Disclaimer: This story is not to be reproduced in any way, shape or form without the express consent of the author. The characters from the TV series "Space: Above and Beyond" are the property of Glen Morgan, James Wong, Hard Eight Productions and Fox Broadcasting.
Violation of copyright is NOT implied or intended. All other characters are property of this author and cannot be used without the express consent of this author.

Rated "R" for graphic violence, language and some adult situations.

This story takes place two months after the events of "Risen Phoenix"


From the Ashes - Wingman


Robin Burchardt

U.S.S. Saratoga- in the Pallas Region

The squadron of eight Hammerheads flew in tight formation back to their home base on the huge battleship. They returned from yet another fray with the Chigs unscathed.

Colonel Maria Strasser consulted her LIDAR and let out a breath.
Why the fuck were the Chigs doing this? It was NOT normal. There were swarms of the bastards before. Especially when she'd first joined up with the 'Wildcards'. Now there was barely enough to keep them seriously occupied for more than an hour. They had to be planning something while this was a mere diversion for the Earth Forces in this sector. Vansen, who called over the radio, echoed her thoughts.

"Damn, that was weird." She said, referring to the short dogfight.

"Too strange. Twelve fighters and half booked only ten minutes in." Damphousse added from her position to Capt. Vansen's starboard.

"Any thoughts, Colonel?" West asked from the rear.

Maria thought a moment. Wondering if they should be aired. "If I didn't know better, folks, I'd say they're planning to fry bigger fish. They seem to only be toying to keep us preoccupied from guessing where."

"Where would they want to launch it against? Our forces are nearly to their homeworld." Hawkes injected. He was level with and to Maria's left.

Maria glanced at him out of the cockpit's side window. No, Hawkes, the information we are receiving isn't always to be believed about being so close to victory. It is used to hide glaring defeats. If it's them or us I don't know. "It is always where one least expects."

Hawkes gave her a nod.

The 58th proceeded to their home base: the 'Saratoga'.

The squadron waited in line for breakfast. As was customary, the 58th always allowed Maria to go first though she wasn't always consistently present for the morning meal. She would normally have a cup of tea or coffee. This morning, though, she opted for breakfast. The galley must've guessed because the fare was better than normal. When Maria saw it her guts twisted. Something is up.

She took a spoon of real eggs, a few fresh sausages, and a dab of real hashbrowns before going to the beverage station for a tall glass of orange juice. They were very somber this morning. All of them. They all knew there was something very fishy about the lack of fight in the Chigs. It ate at Maria because she was in no position to make command decisions. Ones that would be made about where the 58th would go. She could only follow orders. Even if that meant going into a clusterfuck some ranker over her hadn't properly thought out.
Not that the Commodore was bad. Far from it, he was one of the rare few that were damn good. She definitely knew competent commanders by now. This whole feeling was eating on her and bad.

Taking a seat at the customary head of what was unofficially known as the 58th's table, Maria slowly began to eat as her unit sat around her. Not customary but the squadron really liked their new Colonel and respected her in that she was no priss about having junior officers near her.

Cooper Hawkes looked at his Colonel and wondered about the dark look on her face. He was getting better at reading her moods than many around him. Odd for such a young In-Vitro to care about a Natural-born's moods. However, he'd always known that Col. Strasser was no ordinary Natural-born. She was unique. She treated him like a real person.

"You OK, sir?" He asked from the piled plate in front of him. He'd often wondered how she could keep going on so little food.

Maria looked up, as if jolted from her thoughts. "Hmm? Yeah, I'm OK. Could you pass me the Tabasco?"

Hawkes handed it to her and watched her splash a little of the pepper sauce on her scrambled eggs. Maybe it was something to try.

"I can't stop thinking about this morning." Vansen muttered.

"The past few weeks." Lt. Owens added.

Maria listened as she chewed. Her eyes didn't look up until she saw movement at the officers mess door.

McQueen stepped in, looked about a moment then directly at her. He gave a small nod of his head that told her that the Commodore wanted her presence after she finished eating.

Maria blinked and looked down at her food. Finish chow. You need to eat before your stomach goes to shit again.

"Jesus, Coop! You want to fry your mouth off?" West asked with an amused smile on his face.

Maria looked at Hawkes's plate and tried to suppress any and all reaction. The kid had almost coated his hashbrowns and eggs with Tabasco.

"Better get some plain toast, Mr. Hawkes. It will cut the heat." She said it with some knowing that Hawkes was still learning about some things in life. Tabasco was one of the things you did by trial and error.

"Oh lord, it is going to be fun sleeping tonight." West sighed and the whole table chuckled except for Hawkes who had a 'why?' look on his face and Maria, who saw that McQueen was no longer at the door where he was before.

Whatever was going down was major.

The Commodore's quarters- half hour later

Glenn Ross beckoned Maria to sit down as he brought forth some papers for her to look at. This meeting was prepatory to the briefing the whole 58th would receive.

" Your mission will be to recon the defenses around the planet 'Ixen'. Ixen is a planet of violent weather changes but is habitable for both human and enemy life. The temperature fluctuates 160 degrees Fahrenheit between night and day. The Enemy only defends Ixen in a minor way. Command wants to acquire this planet for further operations in the Pallas Region. The 58th has been requested to 'test' the defenses around Ixen and to see if they can't be neutralized." Ross looked at her face. He could see that she did not like this. "It will pave the way for an invasion force if defenses are nominal. The planet can well serve as a supply base for operations out here in this sector."

" 'Minor way' is five known airstrips and significant supply dumps for the Enemy? Commodore, will there be support if all of these strips on planet are fully manned by the Enemy?"

He totally agreed with why she didn't like it. He had protested this but it got rammed down his throat anyway. "No."

Maria's eyes looked up. ICK! "May I ask why?"

Ross's eyes bored into her. "I wasn't given a choice, Colonel. Those are the orders I received."

"Very well, sir." Maria replied with distaste thick in her voice. She pushed the papers back towards him.

"I am not asking the 58th to battle whatever forces are down there. This is a recon mission and is not expected to draw a sizeable Enemy response. Just sniff around and get back here." Ross tried to placate her in a way. She was a lot like McQueen. She knew her duty and would do it but didn't have to agree with it in order for it to get done.

A/V Room- 1900 Hours

Maria popped the disc into the machine and waited for the intro trailer before fast-forwarding to the start of the movie. She watched a different one every Wednesday night. These versions were censor-free and not at all common aboard a ship like the 'Saratoga'. They were her favorite films. Ones she hadn't seen in ages. Courtesy of Fleet Admiral Martens, who had been very admiring of her command of the 58th thus far. Nobody, aside from her, knew that fact. She had just started the Wednesday before with "Fort Apache". Tonight was "Breaker Morant". Hearing the double-doors swing, she popped her head back to see Hawkes amble in with two large sodas in cups from the officer's mess.

He had come in by accident in the first part of "Fort Apache" last week and was hooked. So much so, that Maria had to go back to the beginning so he could see what he'd missed. This week he was right on time. He set the sodas on the small tables by their chairs and sat down.

"What movie is it tonight, sir?"

" 'Breaker Morant' with Edward Woodward and Jack Thompson. It is the true story of a court-martial during the Boer War in very early 20th Century South Africa. I don't know if you'll like it but give it a shot." Maria rose, adjusted the volume, and took her seat as the movie started.

The twin doors swung and Maria looked back to see West, Collins, Owens, Peterson and Vansen enter. They silently took seats as they watched the screen. Maria knew that Damphousse was busy trying to get a call back to Earth to talk to her boyfriend and might not be able to join them. The 58ths newer members opted for early shuteye.

"Movie?" Collins whispered near Maria's ear.

" 'Breaker Morant' ."

They all sat silent as the soon-to-be 'official' 58th movie night had its first audience aside from the initial two people. Maria tried not to grin. Hawkes said he wouldn't spread the word. Of course, that meant the whole 58th would hear it and not the rest of the ship.

McQueen heard the sounds of the movie coming from the A/V room and made his way towards it. He had intended to reread Sun Tzu again but that was before he heard this. The last time he'd seen a movie was aboard the 'Bacchus' nearly a year ago. Now he wondered who was watching it and what was on. As a student of military history, McQueen took one look at the old British Army uniforms and knew he had to join in with watching this film. He entered the dark room to see the 58th watching with Col. Strasser and lifted a chair from one of the tables. Placing it beside West, he sat down to watch. Not a word was said, only a glance or two at McQueen and back to the film.

0400 Hours

She was up even before the playing of Reveille. Even in the rare times she had been away from the military; the inner alarm clock always went off at 0400. Even now, it went off as it always did. All Maria could do was stifle the alarm before it went off on her clock. The movie had ended on time. Suprisingly, it was well received. There wasn't a lot of after-movie chatting with today's mission coming up but it seemed to have really caught fire with the whole 58th to do this every Wednesday night, barring priority assignments or missions.

Maria had already pulled on her underwear, flightsuit, and laced up her boots. She stuck the normal items in her pockets. Today, though she went over to her dresser and pulled out a polished walnut presentation box. Opening it, she looked down at the Smith & Wesson .44 automatic that lay on the blue velvet inside. It wasn't her own gun from her time but it was close enough. It also had five extra clips, fully loaded. The bullets were custom-made, armor piercing even to Chigs and expensive up the ass. Again, courtesy of the Fleet Admiral.

Just a feeling. A real bad feeling…

Maria picked up the gun and put in a clip. Pulling the slide to chamber a round, she put it on safety then into her military shoulder holster and got it about her shoulders the way it was supposed to be. Once the flak suit was on, it would not interfere but would still be accessible. It wasn't expected that any of the 58th would be shot down but the gut feeling was one, though kept to herself, Maria would not deny. It saved her bacon very many times in the past.

She eyed the clock when she finished. It was 0425. A hand went down the front of her shirt collar to bring up the dog tags she wore. She had modified them in that there were five extra tags to the two required by the Marines. Known by heart, they were the tags of her closest war buddies. She had them custom-made and gilded with gold. Her originals had been taken before she was brought out of hypersleep. They were known as 'Death Tags' and were for the closest person designated by the deceased to receive. Maria had been given hundreds but wore only these extra five non-stop. John Lean Eagle, Brian Bahrberg, Frank Uline, Patrick Flanagan and, most important by far, John Merrill Bryce.

Oh John. Wish you could be here. We three could have a blast. You're in a better place, though.

Maria sighed and kissed each tag individually before she shoved all of them back down behind her T-shirt.

Grabbing her helmet, she left her quarters and locked the door behind her with her access card.

Pre-Flight Briefing- 0515 Hours

The 58th sat in the room as a Lucite map came up of Ixen and the surrounds of it.

"Ixen", Maria began, "Is a planet of 160 degree temperature changes. From a balmy eighty above in the day to eighty below at night. It has a few indigenous plant species but is mainly, except for the Enemy presence on it, a desolate place. "That presence is comprised of five airstrips and numerous supply dumps. It is a priority due to it. Our mission is to test the planet's defenses and gather intelligence from it. That is all we are to do today. No lingering to start a fight. No sightseeing of the wonderful accommodations down on the surface. Just sniff and leave." Maria watched the faces of her unit with McQueen and Ross behind her. "Any questions?"

Vansen raised her hand. "What chance is there of a sizeable counter-attack?"

"That is what the five-eight is going to find out." Ross said, taking the burden of saying that off of Maria. "Recent intelligence has hinted at a very minor presence but a planet with Enemy installations like Ixen cannot be discounted. It might have a full-strength arsenal. That is why I want ALL of you to check the yard and book out of there once that is done. Engage only if absolutely necessary." He took one more gaze about the room and so no further questions forthcoming. "Dismissed."

Hawkes rose with the rest but noted the polished walnut butt of Maria's handgun from under her armpit. It was hidden save for the small part he saw. She wasn't expecting a minor defense of Ixen.

This isn't going to be a cakewalk. He thought as they all rose to go to their Hammerheads.

Space- 0545 Hours

Ixen loomed giant and green-blue with huge clouds in the distance. Twice the size of Earth, it had a roiling look to its clouds. The night side had vicious forks of lightening lighting it up.

"Owens, pull your tail in!" Vansen snapped at the young woman. A newer member of the 58th.

"Yes ma'am." The young woman complied and the tail of her plane pulled straight.

"Keep your eyes peeled, folks." Maria said, watching the LIDAR as much as the stars about them. Ixen was beautiful but it could be deceptive. She could hear Hawkes humming a song to himself in her headset. "Musical interlude, Hawkes?"

Hawkes stopped and the radio was quiet again. He must have been embarrassed to have it pointed out. "Sorry, sir."

The planet loomed very large now. Where were they?

"Don't mind it." Maria smiled but it was washed away. The LIDAR showed bogies. Lots of them. "Tangos dead-ahead!" It was all she was able to get out before the Chig tri-wings began firing and engaging.

Fucking vicious shits this AM. Maria threw her stick over and tried to peel off the Chig on her bumper. The alien was firing away as another crossed in front of her. She went into a dive and the Chig behind her blew up its own fellow pilot. She recovered to see West with a bad beetle on his tail and dove up to intercept. A short burst and West had his bug removed.

"HooYah, Colonel! Good one!" Owens shouted from her cockpit.

The atmosphere of Ixen screamed by below them as more and more waves came up to greet them. Angry hornets with their nest disturbed. It was enough to warrant leaving this scene. Ixen was well protected.

"Let's blow this popstand, folks! We got too many suitors!" Maria called the return back to the 'Saratoga', then saw two Chigs hot on her tail. Now if Cooper… Fuck! Where is he? "Hawkes, my tail's a burning!"

Hawkes was busy fighting another bogie instead of covering her.

Shitdamnmotherfuck! "Hawkes!" Maria threw her Hammerhead into a roll and dive to shake the Chigs on her six. They stuck on like they were tied to leashes tethered off her tail.

"Hawkes, get over there!" Vansen shouted, wanting to assist but having problems herself.

Maria's heart began to pound as streaks zoomed past her. She was pulling out all the stops to shake these fuckers but nothing was working. Goddamn you, Hawkes! She could hear Collins yell, finally get free and zoom towards her. Carson and Owens hot with him.

That was when the bolts connected her Hammerhead. Holy fuck! Maria fought the stick as her Hammerhead lurched and heaved from the impact. Against everything she did, the plane made its descent into the roiling clouds.

"Colonel!" Vansen yelled but only static greeted her in her helmet.

Back on the 'Saratoga'

Shane stripped off her helmet and bolted from her cockpit ready to kill. West and Owens rushed to intercept her. McQueen bolted through the doors as Vansen lunged. He reached out and caught her before she could land a fist at Hawkes face.

"You sonofabitch! You were her wingman!" Vansen yelled, restrained by McQueen, and fought the bear hug he had her in. Wanted him to let go so she could let loose on Hawkes. "You let her get fucking greased while you were being a big-shot!"

"Enough!" Commodore Ross yelled and brought the entire deck quiet. He was far from happy. Especially with a captain who was supposed act like an XO. Not a fight-prone maniac.

Vansen quit struggling and McQueen released her. She backed away from Hawkes with an acid glare. Anybody watching could tell that the rest of the 58th were not pleased with Hawkes and likely wouldn't be for the near future.

"We have a transponder beacon from Col. Strasser's craft so her cockpit made it. We will try to launch a rescue op as soon as we can. For now, I want you all to COOL DOWN!"

"Vansen, Hawkes, to the briefing room. Now!" McQueen snarled.

The rest of the 58th could only watch them leave then dispersed to their quarters. Nathan and Vanessa could only exchange looks at each other as they brought up the rear.

Briefing Room

McQueen and Ross had the two in front of them and felt like referees at a prizefight. Vansen was talking to the Commodore.

"Sir, Lt. Hawkes broke off to engage the enemy and left the Colonel wide open for attack. He was supposed to be at her wing! I couldn't get there because I had three bogies on mine. It took West to get them off me." Vansen nearly spat at Hawkes. She had given her version of the events and could not stop the looks she gave Hawkes. It was bad enough the fight had been so pitched but losing their commander like this was a blow. She had grown to genuinely LIKE the Colonel. Almost as much as McQueen himself.

For his part, Hawkes remained very quiet. Not talking once since they got back aboard. He was looking damn ashamed. Head down, eyes not meeting anybody's.

Ross breathed heavily and looked at her. There was no further reason to have her here. "Captain, you are dismissed."

Vansen turned and left without a word while Hawkes stayed to face his superiors. When the door locked behind her, McQueen stepped up close to Hawkes.

"Did you leave to pursue another Chig and leave the Colonel open to attack?" McQueen said, very near to Hawkes' cheek. His whole manner menacing enough to send a chill through Hawkes though it didn't show on the outside.

"Yessir." Muttered agreement to McQueen's question.

Ross looked fit to be tied.

"You were Col. Strasser's wingman, Hawkes! She trusted you with that position!" The Commodore's voice was firm and echoed in the head of the young In-Vitro. He began to circle the lieutenant. His eyes every bit as intent on the man as McQueen's.

"I know, sir. I want to help find her." Hawkes said quietly. He knew and felt a millimeter high inside himself.

McQueen looked down, then to Ross. Severe disappointment all over his face. He turned back to Hawkes and whispered. He hadn't wanted to be a nasty cuss but he couldn't help the words that sprang forth. "I don't know if you'll be able to do that now, lieutenant. You weren't there to save her ass in the first place. What makes you think you'll be a help down there?"

The Commodore cleared his throat and McQueen backed away. "Lt. Hawkes, you are confined to quarters until further notice. Disciplinary action is being strongly considered for your actions today. Dismissed." Ross growled as McQueen escorted the man out of his sight.

On Ixen- 0830 Hours

The cockpit, once free of the rest that exploded some couple hundred feet above the surface, landed nose first and tumbled end-over-end. It then flipped and rolled like a log until it crashed to a stop against a rock outcrop. The hatch would have been jammed shut by the stop if not for the fact that it rolled off its side and back onto its base.

Maria had blacked out. She didn't know for how long but once she woke up instinct took over. Hitting the transceiver she wore, she worked to extricate herself from the cockpit before she was discovered. Looking at her watch, she lifted a leg up to kick the hatch open.

Her head was still woozy from the crash and blackout. The air was like high altitude and burned her lungs but she could breathe. Lifting a leg up, she kicked at the lid of the cockpit and it opened on the third kick. It was then she tried to get out and a shot of intense pain screamed from her side. Fuck! Not a broken rib! Maria thought, as she sucked down the pain and got out. She had to find cover. Well away from this place. The Chigs would be swarming over it damn quick. Throwing her helmet back into the useless cockpit, she tried to lope for the green patch of something she saw in the distance.

Her transceiver was beeping its code to the far-off 'Saratoga'.

'Saratoga' - 0838 Hours

Ross slammed a fist on the railing. Alright! She was alive! The only way that transceiver could work was by manually pressing it after releasing the safety catch on its cover.

Ross was just about to issue an order for a rescue op when a junior officer handed him a sheet of paper. He knew immediately that it was orders for the 'Saratoga'.
As fate would have it, the gray lady would not need to depart for hours until late night. A rescue op was now out of the question, nonetheless.

The 58th's room- 0100 Hours

Hawkes crept out of his bunk silently. He grabbed his gear and slid out the door to get it all on. He'd laid it out earlier, while they all were away at dinner. Then hid it from their sight. Not that they'd looked or even talked in his direction all night. They treated him as if he had died. He honestly felt like he had after what went on this morning. If only he hadn't tried to impress and lose sight of the fact he should have been at her wing!

Once suited-up, he crept down to the flight deck and slid towards the huge door to it. Punching in a code, he winced as the alarm went off signaling that the deck would soon open to zero-pressure atmosphere in a matter of minutes. Once that door shut behind him it couldn't be unlocked except by putting in a complex unlocking code.

Working quickly now, he found his cockpit and got in. Hooking himself up he glanced at the people who pounded on the windows and never looked at it again. He turned off the radio so he wouldn't have to hear the fierce voice of Col. McQueen over it.
He had to do this. He was her wingman and he'd let her down.
He was going to get her back or at least die trying.

Hawkes clicked together his helmet as the lid of his cockpit went down. He didn't see the blazing glare of McQueen as the man watched behind the plasglass at the departure of one of his own. Clad only in his pants and a white T-shirt. Never saw how McQueen dropped the useless mike back into its slot. Soon Hawkes was lowered below the surface of the flight deck and onto his Hammerhead. He looked out as the door opened to the stars. Before the controllers could get them shut again he blasted off into those same stars.

On planet- 0613 hours

Maria awoke from her shuddering sleep in the small cave she holed into for the night. Stiff from cold and parched for water, she looked at the transceiver on her sleeve. Its red light said it was still working. Once her eyes cleared, she tried to sit up but the pain in her side made her gasp. Rattled about in that cockpit like a nut in its shell. She could see her breath as the twin suns rose over the horizon. So different from the lightning storms of last night.

A bizarre planet, with its blue-green skies. She never thought she'd land here again.

It took some going through her memories but this planet was once known as Flora 1378. Chigs were not inhabitants in the time she'd come from. The knowledge about the planet was some comfort but the temperature wasn't. She had to start going south so as to reach the more temperate part of Ixen around its equator.
Paaku trees didn't even grow this far north. They were the one fruit that off-worlders craved. Its sour-sweet flesh and moisture content would be such help now. Maria sighed. The water here was acidic but a little at a time had no ill-effects. You could tell by the smell if it was too bad to drink.

Grumbling with pain, she got to her feet and began to walk to the world outside.

Hawkes had landed ten klicks from the crash site where the transponder beacon originated. From there, he'd hiked all morning to this spot. Using his monocular, he saw the busted open cockpit that had Chig tracks all around it. He had booked out of there and began his trek across the wastes as the temperatures began to climb under the twin suns. He did not think about the 'Saratoga'. He knew there were orders for it to move out-system. The solar-powered radio he humped would keep him and, with luck, the Colonel in contact until they could return. He kept his eye on the homing device he'd stolen from West's pack. Thirty klicks off to the southwest and moving.

Hours later

Maria paused, when the suns were beginning to set, at the unlikely grove of paaku trees that sprouted near a volcanic fissure. She set about climbing one of the tall plant/trees when she heard footsteps on the dried leaves and drew her gun out. She would have fired except that she recognized the shaggy dark hair, green flightsuit, and homing device for her transceiver. The gun slid back into its holster.

Jesus Christ! Hawkes! She whistled low and saw him look up. Holding a finger to her lips, she then gestured to the fruits and began to knock them down as Hawkes caught them.

Hawkes dived into his second paaku fruit and threw the rinds into the hole that was dug. It would be refilled and camouflaged to hide their having been there. The one thing he'd forgotten to bring was some of the damn MREs for them both. Not that either of them would have honestly enjoyed them. Hawkes had heard them called MRVs- Meals Ready to Vomit. The acronym fit a lot better than the original.

"We'll take some unripe ones with us for tomorrow. They'll ripen as we go. Only reliable water on this damn rock." Maria muttered, looking at the darkening sky. The temperature was already beginning to sink. Forks of lightning cutting the sky.

Hawkes eyed her and drew out the two foil blankets he'd brought along from the small pack with the radio. "You want to call them?"

Maria sat up, wincing. He'd already found out about her rib when she slid coming down the paaku tree and he'd grabbed her about the torso. She'd damn near punched him out. "Yeah, let's get it set up."

'Saratoga'- 1830 Hours

" Ace Six at Ixen Casino to Las Vegas. Come in Las Vegas."

Ross popped his head up as McQueen bolted to the radioman's station. They were over 50,000 MSKs out. The woman operator handed the mike to him.

"Copy, Ace Six. This is Las Vegas."

"Floor's quiet tonight, Vegas. No players around as yet. Was joined by another employee today. We are moving towards the poker tables."

"How are you both doing?"

"Meals are scarce, no smoke breaks, and the beds are lumpy."

McQueen smiled at Maria's use of words. Rough conditions. "You two are out-of-state employees. The flight to take you folks home will not be around for a month or two."

"Tell me about it, Vegas. Kinda had a feeling."

"How are you?"

"Cracked ribs from all the laughter. Jack of Spades is a riot."

Damn, Hawkes! McQueen thought, with yet another small smile.

"Vegas, bedtime awaits. Call tomorrow, long-distance. Same time."

"Sleep well, Ace Six. Keep an eye out for players coming in. Vegas out."

Ross folded his arms. They both went to talk privately.

"Moving south. Not much activity. Possible broken ribs. Very low food and water." Ross shook his head. It seemed unlikely that both of them could make it for as long as the new campaign might last.

"Better than nothing." McQueen replied. But nothing might look better awfully soon.

I'm surprised she took the news about us being gone out of system so well. Damn fleet is going to reinforce Admiral Jennings. Ross thought, looked at T.C. and motioned to leave the bridge with him. Began to talk when they were out in the hallway.

"I'm ordering her quarters locked until we can get back here."

McQueen looked over at his friend. "It might be months before we get back here."

"Deimios taught me well, Ty. I'm not leaving a one of our people behind. I want you to take temporary command of the five-eight for now. There's no time to go through formalities and get some bozo from Command to do it. Vansen stays in place as XO. In the meantime, I'll not have her room or Hawkes rack cleared out like they are dead." Ross wanted to say 'they aren't dead and they won't be dead' but let silence reign as they began to plan for the next day's activities.

Two weeks later- Ixen

Maria scooped up a little of the acrid water and drank very slowly. It was the best she could find in a while. She watched as it flowed from between her fingers and back into the pool she dipped it from. Little eddies of swirled sediment floating in lazy patterns..

The battle was over. Only the sounds of distant artillery could be heard as the Union Army and that of her men regrouped for the night. A new push would begin tomorrow. Already the ranks were swelling with 'galvanized Yankees' who had heeded General Lee's entreaty to leave the Soviet-led Confederacy and rejoin the Union to keep the whole of America from turning into a perverted version of their Nation.

Maria's shaky hand dipped into the still-untainted waters of the spring. She was still coming off of the adrenaline rush of battle. Had to sit on her knees so that anybody that happened upon her could not see them quaking. No doubt, Doc would be on her ass to try and eat something then sleep as much as she could. Paying no attention to the crackling buzzes of battle-talk over her radio, Maria sipped the water. Her peripheral vision saw Shetan's muzzle dip into the surface of it as well. Heard the quiet guzzle of the battle-dirtied, tired war-horse. Saw the tremble of spent muscles and a few bugs, stamp of a hoof into the soft ground.

They would find her shortly. If he 'd found her, no doubt they were already nearly upon them both. Maria snorted as she took up another palmful of water and sipped it slowly. Then she began to lob water over her sweat and dirt-encrusted hair to soothe the heat. After a few goings-over she raised her head and slicked her hair back. Voices were coming from the trees.
Sitting back on her heels, she reached over for the reins and held them gently a moment before rising to her feet. Braced herself against her mount for a minute until the wave of dizziness passed. Heard the sounds of hooves behind her and brought Shetan's head up from the water.

None of the officers in Union blue made a sound as they watched the gore-crusted leader turn towards them. Her face blackened by dirt and smoke. They had only seen the battle from a distance but had seen enough to know that this was one general who not only led but fought alongside her men as well. This was the first time they'd seen her since she and the rest of the mounted grenademen had bolted into the field to take out the Soviet tanks that started the day's events. She was one of the last of them that they'd found. That was only due to her horse having led them here.

General William Tecumseh Sherman caught the gaze of Maria Strasser for the briefest of moments before she threw herself back onto the back of her black demon. Marveled that she had enough strength left to do that three hours later since the opening shots. Saw the filth and gore on her uniform and understood the distant look in her eyes. There was no point in wondering how many lives had been taken by her hands that day. Her man, Bryce, came back with the same look on his hard features and in his eyes.
Like the rest, Sherman kept his mouth shut as they all rode from the spring. The only one not sullied by the blood of the wounded and dead that day.

Hawkes joined her, sipping slowly from his hand.

Two weeks and they'd only seen one errant Chig patrol that Maria had to try real hard to not annihilate and had to keep Hawkes from doing the same. Especially as they were dirty, tired and badly wanting better food than paaku fruit when it could be found. They thought about what the Chigs might be carrying in the way of something edible. That idea got shitcanned early on.

After they drank they both sat back against rocks as the near-equatorial suns began to set. The temperatures here were far more moderate. That in itself was a relief after the bone-chilling temps farther north. The heat was a salve to their tired muscles and aching bones. The only thing it didn't cure was the growling pain of their stomachs.

"What do you miss most, Maria?" Hawkes had been able to call her by her given name since she'd given permission for him to do so the third day they were together. When they were retrieved it would revert back to 'Colonel' and 'Sir'.

"I miss triple shots of Maker's Mark whiskey, my cigs, and fresh water at my beck and call whenever I want it. You?"

"I miss my comic books and music." Hawkes looked up at the stars. "You miss your family?"

"Don't have one, Coop. They're all dead."

"You got relatives, don't you? Natural-borns have them."

"All dead. I doubt there are any relatives I could claim even as 'distant' relatives to me back on Earth."

Hawkes looked at her very surprised. "They die in the AI War?"

"No. Before that. I was a raw recruit when it happened." Maria thought long about that one. She'd eventually saw her family members again. Though things were markedly different in that very different future. They had never had the child that would have been her though they'd had her sister. In time, her genetic mother and father came to honestly regard her as their daughter. Maria, on the other hand, always had regarded them as family even though she wasn't born to them. Her sister..Hell, Sue Strasser had always regarded her as her sister.

"Did it hurt?" Hawkes wasn't trying to cause pain. He was just curious.

"Yes it did. More than I thought I could endure. Then you realize their bodies are shells and their spirits have gone to a better place."


"A spirit is the essence of someone. Without a spirit a body is a vegetable. It has no life or thoughts, just operates because of biological means. A spirit gives the character to a person. It allows them to think, talk and behave like a human. Experiences and environment contribute to forming the spirit of who and what a person becomes." She said, feeling drowsy and pulling her foil blanket over her.

"I have a spirit?"

Maria looked at Hawkes. "Yes, you do. You are not a vegetable and you ARE human. God, but I hate the In-Vitro crap they spout at you and McQueen sometimes. The ignorant don't see that we all carry human DNA inside." How ugly it was that he never learned about things like this. Society saw 'Tanks' as subhuman. Maria never would for she knew she would be inhuman if she did.

"I never learned about that. I ran away from the Center before they could fully educate me."

Maria nodded. She didn't want to ask about the Center tonight. She was getting so tired. Pulled the foil blanket up further and watched the millions of stars in the Ixen sky as the clouds broke up.

The old courthouse served as an impromptu headquarters that night. The benches in the courtroom proper got rearranged. Light from oil lamps and candles gave their glow to the quiet space. For the few men that stretched out on the hardwood floor to sleep it was far better than the hard ground outside. Most were her officers and some others from the Union Army that had lost track of exactly where their tents had wound up. Bryce was already lost to the world for at least the past hour.

Maria sat on a bench to pull off her combat boots after loosening the laces. Tried not to look at the rare pillow somebody had found for her that lay at one end. A woolen blanket lay folded at the other.

She hadn't said an honest word to anyone since returning from the field. Had been consumed with reports from the battle, the mop-up and casualty reports. Had to endure another tirade from Doc about the sorry state she came back in. As well as the stitches she got for a few grazes sustained. Discreetly funneled the sleeping pills he'd given her back into the pharmacy for others to use. Took only a few bites of food. Washed up in a wooden trough with some rather coarse lye soap before returning into a much less gory uniform. Now she was able to finally sleep at about eleven at night.

Maria brought her socked feet up onto the bench and lay down on the hard wood. A rumble of thunder and flicks of cold light from the outside accompanied the small breeze that blew in. There would be rain to wash all the blood into the ground tonight. Her head hit the pillow and a sore hand pulled the woolen blanket halfway over her. Eyes shut as she heard the sound of heelplated boots enter the room. Soft talk. Barely discernable. Turned her head to face the back of the bench and briefly felt herself grin.

The tall, Ohio-born general never could stray too far from her. He was here again. She could hear him. His soft voice speaking to one of his underlings. No doubt, he would make his bed here as well with the storm whipping up outside.

She willed herself to not think on why the man seemed so attracted to her, only to sleep for as long as she could before the nightmares made that impossible. Then, she would remain awake to stand guard through the wee hours while the rest of her Army slept.

Maria woke briefly in the chill of the Ixen night only to find his reassuring presence not beside her or nearby. She allowed no time for sadness as she slid back into dark, dreamless sleep.

U.S.S. Saratoga- Two months later

The orders finally came for the 'Saratoga' to go back to Ixen.

For the 58th it was a frantic time. They would provide the cover for the extract team and worked hard to keep themselves primed. It was the first mission they took a serious interest in for months. Their whole time in this sector was nothing but cover-runs for heavy bombers. It certainly seemed like the '58th Traitors' were being given the bottom scrapings of the mission barrel by Command. The 'Cards' knew the reason for doing such assignments. It just grated that they couldn't be given something more fitting for their obvious skill level and get the shit from 'Roundhammer' consigned to the past where it belonged.

For now, they sat in their quarters and grouped around the box that had come from the quartermaster supply that produced their helmets.

West reached in and pulled it out. It was unlikely that the old one was still with her. They ordered a new one when the calls kept coming in every night. They had almost opted against it at one point until they got informed by McQueen that the 'Ixen Casino's employees' were getting picked up as soon as they got back into the Pallas Region.

They all looked at the Ace of Spades and the gold letters of 'Strasser' on its front and murmured their approval.

"We really need to put it in her quarters. So she'll see it when she goes in there." Vansen offered. As XO, she had much to take care of these past months. Grateful, as always, for McQueen's steady hand in leading them all.

"Asked Col. McQueen about that. It has been locked since she before she crashed. The Commodore hasn't allowed it to be opened. I heard he barked down some guys who tried to go in there to clean it out. Like she was dead." Collins replied.

"We should just present it to her." Damphousse said.

"Along with the one for Hawkes, I suppose?" West said tersely.

"Nathan, he's as much a part of this unit as we are. Let it go!" Vansen tried to diffuse him. Yet again.

"He caused all this crap in the first.." "He's been down there since." McQueen came in from behind them. That shocked everybody. "I think the only person who needs to forgive him is Colonel Strasser herself. The rest of you need to let it go." He eyed West before he could say anything. "Agreed, West?"

"The charges.." Collins started.

"Dropped. Unless Colonel Strasser wants to press any. I doubt that, though. They seem to have kept each other going." McQueen stepped up to the box and lifted out the helmet. His eyes looking it over closely. "They did a nice job." He remarked, going over the helmet. Then put it gently back into the box.

"Sir, could we put the helmet in the Colonel's.." Vansen began but stopped cold.

McQueen fixed her with his blue eyes. Not irritated but understanding. "No. Give it to her directly. I think she'd like it more." He knew that is what he would want if he were in her shoes. "She and Hawkes have been informed. The extract goes in tomorrow morning at 0600. All of you will be flying cover. Get a good sleep tonight."

The whole 58th smiled at each other. They most certainly would.

Ixen- 0645 Hours

Maria and Hawkes ran with all their strength as the Chigs pursued them. For nearly the whole time they were down here there hadn't been a damn peep of Chigs. Had done everything to survive without detection by them. It seemed like the extract would be quiet. They both knew better. Now they were being chased like animals.

Hawkes peeled off four more shots at the party behind them. One of the Chigs dropped but they kept coming. His lungs were burning ferociously but his legs pumped on as he bolted to follow Maria, bolts from the Chigs whizzing overhead. There was no time to even pass a word. They sprinted down a wash and past some boulders to make a stand against their pursuers.

Maria shoved in her third clip. She'd already taken down six with the bullets in the first and second. Chig armor couldn't stop a round like the ones she was firing. She leaped over the ridge and began to fire as Hawkes reloaded with his last clip. All the weeks of saving bullets was paying off. They both knew it.

Two more Chigs went down before the rest sought cover and began pelting the rocks about them with fire.

Shards of rock exploded in front of her face. She shook her head and hit a Chig through the top of his helmet. It fell back. A whooshing scream came at them. Maria and Hawkes ducked their heads at the explosion that just missed their position and exploded on top of the Chigs they were firing at. They looked up in time to see a Hammerhead tear overhead.

"FUCKING A!" Maria yelled, lungs burning and grabbed Hawkes by the shoulder. "C'mon!"

They both tore away from the outcrop and towards a plume of purple smoke in the distance. It must be the ISSAPC for them.

No sooner did they resume running than a few more Chigs came up and began firing. This time the enemy actually seemed to be jogging, not casually strolling to get a shot at them.

At a dead sprint, Hawkes felt one of the bolts sizzle on his legs and he toppled over with a yell. Face hitting the rocky floor of the desert. Mouth full of sand and grit. The pain froze him to the ground.

Maria spun where she was and whipped off some shots at the Chigs. Another Hammerhead zipped above, drowning the Chigs with fire. She turned and saw Hawkes. She felt like she was in slow motion but her mind was clear.

Sprinting back to Hawkes, she dove under him and flipped him onto her back. Grimacing against the pain and weight, she rose up on her wobbly legs and turned to run with her wingman slung across her back. All she could do was pray they didn't zap him or her before they got to the waiting craft.

Damphousse did a double take at what she saw on the ground. In her viewpoint from her Hammerhead, she saw the huge lump moving over the ground. Her jaw dropped. Words couldn't come. Her hand squeezed the trigger and fire rained on the Chigs that shot at that moving lump. She was carrying Hawkes on her back! The Colonel was doing it!

McQueen looked out the open doorway of the ISSAPC with a drawn pistol as crewmembers bristled around. Through the smoke and noise he could see a form in the distance get closer. Blinked repeatedly to try and see it better. He jumped out but Chig fire kept him hunkered low to the ground. The 58th, in the skies above now, kept raining hell on the Chigs firing on them. The crewmen leveled their weapons to give the form cover fire so it could get to them. He joined in the cover fire gladly.

"C'mon!" A crewman yelled, peeling off shots at the advancing enemy and beckoning, gesturing to the form that got ever closer.

Maria was damn near out of breath. Her hand limply clung to her gun but it held. Her shoulders and torso were full of pain with every step on the ground. Hawkes's weight loaded her down until it felt like she might be crushed to the ground. She could see the crewman calling to her and the helmeted McQueen in combat dress just staring. The rest was a blur. Shots whizzing past them with sharp buzzes.

He was in shock at the sight before him. He couldn't believe it but knew it was happening. A 200-pound man carried on a woman's shoulders. If Tyrus Cassius McQueen had any more doubts about Colonel Maria Strasser they vanished in a microsecond.

The staring was momentary before McQueen ran forward and took Hawkes off her shoulders with another crewman and they all dove into the ISSAPC. The rest came in and the door slammed shut. It seemed like hours before the craft left the surface of Ixen when it was only seconds.

Maria felt the lurch of take-off as she lay gasping on the floor, legs twitching uncontrollably from the strain. She felt like passing out, heard the shouts of the medics, over the noise, tending to Hawkes. The .44 tumbled from her hand. Her eyes shut. She never saw McQueen pick it up and stow it.

She felt a hand touch her hair then her cheek a minute or two later. Despite herself and all her attempts at preventing them, she felt tears well up from emotion. It was finally sinking in. What she had done was unbelievable. Even for her, in the state she was in. She looked up into McQueen's blue eyes a moment. He was looking at her like she'd seldom been looked at here. She recognized it a lot back where she'd come from. It was a look of honest admiration and respect.

She put her head down again, shut her eyes and tried to regain her breath as they all went home to the 'Saratoga'. McQueen's hand kept stroking her hair the whole way.

The 58th crammed the deck waiting for the ISSAPC to land. Damphousse had relayed the Reader's Digest version of what she'd seen as they flew back. They stepped back as medics swarmed up when the door opened and their Colonel and Hawkes came out to be whisked away on stretchers.

McQueen came out with a huge silver gun in his hands. He looked at them all a moment before following to where the stretchers were going.

Sick Bay- 1550 Hours

The bed was soft and warm. The place was quiet.

A move of her right hand and she could feel the IV that was in her arm. She let it stay still. Hawkes was asleep across the room, legs heavily bandaged but he was doing just fine. She'd managed to eavesdrop on the doctor's conversation with the Commodore and McQueen about him. They had come by her bedside but she fell asleep again before she heard a thing more. Now she heard a swoosh of the doors and opened her eyes.

The 58th stood at her bedside. They were finally all smiling.

"Hey, Colonel. How are you feeling?" Damphousse asked for all of them.

A swallow and she rasped. "Like shit." She smiled back at them.

"We have something for you when you and Hawkes get out of here." Vansen looked at her. She still couldn't believe that Maria had carried Hawkes on her back. Rumor was going around about a medal for that. She would've given the Colonel one anyway for just thinking about it.

"Can't wait." Maria's eyes fluttered. "Sorry, guys, I'm out of it."

Vansen patted her shoulder and they left to go see Hawkes and let her sleep.

Later that night, she could have sworn she heard light breathing by her bedside. Her nose detected a male scent she'd only picked up from one person on the whole ship. She knew who it was even before the hand touched her hair again. She couldn't open her eyes with her head feeling like lead on the pillow.


Then the breathing and scent were gone.

Maria slept the rest of that night like the dead. Vowing it would be the last time for a long time that she would get shot down. Here she finally felt safe. She wanted to come back to the 'Saratoga' from now on.

Presentation- Three Days later

Maria couldn't honestly say she was 100 percent but 80 percent would have to do. She had to have Vansen help her with some of her dress blues. They were fitting very loose. The doctor said that Maria had lost over 30 pounds on Ixen and dropped to 120. Weight dropped off a frame that was thin for her sturdy build to begin with.

They walked into the room with Hawkes in a wheelchair but in his blues too. McQueen held the presentation box that he gave to the Commodore.

She and Hawkes exchanged grins, then went stone-faced and eyes front as Commodore Ross opened the case before the line that stood at attention.

"For gallantry under fire, for rescuing a fellow soldier you are hereby awarded the Navy Cross. Wear it proudly, Colonel. It was well-earned." Ross looked into her eyes and smiled.

Maria nodded as Ross pinned it on her blues. She saluted him sharply. Her ribs gave a twinge but she didn't care.

Tun Tavern- 1730 Hours

The party was on and saw more than just the 58th celebrating it. The crew of the ISSAPC was here as well. All of them were celebrating leaving Ixen and the return of two of the 'Saratoga's' crew.

Maria weaved past the revelers and took a seat by the star-studded window with her bottle of Miller. Yet another shot of Maker's Mark found its way to her place while she'd been away. It was only her second but it would have to be her last. She'd already drank a shot with the 58th for Hawkes and her return. The meds were getting on her with what she'd consumed so far. That and she was severely underweight.

Vansen had gotten up to get something as the rest of the 58th sat around Maria, Hawkes and Col. McQueen. Maria took a gulp of beer and looked up to see Vansen bring in a box and place it on the table in front of them.

"Sir, in light of the fact that you lost your old one on Ixen, we decided to get you a replacement."

Maria put down her bottle. Opening the box, she lifted out her new helmet.

"We wanted it to match up with your new Hammerhead." West commented.

She nodded and set the helmet with its black Ace of Spades on the table. Her last name, in gold, glittering in the light. They hadn't lost faith. This helmet took months to arrive once it was ordered.

After that, the party went on as the 'Saratoga' flew further away from Ixen.

Next : Part 3 - Regeneration

Previous : Part 1 - Risen Phoenix

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