Episode 40: Shoemaker linear boxwood

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Qin is caught between two worlds; that of a 5E sleeper agent, and that of a Imperium Navy intelligence officer. Those worlds are about to get a whole lot closer.

Julian’s temporary office in the 5E command center was not exactly to his liking. But Director Clarke had wanted him close, ensuring he would be working with security personnel nearby and behind multiple checkpoints. This placed Julian deep inside headquarters on the eighth floor, toward the center of the building. There were no windows or direct light, but the agency had already moved all of his belongings from his trashed remote office to this new one, so he had his stacks of books, papers, and technology in various states of reassembly. For anyone who knew Julian, they wouldn’t be able to tell if he’d been there for a day, or a year.

The protection wasn’t necessary, of course. Renic’s illegitimate arrest of him would not be repeated. Although painful for Julian, it had been intended as a cheap shot to Clarke. The message was sent and Clarke had responded. Harassing Julian again would serve no purpose. But the director wanted Julian close, and if Julian was honest with himself, he didn’t mind the extra layer of privacy the new accommodations afforded.

On the desk, Julian’s computer chimed, indicating it had finished the task he’d given it to established its encrypted connection tunnels, masking everything that was transmitted in layer after layer of digital obfuscation. It was not a foolproof process; even if the data being transmitted was unknowable, seeing data flowing back and forth wasn’t. Best to keep it brief. 

Julian did not need to actually transmit any data of value. All he needed was a confirmation. The message he had sent to Samantha’s tacsuit had originated from an anonymous entry-point server with seven hops between that and the final broadcast repeater, which the tacsuit would have checked when first activated. That repeater would have a record, the only evidence left behind. It was security through obscurity, the double-edged sword of every analyst who needed a quick and dirty solution.

Julian traced the hops from his computer to the exit-point that had sent the message, meticulously connecting to one server, then using that server to connect to the other, and the next, until he finally reached the repeater. There was only one thing he was looking for, a single, meaningless bit that meant…

“She got it,” Julian murmured, rolling back in his chair, relief washing over him. 

For the past several days, there had been a growing, emotional pain at being so out of sync with his partner. Clarke’s plan to send her out alone had made sense at the time, before the situation deteriorated in orbit over Kestris. Wondering if he would have agreed with helping orchestrate her exile if he’d known what had been coming was something Julian couldn’t bother pondering. Regardless of how he would have done things differently, all that mattered was that this flipped bit meant Samantha had made it to Senali and the IDAP shipping facility. And if she had made it there, she was still on-mission. And if she was still on-mission, it meant she was aware of Renic’s interference and would be on the lookout for both him and OS-9.

Julian rocked back in his chair, pulling the pencil from behind his ear and tapping its end against his chin. If Samantha had made it to Senali, it was possible she’d already taken action against the Kestrels. Julian connected to a transmission node in the Fringe near the planet, looking for local system reports. News from Fringe planets rarely made it to Imperium feeds. The empire’s citizens didn’t care what happened in the Fringe until it affected them, and when it did, they just cared about making it stop.

Julian set the filters to retrieve anything that mentioned Kat Basara, the Red Kestrels, Samantha Mori, as well as broader searches for mysterious killings, attempted murders, and accidents that resulted in deaths from the past two days that could be evidence of a confrontation. Julian didn’t know what he was looking for, only that he would know it when he saw it. He tapped his pencil against his chin, his eyes on the screen, waiting.

Headlines started filtering in, each linking to a respective news source. Julian leaned forward and let his eyes take in the words before choosing anything specific. It didn’t take long for something to reach out and grab him by the throat.

“Oh my,” Julian murmured. “Local business leader and politician found dead in building fire. Cause unknown.”

The report stated that a Senali businessperson named Katherine Basara was found in a building she owned along with several other unnamed individuals. The building’s lower floors were severely burnt before fire suppression was able to subdue what was being called an ‘ignition of suspicious origin.’ The Senali authorities had released no further details, only saying that they hadn’t ruled out foul-play. Business deals gone bad and criminal activity weren’t exactly breaking news in the Fringe.

Julian scanned the rest of the headlines. Nothing else stood out or looked connected. There was nothing about the Red Kestrels and nothing else in the news report that would implicate Samantha. Of course, it was reasonable to assume she was, but no one else would know that. 

Julian tapped the end of his pencil against his chin and recounted his assumptions. Samantha had made it off Kestris and had been able to secure transport to Senali, where she received the tacsuit and Nighthawk. On Senali, something resulted in Kat Basara being caught in a building fire that he again assumed was the result of a confrontation between the Kestrels and Samantha. He also chose to assume Samantha was still okay because the alternative was too distressing to dwell on.

In the event Samantha had gotten information during her confrontation with Kat Basara, she would be doing everything she could to leverage it by now. But, since he had received no contact from her, it appeared she either had not received information, or had no ability to transmit it. Or because of the distressing alternative, but again, he could not dwell on that.

If Julian couldn’t help Samantha on Senali or anywhere else in the Fringe, he still could on Kestris, and indirectly on the Terminus orbiting above. Renic could still be obstructed, delayed, thwarted. He obviously had a mission and was operating on unstable emotion. It was impossible to determine what actions were relevant to the Red Kestrel conspiracy and which were Renic pursuing personal vendettas. It was a testament to the human heart that an entire empire could be in jeopardy because of one person’s misguided emotion. 

Julian needed to validate Renic’s whereabouts, but even his 5E clearance levels were not sufficient to access the Navy systems that would let him view Renic’s classified data trail without requiring prior authorization and leaving a very telling data trail of Julian’s snooping. Those records would have to be checked from the inside, with access that would not be flagged as irregular. It was the perfect task for an insider with special privileges granted to her by the Indigo investigation, and the perfect opportunity for Julian to facilitate a special introduction.

Qin and Yadav walked side by side, crossing the recently restricted cafeteria and selecting a table as far away from other crew members as they could manage. The cafeteria had been restricted to OS-9 crew members only, its seating resembling a secondary school lunchroom. Long tables, long benches, long overhead lights directly over each table, all lined up row after row with the automated serving station at the front of the room and the automated dish drop-off at the back. 

While normally populated with crew of all rank and assignment from the nearby decks, now only Major Drake’s organization was allowed to dine in this space, and only in this space. It was too easy for conversations to stray, for people to hear or say things they shouldn’t. 

Restricting the access to OS-9 had done nothing to reduce the clamor of conversation and the scraping of utensils against trays. Qin placed her tray on the long cafeteria table, Yadav doing the same across from her.

“It’s good to see you,” Yadav said, using her fork to mix together the contents of the salad on her tray. “I don’t have long, but it is nice to step away for a moment like this.” She met eyes with Qin for a moment, a smile beneath her serious brow.

Qin smiled, cheeks warming, and mixed together her rice and steamed vegetables. “Yes, and I do not foresee the duty schedules easing up any time soon. I fear that we may be issued stimulants, should this continue.”

Yadav grimaced at the notion. “That’s what we get for working on the flagship. It’s like a competition to see who can endure the longest shifts, the most hours without sleep, the longest streak of days without recreation time or breaks. No one wants to look weak in front of the fleet marshal, as if he would ever pay attention to an individual crew member.”

Qin hummed at the comment. “Indeed.”

Yadav shrugged and pointed to Qin with her fork, leafy greens skewered on its end. “You finding any time for your plants?”

“Only the required maintenance, though it has been less frequent of late,” Qin said, the reason for the change in her routine a secret she could not reveal. “I must admit, my time is now entirely consumed by work duties, personal routines, and sleep. The plants get only enough attention to keep them from dying.”

Yadav shook her head in exaggerated remorse and consumed the bite of salad. Qin did the same with her rice. For a few minutes, she could simply be Qin, exploring a new companionship with the person across from her, no ulterior motives or missions.

Yadav finished chewing. “What about the books? Reading anything interesting? I know that you tell everyone to visit the library here, but I may need you to drag me down there.”

Qin let her fork rest on the pile of rice. “Your question may not be as easy to answer as you presumed. I am currently reading six different books, written in four different languages between them. Three are mathematics texts. Two are on botany. And one is a collection of historic poetry, though I do not read that language presently.”

Yadav’s nose scrunched in confusion. “Reading six books at once is something I’d expect to hear from you. But, you’re reading a book in a language you don’t, well, read?” She laughed. “Qin, how does that work?”

Qin smiled. “It is more of a relaxation exercise. I study the characters and words, idly looking for patterns, repetition, linguistic structure. It is something that my subconscious mind can work on where I let my eyes relax. Also, the yellow tinge of old paper can be quite relaxing for the eyes after a day of staring at computer screens and datapads. What about you? Do you have any pastimes you maintain?”

Yadav sighed, poking at her salad. “Not currently. It’s been a long time, but… furniture.”

“Furniture?” Qin said, genuinely curious. This fact was new information. It had not been included in any of Yadav’s personnel records.

“Yeah, making it. Mostly out of wood, but there’re some fabrics involved at times, some metal. Hammered copper, wrought iron. Ancient techniques.” Yadav smiled, a lightness in her eyes Qin had not previously witnessed. “It’s the act of creating something with hand-measured precision out of materials you shape and smooth yourself. Everything around us—” she waved her arm across the table, “—is manufactured in some factory with synthetic materials that have tolerances measured down to the atom. There’s no character left in anything. It’s produced to be identical to every other one that comes down the line. When I make something, it’s unique, the only piece of its kind in the universe.”

Yadav shrugged and looked away—embarrassment, regret. 

Qin leaned forward, extending a hand partway across the table. “I would like to see some,” she said. “Do you have any aboard the Terminus?” 

Yadav exhaled. “I was able to get a few small things approved as personal effects when I came aboard. Someday I’ll get back to it, when I can settle down in a surface posting on some planet.”

A flutter of discomfort rose in Qin’s chest. She had not thought about new postings, especially for Yadav. Qin couldn’t leave, and the idea of remaining alone aboard the Terminus had not been something she’d ever considered before receiving her activation orders. Suddenly, cultivating a bond with Yadav felt much more important. If she were to maintain this double life, at least one of her personas should experience something authentic.

Qin pretended to sigh to steady her breathing. “How long has it been since you last made a piece?” she asked.

Yadav scrunched her lips to the side. “It’s been… a few years. Without tools and a workshop, furniture making isn’t really starship friendly.”

“I find that most pursuits are not starship friendly,” Qin said, noting that Yadav’s hand was also on the table, not far from hers. “That is why it is important to have friends when you are out here in the great void.”

Yadav gave a smile and Qin returned one of her own. They stared for a moment. Qin felt an uncomfortable thrill flutter in her stomach before something else caught her attention. Her gaze shifted to look over Yadav’s shoulder, just as her hand withdrew to her lap. She leaned forward slightly and murmured, “Speaking of friends, we have one incoming.”

Yadav’s eyes narrowed. She turned and looked over her shoulder, a colorful curse under her breath as she returned her gaze to Qin, all of her previous warmth now drained away.

“Lieutenants! Just my luck!” Sergeant Lee howled as he hopped over the bench and sat himself—intrusive, unmannerly—next to Yadav. “Mind if I sit? I haven’t eaten at all today and I just got out of the weight room. Thankfully the fleet marshal doesn’t consider exercise to be part of our rec-time allotments, so I figure if I can’t toss around the smashball, might as well work on the ol’ physique.”

Qin forced a thin-lipped smile; Yadav did not attempt to hide her grimace. Their intimate moment was over.

Lee slid his tray forward and ripped off a big chunk of bread, stuffing it into his mouth. He was out of uniform, wearing a loose-fitting shirt and training pants, his hair still damp from what Qin presumed was a recent shower, though sweat was not out of the question. The sergeant continued to talk, seemingly content in speaking around his mouthful.

“I’m glad that Gallow is such a fitness maniac himself. I mean, it’s not like we’re going to be sent with the infantry into a battle where we actually need to run and fight, but with the new duty schedules, you almost gotta be big and strong to sit at desks and read datapads all day.”

Lee laughed at his own joke, dunking his bread in whatever sauce was dripping off an oversized chunk of synthesized meat on his tray.

Yadav met eyes with Qin; Qin shrugged. Yadav back turned to Lee. “I had not realized the cafeteria restrictions extended to contingent team members such as yourself, Sergeant.”

Lee shrugged. “Hey, I’m sorta part of the team, right? I know I’m not like, actually in OS-9, but enough of your work flows through these eyes that I guess they figured it’s best if we temps are all contained and accounted for, eh?”

Qin smiled politely and used the moment to take a drink of water. Lee’s commitment to physical activity was not hard to recognize. Most crew on long-term rotations maintained an adequate level of fitness—especially under the fleet marshal’s requirements—but Lee was not just fit. He maintained an athlete’s level of mass and conditioning, pushing the believability that his physique was not partially due to chemical assistance, if it weren’t for the strict substance-control screening aboard the Terminus. It was unfortunate that he did not apply that same dedication to following decorum and social sensibility. At least Qin had had some time with Yadav before being joined by their uninvited guest.

“So, you two working on anything I can know about?” Lee said through a mouthful of food—unrefined, oblivious. 

Yadav laughed and scoffed at once. “I’m sorry, but you’re nowhere near the clearance level needed for us to even mention that we are working on something, let alone what,” Yadav said, refusing to turn and face Lee.

Lee chuckled. “Right, right. Top secret. The major’s special team. Well, don’t forget, without grunts like me taking care of the tedious stuff, important folks like you two would have to do it.”

Yadav’s head was tilted forward, and she looked up to Qin from beneath a stern brow. Qin placed her utensils down and gave Lee a polite smile.

“Sergeant, perhaps you can share some things you are working on that are appropriate for a social, if restricted, setting? It is always nice to hear how others are contributing. We can become so locked into our roles, we forget it takes an entire team,” Qin said, emphasizing the last few words at Yadav. Yadav grimaced but let her expression relax.

Lee’s face brightened at the opportunity to be the center of attention. “Oh, you know. Stuff and things. I’ve been stuck at a terminal reviewing Starview Station data. And by reviewing, I mean feeding data into algorithms and queries so the computers can do the crunching. I’m really only there for quality control, looking for the little things that computers don’t catch and flagging it for special review,” Lee said, shoveling a heaping spoonful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.

Yadav raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Quality control? How so?”

Lee mumbled a few words through his stuffed mouth and held up a finger to stave off any interruption that may come. “Well, you see, the computer can compare datasets and draw conclusions just fine, but there has to be some sort of human intervention to look for things that are situational anomalies, but not necessarily anomalies in the data.”

Lee stabbed his fork into a pair of asparagus spears and held it up for them to see. “Like this. I’m eating some asparagus, right? If you fed my meal selections into a computer—pun intended—you could get a relatively complete picture of my food choices and habits. Then, you could make a predictive algorithm to make very accurate guesses on what I may eat over the course of a day or week on average, but the accuracy of a prediction for a specific day, or a specific meal on that day, goes way down since there’s no context. It can show the what, but not the why behind the why. The computer just presents data, but it can’t tell a story or look for nuance.”

“And you’re the storyteller looking at the why behind the why?” Yadav said dryly.

“Yeah.” Lee grinned and held up his fork. “This asparagus, why do I eat it?”

Qin leaned forward, intrigued at the prospect of solving a puzzle. Yadav seemed to notice and gestured to Qin. “I’ll let the lieutenant handle this one,” she said, shaking her head.

Lee chuckled. “The great Meredessi machine. Okay, what’s your take?”

Qin thought for a moment. “Well, Sergeant, the Terminus culinary staff keeps certain types of food on rotation in order to offer a variety of options without becoming mundane. Asparagus is one of the foods not available every day, so by choosing it when it is available, it would indicate that the other options don’t suit you, or that asparagus is a preferred food. Given your physical appearance, you exercise and eat properly to maintain your fitness level. This leads me to believe that the asparagus is an intentional choice to balance your diet. My guess is that if we did analyze your meal data, we would see that you mostly choose a diet that supports your exercise routine’s demands. If you consistently choose asparagus when it is available on the cafeteria menu, I would draw the conclusion that your choice is based on its nutritional makeup, and when given the opportunity, you would go with asparagus in a predictable pattern.”

Lee whistled, an exaggerated look of being impressed widening his grin. “Fascinating extrapolation! Wrong, though.”

Qin raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Wrong?” she said, hiding her flutter of irritation.

Yadav scoffed. “Oh, this is going to be good,” she muttered.

Lee pressed forward, planting his elbows on the table and leaning forward. “Well, this is the trick. You weren’t wrong wrong, but you processed it like a computer would. You extrapolated from available data, made inferences, and drew conclusions. But no why-why. You didn’t create a story around me, the individual at the center whose biases, personality, and history should be in the data,” Lee said, his pride at fooling them beaming on his face.

Yadav turned her head to Lee, voice heavy with sarcasm. “I must say, Sergeant, this is most fascinating. But please, enlighten us as to how Qin here was wrong,” she said, Qin’s first name seeming to slip out without Yadav realizing it. Qin didn’t mind.

Lee stared at the asparagus on the fork, quickly biting off the tips. “I choose it because it makes me feel like I’m a giant eating little trees,” he said, chewing. “Add that to your mental algorithm,” he bit off another length, “and everything changes. Your explanation fit when looking only at the data, but turns out there was something else.”

A sage-like nod accompanied Yadav’s response. “Ah, of course. The fact that the lieutenant did not consider that you may just be an overgrown child is what threw it off. That does make perfect sense.”

Lee smiled, unaffected by the comment. “And that’s the quality control part. Someone has to be there to notice and say ‘hey, maybe this guy just wants to feel like a giant.’ Computers can’t do that unless they’re told to.”

Yadav placed her utensils on her tray. “With that, I must excuse myself. I have duties to attend to.” Yadav stood. “Lieutenant, thank you for lunch. Catch up later?”

“Yes. Thank you,” Qin said, saddened their brief moment away from work was concluded. Yadav turned sharply on her heel and walked away. Lee looked over his shoulder, waving even though Yadav wasn’t looking back at him.

“See you around,” Lee called out through another mouthful of bread. Qin looked down at her half-eaten tray of food. She was still hungry enough to endure a few more minutes of Lee’s banter. Plus, he had made an excellent point; she’d never considered Lee’s ridiculous reason for preferring asparagus. How would she have answered if she’d considered the more juvenile of his tendencies into her analysis? Would she have arrived at the conclusion that the asparagus was chosen because it made eating, well, fun?

Lee kept his head turned, a broad smile on his face as he watched Yadav drop off her tray and exit the cafeteria.

He turned back to Qin. A surge of disorientation washed over her. Something in her subconscious cried out in panic. She knew the person across from her was Sergeant Lee, but something was off. Her mind recognized his features, but any feeling of familiarity was gone, as if he were a stranger.

Lee’s eyes were hardened, his smile disappeared, even his posture had changed. He leaned forward, voice a raspy whisper.

“Agent three-seven-one-four-one-five-two-two, the color of the day is purple. Verification passphrase is ‘shoemaker, linear, boxwood.’ You have new orders from the director.”

Qin stared across the table. Her mind registered Lee’s words, recognizing what she’d memorized for 5E agent-to-agent field communication. She’d never heard them spoken aloud before. 

“This can’t…” Qin said, looking around the cafeteria, not sure what she was looking for. She felt her cheeks become warm, and for a moment, Qin didn’t know what to think.

Lee sat back, his expression softening. “Sorry about the intrusion, but I had to get Yadav to leave on her own so we could talk in a location that wouldn’t seem too out of place. I knew she would eventually get fed up with the sergeant.”

Qin leaned forward, looking at her fellow OS-9 team members seated all around, none close enough that they could eavesdrop. Still, she whispered. “Is.. is this…” She paused, composing herself. “I apologize, this is… this is my first time receiving instructions and I was not expecting them to come from…”

Lee grinned, all the familiarity of the boisterous sergeant returning. “From me?”

Qin nodded, disconcerted, a flush of embarrassment deepening the burn she felt in her face.

Lee’s eyes scanned their surroundings. He lowered his voice, face now something between the sergeant she thought she knew and this new person—5E field agent—sitting with her. “Well, when it comes to instructions, the motto is ‘whatever it takes.’ You had to be reached immediately, and I was the closest asset available. I think you just spoke with our requestor yesterday.”

Julian. Qin thought back to their conversation in his car, and afterward in the rain. This was his doing. Something must have evolved.

Qin kept her voice quiet, unsure how to proceed. “You knew I was a plant from the agency all this time?”

Lee shook his head. “No. I’d been assigned to the Terminus in hopes of working my way closer to OS-9, maybe even getting put on the Indigo team, but none of my previous assignments gave me the experience needed to plausibly be promoted into Drake’s group. The closest that my handler could get me was the temp assignment with your team.”

Qin’s eyes widened. “You know Indigo?”

Lee shrugged.

“And, the director?” Qin said.

Lee shrugged again. “He likes to keep his contingency plans well-compartmentalized. Now that your activation method is burned and there wasn’t time to establish a new communication protocol, along with there being no way for me to get into OS-9 with the Starview Station attack clamping things down, you’re my conduit to the inside. And, Meredessi… I’m your conduit to the outside.”

 Qin felt her cheeks warm again. All of Lee’s uncouth bravado had disappeared. She quickly sifted through her memories of Sergeant Lee, all the times he’d worked his way into conversations, how he’d approached her about his new interest in quantum encryption, how he was already nearby except for when OS-9 restricted zones prevented him. It was so clear; Lee had been hovering around Indigo and her all along. And she had missed it.

Qin took a breath, letting the initial panic and embarrassment fade. This was what she had wanted, a contact to the mission. Orders. Something that made her effort aboard the Terminus worth the investment.

“Your cover is impenetrable,” she finally said, studying Lee’s face without reservation. “You were Sergeant Lee, yet now…”

Lee shrugged, grinning as he stuffed a hunk of meat into his mouth, chewing as he talked. At least that part of him was genuine. “Don’t blame yourself, I’ve been at this a long time and when I realized you were a face-reader, I made sure to project things that would give you a confident misinterpretation of who I was. Though, once Indigo came around, I had to try to undo some of that to get closer to the operation.”

“The book on quantum cryptography,” Qin said, brow furrowing. “That was an attempt to persuade me to involve you with Indigo?”

Lee grimaced. “Well, in a way. If I want a chance at getting promoted to the team, I’m going to have to learn that stuff either way. I’d hoped that you’d recognize my genuine need to learn and take pity on the misguided, but well-intentioned, Sergeant Lee. We’re not all smart like you, Meredessi,” Lee’s grimace shifted to a grin. “Some of us agents are more of—as we call it back at HQ—the shoot-and-stab type. I’m here to act as backup, in case things need to get…” Lee’s expression darkened—reluctance, hesitation. “In case things get rough and you need some of those more ‘hands-on’ services.”

Qin nodded, her rational mind catching up to her emotions. It made sense. Of course she would not be the only 5E plant placed aboard such an important asset such as the Terminus. She’d been chosen for her analytic skills and gift with mathematics and memorization, but it now occurred to her that she might be in OS-9 not because she was exceptional, but because agents like Lee could not fake their way through the very-real educational and technical requirements needed for the role. Suddenly, all of the pride she’d taken at being selected by Director Clarke felt presumptuous.

Lee must have noticed her ruminating. He tipped his head forward, catching her attention. “Hey, I’ve had a lot of practice at convincing people I’m someone else. Don’t blame yourself,” he said, grinning in a way completely unlike his cover persona. “You really pushed my limits on projecting misleading tells. Fooling you while not looking like too much of a buffoon became a career-defining task, and I may have failed the latter part.”

Qin shook off the feeling of self-pity. She was there because she was important to the mission, and hopefully Lee would be able to fill her in on how that mission was evolving. “The director… how did he contact you, and why not come right to me with the instructions?” she asked.

Lee held up a hand and shook his head. “This is how the instructions come to you from now on. It’s a last-second improvisation from our… friend.”

Qin grimaced in frustration, an expression she did not often experience. “How are you able to be contacted, but I am not?”

Lee shrugged, bowing his head apologetically. “These routines take time to develop after an activation. Months usually, or longer. Normally, you would build up new patterns, start to make new contacts, get into a rhythm with the outside. Things moved faster than expected and there’s no time for you to do that with the fleet marshal’s increase in scrutiny of the whole ship. So, they’re using mine instead, but I am not the right agent for the tasks needed… you are.”

Qin sighed. Lee’s explanation made sense, but given that he’d fooled her so easily before, there was no way to be certain if his micro-expressions were genuine or not. “I understand.”

“Good.” Lee lowered his voice. “An incident has come to light and we need you to drop everything and accelerate your investigation into the commander.”

Qin nodded. Lee scanned the surroundings one more time, painting on his cheesy grin as he did. Satisfied, he leaned forward. “We need any records you can pull for his whereabouts. Any ships he’s taken, records he’s accessed, comm beacons, everything over the last two days. This is information that only Indigo has the overrides for, but you’ll have to keep him from noticing as he’s also got access.”

Qin nodded. “Understood. I do not foresee keeping the commander from noticing to be a problem. It is highly unlikely he would bother to personally look into any actual Indigo data himself.”

Lee raised an eyebrow, seeming to ponder the statement. “I remember the stories of Agent Tau when he was in the agency. Yeah… I can’t see him doing any desk work.”

“Sergeant,” Qin said, realizing how silly the title must now sound, “If I may take your advice from earlier regarding context, what is the context of this exploration?”

Lee swept his gaze to the side before leaning forward and lowering his voice further. “There was an incident on Senali with a well-known Red Kestrel collaborator named Kat Basara. Details are sparse, but our friend needs to either positively locate the commander during that time period or fail to locate him, reasonably implicating him in those events, and we need to know as quickly as possible.”

“Is this about…” Qin started to mention Agent Mori, but stopped herself. She was still mentally calibrating what to say or not say. Best to err on the side of not-say.

“I don’t know anything else about the context. That’s the truth. Look,” Lee placed a hand flat on the table, “we know Renic is morally compromised. Everyone knows. Look at the guy. He flaunts it. But there’s nothing to act on. If you can place him on Senali, then we have something, and we need it within the next day. It can’t be circumstantial.”

One day. That was all they were giving her. Whether she was put in this role because she was exceptional, or because she was the only one with the education, she would prove that she could deliver. Qin nodded with conviction. “I will find what is required.”

Lee righted his posture. He looked every bit the experienced 5E field agent. The overly developed physique made sense; how could she have also missed that?

“Good. While you’re working on that, I’ll start coming up with a routine for us to meet more frequently. For tomorrow, meet me after the third shift, outside the athletic center on deck seventy-two, section four,” Lee said. He reached into his gym bag on the floor and pulled out the same book he’d been holding the last time they met: Introduction to Quantum Cryptography. He placed it on the table and nonchalantly slid it to the side with is elbow, never looking directly at it. “I was showing you what I’d learned and left this here by accident. Running it to me is the reason you seek me out tomorrow, because of how impressed you were at my initiative.”

“Understood.” Qin glanced at the red cover of the book. “What do I do with the data once I have found it?” she asked.

“There’s a reason you were chosen,” Lee smiled and tapped his temple. “Terminus security can’t scan the universe’s most powerful computer. You’re going to memorize it, hand-encode it and write it in the book. I’ll get the data off the ship, and our contact on the ground can figure it out from there.”

Qin swallowed. “Understood.” She paused, the sense of disorientation still making it hard to focus. “I have one question before you leave, if I may.”

Lee shrugged. “Go ahead. I’ll do my best.”

“Okay.” Qin took a deep breath. “You have maintained your cover for so long and have gotten this far. Rosewood took me right out of the academy and… does this get easier?”

Lee pressed his lips together—contemplation, reluctance, sympathy. After questioning all of her previous reads of Sergeant Lee, this one felt like one she felt she could trust.

“No, it doesn’t. It just gets more natural, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Don’t lose yourself in here,” Lee said.

Qin nodded, her assumption confirmed. “I see. Thank you.”

Lee nodded and started to stand, but stopped, sitting back down. “Qin, I don’t want to poison the well of your mission, because you must carry it out. But,” Lee’s face softened, “start thinking of an exit plan.”

Qin’s head tilted, her eyebrows coming down. “I do not understand.”

Lee winced slightly. “See, we’re trapped on the Terminus. When things finally break—and they will break—agents like us could be stranded. Our exit plans only exist so long as our coordinators do. Without Director Clarke, 5E…” Lee let the notion hang in the air.

Qin’s stomach sank. “We will be Lieutenant Meredessi and Sergeant Lee forever, or until we are discovered by all the people we have deceived on this ship.”

Lee nodded slowly. “If you get the signal to abort, you abort. Not just the mission—your whole identity and life.” He slapped the table and his old persona returned. In an instant, Agent Lee disappeared and was replaced by Sergeant Lee. “Gotta go for real this time. And hey, don’t let Yadav work you too hard. She’s a feisty one!”

Lee turned and strode away, bobbing his head to some music only he could hear, shoulders rocking back and forth like he was the most carefree, confident person in the universe. Qin watched him leave, his posture and gait flawlessly deceptive. She made a mental note to explore this conversation about double lives with Lee again in the future, as it seemed like he might be the only person who could help her navigate the days ahead.

Qin pushed her tray to the center of the table, next to the book Lee had left behind. She had one day to find the evidence Director Clarke needed to implicate Renic in whatever happened on Senali. And maybe she did not have to do it alone. 

Qin looked at her comm and tapped out a message. Accelerating her investigation aligned with her current orders, and after the ride with Agent Siddig, Yadav’s too. Maybe she would get to spend more time with Yadav than she had assumed.