|Author's Note: This
story takes place during the end of and immediately following S:AAB's "Tell Our Moms
We Done Our Best" and deals with the emotional impact of that episode. It is a
prologue or setup for future stories. Be patient with me and they will come to you. Enjoy!|
Standard Disclaimer: This is a work of amateur fiction not meant to infringe on copyrights held by James Wong & Glen Morgan, Twentieth Century Fox Television, Hard Eight Pictures, Inc. or anyone involved in the making of the TV series _Space: Above and Beyond_. Anything else is mine, all mine!
PJS's Fanfic Disclaimer: This is fanfic, and in fanfic there is never ONE TRUTH, but rather many individual truths. This is just one of them.
HOUSE OF CARDS - SPADES
"Do you want to explain to me how in hell a bomb got past your security, Commodore?!"
Mr. Evan Cox, a slender man, of average height, in his late thirties stood toe to toe with Commodore Ross in the Orientation Room of the USS Saratoga. His dark blue suit had been crisp and neat just an hour ago, but now was situated on his shoulders crooked, the fabric wilted. His normally tame, fair hair was wild.
Mr. Cox had been the executive assistant to the recently deceased CEO of AeroTech, E. Allan Wayne. Since the conference room explosion, he had been blustering through this ship, demanding answers where there were none. The investigation was only an hour old. Most of the victims were still being examined by the medical teams and they were still waiting to hear from the Fire Marshal, on the specifics of the blast. Ross did not need this weasely little man in his face, reminding him of what he already knew.
Ross stiffened, holding his temper in check. The best approach to a man like this was to let him rule the conversation. *Don't push him. No matter how angry he makes you,* he reminded himself. Still, it was his duty to defend his ship and her crew.
"Sir, our sensors were not equipped to--"
"I don't want to hear it." Cox turned away. As Ross watched the other man drag his hands through strands of blond hair, yet again, he realized - almost laughing at the absurd timing of his thought - that he had lost count of how many times Cox had made that gesture. *No wonder his hair is so disheveled.*
"Commodore." Cox swiveled to face him. "The Saratoga has the reputation of being . . . scratch that, _had_ the reputation of being the safest carrier in our fleet. You just lost that distinction, today. Thanks to this catastrophe."
The man knew exactly where to hit, even though he was a civilian. Ross maintained his calm exterior, unwilling to give this man the satisfaction.
"Sir, we could not have known--"
"I don't want to hear the excuses. You screwed up and it cost us the lives of Mr. Wayne, Admiral Stinner, General Alcott, and Mr. Schaffner. Oh, and let's not forget Colonel McQueen's crippling injuries. And the two security guards who also sustained severe injury. You let this happen, Commodore."
Ross felt his hands ball up involuntarily. *_I_ let this happen?!* he wanted to throw at the man. *It was your precious Mr. Wayne, who provoked the envoy.* He chose, instead, to keep his temper in check. There was no point in digging himself in deeper.
"It was a regrettable mistake. One I wish could be reversed, sir." Ross relaxed his shoulders, as Cox let him finish at least one sentence. "There is always the chance, with these peace negotiations, that they are a ploy by the enemy. To get us to relax our guard."
"Well, they achieved that beautifully. Didn't they." Cox's eyes were flashing.
"Sir, Lieutenants West and Hawkes reporting, as ordered."
Ross looked up to see Nathan West and Cooper Hawkes standing just inside the doorway. He hadn't heard them enter. The sight of just the two young men, caused an instinctual reaction; he wondered where the rest of the Wild Cards were. That thought smacked into his chest, pushing the air out of his lungs. He blinked once, taking a deep breath.
Before Ross could speak, Cox was already halfway across the room. Ross caught Nathan's eye and tried to telegraph his warning. West had a hot temper when he let it go, and appeared to already be keeping a tight reign on it, having recognized Mr. Cox for who he was - Wayne's right hand man - the instant he saw him. Despite the obvious signs, Ross wondered if Nathan would even bother to control his temper, should he be provoked. He hoped the lieutenant was smarter than that, it would serve him no good to fly off the handle, now.
*Keep it in check, son.*
"So, you men brought the Tellus and Vesta colonists home safely?" It was a rhetorical question really. "I want to thank you. The attack was a tragic event and we did everything we could to get the survivors back."
Nathan's face seemed to harden even more, if that were possible, and stepped forward, having the advantage of two inches over the other man.
"Since when is sitting on your fat asses and covering the truth, 'doing everything you could'?"
"Lieutenant," Ross said sharply. Cooper curled his hand around Nathan's arm.
"Sir." Nathan snapped himself to attention. "May I ask; why have we been called, here?"
"Mr. Cox just wanted to congratulate you both." Ross answered flatly.
"Both of you deserve medals, for your bravery." Cox added, his tone obsequious. Nathan visibly bristled.
"You can keep your medal and your praise, sir." The last word hissed between clenched teeth and Nathan spun away, starting for the door.
Cooper remained, glaring at Cox. "You knew?" The young InVitro's brow was drawn. "You knew the Chigs didn't want you to settle on those planets. But you went ahead and sent those people anyway? You sentenced them to death. Why?"
West had turned around at Cooper's confused query, and was watching Cox, to see what the reaction would be. Even though he couldn't see Cox's face, Ross knew what the expression had to be as he watched Nathan's eyes narrow.
"Lieutenant, we had no knowledge of the enemy's existence, prior to their brutal attack."
"Bullshit," Nathan spat, advancing on Cox, but he pulled himself up short.
"Oh very nice," the man muttered. "You want the truth, don't you? Yes, I can see that. Well, the truth is; we were not aware of any alien threat to our colonies. We're not monsters, Lt. West. Despite what you might think. We would never have sent innocent people to die, had we known."
Nathan shook his head, with an exasperated sigh; his hands were balled into tight fists.
"I saw Tellus. I know what they did." Nathan's voice was taut. "Nothing you can say will ever make up for that. So, keep your bullshit excuses and your apologies. They don't mean a damn thing."
Nathan held Cox's gaze for a second longer, then spun around and marched out of the room, before he was dismissed. Hawkes stood for a moment longer, shaking his head slowly. Then, he followed his friend.
Nathan West stormed down the corridors of the Saratoga, putting some distance between himself and the "O" room.
He was on his way to the infirmary, where the colonists were being examined and receiving treatment. Kylen would be there and he needed nothing more than to see her, to be reassured by her presence. His breathing was shallow, the tight fist of a primal scream caught in his throat.
Those AeroTech bastards had sentenced their own people to death. He and Kylen had put their trust and faith in the Colonial Program, believing and hoping in the extraordinary future they would have had together. That trust, the trust of all the AeroTech colonists, had been violated, one hundred fold. The truth was out, yet AeroTech continued to lie.
Nathan took deep breath, trying to calm down. Kylen didn't need to deal with him like this, in her state. She had enough to worry about, as it was.
Nathan heard footsteps approaching behind him, and soon could feel a presence at his back. He didn't need to turn around to know that it was Cooper Hawkes. Nathan had obtained a shadow, during the last hour. Cooper was grieving, yet not quite understanding the strength of that grief. They had all learned that there were times when they needed to be patient with Cooper; he was still a child in so many ways. Yet, there were times when patience ran thin.
Now, was one of those times.
Cooper Hawkes followed on his heels like a lost puppy, hoping this kind person could show him the way home, not realizing that this person he shadowed was also lost. Nathan didn't have the heart to tell him to shove off. Cooper was so vulnerable, right now, having just lost most of his family, in the rush of battle. He wasn't the only one and Nathan didn't need the reminder, or Hawkes stepping on his heels, especially since he wanted to be with Kylen.
A merciless wave of grief slammed into his body, as a memory of home assaulted him. Two annoying little brothers tagging along, teasingly, whenever Kylen would come over to their house. A quiet, romantic interlude on the back porch; he's just about to kiss her, and up come two bratty faces - scaring the shit out of the couple. He and Kylen curled up on the couch watching TV; Neil and John come bounding in, flop down, and refuse to leave. Those days were gone, but the eerie deja vu of living with an InVitro who desperately wanted a family and the example of an older brother had become a constant reminder of that loss, while at the same time, in some small way, filling that void.
"Coop?" Nathan tried to gage his voice to be compassionate. "You goin' to see McQueen?"
He turned around, to glance at Hawkes as they walked.
"No, I don't think so," Cooper replied. "The colonel wouldn't want to see me. He's too sick. Besides, there's nothin' to say."
"Then, why the hell are you followin' me?" Nathan barked, stopping in his tracks to turn on Hawkes, and instantly regretting his out burst. He was so raw, after meeting with Evan Cox, that even the slightest provocation would have made him strike out. He knew he should not be taking it out on Cooper.
The InVitro stared back at Nathan blankly; eyes gray and dull, cheeks sunken. Then, looking around him, he seemed to register, for the first time, that they where standing a few feet from the infirmary doors.
*God,* Nathan thought. *Is he really that out of it?* Would that lost look ever disappear? Nathan told himself that Hawkes would find his balance, again. It would just take time.
"I'm sure McQueen would want to see you, Coop," Nathan tried. "Besides, you're already here."
"You goin' to see her?"
Nathan nodded, a weak grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. He still felt shaken up by everything that had happened, today, but there was still room for the joy at seeing her, again, safe and relatively sound. He suddenly realized that Cooper was watching him expectantly.
"No." Nathan shook his head. "Uh-uh. I'm sorry, Coop. But I draw the line, at this."
"It's not like you two are gonna be alone," Cooper said. "They'll be the other colonists around."
Hawkes had a point but, somehow, that didn't matter.
"Go see Colonel McQueen," Nathan said firmly.
Hawkes seemed to take that as an order, slinking off - a kicked puppy with his tail between his legs. Nathan sighed, not wanting more guilt to add to his already too heavy load.
"Hawkes!" he called, as the InVitro swung the hospital door open. He was suddenly at a loss for words. Everything he could think of to say was pointless drivel. Cooper turned around and the two men shared an understanding look. Then, Hawkes stepped through the door and was gone.
*Everything will be all right,* Nathan tried to tell himself, knowing there was no truth in it. Things had quit being 'all right' two years ago.
Lieutenant Nathan West sat on the floor in one of the Saratoga's infirmary wards, next to the lower bunk upon which Kylen Celina was resting, intravenous fluids being fed through the needle in her left hand. He watched her. Faint remnants of bruises blotched her smooth skin. Sleep did not relax her fair features; her face pinched, eyes fluttering under closed eyelids.
*What must she be dreaming about?* he wondered.
*What must they have put her through?* a more troubling question replaced it.
He pushed that thought to the back of his mind, for now. The doctor had said that her physical trauma was negligible and mostly due to malnutrition which could easily be remedied. Then, there was the psychological trauma to think of, but that would be evaluated later, when she was back on Earth. He didn't want to think about that, now. All that mattered was that she was here, alive and recovering.
Nathan breathed a long sigh, hardly believing Kylen was with him, as he lifted her small, perfect hand into his. It just didn't seem real, somehow. After more than a year spent dreaming of and working for this day, it seemed almost too good to be true; like a dream, a dream he'd had for too many nights, one he didn't want to wake from.
*If anyone tries to pinch me, I'll have to kill them,* he promised silently.
This was no dream, though, and he knew that soon they would be separated, again, but he thought that this separation was one he could bear, because she would be safe, back home.
Yet, at what cost had this answer to his prayers come?
The answer slammed into him, as the events of the day crawled through his mind.
*Negative, Damphousse is out, I'm not leavin' her.* No, he couldn't leave Shane and Vanessa. He had to do something. He couldn't just sit by and watch them get sucked into the planet's atmosphere. Couldn't leave them to die. *Take her home.* The disabled ISSCV cockpit drifting, like a feather, down into the atmosphere. *Semper Fi, my friend.*
Shane had always supported him, understood his pain and his desperation, the loss and the need to never give up on Kylen. As proof, she had likely given her life for his personal crusade. Guilt didn't even begin to describe how he felt.
*Take 'em home.* His ISSCV cockpit bucked, and he felt the lift of it, as Paul released the box. There was nothing Nathan could do, but let him go. Dammit, Wang!
Nathan had stared helplessly out of the window, watching the lonely carrier take on the last Chig fighter.
Paul had gone down fighting, transformed from a nervous, timid, intellectual into a courageous, honorable Marine. He had made his choice and Nathan had to respect that, no matter how much it hurt.
Cooper climbed into the cockpit seat beside him, stunned and disbelieving. Nathan had felt that moment when it had hit Hawkes that Shane, Vanessa, and Paul were lost. All for Kylen, all for him.
*No,* he reminded himself.
If they were dead, they had given their lives for more than just Kylen. There had been more at stake, than just one woman. It had come down to a heartbreaking decision; the lives of three Marines, who knew that they were out here to protect and willing to give their lives for that, or twenty-plus innocent civilians. Once Shane and Paul had broken through his panic, with their logic, he had known it was true. They had died - if they were truly dead - defending the innocent and their memories deserved to be honored as such. His friends wouldn't want him to feel guilty, wouldn't blame him or Kylen. There was no blame to put on anyone but the Chigs.
Kylen shifted on her mattress, squeezing his hand tightly, her face tensing. "Mmphff." She tossed her head, her free hand rising up to her chest, gripping the neck of her hospital gown, her feet kicked at the sheet covering her. "Nuh..no..." she murmured.
"Kylen," he whispered, rising to his knees. She didn't wake, continuing to struggle against an enemy only she could see. He touched her cheek. "Kylen, shh. You're all right. Shh."
A desperate gasp for air, and she lunged against an invisible predator. Nathan fell back, reaching down and planting a hand on the floor. She gazed around wildly and he leaned forward to capture her hand, again, in hopes of focusing her. She turned her head sharply, momentary panic in her bright blue eyes, then let her other hand drop from her chest to cover his, as she fought to regain her equilibrium. He pressed a hand to her shoulder, in a silent order for her to lay back and she obeyed.
"I'm sorry," she said.
An embarrassed smile quirked her lips. "I don't know."
She still held onto his hand. It was as if they were both afraid to let go of each other, for fear one, or the other, would disappear. Maybe, if they held onto each other they could prevent that from happening.
Until two years ago, Nathan could never have dreamed of Kylen not being in his life. They had always been together, that was just the way it was and would always be. Or so he had thought. Then, the Tellus disaster had taken her away from him, and he had learned painfully what it was like to be without her. The worst of it was the not knowing. Was she alive? Was he ever going to find her? Would she be whole and healthy when he did?
When he had first heard from McQueen about the colonists' release, he couldn't let himself believe it. Nathan West, the ultimate believer, could not let himself believe that Kylen would be among that bunch. When he had seen her name on the list of colonists, he'd felt his heart lift for the first time in a year and a half, but it had quickly fallen. Could he believe that the Chigs were legitimate in their plea for peace? He wouldn't let himself believe; the fall would hurt, too much. Even when the Wild Cards had been called in to rescue the attacked ISSAPC which had carried Kylen, his heart was in his throat and his stomach was in his shoes. Not until his flashlight's beam had illuminated her face had it started to become a reality. And not until her hand had landed in his, and he had lifted her out of that dark corner to fall weakly into his arms, had it truly become real.
"Nathan," Kylen whispered, dragging him back to the present. At his prompting look, she continued. "The two women, the pilots. What happened to them?" she asked, her gaze penetrating, eyes shining, guilty.
For a moment he couldn't speak and lowered his head, to collect himself.
"What happened?" she demanded, quietly.
"They went down, caught by the planet's gravity," he told her haltingly.
Her eyes slammed shut and she shook her head. "No." Her voice was weak, pleading.
Nathan squeezed her arm, to focus her. She didn't open her eyes but he knew he had her attention.
"They sent SAR teams out to recover them. We'll get Shane and Vanessa back," he assured her, she nodded.
"What about the man who was with you?" she asked.
Nathan shook his head, not trusting his voice. Wang's voice - his battle cry - as he blasted at the last remaining Chig fighter, resounded in Nathan's memory. He doubted if he would ever forget it.
"I'm so sorry." Kylen clasped his hand. Her face took on grim lines suddenly. "Those monsters."
Nathan was struck by a memory flash of the Kazbek Penal Colony. Had that been her, calling out to him from the cell, or had it been the clone all along? He had to know.
He captured her gaze and, in a firm tone, asked, "Kazbek?"
She nodded. "I don't know how long they kept us there." Sitting up abruptly, she tightened her grip on his hand. "Why didn't anyone come back for us?"
He shook his head, unable to meet her gaze, ashamed. He had no answer. He could come up with excuses, but there were no honest answers, none he could give. They had been in a hot zone, deep in enemy territory. None of them were sure there were really prisoners in there, especially after the clean-up crew had brought no one back out with them. If he had known that she had really been there, he would never have left.
"I--" he cut off his words, not sure what to say. Then, it all flooded out in a rush. "We weren't sure there were ever any prisoners, there. They made a copy of you. Tried to trick me. I didn't believe it was you in that cell. I thought it was all some sort of sick set up. I knew _it_ wasn't you, but..... Dammit! If I'd known, you were there. They would have had to shoot me to get me off that planet."
She reached up to squeeze his shoulder reassuringly, her eyes reflecting her understanding, but masking the pain, which only he would have been able to detect.
She appeared to mentally give herself a shake, trying to push the past behind her.
"It's funny," she whispered, forcing a smile.
"What is?" he asked, returning the smile.
"This." Her hand caressed the shoulder of his flightsuit, a shiver danced up his spine.
He had never thought he would feel her touch, again. Like a shot, it all came flooding back achingly, what he had buried to survive this war; how much he loved her, how exciting he found her, her curves, her sweet smile, how beautiful her eyes were when they look at him in that adoring way she had.
"You as a Marine," she continued, her hand sliding down his arm, he stared helplessly at her, lips slightly parted.
"What's so funny about that?" he asked, in mock offense.
"Nathan, you are the last person I could ever see toting a fire arm, flying a plane. . . taking a life." She turned suddenly serious. "But I guess we've both changed a lot, huh?"
"Not so much," he assured her.
He couldn't stand it any longer, the emptiness of sitting so close to her and not holding her. She must have read it in his eyes because she met him halfway, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and pulling him close, as he rose up to kneel next to the bunk. Kylen pressed her face against his neck, as he remembered she always did when he held her tight, her breath warm - even through his turtleneck shirt - comforting in its familiarity.
"We're here," she whispered. "That's all that matters."
He pulled back, searching her eyes, a giddy grin flirting with his lips; she returned it, her eyes dipping to linger on those lips. That look was all he needed, swiftly he dove, tasting her sweet kiss for the first time in two years.
After a time, Kylen pulled back reluctantly, her expression bittersweet.
"I'll be going home," she said, joy mixed with melancholy.
"Your dad took the news about Tellus pretty hard," Nathan told her. "Mom says they're looking after him, though."
"I can't wait to see them all," Kylen said, smiling. "How did they take your enlistment?"
Nathan almost laughed, but the pain gripped his chest. "They weren't happy with me. They're not happy with me."
He'd said too much. A shadow of panic crossed in front of her eyes, and he could almost hear her thoughts. Neil West; she was remembering that his brother was old enough to be drafted. He tried to shut the memory of Mors out of his mind, for fear that Kylen would see the truth in his eyes. She couldn't handle this, not now. They weren't sure if she was strong enough. It should wait until she was home and had her family, and his, to offer support - would that he could be there for her.
"Neil's twenty," she stated, her voice shaking, fear flashing in her eyes. "Old enough to enlist." Before he could stall her, she asked it, "Is he in this war?"
It was a blessed easy question. He could lie to her now, simply say, "no." It wouldn't technically be a lie, but she would never forgive him for not being honest with her, and she would know that he was lying. Kylen pinned him with one of her most intense stares and he knew there would be no lying to her.
"He was." Nathan didn't trust his voice further or the tears he held at bay.
She didn't need to hear more, judging by the tears which welled up in her eyes.
"No," she cried softly. "God, no."
The pain in her voice and eyes sliced through him, reopening the carefully bandaged wound. Her gaze was pleading for him to tell her different and all he could do was shake his head. She covered her face with her hand, trying to hide her tears from him, rocking slightly, shaking. Nathan slipped his right arm around her back, his other hand curling around her arm. She gasped as he leaned in to press his forehead against her soft hair. Then, she turned and wrapped her arms around him, as they shared their grief.
Lieutenant Cooper Hawkes' ground devouring stride ate up the Saratoga's hospital corridors, as he made his way to the room where Colonel McQueen was recuperating. The young man's vision kept blurring and he'd blink back the tears, just to have them well up, again.
Tyrus Cassius McQueen, the closest thing to a father Cooper had ever known - and would ever know - had nearly died, but was still clinging fiercely to life. The colonel had a fighting chance, he was strong. At least, that is what Cooper tried to tell himself.
Shane Vansen the closest thing to a mother Cooper would ever know, had just gone down in the cockpit of an ISSCV along with Vanessa Damphousse - his sister. And the brass didn't seem to give a damn that they might have survived the descent and be alive on planet 2063Y. Finally, Paul Wang - his brother - had been taken out by a single Chig fighter.
Cooper Hawkes had, in one whirlwind of a day, lost the only family he had ever known. Only he and Nathan remained. The InVitro's stomach clenched, over and over, churning; and his heart rate was three times as fast as it should be. The aching loneliness he had felt for the first five years of his life was returning, creeping around him threateningly.
*This is not happening,* repeated in his mind, denial firmly entrenched, there.
Cooper's strength had flooded out of him, when the APC had landed and come to a halt safely, on the Saratoga. The fear he had not allowed himself to feel through the entire ordeal had crashed like a tidal wave over him, at the realization that his friends were likely dead, dragging his strength with it, now that his courage was no longer needed.
His entire body was shaking.
Cooper stopped short at the door to one of the wards, a room full of bunk beds, each one holding a recovering colonist. The odd sight which had caught his eye and made him stop was the person crouched by one of the bunks. The young man wore a USMC flightsuit, and at first Cooper didn't recognize him as Nathan, not until he saw the woman on the bunk in front of him. Her curly blond hair was now clean and shining, but shorter than it was in the pictures which were tacked up on Nathan's rack. This was Kylen, the ghost who had haunted Nathan West - and the 58th - for eighteen months.
When they were unloading the colonists from the APC, that had been the first time Cooper had seen her and known who she was. He and Nathan had come out of the cockpit, both feeling numb and sick - he could see it in Nathan's eyes and body language. Seeing them, Kylen had gotten to her feet and crossed to them. She had hardly acknowledged that Hawkes was even there, because she had immediately become ensconced in Nathan's arms.
Nothing had ever been so important to Cooper, as Kylen was to West, until he had become a part of the 58th squadron. Today, those important people had been ripped away from him, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. Had this been what Nathan felt; the frustration and guilt of not being able to do anything, the emptiness fearing he would never be in her presence, again. He was happy for Nathan, that Kylen had been safely returned, but Cooper could still feel the fist close around his heart. Kylen had been returned, but at the cost of three lives more dear to him than his own.
He tried to tell himself that Nathan deserved this happiness, after all he had been through, but his pain needed a target. No, Shane wouldn't want him to blame anyone. She was a soldier, Corps to the core, and she knew what she was giving her life for. And she loved Nathan, he knew that. To see Nathan's search come to a happy end was enough for her to be willing to give her life. So, he would be happy for Nathan, and taking his cue from his squadron mate and friend, a man he looked up to, he would have faith that Shane and Damphousse were alive on planet and would come home.
"Excuse me, sir." the voice seemed to come from far away. Cooper tried to zero in on it. "May I help you. . ." The nurse standing next to him craned her neck, looking for his name badge, "Lieutenant Hawkes?" She smiled up at him.
Cooper hadn't even realized he'd been standing here staring at Nathan and Kylen, he had been so lost in his thoughts. He shook his head embarrassed, turning to gawk at the woman awkwardly.
"Uh..." He glanced over at the couple, again. "Is she okay? Kylen, I mean."
"She's going to be fine," the nurse told him, with a friendly smile. "They all will."
Hawkes returned her smile nervously, then glanced back into the room. He watched as Kylen wrapped her arms around Nathan securely, he returned the embrace. She smiled faintly, then buried her face against his shoulder. *Yeah, she's going to be just fine.*
"They were lucky, those colonists," the nurse added. "It could have been a lot worse."
Cooper heard her move away and he turned back down the corridor.
Next :Part Two
© September 1996