Chapter 26
Mop-up
Location:
Barghav Residential District, Argyre Colony, Argyre Planitia, Mars, Martian Sphere
Date: Thu 20 Nov 122
Time: UST 0124

Omid wandered through the streets, looking for anything to scavenge. He lost track of how many days had passed since the bombs broke through the dome and took out about half the district. His entire family was killed when the roof of their apartment collapsed. Somehow he survived and was able to worm his way out, but everything he knew was gone in one horrible instant.
He might have been picked up by the rescue crews, but then the Shellies came. Everyone who could bug out did, leaving anyone left behind to the mercy of the Shellies. The Shellies would kill some of the ones they found and drag off others for God only knows what. Omid made a point to be somewhere else whenever he caught sight of them.
He was venturing a little farther out than he usually would. There was a convenience store near the rail station. He was hoping to stock up on food. He hadn't had a decent meal since the bombing.
It was a good hour's walk to get there. The building was half-caved in, but half-caved in was better than being all caved in. Some stuff should've survived.
The doors were warped shut, so there was no getting in that way, but one of the front windows had popped out, the plate of bent clearplaz still lying in the street. Omid peered inside warily before climbing in. The inside of the store was a wreck, but there was still plenty of stuff to be had. There was no point looking at the ready meals. They were bound to be spoiled by now. Being a kid, though, he first went to the candy aisle.
He picked out a ChocoNuss bar and stuffed the entire thing in his mouth. There was a certain pleasure to be had in taking whatever you wanted without any fear of getting into trouble. For a moment, at least, he could forget all his troubles and pig out to his heart's content.
He was opening up the wrapper of his third ChocoNuss when a gruff voice shouted, "Hands up!"
Omid dropped the candy bar and his hands shot up.
"Don't shoot!" he cried.
"Turn around!" the voice barked. "Slowly! Keep those hands up!"
Omid did so. The owner of the voice was standing behind the counter, a ragged looking man in dirty clothes with a few day's growth of stubble on his face. He was pointing a pistol at Omid. How did he get his hands on that?
"What the hell're you doin' here?" the man with the pistol demanded.
"I'm, I'm just lookin' for some food," Omid stammered.
The man spat on the floor, keeping the pistol fixed on Omid. For some reason, Omid glanced down to see the little red dot of the laser sight wiggling around on his chest.
"Yeah, right," the man grunted. "No damn way a kid's lasted this long. Goddamn Shelly spy."
"I'm not a Shelly, mister," Omid said. "I'm just tryin' to stay alive, same as you."
"Same as me, my ass. Shellies think they can trick me. I'm wise to their bullshit."
"Mister, I--"
"Shut up!" the man snapped. "Tell me where your buddies are and I'll finish you off quick."
"Mister, I'm tellin' you, I'm not a--"
"Shut the f--!"
The man's voice was cut off by a choked gurgling. He was holding his neck. Blood oozed between his fingers. He was still pointing his pistol at Omid and would've shot him if he didn't fall back first, firing a couple blasts at the ceiling as he toppled over.
Omid craned his head to the left and that was when he saw them. The Shellies.
He ran to the back of the store, but a collapsed support beam blocked off the door to the back. He remembered seeing another door behind the counter and scrambled back that way, slipping on some rubbish on the floor as he went.
As he clambered over the counter, he saw the man wasn't dead yet, all covered in his own blood. Using what little strength he had left, he pointed his pistol at Omid. Omid froze.
Thok thok thok.
Three spikes sank into the man's body, which jerked around with each hit. Omid wanted to scream, but his mouth just hung open silently.
A large hand grabbed him roughly by the back of his coat and picked him up off the counter. His legs dangled helplessly in the air. He was terrified before and now he was thrown into a blind panic.
"No! No!" Omid cried, squirming and kicking for all his worth, but he couldn't break free of the iron grip.
The Shelly that grabbed him carried Omid out through the window where two other Shellies were waiting. Omid continued to kick and scream, but with the dome breached like it was, the air was too thin for him to keep it up for long. His vision was getting blurry when he and the Shelly both were flung to the ground. He bounced once or twice and rolled around some. Maybe he heard some kind of zipping sound. Maybe he heard it again and the other two Shellies were dropped as well.
Though his heart was racing, Omid was just about passed out. He was about a half-step from completely crossing over when he felt himself being picked up again.
"Let's get clear 'fore these suckers pop," a man's muffled voice said.
Omid felt himself being jostled to the sound of boots clapping on the street. Then he felt the ground underneath him and something plastic pressed against his face. Pure oxygen flowed into his nostrils and hit him like a splash of cold water.
"Easy there, kid," the man's voice said. "Breathe into this. Slow-like, now. You don't wanna pass out."
At first, Omid greedily breathed in the oxygen, but then he started to feel light-headed and taking the man's advice, slowed down his breathing.
As he was coming back around, Omid saw the armored glove holding the oxygen mask to his face, but nothing else, just a slight bending of scenery around a vaguely humanoid shape.
"Oh, right," the man's voice said. "You must think you're lookin' at a ghost. I reckon the coast is clear."
The scenery warped and shifted into a formless grey cloak. Another gloved hand pulled back the hood to reveal a soldier. Honestly, with his helmet and full face mask, he wasn't much more comforting a sight than the Shellies.
The soldier looked over to his side, where Omid saw another ghost-shape, and said, "Shorty, turn off your cloak. You're makin' the kid nervous."
The ghost shape phased in to reveal a soldier no bigger than Omid. The rifle the soldier was carrying was nearly as long as he was tall. Speaking of tall, the soldier who gave him the oxygen was a giant, well over two meters when he stood up straight. Omid must have hit his head and was seeing things because such a mismatched pair didn't seem likely at all.
The smaller soldier pointed his rifle over at the Shellies and held it there for a moment. Then his head twitched unnaturally and he slowly swept the rifle around to point it at Omid.
Omid's eye's widened and his breathing quickened. Why was this happening to him?
"Ally, what're ya doin'?" the bigger soldier asked. When the smaller soldier didn't move, he shouted, "Ally, stop! He's just a kid!"
Still the smaller soldier didn't move. Omid had already faced death twice today and it looked like this time it was finally going to take him. He wanted to run, but he couldn't move.
The big soldier tackled the smaller one, knocking the rifle out of his hands. The small soldier was only stunned for a moment and then grabbed the big one's helmet, taking it right off. He then tried to pummel the big one with his own helmet, but the big one blocked the small one's swing.
"Ow! Dammit! Knock it off!"
This didn't stop the small soldier, though. He drew a knife and lunged at the big one. The big soldier took hold of the small soldier's arm to stop him from attacking. How could someone so big struggle so much against someone so little?
Just barely holding back the knife with one hand, the big soldier pulled off his mask with the other, exposing his face.
"Ally!" he shouted to the small soldier. "Snap out of it! It's me!"
The small soldier stopped trying to drive the knife in. His hands shook a little and the knife fell out of his hands, clattering on the ground. He started making this low moan, then jerked away screaming from the big soldier. Only it was a woman's scream. The small soldier was a woman?
She kept on screaming, all the while clutching the sides of her head and thrashing about violently. She found her way to a nearby wall and started bashing her head against it. She probably would've smashed her skull in were it not for her helmet. The repeated blows shattered the visor but that didn't slow her down in the slightest.
The big soldier got up and grappled with her, pulling her away from the wall. She continued to kick, thrash and scream. The big soldier pulled off her mask and the small one's screams got even louder without the mask to muffle them. However, all that screaming couldn't last long in the thin Martian air. The screams died down and the thrashing stopped.
Cradling the small soldier in his arms, the big one held her mask over her face and said in a low voice, "C'mon back, shorty. Breathe."
It took a moment, but the small soldier twitched. Weakly, she said, "Jack... What...? What was I...?"
"Don't worry about it, kiddo," the big soldier--'Jack'--said. "It's alright now."
"What happened?" the small soldier --'Ally'--asked, sounding bewildered. Did she not know what she was doing?
Jack tried to reassure her.
"It's fine. We're all fine here."
Her voice cracking, Ally said, "Jack, I... I can't do this anymore... The Shellies... They're us... They didn't ask to be Shellies... They can't help it... And we're killing them... I'm killing them... I didn't want to... They made me... I couldn't stop myself... It's no different than what the Shellies do... We're no different... We're no different..."
Ally broke down sobbing. Jack held her tighter and started rocking her back and forth.
"It's alright. We're done here. It's all over now."
Omid didn't understand what was going on. What did she mean the Shellies were the same as us? He looked over to the dead Shellies in their weird bug shell armor. Those were supposed to be human? No way. It wasn't possible.
And what exactly was she supposed to be? Did all soldiers go crazy like that? None of it made any sense, but Omid didn't know which side scared him more.