DISCLAIMER: The Characters and situations of the TV program "SPACE: Above and 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. Note: All characters found in this work, as well as the 513th Recon Team ("Ghostriders") are the property of the author, and may not be used without permission.

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to express his deepest gratitude to Pam Rudd and Becky Ratliff for their ceaseless encouragement and enthusiasm. Without them, this story might never have been completed. Thanks guys!

R rated for language

Michael B Lee

Part One

USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
Point Bravo, Groombridge System
October 1, 2063 0415 hours

Major Karen Wilde drew her knees up against her chest and took another drink, the single-malt scotch filling her mouth with the flavors of smoke and fire. The half-empty bottle of Macallan sat in a lonely pool of light on the desk, next to her CD player. Music hung in the air like a ghost, a thin sound in the darkness.

"There's no time for us, There's no place for us,
What is this thing that builds our dreams, yet slips away from us?"

The letters were finally written, all eleven stacked neatly and ready for the long trip home. They would arrive in time for Christmas, she thought, feeling cold inside. The warmth of the liquor did nothing to take away the chill.

She had tried to write them like the prescribed form letter, but all the well-crafted regrets and assurances sounded hollow. In the end, she had written them all by hand, calling forth each Marine's face in turn and trying to remember something about their last day alive, some small gift worth cherishing for the husbands and wives and parents in the lonely years to come. There were some cases where she couldn't remember anything at all; she'd been forced to make things up - a practical joke, or a comment about missing the people back home. It made her feel dirty, somehow.

Wilde took a long, thoughtful sip, letting it swirl and burn in her mouth as she watched the cold lights beyond the cabin porthole. When you command men in war, some of them will die, her father had said, echoing words from the Academy.

Some, maybe, but not all, she thought bleakly. Not all of them, gone in the blink of an eye. They shouldn't be dead, and me still alive. I made the call, and I led the way. All they did was follow.

"Who wants to live forever..."

She figured they would court-martial her at Groombridge. No one was saying so, but then no one was saying anything. They debriefed her for four hours, then when it was over she learned that they had taken her off the duty roster. She was told to take some time, get her head together before they made it back to port.

Her career was finished, two years after it had begun.

"There's no chance for us, It's all decided for us
The world has only one sweet moment set aside for us..."

Her father would be waiting for her at the base. By now, he would know what had happened. First Mom, then David, and now this... It would break his heart.

Wilde finished the scotch, and rose from the bed to get another. If she drank enough, maybe she wouldn't dream. Even that little attempt at escape made her feel dirty, because the scotch was a gift from her father, celebrating her first command. She owed it to the dead to remember every detail of what she had done. But she wanted to sleep. She wanted to sleep forever...

Her hand was on the bottle when the soft knock came at her hatch. For a moment, she moved to stow the bottle back in her desk drawer, but then remembered that it didn't matter. That was something for a pilot to worry about, not her. Running a hand through her close-cropped hair, she concentrated on walking a straight line as she stepped up and opened the steel door.

The man outside wore a tiger-striped flightsuit and a colonel's eagles on his collar. He was of average height and slim as a steel whip, his expression cool and alert even at four in the morning. The leather nameplate on his chest read COL. R. YOUNG.

"Um, Good morning sir," Wilde said carefully, suddenly self-conscious of her short-sleeve shirt and undress BDU's. The scotch left her words a little fuzzy around the edges.

Colonel Young folded his arms, his expression unreadable. "I've been admiring your music for some time now, Major," he said. "But I've got a squadron rotation to oversee in about three hours, so if you don't mind, I'd like to get a little sleep."

Wilde felt her cheeks grow hot. "Of course, sir. I'm sorry, I-" she started to explain, how she needed the sounds to keep the dreams away, but caught herself. Marines didn't have nightmares, especially squadron commanders. "I'll shut it off right now," she managed to say.

Colonel Young studied her for a moment. He started to say something, then thought better of it. Instead, he offerred a small grin. "No harm done, Major," he said. "It's good to know I'm not the only one who loves the oldies. Good night."

"Good night, sir," she replied, trying to return the smile. When the hatch was closed behind her, she went to the CD player. She only hesitated a moment, then switched it off.

Silence fell. Officers' Country was quiet as a tomb. A fortuitous accident of design- most other parts of the ship were subject to a thousand sounds, large and small, day and night. She found herself straining to hear the slightest noise, the smallest whisper of life.

REBEL TWO, check in. REBEL TWO... REBEL THREE, can you see REBEL FOUR? REBEL THREE, come in...

There was nothing. Nothing but the sound of her heartbeat hammering in her ears.

REBEL FLIGHT, check in! REBEL FLIGHT...someone, anyone...

Silence on the line.

REBEL FLIGHT! There's got to be someone...my God...

Karen Wilde grabbed the half-empty bottle and sat down by the desk. Over and over, her memories pleaded into the silence, but no answers came.

USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
Point Alpha, Groombridge System
October 1, 2063 1000 hours

It hurt to button up his shirt. Private Marc Dieters took them one at a time, wincing whenever he had to move his arms. He hurt more after the doctors had worked on him than when he'd gotten hit in the first place. He still couldn't figure that one out.

The places on his back where the surgeons had removed the shrapnel both ached and itched at the same time. His calves, riddled by a dozen or more tiny steel splinters, merely ached. The doctors had pulled out 35 pieces of metal, every bit of it Marine issue- the pieces in his back had been part of his body armor's trauma plate, put there by a Chig plasma rifle, the splinters in his leg courtesy of an experimental automortar that had blown up in the heat of battle. But in spite of all that, he was one of the lucky ones. Twelve men had made the drop onto Medea, and only six had come back- seven, counting Jakes, but he had died on the way back to the carrier. He'd lost most of his right arm, and the docs said he just stopped trying to live. It had been a steep price to pay to blow up a mining plant.

Yet the scuttlebutt was that the Chigs had been stopped at the Van Allen Belt, just short of Earth. A squadron of rookies, right out of accelerated training, had managed to hold the aliens off long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Humanity was still losing the war, but the pressure was off of Earth for the time being. Dieters liked to think that maybe their mission had helped to trip the Chigs up, too. It made everything a little easier to take.

"You're going to drive the girls wild back home with those broad, scarred shoulders," came a familiar voice from behind him.

Dieters looked over his shoulder into a pair of bright green eyes. Whenever he saw Nurse Pierson, he was always immediately drawn to her eyes. She was five-eight and slightly stocky, with a strong, stern jaw and broad cheekbones that robbed her features of any gentleness. But her eyes lit up her face, a glowing pair of emeralds alight with humor and intelligence. She had been the first face he had seen when he woke from surgery, and he had been in her charge ever since. He'd come to look forward to her daily visits, and now he realized with some surprise that she was the one part of his stay in sickbay that he didn't want to end, though he wasn't exactly sure why. "Girls like scars?" he said.

Pierson's lips quirked in a wry smile. "On the right man, you betcha.You're handling those buttons like they were bombs. How's your back?"

Dieters stood up from the sickbay bed and finished off his top button. "Hurts a little," he said warily. He liked seeing Pierson, but all the same he was damned tired of laying in bed and staring at the ceiling.

"You'd probably say the same thing about a sucking chest wound," she said drily, stepping around the foot of the bed. "Don't worry Private, I'm not going to trap you here any longer- you've got your walking papers. I just had to make sure you wouldn't leave without saying goodbye." Her smile widened. "Well, that and to give you some pills."

She held out two bottles. "One is an anitibiotic protocol that we want you to take religiously, because Dr. Carstairs is concerned about the possibility of latent infection. We're getting injured people back from so many uncatalogued environments-"

"What does religiously mean?" Dieters said, frowning.

"It means if you don't take them when the directions say to, you better pray I don't find out. Now the other one is ibuprofen tablets. They're a mild pain reliever for the soreness." As Dieters bent to get his shoes, she reached out and snapped her fingers under his nose, startling him. "Hear this, Dieters. The soreness should go away in about a week. If it doesn't, or the pain gets worse, or you run out of ibuprofen, you come and see me. Got that? Nobody else. InVitros have a real problem with some painkillers, and I'm going to make sure you are problem-free." Her eyes narrowed in determination, the light from them focused and sharp. At that moment he believed Nurse Pierson could squint and stare holes through bulkheads if she wished. Or stubborn Marines.

"Ah, yes ma'am," he stammered, taking the two bottles. "No problem."

Pierson rolled her eyes. "I just try to help the man, and he acts like I'm his mother. Give me strength."

Dieters saw the opportunity and went for his shoes. Pierson was not like the other nurses. She was funny, and friendly, and oddly threatening, all at the same time. "How's Corporal Walters?" he asked, hoping to change the subject.

The nurse frowned. "In worse shape than you, of course. The docs gave him a little jar full of all the shrapnel they pulled out of him. By rights they ought to be sending him home, but I guess we can't afford to spare anybody these days. Orders have come down to turn him loose from sickbay as well, which is beyond me. He needs at least another week in bed, probably more."

"I'm glad he's going to be okay," Dieters said as he struggled with his laces. He hadn't seen Walters since they'd made it back to the Lady Lex. "I'd hate to think I carried him for fifteen klicks for nothing."

Pierson laid a hand on his shoulder, it was warm and soft, as was her smile. "I heard about that. Walters is lucky to have a friend like you."

"Walters can't stand me," the InVitro said flatly. "But he's part of the Team, you know?"

Some of the light went out of Pierson's eyes. Now, suddenly, she seemed uncomfortable. "We pulled in over NAS Groombridge this morning. They say we're going to get a couple weeks R&R. Maybe I'll see you planetside."

Dieters shrugged. "Maybe." There was a question in Pierson's eyes, but he wasn't sure what it was. "If we've made orbit, I better hurry up and find Gunny."

The question was still in her eyes as he moved past her, but it was a riddle for which he had no clues, much less answers. When he reached the doorway though, a thought came to him. "Um, Nurse Pierson? Thanks. Thanks for everything. I really appreciate everything you did for me. You're, um...the one thing I'm going to miss about this place."

The nurse's eyes shone again, and this time her smile took all the sternness from her face. "Give 'em hell, Marine."

Dieters returned the smile and headed out of sickbay. Direct hit, he thought smugly. There were a lot of things about his life that was still a mystery, but at least he could safely say he understood women.

Gunnery Sergeant Paul Marshall moved effortlessly through the cramped spaces of Marine Country, winding his way through unit ready rooms and narrow sleeping quarters without breaking stride. By the time he entered a section, word of his coming had already been passed up the line; Marines gathered up the shoes they were shining, or the letters they were writing, or the cards they were playing, and for the moment they got out of the way. It was shipboard courtesy, and common sense. Marine gunnery sergeants gave way for God and the sergeant-major of the Corps, and little else.

His practised gaze took in the activity around him as he passed, checking bunks and uniforms and the troops' attitudes. The faces that nodded or smiled back at him seemed younger every day. They were younger every day, he thought. I'm a goddamn grandfather.

At the end of Marine Country, near the bulkhead that separated their spaces from what belonged to the Navy, a corporal in dress uniform and sidearm stood watch outside a plain steel hatch. He snapped to attention as the Gunny approached.

"Gunnery Sergeant Marshall, reporting to the Colonel," he growled. The sentry gave a curt nod, knocked once on the hatch, and opened it.

The commander of Lexington's Marine detachment had a frown on his face as he looked up from the pile of paperwork scattered over his desk. Colonel McAdams was a fighting Marine, and even in his late forties looked hard and lean, hewn from dark, polished mahogany. More at home with a regiment in the field than behind a desk, he had a notorious hatred for paperwork and bureaucracy. It was likely the single reason that he wasn't a general by now, but that part probably suited McAdams just fine.

The Colonel's face broke into a smile when he saw Marshall. "Get in here, Gunny," he boomed in a resonant baritone. Marshall had seen sergeants quail under the Colonel's thunderous voice- he had been with McAdams long enough to know that it was when the Colonel spoke softly and calmly that it was time to duck and cover.

They'd known each other a long time- sixteen years, back when McAdams was the captain of a rifle company. They'd fought the AI's together, then the CC War, and now that they faced the Chigs, Marshall wished they had more officers like him. "You wanted to see me, sir?" he said as the corporal pulled the hatch shut behind him.

"I'd rather see your ugly face than this stack of paper, sure enough," the Colonel said, leaning back in his chair. "Undo that top button and let's sit down and talk for a minute."

Marshall smiled. He wasn't talking to the Colonel, now. It was "Captain Mac", the brother Marine he'd fought with in two wars. "What's on your mind?" he asked, taking one of the straight-backed metal chairs set before the Colonel's desk.

McAdams smiled conspiratorially. "A little bird told me you got some good news in the last mail bag."

Marshall grimaced. "Just confirmation I'm getting too old to be playing soldier with these kids."

"Oh, bullshit," McAdams said. "Did she send pictures?"

The Gunny relented with a reluctant grin. "Yeah, she did." Reaching into his breast pocket, he pulled out the letter from Ginny. There was a single photo inside of mother and child. "Another girl. Seems like all I'm ever gonna get are girls."

McAdams took the photo. "She doesn't look a thing like granddad, thank God," he said, his smile widening. "Where's the daddy?"

"The ne'er-do-well?" Marshall loved to tease his son-in-law, who had chosen the Navy instead of the Corps. "He's a lieutenant commander, over on Nevada. Hell, come to think of it, he may be insystem right now. I ought to look him up."

"Well, congratulations, old man. You treat my granddaughter right, hear?" McAdams had no children of his own. His wife, Marlene, had died of leukemia nearly fifteen years ago, during the worst period of the AI War. He had been in the field when she died. McAdams had never considered remarrying, and contented himself with "adopting" the Gunny's kids.

"Sir, yes sir," Marshall replied. "As a matter of fact, I was going to ask you if there was going to be enough R&R for a quick trip home. I've missed both of my kids' births, and now my first grandkid's. Barb is going to skin me alive."

McAdams' expression changed, his smile fading. "Well, actually, that was kind of the reason why I wanted to talk to you."

Marshall sensed the sea change in his friend and straightened. "What's up, Mac?"

"Reorganizations," Mcadams said. "Orders have come down from On High. The detachment is going to undergo some pretty serious shakeups while we're in port."

"They're not going to disband the Team, are they?" Marshall said apprehensively. It happened sometimes, if a unit took too many losses. They were down to half-strength, but these days that wasn't exactly a unique situation.

"No, nothing like that," McAdams said quickly. "Actually, they're promoting you. All of you. High Command wants to turn the 513th into wicked stepchildren."

For a moment, the Gunny could only sit and blink. "Say again?"

The Space Cavalry, an incongruous term to begin with when talking about Marines, had been seen as a logical response to the threat of the Silicates when their forces escaped into space in 2057. During the AI War, the tactic that worked best against the Silicates was to use small, highly-trained units, similar to Recon or Special Forces Teams, that could operate independantly in the field and hunt down the enemy wherever they chose to hide. When this tactical thinking was carried to the interstellar battlefield, it was decided that the Teams would need enhanced mobility and capabilities, to handle the challenge of fighting their enemy in space. Thus, pilot training was implemented, and the Teams became Squadrons, adding single-seat fighter craft to their Table of Organization and Equipment. The end results were the most extensively-trained soldiers ever put in the field, and military units that didn't quite fit in no matter where they went. The rest of the Corps saw them as Marines who played at being fighter jocks, and the Navy saw them as highly-trained pilots who got sent to play in the dirt as riflemen. They operated off of Space Carriers like Navy pilots, and reported ultimately to a Navy commander, but they were Marines, first, last, and always. They were the wicked stepchildren no one quite knew what to do with, but they were very good at what they did, which was to seek out the enemy and to fight him, anytime, anywhere.

McAdams regarded the Gunny sympathetically. "Your Team and four others are being upgraded to Space Cavalry, effective immediately."

"They...they can't do that," Marshall said dumbly.

"Oh, really?" McAdams replied, his eyebrows rising. "You try telling that to a Lieutenant General sometime. It'll be a real education for you. Look, the fact is that the SpaceCav units have been worth their weight in gold since the beginning of the war. From an administrative and a training standpoint, they're a Chinese Fire Drill, but at the same time they have got the kind of flexibility to do a wide variety of operations. If we need fighter ops, they're available, if we need Recon or Search and Destroy, they're available. And right now we've got to get the most use out of our manpower that we can. Hell, that squadron that saved things out at the Battle of the Belt, they were a SpaceCav unit, and only about half-trained at that."

The Gunny shot to his feet. "Come on, Mac, save me the party line. You know as well as I do that the SpaceCav tries to do too much to be really good at any one thing. You get any three SpaceCav squadrons and put them up against my Team in the field and we'll kick their asses before lunchtime. And there's probably Navy fighter squadrons who can do the same thing in the air. This is bullshit, and you know it."

MacAdams watched his friend pace angrily in front of his desk. "It's bullshit from very high up, Paul. The SpaceCav has done a lot of hard fighting. They've been on the sharp end of things since the war began, and they've paid the price. They've taken over sixty percent casualties across the board. Hell, we lost a whole squadron over Carter's World last week! And we've got to build back what we've lost. The brass wants SpaceCav units, and that's what they're going to get, no matter what you or I have to say about it."

"Give me a transfer then. Put me in another unit."

For a moment, McAdams was taken aback. "I didn't hear you say that, Paul. The Gunny I know would never leave his kids."

"I'm forty-three years old, Charlie!" Marshall exclaimed. "I'm a goddamn grandfather! What business do I have flying a fighter? All it's going to do is get me killed, and a whole lot of other people besides."

"You've got no business doing it Paul, you've got orders," MacAdams said quietly. "Don't think I didn't fight this. I'm losing four of my best Teams, and the finest goddamn gunnery sergeant I've ever known. But there's times when all you can do is shut up and soldier, and this is one of those times." He gave a weary sigh, and a hardness settled over his features. The top button had been buttoned again, and now it was the Colonel talking. "As of 0800 hours tomorrow, the 513th Recon Team will become the 513th Recon Squadron, and you and your men will report to Naval Aerospace Station Groombridge to begin preliminary flight training. There you will meet your new CO and replacements for the losses you took on Medea. Most of them will be survivors from other SpaceCav units. They'll have a lot to teach you about flying; I expect you to teach them a thing or two about how a real Marine Team works in the bush."

Marshall took a deep breath, leaning with his hands on the back of the metal chair. "These Cavalry jocks are going to be flight officers," he said, grasping for some way out of the situation. "Me and the boys are grunts. That's going to cause problems."

The Colonel didn't even blink. "That's why, effective tomorrow at 0800, your men will receive a field promotion to Second Lieutenant, and you will become a Captain. I want you to be this squadron's executive officer, and I had to pull a lot of strings to make it happen, so I expect you to take it like a man. Congratulations Gunny, and may God have mercy on us all."

"Now hear this, now hear this," the voice of Lexington's Executive Officer rang out over the ship's 1-MC. "Schedules for shoreside liberty have been posted with all department heads. Flights to John Glenn Spaceport will begin at 1500 hours. That is all."

A wild cheer went up from Marine Country as Dieters worked his way to the 513th's bunkroom. People paid little attention as he shouldered past, more intent on passing muster with their sergeants so they could get permission to go shoreside. Marines shouted jokes and taunts at one another, and flying cans of shoe polish or wadded-up rags set up a ragged crossfire. His back hurt every time someone bumped into him, but the overall good mood was contagious. Dieters was grinning broadly as he stepped through the hatchway into the silence of the Ghostriders' quarters.

The room was long and rectangular, six racks to a side and a hatchway at either end that connected to other sleeping quarterss. At the near side of the room a table and chairs was tucked to portside of the hatch, and to starboard were lockers that held the unit's gear. At the far end of the room stood Private First Class Adam Fleisher, making precise adjustments to his uniform in front of the mirror. Even though it fit perfectly, with his oversize ears and boyish features he looked more like a kid playing soldier. Midway down the room, portside, Dieters spied Private David Morganstern, stretched out in his upper rack, lost in the densely-written lines of a letter from home. At the table portside sat the unit's medic, glasses perched on the end of his nose as he penned a word into the vertical column of a crossword puzzle. Sergeant Robert Perry looked up as the InVitro came through the hatch.

"I'll be damned!" he said, his dark-skinned face creasing into a broad smile, "look what the cat dragged in."

Frowning, Dieters looked behind him to see if he had inadvertently snagged something, and Perry let out a laugh. Fleisher spared a brief glance their way. "Hey man!" he called. "How's the medal winner?"

"Medal?" Dieters echoed, unsure whether they were happy to see him or just screwing with him.

Perry rolled his eyes. "Pay no mind to the talking ferret, Dieters. He has this disturbing tendency to believe everything he hears."

"When the right people talk, I listen," Fleisher said, brushing at his sleeves, "and I make a habit of knowing all the right people. My man Walters is up for a Bronze Star and you, my InVitro friend, are going to get a Silver, which means the drinks are on you tonight!"

"If Gunny Marshall put the two of them up for medals, and if Colonel McAdams endorses the recommendation, and then if a review board signs off on the recommendation, then you and Walters might see a medal sometime after hell freezes over." Perry said flatly. "Don't start buying people any drinks yet, Dieters. Fleisher isn't as smart as he thinks he is."

"I was smart enough to find you a box of chocolate cherries last week, ten billion miles from the nearest candy store," Fleisher said with a grin.

"Chocolate...cherries?" Dieters inquired, tenatively entering the verbal exchange. "Sounds disgusting."

"Yeah, well," Roberts said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. "There's a doc in sickbay who happens to think they're God's gift to women."

"This far from Earth, they might as well be," Fleisher pointed out. "The fact is, if it's something you need, I'm the man who can get it." He turned from the mirror, spreading his arms. "I see all, I know all." Heading down the aisle towards them, he paused at Morganstern's rack. "I also know if you don't get your head out of that love letter and into your deltas we're gonna be drinkin' beer without you!" Fleisher reached out and snatched the letter from Morganstern's hands.

For his size Morganstern moved with startling speed, seeming to fly off his rack like a coiled spring. A hundred and twenty-five kilos of muscle and bone crashed into Fleisher's lean form and sent the smaller Marine flying into the rack on the opposite wall. One hand closed around Fleisher's neck and the other was raised in a fist. "Give it back, you little dipshit!"

"Hey, knock it off!" Perry yelled, bolting from his chair. Dieters moved in behind him, but the narrow aisle hampered their movements.

Fleisher, red-faced, shoved the letter back at Morganstern, who grabbed it and made for the forward hatch. Perry and Dieters had little choice but to get out of the way as the burly Marine stormed past them.

"God damn," Fleisher said, coughing and rubbing his throat as he sat up. "What the fuck was that all about?"

Perry watched their Teammate cut a swath through the crowded aisle in the next compartment, then disappear from sight. "I don't know," the medic said thoughtfully. "I've never seen him act like that before. He's always been the gentle giant type. I do know he's got a wife back home, and she was pretty far along with their first baby when we shipped out in August."

Dieters sat down on a lower rack, brows knit in concentration. "What do they call those letters where the girl tells the guy she doesn't love him anymore?"

"Frag-mail," Perry said ruefully. "It lands in your lap and ruins your whole day."

Fleisher shook his head. "And people wonder why I'm still single."

The medic regarded Fleisher. "I don't wonder about it, Adam," he said soberly. "I've always had faith in womens' common sense and good taste."

"Ah, man- look at my uniform!" Fleisher looked down in horror at his rumpled clothes. He lurched off the rack and headed back to the mirror. "Fuck Morganstern, but you two better get dressed if you want to make the 1500 flight down to Glenn."

"What makes you think we're on the list for the 1500 flight?" asked Perry.

"What are you, deaf and stupid? Like I said, people tell me things. Trust me."

"You think Morganstern will be okay?" Dieters wondered.

"Let's give him some time to cool off, then we'll see if he needs any help," Perry said. "We'll catch him groundside and get him shitfaced. You got plans, Dieters? Me and pretty boy over there were gonna get some real food and hit the bars."

"Huh? No, I don't got plans." the InVitro said. " Last time I was over Groombridge it was in a cargo container."

Perry blinked. "Well, do you want to go with us?" he said at last.

"Yeah," said the InVitro, a smile slowly spreading across his face. "Yeah. You bet."

That was when a Private from the adjoining bunkroom stuck his head through the hatch. "Gunny's comin'," he said, passing the word along.

The Private had no sooner gone back to what he was doing when Perry and Dieters could see Gunny Marshall coming down the narrow aisle. "Oh, shit," hissed the medic. "Gunny looks pissed."

"Maybe he ran into Morganstern?" Dieters wondered aloud.

Fleisher made a final adjustment and headed to the forward hatch. "You guys hurry up and get dressed," he said. "I'll keep him busy. Hey, Gunny!" Fleisher called out as the sergeant stepped into the bunkroom. "How do I look?"

"I told you before, Fleisher, you're not my type," growled Gunny Marshall. "Now shut up and listen, all of you. Clear out your lockers and report to the flight deck with your gear at 1500. There you will board an ISSAPC bound for NAS Groombridge. Report to the Housing office on arrival to draw temporary billets onbase." The sergeant took a deep breath, then plunged ahead. "At 0800 hours tomorrow, the world as you know it will end. You will report to briefing room 3301A for initial orientation prior to pilot training. Between now and then you're on your own, but if I were you I'd be getting some rest. There won't be much of that to go around in the next couple of weeks." With that the Gunny spun on his heel and left.

The three Ghostriders shared stunned looks. "Did he say pilot training?" asked Perry.

"I thought we were gonna get some liberty," Dieters said dumbly.

"Pilot training. They're turning us into goddamn Space Cavalry," Fleisher said wonderingly. "That's what they're doing. When did this happen? Goddamn!" the Marine cursed. "Nobody ever tells me anything!"

USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
Point Bravo, Groombridge System
October 2, 2063 0445 hours

"Thunder flight! Thunder flight, do you read me?" she called out, and again the only reply was a tortured squeal of static. Looking out through the Hammerhead's canopy, the dark wasteland of Carter's World seemed to go on forever in all directions. There were no stars, no sun, no moon- she and her squadron flew in the land of the dead.

The strike planes were in trouble, down there in the twisting canyons. She had to do something. She had to get them out. "Rebel flight," she called, "come to new heading two-two-five and follow my lead. We've got to get the heat off Thunder flight."

They're already dead, whispered a voice in her ears. They're dead, and so are we.

"Cut the chatter!" she cried, and rolled the SA-43 to port. "We're going to let the Chigs get a good look at us, and then dive down below their LIDAR net."

The lifeless surface of Carter's World rushed up at her. Static shrieked and howled in her ears. Ahead, a canyon gaped like an open maw, waiting to swallow her whole. It was going to swallow her, she suddenly understood. She was flying into the belly of the beast, and once she went in, she would be lost forever.

She hauled back hard on the stick, but nothing happened. A scream swelled in her throat. Too late, came the dead voice, rising and falling with the moaning static. Too late too late too late-

Darkness swallowed her, and she died in a blaze of light-

She fell from her bed in a tangle of sheets, her scream ringing off the room's steel walls. Light from the overhead smote her eyes, and Karen Wilde let herself fall back against the cold metal floor, shivering in terror and shame.

It was a long time before she found the strength to stand, letting the sweat-stained sheets fall away. She found herself looking for the bottle of scotch, but her eyes found instead the single sheet of laser print delivered to her the day before. She took it in a trembling hand and read its terse sentences for the thousandth time, as if hoping that somehow its wording had changed.

"How could you do this to me?" she whispered, crumpling the paper in her hand. "You son of a bitch. How could you?"

"You son of a bitch!" hissed Fleisher, recoiling from Perry's outstretched hand. "Get that shit away from me!"

The medic frowned, inspecting the offered sausage link. "What's the matter, buddy?" he asked innocently. "Not hungry? It's good and extra greasy, just like you like it."

The baby-faced Marine's pallor went from yellow to green. "Oh, Jesus!" he gulped, and staggered into the billet's closet-sized head.

Dieters leaned against the room's doorframe and folded his arms. "That was cold,"observed the InVitro, shaking his head.

Perry popped the sausage in his mouth and wiped his hands. "True," he said around the mouthful, "but at least he's awake, and besides, I owe him from last night." He rose from the foot of Fleisher's rack and headed for the door. "Shake a leg in there, pretty boy! You got to be in the briefing room in fifteen mikes!" Fleisher croaked something obscene as Perry and Dieters headed out into the corridor.

Upon locating their billets onbase, the Ghostriders had been instructed to draw new uniforms from the PX, along with notepad comps and course disks. Now both men wore olive-drab flightsuits, bereft of detail save for the shining "butter bars" at the collar which proclaimed their new rank. "What time did you guys get in last night?" asked Dieters.

"I got in sometime around one," Perry replied. "I decided to call it quits after the fight."

"Fight? You got in a fight?"

"No," Perry grimaced, "Fleisher got me into a fight. When he gets too much Tequila in him, he thinks he's irresistable to women. Well, sometime around his eighth shot, he locked on to this gorgeous brunette, who, as it happens, was a real Marine aviator. He made a move on her, and she said something to the effect that she didn't do charity cases."

Dieters nodded thoughtfully. "She turned him down, huh?"

Perry gave him a sidelong look. "Something like that. Anyway, my erstwhile buddy thought she was just being coy. After his fourth lame attempt at charm, she hauled off and hit him. Fleisher, ever the gallant sort, picked himself up off the deck and hit her back. Then this other guy from her squadron jumped on Fleisher, I jumped on him, and the whole place went to hell. I got out just ahead of the Shore Patrol. God only knows how Cassanova escaped."

They walked on through the base's corridors, working their way closer to the operations area. At five minutes before eight they stepped through the doorway to briefing room 3301A.

The room's podium was vacant as they entered, the display board behind it showing a map of space and the farthest reaches of human exploration before the war. VESTA COLONY shone in gold lettering on the dark background, and TELLUS (landing April, 2063). Beside the display board someone had hung a poster showing two soldiers talking outside a bar. In the night sky above them was the ghostly outline of a Chig's armored helmet. LOOSE LIPS LOSE SHIPS, the poster warned, THE CHIGS ARE LISTENING!

There were five Marines sitting in the classroom-style chairs arrayed before the podium. Three were strangers- a dark-haired man of medium build, slouching in his chair, sitting beside a tall, lithe woman, her blonde hair cut as close as the men's. Sitting alone in the middle row was a red-haired, elfin-featured woman, watching the new arrivals with large blue eyes. Morganstern sat near the back, his thick arms folded across his chest. Beside him was a square-shouldered black man, sitting stiffly in the plastic chair.

"Walters!" Perry called out to him. The injured man gave a lopsided smile as the medic worked his way back to him. "I thought havin' a mortar blow up your face was a sure ticket home."

"'Aint nothin', D.," said Walters. "I couldn't go home and leave you out here all alone with Mr. Chiggie. Your mama would never forgive me."

Dieters watched the two men from a distance, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. After he had gotten out of sickbay, it had started to feel like he had been accepted, that he was a part of the Team like everyone else. But the sight of Walters brought back memories of the mission to Medea. You turning chickenshit on us already, tank? Tired of playing Marine now that things have got tough? Morganstern looked like he didn't care for any company, so the InVitro took a seat by himself near the front.

A minute later Fleisher jogged through the door, looking none the worse for wear despite Perry's unorthodox wakeup call. "Good morning, Lieutenant Dieters!" he said with a grin, sliding into a nearby chair.

"Same to you, Lieutenant Fleisher," said the InVitro, unable to resist smiling in return. "Heard you had a big night last night."

The newly-minted flight officer leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head. "Well, let's just say I only got about ten minutes of sleep, if you now what I mean. I met this gorgeous brunette who was just crazy about me-"

Two more Marines entered the room. Their flightsuits did not have the freshly-creased look of the trainees, and were detailed with a number of colorful patches. The first was a man of average height, solidly built, who moved with the grace of a professional athlete. Behind him came a woman, slightly shorter than average, whose uniform could not completely hide her body's shapely curves. Her dark hair was pulled back from a face that belonged on the cover of a fashion magazine. Smooth cheekbones and dark, arched eyebrows further accentuated the purplish bruise surrounding one emerald eye.

Heads turned, and conversation stopped. "Oh, shit," Fleisher said in a strangled voice.

"Attention on deck!" the leathery voice sounded from the doorway. Ten pairs of feet thundered as one as the 513th Recon Squadron came to life.

Gunny Marshall entered the room on the heels of the brunette pilot, stepping to the side and coming to attention, silver captain's bars flashing angrily from his collar.

Into the silence strode a woman, short and slim of build, her close-cropped ash-blond hair sharpening the lines and angles of her face to a razor edge. A strong jaw tapered to a pointed chin; wide gray eyes that narrowed in appraisal over a small, sharp nose created the impression of delicacy honed into deadliness. She moved with urgency and assurance, an aura of authority flowing out of her and filling the room as she stepped to the podium.

"As you were," she said simply, and the Marines took their seats. "By order of the Commandant of the Corps, Lieutenant General Morgan, effective Sunday, October 2, 2063 at 0800 hours, the 513th Recon Team is upgraded to the capabilities and duties of a Marine Space Cavalry Squadron. I am Major Karen Wilde, and by the order of the Commanding General of the Third Marine Expeditionary Unit, I hereby assume command of this squadron."

Major Wilde stepped away from the podium, hands clasped behind her back, and surveyed the reborn 513th. "Now listen up. Our mission profile is to confront the enemy and destroy him on land or in the air, but half of you have never seen the inside of a cockpit before, much less flown an aircraft. We have two weeks to change that."

Dieters gave Fleisher a dubious look. Beyond the young Marine, Dieters could see the brunette lean over to her companion and whisper something, shaking her head sadly.

"Our schedule from now until the Lexington leaves port will be as follows: reveille will be at 0430, and class will begin at 0600. At 1300 hours we will hit the simulators, and at 1900 hours we will be back in class again. The day ends at 2100 hours, after which you are free to return to your quarters and sleep, though if you are smart you will choose to study instead. I will be calling upon Lieutenants Schaeffer and Connelly-" Wilde nodded towards the two experienced pilots- "to assist in passing on their knowledge and experience during class, and when the time comes that I feel you are ready to try a simulated combat patrol, they will take the role of aggressors. Between them they have amassed more that fifteen kills, so when they talk, I expect you to listen.

"Additionally, we have three pilot recruits, fresh from accelerated training on Earth." The Major turned to regard the trio of strangers. "No doubt the next couple of weeks will seem like a rerun to you. Your performance in the sims this afternoon will tell me whether your participation in class will be as a student or as an assistant to the instructors. Are there any questions?" From the look in her eye it was clear that she expected none. She let the silence hang for a few moments. "Very well then," she said, nodding curtly, "the clock is ticking, and we have a lot of work to do."

Wilde turned back to the podium, drawing an optical disk from her breast pocket. People shifted in their chairs and activated their notepads. Fleisher and Dieters shared stunned looks. Shoot me now, the baby-faced Marine mouthed silently.

"Oh, we are so dead," Fleisher said mournfully. "Momma, send me back to the mud and the mean-assed Chiggie men. I don't wanna fly no more."

At 2130, head buzzing and eyes burning, shuffling along the base's corridors back to his billet, Dieters found it hard to disagree. "What language was the Major speaking after we got back from mess call?"

"Physics," replied Perry, pulling off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. "I actually understood most of it. What I want to know is how Fleisher managed to wreck his aircraft without even making it out of the hangar."

"Two words: Lieutenant Connelly," Fleisher said wearily. "I swear she has it in for me."

"Well, no screaming-eagle-shit, wild man," Walters said. The still-healing injuries to his leg forced him to use a cane to get around, and his face was lined with effort as he kept pace with his squadron mates. "I'd be lookin' for some payback, too, if you'd given me a shiner like that."

Dieters suddenly straightened. "Where's Morganstern?"

"He was still pounding away at his notepad as we were heading out the door," Perry replied with a shrug. "If it gets his mind off of whatever personal shit he's dealing with, then more power to him."

"I want to know where they dug up the new CO," Perry wondered. "She looks like, what, twenty-six, twenty-seven?"

Fleisher stopped in his tracks, his eyes widening. "You're shitting me. You don't know who she is?"

Perry folded his arms. "It may come as a surprise to you, Lieutenant, that only yesterday I was but a lowly sergeant in the regular Marines," he said sardonically. "We didn't get many Space Cavalry officers where I came from."

"You people are pathetic!" Fleisher exclaimed. "Okay, quick trivia question. Name the commanding general of the Third MEU."

"Major General Joseph...Wilde," Perry replied, realization dawning on his face.

"The man from Michigan is smarter than he looks, ladies and gentlemen," Fleisher said. "Yeah, she's the Wild Man's daughter. Her family's been Marine Corps all the way back to the original Tun Tavern."

"I thought the Chigs killed his kid," asked Walters.

"That was the Major's younger brother. He decided to become a colonist and ended up getting cooked on Vesta." Fleisher said.

"Shit-oh-dear," Perry sighed. "Well, that certainly explains some things. And you think the General used his pull to get her a command?"

"I think it was the General who kept her ass out of a court-martial," Fleisher said. "This is her second squadron command, guys. She used to be CO of the 303rd. They got wiped out on their first combat mission, over Carter's World, remember that? Eighteen planes took off, but only she came back. Does that tell you something?"

"It means she got lucky," Dieters said with a shrug.

"Maybe," Fleisher said darkly. "And maybe not."

Major Wilde closed the folder and tossed it onto the desk. "Well, the three trainees are not as good as I hoped, but they only had six weeks of training, and you get what you pay for. At least they can taxi their aircraft out of the hangar without blowing up."

Lieutenant Connelly laughed politely, shaking her head. Her former squadron mate, Schaeffer, looked very much like he would rather be somewhere else. Captain Marshall shifted uneasily in his chair, saying nothing.

The small office that the base had given to Wilde was sparsely furnished and entirely cheerless, consisting of little more than a steel desk, a battered deskcomp, and three creaking chairs. Marshall had had to scrounge through the adjoining offices for an extra one that he could sit on. Wilde's desktop was covered with personnel files, maintenance and requisition reports, and a dozen drafts of the unit's training schedule.

They know, she thought, looking in their eyes. They know I lost the 303rd. They followed her orders because they had no choice, no more than she did when she was ordered to take command. She couldn't let it happen again. She wouldn't be responsible for another massacre. But she had her orders, and nothing under heaven would let her go against them. Her father had raised her too well for that. Damn you, she thought, cursing his name for the hundredth time. You shouldn't have done this. A family's pride isn't worth eleven more lives.

Wilde rubbed her eyes, trying to focus on the task at hand. "Okay, we'll have to use the recruits as assistant instructors, at least for now. Maybe make them flight leaders in the sims for the combat missions. If we can get that far. Mastering basic cockpit instrumentation and piloting skills is crucial right now. My goal is for 30 hours of solo flight in the sims and a hundred sucessful takeoffs and landings before we move on to combat training.

Schaffer gave Wilde a quizzical look. "But carrier flight ops handle launch and recovery by computer."

"That's true," Wilde agreed, "but atmospheric takeoffs and landings are among the most demanding tasks a pilot has to perform. You've got to keep a couple hundred details straight in your head from moment to moment, and at 250 kph there isn't much error margin. If these trainees can manage that on a routine basis, we'll be making real progress."

"I still can't believe we're doing this," Connelly said, resting her cheek in the palm of her hand. "Back at Cherry Point you had to have 450 hours in the sims before they even considered you for real air time. You had to have almost a year of classwork just to get the fundamentals down. Even the accelerated flight program is supposed to be eight months long! What we're doing is-"

"Making war." Marshall looked at the young pilot with eyes that had seen more battles than he could count. "In 1941, when the Japanese had damn near kicked us out of the Pacific, we were sending pilots into battle with less than 40 hours of flight time. Many of them died. But it bought us time. It kept us in the fight, until we could get our feet underneath us. And that's what high command is doing now."

Connelly shifted in her chair. "Gunny- I mean, Captain- there's a big difference between an SA-43 and a Grumman Wildcat."

"No kidding. I learned some of that the hard way this afternoon," he said with a faint grin. "Good thing I only crashed into the base commander's simulated quarters."

That drew a grin even from Schaeffer. Major Wilde leaned forward in her chair. "Captain, do you think your men will be able to learn what they need to know in two weeks?"

Marshall gave her a look only a sergeant could manage. "Ma'am, they know if they don't learn it, they'll answer to me. When the time comes, they'll be ready."

"They'll have to be." Wilde said coldly. "I'm not taking anyone up with me who doesn't know their job. I will do whatever it takes to make them effective pilots, and if they can't manage that I'll do whatever it takes to get rid of them. That goes for you as well. Do you understand?"

Marshall studied her for a moment, his expression unreadable. The two lieutenants carefully studied the floor or the walls. "Yes, ma'am," he said at last.

"All right. You've got some studying to do, then. Schaeffer, Connelly, I expect to see you in the sims in an hour. Dismissed."

The officers rose from their seats and left the room. Wilde stared after them for some time, wondering how in the hell any of them were going to survive.

NAS Groombridge Simulator Bay 12 October 6, 2063 1440 hours

Captain Marshall eased himself carefully into the cockpit, trying not to step on any consoles. Every time he climbed in, it felt like he was fitting himself into his own coffin.

Banks of switches and readouts surrounded him as he settled himself into the pilot's seat. There are 457 individual switches and buttons in the cockpit of the SA-43, many of which have variable settings, and a multi-view display which provides LIDAR, navigation, ordinance status, and other mission-related data, ran the litany in his head

"I hate being outnumbered," he muttered to himself, flexing his gloved fingers and trying not to be afraid of ten million credits' worth of electronics.

A shadow descended on him as Lieutenant Sorensen reached in to fit the clamshell flight helmet over his head. The elfin flight recruit noted his discomfort and offered a faint smile. "Everything okay, sir?"

"Don't call me sir, I work for a living," came the reflexive reply.

Sorensen bit her lip. "Sorry- er, Captain."

Marshall shook his head. "When we aren't in the field, call me Gunny. It'll make both our lives easier."

"Right, Gunny," she said, locking the helmet shut. Her slim hands moved with precise, graceful movements, quick and sure like a bird's. According to Wilde, she was the best of the three recruits, though with her quiet, almost ethereal manner, Marshall couldn't figure out how she survived Basic. He suspected there was a lot more to Sorensen than met the eye, but he'd had little opportunity to try and get to know her.

For that matter, he'd had little enough chance to get to know any of the new members of the unit. Wilde kept the training at a ruthless pace, and for the trainees it was either keep up or get left behind. No one was getting more than two to three hours of sleep per night, as they tried to absorb the bewildering number of lessons they had learned that day. They had their noses buried in the notepads every free moment they could find. Marshall could not say for sure that Morganstern had slept at all for the last two days. Since training had begun, the former private had thrown himself into the task with a will that was almost frightening to watch. He figured that Morganstern was either trying like hell to get somewhere, or trying equally hard to get away from something.

Despite his assurances to the Major, the fact was that Marshall wasn't sure that the men would make it. Morganstern, by sheer force of will, was absorbing the data but showing no real aptitude for it. Perry and Walters were doing very well with the academic half of the training, but had yet to master the Hammerhead's quirks. Dieters and Fleisher were just the opposite- they seemed to take to flying naturally, but it was all by the seat of the pants. As for himself, he figured the best chance he had of helping win the air war was if the Chigs would take him as a fighter pilot.

Looking out through the open sim canopy, Marshall could see in through the tall windows of the control room. Six large monitors suspended from the ceiling showed the visual feed that the sim mainframe was sending to each of the pilots. Schaeffer and Connelly were watching one screen closely, the picture showing the pilot's view of an atmospheric landing. Marshall watched as the sim aircraft's nose dipped sharply towards the runway, then pitch back almost as violently as the pilot overcompensated by hauling back on the control column. A telltale began flashing at the corner of the simulated Heads Up Display- with its nose up the Hammerhead was losing speed rapidly, approaching the point where it would stall. The SA-43 seemed to hang in the air for a moment, then it heeled over on its port wing and plowed into the ground.

Schaeffer patted Connelly's shoulder. She shot the young man a friendly glare and dug in her pocket for a handful of credits.

Marshall gritted his teeth, fighting against his anger. He wanted to climb out of the cockpit and skin those two kids alive. Their disdainful attitudes were making a bad morale problem even worse, but when it came down to it, the situation wasn't entirely their fault. Wilde's orders had turned the squadron against itself from the very first day. By virtue of their experience, Schaeffer and Connelly had been set above the rest, an ideal that the others were somehow expected to emulate, and the trainees from Earth were generally more interested in proving themselves to their new CO than they were in hand-holding a bunch of former enlisted grunts. The men of the original 513th treated both parties as enemies, their resentment building as the pressure to acheive increased.

He had tried to talk to Wilde about it once before, but she had cut him off at the knees. "I've got two weeks, Captain," she had said coldly. "I've got to work miracles on these men, and that means using every tool available to get the job done." And that was the end of that. The young major drove herself every bit as hard, or harder, than her squadron, poring over each student's progress with microscopic intensity. He wondered if it was because of who she was, or because of what had happened to her over Carter's World. Probably both, he decided. She was paying her penance for the loss of her former squadron, but the punishment was felt equally by everyone around her. He had seen similar situations before in his long years of service, and they had always ended badly.

Marshall reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a slightly-worn photo of a radiant mother and her tiny baby. He had been in plenty of bad situations before- that was part of what being a Marine was all about- but this was something different. Before, when things went to hell, he had known what to do, what decisions to make and how to get things back on track. This time, though, things were moving too fast. A small part of him wondered if it was because he was just getting too old to keep up. It was a fact in battle that the veterans did most of the killing and the recruits did most of the dying. After more than twenty years in the Corps, two children and a grandchild, they had pulled the rug out from under him, and he was a recruit all over again.

He felt a light tapping against his helmet. Sorensen leaned into his field of vision. "They're ready for you, Gunny."

Marshall stowed the photo quickly and gave the recruit a thumbs-up. The sim canopy slid shut, and for a moment, he was locked in darkness. Then the screens lit up, showing a sunlit airfield and the predatory shape of a Hammerhead surrounding him. Lights flashed on the control consoles, the serried ranks of switches awaiting the correct startup sequence. He licked dry lips and fought to keep the procedures he'd memorized from pouring out of his head like so much sand. He took his time, going over each step in turn and double-checking them. Before he released the brake and started the fighter rolling, he set himself the goal of making the first run of the day a perfect one, from takeoff to landing. He had to set an example to the rest of the men that it could be done, and for now that was all that he ought to be concerned about. The future, for good or ill, would take care of itself.

Next : Part Two
Previous : Book I We Band Of Brothers

Michael B. Lee
© 1997