Episode 34: An unofficial ancillary asset

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Qin has a mission: rule out Clarke's agents and find a way to rule-in Renic. But she can't do it alone. On the Terminus, she's enlisted the help of Yadav...

The sound of Qin’s footfalls felt unusually audible against the Terminus’s carpeted corridor floor. All of her senses seemed heightened even above her usual level of perceptiveness—more sentiment and feeling than her normal, rational thought. Nothing was different, physically at least. The massive ship was the same, still orbiting the Imperium’s home planet, still standing watch over the people who believed they were living under threat of attack. Part of that was true. There was a force working against the Imperium, though it had yet to be correctly identified in the week since Starview Station had let the people of Kestris know they were not safe even in the heart of the empire.

It had been a day since she and Lieutenant Yadav returned from their truncated interview with Agent Julian Siddig. They had submitted their report to Major Drake, who had acknowledged its receipt, but offered no comment. As to how this report influenced his private request for Qin to watch Commander Tau, he’d made no further comment on that, either. 

Qin rounded the corner of another corridor identical to all the rest, Terminus crew members passing her without any special acknowledgement. And why should they? Qin’s status as a 5E operative was securely hidden. And with no new orders from either Clarke or Drake to stand down, it was all Qin could do to maintain the appearance of the lieutenant everyone believed her to be while serving while carrying out her multitude of conflicting responsibilities. 

While the appearance of Director Clarke, Siddig’s superior—and, unbeknownst to anyone else, Qin’s—had foiled the gathering of relevant intel for the Indigo investigation, the director had convincingly reacted to her presence as if he’d never met her. In fact, his display of anger had been genuine. OS-9 was using one of Clark’s own operatives against him, and as long as Qin was aboard the Terminus, her outward behavior needed to align with Major Drake’s orders, meaning she and Director Clarke were at professional odds, on the surface.

However, the major had made it clear to Qin that he did really not suspect Clarke or his people in matters concerning a betrayal of the empire. After the interview with Agent Siddig, it appeared both agents Siddig and Mori were likely not relevant to the Terminus compromise, and if Qin handled her upcoming meeting with Yadav delicately enough, she might be able to guide the fellow lieutenant into suspecting Tau without revealing Drake or Clarke’s special interest in the commander. Having Yadav working with Qin would help legitimize her secret interest in Tau and distance the Navy version of Qin from the 5E version. The more she could get OS-9’s actions to align with her 5E orders, the less she had to hide. 

“Meredessi, hey!”

Qin stopped, stepping aside to allow a pair of crew members to pass as she turned to look behind her. Sergeant Lee was jogging casually toward her, one hand conspicuously hiding something behind his back. A surge of panic pulled at her gut as a vision of Lee’s arm swinging up a bolt pistol flashed in her mind. Before Qin could do more than stifle a gulp, Lee came to a stop, mischievous—but innocent—smile on his face.

“I knew I saw you hurrying past. I took your advice,” Lee said, bouncing his eyebrows as he spoke.

Qin tilted her head, the momentary, mistaken panic at odds with her curiosity about Lee’s vague conversation prompt. “Advice, Sergeant Lee?”

“Yeah, you know, about books. Things are heating up around here, and the Terminus seems like the place to be. I want to be closer to the action, you know? The stuff like you do, real intelligence. So I’m brushing up.”

Qin smiled, a subtle hum her only response. 

Lee brought his arm around. In his hand was a book, a red polymer cover wrapped around the perfectly cut synthetic pages far too white to be actual paper. A peculiar object for the sergeant—this sergeant—to be holding.

Lee noticed Qin eyeing the book in his hand and smiled broadly. He brought the book to his chest so Qin could read the title pressed into the cover’s surface: Introduction to Quantum Cryptography.

Qin raised an eyebrow; the sergeant had managed to surprise her. “Excellent choice, though this volume is typically found in secondary schools. Is this your first foray into quantum computing?”

Lee reared back, staring down at the book in exaggerated perplexity. “Well, I mean, I gotta start somewhere if I want to get interesting assignments like yours.” Lee patted his hand against the book, softly clearing his throat—hesitation, anxiety. “And about that… see, I was wondering if, you know, as part of the learning process, if I could help you with anything a little more relevant to the situation at hand. The Kestrel stuff. I’m down on deck fifty-five analyzing reports, datasets, mostly just sifting data without any context. I feel like a human computer.”

Qin’s smile faded slightly at the reference; Lee seemed not to share her affinity for the comparison. “Sergeant, while I cannot disclose any details of what I am or am not working on, I do not believe your clearance level is elevated enough for even the lowest levels of RCA.” Qin had no need to check; Lee was nowhere near the level needed.

Lee shrugged, wincing at the reminder. “I know. Right now, at least. But if you were to put in a request, say that you need some extra hands on the situation, someone with a different breadth of experience, provisional access could be given. I’m good at what I do, Meredessi, you wouldn’t regret it.”

The statement about Lee’s skills as a data processor were not incorrect; he had received a “meets expectations” rating at each of his postings. It was the sergeant’s other more frivolous proclivities that seemed to keep him out of the more sensitive—or as Lee put it, interesting—assignments.

Qin began to speak, but stopped. Her unfiltered, natural response to Lee’s assertion may be blunter than the sergeant would appreciate, objective or not. She recalibrated her response, taking a more encouraging approach. Lee seemed to be genuine, if misguided, in his pursuit of an elevated assignment. There was no telling when someone like him might be of value as the Indigo investigation deepened. Perhaps she could mentor him, help the sergeant learn what it meant to inhabit a role within a high-stakes intelligence operation such as OS-9. Given the stakes Qin must carry herself, allies might become a resource in short supply. 

“Certainly, Sergeant. It is something I can… consider and update you on at a later time,” Qin said pleasantly, the statement sufficiently truthful and noncommittal.

Lee pressed his lips together and nodded, gripping the book with both hands. “Sure, sure.” He looked over Qin’s shoulder, grimacing and sucking his teeth. “I better get going. Thanks again, Meredessi. I’ll keep an eye out for you.”

Lee smiled, again looking over Qin’s shoulder before spinning on his heel and sauntering back the way he had come. Qin hummed softly, already knowing who she would see once she turned around, a warmth in her chest blossoming at the sound.

“Lee being a nuisance, Lieutenant?” Yadav’s voice sounded from behind. Qin turned, smiling as her investigation partner approached, datapad under her arm and mug in her hand; it was afternoon, which meant lemon tea. Morning would mean coffee.

“Not at all. The sergeant is merely displaying what I would consider an appropriate level of ambition for one aboard the Terminus during these unusual times,” Qin said, looking back the way Lee had gone. “His aspiration could be a career advantage once he accepts that fitting in is sometimes more important than standing out.”

Qin turned back to Yadav, who grimaced. “Maybe. His type… they watched the action vids when they were young, thinking that Navy life is all about bolt fire and broadsides. They join up, get stuck on a ship, and realize that most of what we do now involves sifting through endless data trails and making sure our uniforms are within regulations.” Yadav huffed, then let a smile appear on her lips. “Speaking of, yours appears to be well within regs, and I believe we’re due to sift through some of the aforementioned data?”

Qin bowed her head, admiring the lines of her always-immaculate uniform. “Yes to both. Please.”

She gestured to the corridor. Yadav turned, and the two proceeded to their reserved analysis room, exchanging the same common smalltalk and pleasantries they did each time they met. With strict compartmentalization hindering them from speaking about investigations in public, padding their meetups with banter was a workplace necessity until they reached a sealed door.

They arrived at the analysis room and entered, doors shutting and sealing behind them. The room was divided by a smooth, black-glass desk that faced a large vidscreen on the opposite wall. Four chairs lined the same side of the desk facing the vidscreen. Unlike the corridors of the Terminus, this room’s decor consisted of all muted blacks and grays, ideal for focusing on the oversized display.

This data analysis room had been reserved for the Indigo investigation. While inside, no member of the Terminus’s security crew, or even other members of OS-9, could gain physical or system access. Not even Major Drake or the Fleet Marshal could access what transpired. For the time being, Qin and Yadav were alone. 

Qin walked to the pair of seats in the center and pulled them both out, gesturing politely to one. “Welcome to our first Indigo working session, Lieutenant,” Qin said with a smile. Yadav walked to the desk and set her datapad and mug on the glossy surface, then eased herself down into the chair.

“Thank you,” Yadav said, picking up her mug again and holding it between her hands. “You know, one of us may need a promotion. We can’t always be repeating ‘Lieutenant, Lieutenant, Lieutenant’ each time we talk.”

Qin smiled, taking the seat next to her. “You can address me by name when we are alone. In fact, it has been quite some time since I have heard anyone use it aboard the Terminus.”

Yadav smiled as she took a sip of her tea; Qin could smell the lemon vapor. “Well, Qin, how long?”

Qin paused, an unexpected feeling of familiarity at the sound of Yadav speaking her name. “Thirty-eight days. A former classmate from the naval academy had been assigned to the Terminus, and we spoke in a recreation center. A slight breach of protocol.”

“One I am sure the major would forgive.” Yadav used her mug to gesture to the vidscreen on the wall. “So, tell me, what do we have?”

Qin tapped the desk’s surface and it came to life with a glow. She entered some commands and the classified report she had prepared appeared on the wall-sized vidscreen, displaying four Imperium identification photographs. “Mori, Siddig, Clarke, and Tau. Prior to the events on Starview Station, each of these four had been a model agent for 5E, with a great deal of overlapping operations and encounters.”

Yadav held her mug near her chin, rolling it slowly between her hands. “Four people seemingly up to something, given the obvious irregularities in Mori’s section-42 and the behavior from the other three. But, not necessarily Indigo’s concern. What’s our baseline on them?”

Qin angled her face away from Yadav toward the screen, careful not to let recognition of her 5E superior taint her expression. “Director Clarke has been in the Imperium for his entire career. He spent twenty-four years in the Navy before being selected to head up a 5E division eleven years ago. For the most part, he has dealt with operations outside of Imperium space, or, when required to operate within the empire, with parties that are from outside.”

“Like the Red Kestrels.” Yadav leaned forward, elbow resting on the desk as she gestured to the screen. “Is there any statement on record about why he went the government route and didn’t move into military intelligence?”

Qin nodded. “Yes. Sealed records, extensively redacted, show that his transfer out of the Navy was done per his request after an incident with another Navy commander. The record does not indicate with whom. Clarke’s record has an honorable discharge from the Navy.” Qin suppressed a sigh and a tingle of guilt at prying into Clarke’s background without his knowledge. “Whatever the incident was that precipitated his departure, there is no record, sealed or otherwise. I would surmise that this was a condition only known to Director Clarke and whoever he struck the deal with.”

“Must have been serious.” Yadav huffed. “Is there any cause to believe that this incident is relevant to our investigation?”

Qin shook her head, eager to divert attention away from Clarke, and by proxy, herself. “It is possible, but unlikely. The amount of unrelated professional secrets an intelligence director in 5E may be hiding could occupy us for months and be no more than fruitless distractions. I am more interested in the other three.”

Yadav set down the mug and leaned forward, placing her elbow on the desk and angling her body toward Qin’s; Qin did not pull away. “Okay, how about them?”

Qin shrunk the image of Director Clarke—grateful to be moving past her primary order-giver—and centered Mori, Siddig, and Tau on the screen. “I spent several hours digesting the personnel files and relevant mission records for each. While each has a storied and, if I may use the aphorism, checkered past, if we are containing our interests solely on Indigo related concerns, they may be nothing more than distractions as well.”

Yadav shrugged. “Better to rule them out. The major wants dead-ends identified. Between Tau’s bizarre behavior and the dramatics from Clarke and Siddig down on the surface? Makes it hard to trust any of them. And Siddig’s little hints about Indigo… he didn’t say it by name, but he knew. 5E is always interfering in places outside of their area of focus. An organization in desperate need of an overhaul. Or elimination.” She exhaled with disdain. “Please, continue.”

Qin nodded, feeling another pang of guilt. Her primary role was as a 5E operative, but she’d spent no time with the agency and knew almost no one outside of Director Clarke and her training team—and now, Agent Siddig. Maintaining the other persona of the OS-9 officer was not difficult. What was turning out to be more difficult than expected was compartmentalizing the feelings the deception created. Yadav was a friend, and each time Qin spoke about anything regarding Indigo, she was lying to that friend. How long could she maintain this?

Qin pushed the feelings aside; there would be time to sort them out later. The displays on the wall changed and a new profile appeared in the center.

“Agent Samantha Mori. Up until her disappearance and subsequent section-42, she had reported to Director Clarke for the past six years. Her record is exemplary, coming out of the Imperium intelligence academy near the top of her class, moving up through the ranks of the civilian organizations quickly before requesting to be assigned to Clarke’s division. She took a step backwards in her career to be appointed as an off-planet clandestine operative.”

Yadav sucked her teeth, seeming to put all the pieces together as Qin had hoped. “So, she gave up a visible role in exchange for an invisible one. Not uncommon for those who are more interested in the freedom that field work affords than the thankless monotony of administrative work. Any indication as to her specific motivation for requesting the change?”

Qin turned to meet Yadav’s eyes, glad to be speaking on something that did not require juggling conflicting internal identities. “There is no written record, but given Agent Mori’s background, I have an hypothesis.”

Yadav’s eyes widened playfully. “Oh? A hypothesis that fast?”

Qin shrugged. “It is not much of a leap. Samantha Mori is the daughter of the late Ayen Mori. He was an Imperium diplomat and popular state leader up until the time of his death during an unsanctioned visit to the Fringe planet of Dradari twenty-four years ago.”

“Dradari,” Yadav said softly, flattening her lips as she nodded. “The Red Kestrel planet of origin.”

“That is correct.” Qin tapped the console and sent a report up to the vidscreen. “The record of Ayen Mori’s death was classified even from the sealed government record. I had to use an Indigo override to retrieve it.” Qin tapped the interface surface and the image of a classified report and photo appeared. “Ayen Mori was on Dradari without Imperium approval on what appears to be personal business. He had taken his private cruiser there along with his wife, Mallory, also killed in the same event. The investigation at the time indicates there was a quarrel between the Moris and the two founding members of, what was at the time, the newly formed Red Kestrels: Reed Casto and Jak Sagan. The classified account holds either Casto or Sagan responsible for the eventual casualties, though Casto is the one who remains living to correct the record. Both 5E and OS-9 are already scouring the sector for Casto to no avail, who is no doubt being assisted by the unknown perpetrators that Indigo is seeking to identify.”

Yadav exhaled, slow and deep. “Right. So both of Mori’s parents died on Dradari at the hands of the Red Kestrels. No suspected motivations for either the Moris or the Kestrel founders?”

Qin shook her head again. “Records are unclear. The ones I was able to retrieve are incomplete, redacted, or an obvious cover. At the time, it was a major embarrassment for the Imperium. A story was created and leaked to the press about a diplomatic mission gone bad, but the truth behind Ayen’s reasons for being there died with him and his wife.”

Yadav tapped the desk, scrunching her lips together. “This is the type of trauma someone can build a life around. It gives Samantha Mori plenty of motivation to pursue the career path she did, doing clandestine work for Director Clarke as a cover for personal revenge against those who killed her family. It doesn’t fit the profile of someone I would expect to flip—seemingly out of nowhere—and assist the Red Kestrels. If anything, her hatred of them would transcend any career ambition. It would for me.”

Qin bowed her head, remembering Yadav’s former assignment on the sacrificed Dauntless. “Agreed, neither my deductions nor instincts lead me to believe that Agent Mori is relevant to the Indigo compromise. I do have another hypothesis, though.”

Yadav’s somber expression shifted to one of amusement. “Do you ever share a hypothesis you aren’t actually one-hundred percent certain of?” she asked, smiling and tilting her head.

Qin pondered the statement. “Indeed, for if I were one-hundred percent certain, it would not be a hypothesis. It would be an answer.”

Yadav chuckled softly. “By all means, Qin, share your hypothesis.”

Qin tipped her head towards the vidscreen as the images of Commander Tau and Director Clarke appeared next to Agent Mori’s. “Commander Renic Tau, former 5E agent. Before his simultaneous transfer into the Imperium Navy and promotion to the acting head of the Naval Special Investigation Division, he reported to a Director Murray Samson, whose 5E operations focused on Imperium citizens and organizations. Beginning five years ago, Tau was often paired to work alongside Agents Mori and Siddig when Clarke and Samson’s operations overlapped.”

Yadav pointed to the display, eagerness in her voice. “So Tau and Mori were partners? Tau alluded to a friendship during Drake’s meeting, but this seems like more than that.”

Qin nodded. “Yes, they appear to have quite the working relationship. Their joint missions had a flawless success rate. They worked together frequently for the first few years, but two years ago, that stopped. Given the detailed psychological profiles 5E maintains on their agents, I suspect the decline in mission frequency was due to what I call ‘personal friction’ between the two.”

Yadav nodded, a rueful grin on her lips. “They blur the line between professional and personal relationships, and when things go bad, they don’t want to be together in the field anymore, which turns them from objects of affection to ones of scorn.” Yadav placed her hand on the desk, assembling the pieces Qin had already assembled a few hours earlier. “If we combine this information with Tau’s attempt to implicate both Mori and Siddig during the major’s meeting, it would appear that Tau is using her disappearance to reinforce a story he is trying to sell, not expecting us to look beneath the surface.”

Qin smiled, turned to face Yadav. “Excellent, Lieutenant—I mean, Esme. Yes. I believe this is the root of Commander Tau’s odd behaviors, and why the interview we conducted with Siddig turned out to be largely irrelevant to Indigo. Tau never intended it to be.”

“One thing,” Yadav said, holding up a hand. “Why throw Agent Mori into the Indigo crosshairs? That feels too impulsive for Tau. He must know that careful scrutiny would rule her out, especially after we got ahold of Agent Siddig.”

Yadav was nearly at the conclusion Qin needed her to reach. Since she couldn’t tell Yadav that both Director Clarke and Major Drake wanted Tau as a primary person of interest, it had to be a genuine arrival.

“I believe you are correct. It was a tactic. Tau wanted to create a diversion. If we draw the link between Clarke, Mori, and Tau, we get this sequence. Clarke, for reasons we do not know, orders Mori, to vanish and continue her pursuit against the Red Kestrels, issuing a section-42 as cover. Tau finds out about Mori’s absence, after he has assumed his new role in the Navy. Just as Tau shared in the meeting, he looks at the situation—Mori is gone, and she was recently on a mission on Senali, in contact with Red Kestrels. Then she disappears the day of the Starview attack. Tau knows of her personal vendetta against the Red Kestrels and that it is highly unlikely she would side with them, yet he proposed that scenario anyway with a fabricated emotional performance in front of Major Drake. Why?”

Yadav’s eyes narrowed; she’d made the link. Yadav’s hand slowly closed into a fist as she spoke. “Siddig hinted he was aware of the Terminus compromise. That means Director Clarke and Agent Mori are as well. And if Tau realized that Mori is looking for Red Kestrel collaboration from within the Navy, specifically from the Terminus under someone in Fleet Marshal Gallow’s command structure, Tau must be…”

Qin placed her hand on Yadav’s arm, a swell of pride in her chest. “Yes, you have it.”

Yadav closed her eyes, voice hardening more with each word. “He’s part of the compromise. And Mori, Clarke, and Siddig are, knowingly or not, on his trail. We cannot be sure they know who they are specifically looking for, but Renic now knows who is looking for him. And if they didn’t suspect him before, they certainly will now.”

“Yes.” Qin squeezed Yadav’s forearm. “I believe Tau has reacted rashly and made a damning strategic error, believing that polluting the Indigo investigation with this face-value diversion would slow down any explorations that could lead toward him.”

“Commander Tau has outed himself,” Yadav said, resolve filling her voice. “Have you shared this with the major? Mori and Siddig may not be acutely relevant to Indigo, but I believe we have enough to make Tau more than relevant. We need to act.”

Qin took a breath. She must tread lightly, Drake already had his doubts about Tau, but that wasn’t something that had been shared with Yadav. Qin quickly sorted out the three sources of orders she was managing—Clarke’s orders, Drake’s Indigo orders, and Drake’s private orders. All three must be maintained in that order. First, she needed Yadav’s assistance with Clarke.

“No, I have not,” Qin said, releasing Yadav’s arm. “On its own, all I have is this plausible—but wholly unsubstantiated—hypothesis. I am sure you can imagine what mishandling this information could mean.”

Yadav sighed deeply and tapped her finger on the desk. “If Tau becomes aware of this or we enter any of this into the Indigo record, we’ve given him and any conspirators advanced warning and they all vanish. Damn. Okay.” She folded her arms and leaned back in the chair. “If Tau is culpable, he couldn’t do this alone. He’d be a pawn. That means he’s leverage to reach whoever is controlling him. So, what do we need to secure Tau’s guilt or innocence?”

Qin tapped the control surface and pointed to the screen; only Tau and Siddig’s photos remained. “We need evidence. Irrefutable. And not just on Commander Tau, but whomever else he is connected to.” Qin turned her body toward Yadav, placing a hand on her shoulder. “You and I have to get it, Esme, not OS-9.”

It was a regrettable request, one Qin did not enjoy making of the loyal and fair-playing lieutenant. Qin respected Yadav, but she also worried how the request could impact their relationship, or potential relationship, if Yadav ever found out Qin had been driven by duplicitous motivations.

Yadav’s eyes narrowed on the pictures of Tau and Siddig. “Wait. An unanswered question slipped my mind, though probably not yours.”

“Oh? I do not follow,” Qin said, surprised at her own lack of insight into what Yadav was alluding to. She let her hand fall back to her lap, noting how her instincts had suggested she not.

“Siddig hinted to us that he already knew about the compromise on Terminus. We denied it out of obligation and then were interrupted by Director Clark. But he was certain. And Tau wasn’t his source. Siddig already knew from somewhere else.”

Yadav was right. A flush of shame washed across Qin’s body. How had she neglected to explore this? Qin replayed the conversation in the interrogation room; Siddig alluded, Yadav denied, Siddig alluded again, Yadav denied, Siddig stopped alluding and spoke plainly, then Clarke entered before they could probe further.

Qin swallowed her embarrassment. “I apologize. I–I must have conflated Siddig’s hints with Clarke’s intrusion and then conflated those with Commander Tau’s actions. But Esme… you are right. Somehow, Director Clark and Agent Siddig have independent knowledge of the Terminus’s compromise, which means they also know that it leads to the Dauntless hijacking and the Starview attack. And yet, they have not shared this knowledge with their own organization, the Navy, or anyone else. Except us.”

Yadav raised an eyebrow, a gentle, crooked smile on her lips. “Qin, I arrived at a conclusion before you? Recent events must really have your mind occupied.”

A press-lipped smile and hum was Qin’s response.

Yadav continued and tapped the control interface and Agent Mori’s photo reappeared. She stabbed her finger back up toward the vidscreen.

“Agent Mori is section-42 for a reason. Look at the sequence and how it puts her as the only person who is able to operate freely. It’s a classic blacker-than-black operation. Clarke sacrifices the legitimacy of one of his own, cuts her off so she can pursue this from the outside as a rogue agent. To take this drastic of action, think about how they could have come about this intel? We, Navy intelligence, learned about the Indigo investigation through internal channels. Where else could someone learn about the Red Kestrels’ role in all of this?” Yadav asked, both eyebrows raised in anticipation.

“Oh my,” Qin whispered.

Yadav made a fist and softly pounded it on the desk. “The old fashioned way. Mori and Siddig discovered this from the outside, from the Red Kestrels, and withheld it from 5E, OS-9… everyone. They knew, and determined the only course of action was… well, this.”

Qin’s eyes flitted back and forth between the three photos on the screen. She had missed the link; entrusting Yadav to help had been all that had redeemed that lapse. Qin’s growing affections were not without good cause. She turned to Yadav. “It appears so. Esme, I believe a more hospitable conversation with Agent Siddig is in order.”

Yadav paused. Qin could see the slight twitches in her eyes as she processed. Finally, the staunch OS-9 demeanor softened, leaving a glimmer of mischief in Yadav’s eye for the first time since they had met. “Okay, okay. Siddig may not be an Indigo concern, but he can be one of ours. An unofficial ancillary asset.”

Qin tapped a few commands into the console, and the vidscreen faded to black. “I will arrange a meeting. Unofficial and ancillary.”

The two women stood and walked to the door. Qin reminded herself that she was acting in the Imperium and Navy’s interests. Pursuing Siddig—and by proxy, Director Clarke—was consistent with her OS-9 role as well as Major Drake’s orders, even if it put her tangentially at odds with the director. She still had not received any further instruction from Clarke, and given the proximity of their roles around Commander Tau, it might be too risky to expect more.

Yadav took a sip from her mug and wrinkled her nose. It was likely cold by now. She held it between both hands, looking down into the vessel.

“Qin?” Yadav asked, hesitation in her voice.

“Yes?” Qin replied, equally hesitant.

“Care to get more tea with me?”

Qin took note of the time, a flutter of irritation at the Terminus work schedules dampening her mood. Evening aboard the flagship was approaching and she would not be off-duty for several hours. She needed to devise a way to contact Agent Siddig outside of Imperium knowledge; that would take time, time that needed to be spent on mission. She sighed at the need for delay. “Instead of tea, perhaps we can take dinner together once our shifts are over? Four hours?”

Yadav smiled, bowing her head. “Meet you in the atrium?”

Qin returned the bow. “I look forward to it.” 

Yadav smiled again and left Qin at the door. Qin’s smile faded as she watched her leave. Pursuing Tau and Siddig was aligned with both of her missions; pursuing Yadav was aligned with neither. Which Qin had proposed the dinner? The 5E agent, the OS-9 analyst, or the person who caught in between?

Julian’s fingertips brushed against the thin, cylindrical object he desperately sought beneath the desk of his ransacked off-site office. A thrill of elation surged through his body as his hand wrapped around the pencil that had been so callously, irreverently, and disrespectfully flung across the room by Renic.

“Ah,” he murmured, crawling back out from beneath the desk, office floor littered with fallen books, papers, and other remnants of Julian’s vandalized eccentric ephemera.

“Find what you needed, Agent?” asked one of the guards, Agent Isak, whom Clarke had insisted escort Julian to his office. While Julian felt perfectly safe with the two men accompanying him, they were certainly more of the, as Samantha put it, shoot and stab type rather than the more cerebral of 5E’s personnel.

Julian got to his feet, holding his delicate writing implement aloft triumphantly. “Indeed. It may appear insignificant, but I am sure you are familiar with the saying about the relative mightiness of pen versus sword?”

Agent Isak chuckled and turned to the other guard, Agent Caplin, before shrugging at Julian. “Hey, you don’t need to justify superstition to me. See this?” Agent Isak held out his wrist, a worn red string tied tightly around it. “A friend brought this back to me from a monastery out in the Fringe five years ago. Said a pair of nuns wove it. They sell it as a prayer cord, but it’s probably just string they use to fool tourists. I know we’re not supposed to have stuff like this here in the empire, so I don’t really tell anyone what it is.”

Agent Caplin stepped forward, grunting out a laugh and jerking his thumb at Isak. “Yeah, he’s so attached to it now. One time about a year ago, we were hit by a concussion mine while riding in a ground vehicle on a mission off-planet. Isak here was knocked out, and when medical teams were loading him into an evac shuttle and cutting off his shirt to get some stray shrapnel, he starts screaming about not cutting off his prayer cord!”

Isak scowled at Caplin. “Yeah, that’s right. And maybe it was because of whatever—I dunno—charm or magic those nuns put in this string that I’m still here.”

Julian smiled at the two comrades. “Well, gentleman, I cannot say what is charmed and what is not, but I do hope that if I find myself in what you might call a ‘jam’, a pencil like this would be a sufficient enough to work myself out.”

Both Isak and Caplin chuckled. Isak nodded down to the scattered piles of paper and books. “I knew Tau. This sort of needless mess is just his style. You got someone to help clean all this up?”

Julian sighed, looking down at what once had been the contents of his neatly—to him—organized desk. “It does not appear that anything is missing, other than the computer that the commander took during the time of my abduction. I do not suspect I will be getting a receipt for that. Perhaps the commander has lost interest in any follow-up investigation, if he were indeed serious in the first place.”

Caplin waved his hand at the scattered piles. “I’ll get one of ours to come watch the place, and we can at least make sure it’s secure until you can come sort it out. Without the brains of the operation, brutes like us don’t stand much of a chance.”

Isak snorted. “Hey, speak for yourself. I was an Imperium scholar.”

Caplin waved a dismissive hand at his partner. “Yeah, on a track and field scholarship.” He turned back to Julian. “If that’s all, the director wants us to deliver you to whatever location you request. Where to, agent?”

Julian tucked the pencil behind his ear, elated at its return, then placed his hands on his hips and surveyed the chaos around his feet. No time to clean up now; besides, everything here—aside from the books—was stored in digital backups in his undisturbed archives. Only two priorities remained. First, ensuring that he protected Samantha and her mission from any further interference here on Kestris, and that meant getting out ahead of Renic. Second, if the state of his office was a portent of things to come, readying another version of the disappearing act he’d prepared for Samantha, only this time for himself. 

“Thank you, agents. I believe that returning to my personal residence will be sufficient. Its security enhancements are more than adequate for—”

Julian paused, hearing the comm around his wrist chime an unfamiliar tone. His expression must have betrayed his surprise.

“Agent Siddig,” Isak said, subtly unbuttoning his 5E-standard tactical suit jacket. “Something wrong?”

Caplin’s hand moved toward the bolt pistol on his hip as he turned in a defensive posture to cover the room’s only entrance or exit. Julian held up a hand. “No, no, agents. Stand down. This is just an… infrequently used channel, nothing more.” Julian read the message on his comm; it was just as he’d hoped. “Gentlemen, it appears I have a new destination in mind, though I have a car of my own I can summon.”

Isak looked to Caplin, then back to Julian. “Agent, I’m not sure that’s in line with the director’s orders.”

Julian smiled, clasping his hands behind his back. “Oh, it most certainly is not. And neither will be my asking you to look the other way as I sidle past you and out into the night, a fact you will wish to keep well compartmentalized in the interests of imperial security.” Julian lifted the pencil from his ear and tapped the end against his temple. “Trust the brains.”

Isak and Caplin each exchanged the same disappointed glower as Julian turned his body and silently slid between them, disappearing into the hall.