A muffled thud signaled the end of Samantha’s journey into orbit as the Mosston hangar’s docking clamps locked into place on her ship. The trip from the surface of Senali in the Nighthawk had been short. All that had been required of Samantha was to strap into the pilot’s seat and let the navigation systems—already prepped by Julian—follow the pre-charted rendezvous course. Less than an hour later, the Mosston had appeared within visual range and the Nighthawk’s autopilot had landed it without so much as a shudder.
Samantha’s knee bounced up and down as the Mosston’s armored hangar doors closed and the cavernous vacuum started to repressurize. The wait for the pressure indicator to change and indicate she was clear to exit felt almost as long as the entire trip into orbit. Finally, red turned to green and Samantha released her harness, pushing herself up out of the pilot’s seat and floating the single body-length through the tiny passenger cabin that made up the entirety of the Nighthawk’s interior space.
There was no artificial gravity in the Mosston’s hangar. Launching and landing small vessels like the Nighthawk was far easier and safer without that variable. Using her hands to pull herself to a stop, Samantha lowered her head to the small, one-way window on the hatch that served as the single point of entry and exit.
Out on the flight deck, the only other vessels were the Mosston’s complement of standard light shuttlecraft used as tenders for the navy patrol cruiser, and only essential flight crew were allowed in the hangar while the Nighthawk was aboard. Unlike those shuttlecraft, there would be no log of the Nighthawk’s departure and arrival, and though the crew would never know the specific reason for the Mosston’s visit to Senali today, they would have no problem inferring the general nature of its mission based on the cargo they were ordered to transport.
The Nighthawk was a classified, short-range infiltration craft, difficult to detect by most conventional sensors and designed to appear nondescript to the eye. Though its countermeasures to avoid detection were advanced, it had no offensive armament. The only options it had, if confronted, were to escape or evade, last resorts of a desperate situation, and it wouldn’t be going far. Fitted with only an emergency jumpdrive, the Nighthawk had only enough jump range to get in and out of a system’s planetary defense network, so interstellar voyages required a transport ship like the Mosston.
The Nighthawk’s compact technology rivaled that of navy vessels many times its size, a marvel of Imperium innovation. Along with no weapons, the compact size necessitated additional compromises. With no sleeping quarters to speak of, the two pair of inward-facing fold-down seats made up the totality of what could be considered emergency living space. Not that anyone would want to be forced to survive in the Nighthawk for more than a day or two. Each time she made the solo voyage from surface back to her escort ship, it was a prospect that Samantha made a point never to dwell upon. Were she to be left behind and stranded in the void between star systems, the Nighthawk would be effectively adrift, slowly running out of resources to recycle, though its energy reserves would far outlast anyone trapped inside.
Samantha pushed the thoughts from her mind and watched as the crew members, propelled by invisible jets of nitrogen from the thrusters on their maintenance harnesses, floated out to the ship, dragging safety tethers and cables behind them. They attached the necessary umbilicals to the hidden ports on the Nighthawk’s featureless black surface, then silently retreated to their alcoves along the hangar’s perimeter. The signal light above the hatch activated, the door clicked and slid open, and at last Samantha was free from the Nighthawk’s confines.
She took an instinctive deep breath as she exited. The recycled air of the hangar had a distinct metallic smell to it, different from the continually filtered and re-oxygenated air she had been breathing in the Nighthawk. Kept separate from the Mosston’s main habitable sections, hangar air was stored in tanks when the doors needed to be opened and then let back in to fill the vacuum when they were closed. It wasn’t the most pleasant first sensation, but it beat having to put on a pressure suit and helmet to be out on the flight deck.
Samantha pushed off with her hands from the top of the hatch, sending herself floating down to the hangar floor. She drifted down the side of the Nighthawk’s hull until her feet hit the metal deck and the magnetic soles of her boots activated, sticking her in place. Giving the Nighthawk a pat on its matte black surface, she turned and walked her way across the mostly empty hangar toward the gravity transfer corridor that led into the habitable sections of the Mosston. She gave a curt nod to the flight-deck chief who was standing near the hangar command station, one of the few aboard the Mosston who was cleared to know the nature of her presence. The rest of the crew ignored Samantha. They knew any non-essential interaction with this passenger was prohibited. All the better; she was in no mood to interact.
Samantha entered the hexagonally shaped transfer corridor and felt the sensation of weightfulness grow with each step as she crossed the gradient from zero-grav to standard-grav. Feeling her arms hang at her side as they should, her natural balance and equilibrium took over. She crossed the final black- and yellow-hatched line on the floor and the magnetic energy on her boots released as her feet made contact with the durable, light-blue carpeting all Imperium Navy ships used, the fatigue in her limbs more pronounced than she wanted to admit.
Samantha exited the transfer corridor and walked the scant distance to the doors that led into the ship’s habitable crew section that was reserved just for her and Julian. While nowhere near as luxurious as a commercial pleasure-liner, the cost of using an entire patrol cruiser just for them put even the most lavish of vacation voyages to shame. Maintaining the security of the Imperium was an expensive business, and the agency was happy to use navy budgets instead of their own whenever possible.
Arriving at a locked door, Samantha placed her hand on the entry panel. The door slid open, revealing the utilitarian-but-comfortable passenger lounge where she would spend the multi-day jump back to Kestris. Julian was already seated at the curved galley booth, his eyes fixed on the screen of his agency computer atop the circular dining table.
“Welcome aboard, Agent Mori,” Julian said, eyes still locked on his screen, with far more cheer than Samantha had the energy to return. “I trust you are glad to have your feet back on, current position in orbit notwithstanding, Imperium ground?”
Samantha met the greeting with a shallow grimace and walked to one of the secured storage lockers set into the wall. She entered her access code and pulled the narrow door open, speaking from behind it as she began removing the weapons and gear from her suit and placing each item carefully inside.
“Well… no. I’d rather be back down there. There’s more to this,” she said, shaking her head. “Eddie Renner is a sharp tech, sure, but this is a stunt well out of his league. And Kat Basara? She’s into dirty Fringe politics, but Fringe politics. Having them so deeply involved in this when they’re how many light years from Protus Nine?” Samantha leaned her head out from behind the locker door to catch the eyes of the person who had been in her ear for the last several hours. “I don’t need an answer. It’s far. My point is, what could be worth attracting the navy’s attention in such a self-destructive way?”
Julian lifted his gaze from his computer. “We do seem to have uncovered a not-insignificant gap in our intelligence on Kestrel activity.”
Samantha gave him a pressed-lip smile and continued peeling off gear, unzipping the lightly armored tacsuit jacket and hanging it in the locker.
“Not-insignificant? We missed… the entire agency missed a hole so big apparently you can sneak a whole navy warship through it. And now they know we know that. What could be worth drawing the attention of the Imperium like that?”
Julian returned his attention to the screen as he spoke. “Reverse engineering military tech is big business. Capturing an Imperium ship would be quite a prize, financially and reputationally. If Eddie’s story turns out to have merit, it could mean a defector is trying to make a big profit and enlisted the Kestrels as their muscle.”
“Seven hundred crew on the Dauntless—slaughtered. That’s no mere defector. That’s treason of the highest order.”
“I do not intend to diminish the loss by pointing this out, but there was no debris or wreckage anywhere near Protus Nine. Perhaps they-”
Samantha’s head again jutted out from behind the locker door. “They’re dead. The Kestrels are not in the business of hostage taking, and even if they were, the crew on the Dauntless would have fought them. That was a patrol cruiser, not a freighter or civilian transport.” Samantha huffed. “The Kestrels have antimatter warheads now. What if they figure out how to arm them?”
Julian sighed. “Well, yes. It is not an optimistic outcome, I will admit. But the Dauntless itself is still out there. Once the ship is located and recovered, which it will be, we will be able to determine exactly what transpired.”
An artificial voice sounded over the intercom. “Jump commencing in five minutes. Please prepare and secure.”
Samantha stepped out of the tacsuit leggings and into a pair of plain, comfortable black pants. One benefit of being a civilian on a navy ship. “I don’t like it. The Red Kestrels are Fringe agitators, not a force ready to provoke the Imperium Navy like this. There’s something deeper here. I think we should stick around Senali, see if we can find out more. Make a move on Kat Basara and get information from her directly.”
Julian’s expression soured. “Our objective was to infiltrate this location and extract the data from Renner’s systems, neutralizing any obstacles as necessary. That aim was accomplished,” he said, offering Samantha a thin smile of consolation. He pulled the ever-present pencil out from behind his ear and began writing in a small paper notebook. “Our interest in this, though, I will keep note of. If we do some exploring of our own, from back on Kestris, that can be something… extracurricular.”
Samantha snorted at the offer as Julian scribbled away. All the Imperium’s best technology at his disposal and he still stuck to the basics.
She closed the locker and crossed to one of the seats opposite the galley, sitting and mindlessly fastening her harness. One of her legs bounced anxiously as she sought a comfortable position. She caught Julian notice and forced her leg still, refusing to acknowledge the tic, and instead closed her eyes and sighed. “The hit against the Dauntless was more than the Kestrels are capable of. We missed something. Eddie’s story about someone on the inside giving the Kestrels access in advance explains a means, but to what end? The audacity is what bothers me the most about all of this. As stupid as the Kestrels were for facilitating this, who is stupid enough to sell out the Imperium from the inside?”
Julian said nothing, continuing to write in his notebook. Samantha knew he recognized when she wasn’t really expecting him to answer.
“We shouldn’t be leaving Senali,” Samantha muttered, tapping her fingers against her leg, which had resumed its involuntary bouncing. “We could contact the Imperium embassy, at least. Get a Senali arrest squad to snatch up Basara and hold her while we analyze the data.”
Julian shook his head, waving his pencil in refusal. “The Red Kestrels will be well aware of our presence after tonight’s encounter. Basara has no doubt been alerted and sent a message back to Dradari. The Kestrels will be ‘going to ground,’ if I may use the phrase. Basara is a high-profile figure on Senali, she will continue as usual and make sure she is seen on the news vids going about her normal business, knowing any semblance of hiding-out would validate the—what she will call—wild and unfounded Imperium allegations of conspiracy.” Julian partially lowered the screen on his computer, giving Samantha a reassuring smile. “And I do not believe either the agency or navy intelligence would condone anything that confirms to the public our interest in her.”
Samantha frowned, letting the conversation dwindle. Julian was right. They couldn’t do everything at once, even if she were willing to try.
The Mosston’s warning chime sounded as its jump drive began to whine. Soon they would arrive back home on Kestris in the center of the empire, safe within the heart of the Imperium, far away from Senali and the dirty business of the Red Kestrels.
Samantha slouched in her chair. She could feel her eyelids becoming heavy, her arms beginning to tremble. She took a deep breath; the air in the cabin smelled stale, just as it had in the hangar. A few degrees too cold, too. She folded her arms, pulling them in close, telling herself it was the chill causing her to shiver and not the comedown. Her vision was unfocused as she stared across the cabin.
She gave no response.
Her head jerked up, eyes finding Julian across the cabin. He was looking at her, head tipped forward as if he had been trying to make eye contact.
“Sorry, I- yes.” She forced energy into her voice. “You’re right, this place will be under too much scrutiny for now. We can reassess back on Kestris.”
Julian smiled and nodded. “We have the data from the Dauntless the Kestrels were processing, plus whatever else was on those computers. I am sure there will be plenty of useful information. You can relax. You did your job well. A loss for the Kestrels is a victory for the Imperium.”
Samantha nodded halfheartedly. Julian’s reassurance was a little too blatant, a sign that he had noticed her dissociation. She unfolded her arms and sat upright, placing her hands on her legs.
“How long is the jump?”
Julian eyed her. “Thirty-nine hours. There are the sleeper bunks in the back if you want to-”
“No, I’m fine. It’s fine.”
Julian pressed his lips together and looked away as he put the notebook back into his bag and tucked his pencil behind his ear. He gave his computer a tap on the top of the screen. “I will start looking at the data right now. If anything of interest appears, I can relay it back to headquarters. Now rest. You did your part on Senali. Let me do mine.”
Samantha nodded. The final jump warning chime sounded. She shifted her body, fixing her eyes on a blank patch of bulkhead on the other side of the cabin. Her posture tensed as the whine of the jump drives mounted. As expected, nausea and the strange feeling of being compressed enveloped her and she squeezed her eyes closed, trying to breathe through what was coming. Jumping was difficult even when rested and healthy. The adrenaline comedown, the mental strain of keeping mission violence compartmentalized, and the withdrawals that Julian probably knew about—but had the good sense not to mention—made it exponentially worse. She should have gone to the sleeper bunks.
The whine came to a climax, filling the cabin, when a pulse of extreme disorientation crashed into her. Outside the ship, Samantha knew the stars had disappeared from view as the Mosston slipped into the mysterious jump-dimension where space seemed not to exist.
At the same time, Samantha slipped into the miserable space between her anxious semi-consciousness and a jump-induced delirium.