Renic has returned to the surface of Kestris after receiving his punishment from Gallow. The planet will now react to what he has done. Julian and Qin each receive new motivations.
Renic walked down the steps of the Imperium Capitol building, pulling off his gloves and stuffing them into the pocket of his black, knee-length jacket. The first half of his task was complete, one nondescript suitcase and a pair of red scarves left behind in the capitol building behind him.
His body ached, the pain of his arm and the beating he’d received only partially masked by the drugs Gallow’s personal physician had given him the night before. There had been no helping his raspy voice, a constant reminder of the chokehold Gallow had on him and the rest of the Imperium.
Gallow may have defeated Renic aboard the Terminus, but as with all ongoing conflicts, a single battle did not win a war. And Gallow had indeed created a war with Renic. All Renic had wanted was a little respect, acknowledgment of what he had done, how he had served Gallow better than anyone else. Instead, the pain in his crushed throat and his cracked ribs were all the recognition Gallow had given him. It was the anger from that insult which helped soothe the pain from his injuries. Gallow’s actions would neither be forgotten, nor forgiven.
The orange glow of the Kestris sun was just starting to show through the jagged skyline of skyscrapers in the distance. Here in the center of Kestris City, the architectural codes kept the buildings around the capitol building no higher than four levels. It was a strange custom. Perhaps incoming President Archer would change that. Regardless, the open space would make for a dramatic landscape when the smoke from Renic’s task filled the skies, visible for miles.
The plaza in front of the capitol had few visitors at this time of day. Most who worked there would show up within the hour. Those who were already there paid Renic no mind. To them, he was just another government worker doing his early morning duty for the empire. They would be partially correct. Renic was carrying out his duty, but for the New Kestris Republic, ensuring it came about as Gallow intended. If it didn’t, Renic would not be safe in the remaining Imperium. With a new life in Gallow’s republic his only viable future, Renic had decided that remaining loyal to the cause—but no longer to the man—was his path forward.
He crossed the dimly lit plaza and came to a stop at the parked car that had brought him there. When he’d exited the sleek luxury vehicle, he’d been carrying a suitcase. Now, he carried nothing. The suitcase, and the explosive it contained, were placed in the building’s first below-ground level specified by the simulations Gallow had run on the Terminus’s quantum computers. The precise location had been chosen to guarantee just enough damage to look devastating, but not enough that it could not be rebuilt. The chemical makeup of the explosives had been formulated to create a great deal of thick, black smoke, something that would be seen for hundreds of miles. As for the people inside the building, they were the unfortunate casualties in a civil war they would never know had started right beneath their feet. Renic had already doomed the hundreds of civilians that had perished on Starview Station, adding a few hundred more Imperium government workers was a small sacrifice by comparison.
The car door opened at Renic’s approach. He placed his hand on the shining black roof, turning to observe the plaza under the light of dawn. Only a week ago, it had been just past this same plaza where he had finalized the attack on Starview Station with his Red Kestrel confederates. Now, the Kestrels were nowhere to be found, a fact that Gallow blamed Renic for after he’d eliminated Kat Basara on Senali without Gallow’s consent. Making Renic plant the explosives himself was part of his punishment. Gallow wanted to remind him who was in control.
Yes, Gallow. You are in control. For now.
Renic let his gaze shift across the plaza to where the Office of Information Security was located. 5E headquarters. This did cause him to smirk. He’d have his revenge on Clarke and Julian soon enough. Samantha may have slipped from his grasp, but it was these two who had pushed her away. Had they not interfered, had they not sent her off on her quest to unravel the Kestrels and Renic’s collusion, perhaps he could have reached her. Had Clarke not coerced Samantha, she would not have refused Renic’s first invitation. She would not have drawn him to Senali, and as a result he would not have enraged Gallow. The fleet marshal’s hand might have dispensed the punishment, but it was Director Clarke who had set Renic up to receive it.
Renic’s smirk bent into a grimace, the muscles in his back and neck aching as his body tensed with the simmering rage inside. Clarke’s transgression would not go without correction, just as soon as Renic was finished proving to Gallow he was once again loyal and to be relied upon.
A slow, steady breath brought Renic down from his peak of fury. 5E had to wait a few hours. There was another place Renic had to be at the moment. He gave his old headquarters a final, bitter glare, then ducked into the car, door sliding shut behind him. He input his next destination into the navigation console: the Imperial Palace, the residence of the High Imperius. The car pulled slowly into the ground lane, traffic already increasing as the morning grew brighter. After today, it would be some time before any vehicles who weren’t military police would be allowed in the ground or sky lanes near this plaza.
Renic eased back into the plush seat, his aching body grateful for the momentary respite from movement. The car made its way across the plaza, taking the gently-curving lanes that created the target-like pattern of the central-district traffic grid. It wasn’t long before the car parked itself in the government-only lot near the Imperial Palace.
Renic pulled off his black jacket, revealing his blue Navy uniform underneath, complete with his rank and insignia like most officers wore. He needed to look how the High Imperius and his Imperial Guard would expect. While the rank of commander on his shoulders and chest was legitimate, it was still a disguise. And soon, it would mean nothing at all, replaced by the uniform of the Republic along with everything else. He’d been so eager to wear it, but now… now the pain of his crushed throat had twisted that desire from one of pride, to one of spiteful obligation.
Renic looked down at his comm. Only a few more seconds. Normally, Renic would have gotten out of the car, turned around and admired the results of his handiwork as it went off.
Not this time. This time, the task felt hollow. It was just a perfunctory task in order to create a future where the Republic reigned supreme and he was freed from Gallow’s scrutiny.
Renic stared blankly into the rear-facing seat across from him, his back toward the capitol building now several blocks away. A slow, deliberate, pain-filled exhalation escaped his lungs. He clenched his jaw in protest of the woe that threatened to overtake him. No; he would not wallow in despondency. Gallow, Samantha, they’d struck blows against him, both physical and mental. Both had failed to put Renic down for good, a failure that they would all come to regret.
The readout on Renic’s comm indicated it was time, and through the windows behind him, a flash of light brightened the dimness of dawn for a moment. Then there was the boom, followed by a rumble that shook Renic in his seat. He’d give the High Imperius and his guards a few minutes to react. Kogan and the extraction team were already in position just outside the palace. All Renic had to do now was walk in and start the insurrection.
Renic sighed. And to think… he used to enjoy his work.
First there was the sound, a muffled thud that made its way through the reinforced walls of the four above-ground levels of 5E headquarters. Then, the entire building shuddered as the shockwave hit.
Julian instinctively ducked behind his desk. The reverberation toppled stacks of his books to the floor, and he could hear the twang of the blast-proof steelglass windows outside his temporary office as they flexed with the pressure wave.
He counted the seconds, waiting for another blast, listening for any sounds that would tell him what was happening. He could already guess. This was no ruptured power conduit or industrial accident. It was them, whoever was behind the Red Kestrel facade. Maybe Gallow. Most certainly Renic. The orchestrated conspiracy to topple the empire coming to fruition.
First there had been an attack in orbit, showing that no civilian was safe from the Red Kestrel menace. Now, something this close to the capitol would prove that even the center of government could be hit. It was the final toll of the bell they’d been unable to stop from ringing.
A twinge of sorrow came over Julian. He’d tried; he really had. Samantha, too. And Clarke. Clarke had seen this all coming. Julian bowed his head, taking the sense of loss he felt and stuffing it into an imaginary wooden chest he kept in his mental library. He’d come back to these feelings when there was time. Right now, he had to act.
Julian checked his comm. The building had an underground bunker, and the building’s occupants would be instructed to reach. That could wait; hiding beneath the desk was good enough for Julian. He reached his arm up on top of the desk’s surface and felt for a datapad, yanking it back down.
Kestris city news feeds were already reporting an incident at the capitol, all mobile reporting crews on the ground or in the sky having instantly turned their cameras towards the enormous column of smoke billowing up from one of the wings that jutted off of the structure, a glow of flames visible through black plumes. Across the capitol plaza, thick clouds of dust covered the ground, the tops of the low-rise buildings barely visible. None of the news feeds had any information, but it would not be long before the speculation would start and the entire system would be on alert. A few minutes after that, the whole sector.
Samantha would see it and she’d know it was a repeat of the Starview Station attack, the Red Kestrels would be blamed, but Julian, Clarke, and Samantha knew they weren’t who were truly responsible, who truly had the blood of the empire on their hands. It didn’t matter. They had not been able to stop it. They had tried to outdistance the inevitable, but the inevitable was unavoidable by definition.
Julian could hear the sound of footsteps and voices out in the hall, quicker and louder than normal, but not frantic. No one in this building would be prone to panicking. Hearing no additional blasts, Julian slid out from under the desk and took his seat behind his computer. Agency notifications were streaming down the screen, though there was no evacuation alert yet.
The feeling of control and purpose Julian usually felt when seated in front of his computer was absent. What could he do? His hands rested on the keys but did not move. Dozens, hundreds of potential actions were buzzing around his mind, none of which felt productive. His urge to regroup, to be resourceful, to approach a problem from multiple angles at once was absent. He retracted his hands from the keyboard and stood. His office felt decidedly, strangely, not like home. Tucking his pencil behind his ear, he picked up his datapad and walked out into the hall.
Outside his office was a cluster of desks with a common area in the center. A row of windows faced the city center where the capitol was, a pillar of black smoke rising into the air a few blocks away. Agents were at their desks speaking into comms, typing furiously into computers, reviewing datapads, and yelling to each other all at once. Everyone’s face held the same expression—a mix of embarrassment and determination, the feeling when one had made an unforgivable mistake but were committed to fixing it.
Julian felt a tightening in his chest. Maybe he should tell them. Stand on one of the desks and shout the truth, that it wasn’t their fault they’d missed this. That he’d hidden the Terminus duplicate key from them, and that Samantha had not betrayed them, but had tried to prevent this from happening. That they’d thought they could do it alone, but they’d failed.
“Hey! Everyone needs to see this!” shouted an agent from the center of the room. Julian’s head snapped toward the shout, pencil behind his ear nearly falling as his fretting came to an abrupt stop. It was Agent Barton, the data analyst who’d given Julian access to the protected OS-9 records just after Samantha had left. Agent Barton was staring at one of the large vidscreens in the common area, waving for people to look.
5E agents and staff formed a semi-circle around the screen, each person going silent as they fixed their attention on what was unfolding in front of them. Conversations died out, the volume of the room lowered with each second until each voice and movement was finally, eerily, silent.
The only sound was the voice of the newscaster on the vidscreens. Scenes of the capitol building were replaced by scenes of warships gathered in orbit around planets. Imperium Navy warships around Imperium planets. Shots of planetary governors and Imperium politicians speaking into cameras flashed by, including many members of the Council of the Hundred. Some of them looked sorrowful, some looked enraged, some looked compliant, and a few even looked pleased.
“Martial law has been declared across the Imperium,” Agent Barton said, hands planted on his hips as he gawked at the vidscreen. “The entire Imperium.”
“Martial law? For what reason?” another agent asked, rising from his seat to get a better look.
Agent Barton waved at the screen. “The message from the Navy is that the empire is not safe, and planetary governments are unable to protect their people without military assistance.”
Another agent, a young woman, spoke up. “This is in response to the explosion? That can’t be. It’s too fast. Martial law requires approvals. There’s an escalation process, the Ministry of Defense has to approve military intervention in civilian matters.”
Julian looked at his datapad. Reports were streaming in faster than he could read. Messages provided more detail, matching what was on the feed. The capitol building was a minor inconvenience compared to what was transpiring across the sector.
Agent Barton shook his head, his eyes not leaving the vidscreen. “Defense Minister Archer has authorized it on every planet. All the fleet leaders have ordered the governors to stand down and turn over control to them while they stabilize the situation. Kestris, too.” Barton turned, his brow lowered in anger. “The Navy is taking control of the empire.”
“An insurrection,” Julian murmured to himself. “We’ve been overthrown.”
All at once, every comm in the room began beeping a specific pattern that every agent instantly recognized—a system-wide alert. Everyone in the room looked to their comms, their datapads, their computers. Every device had the same message, including Julian’s.
Agent Barton turned to the gathered crowd. “We’re… we’re being ordered to stand down and await processing by the Naval Special Investigation Division,” he said, anger his his voice. “5E is being shut down.”
Julian exhaled slowly. Renic was getting his revenge on 5E at last. This did not bode well for Julian’s personal well-being, given his last run-in with the commander. This time, he suspected Renic would not be leaving him alone in a cell.
“My system isn’t responding,” a voice said from across the room. Another voice echoed the sentiment. Then another, then another. Julian tapped his 5E datapad. It did not respond. Voices began speaking to no one in particular, the entire room jumping into a conversation with itself.
“Systems are locking down. We’re being cut off.”
“Cut off by who?”
“Top level access. 5E is being disabled. It’s the Navy.”
“Turning on us? What purpose would that serve?”
“They’re taking out threats. We’re not military. The Navy has no control over us. We’re a part of the side being occupied by the fleets.”
“This is ridiculous. Where is Director Samson? Director Clarke?”
“I’m not being taken into custody. We’re not enemies of the state.”
“The building has been sealed. No exterior doors are responding.”
The din of voices grew until individual comments could not be made out. Weapons appeared from within jackets or beneath desks. 5E headquarters was no mere office building. It was one of the most well-armed threats to a military occupation, a fortress-like structure filled with trained personnel who were armed to the teeth with an armory below ground that could last them weeks if needed. It was smart for the Navy to come after 5E this quickly.
Julian double-timed it back to his office and tossed the useless datapad onto his desk. He would not be sticking around to see what Renic had planned for him. All that mattered was getting out. He scrambled to a locking cabinet in the corner, pulling off the front panel to reveal the mechanical, spinning combination lock beneath. He spun the dial to the five numbers needed and pulled it open, reaching for what was inside.
It wasn’t much of a bug-out bag, but it would be enough to get him out of the building and to one of his safehouses in the city that was not on a 5E record. He opened it and rummaged through its contents; three mobile computers, four datapads, four wrist comms, two long range comm transmitters, various cables and physical interfaces, physical money, and a standard-issue bolt pistol.
The computers were Julian’s weapons of choice. Avoiding confrontation was his chief strategy, and the pistol would not be much of an advantage once the Navy’s military police started patrolling the streets. For Julian, that meant he needed off of 5E networks.
Julian set the bag onto the desk and placed a stack of notebooks and books inside. There was no chance he would be able to return to this place, or anywhere else on record. If the Naval Special Investigation Division was coming for 5E, that meant whatever Clarke had done with the data Qin and Julian had delivered had failed. Renic would be coming, and Julian had already had a taste of the sort of treatment he gave 5E agents he didn’t like.
Julian slung the bag over his shoulder and hurried into the hall, past the rows of offices, past the elevators, and climbed the emergency stairs, the stairwell doors unable to lock due to evacuation protocols. Other 5E agents passed him, weapons drawn, giving commands and shouting out instructions to each other. They would not accept this coup without a fight. Julian frowned. He wished he could stay and help.
Julian exited the stairwell and burst onto the floor. He ran the short distance to the doors of Clarke’s office, the door of which he knew Clarke had long ago disabled any remote lockout ability, because Julian had been the one to assist him. Brandt was outside, engrossed in a conversation over the intercom. Julian ignored him. The door to Clarke’s office was still open, the director’s face sullen behind his computer.
“Director. I believe we have lost,” Julian said. He adjusted the bag’s strap over his shoulder, showing it to Clarke. “Sir, I believe that you and I will be of particular interest to the commander of the Naval Special Investigation Division. I have prepared an evacuation plan for such an event, but we must leave now before the Navy locks down more systems than I can override from inside the building.”
Clarke looked up, his face a battle-hardened stare. “Agent Siddig, I appreciate your offer. We did our best, and now I’m ordering you to go on without me.”
Julian blanched. “Director Clarke, this is the end of the proverbial road for us here on Kestris. Renic’s division will be taking this building by force, with Navy support.”
Clarke turned from his computer. He looked tired. Tired and angry. “Julian, you did your part. You did what I asked, and some things I didn’t ask. You’re an exceptional asset, and while your methods and mine weren’t always the same, I’m grateful that you could see things in ways I couldn’t. We got Samantha out, and we made a good run at Renic.” Clarke pointed toward the office door. “But, there are a lot more agents here who need me to stay and lead them. Maybe we fight, maybe we negotiate, but my responsibility is to stay with my troops. I’m a soldier. Always was. Maybe I never should have left the service and put on this tie. But you’re not a soldier, Julian, you’re a damn fine spy. And, you’ve still got work to do.”
Julian swallowed, stuffing more feelings into the imaginary box for later. “Sir?”
Clarke narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t over as long as some of us make it out, and there will be more than just you, me, and Samantha who refuse to accept this outcome. Think of all the people who will push back, refusing to be ruled by Gallow and whatever he’s setting up. There will be a civil war. That’s the endgame to all this. I want you out there fighting it, not in some cell as a traitor, and not in the ground as a casualty.”
Julian nodded, unable to construct a sufficiently compelling reason for the director to stand up and follow him out the door. Clarke leaned back, a slight grin on the corner of his lips.
“Hey. When you find Samantha, which I know you will, tell her she did good. Tell her I’m glad she got out early. We’ll need people like her on the outside. Tell her…” Clarke paused, searching for words. “Tell her we did our best, though this one we gotta score for the enemy. But not the next.”
Julian nodded again, the emotions stuffed in the imaginary box threatening to burst out. “I will, sir.”
Clarke saluted Julian. “Good. Now get out of here. I’ll string them along over the negotiation lines while you do your vanishing act.”
Julian took a breath, bowed his head, and turned. He walked out the door, taking off his 5E comm and tossing it to the floor. He reached into the bag and pulled out a new one, one he’d prepared for just such an event that was decoupled from Imperium systems and ready for a life on the run. He was no longer Agent Siddig, 5E operative and Imperium citizen. Now, he was just Julian, a former agent on the run just like Samantha.
It was good company to have, if he could reach her.
Clarke sighed, letting his body sink back into the chair. He could hear commotion outside his office—junior directors, principal analysts, group managers, team managers, and individual agents scurrying about. They’d done well as an agency. The Defense Minister might have been disappointed in them, but what else could they have done? There was no stopping this. This was Gallow’s plan all along. Work the empire into a frenzy, position fleets around each planet with the Terminus lording over the capital, and then pull the noose tight.
The comm channel on Clarke’s computer lit up. He grunted and pushed a button on his computer that would close his office door. He had a minute for this call.
“Will,” Clarke said as Major Drake’s face appeared on the screen.
“Elias. I’m sorry,” Drake said, voice heavy with remorse. “OS-9 was not briefed on the Naval Special Investigation Division’s new edict. I knew the agency was on the bubble, but this is obviously coordinated. You were right.”
Clarke shrugged. “Can’t win them all. I really thought I could prevent this.”
Drake sighed, nodding. “The data on Tau, I got it to Gallow. The message had a receipt indicator. He saw it… it wasn’t enough. The Indigo investigation is being shut down. Tau is taking over. He slipped through. Somehow the bastard slipped through.”
Clarke shook his head. “That’s what he does. Renic’s a survivor. Keep watch on him. And Will, I know you need to maintain your duties as a naval officer. I don’t hold it against you.”
Drake looked away. It was simple for Clarke to look at the military occupation as a clear threat. But not for Drake; he was part of that threat. Drake and countless officers were all being backed into the same corner of forced compliance or turning on Gallow and facing what would likely be a swift and private execution.
Drake turned his eyes to the camera, his expression more compassionate than Clarke would have guessed. “Hey, Elias, when they ask what this call was about, tell them I was asking you to go peacefully, okay? That I was trying to talk sense into you. Don’t let them know that I wished you good luck,” Drake said, regret thick in his voice.
Clarke smiled. “This was coming, no matter what. I take a little comfort knowing there are good officers like you who will keep things from getting too bloody.”
Drake nodded. “It was good serving with you. Then and now.”
“Same to you, Will.”
The computer screen went dark. Clarke pulled up the security feeds of the entrance to 5E headquarters. The blast doors had come down, agents were already barricading themselves behind the building’s military-grade defenses.
A wry grin bent the corner of Clarke’s mouth. He’d give any agent who wanted plausible deniability the order to stay and fight, but he knew most wouldn’t need it. 5E and the military hadn’t gotten along for quite some time. Now, knowing that one of their own was now coming for them? Renic better have trained his operatives well, because whether Clarke ordered them to stand down or not, the 5E agents in this building would not go quietly. Nor would the countless others on assignment throughout the sector.
Clarke stood, pulling off his tie and dropping it to the floor. He unbuttoned his shirt cuffs and rolled his sleeves up over his elbows. Enough standing on the sidelines of the battlefield. He’d tried to mitigate Renic’s influence by sending Samantha away, then he’d tried by dropping Gallow onto him. Renic would not go down.
The problem was the same each time; Clarke had held back. Kept something in reserve. Never committed to an all-or-nothing attack that left either his enemy, or himself, vanquished when the dust settled.
But the dust hadn’t settled yet. There was still time. He reached into one of his desk drawers and pulled out a protected computer, one that could not be locked out by external systems. He opened it and placed his hands on his keyboard, then typed out a message. Nothing fancy, nothing too long. A simple declaration of the facts as he saw them, and something of an admission. He read the messaged and exhaled. Good enough. He entered the recipient’s private address and added a one hour delay before it would automatically send. Plenty of time to do what he’s going to do.
Clarke closed the computer, letting his eyes linger on the items he kept in his office. This was likely going to be his last time here. That was okay. All of these things were just that; things. What lasted was action. Impact.
He looked to the photo of the Outrider. The way his crewmates told the story, Clarke had been some brilliant tactician, taking command and leading them all to an almost impossible victory. That’s not how Clarke remembered it. He just remembered being a scared, young man who had been convinced they were all going to die, and that thought made him so angry he decided they might as well go down swinging. He’d been surprised as everyone else when the last Sellacan frigate had broken off and retreated… but probably not as surprised as the Sellacans when they’d realized the Outrider was prepared to fight until the bitter end, victory or defeat.
Clarke looked down to his hands, to the smattering of scars on his knuckles from his years of combat. A desk job had been a good end to his career. He wasn’t ashamed of it. But, like every big victory of his past, it looked like if he wanted a job done right, he was going to have to do it himself.
“What do you mean? The Indigo project is transferred? How can it be transferred? It’s an RCA secret operation.”
From the head of the conference room table in one of the Terminus’s private, Indigo-reserved rooms, Major Drake held up his hands. “This is not something I take pleasure in sharing with you, but we have our orders. The concerns of Indigo are being moved to the Naval Special Investigation Division and OS-9 resources are being reallocated to pick up the slack of 5E’s projects and missions across the sector. Defense Minister wants 5E furloughed indefinitely.” Drake exhaled, a growl audible under his breath. “Commander Tau will be the executive officer in charge of Indigo, by order of Fleet Marshal Gallow.”
A clamor broke out, everyone trying to get Drake’s attention at once. The heads of those gathered at the conference room table all turned back and forth, searching for an answer.
Qin and Yadav exchanged glances. The news of Indigo’s fate was a surprise, even to Qin. The news of the explosion at the capitol on Kestris had reached them only minutes before this meeting. It was treated as a terror attack by the media, the Red Kestrels already being accused.
After receiving the news, Drake had called his team together, all the Indigo investigators who had been working to find the breach aboard the Terminus. Commander Tau was one of the primary suspects, and he’d had access to all of the Indigo data—all of the data other than what Qin had kept from the team at the request of Major Drake and Director Clarke. She’d delivered the evidence that placed Tau on Senali for Kat Basara’s death, but instead of being arrested, he was being promoted even further? What did this mean for OS-9?
But more than that; what did it mean for Qin if 5E was shutting down?
Across from Qin, Yadav’s gaze went from the major back to her. They’d sat across from each other, hoping to forestall the public reveal of their growing personal relationship. Now, the distance prevented them from communicating. Yadav furrowed her brow, mouthing the word ‘Tau’. Qin nodded, though her thoughts were split between focusing on the topic of discussion, and her own plight. Would Director Clarke be reaching out to her? If 5E was furloughed, a move that would likely evolve into a permanent closure, was this already an abort-mission situation? Lee would know. Qin needed to find him, if he was still on the Terminus. He wouldn’t abort his mission here without reaching out to her first, would he?
Drake leaned forward, raising his voice over the din and interrupting Qin’s spiraling thoughts. “This is not a discussion. Return to your non-Indigo duties and regroup. The Imperium is going to face a trial like none it has ever seen, and the people of this empire need good officers doing their jobs to mitigate the damage done to them, the people we are sworn to defend.”
The voices returned, no one respecting Drake’s insistence that it was not a discussion. The Major stood, waving his hands in a sweeping motion. “Enough! We are military officers who have been given new orders with an active terror attack in the heart of the empire. This is not the time to start questioning our chain of command or to offer up suggestions to those we get our orders from. If you have a problem with what we’ve been ordered to do, bring it up during your next review. Until then, you are all dismissed and I expect you to fulfill your duties.”
This got through to the room. The OS-9 officers all stood, some more aggressively than others as chairs shot back and banged against the wall. Major Drake was angry, and Qin didn’t need to tap into her face-reading talent to know it wasn’t an act. Drake knew more, but he wasn’t sharing. Maybe he couldn’t share. He was a high-profile officer in the Navy which was riddled with betrayers. Where could Drake go if he believed—even if he couldn’t say it—that the Indigo perpetrator, Commander Tau, had slipped past them? Where could any of them go? She needed to arrange a meeting with Sergeant Lee. Agent Lee.
Qin stood, shuffling to the door with everyone else. Yadav hurried through the crowd, grabbing Qin by the elbow.
“It’s Tau. I know it’s him. Our evidence wasn’t enough,” Yadav whispered, her anger as apparent as Drake’s. “And now he’s shutting down Indigo altogether. It was our best chance.”
Qin nodded, swallowing her anxiety. “I know. We did our best, yet…”
“Lieutenant Meredessi, hang back a moment,” Drake said, not looking up from the datapad he was studying as his staff filed out.
Qin stepped to the side. “Of course, Major.”
Qin and Yadav exchanged glances. Yadav shrugged, then rocked her head toward the door and mouthed ‘talk later’ before turning and following her OS-9 colleagues out the door.
The meeting room cleared out and Qin and Drake were alone for the first time since he’d asked her to investigate Commander Tau. That topic was the only plausible reason for this private conversation.
Drake exhaled, brow coming down over his eyes—pensive, regretful. “Lieutenant, I gather your conversation with Agent Siddig continued after you left the interrogation room under Navy Command?”
Qin opened her mouth but her mind lagged behind. How could he know that? She raced through the different fabrications required for a flat denial, then for a partial admission. None seemed sufficient. It appeared the data she and Yadav had retrieved had somehow gone to Lee, to Julian, to Director Clarke, and back to Major Drake. Did this mean he knew she was a 5E plant? And with the news of 5E’s dismantlement, what did that mean for her?
Drake waved his hand and grunted out a single, bitter laugh. “Save it. I asked you to look into Tau, and it appears I wasn’t the only one. I recognize data that requires Indigo clearance. You got him with jump-drive maintenance records. Good work, but it doesn’t seem to have had the intended effect. Siddig got the dirt on Tau to Director Clarke, and well, Clarke got it to me. So tell me, Lieutenant, have you been working on a side project I don’t know about?”
Qin processed the comment. There had been no order for her to abandon her 5E mission, and no telling what would happen if she did. She straightened her posture, inhabiting the role of Lieutenant Meredessi as she had for the last two years and would continue to inhabit for as long as she was aboard the Terminus.
“Sir, you are correct. To better follow your request of investigating the commander, I felt it necessary to breach protocol slightly. Agent Siddig approached me for help, and given the parallel nature of his request and your own, it seemed appropriate since the commander would have access to anything I entered back into OS-9 records.” Qin righted her posture, meeting Drake’s eyes. “When we last spoke, you welcomed me to the club of black-ops. This is the result.”
Drake raised an eyebrow—impressed, surprised—and slowly nodded. “I surmised.” He exhaled slowly, eyes looking upward as if he was recalling something. “You know, Lieutenant, there’s no such thing as a perfectly impenetrable ship. Everything has holes, gaps, little cracks where air can squeeze through. Some ship’s engineers try to seal everything up against hard vacuum, make a vessel perfectly air-tight, but there are always leaks. Pressure in the ship slowly drops and they don’t know why, and they’ve already sealed up every hole they can think of. The smart engineers, they don’t worry about making a leak-proof ship. Instead, they worry about how to keep the incoming pressure higher than the loss, and build valves that control the flow. They make controlled leaks they know about instead of uncontrolled ones they don’t.”
Qin felt her limbs grow cold. Did Drake know? “Sir, I assure you, I am…”
Drake looked to Qin and raised his hand to silence her, his expression stern but non-threatening. “Doesn’t mean they have to like the system, only that they have to accept it. As the situation unfolding down on Kestris shows us, we all missed things. A lot of which, I’m afraid, will have been right under our noses the whole time.”
Qin nodded, unsure of what she was acknowledging. Was this Drake admitting he knew about her, or was this Drake admitting that he didn’t want to know? Or, had he decided his suspicions about Commander Tau were correct, and they’d failed to stop him? What did the major want from her?
Qin remained silent. Drake met Qin’s gaze, his voice low. “Lieutenant, I need you to consider something. It’s not a suggestion or a request. Just an idea, and not one I would, or could, ever officially endorse.”
Qin swallowed her nerves. “Sir?”
Drake took a breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly. “The data Indigo has gathered, there’s a lot of bodies buried there. If Tau and his division are the new stewards over us, he’ll be able to shut it down and lock out anyone he doesn’t want seeing it. They’ve already made it so that no activity can be hidden from them, so we can’t make a copy of the data without it being recorded.” Drake lightly tapped the table near his datapad. “Unless an official copy had been made by, say… a navy major who had top-level clearance. Of course, that would be well outside of protocol, since an offline copy could easily be misplaced.”
Qin bowed her head, hoping she understood Drake. “Yes, Major. Well outside protocol.”
Drake grimaced, nodding at the comment. “You will have to excuse me, Lieutenant. Duties to attend to. Stay alert. Things are not going to be pretty for the empire and…” Drake crossed the meeting room, doors sliding open as he approached. He turned and looked to Qin over his shoulder. “Like I said, we need good officers like you to help mitigate the damage.”
Drake maintained eye-contact for a moment more, then looked away and hummed before exiting the room, doors sliding shut behind him.
Qin furrowed her brow in concentration. What had just transpired? Did he know she was a 5E sleeper, or merely that she and Agent Siddig had been responsible for investigating Commander Tau together for Clarke. Was the leak Major Drake referred to her, Agent Siddig, or himself? Or was it so difficult for her to determine because it was, in actuality, all three?
Qin sighed, her anxiety partially displaced by a rush of annoyance at Drake’s expert ability at staying so ambiguous, even to her face-reading. Drake knew a lot more than he was sharing, that much was apparent. The attack on the Imperium capitol would be all anyone was focused on, with only the select few of them knowing that it was the type of disastrous occurrence that Indigo was supposed to prevent. They’d failed. OS-9, 5E, the Indigo team, all of them.
But Qin was still here, still a Navy officer who was not in shackles in the Terminus’s brig, not being defunded like Director Clarke and Julian, and not exiled like Agent Mori. As far as she could tell, she and Agent Lee were still in the game, and she had a new task to accomplish.
She looked to the table. It appeared that Major Drake had not-so-accidentally left behind his datapad on the meeting room table.