Chapter 14
No Rest for the Weary

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outer Rim of the Uranian Sphere
Date: Fri 12 Jul 121
Time: UST 1505

In light of everything that had happened, the personnel of Heavy Carrier Battle Group One would have liked nothing more than to head straight for Barton to lick their wounds for a while. However, after the Sheolite withdrawal, Supreme Command ordered them to hold position for the next 36 hours. It gave SupCom the time to analyze the incident while the quarantine for the boarders of the Sheolite mothership was completed.
While the Ticonderoga would have benefited greatly from the facilities at Barton, she had to make do with the repair work that could be done while underway. Hangar One was well on its way to being operational again, the remnants of the Sheolite breaching tubes had been removed, and the few dead Sheolites who had neither detonated nor cannibalized themselves were cleared out of the ship by EOD teams. There was much work to be done, but the crew worked tirelessly in spite of everything they had already gone through.
When the 36 hours had passed, Admiral Mfume and Commodore Frazier sat together in the conference room to meet with Fleet Marshal Van Daan. Even though it was just the two of them, the Admiral still stuck to the formality of shouting, "Attention on deck!" when the Marshal appeared on the viewscreen.
"At ease," the Marshal said. "Take a seat." He chuckled. "You know, Ibrahim, you don't have to call the room to attention when it's just us flags."
"You may only be two pay grades ahead of me, sir," the Admiral replied, "but you are still my superior officer."
"You know, sometimes I wish everyone stuck to protocol as much as you do."
The Marshal said this while eyeing Commodore Frazier, who wasn't particularly fazed by the thinly veiled criticism.
"What works in port doesn't always work while underway, sir," the Commodore replied.
"Right you are, Frazier," Marshal Van Daan admitted, "but sometimes I wonder if putting you at the helm of the Ticonderoga was crazy genius or just plain crazy. But enough of that. Let's review your losses. Three hundred fifty-six dead--"
"Three hundred sixty-one, sir," Commodore Frazier interrupted. "We lost five of the wounded since our last transmission. Three hundred sixty-one dead, two hundred thirty-eight wounded, nine missing, and two hundred eighteen in quarantine."
"Were any left behind?"
"Not to our knowledge, sir. Everyone with a tracker signal was extracted, living or dead. We're still trying to determine what happened to the nine missing."
"Do you think the missing personnel are part of the saboteurs?"
"It's possible, sir. NIS, ACID, AFOSI, the MAs, the MPs, and the SPs are all working together on the investigation."
The alphabet soup didn't roll off the tongue very well, but there was some comfort in the fact that all the ship's law enforcement assets were on the case. Then again, if interservice rivalries flared up, the whole thing could devolve into a massive clusterfuck in no time flat.
"What have they turned up?" the Marshal asked.
"Nothing yet," Commodore Frazier replied, wondering to himself how well the different groups were cooperating. "The disruption to the ship's systems and the murder of most of the witnesses hasn't left us with much to go on.
"These people were as good as you get, infiltrating the crew and pulling this off. They knew about the Kasfeys and God only knows what else. They were obviously cooperating with the Shellies, but if they were Shellies themselves, sympathizers or simply collaborating out of some mutual interest, we have no idea." Only half-joking, the Commodore asked, "Any chance the spooks have been downsizing lately?"
Commodore Frazier's distrust of Central Intelligence was second only to his distrust of PMCs. The considerable cross-pollination demanded by the dynamic modern battlefield didn't improve his regard for them any.
The Marshal, on the other hand, was compelled to be more diplomatic, even in restricted company, a testament to all the political baggage tied to his position.
"If anything, Commodore," Marshal Van Daan replied, "ECIS is struggling more than we are to get the bodies they need. Besides, I can't imagine anyone, even with treason on their mind, would be crazy enough to work with the Sheolites."
"Well then, sir," the Commodore replied bluntly, "I suggest you work on your imagination because we were delivered on a damn silver platter and if it wasn't for a series of really lucky breaks, we'd all be locked up on that big Shelly tub by now."
Without showing any signs of taking offense at the Commodore's appraisal of his failure of imagination, Marshal Van Daan said, "Speaking of which, the Sheolite mothership you encountered has been officially codenamed the Hades and her fleet will now be known as the Tartar Fleet. If your information is correct and there are ten Sheolite fleets, it would be the tenth. We have adjusted our estimates of the Sheolites' overall military strength accordingly."
A more accurate estimate of Shelly forces would be a major coup for the war planners. Earlier estimates of the Shellies' strength varied wildly and it played hell with the distribution of forces. Maybe now there would be a realignment that would help make the vaunted goal of taking the fight to the enemy am actionable strategy.
Thinking about the distribution of forces over the years prompted the Commodore to consider all the times shortchanging the more outlying colonies of the Saturnian Sphere and beyond had led to crushing defeat for the military and the razing of colonies.
The steep human cost since the start of the war was not measured solely in confirmed casualties. There were hundreds of thousands that were unaccounted for in the wake of the colony raids, and that was just counting registered citizens. Unaccounted for until now, that is. The Shelly pilot they captured was just the tip of the iceberg of a terrible truth. Commodore Frazier had to wonder if it was as much of a shock for Marshal Van Daan.
Somewhat hesitantly, he asked the Marshal, "Did SupCom know the truth about the Shellies, that they're people, our people?"
"Intel has had its suspicions, Commodore," the Marshal replied, not seeming particularly shook up about it, indicating that they may well have had more than just suspicions all this time. He then added, practically quipping, "All those thousands of missing from the colony raids had to be somewhere."
Union citizens were being abducted, put through torturous cybernization and then turned against their own people. This was a far cry from the mystery raiders of indeterminate origin that may or may not have even been human.
"This changes everything, sir." Commodore Frazier said.
"No, Commodore," the Marshal replied coldly, "it changes nothing. Whatever they may have been before the Sheolites got their hands on them, they are the enemy now. You will be expected to respond accordingly."
The Commodore gritted his teeth and said, "Aye-aye, sir."
It wasn't that simple, though. The truth couldn't stay hidden forever, especially after more than two hundred people had been up close and personal like no one had before and lived to tell the tale. Most would come to terms with it, but what about those who didn't? What would people do if they thought a friend or family member was trapped in Shelly armor? What would happen if the Shellies started taking advantage of this? What if they already were?
"I expect you too keep all this under wraps, Commodore," Marshal Van Daan said. "What your people saw on that Sheolite mothership is top secret. You know what they say about loose lips sinking ships."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Commodore Frazier would much rather have it out in the open so they could deal with it. He could appreciate OpSec, but suppressing the truth--this truth, at least--rubbed him the wrong way. Still, he was bound to follow orders.
Switching gears, Marshal Van Daan folded his hands and said, "Now, Commodore, tell me why you've told Commander Sharif, Admiral Denain and all of ONI to--and I quote--'go straight to Hell and sit on hot coals until it snows'?"
Admiral Mfume gave the Commodore a critical look, but he didn't have any intention of apologizing. The unknown ships that attacked them before their second spacefold had sent out hundreds of drones to attack the Ticonderoga and a couple dozen were caught in the ship's warp field when she folded. So far removed from their motherships when the Ticonderoga folded out, the drones went dead and although several were damaged or destroyed in the crossfire with the Shellies, plenty were left intact.
Naturally, Intel wanted them, but the Commodore wasn't about to let more enemy hardware on board his ship after what happened. When Commander Sharif objected, the Commodore had him removed from the bridge, telling him the very words Marshal Van Daan just quoted.
Commodore Frazier had no intention of backing down and told the Marshal as much.
"Sir, I was opposed to letting that Shelly Viper on board. It wound up being the trigger that started this whole mess. We've had six hundred casualties, suffered considerable damage to critical systems, and damn near lost the whole kit and kaboodle to the Shellies. We just barely got out with our lives--most of us, that is--and I'm not about to make that mistake again. If I have to take it up with you or even the Chairwoman this time, I will."
"There's no need to involve Chairwoman Liu," Marshal Van Daan said. "I'm ordering you take the enemy hardware on board the Ticonderoga for delivery to a facility I designate."
"And I refuse that order, sir." Commodore Frazier replied firmly. "It would be recklessly endangering the lives of my crew and the integrity of this ship. Seeing how valuable the Tico is to SupCom's strategy, that's an unreasonable hazard." Before the Marshal could respond, Commodore Frazier pushed harder. "You can relieve of command. You can court-martial me. But before you think about any of that, you think about how it'll play in the press. You might try to keep it quiet, but you know damn well how easily shit gets leaked to those buzzards. Do you want to risk that, sir?"
The Marshal was stone-faced but clearly holding back a lot of anger. Who knows what might have happened if Admiral Mfume hadn't stepped in?
"Sir," the Admiral said in a low, steady tone, "I deferred to ONI's judgment before and I regret that decision. This time I have to stand by Commodore Frazier. I may not be a Hero of the Union like the Commodore here, but I think we can agree that acting against the two of us, especially given the circumstances, is unwise. I recommend you dispatch ships that are less mission-critical to recover the hardware and minimize the damage of unintended consequences."
The Marshal took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
"Alright, gentlemen, we'll play it your way, but I swear to God, Frazier, once you get back to Earth, I'll do everything in my power to see that not only do you never see a second star but also that the only thing you'll command from that day forward is the ESS Desktop."
Unflinching, Commodore Frazier replied, "Sir, if it turns out that I've acted to the detriment of the Union, I'll pay for my own ticket to the Icebox."
Not wanting to clash with the Commodore anymore, Marshal Van Daan said, "Let's put it behind us, shall we? We still have a lot of ground to cover." He tapped on a monitor that was just offscreen and continued, "After analyzing the data you sent us, we have identified the unknown hostiles you encountered. They were Empyrean ships."
"Empyrean, sir?" Commodore Frazier asked.
"Intel is scarce," the Marshal admitted. "We received a cryptic declaration of war from an entity calling itself 'the Empyrean' back in '09. Since then, we estimate there have only been six engagements with them. Because of the minimal threat they seemed to pose, especially when compared to the Sheolites, they have not been a priority, but the numbers you encountered have caused us to reevaluate that threat."
It was hard to imagine that there had been a second front to the war for the past twelve years, but if there were only six incidents in all that time, it was no wonder the news came as such a surprise. A bigger unknown than even the Shellies, there was no telling what they were capable of. They had been fairly quiet, but they could just be biding their time, letting the Union exhaust its blood and treasure on the Shellies and striking when they were at their weakest. It wasn't a pleasant scenario to think about.
"To better understand the threat," Marshal Van Daan continued, "we need more intel and to that end, we have your new mission. Heavy Carrier Battle Group One is to return to the site where the Ticonderoga encountered the Empyrean ships, pick up their trail and follow it to the source."
He wanted them to go back outside the network in the shape they were in? Surely he didn't mean it.
"Sir," Commodore Frazier said, "we can't restore the Tico to optimal condition without returning to Barton. We need extensive repairs and materiel replenishment. We need to replace the personnel we've lost, hand over bodies to mortuary affairs, and medevac eighty-seven people who probably won't be able to return to duty."
"Negative, Commodore," the Marshal replied curtly. "You need to get out there before the trail gets any colder. Make do with what you have."
Admiral Mfume stepped in again, saying, "Marshal Van Daan, the Commodore has a point. While we are capable of executing this mission, the conditions are hardly ideal."
"Wars aren't won by fretting over ideal conditions, Admiral."
"I am well aware of that, sir, but--"
Marshal Van Daan cut the Admiral off.
"You have your orders, gentlemen."
Commodore Frazier looked to Admiral Mfume, who stared at the viewscreen stoically but nevertheless breathed a faint, exasperated sigh.
Defeated, the two men's only response could be "Aye-aye, sir."
Satisfied that he had gotten their compliance, the Marshal said, "Van Daan, out," and cut the feed.
Commodore Frazier wanted to punch the viewscreen in or at least hit the desk, but he restrained himself in the Admiral's company.
There was no telling what was waiting out there, but so far removed from the rest of the fleet, if things went south, no help could come in time. Marshal Van Daan could very well be sending them all to their deaths and the Commodore just hoped to God it wasn't on account of his borderline insubordination.
Short of desertion, there was no way out of this. He had to focus on keeping his people alive. Depending on the true strength of the Empyrean and the machinations of the Shellies, that could prove to be a tall order.