Chapter 15
Back into the Mix

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Sun 14 Jul 121
Time: UST 0530

A mix of doctors, nurses, medics, and technicians in biohazard suits were milling about in the cargo bay of the Pelican-turned-isolation chamber. The 72-hour quarantine for the crewmembers taken captive by the Sheolites was coming to an end and the assembled medical personnel were doing the final checks before the quarantined personnel could be released.
Doctor Kim was busy going around giving orders, chewing people out and generally being bossy in spite of the fact that she was one of the patients in quarantine. Ally might have found more humor in the situation if she wasn't stuck right in the middle of it.
She stood in line waiting for her turn to be examined, wearing nothing but a drafty hospital gown and disposable slippers. She didn't like wearing her uniform, but it was the closest thing to real clothes she could get. She'd take it.
When her turn came up, she had to submit to a full head-to-toe physical exam, her third since she was put in quarantine. Even though it was just her and a female corpsman in a semi-private partition, she was still blushing furiously as the corpsman worked her over. She almost wondered if she would've been better off with the Shellies. Then she thought about Belphegor and it made her skin crawl.
"You cold, PFC?" the corpsman asked.
"I'm fine," Ally mumbled, feeling all the more embarrassed.
After a few more minutes, the corpsman told her, "Okay, you're good, PFC." She then pointed behind her and said, "Go in there and pick up your uniform, get dressed, follow the directions out."
Ally just nodded and moved on. In the next partition, there was a vacuum-sealed package with her name on it. It was a full ACU set, StatSuit, boots, and everything. She got dressed quickly, relieved to feel the sleek StatSuit against her skin and the baggy ACU hiding the curves of her body.
Once her boots were on, she followed the arrows on the deck leading the way out of the Pelican. She lined up with several others who were also dressed and waiting to be released. They had to wait until everyone was cleared. Rather than let them trickle out through the side, the bay door was opened so they all went out as a group.
Even though she recalled from her training that you were supposed to form up when more than a few people were walking together, they all moved in a largely amorphous group. Because she wasn't locked in formation, the moment she saw Jack standing head and shoulders above everyone else in a group of males emerging from another Pelican, she broke away and ran up to him.
"Jack!" she exclaimed, wanting to hug him but holding back because she knew it would make trouble for both of them.
Making his way to her, Jack cracked his trademark grin, tousled her hair and said, "Hey, shorty. Got a clean bill of health?"
Before she could say anything, two Navy guys seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Resting his hand on a holstered sidearm, one of the Navy guys said, "Corporal Grisson, MAs. Turn around and put hands behind your back."
Jack turned around without a single word or complaint and extended his arms behind him. The other MA, the one who didn't have his hand on his sidearm, moved in to zip-tie Jack's wrists.
"What are you doing?" Ally asked.
"Step back," the MA with his hand on his sidearm said tersely.
Ally stepped back more out of instinct than conscious compliance. She looked up to Jack, who nodded to her.
"It's okay, shorty. Don't give these squids any reason to take you in."
"But, Jack, I..."
"I'll be fine," Jack reassured her. "You stay out of trouble." As he was being led away by the MAs, he joked, "You kept my rack warm for me like I asked?"
Even at a time like this he was still making jokes. Ally would never understand how he could do it.
She didn't have much time to worry about Jack, though, because someone shouted, "You there! This way."
Ally didn't have much choice. She would have to worry about Jack later. Well, she'd probably still be worrying about him, but right now she had to worry about whatever she was in for as well. She couldn't expect to catch a break anytime soon.

* * *

Date: Sun 14 Jul 121
Time: UST 1743

Lydia slowly breathed in the cool, clean air of the Ticonderoga. Ever since she woke up, she took each breath with a newfound appreciation for the air she'd never paid a second thought to.
She looked down at her bandaged hands and flexed her fingers. Her knuckles were all tore to hell, but it didn't hurt so much to move her hands anymore.
She alternatively tensed and relaxed the muscles of her body. She couldn't feel the worms wriggling under her skin anymore. It was an improvement.
"Lieutenant Han, are you listening to me?"
But not by much. She was sitting in the cramped office of some Intel flunky. He kept on asking the same questions and when he didn't like the answers, he'd just ask again. And again and again and again. It was driving her nuts.
"I said I don't know anything, dammit," she grumbled irritably. "I was out the whole time."
The Intel flunky didn't let up, though.
"You honestly have no memory of anything before, during or after your capture?"
For what seemed like the millionth time, Lydia told him, "Curly was goin' with me ta Sickbay an' then I wake up on that Pelican. That's it."
The way he drew it out made it all the more annoying.
"Curly," Lydia repeated. "My wingmate, my sub."
The Intel flunky just stared at her. Lydia couldn't stand it anymore. She'd had it with his rock-stupid moo-cow face.
"God... Jun-ior-Lieu-ten-ant-Yud-mi-la-Trif-ko-vic-you-dumbass-motherfuckin'-sumbitch."
He didn't like that too much, so maybe he wasn't quite so rock-stupid after all. He was still a moron who was getting all on her nerves.
"I can see we aren't getting anywhere," the Intel flunky said with a sigh.
The flunky's phone started to ring. He picked it up.
"Duhamel. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Aye-aye, sir."
The Intel flunky switched over to speaker and the person on the other end said, "Lieutenant Han, this is Commander Sharif. I hope you're fully cooperating with Mr. Duhamel."
Glaring at the Intel flunky, Lydia replied, "If by 'fully cooperating' ya mean tellin' this dumb shit a million times that I don't remember a single goddamn thing, then, yeah, sure."
"I don't think I like your attitude, Lieutenant," Commander Sharif said tersely. "And I'd appreciate it if you address me as 'sir', Lieutenant."
Lydia rolled her eyes.
"What the fuck ever, man."
"Excuse me?"
"What the fuck ever, sir."
"I really don't like your attitude, Lieutenant, but I'll be taking it up with your chain of command. I also don't like how many of you people are saying you don't remember anything. It makes me wonder how many of you are telling the truth and how many were just using your quote-unquote 'capture' as a cover while you reported to your paymasters."
Lydia's whole body tensed up and started to shake. She dug her fingernails into the arms of her chair. She was literally seeing red. It was almost like she was going up against the Shellies.
But she wasn't up against the Shellies, she had to tell herself. When she was in the cockpit, she could just let go and cut loose, but this wasn't the time or the place for it. It took everything she had to stay in control.
Through gritted teeth, she said, "Sir... Are you tryin' ta say I'm a goddamn Shelly?"
Her breath was ragged. She was struggling to hold back the wave of red that threatened to blind her.
Commander Sharif, completely oblivious to how close to the edge he had pushed her, replied bluntly, "I'm saying that I get suspicious when I feel people are holding out on me, Lieutenant. Would you like to amend your statement?"
Lydia stood up. Holding her head, she clumsily plodded over to the Intel flunky's desk. She eyed the phone and imagined Commander Sharif's face, which was difficult because she didn't think she had ever met him before. She didn't let that stop her, though.
"I've got somethin' ta say... sir."
"Out with it then."
"FUCK YOU!" Lydia screamed at the top of her lungs, pounding her fist on the phone.
She then snatched up the phone and threw it across the room, smashing it to pieces on the bulkhead.
And just like that, her near-blinding rage left her. She was still angry, but it was more of smoldering kind of anger, the fading leftover heat of a momentary flare-up. She was back in full control now. She took a deep breath to release whatever tension was left. Yes, that was better.
Looking down at the shattered bits of phone on the deck, she added, "...Sir." Had to stick to military courtesy, after all.
She turned back to the Intel flunky--who was out of his chair and keeping his distance from her--and asked, "Are we done here?"
"You can leave if you want, Lieutenant," the Intel flunky said in a guarded tone, "but don't expect to get too far."
Lydia gave the Intel flunky the old one-finger salute and walked out of the room. It wouldn't be long before she had to pay the piper, so what was she going to do until then? She looked at her watch. Stopping by the wardroom for chow sounded like a good idea. Might as well catch hell on a full stomach. Besides, she hadn't had any real food in something like six days now.
She went to the nearest lift and headed for Deck 3. From there, she went to Officers' Country. The two wardrooms were right by the entrance. She usually went to 3-2 because it was on the same side as her berth.
She was just about to go through the door when she heard a familiar voice.
"Nyx! Hey, Nyx!"
It was Matt. He was down by the door to her berth---probably waiting for her to get back--and was quickly making his way to her. He was a welcome sight, a relief after all the crap she'd been through.
"Hey, Cav," she said. "What's up?"
"'What's up?'" Matt asked, incredulously. "That's really the first thing you're going to say to me?"
Lydia shrugged. "Well, whaddya want me ta say ta ya?"
"I don't know. You just seem like nothing's happened."
"Nothin' did," Lydia said, looking off to the side, "or at least nothin' I can remember."
"But, I heard you were being released from quarantine this morning," Matt replied. He paused for a moment, like he was unwilling to say what came next. "That means that the Shellies, that they took you..."
Lydia was trying not to think about it too much.
"Like I said, I don't remember anythin'. I was goin' ta Sickbay an' then next thing I know, I'm in a hospital bed in the belly of a Pelican. Least I only lost a few days this time instead of a whole damn month."
All Matt could do was look at her awkwardly and mumble, "Nyx, I..."
She cut him off, though, saying, "Long face won't change anythin'." She gestured to the door. "Come on, wing buddy, how 'bout some chow?"
"Uh, sure thing."
They went into the wardroom, where about a dozen people were lined up to check in. It didn't take long before their turn came up.
Holding up her ID card, Lydia leaned into the counter and told the sailor manning the station, "Got a guest this evenin'. I'm sure ya won't mind, eh?"
"Not at all, ma'am," the sailor said. Looking to Matt, he then said, "Sir, if you'll just swipe your ID card, please."
"Of course," Matt replied, fumbling a bit to pull his card out.
Once he was swiped in, they got in line. She rather absent-mindedly picked her meal option. It was nothing too special: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, steamed veggies, and a dinner roll. Matt got the same thing.
Once they got their drinks, they were heading to a table when someone said, "Good evening, ma'am."
Lydia turned to see the nugget Iwata, along with his wingman, Ensign Fogel. It was actually a little disorienting seeing people from her flight again. In the back of her mind, she wondered how Trifkovic was doing. She didn't know if Trifkovic had gotten caught, too. If she had, she must've been in a different Pelican during quarantine.
Although she wanted to just blow off the two young pilots, a weird niggling sense of responsibility prompted her to say, "Hey there, hyokkos. Ya been stayin' outta the shit?"
"If you're asking if we managed to ride out the incident with the Sheolites without any trouble, ma'am," Iwata replied, "then yes."
Iwata struck her as a bit of a smartass, but she wasn't going to dwell on it.
"Yeah, well, good on ya. Stay outta trouble."
"Aye-aye, ma'am."
Normally, Lydia would probably eat with people in her flight, but she didn't feel like it right now. As the wardroom was far from full, she was able to find a table that didn't have too many people around it. She and Matt sat down and started eating. After a couple forkfuls, Lydia was idly playing her food more than actually eating it.
Seeing Lydia just sit there prodding at her slice of meatloaf for a couple minutes, Matt set down his fork and after swallowing the bite he had in his mouth, he asked her, "Are you okay, Nyx? I mean, are you feeling alright?"
Switching gears to draw swirls in the mashed potatoes, Lydia replied, "Oh, I feel a little shitty, but I've been worse." She stopped to eat some of the potatoes before asking Matt, "What happened ta ya when all the shit went down?"
"I was out on patrol," Matt said. "Me and my wingman, we stayed on the Brasidas until the Ticonderoga came back."
"So ya don't know what happened?"
Matt shook his head.
"I don't have the whole story, just that there was some kind of sabotage, the Ticonderoga disappeared, and there was a big fight with the Shellies."
Lydia started skewering the veggies to make a shishkabob.
"Shit, man," she grumbled, "that's more'n I been told."
The carrots were too soft and were breaking up, prompting her to abandon the shishkabob thing and just eat what was on her fork. Her attention shifted to her hands. What had happened to them anyway?
Holding up one of her bandaged hands to Matt, she said, "I'm guessin' my hands got fucked up somewhere in there, but I ain't got no damn clue. Those Shelly fuckers are lucky I was out at the time, that's all I can say."
Matt looked uncomfortable, but he always did whenever she started to get bloodthirsty. She was about to say something to lighten the mood a bit when two sailors approached their table.
"Ma'am, MAs," one of them said. "Would you come with us?"
Lydia glanced at her watch. Seventeen minutes. They could've easily gotten her in five if they really had a mind to.
Concerned, Matt asked her, "Nyx, what have you gotten into?"
"Call it a bit a' professional discourtesy," Lydia replied with a sly grin. "Bastard had it comin', though."
Looking to the MAs, Lydia asked, "You boys gonna lemme finish my chow first?"
"It would be less awkward for you came with us now, ma'am."
Lydia waved her hand dismissively.
"Ah, I don't mind."
Surprisingly, the MAs didn't press the issue, no doubt a courtesy afforded to officers, especially when the whole matter wasn't going to amount to anything more than her getting Captain's Mast.
Knowing they'd object if she continued her conversation with Matt all casual-like, she wolfed down her food like she was back at the Academy. It had barely hit her stomach and it already felt like a bad idea. Oh well.
Seeing that she had cleaned her plate, the lead MA asked her, "You'll come with us peacefully, ma'am?"
"Yeah, yeah," Lydia replied, not particularly irritated but by no means eager. "Don't get all antsy on me now." She looked at Matt, who really looked so pitiful that you'd think he was the one getting dragged off, and managed a weak smile. "Well, it was good seein' ya, Cav. It's been a while since I seen the inside of the brig." She then looked to the MAs and asked, "You boys have a nice spread?"
"It's the brig, ma'am," the MA replied bluntly. "I wouldn't get my hopes up if I was you,"
Fair enough.
Lydia waved goodbye to Matt, dropped off her tray, and followed the MAs out of the wardroom. After what she'd been through, even if she couldn't remember any of it, a spell in the brig really didn't bother her.