Headquarters Counter-Intelligence Group 9 Office of the Director, Colonel Alan Banfield Ganymede
The director nodded to the secure messenger on his desktop. Val frowned when she saw it, grabbed it, and sat down across from her boss.
She flipped through the files. They were personnel files. After a minute reading, she realized what they had in common.
"What the hell's a 'planet tamer?'" she asked.
"Big game hunters, bounty hunters," the director explained. "Other unsavory individuals. Hired by colonists in the Far Arm to protect them from local wildlife. They sign on, deplete the local wildlife population, declare the colony 'tamed,' and move on."
Val continued to sift through the files. These were some colorful characters.
"I thought EbonStar handled security for the Corps."
"EbonStar and her competitors protect colonial assets," the director explained.
"Colonists aren't an asset?"
The director shrugged. "Easily replaced," he said. "Self-repairing," he added with a smile. And then, chuckling with his own cleverness, said "Self-replicating if you have the right mix of...uh," he made a suggestive motion with his hands.
"I get it. Ok, planet tamers," she let the messenger rest on the arm of her chair. "So what?"
"So you're going to become one," the director said, leaning back in his chair, peering at Val from under bushy eyebrows, his chin tucked down in his chest, waiting for her response.
Val blinked. "Umm," she said.
"You heard about what happened on Factor," the director said.
Val nodded. "Everyone's saying it was aliens," she said with some amusement. "I read the report, I assume that's nonsense."
"It was aliens," the director said.
Val stared at him. "What?" she said lamely, not knowing what else to say.
"We don't have very good intel; remote cameras, security footage, but there's something happening out in the Arm. Factor wasn't the first colony they lost, and there's every reason to expect it will happen again. The Far Arm is under attack from some kind of alien or aliens. We don't know how smart they are, or how they get around. They may be some kind of space-born natural phenomenon. Like a swarm of bees scouring the galaxy," the director intoned, not appearing to take the whole thing seriously.
Val looked around the small, windowless office. "What the hell's going on out there?"
"We're not sure. That's why we're sending you."
"Wrong department," she said with a shrug, her brow furrowed in confusion and worry. "Why did this even come to Operations, this is Intelligence."
"In this case, gathering intelligence is the operation. We had a station on Factor. We don't anymore, and whatever they knew, they took with them. We don't have a station on Shear, so you're going to be our eyes and ears."
"Shear," Val said.
The director pressed a button on his desk and the wall behind him lit up, the lights in the room dimmed.
The map behind him showed a close-up of one of the galaxy's spiral arms. Val recognized it as the Orion arm, the arm that Earth and all of Hub was in the middle of. A handful of blue dots glowed brightly in a line radiating out from Earth.
"It's the next colony in the line of attack," the director said, pointing to a series of circles. "If there is a line of attack. No one knows."
"So evacuate," Val suggested.
The director exhaled dramatically. "Expensive. Shear is the most Earth-like world the Corps have found. Full of transuranics. They're in early development, only fifty years, but NORDITA's hoping Shear is the world that lets the Corps break free of Hub once and for all."
"I've never heard of it."
"It's all in your brief. They've kept a pretty tight lid on Shear. Mostly they're afraid we'll swoop in and take it away. There's already a lot of static on the secure line about these aliens being our fault."
"Are they our fault?"
The director shrugged, tacitly admitting the possibility. "No one's said anything to me. And the ministry tasked us with finding out what's going on, so for the moment I'm going to assume we're as in the dark as everyone else."
Val nodded at the map. "If we know Shear is next, the Corps know. NORDITA knows."
"They do know," the director said. "Look at the first name on the list."
Val turned her messenger back on and read for a moment. "William Cabot."
"Famous planet tamer," the director said.
"I'll take your word for it," Val said, reading.
"NORDITA just offered him a new contract. We don't know the terms of the offer, but it was enough to bring him out of retirement. He's putting together a new team. And with his reputation, he can get the best hunters in the arm."
"And we're assuming it's for Shear."
"It's a good plan," Colonel Banfield said, nodding with respect. "To anyone else, it looks like they're just recruiting a team of hunters, like any other colony world. In reality, they're preparing for a possible invasion."
"And this team, this...Cabot. NORDITA keeps them in the dark?"
"They think it's just another job. It's the prudent thing to do," the director said. "It's possible nothing happens on Shear. In which case why panic everyone?"
"Alright," Val said, closing the messenger again. "So we don't really care about Cabot or his crew, we're after the aliens."
"If they are aliens. You did two years biology on Mare Ibrium as part of your field training. That gives you an advantage. And you were a medic, Cabot's team is going to need medics, and medics who can fight."
"Two years of biology," Val said skeptically. "Because I failed the first year. I get PTSD if someone asks me to spell 'photosynthesis.'"
"You'll do fine," the director said, smiling. "Your cover is just a former army field medic. Cabot will recruit his own science specialist, but you're smart enough to understand whatever he says and send it back to us."
"Or she," Val said. "Your brief says his probable for the science slot is a Celestial Catalog agent. Caira Diaz."
"You don't miss much," Director Banfield said, smiling.
Val sighed and started going through the messenger again. "Planet tamer," she said.
"You should understand," the director said, "these people are highly individualistic. They risk their lives against exotic wildlife the likes of which we can only imagine, and they do it for a paycheck."
"Not just a paycheck," Val said, remembering the brief on William Cabot. "I mean these people could sell their skills anywhere. They choose to help people. Colonists. That says a lot."
"Just making sure you understand the risk. You'll be under deep cover, no backup. More like...a long-term sleeper agent. Your cover is your life. The corporations put a high bounty on Hub Agents in the Arm and they don't usually specify 'alive' or 'dead.'"
Val looked at the CIG9 symbol on a plaque on the wall behind the director.
"Well," she said, "I'll just have to find a way to get them to trust me."
"I'm a spy," Val said.
Cabot stared at her across the coffee table with the chessboard etched onto it. The rest of the team thus far assembled could hear her, but most studiously paid no attention. Seven people hired so far. Val would be number eight. Nine, counting Cabot.
"A spy," Cabot said.
"Technically I'm a deep cover mole," Val continued. "That brief you read on me? It's all made up. My real name's Valerie Wolski, I'm a lieutenant commander in CIG9."
"The army," Cabot said, still trying to process all this.
"Well, part of it," Val said with a shrug. "The secret part. A secret part."
"What...," Cabot said, shaking his head as though trying to shoo away a buzzing insect, "I think I missed something."
Val leaned forward. "I'm an intelligence officer. They gave me a false identity," she said, nodding to Cabot's messenger, "so I'd blend in. So you'd trust me. See me as one of you, and hire me."
Cabot looked at Parnell. Everyone else was prepping for the dive, but Parnell was now listening intently, from across medbay.
"If this is true," Cabot said, unsure of what to think, "why tell me? I mean what's...what are you doing?"
"I'm deliberately breaking my own cover because I," she said picking up Cabot's messenger, "think this," she slammed it on the table, "is all bullshit and I figure if I can see that, you will too eventually. And I'd rather it all come out now, than when we're fighting some alien wildlife."
"Well," Cabot said, rubbing his eyes, trying to stop the headache building. "I guess that makes sense."
He stared at the woman across from him. On paper, she was excellent. An absolute 'yes.' Now everything was complicated.
"I don't know what to do with this. Why plant someone on my team?" Cabot asked, weary.
"My masters want to know why Shear is so valuable. You're the best tamer the Arm's ever seen, this," she said, indicating the med bay in the Laurie-Anne where the team prepped for hypersleep, "is the best team the Arm has ever seen. That means Shear is important. Why? Random planet out in the middle of nowhere. Why spend all this money? What is there to protect?"
Cabot deflated a little. This was not something he wanted to worry about. But he had a team to build.
"I liked you better when you were ex-Sol Guard," he said.
"I am ex-Sol Guard," Val pointed out. "I'm just not that person," she nodded at the made-up brief. "Hell that's nothing, you should see my real dossier."
Cabot sighed. "Do you mind if I...," he nodded to Parnell, "talk to my people for a second?"
Val shrugged. "Take your time."
"What do you know about CIG9?" Cabot asked Parnell in the weapons locker, away from the group.
Parnell scratched his head. "Counter Intelligence Group 9? When Nordita and Celestial execs talk about Hub and spit, they really mean CIG9."
Cabot didn't react. "Tell me why."
"Eh. You get a Hub-sponsored world at the edge of the Arm, they start getting rich, making people back at Hub rich, they start thinking 'gee it'd be nice if we could keep more of the money we're making.' That's when the Corporations come in, whisper in their ear. Pretty soon Hub's down a world, and the Arm gains one. CIG9 are the guys Hub sends in to stop that happening."
"Assassination?" Cabot asked, screwing his face up in disbelief.
"Rumored," Parnell shrugged. "I mean if you're asking me, would they go that far? Yeah, they would. CIG9 are serious black ops shit. Wetworks, insurrection, regime overthrow, you name it."
"Ok," Cabot said. "You talked to...ah, Val," he said, trying to remember whatever she said he real name was. "What did you think?"
Parnell crossed his arms. "I liked her. But she didn't spill her guts to me and break her own cover, so now I don't know what the hell to think."
"Me neither," Cabot said.
"The hardware she's familiar with? Her training? We'll never find anyone like her."
"I thought about that."
"And she's cool. I mean straight up. She's not going to break under fire, something comes charging at us out of the bush in the middle of the night."
Cabot nodded. "You buy her story about what makes Shear valuable?"
"Nope. Well, maybe. Might be true. But I'll tell you this...," he looked meaningfully at Cabot. "CIG9 never tell the truth, they don't have to. She's talking to you, she's lying to you. You'll just never know about what."
Cabot scratched his head. "Why can't anything be simple?"
"You should know something," Parnell said.
"Out here," Parnell said, "months out from Hub, breaking her own cover in front of everyone. In front of people like Hyde and Abe. Even me. We could sell her out to Nordita, easy. Retire on the bounty. She's risking her life telling us this."
"If it's true," Cabot said.
"Oh it's true," Parnell said. "That part at least. She's CIG9."
"How do you know?" Cabot asked.
Parnell smiled. "No one who was not that, would claim to be that," he said.
"Parnell says you're lying," Cabot said.
It was Val's turn to sit back and blink. "About what?"
Cabot shrugged. "He doesn't know. He says you're CIG9 and we shouldn't take anything you say at face value."
Val smirked. "Well, he knows the 9."
"Yeah. But, we figure you're being honest about your cover. That seems to me like something you did, not something you were told to do. And your training and experience, that's what important. I guess it doesn't matter if you're a spy. Probably not spying on us anyway," he said.
Val nodded. "That's true."
"Ok, well, once we're on the ground, once the wildlife come for us, that's when we're a team. You're part of the team, same as everyone else, or we all die. No other way to do it. And you don't impress me as a suicide agent."
Val smiled. "We know each other already."
"Ok." Cabot said without much enthusiasm. "Let's see what happens." He extended his hand, she took it.
He stopped shaking but held her hand. "If it comes down to it," Cabot said, looking at her with a mix of threat and regret, "and you have to pick us or your Hub masters...I recommend us."
Val extricated her hand from Cabot's grip.
"Because you'll sell my identity to NORDITA. Celestial."
Cabot shook his head. "I won't. Parnell won't. I don't think anyone on the team would sell you out."
"Not even Mr. Presley?" Val asked, smiling.
"Nope," Cabot said, getting up from the table. "But he's the fastest shot I've ever seen. You screw us, Abe'll kill you." He walked out the door, his voice echoing back into the room.
"Faster than you can blink."