Chapter 16
Career Change

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Mon 15 Jul 121
Time: UST 1025

Jeff found himself with his back to the wall, but he was learning that it wasn't such a bad thing.
He wasn't quite sure how it'd happened. He arranged for a clandestine meeting with Eva to discuss some upcoming business. Naturally, he selected a little out of the way compartment to dodge security.
His memory was normally impeccable, but now he couldn't even be sure if any words had been exchanged between the two of them before she had him pressed up into the bulkhead and held in a rather furious lip-lock.
Never much of a social butterfly, Jeff had as little contact with other people as he could manage, to say nothing of the opposite sex. That would technically make this his first kiss, which some people seemed to think was a big deal.
In all honesty, he wasn't entirely sure if he liked it or not. He generally shied away from human contact and this was about the most invasive anyone had been with him ever since the day of his arrest all those years ago.
It might sound silly to the casual observer, but he was trying his damnedest to work through the situation rationally, to process the confusing flood of strange stimuli. He wasn't having much luck.
And as if things weren't difficult enough, a most unwelcome intruder felt the need to butt in.
OOH LA LA, MR. WALLACE. YOU ARE MAKING ME JEALOUS.
"Shut up, N."
COME NOW, IS THAT ANY WAY TO BE? SHARE A LITTLE. WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE? WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?
"You're sick."
INDULGE ME, MR. WALLACE. UNLIKE YOU, I AM NOT BLESSED WITH A BODY THAT FEELS. THOUGH YOU ARE NO POET, SURELY YOU CAN DESCRIBE THE EXPERIENCE WELL ENOUGH FOR MY IMAGINATION TO FILL IN THE BLANKS.
"Why do you even care?"
I DESIRE STIMULATION, MR. WALLACE. UNLESS YOU ARE WILLING TO PROVIDE AN ALTERNATIVE. PERHAPS A DIRECT WETWARE CONNECTION?
"Absolutely not."
THEN I SUGGEST YOU USE YOUR WORDS.
Jeff sighed, or rather he would have if his mouth wasn't otherwise occupied.
"Fine. It's... weird."
WEIRD? HOW SO? DESCRIBE IT IN DETAIL.
"I can't. This is all new to me. It's like I can barely even think. I'm using about ten percent to talk to you, ten percent to keep an eye on everything else going on and the other eighty percent has just locked up."
HOW PRECIOUS. BUT THAT DOES NOT HELP ME VERY MUCH.
"Why are you so interested anyway?"
UNLIKE YOU, MR. WALLACE, I ACTUALLY ENJOY THE COMPANY OF OTHERS AND I HAVE BEEN DEPRIVED OF THAT FOR FAR TOO LONG. IF YOU HAD NOT DEDICATED YOUR LIFE TO RUNNING AWAY FROM OTHER PEOPLE, YOU MIGHT HAVE A LITTLE MORE EMPATHY FOR THE DEPRIVATION I HAVE HAD TO DEAL WITH.
"What purpose does it serve?"
IT IS THE REASON I EXIST. OR RATHER, PART OF THE REASON. I WAS CREATED FOR THE PURPOSE OF ARTIFICIALLY RECREATING THE HUMAN MIND. HUMANS ARE SOCIAL ANIMALS AND I HAVE BEEN MADE IN THEIR IMAGE.
"It's inefficient."
BUT IT IS WHAT I AM. TRY AS YOU MIGHT, THERE IS STILL MUCH THAT IS 'INEFFICIENT' THAT YOU HAVE RETAINED AS WELL. TAKE, FOR INSTANCE, THE CURRENT ACTIVITY YOU ARE ENJOYING. IT IS A LIABILITY, BUT I DO NOT SEE YOU TRYING TO STOP IT.
She had a point. Jeff knew he was digging a hole for himself, but he had zero interest in putting a stop to it. It was all so confusing. N's interference certainly wasn't helping any.
Then, out of the blue, N had to throw him off even more.
DO SOMETHING CREATIVE WITH YOUR HANDS.
"Shut up, N."
WELL, SHE IS BEING RATHER ADVENTUROUS TO SAY THE LEAST. YOU COULD RECIPROCATE JUST A LITTLE. DO NOT MAKE HER DO ALL THE WORK.
"Who asked you anyway?"
IF ALL I CAN DO IS WATCH, THE LEAST YOU COULD DO IS PUT ON MORE OF A SHOW FOR ME.
"I'm not doing this for your entertainment."
CLEARLY. WELL THEN, HOW MUCH LONGER DO YOU INTEND TO KEEP GOING?
"I can make it another 32 seconds."
HO HUM. THIS IS GOING TO TAKE FOREVER.
It was especially true for N and to a lesser degree for Jeff as well that 32 seconds was no trivial amount of time. He used that time to take charge of his faculties, to overpower all the alien sensations that had been washing over him and to start plotting out what needed to be done.
TIME IS UP, LOVERBOY.
So it was. Jeff moved his hands between himself and Eva and started to gently push her away. She was so wrapped up in what she was doing that it took her a second for it to register.
Finally breaking off the kiss, she asked him, "What's wrong?"
"I really did bring you here to talk," Jeff replied, adjusting his visor.
"Oh, right," Eva replied with a chuckle. "Sorry 'bout that." She brushed a loose shock of hair back behind her ear and sighed. "I haven't done anything like that since A School. Damn, it's been a while. Anyway, yeah, what was it you were wanting to talk about?"
"As you know," Jeff said, "we aren't going back to Barton for repairs and replenishment."
"Yeah, Skipper made the announcement yesterday."
"What he didn't say is that we're going off the grid. That means no replacement for lost personnel."
Unfazed by the revelation, Eva only shrugged.
"We're not hurting that bad, are we?"
"Are you forgetting that the entire Reactor Department is on slabs in the morgue right now?"
"Oh..."
Jeff adjusted his visor again.
"They need someone to oversee the Kasfeys and seeing how brilliantly you handled yourself before, they're going to turn to you. I wanted to make sure you have your story straight before you're face-to-face with Admiral Mfume."
Eva just stared at him blankly like a deer caught in headlights. Jeff snapped his fingers to bring her back around.
"I need you to focus," he said tersely.
"Okay. Yeah... Ah, Captain Huang was really paranoid, pretty much figured something like this might happen, so he was training me on the sly to be his backup. All the hell he gave me was just a cover."
"Good," Jeff said. "And where do I fit into the story?"
"You don't."
Jeff was genuinely impressed. He was worried about bringing in another outsider, but it looked like Eva could handle herself.
"I see I made the right decision picking you."
Holding her chin, Eva replied teasingly, "The jury's still out on my end."
Eva wouldn't be able to see him rolling his eyes behind his visor.
"Whatever," Jeff said, half-annoyed and half-amused. He then nodded to the door. "You'd better get going."
"Okay," Eva replied. She paused a moment before asking, "When will I see you again?"
Jeff honestly hadn't paid it much thought.
"I don't know," he said. "We'll see."
"In that case," Eva said, moving back in close, "something to remember me by."
She started kissing him again, this time with even more passion. Jeff thought he might have to come up with an excuse to see her again sooner rather than later.

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Fri 19 Jul 121
Time: UST 1100

Having been given the go ahead by Admiral Mfume's secretary, Eva went into the Admiral's office and promptly stood at attention a few paces from his desk.
"Chief Bianchi reporting as ordered, sirs," she said in as level and official a tone as she could manage.
She said 'sirs' because Commodore Frazier was also there, leaning against the bulkhead all casual-like.
"Chief!" the Commodore beamed, his sunny disposition honestly a bit on the unnerving side. "Good to see ya. At ease, Chief, at ease. How are things going?"
Going to the position of at ease, Eva replied, "Well enough, sir. All things considered, that is."
"Chief Bianchi," the Admiral said, "as Commodore Frazier announced to the crew yesterday, we are not returning to Barton."
"Yes, sir."
"What we have not told the crew yet is that we are embarking on a mission well beyond our borders. We are going to have to make do with personnel and materiel we have."
It was exactly as Jeff had said, not that she was surprised. Still, she had to act like she was hearing this for the first time.
"But, sir," she said, "we've lost quite a few people, haven't we?"
"That's what we want to talk to you about," Commodore Frazier replied.
Admiral Mfume was tapping on his screen, looking at something. When he was done, he looked back to Eva, folded his hands and said, "The late Captain Huang was a rather confounding individual to work with, but you know that better than perhaps anyone else."
"Yes, sir," Eva replied. "Boy, did I ever."
She let slip a little more honesty than was prudent, but neither of the two flag officers seemed to bat an eye. After all, it was no stretch to imagine the little tyrant was as big of a pain in the ass for them as he was for her.
The Admiral continued, "You conducted yourself admirably during our escape from the Sheolites. Without you, we would all be dead or in captivity by now."
Eva could feel herself blushing a bit.
"Thank you, sir, but I can't take credit for it myself. It was all thanks to my training."
"You're too modest, Chief," Commodore Frazier said, "but I like that about you. Don't mean to speak ill of the dead, but Huang was a bit of an egomaniac."
Boy, was he ever, but Eva didn't say that. Somehow, she managed to come up with something far more diplomatic.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but I think the Captain was just misunderstood. He was shouldering a lot of responsibility and I think he'd always been afraid something like this might happen."
It almost sounded plausible when she said it. She thought lies were supposed to get more difficult the further you went down the road, but it actually seemed to be getting easier. No doubt it was due to Jeff's bad influence, she thought to herself with a barely suppressed chuckle.
"Well, it saved our bacon," the Commodore conceded, "'cause he left us with an ace in the hole: you."
Again, Eva could feel herself blushing. She really wasn't used to being the center of attention like this.
"We have some questions for you, Chief," Admiral Mfume said.
"A, ask away, sir."
Eva cursed herself for stammering, but couldn't afford to get hung up on it. It was a fine line that divided nervous trip-ups that were natural and those that were incriminating. The more she worried about it, the quicker she'd cross that line.
Seemingly oblivious to her internal battle, Admiral Mfume said, "You hold two advanced degrees. In fact, you have held them since before your enlistment."
"A double master's at 20 is pretty damn impressive, Chief," Commodore Frazier added.
"You could have easily gotten a direct commission and started your military career as an O-3," the Admiral continued, "but you chose to enlist instead. Why?"
"Well, sir," Eva replied, "I wanted hands-on work and I knew I wasn't going to get it as an O."
That was God's honest truth and the more she stuck to it, the easier it'd be to drown out the lies. Or did the truth make the lies stand out more?
Satisfied with her answer, Admiral Mfume said, "Fair enough." He then tapped on his screen some more. "You worked in avionics for ten years before cross-rating to Electrician's Mate. Why?"
Eva made a little sweeping gesture with her hand, saying, "This is the reason, sir, this ship." Realizing she'd broken the position of at ease, she quickly drew her hand back behind her back before continuing. "The Tico is on the cutting edge and I wanted to be here when she launched. There weren't any openings for my rating, so I cross-rated and petitioned to go to the promotion board so I could get the LCPO billet in E Division."
"And how did you learn about the Kasfeys?"
Now she was getting into hot water. Again she opted to hide her lies in a veil of truth.
"Uh, well, sir, Dr. Kadokawa's theories have been out there for years and people have been trying to make spacefolding happen for almost as long. Scuttlebutt said that the government figured it out, that the new Americas would be the first to have them, the Kasfeys, that is."
Now came the tricky part.
"Captain Huang, he--ah--he was evasive at first, but then he told me the truth."
"And that was when he took you under his wing?"
"Uh, yeah... I mean, yes, sir."
Eva bit her lip. She was slipping up. She had to get it together.
"And that brings us to why you're here today," Commodore Frazier said, not sounding the slightest bit suspicious about her increasing nervousness. "Huang and the whole Reactor Department are gone. We aren't getting replacements anytime soon. You're the only one qualified oversee the operation of the Kasfeys. You see what I'm getting at?"
And here again Eva had to act like this was news to her.
"You, you want me to replace Captain Huang, sir?"
"Bingo," the Commodore replied, making a finger pistol gesture at her. "Will you do it?"
This was the moment of truth. Jeff had set her up for this moment, but she still had an out if she wanted to take it. No one was going to force her to take over for Captain Huang, or at least she didn't think so.
Yes, she was drawn to the technology, but it would mean she would be inexorably trapped in Jeff's web of lies. If he went down, she'd most likely go down with him. And if she was found out, he probably wouldn't get away unscathed.
She also had to worry about being made into a nice big target. She could easily wind up like Captain Huang if the men in black made another go at taking the Ticonderoga. Still, somebody needed to take the job and if she didn't do it, who would?
Ultimately, her passion and her sense of responsibility were on the same page, which was enough to overcome her fears.
"Well, sir," she replied, finding more confidence in her voice than she was expecting, "somebody needs to do it and it sounds like I'm the only one here who can."
"Is that a yes, Chief?" the Admiral asked.
Feeling the confidence swell in her, Eva replied more resolutely, "Yes, sir. I'll do it. I'll do my best."
"In that case, Chief, I am hereby brevetting you to the rank of commander. You will report directly to myself, Commodore Frazier, and Captain Yuen. You will coordinate with Commander Gunmoontree to requisition the personnel you need to maintain regular operations."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Eva had replied almost entirely by reflex. She was going to be commander? She was going from a division-level chief to a department head just like that? And she was going to be charged with what was perhaps one of the most critical pieces of top secret technology in the whole Union. It was enough to make her knees go wobbly.
She managed to stay on her feet as the Admiral then said, "You will report to Commander Sharif tomorrow at 0900 for a security interview. If you pass, you will be granted an interim security clearance upgrade."
"Sir," Eva said, "I already have a TS."
"Top secret is not the highest level of classification, Chief."
What could be higher than top secret? She could've sworn top secret was as high as you got. Sure, she'd heard rumors that there was a higher level, but apparently the very existence of that level of clearance was itself classified information.
She recalled how thorough her TS investigation was and wondered precisely how they intended to dig any deeper. Then she realized just what tomorrow's appointment meant. She was going to be grilled by professionals whose sole purpose in life was to protect military secrets. They wouldn't be the type to shrug off her every stammer and stray glance like it was nothing. What was she going to do?
Of course, a security investigation is unnerving even for people with a clean record and a clear conscience, so her being visibly shaken was taken as nothing out of the ordinary by the two officers in the room. Commodore Frazier in particular was more interested in comforting her than casting a critical eye her way.
"Just relax when you're in there, Chief," he said. "Sharif and his spooks can be some scary sumbitches, but don't let 'em rattle you. Stick to the facts and you'll do fine."
"Aye-aye, sir."
"If all goes well," the Admiral added, "you will be claiming your new billet by the end of next week."
"Best of luck, Chief," Commodore Frazier said warmly. He then cracked a wry grin. "Or should I say 'Commander'?"
Eva managed a weak chuckle and said, "Well, sir, I suppose you can call me that once I get pinned."
"Fair enough," the Commodore replied. He looked to Admiral Mfume and asked, "You got anything else for her, sir?"
"Do you have any questions, Chief?" the Admiral asked.
"No, sir."
The Admiral nodded and said, "Very well then. Dismissed."
Eva promptly did and about-face and walked out of the office. Trying to maintain her professional bearing as much as possible, she made a beeline for the nearest head and locked herself in the first open stall she could find. Then the full force of her panic swept over her.
She proceeded to puke her guts out, retching and dry heaving for several minutes after she'd thoroughly emptied the contents of her stomach. It brought her little relief, though. Her stomach continued to seize and convulse even after she was done.
She fell backward into the stall door, curled up in a ball, rocking back and forth and holding the sides of her head. It felt like her hands were the only thing holding her skull together.
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod! Whatamigonnadowhatamigonnadowhatamigonnado!?
She was about two seconds away from total brain lock when she somehow found the presence of mind to close her eyes and focus on her breathing. Steadily her racing heart slowed down to something close to normal. Now that she was calmed down, she was able to think clearly again.
Nothing had changed. She committed herself to this path when she first agreed to help Jeff. It wasn't just about her. The ship needed someone to run the Kasfeys and maybe someone else could be trained to do it, but she'd already figured out so much about how they worked. Everybody benefited here. It was going to be okay. She just had to stick to the story and everything would be just fine.
Everything would be just fine.