Timeframe: This story occurs after the CvR fight, but prior to the disastrous Demios assignment. Imagine there were a couple of weeks of calm in that gathering storm.

The characters and situations of the TV program "Space: Above & Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. The character of Medora Weathers is mine.

Feedback Jan Ford



Jan Ford

The ISSCV touched down on the Saratoga's landing pad with a lurch. The fourteen passengers exchanged glances, but nobody spoke. It was the end of a long road. One more round, and they could all go home, back to Earth.

Oh Lord, thought Medora Weathers, I feel wrinkled. Too many days gone, too many strangers, too much bad food and bad lighting and worry. She rubbed her eyes wearily, stood to disembark. "What AM I doing here?"

"Same as me, Meddy," said the tall young man in front of her, "and we're both nuts."

She smiled at him. "Lawrence, without you, there'd just be no reason for living. I would've stepped out of an airlock months ago."

"Well, there's still time, sweet one."

Medora laughed. She liked to laugh, although she didn't seem to laugh much any more. But then, the war didn't encourage light-hearted fun, and her work didn't offer much in the way of comedic relief. And this was her final stint, this one the hardest of all, but once done, she'd be on her way back. She swung down from the ISSCV door and looked around. Steel gray walls, floor, everything militarily correct and utilitarian. What she wouldn't give for a touch of color, maybe a swath of gaudy turquoise thrown over that hatch...and a mambo band in yellow and red piping us aboard. She smiled and shook her head. Oh yes, she thought, it's time I went home. She shouldered her duffel and walked off behind the others to find her quarters.

When he got the message, Lt. Colonel TC McQueen was in the mess hall, going over activity reports. The note was brief, but to the point. As he recognized the writing, his pulse jumped 20 beats but he remained outwardly calm.

"Ty". The loops and tracings of that well-known hand. "I'm here for a short while as part of a research team. I would really like to talk with you. There are some things I need to say. Please." It was signed "Medora".

If McQueen had been a cursing man, he might have indulged in some colorful expletives. If he had been a kibitzer, he would have gone to the Tun and joked about the perversity of women while drinking himself into a stupor. But he was a private man, and a thinking man, one who dealt with happiness and disaster equally, which is to say alone. He folded the flimsy and held it gently in his hand while he stared across the room at nothing. The next few days would be hard.

There is little time to be alone on a large troopship. Marines eat together, drill together, shower together, gamble and gossip and gripe together. Privacy is the domain of the flag officers. Capt. Shane Vansen contemplated the wet wall and reckoned how long it would take before she got her own shower. Probably sometime early next century. The thought wasn't reassuring. She soaped up and winced as she fingered the bruise on her ribs - it had been an intense physical training session. Gunnery Sergeant Kroetch ("The Crutch") was giving pointers and leaving his calling card on everyone's body. The 'Toga had been pulled back for some refit and a full rundown on a malfunctioning computer system, and no one had flown for weeks. We're all like rabid cats in a sack, she thought, including me. She stretched in the trickle of warm water, trying to work the tension out of her neck. It didn't help. Nothing did anymore.

Sighing, she shut off the water and toweled off. She'd taken extra laps so she could catch a couple of minutes alone, which meant that most of the hot water was gone, but it was worth it. How am I supposed to command anyone, she thought, when I'm such a basket case? Gotta get a grip here. She pulled on some clothes and wandered off to the mess to get a cup of coffee. She wasn't hungry, at least not for food. She wanted to see some action.

She spotted McQueen sitting at a table, alone as always, staring off into space. She drew a cuppa, then angled back towards his table.


"Oh, Vansen." McQueen focused on her, seemingly with an effort. "I was just coming to find you. Squadron briefing at 1900 hours."

Funny, he hadn't looked like he was going anywhere. Vansen caught her breath, felt her face flush. "Mission?"

"No, civvie intel."

"Damn. Well, at least it's something to break the boredom. We haven't done one of those in a while."

McQueen looked at her a little abstractedly. "Yeah. 1900 hours." He pushed back his chair and made his way out of the mess.

That was weird, even for the Colonel, thought Vansen. She turned and, blowing on her coffee, went out to find the WildCards.

She found them in the Tun Tavern, playing cards and drinking soda. There had been too much free time of late, and no one could afford anything stronger than seltzer. West leaned back in his chair, watching the others play poker. Of a sort. As Vansen poked her head around the door, she heard Hawkes bemoaning his luck.

"You guys musta forgot to tell me a couple of rules here," he griped. Vansen smiled - he was probably right. "I won with that same hand last time, and this time I lose."

"Geez Coop, I keep telling you that a full house doesn't beat a Lunar Wing Crush," said Wang seriously. "You've gotta start payin' attention."

"Yeah, but last time that crush thing needed 2 aces, and this time it's got kings, jacks and fives!" Hawkes protested.

"Paul, you are really a pain! How is this boy ever gonna learn to play this game, much less uphold our sterling reputation as demons of chance, if you keep changing the rules?" asked Damphousse, who was doing her best not to laugh out loud at the hustle. "Besides," pushing the chips back towards Hawkes' pile, "That specific 'Lunar Crush' isn't valid unless it's Tuesday of the second week of the month and you're wearing red. So Coop wins this hand."

"Thanks 'Phousse!" Hawkes beamed as he raked in his winnings.

"Hey, listen up!" Vansen's voice cut through the chatter. "Briefing in one hour. No gear. No drill."

"Shane!" Wang called. "C'mon over, I need some competition here!"

"What's the mission?" asked West at the same time.

"Civvie intel, that's all I know. Don't be late."

She disappeared. "Whoo, that was some Captain attitude there, folks," said Hawkes, "must be something important."

"Nah, Shane's been on edge for the past week," said Damphousse . "She's really touchy. I think the quiet is getting to her."

"Like it's not getting to the rest of us," muttered West.

The briefing room was filled with marines, primarily from squadrons which had seen a lot of combat. The WildCards sat together in the back, but had neglected to save a seat for Vansen. She found a place up front. This sucks, she thought, it looks like I'm not willing to sit with everyone else. 'Captain attitude' indeed. Well, nothing to be done... She straightened up as the civilians filed in and sat in a row of seats facing the audience. They were men and women, young and old, but all moved with the same tired, deliberate manner, like their bones had grown cracked inside them. Like they'd spent too much time in free fall. One thin man with glasses and graying hair stood in front of them. Commodore Ross stood next to him. The room quieted.

"Marines, this is Dr. Abramson, from Aerotech," Ross intoned. A silent rustle went through the room. AEROTECH meant many different things to the soldiers seated there, both good and bad. "Dr. Abramson heads up this team which will be working with you to gather information vital to the conduct of this war. You will give him all your attention, and render any assistance that he requires. Dr. Abramson?" Ross stepped aside.

"Thank you Commodore." Abramson was dressed simply but carried an authoritative air. He seemed to balance on the balls of his feet, as if ready to pounce on his audience. "I work for Aerotech now as a civilian advisor, but I spent 30 years in the Navy so I consider myself something of a military man." Abramson allowed himself a thin smile. "This team that you see before you was put together by Aerotech at the express request of the Joint Chiefs. We have wide discretion in order to accomplish our goal. Very simply, that goal is to delineate and analyze Chig behavior in order to predict and counter their military activities in support of Operation Roundhammer. Yes, I know," he said as a rustle went through the group, "I know that we've never even seen a live Chig. Well, except for a very limited encounter by the 58th." He nodded towards the WildCards. "We haven't been able to observe any facet of Chig civilization, so we do not understand why they do anything. For example, despite advanced technology, their ground assault strategies seem inordinately simple. They seem limited in their ability to quickly adapt tactics to changing field situations. And they have only rarely employed air support for ground troops, yet some of their space tactics are incredibly complex. We know they've been studying us for years. Now we want to study them. We'd like to get as much information as we can in order to develop a behavioral profile which will aid us in deciphering how they think, and what we can expect next.

"That brings us to the Saratoga. This team has interviewed a large number of combat seasoned soldiers in order to secure sufficient data to begin extrapolation. Our specialties are not military in nature. In fact, we're primarily ethnologists, behavioral analysts, and AI specialists." The marines fidgeted - a bunch of wimplily civvies, hanging out in safe space, while the grunts did the dirty work. "This team originally had 20 members, as you can see we're down to 14. We lost 1 on Kazbek - he went in voluntarily to attempt to get some valuable information." Wang stirred at that. "Two others went down with the Brisbane at Procyon - they were there to observe Chig weapons and tactics first hand. Another one got caught in a firefight on a planet you've probably never heard of - she was a good woman." He paused, reflectively, his face somber. "Well, you get the idea, we are not a sit-on-our-hands bunch. Our mission involves first-hand observation as well as extensive interviews with those of you who have fought the Chigs several times and lived to tell about it. We'll be starting out with a rather long questionnaire that we'd like you to fill out, and then we'll get on to personal interviews over the next several days. Your squad leaders will make up schedules. We do not intend to disrupt usual duties any more than necessary.

"You may find many of the questions we ask silly. Quite frankly, we don't know what information may be important, so we are shotgunning it for now. If any interviewer hits on a lead, he or she may request additional time with you. Please be as open and frank as possible. Thank you."

Dr. Abramson sat down, and Ross took over. Vansen glanced at the row of civilians, and found a woman looking intently at her. Not at HER, but at her WildCard patch. The woman was mid-thirties, blonde, with blue eyes and high cheekbones. She looked like she smiled a lot. As she stared back, the woman raised her eyes and, giving a slight nod, turned her attention to Ross.

"Dr. Abramson will expect these back, completed and legible, by 0900 hours tomorrow morning. This is your highest priority until and unless we engage the enemy. I expect you to cooperate fully. Dismissed."

McQueen hadn't attended the briefing. He'd been busy on the bridge, correlating some recent intelligence on Chig activity out by the Diomedes system. It was grunt work and he knew it, but it kept him occupied. After several hours, he gave up on the tedious reports and grabbed some dinner in the mess. He drank cup after cup of coffee, putting off the inevitable. It wasn't that he didn't want to see her - he did. It was one of his most deeply buried wishes, but it carried a toll of pain that would disrupt his carefully cultivated calm. Finally, with an unconsciously dramatic sigh, he stood and walked back to his quarters. When the rap came on the hatch, he would be ready.

Medora had spent 2 hours gathering herself for this encounter. She was aware of the irony of the situation - a space-phobic behavioral scientist, observing her own reactions to traveling through lightyears of vacuum in a big tin can through wormholes. It was actually rather funny. She had one of those optimistic personalities which led to unfortunate assumptions about the benign nature of life. Medora believed each day would hold something wonderful, which had more than once led to disaster. Fate paid no homage to a sunny disposition. Medora was thus a fallen optimist, one whose belief in the essential goodness of the world had been beaten into a sullen submission. It was that belief that had sustained her through her life. It was what had failed her in her marriage to TC McQueen.

She was dressed in her most presentable jumpsuit, her blonde hair swept into a businesslike bun. She fell into a self-calming ritual, regulating her breathing, quieting her soul. Setting her expression into something akin to friendly inquiry, she rapped on the hatch. It sounded tinny and far off. She heard "Come" and took one more calming breath. When she entered McQueen's quarters, he was standing with his back to the port, at parade rest. Lord, she thought, he looks wonderful. And pissed. This is going to be harder than I thought. She tried a smile, felt it wither.

"Hello Ty," she murmured, as she shut the door.

"Hello Medora".

She unconsciously fell into a parody of his stance. "I, uh, wanted to come by..." The words faltered. She looked around at the spartan furnishings, the small treasures she'd seen before. "Oh, you still have the Dancing Samurai!" she exclaimed, perversely relieved to see something familiar, intimate. She picked up the statue, turned it in her hand. It had been her gift, still in perfect condition. Not easy to keep things nice through all the moves and assignments in a dozen backwater holes. She put it down, faced her ex-husband. "Ty, I need to clear the air between us. There are a couple of things I really need to say."

"Say them."

She cocked her head to the side. "It's been a long time. I've had lots of time to think. Well, I ALWAYS had lots of thinking time, let's face it, you weren't home much. No, that's not how I meant to start." She put her hand to her forehead, looked up at him, but the eyes were icy. There would be no help in this. She sighed. "Ty, can we just sit down? I can't do this military routine, not this time. Please? I won't be long."

Without a word, McQueen crossed to his bunk and sat. Medora pulled up the one chair and sat facing him. His eyes flicked back and forth over her face. "Ty, I've spent a lot of time working out just what happened between us. I needed to do that, so I could move ahead with my life."

McQueen sat still, watching her. She glanced away. "I know, you never like to talk about all this 'relationship' stuff. But I wanted to let you know that I've finally started making sense of things. Despite what I said back then, it wasn't all your fault. It wasn't even mostly your fault." She looked down and found her hands twining around each other, like restless animals. She willed them to stillness.

"When we met, I thought you were the most exotic thing I'd ever seen. You were so different from all my friends - tough, seasoned, dangerous. You'd been places, done things, fought battles..."

"She loved me for the dangers I had passed, And I loved her that she did pity them."

"You remember. Yes, I was quite the Desdemona, wasn't I? Running away from everything I knew into the arms of the man I loved. So romantic! So forbidden! Then you left on tour, and reality hit. What a slap."

"Medora, we discussed this. I warned you about what would happen, how things would be. You said you understood."

"Oh, I know what I said. But I didn't understand - how could I? It was all so foreign to me, I just knew things couldn't be that bad. Well, they were worse." Old bitterness edged the words. "I was 'Tank Woman'. Not able to rent a decent place. Not welcome in my friends' homes. Passed over again and again at work with no explanation. Of course, my family had cut off contact...I was alone, Ty, no one to talk to, no one to help me. I was terrified. I didn't know what to do. Then your tours got longer, and the hours and weeks together couldn't make up for the months alone. I was living in a dark, desperate hopeless hole and then I realized I was blaming you for everything. I'd started to hate you for the choice I'd made. I couldn't stand the thought of us ending up like that so I cried for 2 weeks straight, then I filed the papers. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life."

"I didn't know any of this, you never said anything..."

"How could I?" Scornfully. "You were off in Guatemala or on the moon for God's sake, you weren't going to rush back and hold my hand. Besides, I couldn't admit that I'd been wrong, everything was a mistake. And I couldn't face your pain, and your anger. You do have a rather impressive temper, as I recall." She sighed, a lonely sound. "So we started arguing about having a baby, because it was so much easier, and safer, than arguing about what was really important. Like whether we should be married at all. The baby excuse seemed so reasonable - at the end, I think I almost believed it myself."

McQueen stared at her with a painful emptiness. He wondered vaguely what he should be feeling. He'd loved this woman once, as much as he'd been able. He still cared for her in a deep, locked away place, but there was no path left to it. He shook the thought away, needing to make things clear.

"My career is my life, Medora, you knew that...it's what I do, what I know. All I know. You knew I'd never give it up, no matter what. You made the choice to be a military wife, you said it was what you wanted, you made that commitment."

His voice drifted off. The familiar silence settled over them.

Oh yes, she thought, I promised. To love you forever, till death do us part. Irrevocable choice, that. Loyalty was not negotiable. Once committed, never look back, never say quit, semper fi. That was the way of honor, of TC McQueen. There was no middle ground, no forgiveness.

She watched him and waited. She was good at waiting. But he was better. Finally she admitted defeat.

"Ty, you've spent your life learning to be the best. You've accomplished so much, you've proved your point a thousand times over. I was proud to be your wife, proud that I got to share part of that with you. And now, I just...I hope you can find someone, make the rest of your life work. And I hope someday that maybe you'll be a father, if that's what you really want. And if there's anything you ever need, well, you know you can call me any time." He didn't look up. "Thanks for hearing me out. I just needed you to understand."

She was out the door before McQueen realized she'd gone. "Medora." he called, but there wasn't an answer.

"I don't get it," Wang complained. "Some of these questions are so weird. I mean, what does it matter what hand the Chig holds his weapon in? Or how they treat their casualties? How's that going to help us?"

Medora rubbed her eyes, looked at the young lieutenant. So young, and she felt so old. She had asked to interview the 58th squadron personally and no one had questioned it. She wasn't sure what she was looking for, some oblique news about Ty, some understanding of him through his people. No one here knew about her failed marriage or her ex-husband. In many ways, Medora was as private and uncommunicative as TC McQueen. Like him, she was also very stubborn, and very good at her work. Which was why Aerotech had picked up her contract.

"Lieutenant, trust me, we'll be doing the analysis and every question has a reason. I'm really interested in personal observations you might have made, especially during ground combat. I know that you were interned for a short time on Kazbek, but I'd rather concentrate on actual combat situations where you had a chance to see Chigs in action. Now, you said in your questionnaire that Chig assault troops seem to advance in a staggered formation, sort of a modified V, and they don't make adjustments even when faced with incoming fire."

The WildCards were back in the Tun, duties for the day complete. Cooper was being interviewed, but no one expected that to last long. Coop was a great shot but he didn't spend any time observing the behavior of the Chigs he wasted. As for entertainment, gossip was stale, cards were boring, and everyone was starting to get on everyone else's nerves. Vansen was drinking straight shots of tequila, the only 'Card with enough credit to buy liquor. The others watched enviously.

There was a rowdy group at the back of the Tavern, the 134th, the Cajun Cougars. They hadn't been involved in the intel project, as they'd spent most of the war flying support missions in safe territory. They were a cocky bunch and Vansen disliked them, when she thought about them at all. Right now they seemed to have plenty of credit and were drinking with abandon. One of them noticed the 'Cards, and some whispered discussion went on, with hushed laughter. Finally Hughes, the leader, called out "Hey, look, it's the WildCards themselves, Heroes of the Saratoga! Whattaya think guys, do we bow, or will a curtsy do?" His friends chuckled.

"What got them started?" asked Wang.

"Ignore 'em," Vansen counseled. "They're just as bored as we are."

Hughes continued, "Yeah, the high and mighty 'Cards don't associate with us lower life forms."

"Ya got that right," remarked West.

"They think they're too GOOD for us. But y'know, I think they're wrong. I think they've been coasting on that reputation for quite a while." Hughes took a long pull on his bottle and grinned at Vansen. "I think I could show Captain Vansen that the Cougars have a few moves the WildCards haven't seen. Whattya say, Vansen? You up for a little action?"

"Not with you, Hughes," Vansen replied, turning in her seat to glare at him. "I'd rather dance a tango with a Chiglet." She turned back to her drink.

Hughes leaned back in his chair, a tipsy smile on his face. "Ah c'mon Vansen, we're all Marines, all stuck out on this bucket in the middle of nowhere, fighting the same enemy. We're all buddies here. Well, except for Lt. Wang, I don't have any use for Bears fans. I follow PROFESSIONAL football teams."

Vansen grabbed Wang's wrist as he started to rise. "Forget it Paul, they're just trying to rile you. It's not worth it."

"Of course," continued Hughes, "The 'Cards must be confused a lot of the time. After all, their commanding officer is an infantry man. He's a tank commander. Get it?" Hughes nudged his cohort, who collapsed in laughter. "Yeah, the Angry Angel. No, wait, it's the Cheerless Cherub!"

The six Cougars laughed out loud, Hughes slapping the table. Alarmed, West watched Vansen toss off her shot, then very carefully replace the glass on the table. "Y'know, I think I may just have a word with our Lt. Hughes," she said, standing up. West protested, "C'mon Shane, you said it yourself, they're not worth it."

"And I was right. Don't worry, I'm not going to cause any trouble." She patted West's hand and walked over to the Cougars' table.

West pushed back his chair. "Oh shit. She's got The Look. Get ready."

Wang spoke woefully to his drink. "And I just bought this. Now it's going to go to waste. Sic money fugit, adios little root beer."

Vansen walked up to Hughes, her smile tight. She leaned over the table, breathing tequila fumes into his face. "Hughes, yeah, you're pretty funny." Hughes nodded his head and glanced at his buddies. "Pretty funny when you're flying, I should say. You are a legend in the Corps - as a lousy pilot. But let me tell you one thing." Vansen leaned over the table, her eyes steeled to hard points. "You can try to tick me off, or any of the people in my squadron, but you won't succeed because we know exactly how low a lifeform you are. You and your spooge-drones don't have the firepower to carry on a flame war in an old folks home. But you insult my commanding officer and I will clean your dirt-sucking clock and shove it so far up your butt you'll be telling time out your ear. Got it?" She smiled sweetly.

Hughes, his face purple, lurched to his feet, towering over Vansen's 5'4" frame. As he swung his right arm, Vansen ducked and kicked out his left knee. Hughes went down in a heap and there was a general scramble as the 134th and 58th proceeded to conduct a serious hand-to-hand engagement. Two weeks of tension and inactivity erupted into a glorious rumble. The odds were 6 to 4 against the 'Cards, which made things tight, considering that they lacked Hawkes, their best infighter. But Vansen's fury and the alcoholic buzz on the Cougars evened the odds. Fists, glasses, tables and people flew, heads cracked, and by the time the MPs arrived, two of the Cougars were out and the rest of the participants were bloody but unrepentant. As they were all dragged unceremoniously to the brig, Paul noticed that his drink had survived intact, after all.

The WildCards were standing at attention in the briefing room. They had been standing that way for over an hour, waiting for McQueen to return. McQueen had been in one helluva mood this last week, and no one was looking forward to hearing what he had to say. "How bad do you think this is going to be?" Wang whispered to West for the third time. "I don't know. Bad," West whispered back. Wang was sporting stitches in his scalp, while West had a long bloody cut above his eyebrow. Damphousse was nursing a cracked rib. Vansen had taken the worst of it. Her eye was black and puffy, and her split lip was swelling nicely. Various bruises were hidden by her jumpsuit. She looked cool and serene. For the first time in weeks, she felt calm.

Only Hawkes was uninjured, he'd been detained longer in the interview than anyone would have guessed. It turned out he had an almost eidetic memory for certain obscure details, and had proved a treasure trove of information for the civilian team. He also stood at attention, but the faint scowl on his face betrayed his annoyance at missing the action which had brought him here.

McQueen strode into the room and stood in front of his battered squadron.

"I'm not going to ask what you fought over, because I don't care what it was," he began. "Imagine my surprise that one of the premier squadrons in the Corps, my squadron, feels the need to beat the crap out of their fellow Marines in the Tun." He paced down the line, stopping in front of Hawkes. "What's your story, Hawkes? I would have expected you'd be in the middle of all this."

"Uh, I wasn't there, sir. Or I woulda been."

"Yes, I guess you 'woulda' been." McQueen paced back. "Now Captain Vansen. I understand you initiated this little brawl. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

"No Sir. This is my fault, my responsibility. I started it, I take the blame."

"And did you order your squadron to assist you in putting Hughes in sick bay?"

"No Sir, I did not."

"Lt. West. Do you have any comments to offer?"

"Sir, Capt. Vansen was defending the honor of the 58th."

"Honor?" McQueen leaned forward, glaring. "Honor? Lieutenant, 'honor' lies in your everyday conduct, with friend and foe, in here and out there. It does not lie in wiping up the floor with a bunch of loudmouth drunks just because they found a way to piss you off." He turned. "Wang? Damphousse? Anything to add?"

"No Sir."

McQueen paced past each 'Card, going nose-to-nose with each in turn. "Let me tell you something. You're all responsible here. And you're damn lucky that everyone's buttoned up and you're not in for a disciplinary transfer to some backwater supply depot! Now hear this, CFB: Save it for the Chigs! We are in a war, people, fighting an alien enemy who would like nothing better than to blow you out of this universe at any moment. You fight your own, you weaken the Corps, and you weaken yourselves. That is NOT ACCEPTABLE. I won't stand for it. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes Sir!" The response was loud and immediate.

"Now, since you all seem to have so much extra energy, you can start burning it with a work detail to repair the damage in the Tun. Next, you'll personally complete all primary and secondary maintenance on the Cougars' hammerheads for the next 2 weeks. In addition, you will also be granted an extra hour of PT every day, to be held at 2100 hours with Sergeant Kroetch." An involuntary groan escaped Wang. "What was that, Lieutenant? Are you complaining about this duty?"

"No Sir!"

"Very well. Except for assigned duties, you're all confined to quarters until further notice, Hawkes excepted. I do not expect to have to repeat myself on this matter. Dismissed!"

The WildCards filed out of the room. McQueen turned and perused the briefing charts. He heard a step at the door and turned to see Ross.

"I just passed a squad of whipped puppies. They looked like yours."

"Yes, we were having a discussion about the propriety of their recent conduct."

"Uh-huh." Ross joined him at the chart, seemingly engrossed in the planetary markings. "I understand that the 134th provoked this little incident."

"Sir, I don't care who provoked it. We both know that shipboard fighting is inexcusable."

"Yes, that's true." Ross continued to study the chart. "I also understand that the 58th wasn't interested in fighting until Lt. Hughes insulted their commanding officer." McQueen shot him a sharp glance. "Apparently the insult was of such a nature that it could not be ignored."

"I see."

"You know how I feel about this kind of thing, Ty. I won't tolerate that kind of attitude on this ship. I've spoken to Lyons, CO of the 134th. It won't happen again."

"I understand. Thank you sir."

Ross nodded, and walked from the room. McQueen looked after him thoughtfully. Then the tiniest of smiles pulled at his mouth. Four on six and they'd put 2 of the 134th out. Vansen had started it - he'd have to talk with her about rank and its lack of privileges in certain situations. Luckily no serious injuries, no charges filed, no real harm done. This time. His eyes turned cold. This waiting was definitely getting to all of them. They needed something to do, and they needed it soon.

The mission, when it came, was a BS detail but at least it got them into their fighters. Recon of a quiet sector which had some anomalous energy readings - it was dull duty that would have chafed at any other time, but for now was entirely welcome. After 2 sorties, the 'Cards had begun to feel looser, although Hawkes complained about the lack of target practice. The extra work cut into their sack time, but being able to fly again almost offset the annoyance of the penalty duties imposed by McQueen.

Vansen was the last of the WildCards to be interviewed by the civilian team. Medora paced the small room, waiting, then sat down at the desk. She wondered what she'd say to this young woman. She wanted, perversely, to hear news of Ty, to know that he was successful, if not happy. Respected, if not loved. She hoped he was loved, by someone. He'd never admit it, but he was one who needed care, although he had no idea how to return it. He'd wanted a family, but didn't have the slightest idea of what a father was. He hadn't understood the basics of most human emotional interactions. But then, it had been a long time. Maybe he'd learned something in the years since she'd seen him. Maybe he'd learned how to give and receive love. Maybe he'd even learned how to forgive. Maybe.

Vansen entered quietly, catching Medora off guard. "Captain Vansen, thank you for coming, I'm Medora Weathers, please have a seat." Medora went through the questionnaire line by line, noting Vansen's bruised face. What goes on here? she wondered. The injuries didn't seem to bother her. Together, they carefully reviewed Vansen's ground missions, picking apart her memories, exploring anything that seemed of interest. Vansen had a good head, and even under fire had been able to note some tactical information of value.

At the end of the session, Vansen leaned back in her chair. "Can I ask you something?"

"Yes, of course."

"Is this stuff really going to help? I mean, is Aerotech really going to put something useful together and get it back out to us? Because I can see all this data disappearing into some big bureaucratic black hole and end of story."

Medora smiled at the skeptical tone. "Well, I wish I could say that yes, at such-and-such a time we'll have a complete report back to you which shows that if you do these things, we can win any battle against the Chigs. But I can't. I'm just a grunt data gatherer, and next I'll be a grunt analyst. I'm not in charge of dissemination."

Vansen sighed. "Yeah, I guess we're all just grunts when it comes to getting useful intel those pencil-pushers oughta get out here and see what we really need, what this war is all about. Oh," she leaned forward, "I don't mean you, I know your team has been in combat. You're out here with us. I mean well, you know what I mean."

"Yes, I think I do. Now, would you mind if I asked you a question?

"No, go ahead."

"Who decorated your face?"

Vansen laughed, touched her eye, winced. "Oh yeah, that. I keep forgetting how I look. We got into a disagreement with the 134th, the Cajun Cougars. A real sweet bunch."

"And are they wearing, shall we say, similar colors?"

"Oh yeah, I think we convinced them of the rightness of our cause before it was all over. Man, was McQueen hot! Chewed us up one side and down the aft hatch. It was worth it, though."

Medora raised an eyebrow.

"The fight. It was all about our CO, Colonel McQueen. Well, not that we told him. See, McQueen's an InVitro, and the Cougars just couldn't leave that alone. Some people, they get started on IVs, and it's like open season or something. But I will not sit by and let some chig-brained dipstick tear after the Colonel. He's a great CO. Tough, but very fair. And an incredible pilot. He took out Chiggie von Richtoven one-on-one when he could barely stand up. He's a legitimate hero." She let out a self-conscious laugh. "I sound like some kind of star-struck kid, don't I?"

"He sounds like a remarkable man."

"He is. I don't think a lot of people see that, maybe they can't get past the IV thing. He's always pushing us to be the best. And, this probably sounds stupid, but he really cares about us, you know? I mean us, ourselves. I feel like - I never really knew my father much, but sometimes the Colonel does things I think a father would do." Vansen's eyes were bright with admiration, and something more. "I want to do things right, make him proud of me. I know the others feel like that too, but we don't talk about it. Especially not with the Colonel. You just can't say that stuff to him. Jeez, I don't know why I'm telling you all this. It's just, sometimes you meet someone who changes your life, and you can never tell them. And you wish you could. Did you ever have anyone like that in your life?"

"Oh yes." The words were more than just simple agreement. Medora could feel them in her soul.

The Saratoga had completed all repairs and was heading back towards deep space. One ISSCV waited to carry the civilian team back to the rendezvous point with an insystem transport, and from there they would travel to Earth. Medora stood in the bay, surrounded by her team and flight technicians, feeling unaccountably sad. She had completed her assignment and had even said what she needed to say to McQueen. Vansen's confidences had given her a feeling that he was in the right place, with the right people.

She glanced back at the bay door and saw him standing just inside. He stared at her, started to walk over. She dropped her duffel, met him halfway, and pulled him out of the melee of people.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"I, uh, thought I'd just see you off."

"Well thank you. I am feeling a little lost right now. You know me and space. The first phase of the project's finished, now it's just a long trip back, more tin cans and wormholes. And I was just thinking how I may never see you...well I mean, it's unlikely you'll get out my way any time soon." She felt tears in the back of her throat. Oh Medora, she thought, don't leave like this. Show some dignity. Ty had always despised tears.

He stood uneasily. "I doubt we'll see each other again. I just wanted to say, thank you for the talk. It, uh, got me thinking, and a lot of what happened between us makes sense now. I always blamed you for not being strong enough to make it work with a tank..." He looked at her, then away. "I understand better now. We were both strong in different ways..." his statement hung, unfinished. "Have a safe trip."

She caught his arm as he turned away. "There's something else I have to tell you." She took a breath and it all tumbled out. "You always said you wanted a family, Lord knows we talked about it a lot, but I think we both knew it just wasn't possible. We couldn't even hold ourselves together. But Ty, while I've been here, I've seen that you have that family. Not the Corps - the Corps is just a big military machine, you know how I feel about that. But YOUR family, those kids, the WildCards, they love you. They'd do anything for you. Whatever you ask."

"I'm just their commanding officer. There's always someone to take my place."

"As squadron leader, maybe. For most squadrons. But not this one. What these kids feel for you, I can only envy. Complete devotion, complete acceptance. If I could have loved you like that... Ty, don't underestimate this. It's what you've looked for your whole life. It's yours. Don't throw it away."

She stopped, completely flustered by her outburst. She hadn't known that was what she was going to say. It felt good though, to be able to give him that gift, to watch the ice melt from his eyes a little. She turned it into a little joke: "Trust me, I'm a scientist. Observing is my job. Remember?"

The ISSCV was loading. Somehow there was no more to say. Feeling a little foolish, Medora held out her hand, and McQueen took it. Suddenly she threw herself against him, slipping her arms around his neck, and squeezing with all her will. He looked surprised, and suddenly enfolded her to him, his eyes closed in a wave of unfamiliar emotion. Maybe this was acceptance, at last. Or maybe it was forgiveness. He couldn't tell. He felt her hair brush his cheek, felt, rather than heard her say, "Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely, but too well." He wasn't sure which one of them she meant.

They stepped apart. "Well." Medora smiled, a little tremulously, and walked away dabbing at her eyes with her sleeve. She hefted her duffel and boarded the ISSCV. She didn't look back. When they cleared the bay for takeoff, McQueen went to a port to watch the ISSCV leave. He stood for a long time, watching. Then he turned away and went to find his kids.

The End

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