ESS Ticonderoga, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 26 Jun 123
Time: UST 1020

Six weeks had passed since the event simply called 'the May Incident' ended. During that entire time, the ships involved were held in a sort of quarantine while the crews were investigated by dozens of special agents answering directly to the Chairwoman. The idea was to flush out any remaining moles. How successful they were, no one could say.
The so-called Ticonderoga Nine were assembled in Commodore Frazier's office. It was the first time they had all been together since the May Incident ended. They were joined by a few other concerned parties, namely Admiral Mfume and the Argus agents Zhao and Wang.
An operator appeared on the viewscreen on the wall and said, "We are patching you through to the office of the Chairwoman now. Please hold."
When the Chairwoman appeared onscreen, Admiral Mfume rose from his chair and shouted, "Attention on deck!"
Everyone went to the position of attention and Chairwoman Liu gave them a lazy wave, saying, "At ease." Folding her hands, she then continued, "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I know this has been a long time coming, but you all have been officially cleared of the charges against you. As far as your records are concerned, none of this mess ever happened."
The news should have come as a relief to them, but most of them did not appear terribly at ease with the news.
"But it did happen, ma'am," Colonel Vasquez replied bluntly.
"No, Colonel, it didn't," the Chairwoman insisted with equal bluntness. "None of it did. In fact, the Ticonderoga has just come back from a three-month training exercise. You all did so well that I'm going to have Compton and the other branch secretaries sign off on unit commendations all around.
"Also, we're going to be having a change of command ceremony soon. I thought I'd give Admiral Mfume a cushy tour over at Ganymede before he retires. The rest of you should be thinking about your futures as well. As you probably know, we're looking at a 30% reduction by the end of the year, so I'll leave it to you to decide if you want to continue your military careers or not. I can't guarantee any personnel action will be finalized before the end of the year, though."
"So you're just gonna sweep all this under the rug?" Colonel Vasquez asked.
General Pfeiffer shot him a mean look for omitting the 'ma'am' at the end, but if there was an intentional slight or not, it did not seem to faze the Chairwoman. Instead, she scoffed, "What? You expect us to admit there's a cabal that's infiltrated every level of the government to guide the course of human events to advance their agenda? Seriously, Colonel."
Colonel Vasquez's jaw tensed, but before he could say anything, the Chairwoman added, "Here's something else to sweeten the deal. The nine of you will be awarded a year's base pay as compensation for your ordeal--tax-free of course--in addition to all back pay owed."
"A year's base pay is a pretty cheap price to buy our silence," the Colonel said.
"Colonel Vasquez!" General Pfeiffer exclaimed.
The Chairwoman showed neither anger nor annoyance at the Colonel. Simply and coolly, she told him, "I'm not buying your silence, Colonel. I'm awarding damages. Your silence on the matter is assumed. Now that you've gotten a taste of the Icebox, surely none of you are looking to go back there. I shouldn't have to say it, but all this dirty business is classified above top secret."
"This isn't over," Commodore Frazier said. "Is it, ma'am?"
Chairwoman Liu shook her head.
"Unfortunately, no. We've hurt their operations, but it wasn't a clean sweep. They won't be able to pull anything this big again anytime soon, though. Take what comfort you can in that."
An uncomfortable silence filled the room. It was difficult to see what it had all been for. Yes, the immediate threat was eliminated, but in the end, all they had done was postpone the day of reckoning. How much time had they bought for themselves? Five years? Ten? Twenty? However long it was, it would not be long enough.
"We need to wrap this up," the Chairwoman said. "You have the Union's gratitude. I'm sure you'll all go on to do great things in the future, wherever you go. That is all."
The Chairwoman cut the feed and the uncomfortable silence returned. Admiral Mfume took it upon himself to break the silence.
"There is little more I can say. I am sorry all this had to happen. Think well on the Chairwoman's offer and let me know your decision by the end of next week. I will also look into getting you all some shore leave if you want it."
"Thank you, sir," several of them replied.
"You're all dismissed."
The nine of them went to the position of attention, did an about-face and began to filter out of the office. As they entered the waiting room, Zhao approached Lieutenant Wallace and said, "Mr. Wallace, while you're thinking about your options, I'd just like to say that there's a place for you in our organization. I thought you might like to play for a team that would properly appreciate your abilities for a change."
"I'll think about it," Lieutenant Wallace replied.
Zhao eyed Chief Bianchi and added, "We can provide you with the sort of flexibility you want... for all areas of your life."
"I said I'll think about it."
Having gotten as much commitment as he was going to get out of the Lieutenant, Zhao then told the nine of them, "Well, it's been a pleasure working with all of you. For your sake, I hope we don't have to meet again. Bie le."
With that, Zhao and Wang went on ahead of the others. Wasting little time, Sergeant Grisson looked to Specialist O'Connor and said, "Shorty, you thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?"
Specialist O'Connor nodded and replied, "I think so, Jack."
Sergeant Grisson then look back to Colonel Vasquez and asked him, "Would it be rude ta go right back in ta the Skipper an' tell him we're ready ta get the hell out?"
"Give it till Monday, Grisson," the annoyed Colonel growled. "You don't need to look that eager to get out."
"Whatever you say, sir," Sergeant Grisson replied with a casual shrug. Their recent windfall apparently put him in a rather easygoing mood.
As they exited into the passageway, they went their separate ways. Matt would have just kept on walking, but he felt something tugging at his sleeve. It was Lydia.
"Hey, Cav..." she started awkwardly. "Is it... Is it too soon for us ta have that talk?"
After their sortie, the two of them did not have any time for just the two of them to talk. Maybe it was just as well. It was more time for both of them to sort out their feelings. Matt still did not have a clear answer, but Chairwoman Liu urging them to think about their future brought the question back into focus. For better or for worse, they would find the answer together.
"No," Matt said with a gentle smile, "I think it's just the right time."