Chapter 18
Open Door Policy

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Sun 30 Jul 121
Time: UST 1310

Ally stood hesitantly at the door of the chaplain's office, staring at the door buzzer. While she was standing there, a voice called out to her.
"O'Connor, is it?"
It was First Sergeant Drake. She promptly went to parade rest.
"Yes, First Sergeant!"
First Sergeant looked at her, looked at the door, and asked, "You here to see the padre or something?"
"I, ah, yes, First Sergeant."
"Well, you aren't gonna see him by just standin' there," First Sergeant said. "Ring the damn bell."
"Yes, First Sergeant."
"Carry on."
"Yes, First Sergeant."
First Sergeant went into his office, which was just next door, and Ally finally mustered the courage to push the button.
Through the buzzer box, the Chaplain's voice said, "Enter."
The door opened and Chaplain Teufel stood up from his desk to greet her.
"Allison, come in."
Ally nervously walked in and stood at attention.
"Sir, I--"
The Chaplain cut her off. "Don't 'sir' me, Allison. At ease. Relax." He gestured to a nearby chair. "Have a seat."
Ally went to the chair and sat down, looking around uncomfortably. Chaplain Teufel walked over to a little end table close to his desk, opened a drawer and starting pulling out the pieces to a tea set.
He looked to her and asked, "Tea?"
"Uh, I... Um, yes, please."
Ally didn't really want tea, but it would've been rude to turn him down. He apparently already had some brewed up in an electric pot sitting on top of the end table and poured a cup for her and for himself.
He went over to her and handed her a cup, saying, "There we go."
Taking a sip from his own cup, he leaned into the edge of his desk, not quite sitting but not quite standing either.
"I had a feeling you might be stopping by," he said. "So what can I do for you today, Allison?"
Ally stared at her reflection in the teacup, running her finger back and forth along the brim. It took her a while to speak up, but Chaplain Teufel didn't say a thing the whole time. He just kept on taking slow sips of his tea, patiently waiting for her to say what she came there to say.
"So, um," she began awkwardly, "we go talk to the chaplains when we have problems, right?"
The Chaplain nodded. "That's a big part of the reason why we're here, yes."
"And what we talk about is confidential, right?"
"The fancy word for it is 'privileged communication'," Chaplain Teufel replied. "Maybe you don't remember from your classes back in basic, but chaplains are the only ones who can guarantee absolute confidentiality. Whatever you say here doesn't leave this room unless you want it to."
Ally paused. This was every bit as hard as she imagined.
"It's about what happened... You know, don't you, sir? That I was one of the people they took..."
"Yes, Allison, I know. The chaplains were forwarded a list of everyone who was taken so we would be prepared when people came to seek counseling."
Ally found herself staring into the tea again and fidgeting in her chair.
Sounding like he was in no particular hurry, the Chaplain told her, "Take your time, Allison."
Ironically, the offer of more time helped her find the wherewithal to continue.
"I'm not like the others..." she said quietly.
Intrigued, Chaplain Teufel set down his teacup and asked, "What do you mean?"
"The Shellies, they singled me out. Treated me different from everyone else."
"How so?"
The more she talked about it, the easier it seemed to get. This time her answer came more quickly.
"They took me to the Empress' handmaids. One of them, Auntie--I called her Auntie--, she took care of me."
"The Empress' handmaids, you say?"
"Yeah, they dress all in black, long robes. Hide their faces. Auntie, she wears a mask. Maybe the mask is her face. You see, she's a cyborg. They're all cyborgs, I think."
"Why did they single you out?"
Ally felt herself clam up again. She thought it was getting easier, but now that they were getting to the heart of the matter, all her fears and anxieties came to the fore.
Gentle as ever, the Chaplain reassured her, "Allison, it's okay. You can tell me. Unless you're not ready, that is. I'm not forcing you."
Ally shook her head.
"I have to tell somebody," she said. "I didn't tell the Navy people, the ones from Intelligence... I didn't even tell Jack... But I can't keep it to myself."
"Well, what is it, Allison?"
"The Empress... She, she's my mom."
With just the slightest hint of incredulousness, the Chaplain said, "Your mother is the Sheolite empress? How can that be?"
"I don't know. I was still a baby when they said she died. I didn't believe it, but after I got back, I looked up some pictures of her. It was her alright."
Ally's hands started to shake. She might've dropped her teacup, but the Chaplain moved in to steady her hands. It sent a brief shock through her. They're generally so averse to touching in the Army on account of EO complaints that aside from Jack's horseplay, Ally had almost forgotten what genuine human contact felt like.
Looking Ally right in the eye, Chaplain Teufel asked her, "Are you sure?"
"Yes..." Ally whispered. "They knew her name. They knew my name. They knew where she was taken from. I mean, it's her, but it isn't. The Empress talked like she was just using my mom's body, like it was just an empty shell."
"Perhaps she was brainwashed," Chaplain Teufel suggested.
"I dunno. Maybe..."
Brainwashed? Ally hadn't thought of that. Maybe that was it. Maybe there was still hope for her mom. For that matter, maybe there was hope for all of them.
Her thoughts turned from her mother to Auntie. And thinking of Auntie dug up the darker secret behind her experience, the real reason she came to see the Chaplain in the first place.
"That's not the even worst part, my mom being the Empress, that is."
"And what would the worst part be?"
She gripped her teacup so tightly that her hands quivered from the strain but were still held steady by the Chaplain's own hands.
"I, I liked it," she said. After fighting all her internal resistance for so long, the words came easier than she expected. "I liked being with them. Well, not them so much. They were going to do bad things to me, but Auntie, she was nice. When I was with her, I could forget about everything else. Ever since I was drafted, I've been so miserable, but when I was with Auntie, it was about the best I've ever felt."
Expecting some sort of objection from Chaplain Teufel, she continued, "Auntie's not the enemy. She's not a monster. She's a person. She was a person. I mean, she was normal before they took her. She wasn't like my mom, the Empress, I mean. She remembered who she was."
Even though the Chaplain said nothing, Ally reacted to the questions assailing her in her own head.
"Don't you get it?" she said breathlessly to the imaginary accusers her mind superimposed on the Chaplain. "The Shellies are people like you and me. They didn't choose to be Shellies. Nobody asked them what they thought. How is that any different from what the Army's done to me?"
Still the Chaplain hadn't said anything, but the voices in her head were calling her a coward and a traitor and it was only going to get worse when she revealed her conclusion. She bowed her head in shame.
"I don't think I can fight them. How can I?"
She started to quietly sob and sniffle. Chaplain Teufel eased the teacup out of her hands before she dropped it. The moment they were free, she buried her face in her hands and cried in earnest.
Chaplain Teufel wrapped his arms her, whispering into her ear, "Let it out, Allison. You've been keeping this bottled up for too long. Let it all out."
Ally took him up on the invitation. Here she didn't have to put up a front so she wouldn't get yelled at or made fun of. It wasn't like she hadn't cried at all recently, but it was never anything more than the overflow she couldn't hold back. Now the floodgates were wide open and nothing could stop the deluge of hurt and sadness from pouring out.
It seemed like she cried for a long time, but the Chaplain didn't break off his embrace until she was pretty much all cried out. When she lowered her hands, she saw him looking straight at her. It was a strange thing. He seemed both sympathetic and somehow distant at the same time.
"Allison," he said, "you've discovered something very difficult and I don't claim to have the answers for you." He reached out and took hold of her wrists and pulled them towards him, twisting them ever so slightly so that her palms faced up. "The time will come when you have to make a choice, between what you're told is right and what you feel is right."
For some reason, she noticed that when he talked about what she was told was right, he shook her right hand and when he talked about what she felt was right, he shook her left hand. It was like there was some meaning there, but she didn't get it.
Without skipping a beat, the Chaplain continued, "No one can make that choice for you, but in the meantime, if you ever want to talk again, I'll always be right here."
That sounded nice. Ally tried to force a weak smile. Yes, she might need to talk to him again someday soon.

* * *

Date: Sun 30 Jul 121
Time: UST 2217

Lydia was on her last day of restrictions, but General Pfeiffer would probably find other ways to make her life hell for her little professional discourtesy to Commander Sharif. That was a problem for later, though. For the time being, she just wanted to hit the rack and get some sleep before a new week of misery got started.
She was in the lav brushing her teeth at the sink while Trifkovic was taking a shower. It wouldn't be worth mentioning otherwise, but over the sound of water, Lydia could hear Trifkovic sobbing. It wasn't the first time since they were released from quarantine and probably wouldn't be the last either.
"Aw, come on, Curly," she said through a mouthful of toothpaste lather. "Knock it off."
She wasn't being particularly sympathetic to her wingmate, but she couldn't let Trifkovic make the Madcaps look bad by crying like a little wuss within earshot of the damn Tweeties. They had a reputation to uphold, after all.
Surprisingly, that seemed to shut her up. The shower was turned off and Trifkovic stepped out. She was wrapped in a towel but hadn't really dried herself off any. The shower apparently ran hot, because she looked like a boiled lobster. At least it hid the signs of her crying.
"Nyx, do you have a moment?" Trifkovic asked.
Spitting into the sink, Lydia turned around to face her.
"What?" she asked flatly.
Trifkovic looked off to the side, not meeting Lydia in the eye.
"How do you... how do you do it?"
"Do what?"
"How do you deal with what the Shellies did to you?"
"Whaddya mean, what they did ta me?"
Turning her head to look Lydia in the eye, Trifkovic said, "When they took us, I saw you. All those scars... The Shellies did that to you, didn't they?"
Lydia generally made a point not to be seen outside of a StatSuit because she didn't want to deal with the questions. More importantly, she didn't want to get any pity for it. She didn't think Trifkovic was going for pity, but it did look like she had questions.
Lydia shrugged it off. "Yeah. So what?"
"So what!? Look at this!"
Trifkovic pulled down her towel, half exposing her left breast but still partially hiding it with her hand.
Backing away a step, Lydia held up her hands and said, "Hey, Curly, that's not really my thing..."
"Look at me!" Trifkovic shouted angrily. "Look at what they did!"
It wasn't much, but Lydia could see the short, slender scars around her breast, almost like a dotted line marking off the circumference. She probably wouldn't have even noticed if the color didn't match up with Trifkovic's heat-flushed skin.
Looking down at herself, Trifkovic said in a low voice, "I know it's nothing compared to you, but every time I look at myself, I have to remember what happened." She looked back up to Lydia. "How do you deal with it? How the hell do you deal with it?"
Seeing Trifkovic like this, Lydia couldn't very well continue being a jackass to her.
She sighed, "Look, Curly, I don't really remember what happened ta me." She held up her left hand and flexed her fingers. "Seven years ago I woke up in Yao missin' some pieces an' all I knew was that the Shellies did it." She shook her head. "But I don't care about what they did ta me."
"What? How can you say that?"
Lydia clenched her hand into a fist.
"I lost something more important than a foot or a few fingers out there. Those bastards killed my sister, so I kill 'em back. I kill as many as I can. Killin' 'em is all I got."
Trifkovic was taken aback by all this.
"I, I never knew... I thought you were just a psychopath... But you do it for your sister..."
"No," Lydia corrected her. "Sis doesn't need me ta do anythin' for her." She tapped her chest. "I do it for me. What you need ta do is go out there, kill some Shelly bastards an' enjoy it. Do it for you."
"Does that work?"
"Beats cryin' in the shower."
Tears started to roll down Trifkovic's cheeks. She struggled to brush them away while readjusting her towel.
"Dammit... I don't believe it, but I'm actually glad I talked to you."
"Well, don't make a habit of it or nothin'," Lydia said. "I ain't gettin' paid by the hour ta listen ta you cry 'bout your damn feelin's."
Lydia somehow managed to crack a wry grin and Trifkovic smiled back in spite of her tears.
"You're a real bitch, Nyx, but thanks."