Quilaret hesitated before knocking on the door to De’rata’s office. She was never more sure of herself when surrounded by numbers and evaluations, but the ‘people’ element of her work left her flustered. It was one of the reasons why she had become a scientist; she took comfort in that realm.
She was still running her little program, attempting to trace whatever was causing the minute power spikes, but she knew it was something she had to bring to the attention of her chief, yet in a corner of her mind, a little voice was sowing seeds of doubt. It was the same voice that had made her wilt when De’rata had suggested her original idea be brought to Acklaran. Quilaret had never quite had the confidence in herself that others did.
Gritting her teeth, she remembered the importance of her work. It would, one day, lead to a glorious Chon’ith victory. It was too important to ignore, just because she was scared. Facing down fear was the Chon’ith way. She rapped her knuckles upon the door.
“Enter.” Came De’rata’s voice. Quilaret opened the door and walked in, seeing De’rata standing next to her desk, organising some paperwork. “Ah, hello Quilaret. We didn’t have a meeting scheduled…”
“Apologies Chief for the intrusion, but something pressing has come up.” Quilaret blurted out.
De’rata’s expression became more serious. “What do you mean?”
“I think… I think it is best if I show you.”
The pair returned to Quilaret’s workstation, and De’rata asked their colleagues to leave. They cast inquisitive glances at the pair, but did not question the orders of their superior. When the room was clear, De’rata turned to Quilaret. “Is this regarding the special project?”
Quilaret nodded. “Yes Chief.” De’rata sighed.
“You do not have to refer to me as chief Quilaret.”
“Sorry Chi… De’rata. When I get nervous I…”
De’rata held up a hand. “I appreciate your discomfort Quilaret. I sometimes forget you do not like people, per se. Now, what is the issue?”
Quilaret paused for a moment, then turned to her computer, logging in and firing up her little side project. A set of green numbers appeared on the left-hand side of the screen, whilst a set of red numbers appeared in a column on the right.
“I noticed this…” She pointed to the red numbers. “A short while ago. Whenever I ran any programs relating to the direction and movement of the fleet in the search areas, there was the same minor energy spike. At first I considered it to be a glitch, but it happened on subsequent occasions. This…” Her finger directed De’rata’s eyes to the green numbers. “Is my search program, tracing the source of this spike. It hasn’t been running long, but it’s slowly going back through the system.”
De’rata peered at the readouts. Quilaret was right to be suspicious of the peculiar spike. “We need to inform Acklaran. For the time being, we are suspending the operation. Do not speak of this to anyone, but keep your side project running. Inform me the instant it delivers results.”
Quilaret couldn’t bring herself to speak, for her throat had gone very dry, so she just nodded.
It was not uncommon for either De’rata or Quilaret to have started work very early, so as Acklaran checked in with the receptionist, he wasn’t surprised to receive a message saying they wanted a meeting. “We have not set foot in the Conclave proper, and already my time is in demand.” He sighed.
“You did decide to become a member of the ruling Council.” Remarked Seluban wryly.
“And I’ve been managing for the past few weeks without your dry ‘humour’.” Acklaran said in mock warning.
“And now you are relieved to have my humour to make your days more enjoyable.”
“Ha!” Acklaran was about to offer up a greater retort when the lift arrived.
They descended into the heart of Chon’ith government, and made their way around the looping corridor to Acklaran’s office.
“I imagine you will be doubly relieved when I get settled in my own office.” Said Seluban.
“As it next to mine, I’m not sure what relief will be offered.”
“I suspect it will challenging for us both, considering there is already a small queue outside your door.” Seluban gestured to the waiting De’rata and Quilaret. “Do women often wait for you?”
“Makers, give me strength!” Acklaran cursed.
Their congenial exchange came to an abrupt end at the expressions upon the faces of the researchers. “This is urgent.” De’rata said plainly, nodding stiffly at Seluban. Quilaret maintained what seemed to be her standard, unsettled look.
“Let’s head inside.” Acklaran said.
After some gentle metaphorical nudging from De’rata, Quilaret began to explain what she’d discovered. She stammered through describing the unusual timing of the energy ripple, how the imbalance was incredibly small, and how she was lucky to have noticed it at all (which drew a mock laugh from De’rata). When Quilaret had finished, Acklaran looked first at De’rata, then at Seluban, before returning his eyes to Quilaret.
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention. As I’m sure you appreciate, this remains a strict secret. Do not carry out any more work on the mission until we give you the go-ahead, and please tell me the moment your investigation turns up anything. If you would excuse us, I need to discuss this matter further with De’rata and Seluban.”
“I… Yes… Of course Councillor. Thank you Councillor. I will leave now.” Quilaret stumbled over her words, bowing respectfully and departing the office.
“If she is the future of Chon’ith thinking, we can be confident in that future.” Remarked Seluban. “I wouldn’t have noticed the details she appears to pick up upon, much less consider studying them in detail. You must be very proud of her De’rata, she is a testament to your running of the Science Conclave.”
“I am proud of all my people, but yes, Quilaret has quite the perspicacious mind.” De’rata replied formally. “I feel I should offer apologies. Your first day back to work has offered up a potentially challenging situation.”
“It is hardly anyone’s fault, in fact it may rescue me from the mundane aspects of my duties!” Seluban replied with a chuckle.
“It is in the pursuit of our regular duties that we make progress.” Came De’rata’s slightly cold response.
“… Of course, I meant no disrespect to hard work and endeavour…”
De’rata waved a hand. “I know you didn’t. Forgive me, but this matter has brought a certain stress to my thinking. I suspect I know what Quilaret will find, and when she finds it, we will be faced with a serious problem.”
Seluban nodded. “You believe the humans are monitoring our systems.”
“I cannot fathom any other reasonable answer. It is possible that those opposed to our post-Awakening way of doing things are behind this, but it would go against how they interpret the Words. Nor do I believe they would have the technical ability.”
Acklaran spoke up. “Espionage has traditionally been anathema to our people. De’rata is right, this has to be the work of humans.”
“Once we uncover how they have hacked into our systems, we can defeat their methods.” Said De’rata confidently.
“I hope so.” Seluban replied. “We will never defeat their fleets if we cannot close the technology gap.”
“We will know more soon.” De’rata glanced at the desk, then back to the men. “But a thought occurs to me – can we use this somehow?”
Acklaran and Seluban both looked at her. “In what way?” Asked Acklaran.
“Right now the humans believe they can act without worry. They consider us unable to even consider the possibility we would be spied upon. They will not suspect we know what they are doing. Confronting them will render them more cautious, when their complacency could be a useful ally.”
“A good point.” Admitted Seluban. “We can feed them false information.”
“An intriguing concept, from a devious mind.” Acklaran grinned. “I am inclined to proceed with your idea De’rata.”
“We will want to be careful. Not only might the humans become more cautious if they learn we know of their actions, they might believe we would react with anger, and renew the war. They could convince them to carry out a pre-emptive strike.” Seluban mused.
“This is giving me a headache.” Said Acklaran. “Lots of double-speak and duplicity is… confusing.”
“I concur.” Seluban let out a breath. This is… unusual territory.”
“That may be, but until we know how they are spying upon us, we can do nothing, except to use paper copies of orders. That is how we will have to transit orders to the fleet.” De’rata said.
“We can’t do that once they leave the home system.” Seluban pointed out.
“Then we’ll just have to make sure the orders are thorough.” Countered De’rata. “That of course, will be your responsibility.”
“Indeed.” Replied Seluban.
“If there is nothing more to discuss on this subject for the immediate moment, I will return to helping Quilaret. I will let you know the moment we have something.”
“Very well.” Said Acklaran.
De’rata rose, and gave Seluban a curious look before departing.
“I cannot fathom why, but I sense hostility from her.” Said Seluban after a moment.
“Hmm, perhaps. You did push her out of her comfort zone, and come to lead the Resistance down a very different path to the one she had no doubt imagined. Or she simply doesn’t like you, which is understandable.”
“And yet, for some strange reason, she is tolerant of you.” Seluban fired back.
“I am charming and handsome. It is why you pushed for me to lead the Council, if I recall.”
“I will not comment on that.” Seluban said with a grin, before his expression changed again. “I do not know how to deal with this in a manner that doesn’t lead to war before we are ready. Using their techniques against them… have we learned enough to do such a thing?”
Acklaran put a hand to his face, thinking. “The cultural exchange… it is a wealth of information on human history, including the history of their wars. I strongly suspect they have not given us material they believe we could use, but there will be something in that library we can exploit.”
It was Seluban’s turn to do some thinking. “Details of spy missions, methods, techniques, and so forth?”
“With luck, yes.”
“Much will depend on exactly what we are dealing with. How deeply have the humans penetrated our security?” Seluban wondered out loud.
“That is my greatest worry right now.”
Reyes allowed himself a small sigh of relief as his private report attached itself to one of Jansen’s diplomatic pouches. It was a strange move to restart the war when humans could easily withdraw their support from the Cadj campaign, or simply send a large force to pummel Oanareth. In fact, Reyes wasn’t convinced the deployment was to do with restarting the war, and he’d mentioned that in his report. There was something he knew he was missing, he just couldn’t work it out. One thing he was sure on was the need to find out what the Chon’ith were really up to.
As he smiled politely at Jansen, who was typing up a message on his own computer, Reyes took confidence from knowing his taps into Chon’ith communications were intact, and so subtle they couldn’t be found. It was a measure of freedom that was actually unsettling for a spy. Still, he had faith that he wouldn’t get complacent. There was too much riding on his mission.