Epilogue
Lies and Damn Lies

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Fri 21 Jun 121
Time: UST 1800

The wayward Villareyes Starport was placed under martial law once it was secured. For the first 48 hours, it was the responsibility of Heavy Carrier Battle Group One and then it was relieved by a joint task force of the Orbital Guard, the Federal Police and the Reserve. Detainees changed hands and available intel was exchanged, but the relief's work had only just begun.
In total, the pirate attack had left over 600 casualties. The battle group itself claimed 38 dead and 53 wounded. It could have been much worse for everyone, but the losses were keenly felt all the same.
The battle group returned to Smythe for repairs and replacement personnel. Admiral Mfume also had to report to 7th Fleet on all that had happened. In the meanwhile, the crew of the Ticonderoga and her escorts were granted a brief reprieve.
A dining-in was held, originally intended to celebrate the end of the exercises but now the saving of Villareyes and the capture of the Seven Deadly Sins were added to the reason for the evening's festivities. All officers not otherwise engaged in their duties were assembled in the observation deck.
Following the usual speeches was a toast to fallen comrades. It was a bitter reminder that the Sheolites were not the only enemy they faced. Little was said about the Seven Deadlies, though. In fact, the whole reason for all the turmoil was largely glossed over. For those who knew the truth, it was not terribly surprising but distressing all the same.
Once the attendees were free to socialize, Matt found himself trying to withdraw to the sidelines as usual, but Sean would not allow it.
"We can't have ya stickin' ta the walls, Cav," Sean told him.
As Sean pulled him along, Matt abruptly dug in his heels and came to a stop. There was Lydia standing right in front of him. He had not seen her in nearly three weeks, since the time he visited her after she was released from Sickbay. She had her hands stuffed in her pockets and was not quite looking at him head-on, like she was reluctant to face him.
Matt instantly felt the guilt sweeping over him. The secrecy that may very well be saving her life had also driven a wedge between them, one that might never be removed.
"Nyx..."
Lydia looked like she was angry, or rather, that she was trying to look angry.
"You've got your reasons," she mumbled.
Matt could only nod weakly.
"Listen, Cav," she replied, speaking more assertively now, "I don't know what the hell's goin' on, but I trust ya, alright? So I'm forgivin' ya, see?"
She thrust out her hand at him. It was as eloquent an offer for reconciliation that someone like her could manage. Matt gratefully accepted her hand and gave it a good shake.
"Thank you, Nyx," he said, "for understanding."
"Hell, I didn't say I understood it," Lydia replied, looking aside. "I'm just droppin' the damn subject."
"So what's goin' on here?" Sean asked, not content to simply stand on the sidelines and watch.
"I don't know what you're talkin' 'bout," Lydia said, eyeing him suspiciously. She then asked Matt, "Say, Cav, who's the mook?"
"Mook?" Sean balked. "Lissen here, lil' lady, I've been dustin' Shellies back when your momma was powderin' your rosy red ass."
Lydia turned to face him, puffing out her chest like some bird gearing for a fight.
"Your own damn rosy red ass must've taken the powderin' or I woulda seen ya on the aces list. An' I ain't no lil' lady, thank you very fuckin' much."
Sean cracked a grin and patted Lydia on the cheek. "Ya got quite the mouth on ya, ya know that? Where exactly are you on the list?"
Lydia brushed his arm away and returned his grin with one of her own. "You show me yours an' I'll show ya mine."
Having seen his fill of their alpha dog jockeying, Matt cleared his throat to interrupt them.
"*ahem* Kodiak, this is Nyx. Nyx, this is Kodiak."
"Any friend a' Cav's is a friend a' mine," Sean said, offering her his hand, "even if ya are a squid."
"Ya think hearin' that from a damn Airhead's s'pposed ta make me happy?"
Despite what she said, Lydia still shook Sean's hand. Hopefully that meant they would now be on more amicable terms, but Matt was not so sure.
Before those two could go at it any more, though, everyone's attention was drawn to one of the viewscreens, which was showing the local news. It was just loud enough to hear over the buzz of the crowd. The announcer was just starting in on the current story.
"In what must surely be a relief to citizens of the Saturnian Sphere, an elusive pirate group has finally been brought to justice. The pirates, who called themselves the Seven Deadly Sins, were implicated in thirty-five attacks over the course of the past two years. After evading authorities for so long, a special police task force posing as a freighter convoy lured out the pirates, who were then detained by the Orbital Guard. We take you to Deepa Rao, who is with Titan Office Superintendent Elincia Flores. Deepa?"
The image then cut to the correspondent, who was in the Titan Federal Police Headquarters with the Superintendent. She did not skip a beat, nodding to the audience the moment the camera was on her.
"Yes, Melinda, I'm here with Superintendent Flores. Superintendent, what can you tell us about this historic arrest?"
"The so-called Seven Deadly Sins was probably the most formidable pirate group in Union history," the Superintendent said, "but this goes to show the quality of the officers of the Federal Police, who, when combined with the Orbital Guard, will protect the good citizens of the Union from any threat while our armed forces struggle with the Sheolite menace."
"Thank you for that, Superintendent. Back to you, Melinda."
The image went back to the announcer, who immediately continued the report.
"The twenty-seven pirates captured in the raid are scheduled to be arraigned in the Saturn Regional Supreme Court next Tuesday. Be sure to tune in to SBN for our exclusive coverage of the trial."
Matt could only stand there staring blankly as the commercial break began. He could hardly believe what he had just heard.
"But that's not true..." he mumbled to himself.
"You know what they say." a familiar voice said, "'Lies are convenient.'"
Matt turned to see none other than Commander Joachim. He was clean-shaven now and had a regulation haircut. He was in his dress blues and using an exoskeletal frame to stand. His features were lean and gaunt, his eyes hollow, and his hair was flecked with white. In spite of it all, he still seemed to have the same confident bearing as before. Perhaps that made it all the more tragic.
"Commander Joachim..."
Matt did not want to look like he was pitying the Commander, but he was sure it looked that way in spite of his intentions. If it did, though, Commander Joachim did not respond to it one way or another. Instead he continued with what he was going to say.
"You didn't expect them to admit that half a fighter squadron deserted, turned pirate, hijacked a destroyer, and were quickly becoming the biggest threat to the Sphere next to the Shellies, did you?" He smiled weakly. "Don't worry. They got theirs. We took six of the seven alive and they were court-martialed properly while the flunkies had special tribunals. I just got back from testifying. They'll all be spending a nice, long time locked up on some rock in the Belt. All's well that ends well, right?"
"But..."
"You worried about our shipmates? I took care of that, too. MinDef was more than happy to render the honors I demanded. Yes, their families will be told some fairy tale about what happened, but they'll be well-compensated. It's something."
Indeed was something, but it all felt rather empty. Yes, the Seven Deadlies had been stopped, but at what cost? Just how tangled did the web of lies get? Matt could almost understand the crazy conspiracy theorists out there after all that had happened, a thought that gave him a chill.
He did not get to dwell on it long, for an alarm sounded and red lights began flashing.
"Enemy ships inbound!" a voice on the intercom boomed. "Actions stations! Action stations! All hands to action stations!"
"Hell yeah!" Lydia shouted. "Time ta kill some Shellies! I thought they'd never show their ugly faces!"
Seeing someone so excited about an enemy attack was more than a little disconcerting, but it was nothing new with her. Lydia grabbed Matt by the shoulders and gave him a vigorous shake.
"It's showtime, Cav! Betcha I come back with the most Shelly heads on a stick!"
She was positively beaming and with that, she bolted off pell-mell to the door.
Doing little more than arching an eyebrow at the display, Sean asked Matt, "Is she gonna be alright?"
"God only knows," Matt said with a sigh, making his own way to their hangar.
That was how the war worked. You could go months at a time without seeing any action and then all of the sudden, the Sheolites would throw a whole fleet your way. Perhaps now that the Ticonderoga and her crew were fully trained and ready, the Sheolites would no longer be the ones setting the pace. Perhaps now the Union would be able to take the steps needed to end the war once and for all.

* * *

Jeff was taking cover in one of the passageways near the personnel lifts in Hangar Four. He had an important update for Major Harold, but even with his connections, he couldn't have foreseen a Sheolite attack. He would just have to wait until after things had settled back down once the attack was over.
"You get kicked out too?" a female voice asked him.
"Something like that," Jeff replied reflexively.
He turned slightly to see a Navy NCO right next to him, leaning against the bulkhead. He recalled who she was instantly. Chief Electrician's Mate Eva Bianchi, Electrical Division LCPO. He did a thorough search on her after the first time she approached the Major. He had to be sure she wasn't sent by the people he was investigating or anyone else who might compromise the convenient cover the Major provided. Turns she was just an ordinary wingnut with a thing for reliving her days as an avionics tech. Well, 'ordinary' wasn't quite accurate. Going from her educational records, she was an engineering genius. Exactly what she was doing in the enlisted ranks was a mystery, but none of that particularly concerned him.
"Shame they wouldn't let me stay to watch the scramble," Chief Bianchi said wistfully.
"What are you even doing in this hangar?" Jeff asked. After all, he wasn't supposed to know anything about her, least of all why a Navy chief petty officer would be wandering around in the Air Force hangar.
"The Major said I could play with the Rittern's birds," she replied. "You were there the day it happened."
Jeff felt a brief shock go through him. While he hadn't tried to hide completely from view, he was quite confident that he was inconspicuous enough not to draw anyone's notice, much less stick in their memory all this time.
"I think you're mistaken," he said evasively, thinking that would be all it would take to throw her off the trail.
"I saw you hiding under a Pelican's wing," she said with not a trace of doubt in her voice. "You started talking to the Major as soon as he was done with me and then you led him off somewhere."
"You must have me confused with someone else."
Chief Bianchi stopped leaning against the bulkhead and stood up straight.
"You think I'd confuse you with anyone else here?" she asked. She then pointed at his visor. "There's no mistaking those shades. What're you hiding?"
"Nothing," Jeff replied curtly, cursing himself as he did. He was only making himself look more suspicious.
"You're denying way too much for nothing," Chief Bianchi said, apparently not about to let up in the slightest, "but whatever you're trying to keep under wraps, I might as well let you. I wouldn't want to make trouble for the Major. Real stand-up fella, that guy."
Jeff was surprised that the Chief backed off after all that. The sudden release caused him to let slip an unguarded comment.
"Too much for his own good."
"His kind usually is," the Chief replied, unaware of how effortlessly she had pierced through his defenses. She then started to walk away, saying, "Well, I guess I better head back to the Engine Room. With everyone at action stations, the little tyrant's really gonna be on edge. I gotta go protect my boys and girls. You probably have somewhere you need to be, too."
She didn't get far before she stopped and turned back to him.
"You know," she said, "I hear you Air Force guys are pretty laid-back, but you'd never see a Navy officer let me get away with carrying on a conversation like this."
"I don't see any need to get all military about things," Jeff replied, once again being far more honest and up-front than usual.
The Chief chuckled at his remark and said, "I'd love to know how you got those silvers with an attitude like that."
Somewhat irately, Jeff replied, "And I'd love to know how you got those stripes if pestering officers like this is normal for you."
She adjusted her glasses and said, "You're a special exception. You looked interesting."
"You're a bit out of the ordinary yourself," Jeff noted.
"That's a virtue in some parts," she said with a wink.
Wait. Was she flirting with him? Never mind the laws against fraternization. How did that work in any context?
"Well, maybe I'll see you around," Chief Bianchi said, leaving for real this time. "Whatever secret stuff you're doing, try to be a bit less obvious about it. You're bound to draw the wrong sort of attention one of these days."
"I'll keep that in mind," Jeff muttered, frustrated at how easily she read him and how easily he let himself be read by her.
Once she was gone, it actually took him a moment to put aside the confounding encounter and remember his purpose. He had just discovered that Lieutenant Han wasn't the only Berserker on board the Ticonderoga. There were forty-seven of them. If they were activated in the same manner as the one from the Camp Chisholm incident, they could easily eliminate half the crew, and that was if they didn't get their hands on any serious weaponry. Was that their real purpose, a human self-destruct mechanism for the ship and its crew? What was the Einherjar Project really trying to accomplish?
The list of Berserkers scrolled in his head. Male, female, enlisted, officer, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. They were well distributed throughout the ship. He needed to keep tabs on them, just in case. So long as he was on this ship, he wasn't going to let some conspiracy get him killed. It was enough trouble worrying about the Shellies. He didn't like the idea of having to watch his back around people who were supposed to be on the same side, but perhaps they made for the greatest enemies of all.