Chapter 14
Special Report
Location:
Guingal Starport, Outer Rim of Neptunian Sphere
Date: Sun 03 May 123
Time: UST 0744

Matt recalled the FTX from BCT back when he was in the Academy. Three days out on the lunar surface in temp shelters with nothing but MREs for chow and disposable wipes for personal hygiene. Life on the shuttle was much like that, only they were going on their sixth day here.
Even the best of friends would find their patience and good humor strained after being cooped up so long in such close quarters with nothing to do. However, the nine of them were not the best of friends. Many of them were brought together for the first time by their detention and not all of them who did know each other necessarily got along. Tensions had yet to boil over entirely, but the friction was clear. General Pfeiffer and Colonel Vasquez's joint efforts to maintain some degree of military order was as much a source of conflict as it was a solution for it.
Things were quiet for the moment. Lydia was lying on the deck wrapped up in an emergency blanket, staring idly at her fake ID. There were not many other novelties to be found on the shuttle and that had to suffice for entertainment.
"Luella Hong... Luella Hong..." she muttered. "What the hell kinda name's 'Luella'?"
This was not the first time she had asked this, but it was the first time Matt decided to volunteer some information to make small talk.
"I had a great-aunt named Luella," he said.
"Huh..."
And that was that. Not that there was much Matt could say about his late great-aunt Luella, but if it could help pass the time, it was better than nothing.
Colonel Vasquez was pacing back and forth near the rear of the shuttle. General Pfeiffer made no effort to hide her annoyance.
"I've asked you to stop that a hundred times, Colonel," she said.
It was actually only seventeen times. The fact that Matt was even counting was a testament to how bored he was. Matt usually had no problem dealing with long spells with nothing to do, but given their situation, the ever-present fear made it agonizing to sit still. It was not just him either, as evidenced by Colonel Vasquez's agitated pacing.
"It's nearly been an hour since we docked," he grumbled. "What's the holdup?"
"There are a lot of variables they have to account for, I'm sure," General Pfeiffer replied.
"We shouldn't be sticking around too long in one place. We need to keep moving."
"We'll be worse off if we move carelessly. Mr. Zhao and Ms. Wang seem to know what they're doing."
"I don't trust 'em," Colonel Vasquez said, eyeing the cockpit, "and I don't care if they can hear me say it."
General Pfeiffer sighed.
"You've made your distrust all too clear on more than one occasion, Colonel, but what do they have to gain by going to all this trouble if they have any ill intent for us? At least three of their people were killed in the course of our extraction."
"Don't trust spooks," Colonel Vasquez repeated stubbornly. "Don't trust any of 'em."
General Pfeiffer gave up trying to engage him and Matt turned his attention to the other end of the shuttle. Lieutenant Wallace, Chief Bianchi, Sergeant Grisson, and Specialist O'Connor were seated in a circle playing poker with the single deck of playing cards Zhao had given them to entertain themselves. The four of them 'double dating'--for lack of a better term--had become a common sight. Sergeant Grisson and Chief Bianchi seemed to have compatible personalities and they took their respective partners along for the ride. General Pfeiffer and Colonel Vasquez's objections to their fraternization fell on deaf ears.
From training on, there was usually someone you were partnered with--the 'battle buddies' of the Army and the wingmates of the aviation community, for instance. By necessity, you were effectively joined at the hip and as a result, you would often be hounded by innuendo and not just when the partners were of the opposite sex. Such innuendo was typically baseless, but occasionally there was something to it. It was little surprise that such close bonds could lead relationships outside platonic boundaries.
As with Matt and Lydia, at least Sergeant Grisson and Specialist O'Connor could use their professional partnership to fend off such allegations, but Lieutenant Wallace and Chief Bianchi had no such excuse. Matt wondered how someone as aloof as the Lieutenant managed to get himself involved in a romantic relationship with someone outside the squadron, but he had always been a mysterious sort of person.
Speaking of Lieutenant Wallace, he pushed forward all his Rainbits (which they were using in lieu of chips) and said, "All in."
"Too rich for my blood," Sergeant Grisson said, putting down his hand. "Fold."
"I'll fold too," Specialist O'Connor said.
Chief Bianchi frowned and set down her hand with a sigh. "I don't have enough to meet you, so I guess I'll fold too."
"Well, let's see this killer hand ya got, LT," Sergeant Grisson said.
If Matt recalled the rules correctly, Lieutenant Wallace was under no obligation to reveal his hand, but he did so anyway. Matt could not clearly see the cards from where he sat, but judging from Sergeant Grisson's reaction, Lieutenant Wallace's hand was clearly not as strong as he let on.
"Aw, what the hell?"
"I knew you were bluffing, Jeff," Chief Bianchi said.
"You didn't have anything either," Lieutenant Wallace replied.
Curious, Specialist O'Connor asked her, "How did you know?"
"He's counting cards," Chief Bianchi replied with a sly grin.
"You can do that?"
"She is too," Lieutenant Wallace said.
Sergeant Grisson shook his head.
"That's what we get for playin' poker with a coupla supergeniuses. Good thing we ain't playing for money. You'd've cleaned me out by now. You're gonna get diabetes as it is."
Lieutenant Wallace popped one of the Rainbits in his mouth and told Chief Bianchi, "Divvy the pot back up. The next round won't last very long unless we rebalance the game. Give me a twelve-bit handicap. Distribute it amongst yourselves."
"I can beat you on even terms, Jeff."
"You haven't yet," Lieutenant Wallace replied in his usual deadpan, but a the barest trace of a grin crossing his lips betrayed an uncharacteristic playfulness reserved for Chief Bianchi and her alone.
Sergeant Grisson did not have Chief Bianchi's pride and picked out the extra Rainbits to split between himself and Specialist O'Connor.
"Hell, I'll take the extra bits," he said. "We can use all help we can get. Right, shorty?"
Specialist O'Connor said nothing but accepted the bits. However, before the game could start anew, the door to the cockpit opened and Zhao stepped out.
"Alright, people, sorry to keep you waiting," he said. "We're going to be switching over to a new ship shortly, but first we need to take care of some stuff. Mr. Verrasco, Mr. Welch, and Mr. Gerenez, would you three mind accompanying me? There rest of you, sit tight and we'll be back in a bit."
He was referring to Colonel Vasquez, Lieutenant Wallace and Sergeant Grisson by their false IDs. No one raised any questions or objections. For all his avowed distrust of the Argus agents, Colonel Vasquez said nothing.
Chief Bianchi stood up with Lieutenant Wallace and straightened his jacket, telling him, "Be careful out there, Jeff."
Lieutenant Wallace did not say anything in reply, but it seemed like his response was understood between them.
"Don't worry, shorty," Sergeant Grisson said. "Everything'll be jus' fine."
With that, the four of them exited the shuttle. A little time passed before Lydia spoke up.
"Ain't that a kick in the balls, Cav? Leavin' ya behind with all the females. I dunno, maybe you're lucky."
Setting aside her obvious innuendo, Matt did not feel especially lucky, though he had to admit that being among the first ones to go out into an unknown area was not something he would have been particularly eager to do. Lieutenant Wallace was likely chosen for his unique abilities and Colonel Vasquez and Sergeant Grisson because they were trained combat arms soldiers. Matt, on the other hand, was not good for much outside of the cockpit, so it was just as well that he was not chosen.
Nothing much happened while the others were away. Chief Bianchi played Old Maid with Specialist O'Connor (a game that was apparently more the young soldier's pace) and Lydia fell back asleep. Nearly three hours passed before Zhao and the others returned.
"Alright, we're back," Zhao said as he came onboard. "It's time to go. Make sure you've got all your stuff."
Sitting up with some difficulty, Lydia asked him, "What the hell'm I s'pposed ta do? I can't walk on this damn leg."
"I've already planned for that," Zhao replied, opening up the backpack he carried. He pulled out a repulsor-boosted leg brace and told her, "Put on this brace. It'll be a little wobbly, but it's less of a pain than crutches."
Matt helped Lydia with brace. It had little repulsors at the knee and instep to provide more balance. It was still awkward for Lydia to stand, much less walk, so she had to lean on Matt for support.
Because they did not have much of anything, it did not take long for everyone to be ready to leave.
"What are you going to do about this shuttle?" General Pfeiffer asked Zhao.
"It's being taken care of," Zhao replied. "We got everything? Then let's go. Remember, no ranks, no real names, no callsigns. We're not going to stick around for long. Space out a bit. Twos and threes. Stay in eyeshot. We're going to Docking Bay 8, down two levels and other side of the starport. We clear?"
"Clear," most everyone said in unison.
Zhao and Wang started distributing earpieces, the sort that were practically invisible once you put them in your ear.
"Take these," Zhao said. "They're one-way. I'll be able to talk to you but you won't be able to respond. Don't get yourself in a situation where you'd need to be contacting me. Pluskat and Verrasco, with me. Wang, stick with Ms. Generez. There rest of you will go in your usual pairs, I imagine. Let's move."
At variable intervals between one and two minutes apart, they debarked from the shuttle. Matt did not know exactly where they were, but it seemed fairly typical of an outer rim starport. It was more like Yufang than Villareyes, to borrow from his previous experience with such places. It was not a total wreck, but it was nevertheless rather poor and disreputable in appearance compared to the major starports.
It was not terribly packed, but there were enough people milling about that they did not draw too much attention to themselves. As they were passing through one of the merchant blocks, Zhao's voice came up on the earpiece.
"Change of plans. We're going to be here a little while longer. Blend in. Do some shopping, go to a restaurant or something. We should be good to go soon."
Matt and Lydia looked around themselves a bit. There really was nothing all that interesting to see or do, but they could not just stand around in the open.
Pointing to a nearby sports bar called Sluggers, Lydia asked, "Ya wanna get somethin' besides MREs on your stomach, Herzy?"
"Herzy?" Matt asked.
"Ya like it? Couldn't make nothin' outta 'Meyer'."
'Meyer Herzog' was Matt's new identity, at least for this leg of the trip. The fact that Zhao preserved everyone's initials made these aliases a little easier to remember. It certainly seemed easier than the time they were George Sanders and Fa Ling.
Regarding the task at hand, Matt was not particularly fond of bars, but the goal was to blend in, so going somewhere he would not ordinarily go was a good way to break patterns. Also, it would keep them out of view for a while.
Touching the wallet in his pocket, Matt said, "I guess these cash cards work. Sure... Lu."
Mat briefly considered calling her 'Lulu', but that seemed a little too childish. However, Matt's more reserved choice did not escape objection either.
"Aw, don't call me that," Lydia said. "Loo's the same as callin' me 'shitter'."
That seemed like a bit of stretch to him, but Matt knew better than to argue with Lydia's rather idiosyncratic logic, so he had to think up a different nickname.
"Okay then... Ell."
"That'll work," Lydia said. "If ya was the mick, ya'd make that 'Ellcat'."
"I guess so," Matt said.
Bringing up Sean made Matt wonder how he was doing. What was the official story being told about everyone who had been rounded up? We they saying anything at all?
If Lydia was thinking anything along the same lines, she did not show any signs of it. As they were heading into the bar, she asked him,"This place work for ya?"
"Sure," Matt replied.
The bar was tiny, only about three meters wide and about five meters long with six seats and two doors on the back wall, one to the kitchen and another to a unisex lav. What little wall space they had was devoted to a few odd bits of sports memorabilia kitsch. A little TV hung off the ceiling and a game of semipro cyberball was playing.
As Lydia awkwardly tried to sit down at the barstool, Matt moved in to help her.
"You going to be alright?" he asked.
Lydia waved him off.
"Don't fuss over me now, Ca--er, Herzy."
The bartender asked them, "What can I get you to drink?"
"Water, please," Matt said.
The bartender was giving Matt a critical look while Lydia said, "Gimme a beer. Ya got Nue?"
"Just Scheiner and Coerver," the bartender replied.
"Make mine Curvy then."
"Just one now," Matt warned.
Honestly, he did not think she needed to have any alcohol in her system at all, but they did need to blend in and a single was not likely to be too much of a problem.
"Jus' one, I gotcha," Lydia said.
Matt asked the bartender, "Could we see a menu?"
"We just have chicken on the bone or on the stick and chips and salsa. Not much need for a menu."
"How many wings?" Lydia asked.
"They come in ten and twenty. Five and eight creds."
"What about the yakitori?" Matt asked.
"One cred a skewer."
"And the chips?"
"Complimentary with a drink," the bartender said. She then added disdainfully, "A real drink, that is."
"Gimme twenny wings," Lydia said.
"You want that in vinegar barbecue, Thai curry, coco-lime, red hot or supernova?"
"Make it supernova."
"Ell, are you sure?" Matt asked, "Maybe you should go with something a little easier on your stomach."
Annoyed, Lydia grumbled."They ain't servin' strained carrots here. No damn baby food. Supernova."
There was no winning with her, so Matt stopped trying. Dropping the subject, he looked to the bartender and held up two fingers.
"Two yakitori skewers," he said.
"Coming right up," the bartender said. She stuck her head into the kitchen and shouted, "Hey, Mack! Two sticks and twenty fivers!"
The bartender served them their drinks while they waited on their food. Her PersCom buzzed and she pulled it out of her back pocket. Glancing at the screen for a moment, she rummaged around for the TV remote and started flipping through the channels.
"Hope you don't mind," she said. "Friend a' mine says there's some major shit goin' down on MCN."
Matt was not much of a sports fan anyway and Lydia was too interested in her beer to care. When the bartender got to MCN, the anchor was already introducing the new segment.
"And now for our exclusive interview with former ISIS insider Mr. Y."
The scene switched to a slow establishing shot of a small, dark room. There was a brightly lit reporter offset by another man cloaked in shadows, barely distinguishable even by silhouette.
"Thank you for speaking with us," the interviewer said. "We know you can't be too specific, but please give the audience a little of your background."
In a heavily modded voice, the man in the shadows replied, "I joined ISIS back in the 70s as a signals intercept analyst. I climbed the ranks and was at the supervisory level by the late 80s, not long before Admiral Richthofen was assigned to deputy director."
Matt felt a brief chill run down his spine at the mention of the name 'Richthofen'. He still could not believe that he was secretly the late Chairman's son. It seemed so unreal to him. At first, he thought the mention Chairman Richthofen back when he was the deputy director of ISIS was merely incidental, but then came the interviewer's next question.
"And what was your relationship with Mr. Richthofen at the time?"
"My brother went to War College with him. He seemed to think that made me his go-to man."
Matt started to feel uneasy. The interview was about Chairman Richthofen specifically. What exactly were they after?
The interviewer did not skip a beat following up with his next question.
"And did he have you do anything that fell outside your normal duties?"
"It started out with small stuff," the interviewee--'Mr. Y'--said, "insider trading, bet fixing. Then he started the erasures."
"Erasures?"
"He'd have my team scrub records, alter tracker logs and biometrics on people."
"Were these activities in support of some mission?"
"No. They were to cover up his dirty work."
"His dirty work?"
"Yeah. You know."
"Would you be more specific, please?"
Mr. Y paused for a moment and Matt could feel his stomach sink. He remembered what he had been told about the Chairman. Was that what this was all about?
After the awkward silence, Mr. Y said bluntly, "He had a habit of diddling little girls. He had us cover it up."
Matt briefly glanced over to Lydia. She was not paying any attention to the TV. It was just as well. Matt did not want to see or hear any more, but he could not look away. Countless millions were watching right now. At very least, he needed to see it all unfold, no matter how terrible it became.
"How many girls were there?" the interviewer asked.
"Ten or eleven while he was with ISIS."
"What happened after he was appointed Minister of Defense?"
"He stayed in touch, had us keep doing what we'd been doing for him."
"How many girls then?"
"Just one."
The interviewer paused.
"Just one?"
That sick feeling Matt had was only getting worse. His stomach knotted up. He tried sipping on his water. His hands were shaking.
"Yeah," Mr. Y continued. "He had a real hang-up on that one. Got her pregnant. Decided to keep her as some kind of pet. Played it off like it was some internship. Crazy, I know, but he was able to pull it off, maybe because people were willing to look the other way."
"This girl, this is Tabitha Harold, correct?"
The camera pulled back to open a little space to the interviewer's right. A picture was overlaid on the screen, showing Chairman and Mrs. Richthofen on vacation with a young boy Matt realized was himself. By his side was Tabby as he remembered her. She only looked to be about thirteen.
The interviewer was apparently showing the same image to Mr. Y, who then replied, "Yeah, she's the one. Died with the Richthofens on the Stargazer."
"The cruiseliner believed to have been attacked by the Sheolites in '96."
"Yeah."
The interviewer paused again. He folded his hands and leaned forward a bit.
"You mentioned that Tabitha Harold was impregnated by Mr. Richthofen. Do you know what happened with the pregnancy?"
"She brought the child to term," Mr. Y said. "The Richthofens' son Dieter was her child."
"And he also died on the Stargazer?"
With so much of the terrible truth being brought out into the open, Matt was hoping that at very least, the story of Dieter Richthofen's death aboard the Stargazer would at least hold, but in this hope he would be disappointed as well.
"No," Mr. Y said. "My people were called in for one last job. We concealed the fact that Dieter Richthofen survived and altered his records, changed his identity."
"What happened to Dieter Richthofen after that?"
"They put him up with Tabitha Harold's parents. Called him Matthias Harold."
Matt saw out of the corner of his eye that Lydia took notice at the mention of his name. Footage of the awards ceremony at the Colonial War Memorial Hall appeared with a sickly looking Matt shaking the hand of former Chairman Armitage while the interviewer asked Mr. Y, "Would this be the same Matthias Harold who was inducted as a Hero of the Union during the victory ceremony last November?"
"Yeah."
The interviewer nodded to Mr. Y.
"Thank you for your time."
"Thank you," Mr. Y replied.
Cutting back to the newsroom, the anchor said, "We now take you live to our correspondent Alonso Najal at the Harold residence in Evansville, Wisconsin. Alonso?"
They cut again, this time to a reporter standing outside the home of Matt's aunt and uncle--or were they his grandparents? He still had trouble keeping it all straight.
"Yes, Sina," the reporter said. "We're here in Evansville, a sleepy little town of six thousand some forty kilometers from Madison, the capital of the Wisconsin District. The Harolds moved here from Nebraska shortly after the Stargazer Incident. Harman Harold, the father of Tabitha Harold, died back in 115, but Jemma Harold his wife still lives here along with their eldest son Jude. We'll see if we can get Mrs. Harold to give us some insight into the story."
As Najal the reporter walked to the door, Matt wished he could teleport there that instant to bar the way. If they wanted to run a hit piece on Chairman Richthofen, that was their business. By all accounts, he deserved to have his reputation torn to shreds, but why did they have to drag his family through the mud to do it? There was nothing he could do. He was thousands of gims away, on the run from both the law and some shadowy conspiracy. All he could do was watch the screen.
Najal rang the doorbell and after a little while, Aunt Jemma opened the door. She had no idea what was coming.
"Yes?"
"Hello, Mrs. Harold. Alonso Najal, MCN. I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time."
"What's this about?"
"What can you tell us about the relationship between former World Council Chairman Erich Richthofen and your daughter Tabitha?"
Aunt Jemma looked stunned for a moment, then quickly regained her composure, muttering, "I, I don't know what you're talking about."
Najal did not give up so easily, though.
"Mrs. Harold, we've received information from very trustworthy sources that Mr. Richthofen kept Tabitha in a state of virtual slavery for nearly four years and even fathered an illegitimate son by her, a son you raised after the First Family was killed in the Stargazer Incident."
Aunt Jemma's jaw quivered as she told him, "You... you need leave. Right now."
She stepped back so the door would close, but Najal stepped forward, not far enough to enter but close enough for the sensor to prevent the door from closing.
"Mrs. Harold, the public has a right to know."
"Please, leave."
"Mrs. Harold, I--"
Matt's eldest cousin--or was he Matt's uncle?--Jude stepped between Aunt Jemma and Najal. Jude was tall and lanky, square-jawed, an Amfoot player back in high school. He was wounded during the war and walked stiffly because of his cheap VA prosthetics. A good head taller than Najal, he seemed both intimidating and pitiful at the same time.
The right side of his face was partially paralyzed, so he slurred his words a bit when he said, "You people need to leave. You're trespassin' on private property. If you don't get outta here right now, I'm callin' the cops."
With no sense of self-preservation whatsoever, Najal held up the mic to Jude's face and said, "Jude Harold, am I right? Surely you have something to say about the Chairman of the World Council raping your ten-year-old sis--"
Jude punched Najal, knocking him back into his cameraman. The camera fell to the ground, pointed away from the house, but you could hear Jude whaling away at Najal and Aunt Jemma screaming, "Jude, stop! Stop it!"
Someone grabbed Matt's arm, taking him by surprise. It was Zhao.
"Come on, Mr. Herzog," he said in a low voice. "We need to be going."
Matt looked back at the TV, which had since cut back to the newsroom. Disoriented by anger and confusion, all he could do was mutter, "They... How did they...?"
"I told you that we're up against some very powerful and very dangerous people," Zhao said. "Our little jailbreak wasn't a part of their plans. They're stirring the pot to flush you out. This is only the beginning."
Matt followed Zhao in a daze. The dark history of his family was exposed for all the Union to see. The only way they could have made it worse was by revealing that his mother became a Sheolite and that he killed her when he destroyed the Hades. He then had the sickening thought that they might yet go that far. After all, Zhao did warn him that this was only the beginning.