Disclaimer: Most of the characters in this story are the property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, creators of Space: Above and Beyond. No disrespect is intended to either the creators or actors. The character of Alex Larson belongs to me.
This story takes place after Tell Our Moms We Did Our Best. Colonel McQueen has been 'fixed' and returned to the Saratoga. Paul Wang did not die. Shane Vansen and Vanessa Damphousse were rescued. Do not ask me how these things happened. That's not my problem.
There will be links to two separate versions about halfway through. One leads to a PG-13 version of the last half. The other leads to a version of the last half which is rated NC-17 for high M/F sexual content. Both versions contain one sexual assault (no rape) with minor L.
Moments of Joy
Civilians, McQueen thought in disgust. Civilians stationed on the Saratoga. What next?
He stood on the upper level of Loading Bay Six as the ISSCV docked carrying the new, civilian non-coms. They were supposed to take over some of the administrative duties, freeing trained, military personnel for more important tasks.
Too many losses in this war. Too many good people were dead and military personnel were needed for more important tasks than paper-pushing. In theory, it sounded good. Except, of course, for the fact that it meant that civilians would be on board the Saratoga.
It won't last long, McQueen reminded himself. Admiral Paulson had argued and bullied until Commodore Ross finally agreed to a trial period for the Civilian Program. One month. That was all. Then they were gone.
In the meantime, Ross had assigned McQueen to handle them. Ross probably figured McQueen would scare them into requesting reassignment. McQueen intended to do his best not to disappoint the Commodore.
The ISSCV completed the docking procedure and the hatch opened. Nineteen people filed out - four civilians and fifteen crewmen returning from R&R. Six of the fifteen crewmen were hovering around two of the civilian women.
McQueen stifled a sigh. Even for a month this was going to be annoying. Civilians had no discipline, and they were available to anyone they cared to be available to. There were no regulations about fraternization with civilians.
"Ten Hut," McQueen barked. The fifteen crewmen snapped to attention. "You can go about your business," McQueen said. The crewmen took the hint and left quickly. McQueen looked at the four civilians.
The two women that the crewmen had been courting were young and pretty - a petite blonde and a winsome brunette. The blonde wore tight blue jeans and a tight fitting top. The brunette was wearing a one-piece, spandex number that left nothing to the imagination. Her appraising look at McQueen suggested that she'd be happy to remove it so he could make sure he hadn't missed anything.
The man in the party was wearing dress slacks, a button down shirt and a tie. He was also looking at McQueen appraisingly. McQueen ignored him. Homosexuality didn't bother In Vitros, but McQueen tended to prefer women.
The fourth member of the group was another woman. A woman, not a girl. She was obviously older then the other three, McQueen guessed about thirty-five, wearing comfortable looking blue jeans and a long-sleeved, button down shirt. She was the only one dressed appropriately for traveling.
McQueen gave her a quick inspection. Reddish-brown hair with some grey shot through it was cut in a short, no-nonsense style. Green eyed and tall, about five foot nine or so, she had the kind of figure you saw in girly magazines - large breasts and full hips. Her stomach wasn't flat, but she wasn't fat either, just a little bit plump in all the right places. McQueen estimated she carried about twenty-five pounds extra, well-distributed because of her height. She stood quietly, a little apart from the other three, waiting for him to speak.
He crossed his arms over the clipboard in his hands and gave them a level look. "I'm Lt. Colonel McQueen. I'll be your liaison while you're on board the Saratoga. If you need anything, see me."
The brunette smiled flirtatiously. "Anything?" she asked.
The older woman rolled her eyes. McQueen ignored them both.
"You've been assigned rooms in the VIP guest quarters," he continued. "You'll have to share accommodations. Two to a room."
"The VIP quest quarters?" The blonde whistled. "I guess the Commodore thinks highly of us."
"Actually," the older woman said, "it means that he doesn't intend to keep us any longer than the required month, so he hasn't bothered to find permanent quarters for us." She looked directly at McQueen as she spoke, a smile playing around her lips.
McQueen was mildly pleased. At least she understood the situation. The others apparently hadn't a clue. "Commodore Ross is a fair man," he said. "He'll give you every chance to prove your worth."
The woman's smile broadened, but she didn't respond.
"I assume I can let you work out the roommate arrangements on your own?" McQueen wasn't at all sure that would be the case.
"We were expecting to bunk in the barracks," the woman said. She glanced over at the petite blonde. "Lizzie and I will room together." The blonde nodded in agreement.
McQueen referred to his clipboard. "You are Elizabeth Pellowski?" he asked the blonde. She nodded. "You are David Fetterman," he said to the man. It wasn't a question, since that was the only person he could be.
"I'm Clarissa Carstairs," the brunette piped up.
"And, as you could probably figure out, I'm Alexandra Larson."
Larson's voice was rich and light. It rose and fell melodically. She was probably a very powerful speaker, McQueen thought.
"Ensign Danielli will show you to your quarters." McQueen indicated the young man who stood behind him by the hatch. "He will also give you your work assignments and a tour of the Saratoga. You report to your assignments tomorrow morning at 0800."
He turned to go, but Alexandra Larson's voice stopped him. "Colonel."
McQueen turned back and waited silently.
"You forgot to say 'Welcome aboard.'" Her voice rippled with laughter.
"I didn't forget," he answered shortly. Her laughter followed him as he turned and left.
McQueen was sitting in Tun Tavern, playing poker with the Wild Cards. They weren't entirely serious about the game, but it gave McQueen a reason to sit and have a drink with his 'kids'. The 58th seemed to understand his need for an excuse and they always agreed when he suggested a game.
McQueen looked over at the doorway to see who Hawkes was referring to. The two younger civilian women and the man were coming through the door and heading for an empty table. "Which one?" he asked.
"Who cares?" Wang said, admiring the two women. The blonde, Pellowski, was still wearing tight blue jeans and a tight top. Carstairs, the brunette, had traded her one-piece outfit for an equally tight dress that came down just far enough to cover about an inch of her thighs. She also had on some very high heels.
"How does she walk in those things?" Vansen asked.
Just as Vansen spoke, Carstairs got the heel of one shoe caught in the grille of the deck. McQueen and the 58th watched with amusement as she tried to free herself and four young men rushed over to help her. Once they'd gotten her loose and put her shoe back on her foot, the three civilians sat down. Military personnel clustered around them, probably with offers of drinks and companionship.
"Aren't you going to introduce yourself?" Damphousse asked Wang.
"Nah. I doubt either one has a brain in her head," Wang said.
"Do you really care?" West asked.
"Well, you've got to set some standards," Wang answered.
McQueen shook his head and started to deal the cards. He noticed that Hawkes was staring at the door again and looked up. Alexandra Larson stood in the doorway this time. The blue jeans were gone. Instead, she wore a loose, long-sleeved top tucked into a flowing skirt that reached mid-calf. She wore flat sandals tied securely around feet and ankles. Amusement and dismay showed in her face when she saw the crowd around the table where her friends sat.
Vansen smiled wickedly. "Still having trouble reading the map?" she called to Larson.
Larson focused on Vansen and smiled mischievously. "Actually, it's getting easier. Do you think I should be worried?"
Vansen laughed as Pellowski waved her hand. Larson nodded and waved back. "Will you excuse me, Captain? Colonel." She gave McQueen a smile and an arch look. He nodded in response.
"What was that about maps?" Wang asked Vansen.
"I was behind them in the mess hall earlier. The blonde was having trouble understanding the map of the Saratoga. The tall one," Vansen inclined her head toward Larson, "said it was because they're women."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Damphousse asked.
"That's what I wanted to know. She said that men do better with maps because they love the idea that one inch equals a hundred miles."
Damphousse stared for a moment, then burst out laughing. Wang and West chuckled appreciatively. McQueen shot Larson a measuring glance. She was looking in their direction with a little smile on her face obviously expecting Vansen to relay the joke. When she caught McQueen's glance, she pasted on a look of wide-eyed innocence.
"I don't get it," Hawkes said.
"Ask me later," West told him.
The 58th played cards, enjoying each other's company, laughing and talking about nothing in particular. McQueen let it flow around him, not participating. He was still their commander and he kept that distance, but he'd learned to relax just a bit and enjoy the camaraderie.
He glanced over at the civilians occasionally. A couple of men had been invited to sit down with the three women. David Fetterman was nowhere to be seen. McQueen assumed he'd made himself known to the homosexual contingent and been taken away to meet the rest. McQueen was always impressed at how well networked gay men were. In Vitros needed to learn how to do that.
"Hey, baby." The voice was loud enough to be heard over the rest of the noise in the room. "What say you and I go somewhere where we can get better acquainted?"
McQueen knew what he was going to see when he looked over at the civilian's table. Sure enough, a large, drunken crewman was leaning over the civilian table focused on Larson. She looked up at him, appearing unconcerned.
"What say we don't?" she answered with a smile. "And say we didn't?"
The noise in the bar died down as the crewman tried to decide if that was a refusal. Uncertain, he decided to continue. "I was thinking we could go to my quarters. I can throw the rest of the bums out for a while." He gave her a lopsided leer.
"Really? You can think? Why don't you go back to the bar and think some more. I'm sure it's a novel experience for you." Larson's voice was dry and sarcastic.
Wang and Damphousse snorted with laughter.
The crewman was still sober enough to figure out that he'd just been insulted. "You think you're too good for me? I guess you prefer officers."
"No, I just prefer men."
"Ho, boy," Vansen said under her breath.
"What's that supposed to mean?" the drunk demanded.
"It means I'm not interested," Larson answered in a level voice. "Now, why don't you go back to the bar and leave me alone?"
The drunk glared at her for a moment. McQueen tensed to move quickly, but the crewman looked around and finally realized he had an audience. He squared his shoulders and thrust out his chin. "You're a bitch," he declared loudly.
"Thank you," Larson replied.
"It wasn't a compliment."
Larson shrugged. "One man's insult is another woman's compliment.
The drunk gave her a confused look, then he waved his hand in dismissal and went back to the bar. Larson shook her head and picked up her drink as the noise in the bar returned to normal levels.
At 0750, Alexandra Larson walked onto the bridge of the Saratoga. McQueen looked up as she came in. "Any trouble with the map this morning?" he asked.
She gave him a disgusted smile. "I take it I'll be hearing about that till Hell freezes over?"
"Probably," he said dryly.
He looked her over, carefully. Today she was wearing navy blue slacks and a matching button down shirt. It wasn't a uniform, but she'd blend in somewhat. McQueen looked past her shoulder as the hatch opened again.
"Commodore on the bridge," he said.
Larson turned to face Ross as he walked down the steps. He walked right past without acknowledging her. She turned again and McQueen saw a tiny smile playing about her lips as she waited without speaking.
"Commodore," McQueen said. "This is Alexandra Larson, one of the civilians assigned to the Saratoga. Per Admiral Paulson's instructions, she will be joining your personal staff."
Ross glared at McQueen, who shrugged his eyebrows. They didn't really have a choice. Ross turned and glared at Larson who looked back at him calmly.
"What exactly am I supposed to do with you?" Ross growled.
"Put me to work, Commodore. Admiral Paulson says that several members of your staff are needed for more vital functions."
"Such as, Lt. Martinez could be better utilized than in completing reports for the brass back home. Apparently, she's one of the best at running the weapons control systems."
One of Ross' eyebrows went up.
Larson continued. "Admiral Paulson suggested that, since Lt. Martinez has been busy doing other, more important things, I might complete the ship's readiness survey. Which was due two months ago."
Ross made a disgusted face. "This ship is constantly under attack. The fact that we are still here demonstrates that we are ready. Why complete a report?"
Larson's smile grew just a bit. "I agree. Confidentially, so does the Admiral. However, the paper pushers want paper to play with. I'm here to provide it."
An answering smile started to appear on Ross' face. "Lt. Martinez."
"Turn over all data for the ship's readiness survey to Ms. Larson. Put her to work in your office."
"Yes, Sir." Martinez had a broad smile on her face. She'd been itching to get away from the red tape and back to work that actually affected the war. She walked over to Larson and extended a hand toward the door. "Shall we?"
Larson smiled back and headed up the stairs.
"I'll expect you to have that report completed in five days."
Larson's face split in a broad grin. "No problem, Commodore."
McQueen walked down the corridor toward the elevators. It was 12:22, and he was hungry. As he walked past Martinez's office, he glanced inside and saw Larson bent over the desk and a stack of papers. He took another two steps, then stopped and went back.
She looked up and smiled. "Colonel McQueen. What can I do for you?"
"Eat," he answered succinctly.
She turned a startled glance down to the watch on her wrist, then laughed. "Good idea." She stood and came around the desk. "Maybe you can point me in the right direction. I didn't bring my map." She smiled up at him. Not very far up since she wasn't that much shorter than he was.
"I'm on my way to the mess hall. I can show you the way." He didn't particularly want her company, but it was the gentlemanly thing to do.
"Thank you," she said.
They fell into step together and headed down the corridor to the elevator.
"You command the 58th?" she asked.
"They've accomplished some exceptional things."
"They've done well."
He glanced at her and saw that same amused look on her face that she'd had when speaking to the Commodore. She didn't say anything else and he decided that his replies might be bordering on rude.
"Where did you hear about the 58th?" he asked, partly to be polite and partly because he was curious as to whether his people were known on Earth. They should be.
"A friend of mine keeps up with the war. He mentioned them once or twice and I remembered when I heard that the 58th was your squadron. I don't usually pay attention to that sort of thing."
Typical civilian, he thought. "What do you pay attention to?" he asked a little disgustedly.
That got his attention.
She gave him a direct look. "There are still diapers to change and babies to feed and children who need to be taught even if there is a war going on. Besides, isn't that what you're out here fighting for - the right of every civilian to bury her head in the sand and pretend there's absolutely no danger?"
He couldn't help but laugh at that. They reached the elevator and he punched the call button. The door slid open almost immediately. When they got on, she leaned close to see what floor he pushed.
"The mess hall's on seven," he told her.
They stood for a moment in silence. He glanced over at her and she smiled at him. He took it as an invitation and asked the question that was on his mind.
"Why are you here?"
She gave him a measuring look. "Are there any children in your life, Colonel?"
He felt a slight pang at the question. "No." No children. No wife.
"Well, there are several in mine. Nieces and nephews. Some by blood, but mostly the children of good friends, people I love. Their children call me Aunt Alex."
She looked away as she continued talking. "Like I said, I don't really follow the war, but I do know it's not going well. I've heard some of my friends - the parents of those children - talk about volunteering. I watch their kids and I think about the life I've been privileged to lead: a safe childhood, both my parents alive and well and living in the same house, the freedom to do whatever I want. I'm a very lucky person. I've had more than most people, certainly more than any In Vitro ever got. I want those children - children that I love -to have the same privileges I did."
She met his eyes. "I'm not married. I have no children of my own and never expect to at this stage in my life. There's no one who depends on me. If something happens to me, my brother or sister or their kids will take care of our parents. I'm expendable."
McQueen was surprised to hear such a statement from a Natural Born. It went against everything he'd ever been taught. In Vitros were expendable. Natural Borns were not. On the other hand, good men and women died every day. Those people had chosen to join the military, though. Somehow, her civilian status made her different.
She smiled wryly. "I suppose you think that's silly."
He met her eyes. "Actually, it's one of the best reasons I've ever heard. Although I can't agree that you're 'expendable'."
There was surprise in her eyes at that last statement. "Thank you. I'll take that as a compliment. Especially considering that you don't know me very well."
He suddenly realized that he'd like to get to know this woman. His face hardened and he looked away.
"So, how did you come to be here?" she asked. "In the military, I mean."
"I'm an In Vitro." He expected her to draw back, be confused, end the conversation. In fact, that was what he wanted her to do.
Instead she just looked at him and nodded. "I don't suppose there were a lot of opportunities for you... ten years ago?" Her eyes acknowledged the difficulty of his existence. No pity and only a trace of compassion, though, which was good. He was tired of both.
"Fifteen," he answered, surprising himself.
The elevator door opened and he led her down the corridor to the mess hall. There were two serving lines and he expected her to leave him there. Instead, she followed him and stood with him in line.
"Do you like it?" she asked.
"Being in the military."
He shrugged. "I'm good at it." It's what I'm good for, what I was designed for, he thought.
She gave him another one of those measuring glances. "I'm sorry about my comment earlier about In Vitros. In retrospect, it was a bit out of line."
He gave her a surprised look. "It didn't bother me. Most Natural Borns don't think about what was taken from us by being born as we were."
"Eighteen years," she said softly. "The opportunity to be a child, to grow and learn the way the rest of us got to. I've thought about it. It makes me angry."
His jaw clenched and he looked away.
"I'm sorry," she said.
She put her hand gently on his arm and he looked back startled. The only people who touched him casually were Ross and Hawkes.
She took her hand away as soon as he looked at her. "That was insensitive of me."
He didn't know what to say to her. This conversation was completely outside his experience. He was in unfamiliar territory and he didn't much like it. They stood in awkward silence for a few moments.
"Well," she said cheerfully. "You probably shouldn't have told me you're an In Vitro. There are about a hundred questions I've always wanted to ask. If you're not careful, I'm going to drive you crazy."
He gave her a wry look. "Yes, In Vitros can dream."
She laughed. "I'm happy for you, but that wasn't one of the questions. Despite popular myth, I assumed you can dream. Dreaming is a function of physiology and psychology and since you have both, obviously you would be able to dream. It does beg the question, however, of whether you dream using the same symbols as the rest of us. Do Jung's 'universal' symbols apply to people who have such a radically different experience? Could Freud psychoanalyze someone who didn't have a childhood?"
He looked at her appreciatively. Those were interesting questions. He'd answered the Freud question for himself by reading some of the man's works - and tossing them aside. Oedipal complexes and stages of development didn't really have anything to do with him. Jung had never occurred to him, though.
"What question would you ask?" he said curiously.
She didn't hesitate. "Is maturity a function of biology or emotional experience?"
He blinked. "That could be a long conversation."
She smiled. "I've got time. I'm going to be here a month."
McQueen sat alone at the bar, drinking a glass of Scotch. His back was to the rest of the crowd, but he was very aware of what was going on behind him. Alex Larson sat with the rest of the civilians, surrounded by attentive men. Part of him wanted to join her, but the crowd was too much for him.
He'd enjoyed their conversation at lunch more than he expected to. The discussion had challenged and stimulated him intellectually. He wanted more. He also admitted to himself that it didn't hurt that she was a beautiful woman. When she looked at him, she didn't seem to see a Tank, just a man. He liked it.
Still, he'd been rejected too many times to take a chance. It was one thing for her to sit with him at lunch and discuss psychology, still another for her to sit with him in a bar and have a drink. He heard her laugh again and took another sip of Scotch. A moment later, someone walked up to the bar beside him.
"May I join you?"
He didn't have to look up to know it was her. The voice was unmistakable, so he nodded.
She sat down with a sigh. "Thank you. I figure I'll be safe over here. They're coming out of the woodwork." She looked around the bar. "Of course, there is no woodwork which makes it kind of strange."
His mouth quirked up in a tiny smile.
"I really don't understand it," she continued with a shake of her head. "You'd think they'd all be chasing Lizzie and Clarissa."
"Maybe they just prefer women." He knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left his mouth. He didn't look at her, just waited for her to brush him off with the same sharp retorts she'd given all the others. He took a sip of Scotch and waited. After a moment of silence, he looked over at her.
Her eyes were wide and surprised, but not angry. She did look embarrassed, though, and maybe a little nervous. "You certainly know how to get a woman's attention, Colonel," she said softly.
He looked back down at his glass. Now that he had her attention, he wasn't entirely sure what to do with it - or even if he really wanted it. She didn't seem to be too sure she wanted him to have it, either. He decided to change the subject.
"I've been thinking about what you said at lunch," he said.
"I said a lot of things at lunch."
"You mentioned Jung's 'universal' symbols. I've never read Jung."
"No one really reads Jung," Larson said. "They read about Jung. They read excerpts from his collected works. There are volumes and volumes of Jung. The man apparently had nothing else to do except write."
Alex knew she was babbling and she very quietly took a deep breath. She was just so surprised. She never would have expected him to say something like that. It almost sounded like he was interested in her, but she found that a little hard to believe. He was a damn good-looking man, and she was... Well, she just wasn't the kind of woman most men looked at. Plump and intimidating. A double whammy.
He didn't seem embarrassed, but he had changed the subject awfully quickly. The signals she was getting were very confused. It was probably because he was an In Vitro, but she didn't know if it was just that he didn't have the same body language as Natural Borns or if it was something else entirely.
She glanced over at him. Maybe he was just being nice. Maybe he wasn't used to having Natural Borns talk to him like he was a real person. She had only been on board for two days, but she had eyes. She could see how he was treated.
He certainly was attractive, though. So was Commodore Ross for that matter. She reminded herself that she was here to do a job, not have a romance -assuming that either one of them turned out to be interested in the first place.
One of the things she and the other members of the Civilian Program had been warned about was the fact that a lot of the crew would perceive them as being on board to provide 'entertainment' - especially the command staff, who were prevented by regulations from having relationships with most of the people on the ship. McQueen wasn't the type to see her that way. Neither was Ross. They were both all business. They obviously didn't want her or any of the other civilians on board, but she intended to prove her own worth to them, even if Lizzie, Clarissa and David bombed out. To that end, she'd promised herself she wouldn't get involved with anyone, no matter how attractive - at least, not until she'd been on board the Saratoga for three months.
She glanced over at McQueen again. He really was attractive. And intelligent. And witty. And charming. And devastatingly handsome. She cut off that line of thought.
Maybe if Ross threw them off the ship, she'd make her own pass at Colonel McQueen on the last night and see if it really was interest he'd just expressed - assuming she could find a way to do it without insulting him. A lot of women probably thought an In Vitro would be available sexually, and that he'd be grateful for the opportunity. She knew better.
Still, it might be worth the risk. The idea of ending three years of celibacy with an interesting, intelligent, gorgeous man just might be worth taking a chance on being rejected. She wasn't a nun, but she'd sure been living like one for a long time. She decided she should get away from that line of thought pretty quick too.
Thankfully, Colonel McQueen didn't appear to notice her short excursion into babbling idiocy. "Have you ever heard of the collective unconscious?" she asked.
"That's vaguely familiar."
"Jung postulated that all human beings are actually bound together through a collective unconscious. It explains why we all utilize and understand similar symbols - symbols that often cross cultural boundaries."
"So if Tanks use the same symbols, they might actually be human."
Alex was shocked at the bitterness behind that sentence. She sat for a moment, looking at him, then spoke softly. "In Vitros are human. It's the rest of us who may have lost the right to make that claim by the way we treat you."
He looked at her, his face unreadable, then finished his drink in one swallow. She thought he was going to stand up and leave, so she put her hand lightly on his arm again. His look was just as startled as it had been earlier and she realized that people probably didn't touch him very often.
"I'm sorry." She looked deep into his eyes so he could tell she was sincere. She could see old pain standing in them. "I seem to be saying that to you a lot." She removed her hand, but didn't look away. "I've thought a great deal about the In Vitro situation, but it's always been an abstract issue for me. You're the first In Vitro I've met and it's hard to remember that it's more than abstract to you."
She looked away finally, unable to take that demanding gaze any longer. "My friends back home could tell you that I really do think it's appalling what we've done to your people." She met his eyes again. "I just don't know what to do about it."
He exhaled and she could tell he was relaxing again. "Neither do I."
She smiled at the admission. "Then we have something in common. We both think it's a problem and neither one of us knows how to fix it."
His mouth quirked up a bit. "I never expected to have anything in common with a Natural Born
The statement bordered on insulting, but she didnít think he meant it to be - any more than sheíd meant to insult him before. "Iíd bet we have more in common than you think," she said. "We both like to read books that most people find incredibly boring."
He chuckled softly. "How did you know I like to read?"
"Please." She let her exasperation show in her voice. "How many people who donít read would know who Freud and Jung are?"
"Probably more than you think." His eyes were smiling now.
"All right, I admit it. Iím an intellectual snob. I still say, itís obvious that you like to read." She laughed. "Actually, thatís why Iím here, now. Lizzie insisted I get out of our quarters. She said if I stayed there all Iíd do is read. Like thatís a bad thing."
She laughed again and he joined her this time. Not loudly, but a soft chuckle.
"What kinds of books do you read?" she asked.
"A lot of Eastern philosophy."
"Let me guess, The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings."
He nodded. "Among others. Have you read them?"
"I tried to read The Art of War once. Unfortunately, my copy had an introduction. It told the story of how Sun Tzu was demonstrating military tactics using the kingís concubines." She gave him an inquiring look and he nodded, so she assumed he knew the story. "Anyway, I got to the point where he had the two chief concubines beheaded for not obeying orders and all I could think was Ďget this man some valium.í"
McQueen laughed out loud at that. The room went still and everyone turned to look at the two of them. Alex guessed that laughing wasnít something McQueen did very often. At least not in public. He appeared unconcerned, though, completely ignoring the attention they were receiving.
"I never thought about it that way," he said. "Seemed like good military tactics to me."
She knew he was teasing her, but decided to play along. "Youíre not serious?" She pretended to be shocked.
He chuckled and lowered his head, then looked back up at her with a boyish grin.
She laughed again. "Have you read the Tao Te Ching?"
"How about the Tao of Pooh?"
He gave her a confused look. "The Tao of What?"
"The Tao of Pooh. It explains Taoism using Winnie the Pooh."
"Winnie the Pooh?"
"Itís a childrenís story. About a stuffed bear."
He gave her a look comprised of one part amusement and two parts skepticism. "They use a stuffed bear to explain Taoism?"
"Quite well, actually. You should read it."
"I may have to."
The next day, Alex didnít see McQueen at all. He was busy working on the hanger deck, helping the flight crew plan some overhauls of the 58thís hammerheads. She did have another visitor, though.
When she looked up, she saw a man standing in the door to the office. "Yes," she said.
"Can I help you, Commander?" He was a Lt. Commander, actually, but she gave him the courtesy.
He smiled down at her. "Actually, I wanted to help you."
Her eyebrows drew together in a slight frown, but her lips smiled politely. "How?"
"A little advice, actually."
"Your choice of off-duty companionship."
His smile broadened. "Just a friendly word of advice. A natural born woman shouldnít be seen too often in the company of an In Vitro. People might get the wrong idea."
Alex felt an angry flush starting at her neck and working itís way up. "What idea would that be, Commander?"
The smile never wavered. "Youíre obviously an intelligent woman, Ms. Larson. You know what I mean."
"I think I do, Commander, and I donít much like what youíre implying."
He nodded. "Good. Then you can see that spending time with Colonel McQueen would be a mistake."
Alex tightened her jaw. "I didnít mean that I donít like the implication that Colonel McQueen and I are more than friends. I couldnít care less what people think. What I donít like is the implication that what I do is any of your business!"
His tone became patronizing. "A situation like this is everyoneís business. The world works a certain way, Ms. Larson. As long as people recognize that and stay in their place, everything will be just fine."
"Stay in their place!" Alex couldnít believe her ears. Sheíd grown up in the South and knew about prejudice. She was deeply ashamed of the fact that her family had been involved in the Ku Klux Klan nearly a century back. She knew there was prejudice against In Vitros, but this was ridiculous. All she and Colonel McQueen had done was have a drink in a bar for Heavenís sake!
"Iím surprised youíre not demanding that they take away his rank!" she said sarcastically.
"How can you stand to have an In Vitro as a superior officer?"
His voice was still calm. He sounded as though he were explaining that the sky was blue to a child. "Lt. Colonel McQueen has earned his rank. He is an excellent soldier, and he understands his place. I donít want you to confuse him."
She spoke around clenched teeth. "Donít worry, Commander. I have no intention of Ďconfusingí Colonel McQueen."
"Iím glad to hear it. Have a nice day, Ms. Larson." He turned and left, leaving Alex staring after him in consternation, completely unsure of what to do.
She didnít think it would be a good idea to tell Colonel McQueen. He was just the sort of noble, self-sacrificing type that would stay away from her Ďfor her own good.í On the other hand, there was a lot of anger in that man. He might explode and get himself into trouble.
She didnít want to go to the Commodore on her third day aboard with a complaint, either. Besides, this was so outrageous he probably wouldnít believe her. And Commander ĎBigotí hadnít actually done anything wrong. Heíd just expressed an opinion that she found abhorrent.
She didnít know how to handle the situation. She did know one thing, though. There was no way she was staying away from Colonel McQueen. Not if he continued to accept her friendship. The man needed friends and he obviously deserved better than heíd gotten out of life. She would not be bullied away from someone she enjoyed by a bigot.
Alex set her jaw and bent to her report again.
At 0930 hours, McQueen was on the Bridge talking to Commodore Ross. Alex Larson walked in. He hadnít seen her for two days; heíd been too busy on the Hanger Deck. She walked over to the two men and smiled at McQueen, then focused on Ross and quietly waited for him to acknowledge her. Ross finished looking over the specs in his hand, then handed them back with to McQueen.
"Looks good, Ty. Ms. Larson, what can I do for you?"
"Your report, Commodore." She held out a binder and a data disk.
Ross took it with a half-smile. "Youíre a day early, Ms. Larson. Are you sure you donít want to double-check the figures?"
"Well, that would be redundant since Iíve already triple-checked them." She smiled mischievously at Ross. "What shall I work on next?"
Ross looked over at Lt. Martinez.
"The staples consumption forms need to be finished," Martinez said with a grin.
"Give them to Ms. Larson, Lieutenant."
Martinez grinned at Larson. "Youíre going to love these. Government forms. Nothing like them."
Larson grinned back. "Iíve filled out a few in my time. You just have to know the trick to handling them."
"What would that be?" Ross asked.
Larsonís eyes twinkled. "Well, when you read the instructions for how to complete the forms, there will always be three or more possible interpretations for each line. One of these interpretations will stand out as being the most ridiculous, inane, utterly stupid approach youíve ever heard of. Go with that one."
Ross started to grin.
"After a while, youíll find that the inane interpretations sort of leap out at you. This will worry you, but you have to just breathe through the fear and keep going."
"Then, when you finish the forms and send them off, you run screaming for the nearest place that sells alcohol, consume a large quantity and try to forget the whole thing ever happened."
Ross snorted. "So, what youíre saying is Iíll owe you a drink when you finish this."
Larson grinned. "Thatís one interpretation."
"Hopefully, not the most inane one."
Larson laughed. "Not by a long shot, Commodore." She turned and headed up the stairs with Martinez.
Ross looked down at the report in his hand and idly flipped through it. He started to laugh.
"Sir?" McQueen asked.
"Look a this thing, Ty."
McQueen leaned over the Commodoreís shoulder and looked.
"Itís indexed, cross-referenced and has a table of contents." Ross was chuckling.
"And a disclaimer," McQueen said, pulling out a small half-sheet of paper. It said: Not responsible for errors in data provided by headquarters.
Ross burst out laughing. McQueen chuckled with him.
"You know, Ty. This may just work out after all."
Ross and McQueen strode down the corridor, discussing the new Hammerhead upgrades. McQueen looked into Lt. Martinezís office as they passed and Ross glanced over to see what McQueen was looking at. Alex Larson was working in the office with her head bent to a stack of papers. As they took another couple of steps, Ross looked down at his watch. 1236 hours. He stopped and looked at McQueen.
"Doesnít she eat lunch?"
Amusement tugged at the corners of McQueenís mouth. "Only if you remind her to."
Ross gave him a disgusted look and turned back to the office. "Ms. Larson."
She looked up with a pleasant smile. "Yes, Commodore?"
"You *will* stop to eat lunch everyday," he told her.
"Is that an order?"
She stood up and glanced over Rossí shoulder at McQueen. "I found the mess hall all by myself the past two days. Iím feeling a little forgetful today, though."
"I think we can show you the way," McQueen offered.
Ross didnít show it, but he was surprised. If he didnít know better, heíd say they were flirting. At least, for Ty that was flirting.
Larson walked out into the corridor and took a position between the two men, still smiling. The three of them walked down the hall to the elevator. Larson pressed the call button and they waited. As the silence grew, she looked from one to the other and her smile broadened.
"You know, if you donít want to talk to me, you can finish the conversation you were having with each other." There was laughter in her voice.
A slow smile crept across Rossí face. It had been a while since anyone other than Ty felt comfortable enough to joke with him. And Tyís idea of a joke was pretty dismal. Maybe having a civilian on board wouldnít be so bad.
"It would be rude to have a conversation in which you couldnít participate," Ross said.
"How do you know I couldnít participate?"
"We were talking about the new Hammerhead specifications," McQueen told her.
She wrinkled her nose. "Not couldnít, wouldnít want to. I realize your ships are the absolute love of your life, Gentlemen, but frankly, I find engineering to be incredibly boring."
The elevator came and they all got on.
"Iím not sure Iíd say they were the Ďlove of my lifeí," Ross denied.
"Oh, please. Iíve seen that look that comes over a pilotís face when he gets a new ship to play with. Itís the same one computer geeks get when a new processor comes out."
Ross laughed. No one had ever compared him with a computer geek before. "Have you been around a lot of computer geeks?" he asked.
She nodded. "I worked at The University of Texas administering a research project for Aerotech a couple of years back."
"You worked for Aerotech?" McQueen asked sharply.
"No." It was a very definite negative. "I worked for the University. The money came from Aerotech. Thereís a difference."
McQueen and Ross traded glances. McQueen did not like Aerotech. Ross wasnít too fond of that organization himself.
They reached the seventh floor and headed down the corridor to the mess hall. "What else have you done?" Ross asked Larson.
She sent him an amused glance. "I donít suppose it occurred to you to read my personnel file?"
Ross smothered a grin. Actually, it hadnít. He didnít expect her to stay very long.
She shrugged. "Iíve done a little of everything. I went to Graduate School for a while, studying History, but I didnít finish my degree. I worked in Academia as a secretary, taught at a Community College, worked on an Aerotech computer project. You name it, Iíve probably had some experience doing it."
"I suppose the Civilian Program was happy to sign you up," Ross said.
"I had almost 90% of the skills they were looking for. They doubled the signing bonus on the spot." She didnít say it arrogantly, but there was no false modesty either. She knew her own worth.
"Why did you sign up?" Ross asked.
She traded a glance with McQueen, then shrugged. "Somebody had to. Iíd like Earth to stay pretty much the way it is."
"Do you really think you can make a difference?"
She gave him a serious look. "ĎFor want of a nail, the shoe was lost...í" She smiled suddenly. "Just think of me as your friendly, neighborhood horseshoe nail."
They laughed. Ross snuck a glance at McQueen who was beginning to look a little uncomfortable. "Do you know the quote, Ty?" Ross asked, wanting to keep him involved in the conversation.
"For want a nail, the shoe was lost," McQueen quoted. "For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the message was lost. For want of the message, the battle was lost. For want of the battle, the war was lost. For want of the war, the kingdom was lost - and all for the want of a horseshoe nail."
Larson nodded. "Maybe I canít do much, but what little I can do will help."
Ross was impressed. He decided he was going to have to re-evaluate the Civilian Program.
They went through the line and got their meals. "Yum. Glop," Larson commented. As they walked toward a table, Larson hesitated. "Do you mind if I join you, or would you rather finish your conversation about Hammerheads?" she asked.
"I never turn down the company of a charming woman," Ross said with an easy smile.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tyís jaw tighten infinitesimally. Ross suddenly realized that Ty was interested in Alex Larson. He had been flirting with her. It might not ever go further than flirting, but Ty was definitely interested. Ross sighed internally. It was his own fault for not paying more attention in the first place. One of the few women who was available to him on board the Saratoga, and heíd have to cut McQueen out to make a play for her. If it was anyone but Ty, he might not have worried about it, but the In Vitro was still sensitive about romance, even three years after his wife had left him.
Ross sat down at the table, placing Ty between himself and Larson. After all, he was nominally her boss if not her superior officer. It probably wouldnít have been a good idea anyway.
The Hammerhead upgrades were complete and the 58th was going out tomorrow morning for a recon mission. As had become their habit before a mission, they were sitting in Tun Tavern playing a game of poker with McQueen. Alex Larson was nearby, laughing with her friends as they tried out the pool table. Vansen was watching them closely to see whether there was any competition for her in the group. So far, it looked like Larson was the only one with any real skill.
Vansen stood up and wandered over to the jukebox, taking a long look at the pool table as she went by. As she wandered back, McQueen heard the introduction to the Patsy Cline song Vansen always played when she was thinking of Oakes. A rich, strong voice joined Clineís as the vocals began and Vansenís head snapped around. McQueen joined her in staring at Larson. She was singing along while she waited to take her shot. Her eyes were closed and her head was back. One hand moved in time at her side as she snapped her fingers and swayed while she sang. She had a great voice.
McQueen swallowed hard and looked away. He glanced around the table and saw that Hawkesí eyes were glued to Larson. McQueen smiled ironically, wondering if it was the first time Hawkes had heard anyone really sing.
McQueen remembered the first time heíd heard a real voice - not just someone on the radio or crooning in the shower, but someone in person who could really sing. The sound had touched him almost physically. It sent a shiver through his entire body. Opera was what heíd heard and, from that moment on, heíd loved classical music.
He glanced at Hawkes again and his smile changed to a tiny frown. The look on the boyís face was definitely one of sexual interest. Cooper didnít have a chance with a woman like Alex Larson, but McQueen knew better than to try to tell him that. Some things Hawkes just had to learn for himself. McQueen hoped she wouldnít be too hard on the boy.
The song ended and Vansen looked over at Larson. "I didnít know singing was such a full body experience." Her tone was slightly confrontational tone.
McQueen wasnít sure whether Vansen was irritated because Larson had sung along with Ďherí Patsy Cline song, or because she just didnít want Larson here in the first place. Either way, it should be interesting.
Larson looked at Vansen with a wicked smile and a twinkle in her eyes. "Like many things, Captain, if youíre not using your entire body, youíre just not doing it right."
Vansenís jaw dropped, then she threw back her head and laughed. McQueen chuckled and heard the rest of the 58th join in. Even Hawkes had caught that one.
"Alex!" Pellowski gave Larson a shocked look.
"What?" Larson asked innocently.
"I canít believe you said that!"
"Why?" Larson looked at Vansen with that same wicked smile, than replaced it with an expression of pure innocence as she turned her head back to Pellowski. "I was talking about singing. And swimming. Jogging. Ten mile hikes. What did you think I was talking about?"
The blonde blushed.
"Lizzie! Iím shocked. Really." Larson couldnít keep it up any longer and burst out laughing at the younger woman.
She turned back to Vansen. "Iím glad to see thereís another Patsy Cline fan on board. Anything else of hers on that jukebox?"
Vansen nodded. "Quite a bit, actually."
Larson grinned and sauntered over to check. A few moments later, the strains of ĎCrazyí resounded through the bar. She came back to the pool table and her next couple of shots that finished the game.
"Anyone else want to play?" she asked, looking at Vansen.
"Love to," Vansen said. "What are the stakes?"
Larson gave her a disappointed look. "I donít usually bet, Captain. I just play for fun."
Vansen shrugged. "We can do that too."
Larson laughed and held out her hand. "Iím Alexandra Larson. Call me Alex. And you are...?"
Vansen shook Larsonís hand, squeezing hard. Larson didnít flinch, just squeezed back.
"Well, Shane Vansen, will you break or shall I?"
McQueen spent the next two days on the bridge waiting for the 58th to return. When they did, he drank a glass of scotch in his quarters and went to sleep.
The next day, he had reports to write. He was sitting in the mess hall, reading over the last of them when someone stopped beside his table. He looked up to see Larson smiling down at him.
"You look pretty busy," she said. "Should I go away?"
He glanced at his watch. "I donít mind if you join me, but Iím only going to be here for about twenty more minutes. Then I have a briefing."
"Twenty minutes of good company is better than none."
"Am I good company?" No one had ever accused him of that before. Usually, people told him he was too intense.
"Letís see. Youíre intelligent, articulate and well-read. Thatís a working definition as far as Iím concerned."
He considered that statement. He was intelligent because heíd been engineered to be. He also couldnít honestly argue with the other two statements.
She looked at him curiously. "Have you ever considered how much youíve accomplished?"
"You mean being the first Tank to achieve the rank of Lt. Colonel?"
An expression of distaste crossed her face. "I know you have every right to use that word, but I really donít like it."
"Tank?" He was surprised. Most people had to catch themselves and make an effort to remember to use In Vitro.
She nodded with a grimace. "As far as Iím concerned, itís right up there with Nigger, Spic, Chink and a whole lot of other nasty epithets."
McQueen made a mental note not to use the word around her.
"Anyway," she continued. "I didnít mean your rank. I meant your Self. How much you have accomplished. What youíve become in and of yourself."
"What do you mean?"
She leaned her elbows on the table, planted her chin on her crossed hands and looked at him steadily. "I mean, that everything you are, you made by yourself. Most people are shaped when theyíre children. I love to read because my parents loved to read. I learned it from them. I went to College and Graduate School because my parents did and they wanted me to. Children are shaped by their parents and their teachers and myriad others in their lives. Most of what I am is based on a foundation that other people created. You, on the other hand, had to create your own foundation."
She picked up her fork and speared a chunk of meat, but didnít put it in her mouth.
"Everything you are, you can take complete credit for - and thatís really quite a lot. Native intelligence aside, look what youíve done with the brains you were given. Look at the books you read, the things you think about. You could put a lot of scholars to shame. And you did all of that on your own."
Her voice was calm and her gaze was steady. He could tell she meant every word.
"You had to build your own ethical foundation, and, from what Iíve heard about you on this ship, itís a pretty impressively solid one. You had to decide for yourself what was right and what was wrong. Iíve only known you a short time, but Iíd trust you with more than my life. You are an impressive person, and you would be even if youíd had help creating yourself. The fact that you did it alone makes it even more exceptional."
She put the bite of food in her mouth and began to chew without looking away from his eyes. He wasnít sure what to say. Here was another conversation that was beyond his experience. She seemed to have a knack for starting them.
She smiled and looked down at her plate. She wasnít embarrassed, she was just giving him a break.
"I know," she said. "What do you say to a comment like that? Have you had a chance to read the Tao of Pooh?"
He was glad of the change of topic. "I got it from the shipís library, but I havenít had a chance to read it yet."
"Well, let me know when you do. Iím very curious what youíll think."
"Should I read Winnie the Pooh first?" His expression suggested that he would steel himself to carry out this assignment, if it was required.
The twinkle in her eyes said she thought it might be fun to make him. Then she shrugged.
"Iíve never actually read any of the Winnie the Pooh books myself, although Iíve heard the stories. The author explains it pretty well. Just dive in."
"All right, Iíll let you know."
They chatted about books some more and he was disappointed when his watch beeped at him.
He stood up with a nod. "Ms. Larson."
"Thank you for the company, Colonel."
© 1998 Tere L. Matthews
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