Chapter 6
Operation Ratcatcher
ESS Ticonderoga, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 17 Apr 123
Time: UST 0913

Over a month had passed since the nine crewmembers of the Ticonderoga had been taken and there hadn't been a single word to account for what happened to them. It continually gnawed at Commodore Frazier. He wanted to round up all the agents afloat and shoot them out of the airlock in retaliation, but what would that accomplish? He and Admiral Mfume kept on pressing the higher-ups for answers, but all they got for their trouble was either the silent treatment or the runaround. If the two of them couldn't get an answer with their combined connections, who could?
All his questions were busily plaguing him as he went into his office. Much to his surprise, there was a female commander in dress blues sitting at his desk.
"I have a hard time believing that our government can't provide the only twice-over Hero of the Union a more comfortable chair," the commander said.
The sight of a junior officer infiltrating his office like she owned the place filled the Commodore with anger and confusion. Perhaps he would've been able to take it in more humor on any other day, but with his nerves rubbed raw by the NIS situation, he had no patience whatsoever.
Surprisingly, he was able to ask in a fairly measured tone, "Can I help you, Commander?"
"Please, Commodore," the commander said, doffing her service cap, "call me 'Madame Chairwoman'."
The Commodore couldn't believe it, but the commander was none other than Chairwoman Liu herself. He awkwardly went to attention.
"Ma'am, wha--, how...?"
"I was a spy for sixteen years, Commodore," the Chairwoman replied. "Infiltrating the Union's latest and greatest warship isn't that terribly difficult for someone like me, not that there's much comfort in the thought."
"Ma'am, might I ask why you're here?" Commodore Frazier asked.
"No beating around the bush. I knew there was a reason I liked you. I'll get to the point then. At ease, by the way.
"As you know, last month NIS arrested nine members of your crew. They were charged with treason, found guilty and sent to the Icebox."
"That can't be!" Commodore Frazier exclaimed. "There's no way! Ma'am, I can't believe those charges are true. General Pfeiffer and Colonel Vasquez are first-rate commanders. Colonel Harold took down the Hades, for God's sake!"
The Chairwoman eyed him knowingly.
"And that's the one that really sticks in your craw, isn't it, Commodore? You owe Colonel Harold everything and you've spent the past two years trying to find a way just to say thank you and that you're sorry."
It had been almost ten years since the Commodore was made a celebrity for risking life and limb to help protect the critically damaged cruiser Juzumaru. Only the official stories never mentioned that he would've died if an SAR pilot hadn't used his own Pelican as to shield the newly minted Hero of the Union from an incoming missile. Only by using his newfound pull did the Commodore find out the pilot who saved his life was then-Lieutenant Matthias Harold and that he was very nearly hung out to dry on manslaughter charges for the crewmembers killed by his actions. Who would have guessed that the man who saved his life and was responsible for every advantage he enjoyed as a Hero of the Union would be assigned to the same ship? And yet in all the time that had passed, never once did the Commodore manage to muster the courage to face him.
"How did you--?" the Commodore began to ask.
A critical look from the Chairwoman was all he needed to check himself.
"Right," he said. He then switched gears and said, "Ma'am, you didn't come all this way to tell me how the court-martial turned out."
"Tribunal, technically, but right you are," the Chairwoman replied. "What I'm about to tell you doesn't leave this room. There are traitors on this ship, but they weren't the ones who were arrested. There's a vast network that's been pulling strings for years, infiltrating every level of the government and military. The so-called Ticonderoga Nine were a liability to these people and so they crafted this big case, mixing truth and lies into a concoction that goes down smooth for the people clueless enough to get suckered into their game.
"That's part of the problem, you see. We have a hard time IDing the ones who are actually in on it because they manipulate just about anyone to get the job done.
"I've been watching a long time and now I have my chance to scoop up the whole sack of rats. With the Shellies gone and the Nine out of the way, they're going to move for something big."
"And where do I come in, ma'am?" the Commodore asked.
"You weren't made captain of this ship just for PR. You and Mfume are two of the best officers in the whole Navy. Most importantly, I know you're on my side. When these rats come out of their nest, I want you to be my ratcatcher. I need the Tico on this case.
"Before that, though, we need to spring the Nine. This assignment would go to Commander Joachim of the Triple-Nine if he hadn't gotten himself killed back at Mars. I have some reservations about involving someone as high-profile as you, but the way you butted heads with Marshal Van Daan all the time, I know you're the kind of person with a, shall we say, flexible enough mindset to see this mission through."
The Commodore decided to take that as a compliment.
Chairwoman Liu continued, "You'll be getting orders to head out to the Frontier soon. You'll be checking in at Nadir along the way. This is your window of opportunity. Your sole remaining Tigerhawk will slip out and attack the control station on Charon that'll leave Camp DeBoni vulnerable. My people on the inside will extract the Nine and then arrange for a rendezvous."
"You're asking me use top secret military hardware to attack federal property?" the Commodore asked incredulously. "Why can't you just order their release yourself?"
"Plausible deniability," the Chairwoman replied curtly. "If the rats think I'm on to them, they'll scatter and I'll lose my chance to catch them. I want them to think there's another party at work here, keep them guessing.
"Unfortunately, this means that if you fail, the government will disavow any knowledge of your operation. It gets better, though. The Tico is going to be labeled a rogue ship and the Navy will respond accordingly. I'm counting on you to not get caught until all the pieces are in position."
"I believe you're mixing your metaphors, ma'am."
"Everything else is mixed up here. Why leave out the metaphors? I do hope you're taking this seriously, though. The fate of the Union itself hangs in the balance. Can I count on you, Commodore?"
Commodore Frazier didn't answer right away. She was asking him to take on a terrible risk, not just to himself personally but to the entire crew.
"Permission to speak freely, ma'am?"
The Chairwoman nodded.
"Go right ahead."
"I don't like this cloak and dagger bullshit, but if things are as bad as you say, then something has to be done. More importantly, I'm not going to leave my crewmembers to rot in the Icebox for crimes they didn't commit. I accept the mission."
The Chairwoman smiled.
"I knew I could count on you, Commodore," she said. She gently nudged a DataPad lying on the desk to draw the Commodore's attention to it. "I have all your mission details here. Commit it to memory because it'll wipe the moment you're done reading it."
"Aye-aye, ma'am."
"Well, it's been a pleasure. Perhaps the next time we meet, it'll be under more favorable circumstances."
Donning her service cap again, the Chairwoman rose up from the chair and started to walk out of the office. Stopping halfway, she turned to the Commodore and said, "One more thing. You'll need people to man the Tigerhawk. I've assembled a list of candidates along with the rest of your mission details. You could use the survivors of the Triple-Nine, but you might want to ask yourself why they're still alive when three undercover Specials all wound up dead. Pick whoever best suits your fancy. Good luck, Commodore."
"Thank you, ma'am."
With that, the Chairwoman left. Commodore Frazier wasted no time going to his desk and turning on the DataPad she had left for him. If he was going to be her ratcatcher, he had some studying to do.