Samantha is feet-down on Kestris, having returned from the Fringe planet of Senali. Eddie Renner's data seems to have been a bust. With no clear path forward, her only option is to let the system do its thing and hope that the agency she services will make the right decision.
The Kestris sun was warm and bright on Samantha’s face as she stepped out of the government autocab. She had traveled from her apartment in the Kestris City outer rings to the sprawling office complexes that housed the empire’s administrative foundation. While her job mostly took place off Kestris and beyond, the building in front of her was where she was technically stationed as a government employee and civil servant.
The Imperium ‘Office of Information Security’ headquarters was a nondescript, four-story building with row after row of transparent aluminum windows identical to all the other buildings that ringed the government office plaza here in Kestris City, capital of the Imperium. While there was some legitimate information security that took place within the walls, the work she was concerned with was never publicly acknowledged and had no official name. 5E is what her division was unofficially known as, though an exact origin of the name had never been confirmed or denied by the government, and the designation was never, ever to appear on any documentation.
Samantha knew where it came from, however, and the banality of the origin story would surprise most of the public who presumed it held some cryptic significance. ‘5E’ was the room number of the office where the off-the-books organization responsible for sabotage, infiltration, and assassination was first organized by a group of ex-military intelligence analysts looking to maintain the empire’s dominance over the sector. A newly anointed High Imperius, eager to establish himself as the protector of the Imperium, was happy to fund it blindly those seventeen years past.
Samantha stopped at the base of the shallow steps that led to the building’s entrance and allowed herself a moment. Carefully manicured shrubbery and trees surrounded the building, hiding the military-grade fortifications and weapons-systems that she knew were hiding beneath the—admittedly very convincing—disguises. Should it ever be attacked, an event so unlikely as to be thought impossible, each building in the plaza would lock down, creating an impenetrable fortress for those trapped inside.
In compliance with city ordinances, all buildings within the capital’s central district were restricted to being no more than four stories tall; nothing was allowed to overshadow the Imperium capitol building in the city center. There was a subdued beauty that Samantha had always appreciated about the decision. While the outer districts of Kestris City had the high-rises that reached hundreds of stories into the sky, her apartment building among them, here in the literal heart of the empire she could still feel like it hadn’t all grown beyond anyone’s ability to control.
People dressed in their formal government attire of pressed jackets and pants hurried up and down the steps, carrying on conversations into hidden earpieces and holding sleek computer bags and datapad attachés. Some met eyes with her and nodded. Most were too busy to do anything but hustle by without a glance. A few of the people she recognized, mostly higher-ranking officials that anyone who worked in the plaza would know by face, if not by name. Being a field agent, she did not spend time getting to know the Kestris-bound staff, though the reverse was not always true. While most agency support staff were interchangeable copies of one another, anyone with high enough clearance to read or prepare mission briefings and reports would know her face well, her official government identification photo included with every operation she was assigned to. The ones that existed on the official record, at least.
With that fact in mind, Samantha kept her gaze forward, only returning any acknowledgement of anyone who seemed to recognize her with a thin-lipped smile and a curt nod. She reached the top of the steps and approached the open-air entrance, blast doors recessed into the walls and out of sight. There were uniformed security guards posted at every potential entrance, energy rifles held loosely at their waists. This, and the countless Imperium symbols that were emblazoned on every surface, reminded visitors that this was not just an ordinary office building.
Samantha approached the checkpoint where the security attendants stood ready at the entrance sensor arch. While her authorization and identity would be validated by several redundant systems, some security required a personal touch. Stepping into the arch, Samantha prepared for the verbal assault.
“Agent Mori! Good morning, welcome back to Kestris!” the plucky young attendant said from behind his armored kiosk. He squinted down at the screen only he could see. “It’s been… whew, it’s been a while, eh? Still able to find your way up to your office, or do you need me to summon a guard to escort you there?”
Samantha smiled; alienating this attendant would only result in far worse delays in the future. He was one of the few colleagues with which she maintained a friendly rapport. “Agent Jeffries, thank you for noticing. I am glad to be back. I think I can find my way around, but in the event that I ever do need an escort, it will probably be because I am being escorted out.”
Jeffries chuckled at the joke, eyes still on his screen. While he maintained an irritatingly cheerful demeanor, Samantha knew that if he saw anything he didn’t like on that screen, an arrest team would swarm her before she had a chance to blink. It was peculiar; agents were permitted to carry their own pre-approved weaponry, and anything smuggled into the building wouldn’t compare to the arsenal already inside. The people and decor might resemble that of a corporate workplace, but beneath the facade this place was every bit as armed as the military facilities on the other side of the district.
A moment passed before Jeffries looked up. “You stay out of trouble, Agent Mori.”
Samantha mock-frowned. “But getting into trouble is my job.”
Jeffries laughed and waved her through. Samantha stepped forward and grinned until she was just past his line of sight, letting her expression fade back to neutral. The sooner she was back in the field, the better.
Samantha quickened her pace as she crossed the polished tile floor of the expansive lobby. There were no chairs, no couches. Anyone through the security checkpoint would have somewhere they needed to be. Elevators were evenly spaced along the walls, and round pillars split the room down the middle, forcing the flow of foot traffic to go around. The only decor of note were the Imperium banners, potted trees, and the row of commemorative plaques affixed to the wall honoring fallen agents. This was the only feature to which Samantha gave more than a moment’s acknowledgment. Otherwise, it was eyes-forward.
She reached one of the nearby elevators and pressed the call button. Next to her, a pair of agents she didn’t recognize arrived and waited beside her. The doors opened and the three stepped inside. They were discussing an investigation concerning a financial crime between several Imperium and Fringe companies she had never heard of. According to agency guidelines, they shouldn’t be talking about investigations outside of secured areas, and certainly not around people they were not sure were cleared to listen. She knew not everyone in 5E was in the business she was. Some missions could be done simply by comparing reports and following data trails around the sector. For a moment, Samantha imagined attaching the halo to each of them—or herself, if needed—in order to make the banal stream of desk-agent minutiae stop.
A chime sounded on the third floor and the pair of number-crunchers exited. The doors closed and Samantha waited the few seconds more to reach the fourth, and top, floor where her office was. As replete with Imperium symbology as the lobby had been, the interior offices were the inverse. Plain carpet. Plain walls. Plain overhead lighting. The public would never see this floor, and inter-agency officials would take their meetings in the lavish conference rooms on the lower levels below ground. Where her office was, on the fourth floor, it was nothing but business.
Being assigned an office was a requirement of her official government employee seniority. Officially she was a Principal Information Analyst, complete with a pension, government benefits, and all the rank and pay grade afforded. In reality, she had virtually no administrative responsibility and was accountable only to her director and the mission objectives. Everything about 5E was a facade, including this office.
Samantha made her way down the hall, nodding to coworkers when appropriate but kept her pace brisk. She turned the corner and came to the darkened, glass-paneled door of her office and placed a hand on the access panel. Awakened by her presence, the lights came on and the door slid silently to the side.
Everything was just as she had left it weeks ago. On the plain metal desk was a computer with a cheap rolling chair tucked beneath, and a narrow bookshelf with nothing but training manuals, agency guidelines, and unopened workplace gifts given to everyone during the mandated government holidays. In the corner was the only thing she was interested in today, the standing weapons locker that was as tall as she was.
She checked the agency-issued comm wrapped around her wrist. Ten minutes until staff meeting. Plenty of time to prepare. She walked directly to the locker and pressed her hand against its discreet access panel. The door clicked and cracked ajar. She pulled it open and reached a hand up to the top shelf, feeling for something tucked near the back. Her fingers grazed against the various small objects she kept hidden away, none of which were what she needed. She shook her head. No, wanted.
Finally her fingers found the hard metal edge she was expecting to feel. She snatched up the small, rectangular case, hearing its contents rattle around inside. The sound soothed her, a pleasant tingle of anticipation crawling up the back of her neck.
She slid back a tab on the container and shook a pill into her palm, immediately tossing it into her mouth and swallowing with practiced ease. It was meant to be washed down with a liquid, but Samantha had learned to go without. She never knew when the need—no, the want—would strike.
It was an important distinction. Need implied a lack of control, but a want was a deliberate choice. She was still in control. Taking the Neurphandol—street name ‘taze’—was a choice. An occupational hazard given to her by a medical professional. Originally, at least.
Samantha closed her eyes, imagining the stimulating effects of the taze taking over. The actual, physiological effects of the drug would not arrive for a while longer, but knowing it was entering her bloodstream was enough for now.
She slipped the metal container into her inner jacket pocket. The decision to leave the taze behind for the Senali mission had been an experiment. She wanted to prove to herself she could go without for a few days. She’d completed the mission without it and made it back perfectly fine. Experiment successful. She could stop whenever she wanted.
“Agent Mori, pleasure to see you so early in the morning!” Julian’s voice called from the open doorway.
Samantha inwardly flinched, though her conditioning stopped her from reacting physically. She felt his eyes on her back; he had seen what she’d done and was pretending he hadn’t. Sloppy move, leaving her office door open like that. How had she forgotten? Didn’t these doors close automatically? She stifled a sigh. Just another reason to avoid this place. Next time, it might be someone who wouldn’t pretend.
Samantha casually shut the locker and subtly wiped the corners of her mouth clean of any potential taze residue. The taze was private, not secret. There was a difference, and she wasn’t interested in anyone else’s opinion on what that meant. She turned to face Julian and smirked at her partner.
“Of course. I don’t want to disappoint the director by being late to the first staff meeting I’ve attended in a month.” She straightened her jacket and walked to the door. “And cut the agent stuff, Julian. Job titles are for desk workers. That’s not me.”
“That notion is reinforced by the immaculate layer of dust on your desk, Samantha.” Julian stepped to the side and gestured to the hall, computer under one arm, pencil behind his ear, face beaming the same placid expression and contemplative smile he always wore.
“That dust is a proud symbol of my dedication to being out there—” she pointed to the ceiling, “—instead of here. Besides, paying attention to the tedious details is what you’re here for,” Samantha said as she stepped past Julian into the hall.
“Be that as it may, your reaction to those details is essential, so a modicum of awareness is preferable.”
“That’s what earpieces are for,” Samantha said, taking a moment to ensure her office door closed and locked behind them. Satisfied, she started down the hall, Julian taking up his position beside her.
“How is the analysis of the data we pulled from Senali looking?” Samantha said. Julian shook his head, raising his hand to adjust the pencil behind his ear.
“Nothing conclusive. Most of what was recovered is the data stolen from the navy in the first place, just a duplication of what we already have access to. There is some Red Kestrel intelligence in there, and some yet-to-be decrypted information that may have value, but again, I am still working on it. The signal-to-noise ratio on this haul is less than encouraging.”
“We hacked into our own stolen data.” Samantha sighed, her pace getting quicker. “There has to be something new in there. Eddie is talented, but not so much that he could have covered his tracks that effectively. If we came away from that mission with nothing but copies of data we already have, well…” Samantha scoffed, shaking her head in denial of their misfortune.
Julian raised a hand, waving off her concern. “I have confidence we will find something. Do not trouble yourself with the hunt for, as you put it, tedious details. You found this data; you will be the first to know what it produces.”
“We found it,” Samantha said, giving Julian a sidelong glance. “I want to be sure we both get half the credit or half the blame.”
“Oh, I think the director already knows exactly where he will assign credit or blame.”
Samantha half-suppressed a snort. Julian was withholding something, but until he was ready to share, precisely worded deflection is all she was going to get.
They reached the entrance to one of the many conference rooms that lined the floor’s outer perimeter. “This is us,” Julian said, pointing to the room only identified by a number. “Back row, I presume?”
Samantha stopped and surveyed the room, exhaling deeply. “In a room full of spies? Yeah, back row.”
The conference room was arranged with classroom-style seating. Five long rows of tables lined end-to-end with chairs tucked beneath, all facing the large vidscreen embedded into the wall at the front of the room. Front and center was the standing lectern made of white polymer with the Imperium, eleven-pointed star etched in gold on its surface. Other than that single flourish of decor, the room was a windowless, utilitarian rectangle of too-bright lighting and sound-deadening walls. This was the hallowed spot where budget issues, staffing updates, and a cascade of other administrivia from the defense minister’s office was shared.
Samantha stopped and waited while Julian sidled past her, taking the second seat on the back row and allowing her to take the seat closest to the door. At least two-dozen agents were already seated, clumped in groups with their peers, bodies leaning shoulder-to-shoulder as they conversed in hushed tones. This was most of Clarke’s staff, or at least the ones not on remote assignment. Samantha could name each of them, though it had been some time since she’d been partnered with anyone other than Julian. It was not a coincidence that, aside from a few momentary glances, none of the seated agents had made an attempt to acknowledge her.
“Fine turnout we have here today,” Julian said, placing his computer neatly on the table in front of him. Samantha shrugged, feeling the lights brighten as the taze started to take effect. She felt as if she could hear every swish of fabric as agents rustled in their seats, every mouth-noise as they spoke, and every creak and squeak of chairs that this empire could afford to replace, but didn’t.
An attendee entered the room and hurried to the seat directly in front of her. She recognized the close-cropped hair and youthful features of the rookie, Agent Barton, a recent graduate and one of Clarke’s newest recruits. He settled into the chair and—just when Samantha thought she was safe—turned to face her.
“Agent Mori, back planet-side?” Barton said, body half-turned in the chair. He was unquestionably the youngest person on the team, eager to please and make friends. He’ll learn.
“Mission was cut a little short, but all primary objectives were met,” Samantha said, offering the rookie a pressed-lip smile. “I’m sure the director will be sharing the details he feels are appropriate.”
Barton nodded. “Right.” He began to turn forward, but a new thought seemed to stop him. Reversing course, he rotated in the chair and draped an entire arm over the back, entrenching his position. “The Red Kestrels, that’s your thing, right?”
Samantha forced her grimace away. “Yes. It’s my thing.”
Barton smiled. “That’s what I thought. They’ve been coming up in a lot of reports. The ones I’ve seen, anyway. They’re claiming responsibility for that ship that was hijacked, right? The… uh-,”
“The Dauntless,” Samantha replied, allowing a hint of ire to slip through. Barton was undeterred.
“The Dauntless, that’s it. A whole warship, gone.” He shook his head, glancing regretfully at a blank patch of floor; Samantha’s fingers curled around the edge of her chair. “The chatter that would have circulated on something like that, how did we miss it?”
Samantha’s grimace broke through to the surface. Next to her, Julian stifled a chortle. Barton might have said ‘we,’ but Samantha knew he really meant ‘you.’ Just as Samantha was readying to school the rookie on the unspoken rules of agent decorum, a new voice cut through the din and rescued Breton from the assault.
“We missed it because we weren’t paying attention, and paying attention is what I expect you to do right now,” Clarke’s stern voice silenced the room as he half-walked, half-marched to the lectern, his personal assistant, Agent Birch, in lockstep behind him. All eyes followed the director as he took his place at the lectern, setting down his datapad and gripping each side of the lectern’s angled surface. Birch took a seat in the front row and opened a computer, the vidscreen behind the director coming to life with a few taps on his keyboard.
Agent Barton spun to face the front, as did the rest of the attendees. Though Clarke wore the same style of business suit that all non-military Imperium leaders preferred, it did little to hide his navy pedigree. Even after a decade away from the service, he still kept the same flat-topped haircut and smooth-shaven face. His suit was plain and unadorned, but from the way the man carried himself as he surveyed the room, it might as well have had epaulets and a row of medals.
“We have a lot to cover, so let’s get started. First, outstanding items.”
Birch responded to the director’s cue and tapped his computer. A map of the sector and a list of mission codenames appeared on the screen. Samantha’s eyes flitted back and forth, scanning the information for anything about the one she and Julian had just completed on Senali. She squinted, taze-enhanced vision making everything appear hard-edged and sharp. It wasn’t there. She angled her gaze toward Julian, but her partner appeared to be deeply engrossed in what the director was saying, meaning he was absolutely ignoring Samantha’s non-verbal question.
Clarke called out the names of each representative agent in turn for their status summary. Everything the responding agents said could have been supplied in a report, but that wasn’t how Clarke operated. He wanted to hear it and have the chance to probe, poke, prod. One by one, the status updates came and went, Clarke nodding along with each new point while Birch occasionally entered anything in his computer the director seemed to find interesting.
Refusing to let her partner keep up his act, Samantha leaned close and whispered inches from his ear. “We’re not up there.”
Julian kept his eyes forward, returning the whisper from the corner of his mouth. “There were some delays in getting our mission logged and processed. It may not have made the submission cutoff for this briefing.”
Samantha’s eyebrows lowered. “What? Why are we here, then?” she hissed through the whisper. Julian refused to turn.
“I believe the director will make things clear. Best to hear it from him,” Julian whispered back, signaling with his eyes that Samantha should do the same.
Samantha folded her arms, giving Julian a baleful glare that he effortlessly ignored. She turned her attention back to Clarke. A late mission report was a flimsy excuse. Delays? Not with Julian’s fastidiousness. Something was going on.
The updates continued and Clarke’s attention zigzagged across the room as agents gave their perfunctory updates. After the final update was delivered, Clarke said something inaudible to Birch and the information on vidscreen blinked off.
“Thank you all. I am glad to hear we are still operating despite…”
A growl bubbled in Samantha’s throat. Clarke preferred a bias toward action; it was time for her to act.
“Director?” Samantha said, speaking as she raised her hand. Clarke paused and dipped his chin toward her. “Sir, I believe the ongoing operation involving Red Kestrel activity in the Fringe was overlooked. Agent Siddig and myself just returned from Senali and-,”
Clarke held up a hand, his years of military command evident as his voice flattened Samantha’s. “I am aware of this, Agent Mori. The data that you and Agent Siddig retrieved is still being processed, a fact that I believe Agent Siddig should have informed you of already. We will revisit your operation at a later time when the intelligence gathered has been appropriately cataloged.”
Taze-laced blood surged through Samantha’s limbs. Her words came out clipped and without a filter. “Kestrel activity isn’t exactly something I want to put off until a later time, director. We’ve uncovered information I think merits immediate attention, cataloged or not.”
Clarke stared at her for a moment, eyes narrowing the slightest amount. After allowing the silence to hang for a moment, he shrugged. “By all means, Agent Mori, please update us.”
Samantha rifled through her thoughts; perhaps she had spoken too soon. “Thank you. As I was saying, Agent Siddig and myself were able to extract quite a set of data, both verbal and digital, from a confirmed Kestrel confederate. There is strong indication that he and the known Kestrel chapter leader on Senali are directly implicated in the Dauntless case.”
“I am aware, agent. Can you inform me of the contents of this data you retrieved so we might discuss it?”
Clarke had her cornered. Samantha cleared her throat. “It’s… still being analyzed,” she said, relaxing her posture. She caught Julian shifting in his seat, a gesture she made a point to ignore.
“Thank you for the update, Agent Mori. I look forward to a time when said information will be available to discuss.” Clarke turned his attention back to the room. “A fine lead-in for the next topic of relevance to this group which is, incidentally, related to Agent Mori’s report. I have received an update from Defense Minister Archer. An ‘advanced warning’ of sorts.” His next words came out with a pall uncharacteristic of Clarke’s normal stalwartness. “She has informed me that there will be significant defunding of our organization and a re-evaluation of operational priorities subject to the defense minister and her cabinet’s discretion. I have been given no details on which operations will be impacted, but it is certain that some of our work will be scrapped and some moved within navy oversight through OS-9.”
A burst of conversation broke out. Clarke raised both hands, ordering the room to settle. He looked directly at Samantha, allowing a trace of regret to show on his aging face. “The defense minister has also requested that all matters involving the Red Kestrels be reassigned to OS-9 and our capacity reduced to a strictly cooperative function. The Dauntless and its subsequent disappearance is now a military matter. We are being asked to take a back seat. The fleet marshal places the blame for the lapse in intelligence on us and he has the defense minister’s ear. I do not agree with the defunding and commandeering of our operations, but I can’t refute the accusation that we failed this one.”
The room broke into a white-noise of unintelligible chatter and angry demands for explanation. Samantha turned to Julian, not bothering to lower her voice.
“You knew about this. That’s why you were so eager to make sure I was here today.”
Julian flashed a guilty smile. “I admit, I did have a tiny amount of foreknowledge. It was best you heard it from the director—here, where there are witnesses.”
“Tiny amount. Uh-huh.” Samantha shook her head. “This is outrageous. Kestrels are political terrorists, not military combatants. It’s an intelligence priority.”
Julian sighed, nodding regretfully. “The fleet marshal has decided otherwise. His ships, his business.”
Clarke held out both hands, again willing the room silent. Voices died down, a few of the more spirited personalities getting in their final protest before respecting the director’s authoritative presence.
“We don’t have to like it, but we do have to comply. I have issued a formal statement to the defense minister’s office and have already gathered our accounting and logistics departments to start looking for ways to streamline. The agency has weathered budgetary storms before, and we will continue to do so. Reducing our operational footprint will allow us to focus on only the highest priorities. Efficiency and ruthless prioritization is a must.”
Samantha huffed, lifting her hand in the air. Clarke frowned, but a raising of his brow indicated he’d allow one more comment. “Director, the Kestrels intercepted intelligence that allowed them to steal a warship. They aren’t engaged in active combat. Gunboats and drop-troops can’t fix an intelligence leak. This is an agency matter.”
Several of the gathered agents voiced their agreement. Clarke frowned, raising his voice to drill-instructor levels that most of the academy-trained agents were not accustomed to. The room went quiet.
“Correct, and the fleet marshal is assigning navy intelligence to it. The matter is closed; your job is to adapt. Unless you have comments on that, there is no room for discussion. The defense minister will issue this mandate officially in the coming days. She isn’t happy with us and we’re in no position to argue.”
Samantha and the gathered agents remained silent. Clarke was a soldier, used to taking orders and finding a way to fight his enemy within the given constraints. This compliance with Defense Minister Archer was him toeing the line to keep up political appearances. Getting to his actual feelings would take further probing, a priority Samantha put at the top of her list.
Clarke continued, returning to his normal level of sternness. “We are all professionals. I expect all of you to collaborate and cooperate with any requests from OS-9 or any other sufficiently cleared navy personnel. Show them we are still relevant. Maintain your current assignments until the shift is official, and I expect you to treat this as classified information not to be shared outside of approved circles. Direct further questions to Agent Birch and he will get them to me. As much as I’d like to address each of you one-on-one, handling the administrative fallout is going to be keeping me locked up for the coming weeks. Dismissed.”
With that final word, the cacophony of irritated, aghast, and downright angry voices surged once again. Despite the director’s last request, several agents approached him with demands for answers. Samantha stood, fists clenched at her side.
“Archer is out of line. The navy is not equipped for this type of work. I don’t care how much faith she or the fleet marshal puts in OS-9. They’re military analysts, not operators. We’re the ones who should be handling this.”
Julian stood, gathering his computer from the table. “As much as it pains us to hear it, I suspect it pains Director Clarke even more to say it. I imagine he resisted this edict with everything he had.”
Samantha looked to the group that had gathered around Clarke. There would be no reaching him now. She turned to Julian. “Let’s go to your offsite office, analyze some of this data ourselves, maybe get in touch with our contacts around Senali. Like Clarke said, this isn’t official yet, and we’re still on assignment. Or, if we leave immediately, we could be feet-down on Senali before the defense minister’s orders are activated.”
Julian opened his mouth to speak, but stopped himself. Samantha stared, waiting for whatever excuse he was about to give. Finally, he spoke. “I am afraid I have unfinished tasks here at headquarters that I need to complete regarding the unprocessed information from our last visit. If we want to take action and impact the Kestrel operation in a meaningful way, distilling that should be our top priority.” He reached out and placed a hand on Samantha’s arm. “I know this is not ideal. I will contact you this evening. We can regroup then.”
Samantha’s jaw tightened at being stonewalled. “Sure. This evening.” She looked wistfully back to Clarke. “I have some people I need to talk to. Things I can do here on Kestris.”
Julian patted her arm. “That is the spirit. Channel your energy into something productive. They can defund us, but they cannot dissuade us. Do not let government life bring you down.”
Samantha scoffed at his purposefully awkward attempt to console her.
Julian bowed. “Samantha.”
The two exited the conference room, Julian turning left, Samantha turning right. The taze had reached peak effect. She could feel her limbs vibrating. Despite the pit of urgency in her gut, it was for the best that Clarke was occupied. Being this tazed-up after receiving such disappointing news was a combination she didn’t want to tempt.
She proceeded to an elevator bank at the opposite end from where she had arrived. The agency’s private training facility was in the below-ground levels; there would be instructors in the grappling gym. A few hours of exertion should burn off some taze and give her something else to focus on.
The elevator doors chimed and slid open. Samantha stepped inside and pressed the panel that would take her down. Her remark to Julian had not been true.
She had no one here to talk to.