COPYRIGHT NOTICE: The characters and situations of the TV program "SPACE: Above and Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting, and Hard Eight Productions, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
The character of Jim Avery and all other characters not belonging to Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, are my creations and property. Permission is hereby granted to use them in fan fiction, providing that the author acknowledge my rights to them.

The Darkest Night
Becky Ratliff

Part One

Vansen's first awareness was of a sharp pain in the back of her head. She opened her eyes and wished she had waited a while to do that. She focused on the geometric veined patterns of the wall of a chig installation.

Gingerly, she felt the back of her head, found a knot and a cut, which had matted her hair with blood and then closed over. She entertained a brief foreboding of a fractured skull, but then decided since there was nothing she could do about it, she had might as well worry about that later.

A low-pitched groan was Vansen's first indication that she was not alone in the room. She sat up and looked around, winced and grabbed at her wound, then staggered across to the room's other occupant. "Colonel McQueen!"

His eyes opened when she felt for a pulse, but she had reassured herself it was strong and steady before they lit with recognition. "Vansen! What happened?"

Answering that question required memory, which was not immediately forthcoming. She fished for data. "We were on Marged. I remember--there was something wrong at the transport. I can't remember--"

McQueen forced himself to a sitting position, looked confused for a moment as he fought the same disorientation, and then dredged up some information. "They caught us in a trank-web. There were a couple of AI's laying for us at the transport."

"I took a crack on the head, everything's all mixed up." But as she thought about what she recalled and what McQueen had just said, the veil started to lift and it all came back. For all the good that did.

They'd been sent to Marged on a top secret assignment to retrieve a formula from a scientific research station there. The researcher had taught each of them half of the formula--a compound highly poisonous to the chigs, one that would not be filtered out by their rebreathers. But then things had gone straight to hell. The station had been overrun by a squad of AI's, the scientists all killed and the place set afire. McQueen and Vansen had fought their way out and escaped back to their ship. But, as McQueen had said, to no avail--the AI's had been waiting for them there. With a trank-web.

The same conclusion occurred to both of them. The AI's knew, someone had sold them out. So here they were, God knew where, in the hands of the enemy, far from the _Saratoga_ and any hope of rescue.

Vansen felt a moment of abject despair. The chigs and their AI allies would sooner or later extract from them the formula and kill them. Then their scientists would go to work developing an antidote.

It wasn't the first time she had been a POW. That time, Paul Wang had taken the worst of it. She and Damphousse had outsmarted the enemy by turning their mind games against them, got their hands on a gun and managed to bust everyone else out. She didn't think they'd be satisfied with playing mind games this time. She could see as plain as day the look in Wang's eyes when he woke up from one of his nightmares.

"Colonel. I can't do this again."

McQueen answered immediately. "Vansen. Look at me. Neither can I. But we'll just have to do it anyway, otherwise we'd might as well take ourselves out right now and save ourselves the misery. Or-- we try to hold out long enough to be reported missing so someone can come rescue us. It's a hell of a long shot but it's the only one we've got right now. Your call. Which is it going to be?"

Vansen's mouth was too dry to swallow. She made herself look her commanding officer, her mentor, in the eyes. He'd been a POW once, too, she remembered, in the AI wars. Even so, on his own, he wouldn't have even considered suicide an option. If he had the guts to keep fighting with the only weapons at hand, so by God would she. "Fight."

"Okay, let's recon this place and see if they did leave us a way out. You go that way." McQueen got to his feet, and Vansen pushed herself back up. They began to search the room for an escape route. Except for the doorway, blocked by a shock screen, the room was bare.

Vansen lay alone in the cell trying not to open the eye that wasn't swollen shut. The Elroy AI had done a rough job of patching the worst of her burns with gelskins, enough to keep her alive. Raw nerve endings screamed every time she moved, so she tried not to move at all. She was scared sick for McQueen, if he wasn't in here then they were either still working on him or else he was dead. But there was nothing she could do either way. Nothing except wait and gather what strength she could from the rest.

There was a noise, she opened her good eye in spite of herself. The shock screen over the door was turned off briefly and a couple of AI's pushed McQueen inside. Before Vansen could gather her strength to attempt something rash, they tossed a tube of burn gel into the cell behind him and turned the screen back on. McQueen managed to stay on his feet until they were gone, then sank to the floor beside her.

He looked as bad as she felt, his body a patchwork of burns and cuts and bruises and scraps of gelskins. Vansen gasped as she realized one long thin patch of gelskin across his abdomen covered a row of surgical staples. "Oh, my God--!"

He looked just as shocked at the sight of her. He reached out to brush her hair away from the side of her face just as she instinctively touched the staples. Warding each other off, they ended up holding hands. Under a gelskin, she could see the skin had been carefully removed from the back of his hand, exposing muscle and bone and the web of blood vessels. Vansen was wracked by a violent shudder. The AI's would have enjoyed the artistic contrast between that delicate dissection and the rough gash in his belly. What they must have done to him while that wound gaped open she didn't want to imagine.

"I thought you were dead," he said hoarsely. "When you stopped yelling I thought they'd killed you."

"Lost my voice," she explained, and still all she could get out was a croaking sound just above a whisper. "I didn't stop screaming, I just couldn't get any noise to come out." She paused. "I won't make it through another session like that, sir."

McQueen wanted to deny that, Vansen could see it in his eyes. But one thing he'd never done was lied to them, and said everything would be okay when it obviously wouldn't. Even if he was trying to convince both of them. "I probably won't either," he admitted after a time. "I know I won't if they open me back up again. I went into shock the last time and there was blood from one end of the room to the other. I'll bet the chigs were just overjoyed about that."

Vansen laughed a little in spite of herself, the chigs called humans "red stinks" because they abhorred the smell of human blood. "Kicks Butts made a big deal out of saying goodbye at a time like this. About not leaving unfinished business. But goodbye isn't what I want to say, and I can't think of a single regret that involves you--other than that I wish to God you were back on the _Saratoga_. Or any other freakin' place but here."

McQueen's hand tightened briefly on hers; if the gesture hurt him she could see no sign of it. "You would've made a hell of an officer, Vansen. It's a damn shame you didn't get to live out a career. To get married and have some kids."

"Me, a mother? Jesus Christ!" She shook her head, laughing--a mistake, that, it started the burns on her face hurting. McQueen retrieved the tube of burn gel and put some on her cheek, she felt him stiffen as he realized the burns made a pattern. "Shane--"

"'S okay. Lord, that feels good!" Belatedly, Vansen realized that was the first time she'd heard McQueen call her by her first name.

McQueen's back was burned, Vansen treated that, and once the gel set up, he was able to lie back a lot more comfortably. She watched him get settled and rested herself. She wondered what the AI's were up to, giving them this time together. Maybe they figured if personal suffering wasn't going to crack either one of them, then seeing the shape the other was in just might. They were too damn professional for that, their duty was worth their lives individually or collectively. But the enemy's miscalculation gave them some time to regroup. Maybe even time for someone from the _Saratoga_ to get his ass in gear, though Vansen could not bring herself to hold out much hope of that.

Vansen was cold, had been cold ever since she had first woke up in this godforsaken place. It sure didn't help that the AI's had taken their clothes and they were lying on the cold concrete floor. She found herself shivering and wrapped her arms around herself, trying to keep warm. If this didn't let up she was going to have to get up and move around, and that was absolutely the last thing in the world she wanted to do right now!

McQueen moved over to make some room for her to lie up against him, gratefully she made herself at home. She wouldn't have asked. They had silently set some ground rules when McQueen had first taken command of the unit. Standard operating procedure when chain of command affected two people whose natural inclinations would otherwise have caused them to consider each other a possible romantic attraction. Vansen knew she was nobody's mud fence--at least, not before the AI's had taken acid to her face--and she sure wouldn't have had any trouble looking at McQueen for an extended period of time. She flatly didn't give a damn that he was an in vitro, so that didn't create any distance. A squadron commander and the executive officer usually called each other by first names in private, that kind of thing.

She and McQueen had arrived at something one step more formal than that, a comfortable routine in which they knew exactly where they stood. Over the months they had come to trust each other implicitly -- within the well-understood limits of their duty to the Corps, there wasn't a thing they wouldn't have done or sacrificed for one another.

But it felt good to lie there side by side, sharing the warmth of each other's touch both physically and emotionally. Vansen drank it in, come tomorrow there would be nothing left but more pain and terror and ultimately oblivion. She wondered what if anything waited beyond that. And if they would know each other when they got there. She thought about her parents, who had loved one another body and heart and soul, who had died together defending their children. As a child she had comforted herself with the belief that they had gone to heaven together. Now, she wasn't sure if there was a heaven, or if it admitted Marines if there was. Whatever tomorrow might bring, however, there was now.

McQueen had to move his arm, Vansen drew back a little to let him get settled then lay back carefully. She laughed softly at herself, at life, at death. "God, look at us--this must be what a couple of hundred and ten year old people in a nursing home feel like!"

"Now there's something I never planned on."

"What is?"

"Finding out what it's like to get that old! I guess life plays you for a damn fool."

She laughed and something occurred to her. "I never thought at a time like this I'd be laughing and cracking jokes. Especially after today--"

"You're a hell of a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for, Captain Shane Vansen."

"Yeah? Well, if I am it's because you taught me every freakin' thing I know," she said, a wide grin crossing her face even if it did make the burns hurt. "It wasn't my strength to begin with--it was yours. I didn't join the Corps to be brave, I've never considered myself a brave person. I wanted to fly. I wanted to fly Hammerheads. And I wanted to be the best there was."

"So? You are. Not many people get their heart's desire."

"I know that, sir. I know it every time I get in that cockpit and feel the thrusters kick in. But Colonel--thanks to what you taught me, I became so much more. I got to look in the mirror and see a Marine Captain looking back at me. I spent some time planning on getting a command of my own one of these days. And I would have, too. I've had a life that's given me damn few regrets, and that was because of you. I just wanted to make sure you knew that."

She could see that little speech meant a lot to him. Well, Mom Vansen had managed to teach her oldest daughter a few things in the short time they'd had together, after all. She thought of something else. If they did run into each other in the great beyond, she'd out-rank her mother by a pay grade.

Who was she kidding. If there were Marines in heaven, her mother was probably a general by now.

McQueen said, "I figured when I first saw you that you were the one who'd stay in for life. You and Hawkes, but I don't think he has the command ambitions that you do."

"Hawkes just needs to get the bad-boy attitude out of his system," She reflexively defended her friend. "He'll be okay."

"This is going to be rough on all of them," McQueen commented.

Vansen scowled. "It's a freakin' war. People get killed. They know that."

"Not like this."

"No. Not like this. But they'll manage. They'll kill a bunch of chigs for us the first chance they get, and then they'll get on with it. The war won't give them a chance to do anything else," Vansen replied, with the hard-headed practicality that nature has demanded of females ever since Lucy and her sisters roamed the African plains. You buried parents, friends, lovers, babies. And life went on whether you liked it or not. No matter how much your losses hurt, all you could do was cry and go on. Vansen knew the rest of the Wild Cards would do that. After a while, she and McQueen would be people they remembered with a toast and a moment of silence a few times a year. And that was good, she didn't want to think about her friends grieving over her.

McQueen nodded and allowed as how she was probably right. "If they find out. I hope we don't get listed as MIA's. That's the hardest thing."

"Yeah," Vansen agreed. "I hope my family doesn't have to go through that."

"You've got--what--two sisters?"

"And my sister's husband and her new baby," she said. Thinking about her little niece made her feel better.

The hall lights dimmed as the chig's night-cycle began. Vansen tried to remember from the night before how long after that it was before Elroy and his friends would come for them. Without her watch it was hard to keep track of time in here. If she could have one wish--other than getting the hell out of here--it would be to make the time go slower. She started shaking in spite of herself, blamed it on the cold.

McQueen held her tightly. None of the common-sense reasons mattered here and now. All that mattered was surviving as long as they could, hoping against hope that the miracle would happen. Carefully, not wanting to cause him any more pain, she eased her arms around him and they held each other for a long time in a silence unbroken by attempts at conversation. After a while, they started moving together, gently, carefully, yet with insistent and growing passion.

McQueen drew a deep breath. "Shane, do you really want to go any further?"

"Yes," she answered quietly. "Tomorrow they are going to come for us and the odds are we'll never see one another again. We need something we can take with us, something that will be with us for the rest of our lives no matter how long or short that is. Take me--give yourself to me in return--and there'll be nothing we can't do tomorrow."

He answered her with a kiss, and in the embrace of the darkest night they had ever known, they reached out to each other. Bittersweet, they knew it was the last time they would ever share this with anyone. Vansen felt tears welling up through her lashes, as she grieved the things that would never be. She returned the kiss, and as quickly as it had come over her, the sorrow faded away. One night could be an eternity. Tonight was forever.

It took a while to find a position that accommodated both of their injuries. But then they made love with more tenderness than Vansen had ever experienced--or given to anyone. Nothing had ever been more right. There was no hurry, no yesterday, no tomorrow, only now, only each other. And finally, unexpectedly, they shared a sweet, tender fulfillment. One bright star in that darkest night.

After that came a few blessed hours of exhausted sleep. Vansen had tried to think of something defiant to say when the guards came to get them the next morning, it all sounded cliched. Nothing she could have rehearsed, though, would have been as effective as the dumbfounded guards' discovery that the terrified, compliant victims they had expected to find were instead just waking up from what had obviously been a sound and peaceful sleep. She looked at McQueen, there was so much she wanted to say and time for none of it. She unlocked what felt like the last reserve of courage she possessed and smiled and raised her hand in a defiant thumbs-up, she wanted him to remember her that way. He returned both gestures and then it was time, the guards took them opposite directions so she didn't have to watch them leading him off.

As Vansen had expected, she weakened quickly under the AI's renewed attentions. If anything the pain was worse, but somehow today wasn't as difficult to endure as yesterday had been. Because fear had no more claim on her. Whenever the AI's threatened her with something new, she had the memory of the night before to get her through it, one moment at a time. Unconsciousness released her with greater frequency and longer duration, for all the AI's could do to keep her awake.

At some point they started giving her water, and then she realized she really was dying. They had been using thirst as yet another form of torture, but now her condition had become so fragile they were trying--and failing--to get her stabilized. They just didn't know enough about humans, she guessed. She could have told them what to do. But at best it could have bought her a few hours, and for the benefit of the next poor bastard who ended up in this place, she decided not to educate the damn AI's. Instead, she just laid her head back against the table and closed her eyes.

She had always thought of death as a frightening image, like the Grim Reaper on his skeletal white horse. But there was no need for fear in this place. The constant pain receded, taking the rest of the world with it, until nothing remained but a far-away light in the distance. Soon she would go into that light, and she had no more terror of the journey. In the meanwhile, she had never known such a peaceful feeling.

That didn't last long. She heard some kind of a loud noise, at the edge of her awareness. People were yelling and she could hear running footsteps. Shooting nearby woke her up enough to wonder what was going on, she got her good eye open in time to see the chig who had been guarding the door fall through into the room, dead before he hit the floor.

An AI came at her with a knife and she knew this was it. But someone came barging through the door with absolute disregard for whatever might be inside and fired a full burst right over her, the AI flew back against the wall and landed in a sparking heap. The Marine in the doorway was Damphousse.

She screamed, "Shane! I found Shane! Nathan, I need the medikit!" She yanked her K-bar out of its sheath, its keen edge sliced through the restraints holding her wrists to the table. "Oh, God, Shane!"

"'Phousse, where's the Colonel?"

"He's here too?"

"Yeah, they've got him in here somewhere. You've got to find him!"

West came in with his gun in one hand and a medikit in the other. Damphousse grabbed his arm. "Shane says the Colonel's in here somewhere too!"

West shoved the medikit at her. "Take care of her, we'll find him!" He ran out of the room. Damphousse got her feet up and jammed a hypo against her arm, they heard two more thunderous booms and dust sifted down from the ceiling. Damphousse sheltered Vansen with her own body, unwilling to let her horrific burns get full of grit. A squad of people ran by, Damphousse yelled at them that she needed someone to get Vansen out of there. Presently a couple of corpsmen appeared with a stretcher. They tucked a blanket around her and carried her up a long sloping tunnel and across a field to the transport, the cold air cut her injured face to the quick. There was a medic on the transport, an older woman with gray hair and a kind expression. She started hooking Vansen up to the diagnostics almost before the corpsmen had a chance to fasten the stretcher to the holdfasts.

Vansen couldn't keep track of how fast time was passing, she was in and out so much. But every time she woke up she looked over at the stretcher bay on the other side of the narrow gangway, and it was still empty. In the distance she could still hear sporadic gunfire and an occasional explosion.

Booted feet hit the ramp, she almost fainted with relief when she saw West and Hawkes bring McQueen in on another stretcher. The medic started working on him. Shane remembered the misery Hawkes had gone through because some damn medic had given him the wrong painkiller. She reached across the gangway to poke the medic. "Hey! He's an in vitro, you watch what drugs you give him!"

The medic gently turned his head to find the neck-navel and verify Vansen's statement. "It doesn't matter out here, Cap, everything in the field kit is certified safe for everybody -- unless you're allergic? Know of anything?"

"No, neither of us, that I know of. I don't remember seeing anything other than a little square green sticker on the Colonel's ID tags, and Hawkes has one too, so that identifies them as in vitroes, right?"

"Right. Allergy stickers are bright yellow, with the specific allergy printed in black." The medic carried on the conversation without looking up from her work, starting an intravenous drip. Most of her attention was on that, she obviously didn't want to try more than once to get the IV started.

"No, I don't remember seeing anything like that. How is he?"

"Passed out cold as a mackerel, which is God's own blessing and I hope he stays that way until the pain killers have a chance to start working. But other than that, he's in better shape than you are. You were real shocky when they brought you aboard. That's why I want you to keep talking to me, okay? What are your names?"

"I'm Captain Shane Vansen, and he's Colonel TC McQueen. We're with the 58th."

"I knew you were with the Wild Cards. The rest of your outfit's been raising hell from one end of the zone to the other for the last twelve hours."

"How did they find us?"

"I don't know, the scuttlebutt is that Commodore Ross caught a spy aboard the _Saratoga_. That's your ship, isn't it?"

"That's right. What units are these?"

"488th Seabees. They're going to be building an airstrip here on Marged. I'm with the 7740th MASH unit, we're setting up shop here too. When your kids found out about this place they knew they'd need a few more hands to clean it up, and we were the closest, so here we are. Seabees don't get a lot of chance at any real action, it sounds like they got pretty enthusiastic with the demolitions packs."


"Don't worry, Captain, when the 488th gets done with it, there won't be anything left of that place but a smoking hole in the ground. You'll never see it again."

Vansen grinned tiredly. "I really like the sound of that."

"McQueen, huh? So he's Queen Six? The guy who took out Chiggy von Richtoven?" The medic sounded really respectful.

"That's right," Vansen said. "Oh, by the way, I didn't see your ID."

"I'm Lieutenant Colonel Stefana Michaels."

"Ma'am," Vansen acknowledged -- she couldn't salute with her hand tied up with her IV line.

"For the time being, the rank you've got to worry about is Doctor, kiddo. Generals take orders from me until I release them from medbay."

"Yes, ma'am, Doctor Michaels, ma'am!" Shane snapped out. Only her frog voice kept the effect from being parade-ground perfect.

Michaels' answer was a low pitched chuckle in a voice as rich as honey. "As long as we understand each other." She glanced at the readouts from McQueen's diagnostics. "You're both pretty stable right now. I think you're out of the woods. I want to get you back to the 7740th for some scans to make sure before we do anything else, but I think we'll be able to get you on your way back to the _Saratoga_ right after that. Got any info on this incision?"

"The AI's did it, that's all I know."

Michaels looked at his readouts, tapping the blood pressure monitor thoughtfully and pursing her lips for a few seconds. Then she decided, "He's not bleeding. I'm not going to put him through a field scan, that'd wake him up for sure. We'll find out what exactly they did back at the unit." She sounded mad as hell.

"Doctor, is my eye okay? Have I got anything wrong with me that's going to ground me or anything?"

"Not if you make it by the shrinks. Your eye's okay, your eyelid is just swelled up around it. That's an effect of those chemical burns. I wouldn't worry too much about those, in a few weeks the scars won't show at all. Just follow the directions about the gelskins so everything heals up without scarring."

West came in. "Feel like looking out the port, Shane? The Seabees thought you might like to see this."

"Yeah, give me a hand."

He opened the hatch and helped her raise her head, very gently, as if she were made of glass. West checked his chronometer. "Any second now."

There was a spectacular KABOOM and the soil and rock over the chig's hole in the ground fell in with a loud rumble. A great plume of smoke billowed up into the icy Marged sky. The Seabees roared a loud cheer then their commander got them back on the transport.

West lowered her back to the stretcher and locked the hatch back down, it was letting cold air in. "You okay, Shane?"

"Yeah, Nathan, I'm okay. Really."

"Great. I'm going to let the others know, they're pretty worried about you. Better get some rest while you can, there's some intelligence officer back at the MASH unit who wants to talk to you as soon as we land."

Michaels said, "We'll see about that when we land, Junior. These two people have got about a week of sleep coming, for starters."

Vansen said, "We really do need to talk to the intelligence officer, Doctor, even if you only let him in for a little while. It's really important. And we both have to talk to him."

Michaels looked at her, then reconsidered. "Yeah, I guess it must have been something pretty damn-all important at that, to go through this over it. Okay, don't worry, I'll let him visit as soon as possible."

"Can I go to sleep now?"

Michaels examined her readouts. "Yeah, get some rest. We'll be en route about an hour if we ever raise ship. Go on, Junior, get outta here."

"Yes, ma'am." Nathan ducked through the hatch.

Vansen shut her eyes and let relief wash over her like waves at the beach. They were out, they were alive. Right now that was all she could muster the energy to care about. Sleep blotted out everything.

The next thing she new, she was being moved from the stretcher to a hospital bed at the MASH unit. A nurse rearranged her IV line and put a clean, fresh gown on her. Vansen thanked her sleepily.

"The 58th found your gear, ma'am, here's your ID."

"Thanks." Vansen put it around her neck, it was squeaky clean. Someone -- Damphousse, probably -- had apparently disinfected it and gone over it for anything that shouldn't be there.

The nurse pulled the curtain back. McQueen was in the next bed, he was awake and sitting up. He looked a hell of a lot better.

"Vansen, are you okay?"

"Yeah, you?"

He nodded. "I am now."

"I don't believe it! I don't believe we got out of there! God, this is unreal! Hey, some Seabees helped rescue us, they blew that chig base all to hell. I saw it, it is GONE."

He grinned, as gratified with that as she had been.

The doctor came in and checked them out, made some notes in their charts. "Lieutenant Belvedere from intelligence is outside, if you feel up to seeing him now."

McQueen said, "Show him in, we've got a report to make."

Belvedere was a tall man with close-cropped hair and an eye patch. Vansen was scared of him as soon as she got a look at the expression in his remaining eye. She had learned to spot the type, this man was a stone cold killer. He wore the black beret of a Special Forces operative.

His expression turned into genuine respect as soon as he got a look at them, he came to attention and snapped McQueen a sharp salute. "Lt. Belvedere reporting, sir!"

"As you were, Lieutenant. Is this room secure to report?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Recognition code Charlie Alpha Delta One Niner."

"One Niner Radar X-ray King," Belvedere replied. "Did you get the formula before the research station was overrun?"

"That's right. I'll be glad to have you take it off our hands."

"You and the captain have more than done your share, sir."

To his credit, Belvedere didn't stay any longer than was necessary to debrief them. Vansen was indescribably glad to have the mission completed. She and McQueen once again reassured each other that they were all right, then they got some more much-needed rest.

Dr. Michaels apparently had given orders that they weren't to be disturbed, they didn't wake up until a transport showed up to take them back to the Saratoga.

The next few days were more boring than anything else. They had private quarters in sickbay and got first-class treatment all the way, which meant there was a steady stream of people coming through keeping them company most every waking minute, either doctors or shrinks or a parade of visitors. Commodore Ross stopped in to see them every day, Vansen knew he and McQueen were close friends but he made time to call on her as well. The other pilots of the 58th came in every chance they got, Wang especially because they didn't have to tell him anything about it. Other people stopped in regularly as well. Even when they were ready for lights out, the medical personnel made it quite clear there was someone at their call at all times. Wang advised them to enjoy it while it lasted, because they weren't going to be spoiled rotten forever.

Vansen and McQueen saw each other all the time, they each had plenty of evidence that the other was coming along just fine. Vansen went in for reconstructive surgery twice, she was very pleased with the results. She had told the plastic surgeon to make the scars go away, she didn't care how. He had done the trick by cloning skin and muscle from uninjured areas of her body, the results were nearly invisible. McQueen's scans showed that the worst effects he had taken were due to blood loss, there were no permanent effects from the godawful wounds the AI's had inflicted on him. At least not ones anyone could see, and Vansen suspected he was at least as good as she was at telling the shrinks what they wanted to hear in order to get recertified for duty as quickly as possible.

They were allowed to move back into their quarters the fourth day, which was excellent medicine. They wouldn't be allowed to return to duty for a couple days yet, although technically Vansen wasn't grounded any more.

Even their status as heroes of the day couldn't get Vansen another call home so soon after the last one, but she did manage to get e-mail to both of her sisters moved to the top of the queue. She was afraid the news would get hold of it and scare the hell out of them before she got a chance to let them know she was okay.

After that, she tried to sneak in some paperwork so it wouldn't pile up too high, but West caught her at it and threatened to report her to the doctor if she didn't go do something recreational. Absolutely convinced he was acting in her best interests, he was unmoved by her attempt to pull rank and by her plaintive protests of boredom as well. Ordinarily her idea of recreation involved going down to the gym, but the doctor had advised against doing that until she got all her gelskins off--another three days. She was allowed to walk, though not run, and she had long since mapped out a route around the ship that allowed her to get in a five mile workout.

She found out that she wasn't up to that yet, and gave it up near the docking bay. She wandered in and crossed to her Hammerhead, pulled the maintenance log and started checking her over. As usual, the maintenance was perfect, there wasn't a thing to do. That was when a mechanic came up and delivered the message that Commodore Ross wanted to see her.

McQueen was there as well. Vansen asked, "What's all this about?"

"I don't know, but I saw your doctor coming out of his office."

Vansen scowled. "That probably isn't good."

Ross didn't keep them waiting long. Once his office door closed, he dispensed with formality. "Vansen, according to your doctor he's done all he can do for you here. He wants to send you to a hospital ship to finish up your treatment. It looks to me like they did a great job already, but he says they can make the scars completely disappear there and the work will be easiest if you go now."

"Yes, sir."

"You'll rendezvous with the _Nightingale_. The two of you can do me a favor while you're at it. I just got a new launch assigned, I'd like to shake her down but I haven't got time. It'll get you out of Dodge for a few days, anyhow."

McQueen said, "That's the best offer I've had all week. I've just about had it with sick list."

Vansen complained, "I wasn't even allowed to catch up on paperwork, sir!"

Ross grinned and promised, "Things will be getting back to normal when you get back."

Vansen snapped to attention as they stood up, McQueen and Ross exchanged salutes that were several degrees less formal. As they left, Ross said, "Good trip, Ty."

They went by their quarters to get their gear, Shane explained to the rest of the unit where they were going. "Commodore Ross' orders. I've got to go to the hospital ship for more plastic surgery. They say you won't be able to tell at all when they get done with me."

Five minutes later, as she stowed her gear aboard the fanciest launch she'd ever seen in her life, she realized something. That explanation satisfied everyone's curiosity. Not even Hawkes had made a smartass remark about the two of them being alone together on the launch two days in and two days out.

She blushed red as a beet. Vansen would have bet her life McQueen hadn't told him. But all the same, Ross knew. Well, it stood to reason. Officers had some kind of built-in LIDAR where the people in their command were concerned, she should know, she was developing the same thing about the 58th. She had suspected that Damphousse and Wang were attracted to each other before they had admitted it to themselves--not until after `Phousse's boyfriend had sent her a Dear Jane letter. They didn't have chain of command as a consideration. And McQueen and Ross had been close friends for a lot of years. Of course Ross knew. And he wouldn't say a word about it unless they made it an issue.

The business of pre-flighting the launch took up all their attention, they didn't lose sight of the fact that it was a new craft and no one had yet had the chance to find out all its little quirks and bad habits. No one with brains ever skimped on pre-flight, especially with something they'd never flown before. Then they got in the low-priority launch queue and waited for clearance to take off. Vansen was thankful for the chance to get over her embarrassment doing routine things. But it didn't take a genius to figure out Ross had thrown them together to sort things out and figure out where they stood with each other now.

Next : Part Two

May 1996 Becky Ratliff