|Thanks to Patrice Badger, Gabrielle Bessey, and "Speedbump" for reading behind me and providing encouragement. (Who am I kidding? Where would I be without them? They wrote half of this! Thanks, ladies.)|
An Echo Of Yesterday
(On the Saratoga, July 2064)
Shane Vansen decided now would be a good time for the nervous breakdown she had been putting off for the last two weeks. She had spent half the morning filling out reports on their last uneventful patrol, in between playing phone tag all morning trying to find out why the 58th's laundry had been late the last three times. Also, their water cards had not been in the week's ration packet...and now her beeper was going off. She resisted the urge to pitch it across the room and touched the message button. A computerized voice ordered her to report to the Commodore's office at her earliest convenience....which meant immediately.
She shut her eyes a moment, trying to think how they would have handled this before McQueen had been sent back to Earth. She would have been doing the reports, that was what, while he would have settled the laundry problem and the ration card snafu with one phone call each. That was the difference between a Captain and a Lieutenant Colonel!
She had to get her butt to Ross's office now. "Nathan, go down to the laundry, see if you can find, what's his name, Lieutenant Hall, and straighten out this mess. Promise him anything reasonable, we need our clothes. 'Phousse, you've helped me with these reports before. Fill them out, and I'll go over them when I get back from the Commodore's office. Coop, go stand in line at the quartermaster's office and find out why we didn't get our water cards, I'd kinda like a hot shower tonight!" She thought of something. "And don't anyone call my beeper while I'm in a meeting with the Commodore unless it's an emergency. A REAL emergency!"
Hawkes asked conversationally, "What kind of trouble d'you think you're in with the Commodore?"
She felt a ball of ice in the pit of her stomach. What it was, she figured, was the other shoe about to drop over the Anvil thing. She had a mental flash of her court-martial and answered Hawkes a little sharper than she meant to. "Just because Commodore Ross wants to see me doesn't mean I'm in trouble."
Nathan said, "Let's go, Coop. We'll come visit you in the brig, Shane."
"Gee, thanks." She stepped into the bathroom to comb her hair, it had grown out just enough to fly all over the place.
A couple of barrettes came sailing through the doorway to land neatly on the mirror shelf. She turned around to see 'Phousse closing her drawer. How did she....don't ask, Vansen decided. The clips pulled her hair back enough to look presentable, at least. She headed up to Officer's Territory and to the commodore's office.
She stopped outside the hatch for a long moment before she gathered the courage to knock. When he answered, she had no more excuse for delays. "Captain Vansen, reporting as ordered, sir!"
She stepped inside and saluted, stood at ease on the commodore's order. Ross handed her a folded sheet of paper. She unfolded it and began to read, thinking at first it was some kind of summons. But then she realized what it was and stared at it in disbelief. "But, sir, this has to be some kind of a mistake!"
"No mistake -- Major."
"Sir, yes, sir. I do not understand, sir."
Ross showed her to a seat. "Vansen, I'm going to ask you to put yourself in an extremely awkward situation for any officer. First, nothing said here is to be discussed with anyone other than the persons involved, understood?"
Vansen took the seat that Ross indicated, and he abandoned formality. "McQueen managed to make himself some important enemies when he led that action against the Golem. People who would have preferred it if Aerotech had not been...embarrassed by that incident. I have expected them to take action against him, and they did not disappoint me. I won't discuss how I came to know this, other than to say that I have a few highly placed friends of my own."
"Are you saying that Colonel McQueen is in danger back on earth, sir?"
Ross shook his head. "No, they don't usually work that way. Disappearances and phony accidents cause too much of a scandal when something goes wrong. What they've pulled is a lot less complicated. My source warned me that when Colonel McQueen gets out of rehab, he isn't going to be recertified for active duty. I'm not talking about a medical discharge, what they'd do is transfer him to some teaching or administrative post in the middle of nowhere. Somewhere he would never be in a position to threaten them again." Ross' tone of voice set the word them in bold type and italics. "Understand me, this is the kind of battle that's won or lost without a shot being fired, and the enemy has clear superiority...but I have the advantage of surprise. What I'm going to do is request that Colonel McQueen be reassigned to my personal staff in an advisory capacity. People owe me a few favors. That request will be granted."
"So...in reality, nothing will change except on paper."
"Exactly. But I need to put someone in command of the 58th -- on paper. Obviously I can't pull in someone who's unaware of the situation. What I'm asking you to do is to command your unit -- on paper. I know it's a lot to ask of someone who has the career ambitions you do. I have no way of knowing how long this situation will continue, and I realize that I am asking you to put your own career advancement on hold for as long as it does."
Vansen said, "Sir. I do not have a problem with the assignment, sir."
Ross looked into clear dark eyes and saw as much of loyalty as he ever had in a career that spanned two decades. Nothing, absolutely nothing, would be too much to ask one of the Wild Cards to do for another. "Thank you, Major."
"Sir, is the Colonel aware of all this?"
"Not yet. He won't receive his orders until he returns to the _Saratoga_ next month."
"If you don't mind me making the observation, sir, I don't envy you the job of telling him."
"No, Major Vansen, you certainly should not," Ross grinned.
Bethesda Naval Hospital Bionic Research Facility
The humid summer air that rushed through the door was a contrast to the air-conditioning inside the lab building. It was 1700-hours, quitting time, but still very warm. As TC McQueen crossed the hospital campus he joined a crowd of people heading for the parking lots and bus stops, on their way home. Most of them paid little attention to him. He still walked with a cane, but no longer depended on it to the point where anyone noticed. After a month of having people jump to open doors and offer to carry packages for him, it was good to be anonymous once again.
After he had seen the amazing job the plastic surgeons had done on Shane's acid burns, he knew he shouldn't have been surprised at anything. Still, when he had first seen his bionic leg it had looked anything but real. That was before it had been grafted on. Now, a layer of his own flesh and blood covered the prosthesis, and after ten days, it was invisible. He still thought he limped quite a bit, but that was due to the fact that he hadn't yet adjusted completely to the cybernetic implants that controlled the prosthesis. His rehab doctor had told him that he should start seeing improvement in that on a daily basis now. It appeared Silicatronics was capable of doing something right, at least once in a while. He still had another two weeks of rehabilitation and tests before he would ship out for the _Saratoga_.
For the time being, home was a room in the convalescent center. He was in self-care, it was more like a motel with good maid service than a hospital floor. That was fine with him, he hadn't been able to wait to get away from the constant attention on the surgical floor. Here, he could come and go as he liked, and as long as he reported on time to where ever he was supposed to be, no one was concerned about it.
The nurse at the desk looked up as he stepped off the elevator. "Colonel McQueen? You have a visitor, she's waiting for you in the lounge."
"Who is it?"
The nurse shrugged, it wasn't her job to keep track. "Some blonde woman. Real well dressed, looks like a business woman or something?"
McQueen followed the corridor back to the lounge. Its single occupant was standing at the window that overlooked the hospital's campus green, she didn't look a bit different than she had the last time he had seen her...nearly ten years ago. "Leah. This is a surprise."
It took her a moment to turn around, as if she didn't realize he was speaking to her. But then she recognized his voice and turned to greet him. The name on her visitor's badge was Amanda L. Goldstein. "I'm sorry, no one's called me Leah in so long...you and Daddy were the only ones who ever called me that. I've been going by my first name for such a long while now. Ty, you look wonderful! When I got back to the paper and my editor told me what you'd been through, I don't know what I was expecting!"
"I was lucky. You haven't changed a bit. How have you been?"
"I've gotten along. I've been at the _Times Sentinel_ for three years now. Work is the reason I didn't come by sooner, I was in Brussels covering the economic summit. I just got off a plane this morning."
"I'm sorry I kept you waiting out here. If you'd called, I could have let you know my schedule."
"I just dropped in on my way home from the paper, I haven't been waiting long at all. But I should have thought, if you have other plans--" She suddenly seemed uncertain.
"Not at all. Have you had dinner?"
"No, I haven't."
"Would you like to get something?"
"I'd love to." That smile was still the same, capable of lighting up a whole room. McQueen warned himself to watch out. There were a lot of doors here that he had no intention of reopening!
"Give me a minute to change."
"I'll get my car and meet you," she replied.
Fifteen minutes later, McQueen found Amy waiting at the curb in a an upscale electric commuter car. She touched a button to unlock the passenger door and moved her computer case to the back seat. As he got in, he saw pictures of two small children framed on her key-chain. "Yours?"
Amy nodded. "Justin and Jennifer. They're twins, they'll be four in September."
"They're beautiful children. You didn't tell me you'd remarried."
Amy's eyes took on a faraway look. "I didn't. Their father was a dear friend, a reporter I knew from the paper named Justin Mallory. He was killed before I knew I was pregnant, a drunk ran his car off the road. Since then...I've concentrated on my children and my work."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Amy."
She nodded. "It's been long enough that...it's past." With a visible effort, she shook off the memories. "What about you? Is there someone...out there?"
"There's someone," he smiled. "And that's all I'm going to say about it."
"You always were one mystery after another," she said. "You shouldn't wave bait like that in front of a reporter, you know. Ty, I swore I wouldn't lose track of you but....I guess that's what happens. Didn't we say we were going to stay friends?"
McQueen hadn't made any real effort to be kept track of, but he had to say something. "You're here now, that's what matters."
Again, that thousand-watt smile. "Do you still like Italian?"
He laughed. "After all the hospital food I've had lately, there isn't much I wouldn't like."
"I know this great little place about ten minutes from here." Once she had maneuvered out of the hospital complex, she logged the car's navigation system onto the traffic grid and programmed in their destination. Then she called home to check on her kids and to tell the nanny not to wait supper for her.
Midweek, the restaurant was only moderately busy. Amy got them a table out on the terrace, overlooking a park on the edge of the Potomac greenbelt. They ended up lingering over dinner and then walking down through the park to the river, they had a lot of catching up to do. From the society page job her wealthy father had arranged, Amy had built a career as a respected journalist. She'd won a number of awards covering international stories. After her twins were born, she had accepted her current position because it kept her in Washington for the most part. Only the most important stories, such as the recent economic summit, required her to travel these days.
McQueen told her about his career since the divorce, but mostly in general terms, and more about people than events. She had known the members of the 127th when they had been married, but that had been several years before the opening battle of the war. She had been acquainted with Traci Collins, who had been new to the unit then, but they had never been more than acquaintances. McQueen put his grounded status in as matter-of-fact a manner as he could, and moved on quickly from there to his assignment as commanding officer of the 58th.
Amy sipped her wine. "I knew you were with the 58th now. Don't look so surprised, I couldn't help keeping up with your career. Once the news room grapevine found out we used to be married, I saw everything off the wire with your name on it before practically anyone else did. If I hadn't been out of the loop in Brussels, I'd have heard about this and been here sooner. I was so glad to hear those two young girls had been rescued safely. Is Glen still commanding the Saratoga?"
"So how is he? I always liked him the best out of everyone I knew from the 127th. Did he ever get married?"
"Just to the _Sara_," McQueen replied.
Amy reflected, "Most of them seem so young. When did that happen?"
"The hell if I know," McQueen replied. "You just turn around one day and it happens, you're surrounded by kids. This damned war, though...they don't stay kids long out there."
"Nearly everyone I work with has someone in the war zone," she said. "There are seven gold star parents at the paper. Seven! When the president announced that the war was ending, of course we all believed it...we had Champaign in the news room! And then to find out it had all been an enemy trick--!" She shook her head. "If their intention was to break morale on the home front, they certainly succeeded."
"This isn't over yet," he said.
"Could they really be our...cousins?"
"They're not MY cousins," he replied. "I'm no scientist, Amy, I don't know if there's any truth to their claims about originating from the same genetics as life on earth. But I don't see what it matters, considering they started this thing!"
"If they're telling the truth, Aerotech started it," Amy said.
There was something in her eyes, a dark, smoldering hatred that he had never seen before...this was in no way the same woman who had been his wife. "What is it, Amy?"
"Aerotech has been a project of mine for a while now," she replied. "Some stories take years to break. I'll work on this one for the rest of my life, if that's what it takes...but I will get to the truth."
"You might not like what you find out," he said.
"I know what I'll find out. Knowing it and proving it are two entirely different things. But that's what I do." She looked up then, getting off that dark subject before the anger in her exploded. "Would you mind if we go by my house before I take you back? It's near the twins' bedtime, and I'd like to tuck them in."
McQueen didn't mind anything that kept him away from the hospital for a while longer. It wasn't a long drive to Amy's house. She had apparently gotten back into her father's good graces after the divorce, she was living in one of the family homes. "Aren't you afraid it will get back to your father that you're seeing me again?" McQueen instantly regretted the sarcasm in his tone of voice, but the words were out.
Amy was tough enough to handle a little sarcasm, though. "Not any more, I stopped jumping when he says frog a long time ago. But if you'd rather sneak through the hedges and climb the trellis to my bedroom again, I'll see what I can arrange."
"I got poison ivy from whatever was growing on that damn trellis."
She put her keys in her purse and reached over the back seat for her computer. "Was it worth it?" Now a lot of her own bitterness crept into the wisecrack.
"I haven't figured that out yet."
They looked at each other for a moment, and the whole thing struck them both as funny in the same moment. In laughter, they let go of some of the pain, and found that the friendship was still hidden underneath, after all these years, despite everything. Together they crossed the shadowed lawn to the circle of light at the front door.
McQueen's floor was dark by the time he got back to the hospital. He bypassed his room and went out on the terrace, people were likely to be out here any time but for once he had it to himself. He swiped his card in a vending machine and got a cup of soda, took it over to the rail and looked out over the quiet campus.
Amy's sudden reappearance gave him a lot to think about. He realized only in retrospect how long he'd waited for her, and now, he wondered just what in the hell it was he'd been waiting for. Some kind of justification, he supposed.
The last big argument before they'd started with the separation and the lawyers replayed itself, like an old video that should have been thrown out a long time ago. The memories still hurt, but now...since Shane...they were just memories. He'd spent many an hour when he should have been sleeping thinking of all the things he would have liked to have said to Amy. And now that he'd had the chance, he hadn't really said much of anything.
He didn't know what he'd been thinking, maybe that she'd been somehow frozen in time since they'd parted. Instead, she was ten years older, too, a woman, not the girl he remembered. She'd gone to the top of her profession. She had a couple of kids...and a picture on the mantle to help her raise them. He hadn't wished her that kind of grief...at least he hoped to God he never had. Somewhere during a lot of those long nights, it had crossed his mind to want her to hurt the way he was hurting.
Now, somehow, all that seemed distant. And Shane Vansen was the reason why. It would still be early morning ship's time, a few hours before reveille. McQueen wondered if she were watching the stars and missing him. He finished his drink, and went back inside. He had might as well try to get some rest during what remained of the night.
(aboard the _Saratoga_, time indeterminate)
River and Starlight
..........It is night. Alone on the bank of a wide, slow-moving river,
She shivers in the cold misty air rising from its black surface --
God knows what lies in those depths. She reaches out
Across the water, as if to touch the other shore,
Hidden and unknowable though it is, through the fog.
But the distance only seems greater for having made the effort.
She falls to her knees in the wet grass and raises her eyes to the sky,
Trying to give anguish a voice in prayer. Too great for words, that --
Can God hear the language of the heart?
The sky has been dark every time she has looked before...no guidance there.
But now, for a moment, the clouds part and she counts five stars,
So small in the immensity but yet so very bright...
No, wait, there is a sixth! Dim and far away but still part of that unnamed constellation.
She catches a wild hope in trembling hands,
Daring that yet another dream will turn to ashes in her grasp --
To live is to hope...to hope, to live..........
........Vansen turned from the viewport where she had been sitting sleepless. Being lonely, missing people, those were never things she had allowed herself to do before. But now, with time on her hands, she was learning just how slowly a few weeks could pass by. Everyone else had the good sense to be asleep.
For a moment, she thought Vanessa was having a nightmare and considered waking her. But before she could cross the distance between them, her friend smiled a little in her sleep then quieted.
On silent feet, she crossed the room. The others were long accustomed to her midnight watches at the viewport, no one wakened as she passed by. She lay between the sheets and closed her eyes.
(Washington DC -- at the _Times Sentinel_ August )
Amy remembered when she had been a little girl, visiting the paper with her father. It had been a real "paper" then, she still remembered watching the presses and smelling the ink and the huge rolls of newsprint. A lot had changed since then. There was still a printed version of the Times, but the subscribers were mostly traditionalists and their numbers were dwindling. Amy could soon see the day when the only hard copies they would sell would be to people wanting a printed copy of a wedding announcement or some such thing. Most people downloaded their copies of the paper from the web whenever they wanted, the on-line version was up to date on the hour rather than every morning. But still...her mental image of the Times was watching the papers roll off the presses, folded and ready for delivery.
She felt a little sorry for the kids born too late to have a paper route. There was something very satisfying about throwing the paper in just such a way as to THUMP it against the screen door and have it land square on the mat...not in the shrubbery or out in the yard! She remembered her sneakers wet with dew and grass stains...the morning sun warm on her face after the chill of a predawn start...the robins waking with the light...the sleeping city coming to life around her.
The elevator doors opened and she snapped out of her reverie in time to jump off before the crowd behind her pushed her out. They scattered in individual directions, most of them with some important job to do before the next hourly deadline.
Amy's destination was the Washington desk. She docked her computer and filed the latest two stories she had written, they'd be on-line by the next edition.
She clicked on the assignments screen to find out what she was going to be working on today, but before she had a chance to download her schedule, someone sat down on the corner of her desk. She looked up, annoyed.
It was her primary rival and best friend, John Fairchild. He was a few years younger and always hungry for a scoop, that led him to take risks she avoided...most of the time...now that she had children. At the moment, he was grinning and twirling a datachip in his fingers.
"What's that, pictures of your new girlfriend?"
Fairchild looked around to see if anyone was close enough to overhear. "Pictures, all right, but they're from Vesta, they're almost five years old and I think you'll find them VERY interesting. Can we talk trade?"
"How firm is this?"
"My source is impeccable. He wants this to come out but he's scared. If we can confirm his story, he'll come forward."
"What do you want for it?"
"Your lead on the Veep and the bank deal."
Amy thought about it. That was a good solid lead on a story she could break as an exclusive. "Let me see one. If it's as interesting as you say...it's a deal for the rest."
Fairchild slotted the chip and pulled up an image. It was grainy, the camera hadn't had a very high resolution. But she didn't need a studio image to recognize a dead chig lying beside a machine of some kind. "What's this thing?"
"One of their radio transmitters, my source told me."
She leaned forward. "You have someone who can confirm Aerotech knew about the chigs over four years ago?"
"That isn't all. They killed this chig and shut down the transmitter."
"But they didn't leave evidence lying around on Vesta."
"Unfortunately for them, they did, but you aren't going to find out what till you pony up."
Amy found a blank chip and copied several files to it, then handed it over. "Talk, Fairchild."
"Look at the rest of the pictures."
She flipped through, they were carvings in a rock cliff. All of them had seen images of the chig alphabet from the phony peace conference, it seemed obvious to Amy that some of the carvings were in that same alphabet. Others were abstract designs that she had no way of interpreting. "Jesus Christ, Johnny, it's all true, isn't it?"
"Well, I don't know about all. But it sure explains why the chig ambassador was willing to commit suicide in order to take out CEO Wayne, doesn't it? My source took these other pictures, but when the Aerotech recon team killed that chig, he didn't turn them over to the company."
"So why didn't you keep this for yourself?" Amy asked him. "This could be the story of a lifetime, if we can confirm it."
Fairchild looked at her long and hard. "Because I may be nuts, but I'm not suicidal, Amy. I think whoever tries to break this story will never live to file it. Aerotech is not going to let this come out. But you've been on them like a bulldog as long as I've known you, sooner or later you're going to become just too much of a pain in the ass for them to put up with you anymore. They're going to get you anyway one of these days if you don't get them first. It might be your only chance."
Amy tucked the chip safely in a zippered pocket. "I only need one chance, Johnny my friend. Go get the Veep!"
"Amy --" He took a deep breath. "Amy, play this one really smart. I don't want to have signed your death warrant by putting you onto this."
"How do you know I wouldn't have come onto it myself anyway down the line?" She countered. "Like you said, I've been on them like a bulldog for almost five years now."
"Good luck." With that, he went back to his own desk.
Amy took a deep breath. Could everything she'd been waiting for all these years really have just fallen into her lap? She pushed away from her desk and headed for the elevator.
She had known the paper's editor in chief, Jarrod Brand, since she was a little girl. That got her into his office without an appointment, but that was all the preferential treatment she had ever expected or wanted from him. When he'd hired her three years ago, he'd given her the chance and the challenge to prove herself to be something more than just her father's child. She had lived up to that challenge and she was proud to have earned Brand's respect.
She shut the door behind her. "I need travel permits to Vesta."
He laughed. "Yeah, you want a castle in France while I'm at it?"
"Jarrod, I am serious here. I'm sitting on the scoop of the century. Slot this up."
He took the chip and looked through the files, and stopped joking around as soon as he saw the first few. "Is this genuine?"
"The source will come forward if we can confirm the story," Amy said.
"Do you know who the source is?"
"No, but I trust the person who gave me the pictures with my life, and he vouches for this source."
Brand tapped his finger on the desk, thinking. "I can get you out to the war zone, no problem. There are news teams on the carriers all the time. But you'd be on your own to get from there to Vesta. The war zone's shifted the other way for now...Vesta is in Earth-held space. But you'd probably have to hire an independent trader to take you there. Considering that both Vesta and Tellus have been placed off-limits, that would have to be a smuggler. Are you sure you want to do this?"
Amy said, "I'm sure, Jarrod! You know what breaking this story means to me."
"I know. In your place I'd be doing the same thing...but I'm not a father. Is avenging Justin worth leaving your kids orphans?"
Slowly she said, "It isn't only Justin any more. If this is true, then the people at Aerotech who engineered this cover-up are directly responsible for this war, and guilty of all the deaths it's caused, and all the ones it will cause before it ends. Someone has to get to the truth, Jarrod, there has to be justice for all those people. This is my job."
He nodded. "I'll get back to you as soon as I've arranged something. Take the rest of the day off and wrap things up at home."
"Amy. Didn't you say your ex is a Marine? Any help from him? If you can run this through the military, it could really grease the wheels if you play it right."
She hesitated. "I don't know about involving him...it wouldn't be ethical to use the relationship we had in that way, would it?"
"I'll leave that decision up to your judgment. It isn't unethical to ask a friend for help when you need it, though -- just keep that in mind. Good luck."
"Whoa, don't thank me until they hand you your Pulitzer."
She grinned and said as she ducked out the door, "Don't worry, you'll be in my acceptance speech."
Jarrod Brand looked after her for a long moment. "Just be alive to make it," he said under his breath.
© Becky Ratliff 9/96