Chapter 10
ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Wed 01 Oct 122
Time: UST 0412

Commodore Frazier entered the bridge. Captain Yuen was already there waiting for him.
"Captain on deck!" Yuen shouted.
The bridge crew went to attention, but at a time like this, the Commodore wished they could dispense with all the formalities of military courtesy. The best he could do was move things along quickly.
"As you were," the Commodore said hastily. "What's the situation?"
"We have an unidentified contact," the sensor operator replied. "No energy signature."
"When can we get more details?"
"At our current rate of approach, 136 seconds, sir."
"Alright," the Commodore said, settling into his chair, "maintain current speed. Let's go to Orange Plus. Shields up, weapons ready."
"Shields up, aye."
"Priming combat systems."
"Battle Condition set to Orange Plus. Combat personnel are now on standby."
About a minute later, the sensor operator announced, "Unidentified contact coming in range. Scanning now."
Commodore Frazier gave the sensors a little time to work their magic before asking, "What have you got?"
"Sheolite destroyer, sir. Archfiend-class."
The Sheolites only had one class of destroyer, so specifying the class didn't tell him anything new. Even so, Commodore Frazier wasn't going to give the sensor operator a hard time about it.
"Impossible to tell, sir. You know how Shelly ships are."
Like the Shellies themselves, their ships were a great big orga/mecha mishmash that made pinpointing individual lifesigns with the biosensors impossible. Even with no energy signature, the destroyer could still be crawling with Shellies.
Commodore Frazier leaned back in his chair and glanced over at Captain Yuen.
"What do you think, Yuen?" he asked. "I'm half-tempted to just blow it out of the water and move on."
"Half-tempted," Yuen replied pointedly.
"It could be nothing... and it could be a trap."
Yuen looked on ahead, as he would always do when playing the contrarian.
"But there's intel value in an intact Sheolite warship," he said. "Too much to simply blast the thing to hell."
The Commodore sighed. He didn't like the position this put him in.
"I guess we need to send a team in."
"I guess so."
Finding himself backed into a corner like this, it would have been easy for the Commodore to sulk over his undesirable options, but instead he managed to find an opportunity. It brought a grin to his face.
"Well, I have an idea that's bound to piss some people off."
Captain Yuen returned the Commodore's grin.
"You do have a knack for that."

* * *

Date: Wed 01 Oct 122
Time: UST 0432

Miranda was woken up by the sound of her PersCom ringing. Ever since basic, she was a light sleeper, but now it took even less. She had to make do with little stretches of five or ten minutes' sleep at a time. That was part of her new reality.
Trying not to think about it too much, she picked up her PersCom.
"Gunny," the voice on the other end said, "it's Major Knox. We've got a derelict Shelly destroyer, or at least that's what it looks like. I'm sending First. You're going too."
Miranda paused a moment before asking, "Are you sure that's a good idea, sir?"
"You want to get back in the game, don't you?"
"Yes, sir."
"No time like the present. Besides, we don't know what to expect out there. If you're really able to sense active Shellies, it could save lives."
During her debriefing, Miranda mentioned that tingling sensation she got when she woke up in Erebus. It got stronger when those two Shelly guards got close and disappeared once she was back on the Tico. Maybe it was something and maybe not. Still, if she was able to passively receive Shelly transmissions, it could be useful. However, there was a downside to it.
"And what if they can take control of me like people are fearin'?" she asked.
"I'll have my finger on the button," the Major said gravely. "I've suggested to Lieutenant Dixon to put Solano on your ass for extra insurance."
PFC Solano was an automatic rifleman in Third Squad and Corporal Hoek's fireteam partner. He was a good Marine, but Miranda did not see any particular reason for him to be specifically chosen to keep an eye on her.
"Solano, sir?"
"Trust me on this," Major Knox said. "You ready, Gunny?"
"Yes, sir."
"Report to the motor pool by zero-five."
"Aye-aye, sir."
"Knox, out."
Miranda put down the PersCom and slowly got out of bed. If she allowed herself to second-guess things, she would never be able to go forward. She had to prove to herself as much as everyone else that what the Shellies did to her did not change the fact that she was a good Marine and still had a place in the unit.
She stripped off her PT uniform and walked into the shower stall. Her shower had been modified for this solution the Shellies used to wash themselves. It was better for augments than standard soap and water. It was also yet another reminder that she was no longer a normal human.
Obviously, her roommate had to find new accommodations. That left more room for them to install the machine that plastered on the polymer sheath. Her augments made wearing a StatSuit impossible, so one of the sheathing machines was taken from the conversion chamber and installed in Miranda's room. All they lacked was the bug shell walls and she really would start to think she was a Shelly.
The polymer sheath was not as efficient at regulating surface temperature as a StatSuit, nor did it absorb sweat, but it was the best thing Miranda could get, at least until they returned to Union space. Once the sheath was applied, Miranda put on her flight suit and donned her garrison cap. Typically you went uncovered in living spaces, but with the polymer sheath covering her head, she stuck out too much and the garrison cap mitigated that, however slightly. It was a silly bit of vanity that she was embarrassed to have, but there it was. Having passed the two-meter mark when she was 17, she had always stood out, but these new changes made it so much worse. She could brush off the people who called her 'gigantona', but 'Shelly' was the one name she could not bear.
She cursed herself for letting such weakness get the better of her. She had to push through all that and the only way to do so was by moving forward. She needed this mission and she had a feeling Major Knox knew she needed it as well.
Miranda quickly made her way to the motor pool. As much as she hated her augments, she had to admit that once they were adjusted, she was able to move much more easily in the 2G environment of Deck 6. It almost felt like cheating, probably because it was.
When she entered the motor pool, First Platoon was already suiting up. When one of the Marines noticed her enter, he shouted, "At ease!"
Those who were not otherwise preoccupied went to parade rest.
"As you were," Miranda said.
The Marines went back to work. Some of them were giving Miranda wary looks, even members of First Platoon, or perhaps especially members of First Platoon was the more apt way to put it. Miranda had spent most of the past three and a half weeks in Sickbay and had little contact with anyone in the unit besides Lieutenant Dixon. She was not sure how thoroughly they were briefed on her condition. Only a few of them saw her when she was recovered on Erebus.
It was PFC Herschel who was the first one to approach her and break the ice.
Standing at parade rest, he said awkwardly, "Gunny... It's, ah, it's good to have you back."
"Good to be back." Miranda said, trying to smile. She then looked over to Staff Sergeant Comanescu and asked, "Comanescu, where's the LT?"
"No idea, Gunny," Comanescu replied. "Our orders are to suit up. He'll get here when he gets here."
"Well, let's get to it."
"Aye-aye, Gunny."
Miranda never asked if they were able to recover and repair her MediSuit from Erebus or if they somehow magicked up a new one. She put on the suit for the first time since her capture last week as part of the tests to get her cleared for active duty. Some tweaks had to be made to accommodate her augments, but now more than ever, the MediSuit felt like it was a part of her.
As she was running the startup diagnostics, she saw Lieutenant Dixon and Major Knox enter the motor pool. Going to attention, she shouted over her external speaker, "Attention on deck!"
Similar to the case of her own entrance, those who could afford to go to attention did.
"Carry on," Major Knox said. "Finish getting suited up and fall in."
"Aye-aye, sir!" the collected Marines sounded off.
By that point, only a few were left who needed to get into their suits and go through the preliminary checks. This gave the Lieutenant time to suit up without leaving the rest of the platoon waiting. Once the platoon was formed up, the Major began to address them.
"At ease, First Platoon. Now listen up. We got a Shelly destroyer dead in the water. The spooks are lickin' their chops over it, but we need to make sure the coast is clear before they start ransackin' the place. That's where you come in, First. This op should be a lot like Ocracoke Island last year, hopefully without all the nasty surprises. We're thinkin' it's a ghost ship, but don't get complacent out there. We trackin', First?"
"Tracking, sir!" the platoon replied in unison.
"That's what I wanna hear," the Major said with a grin. "Load up and move out. Dismissed."
To reinforce the Major's dismissal, Miranda shouted, "You heard the man, First Platoon! Fall out and load up!"
"Aye-aye, Gunny!"
It sounded like old times and it gave Miranda hope. Maybe this would work after all.
While the platoon was filing into the hangar, Lieutenant Dixon approached her.
"You good for this, Gunny?"
"Yes, sir."
"The Major wants me to pair you with Solano."
"Yes, sir."
Miranda's answers were mechanical. What else could she say?
The Lieutenant hesitated a moment before saying, "You know if... if something goes wrong with you, I can't hesitate."
Miranda rested her hand on the Lieutenant's shoulder and told him, "Do what you have to do to protect the Marines of this platoon, sir."
"I hope to God it doesn't come to that."
"You and me both, sir."
They then loaded into the Combat Sparrow and were soon on their way. The Shelly destroyer was close but kept at a safe distance. It was not long before the pilot announced, "Five minutes to contact!"
"Get ready, First Platoon!" Miranda shouted.
Miranda did not normally watch her own biometrics, but she saw her heart rate was up and started to do breathing exercises to bring it back down. Thirteen years and it was like she was a boot on her first mission. She had to keep it together.
Breathe it out, she told herself. Just breathe it out.
The shuttle jolted, bringing a new spike to Miranda's EKG.
"We have contact!" the pilot shouted. "Thirty seconds to breach!"
Doing her best to act like nothing was wrong, Miranda yelled to the platoon, "You know the drill, people! Line up by squads and prepare for insertion!"
"Aye-aye, Gunny!"
They lifted up their harnesses, picked up their weapons and moved into position. The Lieutenant took point, followed by Miranda.
The pilot announced, "Breach is complete!" and the door opened.
"Move out, people!"
Lieutenant Dixon went left and Miranda went right. No visual on the enemy. Nothing on thermals or motion sensors either.
"We're clear!" the Lieutenant shouted. He immediately began to rattle off orders. "First and Third, take the upper decks. Second and Forth, go below. Fifth, hold this deck. Sweep and clear. Echo One-Oh-Two, go with First and Third. I'll go with Second and Fourth."
"Roger that, Echo One-Oh-One," Miranda replied. To First and Third, she said, "I'll take point. Echo One-Three-Three, with me."
"Copy that, Echo One-Oh-Two," Solano said.
Miranda liked to take point anyway, but she figured that under the current circumstances, everyone would feel better with her arm cannon out in front. She tried to concentrate on that tingling sensation in her head, but there was nothing. Assuming that sensation was what she thought it was, did that mean the ship really was empty? It was too soon to tell.
First Squad took the next deck up while Miranda continued up with Third Squad. There was a lot of ground for just four Marines to cover, but there was nothing to it but to do it.
"Echo One-Three-Two," Miranda said, "go with Echo One-Three-Four and take the aft. I'll take the fore with Echo One-Three-Three."
"Roger that, Echo One-Oh-Two," Lance Corporal Fernandes replied.
Miranda and Solano then broke from Fernandes and Maliki. As they were making their way down the passageway, Miranda was crunching the numbers in her head. There had to be five or six decks total averaging some 3700 square meters apiece. Provided there was no resistance or booby traps, they could have their sweep finished in an hour or two.
If there was no resistance...
Miranda still did not feel the tingling sensation in her head. Maybe she had just imagined it. Maybe it was just a temporary side effect of having an exoskeleton forcibly fused to her central nervous system. She could not afford to rely on that. She had to rely on her senses, her sensors, and her gut, just like she had to do before... before this happened to her.
At the first door they encountered, Miranda wedged her fingers in the door to pry it open.
"Cover me, Echo One-Three-Three."
"Roger that."
With a MediSuit's strength, Miranda could easily pry the door open one-handed, which was just as well because she would much rather keep her arm cannon equipped. Once the door was open, she thrust her arm cannon though the opening and then slipped in to cover the corners on the left side, trusting Solano to get the right.
There was nothing worth noting. Certainly not any active hostiles.
"Clear," she said.
"Clear," Solano added.
Miranda allowed herself a moment to try to figure out what the purpose of this particular compartment was supposed to be. It appeared to be some kind of berthing space, with rows and rows of bug-shell plates that were apparently supposed to serve as racks.
Even though it did not look all that similar, Miranda flashed back to the conversion chamber on Erebus. Trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey... Helpless... She could feel herself locked into that frame. She remembered the pain, the sound of her own screaming.
The Shellies did this to her and they were going to finish the job.
"Echo One-Oh-Two?"
Solano's voice brought Miranda back. It was only then she realized her heart rate was peaking again. Using all her force of will, she slowed her breathing down to bring her heart back into line.
She reminded herself that this was not the conversion chamber. They were on a ghost ship. She was safe in her MediSuit with her platoon at her back. Everything was going to be fine. What happened back on Erebus was over. She was moving on. That was what this mission was all about.
"I'm fine, Echo One-Three-Three," Miranda insisted. "Let's finish up our sweep."

* * *

Date: Tue 07 Oct 122
Time: UST 0815

Commodore Frazier preferred to be on the bridge rather than in his office, but there were times that he had things to do there. He had just finished breakfast and was knocking out the day's paperwork when his secretary paged him.
"Captain, I have Lieutenant Paesang for you."
"Let him in," the Commodore said.
The door opened and Lieutenant Paesang, the ship's Deputy Chief Intelligence Officer, walked in and stood at attention in front of the Commodore's desk.
"At ease," Commodore Frazier said. He gestured to a chair. "Take a seat if you like, Lieutenant. You got something for me?"
Lieutenant Paesang remained standing and replied, "As you know, sir, we've been processing the computers on the Sheolite derelict."
"I wanted you to know what we found before Commander Sharif... massages the facts for his report."
The Lieutenant's diplomatic choice of words was that of a man who knew his delicate position in the food chain.
"Normally I don't appreciate people leapfrogging the chain of command," the Commodore said severely. He couldn't keep up the act long before he grinned and added, "But in your case, I'll make an exception."
Unfazed, the Lieutenant continued, "Well, sir, I believe we've uncovered the Sheolites' plans and what their fleet is up to."
"And what would that be?"
Lieutenant Paesang paused for a moment, allowing himself to take a breath before saying, "They're moving on Earth, sir, with everything they have."
Commodore Frazier could feel the temperature in the room drop a good ten degrees.
"Everything, sir."
Under normal circumstances, Commodore Frazier would have taken any new intel with a grain of salt and played wait-and-see as much as he could afford. However, having faced almost the full force of the Shelly Navy himself, the thought of all that hardware being thrown at Earth was simply too jarring to permit him the luxury of doubt.
If this information was true, and at the moment he could think of it no other way, then the Shellies were moving to the end game at long last after more than a quarter century of warfare. Everything would be on the line. It was almost too much to believe.
"My God..."