Episode 52: More like what we’re used to

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Samantha, Decker and Eliza are dropping into Kestris orbit. It's time to return home.

“Everyone up!”

The cabin lights in the Nighthawk came to life as Samantha swiveled the operator’s seat to face the rear of the tiny ship. She gently prodded Decker with her foot. He grunted and waved her away, his body stretched out along one full side of the interior, using a passenger harness around both an arm and a leg to keep himself floating just above the fold-down seats. Eliza lay with her back against the ceiling, cybernetic fingers clamped tight around a section of the Nighthawk’s hull.

“We’re twenty-five minutes from our drop coordinates and officially behind enemy lines.”

Eliza yawned and stretched. “How’d you all get up on the ceiling?” she asked, squinting down at them. Decker groaned, eyes still closed as he fumbled to remove the straps holding him in place.

Decker and Eliza had each been able to rest for the past two hours of their jump. Samantha had not been so fortunate. She’d spent the time in silence, staring out the darkened viewports, tracing the events of the past two weeks in her mind. 

She had been so confident when leaving Kestris. She would find Kat Basara, extract the information needed, and feed it back to Julian and Clarke so they could unravel the plot against the Imperium. She would have returned to Kestris, the section-42 lifted, with another classified commendation added to her 5E record. It all felt so ridiculous in hindsight. Had she—had Clarke—expected Gallow and his conspirators to be paraded down the capitol plaza in restraints? Had she expected anything at all, or had it just been the next objective to blindly attack?

It was clear only in hindsight that the Imperium had been doomed to fall beneath Gallow and Archer’s republic. Nothing they could have done would have changed that. The only path was forward, and that meant focusing on Kestris.

“I’m up. I just… I forgot how comfortable sleeping in zero-grav is,” Decker mumbled, righting himself in one of the seats, pulling the harness up over his shoulders. He exhaled deeply. “It’s been a bit of a week.”

Eliza tucked her knees and spun in place, pushing off the ceiling and gently floating down to sit across from Decker. “We can ask our friends at the Radiance about some guest vouchers for resorts on Dai’Reen once this whole collapse of an empire blows over.”

Samantha raised an eyebrow. “One step at a time. They need to agree to our first offer before we can make any long-term vacation plans.” She pulled a datapad from a slot embedded in the Nighthawk’s cockpit. “We’re within range of a point-to-point transmission to the Radiance.” Samantha tapped the datapad. “Establishing connection.”

The comm address was a relic of 5E’s off-the-record agreement with the Radiance. She hadn’t mentioned she didn’t know if it would be active—or if the Nighthawk could pierce the Navy communication blockade—until they tried. Julian would know, but Julian wasn’t around.

The datapad screen flashed a message: link established, video unavailable, audio only. Samantha met eyes with Decker and Eliza. “We’re through.”

A singsong voice crackled over the cabin intercom. 

“Thank you for contacting the Radiance, honored guest! How may I delight you on this wonderful day?”

Decker’s eyes narrowed at the greeting. Eliza stifled a laugh. Samantha held up a silencing hand to both of them.

“I’m one of Adoni’s preferred-plus guests, and I am throwing a surprise party. Is he available to speak with and arrange this for me?” Samantha said, the coded phrase indicating the urgency, and lucrativeness, of her request.

The voice crackled back over the speakers. “Ah, a surprise party, wonderful! I will inquire as to Adoni’s availability.”

The comm went silent. Samantha pursed her lips; she could feel the skeptical eyes of her audience without needing to look. As long as Samantha kept her eyes on the screen, she didn’t have to acknowledge just how risky this was.

“What are we offering them?” Decker whispered.

Samantha muted the datapad. “Everything I have, plus a digital stockpile of 5E tech I hope they see the advantage of now they’re in conflict with the former Imperium. We land, grab Julian, and take right back off. It’s the easiest money they’ll ever make.”

Decker’s eyes narrowed. “How much do you have left?”

Samantha smirked. “Enough that they won’t hesitate to take it.”

“Honored guest, this is your most gracious host Adoni. How may I be of service?”

Samantha took a breath and unmuted the datapad. “Adoni, please hear me out. I’m short on time and I bet you are too, so I need to forego the usual facade. My name is Samantha Mori. I was a 5E agent and have frequented the Radiance in the course of my work. I was on a mission in the Fringe when Gallow and his forces overthrew the High Imperius. Now I am an enemy of the Republic and exiled. I am sending you my photo.”

Samantha started to transfer the photo of her with the dyed black hair that would match what she hoped Adoni would remember, but the datapad reported the connection was too unstable for a transfer. Before she could think of an alternative, Adoni’s voice cut back in.

“Honored guest Mori, there is no need. We’ve always known who you are. As a preferred-plus guest, your secret is safe with us.”

Samantha’s head tilted in bemusement. “Okay, Adoni, then you know what I can do for you. I am prepared to offer you three-hundred thousand anonymous credits—” the sound of Decker gasping caused Samantha to throw up a hand to silence him,“—in addition to a cache of 5E tech that you and your comrades may find invaluable given the circumstances on Kestris. I have associates who need to be evacuated off-planet, and I want to use the Radiance as our extraction point. I’m in a classified vessel that can slip the blockade, but we need somewhere to rendezvous safely, and the Radiance is the toughest place on Kestris outside of Navy command.”

Samantha paused and listened. Decker and Eliza both watched in silence. There was no telling how Adoni would react.

“Your proposal is very interesting,” Adoni’s voice cooed over the intercom. A transfer request appeared. Samantha muted the datapad.

“They’re taking the deal,” she said.

Decker placed a hand on his forehead. “Three-hundred thousand? You just have that?” His head fell. “Why not just buy a quiet little place somewhere and retire in obscurity?”

Samantha looked up to Decker. “It’s the cost of doing business with the Dai’Reen and what it takes to get Julian and Clarke out of Kestris. And, this was never my money to begin with. It’s just another Imperium resource being used back against the Republic like the Nighthawk, the 5E tech, and even me.”

“Yeah Deck, it’s a re-re-appropriation of funds,” Eliza murmured.

Decker shook his head, mumbling the sum under his breath. 

Samantha entered the credit transfer and attached the Navy snow inverter algorithm to the message as a preview of the tech she could offer. With a single tap, the offer was away.

Another moment of silence passed. Adoni’s voice came back over the speaker.

“Honored guest, it is a most fortunate day. One of our rooftop landing pads just became available, even amid the current constraints the Republic Military Police are placing upon us. I invite you to come rest your weary souls in our rooftop lounge,” Adoni said. 

A landing authorization and flight-path vector for the Radiance appeared on the datapad. Samantha felt a flutter of excitement like she hadn’t felt since before leaving Kestris the first time. “We’ve got it.”

Adoni’s voice came back. “Please be advised, honored guest, that conditions on our property are slightly less delightful than normal. I must remind you that while you have been invited to land within our splendid rooftop accommodations, we cannot guarantee your safety anywhere but directly within range of our amenities.”

Samantha grinned. “Understood. I’m sending you a verification code for who we’re picking up. Your people on the ground can use it to avoid accidentally sharing your more lethal ‘amenities’ with him by accident.”

“Wonderful. We await your arrival.”

The comm channel closed. Samantha leaned back in the chair. “That’s it. We’ve got an LZ. Now we drop.” She nodded down to the straps slung loosely over Decker’s shoulders. “You’re going to want to tighten those.”

Decker grimaced, pulling the straps tightly. “I am not sure I’ll recover from knowing you had three-hundred-thou just sitting around.”

Samantha swiveled the operator’s chair to its forward position. “Don’t worry, Deck, that’s the last of it. If we want any more credits after this, we’re going to have to hope Julian has his hands in the purses of more former-Imperium enemies.”

The Nighthawk’s navigation display showed ten minutes to the drop. They’d cut it close with the Radiance, but that was the nature of these missions. Act fast and don’t let second-guesses shake your resolve. 

Samantha turned on the Nighthawk’s comm system, speaking directly into Eliza and Decker’s ears. “We’re going in hot, and not just because we’re fugitives,” Samantha said as she tapped in a series of commands. “It will be a little rough.”

“Uh, elaborate on the ‘little rough’ part, please,” Decker said.

Samantha looked back over her shoulder. “We’re going to do a combat descent. You were in the Navy. You remember dropship training? Like that, but worse.”

Decker pulled his straps tighter.

“Just keep those eyes closed tight, soldier!” Eliza cackled. 

Samantha returned her gaze forward. “The ship will be set to maximum stealth as far as long-range sensors and transmission detection are concerned, but we are still optically visible and will generate a huge heat signature as we burn through the atmosphere. We minimize these risks by getting to the surface as quickly as possible.”

Decker groaned. “So we freefall to the last possible moment and then hit maximum thrusters to brake. I do remember dropship training.”

“Close.” Samantha entered the command to start the drop sequence. “The Nighthawk is made of materials assembled on an atomic level, capable of withstanding forces and heat that would fold a normal ship in half. Instead of free falling, we will be accelerating toward the surface. The ship’s computers will calculate the last moment we can reverse and brake, and we’ll slow to the atmospheric flight speeds.”

“You mentioned ‘reverse’ there at the end,” Eliza said. “Can you explain?”

Samantha smirked silently to herself. “Accelerating at those speeds puts a lot of g-forces on us, so we’ll be descending to the surface feet-up. Since we’ll be upside down, I recommend you start telling your sense of balance that Kestris will be above us and we’re rising up to it.”

“My stomach may not survive this,” Decker said.

Samantha waved away the comment. “You’ll be fine. Being pushed into the seat is a lot better than feeling like the straps are the only thing stopping you from shooting through the ceiling. We’re going to be dropping close to the planet, closer than you’ve probably ever dropped before. Even as thin as the atmosphere can be in low orbit, it’s not a true vacuum. There are still enough atoms around that there will be a bit of a shockwave when the Nighthawk drops and the jumpfield pushes them out of the way.”

Decker uttered a single grunt. “I am guessing ‘a bit’ is as under-emphasized as it sounds?”

“It will all be a distant memory soon.” Samantha said. “One minute until we sneak past the watchful eye of the Republic. The blockade means they will have snowed the entire surrounding orbit. The Nighthawk can still triangulate using known Kestris telemetry, but determining the positions of Navy ships will be impossible except through optics. We’re invisible to their sensors, but so are they to ours.”

A dull whine of the jump drives filled the cabin. The familiar, over-pressurized feeling squeezed Samantha’s chest, nothing as severe as what she’d experienced the last week aboard the Matilda.

The warning lights locked solid. Samantha closed her eyes and felt a thump in her chest. The Nighthawk shuddered like they had just splashed down into a body of water. 

Samantha deactivated the viewport light filters. Stars filled the black sky outside the windows.

“That’s it?” Decker asked. Samantha adjusted the Nighthawk’s positioning, the ship’s orientation thrusters spinning it around. Kestris crept across the viewports until its blue and green, cloud-covered surface filled the entire view.

“Well, will you look at that? We’re right back where we started,” Decker said. “I remember being on Starview Station telling myself it would be a long time until I returned. If ever.”

Eliza leaned forward against her harness, craning her head to get a better look. “You know, the violent overthrow doesn’t look so bad from up here. I can barely tell that the planet is under the complete tyrannical control of a bloodthirsty warlord.”

Samantha plotted their course to the Radiance, its location on the opposite side of the planet from their drop. “Stealth capabilities and countermeasures are active. Entry course is set. We will be arcing to the night side, then making a dive toward the Dai’Reen province. It will be midnight local time when we set down.” Samantha tapped in a final command. “Engaging autopilot. It’s up to the computer from here until—shit.”

“Uh, ‘shit’ doesn’t sound good,” Decker said. 

Eliza gasped. “Has… has Samantha ever said a swear before now?”

“It’s a Navy intercept cruiser. We’ve dropped into optical range of its patrol.” Samantha handed the Nighthawk’s datapad over her shoulder to Eliza, then tapped a command to link the ship’s long-range camera feed to it. The view of a brilliant white and gold warship appeared on both the Nighthawk’s cockpit displays and the datapad. “The snow is blocking us from reading it’s designation, but it’s hailing us.”

Decker leaned forward against his harness. “I thought we were invisible.”

Samantha exhaled sharply. “We still obey the laws of physics, even if every stealth measure is taken. They could have been actively monitoring for gravitational disturbances, unshielded electromagnetic radiation, a glint of sunlight off a flat surface, or probably the heat pulse from the scattered atoms our drop burned even with as thin as the atmosphere in orbit is.”

“Okay, so we zip past and punch it to the surface, right?” Decker asked. “Right, Samantha?”

Samantha’s hand hovered over the autopilot panel. This had been a risk she’d downplayed. “They could still fire on us using optical targeting. The Nighthawk is meant to never be seen at all, not to escape an interceptor.”

A string of Decker’s growled curses filled the cabin. Samantha brought up the list of the Nighthawk’s countermeasures, quickly scrolling through everything it had available. There was nothing that could stop the spray of high-velocity slugs fired from the interceptor’s rail cannons, and even the most basic thermal targeting systems could guide a torpedo close enough to catch them within its blast radius.

“Answer the hail and put it on intercom,” Eliza said.

Samantha’s head jerked around. “Intercom?”

“Yeah, intercom. Let me do the talking. I used to be one of the authorities.” A new, serious tone invaded Eliza’s voice, one Samantha recognized. “Keep the ship moving toward the planet, but keep a casual speed. Officer Annabelle can handle this.”

“This is where I die,” Decker muttered. Eliza shushed him. She looked to Samantha, a surprising amount of lucidity in her eyes. Samantha gave a nod, and connected to the Navy hail.

“Unidentified vessel, you are in violation of a no-fly directive by order of the Imp-, uh, Republic Navy. Disable all drives and identify yourself. There will be no additional warnings. Any resistance will be met with immediate force.”

Samantha looked over her shoulder to Eliza. Eliza sat up straight and puffed out her chest. The curt tone that came out took Samantha back to their staged abduction on Mentaryd.

“Navy vessel, you are ordered to identify your designation pursuant to the naval code of communication conduct. The interference pattern is preventing us from verifying your identity.”

Decker mouthed ‘naval code of communication conduct’ to Samantha. She shook her head and shrugged; she had no idea what Eliza was referring to. There was a pause over the intercom.

“Unidentified vessel, this is the Hornet. You are ordered to-”

Hornet,” Eliza nearly shouted, “you are interfering with a priority mission that is classified ten levels above your head. I’m assuming you’re scrambling to figure out why you can only identify me on optics, affirmative?”

Another pause. “Affirmative.”

“That’s right, and by now you should have guessed as to why. You are putting yourself into a real bad spot, pressing us for information.” Eliza sighed dramatically. “I’m breaking several protocols by saying this, but this is a covert vessel returning from a priority mission on the orders from the Naval Special Investigation Division, direct from Commander Renic Tau. You are familiar with this organization?”

Samantha and Decker’s eyes both flew open. Samantha scrambled to spin the operator’s seat while Decker made a grab for the datapad. Eliza swatted his hand away, motioning for each of them to settle down.

There was another pause from the Hornet. “Affirmative, I am familiar with-”

“This delay is unacceptable!” Eliza angrily called back. “I am carrying eyes-only intelligence about the Red Kestrel threat that needs to be on the commander’s desk yesterday! And, you have neglected to provide your name and rank. I will be needing it for my report.”

Samantha froze. Eliza looked up at her and winked.

“Uh, this is comms officer Sergeant Iverson. Can you provide-”

Eliza’s face twisted into a mask of incredulous anger. “Provide? Sergeant Iverson, I have jeopardized both of our careers, maybe our lives, by even responding to your hail. You have forced a black-ops spy that reports directly to Commander Tau to break comm silence! And the commander is not forgiving. Some would say a real jerk, even! Do you think that a covert, undetectable Republic spy insertion vessel would just be—,” Eliza guffawed, “—waltzing back into Kestris orbit trying to sneak past you? Think about it, Sergeant! Were you not given a blockade manifest of all cleared vessels?”

Another pause, longer this time. Eliza muted the comm channel. “They’re going to be checking for that. Be ready to hit it.”

“They’re going to be making a call down to Renic. You’re announcing our arrival to him,” Samantha hissed.

“No, no.” Eliza pointed in the general direction of the Hornet. “Sergeant Iverson over there is a mid-level officer sitting at a console making traffic stops, wondering why he doesn’t have the code of communication conduct memorized or why he was not given a manifest of cleared vessels. He’s on a naval warship trained to go into battle, but he’s never had to pretend to be the orbital traffic cop. I have. Between the Nighthawk’s convincing sensor profile, barking orders at him, and name-dropping Renic and his little group, right now Iverson is only thinking ‘what-do-I-do, what-do-I-do’ to keep himself out of the brig for mishandling this situation.”

Iverson’s voice sounded over the intercom. “Undesignated RNS vessel, uh, please maintain position. An escort is being sent to accompany you to the surface. Stand by.”

Eliza’s official voice came back. “Stand by? Hornet, you are free to send an escort, but I’ve got no time to wait. Plot a course to Navy Command in Kestris City. We will rendezvous on the ground and you can verify my story there.” She softened her voice. “Sergeant, I’ve been a grunt. I know you’re just doing your job. I can let this one slide and keep your name out of my report to the commander.”

Another pause. Samantha could almost feel Sergeant Iverson’s sweating forehead.

“Uh- affirmative. Proceed on trajectory to Kestris City for rendezvous.”

Samantha looked at the Hornet’s position readout; it had halted its advance. She gave Eliza a wide-eyed thumbs-up. Eliza raised the datapad.

“And Sergeant, can you please transmit the interference pattern inverter algorithm? I’ve been out in the sector fighting for the Republic when the change of ownership happened and didn’t get the update. I can’t see a thing out here. That could have prevented this whole ordeal for you.”

Samantha, Eliza, and Decker all sat motionless. Samantha felt the familiar rush of pushing a mission right to the edge. Going along with Eliza’s plan was dangerous, but no less dangerous than dropping into the middle of a planet under siege by the Republic Navy. 

The navigation console lit up. “He actually sent it,” Samantha said, not attempting to contain her surprise. “Loading inverter pattern… there they are.” She pointed to the large central navigation screen. Ship names, distances, velocities all appeared. The entire Republic fleet was visible to them, including a dot on the screen labeled Terminus.

“Eliza, I can say this without any doubt. That was the biggest bluff that the sector has ever witnessed,” Decker said, his voice low and somber.

“Let’s not waste it,” Eliza said, clapping Samantha on the shoulder. “Get us to the ground, Officer Merriwether.”

Decker’s eyes narrowed at Samantha. She shrugged, turning back to the operator’s console. The Nighthawk’s main drive and stabilizers came alive. The press of the inertia built up as the ship accelerated. The turbulence grew as the atmosphere turned to an orange-white glow that blocked the viewports.

“I’ve altered our course to angle towards Kestris City and then veer hard laterally once we’re into cloud cover. It will extend our trip, but we need to create as much space as we can before the Hornet’s optics can see we’ve given them the slip and they call down to Navy Command. By then, we’ll be out of range of optics and be clear.”

The torrent of atmosphere around them grew, the sound making its way through the Nighthawk’s insulated hull. They tore through the invisible detection grid with maximum thrust, the inertia pushing them into their seats.

“Here we go, we’re approaching the roll point,” Samantha called out into the comm. “Close your eyes if you don’t want to see the world spin.”

The Nighthawk flipped over, putting its passenger’s feet toward the planet while the rest of their stomachs struggled to follow along. The vibration and noise continued to deepen. Orange light flickered and strobed inside the cabin, the burning atmosphere blocking out any view of the planet.

The Nighthawk’s braking alert pierced through the rumble as they reached the last chance to reverse their trajectory before gaining too much inertia to stop. Samantha closed her eyes and braced for the impact.

The stabilizer drives flared on, blasting kinetic energy toward the planet below. The extreme reduction in speed felt like hitting a solid surface, shaking them in their seats and testing the integrity of the harnesses. Mountains, fields, and forests became visible, the atmosphere no longer burning, but instead creating wispy trails of vapor. An ocean stretched across the horizon off their port side, and dots of light from cities that had passed into dusk could be seen.

The Nighthawk slowed to a manageable speed, shifting its stabilizers to atmospheric maneuvering mode. 

“Minimum altitude reached. Leveling off,” Samantha said, turning in her seat to Decker and Eliza. “Welcome to Kestris, folks. This ship is meant for going up and down, not cruising. You’ll need to pardon the turbulence from its non-aerodynamic design,” Samantha said, smirking, then wincing, at her attempt at humor.

The moment of respite was interrupted as warning lights flashed across the operator’s console. Decker’s head appeared over her shoulder, squinting down at the console. “That’s a lot more blinking orange and red than I’d expect to see on a rig like this. Some of the Matilda’s charm accidentally infect this thing?”

Samantha narrowed her eyes at the system readouts, a grimace on her lips. “We’re beneath the effective range of the warships in the blockade, but the orbital patrol detection grid is tighter than I’ve ever seen on any planet. The whole place is wrapped in an invisible shell. The Nighthawk’s evasion and countermeasure systems are almost overwhelmed.”

Decker grunted. “Okay, so they’re cinching up the net. Can this thing punch through?”

Samantha scanned the readouts again, a measure of uncertainty tightening her gut. “The more advanced scanning methods, yes. But the laws of physics still apply when it comes to heat generation, gravitational disturbances, even a latent jumpdrive quantum-wake can be detected if you’re looking hard enough.”

Eliza’s head appeared over Samantha’s other shoulder. “They really don’t want anyone trying to lift off or land without permission.”

Samantha’s grimace deepened. “No, they don’t. I expected the planet to be locked-up, but we’ll have to stay sub-orbital until we’re right above the Radiance and then meteor our way down. When we ‘punch through’ the grid, they’re going to know. Same on ascent. We will have to rely on getting within the Radiance’s defensive artillery before patrol interceptors can zero-in on where we crossed the grid.”

A growl rumbled from Decker’s chest. “And if the interceptors decide to test the Radiance’s commitment to ensuring their guests arrive in one piece?”

Samantha glanced up at Decker and shrugged. She activated the Nighthawk’s communication array. “We’ll be in range of the point-to-point beam with Julian soon, though with the amount of jamming going on, I am not sure how stable of a connection we’ll get. The interference noise in the air could drown us.”

Decker and Eliza each grunted, flopping back into their seats. “This is starting to feel a little more like what we’re used to,” Decker said. 

“Maybe that’s a good thing, Deck. Keeps us within our experiential sweet spot,” Eliza replied with a dutiful nod.

Decker scoffed. “Speak for yourself. I’d prefer to avoid a jam instead of needing to be good in one.”

Samantha returned her view forward, the back and forth of her companions giving her an unfamiliar feeling of camaraderie that conflicted with the anxious feeling constricting her still-bruised throat, a steady reminder of her disastrous confrontation with Renic on Senali.

She looked down to the navigation display, all Republic military and police craft, satellites, and ground-based sensor arrays were visible, the Nighthawk’s systems working at maximum power to keep them all at bay. Lost in that sea of dots on the map was Julian. Samantha took a breath, forcing the anxiety to the back of her mind. The only path was forward. Julian was smart; smarter than she was. He would make it.

He had to make it.

And so did she.

Renic stood in the open doorway of his office, arms folded leisurely thanks to a steady dose of painkillers, and stared out at the buzz of activity in the Naval Special Investigation Division headquarters. After 5E’s dismantlement, the division had taken on much of its clandestine workload. They had also taken ownership of what was OS-9’s Indigo investigation, which was meant to hunt for the Red Kestrel collaborators within the former Imperium. Renic smirked at the thought; it looked like the mystery may never be solved, especially after he’d ordered Indigo the lowest, unstaffed position on the division’s priority list.

Besides, the public had already accepted the official report on Edwin Sevent and how he had been working to undermine the Navy, going behind the backs of the defense minister and fleet marshal to work directly with government confederates like former Director Clarke, who Renic currently had captive in the white room several levels below. 

Clarke hadn’t officially been implicated in Sevent’s evil scheme, but Renic was working on a story to add to the official record after he was through with Clarke. He would be tough to crack; a few days in the white room should soften him up enough to confess to what Renic needed.

The division floor was filled with new operatives, many of whom were former 5E agents that Renic had known and whose skills he respected. Some had come over before the debut of the Republic, and some just after the siege and Director Clarke’s unceremonious capture.  Renic was glad to take in the ones who could recognize when the battle was over.

After passing a mandatory psychological evaluation and loyalty screening, these agents had been offered commensurate positions as operatives in the new division, which included a lengthy probation period where they would be monitored every moment of their lives. It was that, or await a trial where they knew they would be found guilty. Most were assigned to compile dossiers on their missing 5E comrades, giving them a chance to show where their new loyalties lay.

Some had already slipped through the net, though, Agent Siddig among them. That was an open-loop Renic would have to close. He’d already placed Julian Siddig and Agent Mori at the top of the division’s most-wanted list. There wasn’t much more he could do. For now Clarke would have to be a sufficient prize. 

An approaching operative caught his eye. It was Operative Milinson, a former 5E analyst who had been one of the first to join shortly after the division had been formed—two days after the Starview Station attack. She’d recognized a prosperous career opportunity quicker than most.

 Renic straightened his posture, unfolding his arms as Milinson stopped, fist over heart. Renic returned the salute, resisting the urge to roll his eyes each time he was required to perform the mandated gesture. 

“Commander, sir, an unusual request has been delivered to us from one of the blockade ships in orbit,” Milinson said.

Renic raised an eyebrow. “What of it? Naval matters should be redirected to command. We don’t deal in ships.”

Milinson bowed her head. “Yes, sir. But, this request named you personally. It was very specific. And strange.”

Renic pursed his lips, exhaling deeply through his nose. Strange was not good. “Fine. Get on with it.”

Milinson nodded and read from the datapad she was holding. “Approximately one hour ago, the Hornet, a patrol interceptor, encountered an unidentified small craft that had dropped well within the blockade perimeter. The ship had no broadcast signature and emanated no transmissions. It was picked up on optical only after creating a drop burn in the pre-atmospheric belt. You can see it here,” she pointed to the datapad screen.

Renic squinted at the image of a small vessel set against the backdrop of stars. The Hornet had been too far away for its optics to get a clear shot, but the basic pattern was unmistakable. Renic felt his gut tighten. It was an Imperium slipstream-class infiltration shuttle, conversationally known by 5E as Nighthawks.

“This ship was intercepted on its way to the surface? And they mentioned me in what way?” Renic asked. This was more than strange. It was concerning.

Milinson nodded, clearly uncomfortable. “The operator claimed she was a division operative returning from a deep-cover assignment on your orders and is on her way to hand-deliver a report of the highest priority.”

Renic snatched the datapad from Milinson’s hands, holding it near his face and inspecting the image; he had no operatives on deep-cover missions. “Where have they taken the ship and its operator?”

Milinson winced as she continued. “Sir, the communications officer cleared the shuttle and allowed it to continue on course to Kestris City to meet with you, but the shuttle deviated from its course and was lost. Since it couldn’t be tracked by the sensors, the optics could only follow it part of the way down. It was headed toward the souther-”

“Stop.”

Milinson clamped her mouth shut. Renic stared into an expanse only he could see, his breathing becoming deeper and labored, and his hand tightened around the datapad.

Had she really come back?

She couldn’t have.

Could she?

Renic turned, stalking back into his office while calling over his shoulder, “That will be all, Operative. I will handle this matter.”

The doors to Renic’s office slid closed. He rounded his desk and sat at his newly replaced computer, transferring the Hornet’s report to it. Renic tapped the desk’s surface display, connecting him to his administrative assistant.

“I need a channel opened immediately to the patrol interceptor Hornet in orbit. To officer…” Renic squinted at the report, “Iverson. Priority one.”

“Right away, Commander,” the voice over the intercom returned.

Renic tapped his fingers rapidly against his desk as he waited. What was Samantha planning? It had to be her.

“Commander Tau, this is Sergeant Iverson, communi—”

“Sergeant,” Renic barked at the face that appeared on his computer screen, “why was there no recording included with your report?”

“Commander, it is typically sufficient for the summary of a—”

Renic sneered at the flustered officer. “No, it is not sufficient. I need the audio of the exchange and all the video recorded with the optics.”

“Uh, yes, Commander. I will have the data archivists prepare a—”

“Sergeant!” Renic roared at the screen, flecks of saliva dotting the glass. “You will play back the audio of the exchange this instant!”

There was a pause as Iverson seemed to be operating his computer, continually swallowing and breathing audibly through his nose.

Iverson looked back directly into the screen. “Audio is incoming and video has been sent to your office. This is the exchange in its entirety.”

Renic disabled his camera feed as he listened, eyes closed. Immediately, one thing was clear: this was not Samantha. The woman speaking was putting an obvious affectation into their voice. She was confident and comfortable with improvisation, evident in how easily she flustered Iverson into going along with her demands. The voice had the prosody and authority of someone trained by the military or law enforcement, with a hidden Fringe accent. But if the voice was not Samantha’s…

Renic’s eyes slowly opened. He imagined the woman’s voice a touch higher-pitched, with a more pronounced Fringe twang. Renic’s injured arm pulsed at the sound, the pain radiating up into his mind. He rubbed his hand over where his flesh and bone had been pulped.

It wasn’t Samantha’s voice; it was her companion with the cybernetic arm. She was in a Nighthawk somewhere on Kestris and Samantha had to be with her. After all the trouble Renic had gone to in pursuit of her—sabotaging OS-9’s Indigo project, absconding to Senali, killing Kat Basara, and the subsequent near-execution he’d received from Gallow—she had come right back to where she started.

Renic calmed his expression and enabled his camera. “Sergeant, send everything you have to me. You sent the audio and video, but I want telemetry, any readings you logged no matter how insignificant they seem. I am assuming responsibility for this infraction under the authority of the Naval Special Investigation Division. You can consider this matter closed. Pursue no further action.”

“Commander, are you confirming that this vessel is one of your own?”

“Yes, Sergeant. My operative was not briefed or provided proper clearance due to the nature of recent events. They will be given updated protocols and clearance authorization.” Renic smiled pleasantly. “And, Sergeant… please be more cognizant of protocols. Next time, it could be someone very dangerous you let slip by.”

Renic closed the comm window, then pulled up the Nighthawk’s telemetry data and optical tracking Iverson immediately sent, overlaying it on a three-dimensional image of Kestris. The ship had burned through the atmosphere and careened toward the night-side of the southern hemisphere. Its path was a zig-zag of avoidance maneuvers around sentries and patrolling aircraft, but the overall trajectory was heading in one direction. He rotated the image of Kestris, placing the last position of the Nighthawk at the top-center of the globe and traced his finger straight down, noting each city and landmark that passed beneath this predictive path.

Using his name to bluff her way past the blockade was clever, and incredibly stupid. She had to know he would be alerted. That was why her course veered toward the southern hemisphere; Kestris City was a diversion. Whatever Samantha and the Fringe woman—and likely the same Navy deserter who’d been with them on Senali—were trying to pull, they were trying to do it far away from here.

Renic’s finger slid over the Dai’Reen province, through the untamed mountains and forests that surrounded it, and reached a stopping point at an expansive bay that led into the vast southern ocean.

Renic smirked. Of course. If he were looking for a safe haven in the heart of enemy territory, it’s where he would go.

Renic stood, tapping the comm around his wrist as he did.

“Go ahead, Commander,” Kogan’s voice sounded.

Renic stalked to the wardrobe he kept in his office and pulled it open, sliding aside his spare uniforms and multiple black jackets before grabbing the garment bag hanging at the very end… the one with the 5E tacsuit he had presumed was retired along with his agency career. It appeared that it would accompany him on one more jaunt into the field.

“Have the ship prepped for an immediate rebound jump to the Radiance hotel in the southern hemisphere. We’re going dark.”