Author's notes: This story is rated PG-13, for adult themes and language. Creative consultant: Mike Lee. Thanks to the space-l mailing list, which inspired this story. As always, many, many thanks to my beta readers, Claudia Patarra, and Susi Patzke, who have patiently tolerated silly questions and misspelled names!
From a Distance, lyrics and music by Julie Gold, copyright 1987 by WING AND WHEEL MUSIC & JULIE GOLD MUSIC (BMI) all rights administered by IRVING MUSIC, INC. (BMI) All rights reserved. Used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Up Where We Belong, lyrics by Will Jennings, music by Buffy Sainte-Marie and Jack Nitzsche, copyright 1982 by FAMOUS MUSIC CORPORATION and ENSIGN MUSIC CORPORATION. All rights reserved. Used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.

Return To Kazbek
Becky Ratliff

Part One

(USS Saratoga, January 2065)
Vansen yanked off her helmet and jumped out of her pit, her mechanic took one look at the expression on the young Major's face and got out of her way. "Hawkes!" She yelled. "What the freakin' hell were you doing out there?"

She heard Nathan comment, "Incoming!" She glared at him. He had sense enough to realize this was Major Vansen the CO, not good ol' Shane, and shut up and looked innocent.

Hawkes said, "Shooting down chigs, I guess."

"Damn near getting yourself killed while you were at it." She reached up and grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around, a combination of strength born of anger and total surprise let her get away with it even though he was easily head and shoulders taller than she was. She pointed up to a row of neat score marks right behind his cockpit where he had barely been grazed. "If Kenny had been half a second slower, Coop, you show me where the next one would have gone."

He stared, and suddenly swallowed hard and pointed at the back of his cockpit. "Shit, I didn't know he hit me."

"There were six of them. You are good but you are not that good!" She wanted to give him a good hard shake, but she controlled that impulse. No matter how much she felt like it sometimes, he wasn't her bratty eight-year-old kid. "And you do not ever leave your wingman. You know that! It's a damn good thing Kenny was looking out for you, because you sure as hell were not looking out for him!" She looked him straight in the eye. "So help me God, if I have to go to your funeral because you did something freakin' stupid out there--" She shamelessly dumped a guilt trip in his lap, if that was what it took to make him think so be it!

Hawkes looked at her contritely. "It won't happen again," he promised.

She glared at him a moment longer, until she started to feel sorry for him. Before he could realize that, she said, "See it doesn't. Dismissed!"

She had the mission logs to file, which was just as well, because the rest of the 'Cards were giving her a wide berth for a while anyhow. It took a lot to really get Vansen riled up, but Cooper had accomplished it. Kenny had looked around, expecting to see Coop on his port wing, and he'd just been gone. Instead, he'd been somewhere on Kenny's seven or eight, mixing it up with a whole pack of chigs who'd come out of God knew where, reinforcements for the ones they'd already been in a furball with. They were lucky they hadn't lost someone today. Cooper had come just that close to getting himself killed.

She had yelled at him, but she hadn't been supposed to say the thing he'd done that had made her the angriest -- almost left her to grieve over him, her world without Cooper as a part of it. As his CO she didn't have the right to say that or even to feel it ... but as his friend, as someone who'd been his friend since boot camp, how was she supposed to help it? As someone he considered his mother, as someone who couldn't help but think of him as her son, how in the name of God was she supposed to just let it go? She prayed she'd gotten through to him, because the next time he might not be so lucky. She doubted she could have got her hand between that last score mark and the back of his canopy. Thinking about that, she started to shake all over, and swallowed hard and refused to allow tears to start.

She sighed deeply and rubbed her hand across her forehead. She was tired, that was part of it, they all were. In the weeks since they'd captured New Jerusalem, there had been a number of battles and it seemed as though the tide of the war was finally turning. The Saratoga had helped to defeat an attempt by the chigs to retake Ixion, the main staging area for the attack on the chig homeworld. The chig home system was still too well defended for the Earth fleet to get any further in-system than the orbit of the planet where Shane and Vanessa had been marooned after the peace conference. The chig fleet was slowly being turned back, however, as the enemy was forced to commit more and more of their resources to the defense of their homeworld.

The cost to the Earth had been immeasurable, so very many lives had been lost in the conflict. Very few families were untouched by losses out here. Shane remembered the dark early days of the war, though, when they had been losing and losing badly. Now, there was virtually no one who felt they were fighting a war they could not hope to win.

Her beeper went off, she smiled as she recognized the number. Ty's quarters. She reached for her phone and dialed back.


"It's Vansen."

"Where are you?"

"The office."

"Want to talk about it?"

"I could sure use the company," she replied.

Five minutes later, he joined her there. "What happened?"

"Oh, Ty, what happened the last three times you jumped on Cooper for something? He was on Kenny's wing, Kenny looked around and -- guess what, no Cooper! This time was almost the last time, too, go look at his pit if you want to know what I was yelling about."

"I heard. It may not be the best time to make this announcement, Shane, but maybe a little responsibility will make him a little more serious about things."

"What do you mean?"

He handed over a printout, it was the promotion list. "Hey, he and Nathan made captain!" She looked up to the top of the list, and a wide smile lit her face. "Congratulations, Colonel. It's about damn time."

He handed her two envelopes with the new captains' names on them. "The Commodore has it on good authority that the orders making my CMCD assignment official ought to be coming through any day now," he said.

"About time for that, too," she said.

(Maine, January 2065)
Before dawn, Kylen Celina slipped silently from between the covers. The centuries-old farmhouse was cold, she searched in the dark for her slippers. She didn't want to wake her friend Rosie Jackson, who was still sleeping soundly over on her side of the room. She pulled on her robe as she went down to the kitchen.

She put on coffee and turned up the thermostat while she waited for it to brew. Maxie whined but didn't raise his head from his paws as she leaned on the windowsill to drink her coffee. Her breath frosted the glass. There was a yard light over the barn door that lit the snow-covered back yard, but the front of the house was dark. A mile across the valley, she could see the lights of the West place.

Before the war, how often she had walked that familiar mile to join Nathan in his kitchen for a cup of coffee before school, or sat right here with him.... Now, he was out there somewhere among the stars, putting his life on the line to defend her and all they both held dear. There was a garland of yellow ribbons tied around the porch post out front, the oldest one for Nathan that her father had put there at the beginning of the war, and the others she had tied with it for the rest of the Wild Cards upon her safe return. She missed Nathan so much ... but there were times she felt so near him that all she would have to do was close her eyes and reach up to the stars to touch his hand.

She heard sounds behind her in the kitchen. She should have known she couldn't sneak out without Rose knowing about it. The In Vitro had ears like a cat. "I tried not to wake you up, Rosie."

"Is that coffee I smell?"

"Whole pot full," she replied.

"How come you're awake this early?" Rosie scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand and yawned widely. "Looks like we got more snow." Her only concession to the cold was a sweatshirt instead of a tee-shirt over her jeans, she didn't seem to notice that the linoleum floor was too cold to run around barefoot.

Kylen sighed. "I was dreaming about Kazbek again."

"I used to wonder about dreams, Kylen, but after what I've seen you go through I'm glad I don't have them."

Kylen had always thought the business about not dreaming was baloney, but Rosie said it was sort-of true ... everyone had REM sleep, and would remember dreaming if wakened in the middle of it ... but otherwise, like a number of other IVs she had talked to, she didn't recall her dreams. Nobody really knew why that was. Kylen suspected, from what little behavioral science she'd taken, that it was probably a coping mechanism of some sort. Just as well not to remember nightmares ... Kylen wished she didn't remember hers. "Do you know what they did with that genetic material they took from me, Rosie? They used it to make a ... a zombie that almost got Nathan killed!" In her dream, the zombie had taken her place, and no one had noticed she was missing....

"He really went AWOL looking for you? He must think you're the hottest thing on two legs!"

Kylen looked up at her friend. Rosie had got through their long months of captivity by strength of will and by a healthy dose of smartass. She'd find some wisecrack to make no matter how bad things were ... though maybe not always out loud. And to think, Kylen had started out resenting the IVs because they'd cost Nathan his place on the colony ship ... she'd ended up thanking them for that from the bottom of her heart. Only two of the ten had survived, Rosie and their friend Josh, who had never gotten out of the hospital after their rescue. The rest of the survivors had made sure he had gone into a nice place in upstate New York, and that one of them came to see him at least once a week. The survivors who lived near him visited more often.

Kylen thought that, one way or another, she and Rosie were probably the best off of all the former prisoners. Rosie had the strength she'd developed to survive her indenture on Demeter, the plantation had been as bad as the prison camp in its own way. And Kylen ... she'd known, always, that she wasn't alone, that Nathan was looking for her. That one glimpse of him she'd got on Kazbek had been enough to keep her hope alive. They had watched friends give up hope of ever being rescued, and slip away one by one. They had fought fiercely to keep the others from surrendering to despair. And then ... one day it had ended and they'd gone home.

Now, months later in the house where she had grown up, she still sometimes felt an overwhelming sense of unreality. It was better now than when she had first come home, but even now, there were hours at a time when she wasn't sure if her captivity had ever happened, if it had all been a horrible nightmare. And sometimes she was terrified that her freedom was the dream, that any moment she would wake up back in that place. The progress of seasons in the Maine woods ... life on the farm, the cycle of planting and harvest ... had helped her center herself in the present, and convince herself of the truth of her situation.

Kylen hadn't been the only one who had found healing in the quiet New England hills. She had watched Rosie cry for happiness for the first time in her life as she did the work that she had been born and trained to do, for the first time as a free woman, because she had wanted to, not because some overseer was standing over her with a cattle prod. Using the skills of a lifetime for a purpose of her own choosing, Rosie had planted beds of flowers all around the house and watched them fill the yard with a riot of colors, and as fall came on prepared the flower beds for winter and the next year.

They had planted crops in the garden, just as the Celina women had for generations, and picked and preserved the things that had grown there. They had laughed and gossiped over the hot work of boiling the canning jars, as women had done in that kitchen for year after year after year. Life for death, joy for sorrow ... all things pass and the seasons change.

Kylen pulled herself out of her reverie and said, "Nathan was colossally stupid to do that, when I think he could have got himself killed looking for me--!"

Rosie laughed. "You trying to convince me that if you'd been in his place, you wouldn't have done something colossally stupid to try to rescue him?"

"Well," Kylen conceded. She heard her father moving around in his room and started breakfast.

The sun had come up on a gloriously bright winter morning before they got outside. Kylen and Rosie were taking down the holiday lights on the front porch when they heard a car coming up the road. It slowed and turned into their driveway. Maxie jumped up and started barking, Kylen called him to heel but he didn't stop growling.

Two men in uniform got out of the car. Rosie heard a crash and saw that a string of lights had dropped from Kylen's fingers to shatter on the concrete porch, and that she had gone white as a sheet. "Oh, my God, it's Nathan," Rosie heard her whisper.

The two Marines came up to the porch. "Miss Celina, Miss Jackson?"

Rosie replied, "That's us. What can we do for you?"

"May we come in?"

Kylen found her voice. "Of course, please. Is it Nathan? What happened?"

The two men looked at one another. "Ma'am?"

Rosie asked, "Is this about her fiance, Nathan West? He's a Marine, 58th squadron, on the Saratoga."

"No, ma'am, it's nothing like that!" The older of the two men hastened to assure them. "Miss Celina, I'm sorry to have frightened you. I've tried to call, but your phone doesn't seem to be working."

Kylen recovered swiftly. "That's Maine in the winter." She opened the door and they went inside, it was hot in the living room after being out in the cold.

Rosie asked, "What's all this about?"

The man didn't like Rosie's attitude, but she made no apologies, just looked him straight in the eye and silently dared him to make the race remark that she suspected he wanted to say. He had better sense. He introduced himself as Colonel Emory Spradlin. "I'm here to ask the two of you to volunteer for a mission that's vital to your country's security. I can't tell you what it is here. You'll be gone for perhaps several weeks."

Kylen said, "And I suppose by the time we find out what it is, it'll be too late to change our minds?"

"Yes, ma'am."

>From the door to the dining room, her father said, "In that case, get your asses out of my living room and off my property. These girls have done plenty for their country, thank you very much."

Rosie looked like she was about to help them on their way. Spradlin said, "I can tell you this. The mission will involve a chance for you to spend some time with your fiance, Miss Celina."

Kylen's eyes widened, then she yelled, "How dare you come in here -- do you have any idea what you're asking us to do? How can you even think--"

Rosie laid a comforting hand on her arm and gave Spradlin a level look that almost sent him running for the car. "I've got a pretty good idea what you want, Colonel Spradlin. Everyone else turned you down, didn't they?"

"That's right."

"I figured, nobody is going to drive up here in January without a freakin' good reason," she snapped. She looked at Kylen. "I'm sure these ... gentlemen ... could use some coffee to warm them up after that long drive. Let's go in the kitchen and fix some. If you'll excuse us for a minute --?"

She shut the kitchen door behind them.

Kylen said, "Rosie, you're not thinking about going along with this?"

"Well ... yeah."

"Have you lost your mind?"

Rosie took her hands. "No, Kylen, I haven't. Listen to yourself, just the idea of going back there is giving you a panic attack."

Kylen swallowed hard, and then looked up at her. "It never crossed my mind I'd ever have to."

Rosie nodded. "Honey, I don't know about family, but I know you're the closest thing to one I'll ever have, and there is nothing I wouldn't do for you. If you can't do this ... I understand. I'll take care of it. But I think you have to. For yourself, Kylen, not for them."

"I don't know if I can."

"I know how hard it is," Rosie said.

Rosie was sure Kylen was going to refuse to go. But then she said, "He as much as said they're sending Nathan on this mission, and if something happened to him because he didn't know something that I could have told him, I couldn't live with myself."

Rosie saw resignation replace the fear in her friend's eyes, as one more time Kylen found the courage to sacrifice herself for someone she loved. Spradlin's tactics were emotional blackmail, they didn't have any right to send Nathan on this mission just to force Kylen to work for them! She felt like going out there and wiping that smartass expression off his face for him. But ... what they had a right to do and what they could get away with were two different things. She couldn't stop them from using Nathan. And if he died on this mission, whether she deserved it or not, Kylen would carry the guilt for it for the rest of her life. In the end, the only thing she could say was, "I'll be there, too."

"Rosie, you don't have to go. They don't need both of us."

"Ha! If you think I'm letting all those good looking men on the Saratoga go to waste on a girl who's engaged, keep right on dreaming."

Kylen grinned. "Well, when you put it that way...." She turned serious. "Just don't ever tell Nathan what they did. I don't want him trying to pay that slime back if something happens to me."

(USS Saratoga)
Nathan found Cooper at a corner table in the rec room, staring out the port and idly pushing an empty pop can around the table top. "You really hacked Shane off," Nathan observed.

"Yeah, I know. She was right. I could've got myself killed out there just doing something stupid."

Nathan couldn't honestly deny that one. "At least there would've been a big argument about whether it was brave or stupid."

"Yeah. But what she said about going to my funeral ... I could just see that. I mean, with Christy there and everything. Shane was right, if that happened because I messed up, that'd be the worst thing I could ever do ... and I'd never get the chance to make up for it."

"If you figured that out, that's what's important. That's why Shane was yelling at you."

"I know that now, Nathan. You think she's still mad?"

"Maybe. I don't think it's so much she was really mad, as that you scared the crap out of her. The worst lecture my parents ever gave me was for climbing a water tower."

"Why the hell did you do that?"

"I don't know, I was just a dumb kid and I wanted to see what was up there," West said. "The point is, it's a wonder I didn't fall and break my neck. When you scare people, it makes them mad. My parents went ballistic, I couldn't sit down for a week and I forget how long I was grounded. Never climbed the water tower again, that's for sure!" Nathan was silent a moment. "That's one thing that really sucks, Coop."

"What does?"

"Well, everybody screws up like that. I mean, everybody goes through this phase where you think you're immortal, nothing can happen to you. So you do something stupid like that, and it dawns on you that you're not bullet-proof. But we get the chance to do it while we're kids. Everyone expects kids to make stupid-ass mistakes. So for what was really the same thing -- it just sucks, that's all."

"Nate, I've been around almost eight years, I shouldn't still be sticking my foot in it so often. I'll bet McQueen wasn't still screwin' the pooch when he was my age."

West grinned. "Well, now, it really isn't fair to try to compare yourself to McQueen --"

Hawkes threw the empty can at him, but grinned back in spite of himself.

West barehanded the can easily and sailed it into the trash. "Let's go down to Tun's, it's too quiet in here!"

That was where Shane found them a little while later. She walked up to the table and gave them both a mean look. "I don't know whose idea this was, but here." She put the envelopes on the table between them. Only when they had opened them and started to read, she let the grin she had been hiding spread across her face. "Congratulations, Captains. And Captain Hawkes?"

He looked up. "Ma'am?"

Vansen realized something. That was the first time Hawkes had ever referred to her as ma'am. And it was the same look, the same tone of voice that McQueen used when he called Ross "sir". She had to work really hard to reply in a smartass tone of voice, "Try to be around long enough to enjoy the pay raise."

He saw in her eyes that all was forgiven, and returned the smile. "I will."

Vanessa Damphousse wandered over to Julie's keyboard and idly picked out the melody line of the new song they were learning. Julie had found it in the library's music files, and thought it would be perfect for Vanessa's voice, as well as a very appropriate piece for them to perform.

... From a distance, the world looks blue and green, and the snow-capped mountains white. From a distance, the ocean meets the stream, and the eagle takes to flight.

That was a beautiful image, she thought, it reminded her of her hometown in California. She had no trouble imagining the view from the deck out by the pool, the mountains reaching into a blue sky. And no American -- certainly no Marine -- could help but hear two meanings in the line about the eagle! She could almost feel the cold mountain air on her face.

She blinked, and the scene she imagined suddenly became real. She was standing in a hatchway -- but it was a six-sided one, and she knew the feel of it all too well. This place had been built by chigs.

She was dressed in BDUs, they were still damp and she could smell salt water on herself. But the sea was far below her, down the mountainside and across an emerald green expanse of forest or jungle. And she knew that this place was tainted by the presence of something venomous.

There was a great evil waiting for her, here ... the same icy, cruel presence she had felt once before in a vision such as this one, the presence that had slapped her aside as if she were an insignificant child. At first that thought frightened her, but then she became aware of her Ka-bar hanging in its sheath. She saw the image of an eagle diving out of the azure sky towards its prey. Its outstretched talons blended with the image of her own hand holding the Ka-bar.

She was the eagle. Whatever else Vanessa Damphousse was, she was no insignificant child. That had been a mistake on her enemy's part. It was her destiny to face whatever waited here, her challenge to defeat it.

But not today. She didn't need her talent to tell her it was high time to get out of Dodge. She drew a deep breath and pulled up images, the Sara, the rec room, the keyboard and the sheet music she knew were right in front of her ... Mark sitting on a folding chair just behind her tuning his guitar ...

Reality replaced the vision. She shook her head and looked around the rec room.

Neither Mark nor Julie had noticed anything out of the ordinary. Vanessa decided that it would be best to leave it that way, for the time being. She finished the practice session, though her mind wasn't really on it. Julie's boyfriend came by, she tucked her keyboard under her arm and the two of them went off together. Mark and Vanessa put their instruments away and pushed the chairs back into place under the table. Mark coiled the extension cord he'd been using for his amp and stowed it neatly in a locker.

"Would you like to make popcorn and watch a movie?" Mark asked.

She smiled and forced a light tone into her voice. "Can I take a rain check until tomorrow evening? We have patrol first thing, I've got to be on the flightline at 0600."

He grinned. "That will give me time to get us one of the big screen TV's," he said. "Do you like westerns?"

"Why, shore do, pardner," she drawled.

"They got in a bunch of spaghetti westerns the last time, there are some good ones that I haven't seen before."

"That sounds great. Have you ever seen 'Pale Rider?' I think that's the best one."

"That's one of the ones I haven't seen. Is it one of the Man with No Name series?"

"Well, not exactly ... I don't want to spoil it! Just get it if no one else has."

"Are you sure you don't mind seeing it again? We can get one that you haven't watched, if you'd rather," Mark said.

"No, it's been a long time. I'd like to watch it again."

"What's your favorite movie?"

"Oh, my ... I think I'd have to say 'Casablanca.' Or maybe 'Glory.'"

"They both have sad endings," Mark objected. "I refuse to believe in sad endings," he declared.

She smiled at that. "It's life."

"Not always." He grinned. "My favorite movie is 'Star Wars.' And the good guys win every time I watch it!"

In spite of herself, a slow grin spread across her face. To her surprise, Mark leaned close and planted a quick kiss on her lips. She expected him to kiss her again, or to apologize, but he did neither one, just stood there with his dark, dark eyes looking into hers. After a long moment, Vanessa drew his head down to hers in a long, slow kiss. Soon she felt his strong arms around her and relaxed into the warmth of his embrace. Finally, they drew apart.

Breathless, he said, "I'd better walk you back to your quarters ... before I keep you awake way past lights out!"

"Maybe you're right," she replied, and she couldn't seem to stop herself from grinning.

They parted at the 58th's hatch. Vanessa wasn't surprised to find Shane there alone.

Her CO gave her a quizzical look. "You look like you just got --"

"Very thoroughly kissed!" Vanessa replied. "Or, rather, Mark kissed me, and then I kissed him back!" She sat down on the opposite end of Shane's bunk. "I'm happy. And I feel guilty about that."

"Well, quit that."

"What do you mean, quit that."

"I mean you have nothing to feel guilty about. I love Ty with all my heart. That doesn't mean I stopped loving John, or that I will ever stop loving John, or forget him for one minute. You're going to feel the same way about Paul, and whoever the lucky guy is that you end up with. You have too much love to give to spend the rest of your life alone, and Paul wouldn't want you to do that."

Tears sparked Vanessa's lashes and she leaned over to hug Shane. Her friend held her for a moment, then leaned back. "So tell me all about it!"

So, Vanessa told her everything, from the vision to the kiss in the deserted rec room. "I have to tell the Commodore about that flash I had, he said he wanted to know if I ever had any more of them."

"Well ... if I know him and the Colonel, you can probably catch them both together around the coffee pot around 0530-hours tomorrow morning. That would be a good time for a little quiet ... off the record report."

Vanessa nodded. She would do just that.

Shane asked, "What are you thinking?"

Vanessa threw her head back and laughed. "That I could get very used to making music and watching old movies with Mark Miller."

(USS Saratoga, one week later)
It was just after colors, but Colonel TC McQueen had been at work for a couple of hours already. He had known how busy he was going to be as Honcho, he was responsible for everything from pilot readiness to maintenance and supply for the squadrons' equipment. His style had always been hands-on before, he wasn't used to putting his name on things until he was as sure as he could be that it was accurate. His duties now were too time-consuming to do things to that level of detail, and it would have been micromanagement in any case. He was learning to delegate duties he really felt he ought to be handling himself, and that wasn't easy.

For once, Commodore Ross had been able to show him a few things -- he'd followed the usual progression from Air Boss to XO, and finally command of the Saratoga right after the war started. On board the carrier, the Air Boss and the Honcho did basically the same job. The only difference was that if a number of the ship's Space Cav squadrons went in on a ground pounder, it would sometimes be his job to set up a command post dirtside -- the Air Boss never did that, since Navy aviators were strictly that, aviators. But every Marine was still a rifleman!

The ship's current Air Boss, Roberta Carey, came in and landed on the corner of the desk. She was in her mid thirties, she had been the CO of one of the best Navy squadrons aboard the Eisenhower. Of eleven kids in the Thunderbolts, only three had survived the loss of the Ike. They'd been reassigned to the Sara a few weeks into the Battle of Ixion. He had watched Carey pay little attention to the promotion to Captain that her heroism over Demios had earned her. For a long time there, she had lived from one sortie to the next, for the next opportunity to make the chigs pay a steep bill for the Ike and her crew.

In the time following, she had put her grief behind her, and they had started to see flashes of a ready sense of humor and a genuine love of flight. By the time the peace conference had gone awry, she had found herself the highest ranking Naval squadron commander on the Sara.

Then, while McQueen had been in rehab back on earth, the Sara's former Air Boss, Pete Kramer, had a heart attack. He'd survived, McQueen had heard that had been as much by sheer cussedness as anything else. But it had got him a ticket back to Earth ... and now Roberta Carey was the Sara's CAG. It was the last thing she'd ever expected, and McQueen suspected the last thing she'd ever wanted. But she'd done her job, quietly, without complaint.

He had found out a few things about her as the months passed. Carey was Navy all the way through to the bone, her family had an Annapolis tradition that went back before World War II. She was divorced, she didn't talk about her ex-husband except as an aside when she was discussing their teenage son. The boy was in a military school back on Earth, and working towards following his mother to Annapolis. McQueen had the impression of Robbie that if she wasn't going to be allowed to do what she felt she did best and head up a fighting squadron, she'd do the next best thing and become the youngest Admiral in the fleet. It wouldn't surprise him a bit to see her succeed. At the same time, though, she could spend a whole evening over a chess game, or discussing some obscure volume of military history that no one else on the Sara had ever heard of, much less read.

McQueen had learned that he could tell a lot about Carey's current state of mind by a glance at her short cornsilk-blonde pony tail. She started out in the morning with most of her hair pulled up and back, except for a neatly combed lock at each side of her face. If she pulled off the clip, stuck it in her pocket, and shook her hair loose, she was in a good mood. However, if she had it all slicked back severely at the nape of her neck, it was best to tread carefully. This morning, not only was the hair clip riding her collar, her green eyes looked like sea ice.

Mildly, he asked, "Did Shackleford buzz the bridge again?"

She gave him a look that would have put a laser to shame. "If he changes his call sign to Maverick, so help me God--!"

For a while there back in '55 or '56, the 127th had been the terror of the Loxley tower crew for doing that -- a few times in formation. Now didn't seem like it would be a particularly good time to reminisce about that to Roberta Carey, though. Especially since Shackleford was one of his Marines.... "If I know Jeff-D, he's already got hold of him."

Carey snorted, but he could see the ruffled feathers start to smooth back into place. "If I know Jeff-D, he'll dress him down for everyone to hear it -- they've got it scripted by now. But when those two good ol' boys get back to their quarters, they'll laugh about it the rest of the day. If the chigs weren't cussing him louder than I am, I'd be a little more upset about it."

McQueen nodded. Beau Shackleford's antics upset Carey's sense of order, but she had the grace to be a good sport about it. She was also perceptive enough to realize that the tales of his "insubordination" which circulated around the Saratoga raised morale considerably. So, she played her part when he pulled one of his stunts. As for Shackleford, he knew just how far he could go without making either Carey or Commodore Ross mad enough to ground him ... and, come to think of it, he'd never tried any of that stuff while McQueen was on the bridge....

Vansen came in, neither McQueen nor Carey noticed her brief scowl as she took in Carey's pose on the corner of McQueen's desk. She had a stack of papers, she set them down between him and Carey. His eyes lit up when he saw Vansen, that more than anything reassured her that she was being silly. She said, "Here are our weekly checklists, I went over them already."

Vansen's support was something McQueen never had to think about, it was just always there. The 5-8's paperwork was only one example of that. Anything that needed his attention would be flagged, otherwise he knew the reports would be in order. He had discovered that he had a great deal to learn about how many quiet little ways there were to say "I love you," and it seemed that Shane had found a new one every day since he had gone back on active duty.

Vansen found a message waiting for her when she got back to her desk. She looked at it once, then read it again to make sure she had read it right the first time. It didn't change. Someone had finally realized she hadn't been assigned private quarters when she had been given command of the 5-8. That oversight had been corrected.

She made a wry face. Wonderful! She hadn't expected that one. The last thing she needed was to be alone at night, she hated it. But there was nothing she could do about it.

She did a double take of the cabin assignment. Hell, she was two doors down from Ty. A lot of good that did now!

At least she hadn't had the chance to collect a lot of stuff to move. One good size box ought to do it.

'Phousse found her packing her things that afternoon. "What's going on? Shane?"

"Rank hath its privileges. I now have a private cabin," was Shane's surly reply.

Phousse took up an armload of her belongings. "I know that look, girlfriend, you need some company -- and you don't need Lisa or Nita asking why. So I'm helping you move."

Shane carefully detached her pictures from the bulkhead and laid them one by one in a manila folder, by the time she was done with that she had most of the bad attitude under control. "Thanks, Vanessa. Walk down to the PX with me later, I want to buy some picture frames if they have any."

That afternoon and evening, with Vanessa for company, it wasn't so bad. But late that night, when she woke up in the dark from her usual round of dreams, it was just as bad as she'd expected. She kicked the sheets off, staggered over to the head and turned on the light in there, then sat back down on the side of her rack and put her head in her hands. She could go for a run ... but she decided, maybe later. She could never run fast enough or far enough to leave the memories behind for long. Right now, she didn't feel like running away.

(USS Baton Rouge January 2065)
Kylen pulled off her boots with a heartfelt sigh. It felt odd to be back in a flight suit again after all these months. She had gotten used to the comfort of jeans and sneakers. At least it wasn't an Aerotech flight suit -- it was a simple, unadorned military one of the type issued to civilians, everyone from civilian advisors to war reporters to the kid who scrubbed pans in the galley. The only marking on it was her name. Celina. A real pity she didn't know who that person was any more.

Rosie plopped down beside her on her bunk. "God, what a trip. Did you ever see so many people at Dulles?"

"Millions of them, and I think every one of them was trying to get on our shuttle," Kylen groaned. "Not much like the colony ship, huh?"

"Two years makes a hell of a difference," Rosie grinned. "Who would've thought we'd have shuttles taking off like the redeye from New York to Beantown?"

"Damn Aerotech," Kylen replied reflexively. All the survivors had that opinion. They'd talked to lawyers, there was going to be a lawsuit. It would probably drag on in the courts for years. They'd probably never see credit one, and even if they did, what could pay for all those months of hell? The survivors just wanted to make the Aerotech bigwigs stand up in court and listen to some judge tell them they were guilty of all the deaths they'd caused. Maybe that was justice.

Most of the survivors were getting on with their lives, but that didn't mean they didn't keep in touch constantly. Rosie had to grin at the memory of Kylen telling that damned officious Colonel Spradlin that unless he wanted a bunch of very irate former POWs pounding their location out of him with a tire iron one day soon, he'd better let them inform the rest of the crowd that there was nothing sinister about their being out of communications for a while. Spradlin had started to argue with her ... until he'd looked in her eyes ... and realized that she had been perfectly serious about the tire iron. It was just a matter of course that Rosie or Kylen or any of the rest would walk in front of a bullet for any of the others. Rosie wondered if Spradlin had anyone he'd do that for. She hadn't, before the mission....

"What are you laughing about?" Kylen asked.

"Colonel Spradlin," she replied.

Kylen grinned. Her dad had called him an REMF. He'd refused to explain what the term meant, just said it was an old military term from the round of Persian Gulf troubles back in the early 40's. Kylen had laughed that she could figure out what the MF stood for, what she didn't understand was the RE part. It turned out that was Rear Echelon. Well, someone like that belonged in the rear -- not up at the front lines where he would get someone killed! "What a jerk."


"I think we missed supper," Kylen observed. "It's been a long time since lunch. At least the colony ship had snack machines."

"Yeah, but there were so many 'nat' and 'tank' remarks flying around, it sounded like a damn civil rights riot whenever I tried to get near them."

"It wasn't really you guys. People were just pissed about the way Aerotech handled the whole thing. Springing it on us the last day like that --"

"Oh, hell, it lasted about five minutes anyway after the shooting started. I sure never thought anyone was really prejudiced. Well, Cleo, but she's prejudiced against everybody."

Kylen snickered. "Cleo is an equal-opportunity politically incorrect person. And you laughed every bit as bad as everybody else did when she told the one about the tank and the --"

Rosie actually reddened a little. "Well, it was funny," she said. "I won't turn her in to the IV rights commission for telling it, as long as she doesn't turn me in for laughing at it." She paused. "Of course, if anyone but Cleo had told it, I probably would have smacked him."

"I know what you mean, she can just get away with it. I guess because everyone knows she'll get them too sooner or later. With me, it was farmer's daughter jokes."

"Some of them were pretty funny, too."

"Yeah, and the Good Lord knows we needed to laugh at something. Rosie, thanks for coming with me. I think I know what you meant when you said I had to do this. But it's really hard. I don't know if I could have got on that transport by myself. It's one thing to think about it from here, that -- yeah, I have to face the past before I can get on with the future. But I don't know if I'll have the guts to get the job done when we actually get to Kazbek. What if I panic?"

"You won't, Kylen, I know you're tougher than that. Look at everything you've done already! You've got to start believing in yourself." Rosie sighed. "I understand how you feel. I've got a lot of the same kind of ... unfinished business ... on Demeter."

"You want to go back there?" Kylen asked after a time.

"It isn't that I ever want to," she replied. "It's just that there are things I need to put behind me."

"So why don't you?"

Rosie looked beyond the bulkhead to endless fields where the hot sun beat down on weary laborers. "Because I don't trust myself not to commit murder if I ever see some of those people again."

"Hey, Rosie. I'd drive the get-away car if you did."

"Yeah, I know you would. So that's why we're both here, all right?"


Rosie poked her boots under the bottom bunk and climbed up to the top one. "I hope they have lots of breakfast on this tub."

Next : Part Two

© Becky Ratliff 1/97