Episode 6: Just the comforting void of nothingness

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New mission. New life. Clarke's orders are unprecedented, just like the situation. Samantha has nowhere to turn but to herself. The revelation that Clarke—and Julian—believe to be true is something Samantha had never considered, her own empire turning against itself. She won't let it happen, but first, she needs to rest. And think.

“How will I survive without you in my ear?”

Samantha put her hands in her jacket pockets. The slums had cooled since she had first arrived. Clarke, serious about being kept in the dark, had said his goodbye and left the two of them alone on the abandoned street. Two autocabs were on their way.

“I am quite confident you will manage. But, in the event it becomes too much to bear, I have included a collection of recordings of myself narrating several literary classics. For passing time on those longer jumps.”

Samantha’s eyes narrowed. “I can picture it now, all those hours reading into a microphone.”

Julian smiled and raised a finger. “I said ‘my voice,’ not an actual recording. I had the computers simulate my tone, prosody, inflections. It is very convincing.”

“In that case, couldn’t I use the program to randomly emit words of caution and reminders for restraint?” Samantha turned and flashed a quick half-grin.

“An excellent point,” Julian said. “A ‘stop and think’ protocol.”

Samantha exhaled and looked down the street, pretending to look for the autocab’s arrival; it gave her somewhere to look besides Julian. He cleared his throat softly.

“I did prepare  something else that, let us say, the director may not have approved of.”

May not?”

Julian shrugged. “He requested compartmentalization. According to his timetable, you are already on-mission.”

Samantha folded her arms. “Okay, what is it?”

Julian reached into his pocket and pulled out a new folded slip of paper and handed it to her. She opened it and saw the name of a storage facility and a number, handwritten as usual.

“Memorized?” Julian said.

Samantha nodded, handing the paper back.

“Good. I arranged to have an agency field-depot on Eledar receive an automated transfer request for a crate of equipment to be transported to a destination it will never reach. It is currently on a ship being re-routed to the storage facility, and any record of the request has been erased. Next time a depot clerk does an inventory check, they will find that a tacsuit—hopefully your size—some hardware, and some weapons are all unaccounted for. You will need to use the computer to disable any Imperium tracking and digital identification, however. Without getting my hands on things, there was no way to scrub it myself. I did not have much time to orchestrate this.”

Samantha pursed her lips in approval. “An impressive heist. So… is the storage facility where I presume?”

Julian nodded. Samantha smiled.

“I just need to get back to Senali.”

“Yes. Tampering with anything here on Kestris would be too bold. Best to stay… subtle. Of course, anyone who can visually identify classified equipment will realize you are someone in possession of gear that cannot be obtained outside of an agency research and development laboratory. So, try to be discreet.”

“Subtle, discreet. Right. My specialty.” Samantha’s voice softened. “I appreciate you stepping out of bounds to do this.”

Julian shrugged, a tired expression crossing his face. “A minor infraction compared to what you are about to undertake. I presume the director left us here intentionally; he only requested that you keep your plans to yourself, nothing about my sharing anything with you.”

They both stood silent for a moment. Samantha pulled back her jacket sleeve and looked at her comm. The autocab was arriving.

“How long am I to do this?” she asked.

“I do not know. A few weeks. Months, maybe. Whatever is occurring, it is occurring at a pace we are not prepared for. That is the disappointing truth. We are in a ‘figure it out as we go’ situation, to use the phrase.”

Samantha shrugged. “Not an uncommon situation for us, but it’s much easier to improvise on the ground when I have you in my ear thinking ten steps ahead.” She turned to Julian. “It’s not like Clarke to be caught off guard. What did he miss?” 

Julian sighed. She was pushing him. This was her last chance to gather more information, and if that meant putting Julian between her and Clarke, it was a small price to pay. She assumed the director would understand.

“The intelligence reports over the last six months have been analyzed again and again. I have looked at them myself. The Dauntless was a major lapse, a scheme designed from the start to go undetected. The connection to the Terminus, well…  we have been focused on the external threats.” An uncharacteristic look of defeat flashed across his face. “We simply did not have the instrumentation in place to monitor our own people. Getting approvals through the proper channels to surreptitiously watch the upper layers of naval command would have been very difficult at the time. Now that we have reason to suspect compromises in the navy and our own agency? The risks are too great to chance.”

Samantha frowned. “I get that part. I mean, what do you think he missed? Clarke. If he weren’t your superior, how would you criticize him?” Samantha glanced over both her shoulders. “He left us here to maintain his own plausible deniability. So talk.”

Julian shook his head. “One man is not responsible for the entirety of a situation spanning the sector and the inner workings of our government and military.”

Samantha pulled her hands out of her pockets, placing them on her hips. “You want me to survive, I need intel. He’s sending me out into the sector to improvise. Well, this is me improvising. So tell me, what did Clarke miss?”

Julian spoke with conviction. “He did not miss anything. We are in a situation that could not have been prevented. Entering a game after the other players have already started and built a substantial lead. We cannot hope to get ahead; we can only hope to catch up.”

Samantha squinted. “He had to miss something. If a game was being played, there would be movement, things to notice.”

“There was nothing to miss until now. The work you did on Senali is what got us into this game. That is why the director chose you, and you are the only one he can rely on with the—let us call it—drive to seek out truths regardless of consequence.” 

Samantha scoffed. “A nice way of saying I’m obsessed?”

“Spirited.”

The autocab Samantha had called drifted down from an approach lane and eased its way to where they were standing. The door slid open, interior cabin lights illuminating. Samantha approached the car and placed a hand on the door frame.

“So it’s on me to get the answers. And when I find them, because I will find them, what then? I’ll be burned. I can’t be reinstated so long as whoever we are after is still at large in the system.”

Julian waved away the comment. “Nothing we cannot undo. If we succeed, a silent pardon and expungement of records will bring you back. And if we fail, well… that means there are much bigger problems to concern ourselves with.” He smiled, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Kestris bores you. Now you are free to roam the sector, hunting people and acting with impunity; a paid vacation to do what you love.”

Samantha frowned at the attempt at humor. “It won’t be the same out there. You may be the last person I can trust. I’ll be back for you as soon as I can. Being alone in this… it’s not something I want to get used to.”

Julian nodded, expression serious. “You work it from the outside, we will work it from the inside, and in the middle we will meet.”

Samantha pursed her lips and nodded. She ducked into the car and leaned back into the seat. “See you around,” she said.

Julian smiled and bowed. “Without question.”

Julian watched the autocab lift into the air and speed away. He retrieved an earpiece from his pocket and placed it in his ear, then pressed a button on his comm.

“She asked?” Clarke said.

“Yes. I told her just as we discussed.”

Julian could hear Clarke slowly exhale.

“Good. Anything concerning?”

Julian shrugged despite being alone on the street. “Outside the usual concerning things? No. She is more hesitant than I would have predicted. I consider that a good sign. It means she is giving this careful thought.”

Clarke’s voice hardened. “I know you wish we could have told her more, but if she knew Renic was a suspect, she wouldn’t have left.”

“I understand. And so would she, from a strategic standpoint. However, when she does learn that we kept that bit of intel from her, she will not be pleased with us.”

“She’ll be too far away to do anything about it. Renic is a pawn, not a player. Having Samantha going after him is a distraction from the bigger things at play. We will handle Agent Tau ourselves.”

“Agreed.”

“Wait a day, then quietly have her status updated to section forty-two. She’s on her own after that.”

Julian paused. “Understood.”

The autocab sped silently along the invisible lane hundreds of feet above the Kestris city streets, other vehicles zipping by so close they almost touched. The multicolored lights from the maze of buildings streaked past, their brightness polluting the skies and making any stars impossible to see. Even in the middle of the night, Kestris City never slept.

Samantha slouched in the plush seat of the cab, staring straight ahead, eyes focused on nothing. Her body and limbs felt heavy, the weight of the week’s events exacting their toll on her. Thoughts jumbled in her head, blending into each other. She could feel a tugging of connection between them, but not enough to make sense of it. 

She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out the small metal container and heard its comforting rattle. She slid back the tab on its side and shook a single pill into the palm of her hand. Her eyes lingered on the featureless white surface, its hue shifting in the passing city lights. The container had been full two weeks ago. Now, fewer than half remained. Luckily, she had more stashed at home.

Samantha sighed. The taze she had taken before Clarke’s staff meeting had worn off several hours ago. Her eyelids felt heavy. She stared at the pill, then rolled it up her palm to grip between her thumb and forefinger. The mere sight of it quickened her heart rate ever so slightly. All she had to do was let it dissolve under her tongue and all this fatigue would be swept away. For a few more hours, at least.

“Damn it,” she said, giving the pill one last look before putting it back into the container. It was six hours until sunrise. If she could sleep for even a few of those, that would be enough. She looked out the window to the city below, all shining and smooth, bright and busy. A glittering, marvelous city, one she was about to leave for what could be a very long time. 

The computer Julian had prepared sat in its bag on the seat beside her. She reached over and rested her hand on it. Everything she needed for a whole new fictional life. Going dark wasn’t anything new, but this was on a whole different level. She would be disavowed. Though, as Clarke had so gently implied, she had almost no personal relationships here on Kestris. No one would miss her. Which was fine; she wouldn’t miss anyone either, except for Julian. Her life demanded a level of detachment that personal relationships only complicated. This justification almost made her feel as if the isolation wasn’t totally her fault.

The cab veered around a corner, a chime indicating that she had arrived at her destination, and maneuvered itself gracefully into a parking stall on the side of the building. The sound roused Samantha out of her reverie as the screen on the dash displayed the cost of the ride; twenty-seven credits. She paused for a moment, noticing her name on the screen. This would be the last time she paid for under this name for quite some time. She accepted the charges and the door slid open, letting the noise from the buzzing skylanes drift inside. With a final sigh, she stepped onto the exit platform, feeling the breeze that being on the 150th floor offered her as the autocab drifted back into the open air.

Samantha took a moment to watch the city from her elevated vantage point. Her building was well outside of the central district. She had had the option of living on Imperium-owned grounds as part of her government employee benefits, but chose to maintain a private residence. This deep into the ring of skyscrapers that surrounded the low-rise buildings around the capitol, the architecture all had a similar look. Sleek, rounded, exceedingly tall, covered in glass and metal. On the less prosperous of the Imperium’s eleven planets, and out in the Fringe, it was said that the whole economic flow of the empire went in one direction—here, to the glittering jewel of Kestris City. Staring across the stretch of brightly-lit city that reached well past the horizon, it was a point she couldn’t argue.

Samantha walked up to the building’s entryway and the glass doors slid open, recognizing the combination of her face and comm registration. Not every level had direct skylane parking access; she’d been certain to lease her unit on one that did. Paying to avoid elevator small-talk with extroverted neighbors was a cost she paid gladly.

She arrived at her unit and placed her hand on the entry panel. The door to her apartment slid open. She could smell the clean, sterile air. Any lingering smells that would have indicated someone lived here had faded in the weeks she’d been away, the air having been circulated through the building’s environmental filters hundreds of times. She had once assumed she would like having somewhere of her own to get away to. It hadn’t worked out that way very often. She stepped through the doorway and let it close behind her.

“Arm lockdown,” she said. The panel near the door glowed briefly. Without any perceptible change, an array of sensors and countermeasures activated at her command. Shortly after moving in, she had Julian help install several redundant backup security systems, well beyond the normal needs of any civilian. It was supposed to help her sleep easy while she was here; it rarely helped.

City lights spilled in through the enormous windows that overlooked the skyscrapers. She crossed the room and stopped at the glass. So many colors. Turning to the small dining table near the kitchen, she set the computer bag down, then took off her jacket and tossed it over the back of one of the pushed-in chairs. There was nothing else on the table, or shelves, or counters, or walls. It was simply a place to stay between missions. Missions that had become longer and longer. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she had spent a full day here.

“Lights, fifteen percent. No, five percent.”

The apartment obeyed her commands and she walked down the short hallway into her bedroom. Everything was in order, untouched sheets pulled tightly across the bed, closet doors closed, windows set to their opaque night setting. She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off her boots, setting them neatly next to each other. She took the holstered bolt gun from her waistband and laid it on the bed next to her, then pulled the forearm sheath and karambit off her arm. She withdrew the weapon and held it for a moment, blade pointed down from the bottom of her fist. There was a reassurance in it. Guns were inelegant. A blade like this never failed, never dulled; it couldn’t run out of energy or ammunition. Its effectiveness was tied directly to the skill of the wielder, a weapon without any agenda of its own, serving only to carry out the whims of whoever held it. Sort of like her, up until an hour ago.

Samantha placed the knife on her nightstand along with the bolt gun and walked into the bathroom. She wet her hands in the sink and brought them up to rub her face. The water was cool against her skin. It felt good to have a moment of peace, secure in her space. Now that she was here, the fatigue was free to let itself go. One night was all she had left. Come morning, there would be no more time to rest until this was over.

She looked at herself in the mirror. The dim lighting gave her eyes a sunken, gaunt appearance. Her cheekbones and chin appearing more pronounced, like she was someone who had lost more weight than was healthy. Her mind went to the container of pills in her jacket pocket. Maybe she had been overdoing it. The constant movement, tension, and adrenaline combined with weeks where she would sleep only two or three hours a night—or sometimes not at all—had taken a toll. Rest was not high on her priority list. There were simply more important things to do.

She opened a drawer and grabbed a hair tie, pulling her hair back into a ponytail. A few loose strands of pale blonde fell against the side of her face. She looked haggard. It had to be the fatigue, not the decision. The Imperium needed her to make this sacrifice for a greater purpose. There would always be the chance to return once everything was over, presuming there was an over. Yes, she had made the right decision. This was a part of her job. This was necessary.

So why did it feel off? Missing pieces of the puzzle were to be expected; that was not a mistake, that was how this worked. It was the feeling that they were missing pieces they shouldn’t be. An error. A personal failure somewhere she couldn’t identify.

She walked back into the bedroom and sat on the edge of her bed, not bothering to change out of her clothes. She felt unclean, physically and mentally. Her eyes went to the weapons on the nightstand. The killing and violence were also part of her job. Necessary. It wasn’t the option to exercise lethal force that bothered her, but the ease with which she was increasingly resorting to it as a first option. Without the agency’s operational edicts, any restraint would have to be self-imposed. It made it all so much more personal. 

Samantha felt a heaviness in her gut. Ignoring the sensation, she pulled open the drawer in the nightstand and retrieved the only items that rested inside; a halo and its remote.

“Lights off,” she said as she placed the halo on her head, pulling it down to rest above her eyebrows. The cold metal against her forehead sent a shiver down her body, more from the anticipation than the physical sensation itself. The device’s nanohooks gripped her skin, and she smiled sadly. She had restrained herself from using the pills earlier, but she wouldn’t deny herself this. She could afford five hours of rest, though the medical professional she had bought this device from had warned her that the unconscious state a halo put someone in didn’t actually qualify as sleep. She didn’t care, she deserved this respite, especially given what she was about to undertake.

Samantha input a few settings into the remote. Fifteen minutes of slow descent into unconsciousness, four hours and forty-five minutes of blackout, then fifteen minutes of a slow return to the waking world. She initiated the cycle and instantly felt the strange psychic buzzing sensation of the halo going to work on her brain’s electrical activity. She swiveled her body around to lay flat on the bed, on top of the sheets, her weapons still on the nightstand just beyond arm’s reach.

She took a deep, slow breath. This is what she needed. No lying awake in anxiety, no surreal dreams, and no chance of waking up in a panic and firing her weapon at invisible phantoms across the room, causing her security systems to contact the authorities—again. Just the comforting void of nothingness.

Her eyelids drooped. Soon enough she wouldn’t be able to keep them open no matter how hard she tried. The buzz of the halo’s effect became more apparent. She felt like her blood was fizzing and bubbling. Thinking became strange.

Words not make sense.

No move limbs.

Mind fade.

Fade.

Gone.