TIME LINE: "Clear Water Running" takes place after "Sugar Dirt," but before "If They Lay Us/Tell Our Moms." (I'm not ready to deal with that, yet.)
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This is a Ross story, mostly, though McQueen and the 'Cards play their parts. This story also attempts to fulfill the desire in certain circles for a new, *female* AeroTech geek. :) Quote attributed to Oppenheimer is from "J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds" by Peter Goodchild, borrowed without permission. Thanks to Speedbump for the comments and the encouragement, to Pam Strand for the astronomy background, to Channing Holland for the medical advice, to Rhonda Lane for the eye of the round roast with pecan sauce, to Matt Yellen for the physics, and to Jared Yellen for the logistical solution to mom's dilemma.
All characters and the original S:AAB premise, with the exception of Dr. Elisabeth Radford, Lt. General John Hazelton, and the rest of the AeroTech team, belong to Glenn Morgan and James Wong, and Hard Eight Pictures, Inc. borrowed with love, but without permission. No copyright infringement intended. Beth Radford and the other geeks are mine.

Clear Water Running

Sheryl Clay

Part One

Among the challenges faced by Oppenheimer and his team of scientists were the strict security policies insisted upon by the army. Because of the extreme sensitivity of the material the scientists would work with, Oppenheimer was not allowed to discuss the details of the project with potential recruits. Moreover, the conditions at Los Alamos were primitive, at best - unpaved roads, poorly heated living quarters, and only the married scientists were allowed to bring their families with them. Tenure at Los Alamos promised hardship and isolation from friends, loved ones, indeed, the entire world outside...

The monologue droned on. Lieutenant Nathan West of the 5th Marine Expeditionary Force, 51st MEU, 58th Air Commando squadron stared up at the video screen before him. Primitive, indeed. The picture was an aerial view of four finger like mesas, upon which a small cluster of buildings filled the tip of the center one. Only one road led up to it, and West could not see anything that looked like a major population center.

High in the mesas of New Mexico, far from anything that might have been called civilization or even comfort, was born the atomic bomb, the most powerful weapon ever encountered to that date, a force that changed the face of the world forever.

"Hey, Nate," Cooper Hawkes, also a Lieutenant with the Fifty- Eighth, dropped into a chair beside his squad mate in one of the Saratoga's several recreation facilities. He squinted up at the video screen, now showing the inside of a cavernous building, with two missile-shaped things hanging from the rafters - a thin one, and a fat one. "What's this?"

"It's something I got out of the history library. On the invention of the atomic bomb," West replied barely looking at him.

"I remember reading about those guys in my physics classes," squad mate Vanessa Damphousse said coming up on West's other side. "Oppenheimer, Teller, Neddermeyer. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like. I mean, there was nothing in our technology at the time to even begin to compare with what they created. It must have been like going from bows and arrows to gunpowder."

"It's pretty incredible, especially when you consider how primitive the technology was. Makes you wonder how they even managed," West agreed.

"And we've done nothing really new since Einstein's theories, except disprove his stand on super-luminal travel, and that was derivative, in my opinion..."

"Einstein I've heard of," Hawkes interrupted, "but who are these other guys. Oppenheimer and what's his name, 'needle head'?"

The other's laughed. "Neddermeyer, Coop," Damphousse explained. "He and Robert Oppenheimer were scientists on the Manhattan Project, which created the A-bomb."

"Right," chimed in West. "In fact, Oppenheimer was called the 'father of the A-bomb' for a while, until they buried his ass for selling secrets to the communists..."

"What are communists?" Hawkes demanded, thoroughly confused. West shook his head.

"Never mind. Bad guys. Twentieth century world politics is a nightmare to unravel. I'm not sure it's worth the effort."

"What I've never been able to understand," Damphousse mused, "is why they *dropped* the bomb."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, from everything I've read, there was no need to do it. Germany had already surrendered, and Japan was only a few weeks away from surrendering, too. 200,000 civilians lives were destroyed for nothing. Maybe more, the numbers have never been conclusively confirmed."

But West shook his head. "I'm not sure that's fair. McQueen says you have to be careful about second guessing historical decisions. It's always easy to say, well, this was going on or that was going on, they should have known. But it's impossible to know what was really happening at that moment."

"I suppose," Damphousse conceded. "And when you think about how rudimentary communications were in those days. I mean, telephones were still dependent on wires, and most communication still happened through paper mail."

"Even in this day and age, it's confusing," West pointed out. "Look at all the rumors flying around about the possibility of peace negotiations with the Chigs. How do we know what's really happening? If we had a weapon comparable to what the A-bomb was a hundred and twenty years ago, wouldn't we use it against the Chigs?"

"Damn straight, we would," Hawkes said suddenly, leaning forward. "And the Chigs already *have* something like what you're talking about, remember. Just because the Colonel took out old Chiggy von Richtofen doesn't mean they can't build another ship, or missiles like the one that Sewell guy made. And *then* we're gonna be dumpin' in the river. Our techies come up with something like this, you better believe we use it against the Chigs! It's us or them."

West and Damphousse exchanged grim looks. Damphousse started to say something, then changed her mind and walked away. For his part, Nathan West was just as glad to see the credits roll up on his documentary. Suddenly, the discussion had gotten just too close to home.

The brief was half as thick as his palm was broad. Commodore Glen Van Ross of the USS Space Carrier Saratoga sat at his desk and stared at the pile of paper before him. As commander of the Saratoga, he was God within her confines, or so they told him. An interesting concept. Of course, when some authority a little higher up the pantheon showed up unexpectedly, and handed one a stack of compartmentalized reports with the suggestion that one familiarize oneself in anticipation of further developments, it was a pretty good idea if one did so. God or not.

The Admiral had arrived a hour earlier, unlooked for, unannounced, carrying this brief, and word that an ISSAPC from AeroTech industries would be following shortly. In the mean time, he had suggested the commodore might want to spend some time digesting the contents of the file. Ross flipped idly through the two plus inches of paper, feeling somewhat better when he realized that the bulk of it was schematics, graphs and other visual aids to the text. He also realized that each drawing, each chart, indeed each written page of the brief was stamped with a small AeroTech logo and the words: "Proprietary Information - Do Not Distribute." The Admiral had told him precious little about the intentions of this visit, or the details of the mission. The only thing Ross knew for sure was that the World Federation and Earth Forces Command had agreed upon some as yet to be disclosed joint venture that could prove vital to the Round Hammer initiatives. And for some reason, AeroTech was in the middle of it.

That fact did not comfort Glen Ross. Not that he shared the same hostility toward the civilian technologies organization that he knew was felt by many of his officers and crew. Ross accepted the fact that most of the technology used by the military came from private industry. It always had, and it always would. The armed forces simply did not have the resources to maintain large cadres of scientists and engineers dedicated solely to research and development. It was an uneasy alliance between civilian and military, with both sides jockeying for supremacy; the military generally viewing civilian scientists as amusing, but unpredictable, innocents, and the civilian contingents maintaining that their military counterparts were often short sighted in vision, and generally not too bright. As was usually the case with such things, both sides were a little bit wrong, and a little bit right.

Ross knew better. Whatever he might think of individuals, and there had certainly been individuals over the years who he had disliked intensely, he knew that the private sector was what kept the military armed and ready. He understood and supported the need for cooperation. At the moment, though, he just wished he knew what he was supposed to be cooperating about. He turned back to the brief.

The first few pages were a rehash of the Sewell fuel discussion from months ago; that self perpetuating organic power source retrieved from the Chig run Kazbek mining facility during the Fifty- Eighth squadron's rescue extraction. He could not imagine what was the purpose revisiting that now. What little bit of Sewell fuel ore they had had in their possession had been used up on the failed attempt to destroy the enemy ace, Chiggy von Richtofen. While it was true that no more powerful a substance was known to exist anywhere, and that the possibilities of such a power source, such a weapon, were vast, they did not have any more of it, and were not likely to get any. Kazbek had the only known deposit, and it was far too deep in enemy territory to be of much use to the Earth Forces. The Chigs were the sole possessors, and it was only a matter of time before they recreated the technology destroyed with the Chiggy von Richtofen prototype. Earth Forces needed to be spending their time finding counter-measures, an effective technological response. Not revisiting lost opportunities.

Blowing out an exasperated breath at the waste of his time, Ross turned a few pages forward, to the lists of "players" in this current game. What he found surprised him, on several counts. Lt. General John Hazelton was in charge of this show. Army Corps of Engineers, not AeroTech, Hazelton was known to be something of a martinet, but also a genius at acquiring funding, resources and political backing when these all seemed to be impossibilities. A far better administrator than he was an engineer, he had made a career out of managing other people's projects, and had done so with astonishing success. He had made a lot of enemies, but no one would ever underestimate him, or disregard the force of his will. If there was an impossible job that needed doing, Hazelton was the man to see that it got done. Ross had met him once, years ago. He could not claim to know the man, except by reputation, but he understood that if Hazelton was heading this project it had to have the endorsement of someone pretty high up.

There were also three AeroTech representatives biographied: a woman and two men. The men, Simon Cassidy and William Tate, were aero-astrotechnological engineers, and Cassidy, the older of two, had been instrumental, according to his bio, in the development of the current SA-43 design. Ross had never heard of either of them. The last biography, however, made him sit up and read a little more carefully: Dr. Elisabeth Radford. Beth Radford. Yes, he had forgotten that Oliver Radford's sister worked for AeroTech, though he remembered, now, that Radford had not been too happy about his sister's choice of career affiliations, now that he thought about it. Oliver Radford, his old friend from his early days in the AI rebellion. Who would have thought, years ago, that the man would now be the head of military intelligence, the highest ranking native American in the world. Or that he, Glen Ross, for that matter, would be commanding a ship like the Saratoga, responsible for some fifteen thousand human lives. Ross had never actually met Beth Radford, but he had heard a lot about her, as he and her brother had tom-catted their way from one east Texas dive to another. Radford had frankly adored his brilliant, (his word,) little sister, and had talked about her endlessly, given the chance. Even under these baffling circumstances, Ross found himself delighted at the idea of finally meeting the woman. In this war, far from all things familiar and beloved, even the friends and family of friends and family were a welcome pleasure.

He put the thought away for the time being. He still needed to understand what this project was all about. Laying aside the narrative, he flipped back to the schematics. They appeared to be plans of some sort - for a new fighter, by the looks of them, and an engine that definitely was *not* a SCRAM type. Those, and something that looked like a warhead arming device, but nothing like anything he had seen before. He picked up the specs of the fighter, and wished, briefly, that he could share them with the commander of the Saratoga's top Marine fighter squadron, if only to see that expression of sheer lust Lt. Colonel T.C. McQueen got whenever he set eyes on things with wings. One of the real tragedies in this war, in Ross' opinion, was the injury that had grounded the Corps' finest pilot, even if it did free the man up to serve as Ross' advisor and right hand.

Thinking of McQueen got Ross thinking about the last AeroTech representative they had encountered; a man McQueen had frankly loathed. Howard Sewell. The "father of Sewell fuel technology." Ross had not liked Sewell, particularly, but he had respected the man's abilities and mind. Sewell's lab fire death earlier in the war had been a tragic loss, not the least because it was the result of sabotage on board the Saratoga herself - a thing for which Ross had never quite forgiven himself. And now this whole contingent of people had come along to replace Howard Sewell. It did say something about the man. This speculation was not getting him any closer to understanding this mission, either, however, so Ross turned back to the written report. The final segment was accompanied by a single illustration - a star chart with a planetary system circled in the upper right hand corner.

"The planet is called Siduri," he read. "It lies on the outskirts of Chig territory just inside the Von Braun line. It has long been agreed that the Kazbek mining facility is too deep within enemy territory for a successful strike of sufficient size to acquire us the necessary amounts of ore. We have searched for other sources within Earth Forces held galactic territory. We have tired to recreate, artificially, the fundamental nature of the Sewell fuel ore. We have been unsuccessful in both endeavors.

"Recently, however, military intelligence, together with AeroTech Industries, has managed to located what we believe is a second source of the ore - not a mine, but a storage and processing facility here on a moon of the planet Siduri. This target is within our reach. And while the resources there are finite, it has been estimated that enough raw and partially processed ore is in storage there to fuel a new fleet of ships powerful enough, and to create a weapons arsenal large enough, to wipe the Chig menace out of this galaxy."

So *that* was it! Ross sat back in his chair and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. Suddenly, the schematics, all the speculative busy work, made sense. They had found another source, they had found a potentially accessible stockpile of Sewell fuel ore, and according to the specs, they were well on their ways to designing planes to run on it, weapons to use it... He felt overcome by sudden excitement. My God, there might be hope, after all!

A knock at his hatch jarred him out of his reverie. "Who's there?" he barked.

"Lieutenant Boswell, sir," came the answer. Ross smiled to himself.

"Come in."

His aide came into the room. JG Lt. Rachel "Speedy" Boswell gave an impression of cool efficiency that was periodically belied by unruly light brown hair that was forever escaping the containment of the heavy braid she wore. Boswell was a gem, earnest and respectful, but neither was the feisty young woman overly awed by the commodore's position, or particularly easily intimidated when Ross was in a mood. She kept him organized, on top of the daily routine, was rarely out of touch while he was on duty, and often at his side when off duty activities required her assistance. Without her, he would be lost under an avalanche of reports and communiques, of the things required of him every minute of the day. And, personally, he genuinely liked the girl.

Boswell came to attention before him, and he could see her struggling to ignore the curls that had once again gone AWOL across her cheek. "Sir," she said crisply. "The ISSAPC from AeroTech is arriving in Loading Bay 3, sir."

Ross nodded. "Thank you, Lieutenant," he replied, "is there anything else?" There was not. He waited until she had left again, then leveraged himself to his feet with a mixture of anticipations assailing him. Finally, in all these months, they might actually have the break through they needed to boost the Round Hammer initiative to victory. He hardly dared believe it. And somewhere, deep in the back of his mind, he also felt a small tingle of curiosity that he was finally meeting Oliver Radford's brilliant sister. He wondered what she might be like.

The Admiral was already in Loading Bay 3 when Ross got there. The two men exchanged nods.

"Were you able to get through that report, Glen?" the Admiral asked quietly as Ross came up beside him. Ross nodded.

"Yes, sir," he said, trying to contain the eagerness in his voice. "A most interesting document." His eyes sparkled with the potential, though, and the Admiral smiled warmly. The hatch on the ISSAPC was opening, cutting off further discussion. Two army guards stepped off, weapons clutched across their chests, and moved aside. They were followed by a stocky black man in a army general's uniform, and three civilians. Ross stepped forward.

"General Hazelton," he said formally. "Welcome aboard, sir. We've met before, many years ago."

Hazelton nodded, holding out a hand. "Ten years ago, to be exact, Commodore. Washington. I remember." His mouth smiled, but his eyes did not. Ross thought the man looked grayer, more care worn, than he remembered, but then, he supposed they all did. Hazelton shook hands with the Admiral, then turned to the people behind him.

"Gentlemen, may I present our AeroTech colleagues in this endeavor? Simon Cassidy, Bill Tate..."

Ross shook hands with both.

"And our physicist, Dr. Elisabeth Radford. Dr. Radford has taken over for the late Howard Sewell as the AeroTech head of the Sewell fuel project."

So this was Oliver's sister. He could see the resemblance. The broad cheekbones, the deep set, intelligent eyes. The firm mouth. Beth Radford's dark brown hair fell straight, unbound, to her shoulders and she had Oliver's direct, unwavering gaze. Her features were more delicate than her brother's, however, and she looked generally better kept. She obviously cared about her appearance, the impression she made. Her skin, though somewhat lined, was clear and lightly made up. Her gray suit, while severe, was expensively tailored, and she looked poised and trim in it. If not for the absolute humorlessness of her expression, she would have been very attractive. As it was, though, she looked like it might hurt to crack a smile. But, then, maybe she was just nervous. Perhaps she was not used to space flight into war zones, that would be understandable. And it could not have been comfortable for her, being introduced as Howard Sewell's replacement. Ross hesitated as the others began to file out of the loading bay. He reached out and touched her on the arm before she could leave. She turned and looked at him curiously.

"Dr. Radford," he said warmly, extending a hand, "May I take this opportunity to personally welcome you aboard the Saratoga. I know your brother, Oliver..."

The woman just looked at him, her eyes cold. "I don't, anymore," she said flatly. Ross gaped a little at this rejection. His hand dangled a moment, then he started to put it down. The woman's expression changed, suddenly, and a bare hint of warmth came up into her eyes. She took his hand. "But thank you for the welcome." She gripped his hand firmly, shook it once, then dropped it. "If you will excuse me?"

She turned and walked out, leaving Ross frowning bemusedly after her.

"All right, this one's in the air. A recon mission in the Sulis region."

Lt. Commander T. C. McQueen dropped his briefing file on the orientation room's lectern and eyed his pilots. Five youthful faces looked back at him with quiet expectancy. There was tension in their expressions, but no longer the electric urgency that had accompanied these briefings in the early months of the war. These kids were seasoned, now, finely tuned instruments. Warriors. And no longer young. McQueen turned to the mission chart behind him.

"Now, Sulis has been pretty quiet, so we're not expecting trouble, but there have been reports lately, of possible Chig activity in the area, so you're going out to have a look. This is going to feel pretty routine, but don't get cocky. We don't know what might be out there. Rules of engagement are... don't, unless fired upon - we're not trying to stir up a hornet's nest, out there, we're just trying to get an idea of what, if anything, the Chigs are up to..."

Captain Shane Vansen shifted in her seat, and tried to concentrate on her commanding officer's voice. A strange sense of disassociation assailed her, and there was a pressure behind her eyes that was going to turn into a hell of a headache if she let it. She blinked and rubbed the back of her neck. She had been feeling punky all morning, not sick, just out of it. And now this headache brewing. Had to be lack of sleep. Have to grab a couple of aspirin on the way to the flight deck, she thought, damning a restless night. Dreams had haunted her, again, weird, dislocated things, not the usual nightmares about her parents' murders. She had awakened with a stiff neck, and generally feeling as if someone had beaten her. She rubbed the back of her neck, again.

"Wheels up in fifteen mikes," McQueen concluded. The Wild Cards climbed to their feet. Vansen swayed a little, and grabbed the back of the chair in front of her to steady herself. Stood up too fast, she thought, as the momentary dizziness passed. Dammit, all of it. She squared her shoulders and headed for the door.

From where he was standing by the lectern, McQueen watched his people file out. He had not missed Vansen's wobble as she stood, nor had he missed her uncharacteristic lack of focus during the briefing. Frowning, he stepped forward and intercepted her at the door.

"Are you all right, Vansen?"

She looked at him blankly a moment, then nodded. "Yes, sir." Seeing his concern, she knew she needed to give him some kind of explanation. "I've got a little headache. I didn't sleep very well last night. I'm all right."

McQueen narrowed his eyes at her, but nodded. He watched her as she left the orientation room, trying to dismiss his nagging worry; even Vansen was entitled to a headache now and then. She would be fine once she got into her plane.

She *was* fine once she got into her plane. The nagging half pain behind her eyeballs receded and her attention focused as the adrenaline pump of pre-mission flight check took her.

"Navigation - check, oxygen - check," she began as the canopy dropped down over her. "Mission computers are on-line... all systems ready for take off...

"Roger that, Queen of Diamonds, you are cleared for Hammerhead engagement..."

As the warning klaxon sounded to clear the flight deck, Vansen glanced to her left at West, who smiled at her, then right, toward the "O" room, where McQueen stood behind the glass and watched. He nearly always stood there, watching until they disappeared, and Vansen suddenly realized how much his presence there at the outset of each mission reassured her. He caught her eye, and nodded. She nodded back as her cockpit dropped to the waiting Hammerhead below.

She started to fade about an hour into the patrol. It had been quiet, as McQueen had predicted and as the adrenaline ebbed her feelings of malaise returned. They were a little worse, this time, her head was really throbbing and her whole body felt achy. She started to consider the idea that she might be coming down with something - just what she needed was the flu. She dismissed the idea almost as soon as she had it. Even as a child she had been remarkably healthy, and rarely caught so much as a cold.

"Wild Cards, this is Queen of Diamonds. Have reached limit of our scheduled patrol, prepare to circle and return to home base," she almost sighed as she said it, thinking of nothing but that she really wanted to go home to bed.

"Roger that," West's voice replied in her headset. Then "Shane, you okay? You sound a little... off."

She was surprised to hear that her voice had betrayed her. Maybe she really *was* getting sick. "I'm fine, just a killer headache. Be glad to get back to the 'Toga."

"I hear you, hang tight," West told her. "We'll be home soon."

The Chigs, when they came, came out of no where. "Bandits on the LIDAR!" Hawkes shouted into his com-link. "Three o'clock!"

"Shit, where did they come from?"

"McQueen warned us," Vansen snapped, eyeing the three blips on her HUD, and pulling herself together. "They're coming in fast."

"Too fast to avoid them, we have to engage..." West advised frantically.

"Roger that," Vansen agreed.

"'Phousse, watch your 8 o'clock, he's right on top of you! Juke right."

Damphousse yanked her controls hard right and plunged her fighter out of the line of Chig fire. Over her bow, a shot took the enemy out in a burst of light and debris.

"Hooyah!" Lieutenant Paul Wang shouted, wagging his wings a little at Damphousse.

"Thanks, Paul," she replied.

"On your six, Cooper," West called calmly into his microphone as he swung his plane around in pursuit of the Chig jet that was bearing down on Hawkes' Hammerhead. "I'm on it."

"I see him," Hawkes replied. He eyed his controls worriedly as he took evasive action. "Damn it, he's locked on. Where the hell are you, West?"

A burst of weapons' fire answered him, and an explosion behind him.

"Nice shot, West!" he complimented, leveling off.

"Where's Shane?" West asked, suddenly realizing that they had not heard from their squad honcho, and there was still one more Chig out there, at least.

"I'm right behind you," Vansen's voice came over the link weakly. "What happened to that last Chig?"

"I think he bugged out," Damphousse replied. "I saw him turn tail after West took out Coop's pursuit."

"So, let's got find the bastard," Hawkes suggested hotly.

"Negative, McQueen told us not to engage unless fired upon, let him go," West ordered. "Shane! Are you all right?"

By now they all realized that Vansen was not herself.

"Shane?" Wang echoed.

"Guys?" Vansen responded, barely whispering. "I'm going egg- head. I don't feel very well."

"Roger that, Vansen, hang in there. Come on 'Cards, let's take her home..."

McQueen was waiting as the canopy on Vansen's cockpit popped open.

"What's wrong," he asked, but he could see for himself as soon as the flight crew removed her helmet. Vansen's face was flushed and glistening, and when she looked up at him, her eyes were fever bright. He dropped to a crouch beside her and pressed a palm to her forehead. "My god, you're burning up. All right, let's get you out of there..."

He reached down to take her arm, but she curled up against herself, whimpering. She shook her head.

"Oh, God, it hurts, my head hurts," she cried softly. "The light hurts my eyes..."

McQueen scowled, not liking the sound of that. He leaned in over her. "We've got to get you down to sickbay. Come on."

Vansen hunkered down, leaning against McQueen but making no move to leave her cockpit. She had started to shake violently.

"Vansen," McQueen insisted gently. "Shane. Come on. Put your arm around my neck." He pried her arm up as he said the words, draping it over his shoulder, then he leaned her forward far enough to get his arm around her back. Bracing himself, he heaved upward, standing and carrying her with him. As soon as Vansen was upright, West slipped under her other arm.

"I got her," he said as the corpsmen arrived with a stretcher. As soon as her feet touched the deck, her legs buckled. The corpsmen leapt to assistance, but McQueen was quicker. Stooping, he slipped his other arm behind her knees and lifted her up like a child, laying her down on the stretcher. He could feel the heat of her fever right through her flight suit. She was on fire. He winced as she curled into a fetal position and drew her arm over her eyes.

"Let's move!" he barked.

There was only the three people in the conference room: the Admiral, General Hazelton, and Commodore Ross. Coffee had been sent down. Sipping the hot, black liquid from his favorite Saratoga mug, Ross wondered where the AeroTech personnel were. He eyed Hazelton expectantly, waiting for him to start.

"Since you have both read the reports, I don't need to tell you the importance of this discovery - an accessible source of Sewell fuel ore in the refinery on the fourth moon of the planet Siduri. Such a thing, gentlemen, could change the whole course of this conflict. We already know how to use it, and we already know that it works. We have the plans for a prototype plane, ready to be built. Years of development have been accelerated to produce this design. And what's even more important, and frankly more fragile in this tenuous political environment, we have the funding. All's we need is the fuel.

"I can't impress upon you enough, gentlemen, what we are up against back home. This war has not been without its successes, but it has been a slow and costly process, costly in both lives and dollars. The folks back home are screaming, college campuses are erupting in protest, the anti-colonization groups are saying 'I told you so' until the press is beginning to believe them. The ground swell cry is for negotiation, for peace at any price, for some pie-in-the-sky utopian conjunction of human and Chig - and what is absolutely terrifying, gentlemen, is that there are people in power who actually *believe* this is possible. The secretary general herself honestly, truly believes we can negotiate peace with the Chigs. Whether she will press her case more strongly than she has already will depend upon the options we can give her. We must be able to give her options, as close to guarantees as we possibly can. And we must be able to give people hope.

"The folks back home are afraid, and not without reason. The Chigs *have* this technology. We know that. We've seen them use it. There is no speculation here. This isn't Nazi German propaganda, this isn't going to turn out to be a case of the enemy's still born concept. They *have* this fuel, this weapon, this capability. We set them back by destroying their prototype, but we have in no way eliminated the threat.

"There will be no negotiated peace, gentlemen, you know that. Those of us who have seen this enemy, faced this enemy, know that in our souls and in our guts. There will only be victory. Or surrender- by whatever name they call it."

Ross leaned back in his chair and listened. Hazelton was preaching to the choir, neither he nor, he suspected, the Admiral needed to be convinced of the importance of this discovery, of this opportunity. He wondered if the man had an ulterior motive in trying to get them fired up, or if he was just so used to his own rhetoric that he could not function without it. Though Ross had to admit, Hazelton was quite a showman. He felt his own blood pumping with excitement, and he was already sold on the course of action. He did not need convincing of the need, he only wished to discuss when, and how.

The admiral stood up, pacing restlessly. "Our mission," he said, "is to proceed to the planet Siduri, and quite simply, subdue and control this moon for a long enough period to allow us time to strip it of all available raw and partially processed ore, after which time we will destroy the refinery. And leave."

"As you work to secure the site for us," Hazelton continued, "Dr. Radford and her team will be preparing a small fleet of specially equipped ISSCVs designed to carry the ore. While not dangerous in itself until it is subjected to certain conditions, the partly refined Sewell ore *is* volatile, and must be handled carefully or its properties will be diminished."

"Do we have estimates of enemy strength?" Ross asked. The admiral turned to him.

"Intelligence has identified the presence of several Chig platoons, however, it appears to be rather lightly defended, given it's proximity to the Von Braun line. We anticipate, however, the bulk of the ground forces to be Silicate, similar to what the Fifty Eighth found on Kazbek. Their numbers are impossible to pinpoint."

Ross nodded. Damn things blended right in with the rest of the machinery, as far as sensors were concerned, unless one was looking for them specifically, and even then, they were easily masked. Still, so far, the problems did not seem insurmountable.

"There is also a Chig base about four hundred AUs away in the Cirrus region," the admiral added. "It is unlikely that we will be able to prevent a distress signal, so we must anticipate reinforcements.

"A difficulty arises," continued the admiral, "in that we cannot carpet bomb before sending in ground troops."

Ross frowned. This would significantly increase the risk to ground forces and air-ground support. "May I ask why not, sir? Is there some risk to setting this raw ore off?"

It was Hazelton who answered. "Not a particularly large one. The raw ore is fairly stable, as I said before. You can hold it in your hand, drop it on the floor with no ill effects. It requires full refinement and certain catalytic events before it becomes dangerous. Moreover, we believe the ore is stored in bunkers deep within the refinery. It is doubtful that surface bombing would effect it at all.

"The problem is really one of surface destruction, and accessibility. Frankly, we cannot carpet bomb the facility, Commodore, because we would like the opportunity to appropriate the model technology of this refinery. We don't *want* to destroy it. At least not until we are ready to leave. But more importantly, mass destruction of the facility might potentially limit, or eliminate, our access to the stored ore. We don't have weeks to execute this operation, gentlemen. We just don't have time to contend with the mess."

"This will have to be done with air to ground combat," the Admiral reiterated, "and then hand to hand."

Ross leaned forward and eyed the star chart behind Hazelton. The atmosphere was hostile, which meant that Earth Forces ground troops would have to go down with oxygen support. Awkward, a pain in the ass, in truth, but manageable. At least there was enough gravity to stand up and walk around in...

"It will take us a minimum of forty eight hours to reach Siduri," he mused. "We have the plans of the facility?"

Hazelton nodded, and switched the display. "These are the best recon photos Intelligence was able to acquire."

Ross narrowed his eyes, thoughtfully. It could be done. He felt excitement rising, again, at the thought of action. Hopeful, positive, potentially successful action. They could do this.

He voiced as much out loud.

"And as soon as the facility is secured, Dr. Radford and her team will follow in the modified ISSCVs to retrieve the ore," Hazelton agreed. Ross looked at him sharply.

"You're sending civilians into a hot zone?"

It was the Admiral who answered. "We have no choice, Glen. Dr. Radford's team will be backed up by whatever military technicians we can provide her, but we don't have the time to train them in all the requirements. Radford is the only one, frankly, who knows how to handle this partly refined ore. It does us no good to secure the refinery, then lose half the cargo from mismanagement."

Ross glowered. He did not like it. Untrained civilians could only prove a liability to the ground troops, one more thing they had to worry about. For the moment though, he kept his thoughts to himself. He needed to get there, first, and win the refinery. Time enough to worry about who went down after that.

"Think they'll let up see her?" Wang asked as he shrugged into his flight suit.

West came out of the shower area at the rear of their ward room, toweling his hair. Behind him, Damphousse answered Wang's question.

"I guess that depends on what's wrong with her," she said. "I saw her face when McQueen took her out of her cockpit. She looked feverish."

"She was burning up," West agreed. "I could feel it right through both our flight gear." He pulled a jersey on over his head, and stuck his arms into the sleeves, working it down.

What do you think's wrong with her?" Damphousse asked no one in particular. No one ventured a guess right away.

"Maybe it's some kind of space sickness," Wang finally speculated. "You now, there's always been a question about the possibility of radiation sickness. There are hydrogen molecules, even in free space, that will pass right through a ship moving at significant velocities of light. Radiation bombardment..."

"The Saratoga is shielded for that," Damphousse argued. "And the Hammers don't move fast enough. No, I think it's got to be some kind of infection."

"But what?" Wang demanded. "We're vaccinated against everything but the common cold..."

West sat down on his bunk. "You know, I was reading in this book McQueen gave me about the Pacific fleet in World War II how almost as many troops were disabled due to illnesses like malaria and dysentery as were taken out by enemy fire. I guess these diseases were so unfamiliar to the American troops that their bodies just couldn't combat them. They were exhausted, undernourished... and they just got really sick. A lot of them died." He added after a moment.

"You think maybe Shane picked up some weird bug the last time we were on planet?" Wang asked.

"Maybe," suggested Damphousse, "she got bitten by something or cut herself and didn't know it. And we have been pushing pretty hard lately. We're *all* beat.

West shook his head. "I dunno. Maybe she did pick up some kind of unknown infection..."

It was Hawkes who put a stop to the speculation. "This is bullshit," he barked, heading for the door. "I'm going down to sickbay and *ask* the damn doctor what's wrong with her."

"No!" West said sharply. Hawkes stopped in his tracks and stared at his squad mate. The others, also, turned to West curiously.

"Look," he said, suddenly uncomfortable with their scrutiny. "I think we should wait here for McQueen. He'll come tell us as soon as the docs know anything." He saw the protest in their faces and hurried on. "We don't know what's wrong with Shane, but whatever it is, we know she's really sick. I'm telling you, she was burning up. I've never felt anything like it, and I used to help my mom a lot when my brothers got stuff. But whatever she's got, it might be contagious. We might have it, too."

He watched their eyes, now, as his words registered, saw their faces fall as comprehension dawned on them. Damphousse nodded slowly, and Hawkes dropped his hand from the hatch handle and came back into the room.

"If we are infected," West concluded, "and we go wandering around the ship, we could spread it, whatever it is. McQueen would want us to stay put here and await orders. So would Shane. I say we wait."

They eyed him, absorbing this. He could see them slowly agreeing, and he could see something else, too. It was weird. Usually, it was Vansen who gave them such guidance. She had long been recognized as tacit leader just by her natural abilities, even before McQueen had more or less designated her permanent honcho in his absence, even before her promotion to captain had placed her above them all in rank. They were used to taking direction from her, rarely questioned it, ultimately, even on those occasions when they would push back at her. And now Shane was incapacitated, who knew for how long. The question was, would West necessarily fill that position? Did he even want to? He was not sure.

But that was all idle speculation. The chances were very good that Vansen had just picked up a good case of the flu, and would be back on her feet and back in her cockpit before the next mission. In the mean time, they should just stay put, and wait for McQueen to come and tell them what to do.

Next : Part Two

Back : To General Fiction