Did you ever wonder how Ross and McQueen first met? Here's my take on it; see what you think. My apologies to the military out there. My ignorance of proper military procedure is total; if I offend, it is absolutely unintentional.

My thanks to Rayhne for the idea that strict religious types might not approve of In Vitros.

Paula Higgins

Part One

The door slammed against the wall as McQueen stormed into the room and headed straight for Major Nelson's desk. Jack repressed the cowardly urge to duck beneath its comforting shelter; he had not been looking forward to this encounter. Facing McQueen in a good mood was daunting enough; the bad-tempered version was truly a horrifying sight.

He eyed the MIA notification that McQueen dropped on his desk with all the enthusiasm he'd give a coiled rattlesnake and waited uneasily for Ty's opening gambit. It was sure to be explosive as well as laced with profanity. He wasn't disappointed; Ty was obviously in a very bad mood.

"What the hell is this?" Typical McQueen. Don't beat around the bush. Be sparing of words. Come directly to the point. No need for meaningless niceties or social banter.

A sane and sensible man would have responded to McQueen's demand for enlightenment with a full and prompt disclosure of all available information. Unfortunately, Jack's lack of common sense was legendary, and even his sanity had been questioned by many of his nearest and dearest.

In addition, Jack was laboring under the handicap of the promise he'd given Ross. And Glen had been most explicit on this very point. "If I don't make it back, don't let McQueen come after me. I know he'll want to, and I know he'll give you seven kinds of hell if you try to stop him. Just do the best you can."

And now here was McQueen - upset at being kept in the dark; fearful for his friend's safety; and more than willing to take his frustrations out on the first person to cross his path. Poor Jack.

There were times when Jack wished he'd become a plumber. Or an accountant - anything but an officer in Naval Intelligence. This was going to be one of those days. Trying to stop McQueen from doing what was right was on par with trying to lasso a tornado. Failure was a foregone conclusion. Still, he'd given his word.

Pretending to study the document in question, Jack thoughtfully summarized the gist of the official notice for McQueen. "It says here that Captain Glen Van Ross is Missing In Action."

One of the muscles in McQueen's face gave an ominous twitch. Bad sign. However, Jack's eyes were glued to the paper in front of him, and he missed that subtle signal. McQueen had known Jack a long time, and he had a pretty fair notion of why the man was stonewalling him. He would play along with Jack's little game for the time being; Nelson would cough up what he knew sooner or later - one way or the other.

Trying to hold on to the rather tattered remnants of his temper, McQueen gently asked, "What action is he missing from?"

The resulting contretemps really was McQueen's fault; the stern control he exercised over his emotions could definitely be open to misinterpretation. Alarm bells should have gone off at the sight of McQueen being reasonable; instead, Jack was buoyed by the giddy hope that he might actually survive this conversation with all his parts intact.

Jack looked up at McQueen and sternly informed him that "the mission is classified." Huge mistake - a fact he realized the instant the words left his mouth.

The sound of McQueen's fist hitting the desktop reverberated with the force of a sonic boom. Enough was bloody well enough. He had been patient as well as polite, and it wasn't getting him anywhere. A little plain-speaking might move matters along more expeditiously. Ty leaned further over the desk and explained matters as succinctly as he could. "Jack, I will learn what I need to know if I have to chip my way through your cranium with a pickax and extract any relevant information with a crowbar. What ... happened ... to ... Glen?"

Funny, Jack had always thought the expression 'my life flashed before my eyes' was just a literary device - or a myth. It was neither. He salved his conscience with the reminder that Glen had only asked that he do his best - not that he succeed in stopping McQueen. Sharing his secret with Ty would solve a lot of problems: keep his skull intact; increase his chances of reaching a ripe old age; and set in motion a possible rescue attempt for one of his oldest friends.

"Okay, Ty. I give up. Glen was asked by Admiral Thompson to do a one-man recon in an area of the Orion Sector that people have started calling the Nebulon Triangle. You know Glen - he'll do anything ..."

"Yeah, I know. He'll do anything for the Old Man. What the hell is the Nebulon Triangle, and why haven't I heard anything about it?" McQueen was still standing in front of Jack's desk, arms folded across his chest and glare still in place. Jack was getting a little tired of this intimidation routine. Ty really had it down to a science, though.

"This will take a little time to explain. Please - sit down and pay attention." McQueen grudgingly lowered himself into the chair next to the desk and waited with barely concealed impatience. "People are calling this particular area of space the Nebulon Triangle because it reminds them of the Bermuda Triangle - that place out in the Caribbean where ships and planes supposedly disappear without a trace."

"Oh, please, Jack. Don't tell me the Admiral sent Ross on some wild goose chase looking for ghosts and goblins!"

Jack didn't believe in this nonsense, either, but he'd been trying to give Ty all the facts. He was in charge of this briefing after all, and he would not tolerate any unnecessary interruptions. His response to McQueen's query was a bit sharp and decidedly testy. "Will you let me finish?" He received a very grumpy look in return, but at least the insubordinate behavior stopped - momentarily, at least.

"I know it sounds bizarre, but several ships have gone missing in that sector over the last few years. No warning, no SOS, no trace of wreckage. Just a whole lot of empty space and silence. There's been no report of enemy activity, no spatial anomalies, no nothing. Other ships have made it through just fine - it's a very random occurrence. However, the Admiral became involved when a commercial transport vanished a few weeks ago - with his 13-year-old granddaughter on board."

"Oh, my God. Glen's known Cassie since the day she was born. No wonder he went off looking for her. But why did the Admiral send just one man on this mission - and why is no one looking for Ross?"

This was a question that had no easy answer, and following Glen's orders - no matter how logical and pragmatic they were - went against every instinct Jack possessed. A strong effort was required not to start pounding on doors and demanding action. Truth to be told, he was grateful to Ty for forcing his hand.

"Even though we've got the silicate rebellion under control, we're still spread pretty thin. We scoured the area around the transport's last known coordinates and found nothing. Ross and the Admiral both felt that something might have been overlooked. That's why Glen went in - leaving behind strict instructions that no one should be sent after him. And now the Admiral can't justify sending another large force to investigate the area - and his conscience won't allow him to send anyone else to an almost-certain death. The last transmission we had from Ross indicated that he was entering a promising solar system. Then all contact was lost."

"Tell me everything you know, Jack. Where exactly was Glen concentrating his search? Do you have the last known locations of all the missing ships mapped? What habitable planets are in the neighborhood? Has anyone else investigated these disappearances? Are there any other reports of strange phenomenon in the area?"

"McQueen, the Admiral has made it clear to me that he won't be sending any more of his people into the Triangle. You have no need for specific details about the area - because you won't be going there." Jack knew perfectly well that his cause was hopeless, but stubbornness was another of his defining character traits. He didn't want to send McQueen to his probable death without using every argument he could think of to dissuade him.

"Dammit, Jack. I have to look for him. You want me to write Glen off like he never existed. I can't do that - I can't abandon him out there. I have to find out if he's still alive. He'd do the same for me - you know he would."

Ross and McQueen's friendship could be numbered among life's absolute certainties - along with death and taxes. Their bond had been forged over the years from trust and support and mutual reliance. Each would strive his utmost to help the other; neither would stand by and let the other suffer. That was why Jack had been expecting this visit from McQueen - there was no way Ty would simply sit idly by and do nothing to save his friend.

In fact, he wouldn't put it past McQueen to do something idiotic. It wouldn't be the first time - nor would it be the last. "Ty, I promise you - I'll talk to the Admiral - see if I can convince him to approve one more mission. Although why you think you'd succeed where Ross failed ... and I know you wouldn't do anything stupid - like going AWOL. You wouldn't, would you, Ty?"

McQueen didn't bother answering Jack's question with words; he didn't have to. The look on his face spoke volumes. "Oh, hell. What am I saying? Of course you would. Please, let me talk to the Admiral one more time. Don't do anything until you hear from me. Promise?"

Satisfied with the progress he had made, McQueen agreed to Jack's request. He would be patient, and he would wait - for a little while, anyway.

His uneventful trip to the Orion Sector provided McQueen with plenty of time to ponder Jack's question - 'Why do you think you'd succeed where Ross failed?' He certainly didn't think he was better than Ross or smarter or even luckier. About all he had going for him were two advantages that Ross didn't have. He knew that Glen's 'promising solar system' was definitely dangerous - since it had completely swallowed up his friend. The other plus he had was the homing device the Admiral had thoughtfully incorporated into one of Ross' dogtags. Corny - Ross would probably laugh himself sick when he found out. But helpful - the range was limited, but it would make his needle easier to find once he'd narrowed down his choice of haystacks.

Maybe it was a good thing Jack hadn't waited for an answer to his question. What it boiled down to was that he could not allow himself to fail. He had to find Ross; he had no choice in the matter. The thought that Glen's life was dependent on his survival instincts and fighting skills made him more than a little queasy. But he had to shove all doubts and fears to the back of his mind. He would tackle the problem one step at a time - and not worry about extraneous matters. Fretting about his own death was definitely not a topic for contemplation.

According to Jack's information, he was fast approaching Ross' last known location - which meant that up ahead was the solar system Glen had mentioned. Only one of the planets looked capable of supporting life, which certainly helped in the winnowing process. Ross was down there; he had to be. What in the world had gone wrong? If Ross had been sucked into some parallel universe, then he would have to revise his list of impossible things. Somehow, he felt the true explanation would be a bit more prosaic.

The closer he flew to the planet, the more his feelings of awe and disbelief intensified. He'd never come across anything like it. Every inch of surface was covered - engulfed - by jungle. An unending, unbroken sea of vegetation extended all the way to the horizon and probably beyond. The sun's rays could not possibly penetrate all the way to the ground - every stray photon would be hijacked by the luckier chlorophyll factories housed in the topmost branches.

And the leaves themselves were the same dark, mossy shade of green, unrelieved by the slightest hint of lime or olive or chartreuse. The trees must all be from the same species; he couldn't see any variations in size or shape. Focusing on an individual in that twisted, entangled mass was next to impossible; perhaps they were even connected by subterranean roots, an intertwined underground to match the chaos in the air. A fleeting thought suggested that it was all some multi-armed, multi-headed organism. Now that was a comforting notion; he'd probably wake up screaming over that one for some time to come. All in all, it was not the sort of place to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon.

The occasional rocky outcrop broke through the greenery like the hand of a drowning man going down for the last time. But none of the visible surface looked level enough or large enough to land on. McQueen had supreme confidence in his abilities as a pilot, but even he needed something to work with. Attempting to perch his ship on a rock the size of a table top wasn't an appealing idea - neither was turning into Tweety and landing in the top of a tree.

When the clearing first appeared in the distance, its unheralded arrival surprised a classic double-take from McQueen. About three kilometers at its widest point, its unexpected presence was unnatural - even shocking. It should have provided a perfect landing site - an irresistible welcome mat. Somehow, though, the sight of that flattened space made his skin crawl. Perhaps the contrast between it and the surrounding exuberant growth was too great. It reminded him of something cancerous or diseased.

Definitely manmade, however. The shape was too precisely rectangular - the edges too sharp, too straight. It had either been carved out of the jungle by some eccentric giant or by years of laborious effort. McQueen was irresistibly reminded of two titans locked in a death-grip: trees sprouting up, only to be immediately chopped down. He wondered which side would eventually win - the planet or the people.

He could see buildings and farmland. No electronic footprints of any kind - no microwave towers or satellite arrays. Few roads; nothing that looked threatening. He still felt no desire to land, though. All trace of native vegetation had been eradicated within that charmed circle. Maybe that's what bothered him the most - the hubris, the arrogance. He tried to imagine what kind of people would come this far to such an unpromising place to build a new life. Although he presumed they were human, he didn't think he'd like them much. It would take a demented and determined mind to pick a fight with this incredible jungle, one with an obsessive compulsion, an unyielding intolerance that would allow no prisoners to be taken, no concessions made.

He'd learned a long time ago to trust his gut - and it was screaming at him to avoid this place at all costs. Unfortunately, his onboard sensor chose that moment to pick up Ross' homing beacon. Damn. Ross was presumably down in that clearing, but it still didn't mean he had to land there. He'd find something close by, someplace more private, a little less obvious. This was not the time to knock on the front door; he preferred the peeping-tom approach on this one.

McQueen was grateful there was no one to argue with him over his choice of landing site. He was having a difficult enough time convincing himself of the soundness of his decision; he would find it next to impossible to convince anyone else. This was the best he could find - the largest, flattest piece of rock available. He just hoped this crumbly hunk was sturdy enough to support the weight of the Admiral's runabout. He didn't want to explain any dents or dings in Thompson's precious new toy.

He was intensely aware of the jungle from the minute his feet touched the ground. Those towering trees made him feel dwarfed and overshadowed and very alone. It was a humbling experience to be wrenched from the immensity of space and shown man's true fragility. Humans aren't gods; they are really pipsqueaks - tiny and insignificant conglomerations of random molecules.

At least he wouldn't have to hack his way through the underbrush; there wasn't any. The forest floor was remarkably clean and free of obstacles. Thank heavens for small favors. However, the longer he looked into the darkness, the more he could sense someone or something out there waiting, listening. An awareness, a conscious intelligence - evaluating and judging him. It reminded him of something out of Conrad - 'the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.' He cursed his retentive memory - somehow that chilling description had brought his own vague uneasiness into sharper focus.

As he headed off in the direction that would bring him to the clearing and to Ross, he found himself wondering once again about the people who lived in this strange and forbidding place. A significant lack of imagination and a huge amount of arrogant self-confidence would be highly desirable attributes. Otherwise, every shadow would be imbued with life, every snapping twig would signal onrushing danger.

He'd better keep a low profile until he knew more of what was going on. There were too many mysteries and way too many unexplained phenomena. And he was looking over his shoulder far too often. Ignoring the emanations coming at him from all directions grew increasingly difficult.

The clearing should be just ahead. The vibrations, or whatever they were, seemed to change - becoming less judging, more frenzied. He could almost smell the fear - as if the trees nearest the clearing were waiting helplessly to die. Soon the strange and horrible dealers of death would target them for slashing and burning. He told his overactive imagination to shut the hell up. Probably the gathering dusk had produced that weird effect. It was certainly a more sensible explanation than believing that the entire planet was alive.

He could not believe the wonderful sight that met his eyes once he reached his destination. Ross was standing by himself near the edge of the jungle with an unreadable expression on his face. Ty carefully checked for live sentries or electronic sensors, but spotted nothing suspicious. Ross looked all right - no visible wounds at least, no restraints of any kind. Keeping into the shadows, McQueen directed a softly spoken "Semper fi" towards his friend.

Only Ross' iron self-control kept him from nearly jumping out of his skin at McQueen's sudden appearance - plus the knowledge that he was probably being watched. His thoughts had drifted about a million miles away, and he hadn't really expected a miraculous, last-minute rescue attempt (had he?). McQueen's timing was always impeccable; he might have known the cavalry would come to save the day.

And he'd better not tell McQueen he'd compared him to an obsolete division of the U.S. Army - even if it was only in his thoughts. The comparison might tick him off. Ross casually sat on the ground and leaned against a convenient tree trunk. Staying true to form, the first words out of his mouth were neither mushy nor sentimental. "Dammit, Ty. You scared me out of ten years' growth! Don't sneak up on a fella like that."

McQueen felt himself torn by several conflicting emotions - exasperation, relief, gladness, plus a strong urge to shout Hoo-Yah at the top of his lungs. All that worry; the horrors he'd tried unsuccessfully to keep at bay. He knew that something was wrong; they weren't out of this mess yet. But seeing Glen alive and unhurt and as feisty as ever - he felt as though a fleet of battleships had arrived to back him up. Heaven forbid, though, that he ever tell Ross how worried he'd been - or how relieved he was to find him in one piece. Instead, he remarked with his usual deadpan delivery, "I'm sorry, sir. Should I go back and try again? Perhaps imitating a herd of buffalo to alert you that I'm coming?"

Since they were pressed for time, Ross regretfully declined such a special treat. "Just remind me to yell at you later. In fact - I believe I told Jack not to let anybody come looking for me. Once we get off this miserable excuse for a planet, I'll have plenty of things to discuss with you! Did you have any trouble getting here?"

"Nope, no trouble to speak of." McQueen was not about to burden him with a description of that hair-raising landing. Ross didn't need any additional reasons for yelling. "What happened to you? Where's your plane? Who are these people? Did you find Cassie?"

"Slow down a minute. One question at a time. I'm glad you didn't have any trouble - because I've had nothing but trouble from the moment I arrived. And I'm still not certain what happened to me. One minute I'm cruising along - looking for anything unusual. The next I'm tumbling through the air with barely enough power to land - and grateful beyond measure when I spot this clearing. I can't explain it - it seemed like the planet's magnetic field rolled over and belched. It played hob with my electronics - I was lucky to land instead of crash. And as for my plane - I didn't have any choice there, either. The people who live here stripped it down and hauled the parts into the jungle. They say it'll turn into a pile of useless junk in next to no time. I've seen the remains of other ships, and they're hardly recognizable."

This was a bit too much to absorb at one sitting. McQueen decided he needed some clarification and confirmation; he wanted to be quite certain he'd gotten the story straight. "Are you saying that some unknown force yanked your plane out of the sky - and that the people here cut it up into little pieces for the jungle to digest?" Ty shook his head in disbelief, unable to come up with anything constructive to add to his masterful summation.

Ross tried hard to suppress his chuckle. Trust McQueen to edit his tale of woe into a farcical sound bite. It did make him feel a whole lot better, though. The odds really hadn't improved all that much - but the psychological lift McQueen's presence provided was more precious than rubies.

Oh, God. All trace of laughter suddenly left him. McQueen was the one in danger; he had to warn him. "Ty, listen to me carefully. Don't let any of these people see you. They would shoot you on sight; they hate In Vitros. They're a splinter group from the Purists Society - religious fundamentalists convinced that their way is the only way. They escaped from Earth's 'cultural pollution' about fifteen years ago and settled on this planet. And they firmly believe that In Vitros are an unholy abomination - mankind usurping God's creative powers. Be very careful, Ty - I mean it. They will not hesitate to kill you."

McQueen was silent for a long time. He'd faced a lot of bigotry and hatred in his life. Usually, he could shrug it off with a careless consider-the-source or a it's-their-problem-not-mine attitude. However, he still had vivid memories of his one and only run-in with a Purist. That honorable, law-abiding, straight-laced man would have squished him like a bug if he'd been given the opportunity. To be considered a lower form of life, to be treated like a thing because he supposedly had no soul - it was the stuff of nightmares. After all, tanks were simply bits and pieces of people who never lived. How then could they have souls? Well, McQueen would certainly dispute that conclusion. He couldn't point to any physical manifestation of his soul, but he knew he had one.

But he would definitely do his best to steer clear of this group. Ross was right; they would show him no mercy if they caught him - which made him wonder how Ross had managed to survive. Purists usually didn't like any kind of outsiders - although they saved their most virulent hatred for tanks. So he asked, "How come they didn't pop you off?"

Ross had been busy marshaling his arguments, anxious to make his point as forcefully as possible. He should have known better; Ty didn't need to have danger spelled out in great detail. He was exceptionally gifted at solving puzzles with just a few clues - and practical enough to spare little time for hand-wringing or chest-beating. Glen thankfully shelved what he'd been about to say and answered McQueen's question. "Cassie. She's the only reason I'm alive. She was there when they found me - started screaming 'Uncle Glen!' at the top of her lungs. They didn't dare do anything to me in front of her - and, later, they realized my presence was useful. We would be hostages for the other's good behavior. She'd do anything they asked to keep me alive - and my hands are tied for fear they would harm her in retaliation."

Ross paused for a moment to gather strength for what he had to say next. "McQueen, you'll never know how glad I am to see you. I promised her, you see, that I would ... They're forcing her to marry the Patriarch tomorrow afternoon." McQueen made a retching sound, and Ross nodded in agreement. "Makes you want to puke, doesn't it? She's only 13, and the head man is probably in his late 60s. But the worst of it is - she made me promise. If I couldn't find any other alternative ... I promised her I'd kill her before morning. I'd hate to meet my Maker with that on my conscience."

McQueen's response to his confession didn't surprise Ross in the least. He'd known this Marine a long time, and easy sympathy was not one of his more notable trademarks. Instead of a pat on the head, he received a bracing, "Then we'd best get off this planet before morning. What's the layout? Where are the sentries? How many of them are there? Where's Cassie now?"

Ross compared his current outlook on life to what it had been only fifteen minutes before. What a difference a little time and a little reinforcement made in a man's energy level! They still faced an incredible number of obstacles: extracting Cassie without alerting their hosts, safely finding their way back to the ship, and somehow navigating their way off this planet without being bombarded by that blasted radiation. The last part worried Ross the most since he had no control over the outcome. Luck and chance would play a bigger part then cunning or skill. Hell, now he sounded like a damned silicate.

He outlined what he knew or surmised about Cassie's situation. Apparently, tradition decreed that she spend the night before her wedding in solitude and prayer. That did not leave them with an open field, however. The Purists, who were neither fools nor overly trusting, kept a sharp watch on his movements, and the building housing Cassie was closely guarded. Glen had already spotted a chink in their armor, though. They weren't dealing with trained military personnel; once a sentry was set in place, no one bothered to check up on his condition. Overpower a guard, shove open an unattended window, grab Cassie and off they would go.

He had McQueen agreeing to everything he said until he reached the part about their splitting up. "No, Ty. It'll make your task easier. They don't know you're here. If I stand around in plain view looking disgruntled, they won't be expecting trouble. We can join forces later back at the ship. There'll be enough room for all of us, won't there? It'll just be you, me, and Cassie. No one else survived the landing - or at least that's what she was told. I guess the Purists thought they could easily convert a young girl; they don't know how stubborn, pushy, and contrary this kid can be."

Ty allowed himself to be persuaded. He didn't like it, but he knew that Ross was right. He was just being irrational - now that he'd found Glen, he didn't want to lose sight of him again. So he simply muttered under his breath, "She reminds me a lot of her Uncle Glen." Ross decided to ignore the comment. He'd won this round, so he could afford to be gracious.

They swiftly went over their plan again, and McQueen gave a detailed description of the LZ. He didn't want Ross to have any trouble finding the ship. Glen had always maintained that McQueen was the best pilot in the business, and Ty's choice of landing spot simply reinforced his belief. He was grateful he'd been able to land in the clearing; he certainly would not want to attempt what McQueen had done. He just hoped they could take off without any problems.

Next : Part Two
Previous : Adrift in a sea of memories

Paula Higgins
© 1996