Chapter 13
Near Pluto, Plutonian Sphere
Date: Mon 27 Apr 123
Time: UST 0517

Once the adrenaline rush had passed, the nine escapees were left sitting in awkward silence. Eventually the silence would have to break, but for the time being, everyone was too spent to do much of anything.
They were scattered about throughout the shuttle, divided into their little groups, with the exceptions of General Pfeiffer, Colonel Vasquez and Gunnery Sergeant Grisson, who sat alone. Most noticeable was Gunnery Sergeant Grisson, who sat as far removed from the others as she could.
Lydia fell asleep not long after they took off, no doubt due to the influence of all the drugs in her system. Matt quietly watched her. She was not sleeping peacefully. She looked like she was in quite a bit of pain, which was not terribly surprising. He worried about the wound to her leg. It was a clean shot through the meat of her calf, but if he remembered correctly, cauterized wounds took a long time to heal and were prone to infection. That would be a problem for them being on the run like they were with limited medical supplies and training.
Matt could not say for certain, but he estimated an hour or so had passed since they first took off when the door to the cockpit opened and Zhao and Wang stepped out. They no longer wore ACUs but were dressed in civvies.
"Alright, people," Zhao said as he stepped into the cage, "we should be in the clear, for the moment at least. I figure you all would like an explanation."
"Not ta complain 'bout a good bit a' rescuin'," Sergeant Grisson said, "but an explanation'd be kinda nice right 'bout now."
Motioning to Wang, Zhao said, "My associates and I represent Argus."
"The division of ISIS?" Chief Bianchi asked.
"That's the official story," Zhao replied. "You've probably heard that we're a signals intercept division. We're actually an independent agency and our operations are a little more... extensive."
"Extensive how?" General Pfeiffer asked.
"Who watches the watchmen?" Zhao asked.
"We do," Wang replied.
Colonel Vasquez was sitting near the rear of the shuttle, but he got up and came forward, asking Zhao, "So what does Argus have to do with us?"
Zhao looked at them for a moment before saying, "Your apprehension, trial and detention were all orchestrated by some very dangerous people and it's our job to stop them. We weren't going to leave you to rot in prison until the dust settled, though I apologize for not being able to extract you sooner."
"But why us?" Specialist O'Connor asked. "What did we do?"
"That's a little more complicated," Zhao replied. "We'll get into that later. For now, we've got a lot of stuff to take care of."
He gestured to one of the guard's seats on the other side of the cage and said, "Alright, I need you all to come up here one at a time and take a seat in this chair when it's your turn. Specialist O'Connor, you're closest. You want to do the honors?"
Specialist O'Connor looked to Sergeant Grisson, then got up and went over to the chair and sat down. Wang donned surgical gloves and pulled out something that looked like a tube of paint from a pack on her hip.
"What are you doing?" Specialist O'Connor asked.
"We can't be traveling around with a bunch of cueballs," Zhao said. "We need you to be inconspicuous. That means you need your hair back."
Wang dabbed little gel from the tube and carefully began to spread it over the top of Specialist O'Connor's head.
While she was doing that, Zhao explained, "There's a depilatory chemical in the wash water, which is why your hair hasn't grown back. If you're exposed to it long enough, the effect is permanent. Wigs can be compromised, so we have something better."
"This gel my associate's applying will cause nanofibers to grow out from your pores. It looks and feels just like real hair. You can cut it, dye it, shave it, whatever, and it'll keep growing back. It's real expensive, so be glad your tax dollars are at work. Right now you'll have to settle for basic black, but maybe we can get our hands on some dye later."
Wang was taking special care on the hairline and then took out a small brush to paint on the eyebrows.
"Chun's a real artist," Zhao said proudly. "She'll set you up good. We're going to be stimulating the growth so you can have some decent length within the next few days."
"Why do they put a depilatory in the water?" Chief Bianchi asked.
"Saves them the trouble of keeping you shaved. Plus it marks you as a federal prisoner for life if you ever get out."
"I thought that's what the barcode was for," Colonel Vasquez said.
"We'll get to that next."
As Wang was wrapping up her work, she told Specialist O'Connor, "If you want hair anywhere else, you're on your own."
Specialist O'Connor blushed at this, making Wang chuckle.
"Alright, next," she said.
Sergeant Grisson stepped up next, but being as tall as he was, even seated his head was out of Wang's reach. He had to sit down on the deck while Wang did her work.
"So what about the tats?" Sergeant Grisson asked.
"The Feds are sneaky bastards when it comes to these ID tattoos," Zhao asked. "Looks black, right? There's actually a bunch of different colored dots in there that make total laser removal damn near impossible. What's left after a conventional treatment is pretty much invisible to the naked eye but still registers with scanners."
"So wha'd'we do?"
"Have I ever mentioned the advances made in prosthetic technology?"
"Ya gotta be shittin' me."
Zhao grinned.
"I am." He then pulled out a packet out from his pocket. "Here. This patch has a chemical that absorbs through the skin and breaks down the ink directly. Very effective and very illegal. Specialist, we'll get you first."
Zhao applied the patches to the back of Specialist O'Connor's neck, her hand and her wrist.
"It's gonna burn like hell," he said. "Try to put up with it."
Wang was finished with Sergeant Grisson and Colonel Vasquez went next.
Zhao was applying the patches to Sergeant Grisson, who had to take a knee so he could reach the tattoo on his neck, when he said, "Once we're done here, we'll get to work removing your prison ID chips and your trackers."
"You mean they've been able to track us this whole time?" Colonel Vasquez asked.
"No," Zhao said. "We've taken the necessary precautions to shield this shuttle. The signal can't get out, but we're going to have to ditch it eventually and we can't have you popping up on the grid again."
Skeptical, Colonel Vasquez asked, "You sure you're qualified to go rooting around for people's trackers?"
"Not unless you're really desperate," Zhao replied. "Saylor was the one best qualified, but Wang has been trained for it too. The procedure isn't too terribly invasive, so don't worry."
Colonel Vasquez rolled his eyes.
"Who's worried?"
Once everyone had their hair treatments and tattoo patches applied, Wang set down a sheet and made preparations for the tracker removal procedure. Zhao standing between the Wang and the cage had to suffice for privacy while she did her work.
When Matt's turn came up, he had to open up his jumpsuit down to the waist, while Wang ran a scanner over him. His tracker was located around his right shoulder blade, so he had to lie down on his stomach. Wang injected him with a local anesthetic, cut out the tracker and sealed up the incision. The whole process took less than ten minutes.
Once that was all finished, Zhao ducked back into the cabin, saying, "Now let's get you all some clothes." He then brought out a duffel bag and started pulling out shrink-wrapped packages. "We've got a set of civvies prepared for each of you. You may have lost some weight since we got the original measurements, but it should all fit. Give the nano-gel another ten, fifteen minutes to absorb before you get dressed."
He and Wang went around handing the packages to everyone. As he was heading back to the front, Zhao added, "Oh, and I don't imagine too many of you are shy--least not anymore--, but let's show a little civilization here. Change in the lav. Take turns."
The lav was little more than an open partition with a toilet, but it was better than nothing. When it was time for Lydia to change, Matt found himself in a bit of an awkward position. Because Lydia could not walk on her injured leg, Matt had been helping her along, but he could not very well do so now, could he?
As if to anticipate his conundrum, General Pfeiffer stepped in.
"Come on, Lieutenant," she said. "Let's get this over with."
"I ain't asked for your help," Lydia grumbled.
"You're not going to make Colonel Harold dress you, are you?"
Lydia looked awkwardly at Matt, who was sure that he looked just as awkward in return.
"Give me your arm, Lieutenant," General Pfeiffer said.
Lydia grudgingly held out her arm and General Pfeiffer guided her back to the lab. There was some assorted cursing and arguing back and forth before the two emerged and Lydia was guided back to her seat.
Once everyone had changed, Zhao pulled out a few more smaller packets from the duffel bag.
"Last but not least, I've got a few more presents for you," he said. "Watches in case you want them, wallets with cash cards and false IDs. Colonel Harold, Commander Bianchi, you can ditch those damn BCGs. I have civvie models for you."
He and Wang started to distribute the next round of packages. Zhao stopped at Lieutenant Wallace and gave him a separate case.
"Lieutenant Wallace, this isn't quite the same as your old visor, but it should be compatible with your jacks."
"Are you sure you want to do that?" Lieutenant Wallace asked.
"I think your abilities will come in handy," Zhao replied. "I'm not like you handlers. I can appreciate what you do. Just don't expect to get any signal in here."
Lieutenant Wallace opened the case and pulled out an earpiece and a pair of frameless sunglasses. It was not quite the same look as the oversized visor he used to wear, but he looked more like himself.
Matt was thankful to replace the prison-issue BCGs with less obnoxious-looking glasses, but the frames were a little too narrow and squarish for his tastes. Beggar cannot be choosers, though.
Much as with Lieutenant Wallace, Zhao had a little case somewhat like a ring box he handed to Lydia.
"And for you, Lieutenant Han, a new eye in case you need it. I couldn't get one to match your natural eye color, but a little heterochromia won't kill you."
"Yeah, thanks," Lydia said unenthusiastically, pocketing the case.
Matt had never seen more than a rare glimpse of the scarring she hid behind the long bangs her usual out of regs hairstyle, but he would not have guessed she was missing an eye.
"Don't look at me like that, Cav," Lydia said.
"Like what?" Matt asked.
"You're givin' me that damn pityin' look a' yours. Stop it."
"I'm sorry, Nyx. I--"
"Don't worry 'bout it. Just... stop."
Matt looked away. Lydia had always been touchy about being pitied, but it was difficult not to pity her. There more he learned about her, the harder it was. When he thought about it, though, after all these years, how well did he really know her?
While he was dwelling on these thoughts, Zhao finished distributing the additional items and was heading back to the fore of the shuttle.
"Where do we go from here?" General Pfeiffer asked.
"Where no one will be looking for us," Zhao replied. "It's a few days out, though, so everyone get comfortable."
Lydia looked around them and asked, "How in the hell're we gonna do that?"
"Adapt and overcome, Lieutenant. Adapt and overcome."
"What about that explanation you were putting off?" Colonel Vasquez asked.
"Let's put that one off a little while longer, Colonel," Zhao said. "It's a long story and you've been through a lot. Rest up for now. We're going to be here a while, so there's no need to rush. If you'll excuse us, we're going to head back to the cockpit for a while. Take off those patches in another thirty minutes."
Zhao and Wang returned to the cockpit, leaving the nine to themselves again. After a bit of awkward silence, Sergeant Grisson stood up and said, "Look, ah, I don't think we've all been properly intraduced. Looks like we're stuck with each other for a while an' these're mighty close quarters, so we might as well get ta know each other a bit. I'm Jack, Jack Grisson, an' this here's Ally."
"O'Connor," Specialist O'Connor added to clarify.
Annoyed, Colonel Vasquez said, "Sergeant, would you like to pretend for just one moment that you still have some military bearing?"
"Beggin' your pardon, sir, but we ain't milit'ry nothin' nomore. I'm pretty sure China Red an' China Blue are jus' usin' our old ranks as a courtesy."
A voice over the speaker said, "It's Zhao and Wang, asshole."
The awkward silence returned until Zhao then said, "Don't mind me. Continue."
The speaker clicked off and everyone remained quiet for a moment. Once again, it was Sergeant Grisson who picked up the conversation.
Looking around to everyone, he then asked, "Y'all wanna share or what?"
Chief Bianchi was closest to him, so she took it upon herself to take him up on the offer.
"Eva Bianchi."
She nudged Lieutenant Wallace who somewhat reluctantly introduced himself.
"Jeff Wallace."
"The friggin' Great Santino," Lydia said.
"I think it's supposed to be 'the Great Santini', Nyx," Matt said.
"What the hell ever."
Speaking on both their behalf, Matt glanced at the others and said, "Matt Harold. Ah, Colonel Matt Harold, of the 421st Fighter Squadron." He motioned to Lydia. "This is Lieutenant Lydia Han of the VF-313."
Lydia gave a little wave and then crossed her arms. She was never particularly keen on socializing. That was not to say Matt was either, but he at least did not try to be actively antisocial.
Continuing down the line, Colonel Vasquez was next.
"Colonel Vasquez, 78th Combined Arms Detachment."
"General Pfeiffer, Joint Air Division Nine."
That left Gunnery Sergeant Grisson, but she did not speak up.
Sergeant Grisson then asked her, "Uh, Sis, you wanna intraduce yourself ta ever'one?"
Gunnery Sergeant Grisson glanced at her younger counterpart before saying, "Gunnery Sergeant Miranda Grisson, First Platoon, Echo Company, First of the One-Sixty-Eight. Least that's who I was..."
As uncomfortable as the atmosphere was, Sergeant Grisson tried to keep things going.
"Well, alright then," he said. "I guess we're all acquainted now. Mucho gusto an' all that."
"Contrary to Sergeant Grisson's opinion on the matter," Colonel Vasquez said, "as far as I'm concerned, we're all still military and we need to settle the chain of command." He paused for a moment, somewhat grudgingly saying, "General Pfeiffer is the most senior, so she should be in command. Going down the line would be myself, Colonel Harold... Bianchi, what's the story on your rank?"
Chief Bianchi replied, "I was breveted to commander--O-5, that is--to take the billet of Reactor Officer."
"What were you before, a chief something?"
"Chief Electrician's Mate, sir. E-7."
Colonel Vasquez gave her a puzzled look.
"How the hell'd you manage that?"
Chief Bianchi gave an unwitting glance at Lieutenant Wallace before saying, "Extraordinary circumstances, sir."
Colonel Vasquez looked to General Pfeiffer and asked, "General, what do you think?"
General Pfeiffer thought on this for a moment before saying, "Considering her command experience, or lack thereof, we should regard her according to her permanent rank."
"In that case," Colonel Vasquez continued, "which lieutenant is which?"
Matt knew that neither Lydia nor Lieutenant Han would be particularly interested in playing along, so he volunteered the information in their stead.
"Nyx, that is, Lieutenant Han is an O-3," he said, "and Lieutenant Wallace is an O-2."
"Alright then," Colonel Vasquez said, "so it's General Pfeiffer, myself, Colonel Harold, Lieutenant Han, and Lieutenant Wallace. Grisson, gunnery sergeant is E-7, right?"
"Yes, sir," Gunnery Sergeant Grisson replied.
"Date of rank?"
"21 February '21, sir."
"The first of March, sir, also in '21."
"Well then, that makes Gunnery Sergeant Grisson head of the NCO support channel."
"Are you sure you want to do that, sir?" Gunnery Sergeant Grisson asked. "Are you sure you can trust me?"
Colonel Vasquez folded his arms.
"You have a good reason why I shouldn't trust you, Gunnery Sergeant?"
Gunnery Sergeant Grisson pulled off one of the gloves she had been given to hide her Shelly augments. She flexed her hand and asked the Colonel, "Isn't this reason enough?"
"No, it isn't," the Colonel replied bluntly. "Are you telling me you're incapable of performing your duties?"
"No, sir."
"Then you're the senior NCO. After that, it's Chief Bianchi, Sergeant Grisson, and Specialist O'Connor."
The younger Grisson shrugged.
"Whatever makes you feel better, sir, but it don't make much difference at this point if you ask me."
"No one did ask you, Sergeant," General Pfeiffer said. "Until things get sorted out, we're still fugitives. We can expect to be targeted not only by the legitimate authorities but also by whoever is responsible for orchestrating our situation. The last thing we need are individuals endangering the group. I expect everyone here to abide by the chain of command and all lawful orders. Do I make myself clear, Sergeant?"
"Yes, ma'am," Sergeant Grisson replied, "but I think China R--er, Mr. Zhao's runnin' the show here."
"We'll settle matters with Mr. Zhao later. For now, I want make sure there's no confusion or ambiguity. As prisoners, it is the responsibility of the senior to assume command and the junior to obey. Just because we're not in uniform now doesn't mean that anything's changed. Are there any questions, comments or concerns?"
General Pfeiffer eyed Lydia, expecting some remark, but Lydia only made a lazy wave to pass on the invitation. No one else seemed interested in speaking up, so the General closed, saying, "Let's get some rest, as best as we can manage and hopefully Mr. Zhao will have some more answers for us soon."
Matt did not think Zhao would be too open-handed with information, but they would have to make do with what they could get. Surely their situation had not taken a turn for the worse, but that did not mean it had necessarily gotten much better either. There was not much they could do one way or the other, though.