Samantha is on notice. The section-42 is pending, and she's just put Renic off for a few more days. It won't last. She needs to make a plan and get off Kestris, no 5E to support her. Civilian travel, just like everyone else. The question on Samantha's mind; if she's a rogue agent about to be disavowed, who exactly can she trust? Or better, who can trust her. Join Samantha at the Radiance, Kestris's most luxurious hotel resort for when you really, really need to get away.
“Good evening, welcome to the Radiance! I am so grateful you chose us. Your comfort and delight is our top priority. How may I serve you tonight?”
“I need a room. A suite, actually,” Samantha said, glancing at the attendant in their formal uniform of pressed white fabric with two rows of shimmering, gold buttons. Golden-white hair flowed over their shoulders, framing a face of unnaturally perfect, androgynous features enhanced by meticulously applied makeup. The name ‘Adoni’ was stamped into the solid gold, rectangular name tag, but only for show. Just as Samantha didn’t need to provide a real name, neither did they.
The staff of the Radiance was populated by the people from the Imperium’s fourth colonized planet, Dai’Reen, famously known as the decadent center of wealth and corruption in the eleven united systems. The native Dai’Reen owners who had built the Radiance employed only natives of their home planet, maintaining their culture’s emphasis of creating beautiful exteriors to cover calculating interiors. The Radiance may have been a luxury hotel on the surface, but what it offered was something far more valuable to someone in Samantha’s position.
Adoni nodded graciously at Samantha’s request and inspected a screen hidden behind the counter. Upon noticing something on the screen, they smiled broadly, turning their gaze to Samantha. “Ah! We do have a suite available. Our last one, in fact. Would you like any additional amenities?”
Samantha smiled at the lie; they always seemed to have just one more left of whatever was most costly. All a part of the facade of formality and exclusivity the Radiance cultivated.
“Yes. I want the ‘Radiant comfort plus’,” Samantha said flatly. That amenity package included an isolated room on a secured floor, enhanced physical security, top-grade communication protection rivaling that of the agency, and a guarantee of no interruptions.
“Of course, yes. Let me ensure we can accommodate all of your needs,” Adoni said, returning their gaze to the screen. The Radiance had dealt with Samantha in the past, but here, each guest was treated as if it were their first visit until stated otherwise. Samantha’s dyed-black hair and lack of offering any identification were signal enough that, as far as the staff were concerned, she was a complete stranger. If her payment was good, that is.
Samantha took a quick scan of the lobby. Everything was overdone and elegant. At the opposite end of the expansive room, a string quartet played a calm, meandering number while a carved, white-stone fountain created a gentle white-noise as water cascaded down the multiple overhanging levels. Finely dressed patrons went about their business, engaging with the hotel staff as they came and went, the only oddity being their lack of luggage and a pronounced avoidance of eye-contact between guests.
Adoni entered a few more commands into the computer and their painted lips pressed together in a smile as the charges added up. Samantha would be a lucrative customer. “Excellent! It appears we will be able to meet your requests. How long do you wish for us to serve you?”
“Very good! May I have your name, please?”
Adoni’s expression collapsed into a look of total dejection as they fluttered their violet-to-green shaded eyelids. “Oh, I am terribly sorry. Our system does require a name, I’m afraid.”
Samantha nodded, feigning a reluctant understanding. “Perhaps I can pay now, in full, then provide a name on my way out. I’m not expecting anyone to try and reach me here.”
Adoni seemed to consider the offer, more of the game the Radiance played. The establishment kept up the appearances of a luxury resort hotel; courteous staff, exquisite accommodations, and unbridled enthusiasm for the comfort of their guests. The lengths to which they went to maintain this facade was what allowed them to offer their real benefit—going to extremes to protect the privacy and physical security of any guest who could afford it. It was this that made the Radiance the go-to destination on Kestris for anyone seeking the utmost in discretion. With a legal team that could lock-up the government for years should they try to interfere, the Dai’Reen’s Radiance was the closest thing to an embassy that sold diplomatic immunity, as long as you were on their property and the payment cleared.
Adoni furrowed their brow, forehead conspicuously absent of wrinkles. “Mmm. I suppose I could enter the reservation and mark it as incomplete. Of course, you would have to make sure to provide the needed information when you check out. Proper record-keeping is of the greatest importance.”
“Of course. I will be sure not to forget,” Samantha said, maintaining her placid demeanor, knowing full well she would not be providing any name. “I presume you can take payment now?”
Adoni clapped softly. “Of course, of course.”
They slid a datapad across the counter showing the room reservation, the upgrade package, and a blank space where a name should have been. At the bottom of the display, the total price was twenty-five thousand credits, nearly twenty times the cost of even the most conventional luxury hotel reservation. And, the ‘gratuity’ field was also conspicuously blank. The system appeared to be far more flexible with what was required than Adoni alluded.
Samantha activated her comm and transmitted two wireless payments from one of the accounts Julian had set up. One payment for the reservation, and one of equal value for the tip. One ensured her a room, the other Adoni’s good graces. Neither Adoni or any of the staff would recall seeing the pale-skinned woman with jet-black hair, nor would their cameras and biometric systems seem to retain any of those files, either.
Seeing that the payments had cleared, Adoni bowed their head. “Excellent! Thank you, honored guest.”
Adoni extended their hand—fingernails painted the same gold as their buttons—and handed Samantha a featureless plastic keycard. “Here you are. Room 823, top floor, wonderful view. Be mindful not to lose that key.”
Samantha took the keycard. Without attaching her comm to the room, this was her only way in. “Lovely,” she said and slipped it into her pocket. Adjusting the bag over her shoulder, she turned from the counter and crossed the lobby to the bank of ornately framed elevators. A pair of uniformed hotel staff stood at either side, happy to inform each guest that the elevator carriages were single-party only. They had no visible weapons, but they didn’t need them. Hidden sentry guns and security teams were just out of view, ready to enforce the establishment’s promise of no hostility among guests. As far as Samantha knew, there had only been a single occurrence when force had been needed, an event the Radiance paid a sizable fortune to keep out of the press.
She stepped into the next available elevator. Like most of the guests at the Radiance, the luxury and refinement was wasted on her. She wasn’t here to enjoy herself; she was here to make a plan.
The door to room 823 clicked shut, the whir of locking mechanisms barely audible beneath the reinforced plating. It was a hinged door, not a sliding one. Another show of the Radiance’s commitment to traditional, old-fashioned luxury.
Once inside the room, Samantha crossed to the ornately carved desk, placing her bag on it and stopping to observe the brilliant view, which was just as Adoni had promised. The sun had gone down, leaving the bay that the Radiance overlooked an inky purple in the fading evening light. Here on the southern hemisphere of Kestris, the terrain was far less touched than that of the sprawling city in the northern half, which was home to over three billion people and covered nearly a quarter of the planet. Vegetation stretched over hills and mountains here, rivers flowed, weather was allowed to follow its natural patterns. With an entire sector to colonize, the Imperium didn’t need to exploit the entire surface of Kestris, there were hundreds of planets in the sector to take from, a fact that was brought up by Fringe activists like the Red Kestrels every day.
Samantha removed the computer Julian had prepared and placed it on the desk, then removed her jacket and seated herself on the desk’s plush, rolling seat. She had an entire operation to plan, the first step of which was getting off of Kestris and out of the central system. After that, well, that’s what she needed to figure out. Renic’s intrusion had been an effective reminder that she could assume nothing about her normal conveniences. When she was declared section forty-two, both he and the rest of the Imperium intelligence community would think she’d gone rogue. And in a way, she had. The Radiance was the place where she could stop and come up with a plan in that brief window of time before they knew.
She folded her arms and stared at the blank computer screen in front of her, unseeing. Renic. His unannounced intrusion still bothered her. He had meant to put her off balance. Tracking her, appearing unexpectedly at her door, extending the offer to join whatever it was he was starting under the fleet marshal. The mix of manipulation and benevolence was his game, one she knew well.
It was his intentions that distracted her focus now. He had seemed to genuinely want her to entertain his proposal. It had been months since they had last interacted, and months again before that. He had had his assignments, she had had hers. Distancing herself from him had been intentional. The more time that passed between their encounters, the less she felt his twisted charm, the attraction his extreme competence stirred up. He had helped mold her, helped turn here into what she was today. Her jaw clenched at that fact. It was a connection she had grown to resent; she didn’t owe him anything.
The logic of his proposition, though, she couldn’t ignore. 5E had lost some of its effectiveness in recent years. There had been lapses in intelligence, and the Dauntless was not the first. Missions had failed due to poor planning. Budget was spent on operations that did not produce results. But the hijacking and disappearance of the Dauntless was one of the most prominent failures in the agency’s history. Once the incident was made public, the people would blame the navy. But Samantha knew it was the intelligence community that was responsible for monitoring groups like the Red Kestrels. Even though she knew they had help from someone within the Imperium, this lapse would be unforgivable in the public eye. Defense Minister Archer knew this too, so either way, 5E’s time was up.
Samantha sighed, reaching to turn on the computer. There was nothing she could do about how she’d gotten here. All she could do was move forward. Push aside the immediate distractions. Focus on the next move. Then the next. Then the next.
Normally, plans were provided to her ahead of time. The first step of her improvisation was to leave Kestris City. That had been simple enough. A quick change of appearance in a transport station bathroom, followed by several stops in multiple provinces on her way to the Radiance, had all but ensured that she couldn’t be tracked. The false identity Julian had created was registered with the Imperium’s facial and biometric recognition systems, and the identity of Samantha Mori was last registered as being in the autocab that had dropped her off at her apartment the night before. It was a good start, but creating an entire operation on her own was going to take a lot more thought than a quick jaunt to the southern hemisphere.
She placed her hands on the keyboard and loaded the hidden operating system. The screen went dark for a moment, then returned with the familiar interface Julian had decoupled from agency systems. With no real idea how to start, she exhaled sharply and created a blank mission brief. It sat heavy on the screen for a long moment.
This was normally a collaborative process. 5E relied on a long chain of intelligence analysts, logistics specialists, and careful planning to end up at the final mission brief that agents like her and Julian would follow into the field. An escort ship would haul a mission support team to any location in the sector, bypassing any travel regulations or civilian checkpoints. 5E operated under the Imperium umbrella of protection; they couldn’t break laws because they were above the law. But now, all of that was gone.
No escort ships, no controller, no analysts, no support teams. If she were exposed or caught by any Imperium authority, the agency would leave her to her fate as the perceived traitor and conspirator she was. Clarke and Julian could not vouch for her without implicating themselves, not that Samantha would ever ask them to.
She scrunched up her mouth. Gun-in-your-face reactionary planning was more her specialty. Long-term, calculated, mission strategy required patience she didn’t have. First things first, what did she actually know?
The players. She knew Eddie Renner had been working for the Red Kestrels, who had received information from an alleged Imperium conspirator. Since the Terminus was most certainly off-limits to her, Senali was where the other end of the trail picked up. The Kestrels would presume that the rest of the Imperium thought they were legitimately responsible for the Dauntless incident. Expecting them to be on high-alert was a given. Clarke and Julian could be trusted to do their part from inside the Imperium, but likely nothing they did would be of use to her.
Next, the complications. There were conspirators within the ranks of the navy and presumably within her own agency. The only safe assumption was that none of the 5E resources could be trusted, so she pulled up the files of Imperium resources on the computer and hid them away. That was okay, though; her job had required a lot of contact with external resources across the sector. Conventional options were far from the only ones available.
This was the next problem; support. Samantha took her hands off the keyboard and leaned back into the chair. She stared at the brief. If she was operating on the outside, that meant any support she needed would have to come from there as well—hired help. Julian had certainly given her enough funding to start, but finding contractors and mercenaries wasn’t the problem. It was finding trustworthy ones.
She brought up her database of contacts around the sector. Gathering names had become a hobby. Every planet she went to; every mission she was assigned; every unplanned, off-the-books opportunity; they all connected her with interesting people of widely varying value. Some good, some bad. Some real bad.
There were the legitimate names, people who offered their services within the bounds of the law. Like private military contractors who could protect corporate interests or offer assistance to smaller governments who needed extra firepower. Or licensed mercenaries who would join a cause once payment had cleared their accounts. When more than just muscle was needed, she had a list of computer scientists, cryptographers, medical professionals, biologists, engineers, all willing to think for pay. If the situation required taking advantage of the sector’s many legal systems, she had lists of private investigators, law firms, corporate mediators, and accountants. There were even discreet transportation outfits that could take you wherever you needed, for a price.
It was a respectable list, one any tenured agent would be envious of. But names on this list all operated within the Imperium’s legal gray area. None of them would do.
She closed that file and opened the other list, the one without a trace of gray-area on it. There were the sellouts, the betrayers, spies, moles, defectors. The government officials who welcomed any bribe. Cold-blooded assassins who would take out anyone you asked without needing a reason. Thugs and gangsters with more ego than brains who would intimidate anyone you pointed them toward. There were accomplished thieves who could steal the High Imperius’s platinum cutlery, and counterfeiters who could replace it with replicas that even the capitol kitchen staff wouldn’t notice. Crooked bankers could hide people’s money from the government, or turn around and hide the government’s money from the people. There were smugglers who could get anything in or out of any corner of the sector. Raise your offer, and those smugglers would happily become bounty hunters. Raise it a little more, kidnappers.
Samantha sighed. The problem with this list was they might be more trouble than they were worth. Employing them with the full force of 5E and the Imperium behind her gave her an insurance policy. In the past, if these unscrupulous characters had betrayed her, she would send a commando squad to set the record straight. Now, on her own… She pushed this list to the side, too.
There was another class, though. The elite private contractors who were as business-minded as they were effective. They took only the most high-profile jobs, vetting their clients extensively before taking a single credit. They employed a legal team, bookkeepers, entire corporate structures that required you to sign contracts, and they only took jobs when they were certain they could trust their client. Not even Julian’s forged identities would be able to pass that kind of scrutiny.
Time was short and the list of potential resources was dwindling. Ultimately, she needed someone who could see her side of things, or at least the side of things she presented. Someone who could make it personal.
She stood and paced the room, picking up the karambit and spinning it by its finger-loop as she walked. This couldn’t be approached like a traditional mission. She needed someone she could trust to be, well, trustworthy. Money could get someone interested, but principles were what kept a person committed. She’d pursued this career because of principles. Hunted the Red Kestrels because of principles. Because of what they’d done to her family.
But not just her family.
She stopped pacing, thoughts diving into the past. Any other time, this route would not have been a consideration. The agency mandated that professional resources were to be kept at arm’s length. Bringing personal relationships into a situation always clouded judgement; Renic had shown this with his attempt to reconnect with Samantha earlier that day. He had hoped his history with Samantha would sway her, and it had, in the wrong direction.
And now she was going to take the same gamble.
She flipped the karambit one more time then slid it into its sheath. There was one more list, a list that existed only in her mind and there was only one name on it. Not even a name, just a private contact key to an anonymous digital mailbox. She tried to recall when she had last tried to contact him. She couldn’t remember. All she remembered was an argument. Him yelling, her walking away. His show of emotion had meant he cared, despite his severe words. Her silence had sent a different, harsher message. Nothing hurt worse than being ignored, being unworthy of even a reaction. Hopefully, some of that had faded by now.
He had principles. She could trust him; that wasn’t her concern. He may disapprove, he may reject her offer, but he wouldn’t betray her. Time and time again, he’d proven himself to be someone that could be relied on. No, the concern was that he had plenty of reasons not to trust her.
Samantha sat back down in front of the computer and opened a new message. No voice, no video. Text only. Nothing to identify her but a private, anonymous return address he would recognize. She typed her message all at once, no rethinking or editing. Short, cryptic, and lucrative enough he should have a hard time ignoring it. The rest she could do once they were face to face.
She sat for a moment more. This would work. This had to work. She entered his contact key into the message and sent it. If he saw the message, he’d respond. He had to. Regardless of why they had broken off contact so many years ago, one fact remained.
He owed her one.