DISCLAIMER: The characters and premise of 'Space: Above and Beyond' are the legal property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Hard Eight Production and 20th Century Fox Television and have been used without permission; no copyright infringement is intended. The 88th 'Firebirds' Royal Malaysian Marine Squadron is a fan squadron, and their name is used with their permission.

The members of 487 Squadron RNZAC, 74 Squadron RAF, and any other characters you don't recognise from S:AAB canon are my creation and may not be used without my permission. The attitudes, beliefs and any prejudices the characters may exhibit are peculiar to them, and do not necessarily reflect my own.

The BC-45 Hurricane/SF-37 Mustang is my own invention; if you decide to borrow it, please credit me with its creation.

RATING: R, for strong language and wartime violence.

Shards Of Fire


Danyel Woods


Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
Russian proverb.

The problem is telling one from the other.
Section Captain M. N. Devlin, 487 Squadron.

Echo Landing Deck, HMS Defender
Holding orbit, Groombridge-34 Naval Base
1628Z, 7 December 2064

'Ghost' Devlin pulled his head out of his Hurricane's port wheel-well, glancing over at his crew chief. "How's that, Ski?"

Joe Zabrowski ducked his own head into the gear-bay. "Yeah, that should do it - at least until we can get a full overhaul for these crates."

The pilot nodded his understanding, raking back his unruly dark hair without a thought to the grime on his hands. "They'll do that when we get back Earthside, or so Rose tells me."

Ski laughed harshly. "We've got to get there first, sir."

Ghost couldn't help letting out a wry snort of his own; he understood, but didn't *entirely* share, his crew-chief's cynicism. "Yeah, well, God willing and the guns don't jam, d'you hear there?"

"Yes, sir. Now go on, get the hell outta here and clean up."

The young man looked down at his uniform. Originally plain grey, it currently looked like a study in Rorschach blots, having collected various stains from oil, grease, and hydraulic-fluid while he was hunting around in his fighter's innards. "Yeah - I'm not exactly a movie-star template, am I? Thanks for the over-time, Ski."

"Not a problem, sir."

Patting the Hurricane's flank with the absent affection of a jockey caressing a favourite horse, Ghost headed for the hangar-door.

He was halfway there when a medium-tall blonde woman appeared around the frame and leaned against it, her arms crossed. "You do realise that Gabe's gonna have your guts for garters, don't you?"

"Look who's talking, Wedge," Ghost smiled, raising an eyebrow: her standard-issue three-shades-grey camouflage flight-suit was eminently practical, but hardly flashy enough for meeting the darlings of Uncle Sam's Misguided Children. "More simulator time?"

"Mail hasn't caught up with us, so I didn't have much else to do," she grinned in return. "C'mon, you'd better change before Rose spots you. Can't have our top ace killed and buried looking like the wreck-of-the-Hesperus."

Nodding as he conceded the point, Ghost fell into step beside her as she headed for Aviator Country.

The corridors were busier than they had been just a week ago. Defender's losses from the last convoy had been made up in the first three frenetic days of this stopover: replacement pilots and aircraft had flown on, and the two more severely damaged squadrons had been traded for relatively fresh Malaysian and Luftwaffe formations. The mix of other personnel bustling about the converted freighter was pretty eclectic, too: repair crews and engineers, normal maintenance personnel, munitions and fuel handlers - their numbers swelled by personnel from the Groombridge garrison. Those who recognised the two Kiwis gave them a respectful amount of room to pass through; those didn't know them were most often dragged to one side by those who did.

Anyone not acquainted with them would have picked Wedge for a fighter pilot even without the flight-suit: she had a slender grace that a ballerina would have killed for, an expressive face, and a confident bearing that challenged anyone to doubt her ability. The same observer would have been forgiven for mistaking Ghost for a misplaced supply officer: though he was a fraction taller than his friend, and built like a marathon runner, his regular-but-unremarkable features and quiet, unassuming demeanour made one wonder where he'd left his clipboard. Numerous pilots, even many who had heard the legends about him, had made the mistake of underestimating him based on his good-natured reserve. Such illusions never lived past the first sim-duel - or 'attitude correction'.

"You in for poker later?" Wedge asked as they reached the door to his quarters.

"Depends on the stakes." He winced as he thought of the last time he'd taken her on at cards; how she'd managed to draw the precise card to complete her inside straight-flush he still didn't know, but that improbable event had cost him fifty dollars.

"We're going easy on you this time: fifty-cent ante, max bet ten bucks."

"Who's 'we'? You and Kermit?" Somehow, the In Vitro medic had sharked him for another hundred that same night. Thankfully, the squadron's resident great-white, Chucky Harkins, restricted his feeding habits to those not in his chain-of-command.

"What do you think?"

"I think I'm jumping into a shark-tank with a nose-bleed, but you're on."

"Outstanding! Sailor's, 1900."

"See you there."

Entering his stateroom, Ghost glanced at his computer, noting the new messages: two from Rose (probably king-size rockets for missing the reception), one from Banshee (most likely updating all command staff on the air-wing's composition), and the usual junk mail.

Shrugging - ah, that stuff can wait - he fired his begrimed gear into his 'dirty' duffel and headed for the shower, ignoring the twinges from his left shoulder. Those shrapnel wounds had healed more than a year ago, but the scars still played up every so often.

He was just towelling his hair dry when a knock came at the door. Rolling his eyes, he dug out a clean flight-suit. "Who's at my door?"


"Just a minute, ma'am." Frowning deeply, he kept dressing. Two e-mails *and* a personal reprimand? Jesus, Rose, that's a touch much even for you.

Raking his still-damp hair back again, he sat on his bunk and started with his socks and boots. "Come ahead."

Ghost had heard all the clichés about fiery Italian temperaments, but until he'd met the Martinelli sisters, he'd never believed them. Back when he'd been her wingmate, he'd privately observed that Squadron Leader 'Rose' Martinelli - universally known, at least behind her back, as 'Gabe the Babe' - seemed to have four primary settings: happy, calm, contained, and Mount St. Helens. This did not appear to be a calm or happy moment.

"You were requested to be in Kilo Landing Deck forty minutes ago, in class-B blue-grey uniform. I trust you had good reason to be absent?" Her sweet tone didn't fool him a bit.

Looks like we're in a Stage Three situation, he observed whimsically. "I was helping my crew-chief deal with some of the up-gripes on Iron Paw, ma'am."

"Isn't that what you have a crew-chief for? And a ground-crew, for that matter?" Her eyes bored down into him like emerald lasers.

"Yes, ma'am. But, with all due respect to yourself and our new arrivals, if it's a choice between renewing acquaintances and making sure my fighter's going to keep flying - gee, let me think," he finished in a sardonic drawl, tying the laces on his boot. "Besides, apart from Ski, they're all too green to know one end of a wrench from the other - hell, most of 'em are younger than I am."

"Ghost, this was supposed to be a formal welcome for an arriving squadron."

"We didn't give the Firebirds a formal welcome, Rose, or the Richthofen jokers. I *know* the WildCards and the Faithfuls, and they know enough about me and Wedge to understand why we weren't there."

"The originals, maybe, but their senior officer was kinda pissed."

"Well boo-hoo, Rose. He'll get over it."

Rose took a deep breath, and spoke softly. "Ghost, it's McIntyre."

Ghost froze, the other boot half-tied. I *know* I didn't hear that right. "I'm sorry, ma'am?"

"The current commanding officer of the Fifty-Eighth Marine Squadron is Major Cassandra McIntyre."

"*WHAT*?" The word was a howl of outraged disbelief. What the *hell* is she still doing in the service?

"I felt the same way, Ghost. I pulled her file, and there's nothing in there about Operation: DRAGONFIRE at all. I don't know what happened, I've got data-requests in now."

Finishing with his boot, Ghost quite precisely stood to attention, looking up at his five-foot-eleven CO. "Will you be copying us on that information?"

"You and Wedge, yes. You two can talk to Ronin and Minty, and the newer pilots don't really need to know."

"What about Picky?"

"I've got my sister well under control, thank you, Ghost."

Ghost raised a dubious eyebrow. "If you say so, Rose. Will that be all? I've got MaintReps to complete."

"Just try to keep things civilised when you run into her, Mike. We need her alive." With that, she nodded to him and left.

Ghost settled down at his desk, carefully not touching anything. All the shit we've had to deal with, and now they send us bloody *McIntyre*. God must really hate us.

It had taken him a good ten minutes to swallow the anger, but with that done, Ghost had set about dealing with the thick stack of paperwork as quickly as possible. When he finally finished, he laid aside his fountain pen and glanced up at the bulkhead. Too bad they didn't install some soundproofing when they converted this tub, he smiled; even through the metal partition, he could hear the muted sounds of several lively conversations. Ah, hell - might as well see what's up.

When the shipyards had converted the newly-completed SS Meridian Venture to HMS Defender, the pilot's quarters had been arranged according to European fighter-doctrine: a half-dozen six-crew bunkrooms surrounded a common ready-room, with their section/squadron commanders having single office-staterooms. With Jewel Wing's recent losses, the room had been empty enough to echo. Not any more.

Ghost entered the room in time to hear, "I didn't 'earn' the kill? What the hell are you on?"

The speaker was one of a half-dozen people in the room wearing RAF undress blues; she was sitting at the main table with a group of triple-grey-clad Kiwis, her hands frozen in the act of describing some manoeuvre in the immortal fighter-pilot manner.

Her conversational partner, a boyish-figured, Latin-complected woman eight years and two pay-grades her junior, shook her head. "What's wrong, you going deaf in your old age? You were driving a Spitfire, Ebony; anybody can make a kill with flexible guns, especially *those* tank-killing monstrosities. With fixed weapons, you have to *work* for it."

"You are so full of it, Picky," Ebony declared.

All conversation died, and everyone in earshot - barring the new pilots, who didn't know Picky's reputation - tensed slightly. They knew Ebony was just trying to get the younger woman's goat, but that was a dangerous game at the best of times. Handling Rose was like working with C-4; you had to go out of your way to set her off. On the other hand, dealing with Picky's temper was like juggling beakers of nitroglycerine in a torpedo magazine.

Then Picky returned the smile, a little nastily. "Maybe I am, Ebony, but look at it this way: I'm flying a fighter that's older than I am, and I've got forty-one kills. You've got what, a hundred-odd? in a bird that hasn't even hit its teens. You've got the big numbers, but I've *earned* the right to brag about mine."

Wedge, who was standing behind her volatile wingmate, glanced over at Ghost and rolled her eyes as the chatter resumed. Sharing a grin with her, he stepped forward and stuck in a needle of his own. "Yeah - you're real good at the 'bragging' part, aren't you, Picks?"

Picky flushed as her companions laughed. "Look, Ghost, I'm just sick of all this 'you jokers could get *hurt*' bullshit! I mean, New Zealand's got two megatons of warships, nine fighter and AeroComm squadrons, and two divisions of lightfighters out here with the UEF, and we're still getting that 'you're just a little too precious' routine. It's about time *somebody* told these clowns the truth about how bad we can be!"

"If that's what you're trying to do, why do you only tell stories about yourself?" a lanky Tiger asked from Ebony's shoulder.

"Oh, thanks a lot, Brand. I thought you were on my side!"

Stephen Xavier rolled his eyes. "You're maligning the Spitfire, and I'm supposed to help you? And they claim we English are mad!"

Ever the diplomat, Picky flipped him a finger.

"Mike," Ebony nodded to Ghost.

"Tormenting the animals again?"

"Someone has to give them some perspective," Jennifer Blackwood shrugged, her lilting Welsh accent as ever seeming more suited to a media personality than a 'centurion'. Ghost half-smiled at the comment; the Kiwis were happily married to their Hurricanes, but if Ebony ever let them (or even, worse yet, a *Yank*) declare their craft superior to her beloved Spitfire without taking issue, the universe was about to end. "And speaking of torment, I should imagine Banshee'll have a word or two for you. I thought Major McInytre would have a coronary when she saw Rose and I standing there alone."

Ghost was looking right at Picky when the Marine's name was mentioned, and he knew her well enough to recognise the faint narrowing of her eyes for what it was. She's spent ten years worshipping the ground Rose walks on, and now she can get her hands on the Marine responsible for her hero being grounded. This is *not* good.

"I kinda suspect she was more upset about our *presence* than our *absence*, Ebony," Wedge drawled.

Ebony cocked her head. "I don't follow."

"Be surprised if you did," Ronin interjected, looking up from the cupboard full of vids she'd been flipping through. "We've got some... *issues* with the Major."

The Welshwoman's eyebrows reached for the ceiling. "'Issues'?"

"Sorry, Ebony: compartmentalised - and you're not in the compartment." Ronin came up with three discs in hand, blatantly attempting to change the subject. "Okay, I've got Top Gun, Aliens or Independence Day. What's the call?"

"Can't say I'm in a mood for comedies, Teri," Kermit deadpanned from the reading-table in the corner.

Ronin joined in on the general snicker that raised. Shaking her head, the squadron point-scout tossed the discs aside. "Okay, seriously, guys. This whole collection's getting a little stale. What's it gonna be?"

Ghost glanced at his watch. "Might as well save it, Teri, they're serving tea in fifteen mikes."

"Oh, goodie. Freeze-dried pseudo-beef stew, powdered mashed potatoes, and hydroponic peas I could use for small-arms ammo. I can hardly wait," Picky murmured ironically.

"Hey, Picky, if you don't want yours I'll take it," Kermit chirped, shifting the bookmark in her Mills and Boon.

"Jesus, Nat, they give you the gene for hollow legs or something?"

"It's the accelerated metabolism," Minty told the younger woman. Wispily petite, raven-haired but fair, she was almost lost in her chair; Max's head rested on her knee, and she was absently stroking the Labrador's neck as she drew on her cigarette. "Great for rapid healing, good reflexes, and staying fashionably thin, but you wanna talk about chow-hound? Yikes."

"*This*, coming from a Cadre K-9 handler?" Picky asked the room at large.

"He knows what I mean," Minty grinned, ruffling the Lab's ears affectionately. "Don'tcha, Max?"

Max yipped and leaned his head against her hand, whining for more attention. Minty smiled and scratched the very tip of his chin, making his eyes close.

"You two are bloody uncanny," Brand observed. "Are you *sure* you're not psi-linked?"

"It's just a matter of experience, Steve." The brunette shrugged one shoulder, almost dislodging the charcoal-grey beret that was folded under her left epaulette. Absently smoothing the shoulder-board back down and making sure that her triple-chevron and triple-diamond rank pins were still in place, she went back to attending to her pet/partner. "Max and I have been working together so long we just know what each of us wants."

"I know what *I* want," Harley half-quipped. He'd been playing the innuendo game with Minty ever since he'd joined the squadron, her fiancé notwithstanding; the only thing he lusted for more than her was the right to wear a charcoal-grey beret to match hers.

"Yeah, but the difference between Max and you is, the only way *you're* getting into my bunk is if I get the chop."

There was another burst of laughter, and the In Vitro flushed crimson.

Heads came around as the main aft door opened, admitting a handful of OD-clad Marines wearing the wingéd sword of VMSC-35. Ghost grinned as he saw the familiar faces in the lead. Now, there's a pack of shady individuals if ever I saw one....

"Ghost. I *heard* there was a madman aboard," Padre grinned.

"G'day, stranger. God, the Corps Commandant *must* be getting desperate for captains if she promoted *you*," the Kiwi quipped as he shook the offered hand.

"Like AviComm would've *ever* made *you* an O-3 by choice," the Marine riposted.

"This is true," he admitted, deadpan. "How's life treating you, kid?"

At twenty-five, Francisco Sullivan was actually a year *older* than Ghost and the same age as Wedge. However, given that the Kiwi AeroComm was vastly more experienced both as a pilot and a spec-ops soldier, the 'kid' label didn't strike anyone as at all strange.

"I've been better." Padre flicked a glance towards the office that the Five-Eight's acting CO had been assigned - though 'annexed' might have been a better word.

Ghost gave him an understanding nod. "What do you hear about 'Too Much Coffee Man'?"

Sullivan cocked an eyebrow. Ghost had hailed McQueen by that title when 487 had first arrived aboard Saratoga after having Invincible shot out from under them at Demios, but had never explained it... much less why he'd survived using it more than once. "You'd be better off asking the 'Cards, but they're still getting their Hammers squared away. Last I heard, they were going to do the final interfacing this week. He should be ready to take over again when we get back to Earth."

"That's assuming you survive *her*."

"You know the Major?"

"I've flown with her." The Kiwi's voice was carefully neutral. "It wasn't an experience I'd care to repeat."

"If her flying's anything like her command style, I'll believe that."

"Better let the Brain Trust sit down, you jokers," Minty observed, snapping her fingers to bring Max to heel as she got out of her seat. "All these officer egos need room to operate."

"Nah, it's okay, Angie, you guys can keep tormenting the Poms. There's a spare over here we can use." Ghost jerked his head; Wedge and Padre caught the signal and headed towards the vacant table. Kermit should be able to keep Picky out of trouble for a few minutes.

Rogue Kentbridge, Ebony's brick-wall-shaped section second, and the rangy Tex Houston found seats just as Ebony appeared with a double-fistful of bottled Cokes. Ghost glanced at his companions for a moment, idly wondering if *any* of them would have reached their current ranks in peace-time. God, all these 'commanders' are sitting down to talk and our average age is somewhere around twenty-four. I'd be depressed if these guys weren't so damn good.

"So, where do you think we're headed?"

Ghost and Wedge shared a split-second glance of amusement. As much as they liked Sullivan, the man was an inveterate gossip. The humour died almost before it appeared, though; though they could find a joke in almost any subject, their probable destination wasn't funny.

"Defender's only ever travelled one convoy route, old son," Rogue supplied, the words coming out in a cloud of cigarette smoke as he snapped his lighter shut. "Celestial Body 2059-Sierra. Sisyphus." He took a long, deep drag on his cigarette, then added, "We've taken to calling it the Skeet Range."

"'Skeet Range'? Is it really that bad?" Tex asked in her thick Chicago accent, sweeping back a fringe of dark-pecan hair as she uncapped her drink. "I mean, I know the ground fighting's pretty heavy, but I didn't think the Chigs had that much left to throw at us."

"The whole system's a virtual free-fire zone. Frederick knows the Tantalus system is a linchpin in the logistical network supporting the Pegasus sector, so he's committed a good force. The last I heard from Casper was that the Fleas had the remains of three mechanised-infantry and seven infantry divisions on Sisyphus itself, plus two damaged fighter regiments. Between all that, the Typhon garrison, the T-boats out of 'Fortress Troy', *and* Colossus and its battlegroup... well, our last trip out, the convoy lost a cruiser, a destroyer and two merchantmen in the first six hours alone."

Padre winced. "*Damn*!"

"What can you say? Freddy's a real believer in warm welcomes. The jokers on the ground are running out of everything but bad guys, and they're only scraping by on what we can get 'em." Wedge started drawing infinity-symbols on the table with one fingertip. "For all that getting them *that* little has cost 487 seventeen pilots and AeroComms in the last two trips - including Rusty Wilkinson."

"Aw, *man*. I'm sorry, guys. I liked him."

"You and everyone else who ever met him," Ghost nodded, remembering the former artillery-sergeant's penchant for bad jokes and better pranks. 'My God, it's full of stars!' indeed. "I mean, Christ: DRAGONFIRE, Procyon, Orthos, Minerva, the Demios ambush, Ixion - not a scratch. Then Julie sends us on a two-day raid into Scottville while we're over Sisyphus last month. We're hiding in some houses, waiting for this platoon of APCs to go past, and some Fred treadhead decides to relieve the boredom by lighting the place up with his three-mil coax - never knew we were there. Rusty gets four in the chest, dead before he hits the ground. Don't ever try to tell me the universe don't have a sick sense of humour."

Padre winced sympathetically. "Ran out of luck, huh?"

"First rule of war, 'Frisco: life's a bitch - then she has pups." One of them being McIntyre.

A high-pitched, two-tone whistle began echoing from the PA system, its meaning murdering all conversation.

Mother of God - the EAS! Ghost was frozen for a split-second by shock - all the non-American personnel in the room were; the Yanks were merely baffled - then snapped to his feet.

"What the hell is that?" Tex asked over the din as a general stampede for the door began.

Wedge answered the Marine's question with a bellow to the room at large:


Next : Part Two

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