Chapter 1
ESS Ticonderoga, Martian Sphere
Date: Tue 10 Mar 123
Time: UST 0912

Jeff sat idly at his station. There were no patrols going out, so there wasn't really much point in him being in the orchestra pit, but there was no arguing with the inflexible stupidity of military bureaucracy. However, because he didn't have any actual work to do, he could devote even more of his brainpower to other tasks.
Although the end of the war was declared back in November, the Ministry of Defense wasn't in any rush to draw down forces. The official word was that it would be six months before the drawdown started in earnest and even that would go in phases over the next two or three years. Jeff looked forward to being out of uniform, but he knew that wouldn't be the end of it. The government wasn't going to let him go that easily. Even if he got out of the Air Force, they'd just plant him somewhere else.
Part of him wanted to take his chances going on the run again, but then his thoughts turned to Eva. It was one thing for him to go off the grid, but would she go with him? Could he afford the liability of a second person, one with all sorts of attachments that would only compromise them in the end? She wouldn't throw away her whole life for him, would she?
It was a non-starter. She was Navy, he was Air Force. Once this tour was over, they'd never see each other again. He hated the fact that he'd gotten so addicted to her. There was a time when he wouldn't have even imagined having such concerns. Things were so much simpler then.
His distraction proved to be a critical error. With all his less-than-legal activities, he had thousands of bots scouring official and unofficial channels to flag any hits on his name so he could move to thwart any action against him. There was a hit from eighteen minutes ago that slipped his notice. Things like this weren't supposed to slip his notice.
It was a high-priority message to the NIS senior special agent afloat.



BIANCHI, EVA, EUN, E-7, SN: 596-LMK-1384, DOB: 28 JUL 090
GRISSON, JOHNATHAN, EUA, E-5, SN: 876-IMK-3119, DOB: 13 MAY 099
GRISSON, MIRANDA, EUMC, E-7, SN: 876-RCK-2142, DOB: 18 SEP 092
HAN, LYDIA, EUN, O-3, SN: 955-EKJ-0917, DOB: 21 MAR 095
HAROLD, MATTHIAS, EUAF, O-6, SN: 024-KLK-8136, DOB: 12 JUN 092
O'CONNOR, ALLISON, EUA, E-4B, SN: 960-CNL-0965, DOB: 14 FEB 101
PFEIFFER, LORRAINE, EUAF, O-7, SN: 910-JLJ-3712, DOB: 27 MAY 081
VASQUEZ-PILARES, JOSE, EUA, O-6, SN: 822-FOJ-5081, DOB: 30 MAR 082
WALLACE, JEFFERSON, EUAF, O-2, SN: 741-PBK-0093, DOB: 17 AUG 095


How could he have let something like this slip by? Eighteen minutes wasn't much time for normal people, but it was plenty for someone like him. Maybe it wasn't too late.
First things first. He needed to locate the NIS agents, then he could lock the hangar bay doors to keep that shuttle from leaving. If only he had noticed sooner, he could've prevented it from docking in the first place.
There were four agents aboard the ship. If they kept their ACID and OSI colleagues out of the loop, all the better. Once Jeff found Agent Atienza, he realized that there were other contacts that weren't on the ship's roster. No doubt they were brought in on that shuttle to execute the arrest order.
One of those contacts was already on the bridge. He had to get out of there.
Getting up from his station, he told the officer next to him, "Gotta hit the lav. Watch my station for me."
"Sure thing."
He had to stay cool. If he could slip into the lav, he could take refuge in the maintenance tunnels and be in the clear. He just had to keep an eye on the contact and not cross its path.
As he was slidling past the seats of the other operators in the pit, his visor went black. Disoriented, he tripped over someone.
"Hey, watch it, man!"
Jeff made an apologetic gesture and groped his way forward. With his visor out of commission, he didn't stand much chance, but he had to try. As his fingers took hold of the handrail for the stairs--which the Navy folk ridiculously called a ladder--, he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"Going somewhere, Mr. Wallace?" a man's voice asked.
The person the hand was attached to turned Jeff around, not that it made much difference to him.
"NIS," the voice said. "You're under arrest."

* * *

Jack and Ally were busy scrubbing floors--decks, whatever. Of course there were machines that could keep the ship clean, do it all automatically and far better than any underpaid junior enlisted schmuck, but what else was an infantry platoon supposed to do on a Navy boat? (Ship, whatever.)
E-6s and above were to act as supervisors for this grand deck-scrubbing, which meant Jack's newly pinned third stripe didn't count for much. At very least, Jack making sergeant pissed off poor Sergeant Rahim all to hell, so there was that, at least.
"Tell me somethin', shorty," Jack said.
"What?" Ally asked.
"I distinctly recall hearin' somethin' about the war bein' over."
"Then why in the blue hell are we still stuck here doin' this shit?"
"We're just lucky, I guess."
Ally was good at taking her lumps and rolling with it no matter how miserable she was, but Jack wasn't the sort to suffer in silence. The war was over. The Army should be done with them. They ought to be back in Fort Livingroom pretending the past few years were all a bad dream. Instead, they were scrubbing decks on a Navy boat just because it was something to do.
Suddenly, there was a flash of light and a loud noise. Jack didn't process that it was a flashbang until six or seven guys swarmed on them like white on rice.
"NIS!" one of them shouted. "You're under arrest! Hands up!
Another one, pointing a rifle at them, shouted, "Face-down on the deck!"
Jack held up his hands and and glanced over at Ally, who was all wide-eyed in panic and her hands shaking. Seeing her scared like that made Jack angry and getting angry made him reckless. Even with several armed men pointing weapons at him, he wasn't scared. He was just angry.
"What the hell's goin' on here?" he demanded.
The one guy with the rifle shouted, "I said get the fuck down! Get down afore I ventilate your ass!"
Jack started to go down and once he was on his knees, two guys rushed in to get his arms behind him and force him the rest of the way down.
He caught sight of three guys moving in on Ally. She panicked. Small as she was, she wasn't as easy to get a hold on.
"Jack! Jack!" Ally cried.
One of them didn't quite catch her, but another pushed her into the bulkhead before sweeping her legs out from under her and dropping her hard on the deck.
"Leave her alone, ya bastards!" Jack shouted, struggling against the two guys pinning him down. "Leggo a' her!"
"Shut up!" one of the guys holding Jack shouted back. "Shut the fuck up!"
He punctuated his point by making the zip-ties as tight as they would go with sharp tug.
"Get her out quick!"
"I'm on it!"
"What're ya doin'!? Leave her alone!"
"Shut the fuck up!"
The MA gave Jack a buttstroke to the gut that dropped him to his knees, only for the two guys holding him to force him back up to feet. Because Ally was so small, it just took one guy to sling her over his shoulder. The others kept their weapons out.
"Move it," one of the guys behind Jack growled, giving him a shove.
Jack didn't know what was going on, but he had a feeling it had something to do with Ally's game mode. Part of him wished these bastards got a taste of what she was capable of.

* * *

As Lydia sat down in the phlebotomy chair, she reached under the sleeve of her PT shirt to detach the sleeve of her StatSuit. She preferred to use her left arm for blood draws because her prosthetic fingers blended in fairly well, unlike all the scarring on her other arm where she nearly lost the whole damn thing just a few senches below the elbow. Even the people in Sickbay had a habit of commenting or at least staring a little too long when they saw her scars. They were her scars and she didn't like to share.
"Alright, alright," she said, pulling off the StatSuit sleeve and extending her arm to expose the big vein in the pit of her elbow. "Let's get it over with."
The Corpsman tied off the tourniquet around her bicep and said, "Now make a fist, ma'am."
"I know the drill, dammit," Lydia replied irritably.
Lydia looked away, not because she was squeamish at the sight of her own blood or afraid of needles, but out of sheer annoyance at these frequent tests.
After the Corpsman rubbed down the pit of her elbow with an alcohol swab, he frittered around with some stuff before saying, "Here comes the poke."
"Yeah, yeah..."
Lydia had had a lot of blood draws in her day, so she immediately knew something didn't feel quite right. She turned to look at her arm and saw that the Corpsman was sticking her with a regular syringe.
"Wait. What the f--"
She started to get out of the chair, but some big guy out of nowhere pushed her back and held her down. The Corpsman on the left and a third guy on the right quickly strapped her wrists and ankles to the chair before it really sank in what was happening.
"Don't struggle, Lieutenant Han," the big guy said.
Lydia had every intention of showing him just how much of a struggle she could put up, but whatever happy juice they gave her was working fast. She wanted to think she bit out a chunk of the big guy's arm, but she couldn't be sure.

* * *

Matt headed to the DFAC for a late breakfast. The moment he stepped in, someone shouted, "DFAC, atten-shun!"
The airmen inside all shot up and stood to attention. Matt was not used to being the most senior officer to enter the DFAC. His promotion to colonel, receiving the Medal of Honor and being named a Hero of the Union made it impossible for him to blend in anymore. He hated every minute of it, but there was no way to hide from what he had become. He had to play the part or else he would cheapen the honors he did not deserve.
"Carry on," he said and everyone went back to their meals.
He found that he had less and less of an appetite these days. A couple biscuits and jelly and a small bowl of oatmeal were almost too much for him, but anything less an people would take notice. He did not want to be noticed any more than he already was.
"Hey, Cav!"
It was Sean, along with several of the other pilots from his squadron sitting at one of the tables. It would seem that he was not the only one getting around slowly today.
"Saved a seat for ya, bossman," Sean said. Affecting a poor imitation of a Cajun accent, he added, "Brot youself hiyah, sah. Rat now."
Matt obliged. No matter how he felt, if he started pushing everyone away, it would hurt morale. Even though the war was over, it was still his responsibility to keep the squadron together.
As he sat down, Sean told him, "We were just talkin' 'bout the demobilization. Vladikov's takin' his damn sweet time sendin' people home."
All conversations inevitably found their way to the subject of demobilization ever since the end of the war was declared last year. The immediate ten percent reduction was almost exclusive to units on Earth. Another twenty percent reduction was planned by the end of the year, but the Ministry of Defense and the World Council were still in heated debates regarding the final endstrength goals. Proposals of drawing forces down to prewar levels or even below that seemed unlikely.
"I haven't heard anything new if that's what you're wondering," Matt said. "I didn't know you were in such a hurry to get out."
Sean crossed his arms and said, "Honestly, Cav, with the war bein' over an' all, I was thinkin' a' switchin' over ta the Reserve. Maybe that'd smooth things over with the wifey."
Sean had fought for years to get reinstated to active duty after being wounded in action. He chose his sense of duty over his marriage, but with the war over, there was less justification for him to put the service first. Unlike Sean, though, Matt did not have anyone waiting for him in the civilian world, so he might as well finish out his thirty, maybe even keep going to forty. He did not have anything else.
The conversation did not get the chance to progress any further because a man in a suit approached their table. Matt recognized him as one of the two NIS agents who picked him up at Yufang Starport after he and Lydia were arrested there. Agent Carranza, if he remembered correctly.
"Colonel Harold," the agent said. "NIS. You're under arrest."
At first, Matt could not possibly imagine why NIS would be out to arrest him. Then he remembered all his secret dealings with Lieutenant Wallace. Had he been found out?
Before Matt could say anything, Sean intervened.
"Whoa, hold up. On what charges?"
"That's on a need to know basis, Captain," the agent replied stiffly, "and you don't need to know."
"The hell I don't," Sean balked. He then got up from his chair and motioned for the others. "Boyos."
Not only did the other Rittern get up, but so did a good number of other airmen in the DFAC, most of whom were in other units, possibly not even in the same wing. Agent Carranza did not let their numbers intimidate him, though.
"Captain, airmen," he said, "you have five seconds to stand down or you all go down on obstruction of justice. I can have fifty MAs her in five minutes."
"Then you better call 'em," Sean said.
Agent Carranza leveled his gaze at Sean and replied, "Captain, as the ringleader, you'll go down the hardest."
"Bring it."
Whether the arrest orders had any merit to them or not, Matt could not in good conscience let anyone else go down on his behalf. Also, he wanted to avoid any violence on either side.
"Kodiak, stop it," he said. "This doesn't help me. Rittern, airmen, stand down."
At first, no one moved, so Matt spoke more forcefully.
"That's an order, Rittern."
They were still reluctant, Sean most of all.
"But, Cav..."
"It's alright," Matt said, putting on a brave face to reassure him. "This has to be some sort of misunderstanding." He then looked to Agent Carranza and said, "Agent, in exchange for my cooperation, I want you to overlook this."
"Your cooperation is expected," Agent Carranza replied bluntly. "It's not a bargaining chip." He paused, glancing briefly at the airmen still gathered around him and added,"But I suppose we can bend the rules just this once."
Even though he was going along willingly, Agent Carranza still cuffed him before leading him out of the DFAC. He hoped it was all a mistake, but if Lieutenant Wallace had been exposed, who else was NIS rounding up right now and what would become of them?