Episode 36: Welcome to the conspiracy’s conspiracy

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Julian, Qin, and Yadav have agreed to meet in a more hospitable environment.

Julian put his hands in his jacket pockets. The temperature had dropped in the last hour since leaving his off-site office. For the first time since the Starview Station attack, the Kestris City skies drizzled, the staccato pattern of raindrops falling on the metal awning overhead, muffling the sounds of the nearby skylanes. The rain didn’t change anything about what the Imperium faced, but it seemed to have a calming effect on the populace. Even in the grip of uncertainty, rain would still fall, and the universe would continue.

And continue it did, at least as far as Julian’s universe was concerned. An encrypted message from Lieutenants Yadav and Meredessi had come through earlier that day. They had requested they meet; neutral ground, secluded, off the record. Julian had provided the location, an outer-ring commerce district on the far southern edge of the city, far from any government facilities. The building he waited in front of was unoccupied, awaiting new tenants who could afford the district’s ever-climbing rents. It was an excellent location for a clandestine meeting, though he and his guests would not be going inside.

Julian had arrived ahead of the lieutenants, making sure the place was secure and that no one had followed him. The chances were low that Renic would attempt another abduction after the failed ending of the last one, but the assault was still fresh in Julian’s mind, and he could not fathom returning to that white-torture cell.

An involuntary shudder at the memory coursed across Julian’s skin as a public autocab rounded a corner and descended to a stop in front of the building. The autocab door slid to the side, rain dripping across the opening. Yadav and Qin ducked out and double-timed it to the awning where Julian was standing. Gone were the white, Imperium Navy uniforms. Each of them now wore completely unremarkable street clothes and long jackets. Julian smiled at the change of appearance; it was always so interesting to see people dressed-down when previous encounters had always been in uniform. Though for Meredessi, he supposed the uniform was the disguise and this was closer to her actual identity. 5E had no dress code.

Julian knew Qin’s secret, and he suspected that Yadav did not. However, Qin did not know Julian was the one who had activated her, and the director had not said whether that was a relevant detail or not. Perhaps he could find a way to let Qin know that she has another friend present.

“Agent Siddig,” Yadav said, shaking water from her sleeves.

“Please, please. Julian is fine,” he said, gesturing at each of their civilian attire. “It is just us out here.”

Yadav eyed Qin, a reluctant shrug accompanying her words. “Fine.” She nodded to the darkened building entrance behind Julian. “We going inside? Does it have power?”

Julian bounced once on his heels. “No, and no. This is where we meet, not talk. For that,” he gestured towards a nondescript vehicle that was parked across the street, rain falling freely onto it. “You can dismiss your car. We will be taking mine.”

“That wasn’t what we talked about,” Yadav said. Qin placed a hand on her arm.

“It is okay, Esme. We are now on, as you might say, Julian’s turf.” Qin said. Yadav’s lips pressed tight, but she remained silent. She pulled back the sleeve of her jacket and pressed a virtual button on the curved screen of her comm’s interface. The car they had arrived in closed its door and eased away, empty, back into the skylane. 

“I appreciate the endorsement. I assure you both, this is for all our safety. You have heard of safehouses? Well, this is a safe-car. Armored, transmission-shielded, no record of ownership. Once we are inside, we are as good as invisible,” Julian said, tipping his head and adding, “until we exit, of course.”

Yadav scrunched her lips to the side. “Where is it taking us?” she asked.

Julian smiled. “Nowhere. We will fly in a big circle, tracing the city’s perimeter, after which I can drop you off anywhere convenient. Given each of our employers, this is one of the few places in the system I can be certain is private.” Julian took a step toward the car, but stopped. “Oh, please note, your comms and any other broadcasting devices you have will not be able to send or receive transmissions.”

Qin nodded. “Yes. We have arranged for our absence to be accounted for.”

Julian bowed his head. “Excellent. If you would join me in my office, please.”

The three scurried through the drizzle across the empty street. The car’s door slid open and the interior light came to life with a soft, orange glow. Julian stopped at the door, motioning for the two lieutenants to enter. Yadav was first, taking one of the rear-facing seats. Qin followed, taking the seat next to her. Julian was last, taking the forward-facing seat opposite his guests, noting how both of the lieutenants—trained intelligence officers—had opted to sit where they could not see where they were going.

The door slid shut, the car’s windows tinting automatically, and they were enclosed in silence, the sound of rainfall nullified by the vehicle’s noise cancellation filters. Julian held out his hands, showing off the car’s interior. “It is not pretty on the outside, but I think we know better than most when outside appearances do not reflect their interior.” Julian tapped his comm, activating the car’s flight path. It gently eased itself up off the ground, moving towards an ascent lane. “We are effectively alone. I take it that this is a continuation of our previous conversation?”

“That’s right,” Yadav said, crossing her arms. “Before Director Clarke cut us short, you were quite blunt with your assertion that there is a problem on the Terminus, and we don’t believe that it was merely a guess.”

Julian exhaled, nodding in acknowledgment of his none-too-subtle hint. “Yes. I apologize for the nature of how the topic was broached. As you can see, I needed your attention quickly, and it appears I was successful.”

Yadav leaned back into the seat, arms still folded. “Indeed you were. We had a little time to do some exploration of our own, and we’d like to broach a topic as well,” Yadav grinned, though Julian suspected that levity was not the source of her satisfaction. “Qin, care to elaborate for Julian?”

Qin adjusted her posture and wove her fingers together, placing them in her lap. Julian smiled in anticipation; he had already made a guess at what they might surprise him with and was eager to confirm his deductions.

“Julian, at some point between the hijacking of the Dauntless and the attack on Starview Station, we believe that you and Director Clarke ordered Samantha Mori to carry out an unsanctioned mission. We believe that you and the director arranged for a section-42 as cover. Given the nature of that cover, we believe it was you who personally redacted, modified, or otherwise deleted many key pieces of information regarding Samantha and her missions, namely, her most recent mission on Senali.”

Julian raised his eyebrows, impressed at how accurate Qin’s deduction was. “Fascinating. I presume that it was Renic’s introduction of Samantha as a target for OS-9 that allowed you to fill in so many of the gaps?”

Qin nodded. “Indeed. The commander’s story had a great deal of face validity, but I believe he underestimated the level of scrutiny his story would be required to endure.”

Yadav grunted. “The difference between 5E field agents and us desk analysts, am I right?”

Julian clapped softly; Yadav was lightening up. “Wonderful, Lieutenants. Please, Qin, continue!”

Qin glanced at Yadav, then back to Julian. “Yes. Well, through our deductions with the evidence at hand, we are confident that this decision to disavow Agent—ah, Samantha, was based on information you obtained regarding the Red Kestrels and the Terminus compromise, though you prevented this information from entering 5E records. We believe this information was obtained, not through an internal Imperium leak, but on Senali through a Red Kestrel named Eddie Renner, again, a name left out of any report and only introduced to us through Commander Tau.”

Julian chuckled. “He even brought up Renner? My, my. The commander is weaving quite the conspiracy in his attempts to thwart your investigations.”

Yadav leaned forward. “So, it was this Renner then, yes? Do you have his location?”

Julian winced at the question. “Ahh… no. Though you are correct in your presumption about Renner’s involvement. The decision to leave him on Senali was an improvisation by my partner. Though I do not believe her other ‘option’ would have been to bring him in alive.” 

Yadav scoffed and shook her head, muttering something about 5E. Julian smiled, pretending not to hear as he turned his attention back to Qin. “Please, continue.”

Qin nodded. “You, Director Clarke, and Agent Mori are conducting an unsanctioned operation based on the information you retrieved and subsequently hid from your own agency. However,” Qin paused, giving Yadav a quick glance, “Commander Tau’s interference and the Starview Station attack added unforeseen variables to the situation. You are wagering that we have also concluded that Commander Tau may be a source for the Red Kestrel and Imperium collusion, which also means that you presume we will all agree that our respective organizations are not to be trusted.”

“How’d she do?” Yadav asked, a glimmer of admiration in her eyes she could not disguise.

Julian clapped softly; it was clear why Clarke had recruited Qin. He felt a flutter of excitement as he envisioned Qin with a decade’s-worth of talent-refining experience tempering her raw abilities. “Extraordinary. I must say, it is fortunate that of all the people who might have eventually put this together, it is the two of you I find sitting across from me.”

Yadav lowered her eyebrows. “Care to elaborate?”

Julian hummed in affirmation. “Yes. What Qin described is treason, and as OS-9 officers you are obligated to pursue those you suspect of it with all the resources at your disposal. Yet you have not. Instead, you have entered into the conspiracy, knowing that if your enemy is within your own ranks, working outside of the system is the only place you can freely operate.”

Yadav glared across the car; perhaps this was her first time going out of bounds for the sake of a greater objective. At least Julian could count on Qin understanding, even if she couldn’t show it.

Qin nodded, clearly acknowledging the rationale. “This is an unconventional approach, but off-the-books, never to be recorded black operations are a part of both 5E and OS-9’s repertoire of strategies, even if they are of extreme risk,” Qin said. Julian smiled, wondering if she had intended for the double-meaning of her words.

Yadav leaned forward, uncrossing her arms and placing her hands on her knees. “Listen, Julian. In the spirit of ‘unconventional approaches,’ I want you to give us something in good faith. You learned of the compromise on the Terminus from this Renner fellow. What was it you learned?”

“Ah, yes. Right to the core, the key information OS-9 is missing because of me,” Julian said with a nod.

“Well?” Yadav insisted.

“I just told you; the key information. Key.” Julian smiled at his joke, waiting for a response. Neither of his guests reacted, each staring back at him with slightly wrinkled foreheads. Julian sighed, silently wishing Samantha were here; she would have at least retorted with a cynical, sarcastic barb prompting him on. “Let me explain.”

Julian recounted the events leading to Samantha’s exile as the car continued its route around the city—the mission on Senali, the discovery of the duplicate Terminus key and how it was used against the Dauntless, and the altering of 5E records that might reveal their discovery. There was no turning back for Julian, Clarke, or Samantha; either this won the lieutenants to their side, or Julian had just arranged for the swift end of everything they had worked so hard to keep well-compartmentalized. 

Julian knew he could trust Qin. She wouldn’t betray one of Clarke’s own—he hoped. Yadav needed to be won over, though, and Qin’s influence would be essential for that.

Yadav’s eyes flared. “You knew how the Dauntless was taken? Why didn’t you share this? That information could have changed the entire chain of events that led to the Starview attack,” she shouted.

Julian kept his expression firm. “Share with whom? This is not a simple information leak. The level of access and planning required was unprecedented. The High Imperius himself could be the compromise and I would not be surprised. We had no one with which to share without risking sending an advanced warning to anyone involved.” Julian sighed. Yadav’s anger was justified, though she seemed to be angry with more than just him. For that reason, he needed Qin to be the one to prompt a response.

Julian looked away, preparing an expression of urgency for Qin to read. “Please, we must face the reality that those behind this plot have us in a circular quandary. We have little hard evidence, and the more we interfere, the more they become aware while we lose any advantage. I am genuine when I tell you that right now, this is me sharing the information at the earliest opportunity, thanks to Renic sending you my way.” He met eyes with Qin, readying the statement crafted to trigger her sleeper-agent’s vigilance. “No one can find out that the three of us have ulterior motives. We are at risk because we know secrets that make us targets, that put us in danger. The hijacking of the Dauntless, the raid on the Kestrels that gave us the Terminus as the source of the compromise; it brought us together and we must cooperate if we are to survive.”

The three fell silent. Julian was right and they knew it. It was Qin who broke the silence in the car. “We agree, and we want to help. What is your suggestion?” she said. Yadav grimaced, but said nothing.

“Good.” Julian nodded; he had swayed them. “The nature of the access key means that you can narrow that part of your investigation to the Terminus computing core. At some point, it was accessed by someone with authorization to provide to the Red Kestrels. If we presume that Samantha is still carrying out her mission from the outside, we must approach from the origin of the transaction. We are after an internal threat, and Renic is our entry point. Though we must tread carefully. His proximity to OS-9 will allow him to keep your official investigation effectively stifled.”

Yadav’s eyes narrowed on something out the tinted windows, her stare far away. “We will need to manufacture a lead, something that can stand in for this meeting and all the information that comes in through channels we can’t reveal.”

Julian nodded slowly. An interesting phrase; manufacture a lead. He hadn’t expected to enroll Yadav in working behind the backs of her peers so easily. Something had changed, and it seemed like Renic had gained a new enemy during the conversation. He leaned forward, closing the distance between him and the lieutenants. “If I may ask, what is OS-9’s present approach?”

Yadav sighed and shrugged in resignation. “The codename is Indigo, a small group led by Major William Drake. The group is investigating the Terminus compromise separately and secretly. The rest of our division isn’t aware. The approval and orders come from the Fleet Marshal himself; he wants to know who has breached his ship and shares the same hesitation about alerting the insiders as you describe, anticipating they could shut things down and disappear. So, we’re allowing them to keep operating. As Commander Tau is a part of Indigo as well, that complicates things since we have no insight or authority with the Naval Special Investigation Division.” A hint of a grimace bent Yadav’s mouth. “I suppose Indigo is no different from what you and Clarke spun up. The difference being Indigo has an official endorsement—and isn’t treason.”

Julian smiled and raised a finger. “Isn’t treason yet.”

Yadav frowned at the joke and shook her head in disapproval. “How do we approach Tau’s involvement? At best, he’s a reckless variable introducing considerable interference and distraction. At worst, he’s guilty and in the perfect spot to cover his tracks without us being able to do a thing about it.”

Julian sighed. “Yes. Renic is a problem. But, he is acting on emotion, and no matter who he is taking orders from, he is also indulging his own ego. He will want to stay right on top of Indigo to make sure he is in the clear, which means you can stay right on top of him without needing to go too far out of Indigo’s way.” Julian leaned forward, his face hardening. “But, Lieutenants Yadav and Meredessi, what is each of your kill counts?”

Yadav reared back. Even Qin looked confused. Yadav snorted. “I’ve been an active-duty member of the Imperium Navy for years, with several engagements and commendations for valor on my record, Agent Siddig. What sort of question is that?”

Julian held up a hand. “Please, I do not mean to insult. But you need to understand something about Renic. While, under normal circumstances, most of us play by the rules, he does not. He built his career on assassinations, sabotage, operations that are not on any 5E record because they require actions that go beyond what any rational person would consider being for a greater good. If he decides that one of us needs to be eliminated, murdered, he will ensure that we end up in some back-sector, Fringe-planet ditch, and will do so without remorse or hesitation.”

The interior of the car was once again silent. Both Yadav and Qin’s faces betrayed genuine concern. That was good. Julian had witnessed Renic kill far more important people than the three of them, for far less.

Qin blinked a few times and took the chance to redirect the conversation. “What of Agent Mori? You presume she is still out there?”

Julian swallowed, smile slipping. This he could answer truthfully, if reluctantly. “I presume, yes. But, when she departed, she was told to withhold her plans and maintain a complete communication blackout. We—” he paused, embarrassed to make the admission,“—did not foresee an event like the Starview Station attack, which complicated the appearance of her departure. She will know that her section-42 and its implication, however false, are too fragile to attempt breaking that communication blackout. So yes; all I can do is presume.”

Qin and Yadav both glanced at each other, a moment of nonverbal communication passing between them. Yadav clicked her tongue, but seemed to accept Julian’s answer as to Samantha’s accessibility.

“Fine,” Yadav said, disappointment wrinkling her nose. “If she’s out of reach, then it’s the three of us—and Director Clarke—against an unseen and untold number of conspirators at any potential level of the military or government. Fantastic,” Yadav said. 

“Indeed.” Julian bowed and made a gesture of greeting. “Welcome to the conspiracy, Agent Yadav.”

Yadav laughed in disgust at the title. “Then our angle of attack is to keep Indigo in the dark and pursue Commander Tau until we have something that can sink him and whoever he is working for. I presume you’re doing much the same within the shadow of 5E?”

Julian smiled. “Yes. It appears we are in alignment. I will explore potential channels for communication, but I fear that the commander’s scrutiny of myself and Director Clarke, and 5E in general, will mean that we may not speak under any official circumstances.”

“Understood,” Qin said, bowing her head. “Is there anything else we should discuss before returning to our respective responsibilities?”

“I do not believe so. You came all this way just for a single conversation, and I regret we only have this time together. I feel that we have much more we could discuss as friends. Few understand the constraints professions such as ours put on a person’s social life,” Julian said.

Yadav glanced at Qin, a subtle scoff accompanying a raised eyebrow. “Well Julian, as soon as things settle down, if the Terminus is still in orbit, we’ll invite you up.”

“Indeed. When things settle down.” Julian smiled, imagining a scenario where he would agree to board the flagship while Renic and his collaborators still walked its decks. “I will summon a car for you and set us down,” he said as he tapped a series of commands into the car’s console. It chimed and started its descent toward the streets below as the three sat in silence, mulling over their thoughts. As the car came to a stop, parking itself next to the walkway of a moderately busy street, the car’s transmission shielding systems deactivated.

“Here we are,” Julian said. “District two-twenty-one, known for its wide selection of shopping and restaurants. Your pickup car is scheduled to arrive in five minutes. I apologize for the rain,” Julian said with a look to Yadav.

“We’ll survive,” she replied. Something on her wrist comm caught her attention. “Damn. Priority three call from the major’s office came through while we were in blackout.” She retrieved an earpiece from her jacket’s inner pocket and slipped it into her ear. “I hate to ask this, but can I have the car? I would rather handle this now than have to deflect later, and I do not want to explain why I am talking over the sound of a rainy city.”

Julian pressed his hands together. “No trouble at all. Qin, shall we?”

The door to the car slid open, letting in the sounds and smells of the weather. Qin and Julian ducked through the open door and out into the street, jogging to an overhang across the walkway. The car’s door slid shut, leaving Yadav alone to placate whoever needed her attention so urgently.

An idea struck Julian, but he had to work quickly. He pulled the pencil from behind his ear, followed by a palm-sized notepad from his back pocket, and scribbled a few characters onto it. Without a word, he held it up to Qin. Her eyes squinted at the writing, then widened, darting to Julian, then back to the paper, then back to Julian. He snapped the notepad closed and put it back into his pocket.

“Of course,” Qin said, her expression sagging a bit.

Julian smiled and bowed his head. “Yes, though I had no insight into who I was actually signaling at the time. I am not sure I was supposed to know who the sleeper was, but,” he shrugged, “thanks to Renic, here we are. Welcome to the conspiracy’s conspiracy.”

Qin looked over her shoulder to the car. The door was still closed. “Do you have further instructions?” she asked eagerly.

Julian sucked his teeth. “Unfortunately, no. Maintain your cover, keep guiding the investigation toward potential suspects and away from us—Clarke, myself, Agent Mori, and now you. Though we are not responsible for the attacks, we are still technically guilty of numerous crimes and I have little confidence that the ‘greater good’ argument would protect us.”

“What about the director? New orders?” Qin said, a sheen of trepidation crossing her eyes. This was her first real mission, Julian reminded himself. All this time waiting but never experiencing the unceasing feelings of danger and paranoia.

“I will handle him,” Julian said, smiling softly as he spoke over the din of the falling rain and vehicles speeding by overhead. “I know there are advantages to complete transparency, but right now, the less you know about what is happening outside your focus, the better for all of us. We are still playing catch-up, and you must find the evidence we need to move ahead of our adversaries. That starts with Renic.”

The door to Julian’s car slid open and Yadav hurried out to join them, ducking through the rain. “There’s a development. We need to get back to the Terminus.” Yadav extended her hand to Julian. “Agent Siddig, I appreciate your candor.”

Julian took her hand, placing his other hand on top of their grasp. “I respect the job you are entrusted with, Lieutenant. We will not be in this quandary forever, though I hope that when things do change, it is in our favor.”

Yadav smiled, a genuine smile. “It sounds like if it doesn’t, we won’t have to worry about a brig, just a coffin,” she said, her smile shifting to a grimace.

Julian nodded at the cynical comment; it reminded him of Samantha. “I see you are adopting some levity. It can be surprisingly useful.” He turned to Qin. “Lieutenant Meredessi, my thanks to you as well.”

Qin shook his hand and nodded. She was looking at him, but her eyes were focused elsewhere, the distant gaze of someone preoccupied. Julian did not envy her position. At the end of the day, he went home as himself; Qin had to go home and disguise whoever was behind those eyes. Even though she and Lieutenant Yadav seemed to have a good working relationship, Qin was still alone aboard the Terminus.

Julian watched them enter the new autocab and speed away, then returned to his own car. He took the notepad out of his pocket, looking at Qin’s activation code. A thought occurred to him; the Terminus was a big place. Perhaps he could help her meet a new friend. After all, what was the benefit of implementing compartmentalization if he couldn’t occasionally open a compartment and peer inside? It was not as if Clarke had only placed one sleeper aboard the Terminus.

Clarke shrugged off his suit jacket, casually tossing it on the coat rack in the corner of his office. His hand went to the tie choking his neck, loosening it but leaving the knot in place—an easier solution than having to get it just right each time. That was one benefit of the Imperium military uniform of his past; no ties. 

Clarke sat at his desk, pushing aside the stacks of datapads, folders, and random personal items he only had because they made him look like he had a life outside of his job. Same as the framed photos on the walls of places he hadn’t visited in years, the bookshelf of books he meant to read but hadn’t, and the boxing gloves hanging on a hook he hadn’t put on in months. No, who was he kidding? Years. Moving to a government job was supposed to be more flexible than Navy life, but all he’d gained was a mountain of work coming from all angles and no military structure to mitigate the chaos.

A notification on his computer lit up; it was time. 

Clarke centered the computer on his desk and checked his appearance in the camera feed. If the camera was supposed to make you look heavier, something was wrong with his, because all it did was make him look older.

Enough. Clarke squared his posture, clasped his hands in front of him, and prepared for the call. His hands snapped to his neck, sliding the knot of his tie back up to the appropriate position just as the screen flared to life.

“Major Drake, thank you for your time,” Clarke said.

Drake shrugged one shoulder and gave him a nod. “I suspected you’d be calling. And please, Eli, go with Will. We don’t work together and I am presuming this call is off the record. Besides, last time you addressed me by my rank, you outranked me.”

Clarke grunted. “Fair enough. I wish this was about something a little brighter. I don’t remember the last time I heard good news.”

Drake looked away for a moment, appearing to ponder something. “Depends on which side of this mess you’re on. Someone’s pleased with the state of things, but it sure isn’t any of us.”

Clarke nodded; that was the cue to get to the point. Military efficiency. “Indeed, that’s what this is about. There’s an opportunist among us that has become a liability to both of our organizations.”

Drake practically growled the name. “Tau.”

Clarke grinned. “Thorn in both of our sides.”

Drake frowned, exhaling before he spoke. “I have been ordered to collaborate with his group, if you could even call it a group. He doesn’t seem to take this appointment seriously. First meeting he attends, he immediately tosses you and your agents out an airlock, trying to link you to the Kestrels. As if we wouldn’t look deeper into his accusations. This is the kind of cavalier showmanship I’ve got no patience for.”

Clarke leaned back in his chair; Drake seemed as irritated with Renic as he was. “I take it you don’t believe his story.”

“Eli, you’re unconventional and still believe in methods we should have outgrown. Black operations with no oversight? Going rogue? That’s not how things work anymore.” Drake sighed, raising a hand slightly. “But you’re not stupid and you’re no traitor, which means I’m going to have this conversation in good faith—off the record.

“Listen, I don’t know what you did with your Agent Mori, but I can guess, and that guess tells me that I do not want to be involved.  I know that Mori hasn’t done anything worth OS-9’s attention, so that one I can overlook along with all the other black-ops your agency conducts that you’ll categorically deny. But Tau’s bringing his bad-blood between you, Mori, and him into my operation, and I won’t allow that to continue. Unfortunately, until hard, legally-admissible evidence is pinned on Tau, he is an Imperium Navy Commander and will be afforded the respect the uniform deserves, whether the man himself does or not.”

Clarke nodded. Drake was willing to listen as a former colleague and friend, but not a Navy Major. Fair enough. “Will, Renic’s unstable. He only would have come after me and Agent Siddig so aggressively if he felt his actions wouldn’t matter in the long run. When Gallow appointed him head of this new division, everyone here who didn’t know him was shocked, and everyone who did know him? We all wondered what sort of dirty work he’d done to earn the Fleet Marshal’s favor.” Clarke leaned forward, lowering his voice. “What do you have on him?”

Drake grimaced, rocking his head to the side. “Tau is an agitator. An opportunist, like you said. I don’t buy whatever rationale is presented about why a 5E field agent was put as the interim-head of a new intelligence division that serves under Fleet Marshal Gallow, but it’s not my place to protest. Gallow wanted it. End of story. Tau knows that he can act with impunity because he knows meddling with him is futile.”

“Because of Gallow, right? The High Imperius has given him and Archer enough latitude that they own this empire, even if they’re not on the throne. What does a consolidation of power like that mean?” Clarke said. It was an invitation, a signal to indicate that he held intelligence he might be willing to trade. 

Drake shook his head, holding a hand palm-forward. “I know that I am an officer of the Imperium Navy and loyal to it regardless of leaders that come and go. Speculative rumor spreading is not a part of my mandate. Tau is polluting Indigo. That’s as far as my concerns with him go until he becomes a material person of interest to Indigo. Appropriate responses will be taken, make no mistake, Eli.” Drake exhaled sharply. “I’ve got top people working on it.”

Clarke nodded, accepting the push. It had been Drake who had put Qin in that cell with Julian. That confirmed to Clarke that stationing her in OS-9 had been worth the considerable investment. For now, though, Gallow was off limits. Fine. But it appeared Renic held no power over Drake. That was where the focus of the conversation needed to stay. 

“Will, I’ll level with you. Tau’s dirty,” Clarke said, a genuine tinge of remorse coloring his voice. “I don’t have the power to act against him directly, but if he’d served on a ship with us during the war? You know we had ways of dealing with crew members who were a threat to the ship that never reached any log or commanding officer’s desk.”

Drake’s mouth curled into a grimace, and he sighed. “I will protect the Imperium’s interests against all threats. If Tau puts himself in that line of fire, he’ll get it just the same as anyone else. But not before. And if you hadn’t noticed, we’re not on a ship together any longer. You work down there, on the surface.”

Clarke took a breath. He knew this resentment would come up, best to face it directly. “The Dauntless, Starview, those were on my watch. The Kestrels were an agency responsibility and I missed it.” Clarke felt a surge of anger, not just at the Kestrels, but at himself. He shook off the self-deprecation and squared his shoulders that had sneaked their way into a slump. “Renic is on your ship, in your meetings, pushing ‘hiding in plain sight’ to near-belligerence. Archer is less than unimpressed with 5E, and we both know that the agency is marked for dismantling. I’m days away from being taken out of the game. This can’t end with me. You can still help me intervene and go on the offensive.”

Drake looked away for a moment. The debate on his face was clear. Clarke knew connecting Renic’s actions to Drake wasn’t the classiest move, but he was beyond class now.

Exasperation crept into Drake’s voice. “What do you want to happen here?”

“I want Tau out of the equation.” Clarke’s voice was firm. 

Drake responded just as firmly. “I can’t do that. I have nothing on him. I’ve got to play this by the book. I maintain my allegiance to the Imperium by maintaining my duties to the Navy.”

Clarke’s face fell. “It’s not about rank or chain of command, Will, it’s about eliminating an imminent and immediate threat, regardless of consequence. Taking action on principle.”

Drake fired back, anger in his voice. “I am ‘taking action’, Director. Don’t assume because I’m not operating out of your playbook that I do not take my role seriously. I was on the Terminus before Gallow, and both you and I served the Navy and the Imperium long before Tau or Mori or Siddig were even born. And Gallow? An ambitious and dangerous fleet marshal does not an empire make. I will not abandon the billions in the empire who rely on us simply because there’s someone at the top we don’t agree with.” Drake straightened his posture, tipping his chin down slightly. “You’ve forgotten what it’s like to serve out of principle. I can’t take my oath to this Navy on and off like some necktie.”

Clarke scoffed. Drake’s jab had hurt, but only because it was true. Maybe he had forgotten how to serve on principle, but he still had his own principles even if they didn’t align with Navy regulations. If Drake was not going to help, there was not much use in Clarke holding back. “You know there’s more coming, right? This goes beyond just one errand-runner. Tau is a weapon in the hands of a force greater than only him, you, me—all of us. What good is your oath if the institution you swore it to no longer exists?”

Drake winced in disgust. “Come on, Eli. If Tau gets pinched, the Terminus locks down and we’ve revealed ourselves to everyone watching in the shadows. What does that accomplish?”

Clarke fired back. “It could short-circuit it all. End it before it starts.”

Drake returned. “Or move the timeline up and catch us all even more off guard.”

Clark grabbed the sentiment and swung it back. “You agree, then, that there’s more to come.”

Drake snorted, his mask of politeness torn away. “Is there anything else?”

Clarke looked to the side, breaking his eye contact with Drake. If there was any bridge left unburned, this request was very likely to finish the job.

“Will, you’re right. I took a risk and now Agent Mori is facing the consequences. Renic’s vendetta against her is personal, and I am not able to stop him, but you can. Now, this isn’t about taking down a conspiracy. Just taking one dangerous element out of play as a favor to me. If either OS-9 or 5E go after Renic, Gallow can shut us down and anything we had on Renic evaporates. But if Gallow were to be the one to become displeased with his new commander, he can eliminate Renic’s influence without jeopardizing either of our investigations. If I can secure proof that Renic is a liability if left to his own devices, I need you to help me get that in front of Gallow without him knowing I was involved. You know what the man thinks of me.” 

Drake’s grimace was the only answer Clarke needed. “Making things personal is what got you all into whatever tangle you’re in. You want me dragged into it? If the operation is blown, you pull the agent and abort. Going rogue is what got Agent Mori and you into this. It’s not what will get her out.”

Clarke felt his chances slip away. It had been a valiant attempt. “Will, I… no. You know me… ‘Hero of the Outrider.’ I had to try something big, right?” Clarke paused; Drake hadn’t disconnected yet. “Hey, I’ve got a bottle of Sellacan Whisky from out past the Gulf, like we had back in the war. Thirty years ago, you and I could have split the entire bottle. Maybe we can share a glass again sometime.”

A sad smile tugged the corner of Drake’s mouth. “Eli, if we reach a point when either of us has the time or space to get away like that, you’ve got a deal.”

“Major,” Clarke said.

“Director,” Drake returned.

The comm screen on Clarke’s computer went dark. At least Drake was aware of the situation, but the man was a naval officer in a long line of naval officers. Going rogue in a Clarke-like fashion wasn’t ever going to be his style. 

The tie around Clarke’s neck seemed to have tightened on its own. He yanked it off and tossed it near the coat hanger, the knot untying itself as it flew across the room. 

Jackets. Ties. Offices. He’d been a fighter once. All he did now was send others to do things and wait in hope of making a difference. Samantha was somewhere in the sector, alone and fighting to survive. Even Julian had endured an assault as a result of Clarke’s actions. What had Clarke done recently to contribute? He’d become the thing he resented most, an empty suit who made all of the decisions and none of the sacrifices.

Clarke let his fingertips graze the handle of the lower drawer of his desk where the Sellacan Whisky bottle he’d promised to Drake had been. If that shared drink ever did happen, he would have to find a way to get a bottle sent to him from across the Gulf. The drawer was empty, the bottle having been drunk long ago. Empty like Clarke’s promises to do something for Samantha, for Julian, for Qin. For the Imperium he wasn’t even sure was worth saving.

On Clarke’s computer, a message indicator lit up. It was an anonymous message, no sender data attached. He narrowed his eyes at the screen and opened the message.

“Fine. We can do it your way one last time. I think the Navy owes you one, Hero.”

Clarke grinned, then laughed, then rocked back in his chair, his eyes landing on the framed photo on the wall just above where his tie had landed in a crumpled heap: the photo of the Outrider.