Chapter 12

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Uranian Sphere
Date: Tue 09 Jul 121
Time: UST 1522

Jack paced restlessly in his cell. When the power went out, he tried to jimmy the door, but the designers had clearly planned for that contingency. Now that the power was back on, he was hopeful that help was on the way. He didn't figure the men in black would be coming back to finish him off. If they wanted him dead, they would've done it before, when they took Ally.
He punched the door. There was nothing he could do but watch. She'd been taken into the interrogation room across from his cell for questioning. Then one of the men in black hacked the door and burst in firing. Jack shouted and hollered at the top of his lungs, first to distract the man in black, then to warn Ally. Neither one worked.
The man in black shot past Ally to nail the MA who was questioning her. Ally panicked at first, but then she went into game mode. Disarmed the man in black and took him out. She got off a couple more shots when another one snuck up behind her and hit her with a disruptor. Jack was thankful they took her alive, but he couldn't imagine they had anything good in mind for her.
Dammit, dammit, dammit!
Jack heard the door to the brig open. He flattened himself against the bulkhead next to his cell door so he could peek out without making himself that big of a target, not that it'd make much difference if whoever was coming in really had their heart set on killing him.
A couple of them popped up from around the corner. Squids armed with P43s wearing stripped-down LightSuits--just the torso protectors. 'MA' was printed in big letters on the chest, so unless this was more cloak-and-dagger BS, it was most likely the MAs.
They moved real careful-like, not that Jack could blame them. He knew the men in black were long gone, but they didn't know that and they weren't going to take his word for it. He'd just have to let them finish their sweep.
He held up his hands when the MA coming his way pointed his weapon at him, not that a P43 was going to penetrate the cell door. The MA went into the interrogation room, checked the dead MA inside, hit the bulkhead in frustration and moved on. The men in black had carried off the body of the one Ally killed. No evidence.
A few minutes passed and the MA came back. Or maybe it was a different one. It didn't really matter either way.
"Prisoner, identify yourself," the MA demanded.
"Grisson, Johnathan," Jack replied mechanically. "Corporal. Third Squad, Second Platoon, Charlie Company, 78th Combined Arms Detachment."
"What can you tell me about what happened here, Corporal?"
"Lemme get in touch with my unit an' I'll tell ya everythin' I know."
Jack knew he was in no position to be making demands, but if his unit knew about Ally, he was pretty confident they'd do whatever they could for her. 'Leave no man behind' and all that. Or woman, in this case.
"Talk!" the MA barked.
For some reason--well, not just 'some' reason; it was all for Ally--, Jack pushed back.
"Are you gonna let me talk ta my unit or not?"
The MA was getting pissed.
"Do you have any idea what the situation is out there, soldier?"
Defiantly, Jack replied, "I ain't got a damned clue, just like you don't know what happened here. Maybe we can swap stories if ya lemme talk to my unit."
"Oh, we're both gonna be talking to your damned unit, soldier," the MA growled. "Now spill."
Jack got what he wanted. He really didn't care that he was going to catch extra flak in the process. That didn't matter.
"Okay," he said, "this was before the power went out, even before that explosion or whatever it was that rocked the hell outta the boat."
"Ship," the MA corrected.
"Whatever. They were questionin' my battle buddy in the interrogation room over there when I see this guy all in black come around the corner. He went straight ta the interrogation room, hacked the door, shot your guy, an' then they carried her off."
"Carried who off?"
"My battle buddy. Stunned her with a buzzer an' carried her off."
"Why'd they kill Arlevich and take her alive?"
"I dunno, but I wanna tell my unit so they can try ta find her."
"We're thick with Shellies right now. We don't have the time or the manpower to go looking for one missing soldier."
"Why don't you let my people decided that?"
"Tell me more about this man in black."
"Are you gonna let me talk ta my unit?"
"Yes, goddammit. Now answer the question."
"It was like a StatSuit but reinforced. Some kinda superlight armor, I guess. I think I've heard a' SF using suits like that. Anyway, he was covered up from head ta toe. All I can tell ya is that he was a male. Average height an' build. He was armed with a boxer pistol, too, but I imagine ya could tell that."
"Is that all you can tell me?"
"Not much else I can see from this cell, now is there?"
"Alright, smartass. I need to report in and then I'll see that you get to talk to your unit."
Jack had to take the MA at his word--not that he could do much of anything about it one way or the other. It took a while, but then the speaker in his cell crackled and Captain Robles' voice nearly burst his eardrums.
"Grisson!" he shouted over a lot of background noise. "What the hell have you and O'Connor gotten into!?"
Jack wasn't aware that the Captain knew who he and Ally were, but now wasn't the time to bother with that.
"Sir! The guys who attacked the brig, they took Ally, er, PFC O'Connor."
"I know," Captain Robles replied. "We've picked up her signal along with a bunch of others who're on board the big Shelly tub that's got ahold of us."
A Shelly tub? The Shellies had her?
Jack's blood turned to icewater.
"Sir! We can't leave her there! We've gotta get her back!"
"Don't worry, Corporal," the Captain reassured him. "She's not getting left behind. We're mounting a rescue soon as we can push back these damned boarders."
"Lemme go, too, sir!" Jack pleaded.
Another voice cut in, saying, "You're under detention, Corporal. You're not going anywhere."
"I'll take responsibility for him," Captain Robles said. "You boys just want him back when we're done, right?"
The other voice--most likely another MA--probably didn't realize he was still broadcasting when he countered, "Sir, with all due respect, you don't have the authority to make a request like that."
"You want authority, son? You just sit right there."
The speaker cut off, leaving Jack to wonder what was going on. He certainly didn't expect Captain Robles to stick up for him like that, much less go up the chain of command to try to get him released. Still, the highest he could go was the Colonel and this was still a Navy ship. It probably wouldn't go anywhere, especially not in the middle of a mess like this.
It seemed like a long time passed and Jack had pretty well given up and sat back down on his rack. Then an MA walked up and the cell door opened. The speaker crackled again.
"Double-time to the armory, Corporal," Captain Robles said. "Suit up proper-like. Don't let me catch you showing up to my formation in stockade khaki."
"Yes, sir!" Jack exclaimed with perhaps the most enthusiasm he'd ever known in his military career.
The MA led him to the front desk and he was given back his ACU and personal effects. He wasted no time swapping his prisoner jumpsuit for his uniform.
"We'll be seeing you again when this is over," the MA told him.
"Keep my rack warm for me then," Jack replied.
Once he was out the door, Jack stretched his long legs and loped to the nearest lift. It was disabled, so Jack was just going to have to take the stairs--companionway or whatever you were supposed to call it. He'd take three or four steps in a single stride. He had seven decks to go down and there was no time.
Wait for me, shorty! I'm comin' for ya!

* * *

Date: Wed 10 Jul 121
Time: UST 2311

Miranda guided her Fly Eye up the breaching tunnel into the docking bay of the Shelly mothership. It had been quiet for the past 30 minutes, a little too quiet for Miranda's liking. For now, though, all she could do was continue her sweep.
While Miranda was cycling through the different scanners in the Fly Eye, a tech from Fourth Platoon approached her with a new arm cannon.
"This one's just been charged up, Gunny," the tech said. "How'd you like a trade?"
Miranda's own arm cannon was down to about 20%, so it was about time for a change.
She held out her arm and said, "It's all yours, Lance Corporal."
Miranda kept on scanning while the tech swapped out the arm cannons. Once the new arm cannon engaged, Miranda was comforted by the sight of the full power gauge. She'd be ready for the next wave now.
She then asked the tech, "What's the status of the cannons?"
"You all were a bit rough with those Zashes," the tech replied. "And we weren't much better. The boys from Armament are pitching a fit, but they say they can get one of the particle cannons working. We still have four pulse cannons, but the one we've got mounted to port could crap out any minute."
"See that they do what they can," Miranda said.
"Aye-aye, Gunny."
It had been nearly 24 hours since Miranda led Second and Fourth Squad into Hangar One to try cutting off the advance of the Shelly boarders. It had been hell, some of the worst fighting she had been in. Once the Shellies realized they were being cut off, they came at Miranda and her Marines from both sides. As sturdy as MediSuits are, they needed more protection than that and cannibalized a few nearby spacecraft to make barricades, later reinforcing their position by tearing out bulkheads. Those cannibalized spacecraft provided heavier weapons to use against the incoming Shellies, but it was hardly precision work they did, hence the tech's comments.
Once it looked like they had a winning formula, the rest of First Platoon came in to reinforce her position as the other armor platoons in Echo and Fox moved into the remaining hangers. About six hours ago, the Shellies slacked off and stopped hitting their position quite so hard. They started mixing up their strategy for a while, but then they stopped coming entirely.
Miranda wanted to blow the breaching tunnels, but she was denied permission to do so. She certainly hoped the higher-ups had a damn good reason for it. Still, hers was not to question why.
She stopped reflecting on everything that had happened when Lieutenant Dixon walked up to her.
"Gunny, what have you got on the Fly Eye?" he asked.
"Nothing, sir," Miranda replied. "I've looked all over the docking bay in visual band, IR, UV, and X-ray. They may just be gearing up for something big, but for now it's clear."
"I've just received word from the Major," Lieutenant Dixon said. "We're going in. We've got people in there and we're going to get them out."
"Outstanding, sir. What's the plan?"
"Echo and Fox take point, moving up the breaching tunnels into the mothership. Golf, Hotel, and the 78th's Alpha and Charlie will be backing us up. We need to find our people and get clear by zero-two."
That meant they had less than three hours to sweep a ship that was more than twice as big the Ticonderoga.
"That's gonna bit tight, sir," Miranda said. "It's a big damn ship and there's bound to be a lot of resistance."
"No choice, Gunny. We have to move and move fast."
There was nothing for her to do but to execute and she intended to do her bit to make it happen. There was only one answer.
"Aye-aye, sir."

* * *

Date: Wed 10 Jul 121
Time: UST 2336

"Attention on deck!" Commodore Frazier shouted.
Everyone in the conference room rose to their feet as Admiral Mfume walked in. The Admiral waved off his two Marine guards, who posted themselves outside the door.
"As you were," the Admiral told the members of the task force. To Commodore Frazier, he asked, "Has the operation already commenced?"
"Yes, sir," the Commodore replied. "The teams are moving in now."
"How is this going to play out?"
Commodore Frazier pointed to the projection on the table and explained, "They've got breaching tubes attached to each of the six bay doors on the ship and braces on our dorsal to hold us in place. The rescue teams are moving up each of the tubes and we've got people outside working on the braces.
"Once the rescue teams are in, we blow all of the tubes except for the two connected to Hangar Three. That's our evac route. We're setting up Hangar Three for decon and quarantine. Once our people are clear of the Shelly tub, we blow the last two tubes and the braces. Once we're clear, we detonate a few care packages and fold out."
"I still say we should take that big son of a bitch out," Colonel Vasquez interrupted.
Some of the people in the room--namely General Pfeiffer and Colonel Grozny--were giving Colonel Vasquez some dirty looks, but the Commodore was used to his gung-ho ways. Rather than try to tear him down, which was a wasted effort with someone so bull-headed, the Commodore instead sought to set him straight.
"Colonel," he said calmly, "I'd like nothing more than to make that damn tub go up like Founders' Day fireworks, but right now we're not in any shape to take these bastards head-on."
Not giving any ground, Colonel Vasquez continued to argue, "Look at that thing! You tell me it isn't really damn important to the Shellies. If we take it out, we'll be crippling them up good."
The Commodore raised a hand to prevent anyone else from jumping in. He was going to handle this.
"And what if we go down with it? For all we know, the Shellies might have a dozen of these. Right now we're the only heavy carrier in the Fleet. In terms of materiel and personnel, we can't afford to get dusted here.
"Maybe this is the only ship of its kind the Shellies have, but if it isn't, I'd much rather have the intel we've gathered in SupCom's hands."
"You're wasting a golden opportunity," the Colonel insisted.
Before Commodore Frazier could go another round, Admiral Mfume stepped in and said, "While I appreciate your zeal, Colonel, we are not trying to get into a war of attrition here. I have already green-lit the strategy as it stands and I have no intention of expanding the mandate beyond that."
"But, sir--"
The Admiral cut him off, saying, "Focus on doing whatever it takes to get your people back here alive, Colonel." He then asked Commodore Frazier, "What is the word from the Engine Room?"
Commodore Frazier promptly hailed Chief Bianchi.
"Chief, this is Frazier. Status report."
"We should be ready to go by zero-two, sir."
The Commodore looked at Admiral Mfume and said, "Is there anything else you'd like to ask, sir?"
Admiral Mfume simply pressed the button himself and said, "Chief Bianchi, this is Admiral Mfume. Keep up the good work."
"A-aye-aye, sir!"
With that taken care of, Admiral Mfume walked over to his seat, saying, "Route the feeds to my station."
"Aye-aye, sir."
As he sat down, the Admiral cycled through the feeds a bit before leaning back in his chair and folding his hands.
"And now we wait."

* * *

Location: Unidentified Sheolite Vessel, Outside Union Space
Date: Thu 11 Jul 121
Time: UST 0024

The empty shell that was once known as Yudmila Trifkovic was lying on her back, staring up at the ceiling but not really seeing anything. She--no, 'it'--had given up on seeing. There was nothing to see except for the stuff of nightmares. There was nothing but terror to be found in all the five senses, so they were abandoned.
There was nothing to be found in the mind except fear and despair, so it was abandoned, too. The thinking, feeling, living human being was gone. The thing on the table was only an illusion. Soon it too would pass away.
There was a loud ruckus in the distance that the shell heard despite having given up on hearing. There were voices the shell distinguished from that of the Sheolites despite having given up on thinking.
"Watch your corners, people!"
"Oh my God..."
"Stay focused! Continue the sweep!"
"Keep it together, people! Medics! Check 'em out!"
"Let's get 'em outta there!"
"Careful-like! We don't know what the damn Shellies have done to 'em."
"Try to access those terminals."
"Holy fuck..."
"Keep the comments to yourself, Private! We've got a job to do."
"Spread out, people! Don't be bunchin' up!"
"Keep an eye on those doors!"
The mind that refused to think could not help but recognize these voices as Union military. The heart that turned away from hope began to beat faster.
No, this could not be. It was trick to lure life back into the shell. It would not work.
"Her vitals are a bit weak, but she should be fine."
"Lieutenant? Lieutenant, can you hear me?"
Figures in green and black hovered over the shell. They did not look human, but somehow they were.
One of the figures patted the shell's cheek.
"Come on, Lieutenant, give me a sign" the figure said.
The figure moved in closer and whispered, "Come back to us, Yudmila. We're gonna get you outta here. Just give me a sign you're still with us."
And so the shell gave the figure a sign. No, it was no longer an empty shell. It was Yudmila Trifkovic again. Tears were streaming down her face. She dared to believe this was really happening. Her people had come for her. She was really being rescued.
"Attagirl," the figure said. "Just hold on a bit longer and we'll get you out of here."
The tears continued to flow. The nightmare was coming to an end. She was alive again.

* * *

Date: Thu 11 Jul 121
Time: UST 0106

The ship rocked. Something big was going down, but Ally didn't know what.
"Where are we going?" she asked Auntie.
Auntie was leading her by the hand through the corridors, nervously looking left and right as she went.
"Your people are here to rescue the ones we've taken," she said hastily. "And I'm going to return you to them."
Ally could hardly believe her ears. A rescue mission? Here on the Emperor's own ship?
A mix of fear and excitement swept over her at once. Besides her encounter with the Empress and Emperor, she had only been subjected to the first round of Belphegor's tests, but she knew she was in for much worse. Not if she was really about to be rescued, that was.
As happy as she was for herself, she immediately started to worry about Auntie.
"What'll happen to you?" she asked.
"This is the Empress' will," Auntie replied. "She is allowing the prisoners to be rescued."
That didn't make a whole lot of sense, prompting Ally to ask, "But why?"
"I don't pretend to know what the Empress has in mind, but I only pray it is a better fate than what you would face if you stay here."
They stopped at an intersection and Auntie pointed down the left-hand path.
"You'll find a group of your people down that way," she said. "Walk down the middle of the corridor and don't make any sudden movements and you should be fine."
Reaching into her robe, Auntie pulled out Ally's dogtags and wallet and handed them to her.
"This is everything of yours I could save. They were quick to destroy your uniform, I'm afraid."
Ally accepted the dogtags and wallet and looked at Auntie uncertainly. Although the expression on Auntie's mask never changed, that melancholy look seemed particularly appropriate right now.
Taking hold of Auntie's hand, Ally said, "Come with me, Auntie. I, I'll vouch for you. It's not like you chose to be a Shelly. You'll be safe. You'll be free."
Auntie simply stroked Ally's cheek with her free hand and said, "No, child, I wouldn't be safe... or free. This is my life now. I'm just glad you don't have to share in it."
Gently, Auntie brushed away Ally's hand.
"Now go, Allison. Go back to your people."
"But I--!"
"Go, Allison, and don't look back."
Feeling entirely helpless, all Ally could do was go down the corridor like Auntie told her. There was so much she wanted to tell her, but the words wouldn't come to her. At least she could've thanked Auntie for everything she'd done or said good-bye. Instead she just stumbled down the corridor barely able to see straight through the tears.
She didn't get all that far when she saw the walls being raked by flashlights and laser sights.
A loud voice shouted, "Freeze!"
About a dozen or so red dots clustered center mass. Ally stopped dead in her tracks and was already instinctively raising her arms even as the voice shouted, "Hands in the air!"
Ally was stammering in a vain attempt to identify herself as the voice barked new orders.
"Lock your fingers behind your head! Face-down on the deck!"
Ally had to wonder if all that even worked on the average Shelly, but perhaps the fact that she was responding accordingly encouraged them to keep going.
"I, I... O, O'Conn--"
"Stay down!" the voice barked. "Face-down! Ramirez, check 'im!"
Ally was lying face-down with her hands behind her head like she was told. She was roughly frisked from head to toe and zip-tied before being rolled over.
"Staff Sergeant, she's one of ours," a Marine--the one who frisked and zip-tied her --told the apparent leader of the group.
"She clean?" the Staff Sergeant asked.
"Yes, Staff Sergeant," the Marine replied.
The Staff Sergeant then stood over Ally and said, "Identify yourself."
Trying to stay calm and stumble over her words as little as possible, Ally replied, "O-O'Connor, Allison, PFC. Charlie Company, Se-second Platoon, Third Squad..."
The Staff Sergeant looked at the one Marine--Ramirez--who told him, "Checks out, Staff Sergeant."
"Alright, cut her loose," the Staff Sergeant said.
Ramirez rolled Ally on her side to cut the zip tie, and when he did, the Staff Sergeant promptly told her, "On your feet, PFC."
Ally awkwardly got to her feet and the Staff Sergeant wasted no time pumping her for information.
"If you've got any actionable intel about what's back there, PFC, I want to hear it."
Ally suddenly feared for Auntie's safety and reflexively said, "Nothing. Nothing's back there."
Even though you can't read faces when someone's fully suited up, Ally got the feeling that the Staff Sergeant was regarding her skeptically.
One of the Marines with a scanner said, "There's no more tracker signs down that way, Staff Sergeant. If she says there's nothing that way, we should fall back."
"Those legs of yours still work, PFC?" the Staff Sergeant asked her.
"Yes, Staff Sergeant," she replied, feeling a bit dizzy from all the rapid-fire back-and-forth.
"Alright then. Ramirez, stick with her. Make sure she keeps up."
"Aye-aye, Staff Sergeant."
Ramirez took Ally and they took up a position close to the rear of the formation as the group made its way to meet up with the rest of their team.
Ally just hoped they didn't run across the enemy. Auntie had said the Empress was letting them go and while she trusted Auntie, she didn't trust any of the rest of the Shellies. The Shelly robes she was wearing weren't going to offer much protection in a firefight.
She just wanted it to be over with. She'd heard about how the most frightening time was right before you were in the clear. She knew what they were talking about now.
Besides sticking close to Ramirez, all she could do was try to pick up on what was going on from the hushed radio transmissions, or at least what was being said on her end.
"Copy that," the Staff Sergeant whispered into his mic. "Heading down to your level from starboard." To the rest of his team, he said, "Stay sharp, people. The greenbacks found what looks like a prison block. They're dealing with some light resistance. We're moving in to flank the Shellies."
"Stick close to me," Ramirez told Ally.
Ally had every intention of doing so. She didn't really like the idea of using Ramirez as a shield, but what else could she do?
They were moving down and Ally thought the way looked familiar, but then all the corridors looked pretty much the same. It wasn't long before she started to hear the familiar sound of G22 fire and another sound she didn't recognize, a rapid hissing she could only guess was the Sheolites' weapons. She remembered that she'd never been in combat against the Sheolites themselves before. That mess with the starport last month was the first time she'd seen any action, and she didn't really remember anything that had happened then.
"Get down!" someone shouted.
Ally hit the deck right away. The corridor was wide open. There was no cover. All she could do was get up against the wall and keep her head down.
Amidst all the shooting and shouting, Ally's heart raced and she started to hyperventilate. She was going to die. She just knew it.
She went from hyperventilating to hardly breathing at all. Her throat choked up and she gasped in vain for air. Everything was getting fuzzy. The panic melted away as her mind drifted away, away...
"All clear! All clear!"
Ally felt herself coming back to her senses. Her breathing evened out and her heart slowed back down. It was over. She was safe. For now, at least.
"Hambone!" one of the Marines shouted. "Get the fuck over here! I'm hit!"
"Paul's down!" another one cried out. "Shit! I think he's dead!"
"Get it together, Marines!" the Staff Sergeant snapped, seizing control of the situation before barking orders to the others. "Lim, check on Paul. Anyone else hit? Sound off!"
"Negative, Staff Sergeant." a few of them replied, not all of them, though.
The Staff Sergeant had more important things on his mind than the fact that not everyone was sounding off.
"Lim," he said, "what's Paul's status?"
Lim--who was stooping over the downed Marine--looked up and replied, "He's dead, Staff Sergeant."
Without skipping a beat, the Staff Sergeant turned to the Marine who was apparently called 'Hambone' and asked, "Hamady, how's Sinclair?"
Hamady--Hambone or whatever he was called--was busy binding Sinclair's arm. Ally's gut reaction was to wonder why he didn't pull out the spike that was stuck there, but her own training as a combat lifesaver kicked in and quashed that nonsense. You don't pull stuff out of people in the field unless you really have to.
"He'll live, Staff Sergeant," Hamady said, "but he's out of the fight."
"You're damn right I'm out of the fight," Sinclair growled, wincing as Hamady tied off the field dressing. "Get me a fuckin' medevac."
"Suck it up, Corporal," the Staff Sergeant said unsympathetically. "You can still walk." He then told one of the automatic riflemen, "Ataman, carry Paul."
Ataman looked down at the dead Marine, who was an automatic rifleman himself, and then back at the Staff Sergeant.
"You don't expect me to carry two blitz guns, do you?"
"I got it," the Staff Sergeant said, slinging his G22 and hoisting up Paul's blitz gun. He then nodded to Paul's body and said to two of the Marines, "Juansyah, Takala, strap him on."
"Aye-aye, Staff Sergeant," one of them said.
Ally felt sick to her stomach watching them strap the lifeless Paul to Ataman's back. Ataman was grumbling to himself in some language Ally didn't recognize.
"Quit your bitchin'," the Staff Sergeant said. "He'd be doing the same for you." He then signaled for the group to form up and said, "Alright, people, let's move out. Topalov, get up here and cover me."
"Aye-aye, Staff Sergeant."
Ramirez extended his hand to Ally and said, "Come on, PFC. On your feet."
Ally's legs felt rubbery as she struggled to stand up. She had to force herself to look away from Paul dangling off Ataman's back. She had to fight back her churning stomach before she threw up.
So this was what combat felt like, a sick mix of fear and adrenaline twisting your guts while death waited around every corner. She just wanted to be over, but more importantly, she wanted to get out of this mess alive.
All she could do was keep her head down and trust in the Marines to protect her.
The Staff Sergeant was rounding the corner when he had to duck back the way he came, narrowly dodging some incoming pulse fire.
"Hold your fire, goddammit!" he shouted to whoever shot at him. "We're friendlies!"
"Sorry 'bout that!" a voice cried back.
"You gonna think sorry, you sumbitch! We're headed your way, so hold that damn fire!
As the Staff Sergeant motioned for the others to follow him, he gestured to the fallen Shellies with his weapon and said, "Check 'em."
The checking mostly seemed to involve the Marines going up to the bodies and putting a few extra rounds in them to make sure they were dead. They were also breaking down the Shellies' weapons so they couldn't be used against them later.
Ally knew it made sense, but it still rubbed her the wrong way. It didn't seem right, shooting the downed Shellies like dogs. They were people. after all, even if you couldn't tell with all that armor.
Saying something would only make things worse for her, so she quietly followed Ramirez while a few Marines finished cleaning up.
"We got a live one!"
Before Ally could react, an explosion slung her into Ramirez, knocking them both to the ground. Reeling from the blast, it took her a moment to make out what the Staff Sergeant was saying over the ringing in her ears.
A Marine who couldn't hear much better than Ally shouted back, "What!?"
"I said 'status'!" the Staff Sergeant repeated angrily. "Who's hit? Down the line, sound off! Topalov!"
"Good to go, Staff Sergeant!"
"Get me the fuck outta here!"
"Secure that shit, Marine! Are you hit?"
"Besides the big-ass fuckin' spike that already in my goddamn arm? No, I ain't hit."
"Good to go, Staff Sergeant!" Ramirez shouted. He then looked to Ally and asked her, "Are you hit?"
Ally shook her head. At least she didn't think she was hit.
One of the Marines spoke up out of turn, sounding half-dazed.
"Aw, shit... Takala's down, man."
Takala seemed to have been the closest to the blast. Ally turned away as soon as she saw him. She wanted to scream, but she managed to keep it all bottled up. It wasn't easy.
Though the Staff Sergeant probably intended to get everyone to report their status directly, things were starting to break down, so he changed his tack and said, "Team leaders, get the status of your people and report to Corporal Topalov. Topalov, get me the casualty situation quick-like, quick-like."
"Aye-aye, Staff Sergeant!"
Ramirez motioned for Ally to stay put as he went off. Apparently he was one of the team leaders. While the team leaders were getting accountability for their teams, Ally could hear the Staff Sergeant getting on the radio.
"All units, this is Golf Three-Zero-Two. Be advised. Hostiles may be booby-trapped with explosives. Exercise extreme caution when confirming kills. Over." He then shouted over shoulder, "Topalov! Where's my status report?"
Topalov hustled past Ally to tell the Staff Sergeant, "Takala's dead, Staff Sergeant. Juansyah and Xiu caught some shrapnel, but they can keep going."
The Staff Sergeant nodded along to Topalov's report and didn't say anything for a moment before addressing the group.
"Alright, people, listen up! I know we've taken some heat, but we're almost through this. We're gonna meet up with the greenbacks and start pulling out. Our job's almost done here. Stay sharp, people! We don't need any more casualties today. Park, take Takala. Juansyah and Badalov, you help. Let's move it!"
How did they do it? Ally wondered. Another KIA gets strapped on to someone's back, the wounded are told to suck it up, and they all just keep on marching. It was insane, but they didn't let that stop them.
Once Takala's body was strapped to Park, they moved out again. It didn't take them long to get to where the Army people were. It was one of those hive-like prison areas, but Ally wasn't sure if it was the one she'd found herself in when she first woke up on the Shelly ship.
Rather than trying to figure out how the cell doors worked, the soldiers were just cutting them off. Ally was guessing it was combat engineers from Delta doing it, not that she knew anyone from Delta.
There was a lot of shouting going on--to say nothing of the racket from the cutters--, but somehow Ally managed to hear a familiar voice over all the noise.
"Shorty? Is that you?"
Even in full battle rattle, there was no mistaking the overly tall, gangly shape of Jack. Ally couldn't believe her eyes.
"Jack? Jack! Oh, God, Jack!"
She was so happy to see him that she wasn't even thinking straight. She ran up an hugged him tightly, even though you weren't supposed to do stuff like that. For his part, Jack didn't try to stop her or push her away. Charges of fraternization were the farthest thing from either of their minds right now.
"What happened to you, shorty?" Jack asked. "What's with that get-up?"
The leaky dam that'd been holding back the floodwaters of all her pent-up emotions was completely obliterated. Crying her eyes out, all Ally could do was blubber, "Jah-ack, I can't believe it, it's you! I, I thought I was never going to see you again!"
Returning her embrace--somewhat awkwardly as he was still holding his rifle--, Jack patted her on the back and said, "Easy there, shorty. It's gonna be alright. We're gonna get you outta here."
And so they did. It wasn't long before they started moving casualties and freed captives back to the Ticonderoga. Ally was thankful to have her platoon pulling escort for her group. She may not have gotten along with most of them, but at least it meant Jack would be there with her.
She expected him to have a million questions for her, but he mostly kept quiet the whole way back to the ship. Most likely it was because they weren't supposed to be talking while on the move, but a part of Ally worried it might be something else. She'd have to wait to ask, though.
Before long, they were in one of the hangers on the Ticonderoga. It looked bigger than the one they arrived in when she and Jack first came to the ship, so Ally was pretty sure it was the one the Air Force used. There were still some signs of fighting from earlier, but things had been mostly cleared away. Men in hazmat suits were all over the place and almost as soon as they set foot in the hangar, someone with a voice amplifier was shouting, "Casualties up front! Follow the red batons to the triage area! If you can walk, follow the blue batons!"
To the left and to the right, there were people with those batons you use to guide planes when you move them around. Ally followed the directions of the men with the blue batons and was led to a small assembly of former captives. Ally felt rather conspicuous being the only one dressed as a Shelly. She got a few funny looks, but most of them were paying more attention to the man in front.
Even though they weren't properly formed up, the man still opened with "At ease" before continuing.
"I know you've been through a lot, but you need to bear with us. You're going to be broken up into groups and taken for decon and medical exams. We don't know what all's on that Shelly bucket, so you're all going to be in quarantine for the next 72 hours. Are we clear?"
The response was mostly some scattered and mumbled 'yes, sirs', which was apparently good enough. As a few other people in hazmat suits started to divide them up, Jack walked up to her. There was someone else with him. Judging by his shape, it was probably Sergeant Rahim. Her guess was confirmed when he spoke.
"What's the status, O'Connor?"
Ally went to parade rest, which was rather awkward to do in her Shelly robes, and said, "They, they're putting me in quarantine for the next 72 hours, Sergeant."
Ally could feel her heart sink. Being put into quarantine and having all kinds of tests run on her didn't sound a whole lot better than what she had waiting for her with the Shellies. Decontamination alone was bound to be at least as unpleasant as what Belphegor had put her through several hours ago.
"You seem fine to me," Jack said, not really helping any.
"Don't be a dumbass, Grisson," Sergeant Rahim growled. "There's no telling what O'Connor might've picked up from the damn Shellies. Hell, everyone who rode out's gonna be held for 24 hours." He made a sweeping motion over his mask. "And that with us being all sealed up like this."
"Well, when you put it that way..."
Without another word, Jack pulled off his mask, getting an almost reflexive response out of Sergeant Rahim.
"Goddammit, Grisson!"
Cracking his trademark grin, Jack looked down at Ally and said, "Now we're in the same boat, shorty."
If the captives really were in any way infectious, Jack had done something really stupid, but Ally couldn't help but feel a little bit better by the gesture. Jack had a way with that sort of thing.

* * *

Date: Thu 11 Jul 121
Time: UST 0135

Antiope walked into the Empress' bedchamber. The Empress sat upright on the edge of her bed with the Emperor lying asleep with his head in her lap and Lord Belphegor standing at her side.
As soon as the handmaid knelt before her, the Empress asked, "Has it been taken care of?"
"Yes, Empress," Antiope replied. "The child will return to her people."
"Well done, handmaid," the Empress said.
"Are you quite sure about this?" Lord Belphegor asked. "Are you really going to let all these fine samples slip through our fingers? We will not get another chance like this."
"We may yet," the Empress said. "Besides, the shadow men have failed us. Now it would be too costly to continue the operation."
Even though her head remained bowed, Antiope could just barely see what was going on around the Empress.
Lord Belphegor glanced down at the sleeping Emperor, saying, "He will not be happy when he awakes."
The Empress simply ran her fingers through the Emperor's hair, not seeming particularly concerned at the threat of the Emperor's coming wrath.
"He is too proud to accept a temporary withdrawal," she said. "He would have only made the situation worse."
The ship rocked. The Empress continued to run her fingers through the Emperor's hair as if nothing had happened.
"Belphegor," she said, "activate the auxiliary systems. Our friends may get a little overzealous as they withdraw. There is only so much damage I am willing to accept at this point."
Belphegor bowed.
"It shall be done, Empress."
Antiope could not begin to fathom the Empress' plan, but so long as young Allison would be free of Lord Belphegor's clutches, it was enough for her. Yes, the promise she had been waiting for all these years would not be fulfilled this day, but she could bury her hope once more and continue to wait for the day to come. After all that had happened, though, she wondered how much she wanted to see the day of fulfillment.