Major Velis Talisha Enge sat in her office, squinting at the display on her desk. There wasn’t any reason for her to squint—it was a top-of-the-line viewscreen, and she had nearly perfect vision. She was squinting because what she was reading didn’t make any sense, and she thought that if she intentionally made it blurry it might rearrange itself into something more comprehensible. It didn’t work. She hadn’t expected it to, but it annoyed her anyway.
Major Enge was, for lack of a better word, a spy. As a spy, she needed the information she received to make sense, and when information she expected to make sense didn’t, it meant that a fundamental assumption was wrong. When a fundamental assumption was wrong, it meant that the Organization was in trouble, and when the Organization was in trouble…
Keeping the Alliance of Free Worlds out of trouble was the entire point of the Organization. It was very important that their fundamental assumptions be right.
She sighed, drummed her fingers on her desk, then clicked on the intercom. “I’d like to set up an appointment with—”
At that moment the door to her office slid open. Her boss stepped into the room.
Alef Halge was an old man. Velis was middle-aged but looked much younger; Alef was old, and looked considerably older. He was a hawkish man, with pure white hair and silvery-gray eyes. Cybernetic implants, Velis assumed, but Alef never said and she didn’t particularly care.
Alef had been Velis’ boss for a long time, but he was very hard to read. He could be a warm and affable man when he chose, but when he was playing his cards close to his vest it was impossible to pick up anything he didn’t want anyone to see. At the moment Alef was giving nothing away, but Velis suspected he was angry—because she was angry, and if she was angry then he had even more right to be.
Velis turned off the intercom. “I was just about to set up an appointment to see you.”
“About the Tylaris Barony field report?” His voice was calm and mild, a professor’s voice.
“Yes,” she said. “What is going on over there? This information makes absolutely no sense.”
Alef stepped through the door and waited for it to slide shut behind him. He sat at a chair in front of Velis’ desk and nodded in agreement. “It doesn’t fill me with confidence.”
The last time Halge had said something didn’t fill him with confidence, the thing that hadn’t filled him with confidence had been blown to pieces in what looked, to all appearances, like an unfortunate mining accident.
“Who’s directing intelligence in the Baronies?” Halge asked.
“Bennet,” Velis said. “But he isn’t the problem. Rolis is turning out to be… well, he’s not as stupid as we originally hoped.”
Halge raised one craggy eyebrow and waited.
“The thing is,” Velis said, irritation rising, “is that he does absolutely everything we ask him to. Every damn thing. When we ask him to cut a deal with the Alliance on ships, he cuts a deal with the Alliance on ships. When we ask him to develop a carrier for a comm tunnel, he sets aside the resources for it and has it delivered on time. And by doing everything, he immediately cuts us out of any deeper levels of access! He knows we’re working through the diplomatic corps, and there’s no reason to send in the diplomats when he does everything we want him to do.”
Halge nodded slowly. “We are further hamstrung by the inordinate pride the Alliance has taken in winning such a member, even if only as an autonomous one.”
“Yes,” Velis said, “the fact that he’s now a member of the Alliance restricts our options—we have to work that much harder not to be noticed. Bennet knows something is going on, but doesn’t know what. He requested a higher-level review, and based on my review I can say that something is definitely wrong.”
“Our models predicted the insurrection against Rolis would die down inside half a year,” Halge said. “Half a year. It’s been a bit more than a full year now, and it’s still going strong. The Trade Baronies are in chaos, the general opinion of the Alliance in that part of space is plummetting, and the baronies are considering raising their prices in protest.”
“And the Radiant Throne,” Velis said. “Don’t forget them.”
“If only we could,” Halge said. “They are taking every advantage of the situation. Were I not actively working against them, I would find it admirable.”
“Someone is funding the insurrection,” Velis said.
“Yes,” Halge agreed. “But who? It must be a Trade Baron, of course. The insurrection is extremely well-funded. But I can’t think of a reason for a Trade Baron to get involved. There’s no business case for it.”
“They consider partisanship bad for business,” Velis said. “When Tylaris joined the Alliance—chose a side—they made a lot of of the barons angry. Maybe even all of them.”
“Angry, yes,” Halge said, “but also ambitious. Yes, businesses embrace the status quo—that’s good for business—but when the status quo ends, the first goal of any business is to preserve, then improve, its standing. I’m quite sure each Baron is livid with Rolis Tylaris, but surely they see opportunities as well. The Tylaris Barony has joined the Alliance. It’s done. What’s left is for the remaining Baronies to reposition themselves, to recognize a new most powerful Trade Barony. That hasn’t happened yet.”
“They’re waiting for the insurrection to die down,” Velis said. “And it hasn’t. The uncertainty surrounding that makes it difficult to plan what to do next. It could be that someone who has no chance of becoming the new face of the Trade Barony is funding the insurrection… the Tyrelos Barony, perhaps.”
“Perhaps,” Halge said. “Our reports suggest that despite their disparate positions, Minerva Tyrelos and Mogra Tylaris were on friendly terms.”
“That also makes sense,” Velis said. “There aren’t many human-run Trade Baronies.”
Halge settled back in his chair and closed his silvery-gray eyes. “Read the report again. Then tell me, specifically, what is making me so very unhappy.”
Velis reset the report, paging through it carefully, examining each point. Halge sat motionless, eyes closed.
Finally Velis hit the part of the report that made her want to squint. This time something jumped out at her that made the entire thing fall into place. She scowled.
“This is a charade.”
Halge didn’t open his eyes, but one eyebrow shot up. “Beg pardon?”
“The ‘insurrection’ isn’t trying to win,” Velis said. “They’re hitting targets, yes. The attacks are well-planned and well-executed. But there’s no follow-up. There’s no attempt at destabilization. It’s…”
She studied the screen once more.
“It’s a diversion. For something else. They’re trying to distract Rolis, to get him to commit resources to fighting these ‘incidents’ so that he won’t be able to stop whatever it is they’re actually trying to do.”
“Very good,” Halge said.
“It’s not working,” Velis added.
Halge opened his eyes and stared at her steadily. “Explain.”
“The other part of Bennet’s report covers Rolis’ forces,” Velis explained. “He can’t account for all of them. The forces responding to these ‘public displays’ are only a portion of his entire fleet. We don’t know what the rest of his forces are doing, but based on some other peripheral data there’s evidence of other units being deployed for… something. I think Rolis knows what the insurrection is really trying to do, and is taking steps to stop them.”
“I think you’re right,” Halge said. “And Rolis doesn’t want us to know what it is, either. At least, he’s worked very hard to make it very difficult for us to find out.”
“I’m starting to think he misrepresented his position to us,” Velis said. “When he approached us, he claimed everything was going to fall right into place. It’s not falling right into place.”
“Agreed,” Halge said. “Get ready to travel. I want you to meet with Bennet and take charge of the situation personally.”
Halge opened his eyes and stared at her. She forced herself not to flinch.
“You disagree with this decision?” Halge asked.
“Yes,” Velis said. “A little.”
“You agree with Eriks, perhaps,” Halge said. “He feels you’re compromised in Trade Baron space.”
“I do agree with him,” she said. “I am compromised.”
“I’m surprised to hear it,” Halge said.
“Why? Eriks isn’t an idiot. We compete, but we’re not enemies. He’s committed to the success of the Organization, and so am I. If he felt I was a better candidate for an assignment than he was, he’d recommend me for it. And his point is valid: my last mission in Trade Baron space was a disaster. I operated well below standard levels and lost a sizable portion of my team because I underestimated my brother and let him get under my skin.”
“Eriks is a smart man,” Halge agreed. “I don’t tolerate imbeciles in the Organization. And I’m not suggesting he’s playing political games. But none of us are perfect, Velis. I think he misreads this. Your mission was to steal something very important to the Alliance. It’s something that was, by all accounts, impossible to steal—but it was stolen successfully. It was a spectacular success.”
“I had very little to do with it,” Velis countered. “No, Alef, I’m looking at this tactically. I wasn’t myself on that mission. My… family issues colored all all my actions and I put that in front of the job. It got some of my people killed.”
She sighed heavily and closed her eyes. “I do better work than that. I’m compromised in Trade Baron space.”
“Yes,” Halge said. “You are. What of it?”
“Every agent in our line of work is compromised in some way,” Halge continued. “We are fallible. We have weaknesses. And yet every day we are forced to make decisions that others won’t because… well, because they are terrible decisions to make. After a while it appears easy, and then one day those weaknesses come back into the picture, and suddenly the decisions are harder again. Much harder. Eriks was betrayed by a woman. He laughs about it now, calling it cliché, but it nearly ended his career. At the time it devastated him. You were once very close to your family, and those ties were shattered when they learned of your affiliations. They feel betrayed by you, you feel betrayed by them, and given the political inclinations of a few of your kinsmen it’s unlikely those rifts will ever be healed. With me…”
Halge paused a moment. He stared off into space a moment.
“With me it was my children.”
Velis thought she may have heard the tiniest quiver of emotion, but his calm, thoughtful expression didn’t change. “
“You’re sending me anyway,” she said.
Alef nodded. “We don’t expect our agents to be emotionless machines. We do, however, expect our agents to learn from their weaknesses rather than be ruled by them. You noticed something in this report that intrigues me, quite frankly—a detail I didn’t notice myself—and I want it investigated. I think you’re in the best position to do it. Get it done.”
Velis straightened. “Yes, sir.”
Halge smiled. “You’re one of my best. I know you can do it. I’ll draw up the diplomatic papers and come up with a suitable cover story for you.”
“I’ll start packing,” Velis said.
“Good.” Halge stood, turned to the door, then hesitated. “Velis. If it were necessary, would you be willing to kill Captain Vindh?”
“Yes,” Velis said. Her voice was brisk and businesslike.
Halge nodded. “Since that is the case, my orders are that, should he be involved in this, you do not kill him.”
Velis frowned. “Why would you order that?”
“To force you to deal with your weakness,” Halge said. “It will make you a better agent, in the long run.”
“I suppose I’ll thank you for it.” Velis didn’t bother to hide her sarcasm.
“Oh, I doubt that very much,” Halge said, smiling slightly. “I’ve met the man.”