Chapter 9
The Queen of Hell

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Tue 09 Jul 121
Time: UST 1247

Sergeant Rahim had gone back to the berths twice but no sign of Grisson or O'Connor. Because of all the interference, he couldn't call them on their PersComs and internal comms on the ship were a mess, so he couldn't contact Sickbay or anywhere else they might be. Those two were the bane of his existence, so of course they had to be missing at a time like this. There was nothing to be done but head back to the armory.
They geared up the riflemen and MPs first before issuing weapons to the other personnel in the detachment. It was no small part of the reason Rahim wanted to find his missing squad members pronto. By the time he got to the armory, it looked like they were already outfitting the REMFs. He was going to have to meet up with Lieutenant Silva and report, but he wasn't too keen on going out unarmed.
Just as he was about to move on, Captain Robles called out to him.
"Rahim! Wait up!"
Rahim went to the position of attention.
"I hear you're missing a couple of your people," Captain Robles said.
"Yes, sir, I sent Grisson and O'Connor to Sickbay back at zero-seven-thirty, but Grisson never showed up when they announced lockdown. I've been back to Deck 6 twice and no sign of either of them."
"I know. Before everything went shit, I got a message from the brig. The MAs were holding them."
The MAs were holding them?
"What the hell have they gotten into now?"
"No idea," Robles replied, "but we can't worry about them right now." He slapped Rahim on the shoulder. "I've let Silva know already, so you get suited up and regroup with Second Platoon."
"Yes, sir."
Rahim started to head to the end of the line, but Captain Robles caught his arm.
"We need you armed before some wrench monkey," he said. "You can cut in front."
Forcing his way into the armory with Rahim in tow, the Captain shouted, "Make a hole!"
The people waiting for their gear made way and an S-4 guy dropped what he was doing to fetch Rahim's gear. Rahim was suited up in no time and out the door with Captain Robles wishing him, "Happy hunting."
As Rahim made his way Second Platoon's area of responsibility, he couldn't help but wonder just what the hell had happened with Grisson and O'Connor. There was no time to worry about it, but after the Villareyes operation, he almost wanted to have O'Connor's SG1 backing him up, much as he hated to admit it.

* * *

Location: Unidentified Sheolite Vessel, Outside Union Space
Date: Wed 10 Jul 121
Time: UST 0417

Ally woke with a start. Immediately she was seized by panic. She didn't know where she was or how she got there.
She backed into a wall but jerked away from it the moment she touched it. It was hard but flexible, giving way just enough to scare her. It wasn't like anything she'd ever felt before.
She struggled to focus enough to get her bearings. It was dark and difficult for her to make out her surroundings. She was in a small room with a low ceiling, maybe about a two-by-two with a meter between the floor and ceiling. It was also fairly warm, definitely over thirty degrees. She'd gotten used to the chill of the ship, so what should've been welcome heat was actually uncomfortable.
Somewhat unsurely, she approached the wall again. She just barely tapped it at first, afraid to touch it, but when it became clear that it wasn't going to hurt her, she pressed her hand against it a little longer. It wasn't metal or any construction polymer she'd ever seen. She had to put a fair bit of weight into it before it would bend like it did earlier. The wall reminded her of a bug's shell. She then imagined herself stuck inside a giant bug and shuddered at the thought.
Wherever she was, there was no way out that she could see. Before she started calling out for help, though, she thought she would try to piece together what happened. She looked at her wrist, but her watch was gone. She reached into the cargo pocket of her pantleg and her PersCom was gone, too. She had no way of knowing what time it was, so she was just going to have to start from when she got up in the morning.
She remembered having a bad headache since the night before. She went to sick call and at the aid station they gave her ibuprofen and an IV like they do for everyone. It didn't help, so Sergeant Rahim sent her to Sickbay and Jack went with her. They were on their way there when she bumped into that Air Force officer. She couldn't remember what happened after that.
Then she was in Sickbay. She was lying on a bed in the emergency ward, completely stripped from the waist up except for the chest piece of her StatSuit. She probably would've died from embarrassment otherwise. The doctor was asking her some questions, but she couldn't remember what he was asking or what she told him, if she even said anything. Then there was this Navy guy there, an MP--no, they called themselves MAs--asking if she could be released to give a statement.
Ally abruptly became aware of the aches and pains she felt all over. What had happened to her?
Next she was at a desk and the MA from the emergency ward was asking her questions about Jack and some Colonel Duvalier. Her headache was still bothering her then, so she was having trouble focusing. The MA was losing his patience with her when a shot rang out. There were a lot of shots. The MA questioning her took a round to the chest and was knocked halfway across the room--compartment, whatever.
Then nothing.
And now she was here. Only where was here supposed to be?
Before she could think about it anymore, the wall behind her opened up with weird, sickly sound--she didn't know how else to describe it. A hand reached in and gripped her tightly by the arm and pulled her out of the room. Once she was out of the room, she saw who had grabbed her, or perhaps it was better to say what.
It was a Sheolite.
She'd never seen one in real life before, but she knew that was it. She'd seen what limited footage they could offer during her training. They were basically human in shape, but no one really knew what was under those armor suits. Any dead that got left behind during an attack either detonated or just dissolved into nothing.
The panic from earlier, waking up in a foreign place, was nothing compared to the abject terror she felt in that moment.
She screamed. She tried to break loose, but the Sheolite didn't let her go. Crazy as it was, she tried picking at its fingers with her free hand, but another Sheolite stepped in and grabbed her other arm. They were much taller than she was and easily lifted her off the floor.
She kept on screaming things like "No!" and "Let me go!" and flailed her legs to no avail, but the Sheolites seemed to pay no attention to her. They simply turned around and marched down the corridor.
In spite of her panic, she noticed that her little room was actually a prison cell. They were stacked three high and lined the walls like a bee's nest. She wondered how many of those cells were filled, or she would have if she could've held a coherent thought in her head. She wasn't thinking at all. It was all instinct. She was like an animal trying to get out of a trap, but she couldn't break free of the Sheolites' grasp and even if kicking them would do anything, they held her at enough distance that her legs couldn't reach.
She didn't let up the whole time, kicking and screaming all the way, but it didn't do any good. She had no idea how far they carried her. There were lots of long stretches of corridor broken up by twists and turns and even a couple lifts and spiral staircases. Wherever she was, it was huge, at least as big as the Ticonderoga, if not bigger.
She had seen many doors--or at least what she thought were doors--in the corridors along the way, but when they reached an especially large one, the two Sheolites stopped. The one on Ally's left punched a sequence into a fairly normal-looking keypad that looked like it had been grafted onto the bug-shell wall. The large door opened, making the same sick sound as the door to Ally's cell.
They entered a wide open dome-shaped room with a strange hodgepodge of furnishings you'd expect to find just about anywhere in the Union mixed in with things that seemed to be growing out of the walls and floors. Ally didn't spend much time looking around because her attention was drawn to six figures standing in a row in the center of the room. They were covered head-to-toe in black robes. It made her think of pre-Union history class. What did they call those things? Burkabs? Burniks? Whatever they were called, it was scary.
The Sheolites said something to the robed figures in a language Ally had never heard before. One of the robed figures answered and it was a woman's voice. The two Sheolites holding Ally lowered her to the floor and let her go. They said something else, bowed to the robed figures and left. Ally didn't really think her situation had improved any.
The robed figures started chattering to each other and it seemed that they were all women. Then they started to walk up to Ally, but in those robes it looked more like they were gliding. They were like ghosts.
They started to circle around her. Ally looked back and forth nervously. There was no way out and they were closing in on her. The one in front of her raised up an arm as if to reach out and grab her. Ally probably would have screamed if a voice hadn't called out, making the ghost women stop.
A new figure entered the room. Unlike the other women, she wore blue robes and her face wasn't hidden--or rather it was hidden by a metal mask instead of a veil. The mask was actually rather pretty, like some ancient Greek statue, but sad-looking, too. How Ally could think about stuff like that at a time like this was a mystery.
The women in black hissed a bunch of angry things at the masked woman, but she stood her ground and eventually the six of them backed off and filed out of the room grumbling to themselves. When they were gone, the masked woman started to walk up to Ally, but stopped short when Ally instinctively backed away.
"Don't be afraid, child," the masked woman said. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"You, you speak Standard?" Ally asked.
"Yes," the masked woman replied. "I graduated high school with a Level 1 proficiency. I also have a Level 2 in Spanish and Russian." She shrugged, barely noticeable under those heavy robes. "The other three I had to squeak by with a Level 4."
She was talking about the language proficiency exams for the six first tier languages every Union citizen was expected to know. Standard was the most important, but you had to at least demonstrate a Level 3 proficiency in two others to graduate high school. But if the masked woman had taken the proficiency exams, that could only mean...
"You're human? You mean you're one of us?"
The masked woman nodded, but quickly corrected herself.
"Well, it's perhaps more accurate to say 'was'. We all were."
They all were...
"All..." Ally repeated out loud. "Wait a minute. You mean all the Shellies are people, were people?"
"Yes," the masked woman said.
Ally suddenly felt dizzy. The Sheolites were human? No one ever said officially that they were aliens, but that always seemed to be the understanding. If they were humans, if they were Union citizens...
"That's why you're here," the masked woman continued. "You are to be presented to the Empress. I am the Empress' First Handmaid. You may call me Antiope."
Antiope. That sounded hard to remember, so Ally opted to think of the masked woman as 'Auntie'. She seemed like an aunt, sort of like a mom but not quite.
Then she remembered there was something a lot more important than Auntie's name in all that.
"What do you mean 'presented'?" Ally asked. "What empress?"
"The Empress of Sheol, child," Auntie said patiently, "consort of the Emperor and fleetlord of Fleet Gamaliel. You will have an audience with her soon and the handmaids were ordered to prepare you for it. I knew the others would scare you, so I have taken on the responsibility myself."
That's right. It was called the Sheol Empire. The Empress would be at the top. It'd be like meeting the Chairwoman. But why her? Ally wasn't anyone important. At least she didn't think she was.
Her mind raced. What was she supposed to do?
"I, I'm a soldier in the Earth Union Army," she stammered, the words tumbling out of her mouth. "I, ah, continue to resist.... Escape, um, special favors..."
All those words she was supposed to memorize got jumbled. She didn't even know what she was saying.
Auntie began to step toward her, saying, "The Code of Conduct, Article Three, Section Alpha: 'If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means necessary. I will make every effort to escape and to aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.'" She stopped about a meter from where Ally stood and then asked her, "Is that what you were wanting to say?"
"Yeah..." Ally replied uncomfortably. It was embarrassing for a Sheolite to know the Code of Conduct better than she did.
"This is neither parole nor special favor," Auntie said. "It is an obligation, a duty, and it would be foolish to disobey. If you must resist, save it for when it counts." She reached behind Ally, gently holding her shoulder to guide her. "Now, please, come with me."
Maybe it was because Auntie was so nice or maybe it was because she was the closest thing to something familiar since Ally woke up, but she didn't resist and let herself be guided into one of the inner chambers. In it were several open cisterns of a steaming green liquid about a meter high. Auntie continued to guide Ally to a large one at the back of the room.
"You must be purified before you can stand before the Empress," Auntie said. "Please, take off your clothes."
"What?" Ally asked in surprise. She shook her head. "No."
She wasn't about to strip on command. What did Auntie think she was doing?
"Please, child," Auntie pleaded, "do not fight it. There are only the two of us. Unlike the Union, we don't have cameras everywhere. Your modesty is safe."
It was true that just having Auntie there was a lot less intimidating than the six black-clad handmaids, but still... She eyed the green water in the cistern--or was it a tub? It smelled funny and looked worse.
"I'm not just worried about that," she said.
Auntie pulled back her sleeve and dipped her hand in the water. Ally couldn't help but notice that her arm looked like it was more robot than human.
"The waters are harmless," Auntie said, "and do well to clean flesh and metal both. Only don't drink it."
Ally shook her head again.
"Here," Auntie offered, reaching behind her, "perhaps if I join you."
Auntie then proceeded to take off her heavy robes, leaving them in a pile on the floor. Under the robes she wore what Ally guessed you would call a tunic. Auntie took off her boots first, then unbelted the tunic and pulled it off over her head. It was then that Ally saw exactly what Auntie was.
Like her arm, the rest of Auntie was mostly machine. The parts of her that were still human were pale and badly scarred. It looked nothing like modern cybernetics. It was the sort of thing you saw in movies back in the days when cybernetics were still unknown and frightening, a crude twisting of flesh and metal, a walking nightmare.
"I know I'm not much to look at, child," Auntie said, "but at least I'm alive. Now come."
Auntie reached out and took hold of the zipper on Ally's ACU blouse. Ally defensively clutched at her chest.
"I can get it myself," she said.
"But you won't," Auntie replied. "Allow me."
For some reason, Ally felt her resistance melt away. Her arms fell slack at her sides while Auntie unzipped her ACU blouse and slid it off her. She then unpinned Ally's hair and ran her fingers through it to straighten it out. Next she knelt down to unfasten Ally's boots and pulled them off, followed by her trousers and her shirt. Auntie then took off her dogtags and neck wallet, glancing at the dogtags briefly before tucking them away in the cargo pocket of her trousers. Ally was left standing there in only her StatSuit.
While Auntie was trying to figure out how the StatSuit's zipper worked, she said, "You certainly are a little thing. How old are you?"
Ally was sensitive about her height and hated it when people thought she was a kid. It made her life more difficult than it already was.
"I'm 20," Ally said.
Auntie chuckled. "I'd never believe it."
Once Auntie was able to work the front zipper, she opened it all the way down and peeled the StatSuit off. Because it was so cold on the ship, Ally always hated undressing for the shower, but here it was so warm that it was almost nice to have the StatSuit off her, even if it was designed to maintain a comfortable surface temperature hot or cold.
Before she could get too comfortable, she was reminded of the fact that she was standing there naked with a total stranger in the middle of a Sheolite ship. Yes, she'd had to deal with communal bathing ever since basic, but that didn't mean she ever got used to it or liked it. Before she could get too embarrassed, though, she winced from Auntie lightly touching her stomach.
"Oh, dear," Auntie said mournfully. "Look what they did to you."
Ally looked down at the big, ugly purplish bruises on her stomach and side. Her forearms were bruised, too. What had happened to her?
Auntie touched Ally's cheek and said, "I thought this was red earlier. Inexcusable. Those guards will be punished."
"It wasn't them," Ally said, wondering in the back of her mind why she was defending a couple Sheolite guards. "This happened before, I think."
"Who did this, child? What did they do to you?"
"I don't remember."
"You poor thing..."
Auntie pulled Ally in close for a hug and held on to her. Ally wasn't used to strangers hugging her, but again, any resistance she might have had just melted away. Auntie's body wasn't quite as warm as a normal person and all her cybernetic augments poked here and there, and yet Ally still felt comforted by the embrace. Besides Jack, Auntie was about the only one to show any concern for her as a human being ever since she joined the Army. It made her want to cry, but she fought to rein in her tears. She couldn't afford to break, not now.
Auntie held her a while longer before finally letting go. Taking Ally's hand, she stepped into the tub and said, "Come, into the waters."
Ally obeyed. Thankfully, there were steps to climb to get into and out of the tub. Otherwise she would have had trouble getting over the tub wall that nearly reached to her chest. The green waters were hot but not scalding. It didn't take any time to adjust to the temperature. Immediately she felt a tingling sensation sweep over her. It was the sort of pins and needles feeling you got when your foot falls asleep, only without the pain.
"Hold your breath," Auntie said, taking hold of Ally's shoulders.
It was a good thing Ally did because Auntie gently swept her legs out from under her to fully immerse her in the water. Ally might have panicked, but Auntie pulled her back up almost immediately.
"There," she said. "That will suffice."
"Really? That's it?"
"A quick dip is all it takes to cleanse the body. You really shouldn't stay in longer than that."
"I thought you said it was harmless."
"Mostly harmless," Auntie said with a chuckle.
Auntie guided Ally out of the tub and fetched a couple nearby towels. She then proceeded to dry Ally off, giving her a good scrubbing but not so hard that it rubbed her raw or anything.
When Auntie was done with Ally, she started to dry herself off, working much faster and not so softly.
Ally was going back to her pile of clothes when Auntie told her, "No, don't put those on again. The Empress would be most displeased and if the Emperor saw you, he would kill you outright. I have clothes for you here."
Auntie gestured to a stack of neatly folded black clothes where she got the towels from. Ally didn't quite feel right accepting clothes from the enemy or being out of uniform, but that threat of getting killed didn't leave her feeling much like fighting it. She walked over to the pile and started to pick through it. As she was doing so, Auntie pulled her aside and drew out a long narrow sheet of fabric.
"I can do it," Ally insisted, though she really didn't have any idea what she was doing.
Auntie saw right through her.
"You've never worn our clothes before," she said. "Let me do my job as a handmaid."
Again Ally found herself unable to resist. The first length of fabric was some kind of loincloth. Ally would've never figured out how to wrap it on her own even though she watched Auntie take hers off only a few minutes earlier. Next was another length of fabric to wrap her chest. Auntie made it just tight enough to keep everything in place but not so tight that it hurt or made it hard to breathe.
While Auntie was securing the chest wrap, she said, "You don't strike me as the infantry type."
"What? How did you know?"
Auntie nodded to the pile of Ally's old clothes and said, "Your uniform. I can recognize an infantry patch when I see it. My father was in the service back when I was a kid, back before the war."
Her dad was in the Army? Maybe that was why she could quote the Code of Conduct, but what Army brat would do something like that?
Auntie then put the tunic on her. It was basically a sleeveless, one-piece dress. It went down to about mid-thigh on Auntie, but Ally's went all the way down to her knees.
"Why did you choose to join the Army?" Auntie asked, fixing the belt around Ally's waist.
"I didn't choose," Ally replied, not quite able to hide a trace of bitterness. "I was drafted."
"They even draft women?" Auntie asked, sounding surprised. "I guess they'd get an EO complaint otherwise."
Ally never would've thought of a Sheolite talking to her about gender politics, but none of this was like anything she expected from the Sheolites. Then again, she didn't really know what to expect in the first place. After all, when it came right down to it, what did she know about them?
Auntie didn't ask any more questions for a while. With the tunic in place, she put the boots on Ally. Sheolite boots were about knee-high and fit rather tightly, but they seemed a little more flexible than the combat boots Ally was used to.
Auntie then had her sit down on one of the steps while she combed her hair. Ally didn't have fond memories of other people combing her hair. Her first stepmom was always in too much of a hurry and would pull the tangles too hard and make her cry. By the time her dad remarried, she'd already learned to do it herself.
This was nice, though. Auntie was very patient and carefully pulled any tangles loose with her fingers before running the comb back over that spot. It was even more care than Ally gave to herself.
When Auntie was done combing her hair, last was the robe. It wasn't quite as heavy as it looked, but it was still uncomfortable given how hot the ship was. At least Ally didn't have her face covered like the other handmaids.
"There, all done," Auntie said. "How does it feel?"
"A little weird," Ally replied.
"You'll get used to it."
Ally didn't want to get used to it, but that was when the realization hit her. Auntie might be preparing her to join the other handmaids. She'd be stuck here for the rest of her life. After all, in SERE training, they never heard about what happened to servicemembers who were captured by the Sheolites because nobody knew. They weren't even sure if the Sheolites took prisoners at all. But it was clear now what happened. They take you and you become one of them. That what was the fate Ally had to look forward to.
This time she didn't think she could stop herself from crying, but then Auntie embraced her again.
"Allison," she whispered, "I'm sorry this had to happen to you, but if you do as I say, you should be fine. I'll do what I can to protect you."
How did Auntie know her name? Ally then remembered that Auntie had looked at her dogtags. That meant she probably also knew Ally's serial number, date of birth, branch of service, blood type, and religious preference. Somehow she didn't think they had any Adventist chaplains to accommodate her, though.
The thought of the Sheolites having chaplains at all made Ally giggle in spite of herself.
"Feeling better?" Auntie asked.
Ally nodded and Auntie led her out of the baths back into the main room. The other handmaids were there waiting and even though Ally couldn't see their eyes, she was sure they were glaring at the two of them.
In a low voice, Auntie told her, "When the Empress comes, I will stand with you. Follow my lead. Speak only when spoken to and always address her as 'Empress'. No 'Your Majesty' or 'Your Highness' or anything like that. Don't lie to her, no matter what. The Empress is usually even-tempered, but she is dangerous when angered."
Ally could feel the hairs rising on the back of her neck. Although she probably didn't mean to, Auntie was about to make it even worse.
"I only pray the Emperor doesn't make an appearance," she muttered, as much to herself as to Ally. "He is much more sensitive to perceived slights."
The Emperor, he was the one Auntie said might kill her earlier. Ally felt her knees get wobbly and started to shake.
"Don't be afraid, child," Auntie reassured her. "Just remember the rules. Repeat them for me."
Ally had to fight back her fear and remember what she was told.
"Do what you do, speak when spoken to, say 'Empress', don't lie, and, ah..."
"Certainly don't address the Emperor as 'Empress' should he appear," Auntie said with a chuckle she couldn't quite stifle.
The joke didn't help, so she spoke more decisively.
"I will do everything I can for you, Allison. Trust me."
Ally certainly wanted to trust her. After all, who else could she turn to? What else could she do?
The door opened.
"It's time," Auntie whispered.
Two columns of guards filed in, four to the left and four to right. Auntie guided Ally to the floor as she knelt down with head bowed. Ally's heart raced. Her breath was short. She broke out in a cold sweat. This was it.
Subtly, Auntie placed her hand on Ally's to calm her. It was a small gesture, but every little bit helped.
There was a sharp click-clack sound as someone walked into the room. Ally didn't dare look up, but she was pretty sure it was the Empress.
"First Handmaid," a woman's voice said, "is this the one?"
"Yes, Empress," Auntie replied, her tone deferential but calm.
"What is she called again?"
"Allison O'Connor, Empress."
"Rise, Allison O'Connor," the Empress said. "Let me look at you."
"Ye, yes, Empress."
Ally thought of when her platoon was first moved to Deck 6, where the Marines kept the gravity at 2G all the time. It felt like that. It was like she'd never stood up before.
She now knew what the preacher meant when he talked about 'great fear and trembling' as she nervously looked up to face the Empress.
The Empress was only average height for a woman--which was still a fair bit taller than Ally--but she wore a sort of platform boot that added a good ten centimeters and made her all the more imposing. She wore armor like the guards with a red cloaked mantle over it. Unlike the handmaids, her head wasn't covered, but a big cybernetic augment took up most of the right side of her face. Though she wasn't quite as pale as Auntie, she didn't look all that healthy either.
There was another woman standing behind her, a younger, petite woman who wore a form-fitting black outfit that looked like a StatSuit, only thicker. She had an oversized set of goggles resting on her forehead, attached by a hinge to the augments running down the sides of her head.
The Empress stepped forward and held Ally by the chin. She leaned in closer and tilted Ally's head to the left and the right. Ally noticed that the Empress' eyes were red as blood. Like this needed to be any more terrifying.
"So this is the fruit of this body," the Empress said at last. She let go of Ally and straightened herself up, looking down at Ally dismissively. "Why is it so small, I wonder."
'Fruit of this body'? The Empress' body? But that would mean...
As the realization sank in, all Ally could do was stammer, "Wha, wha--?"
"Linda O'Connor, geologist," the younger woman said. "Acquired during the harvest of the moon they call Titania."
"My Lord Belphegor, please!" Auntie pleaded.
"Silence, handmaid," the Empress said harshly. She then glanced at the younger woman, this 'Belphegor', and asked, "Are you certain, Belphegor?"
"Yes, Empress," Belphegor replied. "This one is her daughter."
"How old would she have been at the time?"
"Two years old by Earth reckoning."
The Empress looked back at Ally. "So she does not even remember. I suppose that makes the experience less traumatic. Tell me, Allison O'Connor, how does it feel seeing your mother's face after all these years?"
Her mother? No, her mother was dead. There was no way the Empress could be her mother. No way. She refused to believe it.
"You, you're not my mother," Ally insisted. Remembering Auntie's instructions, she quickly added, "E-Empress."
The Empress didn't look particularly fazed by Ally's refusal to acknowledge her as her mother.
"Indeed I am not," she said. "Even if this flesh was hers, she is gone."
What was that supposed to mean? Auntie still seemed to be whoever she was before she became a Sheolite, so what was different about the Empress?
"What a coincidence that the child of this body would possess the spirit of rage we seek," the Empress mused to Belphegor.
"There are no coincidences, Empress," Belphegor replied.
The Empress grinned sardonically and said, "Perhaps not."
Breaking her own rule about not speaking unless spoken to, Auntie asked, "Forgive me, Empress, but what will become of the child?"
"It is none of your concern, handmaid."
"She is to be tested," Belphegor said, "thoroughly. If she can be used, we will use her. If not, she will be discarded. It is the same for all acquisitions." She then eyed Auntie rather cruelly and added, "I certainly hope you have not let yourself get too attached in such a short time. You are not allowed to keep pets after all."
Auntie bowed her head and replied, "Yes, my lord."
"Besides," Belphegor continued, "the fulfillment of our pledge to you is at hand. The one you seek will soon be in our hands."
"He is on that ship, my lord?" Auntie asked. "On a Navy ship?"
"According to our information. We got this one from the very same ship. All the branches of service are represented there, a most diverse selection of specimens. Soon we will break their resistance and have perhaps the best harvest on record. Not in terms of number, of course, but the potential quality makes my mouth water."
Belphegor ran her tongue over her lips and Ally had to suppress a shudder. It was the Ticonderoga she was talking about. How did this happen? What was going to happen to her? If everyone on the ship won, what did that mean for her? What about if they lost?
Belphegor walked up to Ally, getting even closer than the Empress had. She had the same red eyes, but as the Empress looked fairly disinterested, Belphegor seemed to be taking some sick, sadistic pleasure out of it all. She held up her right hand, which looked like a spindly-legged mechanical spider.
She stroked Ally's cheeked and said, "The handmaid is not allowed to keep pets, but I am. I have a feeling I will enjoy playing with you, pet."
Ally wanted to run away, but she was frozen where she stood. Before Belphegor could go any further, the door opened. One of the guards barked a command in Sheolite and the two columns went down on their knees. Auntie gave Ally's arm a quick tug to bring her back down to the floor. Out of the corner of her eye, Ally even caught Belphegor bowing low. There was only one person who could warrant all this: the Emperor.
She didn't think she could get any more scared, but she was. This was the man Auntie warned her about. He was the one who ruled the whole Sheol Empire. For a soldier like herself, he was her greatest enemy, but what could she possibly do?
"This is it?" a deep voice growled.
"Do not judge her by her size, Emperor," Belphegor said. "She may well be one of the best specimens yet."
"This... girl?"
The disdain in the Emperor's voice made Ally's guts churn. The way he said it, it was like she was scum. He definitely wouldn't think anything of killing her in spite of Belphegor's questionable endorsement. Of course, between death and being Belphegor's plaything, death would probably be better, but even though she knew the alternative was worse, she just couldn't imagine dying or wanting to die. Maybe she'd live to regret it.
Her heart skipped a beat with each heavy step of the Emperor as he came close. She shut her eyes and prayed he would just ignore her, even though she knew that wasn't going to happen.
A strong hand seized her by her robe and pulled her up to her feet. She kept her head down, not daring to look at the Emperor. Her legs didn't have the strength to stand if that was he was expecting of her.
With both hands he started pulling at her robe and she realized her was trying to pull it off. She wanted to scream but was too scared for it. She practically fell out of the robe and her legs just folded under her. No sooner had she fallen back to the floor that one of those large, strong hands wrapped around her neck. She instinctively grabbed at the Emperor's wrist as he hoisted her up.
It was then that she got her first look at him. The Emperor was huge, nearly as tall as Jack and built like Sergeant Rahim. Like the Empress, he wore the same style of armor as the guards--only black--and a red cloaked mantle. He had sharp, severe features, a long nose like a hawk's beak, and those terrible red eyes.
A desperate Auntie tried to intervene.
"Emperor, stop, please! I beg you!"
Without even looking at her, without saying a word, the Emperor backhanded her with his free hand, knocking her flat. His attention was entirely focused on Ally.
"Show me the spirit of rage," he demanded. "Show me, worm!"
The fear, the panic, they were too much. Ally couldn't think, couldn't breathe.
Then everything went white, blinding white.
And nothing.

* * *

Ally woke up slowly. Her whole body ached, worse than when she found herself in the cell. She was still in the same room as before. Auntie wasn't far from her. She was on her hands and knees. Her mask was cracked and a dark liquid was dripping from it. Blood? Oil?
Then she saw five of the guards standing in a semicircle around her with weapons trained on her. The other three were lying on the floor. Dead.
The guards stood between Ally and the other three Sheolites. The Emperor was holding the stump of his right arm. Belphegor had her goggles down and was grinning broadly. The Empress simply looked on aloofly.
"See, Emperor?" Belphegor said. "She awakes already. And this is without any augmentation. Just imagine the possibilities."
"Can it be tamed?" the Emperor asked.
"It is just a matter of conditioning. It may take some time, but with the Empress' help, she should be ready soon."
"Make it so," the Emperor said, turning to walk away. "And craft me a better arm. This one was insufficient."
"It shall be done, Emperor," Belphegor replied with a bow.
What had happened? Were they trying to say that she did all that? Ally couldn't believe it, but then she thought about the gaps in her memory. Things like the Villareyes operation. It wasn't like she didn't wonder about it, but she told herself she was just repressing the stressful memories. She could never build up the courage to ask Jack about it. She was afraid if word got out, they'd chapter her on psychiatric grounds. As much as she hated the Army, she couldn't afford to wash out. That was the deal.
"You behaved foolishly, handmaid," the Empress said to Auntie. "But I at least know you will properly tend to the specimen. I leave her in your care. Is that acceptable, Belphegor?"
"Yes, Empress," Belphegor replied. "Let the handmaid do the work and leave me to enjoy playtime with my pet. Do you understand, handmaid?"
"Yes, my lord," Auntie replied. "It is as the Empress commands."
Auntie's voice sounded more robotic now, like something had gotten damaged during the time Ally was out. Ally was sorry that Auntie had gotten herself hurt for her sake.
With a gesture, the Empress signaled for Belphegor and the guards to follow her out of the room. When they left, Auntie helped Ally onto her feet. Ally couldn't help but notice that the other handmaids were keeping their distance.
She looked at the bodies of the three guards that were left behind. One of them had the Emperor's severed arm lodged in his throat. Ally thought she was going to be sick.
"What happened here?" she asked.
Auntie looked at her and said, "You don't remember, do you?"
Ally shook her head.
"Perhaps it's best it stays that way, Allison," Auntie said.
As much as Ally wanted to know, she was also afraid to know and was pretty well content to let the mystery stand for now. Her attention turned to the long crack running down Auntie's mask and the fluid that still dripped from it, staining her robes.
"You're hurt..."
"It's nothing," Auntie insisted. "It can be repaired. You aren't so easy to fix, child, and I was afraid for you. Your life appears to be safe for now, but I can't promise what lies ahead for you. I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault, Auntie."
Auntie cocked her head curiously. "What did you call me?"
Ally blushed.
"Oh, sorry. I had trouble remembering the name you told me. What was it again?"
Auntie held up her hand. "No, no, that's quite alright," she said. She then placed her hand over her heart. "I'm honored that you would call me that." She then motioned to one of the inner chambers. "Now, come, child. You should get some rest. For now at least, enjoy what peace you can."
After all that happened, how could she rest? What peace could she find in a place like this? Still, she didn't resist Auntie, who led her into the bedchambers. The 'beds' were little more than elevated plates of the same shell the rest of the ship was made of. One bed stood apart from the rest and this was where Auntie led her.
Auntie had been carrying Ally's discarded robe and spread it out on the bed as a sheet. She then reached under Ally's tunic to undo the chest wrap, folding it up to make a pillow out of it. When that was done, she laid Ally down on the bed, pulled off her boots and set them down on the floor.
"Is there anything you need?" Auntie asked.
Ally quietly shook her head.
Auntie sat down on the edge of the bed. She caressed Ally's head and started to sing a lullaby in a soft voice. Ally couldn't help but feel like she was a child again, only this time with a mother who cared. As her eyelids started to grow heavy, Ally could feel her aches and pains subside. This certainly wasn't what she imagined a POW experience would be like. Whatever terrors awaited her on the horizon, here and now she was able to find peace, for the first time in a long time, on a Sheolite ship while the First Handmaid of the Empress sang to her.