I knocked on the door of Crane Liu Fe’s cabin, pulling my dress tunic straight and brushing out a few stubborn wrinkles. Until I’d received the summons to his quarters I’d not seen the Imperial Agent during the preparations to board or initial part of our journey on board the ISN corvette.
“Come,” came the curt command. I slid the door open and stepped into the room, bracing up to attention.
“Captain Tao Ji reporting sir.” Inside, the cabin was small and utilitarian, as all such spaces are on Navy vessels. Like the rest of the Imperial Service corvette, however, it was distinctly better outfitted and designed than its StateEmpire equivalents. A few personal items decorated the small room. Pride of place on the bulkhead, and visible immediately on entry, was Liu Fe’s Imperial Seal authorising him as an agent of the Emperor. Next to it was a hauntingly beautiful ink painting of a misty mountain range, the calligraphy set on the desk indicating it had been done by the agent himself. The last of the personal effects was a small intricately carved camphorwood box on the desk.
Crane rank Imperial Agent Liu Fe sat in an ornate lacquered wood chair wearing a long jade green silk robe. Delicate golden cranes embroidered on the robe took flight over what I presumed to be his family crest and the Imperial Seal. He studied me over steepled fingers with immaculately manicured nails, his dark brown eyes piercing out from a lean and severe face.
His silent inspection continued for several long seconds. Not a single muscle twitched to disturb his perfectly coiffed braided hair or the smooth mask of his face. I felt a trickle of cold sweat bead and trickle down the back of my stiff high-collared tunic. As the silence grew to unbearable proportions and I was about to risk asking a question Liu Fe gave a slight wave and bid me stand at ease.
“How much did the good Major Qiao Long tell you Captain?” Liu Fe asked, his intent eyes belying the casual tone of his voice.
“Just that my team had been requisitioned by yourself, sir, and that we would be operating under Special Operations Command on Paradiso,” I responded.
Liu Fe nodded slightly, his face remaining an impassive mask. He swiftly stood and swept to his personal holoprojector, startling me with the smooth and sudden motion. With a slight gesture he made an ugly rat-like face appear, the pampered face and pathetic moustache easily recognisable from our mission briefing two days before.
“Honoured Minister Dong Jianghon was a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Records. It was suspected that he was selling secrets about members of the Imperial Service to foreign nations so I was tasked with leading a team to observe and capture him. Somehow, he was tipped off and made a break from it with the Hexa agent. My intercept mission was denied and instead my superior ordered the ship destroyed.”
Liu Fe turned to face me, the close confines of the cabin and his upright posture making him appear to loom over me despite only being a couple inches taller than my 5’10”.
“You may be wondering what this has to do with you,” the Imperial Agent guessed my train of thought disconcertingly, “However, the recovery mission your team conducted confirmed my worst suspicions and revealed something much graver. Tell me Captain, what is the Emperor to you?”
Despite being on edge around the Imperial Agent I was still caught off guard by the change in the conversation.
“The Emperor? I’m not sure what you are asking, Honoured Crane. He leads us towards a brighter, better future for mankind,” I responded slowly. Liu Fe gave a slight irritated wave to dismiss my comment.
“I do not need any of the Empire’s propaganda, I am immersed in more than enough of it Who do you fight for? The Emperor? The Party?” Liu Fe’s bright eyes bored intently in to mine as he waited for my answer. I took my time, aware that an incorrect response could land me, and most likely my team and family, in a world of trouble.
“I fight for Yu Jing, Honoured Crane. I fight for my parents and brothers and sister. But most of all, I fight for my team-mates. I trust in the Emperor and Party to guide me to where I can do that best,” I responded as diplomatically as I could.
I couldn’t see anything in Liu Fe’s impenetrable expression to indicate how my answer had been received as his darting eyes scrutinised me. With a slight grunt he returned to his seat, apparently having found what he was searching for.
“What I am about to tell you can not leave your cabin. Not if you value your life. Nor if, as you mentioned, you value your family, team, and Yu Jing itself,” Liu Fe began, his usual veneer of implacable calm cracked by furrows of worry and frustration. I swallowed and nodded, my relief at having passed his test dissolving at his ominous opener.
“Honoured Dong Jianghon was not a traitor.”
Liu Fe let the statement sink in before continuing. “During my investigation I discovered many worrying inconsistencies and instances when I was ordered to ignore or avoid avenues of enquiry. My superiors seemed bizarrely uninterested in knowing what information Dong Jianghon stole, but rather were obsessed with whom he had been in communication with. Once that had been established they pushed for his immediate elimination rather than his capture and interrogation.”
I’d heard of the infamous internal politics of the Imperial Service and was starting to see where this was heading. Somehow I, and my team, had ended up caught in the middle of some high level scheming. I frantically started thinking of ways to get us of this mess as Liu Fe continued.
“The mission to retrieve Dong Jianghon’s Cube? My official orders were to ensure complete Cube termination, ostensibly so that the data couldn’t fall into enemy hands. That is what I reported to my superiors and my team. Unsure of who I could trust in my own team, I secretly downloaded a copy of the Cube using your Major’s facilities before destroying it.
“On it I discovered what poor Dong Jianghon had discovered: a conspiracy spanning the upper-echelons of the Imperial Service with intent to orchestrate the deaths of the entire StateEmpire Army High Command at Paradiso, and the assassination of Chairman Lao Fu.”
I snapped out of my escape planning at Liu Fe’s words. A conspiracy to kill the High Command and assassinate the Chairman?! Liu Fe was staring at me intently as I tried to process the words.
“But… why would the Imperial Service want to do that?” I asked.
Liu Fe sighed and shook his head in frustration, “I don’t know. I have my suspicions though; odd movements of ISS units and pressure from the Imperial Magistracy on certain issues start to make sense in light of this. I believe conspirators in the Imperial Service will use the destruction of High Command and death of the Chairman as the catalyst for the Imperial Service to seize control of the StateEmpire Army in the name of Yu Jing’s security.”
I let the speculation turn over in my head, imagining how easy and how logical it would be for the Imperial Service to take command if the Party was thrown into such chaos.
“I don’t know how far the conspiracy stretches within the Imperial Service or wider Army so, until I do, the only people I can trust are myself and your team. I have no firm evidence, especially without Dong Jianghon’s Cube. At this point we have only a handful of leads. Most of the data I retrieved referred to a Project ENLIGHTENMENT on Satori and Paradiso. We must stop this plot. Can I rely on you?”
I took a moment to summarise the situation I’d found myself in. We were the only two who knew of a plot to kill the entire leadership of the Yu Jing StateEmpire Army and Party Chairman in order to allow the Imperial Service to seize power. A plot that an unknown number of high-ranking Imperial Agents were involved in and willing to kill to keep silent. If we were to stop the plot we would have to do it completely on our own and covertly, never knowing who we could trust or who was watching.
Liu Fe cleared his throat and looked at me with a guarded expression. “There is something I forgot to mention. The ex-Invincible Army officer Shao Fang, your old superior I believe, has been identified operating on Paradiso. His name has recurred in relation to Project ENLIGHTENMENT as well.”
I braced to attention and saluted. “I’m with you Honoured Crane.”
Liu Fe’s mouth twitched up in the rumour of a relieved smile, tension melting from the lines of his body. I saw him discreetly take his hand away from a delicate, but deadly looking, knife on his desk. He stood and acknowledged my salute before reaching out to clasp my hand.
“The Emperor and the Party are the Twin Dragons that protect the people of Yu Jing. We will not let this disaster occur.”