Respects are duly offered to Ridley Scott, whose influence on this story should be obvious.

ENCOUNTERS
by
Becky Ratliff

Part One

(USS Saratoga, January 20, 2065, 0700)
Glen Ross paused for a moment before walking into TC McQueen's office. In his capacity as this ship's commanding officer, it often fell to him to deliver news of all sorts to his people. From the joy of a new birth, to the tragedy of a death back home, and everything in between, he was sure that he had seen it all at one time or another -- until news of a different sort had stepped off a transport at 0500 this morning.... He rehearsed exactly how to put it, then gave up and tapped at the hatch.

Robbie Carey was in McQueen's office. She had pulled up a chair and they had a lot of paperwork spread out on the desk between them -- planning patrol assignments for the week. They worked together on that, and other overlapping areas, a lot better than the previous CAG and Honcho had. The Marine squadrons were "loaned" to the Air Boss for routine patrol duty and so forth, and that was where the interservice rivalry between the "jarheads" and the "squids" usually cropped up. McQueen and Carey never let that kind of thing go beyond the occasional wisecrack.

They both stood as Ross came in. Carey said, "Good morning, Commodore."

"Good morning, Robbie." He considered. Ordinarily, the kind of news he had to deliver wasn't what you'd call private ... but you never knew how Ty was going to react to things. "Could you excuse us for a moment?"

"Certainly, sir. Does anyone else want coffee, should I bring back a pot?"

"Thank you, but none for me." When McQueen also shook his head, Carey left the office in the direction of the officers' mess. Once the hatch had shut behind her, McQueen asked, "What's this all about, sir?"

"Ty, you have a couple of visitors waiting for you in my office." Ross took a deep breath. "They came in aboard a supply shuttle this morning. It's a woman and her daughter. Ty, she ... says that she is your sister."

McQueen tapped the paperwork into a neat stack and hid whatever he was feeling behind his classic understated sarcasm. "Hell of a long way to come for a family reunion."

"I took the liberty of checking out her story, and it appears to be genuine."

"What's she doing all the way out here?"

"I think I should let her explain."

McQueen nodded once. "I suppose I shouldn't keep her waiting."

They met Carey as they were leaving. She looked back and forth between them over the steaming rim of her coffee cup. She was unsure if she should ask, but finally concern won out over trepidation. "Colonel, is there a problem?"

"No problem, Captain ... apparently I have a sister."

Roberta said, "TC, that's wonderful news -- isn't it?"

He took a moment to answer. "I hope so, Robbie."

She touched his arm lightly for a moment. "Good luck. I'll finish this up, there really isn't much more to do besides put it all in the computer."

"Thank you, Robbie." He and Ross looked at each other, then they went down the corridor together. Roberta collected the papers and followed them out. She gave them a thoughtful look before went back to her work ... Delta Blues was still on the Black Knight's three, just like always.

Neither man spoke on the way to Ross' office, they didn't need to. Ross opened the hatch.

The moment McQueen stepped into the office, he knew the woman sitting there was in fact his sister. There was something that went deeper than the unmistakable resemblance that they shared. He had talked to Shane once about connections with biological relatives -- and there was one, so intense it was like picking up a live wire. His eyes travelled to the little girl on her lap ... she was about three years old, with long, silver-blue curls and eyes a shade darker than his own. She stared at him for a moment, then turned around and put her arms around her mother's neck, shy as children of that age often are.

His sister stood up and shifted the child to her other hip so she could extend her hand. "Hello, Colonel McQueen."

"If you're my sister, I think that rates a little less formality. People call me TC."

"TC. I'm Alison Brown, and this is Heather."

Glen decided it didn't look like anyone was going to bite. "Use my office for as long as you like," he said. "Miss Alison." The polite old Southern form of address suddenly didn't seem a bit anachronistic, in this office, between these two people. McQueen was suddenly just as glad that Ross didn't have a cover on, or he would have tipped it.

Ross' charm had its effect on Alison, she smiled and said, "Thank you, Commodore Ross."

They sat down. McQueen commented, "You've come a long way. Travelling with a child into the war zone is a very dangerous thing to do."

She stroked the child's hair with scarred, calloused hands. "I know. I was able to get permission to come here and bring Heather because it's a medical emergency. I've known who you were for a long while now. I didn't want to interfere with your life, but I don't have a choice any longer."

McQueen asked, "Medical emergency?"

"Heather has been diagnosed with leukemia. It's of a form that can be treated easily. She will need a bone marrow transplant. I'm not an ideal match for her, but according to your records, you are."

"I don't see a problem, if Medbay confirms that. I doubt we have a pediatrician on board the Sara, but Dr. O'Leary is the best flight surgeon in the business."

"I'm really uncomfortable trusting strange doctors with Heather. Her doctor back on Ganelon has an IV wife."

McQueen understood her concern. "You can trust Mary."


Mary O'Leary gave Heather a sheet of paper and some markers from her desk. Within a few minutes, the toddler was lying on the deck in the corner of the office, happily drawing, while the adults conversed.

"Your information was right on the money. Alison, as a doctor, I'm curious about this. You and TC are as similar as identical twins, considering that you're female. Heather is approximately 50% genetically identical to you -- exactly as I would have expected from your daughter. But that doesn't tell the whole story. The other 50%, which should have come from her father, instead is only marginally different from your pattern. And she is nearly 90% identical to TC ... without exactly matching any of the IVA gene maps that I was able to come by for your genetype. Now those differences are very minor ones. With the tests I had available to me at the beginning of my career I would have missed them. I don't have an explanation for them."

Alison replied, "Heather would have been an In Vitro, and a sister to both of us, by all rights. Her batch was designed on Ganelon. They began with TC's pattern, and incorporated some changes to make her and her generation more at home on Ganelon. But then they decided to give these children mothers. I was one of the women chosen for that project." McQueen knew that detached, superficially emotionless tone a little too well ... he heard it in his own voice when he had to discuss some things that he would rather leave in the past.

"You volunteered for that?"

Alison shook her head. "The choice was made for me, Doctor, I was still indentured at the time."

O'Leary stared. "So instead of terraforming the planet, they're designing people to live there?"

Alison nodded. "The intention with the Ganelon colony has always been to create a population that would be self-continuing. Sheer profit for the company after that. They did more than double the survival rate. Nearly all of Heather's batch were born alive, and of those, sixty to seventy percent are expected to live to eighteen. If she'd been an IV, of course, she would never have been gestated to term -- she would have been erased when her leukemia became known. Instead ... they just didn't tell us there was roughly a one in four chance that our surviving children would die before the age of eighteen." Alison stood and walked over to the viewport, controlling her anger before she went on. "The project itself was forced to stop when the system of indentures was banned. The social experiment, of course, was a failure. Take any group of disadvantaged young women and force motherhood upon them without their consent -- how many do you expect to be successful at the job? Especially when about ten percent of the children were born with medical problems that killed them before they were a year old, and children such as Heather fall into another thirty percent whose gene map is a time bomb.

A lot of the experimental subjects gave up the rights to their children and left Ganelon when their indentures ended. I'm not about to judge them for doing that. But it wasn't the decision that I made when they freed us in '63." She stood for a moment watching Heather draw, listening to the soft scratching sound of the felt-tip pens on paper.

TC asked, "How old are you, Alison?"

"I was decanted in '61."

"Then you were only a first-year when you had Heather?"

"That's right, I was only ten months myself when I had her. We all were."

Mary said, "I thought I had heard of every possible outrage but this--!"

Alison said, "We're either 'single parents' or else heartless monsters who've abandoned our children, from the spin the company has put on it. It's been difficult to create a public outcry under those circumstances. I don't doubt you weren't aware of the situation. Everyone sees Ganelon as a model agro station, the place where all the medical miracles like gelskins come from. No one knows what's been going on behind closed doors all these years."

TC's eyes met hers. "I've been on the Nightingale, the Navy hospital ship that's part of the Kennedy's battle group, when groups of school children were brought up. Doesn't the truth come out then?"

Alison shook her head. "None of the project children are old enough to start school yet, TC. Those kids really are NBs, although most of them have at least one In Vitro parent. The project kids were all born from December of 2059 until just recently -- the last few were born eight months after the Liberation Act took effect."

"Sweet Mother of Jesus," O'Leary said softly. "Well, all that I have for you is *good* news! The genetic defect that caused Heather's leukemia is the only one I was able to find, and it's been caught early enough that she has an almost 100% chance of a cure. Just as their genetic codes indicated, Heather and TC are nearly a perfect match, there shouldn't be any trouble at all with the transplant."

Concerned, McQueen asked, "Mary, there isn't any chance that I've picked up some kind of radiation damage or something like that along the way, is there? I wouldn't want to transmit anything to Heather."

"No, nothing that shows up on scans, TC -- and they're very thorough. Believe me, I was very careful about that."

Alison asked, "What do you mean?"

McQueen replied, "I was indentured in a uranium mine, the radiation exposure had secondary effects on a lot of the survivors. I've been lucky so far. But I wouldn't want to solve this problem and accidentally pass on something else to Heather in the process."

Mary said, "As I said, I've checked, and there's no such thing."

Alison asked, "What exactly are you going to do?"

"Before I explain, let me tell you it sounds worse than it is. You know that the treatment to eradicate the leukemia cells will also destroy Heather's own bone marrow. She'll have to have treatments on a machine twice a day to take the place of that until the transplant takes hold. Fortunately we have the machine now ... when I was just starting out, we had to do blood transfusions until the transplant took over, for several months. And we couldn't do anything about the risk of infection except isolate the patient for a month to six weeks. Now, the transplant itself is relatively simple."

TC said, "I know about the procedure, Mary, there isn't any problem."

Alison asked, "What? I wasn't told this was dangerous or anything--"

"It isn't. I donated once before in Mobile. You go in, they put a needle in your hip bone and extract the bone marrow, and you go back to your outfit. I was sore for a week or so, but that's it." He didn't mention that it wasn't just one needle stick, it was more like fifty or a hundred. It didn't matter, he'd only felt the first couple, before the local had really started working. He scowled and looked over at Heather. "It might be frightening for a baby, though, Mary."

"Oh, no, for her it's just like a blood transfusion, didn't you know that? As for you, it's usual to do this under a light general anesthetic--"

McQueen said, "Not damn likely, I don't want to get all doped up -- that's worse than donating in the first place."

"--except that was what I thought you'd say," Mary grinned. "Alison, don't worry, you're not asking TC to do anything dangerous here. Like I said, it really does sound worse than it is. With the local, you feel the needle go in the bone, which *is* weird, but there's no pain. I've done it too, and no, I didn't let them put me under, either."

"When will you do this?"

"I want to run some more tests on Heather, and after I've done that, I'll want to consult with a pediatric oncologist just to be sure. You'll probably be aboard the Sara about three weeks, all told, until we're sure the transplant has taken."

"All right."

Mary wrote out a prescription and tore the sheet off the pad. "Give this to the nurse at the desk, she'll get the tests started. I'll let you know the results as soon as they come back."

"Thank you, Dr. O'Leary."

McQueen watched her take Heather out of the room. "Mary."

"Yes, TC?"

"When you collect the bone marrow, make sure you've got enough for another try. Just in case. Anything could happen in three weeks."

O'Leary said, "I am damned tired of 'just in case', TC. But I'll make sure."

"The kid will be all right, won't she?"

"Yes, dear heart, she'll be fine," Mary assured him. "We've caught it very early. I've never actually seen the treatment fail at this stage of the disease."


Ross was concerned when he didn't see any more of McQueen that morning. It was never easy to tell what his old friend was thinking, but he had taken this news rather quietly, even for him ... and Ross wasn't sure what that meant. He took Vansen aside in the officers' mess that afternoon. "Have you spoken to Ty today?"

"I haven't seen him since early this morning, sir. Is something wrong?"

"Not at all, I'll find him later," Ross replied. It wasn't his place to tell Vansen about Alison ... and he couldn't ask any more questions without letting the cat out of the bag. He was aware of the anxious, curious look Vansen gave him, but she didn't ask. She probably wouldn't come right out and ask Ty, either, though she certainly would make sure he was all right.

Ross thought about how lucky his friend was to have found someone who could put up with his dark moods and long silences. Not every woman was that patient. Vansen understood that when something new happened, McQueen needed time to himself to explore the idea from all sides. Maybe she understood because there was a lot of that in her, too.

He passed his usual lift to the bridge, and took the back way that led up to the "widow's walk", a series of alcoves with viewports above the bridge. Usually, the ship's running lights provided enough illumination through the ports to keep from tripping over the boxes and crates that were stored up here, but there was a routine test of the viewport armored hatches in progress. It was dark as pitch. At the top of the steep, narrow gangway, Ross' hand went unerringly to the small flashlight he kept in his pocket. He would never get his covert-ops training completely out of his system -- there were several items he would never be caught without and a light was one of them.

He found McQueen right where he expected, sitting in his usual spot. "Interesting view," Ross commented finally. "Inside of a blast hatch...."

McQueen made a noise that could have been a laugh -- maybe. Ross took that as an invitation to sit down on a crate across from him. The climb up here wasn't getting any shorter.

Over the years, Ross had learned that the directness typical of InVitroes among themselves was the best way to deal with McQueen. "Are you okay with this, Ty?"

"Tell you when I know," McQueen replied. He was silent for a moment. "She's eighteen years younger than I am ... and after all the sacrifices we've made to change things ... my sister was still conceived with the purpose of having a baby. That's all they wanted her for ... she wasn't a person to them at all, just a brood mare."

"What the hell do you mean? What happened?" Ross asked.

McQueen went on to explain, his clipped sentences and too-controlled voice betraying the fury he kept in check. Ross was just as red-hot mad by the time McQueen finished telling it.

McQueen said, "Sometimes, Glen -- sometimes I feel like I'm just beating my head against a brick wall. We've been working within the system for years, trying to make changes where they'll count ... and there are times I think all we ever accomplished was that Diane used the movement to jump into the Secretary General's office."

Ross didn't often see that kind of frustration from McQueen. He rarely allowed himself to dwell on the "brick walls" that life threw up in his path, there were just too damned many of them to make that a profitable enterprise. This time, though, the grievance was a little too much to set aside. "The Secretary General got the indenture system banned, Ty. She did do that."

"And history may forgive her everything else she's done because of that one thing. Lincoln freed the slaves, and Hayden freed the tanks. No one will remember anything else about either one of them in another century. Being a part of history didn't help Alison, or Heather, that much."

Ross looked into the darkness beyond the little circle illuminated by his flashlight. He reflected that, when life put you in that frame of mind, it should also conveniently provide something to shoot at. After a time, he replied, "I think people might remember a little more about them than that. I doubt either Lincoln's accomplishments, or Hayden's .. history ... are going to disappear that completely." He thought about it a moment, and a few parallels came to his mind. "Neither did it help my ancestors that much, Ty, to be a part of Civil War history. The black Rosses sharecropped for the white Rosses for another hundred years after the war ended. They never reaped the fruits of their freedom, but they never stopped believing that all things are possible. Now, two hundred years later, here I am ... one of hundreds of African-Americans who've held this rank over the years. The color of my skin has no more to do with anything than the color of my hair or my eyes. Change does not come over night, nor without great suffering. But it comes. As individuals, as a people, we grow and change, and that is my hope for the future."

McQueen nodded, accepting the truth in his friend's words. "It's strange ... after all this time alone ... now there are two other people out there in the universe who are always going to be connected to me. It changes everything, doesn't it?"

Ross leaned his head back against the bulkhead. "You've been part of the IV rights movement for years, and you've spent your career defending your country, and your world. Now your causes have human faces, a sister and a niece. Is that a bad thing?"

"No, sir. No, it isn't."

"What did Mary say about Heather?"

"Shouldn't be a problem. Alison got her out here basically as soon as they made the diagnosis, there's every chance for a cure."

Ross nodded. "That's good. Ty ... don't you think Shane ought to hear about this from you before someone else tells her? I didn't think it was my place to spill the beans when I saw her a little while ago, but it won't be long before there are rumors and she's bound to hear them."

McQueen thought that Ross was right about that. He should have gone to her sooner. "Yes, sir." He watched Ross leave, and waited in the darkness a few moments longer to gather his thoughts ... then he went looking for Shane.

He found her down in the hangar bay, up to her elbows in her portside engine along with her chief mechanic. She had the sense to ask questions and pay attention to the answers. McQueen waited until she crossed to a sink to wash off the grease before he spoke to her.

She looked up at him and her eyes lit up. "Hello."

"Hello yourself, grease monkey." He smiled a little and indicated a smudge of grease on her nose.

She wiped it off, laughing. "Did the Commodore find you? He was looking for you earlier." Her eyes fixed on his, she left her concern unvoiced knowing that he would read it well enough in her expression without words.

"A little while ago. Have you got a few minutes?"

She nodded. "Has something happened?"

He nodded. "This morning ... I have a sister, Shane."

Her eyes widened. "Say again?!"

McQueen explained about Alison, and Heather, and the child's illness. "All this is still soaking in. I'm not sure I believe it myself. They just ... got off a transport, and here they are."

"But will Heather be all right? I mean ... leukemia ... that's awful."

"Yes, but Mary says it was caught soon enough that she ought to be fine."

"Well, thank God for that!" Was Shane's first reaction. "But ... Ty, a sister!"

"Yeah, I know!" He shook his head. "She's known about me for a couple of years, but she said she didn't contact me because she didn't want to interfere with my life. That may be a polite way to say she didn't want me to interfere with hers. She's done well for herself and Heather."

Shane smiled. "Don't try to figure it out, Ty. Just take it a day at a time. Believe it or not, good things do happen sometimes."

"Easy for you to say. You're used to having sisters."

"My sisters are my best friends ... but I've never had such fights with anyone as I've had with them. Even so, even when we're fighting, where ever Anne or Lauren is, that's home."

"What was it Frost said? Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in?"

Shane laughed. "I think that's about the way it is. We always know we could land on each other's doorsteps dead broke with nothing but what we were wearing, and move right in."

"That's what it's all about, I guess. I don't know how to start building that kind of a relationship with Alison."

"I guess it's like anything else. The friendship comes first and you work from there."

"Is it that easy?"

"Guess it's as easy as you make it," she replied. "Get through this thing with Heather first, Ty. As far as this whole 'relationship' thing goes ... cross that bridge when you come to it. I think it probably will all work itself out anyway."

McQueen thought about what she'd said. "You're probably right."

The prolonged clatter of an air drill made any more quiet conversation impossible, they left the hangar bay together.


Marcy made sure the hatch to her quarters was shut before she logged into her computer with a report back to Washington that, basically, she had nothing new to report. To her surprise, it was not Colonel Penderson who took the report, but General Jeffords.

"General! I thought they were making you rest," she said, delighted.

"I threatened to report them for violation of the Geneva convention," was the dry reply, but the General returned the smile in spite of herself. "Got anything new?"

Marcy thought that the General did look better. Getting back to work always gave her a lift, and her color was better besides. It was hard to tell on the vid, but it looked like she might actually have gained back a little weight. She answered, "No, ma'am, just the usual."

"Okay, you can send it in a minute, but for now listen up. There've been persistant reports of sightings of chig vessels in the Kali wormholes. A squadron, God rest 'em, reported contact with one carrier, but other than that it's all been just patrol craft and cargo haulers jumping through at irregular intervals. They avoid contact with us whenever they can. We need to know where they're coming from and where they're going."

The Kali wormholes, Marcy knew, were the first such system ever found and mapped by Earth explorers. There were reliable connections between Earth and Groombridge, which had allowed Earth's first permanent forays into another solar system. That didn't mean, however, that all of the Kali wormholes had been reliably mapped. Some of them were too small and appeared at too irregular of intervals for that. Before the war, no real effort had been made to map the ones that were useless for commerce. Now that the information was needed, there weren't people available to do the work. Apparently the chigs were making use of those "back doors" for some purpose.

"Ma'am, I have to admire the nerve of the captain who'd take something the size of a carrier through one of those!"

Jeffords agreed, "If chigs got balls, he's got two big ones." She turned serious. "Get me something I can use, Marcy. I've got a bad feeling about this ... Mr. Chiggy's up to something."

"General, may I tell Colonel McQueen about this?"

"That might be the best idea you've had all day," Jeffords replied. "He's got a knack for jumping to the right conclusions, anyhow."

"Yes, ma'am."


(USS Saratoga, January 21, 2065)
Alison stood beside Heather's gurney, smiling and reassuring the child. Dr. O'Leary said, "I'll call you just as soon as she's back in her bed."

She nodded. McQueen said, "We'll wait in my quarters, Mary."

"I want to be here--" Alison objected.

Ty explained, "Alison, this isn't a civilian hospital, there's no waiting room. You'll have to stand around in the corridor outside, and there's no phone out there for Mary to let you know when you can see Heather. My quarters are not too far away, it'll be more comfortable there and they'll be able to find you when they need you."

"Oh ... okay, then."

O'Leary nodded to McQueen, then followed the gurney through a hatch marked "Authorized Personel Only." Alison stood looking at the hatch until McQueen took her arm and guided her out to the nearest lift.

"Heather's going to be okay. Nobody dies of leukemia any more if it's caught early. If you let yourself get all worked up, Heather will know and she'll get scared too. You don't want that, do you? She's going to be fine."

Alison took a deep breath. "I know that, TC. I'm just being a mommy here, cut me some slack. It's the idea ... from here, there's no turning back. After this, if the transplant doesn't take, she's going to need that machine to make new blood cells for her for the rest of her life."

"That's the worst that could happen, Alison, and lots of people live their whole lives that way. It's fifteen minutes twice a day, that's a small price to pay to be alive and healthy."

"I know. I know that."

"Come on. You've been on your feet all day. You can't take care of Heather if you don't take care of yourself first."

She took an interest when they stepped into his quarters. "Oh, books! I love books. I haven't been able to collect this many--!"

"I've had a few more years to collect them."

She perused the titles. "Military history and ... I don't recognize most of these names. Are they all Oriental philosophers?"

"Mostly. What do you read?"

"History, too, but not just military history. Biographies. I'm fascinated with the way people lived in different places and cultures at different times. I just finished this same book about Joan of Arc, but I didn't have a real book, I downloaded it. These illustrations are beautiful in print, all I have is the little screen on my pocket computer and it doesn't do them justice.

I love poetry, but I'd rather download a spoken version and listen to it rather than read it. I've done a lot of research on the history of civil rights action, and studied a lot of case law dealing with that. And, of course, my school work... I'm about half-way to my bachelors in ag-sci." She smiled. "Mustn't forget Dr. Seuss!"

"Who?"

"Twentieth century children's author. Heather's favorite. Cat in the Hat? Green Eggs and Ham?" She shook her head at his blank look. "She has them memorized. Sometimes I change a word just to see what she'll do, she catches me every time!"

"She's sharp as a little tack."

"Sometimes a little too smart for poor Mommy," Alison said. "A few weeks ago, she figured out how to get the door open and got outside at night. My whole life flashed before my eyes when I woke up and she wasn't there beside me, or anywhere in the house--!"

"I remember once when one of the Commodore's nephews got mad at his parents and decided to run away from home. Lee Roy was about five years old at the time. This was during the AI war. There's a large swampy forest right up against Glen's brother's property, and at that time the AIs were known to hide out in there when they wanted to try a terrorist attack on the base. Glen's sister-in-law was having a nervous breakdown, and before it was over with, we had the whole squadron out there in the swamp looking for him. Lee Roy turned up the next morning. It seems he'd never left the yard. He got scared of all the Marines, so he hid in the garage."

Alison laughed. "We've never had AIs, but dracos are bad enough."

McQueen had heard of them, they were among Ganelon's fiercest predators. The colonists hunted them mercilessly because they had been known to swoop down and carry off small children, and even attack adults when they were hungry enough. Ganelon was still very much wilderness. "It can't be an easy thing to raise a child on the frontier like that."

She pointed out, "I don't have to be concerned about street gangs and drug pushers, like I would if I'd taken her back to Earth. Some of my friends who went there came home when I was able to make some jobs last season, they didn't want their kids growing up in the tank towns. I don't have to worry about some nat gang getting all irate about something and setting an apartment building on fire with me in it. That happened to my friend Jessa, she had to jump out a third story window with her little boy to get out because the fire escape was blocked. I don't know how the fall didn't kill them both. It's beyond me why in hell anyone would want to stay there, with all the prejudice and no jobs.

At least on Ganelon we aren't a minority. The company still runs the town and controls off-world trade, there's no getting away from it ... but there are plenty of opportunities out on the stations if you don't mind a little hard work."

McQueen said, "You've been involved from the beginning in turning Ganelon into what it is today. Most of us have a different opinion of the agro colonies, people who served their indentures in places like that are going to think long and hard about walking back into one."

"Well, I can understand that," she conceded. "If you don't mind my asking ... how in the world did you end up in the military? There weren't a lot of us until just this year or so."

"When my hitch in the IV platoons was up, I enlisted in the Corps, and I've never looked back. I don't have any regrets about that. I can't imagine working on an agro station, staying in one place year after year after year like that."

"It's a hard life, but it's a good one. That land is mine, and it'll be there for Heather when I'm gone." He could see the pride in her eyes, she'd started with literally nothing and worked hard to make a life for herself and her child. McQueen knew a quiet life on a farm was not for him, but that didn't diminish his respect for Alison's accomplishments.


(USS Saratoga, January 22, 2065)
Ross was doing some paperwork at his station while he kept an eye on the bridge. It was routine, quiet work today. His people tended their stations, with nothing but the hum of the electronics and the occasional wisecrack to break the silence. The Saratoga was cruising the outer ranges of the Pan system. One of the star systems accessible through the wormhole network around New Jerusalem, Pan had gotten its name because its radio emissions sounded like some sort of weird pipe music over half the frequencies the Navy preferred to use. Pan was a rather out-of-the-way Sol-like system, with one little snowball of a planet that was technically habitable by humans, an asteroid belt, two nondescript gas giants, and a tiny barren rockball in the outermost orbit. The ship's astronomers were still arguing whether that thing should be classified as a planet or an asteroid. Glen Ross doubted anyone outside that department would ever care what they finally agreed to call it. The one thing they could all agree on was that there was Nothing Here ... unless the chigs had established a base in this system.

That was not unlikely, since an intermittent wormhole made it a back door to the chig home system twice a month for two hours at a time. The Sara's orders were to secure the system. So far, though, neither recon flights nor routine patrols had discovered anything to secure the system from.

Ross refilled his coffee mug and took a walk around the bridge.

The kid at the comms station had something on his screen, he was methodically selecting parts of a signal and expanding a second or two of sound to fill the screen. Curious, Ross came over there. "What have you got, son?"

"I don't know, sir, maybe nothing. It could just be background noise, but..." There was concern in the young man's voice. Larry Pfieffer was his name, he was just a couple of months past eighteen. His short-cropped black hair had a tendency to stand out in cowlicks.

"What makes you think it isn't?"

Pfieffer pointed to his screen. "This area here, sir, between the bursts of noise or static or whatever it is. If it was something random, there shouldn't be anything here. But look at this, don't you think this could be a carrier wave, sir?"

Ross didn't want to admit to the earnest young man that he'd just sailed past the limits of his technical knowlege about radio signals. "Can you clean it up a little more and find out for sure?"

"I've been trying to do that, sir, but the computer resources aren't available. If I could go down to Comms on the mids and run it through the system down there when there's less demand on the mainframe, maybe I could do more with it?"

Ross nodded. He wasn't going to discourage a kid whose enthusiasm got him out of his rack at midnight to pull extra duty. "Permission granted, Seaman Pfieffer, let me know if you find out anything."

"Aye, aye, sir."


Vansen took the seat next to McQueen. The rec room was almost deserted, except for a few people playing cards at the other end of the room. "How's Heather?"

"Considering that she doesn't like her treatments at all, she's doing fine. I've got to be down there in about ten mikes."

She nodded. "So ... tell me about Alison."

"What is there to tell?"

"How is this going?"

He looked at her. "She and I come out of two different worlds, Shane. It isn't the same as you and your sisters, you have a common background that shapes everything you do as individuals. What she and I have are gene maps that say we're brother and sister. I don't know how Alison felt about it, but I knew that as soon as I saw her. Remember when we talked about your family and connections? There really is something to that ... but the hell if I know what it's supposed to mean. I guess we'll have to define things as we go along."

Shane nodded. "When do I get to meet her?"

"Right now, if you've got time. I was going down to medbay early enough to look in on Heather."

Shane had meant to find some excuse to go down to medbay with him anyway. As no one else did, she knew the nerve it took to face the associations brought up by needles and other sharp objects. She didn't have to say a word for her presence to offer support and understanding.


Heather was asleep. Alison had pulled back the curtain so she could keep a watchful eye on her daughter through the window while she had a cup of coffee at the nurses' station. Gloria Fallon and a tall blond nurse were working at the station.

Shane remembered the second nurse's name after a moment, Melissa something ... Kenny Lucas had been paying a lot of attention to her since he'd been in sickbay. Kenny was back on light duty now after being knifed by that AI on Kazbek.

Vansen thought, that was one more time they'd been lucky. She scowled for a moment. McQueen had the right idea not to believe in luck, she reflected. You didn't have to worry about the luck turning on you if you didn't believe in it!

They went into Heather's room to avoid blocking traffic in front of the nurses' station. McQueen introduced Shane and Alison, he saw the two women appraising each other and he was surprised at the relief he felt when they hit it off. It was only then that he realized how much he had wanted them to approve of one another. "Alison, how did Heather's treatment go this morning?"

"Oh, she threw a godawful tantrum, she really hates being tied down to that machine. But as soon as it was over, she went right to sleep."

Shane said, "Poor kid, she probably wore herself out. You just can't explain things to a three-year-old."

There was a tap at the hatch, and Mary O'Leary stuck her head in. "Ty, we can get you ready now." She looked in on Heather. "Is Granny's little girl still asleep?" She glanced at the readouts on the monitors and assured Alison, "She's doing fine."

Shane saw Ty take a moment to watch Heather sleeping before he went with Mary.

Alison asked, "Are you and TC in the same outfit? Have you known each other long?"

Shane said, "We've served together since the war started. When he was in command of the 58th, I was honcho. He's still my commanding officer, we've just played a round of musical chairs with promotions. A year and eight months is a long time out here, so I guess you could say we've known each other quite a while." How gracefully she beat around the bush, Shane thought wryly. Every word of that was true, but it sure avoided the Truth.

Alison set her empty coffee cup on the table and the two women sat down to wait. "I'm glad that TC isn't alone here. When I first found out who he was, and that he was the only In Vitro officer aboard this ship at that time, I had the wrong idea about what that would be like."

"Well -- I'm not sure what to say. I think there's always been less intolerance in the Corps than probably anywhere else in society as a whole. I don't mean to sound like a recruitment commercial, but it's true. There's prejudice here, to be sure ... we have our fair share of bigots ... but we're all Marines first. That always has kept a lid on it."

Heather stirred in her sleep, kicked off her blanket. Alison tiptoed over there to cover her again and paused to smooth her curls back away from her face. Shane watched the toddler's little hand close around a couple of her mother's fingers for a few moments, before she went back to sleep.


Mary finished up. "That's it, TC. Be careful putting your weight on your leg at first, you won't have full control over the prosthesis until the local wears off. You should stay off it as much as you can for a few hours."

"I think I can find some papers to sign," he replied. "How long before we'll know anything?" He sat up carefully and pulled on his clothes with measured movements, he didn't want to give Mary an excuse for an I-told-you-so.

"It takes a few weeks to be sure, this is one of the times when Mother Nature will not be hurried. Patience."

That was a hard lesson, but he'd learned it. "I don't need to come back for this, do I?"

Mary thought about it. "Not really, unless you notice something that's not right. Common sense. You'll be in and out of here anyway to see Heather, just tell me if you need anything."


(New York City, January 22, 2065)
As usual, the first fifteen minutes of the monthly meeting of the Tellus/Vesta Colonists Association was a loud round of greetings and hugs and squeals, as if half of them hadn't seen each other within the last two days and they hadn't kept in constant touch with the other half. The representative of the law firm they had hired, Matt Silverstein, had learned months ago that there was no sense arriving on time. He would be left standing in a corner with his briefcase in his hands, shut out of a circle that no outsider could ever really enter. Today, fifteen minutes late hadn't quite cut it ... everyone was crowded around a viewer watching the video of Kylen West's wedding. Silverstein quietly arranged the papers he had brought with him and waited for the meeting to start.

Finally, Kenzie Thompson looked at the time and said, "We're late again! Let's start the meeting then we can take Kylen someplace nice and celebrate." Still laughing and chattering, they took their places around the conference table.

Kylen said, "Okay, let's come to order."

"Does anyone need to hear the minutes from last month? If not I move to dispense." Kenzie was the only surviving member of the ship's bridge crew, she had been the co-pilot.

"Seconded." Rosie said.

Everyone else nodded.

Kylen said, "Okay, any new business?"

Jesse Cordell said, "I got an offer from the Star Entertainer for an exclusive, they're up to two hundred thousand now. People, that's getting to be a lot of money."

Kenzie said, "That's a supermarket rag! We don't want to give them anything, at least not until later."

Jesse said, "I DIDN'T do it. But what I'm getting at is, they hinted that if I didn't give them an interview, they'd make something up and print it anyway."

Matt said, "Good. If they do we'll sue their asses and you'll get better than two-hundred-K."

Kylen said, "Okay ... then we're agreed about the supermarket rags? We don't do that now?"

There was a murmur of agreement.

Stefanie Millhouse raised her hand. "I have a problem. I've been Josh's legal guardian because I live nearest to Heatherton Manor. That's fine and I've been glad to do it. But now the doctor says Mom can't live alone and she absolutely refuses to come to New York. I'm going to have to move back to Minneapolis and live with her."

Kylen asked, "What does Josh's doctor say?"

"He might not ever get any better, he'll probably have good days and bad days the rest of his life. When I saw him yesterday, he knew me all day. We walked around the grounds and he asked me all kinds of questions about the rest of you, and how the lawsuit was going -- he was normal. But his nurse said he was doing that staring thing of his almost all day Wednesday ... and he knew you and Rosie had been to visit him Saturday because the nurses told him, but said he didn't remember. He was asking me to explain all the pictures you left because he couldn't remember you telling him about them. He couldn't be left alone, but -- I'll be honest, he sounds better than my Mom! What scares me is, that doctor is still listing putting him down as one of our options."

Rosie said, "You give me ten minutes with that little son of a bitch, I'll show him some options."

"That isn't the point!" Stefanie said. "We need to do something to make sure Josh is okay, not just now but in fifty years! I'm gonna be halfway across the freakin' country, I can't keep an eye on things from there. That's the best place we could find and we still have to keep after them day and night."

"If he's always going to be like that -- if they really can't help him any more than they have already -- why can't we bring him home? He can live with me," Jesse said.

There was a chorus of me, too's from all around the table.

Kylen said, "That's probably best. If no one can be right there to come to the nursing home in an emergency, I don't want that damn doctor making any emergency decisions about Josh. But Stefanie has a point about fifty years from now. Matt, what can we do?"

"Family law isn't my specialty, but right off the top of my head, I'd suggest making him a ward of the Association. You'll have more clout to influence his treatment that way, and his wellbeing won't depend on just one person. If you can't be sure of being there personally to assure he's getting the best care, you can retain a nearby attorney to do it for you. Someone you're sure has the right attitude. But personally -- I think getting him out of the home is the best thing. Living as normal a life as he can has to be the best thing, as long as we know he won't be living in a cardboard box somewhere!"

Jesse said, "I can drive up there and get him today if everyone thinks that would be the best thing."

Kenzie cautioned, "If he's with it, be sure and ask him if it's what he wants to do. He's been there several months now, he might feel at home there. If that's where he's comfortable when he's normal, we'll work something out to make sure he's safe there. I'll move to Heatherton if he wants to stay there, I can do my Flight Magazine articles from anywhere in the country."

Jesse said, "For that matter, I can move my studio. I can work anywhere I can plug in my computer."

Kenzie said, "If he wants to stay at the Manor, do you want to both of us move?"

Jesse said, "Sure, why not?"

Kylen said, "Okay. Matt, you'll get someone at the firm who does family law to draw up the papers for us, won't you?"

"Sure, I'll get someone on it as soon as I get back to the office."

Kenzie turned to Stefanie. "You do what you have to do to take care of your mom, we'll have Josh settled one way or another by tonight."

"Okay, great," she sighed in relief.

Rosie asked, "Do you need help with your mom? I could come out to Minneapolis."

"I don't know yet ... I might take you up on that."

"Any time."

Matt asked, "Jesse and Kenzie, right?" He filled in a form on his laptop and printed two copies of the document. "Stefanie, this is a power of attorney giving Jesse and Kenzie the right to make decisions about Josh. It will be in force until a judge transfers his custody to the Association."

"Okay."

Once that paperwork was out of the way, Kylen asked if there was any more new business. Then she said, "Matt has an offer from Aerotech. Let's all hear what he has to say before we start screaming and yelling."

Kenzie said, "I have a headache, Matt, let's just stick to the details."

He laughed. "It's pretty straightforward. They're offering a million each. They don't admit any wrongdoing, and they don't suggest that human error had anything to do with it. Also, you don't lay the blame on them at any time in the future."

There was silence. Kylen asked, "Uh... that's it?"

"That's it."

"They're offering us a million each to take the money and shut up."

"In brief, yes."

"Tell 'em to shove it."

There was a chorus of agreement. Then shy little Cathy Highland spoke up. "Look ... I don't know about the rest of you ... but it isn't the million ... it's my insurance. They said if I sued I'd lose my insurance and I don't have any other. My doctor said I'll need four more operations before they're done. I don't know what to do."

Kylen asked, "Can they do that, Matt? Our contract was for lifetime medical care."

He looked through the contract. "There's a clause here that all payments due either side can be suspended for the duration of a lawsuit. We can get an injunction."

Cathy said, "I can wait until the lawsuit is over for the other operations. But what about Josh? If his insurance gets cut off -- and Fred and Cleo both have big doctor bills too --"

Cleo said, "Hey, I don't like being blackmailed, and I'm not sure those doctors are doing me any good anyhow."

"I know, Cleo," Kylen said. "But Cathy has a point... some people need the insurance now, not after the trial...."

They looked at each other around the table.

Slowly, Jesse said, "We can't shut up, Kylen, no matter what it costs us. We'll take care of Josh, he can't take care of himself. But I say ... for the rest of us ... for the people we left out there ... we tell the truth."

"How can we take care of Josh?" Cleo asked. "I know, I know, it sounds like I'm arguing both sides ... but what if he really needs medical care and we can't pay? Look, no one can put us to sleep, the worst they can do is refuse to treat us if we can't pay. But if they decide it's in his best interests--" She looked like she was going to start crying.

"That's another good reason to get him out of that damn place!" Jesse said. "Do you want it to let them spin it around that it was our fault somehow that we got captured? Kenzie, do you want to just shut up and let them blame it on the captain? He died putting that barge down in one piece so we could survive!"

Kenzie said, "Hell, no, it isn't what I want! If it was just me I'd tell 'em to take their million and shove 'em one at a time! This was never about money. Just someone tell me how we can do that!"

Kylen said, "We ... get Josh on disability. He was hurt on the job, right? Then Medicare pays if his primary insurance won't. Right?"

Matt said, "That would work, Kylen. I can stall Aerotech on the offer for a while, until the paperwork goes through Social Security."

"Then I'll entertain a motion to table discussion of the Aerotech offer until we hear back from Matt about Josh's disability."

Cathy said, "So moved."

Jesse looked around. "Seconded."

"All in favor--" she glanced around at the upraised hands. "The motion is carried without opposition. Do we have any other business?"

Kylen was glad nothing else came up. When the meeting broke up, they said their goodbyes to the people who had to leave. The party moved to a restaurant down the street, in the middle of the afternoon they were able to find adjoining tables for fifteen people. Kylen found herself unexpectedly nauseated, the food on the buffet smelled delicious but she couldn't bring herself to eat much of it. She just picked at a light salad and some crackers, pretending to be too busy talking to eat. There was a lot to tell, about the Kazbek raid as well as her wedding.

The couple of blocks to their hotel seemed like a mile. Kylen flopped on the bed and curled up around her stomach ache.

"What's the matter?" Rosie sat down beside her.

"I don't know, I'm just real sick all of a sudden. Just the smell of food in the restaurant got to me really bad."

"I think I have some antacid in my purse, let me look." Rosie hadn't any more than opened her purse when Kylen dashed past her into the restroom. Presently she came out, looking a little pale, but feeling somewhat better anyhow.

Rosie asked, "Do you want anything?"

"No, just a nap. I'm sure I'm fine. It's probably just a bug, or something I had for breakfast. Wake me up if Jesse calls about Josh, would you?"

"Sure. I'll go out on the terrace to check my mail and stuff, just yell if you need anything." Rosie turned off the light on her way outside.


Next : Part Two


Becky Ratliff 1997