Chapter 14
View from the Back
ESS Ticonderoga, Martian Sphere
Date: Tue 28 Oct 122
Time: UST 0600

The ship's intercom chimed and a dull voice said, "Reveille, reveille. All hands heave out and trice up. Now reveille."
This was followed by the reveille bugle call. Contrary to the actual words of the announcement, all hands were not expected to rise at this time, just the day shift. It was only out of respect for tradition that the classic words were spoken. The terrestrial norms of Navy tradition were largely irrelevant out in space, but they helped keep the crew grounded no matter where they were or where they came from.
Once the bugle call finished, the intercom chimed again for a follow-up announcement.
"Attention, all hands. Attention, all hands. This is Admiral Mfume speaking. At approximately 2200 yesterday, Sheolite warships entered the outer rim of the Martian Sphere. It has been estimated that they will penetrate the core sphere within the hour.
"As we are not part of Fifth Fleet, we have been placed in reserve to aid in orbital defense should the outer defensive lines fail. I want each and every one of you combat ready for whatever scenario we may face. That is all. Mfume, out."

* * *

Date: Tue 28 Oct 122
Time: UST 0711

Of the 187 members of the VF-313, 154 were formed up in the Deck 3 exercise track in four files. Commander Figueroa stood in front with Master Chief Barnett at his side.
"Alright, Madcaps, get yourselves pumped!" he bellowed. "We got a 10k fun run this mornin'! Who's gonna start us off?"
While a number of members of the squadron raised their voices to get the honor of leading the squadron first, a female voice rose above the rest.
The owner of the voice went a step further by breaking formation, running in place while pumping her fist in the air. It was an unusual sight by any normal measure, but even more so given the source.
"What the hell's got you so damn moto, Han?" Commander Figueroa asked.
To characterize Lieutenant Han as being in rare form did not even begin to describe it. This was the same woman who the Commander knew for being little more than a sulky, insubordinate child, but something had come over her and he wanted to hear what it was, even if her answer wound up being some sarcastic crack that would get her stuck giving a piggyback ride to her wingmate for all 10k of the fun run.
"Shelly killin' time's comin' our way!" Lieutenant Han beamed. To the rest of the squadron, she shouted, "It's our raisin detour, people! Get yourselves fuckin' PUMPED!"
Commander Figueroa did not really care what it was. If even someone like her, with her reputation, could show this much motivation, it was bound to boost morale and now was the time for it.
"Let's hope you call cadence better'n you speak French, Han," the Commander said. "Madcaps, double-time, march!"

* * *

Date: Tue 28 Oct 122
Time: UST 1226

Matt took his seat at the table and Sean sat down across from him. Today was spaghetti and meatballs with garlic toast.
While Matt was idly poking a meatball with his fork, Sean asked him, "What'd ya hear from your meetin' with ol' Bun a' Steel?"
At 0900, General Pfeiffer called all the squadron leaders in for briefing on the current situation. Matt planned on holding a briefing for his squadron in the afternoon, but there was no need to remain tight-lipped until then.
"Nothing too out of the ordinary," he said. "Just that we're on standby, that we'll continue to do regular patrols and be ready to engage if needed."
Sean crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.
"She wasn't tellin' ya the whole story, not even the half of it."
"What do you mean?"
Sean leaned in and said in a low voice, "Whatever magic they rolled out ta get us back here so fast don't get rolled out for just anythin'. Somethin' big's goin' down."
"Such as?"
Sean shrugged.
"I dunno. I can jus' feel it."
That did not really tell Matt anything, but the higher-ups keeping them in the dark was nothing new. Obsessing over it would not change anything. The best they could do was roll with the punches.
"We have to stay on our toes," Matt said. "It's all we can do."
Sean cracked a bit of a grin. It always did seem to amuse him how Matt dealt with situations.
"I guess so," he said. "Well, eat up, Cav. We may not get another leisurely meal like this for a while."

* * *

Date: Tue 28 Oct 122
Time: UST 1430

Ally rang the bell for Chaplain Teufel's office.
"Come in, Allison," the Chaplain said via the buzzer box.
How did he know it was her? Well, no point in worrying about it now. The door slid open and Ally walked in. Chaplain Teufel was standing in front of his desk, motioning to the chair that was waiting for her.
"I thought you might be paying me a visit," the Chaplain said. "Have a seat. Tea?"
Ally simply nodded silently. She had not grown any fonder of tea, but Chaplain Teufel always offered and she always accepted.
Once he served Ally a cup of tea, he poured a cup for himself and took up his usual position half-sitting on the edge of his desk. He did not say anything at first. He simply sipped his tea before finally breaking the awkward silence.
"Take your time, Allison."
Somehow, being told to take her time helped Ally muster the courage to start talking about her reason for paying the Chaplain a visit. Although she had talked with him several times, it never stopped being awkward for her to open up with him, even though she had confided in him things she wouldn't tell anyone else, not even Jack.
Slowly, she began, "It's about this morning's announcement."
Chaplain Teufel didn't need much to move the conversation along.
"It isn't unusual for the Sheolites to enter the outer rim of the planetary spheres," he said, "though I don't believe I've heard of them making it this far before."
In all honesty, Ally didn't think about how close or how far this attack was supposed to be. All she knew is that the Shellies were here, now. Even if 'here' was being broadly defined as everything within a one-gim radius.
"I know we're in the back," Ally said, "but... what if they make it this far? What if we have to fight them?"
"Even if they make it far, Allison, it will be a naval battle. There isn't much for the Army to do in a situation like this."
"I know, but... what if?"
Chaplain Teufel took a long, quiet sip of his tea before saying anything.
"You're thinking about what you told me before, about how you don't think you can fight them after your experience on the Hades."
Ally could only nod weakly. The Shellies were their enemies. How many thousands had they killed? How many thousands did they turn into mindless cyborg drones? The war had been going on longer than she had even been alive and it wouldn't end until one side or the other was wiped out. And all for the kindness of one person, she couldn't do her duty as a soldier.
Throughout her training, they told her, "Your job is to kill or to assist in killing." That didn't make much sense when she became an admin clerk, but then they made her into a sniper. Whatever they did to her, they made her into a killer. She didn't have any memory of going into action, but she did remember the aftermath of what happened on the Hades, the dead guards all around her. Was it really any different, what the Shellies did to the people they took and what the government did to her?
"Do you remember what I told you then, Allison?" Chaplain Teufel asked.
Ally nodded, but that wasn't enough for the Chaplain.
"Tell me," he said.
Ally tightened her grip on her teacup and said, "You said I'll have to make a decision, between what I'm told is right and what I think is right."
The Chaplain got up from his desk and walked up to her, leaning in uncomfortably close. He tapped her forehead and said, "Not what you think is right, Allison." He poked her square in the chest. "What you feel is right."
Ally blushed a little. It was awkward how forward the Chaplain was. It wasn't that she thought he had any bad intentions towards her but rather that he didn't let the normal social strictures tie him down. People were always so paranoid about what they said and did, always keeping each other at a distance lest the slightest slip ruin careers. It was the same in both the military and the civilian worlds, but it seemed worse in the military, like they were being judged more harshly, like they were animals that couldn't be trusted. Chaplain Teufel was different... almost in the same way Auntie was different. Maybe that was why she kept coming back to him. When she was in his office, she could forget her fear, if only a little bit for a little while.
The Chaplain rested his hands on Ally's shoulders and told her, "Remember that, Allison. It'll guide you through the tough times and difficult decisions you face."

* * *

Date: Tue 28 Oct 122
Time: UST 1647

Aswani, Gitell and Sen took their seats in Commander Joachim's office. It was too risky to assemble the entire cell and brief them all at once, but current events did not affect the other four as directly, so it was just as well. Commander Joachim held up his scrambler and clicked it. That would give them some relief from prying eyes and ears.
With that taken care of, Aswani took the initiative to ask the first question.
"What's the real story, boss?"
Even though the VFA-999 was designated a Special Operations squadron, the rank and file were being left out of the loop the same as all the other squadrons in JAD-9. The Commander, of course, had other ways of getting to the truth of the matter.
"It's the big one," he said gravely.
There was nothing to gain by telling everyone how dire the situation was, especially in light of SupCom's response, but Commander Joachim knew his men could handle it.
Lieutenant Gitell asked, "How do we play it, sir?"
"We wait for our shot," Commander Joachim replied. "Play along until we get our opening."
There was no need for unauthorized action, not yet at least. If the plan was going to work, they had to wait for the opportune moment, even if it meant thousands had to die first. If thousands had to die so that millions would be saved, that was simply the bitter reality of it all.
"What about our contingency plan?" Aswani asked.
"It's still on the table," the Commander replied. "If we need it, he'll be ready."
Commander Joachim was never the sort to put all his eggs in one basket. He had every confidence he and his men could get the job done, but he always had something prepared in the event Murphy's Law wrecked his plans. Though he typically played his cards close to the chest, he let his men in on this particular contingency plan because it would be up to them to see it executed.
Gitell, ever skeptical, asked him, "Are you sure about this, sir?"
"It's our ace in the hole," the Commander said. "If things go sour on us, he may be our last hope."
The Commander would rather avoid putting that kind of weight on his shoulders, but he was confident that his ace in the hole would get the job done if he failed. Of course, he did not have any intention of failing.

* * *

Date: Tue 28 Oct 122
Time: UST 2254

Back in one of their love nests, Eva was busy aggressively kissing Jeff. They had not been together since last Thursday and she tended to have a lot of energy built up the longer they were apart.
"Things are heating up," she said through her kisses. "We probably aren't going to be able to do this again for a while."
No wonder she was being more active than usual. Jeff was not as adroit as she was at multitasking kissing and talking, but he managed to reply, "Where there's a, mmm, mmm, a will, mmm, ah, there's a, there's a way."
Jeff was a little neurotic when it came to precise speech, so it bothered him that he had so much difficulty forming complete sentences with his mouth being otherwise occupied. However, Eva broke off her kiss and looked him square in the eye. Her concern was clear.
"How serious is it, Jeff?" she asked. "I know you know."
At first, Jeff considered lying to her. What good would it do to worry her? Then again, she wasn't a child. Surely she could handle the truth.
"It's the entire Shelly Navy," he said.
Eva's eyes widened.
"The entire... How, how do you know?"
Again, Jeff considered lying to her, but decided instead to give her an abridged version of the truth. She didn't need to know the details.
"I got a rip from the Hades' main computer from when they captured us. Everything was there. That was why we knew where Erebus was. And it's why I know they're throwing every ship they have at us."
"My God... Can Fifth win?"
Jeff shrugged.
"Just playing the numbers game, the Shellies about have a 50% advantage based on how SupCom gauges naval strength, but there are too many variable to say for sure."
"Over a billion people live in the Martian Sphere, Jeff."
Even though you couldn't tell on account of his visor, Jeff looked aside and said, "There are going to be a lot less than that even in the best case scenario."
"SupCom has reinforcements on the way, don't they?"
"I haven't looked into their chatter, so I don't know. I don't think they appreciate the severity of the current situation."
"What does that mean?"
Jeff looked back to Eva and said, "It means that SupCom might put the entire Martian Sphere on the chopping block just to see what the Shellies will do."
"Those bastards..." Eva growled bitterly.
A lot of native Earthers didn't care much about what happened to the Colonials, but Eva wasn't like that. Jeff had always told himself that caring about other people, especially those you never even saw, was nothing more than a liability. His time with Eva was making him question that, at least as far as she was concerned, but it didn't take much mental gymnastics to see things from the perspective of the bean counters back in Atlantis City.
"It's just numbers to them," he said. "One billion here versus nine billion on Earth. It's no contest."
"What about you?" Eva asked.
"The only number I care about is myself..." Jeff said, pausing briefly before adding, "and you."
Eva hugged him tightly and whispered into his ear, "If it comes to that, Jeff, I'll get us out of here."
By controlling the Kasfeys, Eva had the power to instantly get them out of any sticky situation, so long as the engines still worked, that is. He never expected her to become such a valuable asset when he took the chance to save her from the saboteurs last year, though she had since become more than just an asset to him.
"Your ass is toast if you do that," Jeff said.
"I'm willing to risk it," Eva replied. "If it means we get out of this alive, that's all that matters."