This is Souvarine, preparing to leave Dashiell Orbital in the CD-63 201 system. In eleven hours it will be my birthday.

I arrived an hour ago and reported to the control tower. I was met by a military type and led to the central transit system.

My stomach did the slight turn it always does in those terrifyingly fast transit elevators. We hurtled many hundreds of metres in moments, carried away from the docking bays and into the belly of the gently-turning beast.

“…You will accord her the respect that accompanies a Client of the Empire. Any hostile movement will result in your immobilisation…”

I dipped in and out of listening to the drone of the thick-set man beside me. I ran my eyes of the embroidered lapel of his coat: Agent Borias. I was being escorted to the Botanical Gardens.

Breathing out slowly, I allowed my gaze to rise to the glass-domed ceiling of the transit elevator, and the corridor stretching into the distance beyond.

“…You are a guest of IPEC, moderate your behaviour accordingly…”

Yes, all right, lunchbox, I thought to myself. Glass doors zipped past on all sides.


Then we were slowing, and the impossibly-wide habitation ring was growing to meet us. With a barely-perceptible lurch of inertia, we dropped into the body of the ring and came to a stop.

“Here we are, Commander,” said the man beside me. “Good luck.”

The heavy elevator doors hissed open, and I squinted in the light. My senses were assaulted by the heady smell of plants and the breeze on my face. As my eyes adjusted, a figure took shape.

She seemed tall, though I knew her to be slightly shorter than me. She stood upright, legs slightly apart, a proud but combative post. Her lithe frame was encased in a austere grey dress with flared cuffs and a high collar, very white against her ebony skin. Dark eyes glittered at me across the paving stones.

With a hiss, the doors slid shut behind me – we were alone.

“Hello, Jane.”

“Hello Phin.”

“I don’t suppose that’s your name, though, is it?”

She smiled, shaking her head.

“How have you been?” I asked.

“I’ve been busy. How about you?”

“You already know.”

She smiled again; a tight, wry little smile. “Yes. I do.”

“So you run your own company now?” I asked, slightly stupidly.

“Apparently so. Not just me. I have an amazing team.”

“How did that happen?”

She looked into the middle distance as she twisted a black dreadlock in her fingers.

“Well. There’s a story. Some time after I met you I left the Navy. On very good terms, mind you. I’d risen to head up a branch of Naval Intelligence, and just fancied doing my own thing.”

We began to follow the path through the gardens.

“I kept ties,” she continued. “Some senior Navy types and a Patron or two smiled upon me, smoothed the way while I was getting going.”

“And you’ve repaid them in spades, I hear.”

“We’re lucky to count some very successful individuals and governments among our clients.”

“Doing some things they wouldn’t like to be seen doing themselves.”

Her eyes narrowed. “We’re trusted for our commitment to confidentiality.”

My turn to smile.

“And ‘the Octopus’?” I asked lightly. “Presumably because of your far-reaching tentacles?”

She laughed; a tinkly, charming laugh. “Sadly not. It’s the hair, actually. Eight braids.” She gestured to her black hair, woven into eight thick dreadlocks and loosely tied together at her neck.

“So there are.”

We ambled through a medicinal garden. Protected herbs from long-dead planets swayed in the artificial breeze.

“How is Vex?” She asked.

“Oh, you know. Same as usual. He’s busy setting up a vegan yoga retreat.”

“Ha ha. So you’re still in touch?”

“You know we are. Do you know he’s been working for you?”

“Of course. Your handler mentioned something you’d said in a report, some flippant remark. It reminded me of you. The psychometrics matched you too, so I checked. And there you were. He wasn’t far behind.”

“How improbably serendipitous,” I chuckled. “Too happy an accident, I suspect.”

She raised an eyebrow. “And how could I possibly have affected that? You recruited him.”

“If memory serves, it was suggested to me that I recruit Vex. Those orders came from somewhere.”

A pause, while she looked at me with those glittering dark eyes. Finally she cocked her head playfully.

“Perhaps so. Combat pilots are in high demand.”

“I couldn’t possibly guess at your motivations,” I said loftily, scuffing the grass with my boot. “Do you want to see him?”

She sighed. “That was a long time ago, Phin. I was undercover. He doesn’t really know me. None of it was real. Do you really think he’d want to?”

“That’s a very hard one to answer, come to think of it. I have no idea.”

“Does he know, I wonder?”

“Know what?” I asked innocuously.

“You didn’t tell him, did you?”

I opened my mouth without really knowing what to say.

“Well, of course. Probably. I can’t remember.”

She snorted. “Right. So I disappeared, and you never told him why. To this day?”

I said nothing.

“That’s cruel, Phin. Cruel and weak.”

“Possibly it was. I seem to recall it was you who left.”

She said nothing.

“I was young,” I said thoughtfully. “Eager to appear competent. If I’d spread it around that I’d been manipulated like that, compromised like that, I thought I’d lose any respect I’d earned. I didn’t know him as well then.”

She let me stew, nodding. Finally she murmured: “Well, it’s right he finds out. From somewhere.”

We carried on walking, both thoughtful.

“You’re clearly cut from a different cloth,” I said, wanting to change the subject. “What does it take to rise to such dizzying heights?”

She smiled her wry smile again. “You want to know my secrets?”

“That’s exactly what I want.”

“Ok, Phin. Well… There are three essential aspects to leadership. Two of them, I’ll tell anyone who asks. The third is something of a secret that I’ll tell you, for old times’ sake.”

“I’m honoured.”

She took a deep breath. “First – sacrifice. You have to be prepared to die for your men and women, but that’s the easy bit. You have to put your personal life far, far behind your public life, your professional life. In short, your duty comes first. Your personal self is basically subsumed.”

She paused, allowing that to sink in. I gazed thoughtfully at the bobbing heads of mysterious flowers in the beds beside me.

“Second, conviction. You have to have more than opinion. You have to staple your colours to it, to be prepared to risk everything for what you believe. That’s a task in itself, believe me.”

“I imagine it is,” I mused. “Believing in things is exhausting.”

“But if you don’t stick a flag in the sand, others have nothing to rally around,” she continued. “That’s the second secret.”

“Right. So duty is everything, and decide what your opinions are and stick to them. Ok. The third?”

“The third – here’s the bit that I don’t tell many people. Yes, you have to take a stand, to decide what your values are. Those are big parts of it. But – and here’s the kicker – you’ve got to be right.”

She smiled that tight half-smile of hers.

“That’s the bit I don’t tell most people, because it’s inegalitarian. Being right is a skill that few have. But it’s crucial. Vindication is everything. Your men might know you’d give your life for them, but they won’t follow you unless they’re confident they’re backing the right horse. So take a stand – but be right.”

I chuckled. “That’s where I’ve been going wrong.”

“What do you believe in, Phin?”

“Me? I’m a firm advocate of votes for fruit. I think our salad bowls should be democratically elected.”

She laughed, allowing me to lighten the mood. After a second she said: “You’ve been making friends, I hear.”

“Have I?”

“Apparently. A ranking ex Navy officer, and the other one. Quite an effective team.”

“Something like that.”

“I’ve checked the others out. You’re all waifs and strays, aren’t you? The quiet one, the chatty one, the mad one and the dangerous one – an unlikely league of characters, for sure. Dangerous characters. We need agents like that.”

She looked sideways at me. “Why are you here, Phin?”

The question came out of nowhere. I raised my eyebrows, taken aback.

“Oh, I don’t know. A combination of curiosity and bloody-mindedness, I suppose.”

“Quite a gamble. You certainly gave your handler a fright.”

“I don’t much like being ‘handled’.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do. I’m sorry. We operate in a certain way, we do what we’re used to doing.”

I watched a small cargo hauler speed past the glass high above our heads, towards the glistening planet.

“I found some things out there in the Pleiades,” I said, hesitantly. “Some of the floating artefacts, and one of those barnacle things. What do you know about them?”

She looked at me, impressed. “What did you find out?”

“Well… They’re harvesting, or synthesising, or something. They’re somewhere in between a living thing and a machine. They are behind the station blackouts, and they come from the same place.”

“How do you know that?”

“They make the same noise. A clicking, rattling purr. Like a giant insect deep underground.” She nodded thoughtfully.

“And their numbers are exploding,” I finished.

“Yes, they are,” she said finally. “Well, I can’t tell you much. But we think they’ve been here before.”

“Are they hostile?”

“They could be. They have been on several occasions when our races have met before. But they might not. A lot will depend on us, ironically.”

“How we behave towards them?”

“Yes,” she said simply.

“What are our chances if relations go south?”

“Good. But bloody. Very bloody. We would rather avoid that.”

“What can you do?”

“Not much. We have our clients’ – and increasingly our own – needs to see to. But we could use field agents.”

She turned to me. “You’d be good at that, Phin.”

“Would I?”

“You’ve demonstrated that. Hell, you got here today.”

I mulled that over.

“This company would be your home. I know that would be something of a first. This would be your family. And you could play a large part in our growth. There are huge rewards to be made here, for the ambitious. I want this company to expand beyond our office here. You could have a piece of that, if you want.”

I gazed up and out into space, thinking. I felt the weight of the ghosts sitting on my shoulders.

“I’m in,” I said finally.

“Good.” She smiled widely. “That’s what I wanted to hear.”

“No more games, though.”

“No more games. You’ve got a place at the table now.”

The path snaked right, through beds of spiky blue shrubs.

“What are our aims?” I asked after a few moments.

“To increase our presence in this system. To take control of the settlements here, one by one. To find out, if we can, what is going on with the alien life – and influence the outcome. To grow beyond this system. To further the interests of our clients, and so the Emperor.”

“What about my Wing?”

“Bring them, if they’ll come. The same offer applies.”

We rounded a corner, and the giant elevator doors came into view again. I realised she had led us in a loop around the gardens, over a period of time I suspected was exactly thirty minutes. We stopped in front of them, and the Octopus gently touched the holoscreen to call the elevator.

“Have a look around the system, decide where you want your hangar. Get to know the team. And take this,” she said, handing me a letter.

“Ok.” The doors opened behind me with a barely perceptible hiss.

“It’s good to have you on board, Agent Souvarine,” she said as I stepped inside. My eyes caught the IPEC logo on the front of the contract.

“… Then always in a shadow..?” I murmured, tracing the Latin with my finger.

And always in the shadows,” I heard the Octopus correct me, as the doors closed me in.

In the silence, a gentle cough. I realised Borias was leaning against the wall by the console. He winked at me.

“Welcome to IPEC, Commander.”

IPEC negative



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