Lt. Nathan West burst into the 58th's barracks with a whoop of joy. "McQueen's coming back," he announced to Hawkes, rushing the words in his excitement. "I just heard it from Boss Ross."

"It's about time," grinned Cooper. "Yeah!"

"What are you so happy about?" asked Rain, coming in from the showers.

"McQueen's coming back," West repeated. "He's on the next shuttle from Earth. It's scheduled to dock within the next seventy-two hours." He and Hawkes exchanged enthusiastic high-fives and back-slaps.

"McQueen," mused Sarah. "Is he as cute as he is on the vids?"

"Cuter," answered Rain, tongue in cheek. "But not as cute as me."

"Can it, people," said Tyler, who had come in with Nathan. "Show some respect. Colonel McQueen is going to be our CO."

"We should do something for him," West stated. "Let him know we're glad he's back."

"Sure," replied Tyler, flatly. "Sarah, you bake the cake and I'll order the flowers."

"I didn't mean it like that," West protested. "Meet him in the docking bay or something."

"Sing songs and wave little flags?" suggested Tyler, arching one eyebrow.

"Maybe," Hawkes responded, irked by her mocking tone.

"Well, we won't have time for it," replied Tyler, turning to the others. "West didn't tell you the bad news. We're pulling an extra sortie till the new squadrons come in."

"But Tyler," protested Rain, "We're already on a 12-hour shift in addition to our special assignments. And we haven't had a free day since we got here."

"It's just for a few days," Morgan told them. "Hopefully."

"But --."

"Stow it," she interrupted. "We're short of squadrons, that's all there is to it. We go where we're needed."

Sarah sighed in resignation. "Starting when?" she asked.

"We start our usual shift at noon and go on from there," Tyler answered. She looked at them gravely. "Look, people, I know you're tired. Everyone is. The difference is, we can fly tired, and not everyone can. The new squadrons should be coming in any day now, probably with the same convoy that'll be bringing in Colonel McQueen. We hang on till then and then we negotiate a break. Right now it's just impossible. Complaining about it'll serve no purpose. Save your energy, take advantage of the downtime we do get. Trust me, it won't be much."

Tyler's words proved to be prophetic, though paradoxically, the next three days were the most peaceful they'd ever spent together. With no extra energy to expend their activities were severely limited to the necessary. There were no snide remarks, no irate challenges, not even a half-hearted insult or two. In fact, aside from the occasional groan due to strained muscles or muffled cursing when someone missed the pillow and hit his head on the metal rack there was hardly any complaints at all. It was even restful, in a strange sort of way. At every opportunity they slept, too tired to even dream.

Morgan had no doubts about the current good behavior of her team, but that didn't stop her from being thankful. She knew it could easily have gone the other way -- the intense pressure resulting in high tension and quick tempers. They couldn't afford it now, and to their credit, they seemed to recognize that.

Or maybe, she thought with a wry smile, she'd finally found the key to making them behave -- drive them to the point of exhaustion. Rag the fight out of them. Except she needed them to fight. Even if she got most of the overrun.

For the first time she was seeing glimpses of their promise. Not just the skill, not simply their courage, but the strength of their spirit, -- the resolution, the purpose, the heart. And for the first time in a long while she thought that it might just be possible that they could win this war.

She just had to make sure that they lived long enough to win it.

That was the hard part. The same spirit that made them good soldiers could also be their downfall. They were aptly named, these WildCards. Even Rain and Cullen had that recklessness inside them; they were just better at hiding it. Or maybe they just hadn't been tested yet.

She was so wrong for this squadron. The brass had no idea how wrong. Just because she was able to do it once didn't mean she could or wanted to do it again. The 'Wings had been different.

She dug into one of her flightsuit pockets and brought out a tangle of chains and dogtags. She hadn't had a chance yet to deliver them like she promised. And, after learning that the Eisenhower, along with most of her personal possessions, had also gone down during the assault on Demios she couldn't bear to leave them on the Saratoga when they went on assignment. So now she carried them with her always, sort of like a lucky charm, a talisman.

She raised the hand that was clutching them to her chest and enclosed her own dogtag within her palm. Soon, guys, she promised again, silently. Soon.

The claxons went off mere seconds before Tyler burst into the 58th barracks.

"On your feet, Marines!" she commanded urgently. "You've got five mikes to get suited up."

Cullen moaned in protest. She opened one eye and sneaked a peek at her timepiece. "What're you doing? We've got an hour left."

"Whassamatter?" Hawkes asked blearily.

"Chigs attacked the Earth convoy 70 MSKs out," she informed them grimly, grabbing her gloves from her locker. "We've already lost two of the escort squadrons and one APC. The remaining squadrons and four Izzies are holding their own but they need help. The 30th and 94th have already been dispatched, and Ross just gave us the word to go." Once she had the gloves on she turned to leave. "Meet me at launch bay in five."

The four who were left stared at each other silently for exactly one second before exploding into activity. There was only one interruption, a hushed whisper in the midst of the flurry.

"Nathan…" Hawkes' voice was a mixture of fear and worry. "That's the convoy the Colonel is on… What if --?"

"Don't say it, Coop," Nathan cut him off. "Let's just hurry."

The trip seemed to take forever. Longer. But eventually they got a visual of the convoy, complete with swarming Chigs.

Three Izzies huddled together, firing at the Chigs, but there was no activity from the fourth. Debris was everywhere, testimony to the ISSAPC and planes that had already been lost. A few dozen Hammerheads zoomed around, protecting the convoy as best they could, but they were outnumbered and outgunned. New fighters, just out of the Academy, the best of the new class, but still hardly a match for the littering the dark sky. They were still outnumbered but now the enemy would have to deal with the best of the 5th Wing -- the 30th Wreckers, the 94th Shadows and the 58th WildCards.

Legends have been born from less.

Without discussion the squadrons separated, claiming areas of the battlefield like they had been labeled with their names. The WildCards went straight for centerfield, going after the Chigs that had been swarming around the convoy.

Tyler took the lead, taking out two TriWings with her first pass. The rest followed closely, breaking off from formation when they reached the hub of activity.

"Black Jack and Red Queen, I want you to stay near the convoy and give those gunners a hand," instructed Morgan. "The rest of us are gonna do a little fishing farther out."

"Roger that, Captain," responded Rain. "We'll babysit while you guys do the town."

"Hey," said Morgan. "Just cause you can't leave the yard doesn't mean you can't play."

"Do we get a present if we're good?" asked Cullen.

"Only if you're very, very good."

"Hey, guys, I've got two bandits on my six," complained a pilot from another squadron. "I could use some help here."

"On our way, Lieutenant," responded West.

The next few minutes was a tableau of lights and explosions.

The passengers in the Izzies, those that hadn't been paralyzed by fear, would later describe the battle to be breathtaking, -- an amazing display of skill and grace, of violence and valor.

It seemed, they would later say, like one of those Air shows on Earth, aerial acrobatics and split-second coordination. Except here there was no colored smoke, no announcer to explain the complicated rolls and turns. There was only one way to keep score -- who died against who lived.

And for once, the Chigs were dying a lot faster than the humans were.

It wasn't long before the Chigs were on the run.

"Raven, we've got them in retreat," came Lt. Antonio's voice over the radio. "Should we pursue?"

"That's a negative, Dagger," responded Tyler. "Keep the game in the field."

"Roger that, Raven," stated the leader of the 30th squadron. "We'll keep close."

A few more minutes and there was only a few TriWings left and it was obvious to everyone that they would have left the battle if they could have. The extra APCs from the _Saratoga,_ travelling much slower than the SA-43s, had finally arrived, and the actual rescue could begin.

"This is Tyler. Shadows, why don't you and the new squadrons start on home? We'll secure the convoy and the Wreckers can pick up what's left of the litter."

"Copy that, Raven," responded Captain Scott of the 94th. "See you back at home base."

Scott ordered the new squadrons into formation and began leading them away, back to the Saratoga. Meanwhile, Tyler communicated with the crew of the Izzies, assessing the damage and determining how best to get them back to the Saratoga. Mercifully, though the fourth Izzy had suffered major damages, including the loss of all its engines, the crew and passengers inside the CV were, for the most part, safe. She gave instructions for the CV to be transferred to the vacant APC. That required careful maneuvering on the part of the crew but no particular hardship. Their main concern was time.

The CV had just interlocked with the new APC when, suddenly, one of the last remaining TriWings reversed, taking the pilot in pursuit by surprise. After sweeping the trailing SA-43 it headed straight for the convoy, firing lasers straight at the vessels.

"Shit!" cursed the pilot, as he tried to regain control of his plane.

The active APCs did their limited best to respond or get out of the path of danger. The wounded APC caught the brunt of the attack and the new APC, in the process of disengaging the CV from the damaged one, received part of the blast.

Hawkes saw red. His temper, already strained, flared at the sight of the falling ISSCV. Suddenly, a series of scenes flashed through his head: Paul's CV going down, Shane and Vanessa's APC being torn in half, Kelly Anne's escape pod being blown to bits -- every death, every loss. Suddenly that one Chig plane represented all of them and it became his duty, his destiny, his very reason for being to blow that Chig out of his sky. Out of their lives.

Something in his brain, in his system, clicked, and his whole being shifted into warrior mode. He was, after all, an InVitro -- born and bred for war. His makers had left nothing to chance: his genetic makeup, his early training, and his subliminal conditioning -- all carefully orchestrated to produce the supreme soldier, the ultimate weapon.

A weapon honed to perfection by the United States Marine Corps.

He fired his guns and the Chig he had been chasing, effectively getting rid of it, and changed course to pursue the one that had fired on the APC.

Dimly, he heard Tyler's voice over the radio. "This is Tyler of the 58th to ISSAPC-24196. Respond. Are you guys alright?"

There was no response.

"Dammit," Tyler cursed, then tried again. "This is Captain Morgan Tyler to ISSAPC-24196. If you can hear me, respond."

The radio crackled, and then a thin voice answered. "ISSAPC-24196 to Captain Tyler. The package was delivered, singed but intact. We're ready to go home."

Tyler breathed a silent sigh of relief. "Copy that. Hang on, 24196. WildCards, regroup. We're taking our people out of here."

Meanwhile, the TriWing, taking advantage, sped on. Hawkes continued to tail it.

"I said WildCards regroup," repeated Tyler in a sharper tone. "That means you, too, Hawkes."

"The bastard's getting away," gritted Hawkes. "I'm in pursuit."

"That's a negative," snapped Tyler. "Do not pursue. Leave it to the Shadows. I repeat, do not pursue. We're taking our people home."

He ignored her, too angry to just break away. He locked on his target and refused to be shaken. No matter how the Chig swerved and juked, he was on its tail, and closing in.

"Cooper, what are you doing?" West demanded over the radio.

"Lieutenant Hawkes, return at once and take your position. That is an order."

Hawkes kept following the Chig, moving further and further away from the rest of his squadron. The enemy pilot, as if knowing that Hawkes was unshakable, finally turned sharply and headed straight for Hawkes.

In Hawkes' mind they seemed to pause in mid-flight. Though he knew it was impossible he thought he could see the other pilot, in his own cockpit, staring at him down the barrels of his own guns. They started shooting at the same time, going at each other at full speed on a collision course.

A showdown, plain and simple.

Miraculously, both survived the first pass. Hawkes twisted around and waited for the Chig to do the same.

Tyler's voice came over the radio again. "Lieutenant Hawkes, you have been given a direct order. Return at once. "

He ignored her. The Chig had started its attack again, heading straight for his plane. Again, distantly, he heard Tyler order Lt. Antonio to take over guiding the convoy. The WildCards were going after their rogue wingman.

A quick glance at his LIDAR revealed that he had traveled a great deal farther than he had thought, and his HUD warned that they weren't playing one-on-one anymore. He counted at least half a dozen bandits, all with their weapons primed and heading straight for him.

Oh, hell, he thought.

"Goddammit, Hawkes, get out of there now."

The snarled command jolted him out of his semi-trance and he dived down, narrowly escaping the first volley of lasers from the enemy. He juked left and right and twisted and turned but there were too many of them.

An explosion to the left of him alerted him to the fact that the rest of the 58th had joined the fray. Rain had just very conveniently wiped out the Chig that had been closing in on his two o'clock.

He flipped over and succeeded in shaking off the weapons lock of the closest Chig. A quick burst of fire from his guns and another Chig was scratched off the playlist.

Another explosion followed. This time West had popped one that was coming in from his seven.

He was almost home free, Hawkes thought. But that was before he saw the other three Chigs heading towards him.

Three in front, three behind, and all of them had their weapons locked. On him.

Oh, hell, he thought again.


For a fraction of a second he hesitated, confused that the voice in his head sounded like Tyler. Then he realized that it had been her voice on the radio, shouting the order at the precise same instant the thought entered his head.

"Eject, you stupid tank! Eject!"

He ejected.

It was almost overkill, he thought later. The three Chigs in front fired at the same time the three Chigs behind him did. And to add to the fireworks, West, Rain, Cullen and Tyler had all also fired their guns. At the three Chigs at his tail. The guns found their targets. His plane blew up. The Chigs from his tail careened wildly due to their hits. Then the Chigs, both from his noon and his six, ran headlong first into his fractured SA-43, and then into each other.

The result was one very big, very loud explosion.

As his escape pod floated in space, helpless, a plane came out of the cloud of fire. He got cold. Through some miracle, or through some extremely lucky maneuvering, one Chig had escaped and was now heading straight for him.

He knew somehow that it was the original Chig that he had been pursuing. Their planes all looked alike, no marking to help tell them apart, but he knew. There was no way to escape now, no way to fight back. The WildCards had veered away from the force of the explosion and were nowhere to be seen. The Chig, knowing that, paused again. Hawkes could almost see the smile of cold victory that would have graced its face had it had been human. Except it wasn't human, so he didn't really know.

When it came down to it, he didn't really know anything.

Except that everything ends. Everyone dies.

For some reason he felt extraordinarily calm.

He was, in fact, even sort of looking forward to seeing how being blown to bits felt like. It was a good way to go. A lot of his friends went the same.

He saw the Chig move into position and braced himself for impact.

The explosion that rocked his pod was, strangely enough, less powerful than he had anticipated. And he'd thought that there would at least be a moment of pain before the darkness or the light claimed him.

At the exact place he had last seen the TriWing Tyler's plane materialized. He realized then that since the Chig had been out of range of her guns she had used a missile to take it out.

He was alive. And strangely disappointed.

She moved closer. He waited for her to throw him a line and tow him back to the 'Toga, but she just hovered there, looking coldly down at him. His eyes widened as, slowly, her guns moved and locked on to his pod.

"Captain…" Cullen's soft interjection brought his attention to the fact that the other WildCards had found and joined them.

Tyler ignored her and kept her guns on Hawkes. "Is this it, Hawkes?" she asked, harshly. "Is this what you want? Do you want to die?"

He knew she was furious. Quietly, deadly furious. Furious enough to kill him right there and then, in the middle of space, with the WildCards as witnesses and the entire crew of the USS Saratoga listening in on the radio.

"Captain," Cullen said again, interjecting quietly. "We need to get back to the 'Toga."

There was silence, terrible silence for a full minute.

Finally, Tyler stood down and moved away. "Bring Hawkes back to the 'Toga," she instructed them, flatly. "I'll see you all there."

Next : The Left Hand - part 3 of 4

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