Chapter 16
Outer Rim of the Neptunian Sphere
Date: Tue 05 May 123
Time: UST 1317

Flying outside the trade lanes was necessary to avoid detection, but by being so far removed from any other ship meant you were on your own if something went wrong. The further removed you were, the less likely anyone would simply chance upon you in your time of need.
Speaking of times of need, the main antenna was knocked out several hours ago and while the emergency transmitter was still available for the most desperate of circumstances, the greater part of their communicative abilities were offline.
The only solution was an EVA to repair the damaged antenna. Gunnery Sergeant Grisson volunteered to go out while Lieutenant Wallace walked her through the repairs. Everyone else was huddled in the rec room. With the TV out, the closest thing to entertainment was watching the play-by-play as Lieutenant Wallace directed the repairs.
They had been at it about forty minutes when the TV flickered and started to receive signal again.
"Alright, we're back up," Lieutenant Wallace said. "You can come on back now."
"Copy that," Gunnery Sergeant Grisson replied.
Colonel Vasquez took up the remote and began flipping through the channels, saying, "Now that we're back up, let's see what the Mars Commie Network's got for us today."
Because they were coming in later than the past couple days, they missed the main segment and came in at the commentators debating over the story. There were two panels overlaid on the screen with commentators on either side of the anchor. The one on the left was a woman and the one on the right was a man. The woman on the left was in the middle of wrapping up whatever she was saying.
"--violating all the principles of bioethics in an insane attempt to grasp at any advantage in the war effort."
"Medical experimentation on servicemembers is nothing new," the man on the right replied. "What makes this program so different?"
"We can start with the total lack of informed consent on the part of the servicemembers involved," the woman said. "I know the government sees them as nothing more than disposable meatbags, but this is beyond the pale. It's one thing for carefully screened, willing volunteers to undergo a procedure like this, but if the leaked information is correct, not only are none of the subjects volunteers, but the program directors deliberately targeted and exploited servicemembers with mental instability."
The anchor then asked, "Do you believe the claim the Outer Rim Ripper was some sort of prototype for this program?"
The man on the right shrugged and said, "If the incident at Camp Chisholm in One-Twelve is any indication, I wouldn't doubt it at all. For all we know, Murdoch may not have been fully culpable for his actions and they sent him to Pluto to die when the Sheolites attacked."
The man then leaned forward and continued, "Not to sound callous, but whatever the ethical dimension of this so-called Einherjar Project, it strikes me as a downright moronic waste of resources. The military pours millions of credits into training and equipping our servicemembers and these people think that sending out total psychos is actually a solution. Maybe if the goal is terror operations, but for fighting the Shellies, it makes no sense."
Matt found himself feeling ill, something these reports had an uncanny knack of doing. Now they were going after the Berserkers. He glanced over at Lydia, who had no idea what was going on. It would figure that she would be the one to ask the question.
"What in the hell're they talkin' 'bout this time?"
Matt did not think anyone in the group besides Lieutenant Wallace and himself know about the Einherjar Project. Zhao and maybe Wang as well would probably be aware of it, but who was going to actually answer Lydia's question, if anyone?
After a moment of letting the question hang in the air, Lieutenant Wallace looked up at the ceiling and asked, "Are you gonna get this?"
"Be my guest, Mr. Wallace," Zhao replied over the intercom.
"Why'm I not surprised?" Lydia asked. "Ya seem ta know jus' 'bout ever'thin' 'round here, doncha? Well, ya gonna tell us what this is 'bout, Shades?"
Lieutenant Wallace touched the bridge of his nose, likely a habit from adjusting his visor. Matt had the same habit anytime he did not wear his glasses.
"The Einherjar Project, a program to develop unstoppable supersoldiers by triggering a heightened psychophysiological state in combat. They call the test subjects Berserkers because that's pretty much what they are. They don't have any conscious control when they're activated. They just execute their programming. Nice and efficient when it works right."
Specialist O'Connor held up her hands her mouth and whispered, "Oh my God..."
"Ally, what is it?" Sergeant Grisson asked.
Not directly answering him, she asked Lieutenant Wallace, "Is that what they did to me?"
Before Lieutenant Wallace could answer, something seemed to click with Sergeant Grisson as he said under his breath, "Game mode..."
"That's what I'd call it whenever we were in action. You'd get all distant, like you were another person."
"So you two suspected it," Lieutenant Wallace said. "You're sharper than they give you credit for."
"Jeff, how did you know about her?" Chief Bianchi asked.
"I was poking around and found out about the Einherjar Project," Lieutenant Wallace said. "There were 47 Berserkers embedded in the Ticonderoga's crew and not all of them in combat positions." He nodded to Lydia and Specialist O'Connor. "I'm guessing you two were actually there because of your combat effectiveness, but I think some of the others were planted just so they could kill off the crew if the situation called for it."
Surprised, Lydia asked, "What, me too?"
Lieutenant Wallace gave her a critical look.
"Come on, Lieutenant Han. You really didn't think anything was strange about how you'd black out, forget your sorties, all of that?"
"I jus'... I jus' figgered it was adrenaline an' shit."
Before it could go any father, Matt stepped in and said, "Lieutenant, you don't need to go into this."
Curious at his intervention, Lydia asked, "Why not?"
"I don't think you want to know some of this stuff."
It did not take Lydia long to connect the dots.
"Wait a minute. Cav, you know? You knew? How long? Why didn't ya tell me?"
"I'm sorry, Nyx," Matt said. "I was trying to protect you."
"Yeah, always lookin' out for me, ain't ya, Hero?"
Without another word, Lydia stormed out of the rec room.
"Nyx, wait."
Before Matt could follow her, Zhao's voice said, "Let her go, Colonel. Give her some time and she'll come around."
Before Lydia had been willing to cut Matt some slack for keeping secrets from her, but now that she knew the truth, would she hold it against him? She was always the sort who was slow to trust, but she trusted him, though now that trust may well be gone for good. Matt did what he did to protect her life and he did not regret that much, but the thought of alienating her, perhaps permanently, was hard to take.
Matt's internal torment was his alone, though, as the others had already resumed the conversation.
"At first I thought the Einherjar Project might be the thread that tied everything together," Lieutenant Wallace said, "but the pieces didn't quite fit and now I don't think it's anything that simple."
"Is there any way I can stop it?" Specialist O'Connor asked. "You know, turn it off?"
"I haven't really looked into it. I don't know."
Specialist O'Connor hugged herself and bowed her head.
"They made me a killer..." she said in a low voice. "I never wanted that..."
"Your job is to kill or to assist in killing, Specialist," Colonel Vasquez said, without the slightest hint of sympathy. "They may have gone about it the wrong way, but you should've been prepared for that."
Breaking from her normal passivity, Specialist O'Connor shot back, "I, I never asked for any of this, sir! Why me!?"
"It doesn't matter what you asked for. It's what you got and you have to live with it."
"Sir, that's enough," Sergeant Grisson said, stepping between Colonel Vasquez and Specialist O'Connor.
The Colonel glared at Sergeant Grisson and said, "You best stand down, Sergeant."
Though he did not give any ground, the Sergeant held up his hands, saying, "I ain't pickin' a fight with ya, sir. I jus' want ya ta lay offa her."
"She needs to get her shit straight," the Colonel growled. "You heard them. They exploit mental instability. The more she feeds that damn persecution complex of hers, the more unstable she'll get. Like what happened back at Argyre."
Both Sergeant Grisson and Specialist O'Connor looked surprised. Whatever had happened, they clearly did not expect the Colonel to know about it.
"Yeah, I knew something was up," the Colonel said, "and now I know why. You babying her isn't going to help her, Sergeant. Now I know you've got a soft spot for her, more than you ought, but she's got to face facts."
"Don't talk about me like I'm not even here," Specialist O'Connor said with an uncharacteristic edge to her voice.
Matt tried to calm the tensions, saying, "I think we all need to dial things down a bit."
Colonel Vasquez shot Matt a mean look and said, "I don't want hear anything outta you, Colonel. You're just as bad and don't have half the excuse."
"You've got it wrong, Colonel," Lieutenant Wallace said. "A big part of the reason Lieutenant Han and Specialist O'Connor are among the most stable Berserkers is because they've got someone to help keep them stable. They may seem soft to you, but you can thank Colonel Harold and Sergeant Grisson for keeping those two from pulling a Camp Chisholm."
"Their condition is still a liability," General Pfeiffer said. "What sort of countermeasures can we take to avoid any incidents?"
"The Berserker Syndrome relies on a specific trigger to activate," Zhao said. "That shouldn't be a problem, but they've both got MD3s delivering neuroleptics to keep it under control."
"Neuroleptics?" Specialist O'Connor asked. "You mean antipsychotics?"
"Leave it to the doctor's daughter," Zhao replied. "You know people don't like to call them that anymore."
"How long has this been going on?"
"You were implanted when you were inducted into the program. Yours is a milder case than most, but it's a wonder Lieutenant Han is even functional given how much they've been shooting her up over the years."
"That's enough, Mr. Zhao," Matt said, having heard his fill.
"Alright, Colonel," Zhao replied obligingly. "We'll leave it at that for now. Brace yourself for more of the same bullshit, people. They're going to keep hammering at you for another few days at the very least. Then we'll see what they try next."
"How much longer you plan on leaving us in the dark on who exactly 'they' are?" Colonel Vasquez asked.
"It's a long story."
"We're not exactly going anywhere."
"I'd rather not have to do the explanation twice. If you can be patient until we get to the next stage of our plan, I'd appreciate it."
"And what's the next stage of the plan?"
"Don't you want it to be a surprise?"
"Be a spoilsport then. Alright, I'll tell you. We're going to be meeting up with the Ticonderoga."
"The Tico? But we're still fugitives, aren't we?"
"It's all part of the plan, Colonel. All part of the plan."
The eight of them exchanged looks. No one appeared particularly reassured by Zhao claiming this next step was part of the plan. Even if there no issues getting back onboard, would they not be putting the Ticonderoga and all her crew at risk by being there? It seemed like a bad idea, but what else could they do?
These concerns were distant to Matt, though. He was more worried about Lydia. What would the truth do to her and what did it mean for them? Perhaps it was selfish of him to be thinking about the two of them when thousands of lives, possibly more, hung in the balance, but that did little to move him, for better or for worse.