Chapter 7
The Harrowing of Hell
ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Sat 06 Sep 122
Time: UST 0146

Major Knox shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He was thankful for being able to sit in on this command staff meeting, but the issue of greatest concern to him was not being addressed and he could not wait any longer.
"Sir," he spoke up, interrupting Commodore Liu to address Admiral Mfume directly, "every second we waste, the smaller our chances of bringing my Marines back alive."
Commodore Liu looked at him impassively, showing no particular sign of anger or annoyance at the interruption. Before Colonel Grozny could reprimand the Major for his breach of both military and common courtesy, Admiral Mfume raised his hand to stop him and personally respond to what Major Knox had said.
"And every second we rush, Major, the more men and women will die needlessly. We do not leave our people behind, but we do not sacrifice the lives of our own recklessly either."
"All I'm asking, sir, is that we move the timetable forward," Major Knox replied. "The Shellies already know we're here. We need to hit them hard and fast before they can organize their defenses."
"I believe I have a suggestion, sir," a voice said.
It was a Navy pilot, a commander. Major Knox recognized him as the Special the Seven Deadly Sins had held captive, Commander Joachim. When did he get in the room with them?
"Commander, I do not recall extending an invitation for you to sit in on this meeting," the Admiral said.
Without skipping a beat, Commander Joachim replied, "Sir, requesting permission to sit in on this meeting."
The Admiral sighed faintly and said, "Very well then, Commander. What is it you suggest?"
"What I suggest, sir, is that we give our new Tigerhawks a little field experience. Grant me permission to sortie and my squadron will clear the surface defenses and disable the external commo arrays before the Shellies even know what hit them. We will open the way for a full-scale assault. The facility could be secured within the next 24 hours and, living or dead, we can recover our missing Marines."
"Sir, it isn't a bad idea," Commodore Frazier, himself a former strike fighter pilot, said. "We didn't get those wonderbirds just to let them sit in the hangar."
To his credit, the Admiral did take a moment to seriously consider the proposal, but ultimately shook his head to reject the idea.
"We need more intel before we commit to a full-scale assault and I am not eager to risk tipping our hand with the Tigerhawks."
"Then we get that intel on the ground, sir," Major Knox said.
"The Shellies will never see us coming," Commander Joachim added.
Major Knox found an unexpected ally in Commodore Liu, who did not seem to hold a grudge against him for his earlier interruption.
"Perhaps we can strike a balance between speed and caution," she said. "Besides, there is little new intel we can gain from the outside."
The Admiral had apparently been considering the possibilities already, because he did not take long to respond.
"I want a phased attack plan. Commander Joachim, make a hole for Echo and Fox. Once they secure a beachhead, I will consider sending Golf and Hotel after them. From there, we will commit more troops as needed. Do not put the Tigerhawks at any undue risk, Commander. They are too valuable."
"Aye-aye, sir," Commander Joachim replied.
"Colonel Grozny, Colonel Vasquez, have your unit ready to deploy. General Villanueva, I want four battalions on standby to support or relieve the 41st and 78th as needed. General Pfeiffer, see that a Pelican is outfitted for quarantine the way it was done after the Hades incident."
Three of the four replied, "Aye-aye, sir," but Colonel Vasquez broke the harmony with the Army response of "Yes, sir."
"How soon can the operation commence?" the Admiral asked.
"My squadron can scramble in fifteen," Commander Joachim said.
"Give yourself twenty."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Admiral Mfume looked around the room and said, "Those of you who have work elsewhere, you are dismissed." To Commodore Frazier, he said, "Commodore, please return to the bridge." He then told everyone else, "The rest of you, remain here so we can continue to discuss our strategy."
As the most senior of the dismissed officers, Commodore Frazier said on behalf of the group, "By your leave, sir."
"I said, 'dismissed', Commodore."
With that, Commodore Frazier, General Pfeiffer, Colonels Grozny and Vasquez, Commander Joachim, and Major Knox all exited the conference room and dispersed to where they needed to be.
Walking alongside Colonel Grozny, Major Knox said, "Sir, I request permission to establish on-site C2 with the first wave."
"C2 can be handled from the Tico just fine, Major," the Colonel said.
"Sir, it's important that I do this."
Not wanting to debate the issue further, Colonel Grozny said, "Fine. Just don't take any stupid risks out there."
The Major could not quite suppress a grin. He was grateful to the Colonel for accepting his request. This really was something he had to do himself.
"Aye-aye, sir."

* * *

Location: 'Erebus', Outside Union Space
Date: Sat 06 Sep 122
Time: UST 0211

As Miranda came to her senses, the first thing she felt was pain washing over her. Slowly she was able to sort through that feeling of all-over pain to specific points of focus. Sharp pain, dull pain. It varied from point to point. By sorting through all the pain, she was able start taking in other sensations and figure out what exactly was her current situation.
It was cold, probably around ten degrees. Colder than the average warship, but not unbearable. Well, it would not be unbearable if she actually had her clothes.
She was stark naked, shaved bald, strung up spread-eagle and secured fast in some kind of full-body frame. It was not much of a surprise to be honest. She had heard the accounts from Marines in other units who rescued the captive crewmembers of the Ticonderoga during the encounter with the Hades last year. When she realized that she was still alive, she figured she had been taken captive. She never talked to any of the captive crewmembers, so she had no idea what sort of treatment she could expect, but surely it was not going to be anything good.
She forced her aching muscles to move and struggled against her restraints, but there was nothing she could do. She was locked in tight. If escape was not an option now, perhaps the opportunity would present itself. If they wanted her dead, they would have killed her already and where there is life, there is hope as her grandmother liked to say.
She continued to push aside her pain to take in as many details of her surroundings as she could. Though she could not move her head, she strained to scan the area as widely as her eyes could manage. There had to be something she could use.
The room she found herself in was dimly lit, dull emergency red lighting. Several rows of frames like the one she was in extended out in front of her and there were probably several rows behind her as well. There was no sign of anyone else. No Shellies milling about and no one else in the frames.
Her thoughts went to Hoek. If he was still alive, was he strung up like this too? His MediSuit should have protected him from any significant injury from that cave-in, but who knew what might have happened to him?
Miranda's first priority had to be her own escape. She had no idea how long she had been out, but at very least another reconnaissance mission should be coming up, if it was not already in action. If she could somehow signal for help, she could then worry about trying to find Hoek and get them both extracted.
Her thoughts of escape and signaling for help were tossed to the wayside when a tone sounded and the red gave way to a wash of green light. The room seemed to come alive with mechanical rumbling, clacking and whirring. The frame Miranda was in jolted and then it began.
Miranda's restraints were already too tight to permit anything but slightest wiggling, but they tightened further, clamping down so hard that a shock of fresh pain shot through her. She gritted her teeth, but then an electrode pressed against her jaw buzzed, forcing her mouth to open. A little crossbar lined itself up and pushed its way all the way back to her molars. Miranda knew something terrible was coming, but she could have never imagined how terrible it would be.
It all seemed to hit her at once. Drills bore into her bones with a high-pitched whine so sharp that it felt like an extra pair of drill bits were tearing through her eardrums right into her brain. The frame closed in on her even tighter as dozens of robotic hands tore up and restitched her skin and muscle. Her whole body convulsed violently, but the frame kept her firmly in place. Miranda's muffled screams were drowned out by the sounds of all the machines working to transform her.
Miranda was no stranger to pain, but this went beyond anything she had ever experienced before. The pain was so great that her brain could no longer process it. She did not black out. She was still conscious but somehow not there. Her mind was broken, shattered with all the violence of a hundred-story drop.
Perhaps her mind would have stayed broken and spared her from what followed, but as the frame reclined back onto a slat that could only generously be called a bed, a flicker of will gathered the shattered pieces of Miranda's mind. The pieces came together and coalesced, reforming Miranda's consciousness, and not a moment too soon.
New restraints secured Miranda to the bed and from the ceiling descended a new array of sinister-looking implements, a cluster of mechanical arms like a giant mutant Daddy-long-legs. Miranda did not know what they meant to do. She did not want to know. And she did not mean to find out.
That flash of will that gave her back her mind filled Miranda with newfound strength. Fighting against her restraints, her right arm broke free. She grabbed one of the mechanical arms and tore it loose with a sharp tug. She then freed her left arm to join in. Together, her arms contended with the mechanical arms, yanking the entire array back and forth until the whole thing broke off and was flung to the side. An alarm sounded and the green light went back to red, but that was not what Miranda was thinking about at the moment.
She took a moment to look at herself, at what they had done to her. An exoskeletal frame had been fused to her body. It was not unlike the basic frame used by convalescing patients, but somewhat cruder in design and she was not getting out of it anytime soon. Blood was oozing from wounds all over her body, but there was no significant bleeding. She would likely tear open those wounds if she moved too much, but she could not afford to sit still.
She looked around the room for anything she could use. That was when she saw someone on a bed in one of the rows behind her. Walking was a bit of a challenge, but she made her way over there. As she suspected, it was Hoek, but he was not such a familiar sight anymore.
Like her, he had an exoskeletal frame fused to his body, but the process was much more extensive with him. His entire lower half was fully mechanical and there was a large prosthetic covering most of the right side of his face, some sort of optical enhancement by the look of it. His exposed eye was open, but there was no life in it. His corpse-grey pallor did not bode well either. She tried checking the pulse in his neck, but there were alloy caps on her fingertips that made it impossible for her to tell. She noticed a little wisp of fog from his mouth. He was still breathing but shallowly. He was still alive, but was he still in there?
"Corporal," she whispered into his ear. "Corporal Hoek. Can you hear me?"
No response. She tried again.
"Corporal, if you can hear me, say something. We gotta get outta here."
Still nothing. There was no time to lose. Time for the big guns.
It hurt to shout that loud, but it had the desired effect.
Hoek broke down into a fight of coughing before he could finish, but he was back. He struggled to turn his head against his restraints.
"Gunny? Gunny, wha--"
Hoek trailed off and his eye widened a bit. Miranda was pointedly reminded of the fact that she was naked, but she was not so easily flustered.
"Eyes up, Corporal," she said harshly. "Can you move?"
"I think so, Gunny," Hoek replied. He rattled his wrist restraints a little and added, "If I could get out of this, I mean."
"Hold on, Corporal," Miranda said. "Maybe I can get you loose this time."
Miranda had broken free of the restraints herself, so she had little doubt she could get Hoek free. She started with the wrist restraint closest to her. A sharp jerk was all it took to pry the restrain open, but Miranda could feel some fresh blood dribble down her arm. She did not let it bother her, though. The docs could patch her up once she got back. If she got back.
She went around and opened up each of Hoek's restraints. Once he was free, Miranda helped him sit up. Hoek looked down mournfully at the lower half of his body.
"Kinda wish you got here sooner, Gunny," Hoek said. "Maybe you coulda saved my dick."
"Can it, Corporal," Miranda growled. "Can you walk?"
"I guess we'll find out, Gunny."
Miranda supported Hoek as he got on his feet. He was a little wobbly at first, but it did not take him long to find his balance. He made a couple tentative steps, but moving made keeping his balance a challenge all over again.
Miranda looked around the room, mumbling to herself, "I don't plan on runnin' 'round this Shelly hive bare-assed if I can help it."
She looked up at the ceiling and that was when she saw it.
"I think I've found something."
While the conversion process was automated, each station had a control panel. It had a simple, archaic LCD display that had only a faint backlight, making it nearly impossible to read in the red emergency lighting. It was all in Shelly, though, and Miranda could not make heads or tails of it.
Hoek stepped in and said, "You want Step 4, right, Gunny?"
"Step 4?"
"The polymer sheath."
"That's right, Corporal."
Hoek clacked away at a few keys and said, "Let me try it first, Gunny."
Normally Miranda would not let one of her subordinates go into any potentially risky situations first, but she was not going to argue the point this time.
"Alright, Corporal. Go ahead."
"Aye-aye, Gunny."
The bed Hoek was strapped to went upright and then retracted back into the floor. Hoek clumsily walked over to a one-meter circle marked on the floor just past the slot the bed went into. Clamps rose up from the floor to lock his feet in place as a meter-wide ring descended from the ceiling. Hoek lifted his head up to meet the mask at the center of the ring. The mask fixed itself to Hoek's face and a rubbery film molded to Hoek's body as the ring slowly continued its descent to the floor. A second ring descended to spray on some sort of finisher. The rings then rose back up to their original position. Hoek stood there motionlessly for a moment, but once the clamps released his feet, he flexed his fingers, lowered his head and removed the mask from his face.
"Looks like it worked, Gunny," he said. "You're up next."
Miranda was not quite sure why, but for some reason she watched Hoek punch in the key sequence before she took her place in the circle. The reason Miranda was able to make the guess about 'Step 4' was because the ring device resembled the predecessor to the StatSuit, before her time but still something she knew a little about. Besides being a step up from walking around naked, she expected the polymer sheath would help bind her wounds and limit any more bleeding until she could get proper medical attention.
Once the rings rose back up to the ceiling, Miranda removed her mask and took a look at herself. The final product was a little too curve-hugging for Miranda's tastes, but it was better than nothing. It was thicker than it looked, though, which meant it would offer some additional protection. It would do.
As soon as the clamps on her feet released, Miranda said, "Alright, Corporal, let's move. We've dawdled long enough."
"Aye-aye, Gunny."
Hoek was still a little wobbly on his feet and to be honest, Miranda was not all that steady herself, but they needed to move before the Shellies came. In fact, it was a wonder they were not already there.
The room only had one door. That precluded the Shellies surrounding them, but it limited their options as well. They were unarmed, they had no idea where they were and no idea where they should go. The partial plans of the facility Lee found were lost with their MediSuits.
"I'll take point," Miranda said. "We go for the maintenance tunnels. Maybe we can find a console, bring up the plans and get to a commo station to signal for help."
The floor shook and the lights flickered.
"What was that?" Hoek asked.
"Seems like they've already started the surface bombardment," Miranda replied. "We might get out of this yet, Hoek. Let's go."
There was another rumble and flickering of the lights.
"If we're lucky," Miranda said, "the Shellies'll be too busy to worry about us."
She tapped on the door panel, but the door would not open.
"Dammit. Locked..."
With surprising ease, Miranda pried the panel open. She was no electrician, but she knew enough that she figured she had a good chance of hot-wiring the door. While she was fiddling with the wires to the door, though, she felt a tingling at the base of her skull that was quickly becoming more intense.
"They're coming, Gunny," Hoek said.
Miranda looked over to Hoek, who was holding his head like he had a headache.
"Get on the other side of the door," she said. "Stay sharp. We're in no shape for a fight, but we're going to have to move quick if we want to get out of here alive. You trackin'?"
"Trackin', Gunny," Hoek replied weakly.
Their only hope was if they could get the drop on the Shellies. As Miranda filtered out the distraction of the tingling in her head, she prayed her body would cooperate and do what needed doing.
The door creaked open. The first Shelly came in, turning left to check his corners, right at Miranda. She reacted quicker than she was expecting, but it very well could have saved her life. She took hold of the Shelly's nail gun, turning it on him, forcing his finger to pull the trigger. Thok thok. Two rounds under the chin and the body dropped. Done deal.
There was a second Shelly and Hoek was not having as much luck. He and the Shelly were struggling over the nail gun, but Hoek was losing the fight. Using her foot for leverage, Miranda tore the nail gun out of the death grip of the Shelly she killed and gave the surviving Shelly a buttstroke to the back of the head. It did not do any damage, but the Shelly shook off Hoek and turned to face his attacker. Miranda was waiting for him. At point-blank range, there was no missing the shot. She fired a nail right into the eye slit of the Shelly's helmet. That dropped him. She fired a couple more rounds into his face for good measure.
The tingling sensation in her head seemed to subside. Was there some sort of connection? No time to worry about it now.
Crouching down by Hoek, Miranda extended her hand and asked, "You alright, Corporal?"
"No excuse, Gunny," Hoek replied, taking her hand.
Once he was on his feet, Miranda pointed to the second dead Shelly and said, "Take his weapon."
"Aye-aye, Gunny."
Hoek bent down to pick up the other nail gun, but he was looking unsteady.
"Talk to me, Corporal," Miranda said. "What's your status?"
"I'll be fine, Gunny," Hoek replied weakly. "Let's go."
Miranda did not press the issue. They needed to get moving before more Shellies arrived. She took point and went through the door, checking left and right. Nothing so far.
"Watch my six, Hoek," Miranda said as she turned right. "I'll look for a maintenance hatch."
"Roger that."
Keeping one eye straight ahead and her weapon trained ahead of her, Miranda went forward as quickly as she could without making too much noise, scanning the incline between the floor and the wall in search of a maintenance hatch. There should be one about every hundred meters or so.
Sure enough, one came up about eighty meters from the door they exited from, and not a moment too soon. That tingling sensation in her head was coming back and she was pretty sure it was a sign that Shellies were getting close. Checking up ahead once more to ensure the coast was clear, she crouched down by the hatch and set down her weapon.
"Cover me, Hoek," she said. "I'll get this open."
There were three locks on the hatch, each one a rather stubborn lever. She pulled the first. Then the second.
Miranda was hit by a sharp pain in her back and knocked to the deck. She scrambled for her weapon and swung around to help Hoek take out the incoming Shellies.
Only there were no incoming Shellies. It was just Hoek with his nail gun still trained on her.
"Corporal, what the hell?" Miranda grunted.
The nail gun shook in Hoek's unsteady hand.
"Gunny..." he moaned. "I can't stop it... The voices... They're makin' me..."
"Fight it, goddammit!" Miranda snapped. "I'm the only voice you should be listenin' to. Put the weapon on the deck."
"You can't hear the voices, can you, Gunny? That's why they're tellin' me to kill you. I don't wanna do it, but the voices... The voices..."
Tears were welling up in Hoek's eyes. The weapon continued to shake, but it never moved away from her.
"Lower the weapon," Miranda said forcefully. "Put it down on the deck. Right... now."
Hoek did not move.
Thok thok.

* * *

Date: Sat 06 Sep 122
Time: UST 0334

In two passes, the Triple-Nine's bombardment of the surface left a large enough hole in Erebus' defenses for Echo and Fox to safely land and establish a beachhead. From the sound of First Platoon's recon, six armor platoons would be more than enough to handle the site's defenders, but it would be nice to have the extra boots of Golf and Hotel and even some of the greenbacks of the 78th. First they would have to secure a little more real estate.
Now that the Shellies were alerted to their presence, they ramped up their ECM to disrupt commo and scans. The ECCM of the MediSuits was not enough to overcome it, so Major Knox's C2 team had to patch into the Combat Sparrow to compensate.
They were gathering as much intel as possible with their scans, but there was only one thing the Major wanted to hear.
"We got a tracker signal!" one of the operators shouted. "It's Gunnery Sergeant Grisson. Vitals are weak, but she's on the move."
Major Knox felt a brief wave of relief, but it was quickly overshadowed by concern. Those weak vitals were a problem and he had no guarantee Grisson was moving under her own power. They had to hurry.
Quickly remembering that Gunnery Sergeant Grisson was not the only MIA, he then asked, "What about Corporal Hoek?"
"Negative, sir," the operator replied. "I could just be the interference, though."
Perhaps so, but the Major was not going to wait. They would get a better idea once they were inside.
"We'll just have to find out," Major Knox said. "Captain Moombe, take over here. Echo First, with me. We're going to intercept."
"Aye-aye, sir," Captain Moombe and Lieutenant Dixon replied in unison.
Major Knox knew First Platoon would want to extract their own and because they had already been inside Erebus before, they were the best-equipped to act as the tip of the spear. The Major instinctively took point, but he soon felt Lieutenant Dixon's hand on his shoulder.
"Sir, let Echo One-Two-One and One-Two-Three take point."
Back when he was a platoon leader himself, Major Knox always led from the front regardless of protocol, but the Lieutenant was right. Sergeant Martinez and Private Taylor were better equipped than he was to make first contact with the enemy.
They did not meet any Shellies along the way and only had two or three turret points to slow them down. Gunnery Sergeant Grisson's tracker signal would go in and out due to the interference, but the closer they got, the stronger the signal became.
When they were practically right on top of her position, all they found was an empty corridor.
"She should be right here," the Major mumbled to himself. He then asked First Platoon, "Does anyone have any sign of Gunnery Sergeant Grisson?"
"I don't see her!" someone shouted back.
The tracker would not likely be transmitting if it had been removed and it certainly would not be reporting any vitals.
"The tunnels!" another Marine exclaimed. "Check the maintenance tunnels!"
"Look for a hatch!" Lieutenant Dixon ordered.
The Marines fanned out along both walls in search of an access hatch. It did not take long before someone shouted, "Found one!"
The Marines clustered around the hatch. It was an understandable response, but dangerous.
"Break it up, people!" Major Knox shouted. "Watch your intervals! Take position and keep an eye out front and back!"
"Aye-aye, sir!" the Marines responded.
As they were putting some distance between each other and taking up position, Lieutenant Dixon told one of his people, "Alright, open it!"
The Marine had to take some cutters to the bug-shell plating on the wall to give the hatch clearance to open. As soon as the hatch opened, another Marine on standby was about to jump right into the tunnel, but Major Knox rushed over and grabbed him before he could go in.
"Hold it!" he said. "Don't just jump in there!"
"What the hell, sir!?" the Marine sputtered.
"Button it up, Maliki!" Lieutenant Dixon snapped.
"We don't know what's down there, Marine," Major Knox explained. "We don't go in blind."
Switching over to the external speaker, the Major shouted into the hatch, "Gunny! You in there, Gunny? This is Major Knox! If you're in there, sound off!"
Inside the tunnel, a faint voice croaked, "Here... sir..."
It was her. She was in there, but she didn't sound too good.
"We're comin' in, Gunny!" the Major shouted. He looked to the Corpsman and said, "Doc, with me."
Major Knox went in first and the Corpsman was right behind him. He did not know what expect, but he never would have expected to see what he did.
"Dear God..." the Corpsman muttered under his breath.
A long blood trail led to two black-clad figures. One was gripping a Shelly nail gun in one hand and the arm of the second figure in the other. It was Gunnery Sergeant Grisson. Two spikes were sticking out of her chest and another out her back. The other figure had two spikes planted firmly in its forehead.
Letting go of the second figure, Gunnery Sergeant Grisson wiped away the blood trickling down to corner of her mouth with the back of her hand and managed a weak smile.
"Glad you... could make it... sir..."