"The Queen Of Hearts" is the sequel to my story "Would You Have Loved Me If I Knew How To Dance." Again, the primary focus is Lt. Colonel T.C. McQueen, although the 'Cards have significant roles in the story, too. QoH also brings back my character, Major A.J. Barnes. All backstory between Barnes and McQueen is my own invention and does not reflect any intention implied or stated by the writers, producers or actors of "Space: Above and Beyond." Comments are appreciated, and can be sent to sclay@connix.com

The Queen of Hearts

Sheryl Clay

Part One

They still called them "listening posts" even though they were no longer manned by myopic young men in bad ties drinking stale coffee in seedy hotel rooms. The principle was still the same.

The transmission was garbled when it first came through. And they understood so little Chig-ese. It was not until the satellite transmissions pinpointed the Chig base in the Adlerian system, and the ground probes' seismographic information confirmed the planet's instability that they were able to put the pieces together and send this astonishing message to Headquarters back on Earth:

The Chigs, apparently, were afraid of something besides their dead.

"Sir, we have an unidentified SA-43 on the LIDAR."

Commodore Glen Van Ross, of the USS Space Carrier Saratoga crossed the bridge platform and leaned over the rail.

"It's not one of ours," he mused. "Request identification." He turned and gave a puzzled look to Lt. Colonel T.C. McQueen, who had stopped at his shoulder and was also staring at the blip on the LIDAR screen.

The communications officer reached for the call button on his keyboard, but before he could activate it, a woman's voice crackled over the line.

"Saratoga this is Major A.J. Barnes, requesting permission to dock."

Ross frowned and turned to McQueen. "Did *you* know she was coming?"

McQueen shook his head. "First I've heard of it," he replied. Ross screwed up his face in bewilderment. He knew Barnes was an old comrade of the Colonel's from back in the AI wars, and that the two had rekindled that friendship a couple of months earlier when Barnes had used the Saratoga as her base of operations to test a new LIDAR enhancement. If McQueen did not know what she was doing here, now, Ross was damned if *he* did. He nodded at the communications officer.

"Bring her into Hangar Bay 3," he said. The officer nodded and turned back to give the order. Ross looked at McQueen again.

"C'mon. Let's go find out what this is all about."

Barnes was climbing out of the Hammerhead cockpit as the two men walked onto the flight deck. Her helmet had pulled her heavy dark hair loose from its fastenings and thick curl tumbled across her face as she came to attention. She pushed it out of her eyes before she saluted.

"Commodore Ross, Colonel McQueen. Sorry to drop in without calling first, sirs. This trip was a little spur of the moment..."

Ross nodded and returned the salute. "Major. It's good to see you, again." He held out a hand. Despite his irritation at the unannounced visit, he did like this woman, and he respected her abilities. She shook his hand briskly.

"You might want to hold that thought until you know why I'm here, Commodore," she answered with a small smile. She handed him her sealed orders, then turned and extended a hand to McQueen. "Colonel."

McQueen grasped her hand in welcome, his eyes asking her what was going on. She shook her head slightly.

"ONI?" Ross asked, reading the orders in his hand. Last he knew, Major Barnes was a senior systems designer for the military's technical support unit. What was she doing with orders attaching her to the Office of Naval Intelligence?

McQueen turned and looked at the Commodore sharply. He turned back to Barnes and frowned.

"I'm on loan for this mission," Barnes told him. "And I'm afraid I'm going to need your help."

They adjourned to the Command conference room.

"The planet is called Caldera," Barnes told them, flashing a map up on the video screen. "Intelligence has located a Chig base there. Now the whole planet is pocketed with volcanic activity, but recently, the sector with the Chig base has become extremely unstable; heavy quake activity, chains of volcanic eruptions... We have reason to believe, gentlemen, that the Chigs have boogied out. Evidence indicates that they may have left in such a hurry as to leave their base relatively entire. " She flashed up a geological survey satellite photo.

"The closest volcano to the Chig camp has been spewing ashy steam for the last ten days. The Interplanetary Geological Survey satellite team believes we may have another week to ten days before the final eruption. That leaves us a small but critical window in which to get down to that base and out again before the region becomes impassable. Which is why there wasn't time to let you know I was coming. I'm going in."

Ross leaned back in his chair. "You're telling me that the Chigs set up a base on this planet without giving consideration to the fact that it was unstable?" he demanded, incredulously. Barnes just nodded.

"Yes, sir, that's how it appears. Our guess is that they didn't know. Now, why the Chigs apparently could not determine the planet's impending instability raises an interesting technological question. Thankfully, that's somebody else's thing to worry about. " She flashed up another frame.

"Our initial space to surface investigation has determined the presence of an fully functioning CP-1440. The Chig equivalent of a command computer. Attempts to hack into it, remotely, have been unsuccessful, therefore, my charge is to descend to the planet, subsequent to the release of a specially designed MIRG satellite into orbit, locate the CP-1440, and establish a data uplink to the MIRG before the base is destroyed. Intelligence estimates that I have about six standard days to get there, get in and get out before the area becomes too unstable. The Saratoga was the only ship positioned to meet those timing requirements. What I need from you, sirs, is a secure base of operations, and some volunteers."

"We'll provide you with anything we can, Major," Ross replied, looking at McQueen.

"1972 AFC Playoffs. The Immaculate Reception. Got to be the all time greatest play in football history. I mean, what are the odds..."

"No way. At best it was dumb luck, not skill, and I still think the ball hit the ground first... they could just never prove it. No, the greatest play in history had to be John Elway in the 1986 AFC Championships. The Drive - 98 yards..."

"There you are," Captain Shane Vansen said, striding across the recreation room. "I've been looking for you guys."

Lieutenants Paul Wang and Nathan West looked up from their argument. Wang paused the tape they were scrutinizing with such enthusiasm.

"Mission briefing in fifteen," Vansen said.

"No way," West groaned unhappily. "It's not our rotation."

"Lose it," Vansen snapped. Then she relented. "This is something special. Intel, I heard. Word is, they're not looking for a whole squadron this time, but individual volunteers, so it's not a straight combat mission. And," she paused meaningfully, "McQueen's Major Barnes is back."

"I don't care," Hawkes insisted a few minutes later when they found him, and Damphousse, in the mess. "I'm not flying *nothin'* else she designed."

"Come on, Coop," West argued. "You know that wasn't her fault. It was her assistant who sabotaged that LIDAR programming." He was referring to Barnes first visit to the Saratoga, a couple of months earlier, with a new LIDAR enhancement for the Fifty-Eighth to test. A virus implanted by her traitorous assistant had caused the on-board computers of an entire squadron to crash during battle, leaving them sitting ducks for the Chigs. It had only been luck, and Captain Hickman's fear of detection, that had prevented that doomed squadron from being the Fifty-Eighth.

"Anyway," Damphousse reminded Hawkes, "I thought you *liked* Major Barnes. And she did stick up for you when that Captain Hickman tried to convince everyone that you were just imagining a problem with that new LIDAR."

Hawkes looked uncomfortable, suddenly. "She's okay," he mumbled, and Vansen gave him a curious look. File it under the category of 'he doth protest too much,' but she wondered if Cooper Hawkes had developed a small crush on the pretty Major. She smiled to herself. Hawkes looked up suddenly, catching her eye, startling her.

"She got any geeks with her this time?" he demanded. Vansen shrugged.

"I don't know. I don't think so. I think she's alone." She looked at her watch. "And if we don't get a move on, we're gonna be late for that brief..."

"So that's the deal," A. J. Barnes finished her briefing, twenty minutes later, in the Saratoga's orientation room. She turned off the holographic projector. "It's not a particularly pretty picture, because the enemy this time is not a sentient being, but an active volcano. Moreover, the IGS satellite jockeys have told us that the whole area is covered with dense growth, probably jungle, which will make it difficult reaching the base. This is no holiday junket. Nonetheless, this mission is a vital one. We have never, yet, in this war, had an opportunity to get so close to so much of the Chigs' technology. The closest we've come was the 58th's recovery of that Chig bomber a few months ago. To access the data from a command computer..." Barnes smiled a little. "Even if that database is loaded with disinformation, this opportunity could give us our first real up close and personal look at how our enemy thinks."

Before her, several squadrons sat ruminating on this, including the 58th. Finally, West looked up.


Barnes nodded to him.

"I understand the analogy. Earth computers work sort of like the human mind. They would have to, our brains are our only models for thinking. So it stands to reason that a Chig computer would be structured similarly to the way the Chig brain works. But... well, if an alien enemy tried to make judgments about human beings strictly by analyzing our data systems..."

Barnes smiled broadly. "They would make some very serious mistakes," she finished for him. "You are absolutely right, Lieutenant. An alien enemy who tried to understand us through our computers, or even through our Artificial Intelligence entities, would find no evidence of things like intuition, individual initiative; they might even falsely interpret that we operate as some sort of a 'hive' mind. We're rather counting on that, actually." She nodded. "And it would be very easy for us to make the same mistakes. We must guard against that. However, even given that, this opportunity is unique, and may be unrepeatable. This mission cannot be allowed to fail."

Commodore Ross stepped forward. "Now, we are not looking for an entire squadron, necessarily, to accompany the Major on this mission. What we are looking for is a few individual volunteers..."

The Five-Eight was on it's feet before he had even finished the sentence.

"Sir!" Vansen shouted, "I volunteer...

"to accompany the..." West chimed.

Damphousse picked up "Major on her mission..."

"to the planet Caldera, sir!" finished Hawkes and Wang.

Ross nodded, and Barnes grinned from ear to ear.

"All right, Five-Eight. I don't know why I even bother to ask." He shook his head, but he was smiling. "The 58th, and Colonel McQueen, will remain in the Orientation Room. All other personnel, dis-missed."

They waited a moment for the room to clear of all but McQueen and the Wildcards. Then Barnes leaned forward against the table and looked at them earnestly. "The MIRG is being assembled and programmed as we speak and will be deployed into planetary orbit at 0400 tomorrow. I will be leaving at 0330 and hope to make planet fall by 0900 hours. " She turned to her map.

"This fault line boarders the unstable region to the north east. Now, without going into all the gory details of plate tectonics, our geologists have assured me that the area to the east of the fault line should be fairly stable. Here's the plan. Drop is here..." she pointed. "We'll hike to this point, along the fault line, and establish a base camp. Next day we hike through the quake area to the Chig base, establish the computer uplink, have a look around, and hike back to the base camp where we will once again spend the night. The following morning we hike out to the extraction site. Your standard Bed and Breakfast three-day-two-night excursion. Without the bed, of course."

Titters filled the room.

Ross looked at his watch. "Five-Eight, you will convene in I-double S-C-V Bay 5 at 0230. The time will be 1647, ready, ready, hack." They all hit the timesets on their chronometers. "Dis-missed!"

McQueen watched his people file out of the "O" room, his expression thoughtful, and slightly disturbed.

"Sir," he began when they were gone.

"Colonel?" Ross queried, wondering what the hell was bothering McQueen, this time, and not sure he wanted to hear about it.

"Sir, I would like to accompany Major Barnes and the Five-Eight on this mission, sir." McQueen hurried on before anyone could protest. "Sir. Intelligence indicates that the Chigs have abandoned this base, but Intelligence has been wrong before. With all due respect to the Major, a mission this crucial should have the benefit of a senior officer who has had experience facing this particular enemy. Major Barnes has not yet had that opportunity, sir."

Ross just looked at him. T.C. McQueen was a good man, and a fine officer, but in that moment, Ross could have cheerfully strangled him. This was Barnes' mission. To assign an officer senior to her would be worse than an insult. And McQueen damned well knew it.

The problem was, the man had a point. A. J. Barnes had never even laid eyes on a live Chig before, and Ross was not happy about letting her go down to that base, regardless of the 58th's considerable experience. Nonetheless, it was her mission, she was under approved orders, and Ross would be damned if he was going to dishonor her by forcing McQueen on her.

"Colonel," he began, the warning apparent in his voice.

"Sir," Barnes interrupted. Ross looked at her. "Commodore, *I* have no objection if Colonel McQueen comes with us." Ross could have kissed her. Barnes smiled a little, looking at neither man in particular. "The Colonel has a point, sir. This mission is a vital one to the war effort. And as the Colonel has so thoughtfully pointed out, on a couple of occasions, now, I have had no physical contact with this particular enemy. Frankly, I would be grateful for the benefit of his experience and expertise. Provided..." she turned to McQueen, "that the Colonel understands he will be serving in an advisory capacity only, and that all decisions that directly impact my own actions and the commission of this assignment will be mine, alone, irrespective of rank."

It took everything Ross had not to laugh out loud. Well, Ty, he thought, waiting for McQueen's reaction. You deserved that.

McQueen did not quite glare. He hesitated a moment, then nodded once. "Agreed," he said, finally.

Ross nodded. "Then, if the Major has no objections, I will allow Colonel McQueen to accompany the mission to Caldera in an advisory capacity."

"The Major has no objections, sir."

Ross nodded, and left, with only the slightest of amused backwards glances as he walked out.

For a moment, McQueen and Barnes just faced each other, neither speaking. McQueen crossed his arms across his chest.

"Was that necessary?" he finally asked. Barnes was not deceived by the conversational tone, but neither was she intimidated.

"I don't know," she answered frankly. "But I wanted to go on record.

"Colonel," she continued formally. She stopped shook her head and sighed. "Ty, I don't know what's going to happen down there." She hesitated, and he could see the weariness on her. "My assignment is not *quite* 'succeed or die trying', but this mission is crucial. It can't fail. I may have some hard decisions to make. I need to be sure I'll be free to make them. Honestly, I'm just as glad you'll be there to get those kids out, if it comes to that. And you *will* be ranking officer," she gave him a penetrating look, "I want to be damn sure you don't end up holding the bag if I guess wrong."

McQueen absorbed what she was saying. Gradually, the anger dissipated and he glanced away, a little embarrassed for both of them.

"How did *you* manage to pull this duty?" he asked, composing himself and turning back to her.

"I volunteered. I can do this," Barnes replied matter-of-factly. "There aren't a lot of people who can. There also," she added sardonically, "aren't a lot of 'desk-jockeys' willing to march into a Chig infested volcano, even when Intel says the Chigs are gone."

"Do you trust these Intel reports?"

Barnes shrugged, and leaned back against one of the desk tops. She pushed a stray lock of unruly hair behind her ear.

"You know, there are people who will tell you that 'military intelligence' is an oxymoron," she replied, her expression one of wry amusement. "There are days when I almost agree with them. I certainly don't trust these reports enough to leave my gun home, if that's what your asking, but they *are* the best thing we have to go on." She quirked a little smile and stood back up. "And now if you'll excuse me, sir, I really should supervise the assembly of that MIRG satellite."

McQueen nodded. "0230, then," he agreed, and started out.

"Colonel," Barnes called him back. He turned and looked at her, cocking his head a little.

"Thank you for volunteering to come along and watch my six..."

McQueen paused a moment, his expression still, but his eyes glinting, slightly, in response to the hint of teasing in her voice.

"My pleasure," he deadpanned. Then he nodded, again, and left.

It was almost 0315 when the Wildcards finally finished loading the last of the gear. Barnes looked up from the clip board she was annotating, and noticed them standing in a clump, whispering together earnestly. She glance at McQueen, beside her, but he was intent on the equipment list in his hands. She turned back to the 'Cards.

"All stowed?"

"Yes, ma'm," West replied.

"Uh, Major?" Wang stepped forward. Barnes raised an eyebrow in question. She tucked the clip board under her arm and stepped down onto the loading platform. McQueen looked up, watching them curiously.

"We'd, uh, like you have this," Damphousse said, holding out her hand. "Since you're kind of honorarily one of us for this mission." Barnes took the object Damphousse extended, recognized the Wildcards patch. She smiled.

"Thank you, Lieutenant, all of you," she said, meaning it. "This is really nice of you. " She looked a little wistful. "It's been a long time since I've worn a combat squadron patch." She tucked it into her flight suit.

"You should pick a call-sign," West suggested. "Make it official."

Barnes smiled warmly. "Pick a card, any card?" They nodded at her. "How about the Queen of Hearts, then?"

She glanced up at McQueen as she said it, meeting his eyes unexpectedly. Startled at the sudden contact, they both looked away. Then McQueen folded the list in his hands, and trotted down the gantry steps to join the others.

"We all set?" he asked, in his best business-like manner. Barnes nodded.

"Let's saddle up," she said. They piled into the transport, and strapped themselves in.

It was going to be a five hour trip, at the minimum, with nothing to do but sit and wait. Or sleep if one was able. About an hour into the journey the Five-Eight had unstrapped from their crash seats and draped themselves as comfortably as they were able around the cabin, some with data pads, some with reading matter. Hawkes took a nap.

"So, Paul," Vansen said, dropping into her seat across the aisle from her squad mate. "You know anything about volcanoes?" She wanted to talk to McQueen, but he was looking singularly unapproachable, sitting in the rear of the ISSCV running something through the computer. And Major Barnes was up on the flight deck. So she turned to Wang with her questions. "Wang the data spooge" who somehow managed to know something about everything.

Vansen was not particularly happy about this assignment, even though she had volunteered for it. Fighting Chigs was one thing. Fighting an unstable planet was something else. Growing up in California had taught her never to underestimate the power of natural phenomena. She had been in Los Angeles, once, on a school trip, when they had experienced a mild earthquake. The experience had not been a pleasant one.

Wang put down his data pad, and looked thoughtful. "I know a little," he agreed. At his words, Damphousse moved a little closer, and West lowered his book and listened from his perch in the corner of the cabin. Wang looked a little disconcerted by the sudden audience. Then he shrugged.

"Volcanoes are the result of molten rock and gases in a planet's mantle working their way to the surface. But you knew that," he added hastily at Vansen's impatient look. "On Earth," he continued, "and most of the other planets we've had an opportunity to study, volcanoes are associated with the geological plates that make up planetary surfaces. When these plates collide, or pull apart, the action of the crust, basically, causes fissures to form and creates the pressures that forces the magma to the surface. Along with gases and ash and well, whatever. Now that's a pretty basic explanation, it's really more involved than that, but it is one of the reasons why volcanoes are found in certain areas, and not others."

Vansen fretted. This was not what she really wanted, either. "How dangerous are they? I mean, really?"

Wang shrugged, too caught up in his explanation to notice the edge in Vansen's voice. "It depends," he said. "Vesuvius wiped out Pompeii in a matter of hours, killing a lot of the inhabitants almost instantly. Other volcanoes have been know to just bubble and spill a lot of lava, without causing much long term damage at all. It's not the lava that's really the problem, anyway. Unless you're right on the slopes, cooling lava usually flows slow enough to easily outrun it. It's the volcanic gases and the ash that are dangerous. Experts say that most of the inhabitants of Pompeii died of asphyxiation. In fact, Vesuvius didn't produce any *lava* at all during the eruption that destroyed Pompeii."

"So, we've got gas masks in the gear, we should be okay, then, even if the volcano *does* erupt while we're still on the planet," Damphousse suggested hopefully. "Right?"

Vansen nodded, but Wang did not necessarily agree. "Well, there's also the associated quake activity, avalanches, mud slides... You won't have a volcano without 'em, and they're just as dangerous as the volcano itself. Maybe worse."

The rest of the Wildcards looked at him glumly. "But," Wang concluded helpfully, "with today's technology, predicting eruptions is pretty accurate. If Major Barnes says we don't expect an eruption for ten days, that should be pretty close to exact. And since she's gonna get us out in three, we should be out in plenty of time before it gets really dangerous."

From his chair at the computer workstation, McQueen continued to type, but he was not paying much attention to what he was doing. He was listening to his people talk. It pleased him that they were turning to each other for this kind of support, rather than him. It showed him that they really *were* bonded as a unit. That they had learned to trust each other.

It did not matter that he could have, and would have, told them the same things had they asked him. He had spent the better part of the previous evening, in fact, reading up on volcanoes, and reviewing what he already knew about jungle warfare. What Wang had not said, and what McQueen was not inclined to remind them of at that moment, was that the technology developed to predict volcanic eruptions was Earth technology, and might not be so accurate on an unknown planet. And that Barnes' ten day count had started three days ago. The window on this mission was going to be much tighter that Wang implied.

McQueen turned his attention back to his keying, but before he did, he shot a quick glance at Hawkes, dozing peacefully. It did not bother him that the young Marine chose to sleep rather than join his comrades in their worried pursuit of information. Hawkes would be there when he needed to be. The truth was, McQueen wished they would *all* take a nap.

As if on cue, the hatch from the flight deck opened, and Barnes walked through, back down the length of the transport to McQueen. She smiled at the Wildcards, who looked at her a little guiltily, then shot a fond look at Hawkes.

"God, I wish I could sleep like that," she said to McQueen, glancing back at the softly snoring boy. She handed him a sheaf of printouts. They were the latest seismographic reports from the planet's surface, and a high altitude photograph of the target area, just in via satellite feed.

"You used to," McQueen answered blandly, looking down at the top sheet. "I seem to recall you conking off before we'd even left the runway, whenever *we* went out in transport groups." He flipped through the rest of the pages.

Barnes turned to look out the view port. "Oh, to be young again," she sighed extravagantly.

"Quake activity's picking up," McQueen said. Barnes nodded.

"Yeah. But the infrared scan's not indicating that volcano's getting hot any faster than we expected. We should still have plenty of time to get in and get out before it blows."

McQueen nodded, giving the satellite photo a cursory glance. It did not look much different than the one Barnes had brought on board the Saratoga.

"Damned low albedo," he grumbled. Barnes just snorted. The low incident of reflected surface light meant very heavy vegetation. "I hate jungles," McQueen grumped.

"Next time I'll try to score some nice resort spa," Barnes agreed. He looked at her thoughtfully. He could hear the strain in her voice.

"You should get some rest."

Barnes shrugged slightly. "I've got some reading to finish," she said, turning and smiling thinly at him. "I'm gonna take it up on the flight deck..."

McQueen would have preferred she sleep, but he told himself to let her be. Nor did he question her retreat to the flight deck. He knew the documents she was studying were classified. Even he did not know what was in most of them. The easiest way to deal with the 'Cards natural curiosity was to avoid it all together. He merely nodded and watched her go.

McQueen was at the view port when they finally got close enough to Caldera for him to make out formations on the surface below. It appeared to be largely water; at least as much of the planet's face was covered as Earth's, and maybe more. That matched with his interpretation of the high altitude survey results, which was comforting. It was not always the case. He could see their goal, or at least where he thought it was. A darkened smug in the northwestern quadrant of the continent facing them was probably ash from the volcano. He did not much like the fact that it was already so visible from so high up in space.


McQueen turned from the portal at the sound of Barnes voice. She gestured to him from the hatch between the transport cabin and the flight deck.

"We've got a small problem," she whispered as he came up to her side. McQueen frowned, and followed her onto the flight deck. There was barely enough room in the cramped cabin for them to stand, shoulder to shoulder, behind the pilots' seats.

"We've discovered a difficulty with the landing site, sir," the pilot said, turning.

"What's the problem?"

"Apparently, there's a reason why we were able to find such a nice, flat, open space in all this jungle," Barnes answered sarcastically. "It's a swamp. We can't land there."

She pointed to the near-space scan display of the planet's surface on the control panel to the right of the nav station. McQueen made a disgusted sound deep in his throat. The initial satellite survey should have picked that up. But it had not, so there was nothing to be gained by getting PO'd about it, now.

"Do we have an alternate landing site?"

"Yeah," replied Barnes, "but it's ten kilometers out of our way." She unfolded a topographical projection of the area in question, leaned it against the back of the pilot's seat and pointed at the spot circled in red marker.

"That's not too bad," McQueen ventured, following her finger to the projected base camp location.

"It wouldn't be if it was a straight hike in," Barnes agreed. "But the thermal scan indicates that the plant growth in this area is much younger. If we were on Earth, I'd call it secondary jungle."

"Which means denser vegetation to hike through," McQueen concluded. "We'll have to hack our way in. Shit."

Barnes snorted. "Couldn't have said it better myself, Colonel," she smirked. She blew out a breath. "We should still be able to make it. But it's gonna be a bitch of a trip."

"Well, I don't see that we have much choice. I guess we better tell the others..." he sighed.

"Let's do it," Barnes told the pilot. "Lock in the coordinates of that secondary insertion site." She turned and followed McQueen back into the ISSAPC.

When the transport hatch finally opened, the first thing the Five- Eight noticed was the gust of super-moist air. Freeing herself from her constraints, Vansen crossed to the hatch and stared out into the lush jungle surrounding them.

"Let's go, move out!" Barnes barked behind her. Vansen jumped off the ledge, her feet hitting the spongy ground beneath the greenery.

"Watch your step!" she cautioned, as West jumped down, followed by Barnes and the rest of the Wildcards, with McQueen bringing up the rear. "It's kinda mucky underfoot."

They caught their balances, and their gear, and jogged into the surrounding trees as the transport lifted away. Barnes watched it go. She felt a sudden sensation of abandonment, of vulnerability that was not quite panic, and she wondered if McQueen might not be right, after all, that she had been flying a desk for too long. She looked around, and found McQueen watching her. Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and turned to the Fifty-Eighth.

"All right. Let's not dawdle. We've got a lot of ground to cover, and this jungle's not going to make it easy. Damphousse, do you have our bearings?"

Damphousse consulted the compass, already programmed with their destination. "Yes, ma'm. Heading three point nine-nine degrees north-north west." She pointed in the appropriate direction, and into the thickest part of the jungle. Barnes made a face.

"Yeah, *that* figures," she grumped at the solid wall of greenery. The Wildcards tittered, and even McQueen cracked a slight smile. "Looks like we hack our way through... Vansen and West, you're point. We'll rotate every fifteen minutes." She glanced around one last time. "And don't get cocky. I've done jungle. It's not fun."

The Wildcards looked curious, but she did not elaborate. Vansen looked over at McQueen, and found him watching Barnes deliberatively. It dawned on her, suddenly, that he had not said a word since they disembarked, and he had been all but silent on the flight, as well. Then she remembered that technically this was Barnes' mission; that even though McQueen was the ranking officer, and the commander of the 58th, he was with them in an advisory capacity only, this time. Major Barnes was officially in charge. It was going to be weird, she thought, *not* turning to McQueen for guidance. And maybe it was a little weird for him, too. But it hardly mattered. They had more than twenty klicks of jungle to slice through before they could call it a night. That was the only thought that ought to be occupying *anyone's* mind. She lifted her blade and turned toward the forest wall.

"Let's move out," Barnes gave the command.

They moved. The uneven ground became a little firmer as they left the relative openness of the insertion site, but the dense undergrowth made the going very slow. Although she had first felt a little smug about the fifteen minute rotation, Vansen found she was more than willing to turn over her blade when Barnes called time. She rolled her shoulders and dropped to the end of the line. Since they were an odd numbered compliment, each member actually wound up with an extra fifteen minutes rest every two hours as they paired off: Vansen/West, Wang/Damphousse, Barnes/Hawkes, McQueen/Vansen, West/Damphousse, Wang/Barnes, Hawkes/McQueen, Vansen/West. By the end of her shift with the Colonel, Vansen was more than grateful for the extra time.

At the end of two hours they had gone less than one and a half kilometers. At that rate it would be 2300 hours or later before they made the fault line where they would establish a base camp. Barnes looked at her watch, and then up at the sky peeking through the leafy canopy above them. Caldera had a longer solar day than Earth, so they would not loose daylight until late, but daylight would not solve the exhaustion that was bound to overtake them eventually with this brutal activity. Barnes silently cursed the technicians who had underestimated the dense cover, and miscalculated the ground conditions that had added almost ten klicks to their hike. And although the ground under their feet was still stationary, she could hear the distant rumble of quake activity ahead. Who knew how long it would be before the land itself rose up to fight them.

McQueen saw her looking, and moved up beside her. She felt his presence at her shoulder and turned.

"I wish I had a flame thrower," she grumbled, hitching her pack up higher on her shoulders.

"Probably wouldn't help much," McQueen countered practically. "Too wet."

It *was* humid. Though not especially hot, the air around them was heavy with moisture, like a fine mist, and stagnant with lack of circulation. They were all sweating heavily, and McQueen knew it would not be long before they started shedding shirts, risking strap abrasions from their packs, and then started wanting to shed gear. He *hated* jungles. He had seen his share of rotten terrain, and he knew there was hardly a landscape more debilitating, physically, than this to penetrate.

Beside him, Barnes absorbed his comment. "Thanks for the encouragement," she snapped, the annoyance clear in her voice.

McQueen looked at her sharply. Then he relented, knowing that this forced march through heavy jungle had to be harder on her than on the rest of them. Not that she would ever admit it, but staying fit in a gym was very different from seeing regular combat.

"The canopy seems to be getting heavier," he pointed out, nodding up into the trees. "This undergrowth should start to thin out."

"Let's hope so," Barnes replied, looking where he was looking. "'Cause at this rate, we're not gonna make it in time." She whispered this last, only for McQueen's ears. He looked at her grimly, but he could do nothing but acknowledge that she was right.

It might have surprised Vansen, and it might have even surprised Barnes, but McQueen was having less trouble than one might have expected, relinquishing command to the Major. He had agreed, after all, and the mission *was* hers. He was a Marine, he knew how to follow orders. Besides, nothing had happened that required his intervention, no Chigs appeared out of the trees, and Barnes had not done anything to give him pause, or make him question the wisdom of her actions. In a way, he was enjoying the chance to step back and let somebody else call the shots for a change. It gave him a unique opportunity to observe his people. And, of course, A.J. Barnes.

For her part, Barnes was somewhat less comfortable with the arrangement, even though it was she who had invited McQueen to come along. Maybe it was just the idea that she knew he was watching her that made her nervous, coupled with the fact that she had not led a combat troop in years. When they had served together, years earlier, she and McQueen had been equals, and in a strange way, she had been the more experienced, if not with battle then at any rate with life. The dynamic was definitely shifted, now, although McQueen had done nothing to make her feel insecure. Except be there. The sheer force of his presence was alarming. For some unfathomable reason, it put her on edge.

But she did not have time to dwell on it, the shift in front of her was over, and Wang was handing her the machete.

"You know, I was wondering," Wang said as he wiped the sweat from his brow. "What do you think the chances are this planet has some kind of indigenous life form. Besides the flora, I mean."

"What are you looking for, Wang, dinosaurs?" teased West.

"I don't know. Whatever." Wang replied. "I mean, it stands to reason that there would be some kind of animal life... Something must live in this jungle."

"I have no idea," Barnes commented, taking her place beside Hawkes. "The initial surveys didn't turn up anything. Let's hope not. We've got enough to worry about." She swung at the underbrush, and grimaced in mild pain at the jarring. She shook her head. It was too soon to start with that, they still had a long way to go. Beside her, Hawkes had already stripped down to his undershirt, padding the fatigue blouse under the shoulders of his pack straps. The muscles rippled in his arms as he swung his machete, cleaning decapitating the growth in front of him. The kid was huge, Barnes thought, and he was hacking through enough brush for both of them. He did not even look winded. Barnes smiled. She liked this boy, she liked his guilelessness, and his innate capability. Actually, he reminded her a little of McQueen. He was more open, perhaps, than McQueen had been when she had first known him, more trusting. But there was some quality of ingenuousness that was very endearing. He turned, and caught her looking at him, and actually blushed.

"I wouldn't count on any big game," McQueen said behind them, answering Wang's question. "There don't seem to be any animal trails in this jungle. If there were, I would recommend finding one..."

In the back of the line, somebody laughed.

"I would guess that any life form would probably be pretty primitive," Damphousse suggested. "Of course, I'm only basing this on what I've read about Earth's evolution, but this rain forest seems almost... primordial. Paleozoic. There could be animal life in one of the seas, but I don't know about land creatures. Maybe something insectoid..."

"Oh, great," Wang groused. "Bugs."

"Chigs should feel right at home," Vansen added to more laughter.

They were quiet, after that, maybe thinking about Damphousse's "insectoids", maybe just conserving energy. They were starting to slow down, and they still had a long way to go. Barnes shift at the machete ended, and she handed the blade to McQueen, who took his place again, beside Vansen. And then, abruptly, the undergrowth all but disappeared. Above them, great trees vaulted to an almost unimaginable height, dwarfing them, pressing them down by their sheer immensity. The jungle around them seemed much older, there were fallen trunks, huge, on the ground. The canopy had deepened to the point where it almost blocked out the sun, leaving them in an eerie twilight. McQueen stopped and leaned on his machete, as Barnes pushed her way up beside him.

"You were right," she said nodding up at the green-black, leaf filled 'sky'.

He just nodded. "This looks like a good place to take a break," he suggested. Barnes nodded.

"Good idea," she agreed. She glanced over at the rest of the 58th. "Let's eat," she said. "We'll knock off for thirty mikes. The going should be easier from here on in..."

Sheryl Clay © 4/96

Next : Part Two

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