Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV programme *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. No copyright infringement is intended.
Author's Note: Of the British armed forces states of readiness, Black Alpha is the second. Each escalates that state of readiness towards total war.
Comments are welcome at Heather Docherty
For the man who never left the hospital room.
The figure at the end of the bed was still. Absolutely still. Had been for some time, in fact, observing him in the gloom of the isolation ward where they'd put him to die. No, where he'd made them put him to die. There was very little light in the room, and the shadowy figure in battle fatigues seemed blended into the air around him. It was the footsteps that had roused him, travelling the corridor towards his tomb. The door moved, opened, and a glimmer of light shone on the face of the figure for an instant. A raised hand barred any further intrusion and the door snibbed to with a quiet click.
"You're dead", he told the shadow.
"A lot of people would like to think so, Ty."
He closed his eyes and slept. In the nightmare that brought cold sweat to his face, he relived the ordeal of interrogation by the AIs during the AI war. In the shadows, the figure haunted him. When he opened his eyes again, the figure was still there.
"Physically fit for duty, that's what your chart says. I need you. Just like before. So you need to understand that I'm not leaving here without you." The figure turned and left the room.
In another place far away, the huddle of prisoners faced the Chig firing squad and died without a sound. Those left shuddered and clung to each other for comfort. The death was endless.
"I would like a progress report on the tank."
The doctor shook his head and replied:
"The strangest thing I ever saw. I've known this man for a long time, and I've never seen him behave like this. He just put his face to the wall and gave up the will to live."
"The chart says he's physically fit for duty. Can I take him out of here?"
"Up to you, but what you hope to get out of him is beyond me. Mentally, he's a mess. It's like he can't fight the demons anymore."
The officer stood next to the window, looking out at the base, staring into an internal infinity. Abruptly, a decision was reached and the officer wheeled round to face the doctor.
"Give me the papers for his release, clear hanger 10 for 0100 hours and then put the whole base on lock-down."
The only thing the doctor filed away for future reference was the still and quiet departure of the officer, as if even this secure military base harboured an enemy too terrible to rouse.
The figure was back. A second figure in the twilight looked like a Chig. This was obviously hell.
"Get out of bed and dress, Colonel. Now."
In another time, another place he'd have complied. But not any longer. Now, he needed to sleep, so sleep he did. He didn't feel them lift him out of bed onto a trolley, or the cool night air as they wheeled him out of the hospital and into hanger 10. When the APC took off, he was tucked into one of the bunks and sleeping like a baby.
Later, the two other occupants of the ship stood looking down at him.
"He doesn't give up. If he gave up, then somebody encouraged him. We need the results of the toxicology tests stat. God knows what they've done to him. Whatever they think he knows, whatever he saw at that meeting, somebody doesn't want him to remember."
When he woke up, his entire body began to cramp with pain. The fact that he was not in the hospital room only slowly began to penetrate his consciousness. What he craved was, what did he crave? The figure from his past emerged out of the mists.
"I can't give you anything for this, Ty, we haven't identified whatever it was they gave you. At the moment, you're in detox with a difference. Feel free to scream, you know nobody hears you in space."
Anybody that's ever been through withdrawals will know the pain. Best left unsaid.
Later, much later, his bunk saturated with sweat and his body humming with a constant pain, he felt a needle penetrate his skin, and then oblivion.
He woke slowly, turned over in the bunk and realised that he was in a Chig attack craft of some sort with an O2 environment. Two figures bent over a flat surface nearby, looking at papers spread out over the top. As he stirred, the human figure turned and looked across at him.
"Back with us again?"
He didn't answer. The person in his dreams was dead, so he had to be dreaming. The human crossed the space between them and sat at the foot of the bunk.
"We have a lot to talk about. But first, let me introduce another member of the team. His call sign is Alpha Three. Yours, by the way, is still Queen Six. We figured you'd be more comfortable with that."
The Chig moved until he too stood close to the bottom of the bunk.
"O.K. First, somebody doesn't want you to disclose whatever you saw at the peace conference. And we know you must have seen something. Second, to stop you from talking someone screwed your mind and drugged you. What they used on you makes green meanies pale by comparison. One of my team back on earth is still trying to identify the SOB responsible. Third, we have a possible sighting on one of your team. I need you for identification purposes, fit or not. The mission is code-named Nimrod and the briefing's in this folder. We have four hours till touch-down, and we hit this planet running, or in your case, limping."
"I'm not ready for this, yet."
"I don't care. There are two reasons why you are here. You owe me and I need your skills. So, get reading and then kit up. If necessary, we'll carry you. If I didn't know better, I'd say you'd lost your edge. Care to prove me wrong? When we've finished here, you can go back to Earth, get fit, convalesce wherever you want, but until then, you're mine."
Intelligence units speak the language, understand more than they tell you, and generally remember to tell you important points after the fact.
The craft vibrated as they hit planet-side. He looked at the two pilots handling the controls and smiled with amusement. All three team members were alike now, both humans dressed in modified Chig body armour.
"Keep your mouth shut, follow the one in front, and if challenged, watch for the signal to hit the dirt, roll around and play injured", he muttered to himself.
He had been on similar covert operations before. Lucky that Chig soldiers seemed to wear their full body armour at all times, even in their own atmosphere. What would happen if ordered to strip was anybody's guess. The humans would suffocate immediately, if they weren't hacked to pieces first.
The noises of the craft settling after touch-down began to recede as the other members of the team headed for the main access hatch and he followed, pulling on the strange helmet that swished to around his ears with a sibilant whisper. Vision and sound inside the Chig helmet was something like being in a video arcade. Sound and vision on receive, but all transmission circuits off-line. The team was running on silent communication. Once on planet, he tagged behind the team moving ahead of him over the terrain. After two hundred yards and close to an outcrop of rocks, Alpha Three signalled the team to halt, and moved ahead. He leant back against a rock, trying to rest his leg.
Movement to the right caught his attention, and he turned the muzzle of the Chig weapon he was carrying round towards the noise. Alpha One mirrored his movements. A Chig soldier advanced slowly into the open, hands held away from his side. Unspoken body language between Alpha One and the strange Chig convinced Ty that this new figure was not a threat.
"This is the fourth member of the team, Alpha Two."
Ty inched his back down the wall, and stretched his leg out in front of him with a weary sigh.
After five minutes, Alpha Three returned, and indicated that they were to follow him. It was a long crawl through bad country. At one point he fell and Alpha Two was the one who moved to steady him as he picked himself up from the ground. He gritted his teeth and limped on. Alpha One was point. Eventually, they rounded a small cliff and found the wreck of a downed troop carrier that looked British in design. Alpha Three went up to the hulk and tattoed a signal on the hatch. After a pause, the hatch opened and all four team members entered the airlock. The carrier appeared to consist of two compartments divided by an airtight door, one for sleeping and one for working. Components from various weapons were scattered about like a vast armoury. A human stood pointing a lethal looking hand weapon at the team as they entered the main compartment. Since the human was helmetless, Ty released the Chig helmet and felt the air hiss past his face as he removed it.
"Colonel, so we meet again."
"Amazing how often we seem to meet in the most unexpected circumstances, dear boy."
Alpha One's helmet sat on the side, and Alpha Two had just taken his off. As he turned round, Ty felt the world tip and slide dizzily. The face of his torturer, same model, same pain. No matter what they say, torture is never anything but personal.
"What is this, the United Galaxies?" Ty turned furiously on Alpha One, who signalled for McKendrick and the other two team members to withdraw to the other compartment.
"I should have let you know that we have an AI on board. I know that you hate them, but in this war we need all the help we can get and this one is not provided by Aerotech." Alpha One looked at him.
"During the AI war, I was given orders assigning you to my team. I questioned those orders and asked for permission to speak to you. When I saw you, you told me that behaving in the way that you did at Port Riskin made you feel less worthless in a human society. So I took you on board, despite the fact that I faced the same prejudice then that I'm facing now from you about Alpha Two. The choice was mine then as it is now. If this is a wrong decision, then I am the one that will have to deal with it. Are you comfortable with that? Because if you're not, then you will get shipped back earthside at mission end and the other mission on the board will go ahead without you. Clear?"
Alpha One paced up and down the room.
"You know that we are here on a rescue mission but what you are here for is to persuade Wang to come with us. He's here in the mines, which should bring back memories for you. Physically, he survived the torture, but mentally, he isn't the same man anymore. He doesn't trust us. He insisted that we bring you along as proof. So here you are, identification for friendly forces." Alpha One got up and moved towards the door to the sleeping quarters.
"You need to rest, so we go in six hours. Until then, McKendrick has prepared us food and you can get some sleep, preserve what strength you have."
Alpha One opened the door, indicating that the talk was at an end, and McKendrick came back out.
"You remember Pearly, Colonel. She did well by me and she was still going strong when I was extracted by the illustrious leader here. Bit of a shock, you know, being on first name terms with the enemy, but you get used to it. Hope you enjoy the meal. I even have a water supply, this time."
Later, the three humans lay in the sleeping compartment. Ty turned on his side and looked at the face of the team leader, older, tired, drained of the life force that had once made his life bearable.
"Joe, do you ever think about the old days?"
"Sometimes, not often, Ty. Usually, I'm too busy trying to stay alive."
"OK. Just answer me this - why aren't you dead? I saw you die." Joe sighed.
"If we survive this mission, maybe, just maybe, then is the time to talk about the past."
"Speaking of the past, do you remember Ross?"
"Yeah, I do, I spoke to him last week, as a matter of fact."
"Did he ask you to take me on this mission? You don't really need me, do you? You could have snatched Wang and let the shrinks deal with him."
"Possibly, but what was happening to you in the hospital worried more than just Ross. I'm the babysitter. We needed to put you somewhere safe, where the enemy is easily identifiable. Now, get some sleep."
"You look different now, somehow, quiet, empty."
"Maybe. I gave up my right to be human a long time ago. I don't have friends, I don't have lovers and when I dream, the faces in my dreams haunt me. After a bad night I think I'm finished, but you know what it's like. You pick yourself up off the bunk and move. I always told you that the time to rest is when forever comes."
Ty was quiet himself, thinking about what his former mentor had said.
"Why did you try so hard with me, why did you care?"
"Because I cared." Joe's shrug was eloquent. "Why doesn't matter. What matters is that you survived. I know that you care about your kids. You're a better man than I am and luckier. Inside I feel dead. When the Chigs get me, they'll be destroying a shell."
Ty had never seen Joe look so bleak before. Perhaps having to deal with someone you had betrayed was proving harder for Joe to handle than he had imagined. Because in the dreams that haunted him about Port Riskin and the AI war, the shadowy figure in the corner of the interrogation room on that third day had been Alpha One, Joe, he knew that now without a shadow of a doubt. Some balls to come looking for him, not knowing or perhaps even caring whether he remembered. The orders for his removal from the hospital would have been a shock. Time to see what happened in a couple of hours when they hit the mine. The trust that had existed between them years ago had gone now. He'd have to watch his six.
Ty sat on Joe's bunk to lace up his boots and a pile of papers cascaded to the floor. He glanced at the photograph on top as he scooped the heap up and handed it back.
"Nice kid. Who is he?"
"My son. This was taken some time ago. He's older now."
"Son? I didn't know you had a son."
"Yeah, I have a son, Niall. Not many people know. Some of the scum I come up against wouldn't hesitate to use him against me."
"I just can't imagine you as a parent."
"Believe it. I don't get much time with him, though. He doesn't belong in my world. Not in the shadows."
Ty pulled on the T-shirt worn to stop the Chig body armour chaffing.
"So, what's new in the world of Chigint?"
"Word is, some Chigs have taken to having humans as pets. Gather round and watch the savage perform. After all, Aerotech can't be the only rotten bunch of bastards in the universe. I can see the trade in humans as cheap labour becoming a booming business."
They stopped, looked at each other and laughed as the memory of a long-forgotten `tank' joke hit them at the same time.
McKendrick kept the final briefing to a minimum.
"You've read the file, practised the moves. Don't forget that the miners are only issued with enough oxygen for a shift. At other times, they are kept locked in a pressurised holding tank with minimal oxygen content. Prisoners caught trying to escape or too weak to work any more have their oxygen supply removed. The other prisoners are made to watch, to break them. The Chigs would retaliate against the other miners once they realised that Wang was gone. So, our job is to shut this mine down before they can call in reinforcements. Keep it simple. Keep it silent. We're way behind enemy lines now."
In silence, the four members of the team filed through a fissure in the rock face. Queen Six and Alpha Two separated from Alpha One and Alpha Three, and Alpha Two led the way further into the mine. Both soldiers moved back slowly into the shadows as a Chig patrol passed some distance away. Ty waited for his sixth sense to kick in to tell him that the area was clear. Eventually, he spoke, his voice tinny in the Chig helmet.
"Are you a normal AI unit?"
"No. I am different."
"How did you meet Alpha One?"
"I met Alpha One a long time ago. We were on opposite sides, and then we weren't."
"What does that mean?"
"Exactly what I said."
"Can you access AI information?"
"No. But if we come across another AI unit, I can get access."
Queen Six looked speculatively at Alpha Two.
Alpha One slipped and fell down a short rock face encrusted with slime. The landing was soft. Turning onto hands and knees was unpleasantly like moving around on top of a pile of bodies. Dead human bodies.
"What the hell?"
The underground cave was filled as far as the eye could see with dead bodies.
"Looks like the Chigs are cleaning house. We'd better move fast before it's too late for Wang."
The killing was silent and determined. One by one the Chig guards went down. A prisoner working the mine face looked up and stared in absolute fascination at the sight of two Chig guards grappling with each other. One of the struggling figures was messily dispatched by a third Chig shape that appeared out of the gloom and joined the fight.
"That's the lot."
One and Three stared down dispassionately at the downed guard who took some time to stop moving. Queen Six and Alpha Two had already appeared out of a side tunnel, and Two called for backup. In ten minutes, soldiers appeared and began moving the freed human prisoners from the mine to the waiting APCs.
Alpha One sat on a rock ledge that jutted out from the rough-hewn cavern wall, staring at one boot, and trying to take in the death.
"One of the POWs told me that there have been transport ships landing constantly. They heard that the Chigs are even blowing up ships captured in the fighting with the men on board, to save committing troops to guard duty. The POWs here thought they'd be dead in a few days. The Chigs were cleaning house and clearing out. We've taken all the Chigint we can find. I hope there's something useful. I'm very surprised we didn't find any AI units. Something strange is happening."
Back on the APC, Joe spoke to McKendrick as the team gathered for debriefing.
"The other APCs are taking the remaining POWs home. It seems that our two races have more in common than just mutual ancestry. Take no prisoners isn't just a human trait. Must mean the main offensive is due soon."
Ty butted in. "Any news about Wang?"
"All we know is that he had been moved."
"When did this happen?"
"Some time this morning. The Chig team landed on planet, grabbed him and took off. None of the other guards knows where they took him, or why they snatched him."
"Maybe somebody told them we were coming and who we were coming for."
"Not possible. All communications by this team are monitored by Alpha Two."
"Yeah, but what about Alpha Two?"
"Look, Ty, I trust him. He saved my life once during the AI war."
"Is this before or after you `died'?"
"I see you're feeling better."
"I am. First we're going to get Wang, then he's gone, no-one knows where. If it was Wang and not a replicant because he's really dead. Vansen and Damphousse are probably better off not being rescued. They might be disappeared as well."
Turning on his heels, Ty went back to the team's sleeping quarters, leaving Joe seething.
Later, McKendrick sat next to Ty as he cleaned his webbing.
"You've been very quiet tonight. Anything wrong."
"I was just thinking about the past. Strange how you don't realise what you had until it's gone."
"Mourning your kids?"
"Yes. No. I don't want to believe that they're gone. Vansen, Damphousse, Wang. They're still out there, they will always be out there for me, flying into eternity."
"Three says that Vansen and Damphousse aren't dead, not yet anyway."
"Maybe. I was really thinking about the first time I met Joe."
"Care to share? "
"I was in the brig at Port Riskin. I'd just served 120 days. I was dragged down to talk to this young British officer. Someone somewhere had taken pity on me, and sent for the cavalry. That's how I see it now. I'd have been dead if I'd returned to munitions handling straight away. I learnt how to survive with Joe."
"What happened after that?"
"I was part of the four man patrol until Joe died. Joe had that Celtic charm that made life seem magic. Don't forget, tanks are like children in many ways, untaught and thirsty for knowledge. A sucker for a bright light."
"Why were you chosen?"
"Who knows. Probably just an experiment, see how tanks behaved in covert ops, but it was a good time for me. We used to sit and talk for hours about history and how it shaped the destiny of man. Joe was a Lieutenant then, already marked out as a rising star and just starting out with a new team. I learnt a great deal in those few months. Nobody called me names, nobody picked on me. I was just a member of the team, and glad to be there."
"Joe never talks about the past. It's fascinating to hear you talk."
"What about you? How do you feel about Joe?"
"It's hard to explain. There are some people that are just there. You don't notice them much, maybe even laugh at them because they don't fit in, if you don't know them well. But when your back's to the wall, when you need someone to fight by your side, a person that seems to go on forever, that's Joe. I first met Joe sitting on a rock near my foxhole, waiting for me. I wasn't inspired, too quiet spoken, but the more I got to know the person underneath the soldier, the more I began to realise that I had come home. Took me a long time, but I finally know where I belong."
"Be careful, Major, sometimes things aren't what they seem."
"What do you mean?"
"Remember Wang and the power cell?"
McKendrick looked up as Joe came into the sleeping quarters, dressed in flight gear.
"The team's flying fighter escort to the next mission site. Alpha Four came back with the other APCs. She's coming with me. Alpha Two's co-pilot with Alpha Three. We thought you two better get some rest."
Ty looked up with a blank face.
"The ones with the fewest dirty secrets to trade?"
Joe looked down and took a deep breath as he continued.
"One thing's been bugging me. How do you evade friendly fire?"
"Friendly British fire is easy. We register on our LIDAR screens. We have a modified IFF that we can recognise. Your people are a different matter. We've had a couple of near misses in the past. We are fairly sure we'll get there undetected, but you never know. There's some heavy Chig activity between us and the site, so you'd better strap in for sleep."
Ty turned away as he spoke.
"Oh, something tells me we'll have no trouble. Let's just say, I won't be losing any sleep. You see, it occurred to me that whilst I'm out here chasing ghosts, I'm too busy to remember. Anything."
Joe and McKendrick looked at each other questioningly.
The two soldiers were dug in above the valley. Ty scanned the terrain using night sights.
"Grim looking place."
"That's the target, the research facility."
They moved back down the hill to the rest of the team.
"Who is going in this time?"
"Apart from Alpha Three, you and me, just like the old days."
"Like the old days, huh. Does that include a guided tour of the interrogation cells?"
"Only if you get caught."
"What, again? Some other friendly soul about to up my reliable under torture rating? The last time I only lasted three days, but then you'd know that at first hand, wouldn't you?"
He watched Alpha One stiffen, then turn to look at him with a face carved out of granite.
"If there is a reckoning due for something that you think happened in the past, it can wait till later. At the moment, our priority is to get in, find Vansen and Damphousse and extract them as quickly as possible."
"What's the hurry?"
"Alpha Three just reported back. The central co-ordinator for this region is supposed to be due in tomorrow. That means the security will be beefed up before his arrival. The quicker we get in and find what's left of your two marines, the better."
"What do you mean, what's left?"
"Figure it out for yourself."
"What do you mean, what's left? Answer me, dammit. What do you know?"
"Look. I am going in there, and I am going to do my best to get your kids out. At the same time, I am going to do my best to blow the whole facility sky-high, preferably after I have got out. With your kids. Are you in or out?"
The two soldiers squared off to each other until MacKendrick intervened.
"Commander, might I have a word with the Colonel?"
"Be my guest. Try talking sense into him. We've got to move soon."
Both Ty and MacKendrick walked away from the rest of the team.
"What did you mean back there, Colonel."
"In my nightmares about my capture by the AIs, I came to once and I'm sure now I saw Alpha One there, standing in the shadows and just, looking."
"And if this is true, why do you think Alpha One was there?"
"I don't know. Most likely a traitor in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"This hurts, the betrayal, not stopping the pain?"
"Yeah, it hurts. It hurts like hell. It hurt so bad I fought the memory of who was there. I didn't want to remember. But the pain did stop eventually."
"I don't know that either. All I know is, eventually two AIs came in, cut me down, and dragged me back to the cell."
"And they never touched you again?"
"No, and before you ask, I have no idea why. They just beat me senseless now and again, maybe to make sure that I knew who was boss."
"Was the Commander captured with you?"
"No. After Port Riskin, I hadn't seen the Commander for several years. I enlisted into the Marines in '49 and was serving with the 127th by then. I was shot down and taken prisoner towards the end of the war."
"Perhaps what you saw wasn't real, brought about by you wanting to be rescued."
"Rescued? There wouldn't have been any rescue. Not for a tank."
"Unless someone went after you?"
"Why. What made me so special?"
"You are talking to the wrong person. Ask Alpha One."
The two men went back to the team and Alpha One looked at Ty, who nodded and then started kitting up for the penetration mission.
They got in through a gap in the surveillance system caused by a blind spot in the perimeter defences. Alpha Three was already inside marking the path to the most vulnerable access point. Once inside the complex, their readings showed that the atmosphere was human friendly. Their helmets remained firmly on their heads. Others had been caught before by the release of quick-acting nerve gases designed to paralyse and not kill. The helmets and Chig body armour acted as NBCs. They found themselves in a small space off the main tunnel. By the beam of a small torch, the team checked the path one last time through the maze of tunnels to where intelligence had indicated that human captives were being held. Alpha One held up two fingers and rotated them to indicate that each team member should follow two seconds behind the one in front, and slipped out into the main tunnel. Alpha Three followed, and Queen Six took the rear. It took the team three minutes to reach the cells, and the search began for the two marines. Most of the captives did not appear to be human any more. They were heaps of bones in the corners of the cells, or stretched out and staring vacantly into space like mechanical bodies, breathing but not inhabited.
Vansen was in the end cell on the left. Alpha Three made a comment to Alpha One using sign language and Alpha One responded with a nod of the head. Speech crackled in Queen Six's helmet, which made him jump because before the voice transmit/receive circuits had been disabled.
"They prize Vansen and Damphousse highly. They are members of the 58th, and the Chigs have been really tough with both of them, even though Damphousse was out when they picked them up. I mean really tough, Ty."
Queen Six turned Vansen over and moved the cloth gently away from her body. What he saw made his stomach heave.
"How the hell are we supposed to carry her back with injuries like that?"
"Carefully. Three's just got Damphousse. Let's rock 'n' roll."
Alpha One slipped quietly away and began laying charges. In each cell, One checked the condition of the prisoner, and in all but two of the cases, put a pistol against their head and pulled the trigger. Queen Six took point on the way back, darting forward to hold position to cover the other two team members, who carried the 58th marines and guided the two walking wounded. When they got back to the exit, Alpha One lowered Damphousse to the ground. Alpha Three slipped out to check for signs of activity and returned two minutes later, signalling that they had a clear run to the perimeter. The team made it back to where Alpha Two and MacKendrick were waiting, and the extra pairs of hands made getting to the rdz with the APC easier.
As the APC lifted off from the planet, the team took their helmets off, and MacKendrick turned to face Alpha One.
"Did you kill them all?"
"And was she there?"
"God, what a waste."
Ty caught the glance that passed between Alpha One and MacKendrick, as if some great sorrow had settled on their souls. The pilot of the APC called out that they had just monitored an explosion at the research facility, and Alpha One's face went blank.
Vansen and Damphousse had been examined by the medics, who dragged Alpha One further up the APC to report on their condition. MacKendrick joined them, and a little while later came back to sit beside Ty.
"Well, they're in a bad way, but at least they are still alive and..."
"What we thought might have happened to them hasn't."
"We were afraid that they might have used a similar drug on them to that used on you. Because they had been in captivity for quite a while, the effects would have been catastrophic. The others who didn't make it were like that. Blank sheets to be reprogrammed. Natural borns with no souls. Everything they had been gone, wiped out."
"That sort of thing doesn't work with humans."
"It does when the Chigs do it."
"This is what they were trying to do to me?"
"Well, perhaps not the Chigs. There is a possibility that Aerotech might have been involved."
"The Chig ambassador didn't kill Aerotech's CEO for nothing."
"You're lucky. But then again, maybe you realise now it wasn't luck. Time to get some rest."
Four hours later, Ty woke to hear ragged breathing. He heard a thump as someone hit the floor, and turned on the overhead light to see Alpha One reaching for the knife in the webbing on the floor next to the bunk. Both he and MacKendrick hit the struggling figure at the same time. Ty could feel the jolt travelling through the body under him as Joe came instantly awake.
MacKendrick smiled at Ty.
"Nice to see you, old boy, but this one's mine, I think. I have done this before once or twice. Not dangerous to us, you see."
Gently he put the Commander back in bed and pulled the covers up.
"One day, you won't make it in time, Major. Killing her has finished me."
"Get some sleep, Joe. We've got a lot to do tomorrow."
As MacKendrick went back to his bunk, he explained quietly to Ty, "Ann Marie was one of us, Colonel."
Ty watched over Joe until the strained face smoothed out as sleep brought nothingness, and he turned the light out.
Ty waited till they were back on the APC. Both soldiers stank. Neither had got a chance to hit the showers. They'd been dug in for four days near the main Chig fortress gathering information. Intelligence indicated that this was where the main Chig counter-offensive would kick off from. He dragged Joe into the nearest quiet compartment, which happened to be the sleeping quarters. They faced each other across the room. Ty held a pistol out at arm's length and shook with the rush of adrenalin. Joe stood, hands on head, back to the wall, looking at cold blue eyes.
"Sit down. There."
Joe sat, tipped the chair back against the bulkhead, and put a scuffed boot up on the gray steel surface of the table nearby. Ty was so wound up that he knew that he would pull the trigger if Joe didn't co-operate.
"You talked in your sleep. Very unusual for you. So tell me the truth."
"About why you were there in the shadows."
"Make sense, Ty, what shadows."
"Don't give me that crap. I know McKendrick told you about our conversation. You always were good at inspiring loyalty. Pity you're not worth the respect."
"Leave McKendrick out of it. This is between you and me."
"Yeah, this has always been between you and me. Start talking."
"You turned and walked away after watching them nearly kill me. I wouldn't have remembered if seeing you again in the hospital hadn't triggered the memories. God, I trusted you. You gave me a life, gave me hope, made me believe that the comments and sneers didn't matter. I was young then, but you made me feel like I meant something. Everything I am now, you gave me the courage to become. You made me think you cared about me."
"I did. I do. It's just not that simple. Life isn't that simple."
Joe began to shake in turn as Ty's finger began to take up the strain on the trigger.
"I'm not going to beg for my life. Get it over with."
Cold blue eyes looked into cold green eyes. The silence lasted one minute, two minutes as Ty fought to control the terrible rage that threatened to destroy him.
"Why won't you talk? What's so terrible that we can't share it?"
"Old habits die hard. I have too many secrets."
"I still think about you. I used to think about the futility of your death, and then, out of the black of night, you appear to torment me. You should have left me to die."
"I had orders. Besides, I will be gone for good soon, and you can get back to the life you have now. I hear your kids are something else. Hang on to that."
"If Vansen and Damphouse get to fly again, it will be a miracle. As for Wang, who knows where he is."
"He'll turn up, Ty. You'll have your kids back together soon. The Chig counter-offensive is driving us back towards the earth. We need all the strategic advantages we've got, and your kids create luck wherever they go. That's why the Chigs fear them."
Slowly, Ty lowered the gun. "You're not going to talk, are you?"
"Nope, not now, not ever. Leave it be."
Ty gestured for Joe to leave, and sat down defeated as the door opened. He cradled his head in his hands on the table, and didn't see the tormented look Joe gave him as he sat, shoulders bowed. Comrades-in-arms travelling down diverging paths are the saddest sight. The door snibbed to with a quiet click.
Half an hour after lift-off, McKendrick came bursting into the room where Ty had sat nursing his bitterness.
"We've got trouble. There are two of your fighters out there. Joe's flying escort in a Chig fighter and keeps asking for you."
In the APC cockpit, the pilot handed him a headset without a word.
"Ty, I, in the night I still hear your screams. They took my soul, don't let them take his. See you in hell, friend."
The two Chig fighters broke formation and swung around to face away from the Hammerheads.
McKendrick's voice could be heard over the comms link. "For God's sake, Joe, you won't make it, they're ours. Give up."
"I can't, Major. Alpha Three's identity is priority one. Maybe I'll get my peace at last."
"Don't do this."
The Chig fighters made a run for the cover of the nearest moon. Ty lost sight of both vessels on LIDAR as the Chig fighters moved behind the moon, closely followed by the Hammerheads. The dog fight over the headset was fierce and ended as the USMC fighters reported an explosion as the Chig fighters fled planet-side. The IFF for Joe's fighter blanked out from the LIDAR screen. McKendrick and Ty were both stunned; McKendrick eventually spoke.
"All that for a Chig."
"What makes Alpha Three special?"
"He's part of the Chig underground, the one that transmitted telemetry data to the 58th that time when they were lost. You remember the comet thing? That's why he matters. The good of the many outweighs the good of the one?"
"This is another illusion, right?"
"No tricks this time, Colonel. No make believe. This is real."
Alpha One stood in the wood-panelled room of the Director of British Alien Intelligence Services.
"Permission to speak off the record, Ma'am."
"Nice trick you played on me. Does the Colonel think that I am dead?"
There was a slow intake of breath.
"Was there no other way?"
"No. This way, you are less of a liability. Tactically, it is better this way, my dear." The sympathy in the Director's words was tangible.
The Director sat on the edge of the desk and looked across at the figure standing before her.
"I have to cope with the knowledge that every time I send you out, it might be the last time that I see you; that my only child may never return. There is no personal for us. These are the choices that both you and I have always had to make."
"Does it ever get any easier?"
"No. Get used to it. You will have to face the same harrowing choices with your own son. He is so like you that sometimes I think that you are both fighting for the same character and soul."
"And if I feel that I can't fight any more? That I am sick of the deceit?"
"You have Major McKendrick to support you. He's a brave man and a good one. Be thankful for small mercies."
"I am thankful, mother. He's a good intelligence officer."
"You, on the other hand, are a warrior, always have been and always will be."
"So I fight on?"
"Yes. It really is better this way. You used to tell me that your primary duty was to serve His Majesty and to fight for country and planet. You have done that well for a long time. Live with that knowledge."
There was a confident knock at the door.
Ty looked up from his reading at the boy who bounded into the room and stood to attention.
"Sir, permission to speak."
"Thank you, Sir. I believe you are expecting me. My name is Niall Dempsie. You know my grandmother, well, I think you do anyway. Anyway, she asked me to deliver this letter to you. She said that you had something to tell me." Dempsie passed an envelope to Ty, who began to open the letter and gestured for him to sit down.
"I'm afraid that I have some bad news for you, Niall."
The boy's face went white with shock.
"No. Not that. No, God, no."
"I was there when it happened, which is why the Director asked me to talk to you." Ty stopped talking. He had been glancing at the page and the message written in a cramped hand.
"This is one of her secrets. Niall is your son. Have mercy. Joe was all he had."
The colour of the father's face mirrored that of the son's.
© Heather Docherty 1997