09 January 2065
Washington DC, USA

Unbelievably enough for the rather jaded and sophisticated city of Washington, DC, there really is a hotel with the rather small-town name of 'Hotel Washington.' While not in the highest echelons of elegance, service and history, like The Jefferson or The Willard, or Hay-Adams, it is nonetheless considered one of the grand old dames of the Capital. The Vesta/Tellus group had been given rooms there for their four-night stay in the city. Four nights only because, even with the new restrictions, it was still more economical to travel having "stayed over Saturday." But the travel and accommodations had been paid for.

The counselors from The Greenbrier had been brought in and were meeting with individuals and families to check on progress, and there were lists of available tours, concerts, plays, and events that the group could attend - most at their own expense.

It was Friday. There were tours during the day, and in the evening the Wang family was going to The Folger to see 'Henry V' - a suitable choice for a production at the Shakespeare Museum. The Celina family was going to attend a concert at The Kennedy Center. Kylen, however, had other plans for the evening. She had been invited to attend an event curiously referred to as Mess Night at Marine Corps Headquarters. She had an early breakfast with an officer from the protocol office - one Captain Armstrong. "So the briefing need not interfere with your plans for the day, Ma'am." After her meeting with the captain Kylen had promptly phoned Amy Langston to get the straight dope on this type of event. "Amy, Amy, Amy help me out here."

A few weeks earlier Amy Langston, nee McQueen, the Colonel's ex-wife and through a series of coincidences his rehabilitation therapist, had been openly infuriated by Kylen's little bomb about going to work for the Marine Corps. Ty's oblique assurances that "Kylen has her reasons" had only partially oiled the waters. Amy had become fond of Kylen, had started to build a relationship independent of the McQueen connection. She had been forced to come to a painful decision. If she wanted to maintain her growing friendship with Kylen, Amy would have to swallow, or at least not give voice to, some of her old resentments.

As it turned out Amy had only attended two Mess Nights, once when she and her father had made the fateful visit to Loxley and the second time while she been married to McQueen. A former member of the Angry Angels had retired and was given a Mess Night to "dine-out" her detachment. Amy remembered that night not so much for the tradition it signified, but rather for the memorable argument that had followed: Amy had felt that Ty should resign his commission - that he could 'do better' - and T.C. McQueen was not interested in leaving the Marine Corps.

Kylen filled Amy in on the events of the awards ceremony at the White House the day before. Amy laughed to herself. But the picture of McQueen with The President of the United States? Amy could only imagine her estranged father prowling around his office in the Senate absolutely apoplectic with rage at an InVitro being received in such a manner. And then to have the InVitro be Ty? Well, it was immensely satisfying. Amy had to caution herself. She mustn't use T.C. McQueen as a weapon against her father. Not again. She had done it before and the results had been disastrous. She had been unthinking, and the upshot had been cruel - to both T.C. and to herself. Amy and McQueen had finally achieved an almost comfortable rapprochement of their tumultuous relationship. They had started, it seemed, to forgive one another. They might one day even become friends after a fashion.

Occasionally a guest list was included with the invitation to Mess Night. When Kylen read it off to Amy, the older woman could only whistle her surprise. McQueen was playing with the Big Boys.

"Mess Night is equivalent to a black tie affair. It is formal. Did McQueen give you any pointers?" Amy asked, using Ty's surname, which in her case was a sure sign of irritation.

"He just said it was a nice dinner ... that I'd know what to do ... and to be on time," Kylen replied, her anxiety beginning to grow.

Amy shook her head. "Well, that's typical McQueen. But, from him ... consider it a compliment. How about this captain? Did she give you any info?"

Kylen waved a sheet of paper in front of the vidphone camera. "Pages out of the Marine Officer's Guide."

"Good. That's more than I ever got," Amy said with a trace of bitterness.

"I thought it was just a dinner for the Ambassador - because The Colonel was given that decoration from Finland. But there are lists here," Kylen emphasized. "A list of people and another whole list of things that have to happen in a certain order."

"Kylen, the Marine Corps has a ritual for everything. Somewhere there are written directions for tying your shoes. But you don't have to perform the rituals. You are a guest: Remember that. You take part, but someone will be there to help you. McQueen has done this before," Amy said, but then she had a thought. Never in such a rarefied atmosphere. I wonder how nervous he is. Always hard to tell.

"Now I'm not sure why I was invited," Kylen said. "I thought it was just to be company for Colonel McQueen. But now this?" Kylen again waved the papers in the air.

It seemed patently obvious to Amy, who had taken in politics along with her cornflakes - at the breakfast table - since childhood. "They are using this as an introduction. I don't know what job they have in mind for you, Kylen, and I don't think that I want to know. But you were invited so that the 'players' could meet you and so that your stamp of approval would be obvious. Trust me, aides-de-camp are scribbling your name into their notebooks even as we speak."

Kylen looked uncomfortable.

"Then again," Amy continued.,"You were undoubtedly included to be company for Ty. In any case, the deals are made after dinner and the toasts, so stay on your toes and keep your eyes open. Takes notes. Go to the bathroom and write things down."

Kylen's initial excitement about the evening was fast turning into dread. Deals made after dinner? Writing notes in the bathroom? Sitting in a basement someplace reading people's mail was starting to look like a good alternative.

"Couldn't it really just be a nice dinner?" she asked. Kylen almost wished that she hadn't called Amy. In retrospect, she much preferred McQueen's terse shorthand explanation.

"Kylen, you are in Washington, DC. Even a nice dinner party is going to have an agenda." Amy could see that she may have been too forthright. She hadn't needed to be quite so blunt, but she hadn't been able to temper enough of her resentments or her political barometer. She had made Kylen nervous. Amy attempted to lighten the tone by changing the subject to one which was still of importance to most women and their feelings of confidence. "What are you going to wear?"

It was soon obvious to Amy that Kylen needed the boost that only a new and more sophisticated garment could impart. Amy immediately set up a conference call to one of her old roommates. The Celina tribe went on a tour of the city without Kylen, who instead went shopping with Amy's friend. It seemed that there was a little known but rather sizable underground of high-end resale shops in the DC area. There was a brisk market for all those suits, dresses and gowns worn by the politicos and foreign service types. Kylen had a good time, the appropriate gown and renewed confidence by one-o'clock. And by two-o'clock she had a manicure, the blackened areas of her fingernails covered with a warm rosy lacquer.

Colonel T.C. McQueen, on the other hand, spent the day over at the Pentagon. It was rare that someone from the front lines of his rank and caliber made it back to Earth. A lot of people wanted to attend what could best be termed a debriefing - though unlike any he had ever been through before. A lot of people came and went. Subjects jumped around, but everyone let him finish all of his thoughts and didn't interrupt. What was gratifying about the rather grueling day was the fact that people appeared to be listening. The questions posed to the Colonel did not contain veiled threats. They were in no way accusatory, but rather probing and frequently thought-provoking.

If the Brass wanted something specific from him they didn't let him know. McQueen remembered what Kylen had told him about children. They 'want.' They just don't know what it is they want. He shook his head, feeling that he had missed something.

09 January 2065
Washington DC
1815 hours

It was 6:15 PM and Kylen was again sitting in front of the vidphone. She had checked in with Amy and had received her final bits of advice on behavior, protocol and appearance, but she was now speaking with Eithne. Kylen was pretending. I'm NOT lying, she told herself. I'm pretending. Please, God, let this go well.

Kylen was attempting to mend fences with her sister by asking Eithne's advice on the final touches of her appearance - touches that Amy had already given her - but it was a way to reconnect with her artistic and dramatic younger sister.

The entire trip had been slightly tainted for Kylen. She had asked Eithne to come with them, and her younger sister had refused in no uncertain and very colorful terms. From the cradle, Eithne had been known as the familial spitfire. Her brothers said the she was "a redhead and all that that implied." She was talented and driven and had hitched her wagon to a star. She would dance no matter what, and at the age of fifteen had won a scholarship to Boston's School of the Arts.

Eithne's volatile personality was kept in line by her father, to whom she was devoted, and by her brothers and sisters, who occasionally made fun of, but generally ignored, her tirades. About once a year or so there would be an argument with one of her siblings: A series of fireworks that blazed, boomed and crackled, and then died out just as quickly. It was just Eithne after all.

Kylen now remembered the whole incident that had happened only a few days ago as 'Eithne's Refusal' - complete with quotation marks and capital letters. The event had become like a national news break on television: It replayed itself incessantly - breaking in on other thoughts - interrupting and distracting her - affecting her abilty to concentrate on the tasks at hand. No one can fight like family members, and this had started out as the usual family difference of opinion. It became almost immediately obvious that Kylen, at least, was not viewing the exchange as usual or common. Kylen was tired of dancing around Eithne's temperament. Life was too short to put up with mini-dramas. Once the two got started, an argument of historic proportions had ensued. There were no cooler, more mature heads around to diffuse the emotional confrontation. Frank had been at the university, and Ewan had been out at the barn.

Kylen had been walking around full of emotional disappointments and wounds that were only just beginning to heal. Eithne had seen her ambitions and possibly her entire career in the ballet placed on indefinite hold due to the War. Unconsciously they each had been spoiling for a fight. They had known exactly which buttons to push. It had been a reaction that neither one was capable of stopping - a chemical reaction that now had to run its course. Old jealousies and sibling rivalries had bubbled up and burst with acidic violence on the seemingly calm surface of the family. It had become clear that Eithne had a world of resentments to dump about Kylen's ill-fated Tellus mission and what the family had gone through in her absence and supposed death. Kylen had had it up to here with Eithne's narrow, provincial view of the War: The comfortable life filled with opportunities that the younger sister took for granted. At seventeen there was no excuse to think that your life was over. Not unless and until you had a gun pointed in your face.

Each sister had accused the other of being selfish and self-absorbed. Things had escalated rapidly.

Eithne had only been gunning for the old bob and weave. The usual. She had been frankly shocked that the fight did not progress like fights usually did. She had pushed too hard one too many times - was not prepared for the result - and was soon outclassed. There was no way on God's green earth that Kylen was going to let Eithne out of that kitchen with just the sound of footsteps pounding up the stairs and a door slamming. Sensing fear now in her opponent, Kylen had pressed her advantage.

Kylen had not raised a hand to her sister. Hitting your brothers or sisters had always been a forbidden and heavily punished act in the household. Such behavior would not ever be tolerated at Ridge Farm, and some training could not be overridden. But before anyone had known what was happening, Kylen had literally backed the smaller Eithne into a corner. Rather than meeting Eithne's famous heat and volume, Kylen had been unnaturally pale and extraordinarily quiet. The potential violence - the ability to do violence - under the controlled surface had been a terrifying realization for the witnesses and the participants. Kylen had given a warning to her frozen sister. "Don't let your mouth write checks that your body isn't prepared to cash." No one but Kylen had a clue as to where that little bit of poison had come from. It had been an ugly moment that was broken only when Allston slammed his school books against the kitchen table.

The incident had reinforced Kylen's decision to leave the farm - to come down to Washington. She had angers and fears and serious work to do on herself. The loss of the Tellus colonial mission had deeply scarred her family, and Kylen didn't want to risk further damage - of poisoning them all with her issues. Now, she was facing her sister again - attempting to reconnect.

"You don't think it's too sophisticated?" Kylen asked. The dress was not in the least revealing in a conventional sense and had no ornamentation, but the cut was severe - tailored and fitted. The impact of the garment was its material and its color. Real silk and a deep rich purple-blue. It had a suggestion of silvery sheen when the light hit it just right. It had made Kylen think of New England in the summer. The color of blueberries when she and Eithne plucked them off the bushes in August, enduring the stickers and scratches for the sweet reward.

"No, no, no. The dress is great," Eithne urged. "Now look in the mirror and take off one piece of jewelry. I don't care what, but something has to go. "

Kylen did as she was commanded. She removed her bracelet and stood back from the camera, turning so that Eithne could give her the final word.

"That's it. Perfect," Eithne actually smiled at her sister. "Let Bridee wear the bracelet to the concert. It will make her feel grown up," she pronounced with the tone reminiscent of a grandmother. "I still have the feeling you are going into the lion's den, Kylen, but you look fabulous," she said. "Thanks for calling, but then you know that I am the arbiter of style," Eithne joked.

Kylen had to laugh. Nerves were still tender. This was going to take a while to smooth over, but it was a start.

"Love you. Bye bye."

At 1835 McQueen called up from the lobby. Bridee had read about this Evening Dress Uniform in the papers Kylen had received from Captain Armstrong and had to see it to believe it. She accompanied Kylen down to the lobby with her camera.

When the elevator doors opened, Bridee gave an immediate little gasp. "Kylen, look. He is wearing a cape. He looks like a prince in a movie," she whispered.

"Hush," Kylen hissed and took her sister's arm, propelling her out of the elevator before the doors closed on them. But it was true. Six was standing there in a full length cape. Amy hadn't prepared her for this.

As a commissioned officer it was mandatory that McQueen have an Evening Dress uniform. Even though he would never admit it unless pressed, he did rather like the uniform, and it was far and away the most money he had ever laid out for any clothing. A major expense, especially for something worn so seldom. The traditional Marine Corps boatcloak was optional. Worn only with Dress blues or Evening Dress attire, the cloak - like the sword - was a throwback to the Napoleonic era. McQueen had never been able to justify the purchase of one for himself. They were costly in the extreme. Captain Armstrong had delivered this to his quarters at Henderson Hall last night.

"I didn't know if you had a cloak with you, Sir, but if you don't I can make this available to you for the length of your visit."

McQueen had had no idea that things like this were ever done. Marines were supposed to show up with the required gear in hand, and the cloak was not required. His unspoken question must have shown on his face.

"Part of my duty, as I see it, Colonel, is to see not only that things progress smoothly, but that people are made as comfortable as possible with protocol," Captain Armstrong had explained. "I'm a Marine and trained to improvise. With the War on we found that some bits and pieces of uniforms could get worn or lost in transit. So several of us have put together a few things to have on hand just in case. We can't lend anyone a full uniform, Sir, but gloves, covers, a sword and this cloak ... We can help."

Colonel McQueen's feelings about Captain Armstrong had changed at that moment. She went from being an officious, irritating little protocol ramrod to being HIS little protocol ramrod.

"Thank you, Captain," he had said honestly. "Waistcoat or cummerbund?" he asked, holding the items up.

"Waistcoat I think, Colonel. After all, you are one of the guests of honor," she had said. "And tomorrow evening, in honor of the Ambassador from Finland, you may - and probably should - wear the White Rose decoration on its ribbon, rather than the miniature."

So now McQueen stood before the Celina sisters - white gloves, white waistcoat, White Rose of Finland at his neck, white cover tucked under his arm - topped off with the boatcloak of a Marine Corps officer. They thought he looked spectacular.

Bridee whipped out the camera and went to work.

"Bridgid, this isn't the senior prom," Kylen remonstrated.

"But it is special," Bridee replied. She was finished anyway. "Look at the tiny medals," she said, tentatively touching the miniatures on McQueen's chest. "Where is your sword?"

"We have to leave," McQueen said, his impatience now showing. This was yet another situation that he was having trouble controlling. He was getting sick and tired of reacting - not acting.

"The driver is waiting," he told the sisters. McQueen accepted Bridee's kiss on his cheek and escorted Kylen through the doors to the car.


Center House, Marine Barracks
Eighth and I
Washington, DC, USA

At 1900 promptly, McQueen and Kylen arrived at Center House, Eighth and I: The appointed time, in the appointed dress, with the appointed gear. A corporal saw to her coat, his cover and cloak, and they were shown into the anteroom for introductions, cocktails and conversation. Kylen was pleased to see some familiar faces: General Weirick and the Commandant, both of whom she had met in November. Major Howard was present, and Kylen caught a glimpse of Captain Armstrong standing on the sidelines.

One to read my reactions and one to make sure I toe the line, Kylen thought with wry amusement.

General Radford crossed the floor to greet them. As the junior officer it fell to McQueen to make the unneeded introductions.

"Good evening, General Radford," he said, taking the general's proffered hand. "Of course you know Ms. Celina."

"Good evening, Colonel McQueen. Yesterday was a fine day for the Corps." Turning to Kylen the general spoke in an easy tone. "Yes, it is always a pleasure to see Ms. Celina. I see that New England has agreed with you. You look terrific, Kylen. But we could have given you a tan in Arizona. Come, let me introduce you to the Ambassador. Colonel McQueen, come along and 'make your number' as well."

Radford led them toward the Ambassador. Kylen felt self-conscious, but thought : I'm going to have to learn to swim in these waters soon enough. No time like the present, I guess.

"General Radford, are Martin and your sister here this evening? " she asked, holding out a hope that there would be another real friend to buffer the evening.

"No," he said. "We thought that this might be a bit much for Martin. He and Dawntreader are attending the concert at the Kennedy Center. They have seats close to your family."

Radford, Howard - and who knows who else - know the color of my underwear. I shouldn't be surprised that he knows what my family is doing tonight. Kylen looked around the room and did not see anyone else from either the Tellus or Vesta missions. I guess I'm the 'trophy' survivor this evening, as well as being the new kid on the block and company for Six. Try and look heroic, Kylen, she told herself. Maybe I shouldn't have gotten the manicure. Too bad for them I don't look more like a victim. She was immediately ashamed of her cynicism.

Heikki Virtanen, the Honorable Ambassador from the Republic of Finland, and his wife were standing with Lieutenant General Becca Green, the Deputy Chief of Marine Corps Aviation. Her title was misleading: Deputy Chief did not imply that there was a more senior Chief of Aviation. Her title said that she was a deputy to the Commandant, and that she was THE head honcho for USMC aviation.

General Green had become something of an institution in the Corps. She had come into the Corps out of Annapolis, but it didn't make her one of the good old boys. She had gotten into the academy the hard way - after putting in four years as a grunt. She had been in well over her thirty years. If it hadn't been for the War, Green would have been in the Outer Banks fishing off of the piers and hang-gliding off of Jockey Ridge. It had been her plan to retire this year, but plans change.

Years ago her brother officers had called Lieutenant Colonel - and then Colonel Becca Green - 'Sister Mary Zelda Zoomie' or 'Mommy Dearest' behind her back. It had bothered her briefly, but had not changed the way she did business. After she had become General Becca Green they called her 'Becca Boyington' or 'Mom' - the terms were of affection and respect. Becca rather liked those. There were worse things than being compared to the legendary commander of The Black Sheep Squadron, and she was actually a grandmother. She got a kick out of the fact that none of her brother officers knew that her husband, who was not in the military, called her 'Cookie.' Wouldn't they all just love that.

General Radford made his introductions. "Mr. Ambassador, Mrs. Virtanen, General Green, may I present Ms. Kylen Celina. Ms. Celina has been in the process of briefing us on her time spent off planet these last two years."

Kylen was under no illusions that General Green, at least, knew exactly where she had been and what she had been doing, and on what subject she had been briefing Marine Intelligence. The Ambassador may or may not have been out of the loop. Time will tell. I've just been shown an example of plausible deniablity, she thought. How to tell and not tell. Kylen also felt that General Radford's wording was probably the nicest way that anyone could describe her life. She smiled honestly and warmly. Then she spoke.

"This is an honor, Ambassador. My fiance is a member of the Fifty-eighth Squadron. In his letters to his parents he told of his friendship with and admiration of the Finnish Twenty-third Squadron. We deeply regret their loss, Sir, and will never forget their bravery. Nathan described it as something called 'sisu.' Perhaps the Ambassador would be kind enough to favor me with a better explanation of that term?"

Generals Radford and Green noted how effortlessly Kylen had changed the topic of conversation, shifting it off of herself and onto another subject entirely. McQueen, who had been the victim of what he thought of as a 'Kylen maneuver,' was used to it. Radford was extremely satisfied. Green's estimation of Kylen went up, and she was sorry now that she would not be seated on Kylen's right during dinner. The young woman could perhaps offer a shortcut.

Before the Ambassador could answer, General Green spoke: "Ambassador, I would have trouble explaining that, but I do know sisu when I see it," she said, looking indulgently at Kylen. The Ambassador, Radford and McQueen broke into polite and expected laughter. General Green continued: "If you will excuse Colonel McQueen and me for just a moment? There is something we need to attend to before dinner. Your Excellency. Mrs. Virtenen. General." With that she steered Colonel McQueen away while Heikki Virtanen attempted to define a Finnish term that has no direct translation.

"Sisu is that quality that makes our nation unique. It is a combination of courage, intelligence and the determination to get things done in the face of impractical or even impossible odds. But it is more than that. You must remember that in Finland we will bake in a sauna at 185 degrees and then run outside and roll in the snow. This is for us entertainment. This is part of sisu...."

The Ambassador's explanation faded into the background as Green and McQueen walked out of earshot. They had reached the seating diagram. General Green touched the chart with her finger. McQueen saw that the Ambassador was seated on the Commandant's right and Kylen on his left - the guests of honor. He then saw that he was seated between the ambassador's wife and General Radford - across from General Weirick, the Supreme Commander of American Forces who was seated next to Kylen. In short he was also a guest of honor - a nightmare for a person who did not enjoy being in the spotlight.

"Kylen Celina is an interesting young woman," Green remarked almost too casually, hoping to play the shortcut.

"She is a survivor, Ma'am," McQueen replied, as if that should be explanation enough.

"And you have known her...?" the general left the question hanging in the air.

"Since the evacuation, Ma'am."

"Tell me, Colonel, in your estimation, does she have the brains to match her balls?"

McQueen choked on her question and was forced to spit the wine he had been sipping back into his glass.

The question had been asked in order to establish a different and more personal level of communication between the general and one of her men. A joke. General Green had read up on McQueen - everything she could get her hands on. It had been an idle question actually - she knew the answer. She knew from his reputation that T.C. McQueen would not waste his time being chivalrous to a bimbo - no matter what the connection. And she also knew he had a reputation for irony and a rather sardonic wit. No. The question had not been an idle one so much as it had been a calculated risk. Time was short. She needed to establish a connection to one of her 'kids' quickly. She needed to get to know T.C. McQueen fast.

McQueen was a Marine and belonged to the Corps, but he was also an aviator - one of the most talented -and that made him HER Marine. General Becca Green was known to jealously watch over her brood. She made sure that her talented officers were brought along and given challenges just outside their grasp. She liked to see them stretched, and hated to see them fail. General Green got the job done. She was still not sure where it was best to place this Marine aviator, but she didn't want anyone else to steal him away from her command - not without her approval.

Returning the general's gaze, McQueen could see that she was not being insulting. He got the joke. He gave an honest chuckle this time, giving her a tolerent smile. "That's a toss up, General. She does have big brass ones, but she is extremely bright and learns quickly." He paused for a moment. "She is in an untenable position," he explained.

"Aren't we all, Colonel. Aren't we all, " the general said, with an irony that could not be missed. "Ah, well, we can speak more after dinner. We have things to discuss. Go retrieve Celina and then make your number to the Commandant and General Weirick. You had also better check in with our efficient little Captain Armstrong before they begin escorting people into the dining hall. She looks like she is about to pee her pants over there." The general gestured in the direction of McQueen's protocol wizard as she moved off to do the 'Meet and Greet.'

Why do I feel that the general had somehow just described an obstacle course? Glen calls this place 'Sodom on the Potomac.' I don't like Washington and that is a fact. Colonel McQueen moved out to fetch Kylen.


09 Jaunary 2065
Center House
Washington DC,

Offering toasts after dinner is an extraordinaryly formal part of Mess Night. Certain toasts are expected in a rigid order. Toasts of protocol are followed by official toasts, which are followed by the traditional toast; finally personal toasts are offered. It is the way things are done. Tradition is followed, and national anthems are played. It can seem to go on for quite some time.

This evening the Commandant was seated at the head of the long table, acting as the president of the mess. General Green was seated at the opposite end of the table, which was decked in fine linen, crystal and all the regimental silver. Marines had learned centuries earlier to embrace creature comforts whenever they presented themselves - the Corps would give them more than enough opportunities to be miserable. General Green was acting as the vice-president of the mess and the host. The evening had been her idea, and she was nominally in charge of the events. All toasts began with an address to her.

The Commandant stood and offered a toast to the president of Finland and - by extension - to the Ambassador. The entire party stood, and the chamber orchestra played "Finlandia." After three or four minutes the Ambassador offered a toast to the President of the United States. Again everyone stood for the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." There were no official toasts to offer - no members of the government or another branch of the service had been invited. This was a private night. The Commandant, in his role as mess president, offered the traditional toast:

"General Green, to Corps and Country."

General Green stood, and in a clear, well-trained voice gave the traditional response - the words having been read from a poster dating from the Revolutionary War.

"Long live the United States, and success to the Marines!"

After a few minutes of conversation the Commandant again stood and then offered a toast to Lieutenant Paul Wang, recipient of the Medal of Honor. Someone to whom Kylen had not yet been introduced offered a toast to General Wierick and the victory of Ixion. General Wierick offered a toast to Colonel McQueen. General Oliver Radford offered a toast to the Tellus and Vesta Colonists. The pauses that had come between all the toasts began to stretch out, and everyone expected the coffee to be served momentarily. But Kylen, rather timidly, touched the Commandant's arm, and whispered something to him. He nodded his acquiescence, and Kylen stood.

"General Green," she said, having picked up the proper form. "Honored guests, ladies and gentlemen, I offer a toast on behalf of the survivors of the colonial missions. I wish to give you the Fifty-eighth Squadron, the Wildcards, and also the Fifty-ninth, the Ready Reserve, who cleared the path home for us. I now understand that any and all Marines would have given their best to save us. In this case, however, it wasn't just any Marine: It was the men and women of these two squadrons." She raised her glass. "To the F ifty-eighth and the Fifty-ninth."

The company raised their glasses. Radford's little find had surprised most of them.

When everyone had put down their glasses, McQueen further surprised the group by standing, glass in hand. With a voice rich in dignity, he addressed the assembly.

"General Green, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen. We have recalled the glory and sacrifice of Ixion. I ask you now to stand with me in a moment of silence. Let us remember the victory and the sacrifice of Demios."

There was a good five seconds of silence before anyone stood. Kylen was aware that McQueen had just done something that shocked almost everyone assembled, but she had no idea what it was. She noted that people stood carefully so their chairs would not make noise. After they were all standing, McQueen waited a full thirty seconds in silence before solemnly intoning: "To our fallen brothers and sisters ... Those who have gone before."

"Those who have gone before," the crowd responded. After a couple of seconds McQueen sat and everyone else, one by one, followed his lead. Few people could believe that he had done it. Not that the toast wasn't the right thing to do: It was just that no one could quite believe that he had actually offered such a toast in front of Wierick.

Demios had almost been a disaster - another Guadalcanal. Intelligence had been faulty and people had screwed up. The fleet had been caught with its pants down and had been forced to withdraw. Troops had been left on the planet with no reinforcements, aircover, or backup. The withdrawal had been to Ixion - true - a spectacular surprise to the enemy and a fantastic victory. But the loss of life at Demios had been staggering. The victory there had not been achieved by brilliance of tactics or of leadership. It had been achieved by a handful of soldiers and Marines with a dogged unwillingness to die. Most people preferred to forget that the esteemed architect of Ixion, General Wierick, was also the architect of Demios, which, but for those few men and women on planet, could well have been a defeat beyond the definition of humiliation.

About half of the table was thinking that this Colonel, who was unknown to them, had really stuck his foot in it. The thought struck about half of that half, with a tinge of regret, that the man had just shot his promising career in the foot. About a third of the rest were smirking to themselves - the tank would go no farther in the Corps, having just buried himself up to his nippled neck in Chig guano. What only about a half-dozen people knew was that McQueen had been at Wierick's side for both battles. What even fewer people knew was that there had only been eight people in the room when the decision had been made to pull out of Demios and move on Ixion, and that McQueen had been one of those eight. What even those people did not know was that only two people had agreed with Wierick and that one of those two had been the man who had just offered the toast, McQueen. And what only two men seated at the table knew was what the decision had cost them both personally: Only Wierick and McQueen knew how bitterly the decision had been accepted. Only they knew how often they had seen one another prowling the passageways of the Saratoga, each lost in his own thoughts. Things had passed between them that even Commodore Ross knew nothing about. Only they remembered sitting together in silence on the observation deck, watching the stars shoot by as the fleet made its way back to Demios. It was a bond that the two men shared. The crushing weight of command had been felt even more keenly by Wierick. It had been a suffocating - if clear - decision. A decision that could have been soul destroying. It was a bond that they shared. Both men knew that if they had it all to do over, they would do the same again.

Most people mistakenly thought of Wierick as a hard-charging, devil-take-the-hindmost, Patton type. Most people did not realize that he was cut from the more personally involved and devoted Schwarzkopf mold. Far from being insulted, General Wierick was grateful to McQueen. The Colonel had said things to which the General could not give voice. Wierick had never been able to publicly voice his feelings about Demios. He had never been able to put his overwhelming emotions into words. The respect that he had - the love that he felt - for those grunts who had held the planet for him. Those men and women who had refused to give up. They had given him courage to continue the fight at Ixion when he had thought they were again facing defeat. They had inspired him. They had inspired the entire fleet. Wierick felt deep in his heart that the victory at Ixion was the direct result of the actions of a handful of Marines on a planet lightyears away. Demios. They had retaken the airfield on that godforsaken piece of rock, and that had saved the fleet at Ixion. They had the right to claim victory. Wierick reached across the table to shake McQueen's hand.

About half of the table thought Wierick to be extremely gracious and forgiving. About a quarter of the table thought that Wierick had just counted coupe against McQueen, who he would bust down to at least major at the first opportunity. A handful of people thought that Wierick had finally snapped under the strain of the last few months. About a half-dozen reflected on the remarkable brotherhood they shared as members of the Marine Corps. Two men shared each other's grief.

The toasts were clearly finished, and coffee was then served. Conversations restarted and became more relaxed. After about fifteen minutes, the Commandant dismissed the party: "Ladies and Gentlemen, will you join me in the bar?" With that time-honored phrase, the formal part of the evening came to an end. The atmosphere almost immediately changed.

Kylen was about to be introduced to one of the many paradoxes on which the Marine Corps is built:

  • speaking one's mind versus immediate obedience
  • risking failure versus a need to succeed
  • clearly defined plans versus quick-thinking improvisation
  • analyzing versus acting
  • the expectation that people can act independently versus everything for the team
  • the tried and true versus the creative
  • Tonight's lesson was straight out of the mouth of former Commandant John A. Lejeune.

    "On social occasions the formality of strictly military occasions should be relaxed, and a spirit of friendliness and good will should prevail.....We are all members of the same great family."

    After the very formal dinner and the even more formal ceremony of offering toasts, Mess Night always continues with "drinks at the bar." A peculiar switch occurs. The air of informality that follows carries with it a sense that people were almost "getting away with something." The feeling that the air has been let out of the balloon.

    Kylen and McQueen left the dining hall together and were almost immediately joined by General Green. "Come with me, children," she said, as she walked past them on her way to join Captain Armstrong, who was standing against the wall. They obeyed.

    "I love these nights," the General admitted to her charges. "We haven't done this in quite some time. And you." She pointed at Kylen, but the General was smiling openly - clearly amused. "You are a surprise. Did Ollie tell you to offer that toast?"

    It had been a surprise that Kylen had stood to offer a toast. To have it be for the 5-8 did stand to reason: General Green had been given to understand that the girl had connections there. But to be aware enough - mature enough - to include the other rescue squadron in the toast? It showed considerable aplomb, as well as insight into the assembly's sensibilities.

    "No, Ma'am. Captain Armstrong had reviewed the order of business and it seemed to me that not only was I allowed to offer a toast, but that, as a guest of honor, it was sort of expected. I felt that it needed to be said, and I realized that Colonel McQueen really couldn't say it without sounding self-congratulatory. I'm sorry, General Green, but I couldn't catch your eye. I did receive permission from the Commandant before I stood." Three-star General Green just referred to Four-star General Radford as 'Ollie,' Kylen realized with a start.

    Green had actually been quite taken with Kylen's gesture. The General found her intriguing. She smiled again and patted the young woman's shoulder. "And speaking of standing ... Colonel, your hand." McQueen offered his hand, and the General used it to steady her balance while she hoisted her long skirt and stood on a chair. Becca Green turned into the renowned General Green in front of Kylen's eyes. Even though she was standing incongruously on a chair, the woman exuded confidence and undisputed leadership. The General spoke in her command voice. There was music and conversations, but no one in the room had any difficulty hearing what she had to say.

    "Attention, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is not, I believe, as he would have preferred. I imagine he would rather be on the Saratoga. But please, let us take this opportunity to "wet down" T.C. McQueen's promotion. Well-deserved, Colonel." She held out her hand to McQueen. He was self-conscious, and was terrified that she would pull him up on the chair next to her. Terrified that she would expect him to say a few words. He swallowed hard and felt his brain go into overdrive to come up with something appropriate to say. He took her hand.

    General Green looked down into his face and read his reaction. "No. Don't worry," she said quietly. "I'm not going to make you say anything." General Green stepped off of the chair. "Well, that ought to get things rolling. Thank you, Colonel. Captain Armstrong, I know that you have seen to the necessities."

    "Ma'am, the cigars and the candy are behind the bar," Armstrong replied.

    "You heard her, Colonel. Go forth and be magnanimous. We can get more, if needed."

    McQueen hesitated. It was true that since it was his promotion that was being "wet down" he should pass out cigars and candy, but he really didn't like doing it. It made him feel vaguely foolish. He debated about leaving Kylen alone in this crowd, but was forced to remind himself: She is going to be working with at least four of these people in a couple of weeks. That's undoubtedly part of the reason that she is here. I'm not going to be around. She has to learn. I can debrief her later. He turned on his heel and left the two women. Angela Armstrong trailed after him.

    "Cigars? Candy?" Kylen asked.

    "The officer promoted always passes them out," Becca explained.

    "Cigars? Wait. It's tradition right?" Kylen asked with a smile.

    "I have quite a collection," Green admitted. "Some people collect shells. Some people collect stamps, or pens, or postcards ... whatever. Almost everyone collects something. I collect meaningful cigars."

    Kylen was half-tempted to ask if the general had a special case for her collection, but decided against it. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar?" she asked, only half in jest.

    General Green caught the lob - the oft-used quote from Freud - and expressed her amusement openly. "Yes, indeed. I don't save every one, but there are meaningful cigars."

    "And tonight's?" Kylen asked.

    "Oh, I think it could be very meaningful. The Colonel is on track."

    "Is he where he should be?" Kylen asked quietly, almost to herself. Let the general ignore the loaded question it if she wants to, she thought.

    "Where he should be?" Green picked up the bait. She wasn't caught unaware, but rather she was curious to see where the thread would lead.

    "General, may I ask you a frank - and probably impolitic - question?" Kylen asked directly.

    "Oh, I love impolitic questions."

    "I meant in his career. Has the Colonel come as far as he deserves?"

    "You are asking me if he has been the victim of discrimination." The general paused. There was nothing to lose by being forthcoming, and probably much more to gain. "He was in the InVitro platoons. That is a bit of history that no one is particularly proud of. And he has probably had to do more - to prove himself more - I'm afraid to say. Why? Has he expressed this feeling to you?"

    "No, oh no. But I know that members of the Fifty-eighth have wondered why he isn't a general. They feel he might not have been promoted as he should have been."

    General Green gave a small cough. "Rumor has it that you cut to the chase," she said to Kylen. I wonder how much truth there is in the rest of the rumors?

    Kylen needed and very much wanted her job as an analyst in Marine Intelligence, but she hadn't been selected for the colonial program because she was a shrinking violet. She spoke with a shaded tone of voice - it could be a question - it could be an apology or an acquiescence. "Ma'am," was all she said. Let the general decide how she wants to answer.

    "Yes, and no. It is the best answer I can give you."

    Becca Green silently reviewed the history she had so recently been studying. Colonel McQueen is a mustang - an officer up from the ranks. As an enlisted man he had a rather checkered course for his first four years. A court-martial that could have easily resulted in his execution - saved only because he had done the right thing, and executing him would have raised too many questions. One battlefield promotion that he had lost - being busted back one stripe - for again doing the right thing and pissing people off. The man had had no political savvy, but uncanny judgment. McQueen had busted his chops and regained his rank. And when, again with another battlefield commission, he had finally won his butter bars - he had held on tight.

    There was a world of information that Becca could give Kylen, but she had second thoughts. Frankly, it was none of the young woman's business. Ask him yourself, she thought.

    Usually the orchestra was dismissed after dinner and a drink with the president of the mess, but tonight they had been asked to stay. The Finnish Ambassador and his wife were both fine musicians, and the Marine Corps had a music department of which it was deservedly proud. The orchestra began to play. General Green whipped around to survey the scene.

    "Now I wonder just who requested that they play that?" she asked. I doubt it was McQueen. It was probably Brad Wierick, or maybe even Armstrong. Our uptight little Captain seems to have taken a shine to McQueen. She watched McQueen working his way around the reception area, passing out his cigars.

    "What is it?" Kylen asked.

    "It's a song that the 127th claimed as their own years ago - long before McQueen was a member. An old song by John Prine. "Angel From Montgomery." Mobile is closer to Loxley than Montgomery, but the song belongs to the 127th. The Angry Angels.

    "It sounds like such a sad song."

    "It is and it isn't," Becca said softly, almost to herself and then turned to regard the young woman beside her. "You expected fighter pilots to choose ro ck and roll - balls-to-the-walls, love 'em and leave 'em, didn't you?"

    "Yes, I guess that I would have," Kylen admitted.

    "For all their bravado, fighter pilots are, by and large, a rather romantic group of individuals - or rather they have a romantic view of their place in the scheme of things."

    Kylen made a little noise in her throat.

    "What?" Green asked.

    Kylen leaned in almost whispering to the general. Obviously she was sharing something of personal importance with the older woman. "Colonel McQueen knows my family. He has visited our house. One night he needed to think and he went outside by our pond. All alone in the dark. Just a little bit of light. He sat on the bench in the dark, alone for at least an hour." Kylen did not tell the General that the reason that McQueen had to get away from her family had been Kylen's fault. Kylen believed that he had had to get away from her. She had had a particularly vivid flashback and McQueen had been the person to bring her out of it. It couldn't have been pleaant for him. Kylen was sure that she had upset him. He had never mentioned the incident ... and neither had she. "My sister and I watched him from a window upstairs. My sister asked me if I thought that Colonel McQueen had ever read any of the Bronte novels. He seemed to her to be so brooding and separated - like a Bronte hero. I told her that I hoped not - that I thought he already had a surprising romantic view of his place in the cosmos."

    Becca Green stood transfixed by Kylen's little confession. Several members of the crowd started to sing the song. It was a slow, rather sad tune that was filled with regret, but also had a strange air of defiance. The crowd sang it with feeling. It had been a while since Green had heard it and a while since she had heard it sung so honestly.

                      "Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.
                      Make me a poster of an old rodeo.
                      Just give me one thing that I can hold onto.
                      To believe in this livin' is just a hard way to go."

    General Becca Green decided at that moment to change her position. She would share at least some - but only some - of what she knew about McQueen's career with this young woman. Hell, in a couple weeks, if she really wants to know - if she wants to risk betraying his trust - she'll probably have access to McQueen's records anyway.

    The singing continued around the two women.

                      "I am an old woman. Named after my mother,
                      My old man is another child who's grown old.
                      If dreams were thunder and lightnin' was desire,
                      This old house would have burned down a long time ago."

    "Generally speaking, Kylen, it takes about fifteen years for an officer to move up through the ranks to full colonel. There are rare exceptions. Sometimes a scientist or someone with special skills will come in at advanced rank, but it is rare. In wartime things move more rapidly. McQueen got his first commission to second lieutenant only nine years ago. Would he be a brigadier if he was a natural-born? Not impossible, but highly unlikely. Only one in sixteen colonels will ever move up to brigadier. I don't know if he feels that he has been passed over for promotion, but I've seen his records - he hasn't. No, that type of prejudice would be too blatant." He just had to do it in the most difficult ways possible. That's all. She paused and listened to the chorus of the song.

                      "Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.
                      Make me a poster of an old rodeo.
                      Just give me one thing that I can hold onto.
                      To believe in this livin' is just a hard way to go."

    Green again spoke to Kylen. "In the Marine Corps, officers move along a career path. We move around and have different postings. We attend different classes and can attend different schools to further our careers. There are certain billets and schools that can put a person on the "fast track."

                      "When I was a young girl, I had me a cowboy.
                      Weren't much to look at just a free, ramblin' man.
                      Well, that was a long time but no matter how hard I try,
                      The years just flow by like a broken down dam."

    "I have to admit that I noticed that your friend did not have a lot of luck in getting billets or schooling that he requested - that he was qualified for." More than qualified for. It is an embarrassment to the Corps. McQueen had been granted far fewer of his requests than was normal. It was obvious discrimination. It made Green sick to think of the time and opportunities that had been wasted. It was also obvious to her that, while McQueen seemed to have had one or two mentors along the way, no one had really focused his intellect along the career path. No one had appeared to work with him on what billets to request and in what order he should go after them. McQueen had always been exceptionally good at any assigned job. He performed. He won medals. He always made his C.O.s look good. It had been in their own best interests to keep him around for as long as they could.

                      "Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.
                      Make me a poster of an old rodeo.
                      Just give me one thing that I can hold onto.
                      To believe in this livin' is just a hard way to go."

    "Who makes these decisions?" Kylen asked. Clearly her temper was rising.

    "The monitors," Green answered.

    "The monitors!" Kylen almost choked. "Well, isn't that an unfortunate little choice of terms," she spat.

    "They have been called 'monitors' for centuries. Long before the InVitros were ever even thought of." The General paused. "But I do take your point. In the Corps, being a monitor is a part of a fast-track career. It is a rotated billet."

    "And McQueen, of course, was never a 'monitor.' It also could be a way of knocking out your competition, couldn't it?"

    "That is one of the reasons why the position is rotated," Green said.

                      "There's flies in the kitchen. I can hear their buzzin'.
                      And I ain't done nothin' since I woke up today.
                      How the hell can a person go to work in the morning,
                      and come home in the evening and have nothing to say?"

    Kylen looked around the room with new understanding - with new rather shocked eyes. "And you invited him here tonight? How many people here would love to see him fail?"

    "A few wouldn't shed any tears," Green admitted. "But he has more champions here than you realize. And, I am sure, far more than he realizes. No one was ordered to sing this song, Kylen. Your friend may - and I certainly do hope that he does - think it is a kind gesture. But there is more behind it than that." T.C. McQueen has just been very publicly dropped into the fast track.

                      "Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.
                      Make me a poster of an old rodeo.
                      Just give me one thing that I can hold onto.
                      To believe in this livin' is just a hard way to go."

    "General Wierick appears to think highly of the Colonel," Kylen observed.

    "Oh, Bradford? Yes, yes, he is an honest fan of McQueen's," the general said. And Bradford is my competition, she thought. "We both have plans for your Colonel, Kylen. I'm disappointed to say that I think Brad is going to win this one, but not without some concessions and not without some safeguards. She would get what she wanted out of young Bradford, which was how she often still thought of the four-star general, who had actually - during one of his rotations out of the infantry - served for a short time as a member of her staff. Far from being jealous, Becca Green took enormous pride that former members of her staff, aviators or no, seemed to move ahead gracefully in their careers. Besides, she wouldn't want Wierick's job. Not on your life.

    The strains of 'Angel From Montgomery' faded away and the orchestra started a different tune. McQueen had finished passing out the cigars and began to cross the room toward the two women.

    General Green's mind raced as she watched his approach. Kylen hasn't picked up on it yet, but have you? Do you feel it, T.C.? Do you feel the bidding war going on around you? Are you be flattered? Or, more likely, does it piss you off? Do you feel, as a former slave, like you were on an auction block, stripped naked - all of us circling you, determining your relative worth to us? Checking your teeth - testing your muscle tone - 'Turn your head and cough, Boy.' I honestly don't think you have any idea. You are almost too self-effacing for your own good, Colonel T.C. McQueen.

    McQueen reached the women. General Green nodded a greeting to him, but spoke to Kylen. "Ah yes, ... General Wierick. Well you know what they say, my dear: "The measure of another man's intelligence is the extent to which he agrees with you." And because they often do agree: When McQueen does finally disagree with Brad - and I'm sure he will - Brad will listen. Yes, Bradford, the brat probably does need McQueen more than I do, mused Green.

    "Nietzsche," said Kylen.

    "I beg your pardon," said Green, not immediately following Kylen's train of thought.

    "No, it's Mark Twain," McQueen said to Kylen. Both were trying to place the author of the quote Green had given.

    "Do you think? I'm not really sure," Kylen said to him.

    McQueen shrugged. He wasn't willing to bet on it either. "It's what I thought."

    General Green was confused to be left so totally excluded from their conversation. It was unsettling. She determined to regain control, and addressed McQueen.

    "Where is my cigar?"

    "Captain Armstrong told me to save one for you," he said, patting the inside pocket of his jacket.

    "Well, all seems to be forgiven for your rubbing a few noses in it," General Green noted, scanning the room, and then she trained the full weight of her gaze on McQueen. "You thought some of the guests were just a little too self-satisfied, did you?"

    Kylen was a bit jolted by the change in the conversation. She had momentarily forgotten just who General Green was. Kylen had the dreadful feeling that she was overhearing something that she had no place in hearing, but something that the general wanted her to hear - or rather that the general wanted to have McQueen know that Kylen had heard. It was a not too subtle chastisement. Kylen had the feeling that she was suddenly sinking underwater - very deep water - and she could think of no graceful way out of the situation.

    McQueen was silent. Becca Green circled an arm through one of his. The act of familiarity softened her message to the Colonel. "It is a useful function. One that is needed on occasion, but I caution you on attempting to build the rest of your career on your skill in acting the Roman slave."

    McQueen stiffened. Kylen stood paralyzed, with her mouth slightly open - wanting to say something, but too shocked to speak. It was beyond her comprehension that the general had called an emancipated InVitro a 'slave.' She saw the muscle in McQueen's jaw begin to twitch, and she saw his eyes narrow.

    "General, I am no one's slave," he whispered tersely.

    "Of course you are no one's slave," Green said as she gave his arm a little shake. "You just heard what you have been waiting to hear all evening, didn't you? An insult - open or veiled. You have been waiting for it, haven't you? It is true that you will, unfortunately, have to steel yourself against them for the rest of your life. I'm sorry to say that I don't believe they will ever disappear entirely. I just decided that I would get it out of the way for you so that you would be able to concentrate on other things. And you are now thinking that I was testing you - and you are correct. I apologize to you and to our guest here," she said, taking Kylen's hand. "Forgive me, T.C.," she said, using his common nickname with its implied intimacy. "It was a seventy-percent solution to one of my problems."

    There were a few moments of silence. Kylen could see that McQueen was processing the general's statement.

    Green allowed her explanation to sink in. He doesn't have to like it. But it is the truth and I need him to believe it. Sorry, young man, but I don't have a lot of time for the pleasantries, she thought.

    McQueen directed his attention to Kylen. He had been able to calm himself, and spoke in their accustomed hushed tone of voice. "I don't know what the general felt was her problem. But what General Green means is that it is often better to decide quickly on an imperfect plan than to spend the time required to develop a perfect plan that would come too late to be of any use. Marines call it the seventy-percent solution."

    "Thank you, Colonel," said Green. "Now, before either of you come to think of me as being irretrievably lost ... the Roman slave. The Romans liked to name things, and there are entire books about their slaves and the names they had for them, but in all those books I have never found the name, term, or title for this slave. Perhaps, given the Roman sensibilities, it was a taboo. In any case, during a Roman Triumph - the parade for the hero - a slave stood behind the hero ..."

    "A slave stood behind the hero ..." McQueen interrupted. The light had dawned. He understood the general's reference. "And whispered into his ear. 'Remember you are mortal. Remember you are mortal.'"

    "Precisely." General Green smiled up at him, and then turned to Kylen. "By reminding us all of Demios, the Colonel dumped a load of reality on what was in danger of becoming an orgy of 'who is better than we are.' As I said - necessary on occasion - but it does not endear one in the hearts of others. It is a skill - a spice - that one should use sparingly."

    Becca Green cast her eyes around the room and found Major Howard, who she gestured over to her group. "Major, I need to speak with the Colonel for a few moments. Please attend to Ms. Celina. After all, she is your coup, and you probably want to show her off."

    She did not wait for a response - in the Corps a superior officer's request carries the weight of a command. She gave Kylen a smile and a little pat. With her arm still linked with McQueen's, she led him away.

    Footnote: An illustration of a field grade officer in Evening Dress with boatcloak can be viewed at www.tecom.usmc.mil/mcub/library/images/URFigs/Fig2-1.gif

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