Samantha was shut down by Director Clarke. The message was clear; stand down on the Red Kestrels, it's an Imperium Navy matter. Then, she received a message from Julian with a very peculiar time and place to meet.
The message from Julian was short, nothing but a set of city coordinates—not even a proper address—and a meeting time for later in the evening. It had arrived via Samantha’s personal comm channel, one she kept active for anything she didn’t want passing through government systems. This was Julian’s way of signaling that this meeting was not only off agency grounds, but off agency record entirely.
The civilian autocab slowed to a stop in front of a building a short walk from the coordinates Julian had provided. Samantha waved her comm against the passenger terminal to pay for the ride with her own personal funds. It was a minor deviation from her normal routine using government cars, but necessary. Any use of government transport would have been logged.
The door slid open and Samantha stepped out, covered in the darkness of the massive skyscrapers that stretched into the sky all around her. The location Julian had chosen was deep within one of the outer-district slums that ringed the more prosperous inner-districts near the capitol. Once, this district would have been packed, level after level of skylanes buzzing with vehicles and pedestrians crowding the ground levels as they lived, worked, and shopped.
But with growth came corruption, and with corruption came the threat of economic instability. When the local district economies invariably collapsed, this was what was left. Abandoned buildings that once housed thousands. Dirty, unmaintained streets devoid of traffic or pedestrians. And—to the delight of the gangs and criminal enterprises that moved in afterward—a lack of any significant law enforcement presence. These slums were an embarrassment to the Kestris City governors, one they found easier to simply defund and ignore, shifting their focus to the next new development project and leaving these hollowed-out districts to whichever criminal element filled the power vacuum. However, they did make a great place to hold shady, off-the-books meetings.
Samantha pulled the bottom of her jacket over the holstered bolt-pistol tucked into the waistband at the small of her back. It wasn’t the most accessible place to carry it, but she wasn’t expecting to need it. Staying aware of her surroundings and avoiding any potential confrontation was a simple enough task. She wasn’t law enforcement, her concern was preventing threats to the Imperium from the outside. Still, she kept her karambit in a concealed sheath strapped to the inside of her forearm, its finger-loop accessible just under the edge of her jacket sleeve. If she did have to take any self-defense measures, best to keep it fast and silent.
She gave the area a quick scan over each shoulder and started walking to the alley indicated by the coordinates. The din of the city softened as she ducked into the artificial canyon between buildings. Soon, the only sound was her own footsteps against the damp asphalt. The temperature was cooling fast, the ground here having had only the briefest window of sun from the thin sliver of sky above. She glanced at the screen on her comm. The coordinates were directly in front of an unmarked door set into a recessed alcove. She looked back the way she had come—all clear—and then proceeded to the door. It opened silently, revealing a darkened hallway on the other side.
There was not much to see in the darkness; the hallway was mostly empty. A series of evenly spaced doors ran down one side, only one of which had a light turned on above. Not the subtlest of signals, but there weren’t a lot of reasons to suspect anyone else would be snooping around here. Samantha crept forward, eyes narrowing in the shadow. When she was no more than a few strides away, the door cracked open. Even though she’d been expecting it, her instincts still urged her hand toward the karambit at her wrist. Right on cue, a figure stepped through the door and into the narrow pool of light.
“Welcome. I see you had no trouble finding the location,” Julian said, bowing his head slightly.
“What a coincidence, you’re exactly the person I was looking for.” Samantha raised an eyebrow, gesturing to the alley behind her. “I am guessing this means you’ve got something good for me?”
Julian hesitated, seeming to select his words carefully. He stepped to the side, beckoning Samantha forward. “Let us get inside. I think it best you see this for yourself.”
Samantha sucked her teeth and shrugged. “By all means, lead the way.”
Julian smiled and bowed his head. The door clicked shut behind them and Julian started down the hall, Samantha half a step behind him. At the end of the hall, an single open doorway glowed with dim orange light. Whatever surprise Julian had waiting for her, if it wasn’t on the other side of that door, Samantha would have some very strong words for him about his insistence on the prolonged cloak-and-dagger theatrics.
“This one of your unlisted safehouses?” Samantha asked, reaching out and letting her fingers graze the wall as she casually probed for information. She spent a lot of time in the less-than glamorous parts of off-world cities, but doing so on Kestris was a novelty.
Julian shook his head. “No, this is a one-off. A last minute arrangement, if you will. In exchange for ensuring that some troublesome records mysteriously vanished, certain parties agreed to make sure this location was unoccupied for the duration of our conversation.”
Samantha scoffed with amusement. “This needs to be kept that far from agency eyes and ears that you’re making deals with the Kestris underworld? That’s not like you.”
Julian opened his mouth to speak, and snapped it shut just as quick. He turned through the open doorway just as another voice spoke.
“It wasn’t his idea, Agent Mori.”
Samantha stopped. Standing on the other side of a waist-tall table was Director Clarke, the glow from the single overhead light casting harsh shadows across his face. No longer in his customary suit, he was dressed in a plain, dark jacket and casual pants, the look doing its best to dampen the air of militaristic authority he seemed to radiate.
“An unconventional meet for an unconventional request,” Clarke said, shoulders straight, hands clasped behind his back as they were for a typical briefing. Julian crossed the room and placed his computer bag onto the table, giving Samantha a shrug.
Samantha scanned the room, taking a few cautious steps forward. It was devoid of any furniture or objects save for the single table in the center. “Director Clarke. If this is your doing, I presume the selection of this location isn’t an overreaction.”
Clarke seemed to ponder the statement. “No, I am afraid that there is no amount of caution too great.” He released a hand and gestured to the table. “Please, agent. I’ve invited you and Agent Siddig here to discuss a matter of great importance, and you’re one of the few people I can discuss it with. Period.”
Samantha looked to Julian, then back to Clarke. “It’s about the Dauntless data, isn’t it? You found something after today’s staff meeting that changed your mind.”
Clarke grinned, somehow managing to make it seem like a frown. “Before the staff meeting, actually.”
Samantha folded her arms, taking a few steps closer to the table. “You knew something even as you shot me down in front of everyone?”
“Correct, because what I knew at the time would not have changed how I had to react. What I am here to invite you to discuss is treason. It’s a conversation that doesn’t exist about a topic that can’t be shared.”
Samantha took another step forward. “Treason? I’ve done nothing that isn’t in the best interest of the Imperium.”
“True. But I think you might want to once you hear what was uncovered.” Clarke turned to Julian. “Perhaps you’d like to hear it from your partner.”
Samantha took the last step between her and the table, unfolding her arms and planting both hands on its surface. “So there was something. Eddie Renner wasn’t lying,” she said, eyes widening in excitement.
Julian nodded, a smile spreading across his face. “Oh, no, he was most certainly not lying. The data from the Dauntless, to the Kestrels it would be quite a trove of Imperium intelligence. But, for us it was all exactly what we expected, redundant navy data we are already in possession of. That was all filtered out and deemed ‘low-relevance.’ Renner’s computers, however, did have data that would not have been on the Dauntless, data that would give credence to his claim of working with an Imperium insider accomplice.”
Samantha tilted her head. “Okay, that’s exactly what we needed to be able to go back to Senali and grab Kat Basara and anyone else. So, why are we here?”
Julian grimaced. “There is more. Once we were able to decrypt everything, it became quite clear how the Kestrels were able to compromise the Dauntless so easily, and it was precisely as Eddie told us. They were in possession of legitimate access keys that would allow them to render the Dauntless disabled and unable to respond to a threat. As far as the Dauntless was concerned, it was receiving instructions directly from central navy command. Its systems were told to power down by an authority whose privileges it did not have the protocols to deny.”
Clarke frowned, his voice bitter. “It was a total compromise. Propulsion, weapons, life-support, artificial gravity, all of it. The Kestrels had everything they needed to shut it down remotely and leave it helpless.”
Samantha’s fingers gripped against the table. “This is outrageous. How could an attack like this even be possible? If a navy warship can just be turned off like that and left adrift…” Samantha exhaled, staring down at the table. “Emergency systems are automatic and not connected to a ship’s main grid. And a ship in total shutdown would still have pressure suits, more than adequate small-arms, not to mention escape pods and shuttles are all on a separate systems grid as well.” She righted her posture, tossing up her hands. “Just skip to the end of the story where you make the connection for why we’re here—” she waved at the room, “—instead of back at command, because it seems we have more than enough to go after whoever we need–”
Samantha caught herself before she finished her statement. They’d let her reach the conclusion on her own. She closed her eyes, speaking through a sigh. “You don’t want anyone in the agency knowing about this.”
Clarke scoffed, though Samantha did not feel it was directed at her. “Not just the agency.”
Julian leaned forward. “You see, Samantha, what was discovered in the analysis was something so unusual, I halted the processes and brought the matter to the director immediately.”
“I ordered Agent Siddig to pull it from agency systems and run it somewhere else, where the information could be kept discreet until we knew what we had.”
“Hiding intel from our own people? Covering that up is bad, but not exactly treason,” Samantha said.
“No,” Julian said, “but once my analysis was complete, I erased all traces of our find on Senali and any of the additional evidence recovered from the Dauntless, tampering with agency data to lead anyone who may explore it down a diversionary path.”
“Again, under my orders,” Clarke added.
Samantha huffed in exasperation. “What’s the missing piece? Why are we here tonight?”
Clarke opened his mouth to talk, but said nothing, instead he took a half-step back. He looked to Julian and remained silent. Julian’s demeanor hardened, the amiable smile he seemed to always have fading. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper, appearing to admire it for a moment before placing it on the table in front of Samantha.
She slowly reached for the sheet and picked it up, feeling the texture of it under her fingertips. Paper, Julian’s little quirk. No computers, no networks, no way to intercept it other than by getting hands on it. Putting pencil to paper bordered on paranoia, but when information needed to be kept away from digital eyes, it was still the simplest option.
Samantha unfolded the sheet expecting to read it, but saw only an unbroken string of letters and numbers, hundreds and hundreds all written in Julian’s neat, geometrically precise handwriting. It must have taken him hours to transcribe by hand.
She nodded at the characters. “I’m sure this is important, but I’m only an analyst as a cover story. Being more of a ‘shoot and stab’ type… what exactly am I holding? An encoded message? Is this what Eddie had?”
Julian’s eyes were fixed on the sheet. “No, it is not a message or any sort of information, at least not any that a human could understand. It is a signature, an encrypted, non-reversible form of digital authority.” Julian paused, an eager grin returning. “Or, one might look at it as the signature of ultimate digital authority. What you hold… what was found hidden in the access keys used to order the Dauntless to shut down, is the entanglement-generated signature of the central computer core on the Terminus, one of the few sources in the Imperium with the authority required to override any safeguards and preventative countermeasures on a vessel such as the Dauntless.”
Samantha’s eyes narrowed on the piece of paper in her hand. “Wait, the Terminus? Fleet Marshal Gallow’s flagship?” Her arm slowly extended, the tiny scrap of paper suddenly feeling much heavier. Her words came out quiet; now she understood why Clarke chose this place. “How would the Red Kestrels get ahold of something like this?”
A sad smile crossed Julian’s face. “This is where it gets, let us say, complicated.”
“Oh, it’s plenty complicated already,” Samantha said, unamused.
Julian continued. “It is not something that should be able to be stolen. Signatures like this are maintained on air-gapped computers. No system connections, shielded from broadcasting errant wireless transmissions, locked behind multiple physical entry checkpoints requiring biometric authorization.” Julian placed both hands flat on the table as if to emphasize his final point. “It would have to have been physically obtained by someone with access to the central computer core aboard the Terminus.”
Samantha gently laid the paper back onto the table. “You’re saying someone—or more likely multiple someones if the depth of conspiracy you’re suggesting is accurate—breached the Terminus’s computer core, a pragmatically impossible task, then stole that,” she gestured to Julian’s paper, “which they gave to the Kestrels, which allowed them to take over the Dauntless?” She pressed her fists against her hips. “If the Kestrels have that, then… what?”
Julian held up a finger. “Ah, I do not believe the Kestrels still have access to the Terminus signature. It was used to prepare their attack vector, yes, but they would not be able to reverse engineer it. When the signature is applied, it cannot be un-applied.” He pulled the pencil from behind his ear. “The Kestrels were given only the graphite left behind on the page, but they were not given the entire pencil.”
“Finally something makes sense; this isn’t even remotely within the Kestrel’s capabilities. We couldn’t pull this off.” She folded her arms and bit the edge of her bottom lip, looking to Clarke. “You’re saying it wasn’t the Kestrels.”
Clarke nodded, a single, curt nod. “You’re right. The Kestrels are scapegoats. We think they are simply the tip of a spear.” His expression hardened. “The working hypothesis is that it was taken by someone with access and enough authority to not raise suspicion. We don’t know why. The Dauntless is a single corvette, insignificant to anyone capable of orchestrating this. The risk is not commensurate to the reward, and that is why it concerns me.”
Samantha shook her head. “It was never about capturing the Dauntless.”
The three of them all stood silent, letting the statement hang in the air. Clarke finally spoke. “This is where the treason comes in.”
“If the agency acknowledged this, created a case… anyone involved would be warned and be able to adapt.” Samantha placed a finger on the paper, pinning it to the table. “We’re sure about what this is?”
Julian clasped his hands behind his back and paced around the table. “At first, I was not. I knew we had found evidence of a signature, and I could tell it was critical, beyond-top-secret. So, I validated it against all the top-tier keys in the Imperium naval security databases. Nothing. So I tried again against the entire Imperium intelligence keystore. Nothing again. Stronger signatures sign for weaker ones, so I needed to keep moving up the chain.”
Samantha beckoned to Julian. “Eventually something worked or you wouldn’t have that. Why not get to that part?”
“Yes, right. I was wondering if maybe I had made too big of an assumption. Then, the thought occurred to me to check on the last link in the metaphoric chain. To generate a signature like this requires a quantum core. So, I accessed central Imperium system intelligence-”
Julian shrugged. “Well, I may have breached some systems in the interest of imperial security. Acting on orders, of course.”
Samantha grinned. “I got that. We’ve moved from suspecting our own people to hacking our own people in the course of a single conversation. Please, continue.”
“I prefer to think of it as doing excellent research. But, yes, I ‘accessed’ navy security records on the last usage of a quantum core to generate keys, and saw that the Terminus computer core was on the list.”
Samantha’s eyes widened. “And the signatures matched?”
“No,” Julian stated proudly.
Samantha slapped her hands on the table. “Julian, when does this story actually tell me what you found?”
“Right. With nothing else to do, I simply tried using it. I took some encrypted data transmissions from the Terminus and used the signature to order my cloned navy systems to legitimately decrypt them, recreating the same conditions for why the Dauntless systems did not resist the commands given to it. I must say I was quite surprised when it worked.”
Samantha nodded to the slip of paper. “What is stopping the Kestrels from doing what you did and repeating the same method used on the Dauntless elsewhere?”
Julian gestured back to his pencil. “They do not have access to what created it. They cannot scrape the graphite from the page and turn it back into the pencil that wrote it. The quantum science behind it is even beyond my understanding, but think of it as a cloned backdoor key. It should not exist, neither in principle nor practicality.”
Samantha looked back down at the piece of paper. “Backdoor key. So there’s a compromise inside the house.”
Clarke exhaled. “No, there’s not a compromise in the house; the compromise is the house. Terminus itself is compromised, as well as high-level officials in the navy, and likely our agency as well. We can’t take this information back to anyone because there is no one we can trust to take it back to.”
Samantha took a slow breath, tapping her fingertips on the table. “We may be a little outmatched here.”
“Indeed.” Clarke paused. “There’s something else.”
Samantha sighed. “Of course there is.”
“Two years ago, I sent an agent to work deep cover within the fleet, reporting directly to me. They’re a sleeper, hand picked. Exceptionally gifted. No alias, no cover. Everything about them is legitimate. I recruited them straight out of the Naval Academy through the Rosewood program, made sure they ended up stationed on the Terminus. They’ve blended in with the crew, been promoted, received commendations. I’m the only person who knows who they are.”
“You’ve been working the navy all along,” Samantha said, tilting her head. “Whose side are we on again?”
Clarke growled, his face looking as if it had aged ten years since the conversation had started. “It was necessary. Gallow had to be watched. One man with that much power and the cult of personality that follows him? He sees himself as an institution, has for as long as I’ve known him. The navy, the empire, they’re just props to him.”
Samantha’s words were hushed. “You think the fleet marshal is behind this? That’s…”
Clarke shook his head. “I can’t say. For every suspicion that points to this being part of Gallow’s ambitions for power, there’s another suspicion that points to it being a setup by someone looking to thwart those ambitions. The man is hated by many, but feared by more.”
“What about the sleeper? If they’re on the Terminus, they could be of use.”
“Never been activated. Their only orders are to stay observant, check their activation protocol, and maintain the appearance of normalcy.” Clarke paused. “Given the nature of their orders, we have no way of communicating any of this to them without risking exposure. But, they were recently promoted to a security clearance that would give them access to information very close to what we’re talking about.”
Samantha clicked her tongue. “Let me guess; they were promoted around the time that this key was intercepted, making them an ideal, what, triple-agent?”
“You think they might have flipped.”
Clarke lowered his eyes. “I have no data from which to draw any conclusions. Double agents are duplicitous by nature. You send someone to work the other side, it influences them and, well… there’s no predicting what could have transpired over the last two years.”
“All right then.” Samantha placed her hands on the table. “Here we are. What’s our move?”
Clarke cast a glance to Julian, then placed his fingertips lightly on the table. The director, battle-hardened veteran, was stalling. Samantha folded her arms and shifted her gaze to Julian.
“I’m guessing you’ve already agreed to whatever he’s about to suggest?”
Julian nodded. Of course he had, and Samantha knew both of them already expected her to agree to whatever they’d cooked up as well.
“Okay then,” Samantha said, leaning forward to mirror Clarke’s posture. “What’s your proposal?”
“Before we continue, Samantha, I need you to know that I’ve selected you and Julian for this very specifically.” Samantha noted his switch to first names. “I want you to work this situation from the outside. We can’t trust anyone here.”
“Well, Director, if you can’t trust anyone, why do you think you can trust me?”
Clarke’s mouth broke into a rare hint of a smile. “I’ve got plenty of agents who have worked the Kestrels. Only one has a cache of trophy scarves.”
Samantha shot an accusing look toward Julian. Her partner shook his head in denial.
Clarke held up a hand. “Relax, agent. I can trust your desire for stopping them to keep you from being dissuaded. I keep a close watch on my best. And that’s what you are, one of the best. This is why I want you to drop everything and disappear.”
“Drop everything I’m working on? I’ve got contacts working for me in three different systems on six active ops. We shook up Kat Basara’s group when we took down Eddie, and they’ve no doubt sent word back to Kestrel leaders. The Kestrels are our way into this, dropping them–,”
Clarke held up a hand to slow her down. “Let me clarify. I want you to drop everything. Your life as it is. Samantha, I want to have you declared section forty-two. Burned. You will be considered absent without leave for two days, and an arrest warrant for treason will be issued. No approvals, no sanctions, no support. You will be disavowed by the agency and the Imperium.”
Samantha had no words. She looked to Julian. He remained silent. Samantha returned her gaze to Clarke, whose expression eased before he continued. “I need someone who is willing to do this, on their own, without any assurance of success or completion. Until we know how deep this runs, we have to assume that the agency, navy, and government are all compromised.”
Samantha looked back at Julian. “You and I, on our own,” she said grimly. Clarke cleared his throat.
“I’m afraid not. I need him here with me to continue our investigation, I have no other resources. While you work the outside, Julian and I will work the inside.”
“What?” Samantha shouted, slamming a hand on the table. She pointed to Julian. “We’re a team, I can’t work effectively without some sort of operational support. I may be the one on the ground, but he’s my eyes.” She pointed to herself, then back at Julian. “Operator and controller.”
“Yes, you are a team. And everyone knows that. Which is partly why you can’t both vanish at the same time. An active operations team disappearing together is too easy to notice, but…”
“But if it’s just me, the unhinged agent with stability problems, it’s easy to sell that the Kestrel-hunter snapped.”
Clarke again let silence do his work; Samantha found somewhere else to look. The reasoning was logical, an admission she was okay letting remain unspoken.
Clarke spoke, an air of confidence in his voice. “You know the Red Kestrels as well as anyone. You’re resourceful, connected, and have very few personal ties here on Kestris. If anyone can vanish effectively and succeed at this mission, it’s you.”
Samantha frowned. The highlighting of her stark personal life stung, though she appreciated that he attempted to pad it by saying ‘very few’ instead of the more accurate count of none.
Julian retrieved a computer out of his bag, laying it on the table. He lifted the screen and turned it toward her, pointing to the scanner pad near the keyboard.
“This is a clean box. I assembled and loaded it myself. It has never been connected to any system, has never been out of my sight.” He gently tapped the top edge of the screen. “There are several, all-new identities in here, and credentials to accounts scattered throughout the sector. You will have enough to improvise.”
“I presume that is seized money that never made it into Imperium accounts?”
Julian smiled. “Bad money put to a good cause. I have also included a dead-drop protocol. If we need to contact you, a message can be sent without either side knowing the ‘to or from.’ Do not attempt to reach out on your own, presume the director and I are being monitored.” Julian took a step backward and clasped his hands behind his back. “Place your finger on the pad and it will be irreversibly linked to you. Not even I will be able to get back in.”
Samantha bit her bottom lip. Clarke had made the right choice, all three of them knew that. Her first responsibility was to protect the Imperium by any means necessary, even if that meant protecting it from itself. And, if no one was watching out for her, it also meant no one was watching her. Total freedom to act. Isn’t this what she always wanted, the ability to operate with total free agency?
She straightened her posture and placed a finger on the pad. She never really had a choice in any of this.
“Okay. How do we want to do this?”
Clarke grimaced. “Total compartmentalization. You turn around and walk out that door without telling us a single thing you are planning.”