Chapter 18
Guinea Pig Report

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Sat 11 May 121
Time: UST 2111

"Come on," Eva pleaded, "let me have a look at it."
The Air Force crew chief was having none of it.
"You're not a part of my crew," he replied. "You're not even Air Force. Just what the hell are you doing on this deck anyway?"
Eva had run afoul of Captain Huang again and was looking to blow off some steam. The little tyrant had become even more short-tempered since the exercises began and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep herself or anyone else in her department from stepping on his ever so delicate toes. She wanted to spend some time in more comfortable surroundings. Unfortunately, she was having a hard time finding anyone willing to let a total stranger fiddle around with their multimillion-credit equipment as method of stress relief. That didn't stop her from trying.
She continued to push, hoping that the crew chief would eventually give in.
"You can't figure out what's wrong with that Hornet," she said, "can you?" He didn't answer, but she took that as a yes. It was written all on his face. "Give me five minutes with her and I'll have it solved."
"What's going on here?" a soft voice asked.
Eva turned around to see a bespectacled pilot. She went to the position of attention, later noticing he had the insignia of a lieutenant commander, no, a major. He didn't look much like any pilot she had ever seen. He seemed more fit for Admin than the hangar.
"Sir," the crew chief said, "this individual is trying to get her hands on your bird."
So this weedy man was the pilot of the Hornet she was trying to get her hands on? It would have been one thing if he flew, say, a Pelican or a Sparrow, but a combat pilot? She would've never guessed.
The Major didn't seem particularly displeased at the crew chief's report, which was a far cry from a couple other officers she had encountered before this. With only the barest sign of interest, he asked her, "And what brings Naval personnel to Hangar Four...?"
He was looking for a name, so Eva quickly filled in the blank for him and said, "Chief Machinist's Mate Eva Bianchi, sir. I used to be an Aviation Electrician's Mate. Avionics has been my game for ten years, sir."
"But it's not your game now."
The Major's answer came after a momentary delay. He was distracted, not giving the situation his full attention. Perhaps she could take advantage of this.
Not allowing the Major much time for reflection, she replied, "That's true, sir, but I still love it. My new job is kinda frustrating and I was hoping to kick back in more familiar territory. They ran me out of One, Two and Three, so I was hoping you Airheads, uh, I mean, the Air Force would be a little more understanding."
She wanted to kick herself for using 'Airheads' on an Air Force deck, particularly when she was trying to butter them up. She got a mean look from some of the crew, but the Major didn't seem to notice. Again, the distraction. It might just let her get her way.
"It's bad policy to let unauthorized personnel around equipment they have no business messing with."
The Major was just saying to say it. There wasn't any emphasis to it. She still had a chance.
"You have the authority to give that authorization, don't you, sir?"
"I've got a perfectly fine crew as it is."
There was a little more weight behind that one. She had to think fast or he might start to pay attention and view her with a more critical eye.
"Oh, I'd never suggest differently, sir," she said breezily, "but right now they're stuck on something and I think I can help."
"Is this true, Chief?" the Major asked.
"She'll be ready in time for your next patrol, sir," the crew chief insisted. No way he was going to give ground to an outsider, not that she could blame him.
Surprisingly, the Major didn't drop the subject. Instead he followed up on the previous question. "But you are having some problem with the avionics?"
"Yes, sir," the crew chief admitted reluctantly.
"Do you think Chief Bianchi could help?"
The crew chief did well to hide any disgust at the notion, saying simply, "I have no idea, sir, but it's like you said. It's bad policy to let unauthorized personnel run loose."
The Major looked at the crew chief and then back to Eva. "You mind if I check your record, Chief Bianchi?"
Maybe he was paying more attention than he let on. Whether he was genuinely interested in giving her a shot or setting her up, it was worth playing along.
"Not at all, sir," she said, promptly presenting her ID. "Here's my card."
The Major swiped her card on his PersCom and spent some time scanning the readout. It was too long to read the basic info that was supposed to come up, which meant that the Major had command privileges. She was either very lucky or very unlucky.
Once he seemed to be satisfied with what he had read, the Major handed Eva's card back to her and said, "Well, your story checks out." Looking to the crew chief, he asked him, "Chief, do you have any objection to letting her take a look at it?"
The crew chief was in a bit of a spot, not knowing which answer was the right one. He framed his reply carefully, saying, "Well, sir, if you don't have any objection to it, I'd kinda like to see if this swabbie is blowin' smoke or not."
The Major nodded. "Very well then, I'll take responsibility for it." He turned to Eva and gestured to the Hornet. "Chief Bianchi, show us what you've got."
"Aye-aye, sir!"
After a crewman handed Eva the equipment she needed, she hopped into the cockpit and immediately went to work. While the others clustered around on the deck, the crew chief leaned over the edge of the cockpit to watch her.
"You need any help?" he asked.
"This wouldn't be much of a show if I had assistants," she said. "Time me."
Obligingly, the crew chief tapped his watch and the count began. Eva had actually never worked on a Hornet before, but she had studied the schematics in depth. That being said, despite the Union's rigorous standards, the plan and the finished product didn't always align. Of course, she was more than capable of compensating for that.
Going more on a hunch than the actual readouts, she managed to isolate the problem. The testing equipment was giving a false positive, which was why the crew hadn't been able to single it out earlier. By coming at it a few different ways, she managed to confirm her suspicions. All that remained was to fix it, which wasn't any big deal.
Once she made the fix, she kicked on the power to prove the problem was solved. She looked back to the crew chief.
"Time?"
"Five minutes, two seconds."
Remembering her earlier boast, she shrugged and said, "So I'm a bit rusty."
"What do you think, Chief?" the Major asked.
"A damn fine piece of work, sir," the chief said, sounding genuinely impressed.
"Would you be amenable to having her assistance in the future?"
"After seeing that, I'd be a damn fool to refuse her help, sir."
"There you have it, Chief Bianchi," the Major said. "You have my permission as squadron leader to assist the crews on any ship in the Four Twenty-One, but only as long as you can get the crew chief's approval. Is that acceptable?"
"Thank you, sir!" Eva beamed. She could have hugged him, kissed him even, but she remembered her place. Instead, she simply assured him, "You won't regret it."
The Major smiled. "I certainly hope not. Chief, you think you can pass the word along to Master Sergeant Kapoor so the rest of the crew chiefs know?"
"Yes, sir."
Seeing all was well, the Major said, "Alright then, carry on," and walked away.
Eva was the happiest she had been in a long while. Thanks to the Major's generosity, she now had a refuge from the little tyrant. She had every intention of making the most of it.

* * *

Immersing himself in the exercise had not been enough to keep Matt's mind off Lydia's condition or the deal he made to get more information. It all became routine rather quickly and lost its ability to hold his attention. The misplaced Naval engineer, though, was enough of a change of pace to draw him out, if just for a little while.
He was doing spot checks on the deck crews, but his mind started to drift off and he simply wandered around in the hangar when a voice called out to him.
"Took you long enough, sir."
Matt turned to see Lieutenant Wallace standing in the shade of a Pelican's wing. Hiding and yet not hiding.
"Lieutenant Wallace!" Matt exclaimed. Happily, there was too much ambient noise for anyone to notice. Still, he corrected himself and lowered his voice. "What are you doing here?"
"I've got news. Come with me."
The Lieutenant led Matt into one of the showers in the locker room and, using the same trick as before, locked the door behind him. While Matt knew his choice of venue was necessary to counter surveillance, it was nevertheless disconcerting. The Lieutenant, however, did not seem to pay it a single thought, prompting Matt to focus on the task at hand.
"Okay," he said. "What have you got?"
Lieutenant Wallace adjusted his visor before speaking. "It wasn't easy, sir, but I've got my hands on some serious dirt. When you were assigned to the Two-Oh-Eight, did they ever say anything about Commander Han belonging to some sort of special program?"
It took Matt a moment to remember something that happened six years ago, but it eventually came to him. "Yes, actually," he said. "I remember Captain Rai saying something to that effect when he gave me my orders. I later found out from Nyx it was called Project Lion or something."
"Project Tiger, perhaps?"
"Yeah, that's it."
"What did she tell you about her time in the Project Tiger training program?"
"Not much. A lot of time in the simulator. She said she couldn't remember much of it."
Although Matt could not tell for sure on account of the visor, he was pretty sure Lieutenant Wallace rolled his eyes. "Figures," he said. He paused for a moment before asking a pointed question. "Sir, what do you think of the government?"
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Just tell me what you think."
Asked out of the blue like that, Matt had to struggle for an answer. "Well, I mean, it's not perfect, but it's better than any alternatives I can think of. It has its problems, but it does pretty well. We are government employees, after all. We swore an oath to protect it."
The answer did not seem to have much effect, as if Matt's opinion did not change much of anything one way or another. Lieutenant Wallace continued the push forward. "How far do you think the government would go, playing with people's lives without their consent?"
"I suppose it depends on what you define as 'playing with people's lives'."
"Imagine, sir, that certain individuals with a special physiopsychological makeup are capable of being induced into a state of heightened performance at the cost of their mental stability and physical well-being. What would you say if there was a program devoted to seeking out those individuals and using of that state of heightened performance to further the war effort?"
That was quite a mouthful, and it required a fair bit of imagination for Matt to envision it. Even then, he was not able to form a very clear picture. He understood the principle, though, and perhaps that was enough.
"If the individuals in question are volunteers," he said tentatively, "I can't say it's the best solution, if they're really risking their mental stability and all, but the war's gone on so long. We have to do whatever we can to stop the Sheolites once and for all."
Deadly serious, Lieutenant Wallace replied, "I never said anything about volunteers. There are no volunteers."
Matt was being put into a bind, but he still felt compelled to justify this hypothetical scenario which was probably not so hypothetical at all. "It's unethical," he said, "but the government has that authority. It's in our contracts."
"But does that make it right?"
Matt could feel his stomach knotting up. It was almost as if he were being accused of doing such things. "No, it doesn't make it 'right' per se..."
Lieutenant Wallace did not let him get away with such a weak answer. "Come on, sir, I know you better than that. Be honest."
Matt had no choice but to admit defeat. "Okay, it's wrong. Whatever the justification, it's wrong to do something like that to a person without their consent." He was not terribly eager to see what lay at the end, but he had to ask. "Where are you going with this?"
"Commander Han is a test subject in a program that is, to put it mildly, really fucked up. That Project Tiger bullshit is just a cover story, one of many, for the real deal. They call it the Einherjar Project, a top secret black ops program designed to find, train and deploy psycho supersoldiers."
"What do you mean by 'psycho supersoldiers'?"
"The Einherjar Project is centered around this psychosis they call the Berserker Syndrome. With the right trigger, someone with the Berserker Syndrome, well, goes berserk. Their goal is to control and channel that into viable combat potential. Commander Han is actually one of their proudest creations. Most of the others don't last so long."
It was a lot to take in. The fact that such a program existed, much less that Lydia was one of its test subjects, was hard to believe. Surely there had to be some mistake.
Matt replied, "So you're telling me that Nyx has this... this psychosis and a secret government program has been taking advantage of that? I've flown with her for four years and I've never seen her go berserk."
"Haven't you, sir?" the Lieutenant asked. "You've seen it a lot more than you realize."
"Okay," Matt admitted, "there was the incident at Yufang, but other than that..."
"What about the first time you met her, on 10 July 114?"
It was at that moment it hit him. It had been bothering him ever since the encounter with Jassa, and now he finally realized what it was.
"My God, you're right. I knew I'd seen that look her eyes before..."
"That was her first time,” Lieutenant Wallace said. "As you probably remember, the Shellies had fucked her up pretty bad. You didn't see her again until the following year. She spent a good four months being reconstructed and going through physical therapy and then they shipped her off to a black site to isolate the trigger for her Berserker Syndrome. Once they figured that out and how her particular breed of the syndrome works, they brought in you."
"Me?"
"They knew how you flew, knew that you'd be the perfect man to keep their guinea pig alive. That's why they paired you two up. It's probably why you're both on the Ticonderoga now."
If Lieutenant Wallace's story was true, it would take a conspiracy of vast breadth and scope to make all these things come to pass. But rather than dwell on that, Matt's mind was fixed on a more immediate concern.
"What's this trigger," he asked, "the thing that sets her off?"
"You know her better than me," the Lieutenant said. "What do you think? When is she at her most aggressive, to the degree that she doesn't even seem to be responsive to the outside world?"
Matt knew the answer so well that the answer was practically a reflex. "In combat, when we're up against the Shellies. In training she's never quite the same. She's good, but she's not outstanding like she is in live combat."
"That seems to be part of it. What can you tell me about what happened at Yufang? The woman she was attacking, did she say or do something to set Commander Han off?"
Matt went silent. He had risked reprimand by leaving out the details of the conversation between Lydia and Jassa in his official report. With his ability to ferret out information, it was entirely possible that Lieutenant Wallace already knew, but Matt was hardly inclined to say anything. Even to save Lydia, he did not want to break his trust with her.
Softening his usual demeanor somewhat, Lieutenant Wallace insisted, "Sir, I need to know if I'm going to prove my theory correct." When Matt was still reluctant to speak, he asked, "Did it have something to do with her sister?"
Matt was not expecting Lieutenant Wallace to hit the bullseye right off the bat, and unwittingly asked, "How did you know?"
"Her first episode was on 10 July 114," Lieutenant Wallace said, "the day of the big engagement between Carrier Battle Group Five and that Shelly Dreadnought, right?"
"That's right."
"Both Commander Han and her sister were in CVBG Five. Commander Han was stationed on board the Oliver Cromwell and her sister on board the Astyanax. Her sister was shot down that day and I have reason to believe she knew what happened. Thinking of her sister, or more accurately, thinking of her sister's death is the trigger to her Berserker Syndrome. That's why she went off when you saw her last week. When she was trying to remember the last time she cried, she thought of her sister dying and that did it."
"How do you know about that?"
Lieutenant Wallace gave Matt a pitying look. "Come on, sir, sneaking a peek at the video feeds from Sickbay isn't even a challenge for me."
Realizing the opportunity, Matt asked, "Do you know how she's doing?"
"She's been stable," Lieutenant Wallace replied. "If they'd lay off the sedatives, her head might clear up some."
"What's going to happen to her?"
"The powers that be haven't decided yet, but there's a strong push from the Project to keep her here."
"What can I do?"
"They see you as a stabilizing factor, so play along whenever they call on you to see her. If they get the idea that you know what's going on, they might just kill both of you to cut their losses."
Matt felt his guts turn to ice. "They would do that?"
"Let's just say their hands aren't exactly clean when it comes to dealing with fuck-ups."
It was one thing to face the Sheolites in combat and something quite different to fear a knife in the back from people who are supposedly on the same side. A bad situation had just gotten worse, or perhaps Matt was only now beginning to realize just how bad it was.
Not sounding particularly disturbed by any of this, perhaps because he was used to this sort of thing, Lieutenant Wallace asked, "Well, sir, do you think I'm earning my keep?"
Matt was still reeling from all that had been revealed. "It's all so hard to believe."
Lieutenant Wallace pulled out his PersCom and held it up for Matt to see. "Here, sir, I want you to watch this. This is the footage of a shooting spree at Camp Chisholm back in 112. We can't stay here much longer, so I've sped it up to double speed. Watch this guy go to his mailbox. Keep your eye on him."
It was a simple mail room. Nothing special about it. The guy in question was a young soldier who opened his box and just stood there. Because the playback was so much faster than normal speed, he suddenly became like a blur, jumping from one bystander to the next.
"What just happened?" Matt asked.
"His trigger was activated," Lieutenant Wallace replied. "Keep watching and bear in mind that this guy was a mechanic."
No one in the mail room was left standing. Men and women, military and civilian. It did not matter. The video switched to a different camera, one outside the mail room. The soldier was being confronted by two MPs who should have fired when they had the chance. Now he had their weapons and was proceeding to shoot every living thing in sight.
The soldier was being shot at by something off-screen. It had to be something big, like a vehicle, because the hail of fire could not have come from any small arms. Miraculously, the soldier charged forward, losing an arm in the process, but not stopping.
"He's still going..." Matt said in stunned amazement.
"That's the idea," the Lieutenant said coolly.
Matt did not see what the soldier charged at or what happened to him. The scene shifted again to a bare white room with something, no, someone hanging from the ceiling.
"What's this?" Matt asked.
"Footage from the hospital. Naturally, it's been deleted from the official archives, but the people from the Project kept a copy for themselves."
Realizing the person was the soldier from before, still alive somehow, Matt then asked, "Why is he upside-down?"
"Probably to keep him disoriented, to limit the risk in case of any aftershocks."
Matt watched a doctor come into the room as the soldier began to stir. It seemed like they talked for a while before another soldier came in. There seemed to be some sort of altercation, but the doctor intervened. The other soldier said something to the doctor, prompting him to go over to a nearby console. Then the three of them turned to face the wall.
"What are they doing?"
"Watching the footage you just saw."
"They showed it to him?"
"The other soldier is the subject's CO. He has no idea what's going on."
The angle of the camera did not allow for a good view of the upside-down soldier's face, but Matt could only imagine what it must have been like to see all that and be told it was you. Once the video was apparently over, the CO started getting confrontational again, once more prompting the doctor to intervene. The CO left, and the doctor exchanged a few more words before leaving himself.
After being left along for a while, another person walked in, this one clearly an officer in his dress uniform. As personnel did not usually walk around on post in full service dress, the officer appeared to be an outsider.
"Who's that guy?" Matt asked.
"LTC William Murdoch. He was attached to the Project."
"Was?"
"Keep watching."
The officer was talking with the upside-down soldier, carrying himself much like a comic book villain delivering a monologue. It went on for quite a while, even at double speed. Then things took a turn for the worse when the officer pulled something out of his pocket. By the way he held it, Matt guessed it was a syringe. Disposing of the evidence.
Matt did not want to see the soldier killed in cold blood like that, especially while he dangled helplessly from the ceiling. Only it did not happen that way. No, the soldier started to thrash around, actually yanking himself free of ceiling. He then burst out of his restraints and sprang at the officer.
It was a draw in the end. The officer managed to plunge the syringe in the soldier's neck, but not before the soldier drove his hand into the officer's chest, a seemingly impossible feat. And it was with that image that the screen went blank.
Matt stared at the screen until Lieutenant Wallace tucked his PersCom away. Even then, it took Matt a moment to snap out of his entrancement at what he had just seen.
"Was he triggered again?" he asked at last.
Lieutenant Wallace nodded. "Looks like it. I'd have to dig deeper to find out for sure, but I'd say someone wanted both of them out of the way. This is the kind of people we're dealing with."
"Dear God..."
"You believe me now, sir?"
"Yes," Matt said weakly.
"Then I'll ask again. Am I earning my keep?"
Matt did not say anything. He was lost in his thoughts. When would someone with a syringe come for him? Worse, when would such a person come for Lydia? She had proven herself to be dangerous. They could easily write her off as a liability. And now she was as helpless as that upside-down soldier, no, even more so. Strapped to a bed, heavily sedated, isolated from all prying eyes. It would be all too easy...
"Sir?"
The Lieutenant managed to get his attention, and not a moment to soon.
"Yeah," he mumbled, "uh... yes. Good work."
"Okay," Lieutenant Wallace said, "then that about does it for today. This thing has got me interested, so I'll keep on digging and I'll let you know what I find. Remember, sir. Play along. Right now, it's the best thing you can do for yourself and for Commander Han. Until next time."
Matt just stood there. He recalled the verse from Ecclesiastes. 'He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.' He wanted to learn the truth, but now that he knew it, he could not say that he was any better off. What had he gained? The truth did not put his mind at ease--in fact it did the opposite--and it did not get Lydia out of that hospital room.
He forced himself to think of more positive maxims. 'The truth will set you free.' 'Knowledge is power.' Yes, now that he knew the truth, he could face it. Even if he could do nothing in the end, at least he knew what he was up against. Surely that was better than flailing about blindly or wallowing in ignorance while sinister forces plot his destruction.
Lieutenant Wallace was using him for his own ends, but there was no reason that had to be a one-way street. Since he had already put his career, his freedom and even his life on the line for this deal, he ought to take full advantage of it. With the Lieutenant's abilities, he could find out just how far the conspiracy went, expose it and shut it down before any more needless tragedy struck. He would accept the sorrow of this forbidden knowledge if it could spare someone else. He had his mission. All that was left was to execute.