Chapter 17
Trick or Treat
Le Main Residential District, Laputa Region, Phobos, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 31 Oct 122
Time: UST 1324

The Sheolite invasion of Phobos was largely cleared within the first 48 hours. All that remained was mop-up operations. Echo Company was holding position in the residential district they had just finished securing. A replenishment convoy was en route and once they got some chow and recharged their power cells, they would be moving on to the next sector.
A few of the Mobile Armor Marines were providing support for riflemen from Fox doing perimeter patrols, but the rest were out of their suits in the designated green zone to conserve power in the off chance they would need to mobilize before the convoy arrived. There were risks, of course, but Major deemed it the better option.
Miranda sat at a distance from the rest of her platoon. Yes, isolating herself was not going to improve her situation, but she did not want to make the men uncomfortable, or at least that was her excuse.
She stared at her hand as she flexed her fingers. Covered by the polymer sheath, the exoskeleton was less obvious, but you could still tell it was there. It had not even been two months, but it seemed like so long ago.
The operation here on Phobos proved that she could turn what the Shellies did her against them, but she could not help feeling on edge. Most everyone in the platoon seemed to be coming to terms with what she was, but that did not hold for a lot of people in the MEU and beyond.
Her brooding was interrupted by Lieutenant Dixon approaching her. She promptly rose to her feet and stood at attention, greeting him with a simple, "Sir."
"As you were," the Lieutenant said.
Miranda did not sit back down, but she did stand at ease. The Lieutenant just stood there for an awkward moment before telling her, "You, you did good out there, Gunny."
"Thank you, sir."
"I know a lot of people have been suspicious ever since the Shellies took you, but I've seen all I need to see. You're still you, Gunny."
"I appreciate that, sir," Miranda replied. She was genuinely grateful, but could not bring herself to smile. "If only we can convince everyone else that I'm not just a Shelly sleeper waiting for my chance to backstab everyone."
Indeed, the Lieutenant's vote of confidence was more than she allowed herself. In the back of her mind, she still felt the trepidation that there was some switch just waiting to be flipped that would render this grand experiment a total disaster.
Continuing his job of reassuring her, Lieutenant Dixon replied, "Some people might never be convinced, but I suppose there's no helping it."
"All we can do is focus on the mission, sir," Miranda said, trying not to think about it too much.
"We have a few hours before we set out, Gunny," the Lieutenant said. "You might want to catch a little sleep."
"You too, sir."
The Lieutenant was about to walk away when they heard a thumping sound in the distance.
"What was that?" Lieutenant Dixon asked. "Are the Shellies bombing us again?"
Miranda shook her head.
"I don't think so, sir."
The thumping sound started to get louder.
"We need to get cover, Gunny," the Lieutenant said.
"Aye-aye, sir."
Miranda then shouted, "First Platoon! Grab your gear and get to cover! Come on, people! Move it!"
It was tempting to suit up first, but every second matters when you come under fire. She had to set the example as platoon sergeant and not take stupid risks that could get people killed. The platoon took shelter in a nearby apartment complex. It would not hold up to a direct hit, but it was better than being out in the open.
The thumping sound continued. Alarms sounded throughout the dome.
"Something's hitting us," Lieutenant Dixon said. "It's breaching the dome."
"There's no explosion," Miranda said. "It can't be bombs. Wait..."
Miranda continued to listen. She knew what it was.
"Drop pods. It's Shelly drop pods. They're bringing in reinforcements."
"We need to get out there," the Lieutenant said, "intercept as many as we can."
"It won't do any good, sir," Miranda said. "Those things are made for atmospheric insertion. Our plasma shots'll just bounce right off 'em. It'd take a particle cannon or missiles to take 'em down."
"The Two-Twelve could intercept them."
"They've probably been scrambled anyway."
"We should call it in just to be safe."
"Roger that, sir."
The Lieutenant then got on the radio and said, "Charlie Golf One, this Echo One-Oh-One. We have incoming Shelly drop pods. Over."
It did not take long for Major Knox to reply, "Echo One-Oh-One, this is Charlie Golf One. We've picked up the incoming Shellies and the Brimstones are inbound. You are authorized to engage any Shellies in the immediate area, but wait for replenishment before you pursue them any further."
The Major then broadcasted all four companies assembled there and said, "Attention all units, this Charlie Golf One. Be advised, we have incoming Shellies. You are authorized to engage any hostiles within a 500-meter radius, but do not engage any farther until you have replenished your energy and ammo. I repeat, do not engage past 500 meters until energy and ammo have been replenished. Charlie Golf One, out."
They waited until the drop pods stopped falling before moving out.
"Mask up people," the Lieutenant said. "We're bound to have lost air pressure if they breached the dome."
"Aye-aye, sir," the Marines of the platoon replied in unison.
Because Miranda could no longer wear a StatSuit, they had to improvise a civilian-issue mask to connect to the polymer sheath. One more thing to make her stand out.
Buildings in the Colonies typically had airlock style doors even inside self-contained domes. The apartment they took shelter in was no exception, so the building would not lose too much air pressure when they exited. Every milliliter of air was precious and they needed to preserve as much as possible.
As soon as the platoon got outside, they saw other units coming out of their shelters. None of the drop pods landed anywhere near the assembly area, so their MediSuits and other equipment were undisturbed. While First Platoon went to their gear, Miranda could overhear the people in Third talking amongst themselves. Third was often called 'New Third' by the other platoons in the company because the original Third Platoon was completely wiped out during Operation Heaven's Door. Even after six months, they still felt like outsiders and many of them acted the part as well.
"What the shit is this, sir?" one of them asked his platoon leader. "We damn near cleared this bitch an' now the Shellies are droppin' in more a' these bastards down here."
The platoon leader, Lieutenant Cranitz, eyed Miranda and grumbled, "I can think of one big-ass reason why we're dealin' with this shit, Bartoli. It's that damn Shelly bitch in First."
Miranda gritted her teeth and her hands balled up into fists, but she did what she could to ignore them.
"One good hit would take care of the problem. I don't think they could even call it friendly fire."
"You got that right."
For all the whispers Miranda had overheard since she was reintegrated into the unit, this was the first time anyone had openly advocated killing her. More than ever, she had to keep together. She could not give them any excuse. However, this proved to be too much for Lieutenant Dixon.
As he moved to confront the members of Third Platoon, she said in a low voice, "Sir, don't."
The Lieutenant did not listen and stood in front the Marines of Third Platoon.
"That's my platoon sergeant you're talking about, gentlemen. I'd recommend you refrain from any further comments. It sets a bad example."
Normally, this would be a diplomatic and entirely appropriate way for an officer to correct one of his peers. In private. However, Lieutenant Dixon called out Lieutenant Cranitz in front of his men, which pretty well guaranteed a confrontation.
Though Lieutenant Cranitz's face was almost entirely obscured the combination of his StatSuit hood and oxygen mask, his body language exuded both contempt and tough guy posturing.
"I don't remember askin' for your opinion, you little Academy asswipe."
"I could report you," Lieutenant Dixon said. "I'm sure the Major would be very interested to hear the kind of talk you not only allow but are actively encouraging in your platoon."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you, asswipe? Tattle on me to the Major like the dumbass brat kid you are so he can drop the hammer on me an' my boys to defend the 'honor' a' his oversized fuck toy."
A flash of anger surged through Miranda, not for her own sake but for that of Major Knox's good name. He was a fine man and an exemplary commanding officer and he would never compromise himself like that. For Lieutenant Cranitz to sling around an accusation like that was unthinkable. It was unforgivable.
Miranda then realized that she was no longer standing where she was only a moment ago. She was now standing over Lieutenant Cranitz, all sprawled out on the ground. Her arm was still extended.
In the sickening moment of stunned silence, Miranda's mind raced and somehow managed to put the pieces together. In her anger, she wanted to punch Lieutenant Cranitz. It was nothing more than a mere crocodile brain reaction, but that alone must have been enough for her augments to respond. The augments made her body act before she could consciously commit to it. Now things just dramatically went from bad to worse.
The NCO who had been talking with Lieutenant Cranitz, Sergeant Bartoli, was the first to react and quickly drew his sidearm and trained it on Miranda.
"Freeze, you Shelly whore!" he shouted.
It took all Miranda's willpower to suppress her immediate reaction and remain perfectly still. If she had not realized what drove her to punch Lieutenant Cranitz, she very well could have dropped Sergeant Bartoli before he could even squeeze the trigger.
"Get your hands up and get down on the fuckin' deck!"
"Stand down, Sergeant," Lieutenant Dixon said.
"Hey, fuck you!" Sergeant Bartoli snapped. "You think you can protect that goddamn Shelly now!?" He then called to his squadmates, "Szabo, Vanderpoole, Rumski, secure the hostile." To the rest of his platoon, he said, "Guys, we need more firepower to keep a button on this bitch."
As three Marines approached Miranda with their sidearms up, a voice said, "You boys best back the fuck up and lower those weapons."
It was Comanescu. Miranda could see his sidearm out of the corner of her eye, directed at the Marines from Third.
"Stand down, Staff Sergeant," Lieutenant Dixon said. "You're only going to make things worse."
"I'm afraid I can't do that, sir," Comanescu replied. "Not with that many weapons on Gunny and me."
By now pretty much all of Third Platoon had their weapons at the ready and First Platoon responded in kind. One itchy trigger finger and it could be a bloodbath.
Still trying to talk his way to a resolution, Lieutenant Dixon asked Third Platoon, "Which one of you is senior?"
"I am, sir," a Chinese staff sergeant replied. Miranda could just barely make out the 'Zeng' on his nametag.
"Staff Sergeant, order your men to lower their weapons and I'll do the same," the Lieutenant said.
Steadying the laser sight of his P43 right at Miranda's forehead, Staff Sergeant Zeng replied coldly, "You platoon sergeant just struck an officer and the rest of your platoon is currently making a show of force against friendly forces."
"You all didn't sound too friendly when you were proposing fratricide," Lieutenant Dixon said.
"You hafta be on the same side for it ta be fratricide, sir," Sergeant Bartoli spat back.
"It would seem we are at an impasse, sir," Staff Sergeant Zeng said.
The two sides teetered on the precipice, and it almost looked like shots would be exchanged, but the standoff was broken by the sound of Captain Moombe's booming voice.
"What in the blue hell is this!? Holster those sidearms at once! That is an order, Marines!"
As tense as the situation was, as close as they were to killing each other, the Captain's bellowed order was met with immediate compliance. At once, everyone returned their sidearms to their holsters with a loud, "Aye-aye, sir!"
Normally you were not supposed to draw attention to officers in a combat zone, but there were--in theory, at least--no Shellies in the immediate area. Perhaps it was just reflex and perhaps some of them were feeling a little subversive because of the Captain's interruption.
Such concerns were far from Captain Moombe's mind as he angrily barked, "I demand an explanation of what the hell is going on here this instant!"
Staff Sergeant Zeng was the first to reply.
"Sir, that individual over there assaulted our platoon leader. She--"
Lieutenant Dixon cut him off, saying, "She was only responding to the provocations and threats from Lieutenant Cranitz and--"
"That's a lie, sir!" Sergeant Bartoli howled. "That Shelly b--"
"You shut right the hell up with that, you rotten son of a--"
"ENOUGH!" Captain Moombe shouted. "I changed my mind. I do not want to hear it right now. We will deal with this once we have gotten rid of the Shellies." He pointed to one direction and said, "First Platoon, over there." He then pointed in the other direction. "Third Platoon, over there. You two will not interact for the duration of this mission under penalty of a week's time in the brig. Do I make myself clear?"
"Sir, yes, sir!"
"Very well then. The replenishment convoy should be here in another five minutes. When you are all charged up, you will receive order for your next assignment. There will be no more of this bullshit. Understand?"
"Sir, yes, sir!"
"Fall out and wait your turn for replenishment. Corpsman! Check on Lieutenant Cranitz."
First and Third Platoon parted ways and Miranda was able to breathe a tentative sigh of relief. They were dancing dangerously close to the edge and we saved at the last minute thanks to Captain Moombe's timely intervention. How many other units were at each other's throats now? No other unit had the aggravating factor of a half-Shelly like Miranda, but the longer this battle continued, the greater the risk people would start turning on each other. They had finish things before that could happen.