Disclaimer: The characters and settings of the following work of fiction are borrowed without permission but with affection from Glen Morgan & James Wong, Hard Eight Productions , and Fox, who retain their copyrights. The situations aren't their fault.

Comments at Carol Stoneburner



Carol Stoneburner

Burning brilliance filled Wang's vision eclipsing sight and thought. The ISSCV's ghost was an infant sun, stillborn.

As his vision cleared Wang saw six enemy planes hot on Damphousse's tail and three times that many closing fast.

"Phousse, juke, damn it, juke!"

"I can't lose them, they're sticking too tight!"

"Hold on Red-4, I'm right behind you." Adrenaline and heavy g- forces pulled at Wang's body as he swung around to target the nearest enemy plane. "Locked on and firing."

Even as a third alien ship spun into flames, Wang feared that it wasn't going to be enough. Friends were too few and too far, while the enemy was too numerous and too close.

Far ahead of the rest of them West and Hawkes, the last remnants of the Gold team, were fighting for their own lives. Meanwhile, too far behind, Vansen was closing from the rear. Damphousse dipped and turned, making the best use of the Hammerhead's greater maneuverability, but no matter where she turned there was always another enemy.

"Red Leader to R-3, enemy bogies five o'clock low, moving to intercept," Vansen warned.

Checking his HUD, Wang saw three more fighters coming up below and behind him with an SA-43 locking in on the farthest one.

"Hey, Gold, we could use a little help back here," Phousse's request was sharp-edged with worry.

"Hoo-raah! Got him good Coop!" West cried as another chig fighter somersaulted its way into fiery pieces. "Hold on, Wild Cards, we're on our way. Gold leader out."

"YES!" shouted Hawkes.

"Gold-leader, Bandits eleven o'clock low. AOA fifteen degrees." Vansen alerted West

"Locked on." West dove, his guns a rapid tattoo of light. As he flew through the wreckage going after the next target, a large piece of the alien ship grazed the right wing of his Hammerhead. West glanced down at his readouts to check the damage.


"West, what's the matter?" Damphousse's voice came across the radio.

"The sensors are out on my right wing and my right thruster's not responding." Fear constricted West's throat like a chig's armored fist, choking him. He knew that it was just his imagination, but he could smell sickly sweet death in the smoldering electronics. The fragment that had crippled his Hammerhead had set it tumbling, unable to stop. He could see the enemy fighters swarming around the red team, three of locking in on Wang.

"Hawkes, you gotta go help the others," desperate resignation tinged West's plea.

Hawkes' only reply was the fiery destruction of another enemy bomber.

"If you don't leave me, we'll all die."

"But there are only a couple left." Hawkes observed stubbornly.

"Go!" screamed West.

Just then an alien bomber appeared as if from nowhere. Desperation setting in, West fired his remaining thruster full, hoping against all reason that the accelerating tumble might save him. Hawkes was still near by, maybe it would be enough. But he already knew that it wasn't, that it could never be. A line of enemy fire arced towards him, blinding him, as his final scream summoned the image he wanted to take with him into the next world.


Then all there was, was the fire and the void.

The explosion filled Hawkes' display, but all he saw was a vision of Pag's' bloody body, and Katie, suspended forever unborn in her tank. He shook his head, struggling to clear it of the images as he worked his way back to where the rest of the Wildcards needed him. Coop ran the enemy's gauntlet as he did the video games back on the Saratoga, absorbed in doing and being, not feeling. Checking his LIDAR he saw Wang spin and weave, desperately trying to get away from the two chigs locking him in their sights while Vansen helped Damphousse with the ones pursuing her.

"Pull up, Red-3!" ordered Vansen.

"I am! They are still on me!" Wang's fear was audible.

"Lost mine. Coming to help." Damphousse called back.

Wang slued hard left and down in a roll, trying vainly to get away, but the alien plane echoed his every move. Wang could smell the rank odor of his own fear as the bomber drew ever closer. He saw light arcing toward him, and in that moment he welcomed its deadly beauty. It beckoned him, promising him a place of calm and peace.

....And, then he became the light.

Damphousse came into range just as Wang's Hammerhead shattered into a million glowing pieces. Her chest tight with unshed tears, she locked in on the Chig that had killed Wang. With a convulsive movement she fired a rain of shots down on it and once again it followed Wang, this time into oblivion.

"Bogies seven o'clock, R4, moving to intercept," Vansen's pain and resolve stark in her voice.

"Acknowledged, Red leader." Vanessa turned her attention to the incoming alien ships.

Together they turned to the enemy taking advantage of their greater maneuverability to dance in deadly precision through the alien ranks. Turn after turn the chosen partner in the lethal pas de deux expired, as the prima dancers gracefully turned to find a new partner.

"Kill confirmed!" Shane cried. Checking her display, she saw more Chigs homing in on her. "Six incoming."

"I'm with you, R-1." Damphousse replied.

The supply of Chigs determined to end the Wild Cards run of luck seemed endless. There were always more of them, there would always be more. The game would go on forever, regardless of her weariness and pain. Damphousse spun round to target an enemy who was doing the same to another of her friends. She wouldn't let them get Shane, too. No matter what, they wouldn’t get Shane. She targeted one, then a another of the planes pursuing Vansen, never seeing the resulting explosions as she targeted on the next in her frenzied need to protect her remaining friends.

"Check your six, Phousse!" Hawkes' voice cut through her concentration.

Glancing at her rear displays, she saw two planes coming in fast but continued tracking those on Vansen. "Target locked on."

"Phousse! I can't get to you! Juke!"

All of her attention was focused on her weapons array. Closer... closer... NOW! She fired, taking out first one then the other of the enemy on Vansen. "Got'em!" she shouted triumphantly.

Now that the immediate threat to Vansen had been destroyed, Damphousse turned her attention back to her own situation. The two behind her were closer than ever, one of them almost directly on her tail. She tasted the coppery tang of fear as she pulled up, hard, in a maneuver that the alien planes couldn't match, but the attempt at evasion was too little, too late. The alien weapons were already discharging, a finger of fire catching her left wing then tracing towards the cockpit in a devastating parody of a lover's caress.

"PHOUSSE!" Hawkes' cry echoed over the radio.

As the explosion's glow faded, Shane said "Look's like it's just us, Coop." She then turned her fighter towards her remaining ally, each trailing a tail of alien ships. "Keep your head down, I'm coming over top."

"Roger that, R-1, Let's go!"

The two Hammerheads charged each other like ancient jousters, passing over the other, a mere hairsbreadth apart as they smote the aliens that followed.

"Buzz west, and we'll circle 'em." Vansen ordered.

The last of the Wild Cards looped around, catching the enemy in a deadly noose. The tight turns caused the less agile enemy planes to careen into each other and fire on friend instead of foe. Without warning, Hawkes turned his plane towards the center of the chaos. He fired with deadly accuracy, taking out one after the other of the remaining Chig fighters. The aliens, regrouping now, focused on this lethal threat and turned their attention to Cooper. As each turned on him, he fired just a millisecond earlier than they were able, until one Chig's lucky shot ripped his right wing, causing the thrusters to lock and weapons to freeze. Hawkes could feel his hammerhead shaking like a dying man as he aimed his crippled plane at the cluster of enemy fighters in front of him. The fear and exhilaration of knowing that whatever he did right now would be the last thing, freed him to follow his heart without fear of repercussions.

"HOOOOOYAAAAAAAAAH!" Hawkes screamed the battle cry as his plane careened into the enemy leader. The force of the explosion that followed caught the two trailing Chig fighters in the brilliant conflagration.

The first ripping of the explosion cut to eerie silence as Hawkes' radio went dead.

There were just the four of them left now, Vansen and the three of them. The skilled and the lucky. She directed her attention the nearest one as the second tried slip behind her. "No way, you bastards," she said to herself. Firing quickly she got one and then the other. Her heart thudding in her chest she looked up and saw the last remaining enemy plane baring down on her full throttle, guns blazing. This was death. A sudden icy calm descended upon her as all of her hopes and dreams coalesced in this final precious instant. Turning her plane to meet the enemy face to face, she answered in kind, meeting death head on with a mirror death. As her final enemy soared towards her, she cried out her love for her friends and for the Corps:

"Semper FIIIIIIIIIIIiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.............

Darkness and light consumed the universe, leaving only the scream.


All was dark, now. Blood raced through constricted veins and breath heaved in terror-tightened lungs. Sweat soaked skin and cloth. Desperate hands ripped at constraining covers. The acrid odor of fear filled the room as he lay their waiting for deafening echo in his head to fade. Fingers raked through his hair as if trying to dislodge fragments of the nightmare.

Jarred to action by the inescapable memory of the horrific scream, McQueen clambered to his feet and stumbled toward the sink, his body still shaking with the aftershock of the nightmare. He splashed cold water on his face, fumbling with the faucets, and then drew himself a glass of water. He stood, a bit unsteadily, sipping the cool liquid, trying to wash the bitter taste from his mouth in an all too familiar ritual ablution.

There was a knock at the door, startling him so that he almost dropped the glass he was holding. Carefully, deliberately, he replaced it by the sink where it belonged. He took two deep breaths in a vain attempt to calm himself. "....Yes," the voice that answered the knock was huskier than usual.

"May I come in, Colonel?" Ross' voice was muffled by the door.

"Enter," replied McQueen. He moved to sit on the bed, but stopped himself as Commodore Ross came into the room. Instead, he reached to turn on the lights.

Shutting the door, Ross paused just inside the threshold and took in the scene before him. The usually calm and collected marine was anything but. An air of atypical disorder clung to the colonel, his eyes still wild and his breath shallow, out of place in the quiet late watch. It had been a long time since he had seen McQueen like this, agitated without an obvious cause. Not since after the AI's captured Ty. There had been screams in the night, then, too. He gave McQueen a considering look, then gestured for him to sit. "I was passing by and thought I heard something..."

McQueen flicked a glance at Ross, not meeting his eyes, then turned to stare out the cabin porthole up at the Earth above.

"What happened?" Ross' voice was low. McQueen didn't answer. Ross waited patiently, used to listening to his friend's quiet back. Deciding that it was up to him to broach what he was certain was the problem, he added, "You and I both know that the idea that In Vitros can't dream is a load of horse hockey."

McQueen's shoulders twitched, but his reticence continued. Self- constraint and self-reliance warred visibly with the desperate need to unburden himself. Ultimately, honesty and need won out over years of habitual solitude. With a sigh, he broke the silence. "The Wild Cards, they died." Abruptly McQueen crossed to the sink and once again splashed cold water on his face. "They all died." He looked up at the mirror and into Ross' concerned gaze. "I wasn't there, and I should have been."

Ross could see pain of too many mission spent waiting for others to return reflected in his friend's eyes. Seeing that stark agony, Ross felt what made adults want to promise impossible things to frightened, hurting children, but he knew Ty was no child and false promises would not help. The only comfort to give was the present, and probably inadequate, truth.

Ross stepped up behind the haunted man and placed a hand on the knotted shoulder, ignoring McQueen's involuntary flinch. "It didn't happen, Ty. It was only a dream." The shoulder beneath his hand relaxed a fraction and he gave it a friendly shake. "Your pilots are fine, Ty. Hell, they even survived one of the wildest liberties in the history of the Saratoga, though from what I hear, that bar didn't." Ross was glad to see the bleak look in McQueen's eyes abate slightly. "We'll discuss that subject further in the morning."

"Yes, sir." Blue eyes locked with brown, communicating acceptance.

"Until then, Colonel." Ross turned to leave.

"And...thank you...sir."

Ross paused at the door, assessing Ty. Half smile tugging at the corner of his lips, he gave a brief nod and left.

McQueen heard the door close. He stood for a moment, staring at his reflection in the mirror. He saw a man who wanted..."What" he asked himself, "those too human desires -- Peace? Acceptance? Love?" Those things were much too impossible for someone like him. With a shake of his head he mentally laid them aside.

"So," he demanded of his reflection, "what do you want, you dumb tank?"

Finally, he turned back to his bed and straightened the tangled blanket with a sharp tug. Reluctantly, he turned off the lights an lowered himself onto the bed. He closed his eyes through a force of will and waited for sleep to claim him. Ignoring the factions warring within his usually well-ordered mind, each crying its own want or desire long put away or aside, he sighed, "What I want is a night with no dreams."

The End

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