Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Space" Above and Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, and have been used without permission, with no mean intent or desire for remuneration. This particular piece of fiction, including all non-canon characters portrayed, is my own creation and is intended as a homage to that series. Also, the biases and prejudices found in this story are of the characters themselves and do not necessarily reflect my own beliefs.
Also, the 12th are a great deal more technical than me, so they made the plan work, don't ask me how. :)
Thanks to Una and Anna for the beta-reading. :)
Rating for this particular episode is R for language.
I'd appreciate any and all comments. Please send them at SeuneAeryk@hotmail.com.
I know you guys waited a long time for this. I'm sorry it took so long but I thank you for being patient and staying with us and keeping the faith. Thanks for the letters, the comments, the encouragement, and most of all the nagging. They're all that keep this series alive. :)
Enjoy, and please do send feedback! (Or chocolate. I'm not picky. ;)
SIX AGAINST THE DEALER - Black Eyed Man
For the poison in the well
They found his shoes by the pulley
They found his fingerprints all over the pail…
And with a noose around his neck
Cicadas trilling everywhere
He says to the people gathered 'round him:
'It ain't the water that's not right around here.'"
"Black Eyed Man"
There were certain advantages, thought First Lieutenant Jordan Rain, to having a virago for a Captain. For one thing, people didn't come up to you in the hallways asking how come your squadron got to sit on your collective behinds for two whole days while the rest of the fleet didn't get the extra five minutes to chew and swallow the freeze-dried fishsticks before they were shipped off to the next battle. They didn't ambush you in the showers asking how come your squadron commander, who'd been gone for more than two months, hadn't spoken to any of you, except to throw one very surprised InVitro in the brig and announce that the rest of you were grounded until further notice. They didn't corner you in the mess hall demanding to know, in exact detail, what had transpired between that same commander and the Commodore during those two hours they had spent cloistered in the war room screaming at each other. They didn't make loud jokes about you having to go through every re-certification test invented just because your commander was in that kind of mood. They didn't 'volunteer' to chaperon your other female squadmate 'for her own protection.' (wink wink) And they sure as hell didn't make very nasty remarks about how the war would be won by now if certain people hadn't messed up on Anvil.
No, if you had an intimidating Captain people left you alone. If you had one. Unfortunately, theirs was off on a secret mission somewhere and open season had been declared on the 58th.
Hell, he hadn't even been on Anvil. He'd been on the Michigan, gearing up for Operation Roundhammer like everyone else. And like everyone else he'd figured that the timing of the peace treaty was incredible, but had been too overcome with relief to pay attention to the nagging feeling that something was very, very wrong. The first time he'd actually gotten confirmation that something had gone wrong, and the first time he'd heard the 58th were involved was when someone commented loudly that now that McQueen was back the brass could get around to the long-overdue court-martial. That particular remark had been followed by an equally nasty: "If they'd been any squadron but the 58th they'd have been keelhauled, drawn and quartered."
He'd been too confused and shocked to even mind the mixed aphorisms.
Damn, but these guys got into a lot of trouble. He didn't understand that at all. His own personal vocation had always been to avoid trouble as much as possible, investing considerable energy in seeming innocuous and being invisible.
He wondered if Tyler knew about the events on Anvil, and the purported court-martial. Probably -- Tyler was too savvy to have let anything like that slip by her. On the other hand, it seemed uncharacteristic that she wouldn't use something like that to torment West and Hawkes.
Speaking of torment…
"I am soooo bored," Cullen groaned. Dramatically, she 'pounded' her head against the screen of her computer in a 'kill me now' gesture.
"Careful," Rain admonished as he fiddled with his own console. "The last time someone mentioned being bored ---."
"Morgan was here and we weren't grounded and stuck with a bunch of stupid re-certification tests," finished Cullen. "At least she only made us do push-ups. This is torture! I mean, look at this." She gestured disgustedly toward her monitor. "Triangulation! What the fudge do I need to be re-certified in triangulation for? One minute they have us on 18-hour shifts and the next we're grounded. Just because they've got new warm bodies..."
"I'd just enjoy the lag, if I were you," he advised. "Give the new squadrons a chance to show their stuff."
Unable to solicit sympathy from him, Sarah turned to Nathan. "Weeeeeeesst," she whined. "Can't you get us out of this?"
"Count your blessings," Nathan answered shortly. "At least we're not in the brig with Cooper."
Predictably, Sarah was distracted by the change in subject. "Poor Cooper," she sighed sympathetically. "He's really hurting. I can't imagine what he's going through."
"It's his fault," Jordan interjected quietly. "He shouldn't have scared us like that. More importantly, he shouldn't have scared Morgan."
West raised an eyebrow in his direction. "You mean he shouldn't have pissed her off."
"Well," Jordan conceded, thoughtfully. "That, too."
"Anyway, McQueen threw Coop in the brig," West pointed out. "Not Tyler."
"Then Cooper frightened him, too."
Cullen looked at West pointedly. "It would help if you went to see him."
"I can't," Nathan answered, frustration leaking into his voice. "McQueen's orders, remember? No one sees him. And may I remind you that except for meals and these tests we're all confined to quarters?"
Cullen gave a disgusted sniff. "Between the two of you you'll drive him crazy," she announced.
Nathan scowled at her. "What are you talking about?" he scoffed. "He's sitting pretty in the brig. He got off easy."
Cullen raised an eyebrow in his direction. "Colonel McQueen chose the cruelest punishment he could have thought of," she returned sharply. "Hawkes is claustrophobic, remember? And then the Colonel decided Hawkes couldn't see anyone. So not only is Cooper feeling closed in, he's also feeling cut off." She sighed again, this time worriedly. "The sentry told me he hasn't slept since he went in there."
"You went to see him," West accused, eyes wide and incredulous. "I can't believe this! You disobeyed orders and went to see Cooper."
"I tried," she replied, with uncharacteristic coolness. "I caught a glimpse before I was hustled away."
"McQueen said no visitors!" said West.
Sarah ignored Nathan's outburst. "He looked really bad. Don't think he even saw me." She shrugged dramatically. "Guess it doesn't matter anyway. He doesn't want to see me. He wants to see you."
"Sarah…" Rain's voice held a trace of caution.
"And Colonel McQueen," she continued. "You guys do remember who that is, right? Our esteemed CO? The one who hasn't spoken two words to any of us except for ordering us in here?"
"That's enough, Sarah," Rain interrupted, curtly. "It's not fair, and it's not your place."
Sarah glared at Rain who stared coldly back. "I just want to know where the famous 58th comradeship went to all of a sudden," she declared heatedly. "You know, all those stories about how the 58th stuck together, thick and thin, come what may, -- all that BS."
"Lieutenant…" The warning in Rain's voice was becoming more apparent.
"You and me and Tyler -- I can understand them acting all high and mighty with us," Cullen persisted heatedly. "But dammit, they're supposed to be…. They're supposed to be the 58th!"
"I said that's enough!" snapped Rain, his tone brooking no argument. "Sit down and finish your work."
"I'm done!" Cullen snapped back. "I've been done these last twenty mikes!"
"Then go back to our barrack and cool off," Rain ordered coldly.
For a moment Cullen looked like she was going to argue. Then she threw a glare in West's direction and stomped off. Rain thought she showed admirable restraint in not actually sticking out her tongue.
"What the hell is her problem?" West asked.
Rain shrugged, bending over his work once again. "Ask her."
"I'm asking you," West pointed out coldly.
Jordan grew still. He took a breath before raising his head slowly. He stared at West deliberately, eyes narrowing to match the younger man's. The rest of his body didn't actually move but something shifted in his stance. It was the mental equivalent of crossing his arms over his chest in challenge.
Contrary to popular belief, he had emotions. He even had a temper -- one as hot as any of theirs, probably even hotter. His just took longer to come to a boil, and he was better at hiding it. That wasn't saying much considering the rest. Cullen and Hawkes -- they had no idea how to keep their emotions hidden. And Tyler -- Tyler didn't give a damn to try.
"You're presuming a lot of things here, Lieutenant," he told West calmly, coolly. "One, that I actually know what's wrong with Cullen. Two, that it's my place to speak for her. And three, that I'm obligated to tell you."
"You'd tell Tyler," West challenged.
Jordan's eyes narrowed even further, but his voice was still even as he answered. "For all her 'don't give a damn' posturing, Tyler knows how to keep tabs on what's going on around her. She wouldn't have to ask anyone. And if she did she'd know how to do that, too."
"And just what it that supposed to mean?" demanded West.
Jordan had reached the end of his patience. "You know where Cullen is," he pointed out coldly. "And you know she's not the type to keep secrets. So why don't you just go and ask her? Why waste your time trying to power play me?"
With that he went back to work and proceeded to studiously ignore West. A few seconds later he heard West slam out of the room.
Jordan sighed. The problem with West, he thought, was he never asked the right questions, and never in the right way.
Tyler hadn't asked it of him but he'd promised himself that he was going to stand by her decision. But times like this it was a real struggle.
He was a good soldier, possibly a great one, and he firmly believed he could have led the 58th with no problem. So, when Morgan had made her arbitrary announcement that West was honcho while she was gone, there had only been that split-second of unvoiced protest and resentment.
Me? Why me?
He'd mentally winced as West had asked the question, even though the same question, in a manner of speaking, had flashed through his mind.
Morgan had her reasons, he knew that. Despite appearances, she was never one to do anything on a whim, or for mere amusement or spite. No, everything Morgan did was planned. Carefully calculated, precisely orchestrated, with some purpose in mind. She'd made West honcho for a reason. He believed that. Now if only he could keep from stuffing the guy in a locker.
When Tyler was around, he'd had to be, by default, the cool-headed person around. He did his best to remain impartial and fair but the truth was he was starting to get impatient, too. He understood West's problem, West's pain, but was still rapidly losing sympathy. These days he had to actively remind himself to see it from West's side.
Hawkes suspected that West didn't care, that he wanted to be back on earth with Kylen. Jordan knew that the exact opposite was true. If anything, Nathan cared too much.
The way Nathan saw it, it was his fault. He had made the decision to leave Vansen, Damphousse and Wang. He had chosen to secure the colonists. And unlike everyone else that had been involved in that fiasco, he had actually gained something. He got Kylen back. The woman he loved. The reason he had joined the Corps, the reason he was in this war to begin with.
And now Kylen was back on earth. Without his purpose, without his faith, West was lost.
West and Tyler, they had more in common than they knew. They carried the heavier burden. Not only loss, not only responsibility, but also guilt. And guilt was always complicated business. But whereas Morgan was driven by guilt, propelled by it to extremes, Nathan seemed paralyzed by it -- unable to act, only to react, to certain situations, to certain challenges. Jordan suspected that sometimes Morgan baited West just to get a rise out of him. He understood that, too. Sometimes he himself felt like whacking West on the head on the slim chance that the younger man would wake up and prove he was still alive. He hadn't actually done that yet. All things considered, West was still honcho and their relationship hadn't progressed to the whacking-on-the-head stage yet.
He grinned wryly to himself. Maybe Sarah would do it for him. Sarah would whack _him_ for even thinking it, but -- equality be damned -- with her arsenal of baby blue eyes, platinum hair and dimpled smile, there were just some things she could get away with that he couldn't. And Sarah would do it, too. She was just as frustrated as he was. All she needed was an excuse. Hell, it was all any of them needed.
The forced inactivity was wearing on all their nerves, he supposed. Plus that court martial thing. Or maybe they'd all gotten sort of used to the underlying violence that had been a constant with Tyler around and were now trying to pick up the slack. She might've been hard on the nerves but one thing Tyler definitely wasn't was boring.
She hadn't even reached their barracks yet, and already her temper was fleeing, just as quickly as it had flared.
Which was not to say she didn't think her ire was justified.
Men! She harumphed to herself for good measure, throwing an irritated glare upward.
Lieutenant Sarah Cullen had grown up knowing her place, having it constantly shoved in her face by a politically ambitious father, a mother with archaic ideals of womanhood and, later on, a domineering fiancé. No, domineering was too strong a word for Richard. Conventional, maybe. Set in his ways. Unimaginative. In any case, each of them had taught her that there were roles each person played and a hierarchy to everything. Leaders and followers, heroes and fools.
It was funny. Coming here, she thought she'd be the one playing the fool. She'd been so afraid that she wouldn't contribute enough, that she'd be the weakest link, suspecting that Morgan had taken her on because of misplaced gratitude. After all, she had had virtually no flight combat experience and though her ground skills were adequate, they were nowhere in the league of the rest of them. She'd been terrified she wasn't good enough to be a WildCard.
Who would have thought she'd end up being the sane one around? Good thing she was such a good medic. She could patch them together when they were done ripping each other to shreds.
Okay, so she was doing her share of snapping. She was entitled, dammit. She'd been smiling so much her face hurt. And it wasn't like her life was all sunshine and roses.
She entered their barrack, slammed the door shut and climbed on to her rack, flinging herself upon the thin mattress.
That time in Styx, she'd almost died when Morgan looked at her with such disappointment, -- contempt, even, -- because she couldn't pull the trigger. Later, she had understood. There were places in the Universe for people who could not, would not kill, places where such a thing would be admired and applauded.
The United States Marines Corps was not one of them.
She'd been fooling herself, anyway. She'd killed before. Just because she never saw their faces didn't make them any less dead.
Anyone else, she thought, would have let her get away with it. She knew this for a fact. She'd had ample experience getting away with things. One of her strengths had always been that everyone liked her, so they tried to make things easier for her. A sunny smile, a helpless grin, and men would fall over themselves laying their coats on puddles or bringing her lemonade. Growing up as her father's daughter, she'd had no problem with that. Power was power.
She had been all of nineteen years old before she even thought to look beyond that, to see that she had strengths that had nothing to do with her beauty, her father's position, or her mother's bloodline. It took five more years before she believed in that enough to break free.
She grew up knowing her place. But she'd be damned if anyone tried to shove her back in that box.
Okay, so that wasn't what she was really upset about, either. It wasn't even that Hawkes was in the brig, or that Tyler was gone and there was a good chance she wouldn't bother to come back, or even that there seemed to be no end to the war in sight.
She turned over, hugged her pillow and sighed, admitting to herself just what her problem was.
It was that man. Colonel TC McQueen.
She sighed again.
The daughter of a senator, she'd grown up surrounded by great men, potentially great men, and men striving to be great. She knew, better than most, how to tell who was which. How to separate the exceptional from the common, the commander from the flock.
Some enticed people and held them with promises -- illusions of safety, wealth, contentment, delight. These promises didn't have to be spoken aloud, but they were there. Follow me and you'll be safe. Follow me and you'll be happy. Follow me and we'll win this war and you'll see your family again. Her father was such a man.
Some used their vision -- dreams larger than life that swept lesser men away. Most of the time, it was the dream, not the dreamer, that led them. If the dreamer wasn't strong enough, the dream, would disintegrate and die, or would destroy them all.
Some people, like Morgan, could bind people by the sheer force of their will. Loners, forcibly shoved into a position of social responsibility, they led with violent authority -- taking control as a means of survival, to keep the barriers in place.
And some, she knew, could lead simply because they had that indefinable quality, the soul, the something more that quietly commanded trust and obedience, and that pledged, if not safety, then purpose, and preached not glory, not useless sacrifice, but worth.
She had thought, had believed, that Colonel TC McQueen was such a leader, such a man. She'd be embarrassed to admit just how many time she'd watched that AFN video, even before learning that she would be going to the Saratoga. What would her squadmates think if they knew that it had been him, not them, that had so delighted her about the prospect of joining the 58th? They all thought it was Tyler. The truth was she admired Tyler, and would gladly lay down her life for her, but it was McQueen's serene gaze, his quiet strength, that had called her here.
She'd wanted to be part of something. And she wanted something, someone, to believe in.
She turned over once more and glared at the low ceiling.
What a disappointment he'd turned out to be.
Ah, well, she'd been disappointed before. She'd live.
That is, if they could keep from killing one another.
Hawkes unconsciously tapped his foot against the floor, counting off the seconds. I can do this, he thought. McQueen had said seventy-two hours. Sixty-two hours, sixteen minutes and twenty-two seconds had passed. Nine hours, forty-five minutes and thirty-eight seconds to go. I can do this.
He had to hand it to the Colonel. McQueen knew exactly what he was doing when he stuck him in here. He could never stand being cooped up. He hated small spaces, hated feeling trapped, caged, helpless.
He hated the silence, the tension, the feeling that everything was suspended, dead. It made him feel unreal, even more invisible than usual. It was a stupid feeling, since no one was around, but there it was.
It was hell, having all this time on his hands, with nothing but walls and the occasional glimpse of a sentry to distract him. Time to think, time to remember. Time to dwell on things that he would rather deny or ignore. Time and opportunity for thoughts -- memories -- to sneak in and play games with his sanity, his peace of mind.
Things he didn't want to think about. Things he'd rather forget.
No, not forget. Just… put aside while he gathered strength.
McQueen, aside from that barked order to throw him in the brig, hadn't said a word to him. That scared him. McQueen had always been a little cool, trying so damn hard to stay aloof and untouched, but he'd convinced himself of a connection beyond that of CO and soldier. A unique relationship, perhaps borne out of their mutual fortunes. Both InVitros, both alone, both suited for nothing more than warfare. He had allowed himself to believe that they were two of a kind, sharing more than blood, more than genes. They shared a history. A destiny.
He had convinced himself of the same thing about Shane. Maybe she didn't love him the way he loved her, but he was nonetheless sure they shared something special. He wasn't sure what that relationship was, exactly -- the one time he had tried to test it she had slapped him full on the face. It hadn't been with meanness, he knew that, just an unequivocal declaration and re-establishment of the boundaries he had crossed. Over time that relationship had grown, developed. Still indefinable, but undeniable. He had had faith that there was a chance someday she would let him be something more.
He had no such illusions about Tyler. There was no relationship there. Those weeks, that night -- it had been one endless struggle. A contest. A fight.
He should be handling it better -- his whole life had been about war, about fighting. That was what he knew best -- heck, it was all he knew. But he didn't get the dynamics of this one. What were they fighting, what for? At the start he thought he knew. And that night he'd thought… So, you're saying it never happened. It happened. It just didn't mean anything.
Hell, he didn't know what he'd thought, or if he thought at all. Probably not. He'd said to hell with reason and allowed himself to be swept away by… By whatever it was. Besides, he hated thinking.
He hated worrying more, though. And being confused.
But the thing he hated most was being in here when everyone else was out there.
About a dozen hours ago the Saratoga had been under attack. The claxons had sounded, shattering the almost unbearable silence of his cell. Ross had called general quarters and the sentry had answered the call, leaving him alone, ignorant and extremely frustrated. If those bars hadn't been electrified he would have torn them off, regardless of the metal bolts that fused them to the floor. Outside his window he had seen the explosions, watched the squadrons battling the Chigs, frustration mounting with each impact, each hit that the Saratoga suffered. He had spent the better part of two hours alternating between watching the window and standing by the bars, waiting for someone to come and get him so he could join the fray. With Tyler gone and him locked up the 'Cards were flying two men short. They needed him.
He'd let them down once, he couldn't let them down again. He'd never forgive himself if anything happened to them while he remained locked away.
But no one had come and soon the impacts had tapered off, and the battle had moved away. He had spent another half-hour standing by the window trying to catch a glimpse of the squadrons that had come home.
Cripes, he hated this. Something had to be wrong or Nathan would have come to see him by now. The guard had returned, finally, but wouldn't answer his questions. And the one that had replaced that guard hadn't been any help either. Hawkes guessed that McQueen had given instructions that no one was to talk to him, too.
Fitting punishment, alright.
I can do this, he thought again, looking back at the clock. Sixty-two hours, twenty-three minutes and forty-two seconds. Nine hours, thirty-eight minutes and eighteen seconds to go.
I can do this.
West needed a drink. A big one. A double big one.
He didn't think it could get worse, but of course it could. And had.
McQueen had just informed him, quite calmly and matter-of-factly, to prepare for the 'impending investigation' on their 'damned mess on Anvil.'
At first he could only stare at the Colonel in shock. The truth was he'd forgotten about it, so many things had happened since then -- he thought the issue had been swept away by the events following the peace treaty. Turns out the Corps hadn't forgotten. They'd just been waiting for McQueen to return so the 58th could answer the charges as a squadron, as well as individuals. Which didn't make sense to Nathan at all, considering that Wang was dead and Vansen and Damphousse were… still unaccounted for.
But McQueen had been, was their CO. Rumor had it that the Colonel would be the one to face the court martial.
Which wasn't fair, since they were the ones who had screwed up.
Shit. What kind of game was the Corps playing, giving them back McQueen only to take him away again? To rush them back into active duty after the peace treaty only to yank them back out now and threaten to send them back to Earth in disgrace? After all they had done for this war, after all they had sacrificed?
No. He wouldn't let them do that, not to Wang or Vansen or Damphousse. He owed them that much. He wouldn't let them be disgraced. Neither would McQueen. He was sure of that if nothing else.
And as if that wasn't enough, Rain and Cullen were acting all strange on him, too. He should have known they'd give him problems. Tyler had said that they wouldn't but he should have known better than to take anything that woman had to say at face value. Hell, for all he knew she had pulled them aside and given them specific instructions to give him a hard time to get back at him for some imagined sin.
No, he didn't really believe that. Even absent she did a great job of that herself and didn't need any help.
It was just… It was this insane war. Every time he thought things were getting just a little better the war would turn around and bite him in the ass.
He had been looking forward to this. McQueen was back, Tyler was gone -- it had seemed like a happy turn of events. With Tyler gone everything would settle down, possibly even level out to a certain degree of peace and normalcy.
And Colonel McQueen… West had honestly believed that once McQueen returned everything would be back to normal. Well, maybe not normal, but better. He'd been like a child who had placed unquestioning faith in the ability of the adult to make everything right. McQueen would fix everything, McQueen would make everything right.
Instead, the first thing McQueen had done after being released from sickbay was to throw Hawkes in the brig and then cloister himself with Ross in the war room. Obviously, his own two days in the medbay hadn't done much for McQueen because for the better part of two hours shouting had been heard outside, though the soundproofing had succeeded in at least muffling the actual words. Later, McQueen had stormed angrily out of the room, trailed by an equally angry Ross who had shouted "And don't think I won't throw you in the brig yourself if you don't start acting like a grownup!"
McQueen hadn't answered, instead walked away his face tightening into that unreadable, impenetrable mask West remembered from the early days of the war.
And now this. He wondered if that was what McQueen was so mad at them for, because of this court-martial that everyone seemed to think was going to be the main entertainment event of the year.
Himself, he couldn't even worry about that. Anvil seemed a million years ago and whatever punishment the brass would come up with, whatever rank or grade they would strip, it faded to nothing compared to what he and Hawkes had already lost.
But what was the point of making them face the charges as a team when the team no longer existed?
Nathan knew that once, McQueen's aloofness had been just a façade. Beneath that icy exterior had been a man who cared, and cared deeply. A man who led by example and who would place his life on the line for them, on a daily basis if need be. A man who'd fought for them, pushed them, gave them wings and kept them grounded. Heck, McQueen was the closest thing to a dad some of them knew. Shane's had died when she was very young, and Cooper had never had one.
He could still remember McQueen giving them hell about being too familiar, back in the old days. He'd hit them hard with that lecture and he'd been right. They'd forgotten that he was, first and foremost, their commander and that they were, above everything else, Marines. A lesson in distance, in detachment, that McQueen had tried so hard to hammer into their skulls… A lesson that had failed miserably.
But this distance was different. It was palpable, solid. Scary.
God, West thought. Why wasn't anything working out these days?
He used to be pretty good at managing his life. Practically everything he decided or got into worked out pretty well. Great family, breezed through school, won the heart of his one true love… he even got that position on the Tellus project without too much effort. All his life he'd had it good.
Then the Chigs had attacked and he'd watched the things in his life fall away, inexorably pulled into the black hole that was the war.
Who would be next?
Come to think of it, who was left?
Next : Black Eyed Man part 2 of 5