Episode 35: This sort of crusade

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Samantha, and the crew of the Matilda, are preparing on Senali. One quick stop to the post office...

“Definitely not Mentaryd,” Decker said from the driver’s seat of their rented van, cruising along the low-altitude hover lane. “Law. Order. Streets below that aren’t in a state of perpetual chaos. Not a bad place to visit.”

 Samantha snorted softly, watching out the large passenger seat window as the other vehicles and buildings sped by. She had suggested they rent a car, but both Decker and Eliza insisted on the van. ‘Just in case’ were Eliza’s exact words.

“I am going to make a guess that after this we probably won’t want to return to Senali for a while,” Eliza said, leaning forward from the van’s middle seat. “We’re slowly leaving a trail of angry enemies across The Fringe. What if I wanted to vacation here? Have you thought about that, Decker? Vacations?”

Decker glanced at Eliza over his shoulder. “There’re hundreds of other places we haven’t aggravated. And, if we run out, well, we can always pack our things and head to a new sector.”

Eliza flopped back into the seat. “Well, that’s easy. Everything I own is already on the Matilda.”

“There you go. A few short months in the vast nothingness of the Gulf and we’re free.” Decker looked at Samantha, a crooked grin on his face. “What do you say? Turn this van around and we jump out of this sector for good?”

Samantha tilted her head to meet Decker’s gaze. “You’re still on my payroll until we get Basara. Senali first. After that,” she looked back out the window, “your ship, your choice.”

Decker was right in his assertion that Senali was nothing like Mentaryd. It reminded Samantha of Kestris, a refined planet with proper architecture, a temperate climate, and a functioning government. It hadn’t even been two weeks since Samantha’s last visit to Senali, right where she’d left Eddie Renner and Kat Basara the first time. It felt like a lifetime ago. Then, she’d had the Mosston and Julian orbiting above.  Now, she had the Matilda and its crew, and, hopefully soon, whatever 5E trinkets Julian had managed to smuggle out of the Imperium. Not exactly the same as working for 5E, but what choice did she have? Either way, this time she wasn’t leaving Senali until she had what she came for: the answer to who was propping up the Kestrels from within the Imperium.

Samantha kept her eyes on the city out the window. This close to the borders of Imperium space, she felt a strange bristling of her senses, as if the empire’s shadow lay just beyond Senali’s orbit. After all, she might be loyal to the spirit of the Imperium, but here on Senali, she was an enemy to both Fringe and Imperium alike.

The van careened out of its lane and descended into ground-level traffic, the small display on the dash indicating they had arrived at their destination. Tucked between a pair of skyscrapers was an out-of-place building that resembled an enormous rectangle that stretched into the sky. There were very few windows. Recessed grooves ran vertically in evenly spaced intervals around the entire building. On the ground level was a cavernous alcove that appeared to serve as the main and only entrance. Written in block letters on a sign above the alcove were the words ‘Industrial Distribution and Asset Protection’. 

The vehicle’s automated systems maneuvered them through the orderly traffic and found a parking stall, easing its way to a stop. Decker jutted his head forward, looking up through the windshield. “This place is a lot bigger than I had imagined.”

“Well, Deck, it’s not exactly a normal post office. This is IDAP. They could ship an entire post office if you asked them to,” Eliza said.

“This is where—” Samantha stopped herself; she’d almost said Julian’s name. That was not information they needed. “This is where my friend chose, and if they chose it, it means it was the best option available.” She adjusted the collar of her jacket, then checked that the karambit was securely tucked against her hip. “I don’t expect this to take long. Everything is paid for. I just go in, check in, and check out.”

Eliza leaned forward between the seats. “There’s no verification system to prove you are who you are? I am guessing there’s not a box of guns in there addressed ‘To: My Spy Friend Samantha. From: Secret Government Spy Person.’”

Samantha shrugged. “They addressed it to a counterfeit identity for a Senali local that doesn’t exist. That identity is now on my comm, real enough for the one time I need to use it. The, uh, ‘secret government spy person’ who arranged for this wouldn’t do something he thought had an unacceptably high chance of failure, so until I get in there and learn otherwise, I have to assume that he came through for me. For what he’s capable of, this is an insignificant operation.” Samantha checked her comm, making sure the addressee’s identity was loaded. “That place looks well shielded. If comms are blocked, wait for thirty minutes. If I don’t come back out after that, use your judgement.”

“Don’t worry, Samantha, I’m fully charged. I’ll rip the doors from the frames if I have to.” Eliza made a fist with her mechanical hand.

Decker gave Eliza a one-eyed squint. “You know what? We’ll just wait thirty-five minutes to be safe.”

The shield-reinforced doors to the Industrial Distribution and Asset Protection lobby closed automatically as Samantha passed through them. Julian had encoded the shipment to another throwaway identity. This time, the shipment was for Alissa Hammond, verified by the counterfeit identity embedded in Samantha’s comm. IDAP, the common name for this sector-spanning logistics company, had terminals and depots across the Fringe, the Imperium, and even in Sellacan space. The logistics of shipping and tracking things across star systems were astronomical in scale. No tampering with the process or with deliveries was tolerated. There was no way for Samantha to check Julian’s handiwork; the fact that she was inside the expansive IDAP lobby was the only evidence she had of his success. Had it not worked, the doors would not have opened.

In contrast to the building’s stark and unadorned exterior, the lobby was decorated with carved wooden moulding along the floor and ceiling, hand-textured plaster walls, and thick carpeting that looked like it had been cleaned just before she entered. On the wall opposite the entrance was a row of elevator doors, with lightly tinted glass in the space between, too thick to only be for show. Feeling the carpet absorb her footfalls as she walked, Samantha couldn’t help but notice the same, subtle, disguised security measures much like what the Radiance back on Kestris had also used to keep their upscale clientele safe. Decker and Eliza wouldn’t be forcing their way in.

Samantha stopped and scanned the lobby surroundings. Only a few customers walked back and forth from the elevators, each accompanied by an IDAP attendant wearing the same semi-formal sweater and pressed pants. More IDAP staff roamed the floor, offering assistance in hushed tones. One approached Samantha, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Welcome, Ms. Hammond. My name is Brandt. Our systems notified me of your arrival. If you would like, I can lead you to your shipment. It is located on level two-hundred, bay eight, section nine, row thirty, block four, locker ninety-nine,” the attendant said, his voice smooth and warm. Samantha took a look at the rows of elevators and lack of any other options as to how she would retrieve whatever Julian had left her.

“Yes, that will be fine. Thank you,” Samantha said. 

The attendant bowed and indicated that Samantha was to follow him. It was quite the step up in manners than what she and Eliza had experienced at Mardigan’s weapons depot on Mentaryd. Brandt led her to the row of elevator doors, nodding politely to other customers and attendants as they passed, moving with purpose and certainty. They reached an elevator at the far side of the cavernous room and the doors opened as she and Brandt approached.

“Ms. Hammond, after you.”

Samantha pressed her lips into a thin smile and entered the elevator. Brandt followed, and the doors slid closed silently behind him as the elevator started to climb just as silently. Brandt switched to clasping his hands in front of himself, placidly looking forward at the brushed, brass-colored doors.

“Level two-hundred, how far up is that?” Samantha asked.

“Ah, yes, Ms. Hammond, level two-hundred is our highest level, just below the rooftop landing pads and oversized storage. It is the level that allows for the highest degree of security as your shipments specified.”

Samantha eyed Brandt for a moment, who only continued to smile. Shipments, plural? It was strange phrasing, but there was no real telling the system of organization IDAP used or why a few 5E pieces of hardware would require such logistics.

The elevator slowed to a stop and chimed, the doors sliding open as it did.

“Here we are, level two-hundred. Right this way,” Brandt said, stepping out of the elevator and waiting for Samantha to follow, hands once again clasped behind his back. “If you don’t mind me saying, we do not get many shipments like yours. Not that we would ever refuse a customer in need, but it was an extra delight to be able to make a delivery on such a tight schedule. Especially of this magnitude.”

Tight schedule? Julian had arranged for this nearly two weeks ago. Even taking into account long jump times, nearly anything could be shipped by a professional logistics company like IDAP in that time, especially something as easy to move as a tacsuit, visor, and mobile computing core that could fit in an average backpack.

The two walked onto the floor. The lights were dim, and there was no one else there but Samantha and Brandt. Brandt led her down another long aisle between the stacks before stopping in front of a row of neat looking storage lockers, each isolated with booth walls that protruded on either side of the locker’s door, blocking the view to the neighbor’s door.

“Level two-hundred, bay eight, section nine, row thirty, block four, locker ninety-nine, Ms. Hammond. I will wait for you back near the elevator. When you are finished, I can take you to your second shipment.”

“Second shipment?” Samantha tensed her muscles, paying close attention to Brandt and their surroundings. “My friend did not inform me he would be sending anything additional.”

Brandt winced, raising an apologetic hand. “Oh, I see. Yes, Ms. Hammond, you do have another delivery waiting. It only just arrived. Priority express level one. I should be the one to apologize for not being more clear. I wrongfully presumed you would have known. When you are ready, I can take you. It is on the roof.”

Samantha instinctually confirmed the presence of the karambit on her hip, noting the bump of the handle beneath her jacket. “That is fine, thank you.”

The presence of a second shipment was a deviation from the plan, but the plan had been nothing more than a brief conversation between her and Julian in the shadows of a Kestris slum some weeks ago. Maybe Julian had been thwarted somehow and had to send whatever he sent in two separate shipments. Maybe there was an error with the identity and she was receiving a package that wasn’t meant for her but instead for a real Alissa Hammond who Julian had mistakenly replicated. Or maybe Brandt was a Red Kestrel, one of Kat Basara’s paid-off thugs who was just waiting for the chance to hit her with a bolt rifle after she opened the 5E case.

Samantha took a slow breath, letting the hypervigilance settle. This wasn’t how operations worked; she would open the shipment, verify its contents, and then allow Brandt to lead her to whatever else Julian sent. She had nothing to fear from the IDAP attendant. He had something to fear from her. Everyone in the Fringe did until she figured out who was behind the Kestrel and Imperium collusion.

Brandt walked calmly back toward the elevator. Samantha gave him a moment to make some distance, then stepped into the small booth in front of the locker and sent the one-time signal from her comm to the locking mechanism. The locker’s indicator faded from red to green and she heard a click. A flush of warmth ran over Samantha’s skin as she pulled the door open. Leaving her apartment and meager possessions behind hadn’t bothered her. What bothered her was being out in a wild sector with nothing but store-bought gear and an exceptionally sharp knife. That was all about to change.

A soft overhead light came alive inside the locker. Sitting there, nondescript and unassuming, was a shipping box no larger than her torso. She pulled the flaps back and looked inside. It was a hard-shell, standard gear case like they use on every 5E mission, just small enough to carry with one hand. She leaned backward and glanced back toward the elevator. Brandt was still there, facing away to give her privacy. 

Samantha leaned back in and pulled the case out, turning it on its side. There was a lock on the case, one Samantha was familiar with. It would only accept a predetermined access signal, which Julian had also provided. Any attempt to open the case without the signal would ignite a lining within the case that would weld it closed and turn anything inside to slag, not to mention create enough heat that anyone nearby would wish they weren’t.

Samantha sent the signal from her comm and the case clicked once, a tiny indicator light on the locking mechanism pulsing blue. She was in. She pulled the lid back to examine the contents: visor and headgear; check. Tacsuit pants and jacket; check. Standard 5E wearable computer core and matching wrist comm; check. Long range communication array; check. Remote operated drone; check—though this may have been Julian’s way of merely saying hello since there was nothing on the Matilda that could remotely operate the drone. Each piece was stored in a form-fitting section of the case’s thick, foam lining.

It was enough hardware to outfit one person with basic 5E mission gear and attire. No weapons, but she and Eliza had already taken care of that. Besides, the plan was to get close enough to Basara that the karambit would be sufficient. This was not a frontal assault mission.

Samantha shut the case and locked it, then pulled it out and carried it like a suitcase, leaving the shipping box behind. The weight of the case was reassuring. Samantha felt that she had made a big step forward after a series of too many false starts. She made her way towards Brandt who sensed her coming and turned to greet her.

“I trust you found your shipment in order, Ms. Hammond?”

Samantha nodded. She assumed everything should be in order, given the un-melted nature of the case and locker. As to what else could be waiting, she wasn’t sure. Maybe more experimental weaponry, personal stealth suit, or something to help outfit the Matilda like a portable ship’s computing core. Samantha smirked; Sellivan would love to get his bony hands on that.

“Excellent. If you’ll follow me to the roof,” Brandt said, gesturing back toward the elevator.

Samantha nodded again. “Right.” If level two-hundred was their highest security level, what did that mean for whatever was above?

Samantha and Brandt stepped into the elevator and rode up the extra few seconds to the top level. The doors opened and revealed the flat and paved tarmac, large fixtures around the edge subtly concealing artillery batteries placed at even intervals around the perimeter.

The Senali sun blazed in the sky overhead. Enormous shipping containers lined the edges of the building, anti-grav-enhanced cranes moving some of them back and forth while a pair of lift ships carried other containers beneath them on cables. Samantha could see the city stretching out into the horizon in every direction, the din of the streets below echoing up. 

“Welcome to the oversized storage landing, Ms. Hammond,” Brandt said, raising his voice over the outdoor commotion. “Please, your shipment is right this way.” 

Samantha set her jaw and followed Brandt. Her eyes were still adjusting to the sunlight after having been in the building’s dim interior, but even through her squinting she could tell that this container was far, far larger than she had anticipated. What did Julian do? In front of her was an enormous, reinforced metal box with corrugated metal walls and several stabilizing pylons around each corner. On the front of the container was another locked door, large enough to walk through.

“This is it? All of this?” Samantha asked. Brandt nodded with a satisfied smile.

“Indeed it is. I will once again wait near the elevator while you take a look. If its contents satisfy you, we can arrange for final delivery.”

Samantha raised an eyebrow. “So, you don’t know what’s in there?”

Brandt’s eyes went wide. “No, certainly not! Once a package is accepted and sealed, we do not pry into our customer’s shipments. Not once, not ever, not for any government, military, or legal authority. When IDAP says your goods are safe and sound, we mean it.”

Samantha sighed. “Okay, then. Yes, go wait, and we can talk about the final delivery.” 

Samantha played along, hiding her confusion. Julian was smart. Whatever was happening right now, he would have thought it through. She just had to put herself in his mind and work through the logic. A difficult task, considering he was far more intelligent than she was.

Brandt left her alone in the sun, and Samantha approached the container’s metal door. It had the same IDAP style lock interface as the locker had. She raised her comm to send the transmission signal, but hesitated, her hyper-vigilance again taking over. 

This second delivery was both unexpected and unexplainable. If this was an ambush, it was overly elaborate and meandering; she could have been killed dozens of times by now in far easier ways. Maybe someone wanted access to the gear in the case and was waiting behind the door to seize her and it. No; none of these paranoid assumptions made sense. The 5E gear was valuable, but not valuable enough for an elaborate heist. 

Pushing the speculation aside, she sent the signal to the door. It clicked. She took a quick breath and pulled the door open just enough to peer inside.

Blackness. No automatic light here. Samantha opened the door wider, letting sunlight spill into the container and carefully stuck her head in to look. 

The case dropped from her hand and clattered to the ground. 

Samantha took a moment more to absorb what she was looking at, then quickly slammed the door shut and activated the lock.

Brandt was slowly approaching from the elevator door, his arms raised in front of him to indicate he was no threat. “Ms. Hammond, are you okay? Is your shipment okay? I apologize, but I heard a bit of a commotion.”

Samantha walked swiftly back toward the elevator, masking her surprise and excitement. “Yes, Brandt, things are fine. I will be needing a bit of elaboration on what ‘final delivery’ entails for something of this size and mass.”

Brandt was visibly relieved. “Very good, yes. Of course. The containers here are all stored with the knowledge that they will be transported to nearby secondary locations once the owners are in possession. Your shipment was instructed to be held here until final delivery instructions were provided.”

Samantha nodded, imagining what Julian must have done to pull this off. Something really must have changed back on Kestris. “I am presuming that my associate paid quite a premium for this?”

Brandt cast his eyes downward. “I will only say that whoever is responsible for this spared no expense to ensure your privacy and convenience.” Brandt looked over his shoulders, then spoke softly. “To be candid, I’ve never personally witnessed a priority express level one. The logistics were a heroic feat. All that remains is for you to tell us where you would like it delivered.”

Samantha nodded in approval. Not at Brandt’s statement, but at Julian’s heroic feat. “Good. I have a ship waiting just outside the city. I trust you do night deliveries?”

“So, what’s the real story?” the voice of mischief asked, cutting through the moment of silence Decker had been enjoying. He turned to look over his shoulder toward Eliza who was still lounging in the back seat of the rented car, bolt pistol lying on the empty seat next to her.

Decker returned his gaze to the street, feigning ignorance. “Real story about what?”

A foot kicked lightly against the back of his driver’s seat. “Come on, Deck. You and Samantha.”

Decker snorted, eyes on the entrance of the IDAP storage facility. Ground cars and pedestrians passed in front of them with the shadows of air vehicles zipping along the ground beneath them. He should have known being left alone with the detective would lead to this.

“You’re living the real story, Eliza. This is it.” Decker gestured toward the building Samantha had entered. “This is Samantha. Where trouble goes, she follows. Or maybe that’s backwards. Either way, she only seems to thrive in a state of perpetual crisis.”

Eliza crawled through the gap between the two front seats, knees and elbows jabbing into Decker as she did. She plopped herself into the passenger seat and lowered the window. The sounds and smells of the city wafted into the car, the thrum of a busy city mixed with the surprisingly pleasant aroma of the humid climate; a welcome change from Mentaryd’s dust and the Matilda’s recycled air.

“I gathered that much,” Eliza said, adding through a mutter, “believe me on that.” She exhaled loudly. “But why? What thrilling tale of tragedy and heartbreak creates this one-woman army? I’m not gonna lie Deck, I respect her tenacity, but an Imperium commemorative gold retirement comm and plaque aren’t quite enough motivation for this sort of crusade.”

Decker shifted in his seat and bit his cheek, turning his attention out the driver’s side window. “I mean, this… this is her life. She’s never done anything else. Came straight out of a fancy secondary school into the University of the Imperium, took only the required courses to make sure she would be accepted into the intelligence academy, no civilian life experience in between.”

Eliza sighed and clicked her tongue. “Institutionalized.”

Decker shrugged. “I guess. But lots of people take that route, living their lives as public servants. Not that that actually means anything. I think she was just a mad kid who needed a place to be a mad adult. And having the Imperium support a life of traveling around the sector ruining other people’s days was the sort of—what?—catharsis she needed.”

Eliza turned to Decker, bringing one foot up onto the seat. “But what’s she mad about? You’ve known her a long time. Were you two…” Eliza rocked her head side to side, bouncing where her eyebrows would be. “You know?”

Decker squeezed his eyes closed, scoffing in disgust. “No, Eliza. We were not ‘you know.’ Not at all.”

Eliza grunted and slapped the back of her hand across Decker’s arm. “Well, then, what is it?”

Decker sighed, checking the street to see if Samantha was arriving to rescue him from Eliza’s line of questioning. No such luck. He fished around his jacket’s inside-pocket for the nether cartridge, pulling it out and placing it between his teeth, letting it bob as he spoke.

“Look, it’s not really my place to say.” Decker shifted in his seat. Why wasn’t it his place to say? Her parentage was public record, and while he knew she wouldn’t appreciate being the topic of conversation, there was nothing wrong about him filling in his crew with details about their current paying customer. He took a drag off the nether, exhaling through a sigh. “Her father was an Imperium politician, like a diplomat or ambassador—I don’t know. Something important. He travelled a lot, and one of those trips ended up with him being killed by Fringe agitators.” Reed Casto’s words about how he’d killed his father echoed in Decker’s mind. He’d leave out those details; not for Samantha’s sake, but for his own. “I think she’s been trying to undo that ever since.”

“Takes a lot of energy to try to undo something that can’t be undone.” Eliza turned her cybernetic hand palm up, staring at it and adding with an uncomfortable degree of seriousness, “I know all about that.”

“Yeah, well… we all do.” Decker said, taking another drag off the nether, just enough to bring him back down to where he had been before this conversation.

 Eliza extended her cybernetic arm and wiggled the fingers. Decker handed her the cartridge, and she took several long drags before handing it back. “Okay, okay, okay. I get it, you don’t want to talk about it,” she said through an exhalation of nether vapor.

“Don’t want to and don’t need to,” Decker replied, neither statement necessarily true. 

The two sat in silence for what felt like hours, passing the nether back and forth, letting its haze wash over them. Sometimes, not thinking was the best answer to any problem, trusting in your future self to handle things.

A rapping against the van’s side window caused both Decker and Eliza to jump. Eliza’s hand brought up a bolt pistol from out of nowhere and aimed it toward the disturbance.

“Shit! What?” Decker said as he spun around in his chair to see who was at the door, the nether cartridge tumbling from his mouth to the floor of the van. 

It was Samantha. Relief flooded Decker’s body; the jolt had nearly expelled all the nether’s calming effects. He unlocked the door and Samantha gently placed a medium-sized suitcase onto the seat before ducking in after it.

“We’re good. Slight change of plans,” Samantha said. “There’s another package we need to get aboard the Matilda.”

Decker scrunched his nose. “Another package?”

“Another package?” Eliza echoed.

Samantha’s eyes narrowed, her gaze shifting back and forth between Decker and Eliza like a judgmental parent. “Yes. Another package.”

Decker looked at the suitcase. “But, it’s not… with you?”

“They will deliver it to the shipyard. Can you get Heavy to send the exact measurements of the Matilda’s cargo bay interior as well as the dimensions of the cargo doors when fully opened?”

Decker shook his head. Maybe he’d had too much nether. “Cargo bay? What exactly are we transporting?”

“Yes, Decker, the cargo bay. Please,” Samantha said, speaking slowly. “And do you have a winch and cable system in there? Rolling ramps?”

Decker nodded, fumbling to tuck the nether back into his jacket pocket. “Uh, sure, but why? How big of a… thing could you have?”

“Big enough.”

Eliza turned to face Samantha, her face deadly serious. “Samantha, just when I think your cryptic, bizarre requests can’t get any more cryptic and bizarre, you come up with something like this.”

Decker, Manu, and Heavy stood behind the Matilda’s stern, each looking up at the enormous cargo bay as it was lowered down the four telescoping pylons that normally held it against the living compartment of the ship, the cavernous bay now being lowered toward the Senali shipfield tarmac.

“Wait, a what?” Manu said, arms folded across his chest.

“A ship. A little one, but still a fully functional ship. Advanced, super specialized.” Decker said.

Manu frowned. “I get that it’s a ship. What I meant was, what is the explanation of how she acquired it, and what she intends to do with it.”

Decker chuckled, placing a hand on Manu’s shoulder. “Well, Manu, I am guessing that’s something we’re going to see for ourselves.”

 The cargo bay finished lowering with a thud Decker could feel in his feet. The large doors swung open and the loading ramp extended. Normally, the cargo bay was a cold, dark cavern with only a few layers of metal separating it from the void of space, but today it was flooded with Senali sunlight, making it feel even bigger than normal.

“Here, Heavy.” Decker handed Heavy a datapad, which looked like it shrunk in half in the big man’s hand. “These are the dimensions and anchor points. She said that the people will set the container down there,” Decker pointed to an empty landing pad across the tarmac, “and then a cargo cart can pull it over. After that, I guess we use the winch to pull it in.”

Heavy whistled. “Can you believe it? An Imperium stealth infiltrator using the Matilda as a hangar. The value of our ship goes up one—hundred times when it’s in there. If anyone would even believe it’s in there!”

“Hundred times?” Manu shook his head. “Try a thousand. Or infinity. How can  you tell with something that has no market value? It’s not on any markets.”

Decker walked to the ramp, taking a few steps up as he surveyed the Matilda’s cargo bay in daylight for the first time in months. “Heavy… verdict?”

Heavy squinted one eye, looked at the datapad, and then held up his thumb and finger as a reference point. “It will work. Nothing to worry about. Winch can pull it no problem, and it looks like we can strap it here, here, and here, then use the crane to secure it here,” Heavy said, pointing out spots on the cargo bay’s interior of metal beams, girders, and railed walkways. He joined Decker on the ramp, booted feet causing the structure to shudder. “But Deck, this is sort of a cargo bay, you know?”

Decker smiled pleasantly. “I do know that, Hev. Did you bump your head?”

Heavy chuckled. “I mean, Samantha doesn’t think that it can act as an actual hangar, does she? I mean…” Heavy waved his arm in a large circle. “You feel that air? We open these doors in hard vacuum, we lose it all with no way to replace it until we touch down on a planet again. We could launch it if grav was disabled. It would take some modifications, but we could do it. The problem is that we can only do it once because, as you well know, there’s no air in space.”

Decker placed his hands on his hips. “Huh. Yeah. Okay… what about the recompression tanks? Couldn’t we pump the bay’s air into the tanks and store it while it’s open?”

Heavy shook his head. “Keeping five of us breathing in a low-pressure environment with air scrubbers is easy, especially if we split water molecules. The recompression tanks are for the living spaces and equalizing airlocks. The volume of the cargo bay is probably triple the rest of the livable spaces. We’d need some serious new tanks to store that much air.”

“See Deck? Problems,” Manu said, joining Decker and Heavy on the ramp.

Decker grunted; another request of Samantha’s that gave his ship and crew both an enticing new possibility and also elevated their overall levels of risk. “I’ll put that on our upgrades list. Okay, so we can load it in here on the surface, and if we need to launch it in vacuum, the cargo bay just becomes an airless death-trap until we can set down somewhere. Got it.”

Manu shook his head, pacing his way up the ramp. “First, we impersonate an Imperium Navy ship. Now we’re acting as a carrier. Soon we’ll need uniforms, ranks, schedules…”

Decker grinned at his friend. “We’ve wanted some sort of shuttlecraft on the Matilda for a long time. This is a great way to do it without any cost to us.”

Heavy stomped up the ramp, boots rumbling, muttering something as he looked around. “Could even develop a launch and land system… add some reinforced girdle encabulators, a pair of transom flex torsion pinions, new shearing pin husk collars…” 

Decker smiled. “See, Manu? Just need to add some husk collars. Plus, if we decide she’s gotta go, she has a way to do that. The thing has a short-range jumpdrive, as stealthy as they come. We’re free to boot her from the ship guilt-free if needed.”

Manu held out his arms. “Fine, but you know that every credit of value we carry makes us that much more of a target to pirates, should any realize what we’re carrying. A ship like that in here, we’d be the hottest catch in the sector.”

Decker feigned a look of concern. Manu raised an eyebrow, shook his head, then turned to walk back into the ship’s interior. Decker let him reach the cargo hold’s airlock door at the top of the metal steps before adding, “Then we better not get caught!”

The Matilda’s common room was looking more like an operations room each visit. The personal items, board games, and half-eaten plates of food were all cleared away, replaced by mission hardware. With the addition of the Nighthawk Julian had smuggled their way—a feat Samantha couldn’t begin to grasp the logistics of—the Matilda was turning into a passable support vessel.

Samantha, Sellivan, and Eliza stood over the table now covered with a variety of weapons and Imperium gear.

“Remarkable,” Sellivan said, a genuine gleam of curiosity in his eye as he examined the 5E tacsuit on the table. “This is… you have more processing power here than in the entire rest of the ship.”

Samantha grinned at the spread of familiar, black-clad gear. “Wait until we hook into the Nighthawk’s computers.”

Eliza picked up the drone that was collapsed into its compact, deactivated state. “Is this what it looks like?”

“Remote presence drone. Controllers use it to detect and observe things I can’t, or to interact with the environment on their own.”

Eliza held the drone up to her eye; the cybernetic one. “Can I fly it?”

Samantha shook her head. “Not sure. It’s not controlled by the suit. It’s controlled from orbit. Maybe Sellivan can figure it out.”

Sellivan’s eyes widened at the invitation. Eliza laughed and tossed it his way, Sellivan’s bony fingers reaching up to snatch it greedily out of the air.

Samantha picked up the tacsuit visor, gave the straps a quick inspection, then pulled it onto her head. It had never been used before, the clear material still unmarred by any action. She reached down to the table and activated the tacsuit’s computer that was integrated into the belt and harness beneath the jacket, inputting the activation code visible on her 5E comm. The calibration sensors in the device came to life and began tracking her eyes, looking for a retina implant lock. 

Samantha held her eyes still, and after a few moments the system pulsed green and she was connected. The interface overlay appeared, familiar lines and readouts seeming to float before her in the crew lounge arm’s length away. The tacsuit computer had nothing to connect to yet, the visor had only established a connection from itself to the suit. This meant no direct connections to the outside sector networks without using the Matilda as a tunnel—if Sellivan didn’t shut her out again.

Samantha turned to Sellivan, lifting the tacsuit in her hand. “Sellivan, I want to link the suit’s comm array to the ship so the computers can talk back and forth. More for you to examine.”

Sellivan smiled impishly. “Of course. Let us tap it in.” He walked to his computer on the lounge dining table and tapped a series of commands. “Initiated.”

Samantha swiped a finger across the screen of her new comm, watching the interface in the visor change as she did. She scanned for the Matilda’s link request, found it, connected, and watched the signal indicator climb to full power. The tacsuit established its connection to the Matilda, and the Matilda’s connection to the Senali public networks became available.

“Connection established,” Samantha said, giving Sellivan a thumbs-up. She raised her hands to deactivate the visor when she noticed a small notification indicator on the overlays had just blinked on. It was a message. A data patch had been pushed to this suit and required download approval.

“What?” Samantha whispered. It had to be a mistake.

“What? Problem with the hardware?” Eliza asked, holding the Imperium comm up to her eyes. “Seems like this stuff is built to last three-times over. Defective unit?”

“Uh, no. No, just some settings I need to adjust,” Samantha said. She held out her hand, gesturing to the comm. “Can I have that?”

Eliza shrugged and handed it to her. Samantha turned away, keeping the visor’s clear surface away from Eliza’s enhanced eye. She tapped a command into the Imperium comm and the message centered in her augmented view.

Whatever the message was, it was still encoded. The suit’s computing core would not have automatically connected to Imperium servers. Julian was too smart for that. It could be a routine system update; Samantha hadn’t initialized a new tacsuit in several  years. Somehow, she suspected there was nothing routine about this message. It was Julian—it had to be.

Samantha opened the message. A floating box containing a short paragraph appeared in the visor’s display floating in the space in front of her. 

“OS-9 is on the Kestrels’ trail. They know of insiders. Renic is involved, commander of new division, also suspected in compromise, attempting to implicate you as a conspirator with the RK. Beware of interference from both OS-9 and Renic. Mitigation efforts are being activated. Stay alert. Additional logistical support has been provided. Continue mission with enhanced caution.”

Samantha read the message again, then once more, each time building up a new layer of anger. The world of the Matilda faded from her view and she was left with only images of those mentioned in the message. OS-9 looking into her after the section-42 was expected. The Navy would naturally want to pursue any leads that would seem to connect with the Kestrels. She could deal with OS-9; they weren’t real operators.

But Renic? Renic was something else. Samantha felt her jaw clench, her cheeks twitching as she replayed the conversation she’d had with him in her apartment. He’d wanted her to join his new division, to help assist him in protecting the Imperium under Fleet Marshal Gallow’s watchful eye. But she’d spurned him only days before the Starview Station attack, leaving him without an answer. Was he using his new division to investigate her? Why? He would never presume that she was colluding with the Red Kestrels. He knew her at least that well. No, it had to be a reaction to her deception when he’d come to her apartment. And if, based on the message, Julian and Clarke suspected Renic in the compromise that was the ignition for this mission… that meant that Renic could be the one involved with the Kestrels and now he was looking for her because he’d found out she was, without realizing it, looking for him. It all made sense. An infuriating, logical sense.

Samantha closed her eyes, letting a slow breath cool her blood. It would fit; he had the access, the know-how, and if anyone was power-hungry enough to sell out their own people and carry out the collusion with the Red Kestrels in exchange for some inexplicable promotion into Gallow’s inner circle, it was him. Was Renic was trying to pin his own crimes on Samantha as cover?

Samantha forced herself to calm down just enough that the Matilda crew members wouldn’t notice. She opened her eyes and turned to scan the lounge; Eliza was still fiddling with the new hardware, Sellivan was staring intently at his computer. She checked the message one more time. There was no attached data about where or when it had originated. Julian had found a way to get her a message without implicating himself or creating anything that could be traced back to him, limited as the truncated text was. Julian, and presumably Clarke, had wanted her to know this about Renic. That meant they did not feel they could contain things on their end. So just how much was Renic interfering?

Samantha pulled the visor off her head and shut it down, careful to keep the anger in her hands from gripping too tightly. The immediate mission was clear; the Kestrels had to be stopped. They were the tip of the sword. Whoever was feeding them intelligence would be on the other end, holding the handle. 

It wouldn’t be enough to simply confront Kat Basara. Samantha would need to make sure that Basara led her back to whoever her Imperium contact was. And if it was Renic, then the path after Senali had just become much more obvious.