Chapter 15
An Offer You Can't Refuse

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Sun 05 May 121
Time: UST 1134

The chaplain had just finished giving the benediction and his assistant went up to the pulpit to make the weekly announcements. Matt was not paying attention, though. He had spent the entire service praying for Lydia. He was so wrapped up in it that he did not even notice when the other congregants were rising or sitting, singing hymns or doing responsive readings. The sermon, readings and prayers barely registered as background noise.
Although the concept had no doctrinal soundness, Matt had always felt that prayers had greater efficacy within the walls of a church. The multifaith chapel on board came close enough to fit the bill. He prayed for healing. He prayed to see her again. He prayed the same lines over and over again, more like chanting a mantra than normal prayer. The words were blending together, the concepts behind them blurred. All that was left was raw emotion, a desperate, plaintive cry silently screamed into the void.
Matt opened his eyes when he felt a firm hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Chaplain Edwards. Chaplain Edwards was the Command Chaplain of the Ticonderoga. Unlike most chaplains, who either signed up right out of seminary or left their civilian ministries to join the service, Chaplain Edwards was originally an Army hovership pilot who came back into the service via the Navy Chaplain Corps once he found his current vocation. A common sight in the hangars, he got along particularly well with pilots and aircrews, more so than many of the chaplains actually assigned to the various aviation elements.
"Sorry to disturb you, Major," the Chaplain said, "but I wanted to say hi before I left."
"Oh, uh, hi, Chaplain," Matt muttered.
Inwardly, Matt was relieved by the intervention. Just repeating the same lines over and over again would not make God any more inclined to act a certain way. It was not helping Lydia any.
"I haven't seen you for the past few Sundays," Chaplain Edwards continued. "I was beginning to get worried."
"I was on TDY," Matt said, somewhat awkwardly. It was true, after a fashion, but even partial dishonesty, especially to a minister, rubbed him the wrong way.
Chaplain Edwards raised an eyebrow. "Right before the big exercise? That's unusual."
"Orders are orders," Matt replied mechanically, avoiding eye contact.
"Right," Chaplain Edwards said. His tone indicated that he saw through Matt's transparent attempt to hide the truth, but he did not push the issue. Instead, he changed the subject and said, "I couldn't help notice that you weren't participating with the rest of the congregation. Seems like you've got some heavy stuff on your mind." He paused, giving Matt some time to think about what he had just said. "Anything you'd like to talk about? It is what I'm here for, after all."
Matt smiled weakly. "Thank you, Chaplain, but... not now." He looked away. "It's complicated."
The Chaplain simply nodded. "Most problems are until you have someone else put them in perspective for you. I'm not going to force you. My door is always open, so whenever you're ready. Now, you might want to get moving along. The Pentecostals start their service in about ten minutes and you're way too straight-laced to sit through one of their happy-clappy services." He gave Matt's shoulder a squeeze and began to walk off. "Take care, Major, and remember, the door is always open."
"Yes, sir."
Matt made his way out of the chapel. Once he was in the corridor, he switched off silent mode on his PersCom. The moment he did, it started ringing. Startled a bit, he almost forgot to answer.
"Major Harold spea--"
A woman's voice cut him off. "Major Harold? This is Doctor Kim from Sickbay. Your request to see Commander Han has been approved. Please report to Sickbay at once."
Doctor Kim hung up before Matt could say anything. She said 'report at once' and that was precisely what he did. Each deck had an aid station to handle everyday sick calls and minor operations. The main sickbay was where more intensive treatment and the in-depth diagnostics were performed. Conveniently, it was located on Deck 3, right across from the chapel.
When Matt walked into Sickbay, he saw Doctor Kim standing there waiting for him. She was a small Korean woman in her late thirties with her hair tied back in a low ponytail. The lab coats worn by the doctors gave no indication of rank, largely because the Medical Corps did not want the restrictions of military courtesy getting in the way of doctor-patient relations. As long as she had that coat on, Matt was able to relax his usually strict adherence to protocol.
Doctor Kim nodded to him. "Hello, Major Harold," she said. She started to walk off, prompting Matt to follow. "We have Commander Han isolated in Room Alpha-7," she continued, apparently having expected him to follow all along. "You get ten minutes."
"Just ten minutes?"
"Her condition is rather delicate. We are hoping she will respond favorably to a familiar face, but we would rather not push our luck."
The Sickbay was divided into four wings. Alpha Wing was dedicated to intensive care and VIP patients. Room Alpha-7 was one of the smaller one-man rooms, spartan as one would expect a hospital room on board a military spacecraft. There was not much in there besides the bed and some diagnostic equipment. A wave of mixed feelings washed over Matt when he saw Lydia for the first time since they were separated at Yufang. On the one hand, she seemed more or less okay physically. Matt was no doctor, but he had some idea of what normal vitals looked like and that was what the numbers on the diagnostics seemed to indicate. On the other hand, it was disturbing to see all the wires and tubes connected to her. Worse was the way she just laid there motionless, staring at the ceiling glassy-eyed, as if she had gone comatose.
"Commander Han, you have a visitor," Doctor Kim said.
Lydia's eye, the one not covered by her hair, shifted its gaze to the two people at the door. The way it seemed to move independent of the rest of her body only added to the disconcerting vibe of the room. She craned her neck in Matt's direction, quite unnaturally, like a machine in need of tuning.
"Oh, hey, George," she said in a low, lazy voice. "No, wait... Not George... You got another name..." She closed her eye, apparently struggling to remember Matt's name. She gave up after a few seconds, sighing, "Ah, who gives a damn anyway?" She went quiet for a moment, then a mischievous grin crossed her lips. She started speaking in a groggy sing-song. "Georgie Porgie, puddin' an' pie, kissed the girls an' made 'em cry." She chuckled to herself before eyeing Matt again. Although her arms were so motionless that they could just as well have been cordwood, she began to curl her index finger, beckoning. "Hey there, Georgie, why doncha gimme a kiss?" She began to chuckle again, finally sighing and fixing her gaze back at the ceiling. Her voice lowered to little more than a whisper. "I could use a good cry. When was the last time I cried? Not since... not since..."
Lydia's voice trailed off. In that moment of eerie silence, Matt could feel the hairs rise on the back of his neck, like he knew what was about to happen. Lydia's eye rolled back in her head. She started moaning softly and writhing around. Doctor Kim, who had been checking the diagnostics up close, began to step away from her.
It was not a moment too soon, because Lydia suddenly broke into a fit, screaming at the top of her lungs and thrashing about wildly. She tried to fling herself out of bed, but restraints on her ankles held her in place. Still screaming, she attacked her restraints, clawing at her legs in blind effort to tear off the straps.
Wasting no time, Doctor Kim ran over to the wall and pounded on the intercom. "Nurse! Corpsmen! We've got a Code Gray in Alpha-7!"
Within seconds, a nurse and three Corpsmen burst into the room. Two of the Corpsmen swooped on Lydia to restrain her while the remaining Corpsman stood by the nurse, who was preparing a syringe. As big as the Corpsmen were, they were noticeably struggling to hold Lydia down. Matt could only stand there helplessly. He wanted to do something, but what? Before he could give the idea a second thought, he caught Doctor Kim shooting a nasty glare his way.
"Get him out of here!" she shouted.
The remaining Corpsman took ahold of Matt and shoved him out of the room. Matt was barely able to stay on his feet as he stumbled backwards into the corridor. The door quickly shut and locked. Absently, he wondered if it was to keep him out or to keep Lydia in.
With the door closed, the room was soundproof. Matt had no idea what was going on. All he could do was stand there, staring at the door. He had no idea how much time passed. Seconds, minutes, hours. However long it was, it felt like an eternity.
Finally, the little light on the door went from red to green. As it slid open, two of the Corpsmen walked out, followed by Doctor Kim. Matt caught a brief glimpse of Lydia lying quiet and still, now with full restraints, before the door closed. The nurse and the third Corpsman appeared to be tending to her and putting the room back in order, but he was only able to see for a precious few seconds.
"What happened?" he asked Doctor Kim. "Is Nyx alright?"
Sweeping back a shock of hair that came loose during the altercation, Doctor Kim replied, "She is stable." The doctor shook her head. "I was not expecting her to have another episode at that level of sedation."
"What's happened to her?"
Doctor Kim looked Matt square in the eyes and spoke in that cold, clinical tone doctors were known to employ from time to time. "You are not a family member, Major, nor are you part of her chain of command. I am afraid I cannot share any details with you."
Undeterred, Matt then asked, "When can I see her again?"
The doctor paused a moment before replying. "It is under consideration at the moment. I will contact you when, if you are given the green light again. We will do all we can for her, that much I can assure you. For now, focus on your duties. It will make things easier on you."
With that, Doctor Kim walked off. Matt knew he would not get anything more out of her, so he let it end there. Lydia was alive and more or less intact. He would have to take what comfort he could in that.
As he made his way out of Sickbay, a voice called out to him.
"Hey, Cav! Fancy seein' you here."
It was Sean. True to form, he seemed to be in a fairly cheery mood. He was in his PT uniform, which was unusual for this time of day.
"Capta--, I mean, Kodiak, what are you doing here?"
Sean patted his leg. "I've gotta make my regular trip to the mad docs," he said. He motioned for Matt to follow him out. "They insist on checkin' me out at least once a month. Apparently you can't rebuild a guy from the ground up an' just leave him alone. The clinic on our deck doesn't have the right voodoo-hoodoo for it, so I gotta come here an' let the swabbies gimme the works. They're all paranoid that the hours I'm puttin' in for the exercise is, ahem, 'putting undue stress on your delicate physical condition'. Ol' Bun a' Steel's gauntlet ain't nuthin' but a thang. Shit, back in the day, I was pullin' hunnerd-hour weeks like it was nothin'. God, that makes me sound old... Oh, hey, what're you doin' here anyway?"
"I was checking up on Nyx," Matt replied. "She's been in here ever since we, ah, since we got back."
Sean moved in a little closer and lowered his voice. "Listen, Cav, I know the story is that you went ta Ramon ta chat it up with the ABCs about the new wonderbird." He pointed to Matt's cheek, which had not yet healed all the way. "You don't get your face jacked up like that doing a consultation."
"Kodiak, I--"
Sean cut Matt off before he could come up with some weak excuse. "I know. Hush-hush, need ta know an' all that other bullshit. Listen, man, our job is dangerous enough as it is. You don't need ta go lookin' for trouble."
Matt did not say anything. He did not really need to, as Sean seemed satisfied that he had gotten his point across.
"I just wanted ta get that out," he said. "You're still that skittish lil' butter bar ta me, man. I gots ta look out for ya."
Matt smiled. "Thanks, Kodiak, but I'm fine. It's over now." He glanced back at Sickbay. "I'm just worried about Nyx..."
"Perhaps I can help with that, sir," a voice said.
Matt and Sean turned to see an Air Force officer standing across the hall from them. He was a slight man, thin but not quite to a sickly degree. He wore dark visor-like sunglasses, resembling the kind old people tend to wear over their normal glasses. It was an apparent violation of uniform regulations, but Matt had seen the officer's face before. There was some sort of explanation for it, a special permit on medical grounds or something like that.
"Who the fuck are you?" Sean demanded.
"Don't you recognize me, sir?" the officer asked.
Sean thought on it a moment and said, "Ah, that's right. You're one a' our commo boys. Wallace, huh?"
That was right. Lieutenant Wallace, one of the squadron's communications officers. He had some sort of acute photosensitivity, but that was not enough to keep him from being pressed into service. As long as he wore those shades, there was no effect on his performance, even if he had to show his profile to superiors from time to time.
"If you don't mind, sir," Lieutenant Wallace said to Sean, "I'd like to have a word alone with the Major."
Sean gave him a suspicious look, but Matt raised a hand to keep him from doing anything.
"It's okay, Kodiak," Matt said. "I'll talk to you later. I still haven't gotten caught up on how the exercise is going, so I'd like to talk to you and the other flight leaders. Later this afternoon if it's not too much trouble."
Sean gave him a pitying look. "You really don't get command, Cav. You're supposed ta give orders, not make requests. Somebody's gonna walk all over your ass with that attitude." He flashed a broad grin. "Not while I'm around, a' course."
"The request of a superior officer carries all the weight of an order, sir," the Lieutenant noted.
Not quite angry but a touch annoyed, Sean asked the Lieutenant, "How long since you been outta the Academy, kid?"
"OTS, actually, sir," Lieutenant Wallace corrected. "And it's been three years now."
This seemed to impress Sean a little. "OTS, huh? Hey, same as me. Got your first silver already, too. That's some slick shit. You desk jockeys don't usually get promotion slots open by involuntary retirement like we do."
'Involuntary retirement' as in KIA or a WIA's subsequent discharge.
The Lieutenant simply shrugged. "I guess I was just lucky, sir."
That was apparently enough for Sean to bring the conversation to a close. He gave Matt a pat on the back and said, "Okay, I guess I'll let ya go, Cav. Hope your friend gets better. Later."
As Sean walked off, Matt asked Lieutenant Wallace, "Can I help you, Lieutenant?"
"You can call me Jeff, sir," the Lieutenant said, "or Wallace if you want to be all military about it. Shall we go somewhere a bit less crowded?"
"You want to go to my office?"
Lieutenant Wallace shook his head. "No, I have a different place in mind."
He motioned for Matt to follow him, leading him to a nearby men's latrine. Needless to say, Matt was more than a little suspicious of the Lieutenant's choice.
"Is there any reason you brought me here?" he asked.
"Surveillance is lighter in the latrines," Lieutenant Wallace said, "easier to disable."
Matt could hardly believe what he was hearing. "What? Are you telling me you--"
"Hacked into the ship's security systems? Yes. It's one of the things I do."
Lieutenant Wallace smiled. It was not a particularly malevolent smile. No, it was more like a kid who had just pulled a prank and gotten away with it. Proud in an immature sort of way.
"Who are you?" Matt asked warily. After all, who knew what he was dealing with?
"Someone who'd be wearing prison orange if he hadn't been offered a uniform of a different color. Look, sir, I'm taking a big chance confiding in you, but I think we can reach a mutually beneficial arrangement."
"I won't help you break the law," Matt said resolutely, "whatever kind of deal you think you can offer me."
He was insulted this young punk thought he could buy his honor, but his refusal did not deter the Lieutenant in the slightest.
"I've done my homework, sir," he said. "I know you're a real straight-arrow type. You aren't comfortable with people like me or the things that I do. I'll be bending the law where I can and breaking it where I must, but you might want to hold up before you turn me down."
"I won't have any part of it," Matt insisted. "I ought to report you to the SPs right now."
In fact, Matt planned to do just that. However, while Lieutenant Wallace did not drop his cool façade, he was quick to reply before Matt could walk out.
"You were set up, sir."
This stopped Matt dead in his tracks. "What?"
"I've been following your little pirate hunt," the Lieutenant explained. "Someone leaked Commander Han's file to the Seven Deadlies. Commander Joachim is walking into a trap. He may already be dead."
Matt could not believe it. Set up? By who?
"How...? Why?"
Lieutenant Wallace adjusted his visor. "I don't know, not yet. I could use a friend in high places, though. With you covering me, I can operate a little more freely."
Matt was still reeling from the Lieutenant's revelation. Was it true? Was that how Jassa found out about Lydia? Was that why Lydia was set off and now being locked away in Sickbay? Still, even if it was true, there was no way he could aid and abet an avowed criminal.
"Keep in mind, sir," Lieutenant Wallace said, "that this is one of those 'you scratch my back, I scratch yours' kinda deals."
"I won't take any bribes if that's what you're thinking," Matt said.
"Didn't I say I know you, sir? I'm not dumb enough to try a cheap trick like that. You're all about helping other people. Stopping the Seven Deadlies appeals to you on some level, but you need something a little more tangible, a little more immediate."
"Such as?"
Lieutenant Wallace smiled, apparently confident he had Matt hooked. "I think you know, sir. It's been just about all you've thought about ever since they took you down at Yufang. Commander Han. I can find out what's happened to her, maybe even find a way to help."
He hit Matt in his weak spot. He was supposed to look after Lydia and he had failed. It was just as the Lieutenant said. There had scarcely been a second thought in his head ever since they were separated.
Lieutenant Wallace continued to press his advantage. "I can see it in your eyes, sir. You want to know. You want to help her. That'll be the trade-off. You stick up for me with the brass if they ever get to snooping around and I find out everything I can about Commander Han."
Matt was right where Lieutenant Wallace wanted him, but he was not quite ready to give in yet. As much as he wanted to help Lydia, was he prepared to sacrifice his principles to do so? He had hated every minute of the masquerade during the mission with Commander Joachim. He hated the life of a criminal, the dishonesty of it. Was he really prepared to trade his righteousness for something that may or may not actually help his wingmate?
Lieutenant Wallace did not give him much time to nurse his doubts. "I don't think you appreciate the situation, sir," he said gravely. "You aren't the only one being kept in the dark here. Her CAG, even the Bun of Steel don't know shit."
"'Bun of Steel'?" Matt asked.
"General Pfeiffer. You know, because of the hair."
"I heard Kodiak say it earlier. Is it really that common?"
Lieutenant Wallace grinned. "You and maybe her old granny are probably about the only people who don't know it." He quickly became serious again. "But we're getting off topic. Bottom line, sir. There are some very powerful people who are trying to keep this thing quiet and I'm pretty sure it isn't out of concern for Commander Han's well-being."
It was the moment of truth. Was his vaunted righteousness really so precious? Was he defending it out of a desire to do right or was he simply protecting the feeling of doing right? Was his righteousness nothing more than self-righteousness?
That thought prompted him to make a decision. If he truly knew what righteousness was, then self-sacrifice was the highest good. Yes, he would gladly sacrifice himself for Lydia, but it would be him and him alone.
He asked Lieutenant Wallace, "You swear you won't do anything to endanger the lives on this ship or compromise our mission?"
The Lieutenant held up his hands. "Sir, ever since I got caught, my policy is 'Look, don't touch.'"
"Okay," Matt said, suppressing a sigh. "How long will it take for you to find something?"
"Hard to say. Couple days maybe. Maybe more if they're as serious about their security as I think they are."
"Can you really do this?"
"Sir, I'm the best there's ever been."
"Then how'd you get caught?" Matt asked skeptically.
"We all have our bad days."
"I certainly hope you don't have another bad day while you're doing this."
"Don't worry, sir. The experience humbled me."
"You don't sound very humble."
Lieutenant Wallace smiled that bratty troublemaker smile of his. "Best not sweat the small stuff, sir. I'll contact you when I have something to report."
"How?"
"In person, like today."
"How will you know where to find me?"
"I know, sir," the Lieutenant said plainly. "Trust me, I know. Alright then. That does it for me. If you would, sir, wait about five minutes after I leave to come out. Makes my job easier."
Lieutenant Wallace walked out of the latrine. Only then did Matt realize he had somehow managed to lock the door to keep anyone outside from interfering with their conversation. Just who was this Jeff Wallace? Did Matt really make the best decision siding with him? Time would tell. He only hoped this deal would not prove to be a devil's pact.