Chapter 13
Back to the Cradle

Location: Yufang Starport, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Fri 03 May 121
Time: UST 0616

Sitting on the cot, one of the few fixtures in his bare two-by-three cell, Matt stared at a blank wall. He was in the detention area of Yufang Starport. At first, they were just going to hold him for questioning in relation to the shooting death of one of their security officers, maybe slap him with a fine for disturbing the peace, but then they pulled up his record. Not the record of Major Matthias Harold, mind you. No, the dummy file created for the mission, the record of Martin Ramus, alias George Sanders, a crooked accountant wanted for embezzlement, fraud and acts of piracy, even though the latter was simply accessory charges. That guaranteed a nice long stay until the Feds arrived to claim him.
He had been thrown in with the general population in one of the big dozen-man holding cells, but that did not last long. A few of his cellmates decided to get frisky early on. While Matt did not consider himself much of a fighter, he still had training in combatives and it served him better than he would have ever imagined. He was thrown into solitary after that, to prevent further disruption.
Matt absently recalled stories of prisons in the more developed parts of the world back before the Union was founded. Apparently criminals were free to enjoy such luxuries as books to read, television in their cells and even computer access. Whatever activists for prisoner privileges existed back then, they held no sway now. If Matt wanted to pass the time, he had to rely on his own resourcefulness. He did PT at times to stay active, but he could only do so much in such tight quarters. He slept most of the rest of the time, just because there was nothing else to do, but he was constantly woken up by guards banging on his door to harass him.
Speaking of harassment, the door opened to reveal the worst of the guards--Tomlin according to his nametag--carrying a tray of what could only generously be described as food. This would only be the third time they had crossed paths, but prior experience taught Matt all he needed to know.
"I got your slop, pig," Tomlin said contemptuously.
Tomlin then dropped the tray on the floor. Only a fool would believe it was accidental.
"Oops," he said, not even looking down. "Guess you'll have to eat off the floor."
Matt knew it was a wasted effort, but he could not help asking, "Where's Nyx?"
He had asked the same question at almost every opportunity, ever since he regained consciousness from that disruptor blast. He knew better than to use Lydia's callsign, but it kept slipping out, each and every time. It was the name that had the most significance to him and it was all that would come out. He was more than just worried; he was deathly afraid, and rational thought would leave him the moment the question popped in his head, time and time again.
Just as Matt expected, Tomlin's answer was far from helpful. "You keep on asking that question," he said. "You must be talking about that bitch they brought in with you. Far as you know, she's dead, a corpse, shot out the airlock to save on freezer space."
Matt went back to staring at the wall. He wished he had kept his mouth shut. It only made things worse for him, letting them see how much he was worried about Lydia. It gave the guards something to use against him. He knew better, but it was the same thing over and over.
Tomlin was not one to leave things be, nor did he take kindly to being ignored. Unlike the previous two occasions, they were all alone this time. No one to interfere should the guard get out of hand.
Tomlin took a couple steps and leaned forward, getting up into Matt's face like a drill instructor. "You think you're tough?" he asked. "You must think you're tough if you think you can ignore me. You broke ol' Chachi's nose the other day, but that shit don't impress me none."
Matt kept on looking straight ahead. Rising to the bait would only make matters worse. Just let him rant and it will be over eventually.
Tomlin stood up straight and crossed his arms, taking up an imperious posture. "You make me sick, you traitor fuck. We're fighting a war here and you and your kind bleed your own damn people like some fuckin' parasite. You're worse than the Frankies."
'Franky' was another name for the Sheolites. It came from Frankenstein, or, more accurately, Frankenstein's monster. It was not a widely used term. Some civilians were under the impression that it was used by the military, particularly the elite, and had become an easy way to spot poseurs pretending they had military credentials.
That summed up Tomlin rather succinctly. A poseur, a wannabe. Maybe he washed out during training, got turned down during the screening process or never even had the courage to go to the recruiting office. He wore his hair in the high and tight style favored by the Army and the Corps and walked with the swagger of someone who had saved a whole colony single-handedly.
"You know," Tomlin continued, "my paw-paw was in the Raiders during the Revolt. You know how they dealt with those Moonie traitors? Lined 'em up against the wall and pop-pop-pop. I'd like to do that right now."
So that was where he got it from. In all likelihood, Tomlin's grandfather was never a Raider. It definitely did not seem too likely that his grandfather was in the service nearly a hundred years ago. In the end, it did not matter much one way or the other. It did not change what Tomlin was, a grown man playing make-believe. Not that Matt had any intention of calling him on it.
Even though he was not taking any overt action to provoke him, Matt's silence was more than enough to set off Tomlin. He grabbed Matt by the shirt and held him up.
"I'm talkin' to you, chickenshit!" Tomlin snapped. "Ain't you got nothin' to say?"
Matt looked to the side, refusing to meet Tomlin's eyes. This further incensed the guard. He gave Matt a swift punch to the face, not very strong but enough to knock off his glasses.
"How 'bout now!?" Tomlin shouted.
Matt did not move. This only made Tomlin angrier. Grabbing Matt with both hands, Tomlin lifted him up onto his feet. Matt was tempted to go limp and make things difficult, but at the last second, he opted to remain standing. Tomlin gave him a shove, the sort people use when they pick a fight.
"Come on, tough guy!" Tomlin challenged. "Try your luck! It's just you an' me here, boy!"
Tomlin pushed Matt again. For a brief moment, Matt toyed with the idea of fighting back. It was just one man. If he could fend of three, one would be no problem, right? He quickly disabused himself of the notion. Even if he did manage to beat Tomlin, then what? He had no idea where Lydia was and even if he could find and extract her, what then? Hijack a ship and go on the lam until the powers that be saw fit to restore their original files?
No, it would never work. It would not help him any and it would not help Lydia either. It was better to take whatever punishment Tomlin meant to dish out. It would end eventually.
Tomlin pushed Matt yet again. Each time, Matt had been giving a little ground, but now there was nowhere to go. Tomlin used his forearm to pin Matt to the wall. Once again, he got up in Matt's face, but Matt continued to avoid eye contact.
"Dammit!" Tomlin howled. "Don't you fuckin' ignore me!"
Matt did not do anything. He would only make things worse. Tomlin had worked himself up to a frenzy and was going off the handle. He proceeded to slug away at Matt's face. They were quick jabs, not particularly strong, but the idea was to repeat it over and over again.
Matt let his mind drift. He detached himself from the pain, from the noise of Tomlin's shouting. He was no longer in the cell, no longer in Yufang. He was a hundred gims away. He was so far away that he barely noticed one mysterious figure take hold of Tomlin and slam him into the other wall while another swept in to keep Matt on his feet, to keep him from falling over.
Matt came back slowly. The mysterious figures were two men in suits. The one holding Tomlin let him go. Reflexively, Tomlin turned around and swung at him, but the man in the suit intercepted his fist with one hand, grabbed his elbow with the other and twisted his arm to force him to the floor. Being subdued so quickly and easily left Tomlin stunned, giving the man in the suit ample time to reach into his jacket and pull out a badge.
"Special Agent Carranza, NIS," he said.
The man holding Matt flashed a badge of his own and added, "Special Agent Atienza of the same."
NIS. The Naval Investigative Service. Much like the Air Force's own OSI or the Army CID, it was one of the Ministry of Defense's elite law enforcement agencies. The NIS in particular was known for its sweeping jurisdiction in both the civilian and military spheres. And now two agents were here at Yufang. Matt was not entirely sure whether that was good for him or not.
Carranza nodded to his partner, who promptly cuffed Matt, and looked back to Tomlin to say, "We'll be taking Mr. Ramus."
Tomlin struggled to get back on his feet, stammering, "But you, you can't just--"
Carranza swiftly interrupted him. Speaking in the unemphatic yet threatening monotone that was practically a caricature of all G-men, he said, "Mr. Tomlin, it is a serious offense to interfere with MoD personnel in a time of war. You wouldn't want me to get the wrong idea, now would you?"
All Tomlin's swagger melted away in the face of the real deal, reducing him to a babbling idiot. "Well, I, uh... No, I mean--"
"Good," Carranza said, cutting him off again. "Now, why don't you pick up Mr. Ramus' glasses for him?"
Confused but too afraid to disobey, Tomlin squatted down and picked Matt's glasses up off the floor. Holding up the glasses, Tomlin looked back to Carranza, as if he did not know what to do.
"Put them back on his face," Carranza said.
Awkwardly, Tomlin restored the glasses to their place on Matt's nose. Matt could not help noticing that Tomlin's hands were shaking a bit as he did it. There was something a little satisfying in the whole deal, but Matt did not allow himself any amusement, not yet. For all he knew, he could be going from the frying pan into the fire.
Whatever his intentions, Carranza seemed to be mildly pleased at the performance. "There we go. Your cooperation is appreciated."
He gave another nod to Atienza. Atienza took hold of Matt's arm and guided him out of the cell. Matt followed along willingly. The two agents had already demonstrated the strength to have things go their way. Best to comply while they saw fit to use the velvet glove. Also, there was always the possibility that they were in on the truth. No need to make trouble for possible allies.
Tomlin made one last effort to protest, half-hearted and half-witted though it was. "But the, the Feds are--"
True to form, Carranza did not allow the guard to waste any of their time. "Mr. Ramus is the Navy's concern," he said curtly. "That's all you need to know. Now, why don't you show us out?"
All Tomlin could do was mumble, "Uh, sure..."
There was no outprocessing, no red tape. With the two agents on either side of him, Matt simply walked out the door. He kept pace with the agents while they walked through the starport's corridors, going neither fast nor slow.
Matt had accepted the possibility that he was still living under his false identity when Agent Atienza leaned in and whispered, "Are you okay, Major?"
Matt did not reply at first. Indeed, with the events of the past three weeks, the title of 'Major' had become alien to him. Living as someone else had affected him more than he realized.
"Major Harold," Carranza said, keeping his voice low, "we're NIS agents attached to the Ticonderoga. We've come to bring you back in."
After a wave of relief passed over him, Matt asked the first question that popped into his head. "What about Nyx? Where is she?"
"Commander Han has been detained in the infirmary the whole time. Two of our colleagues are fetching her now. It's all over now, Major."
Was it really over? On the one hand, Matt would be thankful to go back to his real life, but then his thoughts turned back to Commander Joachim and the rest of the crew of the Kanai. He had failed them, failed the mission. Short of abandoning Lydia, which he could never do, nothing could change the way things turned out. That did not stop him from feeling guilty.
While Matt was absorbed in his thoughts, the two agents led him to an unmarked Sparrow. As soon as they got on board, Agent Atienza removed Matt's cuffs and invited him to take a seat.
Matt stared at the rows of empty seats for a while before turning to Agent Carranza and asking, "Where's Nyx?"
"For security reasons, you two are being transported separately," Carranza explained. "Just relax and enjoy the ride home. While we're at it, let's have the flight nurse check out that face of yours."
Tomlin had not done any serious damage. Only some light contusions, according to the flight nurse. She gave Matt an ice pack to keep his face from swelling and told him to be thankful it was not anything worse. Matt was thankful enough, but he would be more thankful to have some reassurance that Lydia was okay.
No information was forthcoming. The two agents sat up near the front of the shuttle, away from Matt. Maybe they were just trying to give him some space and maybe they were trying to avoid further questions. Matt was not going to go up to them, so all that was left was to wait.
Matt did not keep track of the time, but it took more than six hours for the Sparrow to meet up with the Ticonderoga. Once they touched down in the hangar, the two agents escorted him off the shuttle. Matt recognized the surroundings as Hangar Two. He felt particularly heavy and sluggish. After so long, the return to full gravity was not easy.
"Well, here we are," Agent Carranza said. "Home sweet home. You'll find all your personal effects in your quarters. Get cleaned up and rest a bit. You'll report to Commander Sharif for debriefing at fifteen hundred."
"Will Nyx be there?" Matt asked.
Carranza shrugged. "I couldn't say, Major. If she's up for it, she should be there for the briefing, too."
This did little to comfort Matt. "What do you mean 'if she's up for it'?" he asked, a little more forcibly than before. "What's happened?"
Carranza shook his head. "I honestly don't know. For now, just mind your orders. That's about all you can do right now. If you'll excuse me..."
Carranza motioned to Atienza and the two agents walked off. Matt stood there for a few moments. There really was nothing he could do. He only hoped he would see Lydia safe and sound when he met Commander Sharif.

* * *

Upon returning to his quarters, the first thing Matt did was take a shower. It was certainly a blessing to have hot water again. He then slept for about an hour before getting around for his appointment. It certainly felt good to be back in uniform. He was Matthias Harold again. It was as if the past three weeks were nothing but a bad dream. If the left side of his face was not all black and blue, he might just have been able to forget the whole thing.
Commander Sharif was the Chief Intelligence Officer of the Ticonderoga, second only to the Admiral's N-2 staff in the battle group. He was apparently aware of Commander Joachim's mission and if not, the meeting would be nothing more than a warning to keep the details of his recent activities secret. Honestly, if Matt did not know how to withhold classified information after nine years of service, he might as well resign his commission and save everyone a lot of trouble.
He quickly checked himself. He was on edge because he had not heard from Lydia. Before entering Commander Sharif's office, he put himself back in sorts. After all, she might be waiting on the other side of the door.
When the door did open, Matt was disappointed to see no one else besides the Commander sitting at his desk. Perhaps Lydia was only late. It would not be the first time. Matt approached Commander Sharif's desk and saluted.
"Major Harold, reporting as ordered, sir."
Commander Sharif returned the salute. "At ease," he said. "Don't you know that Naval personnel don't salute indoors unless they're under arms?"
"I was not aware of that, sir," Matt replied. Actually, he had simply forgotten. The differences in customs and courtesies among the branches of services were the last thing on his mind at the moment. "If you don't mind my asking, sir, where is Nyx, I mean, Commander Han?"
The Commander paused a moment before saying, "She's... indisposed at the moment."
That was hardly the answer Matt was looking for, so he pressed the issue. "What happened? Is she alright?"
Matt made no effort to hide his concern, which had been growing progressively ever since Lydia went out of control. The Commander did not seem entirely unsympathetic, but he was not willing to be particularly helpful either, it seemed.
"She's in one piece if that's what you want to know," Commander Sharif said. Quickly changing the subject, he added, "I'd appreciate it if we could get back to the task at hand. Tell me everything, from the moment you left the Ticonderoga. This is, after all, one hell of a cock-up and we need to make a damage assessment."
If nothing else, getting this meeting over with would give Matt the opportunity to check up on Lydia through other channels. He told the story with the best balance of detail and brevity he could manage. The only detail he deliberately omitted was the nature of the conversation with Jassa, the one that set Lydia off. He would leave it to Lydia to reveal that if she chose to. He was risking a reprimand in doing so, but if he told the Commander what was revealed, whether it was really true or not, he would be betraying a friend. As obedient to the service as he was, he still had his limits.
In any case, once Matt was finished, Commander Sharif seemed to be none the wiser. It was just as well. If the Commander got the idea Matt was holding something back and Matt refused to answer, he could easily be thrown into the brig. He had had his fill of prison.
Apparently suspecting nothing, Commander Sharif simply nodded and said, "Thank you, Major. I expect a full written report by zero-eight tomorrow morning. Don't forget to submit it through secure channels. That means you use the terminal in your office, not your PersCom. You have no idea how many asses I have to chew because of that. Once you've completed the report, you will immediately resume your duties as commander of the Four-Two-One. Are we clear on all that?"
"What about Nyx?" Matt asked.
Commander Sharif frowned at not getting the 'Yes, sir' he was expecting. "I'm not at liberty to divulge any information about Commander Han's status," he said. "I would take it up with General Pfeiffer if I were you."
Remembering that he was not supposed to salute, Matt went to the position of attention. "By your leave, sir."
Commander Sharif nodded. "Get moving. And don't forget about that report. Zero-eight sharp."
Matt did an about face and walked out of the office. He was no closer to finding out anything about Lydia, but he would not stop until he knew for sure. All the evasion if not outright secrecy bothered him. It was just like it was back then, only now Lydia was his friend and he was not going to stand for it. There would be accountability if he had to go all the way to the Chairwoman to get it.