McQueen looked over the four Marines standing at attention, trying to stamp down the overwhelming feeling of anger and disappointment. He had been looking forward to this. He had missed them. In the VA hospital, through those endless weeks, as the doctors fussed and poked and prodded with him with various devices of torture all he could think about was getting back here. To the war. To this ship. To his kids.

Nevermind that he'd be facing a court martial once he got back. He needed to be here.

He hadn't counted on how much it would hurt.

He couldn't even look straight at West and Hawkes for long. There was such blatant need, such naked hope in Hawkes' face that it was painful. And West, West looked at him with transparent faith. Relief. He could almost hear their thoughts, barely confined by their eyes.

Lead us.

Help us.

How could he? He couldn't help them when they really needed him. He couldn't help them on Demios, he couldn't help them after the aborted peace talks. Hell, he couldn't even help himself.

Save us.

Somewhere, he had crossed the line.

During his stint with the 127th he had been so careful to keep his distance. They had made it easy. As good a pilot as he was, as good a leader, as good as a team they had made, he was still a tank. It had been easy to keep clear of that line -- between professionalism and friendship, between being comrades and family.

The 58th had been --was different. He had been surprised the first time he had thought of them as 'his kids.' He had accepted the fact that he would never become a father, resigned himself to being alone. Ironically, this war had given him a gift he never thought he'd receive. Somehow, with the 58th, that's what he had become. A father.

The 58th WildCards. The name alone brought a surge of pride. He loved them. No real father could have been prouder, could have worried more when they went out on assignments. When he'd learned about Wang, about Vansen and Damphousse, he had been devastated. Every other loss -- his leg, the 127th, his wife -- those had been hard. But the loss of those three kids…

He could still taste the fear, the bile that had risen up his throat when he'd seen those Chigs corner Hawkes. For one split second it had seem inevitable that his first official act back would be to give a eulogy for the younger InVitro. And to whom would he have sent the notice? Himself?

Hawkes' escape had been nothing short of miraculous, he knew that. And he didn't even believe in miracles. The relief that followed -- dizzying. The truth was if Tyler hadn't beaten him to that tongue-lashing he would have shaken Hawkes till his eyeballs fell out.

He had never been so scared in his life.

That had brought home, again, just how close he had allowed himself to be to those five young men and women, to the two who remained. It was a mistake. He should never have left it happen.

And now they had dropped three more kids on him. Strangers.

He looked at his new 'kids.' Sarah Cullen. Jordan Rain. Looking at him with expressions of hope and expectancy. These kids wanted something from him and he didn't know what. Or if he could give it.

His non-existent leg twinged, as if reminding him again of his loss. It still pained him, the phantom and real pains mixing up in one indefinable mass, but not as much as his other pains did.

He wondered how much he could give to the Corps before he had nothing left to give. Before here was nothing left of him at all.

At least, he thought, he was spared the sight that would have hurt most.

He looked at the end of the line -- Vansen's place. Vacant. Empty.

He'd been surprised to learn that his new Captain had taken herself off to parts unknown without trying to speak to him first. Urgent and necessary business, Glen had said. A priority one mission. Though he found the suddenness and the secrecy of her leaving unsettling, Ross had assured him that everything was fine. That the mission had been on the boards for months but had only just gotten the go signal, and that the mission in no way threatened or compromised the 58th's safety or status. That was all he'd say, end of discussion.

Damn it, even Glen seemed different.

They had all changed, he was a fool not to have expected that.

On some levels he was impressed. In the weeks he'd been gone they'd improved their game. They were faster, stronger, their responses sparer, more direct. They were already superb soldiers when he had left. Now, he was willing to bet that they'd be a match for anyone. He had to applaud the Captain who had managed that.

But on other levels…

This 58th didn't work like the other one had, there was no bond, no shining circle marking them as one team, one unit. There was an obvious, though invisible, line running down the center dividing them in two. Not that they didn't work well together. There was just something missing, something that kept them from gelling.

They reminded him of… of the 127th. The Angry Angels. Perfect on paper. Perfect instincts, perfect technique, perfect record. But they weren't a family.

Right now, facing what he was supposed to do, feeling what he was feeling, he wasn't even sure that wasn't a good thing.

The other way hurt too much.

"The planet Nyx," he announced, gesturing towards the star chart on the wall of the Ready Room. "It holds Oodwae, one of our biggest storage facilities in this region. The crew of Oodwae have been on planet for the last two hundred and eighty days. Their relief was scheduled to land today, but they've been delayed. It'll take at least another three days. Since the crew of the Oodwae facility have already stayed on planet an extra thirty days, Command believes that postponing their departure again would trigger unrest, possibly mutiny. These people are barely holding on, people. We can't delay their departure any longer. Your mission, Five-Eight, is to safeguard this facility till the cavalry arrives."

"Sir," West raised his hand. "I don't think the 5-8 is suited to actually manning a storage facility." 's s "Said facility will be shut tight and sealed down in preparation for the change of personnel. In fact, there's an energy shield surrounding the facility to make sure it stays secure. You people won't even need to see the inside of this facility. All you need to do is patrol the perimeter and make sure everything stays secure."

"Sentry duty," Cullen mouthed to Rain as McQueen walked past her, rolling her eyes in disgust.

McQueen nodded towards the other group of soldiers attending the briefing. "You'll be joined on this mission by a unit from the 12th Marine Force Recon, headed by 2nd Lieutenant Reese --"

"Colonel." This time it was Rain who raised his hand. "We heard that there's going to be some activity in the Chamdar region. Wouldn't the 58th be of better use there?"

Nathan almost winced at Jordan's question. He'd asked practically the same question once, when they were being sent down to Icarus and had received one of McQueen's signature icy glares.

McQueen was giving Rain that same glare now. "The Corps will decide where you'll be useful," he retorted. "You have your assignment. You leave in two hours."

"Sir…" Cooper's voice was tentative.

"Yes, Lieutenant?" McQueen asked impatiently.

"Will you be joining us on this one, Sir?"

McQueen's expression didn't change. "Do you perhaps need a tour guide on this mission, Lieutenant? Your hand held, maybe?"

"No, Sir, I just thought…"

"Ordinarily, the Corps likes that in a soldier," interjected McQueen. "As long as it's not overdone. Two hours, Lieutenants. Be ready."

"I can't believe Colonel McQueen is making us do sentry duty," complained Cullen after their Izzy had taken off.

"We're all in this together," West pronounced. "Any assignment is just as important as another in the war effort."

"What a crock," muttered Cullen under her breath.

"Excuse me?"

"It just seems to me," she began disdainfully, "that the new squadrons are getting all the fun while we're either stuck in our quarters or doing grunge work."

Nathan's eyes narrowed. "You used to like grunge work," he said curtly. "You were excited when they sent us off to Styx on that damn scavenger hunt. All of a sudden you're too good for ground work?"

"Cullen doesn't do 'still and quiet' very well," interceded Rain. "That's all. She doesn't mind the work, she just doesn't like the idea of standing around keeping quiet. And speaking of quiet, I recommend you both keep your voices down. The 12th can hear you."

Nathan looked over to the 12th Force unit's part of the APC, who apparently were having problems of their own.

"Man, can you believe who they stuck us with?" a soldier asked in an exaggerated whisper.

"Hush up, Hops, Any louder and I'll have you on restrictions."

"But Sir," Private Hops protested. "A nipple-neck?"

"It's not the tank I'm worried about," muttered another soldier. "Sir, I'm from North Carolina and I'm telling you, you can't trust Indians."

"And what about the little princess herself?" Corporal Kerrigan growled and jerked her thumb in Cullen's direction "Her nose up in the air, acting like she's not supposed to get her pretty party dress dirty."

"And what's your complaint about Lieutenant West?" asked 2nd Lieutenant Reese dryly. "Come on, might as well get the list over with."

"Too whitebread," Sergeant Saliers muttered sotto voce, brown eyes twinkling.

"That's it?" Reese asked, raising one eyebrow mockingly. "Couldn't come up with anything more imaginative?"

"Come on, Lieutenant, admit it," wheedled another corporal. "You're just as pissed off as we are about being stuck with a bunch of pilots. These guys wouldn't last two days in the bush and you know it. That lieutenant can't even control his own team, for Christ's sake!"

"I know I'm too smart to insult a superior officer when he's within earshot," responded Reese pointedly. "And I thought you people were, too. Remember, there's more than one way to commit suicide in this war. This," he said, gesturing around the APC's cabin, "is nothing. It's four days. We're 12th Force Recon. We can handle anything for four days. Even pilots."

"Leave them alone, Nathan," Rain halted West as he stood up and started towards the 12th. "They're just kids."

"Insubordinate FNKs who need to watch their mouths," growled Nathan.

"Why? Because they haven't heard of the great 58th squadron and are therefore not in awe of you?"

"They're insulting you, too."

"They just don't want to be here, same as us." He nodded towards the group, who were already starting to settle down. "They're just sounding off."

West glared at Rain, really annoyed at the lecturing tone. "You always have to be the voice of reason, don't you?" he almost sneered.

"Yes," Rain answered. "And I'm getting really tired of it."

"What's our latest ETA?"

Hawkes fought to hide a grin. That was the third time Cullen had asked that question in the last half an hour.

"You'll never survive actual combat if you're this twitchy," he commented quietly.

"'Twitchy'?" Despite herself Cullen's mouth turned up at the corners in amusement.

"Yeah, twitchy," Hawkes grinned back. "Rain's right. You've got to learn how to sit still and be quiet."

"Hey, I've had survival training," she protested. "I can hide in the bush as well as the next person."

"Basic training, maybe," he conceded. "But no specialized training."

"You don't know that," she sulked.

"I can tell," he answered dryly. "What if you were out of ammo, hiding behind some rocks, or in some bushes, with about a dozen Chigs headed your way? What would you do?"

"Jump them?" she guessed brightly.

"A dozen armed Chigs? Get serious."

"Run away?"

"You'd get maybe two steps. Not to mention a court-martial. Sometimes you just have to hide and wait things out."

"You?" There was more than a little skepticism in Cullen's voice. "Hiding and waiting?"

Hawkes shrugged. "Sometimes that's the only option you got. Once, I was on this planet alone…"


"It was a Black Ops mission. Classified. Anyway, my… partner… had been killed, and I was all alone on a planet full of Chigs while I waited for extraction." What Hawkes remembered of the Tigris mission was sketchy, at best. He'd been wounded, exhausted, and suffering from exposure. Sometimes he wondered if he hadn't imagined everything. To his mind the experience had been strangely horrific, and yet fraught with meaning. "At one time, I was hiding in some bushes and I saw this bird in the sky -- it was beautiful. I guess I got distracted 'cause the next thing I knew there were Chigs around me. One of them even got close enough to touch."

He remembered now that the same Chig had been looking at the same bird he had been, also distracted. Back then, that had been a strangely captivating moment, making him feel like him and the Chig weren't quite so different after all. There had been another moment, actual contact that had touched and surprised him, gave him hope. But that moment had been a trick, a lie like everything else. Like Anvil. Like the peace treaty.

"What happened?" prompted Cullen, jolting Hawkes out of the memory.

Cooper shrugged. "I just froze, literally. Didn't move, didn't breathe, but my heart was pounding so hard it was a miracle the Chig didn't hear it. Anyway, the point is sometimes all you can do is sit and wait."

"Wait for what?" she asked.

"For an opening. For a better chance. For something to change."

"What if things don't change?" she asked. "How long are you supposed to wait?"

He hadn't thought of that. Or rather, the question, the posing of it, took him by surprise.

How long are you supposed to wait?

"Good question," he answered, thoughtfully, then shrugged. "Things always change, Sarah. Whether or not you want them to."

As soon as the last APC carrying the last of the facility's crew was out of sight the 12th launched into action.

"Sir, permission to sweep and secure the area. Since the facility has a cleared radius of less than a klick a 10-K perimeter sweep should be enough. We'll be forming four teams, led by myself, Sergeant Krieger, Corporals Kerrigan and Macy -- we've got two hours before dark -- that should give us plenty of time." He nodded towards four marines who had separated themselves from the main group. "Corporal Lancing, Privates Liu, Hops and Jameson will stay here and set up the command center, after which they'll set up patrol around the area. We'll be keeping radio discipline but checking in every 30 mikes."

Lieutenant Reese's tone was polite but perfunctory, obviously following protocol for the sake of following protocol. Nathan nodded his permission and the 12th broke up into their pre-assigned teams.

"I feel like shouting after them not to forget their sweaters," murmured Cullen as Lieutenant Reese and the rest disappeared into the trees. "And to be back before dark."

"Huh?" asked Hawkes, confused.

She dimpled up at him, and patted him on the cheek. "Don't worry, Sweetie, you'll always be my baby."

Hawkes blinked, but decided to let it go.

"In the meantime, someone explain to me why I feel like I'm on the set of a B movie that has 'Escape From' somewhere in it's title," commented Sarah.

"A what movie?" asked Hawkes.

"Look at that," continued Cullen, gesturing towards the building. "That thing looks like Salvador Dali's version of Fort Knox. A huge yellow monstrosity."

"Actually, Ma'am, that's a state-of the-art lead-based alloy lined with a special heat-sensitive coated glass," offered Hops. "It's sienna in the hot sun, reflecting and blending with the color of the ground. As it grows darker, so will the color of the facility."

"Whoever did design it did a good job," commented Hawkes. "You couldn't even see it from the air."

"The brass probably got tired of Chigs bombing our facilities and decided to make this one extra secure," stated Rain. "The only thing I don't like about it is the trees are too close. That's only about a dozen meters to the tree line. If the Chigs attacked on foot we wouldn't see them till it was too late."

"That's why Reese is sweeping the area, Sir," interjected Private Jameson. "Though you shouldn't worry. Our Intel says that the Chigs aren't aware we have a facility on this planet."

"If you ask me that thing seems way overdone for a warehouse," said Sarah "What are they storing in this place anyway?"

"Lieutenant West," interrupted Corporal Lancing. "We've got the communication center set up and are ready to contact the Saratoga to test the link."

"We'll be right there, Corporal," agreed West.

"Eight minutes," noted Rain. "Very efficient."

"Hormones," provided Cullen, grinning. "Gives them all that extra energy." She sighed, forlornly. "I feel so old."

The next half-hour was spent sending a landing report and organizing the rest of their base of operations. Everything seemed to be going smoothly and West had resigned himself to the idea of spending four peaceful, albeit boring, days uselessly patrolling an empty warehouse. Slightly insulting, but what the hell. A few more days of rest wouldn't hurt any of them.

"I wonder why they couldn't let us in the facility," mused Sarah, as she helped the 12th set up. "At least we'd be warm. Out of the wind."

"It's simpler this way, Lieutenant," answered Private Hops. "Less things to worry about."

The sudden crackling of the communication unit interrupted them.

"Base, this is Storm," came Sergeant Krieger's grim voice over the radio. "Rider, suggest all teams return to base. We've found something and it looks like trouble. Storm out."

"I thought I'd find you here."

Lieutenant Colonel TC McQueen looked away from the observation window with a small self-conscious smile. "I always seem to be doing this."

"No," Commodore Ross answered, also smiling. "Only when the 5-8 is out there."

McQueen sighed and turned his attention back to the window.

The Commodore placed a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder. "It's just four days. They'll be back before you know it."

McQueen didn't respond.

"First you shout at me, now the silent treatment," commented Ross wryly.

That got McQueen's attention. "Commodore, once again I apologize again for my behavior in the war room."

Ross nodded. "Next time you get the urge I suggest you remember that you have an entire squadron you can scream at." He moved closer, leaned back on the glass and made himself more comfortable. "I've been trying to catch you alone since you got here. What's the news from earth?"

"Sir, you've clearance to more information than I do."

Commodore Ross sighed impatiently. "You know what I mean."

McQueen was silent for a moment. "Hayden is pushing for peace. At _any_ cost."

A brief snort of disgust. "An euphemism for surrender."


"Is anyone listening?"

"Not yet, but she's gaining ground." McQueen turned troubled eyes to Ross. "Three weeks ago CNN covered students protesting outside the UN building in New York. They were broadcasting the Chig Ambassador's speech over loudspeakers. They're saying this war is our fault."

"I won't even ask how they got it," Ross growled. "Damn kids have seen too many alien movies. They seem to have forgotten that the only verified contacts were when they massacred our colonists."

"It's another world down there," agreed McQueen. "It's a war of words, not blood. And the media is winning." He sighed again. "Things never change, do they?"

"Never," agreed Ross. "So, will she help us?"

McQueen nodded somberly. "She knows she owes us. And she owes the 58th."

"Then that's all we need," answered Ross. "Between you and me we can make this thing disappear."

"It won't be that easy. She'll want something in return. "

"Of course. Never let it be said that Diane Hayden doesn't know how to play the game."

"They'll be sending investigators. Soon."

"This thing is a joke," growled Ross. "The only ones who want it are the bureaucrats who inherited this war. They don't have the slightest idea."

McQueen shrugged. "It makes them feel less helpless. In control. Action, even misdirected, is better than standing by doing nothing."

Commodore Ross snorted in disgust. "Dammit, we don't have time for this. But as you said, things never change. We have to have at least the appearance of giving tribute." He shook his head. "As if our jobs weren't hard enough." He looked at McQueen then. "How about you? How are you doing?"

"Functional. A little rusty in the joints."

Ross gave a sharp bark of laughter that belied his worry. "Aren't we all. Getting too old for this, hmmm?"

For the first time there was a glimmer of a smile in McQueen's eyes. "Speak for yourself, Sir."

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