Chapter 22
Catch the Devil By His Tail

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Thu 03 Jun 121
Time: UST 1753

"Do you know why you're here, Lieutenant Han?"
"Two reasons: bull and shit."
The ship's psychiatrist, Commander Stacy, didn't look too impressed with that, not that Lydia really cared what he thought. He adjusted his glasses the way people with glasses do when they're trying to hide how flustered they are. It never works.
"You live up to your reputation, Lieutenant," Commander Stacy said, tapping on his DataPad. "You've got quite the history. I've been reading your file and some of the notes here push the boundaries of professionalism. I guess you just bring that out in people."
Lydia rolled her eyes. "Yeah, maybe." She shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Damn, ain't you shrinks s'pposed ta have couches?"
"Civilians, maybe, but here in the service we know smartasses like you would just try to take a nap."
True. This one seemed a bit sharper than the other bozos she'd dealt with over the years.
Shifting gears, Commander Stacy said, "Let's talk about what happened last month."
"Let's not."
"What happened?"
"You tell me. Shit, seems like everyone else 'cept me has half a fuckin' clue a' what's goin' on 'round here."
Commander Stacy put down his DataPad and folded his hands, looking at her like some teacher who caught her cheating on a test.
"Tell me, Lieutenant. Were you taking your medication regularly while you were on TDY?"
Lydia looked away. "Maybe."
"In other words, you weren't."
"What? The days blended together. Besides, I hate that shit."
"That medicine was prescribed for your benefit. We thought you had stopped resisting treatment."
Lydia abruptly leaned forward, slamming her hands down on the arms of her chair. "Well, Happy fuckin' Birthday, Commander Stacy!" she snapped. "What kinda bitch-ass name is 'Stacy' anyway?"
Commander Stacy adjusted his glasses again, this time looking a little annoyed. "That's my last name, Lieutenant, and we're not here to talk about me. This session is all about you. I'm going to be upping your dosage."
"What? No, man! Didn't I just say I hate that shit? Don't gimme more of it!"
Lydia's complaints fell on deaf ears.
"Your medication keeps you reasonably stable and reliable," Commander Stacy said, "although it does little for your sterling personality. If you stop taking the meds or don't take enough for them to be fully effective, you will become unstable and unreliable. These aren't the traits the brass wants in combat flyers."
The threat was clear, but the Commander had to hammer out any traces of subtlety that might've slipped out.
"I'll lay it out nice and plain for you, Lieutenant. If you don't take your medication as directed, you will be grounded and I know you don't want that. Now, are you going to take your medication?"
"Yes, sir," Lydia said grudgingly, as if she were promising to eat her brussel sprouts.
"Good," Commander Stacy said, all self-satisfied. He then began tapping on his DataPad again and started up the next stage of this torture session. "Let's move right on along then, shall we? How are you feeling about your recent reduction in rank? Do you find yourself having trouble adjusting to your new situation?"
Lydia rolled her eyes.
"Are you frustrated about losing such a prestigious position as the squadron leader slot?"
"Like I give a rat's ass 'bout any a' that."
"Is that really how you feel?"
"Doesn't matter how I feel."
"Yes, it does. Your frustration would predictably prompt you to lash out at others. Speaking of which, you seem to be having trouble with your new roommates."
This got Lydia's attention. It had only been three days and they were forever butting heads. Of course, nine times out of ten, she was the one who started it. Still, it smelled like a rat, and that just pissed her off even more.
"What, are those bitches cryin' 'bout me punkin' 'em out or somethin'?"
"There may have been complaints, and your attitude would seem to justify them."
"Whiney-ass bitches anyways..."
Normally people took offense to her attitude and gave her all kinds of hell for it. Commander Stacy didn't. He just ignored it, and it was really annoying, which could very well be why he did it.
"Why do you feel the need to antagonize them?" he asked, like he was asking why she put sugar in her coffee.
Lydia slumped back in her chair. "It's like I told 'em. Misery loves company an' I'm pretty fuckin' miserable right now."
"Is this just about the demotion, or would it have anything to do with your recent trouble with Major Harold?"
"What the fuck are you talkin' 'bout? He ain't said nothin', has he?"
"Although I am under no obligation to tell you this, Major Harold hasn't been asked to provide us with any information. We've simply observed your last encounter. You were quite upset."
"Change subject."
"You are rather close to him."
"I said change the goddamned subject," Lydia growled, her patience just about worn out. "Look, Cav is my wing buddy. That's it. You got that, motherfucker?"
Lydia wasn't thinking about all the trouble she could get into for popping off like that, but fortunately for her, it all just rolled off Commander Stacy like water off a duck's back. He was completely unfazed, and like a monkey who felt the need to keep jabbing a fork in the outlet, he didn't stop pushing. He even had the nerve to smile a little 'gotcha' smile.
"Your hostility speaks volumes."
To keep from decking the guy, Lydia started looking up at the ceiling.
"Sub-ject, change!"
And yet he still didn't let up.
"Your relationship has changed since you stopped flying together. You've grown apart. How does that make you feel?"
"Makes me feel like I'm not listening."
"Lieutenant Han, pay attention. Do you feel you can still trust Major Harold?"
Although she wasn't looking at him and was pretending to not pay attention, the Commander's tone became noticeably more serious. When she didn't say anything, he got up from his chair and actually took hold of her head, turning it to face him.
"Answer me, Lieutenant," he demanded, not too forcefully but more so than he had ever been up until now. "Can you still trust him?"
At first, Lydia was too taken off guard by the fact that he'd laid hands on her. There sure as hell wasn't supposed to be any touching going on. Once she got over than, she broke his hold on her, knocking his hands away, just enough to make him let go. Thankfully she was conditioned well enough to not do anything that might get her strung up on an assault charge.
The next thing she did was stand up herself. She glared at him eye-to-eye, with all the contempt for his damned nosy questions she could muster, and pointed an accusing finger at him.
"Alright, listen here, homeslice," she seethed, "Cav is the only person I trust who's still suckin' wind. You and whoever else who's listenin' in on this can take that little factoid and shove it right up your ass. We're done here."
She then turned and marched over to the door, pounded on the panel, and walked out. It was a damn good thing the government was picking up the check for this one. That was all she had to say about it.

* * *

Jeff had to keep himself from laughing out loud and drawing the attention of the other techs in the Orchestra Pit. He was really starting to like Lieutenant Han. A real spitfire, not afraid to give people hell, even general officers. It was great fun to watch.
He couldn't deny that he was responsible for the friction between Lieutenant Han and Major Harold. He wasn't particularly sympathetic, though. Those two were no good to him dead and that was what they would be if Major Harold spilled the beans about the Einherjar Project. It had been a close call the other day. Jeff had to run to intercept them, lest the Major's sympathy outweigh his sense. It seemed like Jeff got there just in the nick of time. After drawing the Major away and reminding him of his obligations in no uncertain terms, it seemed like the crisis had passed, for now at least.
Jeff diverted his attention away from the feed of Lieutenant Han to his ongoing project. Someone big was aiding the Seven Deadly Sins and Jeff wanted to find out who they were. It was possible that they were the same people who got him arrested. Conspiracy theories were usually bunk, but all that bunk had a way of masking the actual conspiracies out there. He wasn't going to dismiss the possibility out of hand.
Because simply waiting and watching could take forever, Jeff's plan was to flush out the Seven Deadlies and then watch for damage control. Whoever was invested in the Seven Deadlies would rush to cover their tracks and then Jeff would have them.
Getting to the Seven Deadlies was easier said than done. It was a smart operation, smarter than any pirate gang had any right to be, which made it all too clear that they were not just any pirate gang. NIS flexed all of its considerable resources just to come up with that go-between in Villareyes. He disappeared about three weeks ago, no doubt permanently. There would be no using him, which forced Jeff to pursue other avenues of approach.
The Seven Deadlies did their business in third-rate ports, which were poorly integrated into the network. That made Jeff's work so much more difficult. He had to rely more on actual people to do his work, which he never liked. Still, it was necessary. All it took was a generous payment discretely disbursed over a period of time to avoid drawing attention and the agent of the moment would do his task. It was not the most efficient way of doing business, but you have to work with the tools you are given.
Jeff knew that getting to any of the core members would be a waste of time and effort, but the rest of the crew was a different story. Sometimes with as much as seven degrees of separation between the original contact and the crewman, Jeff caught several potential candidates. He played them off each other, raising their paranoia, weeding out the ones most likely blow it. He continued to string along the ones who didn't live up to his standards as a smokescreen for the ones who did.
The intel trickled in. There were over four hundred regular members. No exact number. They had several small ships, but their flagship was a destroyer snatched right out of the scrapyards. A little searching turned up a classified report of the theft of, appropriately enough, the Merciless. Armaments acquired on the black market, the vast majority of them military-grade. Well-staffed and well-equipped. Jeff figured as much, but the scale surprised him.
His two chosen operatives were set to deploy a device Jeff crafted himself and affectionately dubbed 'the breadcrumb box'. Once activated, the breadcrumb box would regularly dispense tiny beacons broadcasting on a rolling frequency to avoid detection be anyone save a receiver keyed in with the same algorithm. A trail of breadcrumbs right to the gingerbread house. Or did the breadcrumbs lead somewhere else? Whatever. The point was that he now had a way to track the Seven Deadlies.
After giving his operatives enough time to deploy the breadcrumb boxes, he remotely co-opted the systems of a research station in the general vicinity he expected to find his quarry. Uploading the algorithm into the system, he waited for the station's scanners to sync up. Would it work? Waiting... Waiting... Bingo.
There it went. He had them now, but how was he going to get them? The Feds didn't have nearly enough firepower. The Orbital Guard and the Reserve weren't much better. It would take a task force from the regular Navy, but how could he get Seventh Fleet to spare the ships?
Then it came to him. He was sitting in the middle of an entire battle group without any ties to the numbered fleets at the moment. What better demonstration of the latest in warfighting doctrine? But how would he package it so the brass would fall for it?
Jeff remembered the commander of the original undercover operation, Commander Joachim. He was most certainly dead by now, having walked right into the trap set for him and his crew, so he wouldn't be able to object to Jeff using his name to complete the mission. He might even get some posthumous honors for it. Something for the folks back home.
Commander Joachim made regular reports back when the mission was active. He took all the appropriate precautions, but it was nothing Jeff couldn't break. He analyzed the style of the reports to mimic them as precisely as possible. There was a risk in specifically suggesting the Ticonderoga lead the attack, but Jeff didn't want to risk the higher-ups playing this one on the cheap. If the Seven Deadlies weren't stopped in a single, decisive attack, the chances of getting another shot at them were slim to nil. If he ultimately had to draw up the orders himself, he would, but doing that would create too many headaches when he could simply nudge people in the direction he wanted them to go.
"Wallace, I'm here to relieve you," a voice said.
Drawn back into the physical world, Jeff turned to see his replacement. His shift was over.
"Sure thing," Jeff said. "Let me just log out."
Even as he was saying that, he wrapped everything up, shutting off his secret subroutines and cleaning up any traces of his activity. The gears were set in motion. All that remained to be seen was whether it all went off like clockwork or not.