need.”

Clarke paced again, exchanging office sides with Julian. “I don’t like us knowing this. Compartmentalization is now broken. We both know where she’s headed.”

Julian shrugged, again reaching for the non-existent pencil, and again dropping his hand. “Sir, the situation and mission have changed in the last week since she left. We need to do what makes sense, and leaving her open to Renic or OS-9 is irresponsible of us.” Julian straightened his back, meeting Clarke’s eyes squarely. “Pardon the critique of our tactics, sir, but it is time to adapt the plan.”

Clarke gave a single, wry laugh. “Battlefield decision,” he muttered. “You know, Julian, there’s a saying that goes back to what is probably the beginning of war itself. ‘All plans fail. Some plans have merit.’” Clarke stalked back to the window, staring across to the capitol building in the distance. “Set it up, but not from here. Or your office—any of them. Find someplace new and don’t tell me or anyone else. If it weren’t for the optics of it, I’d send you out into the sector at this point as well.”

Julian bowed. “Yes, sir. I only need to stop by my office and grab my pencil and one of my backup computers. I do not believe Renic will be returning my property,” Julian turned and walked to the door, then stopped. “Actually, Director, I had a lot of time to think recently, and I believe there is something else we could provide her that is a little more… versatile. But, it will require your active participation in falsifying requests, records, and tampering with quite a trail of digital touchpoints to pull off. You would be, respectfully, entering into a series of compromising circumstances that you may not have been previously comfortable entering.”

Clarke tutted softly. “You know, Siddig, all this time, I thought you were the straight one, and she was the wildcard. I’m starting to think that Samantha’s willingness to play the rebel was a part of an elaborate ruse to hide your disregard for rules and procedure.”

Julian smiled and bowed. “On the contrary, Director, I have a healthy respect for rules and procedure and I am quite comfortable following the ones I agree with.”

“Right.” Clarke shook his head, sighing. “Okay. How do we want to do this?”