IV - Alrai

Ladder: Navy and Marine Corps terminology for "stairway." The term harkens back to the days when men served aboard sailing vessels.

16 April 2065

It was a metallic, 'tinny', hollow sound - almost a banging - and it seemed unreasonably loud in the confined space of the stairwell. It was the sound of his feet as McQueen pounded up the ladder. Running the ladders in the bow of the Saratoga had been part of Colonel McQueen's workout since the day he had come aboard two years earlier, as it had been on every carrier on which he had served. The forward ladders - the "A" ladders on carriers - were generally empty, and he could really build up a good head of steam. McQueen wanted to think. It was going to be a big day, and he needed to sort a few things into compartments in his mind before it got started.

The night before McQueen had returned to the Saratoga. Ross had decided that McQueen should meet with the 5-8's flight crew. And Ross wanted to do it with a certain flair. The Commodore and the Colonel had gone to the flightdeck while the crew was still busy. The officers had quietly greeted the crew chief. Something about McQueen's voice had pierced through the noise of all the work, and all activity had stopped immediately. The silence had been punctuated by the sound of a wrench hitting the deck. One of the mechanics had been so shocked that the tool had slipped from his grip. It was a cardinal sin - but the Chief didn't react to the "ham-handed handling of U.S. Government Property." There was no fire breathing - the offender's intellect and parentage were not called into question. The usual harangue did not zing through the air. The Chief had been shocked into silence. Commodore Ross had been correct. The sight of McQueen entering the flightdeck had scared the snot out of the crew. Ross damn near laughed. McQueen had known, of course, how proud the flight crew was of their Hammerheads and their pilots, but he had not realized their obvious pride in him as well. A trip to the Enlisted Club and a few drams all around had been needed for purely medicinal purposes - and by this morning the entire ship would know that McQueen was back. When he chose to, Ross knew how to use the shipboard "jungle drums" to his advantage.

The Wildcards had been granted entrance to the Enlisted Club by Ross' special fiat. Cooper had had to stand a round to the crew, and he hated to part with the money. Hawkes was still learning the finer points, and it had amused McQueen, who had patted Coop sympathetically on the back while the bartender totaled the tab.

McQueen ran back down Ladder A and immediately turned and started up again. True, there were longer, more challenging staircases throughout the ship, but they were heavily trafficked, and consequently not suited for running. On one occasion, McQueen had run up the longest: Ladder Seven in section"M" of the ship. Up from the hold to the very top of the 'island' superstructure of the ship - all thirty-one stories - in one shot.

It had been a dare: An after-hours bet after a few drinks with Commodore Ross. Glen had ordered Ladder Seven closed to traffic at 0430 and had timed the run. When McQueen had reached the top, Ross had handed him a marker and McQueen had written his name on the bulkhead outside the lidar control room. He had held the record for seven months. Then Ross had once again closed the ladder for a run by an eighteen-year-old challenger. The kid had bettered McQueen's time by four seconds: It wasn't four seconds that McQueen wanted to contend. Not then and certainly not now.

Last night Ross had ordered that The Tun be kept open after hours, had escorted the Fifty-eighth to the doors, and dismissed the bartender. He had then wished them all a good night, reminding them at what time they were all expected to be on duty - sober - the next day. Vanessa fired up the jukebox, and Nathan acted as bartender. Shane broke out the cards. Poker. It had just seemed right. Hawkes lost more than he won, but not as badly as he used to. McQueen rightly suspected that Vansen had ordered her Marines not to ask any questions about the upcoming mission, and consequently poker provided the diversion. The conversation remained convivial. The Wildcards caught McQueen up on the war from "not exactly on the front," and he told them his impressions of things at home. No one asked about his leg. If he was on the Saratoga - in on the mission - he must be good to go.

One more time up the ladder. It was getting tougher. Thankfully, McQueen had not seen - or been seen by - anyone else this morning. He had made the first pass without a flaw, but had stumbled once on his second pass and three times on the third. The leg was absolutely the best prosthetic around, but it was not perfect. And McQueen was still learning the finer points. He jogged the length of the craft back toward the lift that would take him up into the superstructure - the guest quarters.

McQueen had been impressed with how Vansen handled what was now basically 'her' squadron. She had managed to find that narrow space that left her command clearly defined but did not negate the relationship that she had established with the others.

After several hands of poker, and when each of the Wildcards had had his or her limit of spirits, the small party broke up for the night. McQueen noted that Nathan was lagging behind. When the others had moved down the hallway, McQueen turned to West.

"Ask, Lieutenant," he said.

"Kylen, Sir. How is she really? What has she gotten herself into? What is this job?" Nathan was obviously trying not to let his mouth - and his curiosity run away with him.

"Walk with me," McQueen said, and the two made their way toward his guest quarters. The Colonel told Nathan about life on Ridge Farm, and then filled him in as best as he could considering that he didn't know a whole lot about Kylen's new job either: Just that she was going to be working as an analyst for Intelligence. His final words before entering the lift:

"She is probably reading people's mail. Kylen is more than likely buried in some office at Quantico, bored out of her mind and having real second thoughts about this. Don't worry. She'll be fine."

Impulsively McQueen now skirted the elevators and entered the staircase where he had set his record. He leaned up against the bulkhead that separated the stairs from the main engines, and waited for his heart rate to return to normal. McQueen wanted to do something he had never done before. At the moment, he could think of only one other person in the universe who might already have done it. There might be any number of people, but he knew only one person for sure - Commodore Ross.

McQueen had experienced the idiosyncrasies of individual Hammerheads - how different they each felt under his hands. And he had never doubted Glen Ross' assertion that carriers showed the same individuality in handling and temperament.

Since the end of the CC War, all supercarriers, no matter what their country of registry, had been built to the same plan. It was why the salvage of the Eisenhower was so critical. The hangar bays of the Saratoga were painted all white, with the ship's name in gold lettering. This was not for aesthetics: One only had to look at the rest of the ship to know that aesthetics were low on the list of priorities. The color and the name were points of pride, of course, but were really there to let pilots know precisely where they were. There were stories of young or exhausted pilots trying to dock in the wrong carrier - any port in a storm. There were subtleties and a difference in the general atmosphere between vessels but - without the paint - hangar bays and carriers all looked the same to the untrained eye.

The Saratoga was the fourth carrier Ty had served aboard, and for most of his career the huge ships had been nothing more than a means to an end. Three hots and a cot. Heavily armored garages that took him close to where he had to be. They were the platforms from which he flew, and it hadn't much mattered which ship had provided the service.

This morning - amazingly - there was no other traffic on the normally busy record-contested ladder. McQueen turned around and placed the palms of his hands flat against the bulkhead. It was unyielding to the touch, and cool even though the engine room was on the other side of the firewall. He leaned forward, pressed his forehead against the wall, closed his eyes, and waited to see if his theory would be proved ... There... There it was... A vibration. A vibration that was generally not felt - and that was unheard under the general hum of the ship.

The men and women who served aboard the Saratoga gave the ship action and helped to form her spirit. Her heart? Her heart was Glen Ross - without question. Ross set the tone. The atmosphere and morale flowed from him.

But this? This was Saratoga. Her touch. Her signature. The soul of 'Sara'.

A hatch opened several decks below McQueen, and the low sound of conversation flowed into the space, disrupting his thoughts. Eighteen flights above him, on the bulkhead outside of the lidar control room, his signature was on the wall. And the Kid's. And five months after the Kid had signed, the ladder had been briefly closed again, and someone had challenged and beaten *that* record. There were now three signatures, and to "Run Up Ladder Seven" had become part of the Saratoga legend and tradition.

McQueen had made the run first.

He left the ladder and took one of Sara's elevators up to his deck.

He was still learning the finer points.


War Room
SCVN Saratoga
16 April 2065

Eleven officers the rank of Colonel or above were seated in Commodore Ross' conference room. A slightly higher number of adjutants and a few XOs were cooling their heels fourteen decks below. Redundancy. Not all the people in the know were in the same place at the same time. In fact similar meetings were taking place on the supercarriers USS Lexington, HMAS Vengeance, and DRC Cao Xuegui. The S-2s (Intelligence Officers) started the briefings with information that was, for the most part, old news to the participants.

"Our enemy has to know that large numbers of Earth forces are on the move, but our destination has apparently been unclear to them. Large numbers of Chig vessels appear to have been withdrawn from the Kappa Reticuli since we last had eyes-on intelligence in this sector. It is postulated that these ships took part in the battles for Demios and Ixion, or were pulled to reinforce Anvil.

There have been reports of increased harassment at Tartarus. Increased enemy activity has been reported around Anvil and Ixion, but the Chigs seem unable to organize an effective counterattack in any one area - or are holding back their forces to see what we will do next."

This last statement brought a few murmurs from the assembled officers. The S-2 promptly continued.

"Madame Secretary, Diane Hayden, reportedly reviews the situation daily, and - daily - reissues the United Nations "HOLD" order on Operation Roundhammer, the invasion of the Chig homeworld."

Again there was murmuring from the group - louder this time, with more than a hint of frustration. The S-2 spoke over the noise.

"The United Nations is attempting to start a dialogue with the enemy in hopes of starting serious peace negotiations. In the meantime, however, the Security Council has not declared any cessation of hostilities. I repeat: There is NO cease-fire."

The room became quiet once again, and he continued the briefing.

"There have been no more experimental Sewell-fueled Chig fighters reported in any sector. Intelligence speculates that the project has either been dropped or was at least moved to the back burner after a single Earth fighter was able to destroy the prototype."

"The pilot had grown overconfident is all. He didn't know how to handle fear. No matter what he may have thought or believed - he really wasn't ready to die for it. I had no fear. I was ready to die. I just wanted it more that day," McQueen reflected.

The people in the room who knew that it had been McQueen who had taken out the Chig ace were too well bred - or too well trained - to call attention to him by looking in his direction.

The Intelligence officer continued. "There is hope - and evidence to support that hope - that the Chigs believe that the secrets of their new fighter have been broken. Sewell fuel exhaust does not register on conventional sensors. However, we now have its mass spec signature. Prototypes of new spectrometry sensors are being distributed to our recon flights and selected fighters units for testing. Now, gentlemen, down to the business at hand: Operation Brass Ring."

The briefing lasted fifty minutes.

Task Force 85, under the Command of Admiral H.B. Nash, was to converge on the Kappa Reticuli from six different directions. The force contained 16 super carriers, 20 light carriers, 4256 fighter aircraft, 150 bombers, 632 ISS wing configurations, 200 assorted aircraft, 14 battleships, 125 destroyers, 30 cruisers, 38 troop transports, and 42 supply vessels. On board those vessels were 2 divisions of US Marines, 2 divisions of Republic of China infantry, 1 each of EEC Marines and infantry, 1 Oceanea combined division, 36 combined artillery, and 4 international Marine provisional brigades. It was a total of 165,624 assault troops.

Early reconnaissance had shown there to be only two inhabited bodies in the system. The third planet, Cerrus, and its moon, Kazbek. The Earth force was to advance from six different directions - north, south, east, west, above, and below. A seventh arm of Task Force 85 was to be dispatched to cover the Butterfly Nebula.

Sixteen ships were to be dispatched to blockade Kazbek, along with the troop transports and most of the supply ships. Force Recon teams were to be sent down with the sole mission of disrupting communications. The goal was to avoid direct confrontation with the enemy (which, it was reported, was over 90% Silicate renegades) until Cerrus was "neutralized."

"H" hour was designated 0330, local time, 20 April 2065.

En route to Kappa Reticuli

Colonel McQueen and Captain Shane Vansen moved purposefully through the passageways of the Saratoga en route to a meeting with Captain Chan. It was their first private meeting since the Colonel's return. Unfortunately it had to be short, to the point, and done on the move.

"Before we join Captain Chan," McQueen said, "what about Damphousse?"

Shane was not in the least surprised by the question. McQueen knew them all well, and he had a keen eye.

"2063 Yankee really took its toll, Sir. Don't get me wrong: Phousse can hold her own. She's gotten five Chig fighters - one on one - in the last few months. Vanessa is flying better than ever, but..."

"But what?"

"She ... She... It's like she is pulling away. She is more distant - distracted. Fatalistic. If it was anyone else I'd say that she thought her number was up."

McQueen remembered when Vansen had told him that she thought that she wasn't going to come back from a mission. He recalled that his answer had been brisk and unembellished. But it had served its purpose. She had come back. The feeling had passed.

Vansen read his mind. "I told her what you told me, Colonel. About making your own luck... It didn't have the same effect. I don't like it, Sir. Vanessa is starting to get ... to get...."

The Colonel thought of Vanessa getting all weepy when she had seen him. Crying was not her style at all. Or at least it didn't used to be. He stopped abruptly and Vansen had to turn and take two steps back toward him.

"Yes. Yes I know," McQueen said softly, and then spoke with more strength. "Captain, I want her with me - on Temporary Duty. This will be clear in a few minutes."

Shane's mind worked at incredible speed. "He said temporary. And I know how Vanessa feels about him - especially after she had the visions on Daedelus. I know that he tried to do what he could for her. He tried to take the heat off of her. This could be a good thing. He did say temporary."

"Aye, aye, Sir, " she said, giving him look of understanding.

"Very well. Let's see Chan," McQueen said, and they were off again.

Interrogation Room Four

McQueen was addressing Captains Chan and Vansen. The briefing had an air of informality that was comfortable to Shane - and something new for Marshall. What McQueen had to say was old news to Chan. They had discussed it at length during the boring hours on The Hue City. But McQueen was determined that there be no confusion. People needed to know who was who, and what was expected. The Colonel was permitted to build his own team - the privilege of his rank - and in his mind Chan had earned the right to be there while he did it. The sooner his adjutant started working with the Cards, the better. Commodore Ross' idea of having the Captain bunk with them had been brilliant. It was only three days, but every minute counted.

"Vansen, the Fifty-eighth is being TDY'd to the Twenty-third MEU. As CO it is within my authority to form a Maritime Special Purpose Force - MSPF - - a special-operations-capable force that we can tailor for specific missions or use to augment other conventional or special operations. This MSPF will be under my direct command. Captain Vansen, as of this moment you are to take command of this special force - the Wildcards. You will work extremely closely with Captain Chan. We are all going to be busy people, and he may on occasion have to speak for me. Take the next two days to get to know each other."

Shane experienced mixed emotions. It felt so right to have McQueen giving her orders again - to have him in command again. But he was no longer just the CO of the Fifty-eighth. He now commanded an entire Expeditionary Unit. Over 2,500 Marines. A heavy responsibility. The Colonel now had a staff and an adjutant, and he would need them. Even if technically she would report directly to McQueen, it was not unreasonable that Chan would be a contact point.

"Just as long as he doesn't try to run interference," she thought.

Marshall Chan read her mind. "It this case, Captain," he said, subtly emphasizing their equality in rank, "I won't be running interference for the Colonel. I'm ordered to run interference for you."

Chan had come up with the line late one night on The Hue. McQueen had liked it then, and now, facing Shane Vansen, he liked it even better. "Yes, Captain Marshall Chan can play well with others."

Captain Vansen was forced to give a slight smile that mimicked McQueen's.

" Good," McQueen thought. " They're starting to speak the same language. The're starting to read each other's minds." McQueen chose to give Vansen a bit of information.

"Captain Chan commanded a platoon on Minerva and on Ixion. Don't worry, Vansen, he will know what you need to get the job done."

Shane had thoughts of her own. "McQueen has had this Marshall Chan around for four months. And if he didn't think that Chan could do the job, the guy would be gone. He hasn't always been a REMF and he seems to have McQueen's trust. More importantly, he will have access _and_ the Colonel's ear." Still, old habits die hard, and Vansen put a slightly different spin on the assignment than Chan might. The difference was just who was joining whom. " Welcome to the Fifty-eighth, Marshall," she thought.

"Our mission, Sir?" she asked.

"The Wildcards have been held in reserve specifically for this mission, code-named Brass Ring. We are going to take Kazbek."

"Sewell fuel," she whispered.

McQueen nodded and then spoke. "We are assigned to take the mine on Kazbek. There have only been a few men on the ground on planet: The colonial survivors, of course; the Special Forces team that extracted us; and ... us."

All three officers knew - without saying as much - why Special Forces was not significantly involved in this mission. There had been the distinct taint of Aerotech all over Special Forces and the Alien Intelligence Unit. Both areas of the military had been given a quiet "housecleaning" over the last few months. The dust still hadn't settled.

"The mine and its environs are the responsibility of the Twenty-third MEU. Until that time comes, Vansen, the MSPF will troubleshoot for us. We will use you where we need you. You will be playing fast and loose, and I will probably have to use you for some liaison work. I will need all your eyes and ears."

"Understood, Colonel." she said. The Fifty-eighth, while under McQueen's command, had been well used to improvisation and special missions. Usually they were the sharp point of the spear. It was like old times.

"The rest of the Fifty-eighth is in Orientation Room 14-A, Colonel," Chan said.

"Let's go."

The briefing with the Wildcards took forty minutes.

Captain Chan was to stay on the Saratoga with the Wildcards until the invasion began. Staff Sergeant Marsh was to move up into officer's country - to the Wildcard's quarters - to familiarize the team with the communications codes and channels. Damphousse was to join McQueen on the Hue City. She was to learn the communications from McQueen's Command Post team. And she was to get up to speed with the large picture of the engineer's mission as well. Essentially Damphousse would become Colonel McQueen's communications whiz ... and his personal pocket engineer.

"Any questions?" McQueen asked. There were none. Chan gestured for permission to speak.

"Captain Chan?"

"Sir, I've set up a workroom for us. Storage room B-9, deck sixteen. I've arranged for us to have dinner there at 1700."

"Damn, he is an efficient SOB. I have been lucky to have him. Well, I'll get him back in a few days," thought McQueen.

"OK, enjoy the next hour, people," McQueen said. "It's going to be your last free hour in the foreseeable future."

As the team began to leave the room, Cooper grabbed Nathan by the arm. "Play along. I wanna see if we can get some of those new Chiggy sensors for our Hammerheads. The Colonel told us to ask Chan. Let's see if 'Chan the Man' can do it. Maybe he really can get us what we need," he whispered. The two approached the Colonel's adjutant. "Captain Chan, you wan'na join us for a sw im?"

McQueen heard the invitation and could not supress his urge to eavesdrop. " Now what in the hell is Hawkes up to?"

Chan paused, momentarily confused, and then said: "Thanks very much, Lieutenant. I think that I would. Carriers. So there really is a swimming pool?"

Nathan had warmed to Cooper's plan and was ready to play along.

"Captain, we also have a bowling alley, shooting range, and the zero gravity chamber too. But the pool is considered an emergency water source. So may I suggest that you comport yourself appropriately," Nathan said.

Vansen, who had also overheard the exchange, saw the question on Chan's face. "What he means, Marshall, is "Don't pee in the pool."

The Wildcards left the briefing. McQueen, now alone in the room was forced to consider ruefully: "I wonder how long before they teach 'Chan the Man' how to run with scissors?"

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