Chapter 25
A Time to Mend

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Thu 24 Oct 121
Time: UST 0613

The destruction of Yankee One did not prove to be the immediate death sentence some people were fearing. The mystery friend posing as Mika Otonashi proceeded to hijack the two expeditionary fleets over the next 24 hours and turned the tide of battle back in the Union's favor. It was, however, a short-lived reprieve. Whatever technique the mystery friend had used to hijack Empyrean ships stopped working.
Then two more expeditionary fleets arrived.
And everything went to hell.
The Empyrean forces became wildly more aggressive, but unlike the Sheolites, they sacrificed none of their brutal precision in the exchange. These new tactics--coupled with the wear on ship and crew alike--soon led to devastating losses on the Union side. The Anchises was gone along with most of her battle group and both the Eurytus and the Deiphobus only had a handful of their escorts left to defend them. The task force was down to nearly half of its original strength and the fallen angels were losing a ship for every one they took down.
And then two more Empyrean fleets arrived. Surely they were doomed, but they continued to fight on. There was really no other option for them at that point.
"Shields are down!" an operator shouted.
"Launch more mirror chaff!" Commodore Frazier shouted back.
"We're all out!"
The Commodore pounded his fist on his armrest.
"Dammit!"
Quickly regaining his composure, he ordered, "Continue evasive maneuvers! Keep on firing! Unload everything we've got!"
If they were going to go down, they would go down fighting. If it were just them, Commodore Frazier would recall whatever fighters he could and spacefold out, but there was no way he could leave the rest of the task force behind to save his own skin. Even a more conventional retreat would mean leaving several of the more damaged ships behind. It wasn't something the Commodore could do and he was sure Admiral Mfume could not, would not do it either.
And so they were all going to die together.
Or were they?
"Empyrean ships have ceased firing!" a sensor operator shouted.
"Incoming signal!" the communications officer announced.
"All ships, hold fire," Admiral Mfume said. To the communications officer, he said, "Call the rest of the Wise Men and open a channel, Lieutenant."
"Aye, sir. Opening channel."
When the fighting began in earnest and they stopped receiving communications from the Empyrean side, the Three Wise Men started taking shifts being on the bridge. At the moment, only Commander Mizrahi and Captain Teufel were available, but Admiral Mfume apparently wasn't going to wait on Commander Rivkin and Lieutenant Damari to begin.
Unheard of for the Empyrean up until this point, they received a video feed. When displayed on the main viewscreen, it showed an Asian man in his mid to late thirties wearing a bizarre silver crown on his head. Rather than speaking in Empyrean, he surprised everyone by speaking in Standard.
"Sons of Amalek," he said, "blasphemers and idolaters though you are, you have fought bravely. I am the Seraph Ben Raziel, the Keeper of the Secret Knowledge, and I have been tasked to negotiate on my people's behalf. We propose a cease-fire. Until negotiations are complete, if you do not attack us, we will not attack you.
"I shall return three days hence. In the meantime, tend to your wounded and mourn your dead. Do you accept these terms?"
"I do," Admiral Mfume replied.
"And so it shall be," Ben Raziel said. "Three days hence. Until then."
The feed cut off, leaving an uncomfortable silence on the bridge.
Commodore Frazier was the first to speak up.
"Sir, are you sure we should trust them?"
Without a channel being opened for her, Mika appeared on the main viewscreen.
"Mr. Frazier is right, Mr. Mfume. Are you sure you can trust them?"
"How did--"
Mika giggled. "I have my ways, Mr. Frazier. Friends should always keep the lines of communication open."
"I noticed your ships stopped firing before ours did," Admiral Mfume said.
"Very perceptive of you, Mr. Mfume. I am impressed."
"So what's your angle?" Commodore Frazier asked.
"We are poised for mutually assured destruction, Mr. Frazier," Mika said. "She has finally realized this and is going to stall while she tries to figure out an alternative strategy. You should use this time to rest, repair and restock because I doubt the negotiations will end on peaceful terms."
"Who's 'she'?" Commodore Frazier asked.
"That seems to be the question everyone is asking, but you will soon enough, Mr. Frazier. Perhaps Mr. Mfume would appreciate it if you were not monopolizing so much of my time. He is, after all, your superior."
"I believe I can speak for myself," Admiral Mfume said. "So what are your plans?"
"My little ship collection is much depleted. I need my own time to rest, repair, restock, and find creative new ways to add to my collection, all while preventing her from taking any of her toys back."
"I take it this 'she' is the Empyrean leader."
Holding her hand to her heart in an exaggerated display of being impressed, Mika said, "My, you truly are perceptive. No wonder you are in charge here."
"Your cyberattacks will jeopardize the cease-fire."
Mika shook her finger and said, "On the contrary, Mr. Mfume, the longer she is preoccupied with me, the longer the cease-fire will last and the more time you have to prepare yourself for the final battle." She smiled broadly with all the sincerity of a used car salesman. "Would I steer you wrong?"
"Someone who hides behind a cloak of anonymity does not inspire much trust," the Admiral said sharply.
Mika crossed her arms and pretended to pout.
"I would think the fact that my kill count is more than double your own should offset any misgivings my anonymity might give you."
"It helps your case," the Admiral said, "but until I know who you really are and what your agenda is, you should not expect me to trust you any farther than I already have."
Mika sighed, a little too theatrically to be taken seriously.
"How is it that I always seem to get involved with such distrustful men?" she asked. "The naive type is so much more fun to play with."
The Admiral was quickly losing patience with her and her antics.
"Do you have anything substantial to add?"
Mika frowned.
"And so boringly to the point..."
She sighed again and said, "No, Mr. Mfume, that should do for now. Keep watching your back and perhaps no one will be able to stick a knife in it. See you next time."
After Mika blew a kiss to the Admiral, the screen went blank. Admiral Mfume stared at the blank screen for a few moments before rising up from his chair.
"Assemble the staff," he said. "We need to discuss our next move. Monitor the situation and continue the search for survivors. We are now at Condition Orange Plus for the next 24 hours."
With that, the Admiral rose from his chair and left the bridge. Commodore Frazier stayed behind to oversee things until the staff meeting began. It looked like they had been saved from immediate destruction, but it was entirely possible that the timestamp on their death certificates had only been pushed back a day or two.

* * *

Date: Thu 24 Oct 121
Time: UST 0744

Lydia sat in her office, bouncing her racquetball off the bulkhead as she liked to do whenever she didn't want to be doing anything else. They were on Orange Plus, so they still had to be ready to sortie at a moment's notice, but that wasn't all that much different than how things always were once they left port.
"I don't get how you can do this for hours on end," a robo-voice said.
It was Trifkovic, sitting there with her, watching Lydia bounce the ball off the bulkhead because she didn't have much else to be doing either. The reason for the robo-voice was because Sickbay didn't actually carry any artificial voiceboxes in stock and they had to improvise a cheap electrolarynx so she could communicate. It wasn't, however, enough to get her cleared for flight duty.
"It sucks not havin' ya on my wing, Curly," Lydia said. "I hate bein' stuck with that friggin' nugget Fogel."
"It's not my fault the board didn't go for that hands-free rig," Trifkovic replied. "Now I've got to wait until we're back in port before I can get real unit implanted."
"If we ever make it back ta port, ya mean."
"They've stopped attacking, haven't they? Maybe they're ready to talk."
Lydia chuckled sardonically.
"You keep thinkin' that, Miss Rainbows an' Unicorns. They're just playin' for time. Yeah, we've wrecked their shit pretty bad, but our shit's pretty well wrecked too an' they still have that big-ass monster tub an' a whole fuckin' colony ta throw at us."
"Don't lose your head with all that optimism," Trifkovic said, the sarcasm conveyed fairly well in spite of the electrolarynx's poor pitch control.
Lydia threw the ball a little harder.
"It jus' pisses me off," she grumbled, "the thought a' gettin' dusted by these whackjobs instead a' goin' out neck-deep in dead Shellies."
"Then don't die here."
Lydia glanced over her shoulder at Trifkovic, doing her best to look unimpressed.
"Ya got an answer for everythin', don't ya, Curly?"
Trifkovic managed a slight grin.
"I try."
"Think fast."
Lydia threw the ball at Trifkovic, intending to catch her off-guard, but she deftly intercepted it, not even flinching. It was pretty badass on her part, Lydia had to admit. She couldn't help but grin.
"Damn board don't know what it's talkin' 'bout."

* * *

Date: Thu 24 Oct 121
Time: UST 0757

First Platoon's morning PT went on longer than usual, but the Marines of First could generally expect extra PT whenever Miranda was running the show. Lieutenant Dixon had gotten pretty good at leading PT himself after the first couple months since he was assigned to the unit, but today he had other business to attend to.
As the Marines were returning to the assembly area, Miranda shouted, "Alright, fall in, people! Quick-like, quick-like!" And once they had formed up, she told them, "At ease." She paced back and forth a few times, sizing up the ranks, before saying, "When I dismiss you, hit the showers, grab some chow, and report to the motor pool by 0900. We're gonna be runnin' diagnostics on you suits, make sure everyone's good to go if the call comes in."
Corporal Hoek spoke up.
"Gunny, permission to speak?"
"What is it, Corporal?"
"Scuttlebutt says we're gonna be rollin' out soon."
Giving the entire platoon a critical eye, Miranda said, "Y'all need to be keepin' a lid on the scuttlebutt."
"But, Gunny," PFC Maliki said, not asking permission first, "LT ain't here for reason, right? And you ain't just PT'in' us this hard 'cause it's Thursday."
Scowling at Maliki, Miranda said, "Maliki, drop." While Maliki was down beating his face, she then said, "I'm not sayin' one way or the other, but I expect y'all to be in fightin' shape if we get the call. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Gunny!" the platoon shouted in unison.
"Good," Miranda said. "Maliki, recover." Going to the position of attention, she shouted, "P'atoon, atten-shun!"
The platoon went to attention with a loud "KILL!" They knew to sound off to Miranda's satisfaction no matter how long or how hard she PT'ed them lest they get another hour or two piled on.
"Dismissed."
The platoon fell out and went on their way, but Corporal Hoek stayed behind.
"Can I help you, Corporal?" Miranda asked.
"I know you have to say what you did to the whole platoon, Gunny, but between you and me, have you heard anything?"
"There is no 'you and me', Corporal," Miranda said. "You're the platoon and what I've said is all I'm gonna say. Now get."
"Aye-aye, Gunny."
In all truth, Miranda had heard the rumors herself and was sure that Lieutenant Dixon was meeting with the other commanders to discuss contingency operations. They could easily be looking to mobilize the entire XI MEF to pacify the colony, but she could not let idle rumors run wild in the ranks. Keeping them on target and focused on the task at hand was what her job was all about.
Still, if even half of what she had heard about these Empyrean folks were true, it would make the Villareyes operation look like a cakewalk and even fighting waves and waves of Shelly boarders might look like the better deal.

* * *

Date: Thu 24 Oct 121
Time: UST 0942

DataPad in hand, Eva walked up to her DIVO, Lieutenant Abel-Gamal, and said, "Sir, I--"
The Lieutenant interrupted her, saying, "You shouldn't be calling me 'sir' anymore, ma'am."
It was then that Eva had to remind herself that Lieutenant Gamal was her former DIVO. She was no longer E Division's LCPO. She was an officer herself now, a department head, and she outranked her former superiors. This didn't sit well with them and pretty much the whole Engineering Department turned on her the moment she showed up with those three bars pinned to her collar. It was as if all the ill-will Captain Huang had built up got transferred directly to her.
Even though she was generally rebuffed at every turn, she still tried to make herself useful to her old colleagues in Engineering and especially those in E Division.
"Uh, right," Eva said. Correcting herself, she picked up where she left off. "Lieutenant Gamal, I was running some simulations and I think I have a plan that would boost our shield generators' output. I was wanting to run it by you and--"
Interrupting her again, Lieutenant Gamal said brusquely, "Ma'am, with all due respect, I'd appreciate it if you stick to your own department."
More than a little crestfallen but desperate not to show it, Eva replied, "Oh, well, okay then. Carry on."
She walked back to her own little piece of real estate, the Kasfeys' platform. She'd been so eager to get up close and personal with the new technology and now it had become a lonely island in a sea of hostility. She wondered why she ever left avionics in the first place, why she bothered making chief, why she got herself into this mess.
She had to shake it off, though. Whether she liked it or not, she had a job to do. Right now she was the only one who could properly oversee the Kasfeys and if things took a turn for the worse, she'd once again have to be the one to guide the ship and her crew to safety.
Still, when all this was over, maybe she'd be better off requesting a transfer, cross-rate back to avionics, even if it meant getting docked back down to E-6. It was something to think about, but for now, it needed to be put on the back burner. She had things to do.

* * *

Date: Thu 24 Oct 121
Time: UST 1411

Admiral Mfume sat in his office, working up the resolve to contact SupCom. The command staff had spent hours discussing, debating and outright arguing about their immediate plans since the ceasefire was declared. No one fully trusted the Empyrean and few wanted to risk ceding momentum to the enemy, but they needed this time to recover and hopefully position themselves to claim an advantage, but that was not too likely. Even with the remaining fallen angels, the Empyrean side was still stronger and that did not even account for the still missing Alpha Fleet that had plagued them for so long.
Though the odds were not as unreasonably lopsided as when they began, it was still entirely possible that they could face total annihilation. They had already suffered unacceptably high losses. Any more would just leave the Colonies that much more vulnerable to the predations of the Sheolites, their true enemies.
Still, they had their orders and they had their mission. Unless he could convince SupCom otherwise, Admiral Mfume had no choice but to continue the operation.
He powered on the red terminal at his desk, used only for top secret-level communications. Because of the considerable signal lag, he would be using text only.
EMPYREAN DECLARES CEASEFIRE. NEGOTIATIONS TO COMMENCE IN 3 DAYS. TASK FORCE STRENGTH AT 60%. ENEMY ADVANTAGE 120%. ADVISE.
The Admiral did not factor in the fallen angels when reporting the comparative strength of the two sides. For one thing, explaining the fallen angels would be too complicated at this point in time. Also, he could not help but feel a part of him was compelled to paint as dire a picture as possible in hopes of avoiding any further losses.
He sat there for nearly and hour before the reply arrived.
UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER ONLY OPTION. VICTORY AT ALL COSTS. PREPARE XI TO OCCUPY COLONY. ACKNOWLEDGE.
Admiral Mfume was not terribly surprised, but it was disappointing all the same. They would have to charge forward until they either got the unconditional surrender SupCom demanded or were wiped out completely. And to top it all off, it looked like General Wylczyk would get his way after all. Admiral Mfume would have to call in the Marathons along with the Starlights bearing replenishment supplies. XI MEF would start making preparations to seize the colony one way or the other. Their losses stood to be even greater now, but there was no way around it.
Each letter felt like it was causing him physical pain as he typed his reply.
ACKNOWLEDGED.