Chapter 24
Black Billy
ESS Ticonderoga, Outer Rim of Neptunian Sphere
Date: Wed 13 May 123
Time: UST 0224

Because training exercises are already simulations, an actual training exercise is virtually indistinguishable from a fake one so long as the basic patterns are observed. It was all rather simple and that was why the plan did not draw any unwanted attention to itself.
A week had passed since the Ticonderoga separated from the rest of the battle group. The timeframe for the rendezvous was never specified to allow for adaptation to the ever-changing situation. All Commodore Frazier could do was maintain the ruse of the exercise until new information came in.
Part of the exercise involved keeping odd hours for the sake of the simulations. Although he usually kept regular daytime hours for consistency's sake, the Commodore's current schedule more closely resembled what it was like during the Battle of Mars. Everything was determined by the flow of the battle.
At the moment, he had taken an hour for himself to knock out some PT in the gym. The higher up he got, the harder it was to set aside the time for it, even though the PRT came around for him every year just the same as everyone else.
He had been on the exercise bike for about 20 minutes when his PersCom went off.
Pulling it out of the pocket of his PT shorts, he answered it, saying, "Frazier."
"Captain," a communications officer replied, "we have a goatherder from the Farm requesting permission to dock. He says he has nine black billies."
It took Commodore Frazier a moment to parse through the spook-speak. ECIS called itself 'the Farm', so its standard operational code was entirely farm-related. 'Goats' were anyone forcibly taken into ECIS custody and a 'black billy' was a hostile detainee. Nine of them... Could it be...?
"Give them permission to dock and tell them to stand by," the Commodore said. "I'll be there shortly."
"Aye-aye, sir."
The Commodore got off the exercise bike and made a quick stop to his quarters to rinse off and change before making his way to the bridge.
Taking his seat, he told the communications officer, "Patch me through to the ship."
"Hailing now, aye, sir."
When the connection was green, the Commodore then said. "Goatherder, this is Commodore Frazier of the Ticonderoga. How can we help our friends at the Farm today?"
"We were hauling some black billies to market and our truck got busted," a man's voice on the other end replied. "We were hoping you could put us up while we make repairs."
Even if this was what he thought it was, Commodore Frazier knew he had to maintain appearances and treat this like an actual case of hostile detainees being transported by ECIS operatives.
"Acknowledged," he said. "We've got plenty of room in our pens for your black billies."
"We'd rather avoid the brig if we could," the goatherder replied. "If my information is correct, you have openings in 01-97-2 and 01-99-2."
"Those are just four-man rooms," the Commodore said. "You'll be short a rack."
"Two of them will just have to get cuddly," the goatherder said. "We don't want to take up any more space than necessary. The doors can be locked from the outside and keyed to our cards, I trust."
"Yes, we can do that."
"In that case, we would like permission to come aboard. Obviously our cargo won't be able to check in normally."
"I'll have the Officer of the Deck wave you through, but for security purposes, I'll be sending an MA escort."
"Of course. Thank you for the hospitality, Commodore. Goatherder, out."
Commodore Frazier then told the communications officer, "Get me Chandaria."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Commander Chandaria soon came on the line, saying, "Yes, sir?"
"Chandaria, we've got some special guests coming aboard. Send four of your boys to the quarterdeck to escort them to Aught-One. They'll be staying in the guest quarters. 97-2 and 99-2."
"Aye-aye, sir."
After that, the Commodore called up the Officer of the Deck and then Admiral Mfume. Once all the notifications were taken care of, he accessed the security cameras for the quarterdeck and watched his guests come aboard. There were two people, a male and a female, escorting nine people with black hoods over their heads. The 'black billies' were lined up according to height and given that the two of them in front had to be over two meters tall, he was all but certain they were who he thought they were.
The two goatherders checked in and the MAs escorted them to the personnel lifts. The Commodore cycled through the feeds to follow them as they went. Once the black billies were herded into the two adjoining guest rooms, two of the MAs posted themselves at either door while the remaining two followed the goatherders as they appeared to be heading toward the bridge.
Commodore Frazier remained seated as they came onto the bridge. As they approached his chair, he told them, "Welcome to the Ticonderoga. My crew is at your disposal to help you get on your way."
"About that, Commodore," the male goatherder said, "we would like to discuss it in a more private setting. Can we move this to your office? If possible, we would like to speak to Admiral Mfume as well."
"Of course," the Commodore said. Rising up from his chair, he motioned to the door and said, "This way."
As he began to leave, he told the communications officer, "Contact Admiral Mfume and ask him to come to my office."
"Aye-aye, sir."
With that, Commodore Frazier headed to his office with the goatherders and their MA escorts. Once they got to the waiting room of his office, he told the MAs, "That'll be all. You're dismissed."
"Aye-aye, sir," the senior of the two MAs said. "By your leave, sir."
The MAs left and the Commodore went into his office. He gestured to the chairs and said, "Take a seat if you like." Once he sat down at his desk, he asked the goatherders, "You gonna tell me what this is all about?"
"If it's all the same to you, Commodore," the male goatherder replied, "I'd like to wait for the Admiral."
"Alright then."
About ten to fifteen minutes later, Admiral Mfume entered the office. The Commodore promptly stood at attention and the Admiral waved for him to go at ease. Commodore Frazier offered him the chair at his desk, which he accepted.
Once the Admiral was seated, he looked to the two goatherders and said, "I believe introductions are in order."
"Of course, Admiral," the male goatherder said. "I am Zhao Ying and my associate here is Wang Chun. I want to thank you all for playing along so flawlessly. As you've probably suspected, we are not in fact from the Farm and the people we're escorting aren't black billies. Commodore, if you would direct your attention to your terminal."
Commodore Frazier looked at the screen, which had turned blank save for a single line of text.
Is the room clear?
Commodore Frazier typed in reply, All clear.
A hatch in the deck opened up and a person emerged from the maintenance tunnels below. The Commodore had seen him in the orchestra pit before. Lieutenant Wallace of the 421, followed by the rest of the so-called Ticonderoga Nine. With their black hair and mismatched civvies, they were almost unrecognizable from the crewmembers who were taken away two months earlier.
Once they were all out of the tunnels and the hatch closed behind them, General Pfeiffer told them, "Fall in."
They made an impromptu formation of two ranks of four with General Pfeiffer at the head. She greeted the Admiral with a simple, "Sir."
"At ease," the Admiral said.
"So you all made it out after all," the Commodore added.
General Pfeiffer nodded to two operatives and said, "Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Zhao and Ms. Wang."
"We can't take all the credit," Zhao replied. "We just did our part."
"It is good to see you back," the Admiral said. "I apologize for not being able to do anything to secure your release sooner."
"You arranged all this, sir?" General Pfeiffer asked.
The Admiral shook his head.
"I am afraid an operation like this is rather above my pay grade."
"You can thank me for that," a woman's voice said.
Chairwoman Liu appeared on the viewscreen on the wall, prompting Admiral Mfume to shoot up out of his chair and shout, "Attention on deck!"
"At ease," the Chairwoman replied with a dismissive wave. "You know, I'm going to miss making people hop like that. Mr. Zhao, Ms. Wang, good work on delivering the package."
"Thank you, ma'am," Zhao replied.
Looking to the viewscreen, General Pfeiffer said, "Madame Chairwoman, if you were the one who orchestrated all of this, why did it even have to happen in the first place?"
"It's a long story, General Pfeiffer," the Chairwoman replied, "and we're short on time. Admiral Mfume and Commodore Frazier can fill you in later. We've got bigger fish to fry."
Not quite content to let it go, the General pressed her a little further, saying, "Madame Chairwoman, if I may, one more question."
Betraying a slight hint of exasperation, the Chairwoman replied, "Go ahead, General."
"If I am not mistaken, ma'am, the nine of us are still officially wanted fugitives. Is this not a liability bringing us back to the Ticonderoga?"
"Of course it's a liability," the Chairwoman said. "Your continued existence is almost as much of a liability for me as it is for the people responsible for your predicament. However, you all have a number of skills and qualities that are sure to prove useful for what's coming up."
"What's coming up, ma'am?"
The Chairwoman folded her hands and said, "The bad guys have made their move. Three days ago, Marshal Graves used a surprise inspection as cover to hijack the Iberia. He has since joined up with allies from the Sheolite and Empyrean remnants and has declared his forces the Colonial Liberation Army with the stated purpose of nothing less than the destruction of the Union."
"Marshal Graves?" Commodore Frazier asked. "Marshal Donovan Graves, as in the Commandant of the Marine Corps?"
"One and the same. I warned you, Commodore. Every level."
"That's impossible," a voice interjected. It was Gunnery Sergeant Grisson, who promptly checked herself. "Begging your pardon, ma'am, but there is no way a great Marine like the Marshal would betray the Union."
"You can take that up with him when you meet him, Gunnery Sergeant," the Chairwoman replied.
"When we meet him, ma'am?" Commodore Frazier asked.
"You're going to stop him, of course, but more on that later. I want you to spacefold to the coordinates I'm sending you. It's just outside of the grid for the Martian Sphere. Hold position there until we are ready to proceed to the next stage of the operation. Details will be forthcoming at that time. Understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," Admiral Mfume and Commodore Frazier said together.
Showing only the vaguest hint of a smile, the Chairwoman replied, "Good. And just a word advice. Things are going to look pretty bad for you coming up, but keep your heads and don't panic. That is all."
With that, the Chairwoman cut the feed.
After a moment of awkward silence, Commodore Frazier asked Zhao, "You wouldn't happen to know what she's talking about, would you?"
"The Chairwoman never shows all her cards to anyone, Commodore," Zhao replied, "but it's safe to say that this game has to play out a little bit more. Just try not to do anything stupid that gets us all killed."
"And what should we do in the meantime?" General Pfeiffer asked.
Stroking his chin, Admiral Mfume mused, "I suppose reintegrating you with your units right away is out of the question."
"Admiral, I recommend taking stock of where the chain command stands on the issue first," Zhao said. "I have a feeling this lot has more than enough allies, but you don't want to take any chances. Keep them confined to quarters until the time comes."
"What the hell!?" Lieutenant Han exclaimed. "We had more room on that damn freighter. Ya shoulda kept us there."
"At ease, Lieutenant," General Pfeiffer said tersely.
Before the Lieutenant could complain further, Admiral Mfume said, "I would ask you all to bear with it a little longer. I will try to have you back with your units as soon as possible."
"Understood, sir," General Pfeiffer replied.
The Admiral then added, "And please refrain from making use of the maintenance tunnels any more than is absolutely necessary."
"Aye-aye, sir."
The nine of them went back down the hatch into the maintenance tunnels, with Lieutenant Han muttering curses under her breath as she went. Once they had all left his office, Commodore Frazier said, "We won't be able to keep a lid on this forever. How should we handle it?"
"As Mr. Zhao suggested, we should see where our people stand," Admiral Mfume replied. "We have not yet addressed the report from MCN that exposed them. We can hold a command staff meeting about controlling the rumor mill and use it as an excuse to observe the leadership's stance on our wayward crewmembers."
"You can think on your feet, I'll give you that, Admiral," Zhao said. "You need to brace yourself for things getting ugly. Whatever allies they have onboard, they have enemies too. We'll do what we can, but if you reintegrate them with their units, we won't be able to be everywhere at once. They will be vulnerable."
"Thank you for your concern, Mr. Zhao, but we cannot avoid all risk and as Madame Chairwoman said, they have skills we need, starting with the spacefold she directed us to make. We will need Commander Bianchi's assistance for this."
"In that case, you may want to hurry up and call that staff meeting."
Admiral Mfume did not say anything at first, but appeared to be studying Zhao before he spoke again.
"You have the Chairwoman's trust, Mr. Zhao, so I am trusting you as well."
"Understood, Admiral."
"If there is nothing else, you are dismissed."
Zhao nodded and then motioned for Wang to follow him out of the office. A lot had happened in a short amount of time and Commodore Frazier was still taking it all in. Admiral Mfume, to his credit, did not let himself get hung up on all the new developments and was instead driving on forward.
"It would seem that I need to get in touch with Commodore Juanga," he said.
"Wait a few more hours, sir," Commodore Frazier said. "We should make it seem as ordinary as possible, schedule it around zero-nine or so."
The Admiral nodded. He seemed to be thinking things over before he asked, almost rhetorically, "How many do you think will be on their side?"
"Most of them, I hope."
"It is rather problematic having them just down the passageway from the agents who apprehended them."
The NIS agents afloat were quartered in the same block as the Nine. They would be fine so long as they remained holed up, but once they were let out, problems were bound to follow.
Commodore Frazier managed a bitter grin and said, "I've been wanting to throw them in the brig for a while now anyway."
"Do not act rashly, Commodore," Admiral Mfume warned. "If they were simply acting out what they believed to be lawful orders, we cannot fault them."
The Commodore shook his head. Admiral Mfume might not have been able to fault them, but he certainly could.
"I'm not quite so magnanimous as you, sir."
"Then perhaps it is better that I am the senior of us."
Cooler heads will prevail, as they say. However, when Commodore Frazier suppressed his more hot-blooded instinct, he found himself looking out farther and wider, beyond the confines of their immediate situation. It didn't look good.
"You worried about what the Chairwoman said about things going to look bad for us?" he asked.
"A little, yes," the Admiral replied with a nod, "but if someone like Marshal Graves can be counted among the enemy, things are already looking bad."
Out of all his talents, Admiral Mfume had a real knack for understatement.