2948-03-10 – Tales from the Service – Cat and Mouse
Small-time sabotage has been going on for most of the conflict both in the Coreward Frontier and elsewhere, but no sabotage incident was more spectacular than the explosion of the hauler Dwight Schroder in Maribel orbit a week and a half ago. Though doing little in terms of material or human damage, the impressive blast was visible from the surface across half the planet, and equally visible from most orbital habitats.
The Incarnation agent who accomplished this sabotage mission is still at large on Maribel. He has broken contact with Naval Intelligence and civilian counter-espionage agents several times. In this week’s entry, sent to us by Naval Intelligence, we get a rare view into the hospital-bed report of the most recent civilian-agency operative to be outwitted by this terrorist.
The names in this story are obviously not the real names of these agents, and much of the non-public operational information has been scrubbed as the same tactics and tools are being used in operations throughout the Reach to counter the efforts of agents such as this one.
Special Agent Zuleyha Marek held her breath as the target appeared around the street-corner right on schedule and passed right below the landing pad on which she had landed her aircar. The man looked nothing like he had thirty hours before, the last time Zuleyha had tracked him in her sector, but that came as no surprise. According to Liason Gorsky, the standard operating procedure of Incarnation agents was to change appearances at least every standard day. Where they couldn’t steal a useful identity, they could always create a random face, complexion, and posture combination which would fool Maribel’s street monitoring network.
Zuleyha slowly rotated the bow camera of her aircar and got a good angle on the agent’s face. Immediately, the recognition system came back negative. “Another dud ID. Hells, this Nate is patient.”
When Danir responded, Zuleyha could hear that her partner hadn’t bothered to swallow the last bite of his pastry breakfast before pressing the comms key in his own aircar, six blocks away. “Do you think he knows we’re watching?”
“He knows half the city is watching after Dwight Schroder blew up in orbit. The half that isn’t jumping at shadows is still covered in recording devices with immediate upload.”
“You know what I mean, Zul.” Danir, watching the camera feeds in his own aircar cockpit, drew a red box over a freeze-frame of the man’s wrist. “That’s new. What is it?”
Zuleyha zoomed in on the object, a chain of boxy, polished metal ornaments held together by links of chain. “Big metal bangle of some kind. System has it pegged as chrome-plated nano-steel. Probably from a curio shop.”
“Looks heavy as all hells. I’ll figure out where it came from.” Danir got to work searching the planet’s datasphere, and lapsed into silence, his prior question forgotten.
As the man ambled past and along the street, Zuleyha wondered how much the Incarnation agent did know about his pursuers. Surely he couldn’t believe that after planting the bomb that destroyed a hauler starship in orbit that he was still flowing through Maribel society un-noticed. He certainly walked past aircars and officers of the city constabulary (such as, at least apparently, Zuleyha’s own) as if he had no more to fear from the police than the other pedestrians, and in truth, he was right. The city police were too busy and poorly equipped to start chasing deadly counterhuman spies festooned in dangerous clouds of nanotechnology – which was why Zuleyha, Danir, and the rest of their small team had been called in.
Just as the man reached the next intersection and started to cross the narrow street, he glanced over his shoulder, and seemed to stare right into the aircar’s cabin where Zuleyha was sitting. For an instant, her heart seemed to stop as the agent’s flat brown eyes and hers met from eighty meters away.
That was silly, of course. The aircar’s viewpanels were all heavily privacy-glazed, and there was no way he could tell that the pilot was any different from the bored traffic-cops in the other constabulary aircars parked on similar landing-pads throughout the city. As he turned and continued on his way, Zuleyha took a deep breath. “Whew. For a minute there, I was sure he’d made me.”
Danir, still searching, didn’t reply right away. “What?”
“Nothing, just jumping at shadows.” She relaxed back into the pilot’s couch. “He should be coming your way in about thirty seconds.”
“Got it. No hits on that bangle by the way. Nobody for a hundred klicks sells anything like it.”
“Hmm. I’ll check if he stole it from someone.”
Zuleyha bent over the aircar’s center console to perform a stolen valuables query. She guessed at the item’s weight and value, but wasn’t surprised to come up empty. The bracelet had looked like a worthless knickknack rather than a proper heirloom. On anyone else she would have paid its gaudy and impractical presence no mind, but Incarnation agents did nothing by accident.
“You sure he came this way, Zul? I’m not seeing him.”
“Yes, Dan. Same as every other day we’ve watched him on this route.”
“Not again.... I’ll find him again on the metatracker.”
Zuleyha rolled her eyes at his reluctance. The metatracker was only supposed to be used in emergencies, but tracking a bomb-happy enemy agent qualified as that. Headquarters would grumble about every use, but they would not argue too loudly with results.
At a tap on the window next to her, Zuleyha turned to see a middle-aged man in a rumpled business-suit rapping on the privacy-mirrored glass and waving with his other hand.
Cautiously, Zuleyha collapsed the window panel just enough for the man to see her face and hear her voice. She was, after all, driving the aircar and wearing the uniform of a local patrol officer. “Can I help you, sir?”
“I... I was looking out my window just now and just saw shove something under the loading dock behind the next building, officer.” The man stammered a little, stepping back from the car. “Could be nothing, but after that ship blew up...”
“Did you get a good look at them?”
“Not really. Flat sort of face, dark hair. Sorry.”
Zuleyha nodded. The description was vague, but it could be the agent who her partner was looking for on the metatracker. Waving him to take another step back, she grabbed her comm from its cradle, opened the vehicle’s side door, and stepped out. “Show me where and I’ll have a look.”
The rumpled man nodded quickly and led the way off the landing pad toward a side of the roof facing an alley. Sure enough, there was a small, obviously little used loading dock attached to the next building at street level, and he pointed to it. “There.”
After glancing both ways and verifying that nobody was in sight in the alley, Zuleyha pulled out a pocket magnifier to examine the dock. “I’ll check it out as soon as my partner gets here. The Constabulary appreciates your vigilance, citizen.”
When he didn’t scurry away, she turned toward the tipster, only to step back in alarm. The disheveled man, now grinning wickedly, held a small gun trained on her. “Just as gullible as the last batch.” He held out a hand. In an instant, she realized the sort of ruse which she had fallen for. “Comm unit.”
Zuleyha didn’t move to give the item to him, but his hand darted out inhumanly fast and wrenched the item from her fingers. “That will be all, Special Agent Marek.”
He knew her name – Zuleyha’s head spun trying to catch up with all the things that meant he already knew. “Kill me or don’t, you can’t escape.”
The man shrugged and held up Zuleyha’s comm, now bearing a few spiderweb-traceries of shining silver metal that hadn’t been there a moment before. When he pressed the transmit control, it responded to his finger as if it was her own. “Scratch the metatracker search, Danir. I’ve got him doubling back over here.” She stepped back almost to the raised lip of the roof in alarm – when the spy had spoken, it had been with her voice, not his own.
“Figures.” Danir’s voice echoed back. “What’s he up to?”
“Hells if I know.” The Incarnation agent, still smiling, replied in the stolen voice, before disengaging and pocketing Zuleyha’s comm unit. When he spoke again, it was in his previous voice – the voice of the nervous, middle-aged businessman. “Now then, Agent Marek. Let’s go for a little drive.”
Zuleyha snarled helplessly for an instant, then, acting on desperation, did the only thing available to her. With her back to the raised guard-wall around the roof, she jumped backwards over the rail. Evidently, the man didn’t expect this – even with his mechanically-augmented reflexes, he wasn’t fast enough to stop her from plummeting twelve meters to the cracked pavement of the alley below.
Oddly, hitting the ground didn’t hurt much even though it made a lot of crunching noises. Zuleyha found that she couldn’t move, but neither did she black out right away. Laying sprawled on her back in the middle of the alley, she had a perfect view of the naked surprise on the wily enemy agent’s face as he looked down over the ledge.
That surprise didn’t last long, though. In an instant, it was gone, replaced by another sly grin. An instant later, the face around the grin changed, too – it became thinner, less lined, and far more familiar. Twelve meters up on the roof, a perfect mirror image of Zuleyha stared down at the broken ragdoll Zuleyha in the alley.
With a little wave, the agent – now wearing her face – vanished from sight. The whine of aircar engines powering up told her where he had gone – a discomforting thought that she dwelled on for the uncomfortable minutes it took her for the pain to catch up and chase away consciousness.