Chapter 23
Turning Back the Tide
Outskirts of Argyre Colony, Argyre Planitia, Mars, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 14 Nov 122
Time: UST 0919

The abandoned construction site made for an ideal sniper's nest. Decent cover while still being open enough to allow a good view of the planitia several kilometers out. While there was a fair bit of urban combat going on in the settlement clusters, Colonel Vasquez--or General Vasquez as they were calling him these days--would take what few mechanized and armor assets they had to draw the Shellies out into the open. Most times they'd take the bait and that's where people like Jack and Ally came in.
The SG1 could easily cut a man in half and it was an effective antimateriel weapon as well. One shot could punch through twenty centimeters of standard armor plating. With the right person at the trigger, Shelly ground assault vehicles could be disabled for easy pickings.
Speaking of which...
"Meep meep, shorty," Jack said as he caught sight of a couple Roadrunner FAVs tear-assing their way out of the settlement cluster into the planitia.
Jack was expecting maybe a couple Fireants to pursue, but he woefully underestimated the Shelly response.
"Holy shit..." he muttered under his breath.
In the twelve days since they touched down on Mars, this was only their fourth encounter with the enemy. It was always units of comparable size to the raiding parties sent into the settlement cluster to draw them out. Not this time, though.
The entire range of Shelly ground assault vehicles were on display. Fireants, Spiders, Centipedes, Scorpions, and even a couple Crabs. Jack didn't know how much the Shellies were able to land on the surface, but this had to be a big chunk of it.
"We've got one helluva target-rich environment, shorty," Jack said. "Take your pick."
Being in game mode, Ally didn't say anything. She already picked out a Fireant and took out one of its legs. There really wasn't much point in talking to her at all until she came back around, but he'd probably go crazy if he stayed quiet the whole time. He had to at least pretend things were normal. Otherwise he'd start thinking about why Ally was the way she was, why it was like someone just flipped a switch and this shy girl would turn into a stone-cold killer.
No, he couldn't think about it. He had to push it from his mind and focus on staying alive. He wanted to say things had gotten easier since he first saw action at the Villareyes Starport, but it really hadn't. His fear tried to suck him in like a black hole and it took every ounce of his willpower every second he was in the line of fire not to succumb to it. It was exhausting. He almost envied whatever it was about Ally that put her into game mode, making her hyper-competent in combat without a single memory of what happened afterward.
"That's five," he said. "Time to bounce."
It was a wonder he was still doing his job as her spotter with all the thoughts running rampant in the back of his mind. If Ally wasn't as fast as she was, they probably couldn't afford five shots from a single location. Again, he didn't need to say anything. Ally was already up and moving on ahead to a new location. Jack had to hurry to catch up to her and it was a good thing he did, too, because a few of the Shellies started to take potshots in the general vicinity of their sniper's nest. Ally's SG1 was a much bigger threat than the pulse cannons on the Roadrunners, so it was little surprise at least some of the Shellies made taking them out a priority.
Though their chameleon cloaks made them virtually invisible to the naked eye and masked their heat signature, the Shellies weren't going to take the surgical approach and deploy counter-snipers against them. Collateral damage was no object to them, so they would just blast the hell out of the general area. Jack could only hope they didn't bring too much firepower to bear on their position or they wouldn't stand much chance of getting out in one piece.
Jack was following Ally across an exposed girder when a sudden jolt nearly caused him to lose his balance. Before he could right himself, though, the entire structure shook again, knocking his G22 out of his hands. Somehow, he managed to catch it by the sling, but this further upset his balance. He waved his free arm wildly as he tried to pull himself back up, but he overcorrected and started to tip back the other way. He certainly would've fell if something hadn't grabbed him by the pistol belt and held him fast.
Jack regained his equilibrium and straightened himself back up, breathed a sigh of relief and said, "That was a close one, shorty. I owe ya."
Ally let him go without a word and continued on. In all honesty, he didn't think Ally would do something like that when she was in game mode. Maybe more of her came through than he thought.
There was no time to wonder about that, though. He loped forward to where he could have more than twenty centimeters under his feet. Once the threat of a good fifty-meter drop had passed, he concluded that the Shellies sent a couple rockets their way. Even without a direct hit, they very nearly killed off one of the two nuisances they were after. Jack had to give himself a moment to breathe before following Ally on to their next sniper's nest.
By the time he got there, she was already taking her first shot. Jack held up his rifle, watching the feed from the scope stream into his visor as he swept across the Shelly formation. The main force had split in two in an apparent pincer maneuver, but there were a good half-dozen vehicles turned to the construction site, laying down a hail of particle fire around where their previous sniper's nest was. And then they started to sweep toward their current position.
Ally took out one Fireant's cannon and blasted off two legs from a Spider in rapid succession, causing it to topple over for a moment before picking itself back up. Then she took out a third leg on the same side, dropping it again. She then took a shot at the head of the Centipede leading the group. If there was an operator inside, the shot didn't stop it, though.
"Okay, that was five," Jack said. "We need ta get outta here. They're just gonna level the whole damn place."
Ally didn't move. She kept on shooting, trying to take down the Centipede.
"Ally, what're ya doin'? We gotta move!"
This never happened before. Even back in training, when she went into game mode, she followed procedure like a perfectly programmed machine. She never stuck around to risk giving away her position.
Taking hold of her, Jack shouted, "Ally, come on!"
As he was lifting her up bodily, his visor flashed red. The surviving vehicles sent after them were all fixed on their position.
"Oh shit..." Jack muttered.
He wished he had better last words than that, but this was it.
No, this wasn't going to be it, not if he could do anything about it.
He was going to take Ally and run, but in the split-second between the time his brain made the decision and his body started to execute, there was a deafening roar overhead and cluster of fireballs consumed the Shelly detachment.
The shockwave from the blast sent Jack and Ally flying back several meters. Jack looked up to see planes in the skies, friendlies for a change, and they were bringing close air support at long last. The Shelly ground vehicles didn't know what hit them.
Jack watched the devastation of the Shelly forces and exclaimed, "Hot damn! The Chair Force finally came through!" Giddily he turned to his partner and said, "Ally! D'ya see that!?"
Ally just stood there looking at him for a moment, her SG1 already concealed under her chameleon cloak. She then turned and left, apparently in search of a new location to continue the hunt. The machine didn't stop.
As Jack followed after her, he couldn't help but feel uneasy. That perfect programming was starting to glitch out. It nearly got them both killed. Would they get off so easily if it happened again?