Part Two

It had been the worst shock he had ever experienced - his worst nightmare - McQueen in his face, and beside him, standing there like she belonged to the man, his Molly. Of course, it had not been Marion Vansen who had confronted him. It was her daughter. Little Shane. Who just happened to be one of McQueen's officers. The irony in *that* did not escape him, either.

F.X. Patrick sat on the edge of the bunk in the quarters he had secured, and wished desperately that he had a drink. He had not thought to request a bottle. He could of course, go down to the ship's canteen - the "Tun Tavern" as they called it on this bucket - how original... But going out would risk running into her, again. And he was not yet ready to do that. He needed to pull himself together before that happened, again.

Getting out of sick bay had been even easier than expected; with casualties pouring in from the planet's surface, nobody had the time to argue with a perfectly ambulatory civilian. Even the shock on his face, and his stumbling speech, had not alarmed the kid at the desk. He had simply discharged himself, then hunted down the appropriate persons in charge of securing him a temporary berth. It had been simple. And now that his immediate tasks were completed, he just felt sick.

Molly. He had thought that particular pain behind him, after all these years.

Patrick shook his head. He needed to sleep, but he needed to let his brain crash, first. Anyway, he had dispatches to type up and file. Reaching under his bunk for the portable computer he had also secured, he crossed his legs under him, and placed his hands on the keyboard. A familiar concentration settled over him, driving out the ghosts, and all other thoughts:

"DELORES PRIME / USS SARATOGA, October 12, 2064: A bloody day. All days in war are bloody, somewhere. But never so bloody as they are bloody when they are bloody where *you* are. And never so very bloody as when you don't expect it.

"The fighting on Delores Prime has been intense. Since the failure of the peace initiative months ago it has become all the more imperative that critical positions be held, or taken back from the enemy. Such a goal are the air/space bases on Delores Prime. And our enemy appears to be as aware of that fact as we are; their efforts to repel our forces are proving ferocious.

"In the trenches, men and women, our soldiers, hunker down, dug into their positions, gaining no ground, but giving none. That's the army. The Marine Corps, on the other hand, never seems to stop moving. Up a hill, down a hill. Recon, report, crash. And go back out again. Push at the enemy. Down in the trenches, up behind enemy lines. If courage and cunning alone could win this war, we would have already won it.

"But the truth is, we're taking a terrible beating here and no one seems to know why. There is speculation, of course. But there is a limit to what the armed forces censors will let this correspondent tell you. Suffice to say that, even after a year and a half of fighting, the enemy remains a dark, impenetrable heart, a mind unfathomable, and the soul, if I may call it that, of blood thirsty destruction. When I think of this enemy, the image of Kali, Hindu goddess of violence, wife of Shiva the destroyer, with her necklace of human skulls and her face in a hideous, fanged grimace is the one that comes to mind.

"Your correspondent "died" today, on Delores Prime, only to be resurrected, reborn, delivered into the womb of the space carrier Saratoga by a brave band of those ubiquitous Marines. When the Chigs ran over the top of us, it was a total surprise. No one was ready for them. Our company commander, (and, regretfully, I cannot tell you that bold man's name, nor that of our company,) was awaiting my fearless Marine Corps midwives, though none of us realized, then, what grim task would be all that was left to them.

"It had been very quiet. I suppose, had we thought about it, we would have realized that it was eerily, supernaturally quiet, but we expected the fighting to be far ahead of us. The enemy came at us from all sides, with no warning, like some gigantic storm cloud sweeping down. Perhaps they had been watching us, waiting for that opportunity. We never stood a chance. The only positive thing I can say is that we died quickly. There was no time for pain. And though men were here and there courageous, there was also little time to be brave.

"And now, here I sit, deep in the bowels of the Space Carrier Vessel (Nuclear) USS Saratoga; this grand, hulking behemoth of rivets and grey steel, and guns. This is the home of the Fifty-Eighth "Wild Cards" Marine squadron - my rescuers - among others. And here I sit, waiting for the next wave of planet landings to take me back in. Tomorrow, the next day, we will be back in the fighting. But tonight, at least, I will sit to a beer in the companionable quiet of the Tun Tavern, the ship-board canteen, and listen to gallant men and women tell their stories in low pitched voices.

"And, if I survive, will write them down, to pass on to you."

Patrick ran his eyes over the copy. It was a little melodramatic, and he was uncertain of the grammar in a couple of places, but he was in that kind of mood. And the readership like this sort of thing once in a while. Enough innuendo to titillate them, nothing to give the censors pause. It was the kind of pithy, heartfelt dispatch that had made him famous during the AI rebellion. Other men wrote of great battles; Frank Patrick created the mythology of war. Making "history in the making. Creating "truth" out of the organization of words. He ran a spell checker through it, plugged the modem cable into the appropriate wall port, and pushed "send".

He felt better, now, having filed. He thumbed off the computer and shoved it back under the bunk. He was tired. If he went to bed now, he might even be able to sleep.

Dark, it was very dark, not dark like night but dark like the absence of light; heavy, like a boot on his chest.; he could not breath. The air was wet with evil. He had been here before.

And there was silence, like the dark, an absence of sound. Hollow, reverberating silence, a silence that wrapped itself like a blanket, like a shroud, that ate speech, movement, the way a black hole ate light. If he cried out, no one would hear him. Voice would not escape his mouth. He had never felt so helpless.

He could not feel the ground beneath his feet, but he could feel dew drenched leaves caress him like a lover's fingers. His arms were dead, the rifle in them too heavy to lift. He wanted to lay down, to sleep forever, he was so tired. He did not want to do this any more. He did not want to know; he did not want to be responsible. And yet he did know, only he knew, and only he could stop the horror. Only he could prevent the loss.

There were no colors. All around him the landscape faded into shades of charcoal, vague outlines of shapes, and yet he knew he could not see, it was too dark to see. Seeing and not seeing, seeing with some organ other than his eyes. The same as knowing he could not move, and yet feeling the ground drift by him under his feet. Soft, spongy, sucking terraine that wanted to capture him forever, hold him. He longed for it to hold him, embrace him. Yet, when he tried to surrender, it merely tossed him onward, like a wave. Toward what he could only dread.

The dark had moved, shifted, concentrated in one place, compressed, a round space in the grayness around him. Run, run away, run far away from it. Evil lurked there, like a snake, coiled, hunkered down in the depths of that darkness, evil and guilt and retribution. A sacrifice required. The darkness demanded a life. His? Maybe. Someone's. If not his then whose? The ground flopped and slithered, moving him forward. He clenched his rifle in his hands - for no purpose, he could not raise it, no more than he could cry out to sound the alarm. Where were the others, he knew there were others. Comrades around him, friends, people who could help him get back what he had lost. What had he lost? His innocence? Had he ever had that? Had he ever lost it?

Faces in the dark, eyes like gun sights. Skin like the belly of a fish, like corpses. Torn and blinking. Mouths gaping. His face. He looked, he did not want to look but he looked and there was his face, over and over, like the reflection in a fun house mirror. Eyes like gun sights. Skin like a corpse. Hand pointed, and pointed and pointed toward him, toward the darkness, toward the black space that was not a hole but a gateway. He must go there, or never return. The darkness sucked at him, licking him, swallowing him whole.

He stood at the mouth of the darkness and sensed a solidity over his head. Like a ceiling, a roof. Like the arch of a tunnel. The ground convulsed, pushed him forward, unwilling, unable to stop himself. And then the darkness surrounded him, and he knew nothing else.

It was then that the laughter came, echo-y, mocking. Fool that he was, to think he could change things, make a difference. To think that anyone would listen to him, that he could stop it. That every day actions meant a damn. They could not erase the knowledge, the failure. He could not run away...

The darkness around him undulated, like a great, foul intestine, moving a piece of shit. Was this birth? Did some genetic memory hold primordial anamnesis of an event that his body had never experienced? Or was this the opposite of birth, he did not know, he had nothing to use as measure. Only his fear, and this fear was something other than the fears he knew. This was not fear of death, this was different. Fear of eternal horror.

Faces came. They came from the dark, darting past him, and he could hear their cries in that place that had no sound and no sight, he could see them At first he did not know them as faces, gray, vague shapes like demons formed out of the mist. Ghost faces, black gaping holes in white gauze, demanding. Why had he not spoken, why had he stood by and allowed the slaughter. Why. Faces demanding justice. Surrounding him. He was very, very cold.

And the laughter. Laughter that did not own a face, laughter from no mouth, it filled the cavern, he could not escape it. Laughter that accused him of so many sins. Pride. Hubris. Self righteousness. What right had he? He was guilty, guilty, guilty. And the price must be paid.

He saw them. He knew them. Faces, loved faces, his children, the children his loins would never give him. Someone else's children. Children of women he would never know. Shattered sperm killed by the eyes like gun sights. She would not have him, thus, and would not give him... Children killed... They cried out to him, and he could hear the rifle fire, and the laughter. He could not save them, Nathan, Cooper, Shane. Paul. Vanessa. Screaming, screaming as the guns, the bayonets, tore them helpless on their backs unable to struggle, unable to fight back.

Slaughtered, price, retribution, absolution. Too great, too much to ask. Nooooo...

Shane, Vanessa, Nathan. Cooper. Paul. The blood, the blood...

McQueen jerked wake, gasping, with the shards of his nightmare still clinging to his consciousness. He was soaked with sweat, as if a fever had broken in the night, and his heart was beating wildly. It was just a dream, you dumb tank. You're not even supposed to be able to do that. He shuddered, involuntarily. He had not had that particular nightmare in years, though some version of it had haunted him, off and on, for a long time. He knew what it was. He knew what had brought it back to him, now. Frank Patrick. What perverse twist of a fate he did not even believe in had brought him together again with that man after all these years? McQueen did not know. He could only wish it had not happened. Patrick was a contaminant, and he did not want to be around the man.

He looked at his watch. Reveille was not for another hour, but he figured might as well get up. He had a lot he wanted to do before the Commodore's staff briefing at 11:00 hours, and he knew there would be no more sleep for him in any case. Sitting up, he swung his legs over the side of his bunk to the floor, and leaned forward for a moment, his elbows on his knees. He felt a little better as soon as his bare soles hit the cold rubber matting on the deck of his quarters; his eyes sought familiar things involuntarily, and found comfort in them. He reached out, waved his hand near a wall sensor, bringing the dim lights up, then rubbed the back of his neck wearily. He felt stiff all over, as if he had been beaten. Not an auspicious start to the day.

Leveraging himself to his feet, he began his preparations, starting by remaking his bunk. The sheets had been pulled nearly off it, as if some hot blooded youth had spent the night engaged in riotous sex there. The thought made him grimace, sardonically. It had been a while since that had happened in any bed he slept in. He yanked the damp linens off and dumped them in a pile on the floor, found fresh ones, and put them on, taking a perverse satisfaction in the nice, tight, square corners years of practice automatically formed. Shower, shave and get on with it, he wanted to hit sick bay before the doctors started their rounds, and then there were some manuals, and a few old texts, he wanted to consult before the briefing. He made himself resist the urge to throw on clothes quickly and pad down the corridor to the Wild Cards ward room. He did not need to check on them. They were fine. Even West and Damphousse, recovering in sick bay, were going to be all right. He was being stupid. It was just a dream.

Glaring at himself in the mirror for a moment, McQueen splashed cold water on his face, grabbed his kit and headed for the showers. Enough self indulgent ruminations, he had work to do.

Commodore Ross pushed at his face, hoping the action might rub away the detritus of another sleepless night. He focused his attention on the display before him. The various battlefields of Delores Prime hung there on the back-lit, clear-cell panel: Earth Forces in blue, Chigs in green. It all looked so tidy. But it was not a pretty picture. They had been there for over a month, now, and had lost ground in increments every day. Not a rout, but a slow wearing away of positions and ground forces, with the Chigs supplied and reinforced as regularly as clockwork from points beyond the Von Braun line. Something had to happen to turn the tide of battle, or they would soon lose Delores Prime, altogether.

Delores Prime. "First Lady of Pain." Sometimes Ross was astonished at the aptness of the names of certain celestial bodies. Although he, himself, had not seen the planet's surface with his own eyes, he had seen the video tapes, and might have been surprised to know that his first reaction matched that of Lt. Hawkes - What a pit! Let the Chigs have it! But of course, he knew that was impossible. Though with nothing to recommend it at first glance, D1, as the map before him shorthanded it, was in a vital position for staging and supplying of the Earth Forces in that entire region. To "let the Chigs have it," would mean to virtually abandon the Earth troops fighting there. Besides, Delores Prime was far too close to Earth "home territory" to allow the Chigs to control it.

Ross snorted sourly to himself. "Home territory..." Now there was a misnomer if he had ever heard one. There *was* no "territory," that was half the problem in this war. Maybe more than half. How to conceptualize the war they were fighting when the only points of reference were tiny marks on a star chart, dots of real estate in a vast, incomprehensible "ocean" of space. When distances were measured in something called "light years," a term so abstract that Ross could not even imagine it - a distance so far a man could not walk it in a dozen lifetimes. When even the strategists did not *really* know where things were.

They fought, for the most part, in largely uncharted space. Until the Chig war there had been no reason, nor funding, to come out this far, and the data derived from robot probes was often inaccurate. The brass told them that, after Anvil, things were turning around. That, despite the failure of the peace initiative, the Earth Forces were on the offensive now, that they were taking the war to the Chigs. Hell, they might even be winning it, but how were they really to know? To be sure, individual planets could be lost or gained, installations built or destroyed, positions possessed or surrendered. But what could the control of a single planet really mean when one looked at it in terms of the incredible vastness of space?

Ross raised the cup in his hand to his lips and his stomach rose up in sour protest over the insult; the coffee in it was cold and he had already drunk far too much of it. He did not care. He held the mug for comfort, really, anyway, something familiar. He was well past the point where more caffeine was going to make any difference. He had been up, quite literally, all night. General Graves had arrived from the planet's surface with his senior staff and advisors at shortly after 16:00 hours the previous evening; the Admiral, with *his* staff, had not been an hour behind. From that moment on, little had transpired that did not have to do directly with the facts of the battle below them. Food was sent in, and removed, largely untouched. Coffee flowed continuously as the men and women who represented Earth Forces command in that sector hunkered in the Saratoga's tactical information center four decks below the bridge and tried to get their hands around what was happening on D1. And how to change it.

Ross considered that his senior officers' wrestlings must be much like what MacArthur and Halsey had faced in the Pacific theater during World War II, as those men had tried to grasp the logistical nightmare of fighting from one tiny island and coral reef to another. There had been no "territory" in the Pacific Ocean, either, not until the war was finally over and they could look back and see what had happened: "Ah, yes, it was here and here and here where we won it; Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Guadalcanal." But in the midst of it they had only known the terrible slaughter, the agonizing uncertainty. The bloody, bloody ground.

He was very tired and exhaustion was coloring his mood, he knew this. His own senior staff and Marine squadron commanders would be arriving soon and he had battle plans to deliver. He needed to pull himself together, sound aggressive, positive, as if he believed they could do it. And he did believe they could do it, if anyone could. These men and women were the best there were, Ross truly believed that. He closed his eyes a moment, and the immediate head rush made him regret it instantly. He took a deep breath to steady himself. As soon as this briefing was over, unless the whole damn Chig armada showed up, and maybe even then, he was going to get some sleep. Before he collapsed completely.

A noise at the hatch startled him and he looked up to see McQueen standing there, haloed by the light from the passageway behind him. Ross refrained from looking at his watch; he knew McQueen was early.

"You're early, Colonel," he said, blandly.

"Yes, sir." McQueen came the rest of the way into the briefing room.

"West and Damphousse? How are they?"

"They're going to be fine, sir," McQueen replied, unable to keep the pride out of his voice or his expression. "West's fever broke last night, and the docs have already got Damphousse out of bed walking around. They'll be back in action before you know it."

"That's good to hear," Ross said, turning back to the display. He allowed himself the luxury of a sigh. "We're going to need them..."

McQueen had actually been surprised to find Ross already in the briefing room. He knew the brass had been up most of the night. He frankly expected the commodore to be catching some rest before this meeting. The man looked exhausted, his dark skin gray from lack of sleep.

He turned his attention to the graphic display behind Ross. "We're still hanging back?"

The commodore nodded. "For now," he agreed. As the battle continued, it was the carriers Colin Powell and Chester Nimitz who lay in close to the planet, providing direct support and fire power to the troops below. The Saratoga sat back in deeper space, with in reach of Delores Prime, but outside the immediate range of the fighting, free to resupply and provide necessary reinforcements. It was a strategy that had worked well before. And, so far, it was not one of the tactics the brass had elected to change. "However," Ross continued, "the Nimitz has taken heavy damage. If she needs to retreat, we'll be going in to replace her."

McQueen nodded. "And our ground forces?"

"We're going in, Ty, in far greater strength that we have to this point. We're ordered to give her everything we've got, and we're doing it on the ground. Everyone. Including the Five-Eight. Air support is next to useless in this battle..."

McQueen just nodded again. He had been down there, after all. He had already figured that one out for himself. Behind him, the other staff members had begun to file in, so with one last parting glance at his commander, he turned and found his seat. Ross waited patiently until they were all settled. Then, without preamble, he began to speak.

"In four days time, gentlemen, we will begin the first phase of what we hope will be the final, decisive assault on the planetary body known as Delores Prime. For the purposes of this discussion, this offensive will be known as "Operation Sandstorm..."

Safety depressed him. Battle, the rage of gunfire, the shelling, the danger and gore that scared him so badly to the very hair follicles and nerve synapses; he simply could not get used to it, when that terror was no longer there. It was a strange effect of his chosen profession that leaving the war always made Frank Patrick feel as if some weight had descended upon him, making it difficult to breath. Adrenaline junkie, his wife - ex-wife - had called him. Could not stand it when life was just normal. But Patrick thought it was more than that.

It had been worse during the AI Rebellion. Then, the converse of battle was not the relative quiet of the Headquarters command post or the safety of some carrier out of danger's mainstream, but the opposing riot of lush, exotic cities juxtaposed against harsh guerrilla warfare. It had seemed so bizarre to him, surreal, schizophrenic to sit at the table in some cafe, and listen to the distant guns he had left hours earlier. It confused him, as if nothing around him was quite concrete. It made him long to get back to the fighting, even as he drank and whored and dallied, swapping stories with acquaintances and friends. At least the fighting was solid. And terribly, terribly real.

It was a little easier to take the absence of battle here on a carrier - at least the great gray hulk still felt like a part of the war he had departed temporarily - but it still took him days to get used to the absence of terror. It was as if his nerves, so conditioned to hypersensitivity, could not stop firing. He was in a constant state of agitation, sleeping little and never soundly, leaping up at the smallest sound. Cold sweat, heart pounding, gut wrenching panic, where he might have dozed through anything less intrusive than a mortar explosion out in the field. The hypervigilance would continue for some unspecified time, depending on where he had been, until his head would finally crash lower than the ground he stood on, and the great, dark fist of depression balled up and knocked him flat.

The pills helped. The ones the doctors gave him, and the ones he scored for himself; red ones, green ones, white ones, uppers and downers and pills to level him out, all chased by liberal servings of Irish whisky. Once, coming down out of the Guatemalan mountains, he had stayed high for two straight weeks in some dive in Guatemala City. And even then, nothing had helped when the bottom finally rose up and decked him. They had sent him back to the States, then, to "recuperate." He had spent six months in a sanitarium, only to come out again and find that his wife had filed for divorce in the mean time. He had not been surprised; they had been married in name only for years, since Guam, really, but he had been surprised that the fact of being divorced had frightened him. He had signed the requisite forms and beat it back to the war, as fast as possible. It was that or the nut hatch, again.

Sitting alone at a table in the Tun Tavern, Patrick considered that the Saratoga was not such a bad temporary haven, as these things went. If he was willing to discount McQueen, and the terrible turmoil Shane Vansen's presence was causing him. The girl was so much like her mother that it made his stomach hurt just to be in the same room with her, and yet, he found it impossible to stay away. He sought glimpses of her, though he had been in her actual presence only once since careening into her in the sick bay corridor. She had been in the officer's mess for breakfast. She had been polite to him, when he had spoken, but distant. And though he had caught her watching him, she had not approached, and had left the mess as soon as she finished eating. He had not seen her since. He was pretty sure she did not know anything. He could not imagine that Molly would have told her - Shane had still been a child when Marion Vansen died.

Patrick took a deep swig of his whisky to beat back the sudden tightness in his chest. He forced his mind to focus on work. The Saratoga offered a number of possibilities to a veteran correspondent, and a great deal more in the way of creature comforts than he had experienced lately. Like a real mattress, even if it was half the width of a regular bed, and all the hot water he could want. The bar was not half bad, either. Liquor was better quality than he had expected. Moreover, there was plenty on the 'Toga for him to write about, which was a good thing, because the commodore had made it clear that he would not be allowed back on planet until the brass had sorted out what they were going to do next. But he could still fill his dispatches with stories about the workings of a warship, and interviews from returning troops. Some of Earth Forces most prized fighter squadrons called the Saratoga home. The Fifty Eighth, alone, could fill his columns for weeks.

The Fifty-Eighth "Wild Cards," T. C. McQueen's squadron. So far, McQueen had stayed pretty much out of his way. Patrick took that as a good sign the tank was too intimidated to start spreading stories about the past, but, of course, he could not be sure about that. Whatever cunning McQueen had used to reach his rank, which was still astonishing, despite Affirmative Action, the man could be rallying those resources, even now, to throw at him when he least expected it. He might be just delaying the inevitable, waiting for his chance, for a sudden show of weakness on Patrick's part. Rumor had it McQueen and the commodore were pretty tight. And although Patrick had no doubt that, eventually, his side of the story would be believed - he was a natural born, after all - the ensuing publicity would be embarrassing. And that would probably be enough for McQueen.

Frank Patrick did not have the kind of personality that often drove him to self-examination very often, but when he did look at his life, he knew two things for certain. He was very good at what he did, and he hated In Vitros. He was not even really sure why. He just knew that there was something fundamentally horrifying to him about these creature who had been genetically engineered and artificially grown for the express purpose of being butchered - whether through brutal manual labor or through the horrors of war. They were like man-shaped cattle, and the fact that they had finally rebelled against fate and refused to die for natural born purposes was only slightly more heinous to him that their earlier dumb willingness to be slaughtered. He had seen that placid acceptance, just as he had witnessed the later resistance. He has seen what both had wrought. It never occurred to Patrick that he might have misunderstood what he had been looking at. It was a matter of published fact that In Vitros were different from natural borns. That he was better than them. It was irritating beyond words that one of them might have some hold over him. What had happened in Guatemala had been unfortunate. And, in truth, it still haunted Patrick's dreams. What was unacceptable was that McQueen knew about it - or thought he did, anyway. Not that he could possibly understand. But there had been no choice in what had happened, and he was not going to feel guilty about it. Despite the dreams. He was sure as hell not going to let some tank use it against him.

Patrick looked down at his hands and realized they were shaking. He clutched them together, and willed them to be still. Whatever McQueen might be planning, he knew he had to insulate himself, somehow. There had to be something even a tank would not risk...

"Mr. Patrick?"

He almost jumped out of his seat at the sound of the voice behind him.

"Sorry, sir... we didn't mean to startle you..."

He turned and looked at the two young men standing there. He knew them, tried to place their names, and did so, just as one of the youngsters extended a hand to him.

"Paul Wang, sir. Of the Five Eight. We picked you up on Delores Prime, I don't think you were conscious enough to remember us, though."

Right. Wang. And the other kid was Hawkes, the tank. Patrick grabbed his hand. McQueen's "kids." Even he had already heard the scuttlebutt about how much the tank colonel doted on this squadron.

"Sure, I remember, Lieutenant," he said, grinning almost stupidly, "though you're right, I was pretty much out of it." He held his hand out his hand to Hawkes. "Cooper Hawkes, right?"

Hawkes beamed at being remembered. "Yes, sir. I carried you out."

"For which I owe you at least a beer, Lieutenant. You boys have a seat. And enough with the 'sir' bullshit, you must get all of that you need with your commanding officers. I'm just plain Frank. What are you drinking?"

"Just beers for us," Wang replied as they pulled up chairs. "Frank."

The recreation room was nearly deserted. Try as she might, Shane Vansen could not make the doubts go away. Snippets of conversation drifted back to her from a distance of twelve, fifteen, more years. Her father's voice angry. Accusing. Her mother's, defensive. Or haughty. The tears. Things she barely remembered slid through her consciousness, incidences wiped out by one night's terror and a brutal death.

They had haunted her rest again last night, the whispers, as they had every night since the Five Eight had brought Patrick back to the Saratoga four days ago. Not dreams, exactly, and not the familiar nightly horror that regularly tortured her, but vague, half-conscious murmurings that made sleep impossible. And Vansen knew, in some way she could not articulate, that the root of the problem lay with F. X. Patrick.

It did not help that the man's eyes seemed to follow her whenever she was in the same room with him, and that seemed to be happening more and more frequently. In the four days since they had returned from Delores Prime, Frank Patrick was rarely away from the Wild Cards. There he was, sitting with them now, at the other end of the recreation room, telling stories. It was as if the man had made a singular pledge to ingratiate himself to the Fifty-Eighth. Not that there was necessarily anything sinister about it. He was a reporter, after all, and the Wild Cards were one of the Corps' best, and most popular, fighter squadrons. They were, in the vernacular of the business, "good copy." The press had already dubbed them "the new 127th," and Vansen had to agree that, due to the extremities of war, they *had* surpassed the achievements of that legendary squadron - though she wondered, sometimes, what McQueen thought. It was natural that Patrick would spend time with them, research them, someday write about the Fifty-Eighth "Wild Cards." It was his job. But just as she knew his eyes were on her, Vansen knew he was not interviewing the 'Cards for any newspaper article. She just did not know what he *was* up to, or why.

She could not have explained her uneasiness to anyone. She had only tried once, to Wang, and he had just looked at her strangely. But it was obvious to her that Patrick had another agenda, with the "buddy-buddy" attitude, buying drinks, telling stories. They were good stories, she had to admit that. Even she found the accounts of the AI Rebellion compelling. Still, Patrick hardly seemed to get a story out without adding some veiled, derogatory comment about their commanding officer. Almost like the older kid on the playground, encouraging them to defy the teacher. And maybe it was just that wherever Patrick was, McQueen was not, and Vansen was beginning to feel uncomfortable about their CO's studious avoidance of them whenever Frank Patrick was around. Which seemed to be all the time, these days.

And maybe she was just being paranoid. Sitting around waiting for the brass to decide what to do was making her antsy. She knew they were going back in. She just did not know when. Ross had continued to land reinforcements on planet, but the Fifty-Eighth was being held back, along with several other top units, for some special ground assault no one would talk about. The uncertainty only exacerbated her distress.

The other's seemed to like him, especially Hawkes, whom Patrick seemed to have singled out for special attention. Which was nice, she supposed, but she could not help feeling something sinister about it. Patrick seem insincere to her; especially when she caught the little jibbing wisecracks about McQueen, innuendo that bordered on slander, all in the name of fun. She really did not like it, though the others laughed.

The more she thought, though, the more she acknowledged that her real problem had little to do with the Fifty-Eighth at all. She was uneasy with Francis Xavier Patrick for *personal* reasons - reasons that had everything to do with the midnight whispering in her head. Her restlessness finally drove her to seek out the Saratoga's historical archives, in search of clues. Naturally, she did not find what she was looking for. What she did find was totally unexpected. And it made her physically sick...

"GUATEMALA, JAN 19, 2048: It was a bad day today. Five thousand crack human troops fell at Gizor Pass by sixteen-hundred hours - that's four o'clock PM for those of you who aren't on the military clock; five thousand men and women ambushed, cut down by Silicate audacity, and maybe something else.

"The dawn came in quietly, and no one sitting companionably around morning campfires, breakfasting on hot cereal and coffee could have guess that by evening their numbers would have been diminished by more than two thirds...

"The attack came a little after noon. Our forward patrols were all In Vitro, as is standard procedure in this war zone; after all, it is what those troops were created for, bred for, what our hard earned tax dollars have been supporting them to do. The IV platoons at the head of the column, and the tank scouts lead by our brave young officers, were charged with sounding the alarm, and setting up perimeter defenses, should Silicate activity be detected. Perhaps they simply missed the signs, though I have been assured that their training fully covers such contingencies...

"The Silicates came from every direction, cutting through our advanced In Vitro forces, though one does wonder how... As one grief stricken Marine second lieutenant put it: 'It was as if the damn tanks just laid down and died - they never even tried to counter attack..."

Vansen struggled with the knot of nausea rolling around in the pit of her stomach, and scrolled forward to the next set of dispatches. This was the sixth such column she had read of F.X. Patrick's on the AI war in Guatemala. The other five had been distressingly the same, except each became slightly more vicious in its denigration of the In Vitro platoons' actions. While never quite accusing the IVs of pusillanimity, which might have reflected badly on their natural born commanders, it did not take long for Vansen to realize that the tenor of Patrick's columns were mean- spirited and misleading, and would have gone a long way toward inciting the already wary mistrustfulness the home front felt toward In Vitros, in general, and especially toward the In Vitro troops. Every generation had its scapegoat, Vansen knew that. Still, it made her sick to realize to what extent this one man had purposefully fueled that fire.

Vansen had stumbled on the Guatemalan reports by accident; she had really been looking for Guam. Against her better judgment, and almost against her will, she had pulled down Patrick's dispatches, hoping that she might find something... But there had been nothing to find. Not even her mother's name was mentioned, though then Captain Marion Vansen had been serving as adjunct to the company commander. After slogging through several bland missives, Vansen gave up her search. For some odd reason, though, the Saratoga's archives had filed Patrick's articles, not in chronological order, but in alphabetical. And that's how Shane found the dispatches from Guatemala, although many battles had been chronicled by Patrick between it and Guam.

Behind her, at the other end of the recreation room, Vansen could hear Paul Wang's laughter, and she turned slightly to watch her squad mates - Wang, Hawkes and West, who had been discharged from sick bay with orders to stay in bed and who finally could no longer stand the inactivity, all clustered around Frank Patrick, spell bound, hanging on his every word as he regaled them with stories from the earlier war.

"The poor idiot never knew what hit him," Patrick said, gasping for breath, tickled by his own humor. "He thought he was drinking regular old gin. He got so plastered he went right up to the CO, threw his arm around the old man's neck, and told him - in *very* uncertain terms..." the others laughed appreciatively "...exactly what he thought about close order drill. Thank God the colonel was a good sport..."

"I wouldn't want to try nothing like that with McQueen..." Cooper ventured, giggling at the thought. Patrick rolled his eyes.

"Well, I can't say your skipper's got much of a sense of humor," he replied. "You men have been under him for what, now, a year and a half. Tell me," he winked conspiratorially, "does he *ever* crack a smile? The lab coats must have forgot to add 'laughter' to his gene pool... I don't envy you - it can't be much fun for you..."

The 'Cards shifted in their chairs, suddenly uncomfortable, and Hawkes' face worked darkly, as if he suspected the insult, but could not quite put his finger on it. Then Patrick clapped him on the shoulder and laughed merrily, as if to say it was all in good fun, and hey, they had a sense of humor, didn't they? Uneasy, but not wanting to spoil the atmosphere, they gradually relaxed and smiled again.

>From her spot at the news reader, Vansen blew out an angry breath and looked around in irritation. She froze, then, her heart in her throat. McQueen was standing in the rec. room hatchway, how long he had been there, whether or not he had heard Patrick, she did not know. But he was not looking at her, he was staring at the Wild Cards' table.

And as luck would have it, Wang turned at just that moment. His face brightened as he saw McQueen. "Hey, Colonel! Come here, you gotta hear this... Frank's just been telling us..." He never got a chance to finish the sentence as McQueen spun on his heels and left the room.

Vansen winced. Poor Paul, sometimes he just didn't get it. Then her chagrin changed to anger as she heard Patrick "tisk" and whisper: "see what I mean?" She lunged to her feet and headed for the hatch McQueen had just exited. Wang grabbed her as she went by. She jerked away from him, no longer sympathetic. She wanted, needed, to talk to McQueen.

For a few moments after he left the recreation room, T. C. McQueen had no idea where he was. He did not know where he was going. Blind fury tore through his veins, blocking out all awareness of his surroundings. He knew only that he needed to move, and to keep moving until the feelings dissipated. Instinct brought him to the deserted flight deck on Deck Fifteen. He slammed into it through the "o" room entrance and paced among the cockpits until the worst of the anger had passed. It had been a long time since a natural born had been able to raise his blood- lust like that. Over the years he had trained himself to ignore the comments, subvert the pain, to control his rage. Sure, he could still get pissed off at the more obvious bigotry, especially when it got in the way of things he needed to do. Sometimes he got very angry, indeed. But he had stopped acting out a long time ago. He had learned to control it. He could not control himself around Francis Xavier Patrick.

The commodore had ordered him to be civil, which was something he could not do, so McQueen had simply solved his problem by avoiding Patrick all together. But he could not help knowing that the man was out there, ingratiating himself with his charm and his stories. Insinuating himself into the Fifty-Eighth. McQueen had been too far away to hear all of what Patrick had said to them, back in the rec room, but he had seen the looks, and heard the laughter. Those were *his* kids, dammit. He wanted that bastard to stay away. He supposed he was jealous. He was man enough to admit that. It irked him that the Wild Cards liked a man he loathed so much, though when he was feeling fair, which he was not, at the moment, he knew he could not hold them accountable. Patrick was a master at pouring on the charm. And after all, the 'Cards were just kids, he could hardly expect them to see through the man. Except that, unfairly, he did.

There was more to this that a sense of personal invasion, though. Francis Patrick was a career liar and a sneak. McQueen did not want the man anywhere near his people. Even those writings of his that had not been outright lies were variations of a truth that became somehow perverted once F. X. Patrick got hold of them. And McQueen felt he ought to know, he had participated in many of the events about which Patrick had written. When he read the columns, later, about battles he had fought, he had hardly recognized them for the colorful and lofty sentiment wrapped in homely prose. War was not melodious. High language had no place in factual reporting, that was the realm of the poets, of the Homers and Virgils of the world. Of whom Frank Patrick was not one. In McQueen's opinion.

But it was not merely Patrick's purple prose that disturbed McQueen. Had the correspondent been any other writer too full of his own rhetoric, McQueen would have dismissed him, and gone on his way. Frank Patrick understood the uses of the pen as a weapon. It was McQueen's heartfelt belief that Frank Patrick's column, his misrepresentations, had been instrumental in forming the world's attitudes toward In Vitros, and their perceptions of the IV platoons. Frank Patrick had not seen fit to merely hate In Vitros like everyone else. He had put that hatred onto the printed page, twisted facts, falsely interpreted incidences for the benefit of his readership, and created an entire mythology of denigration. A mythology that, eventually, even the In Vitros, themselves, began to believe. A self fulfilling prophecy that was the product of one craven mind. Tell a man he's a lazy coward for long enough, and he will become so. It was simple psychology.

And then there was the rest of it. It was not just Patrick's poisoned pen that burned at McQueen. It was with a dark and dirty secret that Patrick had haunted McQueen's subconscious for almost fifteen years. What he had told Commodore Ross had been accurate, as far as it went. But there were also things that McQueen had not told Ross that twisted in his gut, and tortured his sleep, now. Things he hoped he never had to reveal.

Blowing out a breath, he turned and left the flight deck. He was calmer now, and he wanted to find something to do that would occupy him so that he did not have to think about Francis Xavier Patrick. And when all else failed, there was always the never ending pile of paper work to catch up on. It would distract him as much as anything else would.

  Sheryl Clay

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