Chapter 19
Big Sis

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Wed 15 May 121
Time: UST 0818

Morning PT had been dragged out a good deal longer than usual. More than two hours. What was worse, today was a muscle failure day. Ally always had trouble with upper body strength, but she had to perform to the same standard as her male counterparts if she wanted to continue being a sniper. Well, she didn't really want to be a sniper. She never did, but she had to play along with the experiment. That was the deal.
"P'a-toon," Sergeant Mendez bellowed, "atten-shun!"
Ally hastily put aside her stray thoughts, going to attention and joining the chorus of 'Wolf Pack!' However, there was one distinct voice out of tune with the rest of them.
"We love Rahim!"
It was Jack. If the position of attention allowed her to cover her face in mortification, she would have done it. There had recently been a meeting where the platoon was asked to think up an alternative to shouting 'Wolf Pack' all the time. Of course, Sergeant Rahim had only been joking when he suggested they sound off with that line. It certainly beat something lame like 'Strength and Honor'. Leave it to Jack to take the joke to the next level. Unsurprisingly, Sergeant Mendez failed to see the humor in it.
"Grisson!" he barked. "Drop!" No sooner had Jack gone into the front leaning rest that Sergeant Mendez saw fit to add, "O'Connor! You drop with 'im!" But this wasn't enough, so he kept going. "Hell, all a' Third Squad, beat your goddamned faces! No, you know what? Second P'atoon, loddy-doddy ever'body, get the fuck down!"
"Down!"
"Up!"
"Down!"
"Up!"
"Halfway down!"
"Hold it!"
"Hold it!"
They were still holding it when Sergeant Mendez felt the need to get conversational. "Second P'atoon, I ain't in no hurry," he said. "We gonna go till I get tired a' soundin' off, an' that ain't happenin' anytime soon. When ya hit muscle failure, ya can thank Mistah Funnyman over there. When we keep on goin', ya can thank him twice."
Ally was already at muscle failure before they started, but that didn't change anything. The others were highly likely to kill Jack for getting the whole platoon smoked. If not, they would simply beat the living snot out of him. This sort of threat never seemed to be enough to get him to knock it off. She would never know why.
Rather than resume the count, Sergeant Mendez continued to have them hold while he went on a rant about sounding off, uniform purpose, and so on and so forth. He also complained about everyone turning down his 'Strength and Honor' suggestion, which was supposed to have come from some classic movie. Listening to his rants was arguably the worst part of Sergeant Mendez's smoking sessions.
Relief came from an unexpected corner when a voice said, "Recover." It was the LT.
Since it was the LT, the platoon promptly responded, springing back to their feet in a vague semblance of unison.
To Sergeant Mendez, the LT held up a hand somewhat apologetically and said, "Sorry to step on your toes there, Mendez, but I need the platoon on its feet."
"No problem, LT."
"Second Platoon," the LT said, "I want your lockers cleaned out, your every possession packed and on your back. You'll assemble at the main lifts in ten minutes. Anything you leave behind becomes mine and the whole platoon gets an extra hour of this good PT. Fall out!"
For the most part, the Army prided itself in training its soldiers to execute solely on reflex in all times and circumstances. However, the current order was far enough out of the ordinary to interfere with that reflex.
"Dude, what the fuck's goin' on?" someone from Second Squad asked.
His squad leader snapped back, "No time for questions! Time's a-wastin'! Move, move, move!"
The other squad leaders echoed this, herding the platoon out of the assembly area. As the only female in the platoon, Ally had to split from everyone else and scramble to her room, berth, whatever they call it.
Ally came from a big family, so she was used to not having a lot of space for herself. It made the adjustment in basic not quite as difficult as it was for some people, but life on the ship was worse. Here three people were squeezed into the space that would accommodate two in her bay from basic. Short as she was, even she couldn't sit up in her bunk if she wanted to. There was more space than you would find on the smaller ships in the Fleet, to say nothing of the old museum pieces, but that didn't say a whole lot.
There was no time to complain, though. Knowing she wouldn't have much space gave her incentive to bring little more than the bare essentials when she got this assignment. That came in handy now that she only had a few minutes to pack everything up and race to the lifts. She wasn't sure if the LT meant what he said about confiscating anything left behind, but she didn't want to find out.
The one bright spot was that space limitations forced them to store TA-50 in the armory instead of their wall lockers. Getting her uniforms and personal effects into her duffel bag was trouble enough. There was no way her LightSuit would fit and she was liable to get smoked if she wore it over her PT uniform.
The last thing in the bag was her Class A's. She would have to get them pressed again after this. There went a good ten credits she'd rather not spend.
She glanced at her watch and a shock ran through her. Only two minutes left. It would take at least a minute to get to the lifts. And that was if she ran. She hastily closed up her duffel bug, hoisted it on her back, and weaved her way out of the berth. Once she was in the hallway, she bolted, or at least the closest thing she could do with all her worldly possessions on her back.
God was apparently on her side today, because she made it to the lifts just in the nick of time. Jack was already there. Of course, with his long legs, it probably only took three or four steps to get there. Once he saw her, he reached out and ruffled her hair.
"Hey there, shorty," he said. "Glad ya could make it."
"That's enough grabass, you two," Sergeant Rahim growled. He still wasn't particularly fond of either of them.
It seemed like everyone in the platoon managed to make it to the lifts in time. At least that meant there wouldn't be any extra smoking. Not yet, at least. Sergeant Mendez and the LT herded them into the lifts. For some reason, they insisted on making only one trip, so the two lifts were jam-packed. It would have been a tight enough fit without everyone carrying full duffel bags. Ally wasn't too receptive to the sergeants' calls to 'make your buddy smile'. Happily, Jack guided her up to the wall and used his own body as a shield to keep the other guys from pressing up against her.
They only went up one floor. Deck? Whichever. She hated trying to keep track of all the different naval terms. Anyway, as the platoon members were filing out, she noticed that they were acting funny. Moving slow, all hunched over. What was going on?
When she and Jack stepped out of the lift, she found out for herself. It was like someone dropped an extra duffel bag or two on her. She could barely even stay standing.
Waiting for them was Captain Robles, the company commander, and First Sergeant Drake. Like the Second Platoon, they were in their PT uniforms, but instead of duffel bags, they had loaded rucks on their backs. Unlike the rest of present company, they didn't seem to have any problem standing normally.
"You like that, ladies?" he asked them. "The leathernecks always keep it at two G on their deck. Toughens 'em up. It's gonna toughen you up, too, 'cause Deck 6 is Second Platoon's new home. And to celebrate, we're going on a little fun run."
"Double time, Second Platoon!" First Sergeant barked.
Ally couldn't believe what she was hearing. A run? After two hours of PT? With duffel bags? At two G? It was insane. And yet they were doing it.
After two grueling laps around Deck 6's track, only the most derangedly hooah-hooah in the platoon were feigning motivation. Captain Robles had them form up. Most everyone looked like they could fall over any second, red-faced, soaked in sweat and sucking wind something awful. Although he didn't look nearly as bad off as everyone else, the Captain had clearly exerted himself, too.
"I'd tell you 'Good work, Second Platoon', but a few weakbodies fell out on me. Expect to get some extra training. We had leathernecks laughing at us, Second Platoon. That is un-fucking-sat. I expect more from you and I'd better see you living up to my expectations. Fall out, stow your gear, hit the showers, grab some chow, and settle in. Dismissed."
It was all well and good to say they were dismissed, but no one had any idea where to go. Fortunately, the LT stepped in to answer the question before anyone had to ask.
"The Corps has been kind enough to lend us 91-9. That means all of us, me included." He paused before correcting himself. "As I were. O'Connor, you're in 94-9, Rack 48. Try not to get made into some Devil Bitch's bitch."
One of the guys snickered. "I'd pay good money ta see that shit."
"You an' me both," another one added.
Ally could feel her cheeks burning. Things could get real ugly real fast, but Jack cut in before the catcalls got started in earnest.
"What're ya talkin' 'bout, Belafonte?" he asked the first commentator. "We all know which way you swing an' why ya got all them tattoos on your back. You must be all psyched for your big debut here."
The way Ally had always heard it, the tattoos on the back thing was supposed to be a dig at the Navy, but Belafonte got the point and it really set the guy off.
"Grisson, you fuck!" he howled. "I'm gonna pound your ass!"
Cool as a cucumber, Jack shot back, "Since when did you become a switch?"
This, of course, only made Belafonte angrier. As the entire platoon blamed Jack for the earlier smoking and quite possibly the run too, he wasn't doing much to improve his situation. He glanced back at her, a signal to get going while he drew everyone's attention. She didn't make his sacrifice in vain.
She could hear Sergeant Mendez smoking the lot of them as his method of conflict resolution. She wished Jack didn't have to go through all that for her, but he would always insist on it. It was no different than it was in training, people always giving her a hard time and him taking all that on himself.
94-9 couldn't have appeared any sooner. She felt like her back was going to break or something. Stowing her duffel bag at least would provide her with no small measure of relief.
Upon entering the room, she saw a few people inside for whatever reason. One of them took one look at Ally's PT shirt, conspicuously emblazoned with the word 'ARMY', and immediately took up an attitude that was decidedly less than friendly.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
Ally stammered, "Um, I, ah..."
"Sound off, greenback," the Marine said irritably.
"I, um, I've been assigned to this room."
The Marine looked at her like she was out of her mind.
"You're in the wrong damn uniform for this deck."
"It's true, Milendez," a voice behind Ally said.
"Liu?"
Ally turned around to see another Marine, this one only slightly taller than herself. She seemed infinitely less hostile than the Marine she was just talking to, almost friendly even.
"I'm Liu, the room commander," she said. "No relation to the big lady in Atlantis City. You must be PFC O'Connor. Bunk 36."
Not seeing any rank insignia, Ally found herself instinctively going to the position of attention as she replied, "Yes, ma'am."
"Hey, now, I work for a living," Liu said good-naturedly. "Just call me Liu. And stop standing at attention. At ease, at ease. You look like you've been through all hell and back. Why don't you stow that gear and hit the showers? Once you're done, I'll fill you in on how we do things here on Deck 6."
"What the hell's going on here, Liu?" the hostile Marine, Milendez, asked.
"Greenbacks wanting to be Marine Corps hard," Liu said. She looked at Ally and winked. "I think it's cute. Now run along, you."
"Yes, ma'am."
Showing incredible patience, Liu repeated, "Like I said, I work for a living. Stop calling me 'ma'am'."
Ally found the habit was hard to break. "Yes, ma--uh..."
Pityingly, Liu put her hand on Ally's shoulder and said, "If you've got to stick something on the end, use 'Senior Lance'."
"Yes, Senior Lance."
Liu pointed to the other end of the room, presumably where Ally's new bunk was. "Now scoot."
"This is bullshit, Liu," Milendez grumbled as Ally made her way to the bunk.
"Don't complain," Liu said. "And don't make trouble either or they might sic Momma Gun on you."
"Don't even joke about that."
There was a marked dread in Milendez's voice that made Ally wonder just who that 'Momma Gun' was. She wondered, but she had the distinct feeling she didn't want to find out.
As the wall lockers were too narrow to stuff a fully loaded duffel bag inside, she took out as little as she could get away with at the moment. Grabbing a change of clothes, she then headed to the showers. Being an off-hour, she was able to enjoy relative privacy.
Once she was out of the shower and dressed, Liu gave her the rundown of how things worked here, including some of the peculiarities of Marine Corps customs and courtesies. It turned out that Liu's parents were Army, which explained why she knew the ins and outs of both systems.
When the explanation was done, Ally was told to go to the mess hall. Although the various mess halls on board ran 24-7 to accommodate the staggered schedules of the crew, pickings were slim outside the peak hours. It was almost 0900. They were running low by now, no doubt. Was she supposed to go to the mess hall here or go back down to Deck 7?
While she was trying to figure out the answer to the question, she saw Jack waiting for her outside the room, leaning up against the wall all cool-like.
Surprised, Ally exclaimed, "Jack!"
Jack grinned and asked her, "Haven't become a statistic yet, have ya, shorty?"
Ally felt her cheeks burning again. Jack laughed and ruffled her hair.
"I was just kiddin', kid," he said. "Come on, let's get some grub."
They didn't get too far when Ally heard a husky-voiced woman behind them go, "What in the holy hell is this? You two! Freeze!"
As they didn't see any other pairs in the vicinity, they stopped and turned around. Ally had to do a double-take. It wasn't that difficult to imagine such a beefy-looking Marine, male or female, but this one was as unnaturally tall as Jack. No, taller. Unbelievable.
"What seems ta be the problem, Sergeant?" Jack asked, like he was some DUI pulled over by the cops.
Going by the look on the Marine's face, he might as well have insulted her mother twelve ways from Thursday. She moved in on Jack like a shark going for the kill.
"Sergeant? Sergeant? Have the two rockers fallen off my collar when I wasn't looking? You will address me as 'Gunnery Sergeant' or I'll tear you a new asshole."
"I'm happy with the one I've got, Gunnery Sergeant."
Ally wanted to curl up in a ball, disappear, something. How could he provoke a creature so terrifying? It was like he had a death wish.
At first, the Gunnery Sergeant seemed to keep things together, but Ally knew it was a trap. She had seen drill sergeants and range cadre do it a hundred times.
"Oh," the Gunnery Sergeant said calmly, "you think you're funny, boy?" Quickly changing her tone, she then barked, "I will PT your ass until you fucking die! How funny is that!?"
Jack wisely didn't say anything. Maybe he actually cared about his life a bit after all. Only the Gunnery Sergeant wasn't going to leave it at that.
"Ain't you got an answer, boy?" she asked.
Diplomatically, Jack replied, "It's as funny as the Gunnery Sergeant says, Gunnery Sergeant."
The Gunnery Sergeant switched back to her pretendingly bemused, low voice. "You're cute," she said, and not in a complimentary fashion. "Real fuckin' cute. I always knew you greenbacks were fuckin' ate up, but you really take the cake, boy. You are fucking disgrace to that uniform. You better thank God Almighty you aren't corrupting my beloved Corps with your rotted, maggoty carcass or I would personally shove your ass out the airlock. Now precisely what the fuck are you doing on my deck, boy?"
"My platoon got moved ta this deck, Gunnery Sergeant."
"Well, don't that beat all? You listen and you listen good. If you're going to be on my deck, you'd best square yourself away or I'm going to work you over with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. Am I makin' myself clear, boy?"
"Yes, Gunnery Sergeant."
"Sound the fuck off!"
"Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!"
By sheer coincidence, and probably not a happy one, Sergeant Rahim just happened to pass by, coming back from chow most likely. Ally couldn't see this improving their situation any.
"You there!" the Gunnery Sergeant yelled, getting Sergeant Rahim's attention. "These your soldiers?"
"Yes, they are, Gunnery Sergeant."
The Gunnery Sergeant pointed harshly at Jack and told Sergeant Rahim, "You'd best see that this beanpole-lookin' fucker unfucks himself or I'll be visiting my wrath on all you slimy greenback motherfuckers. Do you copy that, Staff Sergeant?"
Cutting out the need to be reprimanded for not sounding off adequately, Sergeant Rahim shouted, "Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!"
Pleased with the volume and promptness of his response, the Gunnery Sergeant almost, almost smiled. "There might be hope for you greenbacks yet," she said. "Carry on."
The Gunnery Sergeant went about her way, but Jack and Ally remained at parade rest. They both knew they were about to get it from Sergeant Rahim. And they were right.
Not unlike the Gunnery Sergeant before him, Sergeant Rahim moved in really close, though the effect was quite different with someone so much shorter.
"Grisson," he growled in a voice that was positively saturated with anger, "I don't know what the fuck you did to piss that woman off, but if I ever, ever have to get my ass chewed like that again for some dumbass shit you pull, I'll shove an SG1 so far up your ass that O'Connor'll have to study proctology just to do her goddamned job. Is that clear?"
"Crystal clear, Sergeant," Jack said. Cracking a grin, he added, "An' bonus points for the awesome word picture."
Sergeant Rahim held up a hand like he was going to strangle Jack then and there.
"I swear, Grisson, I'm going to fucking kill you one day. Now get the fuck out of here."
Sergeant Rahim stormed off and Jack just stood there. The grin had faded and he looked stunned, which was odd given how casually he'd handled their squad leader. It wasn't like this was the first time he had been chewed good by an NCO, or even multiple NCOs, nor was it the worst, but she had never seen him look like that before.
All he could say was "I'll be damned."
"What?" Ally asked.
"That was my sister."

* * *

Date: Wed 15 May 121
Time: UST 1151

Miranda knocked on the door to Major Knox's office. As usual, he was quick to respond. You only had to knock once with him.
"Come in, Gunny," he said. "What can I do you for?"
"Sir, there's something I'd like to discuss with you."
"Sure thing. At ease."
"There were some greenbacks roaming around on deck earlier this morning."
Major Knox nodded. "Yeah, they've moved a platoon up here. Want to train them in the higher gravity."
Somewhat hesitantly, Miranda said, "My kid brother was with them, sir."
"Really?"
"I thought that was against the Sullivan Protocol."
"No, Gunny. You're not in the same unit, not even in the same branch of service. Besides, the Sullivan Protocol is just a guideline. It isn't hard and fast policy."
It was her own fault for not being more familiar with the policy, but Miranda could not help feeling disappointed. Naturally, she did not allow it to show.
"I see, sir."
The Major smiled. "You're a good sister, Gunny, looking out for your kid brother like that."
"Not really, sir."
In an effort to make her feel better, the Major said, "Look, don't worry about it. He's probably safer here than he is just about anywhere else." He rose from his desk. "I was just about to go for chow. You want to come with?"
"It would be my pleasure, sir."