Episode 51: Within this culture of fear

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Julian waits for Lee in a familiar place. Meanwhile, Qin is back at work aboard the new Republic-ran Terminus.

Julian swept his gaze across the dirty street, taking one last look. Seeing nothing unusual, he hurried down the alley toward the door of the familiar abandoned building. The Kestris City slums looked the same as Julian’s last visit just over a week ago, when he and Clarke had informed Samantha about the conspiracy behind the Dauntless and the duplicate Terminus key. Fitting that he would return for his own departure.

 Getting from his safehouse to the slums had been a simple-enough task, aided by his digitally-invisible car. Kestris City was large enough that only the central districts were currently patrolled. This deep into the outer rings, the plume of smoke from the capitol was a distant line beyond the horizon, something the average Kestris citizen saw as happening to the empire’s leaders, not them. They were spectators to the fickle games of those who hold the power.

The handful of people Julian had seen in the artificial canyons of skyscrapers had all been looking at their comms, their datapads, their computers, taking in the news which was already spun as a victory for the people; the corrupt empire was no more, the just republic was there to make things right… after a period of growing pains, of course.

The ground lanes in the outer districts were still open, and the local police were still using Imperium-based scanning and vehicle authorization systems. Until the migration to Republic-based systems was complete, a task that could take weeks, Julian’s nondescript car, counterfeit identities, and hacked Imperium comms would keep him invisible, so long as no one looked too close. Another instance of security through obscurity.

Julian pushed open the door to the same room he, Clarke, and Samantha had all spoken in the last night he saw her. It still smelled like dampness and old dust. Julian smirked. Was this what conspiracy smelled like? He tried the light controls; still on. A soft yellow glow illuminated the space. Nothing in the room had changed. The table where Julian had presented the slip of paper with the Terminus key to Samantha was still there, the silent witness to their grand plot which had gone awry almost the moment it started.

Agent Lee had given him an estimate for how long it would take to wriggle out of his Navy obligations and toss his identity as Sergeant Lee, then make his way from the Navy compound in the city center to the slums. Any minute now. There was nothing Julian could do to help, but Lee was a trained 5E—former 5E—clandestine operator. Until they could meet face to face, all Julian could do was hope Lee’s field tradecraft hadn’t dulled due to prolonged undercover assignments aboard Navy warships.

Julian’s comm buzzed against his wrist, moving his hand to the bolt pistol in his jacket pocket. Using it was a last resort, but if anyone other than who he expected arrived through that door, it was a last resort he intended to use.

A figure stepped in from the darkened hall, tall with square shoulders, broad chest, and neatly combed dark hair over a face that looked sculpted for Navy recruitment vids.

“Interesting place. Yours?” Lee asked, grinning, hands on his hips as he surveyed the dimly lit room. 

Julian relaxed his grip on his weapon and motioned for Lee to enter. “Borrowed. The criminal organization that owns the building had an agreement with 5E, which I suppose is now a nullified contract.”

Lee pursed his lips and took in his surroundings. “It’s magnificent. Peeling paint? Cracked concrete? I’ve been on warships for so long I forget that not everything is extruded out of some zero-grav forge. It’s all steelglass and polymer.”

Julian considered the statement and hummed his agreement. Lee, seeming to enjoy the novelty, was dressed in civilian clothes, a plain black jacket on top of a faded gray shirt and pants. A bag was slung over his shoulder, something a student or businessperson might carry. The drabness of it all was a stark contrast to his athlete’s build and vid-star facial features. Julian caught himself regarding the situation with a sense of unexpected humor; he had never considered that someone could be too good-looking to blend in.

“It took a little fancy footwork to evade the Navy once I set down on the surface,” Lee said, lifting the bag off his shoulder and setting it on the table. “Sergeant Lee has a reputation for disregarding protocol, but I don’t know how late he can be before they realize he won’t be reporting at all.”

Julian nodded. “It is a considerable shift in paradigm. Being a wanted fugitive on my ‘home turf’ is not how I had envisioned my career with the agency ending.”

Lee grinned, opening his bag and pulling out a datapad. “I dunno. With the stuff we were involved in, seems like this is exactly the kind of forced retirement we should have envisioned.”

Julian accepted the correction with smile. His eyes widened at the datapad in Lee’s hands. It was an Imperium Navy model, eleven-pointed star stamped into its bezel. Lee handed it to Julian, who then inspected it for a moment before gently laying it on the table.

“A smuggled datapad. Remarkable that the simplest means are still the most effective,” Julian said as he lifted his own bag off his shoulder and retrieved one of his computers, setting it on the table next to the Navy datapad.

Lee snorted through a laugh. “Don’t believe what the Navy is feeding the news vids. The whole organization is in chaos. The only people who seem to know what is going on is Gallow’s honor guard and a handful of officers who must have known what was coming. Gallow had all of his ‘New Kestris Republic’ uniforms in secret storage, ready to be issued. New protocols, new salutes. He had an entire regime boxed up and ready to deploy like some surprise dinner-party. The average navy grunt doesn’t know what to make of it.”

Julian rummaged through his bag again and pulled out a system-intrusion transfer cable, connecting the datapad and computer.

Lee leaned across the table, raising an eyebrow. “Transfer cable? Seems a little old-fashioned.”

Julian smirked. “It is the only way to copy the still-encrypted data. Cloning the datapad’s contents will allow for digital surgery when we arrive at a secure location, while leaving the original untouched.”

Lee rubbed the back of his neck. “Right, right. Lieutenant Meredessi—Qin—said you’d be able to access it, though…” He brought his hand near his head, raising a finger. “Oh, and she said to check the place you activated her from. Something about botany. I presume you know what that means.”

Julian smiled; she planned to re-use her activation cover. “I do know what she means. It is her way of delivering the decryption keys innocuously.”

Julian imagined the conversation he’d had with Qin and Yadav in his modified car. The warnings he’d given about Renic. The depth of conspiracy they were sinking into. His smile faded. “She wished to remain on the Terminus,” he said, not a question, but a statement of regret. 

Lee exhaled as he watched Julian work. “She wouldn’t come. I tried to explain what would happen, how she’d be stranded. But she wanted to stay, to remain an inside source. I think her life as the lieutenant is all she knows and… there may have been some personal reasons as well.”

Julian nodded, remembering the subtle signs of fondness he’d witnessed between Qin and Lieutenant Yadav. He sighed, connecting the computer to the Navy datapad. “As much as I do not envy her position, it may be the best place for her. With no field training, a life on the run might put her at more risk than maintaining her cover from there. Her sacrifice of that freedom means she can help us from the Terminus, a place she knows well.”

Lee idly rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess it’s easy to hide in a place you’re familiar with, especially in the chaos Gallow has created. By the time I was disembarking from the Terminus, I was already seeing officers wearing the new Republic uniforms with hungry eyes, eager to impress the ‘Lord Ascendent.’” Lee nearly spat out the title. “No one dares resist Gallow.”

“Not openly, but already his regime has cracks,” Julian said, smiling as the two devices synchronized, the encrypted payload flowing across the cable to his computer. “All of Indigo smuggled off the Terminus, not even a day into the new republic. I can imagine Gallow would not be pleased to know his officers are already working against him.”

Lee scoffed. “Knowing Gallow, I’d imagine that the list of Navy missing persons will grow quickly. Officer so-and-so, disappeared and never heard from again.” He tilted his head, a wistful expression on his face. “Maybe I can plant the rumor that Sergeant Lee was one of Gallow’s victims, snatched in the night, putting up a fight that left a few honor guards dead. Give the sergeant some of the dignity he missed in his short, manufactured life.”

Julian looked up from his computer and met eyes with Lee. He had the relaxed confidence of a seasoned field agent, a depth to his eyes of someone who’d faced death and defeat enough that it bored him. In that, he reminded Julian of Samantha, except where she channeled her confidence into a standoffish cynicism, Lee appeared to channel his into a good-natured charisma. What an interesting pair these two would make.

Julian tapped his computer. “Transfer is complete. I will be able to decode it once I can access public networks outside of Republic control.”

Lee raised an eyebrow. “Wait, so you can’t actually access the decryption keys?”

Julian shook his head. “Not until we are out of the communication blockade. Qin will be placing the keys on Fringe networks, which requires us to be out of the Republic. What is important is that the data is stored and replicated.”

Lee sighed. “So we can’t crack open Indigo until we exfiltrate. Figures.” He looked around the dilapidated room, then he nodded down at Julian’s computer. “If we get it out, what do we do with it?”

Julian disconnected the transfer cable and put both the computer and Navy datapad into his bag. “Qin had the foresight to know it could help us, but that is the extent of the thought I have given the gift. Leaving Kestris is our only priority at present.”

Lee folded his arms and nodded. “You got out of 5E and I slipped the Navy. That’s a start. Have you been in contact with anyone else? Director Clarke?”

Julian winced softly at the question. Samantha had wanted both he and Clarke to attempt an evacuation. Clarke’s refusal would not be taken well. Julian took a breath; the only path was forward. “Not exactly. My own hasty egress from 5E headquarters was motivated by Commander Tau’s particular dislike of me and the special treatment I was guaranteed to receive at the hands of his division. Director Clarke, he… he chose to stay and face whatever outcome the commander and Republic Navy brings.”

Lee exhaled sharply, face wrinkling with disappointment. “Damn. I was afraid of that.” He paced across the dirty room, stepping in and out of the light provided by the fixture above. “I’ve not established contact with anyone else either. Martial law and a communication siege on Kestris was not a part of any contingency plan.”

Julian lifted his bag and slung it back over his shoulder. “You are correct. I believe we must consider Kestris occupied territory under the control of the New Kestris Republic, and ourselves unwanted guests to be eliminated.”

Lee stopped in front of the table, a subtle grin on his lips. “So, you’ve got transport out of here arranged already?”

Julian began to speak, using an elongated exhalation to stall as he calculated how to handle Lee’s predicament and Samantha’s expectations. Lee was a capable agent with many years of experience, as well as one familiar with the Terminus. And Samantha was expecting to exfiltrate two people.

“Yes, in a way,” Julian finally said. “Transportation was arranged without my knowledge. I was instructed to find my way to the Dai’Reen province and await a precise rendezvous. I presume that my contact has a plan to make it out of the system…” Julian paused. “She neglected to include further detail.”

Lee narrowed his eyes. “You said ‘she neglected’. It’s not…”

Julian smiled. “It is.”

A breathy laugh escaped Lee’s mouth. “Agent Mori? I saw her section-42 come through the Indigo data when Renic tried to toss her out an airlock with you. I didn’t have the kind of access Qin did, but I saw enough to put some pieces together. Director Clarke sent her out to track the Kestrels, and she’s coming back in the middle of all this?” Lee laughed again. “I suppose if anyone is going to infiltrate and exfiltrate Kestris successfully, it’s going to be her.”

Julian tipped his head. “Ah. You are familiar with her, then?”

A devilish grin appears on Lee’s lips. “I know she’s a black-ops legend right up there with Renic Tau. Deep-cover folk like myself, we mostly watch and report. Getting our hands dirty is an exception, not a rule. The kind of dirty business those agents get up to, that’s the stuff of scary bedtime stories.”

Julian raised an eyebrow, wondering how often the controller enabling the dirty business was included in such stories. “You are not incorrect, though I would advise you to refrain from making further comparison to Tau while in her presence. They are not exactly ‘friendly’ with one another.”

Lee picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Don’t worry about that. I’ve got a lot of experience in watching what I say and around who I say it.” He bobbed his eyebrows at Julian. “Does that mean you’ll help lift me outta Kestris?”

Julian nodded; he’d deal with Samantha’s disappointment at Clarke’s absence when the time came. First, he had to ensure the time came at all. “Indeed. For now, I believe moving together is going to be our best chance. In the event we successfully find ourselves outside of this new republic, skills such as yours will be much needed.”

Lee smiled and clapped Julian on the arm, giving him athletic victory shake so unlike Samantha that Julian found himself momentarily confused.

 “Happy to hear it, Julian. The last report I managed to read on the Terminus showed that the resistance on the unified planets is far greater than reported by the Republic-controlled feeds. Several admirals and generals are not recognizing Archer’s presidency and have declared allegiance to their home planets. Government leaders all across the Fringe are offering support to both sides, taking gambles on who will be around when it’s over.” Lee pointed to Julian’s bag. “If we can get that off Kestris and rendezvous with these groups, that sort of intel will go a long way.”

Julian paused, looking to the comm around Lee’s wrist. “Your identity, I take it you had a counterfeit ready for a possible evacuation?

Lee puffed his cheeks. “Well, I mean… I don’t have it with me.  Having to abandon my life on the Terminus so quickly has left me a little under-equipped. Buying a passable Imperium counterfeit was going to be my next step, after I made sure you got the Indigo data.”

Julian lifted the flap of his bag and pulled out his computer, placing it on the table and opening it. “A minor snag. Nothing we cannot overcome.” Julian scanned through his database of counterfeit identities that had counterparts already planted in Imperium identity databases, selecting one that matched Lee’s height, approximate weight, and age. “Here you are. A pleasure to meet you, Mister Arthur Selborn. If I may inspect your comm for a moment.”

Lee removed his comm and handed it to Julian, eagerly watching as the identity was transferred over. “Selborn. Okay. So what’s Arthur—Artie—do?”

Julian glanced up at Lee. “Do?”

Lee grinned. “Yeah. Do. Is he an architect? A pilot? A professor of history at a small university that doesn’t pay a lot, but it gives him a sense of purpose? He got any kids?”

Julian pondered the questions. “I, uh… I suppose that is up to you. I admit, typically when Agent Mori needed an identity, there was little backstory required to simply breach a system or falsify an entry.”

Lee tutted through his smile. “Oh Julian, you’ve got to have your story ready. I think Arthur has a fancy job. Something a galaxy away from that of a Navy sergeant.”

Julian handed the comm back to Lee. “Perhaps Arthur is an… accountant?”

Lee’s expression fell. “Accountant? I’d need to be able to speak to that profession if questioned.” Lee waved off his worries, smile returning. “I’ll think of something.”

Julian placed his computer back into his bag. “Just know, the matching identity in the Imperium central records has an intentionally corrupted identification photo. If Arthur should be questioned, the quicker we lose any interested party’s curiosity, the better.”

Lee looked down at the comm on his wrist. “Got it. Keep things brief and boring.” He adjusted his jacket and bag. “Okay, Agent Siddig, how do we want to do this?”

Julian again gestured to the door. “I have  a car hidden out front.”

Lee scrunched his mouth. “A car?” 

Julian walked forward, clapping Lee on the arm as he passed. “Car is a bit of a misnomer, given the vehicle’s unique properties for evasion and security, but… yes.”

“We’re just going to drive off?” Lee said, bemused look on his face.

Julian nodded. “In a way. Before I left my safehouse in the city, I arranged for a low-altitude freight transport to deliver a shipping container from a depot just outside the capital to an automated shipping yard in the Dai’Reen province. They were eager to accept a payment of anonymous credits in order to ‘look the other way’ with regards to the contents of this sealed, transmission shielded container. The proprietors are not sympathetic to the Republic, and I suspect a new industry of discrete off-planet transport is going to thrive.”

Lee’s confused frown shifted back to a grin. “Is this container just the right size to fit a car with two smuggled passengers.”

“It is not the most dignified form of transport, but it will be effective. Once we arrive, however, it is on us to make it the rest of the way without incident,” Julian said.

Lee pulled aside the flap of his jacket. Beneath his arm was a bolt pistol resting in a shoulder holster. “Without incident would be best, but if not, I’m ready to ensure we make it into orbit.”

Julian sighed wistfully. “I hope it does not come to that.”

Lee closed his jacket, shrugging a shoulder. “Hey, me neither. A lot of these people used to be our colleagues and team members. I think the lines between friend, foe, and who-knows-what is going to get real hard to see.”

The weight of Julian’s own bolt pistol felt heavy in his jacket. Lee was not wrong on either topic. Silently, the two slipped out of the room and disappeared into the Kestris streets, on the very corner Julian had last spoken to Samantha.

Qin stopped at the checkpoint just before the doors that led into the restricted OS-9 section of the deck. The Terminus security guard watched as the sensor arch registered her comm and biometric signature. Qin’s Navy identification photo, name, and rank appeared on the panel embedded in the arch. The guard, a young man no older than Qin, glanced at the panel, then up at her. 

Qin kept her expression neutral, willing all the muscles in her face to remain relaxed. The anxiety she felt in her gut each time she had passed through these new human-staffed checkpoints could not show. Not a twitch of a cheek, not a bob of the throat, not a flutter of an eyelid.

“Lieutenant Meredessi,” the guard said, giving her a stilted nod. Qin returned the nod, maintaining eye-contact, watching every muscle fiber beneath his skin. The guard tapped something on the control panel, a forceful swallow and flitting of his eyes as he did—uncertainty, confusion.

It appeared the guard was as nervous as Qin, though not practiced enough to hide it. While Qin feared being discovered, this guard likely feared letting someone slip past him who shouldn’t. Someone like Qin.

“Proceed,” the guard finally said, his voice betraying the slightest warble of doubt. Qin tipped her head, projecting a hint of arrogance that fit her far-superior rank, and proceeded through the entrance. She maintained her blank expression even after she was through the wide, sliding double doors. There could be no slips, not even in private. Her new presumption was that someone was always watching, because as of yesterday, they likely were.

In a written communication to the entire crew, Gallow had made it known that he suspected—expected, even—disloyalty aboard the Terminus. Crew members had been instructed to report any suspicious activity to ship’s security, now formally reporting to the honor guard. Gallow had also made it clear that if betrayers among the ranks were discovered, the punishments doled out to those who overlooked it would be nearly as severe as to the perpetrators themselves. 

Qin kept her pace brisk as she emerged onto the open-floor seating of the OS-9 deck. The organization had suffered no loss of productivity in the day since the announcement that the High Imperius was dead and that President Erin Archer would be leading the establishment of the New Kestris Republic. The intelligence officers, analysts, data-scientists, and administrative staff continued their work beneath the moody, overhead lighting that accentuated the pall that hung over OS-9.

Most of her colleagues were seated in the rows of desks that spread across the dimly lit floor, shoulders hunched as they stared into computer screens. Some walked the aisles, datapads clutched under arms, eyes forward.

Qin reached her desk and took a moment to survey her surroundings. Not a single thread of white or blue fabric was in sight. All of OS-9 was, on the surface, loyal to the new leadership of the President and Lord Ascendent. Any discomfort—or worse, discontent—was buried beneath layers of practiced military decorum.

Qin pulled out her chair and took a seat. Lieutenant Meredessi, loyal and decorated intelligence officer of the New Kestris Republic, could not be caught lagging in her duties. Her desk computer was in its same place, the small succulent in its tiny pot next to the darkened monitor. Qin rested her hands on the keys of her computer and input her credentials, the screen on her desk coming to life. Like Qin, everyone here knew that failure to protect the forced transition to a new government would result in drastic consequences. 

The story on record was that a weak and corrupt system was what had allowed the High Imperius to use the Red Kestrels to create the inexplicably capable menace to the empire. According to Gallow, the same could not be allowed to happen to the Republic which promised to rescue the population left in the Imperium’s wake. The very holes Gallow had created to betray the empire were now being expertly sealed since he knew where they all existed. There could be no scene of a crime when the crime scene no longer existed.

Qin looked toward the desk across the row from hers. Seated there was Lieutenant Junior-Grade Reddy, her attention focused on the computer in front of her. Qin watched her for a moment, wondering if Reddy would turn her head and acknowledge Qin. She did not. Already, colleagues were growing too afraid to interact outside of established routines.

Qin turned her attention across the floor to where Yadav normally sat, her seat now empty. All staff’s duty schedules had increased to triple shifts. Since Qin and Yadav’s areas of focus had so much overlap, they were scheduled out of sync, with Yadav’s sleeping and personal time occurring during Qin’s first shift, and Qin’s sleeping and personal time during Yadav’s third. Until an alignment of their shifts could be arranged, seeing each other in official capacities was the most they would get. It had been a day since they last spoke, just after Lee made his impromptu farewell.

 Yadav had seemed unsure how she felt about the overthrow of the Imperium. But Yadav had taken the stance of being loyal to her position as an officer in the Navy, even if her face had revealed a deep level of doubt and concern. Qin had agreed that they should act as if they had not hunted down Renic, had not interfaced with Julian, and did not suspect that the story being sold about the High Imperius was fabricated. And both had agreed to keep their personal relationship quiet for now. While not prohibited, it could draw attention during a time when remaining inconspicuous was the best course of action for anyone.

The lack of contact with Yadav was unpleasant, but it gave Qin space to settle into the promise she’d made to Lee—to provide inside information. Though 5E was dismantled, Qin had chosen to remain on the Terminus as an infiltration that survived the fall of the Imperium and persisted into the new regime. She had a purpose to focus on, not only so she could remain with Yadav, but to fight the regime she knew had come into power through illegitimate means.

Qin returned her focus to her computer. On it were the new orders she and her team were to follow, directly from the office of Major Drake. Her eyes took in the written message all at once, processing it from short-term memory. She suppressed the urge to both sneer and frown, her revulsion toward the New Kestris Republic deepening. Gallow was asking OS-9 to begin tracking suspected dissidents, starting with members of the military and government.

The orders instructed Qin to design a surveillance program and assign resources to watch these names, either through digital means or by actively assigning human-eyes to them. From the perspective of the Republic, some may be actual threats to the new government’s viability, but most were likely conscientious objectors or simple malcontents who were to be silenced preemptively. Gallow was cleaning house, an individual’s guilt or innocence irrelevant.

Qin navigated to the first list of names provided for her to create a program around. Row after row filled her screen. Two-hundred and seven members of the Republic Navy and government had already been selected, and this was just Qin’s workload. She stole a glance over to Lieutenant Reddy across from her, then to the next row of desks over, and the next. Did they all have two hundred or more names to investigate?

Qin returned her gaze to the list. She recognized very few of the names, and no patterns jumped out as to why they had been selected. While it was possible that a segment of OS-9 had been working in isolation to identify these individuals, a different, instinctual question clawed at the front of her mind: who else was working with Gallow to help compile these names, and how deep did his shadow organization go?

The only conspirator Qin had confirmation of was Renic, and he was a tactical player carrying out instructions. The composition and distribution of these lists was strategic, spanning the entire breadth of what had been the Imperium. Between the swiftness with which the Navy had been ready to switch from empire to republic, the distribution of uniforms within hours of the High Imperius’s assassination, and now this list of surveillance targets already compiled, the network of Gallow’s collaborators had to be deep.

Qin shifted in her seat. She could not avoid constructing a program to watch the people on her list, but she could save these names to analyze at a later time, and potentially intervene. The problem was there was no way to smuggle the data off of OS-9 systems digitally. Only the Naval Special Investigation Division had Indigo privileges, and all actions taken on OS-9 systems were logged and available for them—Renic—to see. The data harvest that Major Drake had surreptitiously provided her was the last there would be until she could figure out a way to bypass the new digital safeguards put in place on all Terminus systems.

There was, however, a non-digital place she could store them.

Qin let her mind absorb what she saw, committing the view of names to memory one screen-length at a time. Later, she would transcribe the names to a new source when she had the time and privacy to do so. What she would do with this information was uncertain. She only knew she had to do something to make her choice to remain aboard the Terminus meaningful. Lee had already taken the copy of the Indigo investigation data. If he then succeeded in delivering it to Julian, and then they successfully evacuated from Kestris, they would need her.

Qin lowered her eyes, pretending to inspect something on her screen. Her thoughts shifted to Director Clarke and Julian. 5E headquarters had been besieged by Renic’s division, though the outcome had not yet been cataloged into the Navy intelligence database. The impulse to search for their names—and the name of Sergeant Bennett Lee—surged through her fingertips, but she resisted. Until she could manufacture a plausible reason for Lieutenant Meredessi to be inquiring into these three, linking herself to them could create damning intrigue she couldn’t afford.

Qin’s eyes shifted to the empty desk in the row to her left. Director Clarke and Julian might not have had any public connection to Qin, but Lee had been on her team. Inquiring about the sergeant would not be out of character for Lieutenant Meredessi. In fact, she’d been monitoring the person she thought was Sergeant Lee, helping him in his hope of joining OS-9. That was reason enough to check on the sergeant’s absence.

Qin calmly navigated to the Navy personnel database, entering Lee’s name and making a standard crew-to-crew request for his whereabouts. The record came back as classified. 

Qin remembered Lee’s request to burn his sergeant identity to deflect suspicions from her. It would be necessary to start building that scenario of suspicion sooner or later. She switched to an OS-9 restricted system and made the same request, this time logging a reason as to why she was using her security clearance to view the classified file. Lieutenant Meredessi was concerned that Lee was not fully committed to the Republic.

A tightness grew in Qin’s chest as she wrote the words, but this had been what Lee wanted. The sergeant was a disposable shield, meant to create a buffer between the facade and the truth about Agent Bennett Lee, and now Qin.

The personnel file unlocked. It showed that Lee was traveling from the Terminus to the Kestris Navy Command Compound and was recorded passing through comm beacons at the shipfield, in a Navy ground transport shuttle, and into the command building. After that, the sergeant disappeared, and shortly after that, a location notice request was put on both his comm and his identity. He was officially declared absent without leave, whereabouts unknown.

A grin flickered on Qin’s lips. She willed her face muscles to relax. Lee had slipped out, and the Navy did not know where he was. Perhaps his name had been added to a list like the one that had been assigned to Qin. This inquiry into his whereabouts would likely result in Qin being questioned, which would give her a chance to potentially delay any active investigation into where the sergeant was. She could not do much for the people on the list she’d been given, but she might be able to create a diversion to help give Lee more time.

Qin closed the record. Just as her fingers left the keyboard, the screen on her computer went black, as did every other screen she could see in her peripheral vision. The lights overhead suddenly flared to life, the moody yellow glow replaced with a brilliant white that lit up the entire floor. Qin’s head shot up. All around her officers looked up, a sea of confused heads glancing back and forth.

A commotion erupted for the far entrance doors. A squad of ship’s security rushed into the room, six uniformed officers with bolt rifles raised. 

The security officer leading the squad shouted a command. “Everyone remain seated, hands on your desk where we can see them.”

The squad moved in tight formation down the aisles. They wore the same gray uniforms as everyone else, but Qin could now see they had the shining black armor caps on their shoulders and around their forearms; it was the Lord Ascendent’s honor guard.

Qin looked to her desk, her thinking slowed from the surge of fear and adrenaline flooding her system. She forced a breath, willing her trembling hands to be still. She must not panic. She could not panic.

Qin relaxed her expression, projecting the neutral confidence of someone who knew they had done nothing wrong.

The honor guard surged down the aisle, weapons raised, nearly to Qin. She attempted to meet eyes with each of them, but their focus was not on her. It was on someone behind her. They rushed past, spreading out to surround their quarry. Qin turned in her chair to see six bolt rifles raised in a circle around an OS-9 officer.

“Lieutenant Dorian Poole, you are to come with us.”

Lieutenant Poole’s gaze whipped back and forth between each member of the honor guard surrounding him, his hands raised in reluctant surrender as he sputtered out his protest. “What? What is this? Where is Major Drake?”

The lead honor guard stepped forward, shoving the muzzle of his bolt rifle into Poole’s face. “Rise, Lieutenant. This is not a discussion.”

The lead honor guard motioned to his comrades. Two lowered their weapons and advanced on Poole, grabbing him roughly under his arms and yanking him from his chair.

Poole stood, unresisting. Qin watched his face, ignoring everything else and honing in on every twitch and micro-expression. He appeared to be genuinely shocked as his eyes flitted from the muzzle of the bolt rifle and back to the guard holding it. Then Qin saw something else—expectation, acceptance. 

Poole was not faking his distress, but he also was not surprised. Lieutenant Poole knew why the honor guard were there. Was he working against Gallow? And if he was, that meant he was an ally to Qin, Director Clarke, and anyone else resisting the Republic.

The honor guard encircled Poole and carried him forward, utterances of innocence and claims of mistakes beneath stomping bootheels as they and their captive disappeared back out the doors. Qin seared the image of the abduction into her memory, committing what she had seen and heard like an organic vid recording. She would find out what Poole had done, and what would happen to him.

Qin looked to Reddy sitting across from her. She was quivering and staring blankly at the black computer screen in front of her. A murmur of confusion washed across the room. The lights were still set to full intensity. At the far end of the room, Major Drake emerged from the door to his office. Voices bombarded him with questions. The major lifted his hands, urging the voices to quiet. Qin watched, capturing his expressions. Drake’s face was stern, forehead wrinkled in disappointment.

“What you witnessed was approved by me. It is difficult, but you must maintain your duties now more than ever. This transition will not be without casualties. I urge you all to keep your focus on the tasks at hand. If you wish to speak to me privately, schedule time with my administrator.”

Drake frowned, pausing for a moment as if he wanted to say more, but no additional words came out. He turned and disappeared back into his office, door sliding shut behind him. Qin knew he was not as blindly loyal as he was projecting; he couldn’t be. He’d given Qin the Indigo data the day previous. Was this how it was to be? Drake maintaining the face of loyalty to Gallow while secretly dissenting from the shadows? Was this life aboard the Terminus now?

Qin again looked toward Lieutenant Junior-Grade Reddy. Though her expression was blank, she still quivered. Reddy would not last long in the Republic if she could not contain her emotions. No one would. Gallow would keep everyone so afraid of wrongful accusation and abduction that crew members would turn-in their own comrades simply to keep suspicion off themselves.

Qin thought of Yadav. She would be hearing about this incident soon. What if Yadav slipped? Revealed something about their investigation into Renic Tau? What if they came for her? How could Qin protect Yadav when Gallow was turning the entire crew against itself?

Qin could not operate as she had the last two years aboard the Terminus. She must work within this culture of fear and create a method of self-preservation for her and Yadav. For Agent Lee, Julian, and Director Clarke on Kestris below. For Agent Mori, somewhere in the sector. And for everyone else in 5E, OS-9, and even the citizenry of the Republic who would see that the ineptitude and weakness of the High Imperius was nothing compared to the darkness that the self-appointed President Archer and Lord Ascendent Gallow promised to bring.

Qin lowered her gaze to her own blackened computer screen. She could see her reflection in the glass. Her expression was blank, but she could still detect the underlying fear and uncertainty, signals that could be noticed by anyone on the hunt for people to sacrifice to the Lord Ascendent’s Republic.

Qin’s eyes focused on each subtle muscle of her face, each crease around her eyes, each minuscule line around her mouth. She willed them all into a state of a total emotional void, erasing any trace of fear or doubt.

Her face was a blank slate, ready to be repainted into one that would keep her safe. Agent Lee had built a persona that even Qin had not perceived as false. For Qin Meredessi to survive, a new Lieutenant Meredessi must adopt an impenetrable persona just like Lee had. And for that, she would need to draw from a source unlike herself in almost every way.

Qin recalled Gallow’s face in her memory, stealing from what she saw. She pictured the times she’d seen him on vid recordings, from a distance down the corridors of the Terminus, during the rare instances she’d been in any of the ship’s large auditoriums when Gallow had addressed a large group of privileged attendees.

Taking from this, she constructed a subtle mimic. She replaced each facial cue of her own with a new one. The slight narrowing of the eyes always seeking a weakness to exploit. The subtle sneer of someone ready to inflict pain without remorse. The near-imperceptible furrowing of a brow that promised retribution should you oppose them.

Just as the blinding overhead lights shut down and the moody yellow returned, Qin witnessed the face of a stranger. Someone who would blend in, who would not be detected, and who would subconsciously trigger the same fear in others that Gallow did. The face of a predator.

If this was to be Gallow’s republic of fear, so be it. Qin would make others too afraid to cross her, and in doing so, maintain the space to be a hidden, anonymous beacon for those who would resist this regime.

They would not get Qin.

She would get them.