The following story is not to be reproduced in any way, shape or form without the consent of the author. The characters from the TV series- "Space: Above and Beyond" are the property of Glenn Morgan, James Wong, Hard Eight Pictures and Fox Broadcasting. No infringement of copyright is intended or implied. All other characters are property of the author and cannot be used unless permission is secured from her.

Comments good or bad? Email

Rated 'R' for graphic language and adult situations.

This story is set in the period after the events of 'Wingman'.

From the Ashes - Regeneration


Robin Burchardt

U.S.S. Saratoga- In the Ceberus System- 0615 Hours

Given the new orders, the huge carrier was on its way to the red giant sun in the system named Ceberus. There it was to rendezvous with the carrier 'Roosevelt' for a combined operation against a Chig stronghold on the planet Marus. UEF troops were going to invade the planet while the 'Saratoga' would provide backup with air cover for the operation. It was slated to be the largest operation since the ill-fated 'Roundhammer'.

Commodore Glen Ross was fretting again as he walked onto the quiet deck of his ship. The night crew looked up at him before going back to their jobs. The Old Man generally was quiet in the mornings before things got moving. There would be no air operations today. He had decided to let the squadrons sleep in. The 71st and 96th had joined the 58th and the rest of the 'Saratoga's' squadrons for the duration of the operation codenamed: Ivanhoe.

Maria Strasser's Quarters- 0630 Hours She ran a loving hand over the quilted seat of the saddle. Knew every nook of the tack. Her fingers sought them out as the memories still had her in its grasp. It didn't care that she was weak still. Didn't care that her guts were still twisting at having to choke down food. It was, in an indirect way, an emissary of her memories. Perhaps that was why Steve bought and sent it to her.

Lifting the fingers from the leather, Maria went back to her desk to reread Steve's latest letter. She'd sent one detailing Ixen in an old code language so the censors wouldn't freak. Her health went unmentioned. She certainly didn't want to burden Steve with that shit. He was having enough of a time at Hurguna with its massive rain forests and not-too-pleasant lifeforms that had a fondness for sucking human blood for food.

Sitting at the desk, Maria read over the letter again. Like her letter, it was in code. The real words echoed in her mind.

Forward Base 'Foxtrot'
Greetings from the shithole that has the name of 'Hurguna' on the planet maps. Command still deems this pit as a worthwhile chunk to take control of. The 75th is sniffing for Chigs so long as the a-holes from the Circle [Pentagon] don't show up to spoil the shit. We managed to fend off some AeroTech types that wanted to join us. We would have likely fragged them before we got too far along.

The mood of the boys is..not good. The monotony of patrol, set-up of camp, listening posts and perimeter-line arming is way too similar to 'Nam and WW3. I'm inclined more to think 'Nam with the jungle and its voracious suckers. Even here, in the base, they manage to find a way in.

I got your letter and wasn't surprised at your use of code. I should've thought of it with my first couple letters but it spaced my mind. Since the 'unthawing' only now is my memory actually hitting the real distant bits. Sounds like Ixen rivals Hurguna as a shithole. I can't believe you actually ate Paaku fruit again but I understand with the length of time you spent down there. Sounds like the Tank, Hawkes, isn't too bad for his type. Only ones we've come across on our end are lazy, rebellious and damn good for target-practice and little else. I know you have a fondness for McQueen and Hawkes so I'll not go further on that subject. The boys sometimes question about it since they remember the thing called 'Anvil' and the 58th's appearance on a documentary. I only tell them that you folks are grunting along like the rest of us. If they can't believe that, fuck 'em. Love them to death like the brothers I'm glad to have never had, but fuck 'em.

Got the Ka-Bar with your letter. Thanks! It might seem a clumsy weapon to some of these 'soft cheeks' but its nice to know that I got a friend who knows how I am. As for the Grimsley- you're welcome! Knew you'd like to have it in your drab confines. I thought you might like it to remember Old Black with.

Well, have to di-di. Duty beckons us sad sacks to do yet another round of hump-through-the-jungle. CCR should've named their song that instead of the other. More apropos to this place and 'Nam. Later!


Officer's Mess

Shane Vansen couldn't help but feel scrutinized by the officers from the other squadrons that had infiltrated the room now. She ate as quickly as she could without shoveling and tried to leave. Her eyes gazed up to see the Colonel walk in and she thought about slowing down. The Colonel being in here was something of a rarity, even after Ixen. Shane watched her get a bowl of oatmeal, pat of butter, little cream and a fair dollop of sugar for her oatmeal. For drink- a large glass of orange juice and one of ice water. The Colonel had been off coffee and tea lately and wondered if it didn't have something to do with the doctor's orders.

She smiled as Maria made her way towards her and set the tray down. "Good morning, sir."

"Good morning, Captain. Where are the others? Or should I even ask?" Maria took her seat and saw the knowing look on Vansen's face.

"Think you know the answer already."

Vansen put her fork down to drink some coffee. "What are your plans today, sir?"

"Not much. Cockpit cleaning, small briefing on Marus for the whole unit. The Commodore wants an officer's meeting at 1500. As you are XO you are to be there with me. Likely flight plans for Ivanhoe and plans for coordinating with the guest squadrons aboard."

"Sounds joyous." Shane muttered, looking at the men of the other squadrons in a sideways gaze.

Maria's mouth tightened. Caught the tone and direction of Shane's eyes. "You need to focus on your own abilities, Captain. You got your own achievements to recommend you. Unsolicited advice, I know. You seemed to be needing it for the past few days."

Shane's eyes met her Colonel's. That sounded like something her parents would have told her. Not that she hated it at all. It was what she needed to hear from someone of authority. Shane Vansen wasn't always secure about herself. Captain's bars couldn't dissolve it all the time.

Vansen looked down and smiled. Then, a thought. "Sir, can I ask something?"


"How do you manage to be so collected?"

Maria sighed and thought about that. "I got plenty of years in. It is the only way you get it. I think where most screw up is that they try to micromanage when they should just let go on things not important." She ate a few spoons of oatmeal as Shane digested her words.

1230 Hours

Dappled sunlight through the trees. A soft breeze blowing. It had been the first real taste of Spring since she'd became a soldier in the fight against the Soviets. High in the Rockies of Wyoming, Maria could smell the sweet pinesap in the mild heat of the sun. The group around her was chatting away amicably as they cleaned weapons or ate lunch. The fire was already out so as not to draw attention with woodsmoke. Her eyes closed to listen to the trees as a breeze ruffled them.

Soft plops on the ground. The horses began to spook. Her fellows began to talk, then shout. Panic and fear tinged all their voices.

Maria opened her eyes to the bird that lay twitching at her feet, its beak gasping for air. She looked up to see the first horse fall, then another. Her squad mates began to cough and wheeze, then began to vomit blood. She felt her own throat burning and constricting. Air was being cut off to her. Lungs seizing. Bloody vomit spilling forth from her lips.

Get out! Get out of here! Her brain screamed, driving her body into action.

She got up but fell down. She began to crawl away from the dying all around her on her hands and knees. Kept crawling and crawling…

Maria opened her eyes to the red face of her bedside clock and regained her breath. The nightmare drifted away as the pounding of her heart stilled to normal. Her lungs hurt like the devil. The agent used had been known as Red Agent-'Black' where she came from. Its exact composition had never been determined. It had been the most lethal of anything in the Soviet arsenal of Chem/Bio weapons. It was one reason why the doctors had been so shocked to see an actual survivor in the IC ward.

Rolling over onto her back, she looked up to the ceiling of her quarters. She hadn't had this flashback dream in many years. Her ears focused on the sound of the ventilation kicking in. Breath rattled in her lungs. The spasms would start any time now. Maria reached for her bottle of Lunglax. A quick twist of the lid and the pill was under her tongue.

Ross looked over the LIDAR man's shoulder and issued the alert. A huge wave of enemy fighters. Enough to keep both carriers well occupied. The 'Battle Stations' klaxon began to blare through the ship.

Col. Strasser had just laced her boots, checked her flightsuit and sprinted out the door into running waves of people. The bitterness of the pill under her tongue snaked down her throat. She threw on her breast/shoulder armor as she made her way onto the chaotic flight deck. Jumping into her cockpit, she allowed her helmet to be put on as she checked the systems in her cockpit. Flying through the start-up procedure without the formalities of voicing everything she did. The rest of the 58th arrived seconds after her and got into their positions. Pulling on her gloves, she gave a look up and saw McQueen. As always, he was staring from behind the space-proof glass. She gave him a thumbs-up and saw him nod. She went back to her controls as the lid of her cockpit lowered over her. All cockpits lowered to join with the rest of the fuselages.

McQueen waited until the whole 58th were down to their ships and the deck was deserted. Hopefully, the gods of war would enable them all to return home again. He turned on his heel and returned to the bridge to help the Commodore. They had their jobs as he had his.

The 58th was tearing off with the 71st and 96th towards the mass of Chig bogies in tight formation. It wasn't something Maria liked. It offered the Chigs a fantastic opportunity to wipe them all out in a few good hits.

Goddamn, I wish we could slam the backdoor on these fuckers. "Five-eight, follow me." Her order coincided with an abrupt breakoff from the other two squadrons.

"Sir?" Vansen asked but wasn't allowed to add anything, as Maria's reply was instantaneous.

"We're going to slam the backdoor on these assholes." Maria heard the voice of the 96ths Major Giles blare over her mike.

"Five-eight, where are you going!"

"Ninety-six and seventy-first stay on your present course." Then, to Giles, "The five-eight is going to slam the backdoor on these puppies, Major. I don't relish the thought of having to reface them later. You have a problem with that?"

"No sir."

The 58th flew off to left flank the Chig mass and come up on their rear. Risky, but it was better than having any of this group of Chigs get through to the 'Saratoga' and 'Roosevelt' this close to Ivanhoe.

The Bridge- 1350 Hours Commodore Ross and McQueen listened to the fight over the comm. The past forty-five minutes had seen quite a number of Chigs blown from the stars. At one point, Ross felt like court-martialing Strasser but her trick in using the 58th to slam the backdoor on a Chig retreat worked. The Chigs had been bottled and were panicking all over the place. Four members of the 71st and two of the 96th were gone but Ross could only imagine how much worse it would have been if the three squadrons faced that group head-on. Only fourteen Chig fighters got the privilege of going home this time around.

When the call was finally made it was a great relief to everyone.

"OK, guys. Enough playtime. Let's go home." Maria's voice elicited hoots from a few members of all three squadrons. As a full colonel to two majors, she led the three squadrons in this.

Ross smiled at the call that came through. "'Saratoga', this is five-eight requesting clearance to return."

"Granted, five-eight." The radioman said over the mike in response to the Commodore's nod.

Ross looked to McQueen and noted the man actually began to look like he was breathing again.

Maria removed her helmet and pulled herself from her cockpit. She knew she was hopped on adrenaline now but there would be a serious downside to that if she couldn't catch some winks before the officer's meeting later on. She thought about her stomach and didn't even want to attempt it. It certainly was sloshing menacingly enough. More than likely she would spew before she could hide herself in a bathroom. It probably explained the dream flashback she'd had earlier. Regaining her feet on the flightdeck she braced a hand and arm against the cockpit a moment. The wave of wooziness ran through her.

Too much too soon. Her thought was echoed in the way Collins had come over to steady her. The others stood and took note.

"Sir, you need to grab some rest." Collins said with some concern. Remarks had been made about how the Colonel had pushed herself, still so fresh from the return from Ixen. He couldn't really comment, being so new, but it was plain even to him.

Maria nodded curtly and shook free of his arm. She took her helmet and went silently to her quarters.

Vansen walked over by Collins. He looked at her surprised.

"All I said was that she needed to get some rest?"

Vansen watched her C.O.s retreating form. "It's not you. She knows you meant well. She's just very fatigued." No sooner had the words been said that she saw her C.O. collapse just outside the flight deck threshold.

Sick Bay

Commodore Ross watched as the ship's doctor cracked up the MRI scan panel of Maria's lungs for them to see. McQueen watched from his left side. The man had been uncommonly concerned after the Colonel collapsed on the flightdeck. "What I can't understand is how in the hell she was allowed to remain on active duty with a set of lungs like this." Doctor Forbes pointed to the massive amounts of scarring. "The last time I've seen this was in medical history texts from World War 1. The effects of chemical agents on lung tissue."

Ross bit his tongue on this. This doctor hadn't been told the full story about Strasser's history. Neither had he.

Doctor Forbes continued. "Ever since her return from Ixen she has been dropping weight instead of regaining it. I have to strongly stress that she be returned to Earth at once for proper therapy and treatment."

"Is she under medication for her lungs?"

"A bronchodialator. I'm unfamiliar with it but she needs more for that area than just medicine. She needs complete recovery. Especially if she is to be active duty. I think the medicine she is taking is causing the nausea that is preventing her from gaining back her pre-Ixen weight. She needs an expert to prescribe something better. Respiratory medicine is out of my field otherwise I'd have done it already." Forbes pressed hard.

"I will take your advice under advisement." Ross didn't want to send her packing for an undetermined amount of recovery time. The 58th never had such a good commander since Ty got beached for good from active duty. He wouldn't send her back to Earth but she would be sitting-out 'Ivanhoe'.

That Evening- 2000 Hours

Maria sank into her bed in her T-shirt and shorts. She pulled the sheets over herself. So damned tired.

She'd recovered from the blackout but knew they'd whipped her through the MRI. Just the look in Ross's eyes was enough to confirm that. He'd almost refused her request to sit in on the briefing. It was pretty much the same old preliminaries that came before every invasion mission. She'd heard no word of the 75th Recon being called. Steve's boys were not in on this. The 71st and 96th would accompany the 58th as air cover for the invasion. No biggie there in the suprise department. The 58th always seemed to get the damn air cover assignments rather than the all-out engagements against Chig squadrons. Residue that wouldn't quit courtesy of the botched crap from 'Anvil'.

Maria eyed the stars outside her window and wished she could see old Luna up in the sky but Earth's longtime companion was light years away. You had to go through a jumpgate just to return to the homeworld of humans. She shut her eyes and listened to the silence. Until knocks came at her hatch.

Go figure. I just get settled in bed. "Who's at my door?"


Maria's eyes narrowed. She hadn't planned on sitting up but she did now. Shit! What does he want? "Enter." She bent to rub her eyes and squinted at the opening door.

"I didn't mean to wake you." The man started. Blue eyes flickering in the dim light.

Maria reached over to turn her bedside lamp on. "No problem. What's up?"

McQueen stepped inside and shut the door behind her. He seemed unsure of how to begin talking again. Especially when his eyes caught the black flag behind and above her bed. A flaming phoenix rising again from the pyre it immolated itself in. Or was it an eagle? Had arrows and olive branches in its talons…

Maria noted it. He's been told something he does not really want to convey. Her eyes caught him eyeing the flag and she spoke to break his concentration on it. Best not to let him see too much. "What were you going to say, Colonel?"

"The Commodore would have talked to you personally on this except he is at a Commander's Meeting aboard the 'Roosevelt'. He has asked me to convey this to you." McQueen paused just long enough to note the saddle that sat gleaming on its rack in a corner. It was outfitted to the nines.

"Commodore Ross would like you to sit out 'Ivanhoe'. He has heard the doctor's reports on your condition. He does not want you to exhaust your strength. He feels that you would rather prefer this option than the 'shore-leave' the doctor begged him to give you. Commodore Ross is inclined to want you here. I believe the whole 58th feels that way as well."

Maria nodded and looked at McQueen. "Understood." Sharp and direct, the answer even resounded in her ears.

"You spent two and a half months solely on fruit." McQueen reminded her. His eyes flickering all over her face, trying to gauge her emotions. She was very hard to read. Finally, he saw acceptance. Only after a current of anger that rippled beneath her features.

"I'm not recovering as fast as I hoped." She looked up at the man. Something to add?

McQueen's eyes still maintained their laser-like gaze. "I've heard the doctor's report on your lungs."

Maria straightened. He was hitting awfully close to home now. Knew her look dared him to go on.

"The amount of scar tissue has the Commodore worried."

"I'm on medication for it. It is under control."

"It is sacrificing your appetite and causing nausea."

"The gassing causes my ever-present nausea." Maria blurted and realized she had let it slip too late. Irritated at it, her tone became snappish, though it was said quietly. "The matter is under my control. Until it interferes with my ability to do my job, I will not tolerate hearing about it from outside sources." The tone changed from warmth to frigid in a microsecond.

McQueen decided to say nothing further. He gave her a final glance and turned to leave. Her sickness was compromising her ability to be an effective leader of the 58th. At least in his mind.

He paused a ways down the hall to think. Nerve gas had not been used in the last one hundred years that he could ever recall. Still, it had been said in such a way that he knew it wasn't fabrication on her part. He hadn't meant to intrude but now he knew there was far more to Maria Strasser than what he knew thus far.

Morning- 0430 Hours

She ran all the way to the stern smoking area. Lovely contradiction in smoking after jogging but she did anyway. She had to admit there was some stress in her after what McQueen had mentioned last night. She hadn't minded being grounded from 'Ivanhoe' but that fucking doctor would need a refresher on doctor-patient confidentiality. Otherwise she'd be getting a bitch-out from somebody higher up on the food chain.

Lighting up, the Colonel gazed out the huge stern windows. Wouldn't need to hide my past save that they were dissecting every damn thing on that ship. Wonder if they tried to pick Steve's brain like they tried to do mine.

Blowing out a cloud, Maria thought in the room's quiet. Can't really fault him for wanting to know but I wonder how he'd feel if I let loose on what I know about him? She had picked up quite a bit on him since arriving on the 'Saratoga'.

The hair on the back of her neck pricked up and she spun to see Hawkes leaning against the bulkhead. Looked like he had been here a while and was interested to see his C.O. here. Maria inhaled a drag of smoke and nodded to him.

"Quiet as death, Mr. Hawkes." Certainly the man was not the lumbering sort most thought him to be. At least when he wanted to be that way.

"Didn't mean to surprise you. Just wanted to walk around a bit. I can leave if.." He stopped when he saw the wave of Maria's hand.

"No, you can stay." Maria stubbed out her smoke in the ashtray and sat down. "How are your legs anyway? I haven't had much of a chance to talk to you since Ixen."

"OK. They still act up. Doc says they will for the near future. I'm almost ready to be cleared for flight again."

"Excellent news. We do need you out there."

Hawkes mulled over his next words. He'd wanted to ask them since Ixen when Maria had brought up that her parents were dead. He thought she might not like to be asked but had been told that the only stupid question was the one never asked. Lately, he'd been wishing he had parents. Ones that could see him as their son. "I've been wondering, sir. How exactly did your parents die?"

Maria eyed the man. He remembered that? After all the shit that happened on Ixen? All I said is that my relatives were all dead.

She found herself not really wanting to talk about it to someone who didn't know about WW3. She did know that he was curious about the relationship Natural-Borns had to their parents. "They were murdered. There was no real reason for it. They were just killed by some thugs for the hell of it. Thugs too hopped-up on drugs to care."

Soviet soldiers that zapped out on drugs to silence the natural, human conscience that all have. Silence the inner outrage at committing infamous acts that were equaled by few throughout history.

"You ever try to find them?"

"No. There would be no use. They couldn't… Nothing could bring my parents back. Would have liked to have killed them but I think Fate has caught up with them by now." Besides, I have enough blood on my hands with the life I've lived.

"I wish I had parents."

"I don't think you can understand the pain of losing them. Especially when their deaths weren't natural. You expect to see them retire and die peacefully, at home, asleep, in their own bed. When that doesn't happen and they get murdered. There is no pain in the world that can come close to it."

Maria saw Cooper take her words to heart and put a hand on his shoulder. "Then again, I'm not an InVitro. So I don't know how it is to yearn for parents I've never had. To wish for things that can't be but wish they were anyway. I wish you could have parents, Cooper. They always listen, even when they know you are wrong. Most never question their love for their children or the child's love for them. It is a rare gift."

She smiled and tried to be upbeat to counter the man's mood. "If it's any consolation, you got me to talk to. I'm not a parent but I am a pair of ears that does care."

They both exchanged smiles in the space of the smoking room.

McQueen's quarters

He cracked open yet another book and found nothing.

The flag above her bed was in no book of military insignia he had here. Truthfully, he'd never seen it before and that fact intrigued him. The saddle was a Civil War era General Officer's. Though it was a reproduction, Ty surmised that it was not cheap to have been bought. It made him wonder if she had bought it or had someone who did. He tried to catch her this morning. To apologize for prying into her background but she'd changed her routine. If T.C. McQueen ever kicked himself it was for pissing her off like he did last night with the comment about her lungs. Despite the concerns about her ability to physically do her job. Truly, that had not been his place to make a comment like that. He'd seen enough 'black ops' shimmy through the cramped 'Saratoga' to know that some things were nobody's business. No matter how hard curiosity got to someone. Even him.

Closing the book and looking at the clock, McQueen rose from his desk to go to the Officer's Mess. Perhaps he could intercept her without a crowd.

Officer's Mess- 1130 Hours

The place was not crowded at all. Maria sat with her back to the wall so she could see anyone who came in. For now, she kept her eyes on her food. What little there was was not being well received this morning by her stomach. She took another drink of apple juice and was shocked to see McQueen sitting right across from her. He'd been more silent than a cat this time.

"Colonel." Her terse voice echoed.

At least, it seemed, to McQueen who raised a hand. Wanting to say something. "I apologize for mentioning your lungs last night. It was none of my business to comment on it in the first place."

"Was NOT the doctor's place to have said anything to anyone not authorized to be told. I'm surprised at his lack of judgment in telling you or saying such to anyone while you were in his presence."

McQueen sighed. He thought carefully how to say the next words so that she wouldn't get beyond angry with him. His curiosity, normally so compliant, was rearing its head. "May I ask why you didn't mention it to anybody out side of him?"

Maria's eyes bored into him.

"For reasons of national security, I am not at liberty to discuss my past with anyone except the doctor who attends to me as required. When he does, I am only to give what he needs to know in regards to my condition health-wise." She saw McQueen nod and modified her tone a little. He was trying to make amends. It wasn't the first time someone had asked her about her past. There had been Hawkes, but he wasn't even told enough to fill a thimble as far as her past while they were on Ixen. Or when they were in the smoking area this morning.

"Sometimes, I would like nothing better than to be able to bring it out but I can't. Right now, I'm already under the microscope for Ixen."

McQueen sat back. Too true. He wouldn't ask about the flag. Or the saddle. She had already said enough and the last thing he wanted was to cause her to be kicked off the 'Saratoga'. "If you ever do want to talk, you can count on my discretion. I have not told anybody about what I heard about your lungs outside of yourself."

Maria nodded and tried to stomach more of the food on her plate as McQueen got up and left.

Flight Deck- 1656 Hours

The 58th scrambled into their cockpits without their Colonel leading the way. Instead, Vansen saw her commander squatting by West's cockpit. Watched as Maria patted West on the shoulder then moved over to Hawkes. Said unheard words to him. Unheard with the din of activity in the flightdeck's confines.

Hawkes looked up at Maria. He gave a small grin. It was his first time back in his cockpit and it felt good for him. He felt like a fifth wheel the whole time he was recovering.

"Keep on Vansen's wing. It's not going to be easy this time." Maria watched him nod and grinned back. She knocked fists with him before getting up. "Have a good flight."

The Colonel rose and met Vansen's gaze. She nodded and left the flight deck before the doors closed.

The Bridge

Commodore Ross frowned as the static hit the radio. It echoed about the entire bridge before it got cut off. He looked down at the radioman, who turned and shrugged his shoulders. Then, another channel. The 58th's.

"…Pull up, Owens! Pull up!" Vansen's voice made Maria's head snap up. She could almost envision what the Captain was seeing outside her cockpit window.

"I can't. I…" More static hit the speakers and fried dead. An explosion in the vacuum of space. One Hammerhead less. One of her squadron-mates gone forever. Goddamnit!

Maria gritted her teeth with lips closed. The 58th had its first casualty since Paul Wang bought it in "Roundhammer". She glanced at the LIDAR. Chigs were swarming everywhere. What a clusterfuck!

A few Chigs made it through the squadrons to bear down on the 'Saratoga'. Hammerheads belatedly screaming after them to protect their homebase. Now things were getting hot. Tri-wing guns ripped through sections of the ship. The jolts were felt even on the bridge. Shudders through the tons of metal that comprised the 'Saratoga'.

"Get those guns on them!" Ross bellowed as the ship let loose with fire on the Enemy just outside.

The 'Saratoga's' guns blazed as fire/damage reports blared over the comm. from all sections of the ship.

Maria never felt so useless. She desperately wanted to issue forth orders to protect the ship and her squadron but couldn't. She could do nothing but hope like hell the guns and her people would do their jobs. Had to trust others to keep her ass alive.

Flight Deck

When the cockpits returned, Carson and Owens slots remained empty. The Chigs that got through to the ship itself got blasted out of the stars. However, the damage they left in their wake had been sizeable.

Maria watched the return of her squadron through the glass before the doors opened. Once they did, she went onto the deck and stopped by Vansen's cockpit.

"Damn hornet's nest!" Vansen growled and looked up at her. Then muttered self-consciously. "Sorry, sir."

Maria nodded grimly. Thankfully, the damage to the ship didn't incapacitate it. She gently squeezed the Captain's shoulder.

"The 'Saratoga' will be returning to Earth for repairs and a refit. Word came down when you guys were landing." She saw Shane look down and helped the woman get out of her cockpit. There would be the damn letters to write to Carson and Owens's families back on Earth. It was a job she hated like hell to do. Then there was the gathering of their personal possessions in boxes to likewise take back to Earth.

The 'Saratoga' would be returning for repairs and upgrades. The word had come through right after the battle. One of the upgrades was to be a version of the cloaking device AeroTech had found on her ship. Their gutting and reverse engineering had produced results in that area. 'Saratoga' would be the first guinea pig they would work on. After everyone recovered, the 'Toga' would return. God only knew how long the recovery would take.

Aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise- Yulen Sector

Fleet Admiral Martens looked over the confidential request from AeroTech and scowled. He had expected this. First, the fuckers murder everyone on that shuttle save those two with their half-ass thaw-out from hypersleep. Then they tear apart the goddamn shuttle to bits for 'reverse engineering'. Now, they realize that they haven't been able to access the shuttle's log and they want Strasser to do it for them when she comes back during the 'Saratoga's' shore leave for the shielding installation. He looked into the whorls in the hardwood top of his desk and heard the pleasant chime of his antique mantle clock as it struck the half-hour.

How the fuck had they.. No, they always pull the goddamn strings. Hayden is their bought dog and she's bucking for total control of all Earth Forces. Control that would supercede all authority American commanders would have over their men. It would even replace the control the President was supposed to have. Things were in place for all U.S. forces to take that damnable 'oath of loyalty' to the U.N. and Hayden as C-in-C unless something was done fast. It was at a point where the Congress and Senate would be hog-tied from stopping it if they tried to oppose it.

Martens rose from his desk and went to the huge window that looked out onto the expanse of the 'Enterprise' and the vastness of space. In his gut he knew that there would be no easy way to get Maria Strasser to take that oath. It showed in the 'questioning' logs. She despised the U.N. and hated any authority they might hold. Her man, Olfetsky, was the same way. It was one reason why he was pushing the Joint Chiefs so hard about her. She might be the one foil the U.S. would have for the mandated 'oath of loyalty' now in the works. Before it all got to be too late to maintain American command of American forces.

Martens pushed the button to talk to his aide. "Will, would you please come in here?"

The Fleet Admiral had some things to do.

U.S.S. Saratoga- in Earth orbit
Two Weeks Later

The 'Saratoga' had painfully limped to Earth and made its way into the space dry-docks. A patient at the hospital. Once moored, shuttles approached to take some of her crew down to Earth to spend the two weeks of shore leave that repairs and upgrades would require.

In the quarters of the 58th Vansen, Damphousse, West and Collins packed their away bags for the brief respites at home. West was going to stay with his parents. Vansen was going to see her sisters and her sister's new baby. Then she and West were going to team up and go to Chicago. They would meet Paul Wang's parents for the first time and offer their belated sympathies. Damphousse was going to see her fiancée and Collins was going to his family.

It left Hawkes watching them. Once, Colonel McQueen asked him what Hawkes was going down to Earth to do. Hawkes couldn't respond. He still couldn't, even now.

No family, no friends, only a world that hated Tanks in all forms they came in. He knew the Colonel was going down to see his ex-wife and get a checkup on his prosthetic leg. Hawkes knew that because McQueen had already intercepted him when shore leave was announced. As for Colonel Strasser, Hawkes knew nothing of her plans. Scuttlebutt said she was going down too but nobody knew why. No speculation was made about it though. Everyone was too excited about seeing friends and family they hadn't seen in a few years.

Hawkes sighed and got up to leave his crewmates to their packing.

Col. Strasser's quarters

The away bag was nearly packed for the trip back to the surface. Maria came back with another shirt and tucked it in neatly.

Fleet Admiral Martens had invited her to stay at his rancho outside of Flagstaff for the two weeks she would be down. He himself was somewhere in the Yulen sector and could not be there. He had spoken of AeroTech's desire to talk again to Maria. To see if she divulge any more of the technology of her time. To pry more out of her. Wanted her to access the shuttle's logs. She refused.

Martens understood. AeroTech was pissed. They had already adapted the shielding system for battleships and carriers that had been aboard the simple ship she was found in. Reverse engineering had proven a windfall to the geeks and greedy at AeroTech. Now they wanted more. They seemingly wanted to see how she and the rest had gotten back here. Not that Maria herself wasn't curious. It was just that she didn't want them horning in on the matter.

Maria looked at her away bag and frowned. She'd have to buy boots in Phoenix. She'd wanted to locate an authentic bootmaker that could reproduce her high-topped cavalry boots from the 1860s but there wouldn't be time.

Hawkes! Shit! Got to let him know. She leaned over to zip up her bag as she heard a knock at her open hatch.


Speak of the devil. "Come in, Hawkes. I wanted to talk to you before I get on the shuttle. What are your plans for the next two weeks?"

"Nothing. Tanks don't have lives down there." Hawkes said and was met by Maria's stare.

"Bullshit. I want you to grab the shuttle to Earth in two day's time. Once on planet, I want you to catch this flight to Phoenix from Atlanta. I'll pick you up after you land." Maria grabbed the E-ticket for him off her dresser and gave it to him.

Hawkes looked at it in his hands.

"You are going to a rancho outside of Flagstaff. You ever ridden a horse?"

"No, sir." Hawkes mumbled. He wasn't sure about this. Horse? He didn't know how and animal like that would react with him on their back. Why was she asking him to do this? What did she care?

"You ARE coming down. Get used to it and have your stuff with you. I want to see your sorry ass getting off that flight in Phoenix."

Maria put a stop to his doubts right off. "You'll have fun. A friend of mine owns the rancho. He wants you to come along."

"Look, sir, I don't want to intrude."

"He's in the Yulen sector so he can't make it. You will be coming in his place. He just doesn't want any wild beer parties while we're there." No, Hawkes, you are not going to mope up here like some sad-ass puppy. Your being an In-Vitro be damned.

Hawkes finally had to nod. He was shot down in his attempt to stay alone aboard the 'Saratoga'. "Alright."

"Settled then." Maria said with finality and Hawkes was left speechless. He did have plans down on the surface.

Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania

Tyrus McQueen hadn't wanted to see Carol's old house but he had to. Ever since he'd lost his leg and she'd visited. Things left unsaid that he wanted to say. To see if there wasn't a way to mend what had been ripped from him, and them, long ago.

He pulled up the circular driveway and cut the engine. Blue eyes scanned the place. She'd kept it up nicely. She always did. She had her 'appearances' to maintain to all her natural-born friends.

Getting out, he stood on the crushed stone and walked to the front door. The mail had been delivered. A letter had fallen out of the old style mailbox and lay on the ground. A card by the looks of it. He picked it up and glanced at the name. His heart stopped as his eyes digested the name.

Mr. and Mrs. Tim and Carol Stimson

Then his heart froze. So that was the reason why she hadn't responded to any of his letters. Had been so fleeting at the hospital and so reluctant to talk to him about what was going on in her life. Almost like she were afraid of saying too much. Only wanted to make sure he was alive.

Stepping up to the box he unknowingly kicked a brown paper-wrapped box. Its happy label from the Gerber Company told him that it was full of samples for baby formula. He was going to reach down to reposition it and now he didn't. Carol was married and pregnant. Her dreams came true. For McQueen, his dreams had crashed and burned in seconds.

Controlling his breathing as anger surged forth; Tyrus Cassius McQueen deftly put the letter back in the box where it had fallen from. He turned and left without a further word.

Carol and her husband were not home to see him leave. Neither of them would ever know that her ex-husband had been there.

A chapter of his life had closed. Abruptly. Against his wishes it was gone and was no more. The last hope flickered and died. Now all that was left was the cooling embers and smoke of defeat. McQueen turned over the car's engine and left the driveway in front of the house without hesitation. All he wanted now was to drive.

Anywhere would be fine.

Rancho de Las Chupparosas (Hummingbird Ranch), Arizona- Four days later

It was a Spanish colonial style ranch house. It was set back on a good 30 acres of apricot orchards. It boasted about 50 head of horses, barns, outbuildings, a pool and miles of undisturbed tranquility. The desert scrub rounded out the acreage to a total of 500 acres.

The caretaker's house was set near the gate so he could see anyone trying to enter the property. A small adobe place. Far from imposing but easily an early warning for the main house up and over a gentle ridge. Hector Salinas got the word about the female colonel from Don Miguel a few weeks ago and was told to regard her as he did the owner he worked for. He didn't regret treating her as he did Don Miguel. She was kind and very much a soldier. Two things Hector liked right off the bat. A day ago she had brought one of her junior officers from her unit to stay out here with her. An In-Vitro.

Where that would irritate most it did not irritate Hector. He himself was an In-Vitro. He thought she might not like him for being so.

She didn't mind and brought a man whom she referred to as a 'friend' to stay here instead of alone up in Earth orbit on a half-deserted carrier while it got refit. Hector knew this woman was far from any natural-born he'd ever known. He hadn't detected one lick of prejudice towards In-Vitros in any way.

Now Hector waved to Senora Maria as she rode 'Prince' out to the borders of the rancho for her afternoon ride. Her friend, Cooper, wanted to help in the orchards with Hector's adopted son, Pascal. Hector's wife, Irena, was busy up at the house getting dinner ready for serving in less than two hours from now. She was another Hispanic-blooded In-Vitro.

Hector watched the happy unity of horse and rider as she rode off towards the front acres. He'd thought that the blood bay stallion would never be tamed. Maria had done that in less than a day when she was first introduced to the herd. She could pick from any of them and Prince was it. He watched the dainty prance of the horse as he took the Colonel away from Hector's sight and smiled. He hadn't been happy that Don Miguel had invited a complete stranger here initially. Now though, Maria and Cooper felt like part of a family he felt like he'd always known.

Maria rode Prince to the bluff that overlooked the entrance to the rancho and stopped. She then guided the animal down the bank towards the bottom, gently urging him with her voice. He responded willingly and brought her to the bottom without incident. The small cloud of dust made on descent dispersed in the warm breeze. She stroked his hot neck and watched the road a moment. Listened to him champ on his ornate Spanish bit and shake his mane. Only the lightest hand could be used and Maria knew well how from over 150 years in the Army horse cavalry.

Her eyes squinted as Prince shifted under her. A snaking trail of dust.


Maria sat on Prince as the dusty car made its way past the two arroyos and came up towards them. She pulled the 30.06 from the scabbard and held it ready. It's barrel glinting in the sun, its scope dark and menacing atop the weapon. She wasn't to ride without a rifle to scare away coyotes and pumas. It was also helpful, Hector said, for the occasional two-legged variety of vermin that sometimes ignored the postings to tempt fate to approach. Prince fidgeted under her as the car came close and stopped. His neck arched proudly with the Arab blood in his veins. Tail swishing in the light breeze.

She recognized the short silver hair and steely blue eyes from behind the dusty windshield and nudged Prince to walk up beside the car's side window. The rifle's barrel pointed off to the odd-side. Away from that window. Nimble hooves nearly brought her leg into contact with the side of the car but didn't. Prince handled being so close to the running vehicle extremely well.

Why the hell was he here? She hadn't spoken to him hardly at all since he'd apologized in the 'Toga's Officers Mess.

Tyrus McQueen looked up at her. He looked like a man who had driven non-stop without sleep, eat, or time to think. Looked like he really didn't want to think if he could help it. He hadn't wanted to intrude but this was the only place that he knew he would be welcome. Twenty-six straight hours, stopping only for gas, and burning the highways when there were no police about. Alone that long with his memories, tears and regrets.

Then it happened outside of Pueblo, Colorado. Happened that there was silence as the pain retreated and the tears stopped. From then on, he just drove to this rancho outside of Flagstaff. He hadn't expected to see her so close to the borders of the property. Hadn't expected the gorgeous animal she rode on with the ease of one born to a saddle. Hadn't expected to see her so soon. Almost like she had been waiting.

He knew she hadn't but the coincidence was unnerving. Now all he could do was to withstand her scrutiny for coming here. Tried to not look into the olive green eyes that peered from underneath the woven straw hat Maria wore to keep the sun off her head. Wondered if he would be welcome. Their military relationship aboard the 'Saratoga' meant nothing here. Or did it?

Looking down from her perch on the horse's back, she shoved the rifle back in its scabbard. She saw the shorebag in the back seat. He was supposed to be in Pennsylvania. To see his ex. At least it was what she'd heard. Also to have his false leg looked over.

Well, too late to turn away. Either for him or me. Nothing was said between them as she nodded at him to follow her down the road to the ranch house. Her heel tapped Prince's side and the horse twirled in the direction of the house with fluid grace. The man was in need of rest and peace. She knew that without any words. Prince's canter went into a ground-chewing lope. She settled into the swift rhythm of the animal. Not unlike her beloved Shetan was this horse that flew into gaits at the lightest touch. All at once, Maria was happy to be again on the back of a horse but concerned for the man that followed behind in the car.

After dinner

The evening was starting to chill as the two colonels sat out on the porch and watched the crackling pinon fire in the tile-lined pit. After the fine dinner of carne asada they all enjoyed was this time of rest and quiet talk.

Maria wiped off another full Corona bottle and popped the cap on it. Her stomach was in fine shape tonight. Especially after the nausea she normally had blessedly left for a while. McQueen's present episode struck a chord in her. Only three men ever got close enough for her to marry in nearly 400 years of life. All three were unique in that their honor towards her was inviolate. Now McQueen felt violated. Maria knew how it felt to be betrayed but by lesser men than the three she'd married. Those lesser men paid dearly afterwards. She sympathized with his situation. Carol was definitely not the caliber of woman he needed in his life.

Cooper had been surprised to see McQueen at dinner but knew there were reasons he'd best leave alone. He suspected that the two colonels had some things to discuss and begged off to go to bed early.

Now the two were sitting alone- Maria with her Coronas in a bucket of ice and her cigarettes and McQueen with a bottle of Scotch half polished off.

"She didn't say a word the whole time you were in recovery?"


Maria sighed and took a long drink of beer. "Damn cold of her. The least courtesy would have been to let you know."

McQueen looked down. His voice had been quiet all night. "I didn't know where else to go. I thought about driving north but recalled that I'd heard from the Commodore where you would be."

"Don't mind it. You are welcome here." Maria knew Ross and Martens were friends from a good ways back. There would have been no way the Commodore would NOT have known where his Colonel of the 58th would be down on surface. McQueen would have to know as well for emergency purposes. She looked out to see the moon clear the mountain ridge. It was bright and full tonight. "Ah, Luna has come to see us at last."

McQueen looked out at the moon as well. The smell of the burning pinon was making him sleepy.

It was almost time to turn in. Maria saluted old Luna and polished off another bottle of beer.

"May I ask how you know the Fleet Admiral?" McQueen asked quietly. Recalling the ease with which she rode one of the man's finest stallions. One with a notorious temper. The image of the ornate saddle in her quarters came to his mind.

"Not at liberty to discuss it, Ty." Maria said firmly. "We are friends, though."

The statement did not surprise McQueen. He knew there were reasons for privacy there as well. The use of the shortened version of his first name connoted something around being friendly but not at ease to discuss the matter. Former lovers?

Ty thought that for a moment then dismissed it. No way in hell that was possible. Maria Strasser was not the Admiral's kind. McQueen had a hard time imagining her in any sort of female dress. She was made for a uniform and had the aura that said 'command' to go with it. That was aside from the fact of how unusual she was for any woman Ty had ever known- officers and otherwise. Just the way her personality was did not resonate frilly femininity. She had a female quality; it was just that it didn't blare when people met her. The Admiral occasionally decorated his arm with eye candy and Maria was not the type or look. She was in a unique class from them. If she were male, she would be a minor-grade general or admiral at the very least at her age. A gender-biased thought but it was still very much the truth in the present American military.

His next question came from a much deeper place than the first. A question he'd been burning to ask since Ixen since he saw her hauling Hawkes, an InVitro like him, on her back to safety. McQueen had seen way too many instances of where 'Natural Borns' would have gladly NOT taken such a risk. Instances like Port Riskin and the hellhole of Omicron Draconis that still haunted what few dreams he had at night.

"Why do you associate with us InVitros?"

Maria tried hard not to choke on her beer as she sat up and looked at this man with flashing eyes. "Is there a reason I should not?"

Why was he asking this? He must know I have no prejudice against any of them! Damn but this was shades of what Hawkes had asked her down on Ixen. Shades of 'counsel' given to her shortly after they had brought her back from hypersleep to not associate with 'untrustworthy' InVitros. Whispered advice to NOT trust 'that Tank McQueen' once she got aboard the 'Saratoga'.

McQueen noted her reaction of shock and anger and felt relieved. "You must know the many prejudices against InVitros."

"Which I could give a shit less about. Why the hell would you think I wouldn't want to associate with you when you are as much a human as myself?"

Maria took a deep breath and calmed the angry emotions at her friendship with him being questioned because it might be 'politically-incorrect' in some eyes.

"I regard both you and Hawkes as my friends. I don't give a damn how either of you came into this world." Maria sat back in her chair and took a deep swig of beer. Allowed the calmness of the night to bring her back from her agitation to serenity.

McQueen poured himself another shot of scotch and looked off to the stars on this clear night. Casually wondering why he couldn't have met someone like Maria before Carol ever entered his life to mess it up. Thoughts best left unsaid to the woman who drank her Corona and smoked yet another cigarette.

Morning- 0530 Hours

Maria poured herself a cup of coffee as Cooper came into the kitchen bleary-eyed. She left the pot out for him. Adding sugar and cream, she left them out as well for him. "Morning, Cooper."

Hawkes nodded, eyed the coffeepot and grabbed a mug.

The morning broke chilly and cloudy. As Hawkes looked out the window he saw a splotch of rain hit the glass. Then another. There would be no work in the orchards this morning but there was a bowl of apricots to be had. The first fruits of the season before the rest went to markets in Flagstaff, Prescott and Phoenix. Even some would get to Tucson if there were enough.

Maria ambled off to the family room to take a seat and turn on the TV. Volume kept low so McQueen could have the sleep that had eluded him for the past few days. Mail would arrive later that morning and Maria hoped there was nothing from AeroTech in it. Already a few pieces for her found her at this address in the past few days. Ones promptly thrown into the fireplace and burned without having been read.

It was simple. They wanted to pick her brains like they were doing to the shuttle she'd been on. They wanted to totally dissect her head and grope through the logs of that shuttle with her help.

After twenty minutes of watching the tube and drinking her coffee, Maria sat up to pull her boots on. "I'm going down to the stables. Let me know if any calls come through."

McQueen's eyes opened to the early morning twilight. No alarm had woken him. Only the faint chirping of birds and scattered drum of rain on the roof over his bedroom. He could see the dark gray sky outside. A clap of thunder that rumbled outside followed a brief flash of light. He had to admit that the Fleet Admiral had it plush way out here. No noise, no traffic, no people except for those already here. Insulated. Serene. His mind echoed with the dream he'd had before waking up. One that he would privately relish after the random thought or two about Strasser last night as they sat on the patio drinking. Rather nice after all this time. It was the first dream he'd ever had of her. Even after the random thoughts while on the 'Saratoga'. Shaking his head, he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He looked at his prosthetic leg and sighed. Really, there was no need to hide it here. Not like on the ship. He could still felt the pounding of his heart from the very pleasant dream he'd woken from. Rising to his feet, he grabbed the light bathrobe he'd brought and threw it on before going out to the kitchen. On the way he saw Cooper watching the news.

"More riots." Cooper commented about the latest news.

McQueen nodded and picked up a copy of the local Flagstaff paper off the counter. The riots against In-Vitros were plastered all over the front page. A brief scan told him that they were mainly confined to the east and west coasts. "Where's the Colonel?"

"Out to tend to the horses with Hector."

McQueen looked out the window and down the hill to the stables. The lights were glowing in the buildings even through the rain.

Maria filled the grain boxes as the horses placidly munched away in their stalls. She already mucked-out one side of the whole stable. The familiar smells of horse, manure, grain, hay and leather permeated the whole building. Not unlike the old cavalry days. Hauling the bucket out of the brown's stall she paused to pet "Gotham's" nose as he stuck it out at her. The white horse nickered at her.

"Yes, good morning."

She said gently. This horse would be the one for McQueen. An older gelding but suited to a man she suspected hadn't really ridden in quite a while. If ever. Walking down the aisles, she stopped by the grain bin and filled the small bucket with more grain as Hector entered. "Buenos Dias, Hector. How are you?"

"Buenos Dias, Senora. We had some company last night." Hector said, hanging his poncho and grabbing a wheelbarrow and rake to muck out the other side of the stables.

"Visitors? Who?"

"The assholes from AeroTech. I recognize their cars right off. They stopped at the gate, looked around then left." Hector was not pleased.

"What time?"

"About two or three this morning. I thought to call you at the house but did not want them to have positive ID that you were here." Hector paused and continued. "Don Miguel said none of them were to set foot past the gate out there. I will be calling the policia later this morning."

"Do. They should at least have called first. This is private property." Maria said, opening Gotham's stall door and giving him his oats for the day.

Irena was already cooking when Maria came in and dropped her boots by the kitchen door. Odors of eggs and bacon hit her nose. Her stomach turned as she walked in sock feet over to the table with its large bowl of fruit chunks. Maybe that would stay down better.

Scooping a few into a bowl, she padded back towards the TV set and saw Hawkes and McQueen still watching the news. A prominent advocate for In-Vitro rights had been slain in Houston. Her bloodied body was paraded like a trophy on screen as the news story went on. Chanting crowds jubilant before police in riot gear barged in. Maria watched it then turned from the TV to go back out into the kitchen.

"Ugly. All this violence." Irena commented.

"Ignorance is contagious with many people. It is more convenient than finding out the truth about things." Maria smiled at the woman.

"Good morning, Irena."

The woman smiled and nodded. "You want some?" She pointed to what she was cooking.

Maria held up her bowl of fruit and Irena shook her head.

"Bad stomach again?"

Maria nodded and proceeded to eat her fruit and read the paper.

Flagstaff- Two days later

The owner of Mel's Market hadn't counted on intercepting these two men out in the store. Dark suits and asking questions of his customers now. Then again, a lot in Mel Owens' life changed after the death of his daughter. Mel phoned a buddy of his with the Flagstaff Police and went out to kindly ask that they leave. His buddy would be pulling up in a squad car any time now. He watched as they pestered Mrs. Crawford and went up to them with all the courage and grit that an ex-Marine like him had. At least he'd still kept in-shape.

"Gentlemen, you are requested to leave my store." He saw both of them turn and was not impressed. Fuck! What are they doing here and pestering my customers?

"Have you seen this woman?"

Mel took one look at the photo and looked back at them. "No. You aren't going to find her here so just leave." Truth told, he'd seen her the other day.

Her late daughter's C.O. who had been forced to sit-out the battle her daughter was killed in, due to previous injuries. She was staying out at the Admiral's place with two In-Vitro officers. It was an unexpected relief to get how his daughter died from the C.O. rather than a pat form letter. He'd also been told about these fuckheads and their sniffing around. Mel Owens hated AeroTech as much as the fucking United Nations.

"Are you sure?"

At least they aren't fucking silicates. Those bastards could sniff out anything. "Yes, I'm sure. Leave!" He noted Phil walk in with three of his patrolmen. Hands on their sidearms when they saw his defensive posture.

McQueen observed the incident as he walked past the meat aisle and stayed concealed behind the row of canned vegetables. His blue eyes turned to flint as he looked at the two, obviously AeroTech types. What the hell did they want with her?

Maria saw the car's approach from a far field and nudged Prince to gallop. Something in the way it was being driven had told her that the 58th's old C.O. had news from in town. Prince slowed to a walk as the man got out of the car, then stopped at the side of the fence next to the house.

"You got people looking for you."

Maria's jaw clenched and she nodded. "AeroTech?" Again?!

An affirmative nod told her everything. She was about to respond when Irena came out of the door.

"Colonel, there is a call for you. Priority. From the Admiral."

Maria dismounted, led Prince to the fence and tied the reins there. "What room?"

"His study, Senora."

She glanced at McQueen and disappeared into the house.

The Admiral's Study

Maria sat down at the Admiral's oak desk and punched in her access code and swiped her security card through the scanner. Fleet Admiral Marten's face came up grainy but the sound was good. Even through the bad picture, Martens looked worn-out.

"Yes, Admiral?"

"News for you, Colonel. You need to return to the 'Saratoga'. Seems AeroTech is having trouble with the cloaking device they have adapted for the ship." The Admiral was obviously in no mood for casual chatting.


"I just got word on them. They want more from you but this is separate from that. You got Colonel McQueen down there?"

"Came in two days ago."

The Fleet Admiral's face was relieved. He had been wondering where the man had gone. He was supposed to be in Pennsylvania. Even had called Bethesda to find him. Damn near came close to putting out an APB on him. He wasn't surprised that McQueen homed-in on a fellow 'Saratoga' officer. Was just surprised that it wasn't Glen. "Colonel, you may think this hasty but I want you to get him in here. I want you to be present as well. Can you trust him if I divulge a little about you? I'll suspect that you'll want some help and he'll need some coherent reasons for what and why I've told you."


"Yessir." Maria turned, got up and opened the door. "Colonel McQueen, the Admiral wants a word with you." Her voice carried well into the hallway and into the rest of the house.

He came to through the door in a scant minute and Maria shut the door behind him. They were now both present.

"Colonel McQueen, what I'm about to say stays in this room. An incident has developed aboard the 'Saratoga' with the new anti-LIDAR device AeroTech is installing. Colonel Strasser knows about this device and how to get it up and running. Colonel McQueen, I want you to assist her in whatever she needs done. Any rank lower than you is not to be trusted with this assignment and I know I can count on you for confidentiality. I am reactivating your rank for this matter until such time as it is not needed and you can return to being an advisor."

"Yessir." McQueen looked at Maria out of the corner of his eye.

"Colonel McQueen, I also want one more thing of you. Since I am not there personally to keep the AeroTech geeks from pestering Colonel Strasser, I am giving you authority, from me, to keep them at bay any way you see fit." Martens saw the look of question on McQueen's face. Even though it was light years away on a hyperchannel.

"Colonel Strasser is, in reality, a General. A six-star General. More importantly, she is not from this place or time. This makes your job protecting her vital since AeroTech is getting desperate to get at her. I have this information from my own sources on Earth. They are close to taking extreme measures to get at her. The concern is that they may use force to interrogate her for the knowledge she has. I want you to be her 'shadow' until you both get back on the 'Saratoga' and get away from there. Commodore Ross is aware of the situation as well. You needn't be concerned about him not knowing."

Maria willed her face to remain detached. Great. Now all he'll recognize is the fact I got stars up the ass and not regard me as a human being anymore. That and like I can't defend myself from attack. She clasped her hands behind her back.

"What I have told you, Colonel McQueen is all that you need to know at this time. One thing I want made very clear- this is NOT bullshit and it is my direct order to you."

"You may count on me, sir."

Martens looked a little up. On his end, trying to catch Maria's face. "I have a chopper flying out for you two. It should be there in a half-hour. Both of you pack your gear."

"Sir, Lieutenant Hawkes is down here as well. Would you like him to also return to the 'Saratoga'?" McQueen spoke up. His head was spinning with the news.

"At this time, it is up to him. He's welcome to stay at the rancho if he can stay out of trouble." Martens gave a slight smile. He knew there wouldn't be any such trouble.

"Very well."

"You both take care of yourself. Get the 'Toga up and running. I need you folks out here. Martens out."

Maria watched the Fleet Admiral's face disappear to black. She left the room before McQueen could even get up or turn to talk to her.

She was packing her gear into her bag when McQueen entered and shut the door behind him. She knew it was he by his footsteps. It brought an ache into her. She would have preferred letting him and the Commodore know at her leisure. Now that was all shot to hell.

"What is Hawkes's decision?" Her tone tried to come out cold but couldn't.

"He's going to remain down here until he receives his summons to return." McQueen saw Maria pause, then continue packing. He wanted to speak but couldn't. Knew that she hadn't wanted this to be made known to him. What the hell was she afraid of if he did know?

"Why were you hiding it?"

She turned to him and looked at him straight in his eyes. "Take a guess. How would you react if you were a five-star General or any grade of officer and you just found out some woman who is not even of this time and place was suddenly your superior?" Maria watched his reaction.

"My rank is not 'bona-fide' until they dissect every goddamn piece of my ship, its logs, even the damn uniform I was wearing in hypersleep. Even then, I suspect there are some awfully pissed-off people in the military. The Fleet Admiral is the only high-ranking officer who accepts me for who I truly am. His approval alone won't help if I have so many jackasses of flag rank against me."

McQueen thought a moment about her words.

Maria turned. "I hadn't wanted you and the Commodore to find out like this. I wanted the ability, the freedom to inform you both in my own way in time."

"I'm not blinded your stars." McQueen said firmly. He knew she wasn't angry with the Admiral. It was more for the situation she was thrust into because of AeroTech's meddling. For being put into a situation that was taxing to a degree unimaginable by him or anyone.

Maria turned and looked at McQueen's set face. His blue eyes were glinting warmly. Warmly? What have I said to make them that way?

"I do so hope that is true. I have never wanted to be an adversary to you. All I have here is the 58th, the Commodore, the Admiral, you and the 'Saratoga'. I have no family, no relatives and the only friend from my time who knows me has been yanked away from me. I don't mind the War. Being a soldier is the only thing I really know how to do after all this time. To be of service to my country. Aside from that, I have damned little that has been left me. Especially now."

Indeed her best attempts to hide herself had been taken away to leave her vulnerable. It glaringly showed her and him just how alone she was here. The wall that had been up was now, abruptly, down for him. A confession for the months of silence, secrecy and guarded thoughts she'd tried to obscure from him. Not fair, she knew, but how else could it be when your very essence of who you were had to be "approved" by outsiders? When who you were and are breathed such rarified air as she once had and lived in that rare environment for hundreds of years? It was not the rank or power she missed. It was the identity she carved for herself over all that time. Now, she had to go about rebuilding it all and without the benefit of time if she were to aid in winning Earth's current war against the Chigs and their Empire. Maria's shoulders sagged. She couldn't move. Her eyes..her eyes began to tear.

McQueen could plainly see the extreme loneliness come forward. Normally so well hidden, it was out here for him to see. He recognized it in himself. It was the way he felt in the whole drive from Pennsylvania to Arizona. The way he'd felt for years since the divorce from Carol. Without an anchor and adrift until the 58th came into his life. He had his anchor now. He didn't know if she had one here or, if she did, where it was.

McQueen closed the gap between them. Wanted to embrace her. Wanted to soothe the loneliness he saw and recognized. But not before he saw the wall go up once again in her eyes and face. He stepped away as implacable coldness swept across Maria's features. Completely unsure if it was even wise to be near her now. Never had he seen such a reaction overtake anyone he knew.

The vulnerability once again stopped and locked down, she turned to pack the last of her clothes into the soft-sided duffel and zipped it up. The sound of a distant helicopter coming nearer to the rancho. She eyed Hector who came in slightly after knocking on the door and opening it.


"Hector, please put Prince away for me. The Colonel and I have to leave immediately. Hawkes will be staying down here until his shore leave is up." Her words came out precise and clipped of any real affection. She didn't hate Hector, it was just that duty called and anything else had to come second. Her hard, olive green eyes looked at McQueen. "Better grab your gear. We got our ride to get to."

Not waiting for Tyrus McQueen to respond or act, Maria Strasser briskly walked out with the command she had for nearly all of her life. It left him adrift in its wake.

Next : Part 4 - Cloak Of Stars

Previous : Part 2 - Wingman

Back : To General Fiction