Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The woman on screen is stern of countenance, yet there’s mischief glinting in her eyes. It makes her even more beautiful.
“Who is she?”
“Melpomene Drenaly.”
“Why I am seeing the face of an inhabitant of the planet,” he pauses to query his headware, “Bresingamen?”
“Johan Marks.”
“This is her?”
The black-suited man all refer to as ‘Alef’ gazes about the room. A room so secure even the air entering it has been vetted down to a molecular level.
“So, we’ve been watching her in the hope he drops by. I presume something has gone wrong?”
Heads nod.
Alef barks: “I’d rather be informed that mournfully agreed with! My telepathy is negligible, as is my patience.”
At the far end of the table, a figure in dockworker’s overalls raises a hand.
“Twelve years ago, Johan Marks decided the ‘blackened planet’ approach to resistance was unacceptable to anyone with a conscience. He went rogue.
Various departments pursued him. The only successes were in destroying his remaining family through over-zealous actions. In a moment of clarity, Miss Drenaly was deemed off-limits as she was the only bait remaining. After losing five operatives in the next few months, senior Ranks were convinced it was only a matter of time before Johan lost the battle to rescue his girlfriend.
Five years after that, losses had risen to eighty-five. Being assigned to ‘snare guard’ on Miss Drenaly was considered a death sentence. The entire organisation purged itself of unwanted and inefficient elements. Amongst the upper Ranks, it was tacitly accepted that some losses would be good agents falling foul of vindictive politics.
In the last six years, a further thirty-four operatives have been lost. In real terms, no progress has been made toward apprehending Mister Marks since the initial pursuit.”
Alef steeples his fingers: “Commendable brevity and honesty in a report that should have ended the careers of every Rank 18 and better in this room. Including me. But, instead, we are gathered. Does anyone want to venture a guess as to the reasons for our continuance?”
A woman in a grey robe raises a finger. Alef nods.
“Something dire has occurred. Dire enough that our services are more essential than our punishment.”
Alef smiles. Several attendees pale.
“Correct. Skipping the embarrassing silence that would occur if I asked for someone to postulate, let me answer directly: Earth no longer has an Outer Territories. As of seventeen hundred hours yesterday, they declared themselves the sovereign state of ‘Newbelt’, then promptly allied with the Farbelt nations. They were warmly welcomed. Mutual defence treaties were in place before midnight.”
Looks of confusion are exchanged.
Alef sighs: “He only killed the incompetents. The rest, he recruited. We’ve been outmanoeuvred because operatives we trained engineered it. As of this morning, he’s Johan Marks, Head of Covert Operations, Newbelt. And, I have to say, he’s got a formidable and loyal team under his command.”
From somewhere on the right, a quiet voice rises: “We should terminate the Drenaly woman immediately.”
The overalled figure doesn’t even raise a hand: “I don’t think we want to provoke him any further. Besides, I’d bet she went last night.”
Alef smiles: “Only a bet, Ethan?”
There’s a laughing reply: “Yes. Johan always keeps the details of covert actions to himself. Being over here, I’m an unacceptable risk.”
Alef raises his voice over the outbreak of shouting: “Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce Newbelt Ambassador Ethan Marks.”
Ethan raises an eyebrow in mute query.
Alef relents: “Yes, she’s gone.”
Ethan grins: “New game?”
Alef nods.