Though not quoted anywhere directly, two books were helpful in the research for this story: "Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's WWII Dispatches," edited by David Nichols, and "Dispatches," by Michael Herr. "Critical Distance" follows the finale and my story "Deliverance." It follows the premise put forth in "Deliverance" that all the Wild Cards, including Wang, survive. All backstory is my own invention and does not reflect any intention implied or stated by the writers, producers, cast or crew of "Space: Above and Beyond." Rated PG13/R for some general gruesomeness
Most of the Five-Eight's last three weeks on planet had been spent on foot patrol. Hawkes knew enough not to complain about pilots being used as ground-pounders, at least not within his colonel's hearing, but the fact was, this duty left him feeling very badly used. Tramping along the rocky defile that provided what little cover there was, he could only grumble about the insult to his training, rank and war record as a Marine fighter pilot. And the truth was, this duty *was* outside the usual for the Marine Corps' top fighter squadron. Even as riflemen, their missions tended toward the "hit and run" variety: surgical insertions, sneak attacks against enemy supply dumps, quick in and out kinds of things.
The Earth Forces on Delores Prime were taking a terrible beating, however. The enemy was deeply insinuated in the underground caverns that riddled the planet like a disease, making it almost impossible to get at them. Snipers plagued the advancing troops, and heavy shelling from buried enemy bunkers stymied every serious attempt at assault. The troops on planet were exhausted and demoralized. When the Fifty Eighth had arrived, fresh and ready, they had been grabbed up immediately by the field commander to reconnoiter the territory between Able Company and Charlie. What was the colonel supposed to do, say no? Hawkes knew that, but he still did not like it. And it seemed like they had been out here for a lifetime. The going this last day of recon had been very slow. Enemy snipers sat high in the rocks above them, keeping them pinned for hours at a time, as they neared their final destination - adding anger to their already miserable attitudes. They longed for the mission to end. They moved when they could, but the tedious pace was excruciating. At least the end was in sight - Charlie Company's command post was less than two miles away.
Hawkes glanced to the side, where squad mate Nathan West struggled beside him. West was limping worse than he had been the day before - driven into the defile yesterday, by enemy fire, West had badly sprained his ankle, and Hawkes was beginning to worry that it might actually be broken. On top of that, West was flushed, looked like he might be running a fever. The man stumbled, and Hawkes grabbed his arm.
"Nate, man, let me take that pack for a while," he muttered, righting his friend. West did not argue, which was telling. Hawkes pulled the pack from the other man's shoulders and slung it casually over his own, like a woman's hand bag. Then he hitched his rifle and looked forward at his colonel's back.
Lt. Colonel T.C. McQueen raised his hand in the air, stopping the column behind him. The rock spine they had been hiking beside ended in thirty yards or so, and it would be a long dash through open country before they reached the next cover. Charlie Company's command post - their destination - was behind the next ridge. They had not been able to raise the CP since late the day before yesterday, and the fact did not give McQueen a good feeling. Letting out a slow breath, he glanced back at his people - they were exhausted, filthy, their normally crisp uniforms ragged. They were blistered and foot sore from walking in the debilitating heat. And hungry. They were running dangerously short on rations; the Chigs had gotten the last supply drop. The air was friendly on Delores Prime, and what ground water could be found could be made so, but there was nothing else fit for human consumption on this planet - the flora was poisonous, and the fauna, if there was any, had made itself scarce.
Sounds of battle shattered the air in the near distance and McQueen estimated that the Chigs had gained more ground, again, during the night. He could not remember the last time the Five Eight had slept a night through; enemy activity seemed to step up after dark, for some reason. He knew from the reports he had read that Chigs did not see well. He wondered, though, if they had some special night sense that made their sight more effective after dark. Though at the moment, the snipers up there in the rocks seemed to be seeing well enough. McQueen stared out across the open pan, wishing there was another choice, knowing how vital the recon was, but also knowing there was a better than even chance that someone would not make it across that barren flat to the rocks on the other side. Knowing the enemy lay up in the heights, just waiting for them; that one of his kids might die out there. For a moment, the knowledge made him hesitate. He shook off the feeling. It discredited him, as a commander, and insulted his Marines. They were the best, both in the air and on the ground. They would follow him into hell, and go hand to hand with the devil himself, if they had to. He was just tired, he was letting physical debilitation influence his judgment. They could do this, if they were clever and careful. And fast.
McQueen felt a presence at his side and glanced down to see Vansen standing beside him. The young Marine captain swayed slightly, and McQueen suppressed the urge to reach for her.
"Any luck raising Charlie Company?" he asked. Vansen shook her head.
"Nothing, just static. Maybe their radio's damaged."
McQueen nodded, but he had a dread feeling it was a lot more than that. He kept his feelings to himself, however. Vansen kicked the ground a little and looked out across the barrens.
"This where we cross?" she asked. McQueen just grunted at the three hundred yards of flat pan. "Be tough," the girl sighed under her breath. McQueen looked back at her.
"How are they holding up?" he asked, nodding his head back at the others. He already knew, but he wanted Vansen's opinion as well, both because he respected it, and because he needed her to be thinking in terms of command decisions. If he did not make it across that clearing, she would need to take over and get them out. Vansen seemed to understand.
"Coop's in the best shape." Well, that did not surprise McQueen. Like himself, the young In Vitro had been bred, genetically engineered, for hard, dangerous labor. "Nathan's foot's worse, though he won't say much," Vansen went on. "And he's running a fever. Cooper's been carrying his pack on and off... The rest of us..." She shrugged.
McQueen nodded. It was much as he had expected. "All right, gather round," he said a little more loudly, turning to the others. They all slid up beside him, leaning against the rocks, or each other, for support. "This is gonna be tough. We've got about three hundred yards of open space to cross, and enemy snipers up in those rocks. We're gonna have to keep our wits about us, and we're gonna have to be fast. Hawkes..." The In Vitro lieutenant looked up. "You'll cross first. I'll cover you. The rest of you buddy up - Wang and West, Vansen and Damphousse. We'll cover you from both sides. I go last..." He did not like this crossing in pairs, it would only serve to give the Chig snipers a larger target. But one look at West's pain-twisted face convinced McQueen that the boy would never make it on his own. And at least two at a time got them over there faster. He nodded to Hawkes, who nodded back confidently. The younger man braced himself by the last rock, glanced up at the heights, as if assessing the danger, then turned to focus on his goal. Behind him, McQueen clapped his shoulder.
Crouching low, Hawkes hissed a "semper fi" under his breath, and shot out into the open, weaving as he ran. The Chigs waited until he was half way between the rock spine and his goal before they opened fire. McQueen whipped his rifle around and fired into the rocks.
"Over there, sir," Vansen said, bringing her own rifle up, and firing. McQueen cursed under his breath. There were more enemy snipers than he had counted on. This was going to be worse than he thought. But Hawkes was almost to the other side, and a covering fire from two points would significantly increase their odds.
The thought had barely crept into McQueen's mind when Hawkes went down. Vansen gasped and the colonel felt his stomach drop. Then Hawkes rolled, and brought his rifle up, even as he lay sprawled on the ground. Firing continually, he scrambled to his feet and literally sprang into the cover a few feet away. He disappeared for a frightening moment, then popped up through the rocks and raised his hand, thumb up triumphantly, into the air. He was all right. Vansen laughed shortly in relief. McQueen suppressed his own smile. Time enough for that when they were all safely across.
The two men came up beside him. McQueen looked hard into West's face; Vansen was right, whatever might be wrong with his foot, the younger man was also running a fever. But there was no time to fret about that, now. McQueen met Paul Wang's eyes, nodded. Wang nodded back. McQueen looked across at Hawkes. From his perch, Hawkes gazed up into the heights, then turned back and nodded to McQueen. He raised his hand, then made a quick, sharp beckoning gesture.
"Go..." McQueen commanded. They went. There were a few very bad moments, West was barely able to keep to his feet, but perhaps is was his erratic, stumbling gait, itself, that saved them, because the snipers bullets never really came close. They tripped headlong into Hawkes' cover, and waved back that they were safe. McQueen looked down at Vansen and Damphousse.
Lt. Colonel T.C. McQueen was not a man given to superstition or premonition. He did not believe in luck and he did not believe in predestination. He did not believe that every bullet had a name on it, and if it was your time to go, it was your time to go. McQueen believed absolutely in the efficacy of skill and training. He believed that if one did not make stupid mistakes, one lived. But looking at these two young faces looking back at him, he felt an unexplainable sensation of dread, of impending disaster. He took a deep breath to steady the sudden pounding in his chest. Resisting the urge to touch these young lives who had come to mean so much to him, McQueen turned back to look at Hawkes. Wang had joined him up in the rocks, and both men nodded their readiness.
"All right," McQueen said under his breath. The two girls braced in front of him, waiting for the signal. McQueen looked back at Hawkes. Then, surrendering, finally to a feeling he could not explain, he reached out and let his hand rest lightly on Damphousse's back, even as he raised his rifle with the other. Hawkes waved.
They almost made it. McQueen had even begun to chide himself for succumbing to his black feelings when Damphousse suddenly threw her hands into the air and stumbled forward onto her face.
"No!" McQueen shouted, firing frantically, watching as Wang dashed out of the opposite position and helped Vansen drag the downed woman under cover. He did not stop firing until Hawkes reappeared, and waved an affirmative - Phousse was still alive, although McQueen had no idea how bad off she was. A wild urgency filled him. Waiting only long enough for Hawkes to position himself, he dashed out across the clearing. The ground was hard and rocky, tangled with low creepers, and the footing was precarious. McQueen wove, tripped, regained his balance, tripped again as the soft, tell-tale pulses of Chig bullets hissed passed him. The dirt skittered and burst in front of him as the bullets missed, and the acrid scent of exploded ammunition filled his nostrils. He ignored it all, concentrated only on the goal, the rocks in front of him, and the need to join his kids. The impact, when it came, knocked him sideways, then threw him right to the ground. It took him a moment to realize that he had been hit. He felt no pain. It took a moment longer to realize that the bullet that hit him had hit his right, prosthetic leg. And bounced off again, apparently, his flight suit was torn, but the leg was still functioning. McQueen scrambled to his feet, and bolted the last few yards under cover. Hawkes grabbed him as he dove for the rocks, and hauled him the rest of the way in.
"Yeah! How's Phousse?" McQueen gasped. Hawkes shook his head, he did not know, he had been too busy providing covering fire. McQueen looked around and saw that Wang already had the woman's gear off, and was trying remove enough of her uniform to get a look at the wound.
"Wang, Vansen. Get with Hawkes. Secure this position," he barked as he crawled over to Damphousse's prone form. The girl was still conscious, and she managed to turn her head a little to smile up at him.
"Take it easy," McQueen murmured as he pulled out his kabar knife and slashed away recalcitrant fabric. "Just relax, it's all right." He peeled the uniform back and examined the wound - nasty, but not as bad as it could have been. She was bleeding badly, needed medical attention, soon, but as far as McQueen could tell, with a lifetime of looking at wounds behind him, no major organs appeared to be involved. He bandaged her as best he could, but he knew his hurried attempt would not stop the bleeding. Then he looked at West. The kid was fading fast, glassy-eyed with fever. "We've got to get to Charlie Company. Now. The CP should be right down this ridge, about a quarter mile." Under his hands, he felt, rather than heard Damphousse whimper. "You're gonna be okay," he said, laying a hand lightly on the back of her head as the others fell in beside him. "Hawkes, take her. Wang, help West."
The bunker of C Company's command post was exactly where McQueen expected it to be. Not that finding it did them much good. The entire Headquarters command post had been slaughtered, bodies lay everywhere, brains, limbs and viscera littered the ground. Wang gagged and threw up unselfconsciously, and West looked like he might have joined him, was he not already so weak.
"Fuckin' Chigs!!!" Hawkes cursed as he searched for a place to lay Damphousse down. McQueen raised his hand, silencing the other man. He looked around for a moment. The massacre was horrific. He felt his own gorge rise and forced it down again. He turned to Wang, pointed to Damphousse.
"Get a compression bandage on her, try to stop that bleeding. Vansen, get the 'Toga on the horn. Get us a dust off. Hawkes, with me." He stepped close to the other man as they started deeper into the bunker. "Watch yourself. Chigs may have booby trapped the dead bodies." Hawkes just nodded.
There were no booby traps, but there were a lot of dead. Hawkes found the C Company commander's body, or what was left of it, in a heap under the shattered radio. He reached down into the carnage at his feet and tried to shift the faceless corpse; he wanted to get at the dogtags of the man lying beneath it. When the second body moaned, Hawkes almost shrieked.
The man was small, and helmetless. His face looked battered, but it was impossible to tell if he was hurt or just covered with the blood of others. Hawkes reached for him tentatively.
"You okay, man?"
The man choked, blinking to focus. "Just ducky. You Marines?" he asked hoarsely. "Who's your skipper, son?"
Hawkes hesitated, as if he did not understand the question in his shock. He had not expected to find anyone alive, and the discovery still had his adrenaline pumping. "Colonel McQueen," he replied, finally.
"Shit," the man said, and passed out. Hawkes stared down at him a moment. Then he turned to McQueen.
"Colonel! There's somebody alive in here," he called. McQueen walked over. "I think maybe he knows you..."
McQueen looked down. The expression on the colonel's face was indecipherable, something between shock and wariness. Hawkes watched his commander curiously. "He knows me," McQueen said after a moment.
"Colonel," Vansen's voice interrupted from behind them. "Extraction in twenty mikes..." She stepped up behind McQueen, and looked down at the prone and groaning form. "You found someone still alive in this?"
McQueen did not answer immediately.
"Who is he?" Hawkes asked.
"His name is Frank Patrick."
"F. X. Patrick? The war correspondent?" Vansen prodded, surprised.
McQueen nodded shortly. "Yeah," he replied. Then he turned and walked away. Hawkes stared after him, then looked up at Vansen.
"What the hell?"
The captain did not look at him; she was watching her colonel's retreating back. "Better shift this guy," she said, finally. "We'll have to take him with us. Our ride'll be here in a few mikes..." And she followed McQueen out, leaving Hawkes to cope, alone, with Patrick. After a moment of indecision, he dragged the limp body out of the wreckage, threw him over his shoulder and trudged out after Vansen.
It was just the three of them - Vansen, Hawkes and Wang. McQueen rarely ate with them, anyway, and they suspected their colonel was at that moment haunting sick bay for further word on the conditions of Damphousse and West. Their squad mates were going to be okay. McQueen had already been up to advise them that Phousse's wound, though ugly, was not life threatening and that West's spiky fever was just the result of some infection he had picked up on planet. Nothing an aggressive course of antibiotics would not cure. And the small bones in his foot and ankle were broken, as Hawkes has suspected, but medical science could have that solved, too, in short order. They would be back in action in no time. So, it was not their comrades' health that concerned the remaining Wild Cards at that moment. What interested them was the Saratoga's new guest.
"So, who is this guy, anyway?" Wang asked.
"F. X. Patrick?" It was Vansen who answered. "He's a war correspondent; Frank Patrick was a stringer for Associated Press during the AI Rebellion. He made his name chronicling the lives of the grunts in the trenches instead of doing what most reporters did, and just writing about the big battles and the rear echelon stuff. He had a syndicated column, for a while. He was very popular, years ago. I suppose he still is."
"You know a lot about him," Hawkes said, a hint of accusation in his voice. Vansen shrugged.
"My parents had some contact with him, when I was little," she replied. "I think he was attached to my mother's company, in Guam, for a while. I don't think my father liked him very much, but my mom said he was okay, once you got to know him."
"Ever read any of his stuff?" Wang asked. The idea of a celebrity amongst them intrigued him.
"A little," Vansen said. "Not much. My mother had a couple of his books..." One of which had been signed "with love to dearest Molly," Vansen remembered, but did not add. She had not known about that particular volume until a long time after her mother's death. Odd that she had not thought about any of that in years, nor about the disturbing feelings holding that book and reading that inscription had engendered. She shook her head to chase the feelings away, now.
Hawkes screwed his face up at her in thought. "So, what was that all about? With the colonel? He looked at the guy like he'd seen a ghost or something. Couldn't get away from him fast enough."
"The colonel had a lot to worry about," Vansen replied tersely. "Two of our own men were down, too, remember." She pushed her chair away from the table abruptly and got to her feet. Hawkes watched her stride away.
"Now, what's her problem?" he asked Wang, looking pained. The other man just shook his head.
"Come on," he said, standing up and picking up his tray. "I'm going down to sick bay to see if we can get in to see Nathan and Phousse."
"I can't just throw the man off the ship for no reason, Ty," Commodore Glen Van Ross said from where he sat in the worn armchair in his quarters. He firmly believed that chair was the only comfortable piece of furniture on the whole ship - and he had dragged it with him everywhere for years. Over time, it had molded to his body; climbing into it, weary, with his glass of rum was like returning to the womb. He had been trying to relax in what brief moments of respite he could glean from this ugly battle. McQueen had not exactly barged in, but he had arrived with a sense of urgency that had alarmed Ross for a moment. The commodore knew that some of the Fifty-Eighth had been wounded during the fighting on Delores Prime, and McQueen's attitude had made him fear the worst.
And now, the colonel's angry protest concerning the presence of some war correspondent just baffled him. The Saratoga played host to the press all the time; and although Ross understood that McQueen was not particularly fond of that profession or its denizens, the man had never before complained against any particular individual. As long as they, in general, stayed out of his way. But this appeared not to be the case with Frank Patrick.
"In the first place," Ross continued reasonably, leaning forward to fill his friend's glass, "the man is injured and suffering from dehydration. Besides, I have no grounds to order him off. " The amber rum sparkled deeply in the glasses on the on the table, and Ross smiled a little at the soothing color. Across from him, McQueen glowered, refusing to meet the commodore's eyes. Ross sighed.
"It's your ship, sir," McQueen replied, deliberately missing the point. Ross decided it was too early in the conversation to get exasperated.
"The man has done nothing to warrant it, and the brass expects us to cooperate with the press, as best we can. You know that," he countered patiently. "I'm a commander, Ty, not a dictator. As of this moment, Francis Xavier Patrick has done nothing to offend. I won't throw him off unless he does. Not even if a friend asks it," he added. McQueen looked up, and his expression told Ross he had expected this answer. The commodore sipped his rum, thoughtfully. After a moment, he cleared his throat.
"I might make it easier for me to understand the problem if you could explain to me why he bothers you so much," he prompted magnanimously, his curiosity, frankly, getting the better of him. McQueen glanced over at him, looked away. For a moment, Ross believed the man would not answer.
"I know Frank Patrick," McQueen finally growled. Ross nodded, having already guessed that much. "I don't trust him." Ross nodded, again. McQueen did not trust many people, especially civilians. This was hardly news. And it still did not explain the obvious animosity the colonel held for the correspondent.
"You've had dealings with him before, I take it?"
The colonel nodded. Ross raised an eyebrow, waiting. McQueen exhaled. He lifted his drink, sipped slowly. Choosing his words.
"After I got out of solitary, back in '47, I went to the front with the In Vitro platoons. We were sent to Guatemala."
Ross nodded. Most of the action seen in the States during the AI rebellion was due to terrorism, the real fighting had taken place in isolated areas of underdeveloped countries. The AIs holed up in these places, apparently believing it would be easier to overthrow an undeveloped technology than it would to conquer a more technologically advanced nation. The fighting there had been hellish. Natural born casualties were considered unacceptably high among the human allies, so the IV platoons had been organized and sent in to the worst of the hell holes. These platoons had been under armed, and poorly trained. Later, the In Vitro program found it useful to include basic warfare and hand to hand fighting techniques as part of the initial indoctrination in the facilities; newborn In Vitros would start to get this instruction within a few weeks after decantation. But those who had been born before the war started received only very rudimentary training. They were expected to take eighty to ninety percent casualties as a matter of course, to do nothing really, but hold off the enemy until the natural borns could get dug in.
McQueen looked at Ross. "I guess they sent me there to get rid of me, after Port Riskin. Do what they hadn't done when they sentenced me to that one-hundred twenty days instead of death."
But no one needed to tell Ross about the atrocious treatment of the In Vitro platoons during the AI rebellion. He, himself, could hardly blame them for sitting out the war when ever they could. Though, in his own experience, he had never had a problem with any In Vitro serving under him. They had fought as well as anyone, for him. As soon as they realized he would always treat them fairly. And that he would never leave them behind. But this speculation was far from the issue at hand.
"And Frank Patrick?" he prompted.
McQueen took a deep breath. "Patrick was attached to our company. Over half the platoons were In Vitro, the rest were natural born. Patrick spent his time with the natural borns, back at headquarters, as far from the real fighting as he could get."
McQueen's voice sounded bitter, and Ross' forehead wrinkled in surprise. Patrick was a non-combatant. Nobody expected, or wanted, such people anywhere near the fighting. They were a liability, there. But he did not interrupt.
"One night," McQueen went on quietly, as if he had forgotten Ross was there, "we were deep in the thick of it, dug in about a thousand yards from the enemy position, taking heavy incoming. The natural born soldiers were back in the rear. There was no moon, the only light we had was from the flares of the incoming missiles. Silicates can see in the dark. In Vitros weren't issued night goggles. We couldn't see to defend ourselves, but the enemy could see us. The carnage was... " McQueen hesitated. "We were being slaughtered. We couldn't even see when a buddy got it, though we could feel it, if he was close enough. And hear it... Whenever a missile flared we could see them, the dead. The ground around us was slick with them."
Ross closed his eyes, but he was not shocked. He had witnessed such things before. Worse.
"We didn't know how to pray," McQueen husked, "and we had no mothers to cry for. We could only sit there and shoot when we could, waiting to die." He stopped a moment, collecting his thoughts. Knowing that the rest of the story would come, now, Ross did not press him.
"Frank Patrick despised In Vitros. He wasn't alone in that. But Patrick seemed to take a particular delight in pointing out every act that could possibly be interpreted as laziness or cowardice. Berating us verbally, publicly, whenever he could justify it. He had already begun slipping little digs into his dispatches about In Vitro incompetence and unwillingness to defend their natural born comrades. Most of what he said was unfair, it was not so much that we were unwilling as just confused and scared. At least in the beginning. But you couldn't tell that to him. Or any other natural born. With Patrick it was different, somehow, though. It was as if he had a personal stake in proving In Vitro inferiority.
"He never got anywhere near the actual fighting. He wouldn't even handle a weapon, except that night, somehow, he wound up on the line with us. He must have gotten disoriented in the dark. But there he was, wandering around in front of us, no cover, waving his arms in the air and begging out loud for mercy. Out of his mind with fear.
"The men I was with were all for letting the enemy have him. We all hated him. They figured it was justice that had handed him over to the AIs. A few even wanted to save the AIs the trouble..."
"But you felt differently?"
McQueen shrugged. "I don't know that I thought about it at all, sir, if you want to know the truth. I just knew he was going to die at the hands of the Silicates if someone didn't do something. I don't even remember going after him, but I did, and I was able to get us both under cover and keep him subdued until the shelling stopped, around dawn. I guess he made his way back to the command post. I don't know what he told them, back there. He never said anything to me about it..."
Ross frowned. "You saved his life."
McQueen nodded. "Yes, sir. An In Vitro. I don't think he ever forgave me for it. It didn't seem to change his opinion any. Or his column. If anything, I think it got worse."
Ross watched the man before him and pondered what he had been told. In his experience, military men tended to fall into one of two opinions about the press; very few of them felt, as he did, that they were just a fact of life. There were those who looked upon war correspondents as some jolly sort of mascot, silly, but harmless enough, and usually great fun to have around. If nothing else, they afforded a welcome diversion. And then there where those who loathed the press, considered them parasites, corrupters of the truth. Craven vultures living off the vicarious thrill of other men's suffering.
That McQueen seemed to fall into this later category did not surprise Ross at all. What did surprise him though was the aggravated force of the colonel's feelings. There were a lot of men McQueen did not like, a lot of bigots, and he usually managed to do a pretty good job of handling it. This thing with F. X. Patrick, though, was different. Certainly, if what McQueen said was true, and Patrick had been deliberately feeding the mythology of In Vitro cowardice to the general public through his writings, then Ross could understand the colonel's dislike of the man. But to storm in here and *demand* the man's eviction... This was personal, very personal, on a level that almost seemed out of character for McQueen. There was more to this story, Ross was sure of it.
But he was not going hunting for it, now. He had more immediate things to worry about. Like the battle raging on planet below them.
"Francis Patrick is a guest aboard this ship, Colonel," he said slowly. "I'm sorry that there's bad blood between you, but that's the way it is. The brass expects us to shelter and assist the members of the press as long as it does not interfere with our mission. I expect you to cooperate..."
He let his voice trail off, watching McQueen closely. The other man scowled, and then his expression closed.
"Yes, sir," he replied evenly. He stood. "If you will excuse me, sir."
Ross watched him silently. Then the hatch clicked shut and McQueen was gone. Commodore Ross leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
The first thing Francis Xavier Patrick did once the doctors had decided he was not seriously injured was to ask for real food; the second thing was to demand clothing. Real clothing, fatigues, a tee shirt, boots. Something besides skivvies and a "johnny coat." He wanted out of sick bay. And the fastest way out was to start looking, as soon as possible, like a well man. Real clothes were the first step to feigning that condition.
And he was honest enough, when it came to his own well-being, to admit that the condition was mostly feigned. The surprise attack that had caught him victim in Charlie Company's command post had frightened him almost witless, the following thirty-six hours he had spent lying under Major Denis Morgan's mangled body had left him weak from dehydration, and out of his mind with fear that the Chigs would come back and finish him off. He was not really ill, but he was still shaky. Probably too shaky to be wandering around. Terror needed movement to dispel it, however, and the reporter in him was anxious to get out and explore the ship.
Patrick did not know much about the Saratoga's Commodore Ross, and he had never been on the Saratoga, herself. He had spent time on a fair number of carriers in his career, though, and did not suppose this one to be too much different from the rest. What he knew of Ross purported the man to be tough, honest, exacting but fair-minded - all the adjectives, really, that one could apply to any successful commander. He had never heard that the press had had any difficulty with him, and that kind of news traveled fast in the circles Patrick frequented. He did not expect the man to get in his way. It was not Ross who worried Patrick, in any case. He knew from past experience that a ship's commander had far too many things to think about to bother with a humble correspondent, as long as said correspondent kept a low profile. Which was something he was good at, so he was not concerned on that score. But who, in all the known universe, would have thought he might run into T.C. McQueen, up here, in all this, after all these years. He was still reeling from the memory of lying under all that blood and shattered meat, on planet, of his utter relief at hearing human voices, believing himself saved, only to hear from that kid that his rescuers belonged to Tyrus Cassius McQueen...
When he had last seen McQueen, almost fifteen years ago, the tank kid had been barely literate, just another one of those mindless, gutless, ineffectual In Vitro troops the natural borns had so unwisely thrust on the military. In Patrick's opinion, McQueen never should have survived the AI war; the fact that he had pointed either to great skill and courage, or to a talent for avoiding danger. Patrick assumed the latter; after all, the man was a tank. Never mind that he had flown with the One-Twenty Seventh, never mind that he had reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Affirmative action could explain all that. Still, it was bad luck to find him here. Patrick knew that McQueen, as an uneducated grunt, may have witnessed some things that he was too ignorant to interpret correctly, and he did not look forward to having to explain himself, if McQueen should speak up. The more he thought about it, in fact, the more politic it seemed that he get off the 'Toga as soon as possible. Which would mean descending back on planet with the next wave of troops, then trying to hook a ride out with somebody else.
Patrick looked around. His first order of business was still to get out of sick bay. It never ceased to amaze him how hospitals all looked the same; he could be anywhere. On Earth. On ship. In some temporary planet-side installation. The air was filled with the same antiseptic smells, every available flat surface covered with glass and glistening chrome implements - like some inquisitor's den. He spotted the pile of clothes in the chair by his bed, and smiled to himself. At least if he got up and got dressed, he might convince somebody that he was really well enough for discharge. He swung his feet over the side of the bed, and slid to the floor.
Dressing quickly, Patrick glanced at himself in the mirror, finger-combed his hair back into place. He could not help liking what he saw in the reflection - he had held up well, despite the years and the deprivations that came with his job. He was still in good shape, fit, and though his face was lined and coarsened, his expression mirrored back the jaunty charm of his Irish ancestors. That charm was now going to get him out of this place. F.X. Patrick had been a war correspondent since the beginning of the AI rebellion, and a "military groupie" for several years before that. He had become adept at getting his own way, at sliding around regulations, schmoozing the unsuspecting. When you spent your days around people who took orders for a living, you learned pretty quickly that a self-confident air could take you farther, get you in - and out - of more places, than a ream of appropriate paper work. "Channels" were for sissies, and the unimaginative. Getting sprung would be a walk in the park. Squaring shoulders, Patrick took a deep breath, and sauntered out into the corridor to face his first obstacle - the corpsman at the reception desk.
Sick bay was quiet. The usual rumble of medical personnel making rounds, of "agony carts" full of probes and instruments being wheeled down hallways, of voices calling, had subsided to mere background rumble with the coming of evening - white noise in the otherwise hushed hallways. Even the occasional "stat" klaxon that alerted the staff to emergency situations sounded distant to Shane Vansen's ears as she stood at the foot of her friend's bed and watched Vanessa Damphousse sleeping. She looked so peaceful. Looking at her there, one would never know her for the hard charging leatherneck she was, recovering from a combat wound. She looked like a school girl, wrapped in virginal rest. And much more comfortable, despite the wound, than Nathan West, whom Vansen had just left. She knew Damphousse's peace was a drugged one, and that it was just the fever that was making West restless and uncomfortable. She understood that Phousse's condition was the more critical. It comforted her, nonetheless, to watch the woman sleep.
"How's she doing?" a familiar voice asked softly behind her, and Vansen turned to see McQueen standing at the entrance to the ward. She smiled at him faintly as he walked into the room.
"She's asleep again," she replied, turning back to the supine form. "She was conscious a little while ago. But I guess they've got her on some pretty powerful pain killers, she didn't stay awake very long..."
McQueen nodded, coming up beside her at the foot of the bed.
"She'll be all right," he reassured her. "Doc said there was no serious internal damage. One good thing about Chig gunfire, it leaves a cleaner wound than ours..."
Vansen nodded. "So what happens now, sir?" she asked. McQueen knew she was no longer talking about Damphousse.
"We're going back in," he replied. "But I don't know when, yet. The brass is rethinking their strategy. The commodore has called a briefing of senior officers tomorrow. I'll know more after that." He paused a moment before going on. "You should get some rest. At the most we've got a couple of days before they send us in again, and it may be as soon as tomorrow."
Vansen did not answer him. Instead, she reached out and touched Damphousse's sleeping form, as if issuing a blessing, then looked up, nodded, and turned to go. McQueen followed her out. They walked smack into Frank Patrick, out pacing the halls. It was an unfortunate meeting, one all parties would have chosen to avoid. McQueen froze, his expression rigid; Patrick, too, stopped in his tracks. Vansen looked uncomfortably from one man to the other, feeling suddenly like she had stepped between two angry animals, and was not quite sure what to do about it. The tension lasted only a moment. Then McQueen wheeled and left the sickbay corridor without a word. Vansen turned fully to look at Patrick.
He was a good looking man. It surprised her, though she could not have said why. But cleaned up from the blood of battle, dressed in fresh fatigues, he almost looked dashing, more like his book jacket photos than the filthy creature they had dragged from beneath Charlie Company's corpses hours before. He was a small man, she realized, shorter than West or Wang or Hawkes, and slightly built. Almost delicate, with shoe- black colored hair going gray at the temples and eyes that startled because they were an such an unexpected shade of blue.
"Should you be out of bed, sir?"
Patrick just stared at her, and Vansen wondered if, on top of his other injuries, the correspondent might have taken a blow to the head. She supposed that whatever was going on between him and McQueen must have rattled him. She did not suppose she would ever know what that was all about.
Patrick leaned forward slightly, and peered at the front of her flight suit. "Vansen?" he asked, almost sighing. As if he could not believe his eyes. Then he straightened up, and his expression cleared into something more normal looking. "You wouldn't be Molly Vansen's little girl?"
Vansen stiffened. No one had ever called her mother "Molly" except her grandmother; not even her father had. It had been a name out of Marion Vansen's childhood, anachronistic, tender, outgrown long before the woman had married, before she had become a Marine. Shane did not like the sound of it, coming as it did out of the mouth of this stranger. It made her feel dirty, somehow, voyeuristic. She remembered the inscription, the hidden book.
"Yes, sir," she answered tersely. "My mother was Marion Vansen." She made sure to emphasize the name. At this, Patrick relaxed and smiled.
"You must be the oldest girl. Shane. I knew your mother in Guam, back in '46. Before the AI Rebellion," he added inanely, as if she did not know when that war had started. "Your mother showed me pictures. Of you and your sister. You couldn't have been more than four or five, then, I guess."
"I was five," Vansen confirmed.
"Yes, well," Patrick stumbled. "How is your sister?"
Vansen hesitated, for reasons she could not explain to herself. "She's fine, sir. They both are. Both my sisters..."
At this announcement, Patrick suddenly looked stricken. Vansen was sure she was not reading his expression wrong. Then he collected himself, and smiled at her jauntily. "No need to 'sir' me, Captain. I'm a civilian. Your mother was a Marine captain, when I knew her," he added. "You look like her..." Vansen took a step back, as if the man had crowded her with is words. But Patrick ignored, or did not see it. He stuck out his hand. "Please to meet you, Captain Vansen. I met your father once, too, in Dago. I was sorry to hear about what happened to them. I'd have come to the funeral, but I was in China at the time."
There was nothing Vansen could do, politely anyway, at this point, but take the man's hand and shake it. And, in truth, whatever oddness he had displayed in the early moments was gone, now. He was simply someone who had known her parents.
"Thank you, sir," she said, retrieving her hand. "If you will excuse me?"
She left him, then, and did not look back as she walked away. So she did not see his face twist in what looked for all the world like some terrible grief.
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