Author's Note: This story is rated PG-13 for language. It refers to characters and situations introduced in my previous fanfic, "The Box." If you haven't seen it, please read it first!
Marcy, Jimmy Avery, Anita Moore, Lisa Yamauchi, Kenneth Martin Lucas, Georgeanne Jeffords and all other characters not belonging to Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, are my creations and property. Permission is hereby granted to use them in fan fiction, providing that the author acknowledge my rights to them.
Thanks to Patrice and Claudia for all their help.

The Newbies
Becky Ratliff

Part One

Who's Who
New members of the 58th squadron
Lt. James "Trey" Avery Jr.
Lt. Anita "Queen of Spades" Moore
Lt. Lisa "Joker" Yamauchi
Lt. Kenneth Martin "Ten of Diamonds" Lucas
Marcy "Brannigan"

(Groombridge Agro-7, June 2064)
Corn grew very well on Groombridge 4. That was the reason for the colony's existence here. Twenty years ago, all of the workers here had been In Vitroes. Soon after, the government had begun indenturing felons here to pay off their debts to their victims. Unlike the IVs, whose indenture was over after five years if they could survive that long, the prisoners were here until they worked off whatever settlement they were sentenced to pay. That might be a month or two for a rich criminal, or a lifetime for a poor one. The AIs had begun arriving after the Ho Chi Mihn City accords. Marcy had been here in Agro Camp #7 for five years.

At first, it had been very hard. As one of the few AIs here not infected with the Stranahan virus, she was in a great deal of danger from those who were. The NB criminals hated the AIs and the tanks, who could outwork them and kept the quotas high. The IVs mistrusted her because they had learned that the Stranahan AIs were not to be trusted, and they had no way to tell the difference. She had learned quickly to be wary, circumspect, and ruthless with anyone who threatened her. But gradually she had earned the respect of the others. After a time, the colony's predators began to see the new people as easier pickings, and they left her alone for the most part. And so the last few years had passed, long weeks of boredom punctuated by the occasional episode of sheer terror.

Things had changed about a month ago, and it was all because of a needle and thread. She had ripped her uniform and asked for sewing things to mend it. It had seemed such a simple request, but the guard had been suspicious. He knew most AIs didn't care if their clothes were torn, and he thought she had some nefarious plan for the needle--like poking him in the eye with it, or something. She had thought she had managed to talk her way out of it when the overseer had sent her back to the barracks unharmed. Nothing more had been said about the incident, and she had taken care not to attract any more attention.

Then a couple weeks ago, she had noticed a man watching her as she worked. At first, she had paid attention only to the business suit he was wearing and taken him for an Aerotech inspector. But then a couple days later, she had seen him again, this time in the company of two Marine officers. But they hadn't done anything, just watched her. The whole thing was very curious, and very ominous...change was likely to be trouble!

She had seen service people around since the war had started. She knew little for certain about the war. At first there had been wild rumors among the prison population that chig POWs were going to be sent here. As the months had dragged on, there had been more rumors...that they were winning, that they were losing, that Earth had fallen and Groombridge was going to be wiped out just like two other colonies. That one had nearly started a panic and a riot...fortunately the governor of the colony himself had convinced everyone that the rumor was unfounded. Then a few days ago she'd overheard some of guards celebrating because the war was supposedly over, that the chigs were either offering or accepting terms of surrender--depending on who she was listening to at the time. Apparently that had been just another rumor, because surely if the war really was over they would have heard something official about it by now. Still, the rumors broke the monotony. Marcy hoped for an end to the war, but she had been a prisoner in peacetime and a prisoner in wartime. Since her personal situation was unlikely to change either way, the war seemed very far away most of the time.

The job she had right now wasn't too bad, she drove a picker. June was harvest time here, and the crop had been a good one. She was taking a full trailer load back to the granary. When she arrived and turned in her load they sent her to the office. Along with the foreman were the man in the suit and the two Marines.

The foreman told her shortly, "You've been reassigned. Go with these people."

She didn't like the looks of the man in the suit. As she had suspected, he was an Aerotech man, though probably not a mere inspector after all, his watch and the diamond ring he was wearing were too expensive-looking for that. The two Marines obviously disapproved of her on principle. One of them was a brigadier general named Jeffords, she was a tall woman with gray hair and a harsh, weathered look about her. The other, somewhat younger, was a full Colonel named Penderson. He was looking at her as if she were a rather disgusting lab specimen. He immediately went straight to the top of her list of People Likely to be Trouble.

They took her out a side door, and she got into a humvee with the two Marines and their driver. She fell back on the same tactics that she had found kept her out of most trouble with the guards... keeping her eyes downcast and speaking only if spoken to.

They took the turn to the airstrip. An ISSCV and its escort of fighters waited there. General Jeffords turned to the driver and said, "Inform the Major that I'd like to take off as soon as possible, and find out how soon we can raise ship."

"Yes, ma'am!" He headed for a corrugated metal building at the edge of the strip. Jeffords got out of the humvee, she still moved with an easy, fluid grace despite her years. Without a backward glance, she headed for the ISSCV.

Penderson turned to Marcy. "Come on, you."

She followed them. General Jeffords was speaking to one of her pilots when they came aboard the ISSCV. Marcy was very aware of the hostile looks she was getting from all the Marines present. After a few minutes, the Lieutenant returned and reported, "Major Talbot says we can take off at your convenience, General."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. Let's get these birds in the air--wheels up in ten mikes. Secure the prisoner."

"Yes, ma'am!"

She was locked into one of the small cargo bays at the rear of the vehicle. They lifted off presently, and Marcy left her life as a prisoner behind her forever.

Once they were safely away from Groombridge, she was escorted back out to the main bay. General Jeffords waved her to a seat across the table, which she took. "I'm sure you're wondering what's going on."

"Yes, ma'am," she replied.

Jeffords snapped, "Look at me and speak up when you answer me! I've looked plenty of AIs in the face before, I'm not going to blow your head off because I see crosshairs instead of baby blues, understand?"

"Yes, ma'am!" She looked up, tried to read the expression in the General's eyes. Even if she had been given to the Stranahan AIs' penchant for gambling, she wouldn't have wanted to play cards with this woman.

Jeffords nodded. "You might just do. What's your name?"

"Marcy S387. Ma'am." Marcy fought the urge to fidget. If she had been human, she was sure her mouth would have been too dry to speak. Through all the scrapes she'd gotten into and out of, she had never been so thoroughly frightened in her life as she was just sitting across the table from this woman.

"Okay, Marcy S387, tell me your life story."

She said, "I was activated in 2046 and sold to Crosswell Industries, I was in the secretarial pool there until the war started. Crosswell sold off all its AIs at an auction, I was bought by Delgado Salvage and then in 2058 I was sold to some prospectors. In 2059 their ship was damaged in a fight with pirates in the Timorra system. They left us there--myself and Tina C8038. Tina was killed by the pirates. A Marine named Major McQueen was also captured, I helped him escape and turned myself in to him. From there I was sent to Groombridge Agro-7, until now."

"Why did you help Major McQueen?"

"Because...he wouldn't have been caught at all if he hadn't been trying to make sure his friend got away. Another Marine. I don't know her name, ma'am. And the pirates were going to kill him just like they killed Tina. I had to do something!"

"I...see. And why did you turn yourself in? You could have run away."

"There was nowhere to run to, ma'am. There's nothing on Macauley's World, except a few little mining camps...and the miners would have shot me as soon as they'd seen me. The only chance I had was to turn myself in."

"And you trusted Major McQueen not to do the same thing?"

"I had to. There wasn't anything else I could do. But he didn't seem like the kind of person who would shoot someone who had surrendered."

Jeffords demanded, "Why are you so scared of me, do you think I'm the kind of person who'd shoot a prisoner for no damn reason?"

"No, ma'am! I--I just don't know where you're taking me or what's going to happen."

"You're one of only a few AIs that we've confirmed to be fully sentient without having been exposed to the Stranahan virus. I don't know how much you've heard about the war, but things are not going as well for Earth as we might hope."

"I still don't understand what that has to do with me."

"Marcy, one reason that we're having trouble with the chigs is that we don't understand them. On the other hand, they don't show any signs of having that disadvantage where we're concerned. The one thing that all AIs do better than humans is to gather data and analyze it. The Stranahan AIs have always been limited in their ability to interpret that data and react to new situations."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You, on the other don't seem to have that limitation. It's our hope that you'll be able to put that talent at analysis to work where the chigs are concerned. The data and insights you come up with may just help us turn this thing around."

"I-- I don't know anything about chigs, or fighting a war. But if there's anything I can do--"

"You haven't asked about the risks and the benefits."

"Well, you just implied we could be losing. If that happens, nothing else would really matter as far as risks to me are concerned. I wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell if the Stranahan AIs win. They're all one big group, they don't want AIs like me around who aren't loyal to that group. And I don't want any part of that."

Jeffords nodded. "I thought you'd see it that way. What I'm proposing is this, Marcy. We're going to set up an identity for you as a civilian employee of the defense department, working as an officer's aide on one of the carriers. Only the senior officers of the carrier and the people you work with directly are to know that you're an AI and what your real mission is. You'll report regularly directly to me. After the war, we'll help you keep that identity, or if it becomes necessary, we'll create a new one for you. You'll have your freedom, Marcy."

Marcy asked, "How the hell am I supposed to pretend to be a human?! Everyone can tell just by looking--!"

She heard Penderson stifle a laugh, and a grin slashed across the General's face. "Believe me, Marcy, AIs have been passing as humans for years! The targeting lenses have got to go, but I've seen plenty of spies do pretty damn well for themselves without 'em." At that, Penderson did laugh out loud.

"You'll be trusting me with a lot."

"And if you let me down, I swear I'll find you. Personally." Jeffords stared Marcy straight in the eyes as she said that, and Marcy believed every word of it.

"I'll do my best."

"Over the next few days, we'll have some preliminary data for you on your new identity. As soon as we return to Earth, we'll insert you into a group of new employees. You'll be assigned to my office after that for a few weeks while we work out the final details of the operation, then you'll get your real assignment."

"Yes, ma'am."

(Loxley, Alabama, June 2064)
The recruit bus was hot and sticky even with the windows down. After four years at MIT, Jimmy Avery had been well on his way to a promising career as a software engineer. He had inherited his dad's talent, there was very little he couldn't do with a computer. After graduation, he'd been ready to write his own ticket. His father's death at Groombridge had changed a lot of things. Avery had volunteered for AFT a week after the funeral.

The kid sitting next to him was a black guy from Mobile, he looked a few years younger than Jimmy. "Hey, college boy, what you doin' here?"

Avery looked at him. The question had been framed as a challenge, but he saw a friendly glint in the dark eyes that belied the tone of voice. After a time he replied, "Payback."


"My dad was a Marine. He was killed by AIs right after I graduated from school. I'm gonna make 'em pay."

"I hear you."

"What about you?"

"My draft number was comin' up. It was time to make some decisions."

A woman sitting behind them said, "Yeah, that's me. I'm Lisa Yamauchi."

"Jimmy Avery."

"Kenny Lucas."

The three of them looked over at the bus' other occupant. She was a big blond woman with a mean look in her eyes, she wore jeans and a faded denim jacket and didn't look like she had too many more belongings in the world. She stared back, riveting each of them in turn. "What're you kids staring at? Never seen a tank before?"

Avery replied, "I don't have a problem with you, unless you want to start one."

She finally laughed, "No, I don't think I do. My name's Anita Moore."

"So, why'd you volunteer?" Lucas asked her.

"As far as career choices go, I could push a broom or pick vegetables for the rest of my life, or I could volunteer. The Corps will pay for college."

"Yeah, but you wouldn't have had to volunteer for AFT for that."

Anita looked out into the distance. "No, I wouldn't have. After I finished my indenture and they shipped me back to Earth, I got a job as a janitor at the Marine Corps base at Dallas. One day I decided I was tired of watching other people fly those beauties, I want my turn."

"You could get killed," Avery said.

"So what else is new?" She grinned. "You know anybody who's gonna live forever?"

Lisa said, "Me."

Kenny said, "You're crazy, girl."

"I've had people tell me that before," she replied.

The bus slowed to make the turn off the highway. Avery turned to look out the window. It didn't look like the place had changed a bit since he'd first seen it as a little boy. Jimmy knew, though, that was an illusion. Nothing would ever be the same again.

(USS Saratoga, September 2064)
McQueen stepped into the office, to find the rest of his office mates watching TV. Shane still had her arm in a sling, she still wasn't supposed to move her shoulder too much. But she looked a lot better this morning, especially since Dr. O'Leary had released her to return to light duty and she could at least make herself useful catching up the paperwork. She waved him inside. "Check out CNN! It should be coming up again here in a minute."

"What should--"

"The Wolfe Pack busted out Bad John."

"You're kidding." He pulled his chair over and logged onto his terminal, but kept an eye out for the news story to come up again. It turned out John Waite had been in court to testify to a grand jury regarding what he'd seen on Vesta and the deal the Wolfe Pack had with Aerotech. He'd refused to name his accomplices, although of course Danny Wolfe had been identified from the 5-8's reports and they had descriptions of the others. Although the testimony Waite had given was still sealed, McQueen figured he'd told plenty about what he'd seen down in the mine and about Aerotech's orders regarding Amy.

However, on his way back to prison, an SA-43 with Aerotech colors had forced the prison van off the road, and a similarly marked ISSCV had taken John off the van. Only one guard had been seriously injured -- though not killed -- and that one had been attempting to carry out orders to shoot John rather than allow him to escape. The guards' descriptions of the SA-43 pilot matched Danny.

McQueen knew John deserved to be punished for the bombing, but on the other hand, he wasn't sorry that Waite had testified against Aerotech and escaped with his skin. Also, he had to admire the way Danny had pulled off that operation, with minimal damage and no loss of life. There had been a very practical reason for arranging things that way. It was highly unlikely the fleet would be ordered to search for the Wolfe Pack, since no lives had been lost and they hadn't taken any government property. It was still the business of the Department of Justice to bring them in. Of course, they would have Aerotech to contend with. If Danny had any sense, he and his people were halfway through a wormhole to some out-of-the-way system by now, where they would lie low for a good long time.

He hadn't any more than stepped onto the bridge when Ross quietly motioned him into his office. The Commodore shut the hatch. "Have you heard the news?"

"Just now in the office." McQueen couldn't quite suppress a grin.

Ross returned it. "I would like to have seen the look on those Aerotech boys' faces when Danny used some of their own planes to spring John Waite! You all are going to the JFK to testify before that grand jury by telepresence. Before this is over, you personally will probably end up back on Earth testifying before a General Assembly subcommittee." He scowled. "Have you and Shane ever been in any way...uh, indiscreet? I'm not saying anything, but if there's any chance there could be a scandal we need to be ready for it now."

"Not to my knowledge, sir," he replied. "We've been careful, but anything's possible. As far as I know, the only people aware of the situation are the Wild Cards, Amy, and yourself."

"Amy wouldn't--"

"No, sir. Amy wouldn't."

Ross drew a deep breath and let it out. "In the meanwhile, we need to play this really close to the vest...and you need to be especially careful."

"Understood, sir."

"I don't just mean staying out of the sack, damn it. Aerotech wants you dead, and the rest of the 'Cards aren't far behind you. Some of the stuff I've been hearing in the last week or so...Jesus, it looks like this thing goes back before the turn of the century! You made some damn big enemies, Ty. I'll be honest with you, Danny may be a first-class son of a bitch, but I'm glad he's drawing some of their fire. I had enough to worry about with the damn chigs without this on top of it. When this is over, I hope every one of 'em ends up in a cell until hell freezes over. But everyone who's tried so far to make that happen has either ended up discredited or dead."

McQueen said, "It looks like I opened up a real can of worms for you, Glen. Amy and I didn't see this kind of trouble coming."

"I know that, but I'd have told you to go ahead with it anyway even if you had...especially if you had."

"After what I saw on Vesta, I can't leave it alone, no matter where it goes from here," McQueen said.

Ross looked up at him, and his dark eyes were just as implacable. "Neither will I, and neither will a lot of other people. A lot of politicians jumped off on our side of the fence when Amy's story hit the front page. People overlooked a lot when it was politics as usual. But Aerotech overreached their hand when they started this war in the first place. It is not going to be politics as usual now."

"If they want me badly enough, sir, they'll be able to get to me. There aren't a hell of a lot of places to hide on the 'Toga. I don't want to take you, or the 5-8, down with me if it comes to that."

"That's bilge, Ty, if it comes to that I know what side I am on. You and I are not a couple of damn kids on a three day pass carousing in Mobile any more. This is a matter of right and wrong, what we will stand for and what we are willing to put our lives on the line for. I swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, not some...illegal shadow government that exists only to make Aerotech richer. If there's one coming over the hill with my name on it, then by God let it find me upholding that oath. Otherwise I would be a disgrace to the blood of all the boys and girls that I have ordered to their deaths fighting this war."

"Yes, sir."

Ross figured there was no sense worrying about things he couldn't help at the moment, and changed the subject. "You can tell Shane the 5-8's replacements are coming in day after tomorrow. They're supposed to have been the top of the class at Loxley this time."

McQueen commented, "It's about time."

"Stop by my quarters tonight, I should have their jackets by then."

(USS Saratoga, September 2064)
McQueen tapped at Ross' hatch. "Enter!" Came the short reply from inside.

Ross was sitting behind his desk, on it rested a bottle of rum and a nearly empty glass. McQueen had rarely seen Commodore Ross so angry. He slammed a stack of file jackets down on the table so hard the bottle and glass jumped. "Ty, I've got some news, and I don't know how to tell you this, so I'm just going to show you. Do you know Georgeanne Jeffords?"

"The name rings a bell. Gitmo, back in '52 or '53?"

"That's right. It's Brigadier General Jeffords now, thank you very much, and I want you to look at this project she wants us to participate in."

McQueen picked up the jacket, did a double-take of the photograph, then opened it and started reading. Quietly he asked, "Sir, did you get any farther than the picture?"

"I don't know why the hell you think I'd need to! After what they've put you through--!"

"Humor me," McQueen replied.

Ross glared, but he took the jacket back and started reading. He indicated a glass and McQueen helped himself. After a moment, the glare softened into a scowl and then to a puzzled look. "You're the one who brought this thing in? This really is your report?"

"That's how it happened." McQueen stared into his glass. "Collins and I were flying pirate suppression, it was supposed to be a milk run. But we stumbled across their hideout, on a rock called Macauley's World in the Timorra system." He told the rest of it. "I never expected to see anything more of Marcy after that. The camp was the only chance she had, but it was a pretty slim one."

"So you think this is on the up and up?"

"There was something different about Marcy ... do you know any more about General Jeffords' project?"

"She seems to think an AI might understand the chigs better than we do."

"She might be right. The Stranahan AIs were able to form an alliance with them. It's worth a try."

"Jeffords 'suggested' that I assign Marcy to you. I was ready to tell her to go to hell and give Marcy to Crazy Judy, if an AI can fit in anywhere it's recon."

"Sir, I've got to admit that the idea of working with an AI every day comes as ... a surprise ... but working as my aide will put Marcy in a position to get the data she needs. That really is the important thing. And, on a personal level, I owe Marcy. I pay my debts, Glen, the least I can do is look out for her while she's here."

He nodded. "Well, that wasn't the reaction I was expecting, but if you're okay with it, I'll put it through." He pushed the remaining file jackets across the desk. "You'll find Marcy's cover identity in the top one. Jeffords doesn't want any more people than necessary to know what she is. The others are the 5-8's newbies."

McQueen looked at each in turn. Nothing stood out about Yamauchi or Lucas at first glance. Yamauchi was just out of college with a major in business, Lucas had graduated from high school last spring. Their draft numbers were their obvious incentive for enlisting now. Nothing in the jackets gave him cause to make a judgment about them before meeting them.

Moore's history got his attention fast. "Guadeloupe #6 until it played out, then wonder she sailed through boot. Halleston had one hell of a reputation, I've never met a survivor before."

"What do you think?"

"I don't know...I'll wait until she gets here." He turned the last folder.

Ross said, "An AI, and Jim Avery's boy, on the same day. I do believe that I am getting too old for this, Ty."

Just a few months ago, McQueen had been with Jim Avery when he died. Both of them had been pinned under the debris of an explosion, the only help or comfort he had been able to offer had been his hand for Avery to grip. He could still feel the lock of their fingers. Now here was Jim's son, the same gray eyes looking back at him from a photograph that could have been Jim himself ten or twelve years ago. McQueen had owned a motorcycle back then, he wondered if Jimmy remembered the afternoons he'd taken him riding on the back roads around Loxley. Now that little kid was a grown man. "You're not the only one, Glen."

(Washington, DC -- September 2064)
Marcy took a stack of reports into General Jeffords' office. "Ma'am, here are those things you--" She stopped when she saw the way the General was standing at her desk, her face was pale and her hand was pressed to her middle. Marcy dropped the papers on the credenza and rushed over. "General! What's wrong, do you need someone?"

She shook her head. "Get me my purse and a glass of water."

Quickly, Marcy did so, and watched with growing concern as the General took a pill box out of her bag and took a liquid-gel out of it. She bit down on it, and swiftly downed the glass of water to wash the godawful taste out of her mouth. After a moment, the pain eased.

Jeffords finally looked up at her. "Don't let the cat out of the bag on me, Marcy."

"I don't understand. I won't tell anyone, if you don't want me to, but you should get some help. That was bad."

"Yeah, I know. I've been to the doctors and there's nothing they can do. I was out there too long, got exposed to every kind of chemicals and radiation in God's universe. I've had cancer for five years, it's flared up a couple of times and I had it treated when it did, but they don't know where the primary site is. This time, instead of just reappearing in one place, it's damn near everywhere."


"I don't want you to feel sorry for me, damn it! If I wanted bouquets and get-well-cards, I'd have told everybody! I just want everything to stay the same as long as it can. General Morgan knows, and so does Colonel Penderson. I can stay on active duty until it starts affecting my work. Usually it doesn't hurt like that, Marcy, but I moved wrong, that's all."

Marcy nodded. "How--" She couldn't bring herself to ask how long, but Jeffords read it in her expression.

"The docs told me six months, more or less. I told them, at least till the war's over. I'm not gonna desert my post."

"I -- what I came to tell you -- I got my flight assignment. I'll be leaving out of Loxley, Alabama the day after tomorrow. I don't want this to be goodbye!"

Jeffords' expression softened, maybe for the first time in years. "You'll have to get used to it, you know. We live eighty years or so. The geeks tell me you could be around a hell of a lot longer than that."

"I know," Marcy said miserably.

"I told you I'll be around long enough to see us win this thing, you're not gonna get rid of me that easy. You just do your job, let me worry about Ironass Jeffords."

Marcy swore, "I won't let you down, ma'am."

Jeffords smiled. She'd already known that, from the months she'd been working with Marcy and overseeing the project. "You need to get your things in order to ship out. You can leave early this afternoon to take care of things. Stop by my office tomorrow morning before you head out for Loxley."

"Yes, ma'am!"

"Dismissed." Jeffords watched Marcy shut the hatch behind her, then kicked her chair around to look out over the parade ground through the open blinds. The first red and gold leaves strayed by on a breeze. She would see the snow again, and spring. How could she ever explain to Marcy, or to anyone else for that matter, how full her life had been, how rich and good? If she could only complete this last mission and live to see victory won, she could go to her rest without regrets.

(Loxley, Alabama -- September 2064)
The graduation dance at Loxley had been a gala affair, and the four new Marines had enjoyed it greatly. They had their orders, they were shipping out tomorrow. Lucas' family and Avery's mom and his best friend had made it in for graduation, but Yamauchi's folks lived too far away, and Moore didn't have anyone. "Can you believe we got assigned to the 58th squadron?" Lisa said.

Jimmy was still feeling a little warm from the champaign. He hadn't touched a drop of liquor since he and his mother had drunk a toast to his father's memory, so the bubbly had gone to his head a little faster than he'd expected. "Well, they needed four pilots, and we were the best all through training."

They all had passes to spend a few hours off base. Jimmy and Kenny were going out with their folks, they parted company when they saw the families coming out of the building. Nita said, "Looks like it's just you and me, kid."

Lisa giggled. "You know something, Nita? I get tired of someone who's only eight calling me kid."

Nita took a playful swipe at her, Lisa ducked fast because even Nita's playful swipes weren't a whole lot of fun on the receiving end. She'd found out fast in combat training that she really didn't ever want Nita to pop her one for real. Nita was a big woman, but she was all muscle, and it would have been a hell of a mistake to assume that translated to slow.

They changed clothes and went down to the O-club for a while. They thought about making friends with a couple of good-looking guys they met there, but one of them made a remark about Nita and they almost got in a fight. Neither of them wanted that kind of trouble so they just walked away from it. They ran into some acquaintances in the parking lot and ended up riding over to the levee with them.

There was quite a little party going on when they got there, people had hot dogs and beer. There were a lot of people swimming. You weren't supposed to do that because of pollution or something but everyone did. Someone had country music playing loud, and a few people were dancing down by the campfire. After a while, they joined in the dance, celebrating this last night on Earth.

(USS Saratoga September 2064)
Vansen ran her fingers under her sling to ease it slightly. "So, did you find out anything about our new kids from the commodore last night?"

McQueen told her about them first, that gave him some time to think about exactly how to break the news about Marcy. He had thought no one could hate AIs on principle more than he did...until he had met Shane!

When he finished, she commented, "I'm surprised they'd assign Jim's son to the 5-8. He must be the next thing to your own kid."

"He wouldn't have been, if I were still C.O. instead of you," McQueen pointed out. "I had a motorcycle back then, I used to take him riding out on the back roads. Jim and I didn't think his mother knew about that, until she gave him a motorcycle helmet for his birthday."

Shane laughed. "Yeah, right...!"

"I'm not surprised Jimmy decided to go this route, though. He used to love to hang around the sims, he was writing code for them before he could reach the controls. I guess he was about eleven or twelve when we started sneaking him in. The C.O. went ballistic when he found out about that...until Jimmy shot him down best two out of three. You can imagine the grin on Jim's face while he watched that one go down."

"So what happened?"

"The war ended, and Jim was promoted and started spending more and more time aboard the carrier. Jimmy's mom could never get used to the climate in Alabama. When she was there by herself eight or nine months out of the year she said the hell with it and moved them back to where ever it was they came from. South Dakota, I think. Then Jimmy started college. After that, the only time I saw Jimmy was when Jim was home on leave at the same time we were at Loxley. He and his mom came only came down when Jim was there. The last time I saw him was spring break last year, he stopped to visit on his way to Florida. He'd made it into an honors software engineering program at MIT then."

Shane could understand Jimmy real well. She'd been a Marine brat herself ... and for a long time there, every AI she'd killed had gone towards evening the score for her parents. At least he should fit into the unit real well, he already knew the ropes and he was practically family already. As for the rest ... she'd know soon enough. "When do they get here?"

"Should be today."

Shane studied him for a while. He was usually hard to read, even for her, but now she could tell he was holding something back. "Well, drop the other shoe and get it over with," she said finally.

He told her about Marcy, and Macauley's world, and Jeffords' idea. "It just might be crazy enough to work, Shane."

"You're asking me to trust your back to a -- freakin' AI!" she exclaimed. "I am sorry, Ty, but I just don't think I can do that!"

Reasonably he said, "If she wanted me dead, I'd be dead. All she'd have had to do was take a front row seat back on Macauley's World."

"She needed you alive to get her off that rock," Shane pointed out. "You're even, you don't owe her anything! Let someone else have her!"

"I'm not asking you to trust Marcy. I'm asking you to trust me. Besides," he grinned, "You do owe me an anything bet."

Shane gave him a long look, and slowly relaxed. She wasn't used to Ty sweet-talking her into things, she could foresee a lifetime of doing things against her better judgment just because of those blue eyes. "All right, Ty. But I still think we've both lost our minds. I wouldn't go along with this on anyone else's say-so!"

"I knew I could count on you."

"Just promise me you'll be careful around this thing. Unless you want to end up like me, with a Ka-bar in your back--"

"All right, I promise, if it'll make you feel better. I want you to promise me you'll give Marcy a fair chance before you make up your mind about her."

"I'll give her the benefit of the doubt," Shane said. "Before I met Alvin on the Bacchus, I wouldn't have believed there was any room for doubt. But now ... I've been wrong before. Maybe I'm wrong about this AI. Are Todd and Jeff-D and Holly supposed to know about her?"

"Need to know. Right now, it's just you, me and Commodore Ross. If she's here that long, we'll eventually end up having to let 'Phousse in on it."

"Right.... Ty, how do you think they got her to do this?"

"What was the line from that old movie about an offer you can't refuse? I'm sure it was something like that. In her place, I'd have agreed to just about anything to get out of that detention colony."

"Yeah," Shane said thoughtfully. "I'm going to head back to the barracks and make sure nobody has their stuff in the spare lockers. We aren't going to have a hell of a lot of time to get the new kids settled in before we have to ship out for the JFK."

"What are you thinking?"

"That it was all just on paper before, my being C.O. of the 58th. We all knew what was really going on. These kids don't know, and that scares the hell out of me. They're going to be looking to me ... and I don't know if I'm ready."

He sat down on the corner of his desk. "Now you know how I felt before the Battle of the Belt," he told her. "I'd just lost the 127th, and most of us had ten or fifteen years of experience. And there you people were, fresh out of Loxley." He shook his head. "I was supposed to give you some kind of fighting chance out there...."

"You did," Shane said.

"Shane, you're the one who's been really leading this squadron almost from the start. I can give you advice, but you're the one who's out there in the thick. Whenever you've had to make the snap decisions, you've done it. And for two months while I was in rehab, you were the one who pulled the 5-8 back together. You've done a hell of a job. I don't see that changing now."

Shane smiled. "I needed to hear that."

Next : Part Two

Becky Ratliff 10/96