Episode 33: A real mission

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The crew of the Matilda is nearing Senali, the Fringe planet where Kat Basara is believed to be and where Samantha last left Eddie Renner. This time, Samantha is determined not to leave until she has answers. But first, they must make sure they're prepared for anything that could happen.

Decker kicked his feet up onto the central console of the Matilda’s command bridge, leaning the seat back so far he was almost reclining. He took a drag off his nether cartridge—the Mentaryd blend, extra strong—and waved his free hand in the general direction of the large vidscreen mounted to the hull.

“Selli, access every available feed being broadcast from, or about, Senali. Neighboring planets, too. Visual only for now. I just want to see what this corner of the Fringe thinks is newsworthy.”

Sellivan half-turned in his seat, eyes narrowing in Decker’s direction. “Every feed? I fear you may need to narrow things down. Not even the new transmitter has that sort of bandwidth, and the repeater-node roaming fees are not insignificant.”

Decker closed one eye and took another drag off the nether. He turned his head toward Sellivan and smiled broadly. “I trust your judgement. Pick anything that looks interesting. I don’t mind spending a few credits to make sure orbit is clear.”

Sellivan shook his head and turned his attention back to his console. 

The Matilda was a half-day away from their drop coordinates, which itself was a half-day of conventional space flight from Senali. Samantha had wanted to drop closer to the planet, but the co-captains had refused. They were going to get a good look at the situation from afar before committing to any course of action. Samantha and Eliza had started sorting the Matilda’s current inventory of things that go zap and boom in the crew lounge, leaving Manu, Sellivan, and Decker on the bridge.

“You’re just wanting to use the new transmitter, aren’t you?” Manu said from the pilot’s station.

Decker tipped his feet to the side, looking past them toward Manu. “Hey, most of the time things are breaking down or working in some sort of reduced capacity. You’ll excuse my excitement for something that is new and actually works.”

Manu opened up a channel to the powerplant. “Hev, Decker wants you to know he really appreciates your sticky fingers.”

The intercom squawked and screeched. “Oh yeah. Hey, only the best for Matilda,” Heavy’s voice called back through the speakers.

Decker stretched his arm across the table, barely reaching the call button with his fingertips. “That’s right, big man. It’s coming through as clear as can be. With this kind of luxury, well, I feel like I’m on that yacht!”

“I think that has more to do with the nether,” Manu mumbled.

Decker looked through the gap between his propped-up feet at his business partner. “It’s all mind over matter, Manu. ‘If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.’”

Decker took another long drag. He was in no mood to suffer through another round of drop sickness when they exited jumpspace without something to take the edge off. The nether from Mentaryd was strong enough for that purpose, but he needed to make sure his mind would be clear once they reached Senali orbit and he needed to do any serious thinking.

“I am not seeing anything of concern on any feed. Standard Fringe politics, regional celebrity gossip, local system news. All looks fairly normal. Any stories regarding the Imperium are being treated as something foreign, distant and to be spectated, not participated in.” Sellivan said.

Decker swung his feet off the table and spun the chair to face the pilot’s station. “Hear that? Imperium troubles are far away. The ship is fixed up. Better than before, even. All we had to do was agree to Samantha’s crusade and risk everything we have—including our lives—in the process. Which isn’t a lot different from what we’d be doing anyway, only it would be for some corporate contract.” He patted his hand gently on the console. “At least now we’re doing something that feels worthy of the trouble.”

“And a considerable amount of trouble it is,” Sellivan murmured from his seat.

Decker snorted, spinning to face his navigator. “Ah, come on Selli. Wouldn’t this all be the Creator’s will? You’re a believer. Isn’t that how it works?” Decker asked with a grin.

“No, that’s not how it works,” Sellivan said. He turned to face Decker straight on. “Life is a pathless land. The Creator endows us all with agency. We make choices and experience the consequences, then we make new choices based on what we learned. The Creator teaches that as we learn from poor choices, we learn to make better ones. The accumulation of wisdom through folly is one of the core tenets of… well, of the beliefs.”

Decker nodded in agreement, nether cartridge gripped between his teeth as he spoke. “Right, right. Wisdom comes from experience, experience comes from mistakes. Well, can you send a little note to the Creator and say that we’re plumb-full of consequences and would love some of that wisdom?”

“That is also not how it works.” Sellivan turned back to his console. “One must be very careful when making an appeal to the divine. The Creator does answer prayers, it is just that the answer is usually ‘no.’” He looked over his shoulder to Decker, sly grin on his pallid lips. “And I assume you’d prefer to remain in the dark when it comes to that sort of rejection.”

Decker lurched forward in his chair, shocked. “Sellivan, did you just manage to work a joke into our very serious religious conversation?”

Sellivan returned his attention to his console. “No.”

Decker chuckled. Sellivan must have been enjoying the new tech if he was attempting humor, dry as it may be. 

Decker could relate. It felt good to be put back together. If the ship worked, it meant he still had freedom. Or agency, as Sellivan called it. There might be debts to pay, a few corporations angry with them, and the attention of the leader of a sector-wide terror organization who was making a run at the Imperium, but it beat being entirely aimless. 

Decker opened the intercom channel to the ship’s common room. “This is your captain speaking. Nothing of concern on the Senali feeds. We’re sticking with the plan. Drop is in ten hours. Do what you gotta do. Captain out.” He removed his finger from the intercom. “Manu, how are we looking for landing sites?”

Manu shrugged. “Plenty to choose from, both public and private. If we know where we’re heading to find this person Samantha wants, we can set down at any of them.”

Decker took another drag. “Cost?”

Manu puffed his cheeks and exhaled. “Cost scales with how much anonymity we want. I presume our present employer wants people looking so far the other way their heads are practically turned backwards.”

Decker snorted another chuckle. “Heh, well, if she wants the best in discretion, she can pay the price. Besides, no one on Senali is going to be working with the Imperium. Half the people out here agree with the Kestrels, and half of them even agree with their methods. We’re among friends in the Fringe. If anything, they’d be pissed off we’re aiding Samantha in trying to prevent the Imperium’s undoing.”

It was Manu’s turn to snort. “So we’re Imperium sympathizers to them. Not sure that’s better.”

“No, but it is different. We’re just working stiffs, taking on contracts. And if there’s anything the Fringe understands, it’s working with the Imperium when there’s profit involved. So, we’re going to touch down, do what we’re hired to do, let Samantha do her thing, and zip right back out. Done.”

Manu shook his head. “Deck, you’re not bothered nearly enough by our level of involvement. I’d expect a little more reluctance.” He turned to Sellivan. “Selli, you agree?”

“The crew’s continued survival is what keeps my faith in the Creator strong,” Sellivan said. He looked away from his console, his gaunt face wearing its usual pout. “The amount of luck the Creator affords us is enough to turn anyone to religion. You think it’s our collective skills that keep us from certain defeat? You’d be wise to consider a prayer of gratitude.”

Decker took another drag off the nether. His head was starting to swim, right on time. He pointed to Sellivan.

“That’s why we keep you here. You’re not just the navigator, you’re the spiritual insurance policy. I may not be a follower, but on the off-chance someone is watching out for us, I’m not going to turn down any extra assistance.”

A rare laugh escaped Sellivan’s lips. “The Creator does not reward those who hedge their bets. You either believe or you don’t.”

Decker shrugged and smiled. “All the more reason to keep you around and happy. The Creator isn’t going to let this ship go down with you on it, right?”

Manu groaned. “Deck, you seem to forget how much time you spend away from the ship while Sellivan and I wait for you all cozy here on the bridge.”

A feeling of sudden, wondrous realization filled Decker’s mind. That, or he was approaching peak inebriation. “Damn. You’re right. We better have Sellivan strap on some boots and start accompanying us into the jaws of doom. Fired a bolt rifle recently, Selli? Or… ever?”

Decker saw the corners of Sellivan’s mouth curl upward. “Oh Decker, someday you may put that cartridge down long enough to ask yourself why I am out here in the Fringe with you, and if, in fact, Sellivan is my real name.”

Decker’s eyes widened as possibilities drifted into his mind. Sellivan did seem to have seen it all, from knowing the ins and outs of combat jumps, to inferring the intricate politics of overthrowing an empire, and he even seemed unsurprised by anything Samantha said, almost as if he expected it.

“Wait… Selli, have you fired a bolt rifle?” Decker uttered, now completely serious. Sellivan only shrugged, turning back to his console. Manu slapped the console and laughed, harder than Decker had heard him laugh in a very long time.

“This is your captain speaking. Nothing of concern on the Senali feeds. We’re sticking with the plan. Drop is in ten hours. Do what you gotta do. Captain out.” 

Decker’s voice faded from the intercom. Samantha exchanged a quick glance with Eliza—seated crookedly in her easy-chair—and continued examining the gear and weapons arranged in neat rows on the Matilda’s crew lounge table. Altogether, they had six in-ear comms; a wide-band transmission scanner with short-range jamming capabilities; four short-barreled rail-rifles; a selection of handheld bolt guns, all civilian-grade; three EMP pulse grenades; six pressure-wave grenades with integrated fuse delays; two sticky breaching charges with long-range detonators; and four exceptionally dangerous incendiary charges that Eliza already had on-hand that could melt the Matilda to slag should they go off.

“Doesn’t look like very much for what we paid,” Eliza said, lazily using her foot against the table to turn her plush chair back and forth. She had foregone the colorful clothes and makeup, now wearing loose-fitting pajama bottoms, a sweatshirt with an overly-large neck opening, and bare feet.

“It’s enough.” Samantha selected one of the bolt pistols and felt its weight in her hand. “A pitched firefight isn’t part of the plan. Ideally, we won’t need to use any of this.”

Eliza rocked her head backward, looking up to the ceiling. “Well, it’s like they say, small guns only exist so you can fight your way back to your big gun.”

Samantha raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? Personally,” she reached behind her back and pulled out the karambit, spinning it by the finger-loop before grasping it, blade-down, curved tip pointed forward, “I find a more hands-on approach to be the most effective.” Then she flipped the karambit in the air and slid it back into its sheath at the small of her back.

“Always armed, eh?” Eliza looked at the palm of her cybernetic hand. An electrical arc popped between two shining metal strips in the center. “Me too.”

Samantha scoffed. “That powered by the same battery that powers the whole arm?”

Eliza flipped her hand over, examining her non-existent cybernetic fingernails. “Yeah, sort of a last-resort way to create a little space when needed. Use too much and the arm’ll be reduced to un-enhanced strength, or worse… dead weight. But, the few times I’ve had to surprise someone with it, let me tell you… the results were shocking.”

Samantha closed her eyes and shook her head at the pun. She wondered if Eliza’s brand of humor had existed before her accident, or if it was part of the after-effects.

“Your ear is connected to the Matilda’s communication array already, correct?” Samantha said. 

Eliza squinted her left eye, the life-like artificial one surrounded by scar tissue. “Check and check. I’m tapped in to comms and can also route what I hear to the bridge.”

“What about vision? I presume despite its innocuous appearance, your eye isn’t merely a visible light model. You got thermal? Infrared? Ultraviolet? Augmented overlays?”

“I can pick any slice of the electromagnetic spectrum, but the brain doesn’t react too well to anything that isn’t a color on the rainbow. Though,  getting an optic nerve implant routed all the way to the back of my skull was not something I wanted to do more than once, so I made sure to get the upgrades. I’m a real catch.”

Samantha nodded. “Why the realism for it but not the arm? It’s remarkably convincing, I’d never have known it was artificial.”

Eliza shrugged. “When people see the arm, they know what to expect. A few gears and sprockets don’t make people too uneasy. As long as you’re not within arm’s reach, nothing much to worry about. But when I had to make the choice about my eye in the hospital, I did some research, talked to some of the other banged-up old wrecks there in the amputee ward. Eyes that don’t look real, they freak people out. Everyone assumes you’re scanning them or doing some sort of sneaky analysis, or recording,” Eliza raised her left eyebrow, “like you have some sort of psychic power that they are afraid you’re using against them.”

Samantha met Eliza’s raised eyebrow with one of her own. “Are you?”

Eliza returned her head to its tipped-back position against the chair, staring at the ceiling. “You would be surprised how little I want to remember most interactions. People think they are all so interesting! Most of the time, the biggest benefit is being able to turn off half my auditory and visual senses and take half a nap.”

Samantha found herself grinning. Another joke that could be true. No way to tell with Eliza. “I’m not surprised at all. I have ways I tune-out as well. Though, not quite as convenient as yours.” Samantha put her hands on her hips, surveying the spread of hardware. “When you’re running your mercenary ops, how do you typically run communications through the ship?”

Eliza turned her chair back and forth. “We get the comms all opened up, and Manu or Selli direct traffic from the command bridge. Deck and I are usually on the ground together. Not too many things that need us to be separated. We’re more of a budget outfit. Not a real fancy setup like you’re probably used to.”

“It’s better than nothing. Even if the Matilda could monitor from orbit, not sure I’d want it too far away should we need egress. As long as someone is on the ship monitoring intel and feeding it back to us, we can improvise the rest,” Samantha said, suddenly feeling Julian’s absence. 

Julian was supposed to be the one watching, providing her with information and counsel in the moment. Samantha didn’t normally have to worry about where the edge between danger and failure was. She just had to push forward and wait for Julian to use the tone of voice that meant he was no longer acting as just the voice of reason, but as her voice of self-preservation. Without Julian, Samantha would have to monitor herself.

“We’re going to be quite the little outfit. You’ll make a respectable mercenary crew out of us yet,” Eliza said with a laugh. Samantha’s mind went back to their Mentaryd encounter. Eliza had played her role well, fitting in nicely with Samantha’s own cavalier approach. But that only added to her worry about lacking Julian’s level-headedness. The last thing she needed was more encouragement to disregard dangers.

Samantha took a slow breath, pushing the thought from her mind. Julian had done his best to give her an advantage, and it was waiting for her on Senali. She looked to Eliza. “There is something waiting for me on the surface. Before I left Kestris, the same person who helped me leave arranged for some agency tech to be misplaced and redirected here—the type of classified tech that keeps things easy and quiet.”

Classified toys, huh? Like what?” Eliza said, her eyes flaring wide with excitement.

“Things that come out of an R&D lab. Can’t be purchased. Probably can’t be reverse engineered. It’s what lets the agency send a person like me into a room full of people and come out not just alive, but unscathed. This stuff is okay,” she said as she waved her hand at the gear on the table, “but it’s for when things go wrong. When things go right, no one even knew I was there.”

“Eh, who needs an agency anyway? You’ve got the Matilda crew backing you up. We haven’t let you down yet!”

Samantha gave a subdued smile. “Yeah, we’ll see.” She sighed. “This won’t be like our little jaunt to Doctor Landon. Basara is a serious player. We need a plan. Let’s get everyone together before the drop.” 

Eliza nodded. The two sat for a moment in silence. “Oh, you mean get everyone together right now. Got it.” Eliza stood and skipped to a control panel on the lounge wall, pressing a button and speaking into the shipwide intercom.

“Attention all personnel, please report to the command and control operations center, also known as the crew lounge. Mission briefing starts at oh-five-something. Please be on time.”

Decker seated himself on one of the three identical stools that were bolted to the floor of the crew lounge, leaning his back against the galley bar behind him. The room was in its usual state of disarray, compounded by an impressive spread of weaponry laid out on the low table in the center of the room. The stray board games, dishes and food containers, and more than a few unclaimed articles of dirty laundry—probably his—had all been stuffed into the built-in shelving across from the galley.

The couches and chairs which normally formed a semi-circle around the table were turned to face the main vidscreen. Normally showing recorded sporting events or other meaningless entertainment, it had been rigged to show a mission dossier, complete with photos, maps of Senali, and snippets of local system news all focused on a single topic: the Red Kestrels. Standing next to the screen was Samantha, holding one of the datapads she’d acquired on Mentaryd.

Decker allowed himself a small, wry chuckle. All these years he’d spent avoiding any sort of formal organization, and now his ship’s lounge was a cobbled-together situation room for an off-the-books Imperium intelligence operation.

The entire crew was gathered: Eliza casually flopped into her usual easy chair; Heavy occupied half of a couch, one hand holding a full-sized bag of chips; Sellivan seated at the galley dining table, computer in front of him, typing away; and Manu stood at the far wall opposite the vidscreen, arms folded, a skeptical look on this face. 

The entire crew, including Samantha, had not been all together like this since their tense conversation during the jump away from Starview Station. That time, they had been arguing over whether to drop Samantha off at the nearest starport and be done with her or not. Now, they were all together planning how they were going to locate and confront a Red Kestrel chapter boss allegedly responsible for infiltrating the empire.

Decker put his thoughts on hold and redirected his attention back toward Samantha. Distracted by his daydreaming, he hadn’t caught everything she had been saying. It would have been better if this sort of conversation would have taken place after their drop from jumpspace, and after the nether’s effects had worn off. No such luck. He nodded in faux-agreement, doing his best to pick back up with Samantha’s briefing.

“…there is a fair amount of Kestrel sympathy in this region, so any alleged misdeeds she has facilitated on behalf of the Red Kestrels have not been investigated. She has a wide range of legal income-producing operations she’s involved with. Real estate, mining, construction, manufacturing, tech trading, communications, and a private lending operation. She’s hands-off on most of this, but like everything else in the Fringe, there’s no real line that separates corruption from legitimate business. It’s all commingled. It’s reasonable to assume that any of Basara’s dealings are also Kestrel dealings.”

Decker squinted at the vidscreen. In the center was a photo of Kat Basara that looked to have been taken at a public event. She had long, dark hair and a hawkish face, pretty and radiating charisma. He could easily believe she was one of Reed’s chapter bosses; she looked like someone he would want people to take orders from. Decker immediately distrusted her.

Manu stepped forward from his spot against the wall, coming to stand just behind Heavy on the couch. “Sounds like she’s a standard Fringe opportunist. What’s special about her that she’d be in as deep with the Imperium as you’re suspecting?” Manu said, his eyes narrowing at the vidscreen.

Samantha pointed to the photo of Basara, her voice confident and crisp. “Basara is on the Senali planetary council, on the inter-system commerce board. Imports, exports, both with the Fringe and the outer Imperium planets. Given what 5E had on her, her role is likely a facade. She’s got no real interest in Fringe politics. It’s just a convenient place for power brokering, gaining connections, and persuading the Senali government to send contracts toward her respective businesses. This also allows her to keep Senali law enforcement away from her dealings. She has already publicly issued a statement deriding the allegations against the Red Kestrels as ‘ridiculous’, indicating that the activist group has generously donated to many of her phony charitable organizations.”

Decker nodded along. He had not witnessed Samantha in her element for many years. It was encouraging to see that she had not lost any of her confidence or mission-hardened objectivity. Her off-mission personality may be a patchwork of deep flaws and emotional damage, but she was still hauntingly competent when it came to her work as one of the Imperium’s silent, human weapons. Being able to turn off parts of her personality in order to stay focused was what made her both so good, and so detached. 

Eliza clicked her tongue, twisting a lock of chromatic red hair with a cybernetic finger. “So, looks like she’s making no attempt to hide herself. Seems like someone that helped vanish an entire Imperium Navy warship would be more, you know, discreet. I was thinking we’d have to do a little more work to find her, but, Kat seems to be one of the worst-hidden people on the planet,” Eliza said.

Decker noted the suspicious clarity in Eliza’s voice. She was unusually focused. And surprisingly, Decker was too, even with the nether in his system. Having Samantha deliver this briefing, as improvised as it was, felt more real than any of the Matilda’s recent jobs. Actually, any of Matilda’s jobs. This wasn’t a second-rate bounty kidnapping or a pitiful smuggling run. It was a real mission against a real target, the type of work both Samantha and Eliza had built their careers on, before each had been forced to alter their professional trajectories. He shook his head trying to pay attention to Samantha; his mind had wandered again.

“That’s right. She has no reason to hide. She’s a respected magnate. The Senali government isn’t going to harass one of their own citizens on behalf of the Imperium. The Red Kestrels are only terrorists in the eyes of the Imperium.” Samantha paused, gaze shifting to the floor for a moment before continuing. “What she should be worried about is the Imperium coming for the Red Kestrels through her, but—”

“You yourself diverted the knowledge of Basara’s involvement away from your government in order to hide your discovery from the Imperium conspirators,” Sellivan said from across the room, his eyes still attached to his computer display. “This is the crux of your mission. To keep both the Kestrels, and those within the Imperium you felt you could no longer trust, from knowing they are targets.”

Samantha tipped her head to the side. “In a way. Basara’s alleged involvement in the Dauntless hijacking was never entered into the 5E mission report, correct. The official report, at least. We had to keep any conspirators from being able to intervene.”

“And now she gets you instead, which I am guessing is just as bad,” Heavy interjected, nodding with enthusiasm. “For her, I mean. For you, just as good. Bad and good. You know what I’m trying to say.”

Manu let out a slow breath. “If she feels this safe, this should be quite a shock. How are you planning on finding her? Senali is a big place, millions of people, and unlike Mentaryd, there is a functioning police force.”

Samantha grinned. “I’ve been here before. The agency had a file on Basara, but more importantly, at my request, Sellivan has had the Matilda’s computer core running continuous queries for her name since we departed Mentaryd. Turns out, one of her companies is hosting an investor’s meeting tomorrow, and she’s on-planet for it.”

Manu folded his arms, eyebrows furrowed in what Decker knew indicated he was impressed. “How did you learn this?” Manu asked.

Heavy turned, looking up at Manu with glee. “How do you think? Spy stuff.”

 Samantha tapped her datapad and the image on the vidscreen changed, showing several paragraphs of text. “It was in a press release. She’s one of the hosts. Like I said, Basara is not hiding.”

Heavy turned back to Samantha, disappointment visible. “Wait, a Red Kestrel crime boss announcing her whereabouts to the public? That doesn’t feel smart.”

Samantha shrugged. “No one here would call the Kestrels a criminal organization, and she doesn’t see herself as an enemy of the state. Maybe if the Imperium were coming after her full force, she would have reason to hide. As it stands, not only is the Imperium not coming after her, she’s being supplied with information from within the Imperium itself. I’ve dealt with her kind in the past. Right now, she thinks that she has nothing to worry about.”

“She feels untouchable,” Eliza said, nodding slowly to herself. “When someone feels untouchable, they’re always slack with their personal security. Probably feels like she owns the planet, which she maybe does.”

“That is a fair assessment. Like you said,” Samantha pointed to Manu, “she has no reason to think anyone is coming for her.”

“Then it’s settled. Pull a bag over her head, throw her into a van, tie her up in the cargo bay until you get what you want out of her,” Eliza said through a positively demonic grin.

A shudder of familiarity that even the nether couldn’t dull ran down Decker’s spine. He shook the memory from his recent abduction from his mind. “Let’s be a little more specific than that. Finding someone who isn’t hiding won’t be hard. We know that. But what’s the actual plan once we’re on the ground?” 

“Yeah, won’t your mission’s secrecy be blown the moment she realizes that someone is onto her and the Kestrels’ scheme?” Manu asked. It was a fair question.

Samantha shook her head. “The Red Kestrels operate as cells. If Basara’s activities are exposed—or if it even looks like they might be—the cell will be cut off. It’s easier for them to eliminate a cell than it is to try and fix the problem. Once Basara knows she’s been made and is a threat to Casto and the Imperium’s plan, she will do her best to keep our interference contained.” Samantha said. “Decker?”

Decker’s mind forced him to regain attention. “Huh? Oh, yeah. She’s right. It’s not like a military. It’s a bunch of gangs. If Basara knows she’s messed up, she’ll be the first to try and conceal that from Reed. Voluntarily notifying him she’s compromised would be like sending an invitation for her own execution.” Decker sighed. “You gotta understand, Kestrel loyalty isn’t exactly loyalty. Her first instinct is going to be to protect herself and her local chapter, which means withholding any information that could get her in trouble. It’s a system where distrusting those above and below you is just how it works.”

“A standoff,” Eliza said, making finger guns with her hands. “I have to say, this does not sound like a group I would want to be a part of. ”

“You’re not wrong there,” Decker muttered to himself, knowing he had yet to fully process his conversation with Reed about his own exile.

Samantha tapped her datapad and a map of Senali appeared on the screen with the location of Basara’s company offices where the meeting would take place. “We’ll have a day to survey the location, look for opportunities. She will have an entourage of Red Kestrels, not just regular contracted bodyguards. That means they’ll be a lot more aggressive. We’ve got no hacking gear, so everything is going to be eyes-on-target. When we identify an attack angle, I’ll be on point, with Decker and Eliza keeping a safe distance to intervene if needed. I’ll secure Basara and egress back. I want the presence of the Matilda and the rest of you kept secret. If all goes well, they will think they were hit by just a single person.”

“And if it goes poorly?” Manu said. Another fair question. Decker tried to summon an expression as if he’d just been about to ask it as well, unsure if his nether-relaxed face could pull it off.

“If it goes poorly, I’ll issue an abort order and you will leave me behind, getting the Matilda to safety and waiting for me to send a rendezvous point once I’ve extricated myself from the situation.” Samantha looked to each of the crew members. “We’re not an assault team. There’s no backup here, so if I can’t get in and out on my own, well…” Samantha shrugged. “I don’t want this ship and the rest of you compromised, or none of us will be getting out.”

The somber statement brought a hush to the room. Even Eliza seemed to maintain her attention. 

Decker exhaled audibly. This was the job he’d agreed to do, though thinking back to opening that message on Clarita station, he wasn’t sure he’d have agreed if he’d known this was where they were headed.

“Okay, how are we running it?” Decker said, feeling the responsibility of having accepted the job.

Samantha nodded. “When we’re on the ground, it’s myself, Eliza, and you in a rented vehicle. Manu and Heavy will be keeping the ship ready for immediate takeoff or repositioning. Sellivan will be acting as controller from here on the Matilda. Comms will be open and he’ll mediate the conversation and stay on top of any local chatter broadcasted on public feeds. We won’t be able to sniff anything from Senali law enforcement or encrypted channels.”

Decker looked to Sellivan and raised an eyebrow. “You’re joining in on the op? I like that idea. A spiritual proxy.”

“A mutually beneficial agreement was reached in exchange for my enhanced participation,” Sellivan said, grinning.

“Yeah? And what’s that?” he asked, narrowing his eyes first at Samantha, then at Sellivan. Sellivan gestured to Samantha.

“There’s one thing we have to do the moment we touch down planetside,” Samantha said. “Before I left Kestris, a friend arranged for some agency equipment to be shipped to a storage facility on Senali. I told Sellivan he could have a look at it and see if there is anything we can integrate into the Matilda to help us reach our objectives. I don’t know what was sent, but it’s the type of stuff I’d have on a real mission.”

“Ah, this is a real mission,” Eliza said with a raised finger. “We’re the best team on this ship.”

A thin smile formed on Samantha’s lips. “I would hope so. This mission is going to be short. We locate Basara, detain her, extract information for my collaborators back on Kestris, and get out. We can be off of Senali and back into jumpspace before Basara can react. She’ll have no choice but to cover up the raid to keep Reed from silencing her permanently.”

Decker nodded, his nether haze was nearly gone. That, or not even the chemical relaxants could dampen the anxiety he felt. “And then we’re square and have fulfilled our side of this deal, right? This was the job you hired us for.”

Samantha nodded. “Then we’re square. This won’t be nearly finished, but further involvement will be up to you.”

Decker bit the inside of his cheek, folding his arms across his chest. He didn’t know how he was going to spend his time once they were through on Senali, but he did know he had an access code for touching down on Dradari—a secret weapon he had no idea what he would use for, or against, and his window of opportunity to use it was quickly closing.

He forced the worry from his mind and clapped his hands. “Okay then, looks like the Matilda operations team is going to get to prove what they’re capable of.”