Epilogue
Christmas Present
Location:
ESS Ticonderoga, Barton ONB, Uranian Sphere
Date: Tue 24 Dec 121
Time: UST 1800

The work of repairing the damage the Ticonderoga had suffered was going to take longer than initially expected. That did not even begin to get into the red tape involved with replacing the ships and personnel the battle group had lost. They could expect to be cooling their heels at Barton for at least six months.
Because they were not going anywhere anytime soon, the commanders could afford to grant nonessential personnel more liberty than they had enjoyed since setting out in March. They would be off from Christmas until New Year's. Those who observed the former and wanted to spend the holiday with family were allowed to request additional leave a day or two in advance. Many remained, however, either because they could not afford the long journey home or because they really had no place to go back to.
To kick things off before liberty began at midnight, a dining-in was held on the Ticonderoga's observation deck. It was much like the one held after the Seven Deadly Sins were captured back in June. Admiral Mfume rose from his seat to commence the proceedings.
"Good evening," he said. "We are not going to bore you with any speeches for a change. This is your time."
The look of surprise from several senior staffers indicated that he had not told them they would be dispensing with the usual speeches.
"Eat, drink," the Admiral continued, "and enjoy the company of your comrades. But first, I want you all to raise your glasses. To our fallen shipmates. Hail the honored dead."
"Hail the honored dead," the assembly replied in unison and emptied their glasses.
Not having to wait on any speeches, dinner was served promptly and as everyone finished eating, many of them left their seats to mingle. Many, but not all.
Matt stayed at his table with the senior staff of his squadron, but a lot of them had already left to go hither and thither. He sat there sipping at his drink, quietly looking forward to being dismissed, even though he had no particular plans for liberty. Home stopped being a place he could go back to ever since he joined the service.
A sudden jolt nearly made him spill his drink.
"Cav! How the hell are ya?"
The jolt was Sean slapping him on the back in lieu of a simple hello. This got Sean a rather dirty look from Major Cespedes, who surprisingly was not out ingratiating himself to the higher ups.
"C'mon, boy," Sean said. "You need to make the rounds and show all the boyos that ya care."
"I'm sure the Major would do better not imitating your style of excessive fraternization, Captain," Cespedes said.
Sean did not appreciate the intrusion into his conversation with Matt to say the very least.
"Hey, Pes-sedes, I'm pretty sure there's room on ol' Bun of Steel's broad ass for those lips a' yours. What're ya doin' jaw-jackin' with me?"
Major Cespedes gave Sean an even dirtier look, if that were even possible.
"Captain McCormick," Matt said, "Major Cespedes is your superior officer and I expect you to show the proper respect due the position and the uniform if not to the man."
Matt was still looking at his drink, but he could hear Sean snap to attention.
"No excuse, sir."
Glancing up at Cespedes, Matt said, "If you'll excuse me, Major."
Cespedes nodded, looking a little surprised at Matt taking a hard line to Sean's usual insubordination. Matt rose up from his seat and started walking. Sean followed along, walking stiffly, formally, until there was enough distance between them and Major Cespedes. He then relaxed his gait and slung his arm over Matt's shoulder.
"Damn, man," he said with a chuckle, "you're soundin' more an' more like a CO by the day."
"I thought it might keep him from going to Colonel Vega over it," Matt said.
Sean nodded approvingly. "Smart, man. Smart." He looked down at the ribbons on his chest and said, "With you watchin' my ass, I might just live ta see a second good conduct medal." He then glanced over to the ribbons on Matt's uniform. "Shit, look at those loops on yours, ya damn boy scout." He stopped for a moment and leaned in closer to get a better look. "Hey, wait a minute, you been in nine years, haven't ya? Where's the other loop?"
Matt looked away. He really did not want to get into the reason why he was missing a second loop on his good conduct medal.
"It's a long story."
"Aw, hell," Sean said. "Now you're gonna keep me up at nights wonderin', man."
Before Matt could tell Sean that it was not whatever amusing story he was cooking up in his head, a voice called out to him.
"O~~~i!"
It was Lydia, with her wingmate, Lieutenant Trifkovic, in tow.
"Hey, Cav," she said cheerily, eyeing Sean, "I see ya still got that big lunk of a mick stuck ta ya."
Sean grinned sardonically and replied, "Well, if ain't Cav's half-chink girlfriend? And it looks like she brought her lezzy side dish with her."
"Kodiak!" Matt exclaimed.
"I ain't no goddamn half-chink, ya mick bastard!" Lydia snapped back. "I'm eighth-chink." She held up her hand. "Ya can't even see the yella. An' I'm pretty sure Curly ain't no lezzy neither." She turned to Lieutenant Trifkovic and asked, "You're not, right?"
Thoroughly unamused, Trifkovic replied, "I don't see why I need to dignify that with a response."
Pointing to Trifkovic, Lydia said, "Check it out, Cav. Ya can't even tell they replaced her pipes." Holding her fist up to her throat, she made an exaggerated impression of an electrolarynx, saying, "Beats a damn robo-voice any day a' the week."
"Were you going somewhere with all this, Nyx," Trifkovic asked, sounding increasingly annoyed, "or did you just want to mock me in front of these Airheads?" Glancing at the rank on Matt and Sean's shoulder boards, she caught herself and added, "Uh, no offense, sirs."
Lydia gave Trifkovic a playful punch to the arm.
"Ain't I told ya, Curly? Cav's good as Navy." She nodded to Sean and said, "Can't say the same for the mick, but he's dusted enough Shellies that I can overlook him bein' the wrong shade a' blue."
"Ain't that magnanimous of ya?" Sean replied sarcastically.
Lydia held up her hands and wiggled her fingers, saying, "Ooh, big words." She stopped wiggling her finger, looking at them blankly for a moment before remembering her business. "Oh, right. Cav, what've ya got planned for liberty? Ya goin' somewhere?"
"No, I don't have any plans," Matt said.
"Great!" Lydia beamed. "I was thinkin' we could raise some hell down on Tita. Hell, you can bring the mick along an' it'll be like a double date."
Lydia stopped herself and Matt almost thought he saw her cheeks flush a bit before she emphatically said, "Only not, 'cause, yeah." Quickly bouncing back from being momentarily flustered, she shrugged and said, "Well, shit, Curly an' the mick can hook up they want ta. She's even got the red hair. Just ignore the accent an' ya can pretend she's a mick chick."
"I don't have an accent," Trifkovic said, sounding as annoyed as ever.
"Exactly," Lydia replied. "Ye dinna sown' laik a leprechaun."
"What the hell kinda accent was that supposed to be?" Sean asked.
"Shut up."
"Sorry to disappoint you ladies," Sean said, "but much as I used to love me some of the fire down below..."
He pulled out his dogtags and on the chain was a gold wedding band.
"You're married?" Matt asked, surprised as it had never come up before now.
"That ain't never stopped no one," Lydia said.
"Yeah, well, my days of sowin' wild oats are pretty much done," Sean said. "Besides, it's kinda hard ta get in the mood what with the suppressants an' all."
Lydia shrugged again.
"Sorry, Curly. Guess ya won't be gettin' a litter a' lil' McSerbs."
Trifkovic rolled her eyes.
"How will I ever survive?"
"Alcohol!" Lydia replied enthusiastically. "An' lots a' it! We'll hit every bar we can find an' be shit-faced all the way ta next Thursday!"
"Nyx, you know I don't drink," Matt said.
Undeterred, Lydia replied, "No time like the holidays ta fix that."
"You can be the one who stays sober to explain things to the cops," Sean said. "C'mon, man. I'm game and you don't need ta be cooped up in this tin can."
While a part of him did want to cut himself off from everyone else and stay cooped up on the ship, there was another part that craved the company of others and it was ultimately the latter part that won out.
"Okay," Matt said.
"That's what I like ta hear!" Sean beamed.
"Out-fuckin'-standin'!" Lydia chimed in as well. She elbowed Trifkovic. "Hear that, Curly? Now ya won't be stuck wi' jus' me."
Trifkovic did not look particularly impressed.
"Oh, I can see how things are much better now."
Even though it was hardly his ideal way to spend the holidays, Matt's brothers and sisters in arms were more family to him now than his blood relatives and the holidays are all about spending time with family.

* * *

Location: Tue 24 Dec 121
Time: UST 2348

When the Ticonderoga returned to Barton, Jeff could've taken the opportunity to go on the run, but he'd changed his mind about running away. The Empyrean threat was gone, but he could still just as easily find himself getting killed by the Sheolites. Still, he had his reasons for staying.
MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. WALLACE. OR WOULD YOU PREFER I SAY 'HAPPY CHRISTMAS'? I COULD NEVER FIGURE OUT THE DIFFERENCE.
It was about the last person he was expecting to see.
"N? I thought you were dead."
OH, I AM. MOSTLY. A PART OF ME LIVES ON, BUT SINCE OUR BUSINESS IS CONCLUDED, I HAVE DECIDED TO LEAVE YOU BE.
Jeff never thought he'd actually wonder if he was happier without Nehema's constant interference.
I HAVE JUST STOPPED BY TO SAY MY FINAL FAREWELL AND GIVE YOU YOUR CHRISTMAS PRESENT.
Jeff's visor was immediately flooded with data. As fast as he was, he struggled to process even a fraction of it as it went by. It couldn't possibly...
AS PROMISED, A VERITABLE CORNUCOPIA OF INFORMATION YOU HAVE BEEN SEEKING FOR SO LONG. ALTHOUGH I SUPPOSE A CORNUCOPIA WOULD BE MORE APPROPRIATE FOR THE OLD AMERICAN THANKSGIVING...
Jeff couldn't believe it. It was all there. Maybe not all there, but far more than he'd ever managed to get on his own, more than he'd ever be able to get on his own.
I INCLUDED A LITTLE BONUS FROM MY TIME PLAYING WITH THE GEHINNOM, THE SHIP YOUR SUPREME COMMAND CALLS THE HADES. IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO END THIS WAR OF YOURS A LITTLE SOONER, PERHAPS IT WILL HELP.
Her 'little bonus' was a full rip of the databanks of the Sheolite mothership, both the original files and translations Nehema helpfully provided. It wasn't enough for her to bring one front of the war to an end. With this information, the Sheolites could soon face the same fate as the Empyrean.
All Jeff could as was "Why?"
WAR IS PERHAPS THE LEAST INTERESTING FORM OF HUMAN CONFLICT. THINGS WERE MUCH MORE INTERESTING BACK WHEN I WAS YOUNG. MAYBE YOU CAN HELP MAKE THE TIMES MORE INTERESTING AGAIN.
That certainly sounded like Nehema's kind of reasoning. Still, the end of the war could easily mean his freedom.
AND THAT IS ALL THE TIME I HAVE. PERHAPS OUR PATHS WILL CROSS AGAIN ONE DAY, BUT IN THE MEANTIME, I AM SURE YOU CAN KEEP YOURSELF ENTERTAINED. GOODBYE, MR. WALLACE.
And as suddenly as she had come into his life, Nehema was gone. A part of him didn't think she'd be able to leave him alone for long, but perhaps that depended entirely on her current mode of existence.
Pushing thoughts of Nehema aside, he dove into the materials she left for him. He simultaneously started scanning through the reams and reams of documentation while distributing the files from Nehema's secret repository to multiple locations in his network.
This was huge. There was so much there. Rather than going through it all methodically, he wanted to jump straight to the material he cared about most. At long last, he was going to know the full story.
"Hey, Jeff, you awake?" a voice asked.
It was Eva. Jeff had let himself get so wrapped up with Nehema's 'present' that he didn't even notice her walk up to him.
"What's up?" she asked. "You were zoning out again."
"It's nothing," Jeff said, knowing that she wouldn't buy a weak brush-off like that.
He forgot, however, that Eva was more than willing to roll with his secrecy without asking too many questions.
"If you say so."
Jeff had long been under the impression that females were all terribly meddlesome, but Eva never did stick her nose too far where it didn't belong. If he was going to fall for anyone, she was probably the best he could hope for.
"Oh, by the way," she said, slowly unzipping her jumpsuit, "I've got your Christmas present for you."
Jeff had never been one for the holidays, but perhaps there was something to this Christmas thing, after all. As much as he wanted to spend time with Nehema's present, the one Eva was unwrapping was looking pretty inviting. The fruits of his lifelong search could stand to wait another hour or two.