Chapter 27
ESS Ticonderoga, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 15 May 123
Time: UST 0522

The briefing room was filled with the commanders of JAD-9 from the squadron level up. General Pfeiffer stood at the front of the room. Other than her hair being a slightly different shade of brown, she looked as if little had changed in her absence and only made a brief token acknowledgment of all the confusion that came with that absence.
"I know a lot of you have questions," she said. "It has been a confusing couple of months, but time is short. The exercise is currently being suspended. We have an actual operation underway and you need to be ready to roll out. Before I go into the mission details, let me remind you that what you are about to hear is strictly classified. Only tell your pilots the bare minimum of what they need to know to execute their mission."
A rotating wireframe model of an Imperium-class flagship appeared on the main viewscreen with numerous little pop-up dialog boxes detailing various features. Its purpose was primarily to serve as a visual aid rather than an actual focal point of the briefing. Other ship classes were displayed as General Pfeiffer continued.
"Command Battle Group Five has fallen into the hands of mutineers who have joined forced with remnants of both the Sheolites and the Empyrean. Together they represent a grave threat not only to the Martian Sphere but to the Union at large. Our mission is to neutralize that threat.
"Our intelligence leads us to believe the actual numbers of the mutineers is relatively small and that restoring control of Command Battle Group Five is feasible. Our objective is to retake these ships with as minimal damage as possible. The same does not apply to the Sheolite and Empyrean remnants. We will destroy them as needed."
The screen shifted from displaying the various ships involved in the operation to a stylized representation of the coming engagement. The two sides were helpfully distinguished by being color coded as red and blue.
"With the combined strength of Heavy Carrier Battle Groups One and Two, the odds of success are high, but do not get careless out there. Your primary mission will be the elimination of the enemy airpower. I know we are not fighting at full strength, but we have to make the most of what we have. We will be pooling all our air assets, so none of this squid-Airhead rivalry out there."
Just from the mere dots on the screen, neither side seemed to have any particular advantage. Unless something dramatic happened right away, overwhelming force would not be much of an option. It was true that the assembled commanders had faced worse odds in the past, but there was an unmistakable air of uneasiness permeating the room.
"As I said, we believe the actual number of mutineers is small," the General said, "but we may see Union craft turned against us. As such, I am disabling the friendly fire protocol on your birds. You must exercise extreme caution. Weapons tight on any Union craft. Do not fire unless fired upon and be sure your wingmates don't get caught in the crossfire."
The prospect of having the friendly fire protocol disabled elicited some murmurs, but General Pfeiffer promptly swatted the viewscreen with her pointer to quiet them down.
"It is imperative that we separate the ships of Command Battle Group Five from the mutineers' Sheolite and Empyrean allies. Our two battle groups will move to engage in a pincer maneuver. BG1 will move on the Empyreans while BG2 will move on the Sheolites. Most of you and your pilots are veterans of Operation Heaven's Door, which makes you the best equipped to engage with the Empyreans.
"We will be utilizing our EW squadrons to disrupt the communications among their drones, just as we have in the past. We can only hope that the Empyrean remnant has not developed an ECCM response to this strategy. We will not have the luxury of mirror chaff this time, so you will need to be paying close attention to your shield levels. Empyrean laser arrays have greater output than our own, but unless the remnant has since diversified their loadout, they will be relying exclusively on lasers. Remember why we diversified our own arsenal and use that to your advantage."
The General paused a moment to survey the people in the room.
"I have every confidence in your skill and professionalism. We can do this. We will do this. Have your squadrons on standby and ready for takeoff at 0800. Dismissed."

* * *

Date: Fri 15 May 123
Time: UST 0737

If Matt was not well-regarded by his squadron, he was not sure how he would have faced them. It was difficult trying to pass off the lie that his arrest was all part of a readiness exercise, but the less he said about it, the better. People were pretty good about not asking questions, but he could see the doubts in their eyes. Sean in particular seemed to know something more was going on, but he was always quick to pick up on that sort of thing. Fortunately, his perceptiveness was matched by his discretion.
Matt could not help but wonder if the mutiny that claimed the Iberia was connected to the conspiracy that was working against them. It probably was. What was safe? Who could you trust? Matt had no idea. All he could do was focus on the mission before him.
He was in the locker room suiting up along with the other pilots of his wing. Just as he was taking his helmet out of his locker, he heard a familiar voice.
"Cav, hold up."
Matt turned to see Lydia standing there a few paces away.
"Nyx? What are you doing? You're not supposed to be here."
Besides being an Air Force area, this was the male side of the locker room. Unsurprisingly, she was drawing a few stares, but she was not paying much attention to any of that.
"These boys ain't got nothin' I ain't seen before," she said. "Least I don't think they don't. Anyway, I had ta talk ta ya."
There was something off about the way she carried herself. She looked uncomfortable and awkward. She did not usually get like this except on the rare occasion she would try to broach a topic of a more personal nature.
"What is it?" Matt asked.
Lydia did not answer him right away. She leaned into the nearest locker, hugging herself and rubbing her arms, like you do when you are cold or feeling uncertain. Matt imagine it was more the latter than the former.
"We're ridin' out 'gainst the Impies," she said. "I hear there's Shellies out there too. Here I thought it was all over... But it's weird... I don't feel it like I used ta... That itch... That, that feelin' that I gotta kill as many a' them sumbitches as I can... It ain't there."
"Maybe that's a good thing," Matt suggested.
Lydia was not so easily convinced. She shook her head.
"I dunno..."
Matt rested a hand on her shoulder. Any other day, it might have felt awkward coming from him. He was not really one who liked to touch or be touched and neither was she without some sort of chemical influence. Nevertheless, it felt like the right thing to do.
"You're going to be alright out there, Nyx," Matt reassured her. "It'll be okay."
Lydia reached up and held Matt's wrist. It was a strangely light touch, but everything about her was out of the ordinary at the moment.
"There's one more thing," she said softly. "Before we ride out, I gotta say this. When we first met, I hated your guts. I thought ya was just a pussy-ass Airhead piece a' shit, but I was wrong. You're a helluva flier an' the best wing buddy a person could ask for. We live in a world a' bullshit and you've got the least bullshit ta ya outta anyone I've seen. My life sucks--an', man, does it ever suck--but when you're around, it seems ta suck a little less. I don't know what all this means, but I do know that I want ya on my wing... an' I don't want ya ta break off again."
Lydia was never known for having a delicate way with words and now was no different, but Matt was struck all the some.
"Nyx, I--, I don't know what to say, but we can figure all this out when we get back."
Lydia looked at him, gave him a faint sort of smile that was hard to read, sighed and nodded.
"Alright, sure," she said. "That'll hafta do." She gave his wrist a squeeze and said, "Good luck out there, Hero. Happy huntin'."
Matt returned the gesture, squeezing her shoulder gently.
"Happy hunting to you, too, Nyx. Be careful."
"Ya know me."
"I do. Be careful."
Matt let her go and Lydia turned and walked away. He did not fail to notice that she gave one last glance over her shoulder before she left.
He did not get a chance to try to sort through what had just happened because he was approached by Major Zapata, formerly Captain Zapata of Alpha Flight, Major Samedi's replacement as squadron sub-leader.
"What was all that about, boss?" he asked.
Matt could not even begin to come up with an answer, not that it was any of Major Zapata's business anyway.
"Nothing," Matt said. "Don't worry about it. Let's get the Rittern out on the flightline."
Thankfully, Major Zapata dropped the subject without question and replied, "Yes, sir."
Matt knew something between him and Lydia had changed. Maybe it had changed further back than that moment. However, as he told her, they would have to sort it out later. Right now they needed to focus on their mission. They could not afford any distractions.