Part Two

They found seats on the fallen tree trunks and shed their packs with a collective sigh. While the Five-Eight dug out food and canteens, Barnes pulled a map out of her pack, and took the digital compass from Damphousse. She dropped down onto a rock, and keyed some figures into the compass program. She sighed to herself, and shook her head.

Once he got an idea in his head, Paul Wang had a hard time letting go of it. And he was having a hard time letting go the idea of indigenous life in this jungle. While the others sat down and took the load off their tired legs, he wandered over to the edge of the undergrowth from which they had just emerged. There *had* to be something living on that rock besides vegetation. He stepped into to the bush.

"Wanger," Hawkes called. Wang turned. "Where you goin'?"

"Head call," Wang lied. Hawkes nodded.

"Well, don't go too far, wouldn't want you to get carried off by a dinosaur.." he smirked. Wang forced a laugh, and turned back into the trees. Breaking off a stem that looked like a large asparagus, he poked experimentally at the ground around him. It was spongy, though relatively dry. He bent low to examine the broad perforated leaf of some ground plant. Then he looked at the ground again, searching for tracks. He had no idea what he was looking for, really. He was just compelled to look. Pushing away the ground cover, his hand hit something hard; just a rock, but Wang was so determined to find *something* he knelt down to have a closer look. Pulling out his K-bar, he worked the blade under the rim, and dug out enough space to allow him to push in his fingers. Putting the knife down, he braced himself, then grabbed the rim of the rock, and shoved it upward.

And screamed.

"How we doing," McQueen asked softly at Barnes shoulder, as she made faces at the compass. She held it out to him, and slid over on the rock so he could sit down.

"Not as well as I'd hoped, not as badly as I thought," she said. She pointed to a spot on the map. "This is our position, provided those satellite jockeys back home didn't really screw up. We should still make our base camp location by nightfall, as long as we don't run into a lot of heavy undergrowth, again. I think we can make up some time."

McQueen nodded. A shriek from the forest brought them suddenly to their feet.

"Paul!" Damphousse shouted.

"Wang!" McQueen called. "What's going on?"

Wang stepped back into the clearing, his face ashen. He held out a squirming something skewered on the end of his K-Bar.

"I just turned over a rock," he replied shakily, "and this *thing* jumped out at me..."

"Did it bite you?" McQueen demanded. Wang shook his head.

Barnes tisked and shook her head as Wang came closer with his victim. "City kids," she groaned. "Don't turn over rocks. But if you *must* turn over rocks, be sure to keep that rock between you and whatever might crawl out from under it."

"I think there's a life lesson in that, someplace," McQueen added dryly. He leaned closer to the end of Wang's knife. "What the hell *is* it."

Whatever it was, it was long, fat, brown, and had a nasty looking hole full of fangs on one end. It thrashed angrily in what McQueen sincerely hoped were death throws.

"It looks like a kielbasa with teeth," suggested Barnes.

"Uhghh," said Damphousse, as Hawkes and West looked on curiously. "It looks like some kind of giant leech."

"And it stinks," Vansen concluded, wrinkling her noise.

"Maybe we should put it in a container or something, and bring it back for further study," Wang suggested. Hawkes took a quick step backward.

"No way you're bringing that stinkin' thing back on any transport *I'm* on..."

Barnes nodded. "I'm afraid I have to agree. Get rid of it. We can send a bio team back here after the war, if anyone really has a burning desire."

Wang looked like he wanted to argue.

"Dump it," McQueen reiterated. Wang made a face, but complied, pitching the now dead creature into the woods.

"Chow down," McQueen told them. "We're out of here in twenty mikes."

With jaundiced glances at the spot it the jungle were Wang's find had been tossed, the 'Cards went back to their Meals-Ready-To- Eat.

"How far behind schedule are we?" Vansen asked as they settled back down.

"Not too bad," Barnes informed her. "We'll need to hoof it, but we should reach our base camp location without a problem as long as we don't run into any more heavy growth."

"Or Chigs," West added. "Let's hope those Intel guys were right."

"What I don't get," said Wang, hoping to keep the conversation away from his exploration - the aftermath of which had left him a little light headed, "is how come the Chigs didn't know the planet was going unstable in the first place. I mean, they're at least as technologically advanced as we are..." He unscrewed the cap on his canteen, and took a long drink.

McQueen shrugged. "Technology's a funny thing," he replied. "Earth had the technology to destroy our planet long before we ever left her atmosphere. We can create human life through artificial reproduction, but we still can't cure the common cold. Maybe the Chigs have spent so much time looking outward, into space, that they never developed the technologies necessary to measure and gage planetary reaction."

Wang nodded, considering this. He passed the canteen to Vansen, who took a deep sip. She looked at Barnes curiously.

"Major, you and Colonel McQueen served together in the AI wars, right?" she asked as she passed the canteen to West. Barnes nodded.

"Umm hum. With the 42nd," she smiled a little wistfully. "Seems like ancient history." She glanced at McQueen out of the corner of her eye.

"Any good stories?" Damphousse ventured. Quick looks scuttled around the circle. Barnes looked over at McQueen, who was watching her, his expression inscrutable. He raised his canteen to his lips.

"Just remember I outrank you, now," he warned her, but his eyes glinted playfully, and there was no serious challenge in his voice. Barnes smirked and looked back at the 58th.

"Well," she mused, "let's just say that your CO had a fondness for the, uh, 'creative solution.' I think the only reason he didn't wind up in the brig, some days, is that he is very, *very* good." She glanced at McQueen, the depth of her respect heavy in her voice, and her eyes. She looked back at the 58th. "Saved my ass more than once."

"Yeah, well, I seem to remember you returning the favor," McQueen added, and for a moment the two veterans smiled at each other in recollection. Since it was obvious that they were not going to get any juicy tidbits out of the Major, Damphousse changed the subject.

"Why did you stop flying, ma'm," she asked. "If you don't mind my asking."

McQueen narrowed his eyes, watching Damphousse closely. He had a feeling he knew where the question was coming from. Vanessa Damphousse was a damn good pilot, but she was trained as an engineer, and that is where her strongest talents lay. McQueen knew there was a shortage a good military engineers, and that an engineer with combat experience would be invaluable. He knew Damphousse knew this, and perhaps wrestled with it. Well, Barnes was the right person for her to talk to. McQueen relaxed, and watched the interchange.

"You can always ask, Lieutenant," Barnes smiled. "I reserve the right to decide how much to answer. But, to answer your question - I never stopped flying, I'm still a qualified fighter pilot, and I still test fly most of my own jets. But you're right, I no longer fly with a combat squadron." She looked thoughtful a moment. "I'm a good fighter pilot, a damn good fighter pilot. But I'm a better systems designer. And the time came when I had to decide where my talents would better serve. It was a hard decision to make. And these days, I sometimes wonder if the best place for me really *is* behind a desk. I ask myself that question a couple of times a day, actually. So, far, though, I keep coming back to what I am best able to do. "

McQueen screwed the cap back on his canteen and climbed to his feet.

"Let's do this," he said, to no one in particular, hoisting his pack. "We've still got a long hike ahead of us."

Even with two more brief stops for rest, the Five Eight made their base camp destination only shortly after their original estimated time of arrival. Once clear of the initial undergrowth, the landscape had remained fairly open under the towering greenery. Buoyant with the realization that they no longer needed to hack their way forward at every step, they made good time. They even found a level and reasonably dry place within the parameters of their goal in which to set up camp. That was the good news. The bad news was that the "fault line" the planetary survey had identified to buffer them from the worst of the quake activity was *not* just a mere geological outcropping, but a huge cataract filled with a breathtaking waterfall and an equally breathtaking, but assuredly impassable, river rushing at least a quarter of a mile below. The scene delighted the Wildcards.

"It's beautiful," Damphousse breathed, coming up to the edge of the chasm and gazing down at the churning water.

"Like something out of a movie..." Wang agreed, spellbound. As they stood and watched, the sun shifted somewhere above the leafy canopy, slicing through the trees unexpectedly, and illuminating the waterfall. A rainbow arched across the span, eliciting gasps from the young Marines.

Behind them, the two veterans were somewhat less enchanted.

"Terrific," McQueen grumbled under his breath, wondering how many miles, and how many hours, this natural obstacle was going to add to their trip before they could find a place to ford it.

"We just aren't gonna get a break, are we," Barnes agreed. She sighed. "It *is* lovely..."

"That'll help," McQueen grumped.

"Well, it could be *ugly* and impassable..." Barnes reminded him. "Lord knows, we've seen *that* often enough in our day." McQueen made a face at her. "So," continued Barnes. "You want to tell them tonight, or wait till morning to give them the good news that this fairy tale place is probably going to add some serious hard miles to this expedition?"

McQueen pondered. "Let 'em set up camp," he said. "Let's you and me have a look around first."

Barnes nodded, but she was not looking at him. She cocked her head thoughtfully, then reached out and touched his arm. McQueen looked down at the hand closed around shirt sleeve. He looked at Barnes.

"Listen. Hear it?" she asked. McQueen frowned, and listened. In the distance, he could hear a booming, almost like an old fashioned cannonade. It was no enemy, though, or at any rate it was not Chigs.

"The volcano?"

"That would be my guess."

"I thought we had days, yet," McQueen said.

"It's probably just venting gases." Barnes mused. "I remember reading that smaller streams of magma sometimes force themselves to the surface through fissures around the central cone of the volcano. The explosions when the gasses reach the surface would sound like that."

McQueen looked at her in mild amazement. She looked up at him, then suddenly realized she was still holding his arm, and dropped her hand quickly. "I don't think it means it's in any danger of cookin' off sooner than we expected."

McQueen nodded. "Let's get set up," he said.

"Hey, Colonel!" Wang called from the edge of the chasm. McQueen turned. "You think that water's drinkable?"

McQueen shrugged. "Probably worth finding out," he agreed. They had carried in enough potable water to sustain them, but it would be well worth the effort of purifying the local stuff if they could replenish what they had already used. "Grab the reclamation unit, and you and Damphousse come with us. Vansen-West-Hawkes, set up a perimeter. And see if you can find anything around here dry enough to burn."

He waved at Damphousse and Wang, and walked over to the chasm's edge, were Barnes was already surveying the descent.

"Where the hell are *they* goin'?" West murmured to Vansen as he watched them walk away.

"Probably to see if there is a shallow enough place for us to cross that river down there," Vansen replied, 'while we still have some daylight to see by. That may be a pretty waterfall, but it's not gonna make our lives any easier tomorrow when we try to get to the other side."

By the cliff edge, Barnes was pointing at a stepped stone fracture running down the cliff into the ravine below.

"At least we won't have to rappel down the face," she said.

"Thank heaven for small blessings," replied McQueen, not sounding as if he felt particularly blessed. He started down.

It did not take them long to reach the bottom. McQueen left Wang and Damphousse with the reclamation unit by the river's edge, and went after Barnes, who had already started climbing along the bank. Watching his feet in the rough and spongy terrain, McQueen mentally reconfirmed his early suspicions that there were no large creatures native to this part of the planet. Or if there were, they went someplace else to drink. The foliage along that bank was just too dense and tangled. Thankfully, most of the growth right on the edge of that side of the river was low enough to step over, and he was able to leave his machete in it's sheath. Periodic flooding, he guessed, must have kept the growth in check. Barnes was maybe ten meters in front of him. He watched her moment, then looked out into the water, and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.


She turned and looked. He waved her back toward himself, then slipped into a small stand of low trees close to the water's edge.

"What is it?" Barnes called, parting branches. McQueen peered back at her from his perch on a large rock.

"C'mere." He held out his hand, grabbing hers, and hauled her up beside him. "Look."

The rock was too narrow for them both to lie on safely and Barnes wobbled precariously as she tried to see where he was pointing. McQueen caught her around the waist and pulled her into his side.

"See it?" he said in her ear, as he steadied her. Barnes nodded. Beneath the white water, a trail of ledges and boulders ran from one side of the river to the other, making a shallow, and narrow path. But the current was brutal over it, and the river dropped off dangerously into a series of steep rapids on the other side. Barnes pointed out as much. McQueen grunted.

"Yeah, but if we could get a line secured on the other side..."

Barnes nodded thoughtfully, looking into the trees opposite. "Can you shoot a grapple that far? " she asked.

"I don't know," McQueen replied honestly. "But I bet Hawkes could."

Barnes shifted slightly on the hard rock. It was almost with shock that she realized she was lying there with McQueen's arm tight around her, his body half on top of hers. Holding her pressed against himself, their heads so close together she could feel his breath on her face, so close their helmets clicked. A rush of conflicting desires assailed her suddenly. Part of her wanted to pull away quickly, escape the contact, jump off the rock into the water below. And part of her wanted to turn, look into his eyes. Touch her mouth to his, kiss him. Most of her, though, wanted to simply lie there in the quiet greenness and watch the river flow, nestled in his embrace. To forget about hard duties and hard decisions, and relax into the feeling of his weight on her body. She liked that feeling more than she cared to admit.

McQueen suddenly moved away from her as far as the narrow rock would let him, and cleared his throat. Barnes turned, saw the bewildered look in his eyes. She wondered what he was thinking. If he had felt something of what she did.

"Let's go," he said abruptly, sliding back to the ground. He did not reach to help her down.

"So, what do you think?" Wang asked nodding toward McQueen's back as it disappeared around an outcropping of rock. Damphousse looked up from her assembly of the Fluids Reclamation Unit, and followed his gaze.

"About them?" she queried. "I don't know. I mean, it's pretty obvious that they were close, once. And they work really well together, kind of like a well tuned machine, you know?"

"What do you mean?" Wang asked her.

Damphousse shrugged. "Well, this is the Major's mission, right? She's in charge. But McQueen outranks her. So, you'd expect some kind of tension between them about it, but there isn't any. They just do what has to be done. But it's not like they're *intimate* about it. I mean, there's no buddy-buddy stuff, really. They're military, but there's no ego involved. She doesn't throw her weight around, and he doesn't pull rank. It's just so smooth... I don't know..." she shrugged helplessly, trying to explain the inexplicable dynamic between the two senior officers.

"Yeah," Wang agreed. "They're professionals. But I don't know, there seems to something else there, too. You saw the way they were looking at each other when we stopped earlier."

"And what way was that?" Damphousse challenged, gently, turning back to the reclamation unit. "They were just reminiscing about old times..."

"Maybe..." Wang insisted, unconvinced.

"You think they were lovers." It was not a question.

Wang looked over at her, almost shyly. "I think maybe they wanted to be," he replied. "I'm not sure either one of them would admit it in a million years, especially not McQueen, but..." he let the statement trail off uncomfortably. "They *were* squad mates. I guess I don't see them as having surrendered to any feelings they might have had for each other, but I bet those feelings where there. Maybe they still are."

Damphousse sighed. "That's kinda sad," she said, looking at the spot where McQueen had been. Then she looked up at Wang, saw the expression in his eyes, and looked away, again, quickly. Suddenly, the discussion was no longer a idle speculation about their commanding officer's personal life, suddenly, it was much more real and much closer to home. They had both agreed that their "brief encounter" during R & R on the pleasure ship, Bacchus, was a one time anomaly, not to be repeated. They had even believed it when they had said the words. But the encounter had not come out of nowhere, and sticking to their decision was proving... challenging. It did not make things easier that they refused to talk about what they were feeling. Damphousse changed the subject.

"Is there a level place we can set this up," she asked, gesturing toward the river. Wang took a deep breath and walked over to the river's edge. The water directly under the fall was turbulent, but toward the edges of the pool it became calmer, and more shallow. The FRU could be set up easily enough on it's tripod in any one of the smaller pools near the bank.

"Yeah," he said, "over here." He planted himself with one boot in the water, and held out his hands for the unit's components. Piece by piece, he set up the tripod, securing it in the sandy bottom, then hung the reclamation unit from the apex, and let the intake hose drop into the water. He screwed a second hose into the outflow spigot, and tossed it to Damphousse. She, in turn, fed that hose to the analysis unit. Wang switched the FRU on. Now there was nothing to do but wait.

The Fluids Reclamation Unit served a multiple function, or more exactly, a single function for multiple sources - to reclaim, and render acceptable for human consumption, fluids found in a variety of places. The easiest task was the one they proposed for it now, to filter and alter as necessary, ground water found in an unfamiliar locale. By filtering, breaking down, "cleansing" and recombining the water molecules found in any resource, the FRU could provide a drinkable, if not particularly flavorful, beverage from almost any source from urine to sludge. There were even horror stories that circulated on occasion about isolated squads rendering drinking water from the flesh and blood of their dead.

Unless there was something intrinsically harmful in that river, the FRU would have no problem creating potable water from it. They just had to wait for the initial analysis to be completed, to know. It only took a few moments, and then a green light flashed on top of the analyzer and Damphousse touched the appropriate key to ask for the read out. The analysis flashed up on the screen beside the light.

"No problem," she said, happily. "There are some toxins, but nothing that can't be easily removed."

"Great," Wang said.

At the top of the chasm, Hawkes and Vansen busied themselves setting perimeter rods into the ground around what they had just finished marking off as their base camp. The tensile rods, once activated, would carry a charge between them that would repel all but the largest or most determined intruder. Hawkes took a handful of rod cups from Vansen, and a setting pistol, and started laying them in.

"These things won't do us much good if that volcano erupts on us," he commented, grunting as he fired the pointed end of a rod holder into the soft ground.

"They're not supposed to," Vansen said, knowing he knew this. "And they won't do anything to repel weapons' fire. Probably won't keep out Wang's dinosaurs, either. But they might keep back any smaller animals, if there are any, and any Chigs who decide to wander over, if any are still here." She dropped a rod into a cup just set by Hawkes. It extended a little less than three feet out of the ground, and was affectionately known as a "ball-buster," since the electrical "fence" it would generate would reach the average human male to about that region of the body. It cut the average Chig off at the knees.

"Anyway," she concluded, "that volcano is still miles away from us, and the Major said it will be days, yet, before it erupts. Don't worry about it."

Hawkes was not, particularly. He was just talking to have something to say. He did not like this jungle, its gloomy twilight depressed him, and the humid air was hard for him to breath. He felt the panicky edges of claustrophobia closing in on him whenever he looked up at the forest ceiling, and he recognized that any one of them could easily be lost forever in this wilderness if they wandered too far from the group. And as much as he teased Wang about his "dinosaurs" he did not like to think too much about *them*, either. He stopped a moment and gazed toward the chasm edge, in the general direction McQueen and Barnes had gone.

"They been gone a long time..."

"It's probably gonna take them a while to find a place for us to cross," Vansen replied, nudging him forward. She wanted to get these perimeter poles set before night came. "Why," she suddenly baited him irreverently, "you think they're up to something out there?"

Hawkes blushed furiously. Vansen smiled. This was a new behavior for her In Vitro squad mate, this acute sexual embarrassment. He had been a little weird since the Bacchus, and somehow she did not think that it was any after-effect of his brief bout with drug addiction. She wondered what it was all about. She knew Hawkes was intrigued, as they all were, by the possibility that McQueen and Barnes might have had some kind of a past relationship, but his discomfiture was all out of proportion for idle curiosity. And she had caught him more than once watching the Colonel and Barnes together, when he thought no one was looking. She pondered the possibility that Hawkes might be jealous. And rejected it immediately. Too weird.

But Vansen also knew that Hawkes had a special relationship with McQueen; that not only did he look up to the Colonel, as they all did, but that McQueen had become something of a role model and a guidepost for the younger man. A fellow In Vitro who had made a success out of his life. Maybe Hawkes was just trying to figure out how to behave.

"Come on, Coop," she said out loud. "Let's get this finished." Hawkes shrugged his shoulders, and set another rod.

In the middle of the camp, West had piled the Wildcards packs together, and had found enough reasonably dry wood to start a small fire. He lay more branches near it, to dry them, being careful to keep them far enough away from the flame to prevent smoke. Each member carried their own food and water, and their own eating utensils, plus a small camp pan and a cup. These items where not made out of metal, but of a new light weight, high density polymer that could withstand cooking temperatures easily, and could be used to heat food and drink. Additionally, West carried in his pack a collapsible pot that could be used to boil water for coffee, (and other uses,) the military having discovered somewhere along the line how important a hot cup of java was to morale. West took the pot out, twisted it open, and set it on the ground by the packs.

Besides their consumables, each team member carried a bedroll - or "bed square" more accurately - of high density fabric that folded down to about a foot square, but opened to a sleeping bag well enough insulated to keep the body warn down to temperatures of forty below with no other covering, or able to wick away sweat fast enough to allow a body to sleep comfortably even in sub-tropical heat. The bedroll had advantages and disadvantages - the most obvious being the high portability of the item, and its complete lack of padding on hard ground. West had occasionally used branches, or dried grass as a mattress when these items could be found, but he did not think such measures would be necessary here. The ground underfoot, though dry, was loamy with decay, and covered with a relatively soft layer of dead vegetable matter. It would be as comfortable to sleep on as anything else they were likely to find.

There were also two inflatable four man tents that West now pulled off McQueen's and Barnes' packs, respectively. He used a small foot pump to inflate them, then staked them down about twenty feet from the campfire. The layer of air between the two mylar sheets served two purposes. It provide wonderful insulation, and, together with the seaming of the tent walls, provided enough structure to keep the tent standing without ropes or poles.

Down by the river, below, Wang untangled the empty canteens and bottles he had carried down in bundle, and handed them over to Damphousse. It was a simple process to unhook the FRU from the analyzer and use the hose to fill the containers. But it did take time. Damphousse made herself comfortable on a rock, and filled canteens, while Wang explored the river bank. She watched him poking around for a moment.

"Paul, don't you dare turn over any more rocks. I don't want to see another one of those nasty things in my lifetime, thank you," she finally warned him, afraid of what his natural curiosity might drive him to do. But Wang was not looking for rocks to turn over. Parting the undergrowth he found something much more wonderful.

One of the striking things about the jungle, in Wang's opinion, was its unrelenting verdancy. Whatever was not brown was green. There were no other colors, no flowers, no variegated leaves. It stood to reason, he supposed, since colors required a high level of sunlight exposure and there was little sunlight to be found under the heavy canopy. Still, he found himself wishing for a small blossom or two to break up the monotony. And now, he had found what he was looking for. Down in the undergrowth, close to the banks where an occasional sunbeam would find its way through the breaks in the foliage above, was a small waxy-leafed plant with a brilliant, star-like red veined crown. It was not a flower, exactly, but it was lovely. Wang sighed, and plucked it up.

"What did you find," Damphousse asked, eyeing him warily as he walked back over to her with his hand behind his back. He held out his flower to her, like a little boy. Damphousse grinned.

"It's beautiful," she sighed, taking it from him and looking at it carefully.

"It's the only flower I've seen in this place," he said. Then he took it back from her, and tucked it behind her ear, under her helmet rim. Eyes locked on the sweet lines of her face, he trailed his fingers lightly over her cheek bone, lifted her chin.

"Paul," Damphousse whispered.

"I know," he replied, "But..."

A branch snapped, and Wang dropped his hand, turning quickly. Damphousse pulled the plant stem from behind her ear.

"How we doing?" McQueen asked, appearing out of the thick greenery with Barnes right behind him.

"It's drinkable, sir," Wang answered. "We're almost done refilling the canteens."

"Good," McQueen said. "I think we've found a place where we can cross tomorrow." He frowned at Damphousse's hand. "What's that?"

"Just a flower, sir," Damphousse answered. "Paul found it by the edge of the river."

McQueen looked annoyed. "You're damn lucky the sap in that thing isn't acid, or toxic. Get rid of it," he growled. He turned to Wang. "And will you knock off with the playing in the dirt? This isn't the Boy Scouts!"

Damphousse threw the stem away, looking embarrassed. McQueen glowered at them both. He had been shocked beyond words at the kiss these two had shared during battle following their most recent R & R, but only because he had not seen it coming, not because he did not know that such things happened. Especially during the heat of battle. He had seen veteran soldiers collapse in each other's arms in the trenches before. He had passed it off as the moment, but now he was not so sure. Not that he blamed them, but romances between squad mates were aggressively discouraged; it was distracting and destructive to team unity and morale if couples starting pairing off. If this "attraction" became something serious, he would have to transfer one of them out of the Five Eight, and he was loath to do that unless it became absolutely necessary. Well, he would deal with it when they got home to the 'Toga; starting with a serious talking to for each of them. Alone.

"Finish up here," he said, gruffly. "I want to get buttoned up inside that perimeter before it gets dark.

The others had done a nice job with the base camp. McQueen looked around with a satisfied nod. The perimeter rods were set and ready to be activated, a fire was going with more logs drying beside it. The tents were staked and waiting for them. And West had made some sort of a stew by combining MREs. It smelled pretty good, actually, and McQueen told him so. West smiled.

"I learned to cook in self defense, sir," he told his commander. "Both my parents worked long hours, so if my brothers and I wanted to eat we had to learn to fend for ourselves."

McQueen quirked a smile at him. This was definitely going to be one of the more luxurious nights he had spent in the field in a long time. Tents, hot food, hot coffee. Usually, they just bivouacked under the stars wherever they happened to be. If they slept at all. But McQueen did not expect trouble, even with all his natural wariness, and he had learned to take comfort whenever and wherever he could find it. In war, opportunities were few and far between. He checked to make sure they were all inside the perimeter, gave the warning, and switched the generator on.

They sat on the ground around the campfire, the Wildcards joking, even cutting up a little, and McQueen guessed that they, too, were responding to their relative relief now that the first goal had been attained and the heavy work was done. The only one who was not joining in on the merriment was Hawkes. McQueen watched him out of the corner of his eye. The boy's face worked thoughtfully, and McQueen had already caught him watching Barnes and himself stealthily when he thought no one was looking. McQueen sighed to himself. He had no doubt what the kid was pondering. He had already figured out that he and A. J. were probably the main topic of surreptitious conversation on this trip. After all, they had a past history, the details of which were unknown to the Wildcards, and there was hardly a group alive that liked gossip better than soldiers. Except maybe the press. The realization did not make him particularly happy, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it, so he ignored their speculative glances as best he could. As long as they remained orderly and respectful, he was not going to ask them to stop being human. Or to stop being kids. But Hawkes scrutiny sprang from something deeper than curiosity, and McQueen could feel the questions burning in the boy's mind. He wondered what he would tell him if Cooper finally asked.

But that was a problem to be faced when, and if, Hawkes screwed up the nerve ask his questions. In the mean time, McQueen was ravenous and eating was the primary consideration on his mind. Dinner tasted as good as it smelled.

"Well, Nathan gets the squad apron and spatula as far as I'm concerned," McQueen quipped when they had finished eating. "This was gourmet stuff. From here on in, West, if there's cooking needs to be done, you're it." The Wildcards laughed in agreement.

"That's fine, sir," West quipped. "But I don't do windows. Or dishes."

"Fair enough," McQueen agreed, feeling magnanimous on a full stomach. "Let's get cleaned up and hit the sack. We've got a long day ahead of us tomorrow. I'll take first watch." They did not take too much convincing. At least the Wildcards did not.

"I'll sit up with you for a little while," Barnes said, as the younger generation gathered bedrolls and crawled into their tents. "I'm not really tired, yet."

McQueen had a hard time believing that, but he also knew she was worried about the tasks that lay ahead of her. Anyway, the company would be nice. He took a fresh pot of boiling water off the fire and emptied in a package of powdered coffee. Giving the mixture a stir, he offered quiet thanks to the god of caffeine that coffee, at least, was one foodstuff that could be freeze-dried with no ill effects. The brew smelled wonderful, almost home-like in the exotic surroundings. He glanced over at Barnes, found her watching him.

"Did I scare you this afternoon?" she asked lightly. "Were you afraid I was going to let slip all your secrets?"

McQueen looked amused. "I don't have any secrets," he told her, holding the pot out. She extended her cup.

"Then you've already told them about the motorcycle?"

He smiled in earnest this time. "No," he shook his head, pouring, "I haven't told them about the motorcycle."

Barnes smiled back, her expression softly reminiscent. "Whatever happened to that, anyway?"

McQueen shrugged. "Sold it." He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "It made Caroline nervous."

Barnes nodded, studiously not commenting. McQueen looked at her more fully, a small challenge in the set of his mouth. Barnes laughed at him.

"I'm not saying a word. I don't malign your 'ex', you don't malign my 'late'..." she said, referencing both her now deceased husband and his former wife.

McQueen's expression softened, and he nodded. "Deal." He frowned, suddenly. "Where's yours, by the way?"

"My Harley? It's in Mike Jamison's garage, actually."

"God, I haven't thought about him in years. What's he up to these days?" he sighed, sipping his coffee.

"Well," Barnes pondered, "the last I spoke to him was just after the war started. He was on his third wife... " she glanced over at McQueen, "and since you're sitting, I can tell you this, his *seventh* child."

McQueen swallowed a mouthful in surprise. "What's he going for, a record?"

"Oh, I think he's *got* the record," Barnes laughed. She leaned forward, her legs pulled up and her elbows resting on her knees. She wrapped her hands around her coffee cup, and stared at the forest over the rim. She sipped her coffee abstractly. "Do you remember Terry Ryder? How she always carried a non-regulation ceramic mug in her pack because she refused to drink coffee from a tin cup?"

McQueen chuckled, but did not comment. Barnes nodded out at the waterfall.

"It *is* pretty," she commented at the pillar of falling water, illuminated by a slender beam of moonlight that had found its way through the canopy over the cataract.

"It's pretty." McQueen agreed with a faint smile. He watched her silently, saw her expression go distant, thoughtful, as if she was traveling to another time, another place. Her face looked ethereal, strange, in the firelight, the shadows carving angles and hollows that the sunlight disguised. Her eyes were black, fathomless. She ran her lips lightly over the rim of her cup, but did not drink, and McQueen felt his belly tighten at the thought of their touch. He pushed the thought way almost before he had it. Holding her, out there on that rock in the river, had triggered all those desires he had assured himself were not attainable. Those things, he reminded himself, now, were not for him.

In the distance, volcanic gases, exploding to the surface, boomed.

"Where'd you go?" he called her back.

Barnes turned and looked at him, and the moment was broken. She cocked her head thoughtfully. "I was thinking about Darlington Farm," she said. She turned and looked back out into the darkness. "It was a night like this one, remember? We were heading into battle the next day, and we had no idea what we would be facing. What to expect. We could hear the gunfire in the distance. But in that spot, in that moment, it was so beautiful. So... peaceful... The woods surrounding us. The moon bright. And that little stream running by... "

McQueen remembered. He remembered lying on their packs on the hard ground, heads close together, whispering. Trying to forget that they might die the next day. Trying to ignore the undercurrent of tension flowing between them. He remembered how badly he had wanted to kiss her, that night. Funny how nothing really changes, he thought. All the good it did.

"I remember the raccoons, or whatever they were, screwing up in the trees," he said out loud. "Kept us awake all night..." Barnes laughed.

"You *would* remember that," she said, leaning back again. She smiled at him fondly. He met her eyes a moment, then glanced away, again, contemplating his coffee cup. He looked softer, Barnes thought, in the firelight. Less formidable and severe. The glittering half-light added curves to his chiseled features, made his eyes sparkle, relaxed the usually stern and narrow line of his mouth.

She reminded herself that she had no business wanting this man. It was the same battle she had fought with herself ten years ago. Then, they had been comrades in arms. And she had been committed to someone else. She had taken that commitment seriously, maybe too seriously, but second guessing past decisions was pointless. And now? Well, things were just different, now. Despite the soft melting she felt deep in her center whenever he was near her, she reminded herself that too many years, and too much life, now stood between them. Besides, he had given her absolutely no reason to think he wanted more than their old companionship back. She sipped at her cup a little forelornly. Then he looked back at her, again, and she felt her breath catch at the sheer virile reality of him. She looked away quickly. After a moment, she sighed, and pressed her forehead against her mug.

"You're worried about tomorrow," McQueen ventured, suddenly needing to break the silence. Barnes nodded, glad for something else, something sane, to talk about. Before she made a fool of herself, and embarrassed him. Destroyed the tender balance of friendship they had finally managed to reestablish, after all the years.

"There's just so much we don't know, Ty. This mission means so much. So far in this war we've been deaf, dumb and blind. We've learned a little, but *so* little. And not anywhere near fast enough. The enemy has the AIs, they know so much more about us than we do about them. This may be our chance to even the odds a little. To access an enemy mainframe, intact. We may never get an opportunity like this again." She shrugged. "I guess I'm just afraid I won't be able to do what needs to be done."

"You can do it," McQueen replied matter-of-factly. "If anyone can."

Barnes turned back to him, and smiled. "You know, from anyone else that would sound like a platitude. You make it sound like you mean it."

"I do mean it," McQueen agreed. He looked at her quietly for a moment. "You should get some sleep."

Barnes nodded, but made no move to get up. She looked over at quiet tents. "They're good kids, good young officers," she said softly. McQueen nodded.

"They like you," he replied. Barnes glanced up at him.

"That bother you?" she asked him. McQueen looked surprised. After a moment, he grimaced, and shrugged.

"A little," he admitted, sheepishly, realizing that it did. Barnes smiled warmly. "What's the smile for?" McQueen asked.

"It's just kinda nice to see you jealous of their affections," she replied. McQueen sighed.

"They mean a lot to me," he said. "And you're good with them. I'm surprised you never had any kids," McQueen said. He said it lightly, almost thoughtlessly, and was surprised to see the shadow cross her face.

"Wasn't in the cards," she replied. She sighed and got to her feet. "I'm gonna turn in," she told him. "As you say, I need to get some sleep." She got her bedroll from her pack and crawled into the tent where Vansen and Damphousse were already sleeping, giving him only a vague murmur of 'goodnight'. McQueen watched the fastened tent flap behind which she had disappeared for a long time.

Next : Part Three

Previous : Part One

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