Part Part Two

"How is she?" McQueen demanded of the doctor who came out of one of the sick bay examining rooms. Vansen's sudden vulnerability had unnerved him a little. It had come on so fast. Before the mission she had complained only of a small headache, and McQueen knew Vansen. If she had felt she was too sick to fly, she never would have gone out. She never would have risked the mission, or her own life, foolishly. She could not have known she was really ill. It made him realize how exposed they all where, not just to the fortunes of war, but to the weaknesses of the body. If that fever had struck in full force during that fur-ball with the Chigs, they all could have died.

Dr. Dorothy Taylor smiled. She knew T.C. McQueen, had had him pacing in her waiting room like a she-lion more than once, waiting for the verdict on one of his cubs. She meant the image as a compliment. She had a great deal of respect for McQueen's concern and caring for his people. She gestured for him to sit down and sat down in the chair beside him.

"She's going to be fine," she told him, and watched him visibly relax. "She's a very sick young woman, she has bacterial meningitis, but we've caught it in plenty of time. She vomited just after you brought her in here, and she was spiking quite a fever, but we've got her on an aggressive course of antibiotics. The fever has already started to come down."

McQueen nodded warily. He knew about bacterial meningitis. It was a fairly common ailment among young In Vitros, the newly healed umbilici creating a easy avenue for opportunistic infections dangerously close to the brain stem and spine. He had seen a lot of tank kids die of meningitis in the mines on Omnicron Draconis.

"How'd she come down with a thing like that?"

Taylor understood his frame of reference, and moved quickly to reassure him. "In crowded conditions like this ship, it amazes me sometimes that we're not all crawling around on hands and knees," she said. "Drinking each other's reclaimed water, breathing each other's recycled air. But she's getting the best care, and she's already responding to treatment. You can see her in a few hours, she should be lucid when she wakes up," she said, smiling. "Right now, sleep is the best thing for her. I wouldn't expect to see her back in action for a while, though."

McQueen nodded again. He knew that.

"While I have you here, Colonel, I'd like to do a blood test," Taylor concluded. "And I'll need the rest of your squadron down here as soon as possible. Bacterial meningitis is highly contagious, we'll want to begin prophylactic treatment. Thankfully, in this day and age, we know how to do that. And although you and Lt. Hawkes are both old enough not to be in particular danger, let's not take chances."

"I'll bring them down as soon as they've had a chance to clean up," McQueen promised, starting to roll up his sleeve.

Dr. Elisabeth Radford stopped in the hatchway of Loading Bay 3 and put her hands on her hips. Having changed from her business suit to a pair of engineer's coveralls and clipped her dark hair securely at the nape of her neck, she was ready to work - real work, not the corporo-political nonsense that seemed to pass for it since Howard Sewell had died, and the army had stepped in to run the fuel project. Shaking her head, she trotted down the steps into the bay itself. She had already visited the other ISSCVs, this was her last stop.

Loading Bay 3 was one of the five smaller Saratoga bays the AeroTech engineers had taken over for the recovery project, each with its own ISSCV to be converted to carry the partially processed Sewell fuel ore. Radford had made Bay 3 her base of operations, in part because it was the closest to the cargo lift, and therefore most convenient. Her team of ten was spread out amongst the rest of the bays, each with it's complement of army technicians borrowed from the Saratoga. Two days was not a lot of time to get this conversion completed. They had brought with them most of what they needed, the containment units and monitoring equipment, but everything needed to be assembled and installed. Before that could happen, though, the guts of each ISSCV needed to be stripped, benches, seats, shelves and bunks stowed somewhere, and each cargo vehicle thoroughly cleaned inside. That was what her crews were doing at that moment.

The bay itself was a mess. The crews had already begun removing seats and benches, and these were stacked awkwardly waiting for someone to come haul them away. The air was filled with dust, and Radford was pleased to see all of *her* people wearing surgical masks. No telling what these vehicles had been through, what sort of debris had settled inside them, and she doubted the military was up to AeroTech's strict standards for decontamination. They were on unfamiliar ground, here, they had to remember that they were not at home.

A lot of things were different, now, and Beth Radford knew she was going to have to get used to the fact that time tables could be moved up without warning, short-cuts allowed in testing, risks taken that she would never have dreamed of, years before. They were in a state of extreme crisis, General Hazelton was fond of telling her. They did not have the luxury of time to test every possibility before a project was given the "go." Nor did Hazelton seem particularly impressed when she tried to remind him that the "short cuts" he proposed risked more than success, they risked lives. Perhaps it did not matter to him - after all it was his job to risk lives every day, and she would be the first to admit she did not understand these military types. Howard had laughed about them, and told her not to take them so seriously, but Beth was not so sure.

It gave her a weird feeling, now, being on the ship where Howard Sewell had died. The news of his death had been a terrible shock to her. She missed her old boss, missed his humor, and his insight. She missed his brilliance most of all. She had been the logical choice to replace him on this project, but in many ways, the honor was a mixed blessing, and she doubted her own ability to bring Sewell's vision to fruition. More than that, though, she found herself more and more often questioning the ultimate goal.

Radford was not much of a student of history, but she had paid enough attention to understand the dangers inherent in technological advances. The splitting of the atom had led to a source of power that had brought modernity to most of the world. But it had also spawned a weapon that had terrorized that same world until the World Federation finally banned all nuclear weapons, everywhere. This new ore, this Sewell fuel, made atomic energy look as powerful and efficient as a windmill, but it's destructive force was also exponentially greater to the point where it was almost inconceivable. And lately, the consequences of what they were doing had begun to haunt her dreams. Something deep in the recesses of her memory nagged that what they were attempting was contrary to Nature, and that they would pay a terrible price for it, someday. They were bringing foreign spirits into their realm, who would destroy their own ancients. Coyote was laughing... She knew where the uneasiness sprang from - old, travel worn myths from her people, bound up in her own scientific uncertainties. Superstitions she had rejected years ago, or believed she had, come back to bedevil her in her insecurity. Shrugging her shoulders at the pointlessness of that line of thinking, she walked over to her work table, and slipped into a lab coat.

"Dr. Radford."

She looked up and saw General Hazelton in the bay hatch. He came down the steps and walked over beside her. "How's it going?"

"We're clearing out the transports, now," she told him, as if he could not see that for himself. "As soon as they're cleaned, we'll begin assembling the containment units and hooking them up."

"And everything's on schedule?"

"So far. It's a pretty straight forward job," she replied, wondering what he really wanted. This phase of the operation a child could supervise.

"Good, good," he said enthusiastically. "The commodore has assured us that taking the refinery should not prove a great difficulty. We expect to reach Siduri in two days, so we can't have any delays."

Radford gave him a jaundiced look and turned back to her work table.

"You still having doubts, doctor?"

So *that* was what he wanted. Just checking to see that she was on board. Elisabeth Radford was probably the only person on the Sewell fuel project who was immune to Hazelton's charisma and enthusiasm, but the truth was, she did not trust him.

"I understand the importance of the project, General Hazelton. We've had this discussion before. As a scientist, I understand the potential of this research, and I have a scientist's natural apprehensions about the application of the technology I am helping to develop. I would be acting irresponsibly if I did not acknowledge that. But I am committed to the project, or I would not be here." I can work anywhere, you twit, she thought to herself. I don't need to do this. Why do you keep nagging me?

"It's just that the rest of the team looks to you for guidance, Dr. Radford. They look to you to see how they should think. As they did to Howard Sewell before you. At this critical time, I just feel that it's very important for them to see your enthusiasm. Don't you agree?"

They aren't mindless automatons, Radford thought. They can think for themselves, they can and will make their own decisions. They respect me because I'm a good physicist, but they don't follow me blindly. A lot of them don't agree with my point of view, at all, which you would know if you took any part in the open discussions you hate so much. This is not, and never will be a case of blind following of orders. But you'll never understand that. It matters not a wit what *I* think. Thank god. I would not *want* to be responsible for the consciences of all these people. That is not my idea of leadership.

Radford thought these things, but she did not say them. Hazelton would never understand. She had tried to explain it to him the last time he tried to compartmentalize their research, restrict what the scientists could discuss amongst themselves in the name of security. She had gotten him to back off on that, but only after the team rioted and threatened to quit. But she knew he did not get it and never would.

"The team is committed to this endeavor, General," she said instead. "You don't have to worry about them. Now if you will excuse me, sir, I've got to get back to work, myself, or we *will* fall behind schedule."

Hazelton nodded. "Just wanted to check in," he replied. "We don't want anything to go wrong, now. We want to end this war before that boy of yours is old enough to go..."

It was a cheap shot, and they both knew it. But they both also knew that main reason for Radford's commitment to the project *was* because her only child was rapidly approaching the age when he would no longer need her permission to join the Earth Forces, and that it was only the possibility that the war could be over by then that kept her going.

She turned away, and said nothing. Hazelton hesitated a moment, then nodded, though she could not see him, and left. She felt him go, felt the space he vacated become less heavy and charged with tension. She picked up a data pad and began punching numbers. Damn those rigid, self-serving military types!

Her brother was one of them. That Commodore Ross had shocked the hell out of her earlier, bringing up his name. She had never suspected, when Hazelton had mentioned the name of the Saratoga's commander, that he would be the same Ross with whom Oliver had palled around years ago. She had never met him, but she had heard the stories. The ones a protective older brother was willing to tell a little sister, at any rate. She guessed that Ross had no idea of the situation between her and Oliver - his welcome had seemed sincere enough. Beth found herself regretting, now, her abruptness. It was hardly the man's fault that he had stuck his finger right into the center of an old wound.

She had been doing that a lot, lately, cold shouldering colleagues, snapping at subordinates, cutting people down. Shutting them out. She knew it was just a symptom of her growing tension, and perhaps a growing loneliness that her work was no longer able to fill, now that Eric was nearly an adult and way at school much of the time. But she did not like it about herself. She set the data pad down on the table, and shrugged out of her lab coat. In any case, this present situation could be remedied, she could go find this commodore and apologize. It would not relieve the worries or the pressures, but at least she would not have to regret her manners into the bargain.

"I'll be back in a little while," she called to no one in particular. A tech mumbled something back to her, but she did not hear. Stepping out into the passageway she hesitated a moment, then flagged down a young woman in uniform, and asked where she might find the commodore. She was not sure the directions she received where going to help, much, but they did get her started the right way. Or so she hoped.

Retreating, finally, to the relative privacy and quiet of his own quarters, Ross peeled off shirt and shoes, and collapsed onto his bed without bothering to remove his trousers. He closed his eyes. He needed a nap, but he was far too restless. He had too much on his mind. This mission, and all that its success implied. Plus, sick bay had reported two dozen more cases of bacterial meningitis. And this just since McQueen had advised him of Vansen's illness earlier that afternoon, though none of the rest of the Five Eight had tested positive for it, though, thank God. The last thing he needed was his top fighter squadron incapacitated. Though in truth, they had been lucky in this war, on that account. There had been times, missions, during the AI rebellion when exotic illnesses, rots and fevers, or just bitter conditions, had wiped out almost as many troops as had gun fire. He faced the possibility of serious sickness on his ship with real dread. Especially now.

The chill encounter with Oliver Radford's sister bothered him more than he cared to admit, too, leaving him uncertain. Glen Van Ross did not like uncertainty. His head told him to leave the situation alone, it was none of his business, but Radford was a friend, had been a good friend at one point in his life, and he could not help wondering. Or remembering.

They had been high, heady years, those early years in the AI war when he and Radford had been young men on a mission. Memories glinted in his mind like sunbeams on clear water; the cold sweat terror, the wild adrenaline surge of action, the bowel melting ghastliness of violent death, all juxtaposed against the giddy days and nights, the women, the drink - though in truth far fewer women and far more drink than the stories they told later might indicate. The laughter in a time of great sorrow, the songs... Colors, sounds, smells, even the quality of light and darkness around them had been different in those days, sharper, more textured, more immediate, somehow. More real. Vital, orgasmic, the most real thing he had ever experienced. The truth was, he missed it some days. It frustrated him, a little, to sit up there in space and send younger men and women down to fight and die in battles he could only follow on the bridge communications link.

Oliver Radford, the warrior-chieftain, the philosopher, older, a little higher up the ladder in rank, always, a little more experienced, and little more sure. Radford had viewed the AI rebellion as the price of man's arrogance. "Its not their fault, Glen," he would say when the whiskey got him talking, "we made them, we created them, and we programmed them. We gave them fire, and now we wonder why they're trying to burn us out with it. We have no right to hate them. Maybe it's justice, in a way." Ross had not agreed with him, then, and he did not agree with him, now. He had had no sympathy for his Silicate enemies; they had been, and still were, a man-made plague, a menance that needed to be eradicated. And the sooner the better. Still, if Radford had wanted to wax Promethean, Ross could appreciate the poetry, if not the practicality, of the argument.

A certain truth struck him, now, as he thought about it. Man had created a slave race of mechanicals who rebelled against him, so he created a slave race of humans, the In Vitros, to fight the rebels for him. Then wondered why it did not work, the continual invention of the "other" to do his dirty work for him - why one set of slaves revolted, and the other just sat it out. Though in truth, Ross had had In Vitros under his command since the beginning of the AI rebellion, brothers-in-arms, friends, and they had fought well with him and for him, as well as anyone had. Like anyone else, they fought as well as their leaders lead them. But you could not treat a soldier like an animal and expect him to fight like a man. It was that simple.

And it was also no use, he was not going to relax. Sitting up and swinging his feet onto the floor, Ross hung his head on his chest, slowly twisting the kinks out of his back and shoulders. God's teeth he was tired. You're gettin' old, Boss Ross, he sighed to himself, sourly. Too old, and this damn war was worse than the other, worse than anything imaginable, the enemy inconceivable, like the monster crawled out from under the bed. At least the damn Silicates had been comprehensible, created as they were on some known model of the human brain. But these alien creatures, these Chigs, were unknowable. It wore on the mind, debilitating, like a giant psy-ops initiative. Like a waking nightmare. And now the AIs, the ancient enemy, were allied with them, like the culmination of man's worst dream.

Ross snickered to himself, incongruously. Had Oliver Radford been with him now, they could have written a song about it, some long lament or ballad to banish the dread. And scare away the women, as usually happened when the two men got into their cups and ran through their collective repertoires. There had been some damn good years, those years. It tugged at him, missing them, missing his old friends. And now here was Oliver Radford's sister, on his ship, bearing some grudge, some unexplained estrangement. And it's none of your damn business, man, stay out of it, Ross chided himself. He knew he wouldn't. Oliver Radford's friendship meant too much to him, and the truth was, he was just too damned nosy. Sighing with inward exasperation, he slipped his feet into shoes and arms into shirt sleeves, and left his quarters.

He met her unexpectedly in the passage outside his door.

"Commodore Ross. I was just coming to look for you."

"Dr. Radford?" he queried, a little nonplused by her sudden appearance. Radford looked embarrassed.

"I wanted to apologize," she said. "I was rude this afternoon. I'm sorry. You startled me, a little, I'm afraid." She hesitated a moment before continuing. "My brother and I have had some differences... We... don't communicate much any more."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Ross replied, having already surmised that much.

"Yes, well, there was no reason for me to take it out on you," she sighed. "It was unfair of me and I do want to apologize. You just caught me by surprise."

Ross looked at her thoughtfully. He noticed that she had surrendered her tailored suit for an engineer's coverall, and she looked rumpled and tired; a far cry from the crisp, and unapproachable, professional who had disembarked from the ISSCV that afternoon. Still, the care worn look made her more appealing, more attractive, really, than the formidable persona she had presented earlier and that might have been what finally decided him.

"Then perhaps you will allow me to re-extend the welcome, and do me the honor of having dinner with me tomorrow evening?"

She looked surprised at the invitation. Then she smiled at him.

"I'd like that. Thank you. What time?"

Caught suddenly, Ross thought quickly. "Would 1930 be convenient?"

Radford smiled a little more broadly. "And what is that in real people's time?" she asked with a sudden hint of flirtation. "I'm afraid I haven't gotten used to the military jargon, yet."

"It's 7:30, I'm sorry," he laughed softly.

"7:30 would be fine," she agreed. "I look forward to it. Good night, Commodore..."

"Good night, " he echoed, watching her walk away.

"The mission will be executed in three stages," Lt. General John Hazelton said the following afternoon to the assembled squadrons spread out before him in the largest of the Saratoga's briefing rooms. The Ninety Second, Thirty First, Eleventh, and Fifty Eighth squadrons filled the room to capacity, looking back at him as one body, one eye, one consciousness. They almost breathed in unison, so singular was their concentration. The news that the Earth Forces had discovered an accessible source of Sewell fuel had rocked them, as it has rocked their commanders the day before. In approximately thirty-six hours, they would go and get it, and the whole fabric of the war would change. There was no sense of "if we are successful." This was too important and too wonderful. They simply could not fail.

"The first stage will be the initial air-ground assault to secure the refinery, and surrounding terrain. The second stage will involve the recovery of the ore, which, once complete, will be followed by a final assault from the Saratoga's batteries, destroying the refinery."

Hazelton nodded at Ross, who standing off to one side with the Admiral and Colonel McQueen. Ross stepped a little closer to the lectern. "As with Kazbek," he began, "enemy ground forces appear to be primarily AI, though we also suspect the presence of several platoons of Chigs protecting the refinery. As has already been explained, there will be no preliminary bombing of the facility before the ground forces go in, so it will be very hot when you get there. The additional threat of Chig reinforcements from their base here in the Cirrus region," Ross rapped a knuckle against the star chart behind him, "makes timing on this mission critical. We get in, we secure, we pick up our load and we hightail it out of there. And we do it with maximum speed, people. We want to be long gone by the time those Chig re-enforcements arrive."

Ross was gratified to see heads go up and down slowly before him. Comprehending. Ready. Eager. Good people, these, the best of the best. If anyone could pull this mission off, the squadrons of the Saratoga would do it. He felt a thrill of pride, of exhilaration, as he nodded to McQueen to take them through the next steps.

"For the duration of this mission, the fourth moon of the planet Siduri will be call 'Shamash'. The order of battle will be as follows," McQueen said. "The Nine-Two, Three-One and Eleventh squadrons will make the initial run against the planet, and provide air support for the ground troops inserted by ISSCV. Once the refinery is secured, all ground troops except those specifically designated to act as sentries for the recovery will be extracted. Because of the tight timing, we're taking no chances that anyone will be left behind. The three SA-43 squadrons will also return to the Saratoga at this time, but will remain ready to rejoin battle at the first sign of enemy reinforcements.

"Five-Eight. Your assignment will be to escort to the AeroTech equipped ISSCVs to the refinery. Once they are on the ground, you will set 'em down and provide back up ground support to the AeroTech scientists and the army personnel assigned to each ISSCV."

It had been a tough decision, keeping the Fifty-Eighth back from the initial assault, one McQueen had made with some reservation. They were the best; under most circumstances he needed, and expected, them up close and personal with the enemy. If this had been any other mission, there would have been no question about it.

This was not any other mission. McQueen had chosen the Wild Cards to escort the recovery teams for one very specific reason. They had been there before. While a few other fighter squadrons may have had as much or more experience against the Chigs in combat, none had had the Five-Eight's exposure to the enemy under other, more unusual, circumstances. None had faced Chiggy on his own ground. And, more to the point, the Wild Cards had experience specific to this mission. The Chig mining colony on Kazbek came as close to duplicating the conditions they were likely to find on Shamash as anyone was likely to get. And the Wild Cards had been there. It was this factor that had finally decided McQueen, and this factor that had brought the Commordore into agreement with him.

This mission was not only immensely important, a lot of very detailed work needed to be completed very quickly. McQueen had no illusions about the likelihood of Chig reinforcements arriving from the Cirrus base. They would come, and his people would have maybe a couple of hours, at best maybe half a day, to get their job done before they arrived. Any foreknowledge that could be brought to that equation was vital. Especially in light of the fact that *civilians* would be going it to a battle zone, though McQueen suspected Ross still had a few things he wanted to say about *that*, and he was damn glad of it. He had not been too happy to learn about the AeroTech connection, himself.

He paused a moment, searching for specific faces among the crowd before him. "Five-Eight, due to Captain Vansen's current illness, Lieutenant West will act as honcho, Damphousse as exec." He nodded once, then turned back to Ross.

"People, I know I do not need to impress upon you the importance of this mission," the Commodore said. "By 1600 hours tomorrow, Siduri will be in sight. 'Shamash' must be made ours. This mission will decide whether we will be given the opportunity to meet the enemy on their own technological ground in this war, or not. We *cannot* fail. It is that simple. There are no alternatives."

He eyed them, and they looked back at him, certain, committed. Secure. Ross nodded. "Dismissed."

There was a general rumble of bodies moving, of feet sliding across the floor and notepads slapping shut, and the room gradually emptied.

"Hey," Paul Wang said softly coming up behind his squad mates as they queued up to file through the narrow door. "What's this with the Five-Eight in the rear guarding the baggage carts?" Wang was truly indignant. He had fully expected the Wild Cards to be part of the initial assault. Grunts of agreement from Hawkes and Damphousse let him know that he was not alone.

West turned around in annoyance. "There are no unimportant assignments," he told them tersely. "Especially on a mission like this one. Guarding that transport convoy is every bit as important as the initial assault. Maybe moreso. They *are* the whole point in this, after all. If anything happens to that ore, we may as well not have bothered."

"So let the army baby-sit the civvies," Hawkes complained. "We need to be out there were the fightin' happens. We're the best this bucket has to offer, we're just wasted, doing escort duty. It isn't fair."

"Hawkes is right," Wang agreed. "It doesn't make any sense. I don't understand why they're letting civilians go down there anyway. I mean, why risk non-combatants? The army techs can do this - how complicated can it be to pick up a load of rocks?"

"Look," West sighed. "It's not our place to question orders. The brass must have a reason for doing what they're doing, and for making the decisions they've made. We just do our jobs. Period."

Damphousse nodded. "Maybe they put us in back with the baggage because Shane is sick..." she mused thoughtfully. West blanched. It took Damphousse a minute to register his shocked expression, then before she could say anything, he pushed past them into the crowd and forced his way out the door. She looked at the others helplessly. "I just meant that we were down strength, maybe that's why they decided not to put us up with in the thick of the fighting..." she explained. "What's his problem?"

The others shook their heads, looking at the place through which West had disappeared.

Ross waited until the briefing room was empty of all but the Admiral, Hazelton and McQueen.

"Sir," he said. Both Hazelton and the Admiral turned to look at him, and he addressed them both, together. "I have some concerns about this mission, sirs," he went on. The two senior officers eyed him warily.

"What it is, Commodore?" the Admiral asked mildly. Ross was not fooled. He knew they knew.

"Sirs, these people are civilians. I am not comfortable with sending them down into enemy territory... "

"These people are scientists, Commodore. Their knowledge and understanding of the material we will be extracting is too important to do without."

"With all due respect, sir. The Sewell fuel ore was successfully retrieved from Kazbek *without* the benefit of civilian scientists along to safeguard it."

"The ore retrieved from Kazbek was raw material, unprocessed, unrefined. Just a lot of rock," Hazelton blustered. "It required no special handling; quite frankly, we'd never even seen the stuff before, we could have sent in cadres of scientists and it wouldn't have done us any good. This is different, we *need* these people. We just don't have time to bring a military team up to speed."

"Commodore," the Admiral said patiently, "I appreciate your concern... but we truly have no choice."

Ross pursed his lips. Even as he took a breath to continue, he could feel McQueen move closer to him, though he was not sure if the gesture was made in support, or in warning.

"Sir... Sending unarmed, untrained non-combatants into a hot zone risks *everyone's* safety - their lives, and the lives of those sent in to protect them. "

"The decision is made, Commodore," Hazelton cut him off. "I understand your concerns. If the circumstances were different I would not chose to send in civilians, but these people have volunteered. They know the risks involved."

And what about the risks to *my* people, Ross thought angrily, the ones who will have to put their lives on the line to support these uninitiated "volunteers." But he said nothing, he knew it was useless.

"The AeroTech team will be part of this operation, as planned, led by Dr. Radford," Hazelton concluded. "That's final, Commodore."

McQueen shot Ross a look, and for an instant their eyes met. Then McQueen glanced away. Ross sighed. So much for being God.

McQueen left Ross alone in the briefing room, and headed down to sick bay. He did not like the idea of civilians on this mission, either, but for different reasons than Ross'. He agreed that the risks involved with sending civilian personnel into a hot LZ were great, but what bothered him more, frankly, was the *particular* civilians they were sending. He did not trust these AeroTech geeks any farther than he could hit them with a bullet; there was no telling what risks they might take, what danger they might put his people into to satisfy their own agendas. Which was another reason he was glad the Wild Cards would be the ones going in with the recovery team. They had had experience with these AeroTech geeks, too. It did not make any difference to him that the leader of the group, this Dr. Radford, was a sister of a friend of the Commodore's, although Ross had been pretty reticent about her when McQueen has questioned him earlier, after reading the mission brief. He simply did not trust AeroTech, under any circumstances. Period, end of sentence, end of discussion. Though there was not much he could do about it, now, but fret.

When he got to sick bay, McQueen found Vansen sleeping, though the doctor's news was good. Shane was responding well, the fever was all but gone, and though she would be weak for a while, they expected she would be discharged back to her quarters in a few days. McQueen stood for a few moments at the foot of her bed, watching her sleep, then left quietly.

Restless, he decided to have a look in on the AeroTech geeks, make sure they were not stealing the place blind. He found them in Loading Bay 3, working like so many ants on the anthill. Halogen lights added an eerie glow to the cavernous bay's usual dim atmosphere. McQueen looked around, saw General Hazelton at the far end of the bay, gesticulating earnestly to some technician. And at a work table set outside the open ISSCV, was a woman McQueen took to be Dr. Radford. She stood hunched over a data pad and a keyboard. McQueen walked over to her. She did not look up or otherwise acknowledge his approach, though he could tell by the way she stiffened slightly that she knew he was there. He looked over the workbench; it was a litter of paper, electronic parts, and amongst the clutter, a hardbound book. Curious, McQueen picked it up.

"Oppenheimer? Crisis of conscious, doctor?"

At this, Radford *did* look up. She did not look angry, even though McQueen realized that the comment bordered on the insulting. She peered at the name tag on his flight suit.

"Colonel McQueen. I've been expecting you, actually," she replied blandly. She nodded at the book in his hand. "I sleep with that book under my pillow at night, so that I'll never forget the lessons in it."

This was not the response McQueen had expected. "And what lessons are those?"

"To avoid religion and politics, and to be very wary of friends," she replied tartly, turning back to her work.

McQueen let the book fall open in his hand to a place where Radford obviously went often. A quote attributed to J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the A-bomb, was underlined about half way down the page.

" 'There floated through my mind,' " McQueen read out loud, " 'a line from the Bhagavad-Gita in which Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty: I am become death, the shatterer of worlds...' " He looked at her curiously. "Is that what you're doing here, doctor?"

"My duty? Or shattering worlds?"

"Either. Both," agreed McQueen.

"Both," replied Radford. "Of course. You know that's why we want this ore. To make a better weapon. To create a faster means to bring destruction to the enemy."

"You disapprove?" McQueen asked, surprised by her tone. He gestured at the incongruity of all that was around her. Radford stopped working for a moment, and looked at him squarely.

"I'm afraid of what we are doing, yes, but I'm more afraid of not doing it. It's a difficult dilemma for me. And I wonder, sometimes, if Oppenheimer ever faced the same thing. If he ever lay awake at night and thought about the consequences, or if he was too consumed by the success or failure of the project to worry about it. Howard and I used to talk about it..."


"This was his project before he died." She cocked a smile up at him, now, and McQueen was startled at the way it transformed her. "He really wasn't a megalomaniac, you know, though he did like to cultivate that image at times. He was actually a very thoughtful and introspective man. He once told me that it's not true that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. He said it was exactly the opposite, really. That it is those who study history most vigorously who are the ones most likely to leap gleefully to the same mistakes again and again. That they glory in precedent."

McQueen glowered, and Radford's smile broadened. "Howard told me about you, Colonel. Oh, good things," she added lightly as McQueen's expression darkened a little more. "He said your vision was a little limited, but that you had a fine mind. Too fine to waste it in the military. Don't scowl, from Howard Sewell, that's high praise. He was a brilliant man. And a good friend. Now if you'll excuse me, Colonel McQueen, I have work to do. If you have questions about any of the procedures or equipment, Bill Tate should be able help you."

She walked away. Unused to being so summarily dismissed by a civilian, McQueen just gaped after her retreating back.

Commodore Glen Van Ross was loath to admit to nervous jitters, but the truth of the matter was it had been a long time since he had entertained a woman alone, even just the sister of an old friend. He glanced around his quarters, eyeing the surroundings critically for the umpteenth time. The galley had done a nice job, under the circumstances; the small table under his view port was set with a linen cloth and candles, and the official Saratoga china. It dawned on him that it had been a while since he had seen that china, too. The only thing the table lacked, really, was fresh flowers; a near impossibility in deep space. He took a slow breath and restrained himself from straightening the flat ware. He had put something soft and slightly "torchy" on the CD, and was just considering the appropriateness of choosing another selection when a knock at his hatch made him jump. Yeah, he was nervous.

Beth Radford was dressed in a pair of black trousers and a long black tunic of some silken fabric. It looked like it would be very soft to touch. He caught a whiff of perfume as she stepped passed him, and it occurred to him, suddenly, that he actually could not remember the last time he had had a real conversation with a woman who was not dressed in a uniform, smelled someone who did not smell like soap and sweat. The realization was a little... alarming. Resting a hand lightly against her back, he guided her into the room. The silk felt good under his palm.

She nodded appreciatively at the table, and smiled up at him warmly. "This is very nice," she said, "nicer than I expected, frankly, so far from home. If you went to all this trouble for me, I do thank you."

Ross smiled back at her. "The pleasure's all mine," he replied "I rarely have an excuse to enjoy the effort. Thank you for providing me with one." He looked around quickly, suddenly aware of the dearth of comfortable furniture in the cramped space. There was his desk chair and an ugly, but commodious armchair that had traveled with him for years, but this moment wanted wicker, with deep cushions, and a ceiling fan to blow away steamy subtropical air. It wanted waiters in formal dress with lilting voices, it wanted flowers, he really regretted the flowers.

Come on, man, get a grip, he told himself. Taking her arm, he guided her to the table. "I'm afraid the selection of aperitifs is a bit limited," he quipped as he seated her with courtly courtesy. "There's wine, or I do have rum, if you'd like."

"Wine, thank you," she replied. The cabernet was standing open, breathing, on a small side table. He poured a glass for both of them, sat and raised his to her.

"To the unexpected pleasure of company," he said gallantly. Beth just smiled. The smile softened her, Ross thought, made her almost beautiful once she lost the stern seriousness of her everyday face. It took years off her, too. Pity she did not do it more often - but then, perhaps she did, back home. There was precious little to smile about up here in the middle of war.

Dinner arrived a few minutes later, and again the galley had gone all out. Ross had a feeling that they were enjoying this excuse to pull out the culinary stops almost as much as he was enjoying them having done it. A nervous ensign laid out roast eye of round with pecan sauce, a fresh green salad in vinaigrette, and small glazed, roasted potatoes. The girl looked almost a jittery as Ross felt, and he prayed she would not spill anything. Thank God, the chef had had the sense to carve the roast in the galley rather than leaving it to be done at table. He thanked the girl and dismissed her. She did not quite bolt out of the room.

The meal was perfection, the beef blood rare, the pecan sauce adding a rich, buttery, woody flavor to the succulent meat. Ross recognized arugula in the salad, it's mildly bitter leaf adding a nice contrast to the slight sweetness of the entree, but it was the garnish of fresh spearmint leaves that surprised him. Where the hell had they come up with those? Cook must have had a little pot-garden growing somewhere under the lights.

"This is marvelous," Radford enthused, gesturing at the thin medallions of beef. Ross smiled.

"You prepare it by letting the roast stand for two hours in an oven that has been pre-heated, then turned off. It's the only way to get beef this tender."

Beth raised an eyebrow at him. "You cook, too?"

"When I have an opportunity," he admitted, a little sheepishly. "Which isn't very often, out here..."

"This ship is immense," Beth observed, cutting into her dinner. "I almost got lost coming back from the loading bay. How many people are there on it?"

Ross knew she was just making small talk, but that was all right. He could talk about the Saratoga for hours. "Fifteen thousand, combined Navy, Marine and Army personnel," he replied. "More if she's being used as a base of operations."

"She, yes," Beth replied. "I'd forgotten that ships are always female. And all those people are under your command?"

"Every man and woman. Although these days I feel as if I can say every man, woman and child with some accuracy."

Beth nodded. "I've noticed that some of them seem very young." She looked at him thoughtfully. "A lot of responsibility." He nodded agreement, but said nothing. "Why do you do it?"

Ross frowned at her curiously.

"Why a military command, why *this* career, out of all the things you could have done, could still do, with your life?" Ross considered the question a moment. "Because I'm good at it," he stated simply. "I'm a damn good commander. And these people are risking their lives for the cause they believe in, risking them willingly. They deserve to be lead well."

"Why you?" Beth prodded, her eyes suddenly warm both with curiosity and mischief. "What makes you so special."

Even though he knew he was being teased a little, Ross chose to answer the question seriously. "Because I've been there," he replied, "I've been down there when the fire fight is so intense that you can't see three feet in front of you for the smoke of gunfire, I've been where the distance between safe and not safe is a hand breadth in a slit trench, when there is no time to think, to pray, to even react consciously, and the only difference between life and death is a primal reaction and an accident of God. I have bled," he said quietly, "and I have died. These people deserve no less than that from a commander.

Beth let out a breath slowly, shaken by his vehemence. "It's a wonder you stay sane."

"What keeps you sane," Ross responded more gently, realizing he had upset her, and feeling badly for it, "is never losing touch with the humanity of those who serve with you, under you. To know that they trust you to never willing leave them behind or let them down. That connection - to touch the shoulder of an officer on the bridge during a battle and take to yourself some of her fear, to know that when a boy comes to you heart broken because he has lost his brother that, although you can never, as his commander, let him see it, you can still cry, *that* is what keeps you sane. And it keeps you going."

"It's a heavy burden, though."

"It is," he agreed. "But there are compensations. And... you find ways to escape, for a little while." He glanced involuntarily into the corner where Rosalyn stood silent and patiently waiting for him. Beth followed his gaze. Somehow Ross got the feeling she was not thinking about him, exactly, and his guitar, as he watched a cloud draw suddenly across her eyes.

"Tell me about your work," he changed the subject.

Next : Part Three

Previous : Part Two

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