The mission is set. Clarke wants her to vanish, pursue the Kestrels and their conspirators from the outside. She has two days until Julian activates the section-42 and she is disavowed. Nothing left to do but leave Kestris; easy enough.
Samantha stared through half-closed eyelids at the light spilling through the doorway to her bedroom. She remembered getting prepared for bed and putting on the halo, then nothing until this moment. The halo had shut itself off as scheduled, allowing her to float to the surface of consciousness on her own. She’d gone to sleep on her back, and now she was on her side. A good sign. That meant she had rolled over on her own once the paralysis had worn off.
She looked at the comm on her wrist and grimaced. The time she had taken to become fully awake had been longer than expected. She pushed herself into a seated position and swung her legs over the side of the bed, pulling the halo from her head as she did, stringy tangles of hair caught on the edges of the device. She set the device on the nightstand next to the bolt gun and karambit, still exactly where she’d left them.
Samantha walked to the bathroom, her gait slow and stiff. The bathroom mirror revealed a face that looked no more rested than the night before, not that she expected it to. She stepped away from the mirror and undressed, then turned the shower to its coldest, strongest setting and stepped inside. Freezing water blasted across her skin. She kept her eyes open as she scrubbed herself down in one unbroken routine. Done; less than two minutes.
Drying off and walking to her closet, she selected an outfit from a neat line of varied civilian options, all specifically selected by her to look as generic and common as possible. Muted grays and blacks, a few dashes of dark blue, one or two accents of maroon. Items that didn’t scream for attention, but instead mumbled to be ignored. Without any contemplation, she grabbed a high-necked shirt and a pair of dark pants, hardly any different from what she had been wearing the night before. She tossed the clothing onto her bed and then pushed the hanging garments to the side, revealing the rear wall of the closet.
“Open closet access panel.”
On the closet wall, a rectangular panel moved inward and slid to the side, revealing the hidden compartment that she’d added after moving in. She looked past small shelves that held a variety of weapons and tech, some illegal on Kestris, and pulled out a pair of neatly folded, long undergarments. She held them up and let them unroll.
The set looked like a pair of lightly textured black leggings and a long-sleeved undershirt with subtle fasteners that could connect the two at the waist. Panels of slightly thicker fabric covered major muscle- and organ-groups, and there was a near-imperceptible pattern of circuitry woven throughout.
She let her towel fall to the ground and stepped into the tights, pulling them up over her legs, then pulled the shirt over her head. The suit covered her from ankle to wrist, the material light and tailored to fit her like a second skin. It was nearly impossible to rip, non-flammable, radiation- and energy-dampening, and would not register as anything unusual on most scanners. It was based on the same material technology her tacsuit was made from, though it lacked the rest of the embedded technology like the onboard computer, sensors, communications, and ultra-thin armor plating. Still, it was better than nothing.
She finished getting dressed, pulling on the same jacket she had been wearing the night before, and assessed herself in the closet door mirror. She hastily parted her hair down the middle and tucked the straight, shoulder-length strands behind her ears. An altogether plain and effective costume of normalcy.
Samantha closed the hidden closet panel and moved the clothing back in front of it. Without access to agency resources or her Imperium credentials, passing weapons through secure checkpoints of civilian travel hubs would be impossible. Anything she needed would have to be acquired once she was off-planet, one drawback of traveling under an uncredentialed identity like everyone else. She cleaned up the bedroom, then grabbed her gun and the karambit and tucked them into her waistband. She’d disable and toss the gun before needing to clear civilian security, but the karambit would have to be smuggled; that she wasn’t willing to leave behind. One thing at a time.
She walked to the living room, stopping in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows that faced the rising sun, the space flooded with light. Kestris stretched out to the horizon, row after row of towering buildings, vehicles crisscrossing the skylanes by the hundreds. She exhaled slowly and folded her arms across her chest. One building in the distance stood out from all the rest—the Imperium Capitol, surrounded by the low-rise buildings that were prohibited from challenging its stature.
Eleven temple-like spires, one for each planet across the unified systems, stabbed up into the sky, arranged into a circle around the enormous rotunda-topped building in the center. She allowed herself a moment to absorb the image. Not just the city, but the concept of the unified empire as a whole. If her plan was going to work—whatever that plan turned out to be—she would likely not be seeing this view again for a long time.
Her throat felt tight. Dry. She pulled her gaze from the window and stepped into the kitchen. She filled a glass of water and drank it all at once. When had she last drunk anything? Or eaten, for that matter? At last a full day. It didn’t matter; she wasn’t hungry. There would be time to eat once she was out of the city, and she had ways to keep her from feeling the need to eat for a while longer.
She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out the taze container. She’d held off for a day—or half a day—at least. She slid the metal tab back, poured out one pill, and once again held it between her thumb and forefinger. She’d earned this one. Placing the pill on her tongue and gulping it down, her eyes closed for a moment while she savored the bitter aftertaste. Now she could get to work.
On the dining table was the bag Julian had given her the night before. She opened it up and pulled out the computer, placing it on the table then flipping the lid open. She placed her finger on the scanner and the screen lit up, showing a common, commercial-grade operating system. She reached back into the bag and fished out the next item she needed; a standard, no frills comm.
She removed the agency comm from her wrist, the device wide enough to cover the entire lower half of her forearm. Normally, removing an agency comm would have been logged by 5E command servers, but Julian had made sure this incident would somehow not be reported. Following the instructions he’d given her before departing the slums, she set the agency comm next to the standard one. The government-issued device was nearly twice as long as the one Julian had provided, but almost a third as thin. Wearing the new device would take some getting used to, not to mention the loss of the advanced government-only functions that had made her life in the Imperium so convenient.
She tapped a command into each and the screens flashed, both displaying the same simple connection symbol, the scripts Julian had installed on the new comm doing their work. Both screens dimmed for a moment, then went blank. She gave her agency comm a tap. No response. It was inert and would need to be destroyed, the tech could be traced back to her.
Wrapping the new comm around her wrist, she watched it recognize her biological markers and validate her as the false identity it had already been loaded with. On the table, the computer’s screen went blank, then came back with a custom operating system similar to what 5E field computers used, though this one had been specially prepared only for her. She browsed through the local files, seeing the expected caches of classified information, hacking utilities, several counterfeit credentials and—just as promised—the collection of artificially narrated literary classics. Samantha smirked.
She navigated to the banking connections. There were multiple accounts tied to various identities, each with enough credits to fund several mid-sized operations. It was money taken from enemies of the Imperium; she felt no guilt putting it to worthy use.
Finished with the prep, she closed the computer and put it back into the bag, bringing it into the bedroom with her. She retrieved a large travel duffel from the closet and put the computer bag inside, along with some more clothes and a few innocuous personal effects. If she were stopped, she needed to look like a traveler on a boring trip of no interest to anyone. Anything more interesting would have to be acquired once she was off-planet. Like everything else about her now, the duffel was just for show.
She walked back out to the living room. Through the windows, the sea of metal and glass reflected the increasing sunlight. More vehicles had appeared in the skies as the city came to life. She felt like she could hear the vibrations being transmitted through the glass, and her vision felt extra clear; everything had sharp edges and vivid colors. The taze was starting to take effect, her fatigue fading like the morning condensation on the windows, evaporating in the sunlight.
There was nothing else she needed to do here. She slung the strap of the duffel over her shoulder and crossed to the apartment’s main control panel on the wall near the front door. She swiped through various screens on the panel, locking down systems and inputting security protocols. There was no way to know when—or if—she would be returning to this place. Once Julian burned her, the search for her would start here. It needed to look like she was trying to hide without actually leaving any evidence of value.
There was only one final protocol to initialize, the one that would send an untraceable message to Julian’s digital dead-drop when the apartment was finally breached by whichever authorities got to it first. Her finger hovered over the button. This was it.
Then the door chimed.
Her head snapped to the side. Who would be showing up at her door? Certainly not Julian, and there was no one else she was in regular communication with on Kestris. It could be a random visitor. The high-rise building was not purely residential, there were several floors of private businesses, offices, clinics, all with a multitude of legitimate reasons that someone could gain access. Maybe it was a neighbor, or someone from building security or maintenance. It had to be something innocuous; assassins or those with ill-intentions didn’t use the chime.
Samantha’s hand went to the handle of the bolt pistol at her waistband, a sensation of acute hyper-awareness surging through her taze-stimulated body. “Identify visitor.”
The apartment computer responded, “Visitor is identified as registered guest Renic Tau.”
Samantha froze. Apparently she was wrong about the door chime habits of assassins. She took her hand away from the bolt gun and straightened her jacket. It could not be a coincidence that he was here, but what the connection was, there was no way to tell. It was well within Renic’s abilities to use 5E resources to have her tracked. She had certainly pulled that trick with people in the past, violating both agency regulations and the ethics of personal privacy. Ignoring Renic wasn’t an option; he knew she was home.
She hurried down the hall and threw the travel duffel onto her bed, then closed the bedroom door and ensured it was locked. She needed to treat Renic the same as any other time; cold, aloof, annoyed. Samantha straightened her jacket, making sure it was pulled down over the bolt gun and karambit. Walking to the door, she cleared her face of any emotion and pressed the button on the wall panel to answer.
The door slid open. Renic stood with his hands held loosely in front of him. He wore the same, tapered, high-collared, black jacket he always wore, the thick fabric pulled taut against his physique. His black hair was slicked neatly back, accentuating the strong facial features that exhibited an expression that was both placid and smug at the same time. With her taze-enhanced vision, Samantha swore she could see light bending around him.
“The autocab,” she said, meeting his impassive gaze with her own.
He shook his head in disapproval, clicking his tongue. “Careless. That’s not like you. If you have need for civilian transport, at least use a different identity. Thankfully, it’s just me and not someone more dangerous.”
“There’s someone you feel is more dangerous than you? Is that humility I hear? I would not have expected the agency to bother such an important asset as yourself with something as simple as a wake up call. Or is this a personal visit?”
“Both,” Renic said, lowering his chin slightly. “I did monitor your arrival on Kestris, yes. The matter I have to discuss is best done in person, and I wouldn’t want to lose all the nuance of face-to-face communication. May I come in?”
Samantha narrowed her eyes. What was his game? Possibilities raced through Samantha’s mind. Their current assignments had no overlap; Clarke had made sure of that years ago, and any personal relationship between them outside of work had dwindled. He couldn’t know about the previous night’s meeting with Clarke and Julian. Could he? No, this was about something else. It had to be. Whatever the reason was, she needed to find it out and deal with it. She felt a twinge of anticipation in her stomach, a familiar rush from the past. Renic had always known how to stir up excitement, she could give him that much.
“This is all very impressive, but you could have contacted me any time and set up a meeting. Coming all this way for a surprise visit is unnecessary.”
Renic smiled and said nothing, not bothering to even imply an apology. They were covert operators, embracing the ‘trust no one, manipulate everyone’ lifestyle was expected. Samantha was just angry at being caught on the wrong end of it this time.
Samantha stared for a moment; she needed to validate he wasn’t onto Clarke’s plan, that was the immediate objective. She stepped aside and waved him through. Renic strode past, not bothering to make eye contact. He took a slow gaze around the room, taking in his surroundings piece by piece. Samantha knew this look, it was the same she would have had when noting all tactical considerations in an unfamiliar environment. He clasped his hands behind his back, moving to the windows and looking out over the city. She heard him take a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Look at it. All this under our protection. Magnificent.”
Samantha pressed the wall panel again and the door slid closed. She silently tapped a button on the panel and the dead-drop protocol vanished.
Renic spoke without turning around. “You know, Fleet Marshal Gallow is bringing the Terminus here to Kestris this week. The High Imperius has some sort of announcement and wants to make a big show of it. Military parades. Flyovers.” He looked to the sky. “The sentiment out there is that the Imperium has become weak. That’s not something the fleet marshal can abide.”
Samantha scoffed. “The accusation, or the reality?”
Renic turned to look over his shoulder, smiling. “Both.”
“Well, I will have to see it on the news vids. I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. Send the fleet marshal my regards. If you see him, that is.”
Renic turned back to the view of the city. Samantha kept her face impassive. She had not known about the forthcoming arrival of the Terminus, and Clarke would not have left that out of their conversation if he had known. Connections formed in her mind. Renic wanted her to know about Gallow’s arrival. Why?
Renic continued, turning his back to the city. “I must say, I was surprised to see you return to Kestris so suddenly. Last I heard, you were working Kestrel leads out in the Fringe. Senali, right? Given the antagonization in the Fringe, I would have thought it best for you to stay out there, in the thick of things.”
Clever. So, he knew about her visit to Eddie Renner. How deep did his digging go? Samantha shrugged. “Unexpected business came up. You know how agency life is. I can’t really talk about it, and if you had clearance, well, you’d already know that.”
Renic tilted his head. “I trust everything is alright?” he said, making no attempt to sound sincere.
“Classified. Even to you,” Samantha said coyly. Renic stepped away from the windows and feigned disappointment, placing his fingertips gently on the table.
“Hardware problems?” he said, maintaining eye contact. Samantha felt a jolt of panic course through her body; the agency comm was still on the table. Panic quickly turned to anger, clenching her stomach. Showing up unannounced to force mistakes like this was exactly his intent. He was building leverage in anticipation of something. She needed to interrupt his game.
Samantha huffed and rolled her eyes in annoyance. “I appreciate you keeping such good tabs on me. I sleep easy knowing you’re out there. But, I do have other things I need to do besides make pleasant conversation, and you must have more important things to do than offer to help fix my watch. So if you’re finished musing, I need to ask that we conclude this little visit.”
They stared at each other for a moment. Renic’s face was an expressionless mask, other than his eyes. She’d seen those eyes burn with both love and hate. Right now, it looked like a mix of both, and exploiting that mix was her primary leverage.
Renic’s gaze broke first. He raised his hands in mock-surrender and laughed, dropping the serious demeanor. “Okay. I’m caught!” He smiled and shook his head, walking to the center of the room. Samantha didn’t move, only pivoting on her heel to remain facing him.
Renic dropped his hands, letting congeniality flow into his voice. “Samantha, I wanted you to hear this from me first, that’s why I came here like this. The fleet marshal is forming a new division under his direct purview, an intelligence task-force that is a part of his command structure, outside of 5E and the government. He’s calling it the Naval Special Investigation Division and I am going to be one of its first leaders. I’m being promoted to the naval rank of commander.”
Samantha scoffed. “The navy is part of the government, despite the fleet marshal’s aspirations. Besides, he already has OS-9 to handle special operations and intelligence. Gallow needs his own personal wet-works squad now?”
Renic paused, then let out a terse laugh. “Come now, Samantha. He’s disappointed with the agency’s recent performance, as am I and many others. The Imperium leaders have let the empire reach a tipping point of disorganization and dissent. Someone has to step in and make sure it does not falter beyond the point of repair.”
Samantha circled around to stand in front of Renic, folding her arms across her chest. “Maintaining order is the Imperium’s top priority, and we are here to act in support of that, not carve out our own agendas outside of established protocols and structure.” She hoped the irony of her words was not audible in her tone.
Renic gave her a bemused glance. “You’ve been involved with missions surrounding the Dauntless incident, have you not? While terrorism is usually an intelligence matter, the disappearance of a navy warship has brought the wrong kind of attention down on the agency and its leadership. There will be consequences. For the Red Kestrels and those who missed their scheming.”
Samantha met his stare, stalling as she processed his words that were no doubt meant to cloud the conversation’s true purpose. He must also know about the agency’s defunding. If Gallow was forming his own intelligence force, it would only further the agency from getting to the truth. Losing the Dauntless had been a vicious injury to their credibility, much more than just a tactical one.
Samantha shrugged and lowered her voice. “You’re right, and until further notice, I am an active agent with a full mission-load planned out for months. What does this new organization you’re joining have to do with me?”
Renic smiled. A genuine smile, more unsettling than if it were not. He lowered his voice to match hers. “I know you’re very close to the Kestrels, and I know how you feel about them. That’s why I am here, to offer you the chance to truly strike against them.”
He took a step closer. Samantha could smell him, could see every strand of hair on his head combed perfectly into place, not a trace of stubble on his cheeks, not a puff of lint on his jacket. Impeccably put together from head to toe, personally and professionally. A flutter of attraction rose in her chest; she could barely contain her self-disgust at allowing him to influence her.
“Samantha, I want to recruit you. The agency is wasting your talents. Clarke’s outlook is antiquated. Defense Minister Archer is embarrassed and ready to kill the agency’s budget and scope. She agrees that 5E is ineffectual and is aligning her defense strategy with the fleet marshal’s plans to take matters into his own hands. The team you are on has lost, but you still have a chance to join one that can win.”
Samantha projected incredulity. “Now you’re informed of the defense minister’s plans as well? I didn’t realize you had such an interest in a political career,” she said, knowing full well that Renic was right. She’d become so focused on her personal vendetta against the Kestrels, the bigger-picture politics had swept right past her. While she’d been focused on narrow interests, Renic had been gaining the favor of the empire’s leaders.
Renic continued, showing no reaction to the slight. “You and I could work together, make a true difference. The fleet marshal has a vision and we can be a part of it. The Imperium needs help,” his expression hardened, “and we can be the ones to help it.”
Samantha furrowed her brow in disbelief. Renic sounded like a zealot. “The Imperium needs help? And Gallow, your fleet marshal, is going to be the one to offer it? I knew he was arrogant, but this is too much. He works for the Imperium, just like us.”
Renic glowered and turned away from her, raising his voice. “The Imperium is weak. The other sectors see us struggle to contain our own people. Groups like the Red Kestrels grow more aggressive each day. They make fools of us.” He abruptly took a step toward her. “Samantha, they stole an entire navy warship! We face internal dissent from our own people throughout all the eleven systems. Tomorrow, we could be facing Sellacan fleets from across the Gulf capitalizing on our lack of order and restarting the war we ended twenty years ago.”
Samantha came back at Renic’s outburst. “What do you think I am doing? You talk as if I’m not on the front lines. I know the state of the Imperium as well as anyone. That doesn’t mean I am going to turn my back on it,” Samantha said, once again swallowing down the irony of her words. She knew the Imperium was not what it once was. Despite the audacity of Renic’s offer, it did follow a certain twisted logic.
Renic raised a hand, his voice taking on an apologetic tone. “I know you’re loyal to the agency—,”
“To the Imperium. The agency is just an organization. My loyalty transcends official designations.”
“Yes, remaining loyal to a greater cause. That is what I am trying to do. What the fleet marshal is trying to do. And he is in the perfect position to do so,” Renic said, his eyes flaring with passion. “You wish to be loyal to the Imperium; this is the best way to do that.”
Samantha swallowed her words. She needed to get him out of here, not only because she had a mission, but because she could feel herself begin to consider his ideas. Renic may have a point, it was misguided. His sincere belief that he was doing the right thing was his ultimate weakness; she could use that.
Summoning every ounce of deception available, she cast her eyes downward and pursed her lips in contemplation. He wanted her to join him and would not jeopardize that chance.
“Renic, putting our history with my feelings about Gallow aside, I do appreciate the regard you hold me in. Abandoning the life I have now, that’s not something I could do without careful thought. I am sworn to protect the Imperium, yes, and I know that could someday mean protecting it from itself. I will consider what you’re saying, but not rashly. You must understand my reasoning, yes?”
Renic’s eyes narrowed. Samantha couldn’t tell if he was buying it. This is where that mix of emotions in his eyes would make the final, crucial difference.
“Of course,” he finally said.
Samantha let her face soften. Renic wasn’t the only one who could manipulate. She looked out the windows to the city, projecting conflicting emotion.
“Let’s talk in a few days, when the Terminus arrives. I have thought about our work together, and,” Samantha smiled, “we were a great duo. I miss it. I will give this serious thought, I promise.”
Renic nodded once and turned, letting out an almost imperceptible sigh as he made his way to the door. It slid open as he approached.
“Renic?” she called out. He stopped but did not turn around.
“Stop trying to monitor me.”
Renic’s head turned so she could see the corner of his eye. Then, without a word, he walked away, the door sliding shut behind him.
A string of shouted expletives found no audience in the sound-proofed apartment. Samantha slammed her hand against the wall.
“Initiate a level one scan for any foreign devices in the apartment, anything that transmits, or records, or-”
“Please define ‘foreign devices.’”
“Damn it, I don’t know! Anything I didn’t put here myself!”
Samantha hurried to the bedroom and grabbed the travel duffel, slinging its strap over her shoulder.
“Scan complete. No ‘foreign devices’ found.”
If she hadn’t had enough reason to leave immediately, she did now. Renic couldn’t be trusted, that much she knew. Though, this didn’t mean he was lying about his desire to recruit her. Both of them knew the other was hiding something significant, and their little silent game had only poked at the edges. This round, Renic had let his personal feelings for her interfere with his professional judgment; if he hadn’t felt the need to arrive and pressure her in person, she wouldn’t have been tipped off to the fleet marshal’s plan to create his own intelligence organization. She scored this encounter in her favor, despite her initial slowness in gaining control of the conversation. Renic was up to something, but there was no time to figure out what.
Her mind went to the computer in her bag. This visit was something that Clarke and Julian should know about. She clenched her jaw and exhaled sharply. No, too risky. Julian had told her not to reach out on her own, and there was no way to know how deep Renic had gone with his surveillance. He could easily be waiting to see if she contacted either Clarke or Julian. The only priority was to get off Kestris cleanly and out of the system. By the time Renic realized she had dropped off the grid, it would be too late for him to do anything to impede her. After that, well, there was no telling how he would react. This wasn’t something he was going to let go.
She adjusted the bolt pistol behind her back. The apartment was no longer safe. She brought up the security protocol on the wall panel and armed the dead-drop protocol. She gave the sparsely furnished apartment one last look, searching for some feeling of attachment to the place. There was none. This was not her home; she didn’t know if she had one.
She stepped into the hall and let the door close and lock behind her for the last time.
Time to disappear.