Chapter 10
Kataki

Location: Unidentified Sheolite Vessel, Outside Union Space
Date: Wed 10 Jul 121
Time: UST 0825

Lydia felt like she was drowning, or like she'd already drowned. There was the faintest sense of her lungs burning. She tried to cough, but couldn't. She wanted to gag, but her throat wouldn't cooperate.
Her whole body felt numb, like it wasn't even there. Outwardly, at least. She could still feel what was going on inside her body. It felt like there were worms wriggling all over the place. It was driving her crazy. She wanted to tear her skin off and rip open all her organs just to get them out, but she couldn't move.
Then it came back. The headache. That dull throbbing pain that made her want to drive a railroad spike into her skull just to make it stop.
She knew this pain. She'd felt it before. Not long ago, but also more distantly. Where had she felt it before? When had she felt it?
A fuzzy memory started to form. She was on her rack, kicking the bulkhead. Then Trifkovic says something. What did she say again?
Trifkovic was dragging her out of her rack. She didn't want to be moved, but Trifkovic wasn't listening. Trifkovic stood her up in the shower and nearly froze her to death. Lydia agreed to go to Sickbay and Trifkovic went with her.
Then what?
She couldn't remember. She tried to think harder. Then the pain sharpened, like the tap of an ice pick. With each pulse it sharpened, intensified.
She knew this pain. It was from further back. Back, back... When was it?
Sharper and sharper. Stronger and stronger.
Back, back...
And then she remembered.

* * *

Location: ESS Oliver Cromwell, Jovian Sphere
Date: Tue 10 Apr 114
Time: UST 2122

For a midshipman like Lydia, the call to action stations meant she was supposed to report to her quarters and stay out of the way while the fully trained professionals did their jobs. But Lydia didn't do that. Instead she was suited up and approaching Lieutenant Cluess in the hangar as the detachment prepared to scramble.
"What the hell are you doing in here, Han?" Lieutenant Cluess demanded. "This isn't a drill. This is a real scramble. Doff that suit and get back to your quarters."
"Leung is down," Lydia said. "Let me go. You need every bird out there you can get."
Ensign Leung was off the flight roster for a sprained ankle he got the other day. That left the Cromwell short a pilot and gave Lydia the chance she'd been waiting for to finally see some real action.
"You're just a midshipman," the Lieutenant countered.
"You know I'm good for it, sir," Lydia replied, refusing to give up. "Let me go."
It was no idle boast to say that she was one of the best pilots in her class and could fly circles around Ensign Leung during their practice. Also, she'd be graduating soon anyway, so what difference did a few months make?
More than a little reluctantly, Lieutenant Cluess sighed and said, "Don't make me regret this."
"Thank you, sir!" Lydia beamed, then darted off to Leung's Wasp.
"What in the holy hell is this?" the incredulous crew chief asked.
"I'm going in Leung's place," Lydia told him. "Lieutenant Cluess gave me the OK. Load up my flight data and let's kick the tires and light the fires."
It was a terribly cliché thing for her to say, but she didn't care. She was going to get her first mission in as a mid. She'd be the talk of the Academy when she got back and better yet, she'd actually be contributing to the war effort at long last.
Clearly not believing her, the crew chief called up Lieutenant Cluess and when he was done, he simply shrugged and started ordering the rest of the crew to prep the Wasp for launch. Lydia bounded up the ladder into the cockpit and went through the preflight checklist. When that was done, she secured her helmet and waited to be taxied to the flight line.
When it was her turn to be taxied, she gave the final salute to the crew and that was when it really hit her that this was the real thing. There were always risks whenever you went up, but now there were people who were actively trying to kill her.
No, not people, Lydia corrected herself. The Shellies aren't people.
In no time she was out of the hangar and forming up with the rest of the detachment. The newer Strategos-class destroyers had a small aviation element consisting of four light fighters and four shuttles. The fighter detachments of the three Strategos destroyers in the battle group formed a single squadron, the VF-386. For a big operation like this, the three detachments would be operating as a single squadron in conjunction with CAG-32 from the Astyanax.
Lydia was allowed to sit in on the briefing as part of her training, but Lieutenant Cluess would've never guessed she was taking in all the mission details so she could participate herself.
Her radar screen lit up with contacts. The whole place was thick with Shellies. According to their intel, this was what they called the Vandal Fleet, headed by the dreadnought Lethe. That was the naming convention. Playing off the fact that they called themselves the Sheol Empire, their flagships were named after the rivers of Hades and because of the raids on the Colonies, their fleets were named after the tribes that gave the Romans hell way back when. Apparently you could tell them apart by their tactics, but Lydia didn't care too much about that. Her job was to make them dead.
"Griefers, this is Griefer One," the squadron leader announced. "Break off in pairs and engage all bandits in your designated area."
"Griefer One-Zero, stay with me," Lieutenant Cluess said. "Griefer Five, form up with Griefer Nine."
"Roger," Lydia replied.
The Lieutenant was really playing it safe by having her stick with him rather than leaving her with Lieutenant Mayekar. She couldn't blame him and she'd probably learn more flying with him anyway. Lieutenant Mayekar wasn't a bad pilot, but Lieutenant Cluess was the best on the Cromwell. He wasn't just detachment leader on account of seniority, after all.
"Heads up, Griefer One-Zero," Lieutenant Cluess said. "Three bandits inbound. Do not break off to engage. I repeat, do not break off to engage."
"Roger that."
Lydia had to stay attached to Lieutenant Cluess' wing. She was worried that she might have trouble focusing on staying in formation and engaging the Shellies at the same time, but processing multiple tasks at once was all part of being a pilot. She was going to follow orders to a T and prove that she deserved to be out there.
As the Shelly bandits closed in, she got more data from the sensors. They were Cobra medium fighters. Bigger, better armed, and thicker shells than the usual Vipers. They'd be hard to take down with a couple of Wasps, but not impossible.
She had to stay focused. Big or small, the drill was the same. Wear down the shields with the pulse cannons, then switch to lasers or missiles to finish them off. She only had four missiles, though, so she wanted to save them for when she really needed them. After all, there were still a lot of other Shellies out there.
The Cobras opened fire first, peppering them with their particle cannons. Although her shields could've withstood the shots, she bobbed to dodge them. It was dangerous to bank too much on your shields. If you let them get drained early, you could get a nasty surprise later.
She returned fire, marveling at the fact that they just kept on coming. She'd heard that the Shellies didn't spend much time in evasive maneuvers. They just drove on ahead until they popped... or you did.
Lieutenant Cluess was focusing his fire on the leader while Lydia was taking the one on her left. She just about had its fore shield down when it turned sharply to face her and fired off a kind of shot she didn't recognize.
Alarms bleated and Lydia saw that her shields were down and her engines offline. She still had auxiliary power, though.
The Cobra grazed her with one of its lasers, but she kicked in the directional thrusters before they could cut right through her airframe. Shooting from the hip, she fired off a missile, which thankfully connected with the Cobra, taking it out.
She didn't have time to exult in her first kill. Without main power, she'd be easy prey for any Shelly that took notice of her.
Panic was starting to creep over her, but Lydia remembered her training. While keeping herself mobile with the directional thrusters, she reset the circuits and was rewarded with the main power kicking back in. The shield projectors rebooted at twenty percent and charging.
Okay, she was back in action.
Just as she was about to report to Lieutenant Cluess, his Wasp went up in a huge explosion that knocked her off-course. Damage reports flashed on her VDU from the fragments, but it was nothing serious.
There were still two Cobras left.
Lydia didn't give herself any time to get scared. She was free to cut loose now and that's exactly what she did. She gave her engines a jolt, boosting her Wasp to nearly double the standard engagement speed. The Shellies didn't fly fancy, which was exactly why doing so was going to save her. She darted around, spinning and looping in a high-speed ballet that strained her G-diffusers well beyond their capacity. Her whole body felt like it was being crushed, but she needed the speed to stay alive.
She knew it was going to drain the capacitors, but she needed to take out the two Cobras sooner rather than later. She fired her laser arrays at a constant burn, targeting the two Cobras separately, all the while preparing a missile lock on each. The moment she opened a hole in their shields, she loosed two missiles. One went up but the other wasn't quite dead yet. She fired both laser arrays center mass until she finished the job.
A warning light informed her that her laser arrays had overheated and would be offline until they cooled. That left her with just her pulse cannon and a single missile. She was a sitting duck on her own. She needed to form up with the others.
"Griefer Five, this is Griefer One-Zero," she said. "Griefer Three is down. Request your coordinates. Over."
No response.
"Griefer Five, this is Griefer One-Zero. Do you copy?"
Nothing.
"Griefer Nine, do you copy? This is Griefer One-Zero."
Still nothing. Did that mean everyone in the detachment was gone?
Lydia took a deep breath. She was probably going to get into trouble, but that didn't matter right now. She had to get out of this alive.
"Griefer One," she said, "this is Griefer One-Zero. I've got no contact with Greifers Three, Five and Nine. Request permission to form on your wing. Over."
The squadron leader wasn't responding either. Lydia's heart began to race.
"Griefer One, do you copy? This is Griefer One-Zero. All Griefers, if you can hear this, respond. This is Griefer One-Zero."
She double-checked her radio. Supposedly it was still working, but she didn't want to believe it. They were all dead. Who else was left?
A new voice came on the radio.
"This is Hellcat Two. Pilot, identify yourself."
That voice... It was her sister, Leia. That was right. She was DCAG on the Astyanax. Now she was really going to get it.
None of that matters, she reminded herself. Gotta stay alive.
"Hellcat Two, this is Griefer One-Zero."
The connection switched over to a private line.
"Lydia, is that you?" Leia asked, dispensing with protocol. "What the hell are you doing out here?"
Feeling like she'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar in spite of the fact that this was a life and death situation, Lydia sheepishly replied, "They were short a pilot. I convinced Lieutenant Cluess to let me go, but he, he's down."
"Calm down, Lydia," Leia said, no doubt suppressing a whirlwind of different emotions right now. "I'm sending you my coordinates. Form on my wing. Don't engage any Shellies on the way. Is that clear?"
"Aye-aye."
Once she received Leia's coordinates, Lydia charged forward full-speed, weaving through all the crossfire to unite with her sister. Leia already had pilots on either side of her, so Lydia took up a position in the rear. The diamond formation wasn't used too much in combat, but Lydia had a feeling Leia wanted her in the back and out of the way. Her lasers were still offline, so there wasn't much good she could do yet. She went ahead and forwarded a damage report to Leia because she knew she'd ask for it.
"Okay, Griefer One-Zero," Leia said on the public line, "stay close."
"Roger," Lydia replied.
They took on a trio of Vipers. They went down with too much trouble. Lydia provided what support she could with her pulse cannon. She just had to keep her head down and follow Leia's lead and it would all be over soon.
She thought she had a handle on things when something weird happened. It started with a tickle in the middle of her brain. That tickle took on a sharpness, like a pinprick. The pin was being jabbed in and out at a pace as regular as a heartbeat. Lydia tried to ignore it, but the pin turned into a nail, hammered down, yanked out and hammered back in again.
Her muscles started twitching involuntarily. She tried to focus harder to stay in control. She had to keep it together. If she didn't, she was dead and worse, she might put Leia in danger, too. She couldn't let that happen.
Then the nail grew into a tent peg and each blow of the hammer sent a paralyzing shock through her whole body.
"Lydia, what's wrong? Lydia, talk to me."
It was Leia's voice, but it seemed so distant. Lydia couldn't see straight. She couldn't think straight. All she had was the pain. The pain was everything. The pain was her. She was the pain.
"Lydia, look out!"
There was an explosion. Someone screamed. It was Lydia. She was screaming, but why?
Everything went red.
Then everything went black.

* * *

Location: Unidentified Sheolite Vessel, Outside Union Space
Date: Wed 10 Jul 121
Time: UST 0832

Lieutenant Trifkovic was in a nightmare. It had to be. There was no way any of this was real.
She had taken Lieutenant Han to Sickbay and was still there when lockdown was announced. The Chief Medical Officer ordered everyone present to stay put. Then the power went out.
She was stuck there for hours when they suddenly got the announcement that they were being boarded. They were being boarded! How could this happen?
Then the Sheolites started to break into Sickbay. Trifkovic was sent into one of the exam rooms with a nurse and a couple Corpsmen and told to lock the door. Everyone was buttoned up to buy time in the hope of rescue coming. It didn't arrive in time. The Sheolites broke in. Everyone there was unarmed. There was nothing they could do.
A Corpsman tried fighting hand-to-hand, but he got his nose broken for his trouble and they were all carried off. Trifkovic wasn't sure if they did something to her or if she just fainted (which would've been embarrassing), but she was out for God only knows how long.
She woke up stark naked, strapped to some kind of table. 'Strapped' may not have been the most accurate word to describe it. She was held down by thick, inflexible bands. They weren't metal, but they probably weren't plastic either. It didn't matter what they were, when it was all said and done. She wasn't going anywhere.
One of the restraints was on her forehead, pretty well immobilizing her head. She could only look around as far as her eyes could move. It was still enough to see far more than she ever would've wanted.
She was in a large, dome-shaped room. The walls... The walls weren't metal. They looked like some kind of carapace, a greenish brown that looked nearly black most places due to the dull lighting.
To her left and her right she saw other tables like hers. Some were lying flat and some were up at an angle like hers. She caught one male to her right eyeing her a too little long to be just a passing glance.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"You seen this place?" the guy asked, trying to sound calm but breathing way too fast to make it believable. "We're in hell, so I'm getting my view of heaven while I can."
Trifkovic could feel her cheeks burning and wanted to chew him out, but what would it accomplish at this point? If ogling her made his last moments a little better, she'd let him have it.
She turned her attention back to the room. There were computers and lots of other equipment that looked crudely built into the floor. If the room was a living thing, then it had been converted into some poorly constructed cyborg. She had no idea how close to the mark she was.
Over to the left were several rows of what looked like stasis tubes. They were tall, going from the floor to the ceiling and looked like they were built-in. Several of them were filled already. There was something that looked like an oxygen mask attached to their faces and diapers on their lower bodies with thick tubes running off them, but they were pink and fleshy, almost like they were living things. Trifkovic shuddered. There were also a bunch of thinner tubes plugged directly into their bodies that had the same pink, fleshy look to them.
It was then that Trifkovic recognized Lieutenant Han in one of the tubes. She'd never seen Lieutenant Han in anything less than a full StatSuit--even during PT--and now she knew why. Lieutenant Han's body was covered with some big and nasty scars. She must've gotten messed up really badly at some point, but with modern medicine there was no excuse for scars like that. Or was it her choice to keep the scars? Trifkovic couldn't imagine what would drive her to leave herself disfigured like that, but there was a lot about Lieutenant Han she didn't understand and didn't imagine she ever would.
Of course, at this point, she didn't imagine she'd live long enough to understand much of anything at all. This certainly wasn't how she thought she was going to buy it, but now that she faced certain death, she wanted it to be over with. The only problem was that she didn't imagine the Shellies would be so accommodating. If all they wanted to do was kill everyone, she'd already be dead.
A door--or at least what Trifkovic thought was a door--opened almost directly across from where she was. In walked this woman wearing a black catsuit that hugged every contour of her rather curvy body. She was also wearing these big, blocky goggles that looked ridiculous, like primitive NVGs--not that Trifkovic had any intention of saying it to the woman's face. Her right hand was entirely artificial, with long, thin claws of surgical steel that flashed when they caught the light.
She had a hippy walk, like she was trying to be seductive, but Trifkovic wondered precisely who she was trying to impress. The woman looked at some of the monitors, walked around the stasis tubes and then over to the tables. She stopped at Trifkovic first.
"And what do we have here?" the woman asked.
Trifkovic was surprised the woman spoke Standard, but maybe that would make things easier. Mechanically, she recited the big four.
"Trifkovic, Yudmila. Junior Lieutenant. 710-Hotel-Delta-Kilo-3186. 19 April Zero-ninety-six."
"I do not care about any of that," the woman said. "I am not here for what is inside your head. What I am interest in is this..."
With her claw hand, the woman took hold of Trifkovic's left breast, just enough for her to feel the points of the claws.
"This flesh..."
The woman dug in with her claws, breaking the skin.
"This blood..."
She let go and held up her hand to admire the bloodied tips. She ran her tongue along her thumb, licking it clean. Trifkovic must've made a face at the disgusting display, because the woman grinned.
Automatically, the goggles raised up, revealing her red eyes, like an albino rabbit. As if she wasn't already creepy enough.
"I think I will enjoy you, Yudmila Trifkovic," the woman said. "I have always been partial to redheads."
Just kill me and get it over with, you sick bitch!
Trifkovic swallowed the words before she could say them out loud. The more eagerness she showed for death, the more they'd draw it out, especially this woman. Trifkovic prayed for a blood vessel to burst in her brain and end it before she had to suffer all the indignities this woman was planning.
The door opened again and the woman's attention was drawn away from Trifkovic for a moment. A man walked in wearing light armor that seemed to be made of the same stuff as the walls. The parts of him that weren't covered by the armor showed off a lot of shoddy augments that looked like the work of some black market cybernetician, what you'd see on the dregs living off the grid.
The man spoke to the woman in a strange, guttural language. Trifkovic was pretty confident that she could identify a dozen languages by the sound of them and make an educated guess at a couple dozen more, but she had no idea about this one. A fifth tier language, maybe? Was it even one the Union had recorded?
"Pilotlord Fear," the woman said, glancing back at Trifkovic, "in Standard, please, for the benefit of our guests."
"My Lord Belphegor," the man--'Pilotlord Fear' as the woman called him--said, "is that... prudent?"
'Lord' Belphegor? Wouldn't it be 'Lady Belphegor'? Maybe it was something that didn't translate. But why was she worrying about that, Trifkovic wondered. A better question was why 'Lord' Belphegor thought Trifkovic needed to understand the conversation. Even that Fear guy didn't seem to understand it.
"Are you questioning my judgment?" Belphegor asked, almost playfully but with a terse edge.
Fear bowed and replied, "It is as my lord wills." Straightening back up, he continued, "I was successful in the first phase of the operation and when I was brought aboard, I was told to report here. If it pleases my lord, I wish to return to my fleet."
"You have been reassigned," Belphegor said. "Until my experiments are complete, you report to me. I have already spoken to Lord Belial on the matter. You can return to the Titahion when I am done with you."
Fear bowed again. "Yes, my lord."
Belphegor beckoned for him to come, curling a claw still red with Trifkovic's blood.
"Come here, Fear," she said. "Take a look at the fresh meat."
Belphegor looked back at Trifkovic and began to trace circles on her belly with those damnable claws.
"This one might make a good breeder once we flush the suppressants out of her system. What say you, Fear? How would you like to be first in line?"
"I am incapable of breeding, my lord," Fear replied, having stopped in front of the stasis tubes. He blinked and shook his head, looking distracted by something.
Not paying attention to Fear's curious behavior, Belphegor stopped playing with Trifkovic's stomach to stroke her chin thoughtfully, smearing some of the blood that had yet to dry.
"That is right," she said to herself. "We collected you during the Pluto harvest. We were not thinking about breeding you all back then. Although I suppose I do not need to rely on fleshly means to produce offspring from your stock, it will be far less fun for you."
Words couldn't describe how much Trifkovic hated Belphegor. She retroactively dedicated every Shelly she ever downed to that abominable woman.
She didn't get to stew on her hated for long, though, because Fear continued to act strange. He still hadn't moved from where he stopped. He was blinking more and held his head. Belphegor finally took notice.
"Fear, what is it?"
Fear was hunched over, groaning, clutching his head both hands. His groaning got louder and louder before finally erupting in a scream that echoed throughout the room. Only his wasn't the only scream. There was another, muffled scream, barely audible.
It was Lieutenant Han. She was awake.
She wasn't just awake. Her whole body was tensed up and shaking throughout her long, protracted scream. Both her and Fear's screams died down about the same time. Fear fell to his knees and Lieutenant Han's body seemed to go limp, but it was only for a moment.
Fear stiffly craned his neck to look up at Lieutenant Han and she slowly tilted her head to look down at him. There was silence, probably for little more than a second or two, but it seemed like forever as Trifkovic felt the impending danger sink deep into the marrow of her bones. She didn't know why, but she wanted out of there now more than ever.
Then, like an explosion, the two of them started screaming again and sprang at each other. Viciously they whaled on the wall of the stasis tube that separated them. Lieutenant Han was swinging so hard that she tore loose several of the tubes coming off her arms, turning the fluid in the tube murky with her blood. Between the two of them, cracks began to form in the tube and it started to spring a few leaks.
Belphegor dashed over to one of the consoles and hastily clacked away at the keys. In a matter of seconds, Lieutenant Han's body seized up and she went silent. Fear was still screaming and punching at the tube, but Belphegor pulled a small device out of her belt, pointed it at Fear and he seized up as well, falling heavily to the floor. Besides some involuntary twitching, he was completely motionless.
Still holding the device--which Trifkovic decided to call 'the zapper'--at the ready, Belphegor walked over to Fear and nudged him with her foot. Content that he wasn't getting up again, she returned the zapper to her belt.
"It appears the experiments will not leave me with a dull moment."
Belphegor busied herself with other work, leaving Trifkovic to wonder what the hell she had just seen. Whatever was wrong with Lieutenant Han, Fear had the same problem. What did it mean? What was the connection between the two of them and why was Belphegor so interested?
The questions piled up, but Trifkovic realized the futility of it all. What good would it do even if she did figure out what was going on? She was going to die here. Or worse. Still for the time being, while Belphegor's attention was directed elsewhere, she wouldn't be paying attention to Trifkovic. It was something.
"Jesus, what the fuck!?" the man who'd been staring at her muttered to himself. "We're so fucked... This is hell, this is hell..."
He was right. This was Hell and there was no way out. Trifkovic might've cried over it, but she could feel her heart turning into a lead weight. What was the point in worrying about what happened to her anymore? There was no hope. Death would be a treat when it came, but until then, feeling would only make things worse. She still breathed, her heart still pumped blood, but she was dead inside. Yudmila Trifkovic was gone. All that was left on that table was a shell, an empty husk the Shellies could do whatever they wanted with. She didn't care anymore.