Chapter 4

Location: Outer Rim of the Uranian Sphere
Date: Mon 08 Jul 121
Time: UST 1522

"Rittern, this is Blau One. Report in," Matt said.
As he listened to the reports of Blau Two through Blau One-Eight, he felt the tension slowly easing from his body. While Delta Flight was out on patrol, they encountered Sheolite fighters and the whole squadron scrambled to rush to their aid. Twelve Vipers and four Cobras versus eighteen Hornets. Miraculously, the 421 managed to take down the Sheolite fighters with only minor damage to their own.
While Matt was relieved to hear all his pilots were alive and relatively unharmed, he could not rest easy yet. Upon doing a wider radar sweep, he saw an extra contact around Charlie Flight.
"Blau Five, this is Blau One," Matt said. "What's the ID of that contact?"
"Blau One, this is Blau Five. Contact is inactive bandit. Life sign positive."
Without the engine signature, the enemy identification would have gone off. That explained the reading at least, but what was Matt supposed to do? He had never heard of a Sheolite ship being left whole after an engagement. Should he call SAR or should he order Charlie Flight to finish it off? He did not want to put his men or anyone else at risk, but he was not prepared to commit a violation of the laws of war either.
For better or for worse, he was not the one to make that call.
"Blauen Rittern, this is Sokol Three. Weapons safe. I repeat, weapon safe. Charlie Flight, hold position. Alpha, Bravo, Delta, patrol the area until further notice."
Sokol Three. That was the Operations Group CO, Colonel Duvalier. He had taken over the mission, so now there was nothing to do but follow orders.
"You heard him, Rittern," Matt said.
It was out of his hands now. He did not know what the best course of action was and he only hoped his superiors did.

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outer Rim of the Uranian Sphere
Date: Mon 08 Jul 121
Time: UST 1623

Commodore Frazier was glad to be on deck. If he had been away, the Pelican carrying the captured Sheolite fighter might already be on board. It was the last thing he wanted and he stepped in to bar the Pelican from docking. What followed was a tense standoff of conflicting orders while the Pelican maintained a holding pattern outside.
"We aren't putting that thing on my ship," the Commodore insisted. "Just because the scans came up negative doesn't mean it's safe."
"Actually, sir," Commander Sharif said, "you are going to allow the captured Viper into one of the hangars."
Commodore Frazier glared at his Chief Intelligence Officer.
"Excuse me, Commander?"
Sharif simply held up his DataPad for the Commodore to see.
"I have orders from Admiral Denain. The Ticonderoga will deliver the Viper and its pilot to Barton immediately."
"And what's Admiral Denain going to do if it turns out to be a Trojan horse?"
Without answering his question, Sharif replied, "Marshal Van Daan's signature is here as well, sir."
"No, I refuse to accept this," the Commodore said, turning to the communications officer. "Get me ONI on the horn right now."
The communications officer complied and after a couple minutes they were connected with ONI.
"Office of Naval Intelligence, how may I help you, sir?" the receptionist asked.
"I want to speak with Admiral Denain," Commodore Frazier said. "This is a Class 1 priority."
"But, sir, the Admiral--"
"I said Class 1 priority."
"A, aye-aye, sir."
A few more minutes passed until the Director of Naval Intelligence himself appeared onscreen. To say the least, he didn't look happy.
"What's the meaning of this, Commodore Frazier?" the Admiral growled. "You don't just toss around Class 1 priority like it's nothing."
"Sir, would you care to explain the orders you've just given me?"
"I thought Commander Sharif would have done that."
"That Viper is too dangerous to bring aboard. I can't allow it."
Admiral Denain gave him a powerful scowl. He clearly wasn't used to being challenged and he had no patience for it.
"You can and you will, Commodore, or I'll have you relieved of your command."
"You don't have that authority, sir."
"Those orders were cosigned by the Supreme Commander. Do I need to bring in the Minister of Defense or maybe even Chairwoman Liu?"
The Commodore said nothing.
Admiral Denain continued, "That is the first intact Sheolite craft to fall into our hands ever since the war began and there's a live Sheolite inside who could provide us with invaluable intelligence. Any further obstruction on your part, Commodore, and I'll see you brought up on an Article 32."
The Admiral was bringing out the big guns, threatening a court-martial, but Commodore Frazier had no intention of backing down now. The lives of the men and women on board counted for more than his career. Besides, being a Hero of the Union, he had a little more job security than the average sailor.
However, before the standoff could escalate any further, Admiral Mfume stepped in.
"There will be no need for that, Admiral Denain," he said. "As battle group commander, I am taking charge of the situation and will see the orders executed as directed."
Despite Admiral Mfume coming to his aid, Admiral Denain didn't appear all that happy for his intervention.
"Mfume, huh? You could've stepped in sooner and saved us all a lot of trouble."
"Sir!" Commodore Frazier exclaimed.
Admiral Mfume held up a hand to stop him before he could start. "That's enough, Commodore." He nodded to the screen. "Admiral."
With that, Admiral Denain cut the feed, but that was hardly the end of it for Commodore Frazier.
"Sir, you can't be serious," he said. "You have to know how dangerous that thing is."
"I do," Admiral Mfume replied, "but there is no countermanding orders with the Supreme Commander's approval. Do what needs to be done to minimize the danger to the ship and the crew. That is all."
Reluctantly, the Commodore went to the position of attention and said, "Aye-aye, sir."

* * *

Date: Mon 08 Jul 121
Time: UST 1817

Half of the ships in Hangar One had been transferred to Hangar Four to give the captured Viper wide berth, but it would count for little if it exploded, even though scans did not detect any threat.
The Pelican carrying the Viper touched down and the hangar was repressurized. Teams were on hand to attach repulsors to the Viper for easy towing, but the first priority was securing the pilot. A squad of MAs and a couple Corpsmen were standing by while the crew of the Pelican went to work cutting into the Viper's hull.
The Viper did not have anything as convenient as a canopy to remove. In fact, just looking at it, you would be hard-pressed to tell how the pilot got in there in the first place.
The crew was under strict orders to keep the Viper as intact as possible, but being unable to figure out how the cockpit worked, cutting was the only solution. It was fortunate that everyone present were wearing suits because unidentified fumes rose up from the cutters as they opened up the hull. As they were prying off the first layer, one hapless crewman made the mistake of touching the edge with his hands and was immediately thrown into a panic as it started to eat through his gloves. If it was not clear how delicate and treacherous this operation was, that mishap made it clear.
They brought in more tools to minimize any direct contact between the crew and the Viper. Another layer had to be cut away before they could get to the cockpit. Inside was a vaguely human shape wrapped in a twitching, pulsating, fleshy sleeve. As they peeled away the thick membrane, the figure convulsed violently, letting out a muffled, gagging scream. What they found underneath was a human, wide-eyed and frantic.
The pilot continued choke and gag as the crew pulled out the long tubes from his throat and nostrils. He immediately started coughing up the same orangish liquid that dripped from the tubes, screaming amidst the few desperate gasps of air he could manage.
The crew struggled to hold him down as he thrashed about, all the while continuing to peel off the membrane. After one last, great strain against the crewmen, all the resistance was drained out of him. The pilot lay there breathing shallowly for a few moments. His head lolled side to side lazily for a while until it just stopped. The dazed expression left his face, replaced with collected menace as he glared at the crewmen holding him down. His breathing slowed, became more controlled.
Still glaring at the crewmen, he remained perfectly still, save for his arms, which he wrenched out of the crewmen's grip. An MA standing on the nose of the Viper behind the crewmen raised his pistol and pointed it at the pilot, the laser sight placing a red dot square on his forehead. Slowly, deliberately, the pilot folded his forearms back to hold up his hands in surrender, but his eyes told another story. The way he glared at his captors, it was as if he could kill them all. It was frightening to wonder what exactly was keeping him from doing so.

* * *

Date: Mon 08 Jul 121
Time: UST 2105

The captured Sheolite pilot had been in the brig for nearly three hours now. Commodore Frazier was just getting around to paying a visit. The Chief Security Officer was making the rounds at the moment, but the CMAA was in the control station along with Dr. Kim, the ship's Chief Medical Officer, who had insisted on performing the initial examination of the detainee.
"What've we got?" the Commodore asked the Chief.
"You're never going to believe it, sir," the Chief said. "The Shelly in there is Rupert Victor Murdoch."
"Rupert Murdoch... Why does that name sound familiar?"
The Chief, who was at least twenty years Commodore Frazier's senior, replied, "Hell, sir, you probably were too young to remember it, but Rupert Victor Murdoch was the Outer Rim Ripper. They convicted him on 43 counts, but it could've been more. They sent him to the Icebox. They didn't find his body when the Shellies hit DeBoni back in '96. I guess we know now where he's been all these years."
It all clicked. Even being a native Earther, the Commodore had heard about the Outer Rim Ripper. He was one of the most prolific lone serial killers in Union history and there was a rather high-profile movie made about him back when the Commodore was in high school.
Now that he realized who the prisoner was, his thoughts quickly turned to the Sheolite attack on Pluto back in '96, three years before the initial declaration of war. Statistics from the many Sheolite attacks over the years flooded into his brain, especially the numbers of people who went unaccounted for after the attacks. There were millions of confirmed deaths, but many millions more that were officially listed as missing.
And that was when it hit him.
"Wait a minute... If he was drafted into the Shelly forces, that would mean..."
"That every Union citizen who ever went missing after a Shelly attack could be out there on the other side, bleeding us and getting bled."
The Commodore could feel his guts sink.
"My God..."
"It gets better," Dr. Kim said, inserting herself into the conversation. "While I am restricted from examining him more thoroughly, I can tell you that he has undergone extensive cybernization and it seems to have been conducted in the most barbaric way possible. This is on par with the work of Hermann Voss."
Doing little to hide her condescension, Dr. Kim replied, "This seems to be your day for history lessons, Commodore. Hermann Voss was a cybernetician who worked back during the Blackout. Once the Union was formed, his research was declared illegal, so he went underground, continuing his experiments in Laos until the Feds caught him in Double-Aught Six. I don't specialize in cybernetics, but I saw his work when I was in med school. Gruesome stuff. The press called him the 'Cyber-Mengele'. Trust me, it fits."
"And you think other people have been given the same treatment?"
"It stands to reason."
It was a terrifying thought, even if it applied only to a fraction of the missing Union citizens. How could they have been fighting so long and still know so little about the enemy? Worse yet, what if they did know? SupCom, the higher ups. What if they already knew? If so, how long had they known? Why were they suppressing the truth?
Before Commodore Frazier could entertain any more uncomfortable questions, the Chief asked him, "Are we going to be interrogating the prisoner, sir?"
Commodore Frazier was immediately reminded of Intel's claim on the prisoner and the entire situation.
"ONI wants to have all the fun to themselves," he said. "but one of the Intel boys might drop in to warm up Mr. Murdoch here for the main event."
It left him with a bad taste in his mouth, but even as flag officer, he had people over him who called the shots. Regardless of the intelligence that could be gained, he wished this Rupert Victor Murdoch had been dusted with the rest of his comrades. He only hoped Intel's plan would not invite disaster for the Tico and her crew.