Disclaimer: The characters and situations of Space:Above and Beyond depicted in this story are the legal property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Hard Eight Productions, and 20th Century Fox Television and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.

Comments are welcome at M. Wheels


M. Wheels

I - Thuban
December 28, 2064,
Ridge Farm, South Barre, Mass., USA

Emrys burst into the kitchen, stamping his feet and shaking the snow off of his hat.

"They're up there again, Kylen. Only this time it’s a different kind."

"Cool," Allston cried and made for the door. "Dad says that they going to Fort Devons. They are building it up." He grabbed the binoculars and a coat and ran outside to look into the sky. He kicked up puffs of snow as he blasted across the yard toward the open space in front of the barn.

Yesterday the Celina family had seen an ISSCV fly over the farm - once in the morning at high altitude and once in the evening, much lower, but not so low as to scare the livestock. The cattle weren't out in the pastures at this time of year anyway, but kept in barns and paddocks. The craft had circled the farm on both occasions. Bridee and Allston had been excited by the development; Emrys was pensive, Ewan and Frank thought it had something to do with Fort Devons and mapping more approach routes. Kylen had less than a month before she had to report to D.C. to begin her training. The appearance of the aircraft filled her with conflicting fears and emotions. Just who is surveilling my family’s home and why? Is it the Corps checking me out? Is it the Spooks? Is Aerotech involved?

"Go look. Quick. Go," Emrys ordered as he pushed Kylen toward the door. "I'll stay here and listen for the phone."

Kylen grabbed a coat and followed her younger brother out into the yard. Out to the west she could see the aircraft. She had seen planes like it before, on the ground at Scobee during her training, but she had never bothered to learn its name. Such things hadn't interested her at the time. The craft had no engines at the rear, but there were jets and thrusters on the body of the craft, which looked to Kylen, like a chubby dolphin - short nosed. It was larger than a Hammerhead ­ large enough for a three-man crew - and it certainly was not as graceful or sleek as the SA-43 ­ nowhere near as sexy and undoubtedly slower.

The aircraft was circling the area - each pass coming a bit lower.

"U-S-M-C," Allston spelled out as he handed the binocs over to his sister. "They better not come any lower. They better stay away from the paddock. If they scare the cows Dad and Ewan will go crazy."

Kylen ran over to the bell, untied the cord and began pulling with all her strength. It was an old school bell up on a corner of the house. It had called the Celina family in from the fields for generations. She began jumping up and down, waving her hands over her head, laughing and screaming 'HOO-RAH.'

Allston thought she was nuts. "They can't hear the bell, Kylen," he said with the mild disgust common to seventeen-year-olds.

"But I can," she said, waving all the harder.

Ewan came running out from the calf barn. Frank and Bridee emerged from the house without coats. The plane came to a standstill in midair - downwind of the paddock. The sound of the engines was muffled and seemed distant. Kylen could only imagine what it must sound like close up - or if the wind was different. It slowly began to descend - straight down. It was spectacular - a private air show. The aircraft stopped about 50 feet above the crest of the hill. It slowly rotated 360 degrees as if turning on the head of a pin. When it faced forward again it slowly "wiggled" its wings and began to slowly ascend, moving backwards at the same time. Allston waved his hat back and forth yelling his appreciation, Frank and Ewan waved and applauded. Kylen pumped her fist into the air. Bridee blew kisses.

Suddenly the craft seemed to stand on its tail and it took off. Spiraling as it climbed, it then headed to the west. Less than thirty seconds later it was again overhead executing an exact four-point roll as it flew over the farm.

"Well, I think that it is safe to say that the Colonel is back from Alabama," Frank joked.

"I thought he was grounded," Allston said.

"From Hammerheads ... attack jets," Kylen explained. "It's a matter of total 'G' forces. If he was totally grounded he couldn't have gotten onto the Saratoga to begin with. "

"I don't hear anything unusual, but humor me. Boys - check the stock," Frank said. He turned and guided Kylen back into the house.

"We'll put him up in Aislen's room I think," Bridee said still looking up into the now empty sky.

December, 30, 2064

The house at Ridge Farm was unusually quiet. Half of the gang was away in Boston. It was the closing night of the Nutcracker. Kylen's younger sister, Eithne, had received wonderful reviews and family who had missed the opening were to be there for closing night. Dad, Emrys and Bridee were going to stay over at Christian's. She would have to help Ewan and Allston with the morning milking. Tomorrow half of the family would be back for New Year's Eve.

Kylen was uncharacteristically rushing through her shower. She had, since her rescue, taken her time, savoring each possible moment in the warmth and humidity. Each step of the procedure was slow and deliberate - the choices of the towel and the music - the selection of the scent were major concerns. Everything was evenly paced and measured. It had become a pleasure, a performance piece and a ritual. It was her own time. Alone. Singular. It meant so much more than personal grooming - more than a private pleasure - more than her hobby: It was her vocation.

But in the last few days Kylen had changed the entire way she bathed and showered. She had received an official looking e-mail from The Fleet. Barring the unforeseen - she would receive a transmission from the Saratoga by vid/phone sometime between December 24th and January 2nd. It was a Christmas present for the troops and their families. Consequently, for the last few days, Kylen had lived tethered psychologically and physically to an area no more that one hundred feet from the phone. It was beginning to make her crazy. The family was getting tired of staying off of the phone. Kylen was getting tired of jumping up each time the damn thing rang. She was getting tired of being disappointed. And she was sick and tired of the rather smug tone of voice that Nathan's mother used when she called every day to check in to see if the call had come. Nathan had spoken with his parents on December 26th.

Kylen had no idea how Nathan could have wrangled two of the coveted time slots, but she had accepted the communiqué at face value - in faith. Then the days had gone by with no communication. With every day of silence her anxiety level rose. Kylen was aware that she was becoming very poor company - snapping and short tempered. Often she wished that she was already working for Intelligence, that way she would know or, at least, could perhaps know if the delay was due to action - Nathan being in danger. But then again it was equally possible that it was just the delay to be expected when five thousand people are waiting to use the phones. After her liberation, on board The Nightingale, she had stood impatiently in those lines waiting for her turn. It had been incredibly frustrating and there had only been forty survivors jockeying for position. Kylen had a sudden hought: This has got to be a real mess for Saratoga's Intelligence officers to deal with. How many calls did each person have to monitor? What were the buzzwords they are looking for? How long do they have to stay on duty before rotated for a rest? What a boring and uncomfortable assignment. What a headache. What a nightmare. Kylen was beginning to unconsciously take on the thought process of her new job.

The whole ordeal of waiting was made Kylen fidgety and nervous. She tried to emulate her mother. Always seemingly calm and in control - never a psychological feather out of place. Or so it had seemed to her children. What Kylen found interesting was the fact that of all the sisters, Bridee, who had been only three when their mother had died, appeared to have inherited this unflappable demeanor. I wonder if Mom used to cry in the shower? I wonder what she said to Dad in the dark? Kylen vowed to spend more time with Bridee - to see how and what she thought.

Kylen realized that she was thinking of other things to avoid thinking about speaking with Nathan. Three times already she had made out lists of things to say and had torn them up in frustration and disgust. On one hand there was just too much to say to fit into five minutes - even if I talk non-stop - only pausing to take in a breath. Then again the most important things - the things I've wanted to say could be said in one or maybe two sentences. Then what? Well, then, Idiot, you have to tell him about your new job. Or not tell him directly about your new job. But tell him so he will understand about your new job. McQueen would be arriving tomorrow. He had agreed to spend New Year's Eve at the farm. Kylen did not want to appear naive or childish - not able to handle the situation, but she had decided that if Nathan didn't call before McQueen arrived then she would try to get some guidance from the Colonel. Kylen, he is just going to tell you: 'you're on your own there, Kid.' But I can at least try. Maybe he'll take pity on me. she thought. Kylen put on her Greenbrier sweatsuit and went downstairs.

"The Mouse is in the house. We are free from phone duty." Allston said to their older brother Ewan with obvious relief and long suffering.

"Can it," Kylen snapped, shocking both her brothers. She was losing her sense of humor - something that they weren't used to. Something they had rarely seen in her character before. She poured herself an ample drink. Scotch. This was new too. Ewan gave the glass and his sister an appraising look.

"What?" she snapped again. "I'm over twenty-one."

"So the rumors would have us believe," Ewan teased. He wasn't about to be bullied by his little sister's mood, but neither was he willing to confront her.

Kylen took her scotch and retreated into her father's study. She had taken to sleeping in the room to be closer to the phone. Unable to read - her concentration wasn't up to it - she took out some knitting, which she hated but found somehow relaxing.

Her mother had insisted that all of the children learn some sort of 'hand work' - even the boys. It had something to do with setting down learning pathways in the brain so all the children had been taught. Kylen had, even as a child, resented the distinctly 'domestic' implications of the craft, but now found it strangely calming.

Kylen muttered to herself: "Well, Penelope, it ain't weaving and I'll be damned if I ever take this apart, but I bet you didn't think that five thousand years after your death women would still be sitting around doing this to distract themselves while the men were away at war." Kylen started another row. Nothing fancy - straight old knit one, purl two - her concentration wasn't up to anything more demanding. As she eased into the rhythm Kylen did feel strangely connected to the women of the past. As if the yarn was somehow unbroken down through the ages - as if her spirit was now strung onto this thread along with the spirits belonging to generations of women before - as if she looked quickly over her shoulder she would see them all stretched out in a line behind her - a line reaching back seemingly forever. It was an oddly comforting image.

Saratoga, Proseus System, December 30, 2064 (corrected Earthdate)

Nathan emerged from his shower definitely a man on a mission. He called impatiently to Cooper Hawkes, who was ready, waiting, and looking surprisingly pleased with himself. The squadron had only recently returned from perimeter duty and they only had a few minutes to make it to the rec. room before the scheduled phone allotment. Coop's scheduled allotment. Cooper had given Nathan the phone time. If they missed the slot their request would be moved back - again. Cooper didn't think he could stand it - let alone how Nathan felt. They left the quarters moving at double time. Captain Shane Vansen and Lt. Vanessa Damphousse, only recently out of sickbay, followed along behind. They didn't want to miss this either.

Twice a year the crew of the Saratoga was issued these special communication times and until this occasion Cooper had always sold or traded his slots away. Five minutes of phone time with your family was worth quite a bit of c ash to a lot of people. Cooper made hay whenever the sun was shining, and he now had a credit balance larger than he had ever anticipated having in his entire life. The only draw back with his business arrangement was that Cooper had to be there to sign on for whomever had paid for his vid/phone time. Cooper wasn't really quite sure why, but he had given this time slot to Nate. The words had come out of his mouth before he could stop them, but it made him feel kind of good. Real good. Nate had jumped all over the offer and Shane and Vanessa had petted and cooed over Cooper like he was a rock-star or genius or something. That had felt really good too. Consequently, Lt. Cooper Hawkes, Kylen's Avenging Angel, was striding through the passageways of the Saratoga in front of Nathan. The look on the face of the young InVitro was one of determination. Certainly not a man to be trifled with - he was a man about to do something incredibly important. People stepped out of his way. Vanessa Damphousse was reminded of Colonel McQueen. Cooper had learned more from their C.O. than he knew or was willing to admit.

Cooper arrived at his assigned console two minutes before the appointed time, seriously bumming out the navy lieutenant who was hoping to jump the line. Ranks below Colonel/Lt. Commander were all equal when it came to holiday communication privileges. Cooper sat and rather imperiously held out his hand to Nathan for Kylen's number. He first typed in his own code, received permission to continue, and then with marked precision he typed in Kylen's code.

The screen flashed blue indicating that the connection had been made. A digital clock appeared in the upper right corner of the monitor. '5:00' It would start to count down as soon as the receiving party clicked in. The Wildcards were all frozen in place, Cooper still seated in front of the monitor, the others fanned around his back leaning in toward the console. The screen flashed into life and the clock started.

"Cooper? Cooper Hawkes?" Kylen's face changed instantaneously from a smile to an expression of anxiousness.

"She knows who I am," Cooper said proudly to the rest of the crew.

"Get out of the chair Hawkes. You're scaring her," Nathan pushed his buddy out of the chair and sat. "Hello, Kylen, Cooper gave me his time. He had to sign on."

"Oh, Nathan, I love you," Kylen breathed softly. She reached out and touched the screen with her fingertips. She knew it was a cliche, but was unable to stop herself.

"Hi Kylen," Cooper called leaning in over Nathan's shoulder.

"Hi Cooper. Thank you," Kylen whispered distractedly. She then seemed to come to. "Wait. Don't go yet. Are all you guys there? You all look so good. Thank you. Thank you so much. I don't know what to say. Captain Vansen? Shane? Vanessa? Look, I'm recording this. Quick, say Hi to the Co.... The Big Guy. I'll see him tomorrow."

Nathan hadn't taken his eyes off of her face - reading her and judging her condition for himself. She looked good. He now glanced up at the clock. "4:40."

"OK, make it quick," he said. Nathan was torn - jealous of the time he had with Kylen and proud of her that she would consider his friends. He knew, of course, that Kylen had been visiting McQueen regularly. It dawned on Nathan as it had on Shane that Kylen had had the presence of mind not to mention Colonel McQueen by name and rank.

Shane and Vanessa leaned in over Nathan's shoulder. They both greeted Kylen then individually said something for Colonel McQueen. Both of them kept one eye on the clock, taking only about 10 seconds each. Nathan then said a quick Hello and thanked the Colonel for looking after Kylen. Cooper leaned in. The bravado - the man in charge demeanor - was gone. Cooper looked very much like what, in a sense, he was - only a boy.

Kylen was astounded by the change. "It's OK, Coop," she gently encouraged.

Cooper looked into the monitor, obviously nervous and very shy. "Hi, Sir. We look out for each other. I try to do like you told me. ....."

"Come on, Coop," Vanessa gently urged.

Cooper looked down. The huge, strong, tough Marine was close to tears. He whispered. "I miss you. I try to make you proud."

"I know that he is very proud of you Cooper," Kylen whispered, comforting him. "Proud of all of you," she added with strength. "I'm proud of you all too."

Shane looked at the clock. '3:30' "CLEAR OUT," she ordered. "Good to see you, Kylen. Bye." The rest of the Cards then instantly disappeared.

Kylen spoke: "Wait, let me change the disk." Nathan could see her fumbling for a couple seconds. "There," she said. "This disk is just for me." Kylen's face beamed at Nathan from light years away. They were once more looking at one another alone. The awkwardness they had experienced at the time of their last good-bye began to resurface. What does one possibly say at moments like this? Other than repeatedly saying 'I love you'? For several seconds it was enough just to look at one another. It was enough to know that at this moment they were both alive and well.

"That was a nice thing to do, Kylen," he said.

"Did you get my package? she asked. "My e-mails and letters?"

"Not yet. Some letters. E-mails are the fastest, but they still take some time." Nathan knew that if he told her the actual time delay that the information would be censored, and in fact, the delays varied in any case.

"Well, expect a package. I didn't know quite what to send. The next one will be better, I promise. The Big Guy gave me some tips. We are all doing well. I've had a couple rough patches, but everything is under control. Honestly - don't worry. I'm finding my way. Eithne is dancing The Nutcracker in Boston. Dad only has one winter grain project cooking at the farm. I talk to your folks a couple times a week. Push may do a clerkship up at Steinbeck's Clinic this summer. Aislen's baby is due on the twenty-first. And I have a new job." There. Finally she had gotten it out.

"A new job?"

Now came the tricky part. She hadn't received any real guidance on this. The fact that Kylen would be in the employ of the United States Marine Corps was not classified. She had told Major Howard she would tell her father that she would be working with Howard, for General Radford. The Major had raised no objections. But Kylen remembered McQueen telling her that the censors kept lists. Lists of 'hot' names and places. Kylen couldn't just blurt out the truth. She didn't want a red flag going up by her own name - or Nathan's name.

"I'm going to work for the Corps - as a civilian employee. I'll be down in D.C." Kylen could tell her news had fallen flat - that Nathan wasn't overly enthusiastic. She attempted to gloss it over. "They should send you home for recruiting, Nathan. You are very persuasive."

Nathan had felt a flash of jealousy. Jealousy and anger. McQueen had spent time with Kylen - had probably been instrumental in her recovery. He had no way of knowing that this was the very same reaction that Kylen had on her first encounter with the Colonel. She had been jealous and momentarily angry that McQueen had obviously been a major influence in Nathan's life. That McQueen had seen Nathan almost daily - that they had talked - that they even knew each other.

"I thought you'd stay at home - in New England.... somewhere. Did 'He' say something to you to get you to do this?"

The "he" in the sentence obviously meant Colonel McQueen and it irked Kylen. As if she couldn't make up her own mind - as if Six would try to push her into anything. But now was not the time.

"Relax, Sweetheart. The forever-to-remain-anonymous 'He' tried to persuade me against it."

Nathan visibly relaxed. "Are you sure about this, honey? Are you sure?"

"Nathan, I am absolutely sure. I need to.... to do ...."

It was obvious to Nathan that she was trying to choose her words carefully. He concentrated fully on what she would say next. He was filled with unexpected apprehension. "Go on." He spoke softly. "I'm right here, Kylen. I'm listening." It was not a challenge or a taunt. Nathan was listening with every fiber of his being.

Kylen could see that he understood that she had to speak indirectly. "I've missed you so much, Nathan," she smiled and relaxed a bit herself.

Once again Nathan felt loved and in control. "Go on," he repeated.

Kylen knew she had to hurry. "You know, Nathan, how every now and then the pieces all fall into to place and you discover something? Something about yourself or something about other people?"

Nathan nodded his total understanding.

"Well, my new job isn't just to help protect the planet and our country. I want to do this to protect my family - to protect you and to protect myself."

Nathan knew exactly what she meant and it hit him like a physical blow. Kylen somehow knew the truth behind the start of the War. Aerotech's duplicity. If Kylen worked for the military the same strictures and laws would bind her. She would have to remain silent and her silence would guarantee the safety of her family.

She saw the change in him and rushed to comfort him. "I'm OK Nathan. We are all OK. I just intend to see that it stays that way. Nathan, I love you. Don't be angry."

"I get it. No, I'm not angry, Kylen." The clock read '0:20.' "I love you, Kylen. Did you ever read my note? The one from Tellus?"

Kylen smiled. "If that's what it takes?" she asked, remembering his beautiful note. Kylen had read it right before the attack. She had managed to escape the wreckage with a scrap of the note in her hand. She had managed to save that tiny scrap for almost six months before the AIs had found it.

"I'll see you on the top of the world, Kylen," Nathan whispered.

"I'll keep the ice warm for you, Nathan."

They spoke together: "I love yo........." The clock read 0:00 and the transmission was cut.

Kylen placed a label on the disk for McQueen. She watched the disk of her conversation with Nathan three more times before finally labeling it as well. She then turned on some music - she wanted something life affirming. Kylen chose Vivaldi and returned to her scotch and her knitting. Maybe I will try a cable stitch. I bet Mom's books are somewhere in the attic, she thought. When the suite and the scotch were finished she moved into the living room and placed McQueen's disk in the branches of the Christmas Tree. "I hope it doesn't take him forever to find it," she said to herself. She grabbed her coat, boots and hat and went for a walk in the snow to gaze at the stars - untethered.

December 31, 2064

At precisely 1400 McQueen pulled his rental car into Ridge Farm. He had made exceptionally good time on the way down from Deer Isle and had enjoyed the drive. He opened the trunk of the car and began to unload his gear. Kylen's father, Frank, called from the kitchen door.

"Colonel, Kylen is over at the Wests', she'll be back momentarily. They always try to keep her. Leave the bags and come in out of the cold. One of the boys will get those for you. That's why we have so many children in this house. "

McQueen stopped what he was doing. I guess that rank does have its privileges even here, he thought. He pulled a long cylinder out of the trunk. As he made his way to the door, Emrys and Allston passed him. McQueen searched his memory for their respective callsigns - nicknames. They were Push and Skye, which Kylen had told him offhandedly, was short for Sky King, as if that had been enough of an explanation. It hadn't been. McQueen still didn't get the reference.

"What do you what us to bring in?" one of the boys asked on the way past.

"Both bags. Be careful with the big one."

Frank held the door open and gave McQueen a hearty clap on the back as the man entered the warmth of the Celina kitchen. Eithne gave him a weak smile and waved from her spot at the table. Bridee trotted in from the keeping room and gave him a quick little hug for which he was unprepared and with which he fumbled a bit, but she smiled warmly up into his face nonetheless. "I'll take your coat," she said.

"Where do we put this stuff?" Emrys asked, entering the room with a barracks bag. Allston followed with a beatup old seabag, which was half filled.

"Aislen's room," Bridee piped up. The boys looked to their father, who nodded the affirmative. Bridee was obviously irritated that they hadn't believed her straight off, and flounced back into the keeping room.

"Leave the seabag," McQueen almost ordered, but tempered his tone just in time. "It's the big one," he added. These kids wouldn't know what a seabag was if it hit them over the head.

"It's been you doing the fly-bys. It's been you, hasn't it?" Allston asked. "Kylen told us you were good, but the cows didn't even blink an eye. How did you manage to do that? To keep the sound so quiet?"

"That's my job," McQueen said reasonably. "Infiltration - that's the point. We try to be a quiet as we can." McQueen was relieved and satisfied. He hadn't wanted to spook the livestock and had been a bit worried.

McQueen had been busy the last three weeks. He had flown down to Loxley, visited with Glen’s kids, seen the shrink and turned in his final fitness report. He had gotten his driver's license updated, had been requalified to fly the ISSCV, ISSAPC and the VS-53 Tarpon VTOL in simulators, and had managed to log in a few hours of flight time. Getting into a Hammerhead was out of the question - at least on Earth - so he didn't even try to talk anyone into that. When he had returned to Maine on the day after Christmas the first thing he had done was to hump on up to Brunswick Naval Air Station and put in for flight time.

The young flight instructor who had gone up with McQueen for his flights had been more than worried about buzzing the farm and hadn't known quite how to temper McQueen's actions. First of all the Commander had given this Colonel the freedom of the base and had asked that he be given every assistance. Then one had to consider the fact that the guy was not a naval officer but a Marine - and everyone knew how they could be. And this Full Bird wore a black flightsuit with patches from both the 58th and the 127th squadrons. The Colonel vastly outranked the flight instructor and within five minutes it was obvious that he was the better pilot. When McQueen had checked in with the tower using the callsign "Queen Six’ the instructor had decided that it would be in his own best interest to keep his mouth shut and go along for the ride. McQueen had blown the guy's socks off.

"I 'borrowed' the flight instructor out of Brunswick, Maine. Had to requalify. Gotta get my time in. I don’t want to lose the flight pay," McQueen told the Celina tribe.

"I wondered where the planes had come from," Frank remarked. The flight pay is the least of this man's concerns. He just wants to be up in the sky, Frank thought, and it made him smile. He admired a man with dedication.

"I have something for you," said McQueen, gesturing with the cylinder he still held in his hand. "Is there someplace we can spread these out?"

Frank led the way to the dining room table, and in moments the Colonel had unrolled a series of maps. McQueen had printed out all the reconnaissance scans he had shot during his flights over the farm - topographical, heat signatures, structures, and general subsurface to the depth of two meters.

"I could have gotten deeper scans ... water, metallurgy, composition of the bedrock ... but the only way to look deeper with the equipment available here is to set off subsonic or sonic charges. I can get it done. Could do it myself. Requalification can cover a variety of activities, as I've discovered." He gave his almost smile, and Frank was left to wonder what T.C. McQueen had been up to. "But I wanted to check with you first. I knew I could do this much without spooking the cattle. The other scans? Well, they should be ok, but I wanted to get your permission. Here are the specs." McQueen handed the older man a small folder.

Frank was astonished. McQueen had just laid out on the dining room table maps and scans that would be outrageously expensive. The technology wasn't classified, but it was markedly restricted. He wondered momentarily why the Marine had done it - risked it.

The Celina family had worked on the periphery of the InVitro Rights movement since the thirties: Never on the front lines, but never at the rear. In the early years Frank had hired a series of InVitros to help at the farm. The first one had been a bit of a disappointment and had left with almost no warning. The second and third had worked out extremely well, staying for years before moving on. Both had gone to work at one of the big corporate farms for better pay and benefits. One had even become a foreman: There had been Christmas cards from him for several years. Kylen only had the dimmest memories of those days. Frank was hit with a very clear memory of an InVitro Rights rally on the university campus years ago. A memory of Kylen in her stroller clapping her hands while the speeches went on. Karin had been pregnant with Emrys. The older children must have been in the daycare center. It had been late spring. There had been sunshine and flowers. Frank wondered if McQueen was already working in the mines at that time - or if he had even been born then - while Frank and Karin's daughter had held lilac sprigs in her chubby little hands and had played in the sunshine.

Frank then realized that T.C. McQueen, the InVitro, probably hadn't known what else to give him - to give the family. The gift was something that McQueen could do and do well. Something that would be useful and hopefully appreciated. McQueen's presentation of the maps had been very professional - all business. But Frank now felt that there was perhaps the tiniest undercurrent of eagerness - almost a desire to please on a personal level. Maybe. Perhaps. He understood that this was one of the few times that McQueen had made this sort of gesture and it was as if, underneath it all, McQueen wanted Kylen's father to be proud of him. Frank was proud of him - and for him. McQueen had given him a gift that was far more valuable than just the maps.

"Thank you, son," Frank spoke softly as he shook McQueen's hand. The use of the term had unknowingly reinforced his position in T.C. McQueen's unconscious. Officers in the Marine Corps frequently used the term 'son' when addressing subordinates - no matter what their age. It was another custom of the Corps: It was part of the rhythm of McQueen's life.

"You're welcome, Sir," McQueen responded. "It really was my pleasure." He gave Frank a small smile. McQueen had indeed enjoyed the exercise, and Frank seemed to honestly appreciate it.

Frank wanted to clear the air between McQueen and himself. There was an unspoken tender subject between the two that he felt should be addressed and the sooner the better.

"I have to tell you that I attempted to talk Kylen out of this Marine Corps job," Frank admitted.

McQueen looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I did too, you know. At first I tried to persuade her against it, " he said. In truth, he had half expected to be met at the door of the farm by Frank with a shotgun in hand.

Frank nodded and spoke. "She told me. She also said to trust her. That she had good reasons."

"She does. I'm still not thrilled with it, Sir, but she does have her reasons. Good reasons," McQueen could at least give Frank that much.

Frank felt better now that the subject had been broached and disposed of.

"Loved the air show." Frank admitted honestly and smiled openly.

"The VS-53 VTOL? The Tarpon. It's a good aircraft," McQueen responded. Typically, he thought of the capabilities of the plane and not of his own skills as a pilot. McQueen turned back to the maps. "There are some things here that I'd like to show you."

As the two men began to look over the maps Kylen's brothers and sisters drifted into the room one by one. Curiosity over the Colonel's gift to their father and fear of being left out of the loop had gotten the better of even Eithne. She had been known to break into Scarlet O'Hara whenever the War was brought up. "War, war, war. All this talk of war is spoiling all the barbecues." Several good-natured bets had been placed as to if she had the nerve to say such a thing in front of 'the Rookie', which, after Thanksgiving, was what most members of the family called McQueen behind his back. Like her sister, Eithne's head did not screw on and off. As much as she had a personal antipathy for anything military - after all, the ballet was closing to support the war effort: The Cause' - as she now called it. Eithne was not about to poke a stick at the tiger.

When Kylen returned from luncheon with Nathan's parents she heard voices coming from the dining room. One of them was McQueen's. Without removing her coat she moved toward the room. Standing in the doorway, she saw the resident family members all grouped around the table. Kylen counted heads. McQueen and her father were reviewing maps. Her brothers and sisters were concentrating, studying the work, and listening to the two men, leaning in and occasionally making comments. Colonel McQueen did not look precisely like one of the group, standing a little apart, everyone respecting his personal space, but it seemed natural and somehow right that he should be there. It was, Kylen supposed, part of Door Number Two - the Commander. McQueen was secure and comfortable in the leadership role. He wore the mantle effortlessly. God doesn't give us the gift of leadership for ourselves. It is a gift he gives us for others, she thought. From her spot leaning on the doorframe between the kitchen and the dining room she watched her family and McQueen deal with one another. It was an interesting tableau.

"Home is the sailor. Home from the sea," McQueen said softly without looking up. He somehow knew that she had come home - had entered the area.

"The Hunter is home from the hill," she responded. Her family looked up and made their hellos. Now dividing into smaller groups, each with its own map, they spread out around the table.

"Came see what the Rook... What Colonel McQueen gave Dad," Ewan called from the far side of the table. Whatever it was, Kylen recognized that her family was deeply interested. McQueen briefly looked up at her, making eye contact and giving her a small smile.

"Let me see," Kylen said as she crossed to the table, stood beside McQueen and put one arm around his waist, giving him a squeeze. McQueen did not respond in kind, but Frank noticed that the man leaned into the pressure Kylen placed upon him - that he seemed to relax in her presence.

"Robert Louis Stevenson," she whispered, pretending to be interested in the maps. McQueen looked down at her and smiled with obvious pleasure.

Kylen was looking down, her hair half hiding her face, but she watched McQueen through her hair. "Sailor?" she whispered, questioning him with mild sarcasm.

"It's what came to mind," McQueen admitted, mildly amused with himself.

Kylen gave him a second squeeze and then turned her attention to the map in earnest.

"What is this?" McQueen asked, pointing to an indistinct area on the map in front of them.

"Oh, that is 'Dozer's dream,'" she said. "Connor's doctoral project. I'll take you out there tomorrow." And then she whispered to him: "I talked to Nathan last night."

McQueen felt momentarily uncomfortable: If he had known - if he had been there - he could have given them more time. McQueen still had forty minutes of communication time built up. Until recently he had had over seventy minutes. He had stopped selling it off after the final payment on the Harley, and had begun to bank it for reasons he couldn't begin to explain. Last week he had used a half-hour. He had taken a run over to Louisiana and had finally visited Glen's family. He had managed to have the luck of the draw and had been there when Glen had checked in with the holiday phone call from the Saratoga. Knowing that Glen was available, McQueen had called him back on the secured channel, letting the kids talk for another twenty minutes and then taking ten minutes for himself. If McQueen had come to visit the farm a day earlier he could have given Kylen more time.... Maybe he could have talked to his Kids himself.

"We've got to talk," he whispered to Kylen.

"No shit," she mouthed silently, but she gave him a smile.

It must have gone pretty well, McQueen thought.

Next : Holding Up The Sky Book One Pt 5-8

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