Chapter 6
Belly of the Beast

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Armstrong ONB, Earth Sphere
Date: Fri 29 Mar 121
Time: UST 1712

It was a real blessing to have Commodore Frazier on board the same shuttle. While everyone's attention was drawn to him, boarding was a lot less of a hassle. That was good for Chief Electrician's Mate Eva Bianchi. Compared to the media superstar, she was invisible. Perfect.
Making a beeline for her quarters, she stowed her gear, changed into her utility uniform and was on her way to the Engine Room. It was quite the walk and she had to resist the urge run through the passageways. She couldn't wait any longer. Not when she was this close.
Eva had only recently cross-rateed to Electrician's Mate, coinciding with her promotion to E-7. She had made her career in avionics and she would have been happy to continue her work there if the current opportunity hadn't presented itself. She had been stationed on the Gallia, stretching her tour as far as it could go, when she found out about the debut of the America-class heavy carriers. With its large aviation element and frontline assignment, the Ticonderoga was a dream come true. There was only one catch: there weren't any openings for an Aviation Electrician's Mate. There was, however, an open slot for the Electrical Division's LCPO. A technical whiz kid, Eva had no problem qualifying as an Electrician's Mate. The rating was one thing, the rate was another.
The jump from E-6 to E-7 was more difficult in the Navy than any other branch of service. In addition to all the usual flaming hoops everyone has to jump through, there was the all-important peer review. Convincing a bunch of old chiefs that you deserved to wear the fouled anchor was no small feat. In peacetime, she would have never been considered because of insufficient time in service, but war had a way of making the promotion schedules a lot more flexible. Perfect test scores and an excellent service record definitely played in her favor, but perhaps Eva's greatest ally was the relative absence of qualified Electrician's Mates competing for the promotion. Whatever it was, she earned her place in the Ticonderoga's Goat Locker.
Now that she was here, she wanted to see her consolation for giving up her work in the hangar. As much as she loved the little birds, any new technology was able to capture her imagination. The Ticonderoga was full of the latest and greatest, but there was one item in particular that had her practically slavering in anticipation. There was no official acknowledgement of its existence, only rumors and supposed leaks of questionable veracity. She was about to find out whether the rumors were true or not.
Once Eva was inside the Engine Room, it didn't take her long to find it. The quadruple Six-Echoes were lined up at the rear. Certainly they were new, but nothing too far removed from the Six-Bravos found on just about every other cap ship in the space fleet. No, she was drawn to the three black pillars in the center of the room, the sleek monoliths that beckoned her on a journey into the future.
The closer Eva got, the more she marveled at the imposing trio. Was this really it, the fabled Kadokawa Space-Folding Engine? She had read about the theories, published decades ago, but every experiment she ever heard about had ended in disaster. Apparently they were having more luck behind the scenes.
From the outside, no one could even venture a guess about its construction or functionality. The light faintly reflected off the interlocking plates of jet black... armor, was it? It was truly unlike anything Eva had ever come across before.
She was now only a few meters away from the nearest of the three pillars. She wanted to touch it, as if doing so would reveal all its secrets. There were no warning signs posted. Surely it was all right.
As she was reaching out to place her hand on the pillar, she froze suddenly. Out of the corners of her eyes, she saw Marines flanking her from either side with weapons trained on her. They were armed with boxer pistols, not the usual P43s. She didn't dare move.
"You have about two seconds to step away before I order these men to turn your guts into mince," a menacing voice said.
Eva backed away slowly, keeping her hands in plain view lest she provoke a fatal response.
What the hell is going on?
With that thought on her mind, she turned around to face a Navy officer wearing the three silvers of a captain. The nametag read 'Huang'. To say the least, he didn't look happy.
"Give me one good reason," he growled, "one good reason not to call the MAs and have them toss your ass in the brig."
The moment she saw Captain Huang's rank, Eva went to the position of attention, even though the sudden movement threatened to set off the Marines. Not accustomed to having weapons pointed at her, it actually took her a moment to remember that she had every right to be there.
"S-sir," she stammered, cursing herself for being so afraid, "I'm the, the LCPO for Electrical. If I'm not, not supposed to be here, then, then who is?"
Captain Huang nodded, that kind of exaggerated nod people give right before they tear into you for whatever you just said.
"You think you're smart, don't you, Chief?" He glanced to one of the Marines. "Check her out."
One of the Marines holstered his sidearm and walked up to frisk her. It was against policy to be frisked by someone of the opposite sex except in cases of absolute necessity. This surely wasn't one of those cases, but Eva wasn't going to object while those boxer pistols were pointed at her. She would just take it for the time being and file a complaint with IG later. With any luck, Captain Huang's little petty tyrant act would land him a transfer to Nadir.
To be fair to the Marine following Captain Huang's order, he didn't touch her any more than was absolutely necessary. He also had the decency to pull out her neck wallet by the string rather than reach down her shirt for it. He took out her ID card and swiped it on the DataPad he carried on his belt. Once the results came up, he handed the DataPad to Captain Huang.
While he was going over the readout, Captain Huang said, "Bianchi, Eva B. Chief Electrician's Mate. Sure enough, ESS Ticonderoga, Engineering Department, Electrical Division, LCPO. That much checks out." He continued to read, apparently probing deeper into her file. "Promoted 19 January 121, qualified for Electrician's Mate 27 September 120." He glanced up from the DataPad. "Looking to change your lot in life, are you?"
"People cross-rate all the time, sir," Eva replied.
Captain Huang gave her a scornful grin. "So they do." He handed the DataPad back to the Marine. "Well, congratulations, Chief Bianchi. Since you've got all this ambition, I'm going to task you with a special responsibility. None of the squids in Engineering--not one--are to come within five meters of the thing that's behind you. If you fail to meet this responsibility, I will have your ass. Is that clear?"
Eva was starting to get angry and it was overcoming her fear of the Marines and their boxer pistols. "Sir, if no one in the department is allowed near the Kasfeys, how are we supposed to maintain them?"
Captain Huang immediately got in her face, so close that their heads were almost touching. "What did you just say!?" he demanded.
"I, I said if no--"
"You said 'Kasfeys', didn't you?"
"Ye-yes, sir."
"Let's get something straight," Captain Huang said harshly. "The things behind you, they have no name. They-do-not-exist. You got that?"
"Yes, sir."
"You're not going to say 'Kasfeys' ever again, are you?"
"No, sir."
"Good," the Captain replied, seemingly satisfied enough to take a step back and give Eva some space. "As for the maintenance of the things that do not exist, that you will spend your every active moment keeping your people away from... That's my job. It's why I'm here. They made sure to send someone with a high enough paygrade that no one will think of fucking with things they've got no fucking business fucking around with.
"I've got my own team to take care of things. They're going to wear nice red uniforms so you can't confuse them with any of your people. You will not speak to the men on my team. You will make sure none of your people speak to the men of my team. Like the things behind you, they do not exist. Is all this sinking in, Chief, or do I need to draw a picture for you?"
"It's all crystal clear, sir."
Captain Huang smiled contemptuously. "That's good. You're a smart girl, Chief. I like that. I know that we aren't going to have to repeat today's lesson, now are we?"
"No, sir."
"That's what I want to hear."
Captain Huang was apparently done with her. He turned his back to her and began shouting at the top of his lungs. The noise of the machinery couldn't offer much competition.
"Commander!" he howled. "Commander! Get the fuck down here!"
An officer appeared from somewhere, a youngish-looking lieutenant commander. He looked like he had already been thoroughly whipped by the tyrannical Captain.
"Yes, sir?" the Commander asked.
Captain Huang eyed Eva, saying, "Commander, I just had to educate your LCPO. I expect you to keep a closer eye on things from now on."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Captain Huang turned his attention back to Eva, his voice dripping with the icy threat of death. "This was your first and last warning. Five meters. Remember that. Mark it off if you have to. Anyone who gets any closer to these things that don't exist will get two slugs center mass. That is the final word. Are there any questions?"
"No, sir."
"Get the fuck out of here."
That was close enough to 'dismissed' for Eva. Without going too fast, she wasted no time getting to that magic five-meter line. The Commander, with one wary eye on Captain Huang and his Marines, beckoned for her to follow him. From the earlier conversation, she concluded he was the Department Head. Whoever he was, he was bound to be better company that Captain Huang.
As they walked together, she introduced herself. "Chief Electrician's Mate Bianchi, sir."
The Commander returned the favor. "Lieutenant Commander Gunmoontree." He offered her his hand, which she accepted without reservation. "Nice to meet you, Chief. Wish it could've been under better circumstances."
"What's with that Huang guy?" she asked, filled with irritation now that the fear had finally subsided.
"Don't cross him, Chief," Commander Gunmoontree warned. "He's bad news. The Kasfeys are still top secret and the government is really paranoid about it. I'm going to be counting on you and the other chief to keep our sailors away. I don't want any incidents."
That was a nice way of saying 'Don't let anything happen.' Of course, Eva couldn't agree more. She didn't want any of her subordinates going through the same treatment or worse. It was one order she was more than happy to execute.
"Aye-aye, sir."
The Commander lowered his voice a bit. "And, Chief, I don't know what happened, but if you're thinking about going to IG over this, don't. It'll only end badly for you. There's no point in getting burned over that asshole." He paused, looking around paranoidly as if the Boogey Huang would jump out at any second. "Don't tell anyone I said that."
Eva smiled. "Your secret is safe with me, sir."
Breathing an uneasy sigh of relief, Commander Gunmoontree said, "We've got a lot of work to do. Less than 24 hours before we launch. You ready to pull an all-nighter?"
"Any time, sir."
Eva was grateful for the chance to work, to get her mind off of what had happened. Still, deep down, she knew this wouldn't be the end of it. She was beginning to doubt the wisdom of her decision to cross-rate for this assignment. Yes, she had gotten to see the Kasfey with her own eyes, but was it really worth it?