|TIMELINE: "Guardians" takes place during 2053 during
the AI rebellion, 10 years before the Chig war begins, when T.C. McQueen
is a young lieutenant. |
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This is a McQueen story with a brief appearance from Lt. Cmdr. Glen Ross. Thanks to Sheryl Clay, Matt Yellen, "Fitz" and "Speedbump."
The concept of the multi-national corporation Aerotech, the premise of the Artificial Intelligence rebellion -- also known as the AI Wars -- and the characters of T.C. McQueen and Glen Van Ross belong to Glen Morgan and James Wong and Hard Eight Pictures. The concept of Space Station Goddard as a facility with both university and military personnel is part of the novelization of the S:AAB pilot by Peter Telep, which was adapted from the script, also written by Morgan and Wong. Ross paraphrases a statement about the uses of science originally made by Alan Valentine. Another remark from Lewis Branscomb intrigues the AIs. Absolutely no copyright infringement is intended toward any of the above-mentioned sources. Except for McQueen and Ross, the remainder of the characters invented for this story are mine.
R-rated Guardians Part One of Five
"Both the man of science and the man of action live always at the edge of mystery, surrounded by it."
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Space Station Goddard 2053
Megan Connelly peered through the window on the door to one of the station's particularly noisy bars. She scanned the crowd. Mostly off-duty military, she judged, from the haircuts and the muscles. No one from the university would be caught dead in here. Perfect.
Beer signs, space aviation memorabilia and hunting trophies studded the walls. One mounted animal head had been hidden long ago under a pile of bras discarded in a torrent of alcohol and hormones. At the end of the room was a video phone. With a deep, bracing breath, she walked straight to it.
Before her arrival on Goddard, the AI rebellion had seemed distant. But Goddard was a tin can in space shared by a celebrated university and all sorts of military personnel.
Megan sat at the unbalanced chair in front of the video phone. Some wag had slapped an ASCI sticker on the side of the monitor. Who on Goddard would be stupid enough to be a member of the Anti-Science Coalition International?
She slipped her university faculty debit card through the slot, then punched her home number into the keyboard. Leland Campaneris, her former guardian and forever mentor, would be in his study.
Leland's face appeared on the screen. "Hello, my dear. How are you?"
"Fine, sir." No matter how much she repressed the catch in her voice, it still creaked out. "And you?"
Sudden loud voices managed to drown out the jukebox. A group of Marine Aviators, according to their tee shirts and jackets, had strutted into the bar. They made so much racket she had to strain to hear Leland's voice.
"Fine. Where are you?" The urgency in his voice and narrowed eyes reminded her she should be elsewhere.
"Uh, in a bar. I didn't want to use one of the campus phones."
Concern overtook Leland's usually patrician tones. "What's wrong?"
She gulped. "I hate it here."
"We've discussed this." A hint of warning edged his voice. "A teaching credit at Goddard will enhance your credentials."
The words and emotion spilled out in a torrent. "I know I should be used to this by now, but I have no friends. I outrank the grad students, and I'm way younger than the other instructors."
She saw Leland reach for the pager button. "Marta is still here, if you would like to speak to her."
She sniffled and nodded. She saw her former nanny, now Leland's housekeeper, walk into the study. Marta's face lit up into a smile.
"You look well, Querida." Then Marta's face furrowed into a frown. "What are you doing in a bar with soldiers?"
"Just using the phone. I'll leave as soon as I hang up. I was just feeling lonesome. I thought I'd call home."
"Well," Marta leveled her gaze straight into the monitor, "if you do not leave there soon, you will not be lonesome anymore. But you may not have the company you want."
Lt. Tyrus (T.C.) McQueen stared into his beer at the bar. Lt. Vince Capezzi stood beside him, more through accident than any bond of friendship, even though they were both in the same squadron. McQueen was surprised when Capezzi nudged him and said, "Check out the new blood at the phone."
Capezzi glanced down at McQueen. "Never mind. I should've known that was you sitting there." He snickered.
McQueen glanced up at the mirror behind the bar and saw Capezzi's target. Even though this girl wore a sweatshirt and jeans, she was way too classy for this bar, let alone Capezzi. Slender with dark reddish-brown hair falling around her shoulders, she wasn't muscular enough to be military.
While McQueen watched her via the mirror behind the bar, Capezzi turned, held his glass and stared openly at her back. "Must be one of those college kids," Capezzi said. "I'll check out her face when she turns around."
McQueen muttered, "When did you become interested in the face?"
Capezzi hooted and slapped McQueen on the back. "T.C., sometimes you really slay me. A woman's face is the first stop on the tour."
For some reason, McQueen didn't want Capezzi to go into detail about that theory in reference to this girl. McQueen continued watching her through the mirror. He could see, on the video screen, the images of two people: a silver-haired tweedy gentleman and a plump Latin woman. The older man looked vaguely familiar until McQueen recognized him as the famous scientist Leland Campaneris.
Capezzi still stared at the girl but spoke to McQueen. "Didn't they teach you anything about women in tank school? Probably just the mechanics. None of the artistry. Since you and I will never be fishing in the same river, I will eliminate the gaps in your education."
On one level, McQueen heard Capezzi's yammering. On another, he was too busy watching the girl. When the video monitor went dark, she covered her face with both hands and leaned into her palms. McQueen's stomach knotted and his facial muscles sagged.
"Aw, she's homesick," Capezzi said. "Lonely. Come on, baby. Turn around. Let's see if those beautiful hands have a face to match."
She scooted the chair back and stood up. She turned around.
"Not bad," Capezzi said. "She could use a little fixing up. A little post-Capezzi glow wouldn't hurt, either."
McQueen barely heard him. She had seen him -- or, more specifically, his reflection -- watching her through the mirror behind the bar. She smiled. Lt. Tyrus Cassius McQueen, Marine aviator and combat veteran, froze like a deer in an old Humvee's headlights.
When Megan turned from the phone, she spotted the two young Marines. The black-haired Marine had been staring openly at her and smiled suavely. He then said something to the sandy-haired one sitting beside him.
The blond Marine had been watching her, too, but through the mirror behind the bar. Their eyes met in the reflection. Upon discovery, he froze. A blush crept up his neck and face.
He quickly lowered his glass to the bar. He dropped his gaze, pressed his lips together tightly and lowered his head to study his beer. When he bowed his head to look into his glass, she noticed the neck navel peeking out from under his short but wavy hair.
A male voice startled her with its apparent close proximity. "I'd ask if you come here often, but I've never seen you here before."
She looked up to see the black-haired Marine officer standing over her.
McQueen wasn't used to women smiling at him unless they were hookers. Once they realized he was a tank, they either turned away or upped their price.
But this was no hooker. He studied his beer. Even though she had stared openly at him, her eyes had been soft and friendly. That would probably change, once it dawned on her he was a tank.
McQueen had been so distracted by her gaze, he hadn't realized Capezzi had stepped away from the bar. With a chill, he heard Capezzi make his move.
"I only came here to use the phone," was her response.
McQueen dared to look in the mirror. She wasn't looking at him anymore but talking to Capezzi.
"Just one beer?" Capezzi said, "You are old enough to drink?"
She said, almost too softly for McQueen to hear, "Ask your friend at the bar to join us."
Capezzi called out: "Yo, T.C.!"
McQueen turned on the bar stool. He struggled to hide the mix of terror and glee jumping around inside his gut.
Capezzi sounded way too cheerful and looked too happy, McQueen thought, for a man whose female target had just asked him to include a third. But, then again, that third was only a tank.
Capezzi waved him over to the table he had claimed near the phone. "Get a pitcher and get over here."
"He always sits alone. But I like to take him under my wing. Show him the ropes. They may get some education piped into their necks, but they don't know much about a lot of things." He nodded sagely. "What's your name?" She noticed him steal a glance at her chest.
They exchanged names. Megan stated his name was evident because of his name tag.
"Not much gets past you college girls."
Megan smiled, but not because of the pleasure of his company. She would have fun telling him, yes, she was affiliated with the university, but, no, she was not a student.
Finally, T.C. with the sandy hair and startlingly blue eyes stood at their table. He gripped the pitcher handle in one white-knuckled fist and cradled the two glasses together against his chest with his other arm. His eyes darted nervously.
Capezzi introduced them. Lt. T.C. McQueen said, "Hi."
McQueen saw the two young civilian guys do double takes when they almost ran into Megan Connelly.
One said, "Dr. Connelly! What are you doing here?"
Wide-eyed, Capezzi sat back and looked at the kids, then Megan. "Doctor? You?"
McQueen thought she looked no older than his age on paper. But he never could come close to guessing a natural born's age.
To Capezzi, she said, "Goddard physics department." To the boys, she replied, "Having a beer. What are you doing here? You have a test tomorrow."
One shrugged nervously. "Blowing off some steam."
"You'll have plenty of time to blow off steam after you graduate," she said. "You should be studying."
Capezzi said, "They're big boys, Megan. They've got a right to have a beer."
McQueen glumly, they're old enough to die in battle.
Dr. Connelly gave Capezzi a look that made McQueen smile. "I don't know how you made it through college, but that's not how I did it."
Capezzi sat back. "Marine DIs got nothing on you."
A husky female voice called out, almost sing-song style through the bar din. "Hey, Vince."
A busty redhead sidled through the bar crowd toward their table. One of Capezzi's "regulars" who avoided tanks, she wore her Aerotech gear head's coveralls unzipped halfway down her chest. Her missing underwear had to be hanging on the wall, probably in a lower layer.
Capezzi looked up at her with his mouth to speak, but she didn't give him a chance. She slid her hand down the back of his head, leaned over and covered his open mouth with his own.
McQueen dropped his gaze down to his beer while Capezzi and this woman devoured each other right at the table. Even though hookers who'd do everything else wouldn't let anyone kiss them on the lips, women who didn't charge for their company seemed free with kisses. But not for tanks, of course. He couldn't help but look up when he raised his glass for a sip. He glimpsed moving hands and moving tongues and revealing white skin as her jumpsuit shifted. He swallowed his beer and lowered his glass, as well as his eyes.
He glanced over at Dr. Connelly sitting quietly with downcast eyes. Damn Capezzi! Didn't he care how she would feel? After he'd made all those moves on her?
With her head still tilted down, she glanced up at McQueen. The corner of her mouth pulled up in a half smile. She rolled her eyes.
McQueen couldn't help but smile. He managed to speak. "Dr. Connelly?" His voice felt scratchy. He had wanted to ask her a question ever since he had watched her phone call. "How do you know Leland Campaneris?"
Dr. Connelly's brown eyes went from slyly joking to widely surprised. McQueen kicked himself harder than Capezzi ever could have. Stupid tank. To Dr. Connelly, McQueen muttered a warm-faced, stammered-out apology for his intrusiveness.
With the other woman now seated in Capezzi's lap, Capezzi shook his head then turned it slightly so he could whisper in her ear. With his lips against her bushy curls, she looked from Dr. Connelly to McQueen. While looking at him, the woman in Capezzi's lap quivered in silent laughter.
"Leland is my mentor," Dr. Connelly said to McQueen. "He's like a father to me."
"Like a father." McQueen fixated on the last part. "He's brilliant." Since she hadn't blown up at him, he decided to continue. "That woman's your mother?"
Dr. Connelly's face relaxed. She smiled at him. Her eyes lit up and she became truly beautiful. He focused so sharply on her that the rest of the bar faded into a shadow, humming blur.
"Better. She was my nanny."
"Nanny?" Wide-eyed, Capezzi looked at Dr. Connelly. "You had a nanny?" Only money excited Capezzi as much as women.
Dr. Connelly placed her glass on the table. An inch of beer remained. "Time to go." She pushed her chair away from the table. "School night, you know." As she stood up, she turned so Capezzi couldn't see her. Very quietly, she said to McQueen, "Meet me outside."
The first words Lt. T.C. McQueen spoke to her were, "Capezzi's a pig."
She shrugged. "No surprise there."
"Then why did you let him sit down?" His intensity both frightened and excited her, like seeing lightning splitting a dark night sky. He startled her, causing her to blurt out the truth.
"Because of you."
"Oh." His lips curved up into a slight smile. He looked straight at her. Whether he looked at her or stared at the horizon -- such that it was on Goddard -- his undiluted attention made her nervous. But she did not want him to go. She improvised as best she could.
"And I knew he would take offense if I went over to you right after he made his move on me. I knew he would blame you or cause some ugliness with you as his focus." Speaking of focus -- change it. "Are you hungry? Would you like to go eat?"
"There's food in there." With a tilt of his head, he indicated the bar behind them.
"Do you want to go back in there?" With Capezzi and that woman and everyone else?
"No," he smiled shyly.
"Before you slip up again and call me Dr. Connelly, please call me Megan. Okay?"
He only nodded. She almost believed that if she kept talking, he would stay.
"Do people really call you T.C. or was that just Capezzi? What do your initials stand for?
"I'd rather not tell you some of the interpretations of my initials." One side of his mouth twitched up into a tilted smile. "My name is Tyrus Cassius. Ty's okay."
"Is that what you prefer?"
He looked surprised, as if no one ever considered his preferences. He nodded.
"All right, Ty, where shall we go eat?"
The all-station intercom interrupted her. "Attention the following military units ... " McQueen froze, listening. His body stiffened and his eyes appeared to be focused on something beyond the station's hull.
People from the bar hurried past them. Capezzi slowed but kept moving. "Come on. You know they're gonna call us." He looked at the two of them and laughed. "Kiss her and move out." He kept on laughing as he walked down the corridor.
McQueen blushed. "I have to go."
Megan nodded. Even though that despicable Capezzi had suggested it, she would like a kiss from McQueen. But he'd probably think she was weird, just like everyone else did.
"Okay," she said with resignation. "Be careful. That is, if you're allowed to be."
McQueen nodded a brisk hero's farewell and headed off with the crowd.
Already sad, Megan wondered what if she never saw him again? What if he died in whatever conflict he was racing off to?
Movement in front of her distracted her from her brooding. She looked up to see a tight-lipped, impatient McQueen looking at her.
"Okay," he said. "Go ahead. We can. If you want to."
Appropriate? Or inappropriate? No time to think. In all one move, she wrapped both arms around his neck, stood on tiptoe and kissed his mouth. The thin tight lips softened under hers while chemical and bioelectric reactions swirled inside her.
Breathing heavily, he pulled his face from hers. He gently lowered her, her toes touching the ground first. "Gotta go." His voice was hoarse and tight.
It reminded her of Einstein explaining the relativity of time. A pleasurable kiss didn't seem to last as long as contact with a hot burner, even if the clock said each lasted the same amount of time.
"Be careful, Ty," she managed to say as she watched him run down the hall.
Space near Groomsbridge 34
McQueen's LIDAR screen showed nothing, but he heard the excitement in Capezzi's voice over the radio.
"Snake Eyes to Base, " he said into the radio mike clipped to his helmet. "Bogey at two o'clock. Approximately two meters in length."
A missile? A thud on the canopy of McQueen's Hammerhead interrupted his thought. "What the . . . " His stomach tightened, and his senses sharpened.
He looked up from his instrument panel. Something long, lumpy and dark draped across the top of his canopy. Had he been in Guatemala, he would have thought he'd hooked a snake off a tree and flown with the animal caught on his plane like a streamer. But this was space. Then what the hell was that on his canopy?
Steadying his voice, he reported, "Unidentified object on top of canopy."
He looked up as well as his helmet and flight safety would allow. The lumpy strip looked like a snake after dinner, but it wasn't a snake. Or a snakeskin, either.
He had seen guts literally spilled on the battlefield, but never suspended and isolated in space.
"Object tentatively identified." Not often did he hope he was wrong. "Human entrails." For a lot of reasons, he hoped he was wrong.
Capezzi's voice cut in. "Visual on that bogey. Human body all right. What's left of him." That familiar snicker. "Good catch, Beaker."
Their honcho Capt. Michelle Maroney interrupted. "Cut the chatter. SAR team requested for removal."
McQueen wasn't able to shake the intestine from his canopy by the time he returned to the ship. Shit. Now I have to go through Biodecon. But his day hadn't been so bad, unlike the poor bastard whose guts lay across the top of his canopy like leftover dangling holiday tinsel. Hell of a way to go.
While waiting for the rest of the squadron to dock so Biodecon could enter the hangar bay without having to dodge returning aircraft, McQueen caught himself wondering how he'd go. A replaceable In Vitro, he'd had some close calls. Accidents, fights and disease in the mines. Later on, the judge had punted him from a certain death penalty. He'd been a fighting Marine ever since.
After Maroney docked, McQueen maneuvered his plane into the hangar bay, announced his arrival over the mike and saw the puffy-suited bodies float through the airlock.
"Hey, Lieutenant." The Biodecon team leader was the only other tank on board the carrier. "That ain't factory issue."
Everyone else would be off-line, on their way to the showers by now. McQueen responded, "Thought it would help me find my car at the mall."
"Roger that. Sit tight. We'll have you out of here in a jiff. You'll be back kicking Silicate ass in no time."
He wasn't flying, so McQueen twisted his head as well as his helmet and pressure suit would allow to watch the team work. The team leader used tongs to lift the tissue from the canopy. McQueen waited for the quip he knew would come.
"One thing nobody can ever say about you, Lieutenant, is that you have no guts."
The Biodecon leader hovered beside the cockpit, looking down at the stencil painted on the plane below the canopy. "Been meaning to ask you. What's T.C. stand for anyway?"
Sometimes McQueen wished he'd been given a simpler name. He didn't feel like going through the same old "holy-shit-that's-a-mouthful" routine, even though the last time someone had asked him his name, she hadn't said that. She had kissed him, sent shock waves of heat through him, then breathed out his name like a sigh. Ty.
No wonder hookers who'd do anything, anywhere, anytime -- especially with cash -- wouldn't let a man kiss them on the mouth. Such a kiss held a singeing power that passed through the body. Like a the brand he'd seen on cattle in the old Western movies. Only deeper.
"Hey, Lieutenant. You all right in there?"
Oh, yeah. All he wanted to know was what T.C. stood for. "Take Cover. Top Cat. Take your pick."
"You're a card, Lieutenant. You're also free to go. Just let us get out of here before you disengage and go up to the flight deck."
McQueen said, "Much obliged." He was surprised to hear his voice crack. He was still thinking about her.
Megan had stopped by the Goddard Combined Library and Resource Center to double check some info for her presentation. The New Orleans conference, which had seemed so far away when she agreed to participate, was fast approaching. Scuttlebutt had indicated some of the other keynote speakers were missing, had even disappeared from their homes and labs.
As she hurried past the catalogue terminals, a glimpse of a familiar face stopped her. The sandy-haired Lt. McQueen -- Ty -- tapped at the keyboard and stared at the monitor.
She watched him for a moment. His mouth twitched in annoyance at something he saw on the screen. She had kissed that mouth totally on physical impulse. No thought. No pretense at social conventions. No intellectualizations. Just human need, flesh and electricity.
She wondered how long he had been back from his mission. And why hadn't he contacted her. All he had to do, if he really wanted to, was go through the university physics department. Maybe he thought she was weird, too. Too smart and too focused to be attractive.
Ty heaved an impatient breath. One did not have to be a genius to see he was having trouble.
She took a slow breath, noticed a pulsing inside her head below her eyes and walked over to him.
"Hi. Do you need help?"
He looked up sharply, his blue eyes blazing. She had startled him. The brief flash of ferocity on his face frightened her. Then his face shifted. His eyes crinkled and sparkled. His cheeks appled up. His mouth widened and its corners lifted. The smile transformed his face and thrilled Megan.
Then his smile faded into benign resignation. "I can't get what I want."
She had to see that smile again, directed at her. Beamed because of her. "What are you looking for?"
"I won't laugh." No telling what it was. She stepped around his back and leaned over his shoulder. He pointed to a line on the screen.
McQueen fidgeted. "I warned you."
"Did you hear me laugh? No. I'm just surprised." Megan snagged a passing librarian. "Why can't he get this?"
The librarian said, "Let me see his access code." She stood behind him, looking down her nose at his neck navel.
McQueen showed her his card.
"I see." The librarian sniffed. "That material is part of the Ellison Collection."
Megan frowned. "And that's a problem because ..."
"The Ellison Collection is only accessible to university faculty and graduate students."
"What about military officers?"
The librarian shook her head.
McQueen said, "I knew that already."
Megan continued, "So, I can access it, but he can't."
She smiled when the librarian said, "Do you have your grad student ID with you?"
"Better." Sometimes, the combination of youth and rank allowed for irresistible fun. "Faculty ID." She presented it like a calling card. "Level Three, as a matter of fact." An idea occurred to her.
Megan turned to McQueen. "Would you like to have faculty-level library access?"
He shrugged lamely. "Sure." His expression implied, Me? Yeah. Right.
Megan said to the librarian, "With my Level Three ID, I can authorize boosting his library privileges to Level One Faculty. Right?"
"Correct." The librarian closely examined Megan's credentials. "Highly irregular, but correct."
"Then let's do it." Megan could not resist adding, "I'm sure that you, as a librarian, would agree that information should be shared -- not hoarded by the select few."
They followed the librarian to the administrative cubicles. As she walked, the librarian scrutinized Megan's ID. "Physics department," the woman muttered loud enough for Megan to hear. "I should have known. More trouble than law students."
Very quietly, Ty said to Megan, "The Corps would disagree with your philosophy of open information."
She nodded once. "I've never been a need-to-know kind of gal, unless you mean I have 'a need to know.' "
"I take it you've never done any work for the military," he said.
She could not resist saying, totally deadpan, "If I tell you, I have to kill you."
His eyes widened. "Not if I get to you first." More promise than threat. And Megan realized, with a chill, he could do it, too.
Did he think she was serious? Megan said quickly, "I was kidding." Probably unlike the librarian and Capezzi and probably most of the people he knew, Megan tended to forget Ty was an In Vitro. How many years had it been since his decanting? Probably no more than five but fewer than 10. Not a lot of years of experience with people, despite his status as a Marine officer.
His smile sparkled at her again. "So was I. Kidding."
The librarian handed Megan Ty's upgraded card. Megan did not reach for it, but tilted her head toward him. "Give it to him. It's his card."
McQueen held the card between his thumb and forefinger. He studied the piece of plastic. He flipped it over and examined both sides. Outwardly, it looked the same, except for some invisible electronic coding that made all the difference in the results it would obtain.
He didn't know what to say. She had to have some juice to amp up his card like that. The magnitude of what she, a natural born and an apparently respected intellectual to boot, had done for him -- a tank -- had wowed him into silence. And it was a good thing she hadn't spotted him earlier. Before he'd taken a run at the Ellison Collection, he had been looking up other material on topics that would have embarrassed him had she seen it. Stuff he could have asked Capezzi about, if he wanted to listen to the hot air. Like how to please a woman. Good strategy meant preparation for all contingencies.
He concentrated on the card to keep his thoughts from leading his body astray. Yet, he still reeled from the whiff he'd caught of her perfume when she leaned over him at the terminal. The subtle yet insistent fragrance had gone straight to his head before dropping down to his groin.
He had to clear his head. He checked to see that the librarian was gone before he spoke. "Thank you, Dr. Connelly." He couldn't use her first name.
Then he made the mistake of looking up at her. She looked beautiful in that silk pants outfit instead of the sweatshirt from the bar. Capezzi was right. She did "fix up nice." McQueen usually hated when Capezzi made the right call. But, for once, he was one up on Capezzi. Unlike that weasel, he knew for absolute, unquestioning certainty that she kissed nice, too. Real nice.
"We've already discussed this. Call me Megan. Let's go get something to eat."
She raised her arm to place her wrist on the countertop. When she moved, the sleek fabric lighter than parachute silk flowed over the subtle curves of her body. She looked like no physics professor, scientist, intellectual he'd ever seen. For a sharp, blazing moment, he wanted to push her against the countertop, rip apart those tiny buttons and get lost in the fire again.
Instead, he said low and quiet but sternly, "What do you want from me?"
"What?" Her eyes went huge and her face pale. "What are you talking about?" Her voice was as low as his.
"Here you are in your silk clothes and expensive perfume. Paying attention to me. Giving me this card. You know tanks are made for dirty, dangerous work." He tilted his head toward where the librarian had wandered off. "She knows that. Do you? Do you know how dangerous tanks are?"
She didn't step away, nor look away. "Let's take this outside."
McQueen stepped close to her. "Do you think you can buy me? With a library card? Or is time with the tank of your choice another perk with a Level III Faculty ID card?"
He stayed in her face for a moment. She didn't budge, but she did blink. She seemed to think for a moment before she spoke.
"I gave you the card because I'm certain you'll put it to good use. You read. You know who Leland Campaneris is. I want to spend time with you because I simply enjoy your company. When I look at you, I don't see a -- " She hesitated a moment.
"You can't say it. Can you? Everyone else does. It's easy. Just one syllable. Tank."
Her eyes hardened. "Sure I can say it. Storage tank, fuel tank, oxygen tank. I call that old car Leland drives a tank. But I won't call you that. No way, no how."
She closed her eyes as if her eyelids would hold back her anger. She opened them and said, "I was conceived in the back end of a pickup truck parked beside a dusty road in west Texas. Two drunks, both strangers, both hopped up on mescal and peyote. How could I think I'm better than you?"
She turned her head to look away from him. He watched the small muscles in her jaw twitch. At that moment, she could probably crack walnuts with her back teeth.
McQueen realized his own jaw had dropped open. So much for not reacting. In a way, he wasn't surprised. For a genius supposedly raised by a nanny, he had noticed Megan peppered her conversation with a lot of plain talk. How had she gone from pickup trucks to the physics department? If he pissed her off, he'd never find out.
"For one thing," he replied, "you outrank me. You have a Level III card." He smiled at her.
A look of relief passed over her face. Her jaw relaxed. "Can we please get the hell out of here now?"
Megan Connelly could make presentations to scientists three times her age, field their questions and hold her own during the ensuing donnybrook of opinions. She could give lectures to bored freshmen, a captive audience if there ever was one, and sometimes wake up one or two of them in the process. However, walking and talking with a man who made her feel female, reminding her she wasn't just a brain in a mobile housing, was a different proposition altogether.
"Uh," she asked, "where shall we go?"
Movement in her peripheral vision suggested he shrugged. "I'm not hungry."
"Neither am I. I just want to go someplace quiet. Where we can talk."
Slight panic edged his voice. "Someplace quiet? On Goddard? Good luck." She had mentally characterized him as a quiet guy, the proverbial man of few words. To him, "talk" might be another four- letter spelling for "hell."
She did not want to look like the woman who had polished Capezzi's esophagus with her tongue, but she did know she wanted more than talk. She took a risk. "My place is quiet, provided that intercom doesn't go off. It interrupts everything, everywhere. Lectures. Lab work. The library."
He stopped walking. She stopped, too. She turned to see him watching her with his brow tight and his eyes moving from side to side, as if he were reading her face. "In the college section? Are you sure you want to do that?"
A feeling of panic tightened her her chest and throat. He would reject her, like many others. Sometimes, they laughed at her. Others would soothe her by explaining they did not feel "that way" about her. "I'm allowed to have visitors." Her voice had taken on his nervous edge. "My situation is probably more flexible than yours."
He lowered his eyes, which still darted at the floor. He stated quietly, "I may not be someone you want in your quarters."
"Are we back on the T-word thing again?"
"Not again. Still. It never leaves me."
"The G-word never leaves me, either." She looked at him. He stared at her and blinked a couple of times. "Genius," she continued. " 'Geek' is the colloquial version. Does that frighten you? That I'm different, too?"
"It's not the same. You don't have any marks identifying you." He lightly touched the back of her neck, about where his neck navel was, through her hair. "Here." He quickly lifted his hand away. "No one calls you ugly names."
"Don't be so sure. Until I was taught otherwise, I wore the brand of the geek. Until recently, I thought makeup was a test you took, not something you wore. And, yes, I have been called ugly names, especially when I was much younger than my classmates and broke their grading curve."
"If you spend much time with me," he informed her in all seriousness, "you'll hear plenty of ugly names."
She teased, "From you?"
He smiled when he shook his head. "Other people."
His smile warmed a smile from her. She liked his sense of humor. She liked the way she felt when he touched her hair. "I don't like other people. I like you. A lot. Are you shipping off soon?"
"It's called 'shipping out.' I can't tell you. But it's soon."
Her right hand reached over for his left. Her fingers touched his palm and wrapped around it. He did not pull away but shifted so his fingers could lace with hers. His hands felt hard, callused. His fingers tightened around hers.
They had finally entered the research education section. The dim hallway, for once, was empty. Even though she feared he would leave, she decided to give him a way out anyway. "If you're uncomfortable, you can go. I'll be all right"
He turned to face her and shook his head. His smile brightened his face and heated her blood.
She couldn't stand it anymore. She couldn't wait any longer. She would have taken it slowly, but he pulled her to him like he had near the bar. He kissed her hard, like a cold driving, swirling wind heralding the arrival of a thunderstorm on a hot summer's day. Dizzying, chilling but utterly thrilling. She wanted the lightning, the thunder and the roaring wind.
Somewhere beyond the blood rushing through her head, she heard footsteps and voices approaching. A female voice with a Latin accent chided a companion,"You should have told her we were coming."
Megan's heart skipped a beat. Could it be? No way. Ty distracted her by pulling her even closer and running his hands up the back of her neck and through her hair. His very soft voice rumbled, "Don't stop."
She heard an very familiar but unexpected male voice say, "I did not tell her because it would only frighten her, plus alert others as to our location."
Megan gasped. She hid her face against Ty's chest. Oh, God. Leland.
Next : Part Two
Last modified on: March 07, 2001