Chapter 1
Birthday Present
Titania Colony 01, Titania, Uranian Sphere
Date: Thu 12 Jun 122
Time: UST 1914

The repairs on the Ticonderoga were finished. The replacements for lost ships and personnel had arrived. The inquiries into the Selene 03 incident had been drawn to a close. After nearly seven months of being stuck at Barton, the Ticonderoga and her crew would be returning to the fight.
They were scheduled to set out next week, so all nonessential personnel were granted three days of shore leave. The long weekend would be the last break the crew could expect until the upcoming cruise came to an end.
Coincidentally, this day, right before shore leave began, was Matt's 30th birthday. Sean and Lydia ganged up on him to get him to apply for early release that evening, right at the end of duty hours. The request was granted and the three of them went down to Titania to celebrate.
They went to a bar and grill that happened to be one of the few places Sean and Lydia could agree on. Matt did not bother to mention that they did not really consult him for his opinion. They went to this same bar and grill three times during their bar-hopping spree over the Christmas-New Year's break. It was the only place to get more than a single visit and also one of the few not to throw them out whenever Sean, Lydia or even Lieutenant Trifkovic would get belligerently drunk.
Lieutenant Trifkovic did not join them for this outing, however. She claimed to have other plans and said that she would feel more like fifth wheel if she came along. Lydia's insistence that she would be the fourth wheel due to the headcount failed to persuade her.
The bar and grill, which was called Stumpy's, was close to the spaceport, so it did not take them long to get there and take seats at the bar to avoid the wait for a table. (And also because both Sean and Lydia wanted to be closer to the alcohol.)
Sean and Lydia sat on opposite sides of Matt, Sean to the right and Lydia to the left. They would say it was because they were flying in formation, but the more likely reason is that they appreciated having Matt between them to intervene if they got out of hand. The way those two would snipe at each other was ridiculous, but they had formed a strange camaraderie based on mutual trash talk and high alcohol tolerance.
Sean clapped Matt on the back, booming cheerily, "Happy birthday, Cav! Drinks are on me! What can I get for ya?"
"A ginger ale will be fine," Matt said.
No matter how many times he declined the offer to drink alcohol, Sean was never content to leave it at that.
"C'mon, man," Sean said. "It's your birthday. The big Three-Oh. High time you started drinkin' like a man."
"Aw, you know Cav don't drink," Lydia said. She then grinned slyly and elbowed Matt in the ribs, adding, "He's a pussy like that." She then briefly turned her attention from teasing Matt to order. "Hey, bartender, get me some rotgut, cheap 'n plenty."
Sean shook his head and sighed.
"Don't drink, don't smoke, don't gamble. You got any vices, Cav?" He turned to ask the bartender, "Got any rye whiskey?" When the bartender poured him a glass, he said, "Leave the bottle and get me a pitcher of beer to go with it, whatever's on tap." Downing the glass of whiskey in a single gulp, he looked over to Lydia and asked, "How 'bout the lil' hellcat there? The suppressants ain't kept you two from goin' at it like jackrabbits, have they?"
Lydia gulped her drink hard, apparently in a bid to keep from spitting it all over the bar.
"Hey, man," she said irritably, "Cav's my wing buddy, not my fuck buddy." Looking at Matt somewhat critically, she emptied her glass and said, "Hell, I think I'm more interested in girls than he is."
Pouring himself some beer, Sean raised an eyebrow with interest piqued.
"Oh? Tell me more. I always love hearin' 'bout you Navy lezzies."
Lydia, who had already drank four glasses of rotgut with nothing on her stomach, was already starting to slur her speech.
"I ain't a damn lezzy," she grumbled. "I's just sayin' that Cav ain't a horndog like most us fighter jocks. Shit, suppressants prolly don't stop you from fuckin' anythin' that walks."
Sean was chugging his mug of beer and did not stop to answer until he had finished. Letting out a satisfied "Ah!", he said, "Well, you don't get to be a star cyberball player without gettin' all the tail a man could want. And, a' course, the uniform gets you plenty of pussy too. Add that to bein' a combat fighter pilot and I can just point to girl and the panties'll drop."
Sean made a finger pistol gesture at Lydia and winked, which got him a mean glare. All this was making Matt terribly uncomfortable.
"Could we not talk about this?" he asked.
Apparently not, because while Sean was pouring himself a second glass of whiskey, he said, "Truth be told, I haven't gotten laid in two years now."
"Holy shit," Lydia replied incredulously. "How'd you manage that? Equipment failure or somethin'?"
She wagged her finger limply, which gave Sean his turn to shoot a mean glare.
"Fuck you," he growled. He then took a sip of his whiskey, not downing it like the first glass. "Naw, the wifey left me when I got reinstated."
Matt remembered learning that Sean was married only last year, but he never talked about it.
"You said it was a long story," Matt said.
"Well, there's no need ta get inta my shit," Sean said. He then finished off the glass of whiskey and plopped it down on the bar. "This is your day, Cav."
"I don't mind," Matt said. "I mean, if you want to talk about it, that is."
"Cav'z alweysh shtickin' 'iz nose inta 'ard-luck kayshiz," Lydia said. "Look 'ow 'e'z been shtuck wi' me."
Sean grinned and shook his head again.
"Damn, man, you really have changed. Hard ta believe you was once that squirrely new jack."
"Ooh," Lydia said excitedly, leaning into Matt, "I wanna 'ear thish."
"Ain't he never told ya?" Sean asked. "I was his first flight leader, you know, back at Fahrenholz, just up in the sky a ways. Right outta the Academy, been almost ten years now."
"Cav don't never talk 'bout 'iz pasht," Lydia replied, still leaning on Matt. "Shit, I'd've never knew 'e 'ad th' killz 'e did if they di'n't carry over 'iz killboard shtats. All 'e'd ever shay's that 'e left combat flyin' for Esh-AR, but I never 'eard why."
"You mind, Cav?" Sean asked. "Hella memories ta bring up on your damn birthday."
Although reliving what happened with the 227th was hardly on the list of things he wanted to do today, for some reason he almost wanted Lydia to hear it, at least from Sean instead of him.
"It's okay," he said.
Ignoring his drinks, Sean crossed his arms and leaned back, looking up at the ceiling.
"Well," he said, "Cav was new ta the Two-Twenty-Seventh, hadn't been there a month when the Battle a' Titania went down. This was back in October a' '12. Before your time, I reckon."
"I'd jush' shtarted my shecon' year a' th' 'Cademy," Lydia said.
Surprised by this, Sean asked, "No shit? How old are you?"
After doing the math in his head, Sean then asked, "How in the hell'd you get in your second year at 17?"
"Got outta 'igh shchool early. Got a waiver."
"You need a waiver ta start at 17," Sean said.
Lydia pulled away from Matt and hunched over the bar, pouring herself another drink.
"Yeah, well, my ol' man's a Hero a' th' Union an' shit."
Sean's eyes widened a bit at this.
"You're shittin' me. Now that sounds like a story ta hear."
"I don' wanna talk 'bout i'," Lydia mumbled into her drink. "Look 'im up yerself. N' get back ta th' shtory."
"Oh, right. Battle a' Titania. Now, you Navy folk busted the Shellies up for the most part, but they threw a helluva lotta superlights our way before they pulled out. Well, we roll out ta take 'em down and it all goes straight ta hell. Some a' the worst I've seen an' let me tell ya, I've seen some shit."
He held his empty glass of whiskey, staring at the ice and rubbing the brim with his finger.
"The goddamned Shellies shot me down," he said. "I actually got put on the KIA list an' they didn't get it sorted out for months."
"Sho wha' 'appened?"
"Well," Sean said, "I take a missile hit an' I go straight down here ta good ol' Tita. My Datch holds together long enough for me ta eject near the surface." He slammed his fist into his open palm to simulate the impact. "Bam! I broke damn near every bone in my body. The mad docs spent like a year puttin' me through reconstruction."
"Shit, an' I thought I 'ad i' bad."
"You been fucked up too?"
"Oh yeah," Lydia replied, holding up her left hand and flexing her fingers. "Don't got all th' 'rij'n'l 'quipment nomore." She put her hand down. "But we ain' talkin' 'bout me."
"Whatever you say, kid," Sean said, shaking his head. He started to pour himself another glass of whiskey. "Once the mad docs were done with reconstruction, I was put on TDRL an' transferred ta the VA hospital. Well, one a' the nurses--fine-ass nurse, by the way--was actually the sister a' this waitress I sorta had a thing with. An' let the record state that she's even more fine-ass than her sister." He nudged Matt with his elbow. "She worked at the steakhouse I was gonna take ya to, Cav."
Matt actually met the waitress Sean was talking about, not long after the Battle of Titania, when the surviving combatants were granted a three-day pass. He remembered her asking about Sean and how terrible it made him feel, how he left without saying anything and went back to the spaceport until he could fly back to Fahrenholz. But he did not tell Sean any of this. All he said was, "Oh," like he was just now learning it.
Continuing his story, Sean said, "Anyway, Betty--that's her name--started visitin' me in the hospital, helpin' out with my physical therapy and shit. Well, what we had before was just a casual thing, just fun an' fuckin', but things got real for us an' we got hitched before the year was out. The mad docs were pissed about it, but I got myself rigged up in an exo suit for the ceremony. Couldn't've done it from a fuckin' chair, now could I?"
"Norm'ly I'd shay shit went shour b'fore yer firs' ann'v'rsh'ry," Lydia replied, "but you shed she jush' been gone two years."
"Yeah," Sean said, putting down his glass without drinking from it. "Like I said, I was on TDRL. If ya want back in, ya got six years. An' I wanted back in. Couldn't let my wing buddies do all the fightin' an' dyin' now, could I?
"Well, Betty acted supportive, but that was only b'cause she didn't think the board would ever clear me. I was lit'rally on my last damn chance when I got the green light." He chuckled to himself and shook his head. "Man, was she pissed..."
He picked the glass of whiskey back up and downed it in one gulp, slamming it down on the bar. It actually made Matt jump a little.
"She gave me an ultimatum," he said. Despite having slammed down his glass, he did not sound particularly angry. "I had to pick her or the war. It was a shitty-ass choice, but a man can't shirk his responsibilities."
"Bros b'fore hos," Lydia replied with a grin.
Sean narrowed his eyes and jabbed his finger at her.
"Watch yer mouth talkin' 'bout my wife, kid."
"Eksh-wife, ain' i'?"
Sean shook his head.
"Nah. She never filed for divorce and she still gets the cut a' my check, so maybe when all this is over, I can convince her ta take me back."
In over a year's time, Matt never had the slightest clue Sean was dealing with all this. If you looked at how upbeat he always was, could anyone really tell? Matt almost felt as bad about that as he did about the problem itself.
"I never knew..." Matt said. "I'm so sorry."
"Aw, what you gotta be sorry fer, Cav?" Sean asked. "Now if you was Jodyin' my lil' wifey, I'd give ya a reason ta be sorry."
Sean playfully punched Matt in the arm. Even after telling them all that, he was able turn on his sunny disposition. It was some kind of magic as far as Matt was concerned. He would never understand how Sean could do it.
"Shucks 'bout yer ol' lady," Lydia said, actually sounding somewhat sincere about it. She quickly switched gears and asked Sean, "Sho yewer Cav's flight leed'r back 'n 'e wuz jush' a wee lil' hyokko?"
"That's right."
Lydia got a silly grin on her face and leaned into Matt again.
"Heh, I'd've loved ta've sheen baby Cav. Lon' az I've known 'im. Cav's alweysh been th' one watchin' my ash."
"Yeah, I'll bet he has," Sean said, his own grin more sly than silly. He leaned back to look around Matt at Lydia's backside and said, "Damn, kid, you say you ain't a chink, but you seriously got a chink's total lack of ass."
Lydia dropped her grin and flipped Sean off.
"'Ey, fuck you, man."
Not letting up, Sean followed up by saying, "Maybe when you start gettin' ta work bearin' my boy here some young uns, you might get some shape ta that skinny ass a' yours."
"Kodiak!" Matt exclaimed.
Lydian pounded her fist on the bar.
"Zaken'ja nee yo!"
Sean laughed out loud.
"D'you jus' use Jap ta spite your ho-no-ra-ble chink ancestors?"
Sean said the 'ho-no-ra-ble' bit in an exaggerated Chinese accent, folding his hands, squinting his eyes and sticking out his front teeth.
"Mebbe," Lydia said grouchily. "Fuck my 'ho-no-ra-ble' chink anshesht'rz, and fuck you too, ya mick bashterd."
She mimicked Sean's little caricature on the 'ho-no-ra-ble', which was making Matt even more uncomfortable than their bawdy conversation from earlier.
"Nyx, Kodiak," he warned, "do you really want to get written up on EO charges again?"
Lydia snorted contemptuously at this.
"EO? Fahck EO. I 'ate allz-y'all equ'lly. 'Shpesh'lly th' chinksh. They're mosht equ'l a' all. Mi'l Kin'dom n' shit."
Sean laughed at this, but Matt's humor had long since run out. They were going to get themselves into some real trouble at this rate. The bartender seemed to agree, because he told them, "I think you two've had enough."
"I ain' quittin'," Lydia said defiantly. "Not till I've drunk th' mick unner th' table."
Sean laughed again.
"Ah, that'll be th' day when I let a chink outdrink me." He then glanced at the bartender and said, "No 'fense, man."
In flawless deadpan, the bartender replied, "I'm Vietnamese."
"Well, I ain't got nothin' 'gainst the gooks," Sean said with dismissive wave of his hand. "Say, don't they call the Ko-reans gooks too?"
"I heard it was first used by Yanks for Filipinos back when they jumped on the imperialist bandwagon," the bartender said, "then it followed to whatever poor yellow bastard they were fighting next. I guess because they already had 'chink' and 'Jap', you didn't see it used across the board."
Sean slammed his hand on the bar.
"Ho-ly hell," he said. "You, my friend, are a genyu-wine scholar a' th' sordid hist'ry a' racism. Wha' th' hell ya doin' tendin' bar?"
"Not much money in cultural studies," the bartender said bluntly. "This pays the bills."
"Well, buddy," Sean said, pulling his cash card out of his wallet, "lemme swipe ya an extra twenny creds fer yer er'dishun."
The bartender punched up twenty credits on the register and swiped Sean's card, saying, "I'll gladly take the money of a racist baby-killing son of a bitch."
Even if they were not in uniform, it was obvious that they were military just by looking at them. Well, perhaps not so much Lydia, but their conversation also gave them away. For short-term liberty like the current three-day period, servicemembers were expected to stay in uniform in spite of force protection concerns. It was thought that it would rein in any misbehavior and in so doing, build positive public relations. It rarely worked out that way, though.
Sean could have taken offense to the bartender's insult, but instead he simply cracked a grin, pointed to the bartender and said, "This 'ere, wing buddies, is a genyu-wine produck a' our lib'ral edjakaysh'n sys'm." He gave his cash card back to the bartender. "'Ere's an extra five fer ya."
Punching in the five credits, the bartender balked, "Do people really still talk like that? God, next thing I know, you're probably gonna say you're a Unionist."
"Wha's wron' wi' th' Union Party?" Sean asked, who had just finished drinking his remaining beer straight out of the pitcher. "They're th' p'ple th't founded this 'ere fine... well, I guess we don' call i' a nation 'r nothin'."
"A cabal of oligarchs who founded a one-party superstate that's stifled self-determination for the past hundred and twenty years."
Sean held up his hand.
"Now hol' up there. I may be gettin' pretty buzzed an' I may only got a bach'l'r's in phys'c'l edjakaysh'n, but I know me sumpin 'bout mah hist'ry. Chairm'n Nick'demus opened thin's up in double-aught six, so yew can't be talkin' 'bout no 'one-party superstate'."
The bartender rolled his eyes.
"Please. Of the twenty-one chairmen of the World Council, eleven have been Unionists and then there's been another four who were either the so-called 'Liberal' Democrats or Conservatives, which are the same damn thing."
Sean laughed.
"Ah, yew mus' got a post'r a' Red Rico on yer walls 'r sumpin."
"Chairman Banderas was a courageous defender of colonial rights," the bartender said defensively, "but that's not something an Earther like you'd understand."
Sean pounded his fist on the bar and made a sound like the buzzer on a quiz show.
"Bwaaaah! Wrongo, bucko. I ain't a Earther. I's born n' bred on Titan, so yew's can suck it."
"Oh, so you're not only a racist baby-killing son of a bitch, but you're also a dirt-sucking traitor to your own kind?"
"Own kind?" Sean scoffed. "Boy, we's all Union 'ere. B'sides, I thought you Lefties were all fer one worl' gubmint."
"Tha'z only wh'n they get i' their way," Lydia said. "I' they can' 'ave their damn work'rsh' par'dishe, they'll pish n' moan 'bout 'nash'n'l lib'rash'n' till th' damn cows come 'ome."
The last thing they needed was to have a hostile political argument get out of control, so Matt finally intervened.
"Maybe you two should stop antagonizing him," Matt said. He then looked to the bartender and said, "I apologize for my friends."
"Don' 'pol'gize fer me, Cav," Lydia mumbled, playing with her empty bottle of rotgut. "I' he don' like it, fahck 'im."
Despite being rather inebriated, Sean took hold of Matt's shoulders and started to talk like he was the voice of reason in all this.
"Naw, naw, Cav. Ya got us all wron'." He then started to wag his finger to punctuate his points. "This ain' an ar'm'nt. This's discourse. This's 'ow civ'lized men sort out their diff'rences. They talk shit out." He made a sweeping gesture. "Get it all out there in th' op'n. We wouldn't 'ave 'aff th' bad shit go down that do if p'pl weren' too chick'nshit to talk shit out. 'Stead p'pl keep their mouths shut an' let all that ang'r build up. Person can only take so much 'fore they break. I' p'pl were more hones' 'bout shit, you'd 'ave some 'arsh words, but you can walk away from i' like gennlemen." He looked at the bartender. "Ain't that right, kid?"
Before the bartender could reply, Sean held out his cash card yet again.
"'Ave anoth'r ten."
The bartender took Sean's cash card and punched up the ten credits. The look on his face indicated that he did not quite know how to take what Sean had said.
Somewhat grudgingly, he replied, "Yeah, well, don't expect me to like your reactionary bullshit or anything else you stand for."
Sean grinned.
"An' I don' plan on gettin' me no Red Rico post'r, but tha' don' mean we gots ta throw down."
Matt could not help but be impressed at how Sean was able to turn around such a heated argument (or 'discourse', to use Sean's terminology for it). The fact that he could do this after having drank half a bottle of whiskey and a pitcher of beer was even more impressive, jokes about the Irish and alcohol notwithstanding.
With the tensions ratcheted down considerably, Matt felt that he could afford to leave his companions alone for a little bit and attend to some pressing concerns.
Rising up from the barstool, Matt quietly said, "If you two will excuse me."
"Gotta take a piss?" Sean asked loudly. "Go fer me while yer at it."
"Me too," Lydia said, slumped over the bar and waving lazily. "Yor'sh'ku on'gai zimaws."
Matt never did understand the idea behind proxy urination, but he pushed the thought aside as he made his way to the latrine. When he was washing his hands afterward, a strong hand took hold of his arm.
Reflexively, he turned to face whoever it was, but before he could do anything, a harsh voice growled, "Don't struggle or I'll break your arm."
It was a man in a hooded jacket zipped up all the way to conceal as much as possible. All Matt could tell is that he was pale, but not pale like you would be from not being out in the sun. It was more the ashen pallor of someone drained of blood, of a corpse.
With that grip, Matt did not doubt the threat of his arm getting broken, but surely a broken arm would be better than whatever this person had planned for him. The man pulled Matt along, out of the latrine. Did he really think he could drag off an Air Force officer in front of so many people?
Before Matt could try anything, though, the man nodded to the opposite side of the room. Another man similarly dressed was leaning against the wall. The man holding Matt turned him to the wall on their side, where yet another man stood waiting. The man then looked to the bar, where Sean and Lydia were.
"Your friends are getting rather inebriated, Major," the man said. "They would be easy prey. Cooperate if you don't want anything to happen to them."
The man let go of Matt's arm. Though naturally concerned for his friends' safety, Matt was clear-headed enough to get some assurances first.
"Your two goons come too," Matt said. "Or we take our chances."
The man jerked his head abruptly and the other two left their places on the wall and walked up to them.
"We have your cooperation, Major?" the man asked.
Matt nodded and the four of them left the restaurant. Sean and Lydia were none the wiser. So long as they were safe, Matt did not care so much about what happened to him.
The men led Matt through the alleyways until they reached the service entrance to a run-down apartment complex. When the door opened, two men dressed in similar hooded coats stood there with pistols trained on the group. When they saw it was their comrades, they lowered their weapons and nodded for the group to continue on. The four of them took the stairs and went up five floors before entering a hallway.
The place was filthy with garbage strewn about everywhere. The stench was terrible, too. Matt sensed it when they first entered the complex, but it was much stronger where the residents lived. He had not seen a place so wretched since he was at the Villareyes Starport on that undercover mission with Commander Joachim.
Right now he could use a Special like Commander Joachim with all his training. Then again, all that training did not spare the Commander from losing his crew and suffering weeks of torture at the hands of the Seven Deadly Sins. Was that the kind of fate Matt had to look forward to?
When they reached Room 606, the lead man pressed the buzzer. The door cracked open, but was apparently malfunctioning, so the lead man had to physically pry it open. He went in first, followed by Matt. The other two men posted themselves outside the door. It was a small, single-room apartment. In the narrow corridor of the entryway was an open door leading to the bathroom. Matt could not help but notice the blood trail leading into the bathroom and the blood-splattered walls of the shower stall with a vague human shape behind the frosted clearplaz. The smell was overwhelming.
Waiting in the room was a woman wearing what looked like a dull blue burka. On her face was mask that reminded Matt of a statue of Niobe from an art history class he once took. Beautiful but exceedingly sad.
The woman was sitting in a chair but stood up when Matt and the hooded man entered.
The man gave a curt bow and said, "We have brought the boy, First Handmaid."
The woman, the First Handmaid as she was called, pointed to the entryway.
"Leave us," she said, her voice showing obvious signs of modulation.
The man bowed again, turned and left. After the door grinded to a close, the woman's bearing changed dramatically. Before she stood ramrod straight with her head tilted back to look down on them, but she let the tension out of her shoulders and held out her arms to reach out to Matt, taking a couple tenuous steps toward him.
"My boy..." she said softly. "My dear, sweet boy... How you've grown."
She took another couple steps and Matt instinctively backed away. The woman stopped, pulled her hands back and hung her head.
"I'm sorry. I know I look like a monster..."
"Who are you?" Matt asked.
The woman tapped herself on the forehead with her knuckles.
"Of course you can't tell..." she said with a sigh. "You may not even remember... Tabby..." She looked up at him. "Do you remember the name Tabby?"
Tabby... How did this woman know about Tabby?
"Tabby..." Matt trailed. "That was my sister's name. She was in the same accident as my mom and dad." He stopped himself. "No... No, that's not right. Mom and Dad died in a traffic accident. I remember Tabby being on a ship. She gave me to a man I didn't know and I never saw her again. That's what I remember, but Aunt Jemma always told me it was just a dream."
Why was he telling her this? He had never told anyone about Tabby and the ship in over twenty years. After being told time and time again by his Aunt Jemma that it was only a dream, he stopped bringing it up, but the images never left him. He knew that was the last time he saw her.
"'Aunt' Jemma..." the woman said. She nodded. "I see... So that's what happened. They gave you to my folks."
"Your folks?" Matt asked. "No, no, I'm talking about Harman and Jemma Harold."
"Yes, I know," the woman said. "My parents." She took a step closer to Matt and placed her hand over her chest. "It's me, Tabby."
Matt backed away again, shaking his head.
"No, Tabby's gone. You're not her. You can't be."
Matt quickly found himself up against the wall. It was a tiny apartment, after all. The woman did not come any closer, but she did not back away either.
"You never forgot about the ship, did you? You never believed it was just a dream... did you?"
Again, not knowing why he was telling her, Matt admitted, "No. Even though Aunt Jemma kept on telling me it was a dream, I knew it was real. I knew it happened. And that's why you can't be Tabby."
"The Stargazer..." the woman said. "The ship was the Stargazer."
The Stargazer? Matt had heard that name before. Only the very young or the very ignorant of recent history had not heard of the Stargazer. Could she really mean that ship?
"The cruiseliner?" Matt asked. "The one Chairman Richthofen was on, that was attacked in '96?"
The woman nodded gravely.
"Four thousand five hundred and forty-three lost. That was the official number, but it wasn't quite accurate."
"What do you mean?"
"You were one of the six survivors," the woman said. "The Chairman's son, Dieter Richthofen."
The Chairman's son? That was crazy. Matt started shaking his head again.
"No, that can't be. My name is Matthias Harold. My parents were James and Adine Lerner."
The woman took another step towards him.
"They've lied to you for so long to protect you," she said, "but now you need to know the truth. I've waited twenty-six years, one month and nine days to tell you."
"Tell me what?"
The woman bowed her head.
"When I put you in that escape pod, I prayed to God that you'd survive. Then, in a moment of weakness, I didn't care who was listening. I just wanted you to live, but I didn't want to die either. My prayer was answered, but not by God."
The woman held up her arms, letting her sleeves slide back to reveal the rather crude-looking cybernetics. There was not much that was human left to her arms and what little there was looked even more corpse-grey than the man who abducted Matt.
"I became this," she said, looking at her arms. She then clasped both hands over her heart. "I was pledged to serve the Empress. I offered myself up body and soul so you would live and I would get to see you again."
This was all too much. His sister Tabby was alive after all these years? Was she even his sister? If he was supposed to be Chairman Richthofen's son, was he even related to the Harolds at all?
There was no way he could believe it, any of it, but he did not bother making any further denials. What difference would it make? The woman would not change her story.
"Listen to me," the woman said. "The Emperor, he sees the Ticonderoga as a threat to him. He's not going to stand idly by while the Union makes more like her. He's going to strike with all the might of the Empire and strike soon. He will bypass the outer Colonies and go right to the source."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"The Empress commanded it. When the time comes, you'll have to make a choice and that choice will change everything."
The woman pulled out a vial from the folds of her robe and offered it to Matt.
"Here, take this. Have it analyzed. It will prove that I'm telling the truth."
The door opened and the man who abducted Matt returned.
He bowed and said, "Forgive me, First Handmaid, but it is time. We cannot stay any longer."
The woman took hold of Matt's hands and said, "Goodbye, my boy, my dear boy... I'm so sorry..."
Leaving the vial in Matt's hand, she stepped away and the man took hold of Matt's arm and began to pull him away. Though he told himself that he did not believe any of what the woman said, for some reason he did not want to leave her. It was like he was reliving the dream that was not a dream, being separated from his beloved Tabby, never to see her again.
"Wait!" he shouted, grabbing the corner of the wall to keep from being pulled away. "What choice? Tabby!"
The woman, if she really was Tabby, did not answer, but instead had her back turned to him. The man who abducted Matt dragged him away in spite of his struggling. Leaving the other two posted at the door, he continued to drag Matt all the way downstairs and finally pushed him out the service door.
"Your life has been spared by order of the Empress herself," he told Matt. "Return to your people and we will meet again on the field of battle."
The door closed, leaving Matt alone in the alley. With or without an order from the Empress sparing his life, it would be beyond foolish to try to break back in. He looked at the vial Tabby--yes, in spite of all his doubts and disbelief, he now thought of her as Tabby--had given him. He needed to know truth and he knew just who to call.

* * *

Date: Sat 14 Jun 122
Time: UST 2318

Matt knew that there was no way he could smuggle Tabby's vial onto the Ticonderoga, so he arranged to meet Lieutenant Wallace at the place of his choosing. That place was a bar frequented by other servicemembers. It was not quite as secure as the sort of meeting places the Lieutenant normally chose, but someone as cautious as him always had a plan.
The Lieutenant arrived before Matt did and was already sitting at a table in the corner. He did not wave or make any acknowledgment of Matt's arrival. Matt knew better than to draw any additional attention to himself and simply walked over and took a seat.
"It's not like you to contact me, sir," Lieutenant Wallace said.
Matt noticed something that looked like a PersCom sitting on the table next to the Lieutenant's drink. Somehow he doubted it was actually a PersCom.
Not wanting to waste any time, Matt said, "Normally, I wouldn't, but I need your help and I couldn't wait until we were back aboard the Ticonderoga."
"Well, before we get to that," the Lieutenant said, "I've got news for you."
"What news?"
"As you know, we're going to be moving out again soon. Reports of the Sheolite homeworld have been filtering through Intel and they'll be sending us to investigate."
Matt could hardly believe it, but after all that had happened, nothing seemed too fanciful.
"The Sheolite homeworld... Have they actually found it?"
"We don't have anything definite, but I'm pretty confident in my source."
"Your source?"
"Long story," the Lieutenant said curtly.
The only surprise was how unsurprised Matt was about Lieutenant Wallace having a hand in this latest breakthrough. He was certainly no ordinary person.
Recalling his business, Matt asked the Lieutenant, "Could you look up something for me?"
"What is it?"
"Find out what you can on Dieter Richthofen, Chairman Richthofen's son," Matt said. He then pulled out Tabby's vial and handed it over to the Lieutenant. "Also, find some way to run a check on this and cross-reference it with my DNA."
Lieutenant Wallace picked up the vial and looked at it suspiciously before asking, "What's this about?"
"I'll know when you've done the checks."
The Lieutenant shrugged.
"I'm going to be busy with all this Shelly homeworld business going on, but I'll see what I can come up with."
Matt smiled and said, "Thank you."
He would put his trust in the Lieutenant's abilities and connections and hope it would shed light on the mystery encounter. If any of it was a lie, that would be easy to take, but what was he going to do if any of it were true? What would he do if all of it were true?