Chapter Four - Sitwell

The hum of the atmospheric pumps signaled that the landing bay was secure and pressurizing. The communications officers came over the com:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the medical vessel, Nightingale, 'Flo' to her friends. We will unload in a few mikes." Kylen realized that she was still holding the notebook and pen, remembered why she had wanted it, and began to write furiously.

The familiar sounds and the unfamiliar phrases pushed a button in McQueen's foggy brain. He changed gears. The loading bays on the Nightingale weren't combat bays and would take longer to reach pressure but there still was not much time.

McQueen knew what was coming for the survivors. It would be different for them than it had been for him. They were civilians. It would be gentler but every bit as insistent. He had been 'debriefed' after his release as a POW and it had been no day at the beach. They weren't going home yet and they were totally clueless. They had NO idea.

His own experience as a POW had changed him. Profoundly. But the aftermath had been equally crushing.

They had called it debriefing but it was interrogation. Browbeating. My own people - the Corps - had treated me with such condescension. I had to justify everything that I had done and said. My own people had demeaned and belittled my efforts. The only thing that had prevented me from knocking heads - saved me from another three months in solitary was the fact that the Natural Borns got the same treatment - almost - more or less.

Though McQueen didn't realize it, the implied and inferred disgrace had inadvertently brought him into a new understanding - a new lifestyle. No one had or would ever use those tones with him again. He would never again allow himself to be treated in such a manner.

But even worse than the atmosphere of his "debriefing" were the memories that he had been forced to face. It was a bad business all the way around. It had been weeks before he had begun to feel useful and whole again.

Aerotech will have its hands all over this operation. Their head has just been cut off and they will be jockeying for power. They have to cover this up. The other mouths on this multi-headed monster are going to be snapping and fighting with each other. And they will be willing grind the bones of the colonists to season the stew. Without a second thought. No compunction. No reserve.

Kylen; he felt responsible for her on some level. He understood why but he had recently been blown to hell and didn't have the energy to deal with an FNK cheerleader. If it had been anyone else McQueen would have ignored her. He was too cut up and broken to care and needed to husband his own resources. As deeply as he wanted her out of his life, to have all of these people, gone; he was unable to relax and let go. The Wildcards had given him their faith and they had thrown down to save these people; to save Kylen. There was one thing that he could do for them; for her. One thing that he knew he could tell her.

McQueen turned towards her. There was a lot to say and too little time.

"Kylen, Kylen." She nodded but kept writing.

Damn, but I do not like to deal with civilians!

"Put it away, Kylen, they will confiscate everything you've written."

"But it's not for me. It's for y......" She was still writing but her head snapped in his direction as what he said sunk in. The change in him was remarkable. It gave her a jolt. His eyes were still glassy behind the meds but they looked at her fiercely. His face had hardened. One door of his mind had closed and another one had opened and behind door number two the 'Colonel' was swimming to the surface.

He had her attention. Good, but how fast does she learn? McQueen knew that his energy was limited.

"They will debrief you." She nodded agreement as if to say she understood. She didn't.

Enunciating every syllable he whispered harshly: "Kylen, they will in-ter-ro-gate you."

She felt bile rise to the back of her throat. He kept going: "Aerotech will be there - tell them as little as you can get away with" He paused waiting for a sign from her. She nodded. He waited, giving her the eye like an angry parent.

"Yes, sir," she whispered.

"The 'Spooks' have their own agenda. "he continued. "They will press you. They will know if you lie. Think before you speak and DO NOT trust them."

Her mind raced. She asked herself, Who the hell are the Spooks? What is he trying to say?, but she responded, "Yes Sir."

He saw the question in her eyes but there wasn't time to explain. "You're smart enough, you'll know them when you see them. Now, there will be Naval or Marine intelligence. Try to get alone with them and if you can, Kylen, you tell them everything. Think hard, you DO have important information. Try to remember details and you tell them everything. EVERYTHING. Understand?"

"I understand, Sir." But there was a lot that she didn't understand. There was something coming. Something that he didn't have time to explain. Kylen felt fear and the beginnings of panic. There are wheels within wheels here and I don't even know the game let alone the rules.

He wanted to gauge her abilities to think under fire. McQueen risked some time to ask her a question and it wasn't an easy one. "Kylen, I need to know what you learned about surviving when you were a POW. Other than water, shelter and food. Right NOW, Kylen I need to know. What are the rules?"

She responded to his authority and urgency immediately like a child reciting a nursery rhyme. Kylen did not pause to think. She just reacted to his command.

"One" Never draw attention to yourself
"Two" Stay in the Middle of the pack
"Three" Remember details.

She stopped counting but kept up the list: "Keep your eyes open. Know your surroundings. Create a sense of purpose. If you can, help the weaker but you can't help everyone. Do whatever it takes to survive."

McQueen was, frankly, astonished. There had been brief pauses and she had stumbled some but it was obvious to him that she had known the content of the recitation and had only sought the words. She did learn and the little package had a backbone of steel. This was more woman than he had thought.

"Good girl. Think. Find the patterns. Look at their relationships. Don't trust these people automatically but there will be people you CAN trust. Use your instincts. Choose carefully. These people are NOT your enemies but not all of them are your friends."

"I will, Colonel."

He had told her what to expect. He had tested her and did not find her wanting. Kylen felt a strange peace and the confidence given by his tacit approval. "The Complete Commander," Yes, people would follow him into battle. Nathan would,

He had slogged through a sea of meds, his lungs burned, ribs broken - had pressed himself to the limit to give her this knowledge. At that moment Kylen felt that she would follow him into battle too. She would do as he said. McQueen had given her courage.

He was exhausted. They both knew it. McQueen closed his eyes, sighed and rested back onto his pillow. Kylen was afraid that he might have pushed too far and nervously watched him relax and breathe more smoothly. She felt his pulse and relaxed herself when she felt it strong and even under her touch. Door number two had closed.

Her note.....She had wanted to give him the note that she had written. The note that had pissed him off. Kylen was seized with real urgency. She had a need to get this done.

He has no pockets, no place to put it.

"Damn it."

He doesn't have any more to his name than I do. No... There had been a bag.

"Find it."

Khaki. Somewhere... Somewhere...

"Damn it."

I saw it. About so big. (She began to search)

No, not underneath.

"Remember the details."

Smaller than a knapsack. You know you saw it! Someone scrawled his name on it. That black officer had handed it to one of the Corpsmen. Not at the foot of the stretcher.

"Damn it."

It has his serial number on it too. Hand written. A rush job. It had been thrown together in a hurry. And the Corpsman had......The corpsman had.... done what with it? Ah yes, he had clipped it on the rail at the head of the stretcher.

She felt uncomfortable opening the Colonel's only possession but....Saved again - it was a good day - She rammed the note into the zipper pocket on the flap. No harm/No foul.

Kylen moved back to his side. With nothing else to give him in return - to help him - she smoothed his blanket, tucking him in. His upper lip glistened with sweat from his recent efforts. She touched his forehead with the back of her hand. Warm and dry. No temp. She was a bit surprised and proud that he had accepted her attentions. He had probably fallen asleep.

A quiet voice reached her ear. "Did you find what you needed?" She touched him lightly on the arm. She had but not the way he had meant.

Chapter Five - CSN&Y

The door of the med transport opened with a clank and several corpsman appeared at the opening to assist the walking wounded. Kylen elected to remain seated for a while longer. It would take a while to unload and they were in the rear. She smiled to herself. She had come to think of herself and McQueen as 'Us.' They would be separated now and she wanted to delay that as long as she could. Her loyalties had shifted subtly in the last few hours. He was as much of her responsibility as any of the former POW's. She knew that it was true and decided that it probably wasn't too wise to question it.

He had as much as ordered her to stay in the middle of the pack but he had also told her to trust her instinct. He had told her to choose carefully whom to trust and she knew that she trusted him. So, she stayed where she felt strength and comfort. She would blend in later. She had gotten good at "The Old LHB" in the last 18 months. 'Lurking, Hiding and Blending.' The survivors had made it a joke and a dangerous game - given it a name - and even a point system. They had joked about adding it too their resumes. "An advanced degree in LHB from A.I.U." She wanted to tell McQueen the joke. She wanted him to wake up.

Kylen felt strangely like a child at that moment. When she had been little, if she had a bad dream or felt nervous or scared, she would wake up her father or her eldest brother, Christian. Sometimes even if she had a good dream. There had always been such a feeling of security and completeness with them. A blanket of masculine 'sureness'. She restrained herself from reaching over and shaking McQueen awake. She desperately wanted him to wake up and be with her.

The corpsmen came to fetch the Colonel who was the only stretcher bound passenger. Kylen stood and accompanied them at McQueen's side. As the entourage neared the exit they heard what could only be described as a commotion outside the craft. Something was not going well at all. Kylen could hear crying and several of her friends were shouting.

They hit the doorway and the debacle greeted them. The military wounded were being lead out of the bay by med techs. The survivors were being herded to the other side of the bay by soldiers holding rifles. The soldiers barked orders. The survivors in various flavors of distress tried to break out only to be firmly placed or even shoved back into the group. She grabbed the bars on the stretcher with one hand and the arm of a corpsman with the other halting their progress. There was no way she was going to leave the ISSCV. No way she was going to leave the ability to hide under McQueen's wing and step out into the melee. She was scared and outraged.

"It's like the selection at Auschwitz," She glared at the man and shook his arm. "What? You brought us all this way to kill us?" She knew this to be exaggerated and false but there was too much going on. It was the last straw and she wanted to trade insult for insult.

McQueen brought himself back yet again at the sound of the growing confusion. Why don't they shut up so I can sleep, damn it. Kylen's 'kill us?' had thrown the final switch and he was as alert as he could make himself, injured and drugged. He looked around.

"My God, Kent State" he whispered.

"Four dead in Ohio" spat Kylen.

"Clusterfuck," he shot back.

McQueen tried to sit up to see better. She rushed to help him. He surveyed the scene searching for anyone who looked to be vaguely in charge of this mess. This is a tactical disaster of monumental proportions. He simply did not have the energy or really the desire to take command. He caught movement on his periphery and shifted to see a Marine Major just entering the bay.

"Him - the Major," He gestured with his head. "Go. Quickly."

Kylen rested him back down. She rested her hand briefly on his chest. She wanted to say good-bye. Wanted to see him settled and safe. Now wasn't the time. She was forced to swallow her grief and fear. She gave him a pat and turned to leave when his whisper again caught her ear.

"Dignity. Don't whine"

She fairly bolted from his side. Making her way through the melee she mentally surrounded herself with McQueen's bubble and tried to formulate her request. She slowed to fabricate a dignity she did not feel. Screw rule number one. So much for not drawing attention to yourself. Imagine yourself a queen. Doing something - anything - having a purpose gave her courage. A private grabbed her by the arm. She stopped, reached down and plucked his hand from her arm. Having no idea of his rank she improvised.

"Excuse me soldier, I'll be with you in a moment" She smiled sweetly and turned on her heal leaving a stunned private in her wake and was almost immediately at the Major's side.

The Major was none too pleased. That was obvious. This officer would not want to be bothered with her, but McQueen had told her this was the man. She blessed McQueen silently for giving her the man's rank.

She mentally repeated her marching orders: Major, Dignity, Don't whine. Kylen was surprised at how ordinary this officer looked. She had thought that people with the rank of Major would look somehow bigger than life. This man looked like a teacher - an average guy. It was the only way she could think of to describe him. Average.

She knew very little about the military but she knew that they used what she felt to be exaggerated courtesy and more importantly she did know that a Colonel, even a wounded InVitro Colonel, outranked a Major. Work with me on this, McQueen, she prayed silently.

"Excuse me, Major, for interrupting (like he was doing anything, right?). But... (emphasizing ever so slightly) Colonel McQueen (a small gesture to the wounded man) indicated to me, Sir, that I was to ask if you would do something, Please Sir, to ameliorate this situation. (ameliorate - good word - a teacher's word).

As she opened her mouth to speak again the Major raised his hand to silence her.

"AT EASE," he bellowed and a silence fairly crashed onto the crowd. The Major then began two simultaneous conversations each with it's own tone and intensity.

To Kylen: "As a matter of fact, I'm here to escort the Colonel to Sickbay," his tone easy and gracious. Without taking his eyes off of Kylen he barked: "Sergeant."

Back to Kylen: " How is the Colonel doing miss?"

To the sergeant: "A word if you please, Sergeant."

He is interrogating me already, thought Kylen. The Sergeant miraculously appeared in front of the Major giving her time to search for an oblique answer.

To the Sergeant; " I believe your task, Sergeant was to guard; as in protect from harm and interference, the former (emphasis on former) POW's. Your mission was not and is not to place them under (emphasis on 'under') guard; as in placing them under arrest or behaving in a manner which could be construed as threatening."

"Sir, yes, Sir"

To Kylen : "One moment miss......?"

"Celina, Sir, Kylen Celina," I wonder if all officers can do this; Have two opposing conversations at the same time? she thought.

To the Sergeant: "Let me suggest to you, Sergeant, that you take this opportunity to make a general announcement to the survivors as to your purpose and intent. Tell them what is going on, Sergeant."

He turned his gaze to Kylen awaiting her answer.

"Major...?"she asked, waiting for him to fill in his name.

"Howard, Miss Celina. "

"Major Howard, I don't know how much you may have heard regarding the Colonel's injuries but he appears to be stable. Stable enough to have been placed on the transport sir."

Major Howard sighed internally. The girl was either a dolt or very perceptive. Undoubtedly the second. McQueen was not one to suffer fools.
This dog won't hunt, he thought. She had answered him truthfully but had given no information whatsoever. Debriefing these people was going to be a headache and this little scene hadn't helped in gaining their trust.

"Sergeant, see to our guests. Dismissed"

"Miss Celina, Will you please take me to see the Colonel." The Major requested. The girl had known she was being interrogated. But the question about McQueen's health had been an honest one. I saw the tape.

Kylen lead Major Howard across the bay while the Sergeant droned on about food, showers, more meetings and blah blah blah blah....She was glad she wasn't part of the crowd at that moment. It felt in a way powerful not to be part of the group. To assert herself again. Her fear had gone. She found the whole thing fascinating. This Military Courtesy was arcane but the formality and structure also made things in some way clearer. Not to mention the patina of civility. She was escorting this officer, undoubtedly from Intelligence, through the flotsam of the loading bay as if she was showing him into a Victorian parlor for high tea. She understood the irony and she enjoyed it.

When they arrived at McQueen's side, Kylen took the lead. The student was reporting to the professor after successfully completed her assignment. She bent down and spoke quietly, "Colonel McQueen may I present Major Howard from ..." She left it hanging, dangling like a sword in the air.

Howard realized that he had been hoist on his own petard. He had tried to finesse her and she had returned the favor in equal measure. He could offer the information or leave it open which would give them the same information as if he had shouted it from the rooftops. McQueen had little or no new information to give him. The girl, on the other hand, may be a motherlode of information. He had underestimated her. He needed her trust.

OK, Kylen, point to you.

"I'm from Intelligence, Sir. "

McQueen had had it. Let's just get this over with. "Major Howard, please see to Miss Celina's welfare immediately then get me the hell out of here. " He was more than sick and tired of the affair but he felt inordinately proud of her. She may have shown her hand a little too early but she had tripped the Major. She would do well.

The Major called a marine to his side. "Private, please see to Miss Celina's comfort" Kylen filed the info away. She now knew a private, sergeant and major by insignia.

How many damn ranks are there in the Marine Corps? Major Howard had put Kylen in her place. She knew it and didn't like it one bit but it was probably best to blend. She turned to McQueen. She really wanted to hug the man but that was out of the question.

Her mind whispered, Dignity.

"Colonel, McQueen?" He turned his gaze toward her. "Colonel, Thank you, Sir, for your kindness and concern." He searched her face for a trace of irony and found none. McQueen found that he rather liked her, almost admired her in a way. * "I hadn't thought that I would like her."* Strangely, McQueen didn't trust his voice. He gave her a nod and an 'almost' smile.

Kylen brushed her fingers against his in way of farewell, turned and left with the private.

Next : Chapter Six to Seven

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