Part Two

He and Wang were alone in the lounge, deeply involved in playing a video rematch of the '57 Super Bowl. Paul was franticly trying to keep his wounded team on top as his grinning opponent threw onslaught after vicious onslaught at his hard-hit front line. There was a flag on every play she saw; Cooper's theory seemed to be if he couldn't win, hurt 'em. Both were concentrating so hard neither noticed her until she leaned past Hawkes' hunched shoulders and touched his running back while the ball was in the air, sending the figure on a long, looping curve that intercepted the pass and left his man tearing through wide open territory for a 60 yard touchdown.

"Sometimes, the more subtle approach is the most effective," she said as he looked up at her, Cooper's grin got even bigger and more wicked.

Paul sat back and stared at her accusingly. "No fair. You guys are double-teaming me."

"It's OK, Paul. I only want to borrow him a minute. Hawkes?" Shane walked to one of the small ports at the far end of the lounge, Coop slouching behind. He hulked over her when they stopped. She figured he seldom stood to his full height in a misguided attempt not to appear intimidating. It didn't work. He was so tall, his shoulders so broad, everything about him rawboned, over-sized and dangerous, that he always looked quietly menacing, as if his gene pool had been stocked with wolves. Add an evil, slit-eyed grin that both beguiled and unnerved -- not helping his harmless act at all -- and she got the feeling he'd been kicked out of the pack for having way too much fun.

She tilted her head back to look up at him, feeling warmer in his presence, as always. "I want to apologize. For yesterday."

"What do you mean? What about yesterday?"

"Leaving you out there. Hiding in the sun is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and I knew that. I should have been ready. You shouldn't have been alone."

"Oh, please," he sneered. "Someone had to help West. Damphousse and Wang were taking care of their own problems. I like to hunt. Found him, didn't I? You're not the only one who's read the book."

"Coop, we almost lost you."

"Yeah. So? I got a new plane out of it."

That felt like someone had laid a knife blade across the back of her neck. Did he even know how to be afraid? "So you were my responsibility and I let you down and I'm sorry, that's all."

"Hey, I'm responsible for myself, Vansen. I don't need anybody looking after me."

"Fine, then." He could do something like the peaches, then turn around and be a total ass. Now she was mad at him all over again. He could raise her hackles with just one of those mean grins. "But...weren't you scared?"

His eyes narrowed. "No. I'm never scared. Not when I'm with you guys." He gave her a hard look. How much could he read in her face? Then he leaned closer. "Is this what you and McQueen been fighting about?"

She stiffened. "How - no, not exactly. He...reminded me of the responsibilities of command."

"Looks like he reminded you with a stick. What's he got I don't, huh?" He smirked at her. Shane took a deep breath and strode away, so mad and embarrassed she was about ready to start another fight.

"Vansen?" Hawkes called after her, his voice softer. "You don't need to be running to me to say how you're sorry, like you hurt my feelings or something. The Colonel, either. I'm frosty with McQueen, but he's always ready with the advice, thinks he knows everything. Bet he doesn't know how to deal with this." That evil grin again. "I'm really getting a kick out of it."

He saw the tight look in her face and sobered. "You and McQueen - seems to me you got your own feelings to work out. Worry about yourself, for a change."

She jerked a nod at Hawkes, caught Paul's quizzical gaze for a second, and made it out of the lounge before taking several deep, shuddering breaths. Keeps getting better and better, she mentally berated herself. Now I'm taking advice from a guy with six years' total experience at life. If I were smarter, I'd be scared.

As the side of the planet they were to patrol spun into darkness, McQueen gave them a briefing that was almost an exact repeat of the day's before, and the day's before that.

"We do have some new intelligence," McQueen told them, "from probe packages dropped by the initial recon mission. One thing: this cloud cover clears out at around 10,000 to 3,000 meters. That means you could get down on the deck if you had to. But stay high today and collect as much data as possible. Intelligence says the Chigs are not only using this system's natural disturbances to avoid instrument detection, but a package similar to their U3-78's ability to disrupt our communications as well. Now that we know this, tracking the areas of greatest disruption is paramount. With what you get in this patrol, maybe tomorrow's, plus the intelligence data, the numbers boys can finally pinpoint the base and we can take care of it once and for all.

"And things are going to get hairy. We get no help. The front is heating up, and this bucket needs to be there. But not until we take out the last known Chig base at our backs."

His gaze encompassed them all. He never addressed Vansen directly, which wasn't unusual, and he put West in charge, which he did as often as he gave her command. None of her team mates passed her any knowing or suspicious looks, or asked any hard questions, so she got through the briefing with a minimal amount of anxiety. She escaped to the solitude of her Hammerhead, and then all worries were washed away in the unmitigated joy of piloting the lovely, big machine. Seeking through the night clouds was a welcome respite, her mind turning automatically to the routine of the mission. Still they found nothing; the patrol was completely uneventful. For once, life aboard ship was more exciting than the war.

The next day, the newly-commissioned battleship Wisconsin cruised by on her way to the hottest part of the line. She dropped off two fledging Marines, fresh out of Lejeune, tucked up tight under her belly like a pair of eagle chicks. When they joined the Wild Cards aboard the Saratoga, the handles Deuce and Trey Spot were bandied about, even Pair of Deuces. But Paul suggested simply the New Kids, and Cooper seconded it. When Shane first saw them, as the squad was being briefed, she was amazed at how young they were. Mere children. Later, going over their records, she found the girl had been her age, the boy but a year younger.

And so she discovered not only does war make you hard, it makes you old. She never could recall the newbies' names.

Less than an hour into the patrol, deep in the planet's cloud cover with West in command, an entire flight of Chig bandits rose up from the surface behind them undetected, and struck like the fist of God. Neither one of the New Kids made a sound as the aliens' first round took them out in a seething flare of fire. Neither one even had a chance to get off a shot.

This time, there was nothing for it but to run. The squad fled for home, with the Chigs so thick on their sixes that the Saratoga's big guns had to take the heat as the Wild Cards ducked around her bulk and came up fighting. Though the 58th had thinned the aliens out some even as they ran, it was a mad firefight, a total free-for-all, before the remaining aliens scattered back for the planet.

The Chigs had gotten the worst of it in the end, but the solitary carrier wasted no time packing up and heading out-system. Communications were still clotted with the whine of Chig messages. In a day, two days max, the beleaguered alien base would have all the reinforcements it needed. Saratoga, however, would be all alone until she got the job done.

Medics led the rush into the hangar bay. Nathan was already out of his 'pit and pounding on Cooper's. Blood streamed down his face from a gash at his helmet line where he had banged his temple so hard against his canopy, even with restraints, the skin had burst. Coop was snarling and smashing at the clear composite from the inside. Shane and Vanessa struggled from their cockpits and ran for them, but Paul got there first. Together, he and Nathan forced the jammed canopy up and hauled Coop out. He growled with pain, holding one leg out stiff. Something had torn lose inside his plane and rocketed about under the terrific G-forces of the dogfight, tearing and mashing his lower leg until it looked like bloody pulp.

Vanessa gasped and rushed to support Coop on one side, Nathan on the other. Shane hurried to Paul, who had staggered against the opposite side of the Hammerhead, fighting woozily to get his helmet off. She sat him down and got him out of it, saw he had a wound similar to Nathan's and that he'd bitten his lower lip clear through.

"How many fingers am I holding up, Paul?" She waggled two at him, noticing as she did that a short must have burned through her glove. Skin bubbled on the back of her hand. Funny; she didn't feel it. Yet.

"Uh, four? I smelled coolant in my cockpit, even through my helmet filters. It's making me dizzy."

"Come on, I'll help you to sick bay." Two medics moved to lift him up, but Shane waved them off. "I'll take him."

"I'm all right. I can make it. Huh-oh." He fell against her. She stood him upright and let one of the medics get under his other arm. They moved after the other three Wild Cards, Coop growling and cursing vehemently. It made her think he wasn't hurt as bad as they thought, until she caught a glimpse of his face, dull gray as the singed skin of his Hammerhead and beaded with sweat. Nathan was having a hard time keeping his sight clear, trying to sling the blood out of his eyes.

McQueen hit the bay at flat run and slid to a halt as he saw them all hobbling toward the exits, the medics fidgeting about them. His eyes swept over Shane and Paul, focused on Cooper's leg. He started toward the lead three when Vanessa froze. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed gracelessly to the deck. McQueen leapt forward and caught her before she hit, easing her down as shivering convulsions began to rack her body. Someone yelled for a stretcher; before the rest of the squad could make it to her side, McQueen had scooped up her quivering form and charged from the bay.

Nathan stared in mute shock. Coop had gone silent, draped over him like a drunken bear. Paul crossed himself, muttering under his breath. Shane hesitated, then began dragging Paul and the medic after McQueen.

"Come on," she grated at the other two as she passed. "Come on!" Scared and angry. Forcing Paul into a half-jog, she hurried toward sick bay, leaving the two men struggling in her wake.

When she got to the facility, they took Paul away from her. He tried to follow her to where McQueen stood, arms wide and hands pressed to the glass of an isolation room, watching a horde of doctors working over Vanessa.

"Sit down, son," she heard one grizzled little man, dark-skinned and white-haired, say behind her. He was obviously the senior medical officer. "Unless you want to end up in there with your friend. Let's get a respirator and antidote over here, stat. He may have coolant burns, too."

"How's Damphy?" Paul asked. No one answered.

"How is she?" Shane echoed quietly to McQueen. He didn't answer immediately either, but stared through the glass as if willing his soldier conscious and on her feet. She had to look away when, with a practiced movement of her gloved fingers, one doctor slit a tiny hole at the base of her friend's throat and inserted a trach tube. She had seen so much death, and Damphousse was a warrior, as she was, but the orchestrated mayhem to save her friend's life was unwatchable for Shane. The old bite marks on her palm began to ache.

"She was breathing fumes a lot longer than Wang. Sometimes you can do that and not even know it. If they can purge her system fast enough, she'll make it. These people are the best; they'll take care of her." But it seemed to her as he said it that if he could dig his fingers into the glass and pull himself through, he would.

"Where's 'Phouse?" came a bellow behind her; Coop and Nathan had made it. She turned to watch as Cooper was wrestled to a table, fighting the medics trying to help him.

"Take it easy, son," said the older doctor in the same soothing tone he'd used on Paul. "You keep struggling, I'll have to put you out to stop you from hurting yourself."

"I'm not your son! I want to see 'Phouse! Where is she?" Nathan had both hands on Cooper's chest, trying to push him back, and the big Tank was fighting him, too. Nathan wasn't saying anything; he had that wide-eyed, intent look she had seen on him before, as if he were trying to absorb and record everything for some future payback. She wondered how many Chigs he'd have to blast to make up for this.

"Hawkes, zip it!" McQueen barked over his shoulder. "Let them help you or I'll come over there and knock you out myself."

"Marines," she heard the old doc grumble to himself. "Oughta trank 'em when they come in so we can get the job done in peace."

Coop quieted, but he was breathing hard through his nose, his head twitching around like he wanted to bite somebody. The doctors moved in and began cutting at his flight suit. Then he saw his leg and his slitted eyes went wide with fear; his face, already gray, turned as white as the bone showing through the broken skin of his leg. "Oh, shit," he said, in a small voice very much like a little boy's. He didn't sound at all happy this time.

And that was it for Shane. She had to get out of there. She bolted through the crowd of medics surrounding her friends at a fast walk, trying to control the urge to simply tear lose and run.

"Vansen?" McQueen called behind her. "Vansen! Hold it!"

She didn't stop. Nathan reached for her as she passed. "Shane, wait -" But her head went up like a hand-shy horse and she shook him off, charged on through and out into the corridor. If anyone came after her, she didn't know or care.

She stalked the corridors, heading deeper into the bowels of the ship, the scene in sick bay replaying in her mind: the blood on Nathan's face, and Paul's; Coop's trapped, sick look as the medics cut back his flight suit and he saw his leg; worst of all, Vanessa's exuberant form gone still and gray, stuck through with tubes and machine leads. Thick of battle she could take, but not this. It was too much like the watching and waiting she had done for her sisters, squeezing them to silence, as their parents were executed on a whim. Both hands hurt her: the dull ache of the old scar and the searing pain of the fresh burn. She kept clenching and unclenching them as she walked.

Dark hazel eyes wide and unseeing, streaming hair smoke-filled and tangled, face dirty and streaked with sweat and blood, she was a ferocious apparition. The crew simply got out of her way. Soon, she was alone in the darkest, most isolated holds of the lowest decks. She knew what she was looking for, what she wanted, but she wouldn't admit it to herself.

When he rounded the corner of a cross corridor and saw her in front of him, he stopped dead. He must have known, must have been looking for her. Shane kept walking, staring ahead, until she crashed into him. McQueen caught her as they almost fell, stumbling sideways through an open hatch. She slammed her body along his with demanding force and the door clanged shut, locking them in dim red darkness. What followed then was a manic fumbling, jerking clothing aside in an awkward attempt to quickly bare as much flesh as possible. It was as if she'd unleashed a panther; the act was urgent, each desperate for the other. Desperate, frantic, wild.... Desperate.

They would have crawled away to separate corners as they had before, but they were emptied of energy by the savagery and wretched passion of what they had done. Instead, Shane and McQueen slid down together until they knelt, holding tightly to each other for support. Leaning her head against his chest, she tried to quiet her breathing, but there was a scent about him that made her faint, a smell of desert-hot sand, the stinging bite of icy winter air, both combined with a velvety animal odor like clean, rich fur. She drunk in deep lungfuls of him, felt the blood pumping in his throat, heard the sound of her own heart pounding blood through her veins.

Shane could feel the tension in his arms, stiff and shaking, where they circled her shoulders. His hands on her back twitched as if he wanted to touch her again, but was afraid. She knew the feeling; her hands were clinched into fists, clutched tight to her own chest. His fierce eyes were barely open when she finally looked up, slitted, a door cracked open to a raging blizzard, cold and dangerous. Then he drew in a deep breath and stretched. She felt a rising heat as his body moved against hers.

"This is wrong." His voice was weak. "We are...dangerous...for each other." He seemed almost tender, regretful.

"I've got to have it. I've got to have -"

"Don't." He silenced her with his mouth. If he was trying to talk her out of wanting him, this wasn't the way to do it. Wrung out as they were, she was amazed at the urges that leapt in her again at the light kiss, the urges she could feel rising in him as well. She pushed away from him hesitantly, tugged her underclothes and flight suit into place, drew her knees up within the circle of her arms and rested her chin on them. Rocking slightly, she watched him.

McQueen leaned his head back against the cold metal wall. Then he, too, tried to pull himself into some semblance of normalcy. Shane watched with a faint grin, enjoying the show, a little proud she had managed to muss the immaculate Colonel so. Dirt streaks marred either high cheekbone. He ran both hands through his short hair, which only made it bristle more. She stifled a laugh as he flailed about for the hole of his left uniform sleeve, twisted behind him, but it died in her throat as she caught a flash of his side and the broad burn scar there, before he tucked his white crew shirt back in. She could still feel it beneath her hands, smooth and cool over his muscles like slick marble, how it circled under his arm and up to his shoulder, the scarred skin taut so he couldn't fully raise or rotate that arm. One of the reasons he would never fly in combat again. She became aware of him staring back at her, his face composed and hard. He was the Colonel once again, and she felt a little thrill of fear that she should be this close to him and this vulnerable. Then she remembered what had started her running.

"Vanessa! How is she?" How could it leave her mind for even a moment? How could even this white heat drive it out?

"Stabilized. The docs will have her back in less than a week."

"And Coop? Nathan and -"

"Everyone's going to be fine, Vansen. They're quick-healing Hawkes' leg now, though he'll be out at least two days. West and Wang are only scuffed up a bit." His gaze penetrated her. "Of course, they can't even hazard a guess what's wrong with you."

"Me neither."

"You're starting to care more about them than about yourself."

"But...I've seen good people die before. I'm a military brat; it's a law I learned even before my parents were killed: in war, good people die. It never hit me like this."

"West, Wang, Damphousse, Hawkes - you've been with them longer. You've become...friends. That's good; it's what makes a team, when you reach that level of trust. But it's also very hard, when those friends, the ones you trust, kick you in the gut with the potential of your own mortality by getting themselves hurt."

"This isn't exactly easy, either."

A small sigh and his eyes turned to the ceiling. "No, but I suppose it's how you're going to handle the rush. Don't be ashamed. Adrenaline and sex: it's how a lot of good soldiers deal with the stress. Between you and me is a different matter." He lowered his eyes to her's again. "It's as if...we wake in each other a need to both punish and...redress...some wrong we've done. Some greater pain this makes us forget. Your parents, sisters. My Angels. We feel less...worthy. As if we failed, somehow. And we're the only ones who can understand the pain, reach it, in each other."

She mulled that over, testing its hard points against the edges of the wound, found that, as an answer, it both hurt and satisfied. The pain of what she was doing to herself now answering some deep need in her she'd never none was there, easing that other pain she always carried with her. "I thought you didn't go in for psychoanalysis."

"Truth is truth. Harder to recognize, or accept."

"Then how's this for truth: we are not simply using each other as emotional band-aids."

"Agreed. More like emotional tourniquets."

"We just made love hard enough to beat our brains out and -"

"Vansen, if we had any brains, they were beaten out long before now. The Heat, that's all. Keep telling yourself that. We're both going to regret this as soon as we stop thinking with our gonads." His gaze shifted away from her uneasily, and she saw the thought hurt him.

"Now get to sick bay and have yourself checked over," he said, extending a hand to help her up. He hesitated midway and drew it back, thinking better of touching her. Probably a wise move, considering. "I want you, Wang and West in briefing in 30 mics." She thought he might run for it, as he had before, but he waited as she got to her feet and followed him out the door.

Battle heat, my ass, she said to herself. You want it, you poor blind bastard. Need it like air. You know you do. And God help me, so do I.

"Listen up, people. This is how it gets done." McQueen's voice had deepened even more than usual with determination, his mouth a thin grim line. The strange eyes, gone an icy pale blue, held them, Nathan, Paul and herself, the remaining members of the battered Five-Eight. They were subdued and attentive, standing stiffly at attention and trying to ignore the absence of their comrades. She noticed that, for some reason, McQueen kept focusing on the incongruous white bandage covering the stitches below Wang's lower lip.

"Saratoga is sneaking back around into the system. She'll make her approach keeping the sun between us and the planet. We'll lie doggo back of the sun, make repairs, until we're sure she hasn't been detected. Maneuvering is going to take at least a day, maybe longer, which leaves us with little time. If any.

"We drop you and you go in under the plane of the ecliptic. Saratoga goes over. She'll try to draw their attention, keep them occupied. Insert sharp and get down on the deck fast as you can to avoid detection. For once, this system's instability will play on our side. The Chigs may be laying on additional sensor masking, but the natural interference hampers them as much as it does us.

"Intelligence now has an 88.7% sure lock on the Chigs' location. That's as good as we get. Intelligence also says there is something else down there, something big. All they can tell us is it's a new weapon of unknown capabilities, not completed yet, but that's essentially it." He paused, and the force of his next words were like hammer blows. "We can not allow it to go on line. Your objective, your sole objective, is to destroy the base. You will not engage the enemy under any circumstances. Leave that to Saratoga.

"You can not fail. Our forces are closing the line, but Chigs are still coming through the holes - holes Saratoga is supposed to help close. We estimate their reinforcements will be here in 28 to 30 hours. We won't be getting any help. Once the line is closed, we can not have that base behind us. So if it comes to making your kill versus making it back, know this: there may be no Saratoga to come back to.

"Now, hit the racks; you go at 14:00 hours." They left the briefing eyes front, not talking amongst themselves as they usually did. She thought they had each taken the news of a probable suicide mission very well, considering.

"Ow!" Wang jerked his helmet off and put a gloved hand to his chin.

"What's the matter, Paul?" Shane was carefully working her own glove over her bandaged hand.

"Nothing. I keep bumping my lip, is all."

"Tell me about it." Nathan winced as he seated his helmet and flipped up the face plate.

"Men." Shane shook her head. "You're stone killers, popping chigs and kicking butt, and you're still such babies."

"Hey, I didn't say anything." Coop braced his leg against the equipment lockers. It was in a bulky gel cast from toes to mid-thigh. He held out a marker. "Come on, you gonna sign this, Shane, or what? The docs said you're supposed to sign it."

"Are you still on your goofy pills? Why didn't you ask us to do this before we suited up?"

Nathan pulled on his gloves. "What are you doing here anyway, Coop? Aren't you supposed to be in sick bay?"

"Oh, man, what am I supposed to be doing in sick bay? You guys need me. Why can't I fly with you?" He tapped the cast. "This is just show. Comes off in a couple of days, docs said. They fixed me up real good. I can fly."

"No way!" Shane sneered at him, with a look that begged for salvation from such a high degree of pig-headed arrogance.

"Yes, way!" he sneered back, right in her face and smirking. Nathan shook his head, grinning, and flipped down his face plate.

"I don't know." Paul was still self-absorbed, testing his lip, pressing gently at the bandage with his fingers while pushing out against the stitches from the inside with his tongue. "Feels like a couple of stitches have torn lose. It's really going to scar," he lisped.

"On you, Wang, it'll be sexy." In full flight gear, Angel black, with the stylized wings-and-halo badge of his old squad still prominent on his breast, McQueen looked like ice wrapped in shadow, as lean and deadly as one of their Hammerheads. White letters spelled out "Top Cat" across the front of the black helmet he carried under one arm. He studied them appraisingly as they took it all in. "Vansen, you're in command. West, you're her wing man. I'll fly rear, diamond formation. Now, want to cut the static and mount up? We drop in 12 mics." And he was on about his business, cool and reserved.

Shane realized what it meant before the other three. "He can't go. He can't fly a combat mission," she muttered.

"I think," said Nathan carefully, eying her, "he can do what ever he wants to do."

"Why's he not taking command?" Wang asked.

"Because he doesn't expect to make it." She felt the familiar rage. "It's suicide."

Nathan grabbed the arm of her flight suit as she started after McQueen. "Shane, he as good as said this could turn into a suicide mission for all of us."

"Might. If everything goes wrong. We're not going to let that happen. But you know he can't fly; you were there when evac brought them in, the ones who made it. You saw him. It's a miracle any of them are still alive, much less still in uniform. Now he thinks he's going to throw it all away." She jerked lose and headed with single-minded intent toward Cooper's cockpit, where McQueen was checking over the systems.

"That's my plane," Cooper muttered, and limped after her. Paul and Nathan passed him up.

The men caught up with her and Nathan swung her around again. "What is with you? Think about it: we're down two. We have to kill this thing. He must know we need another plane to do it."

"You just don't get it, do you? He watched one squad die and he was helpless to stop it. Now he's trying to make up for it with us. You've seen this before. Well, I'm not going to let it happen again," she hissed up at him.

"What are you talking about? McQueen's nothing like Butts," Cooper glowered from behind Nathan.

"He failed. He thinks he failed. Now let go of me, Nathan, before I feed you a stump."

He held on a moment longer, that wide, absorbing look in his eyes. She began to shiver, but didn't let her gaze fall. Those eyes saw everything, and she was sure they saw through to the fear inside her, saw all the causes of it.

"Uh, I'd bet she means it," Cooper said. Paul laid a hand on Nathan's shoulder, and he grudgingly released her. She marched on after the Colonel, Coop hobbling behind her. Nathan and Paul watched a moment, then headed for their own planes.

"You didn't tell us," she growled at McQueen as she came up to the cockpit.

"If I had, you would all have been in Ross' office the moment I dismissed you, trying to get him to stop me. He doesn't need the grief right now, and neither do I."

"It really will be a suicide mission -- for you."

"It doesn't have to be. We're to avoid combat, so we shouldn't be pulling any hard Gs. I don't have to see that well to target something as big as this base, or phantom weapon, is supposed to be. Besides, the plane will do most of that for me. But it doesn't matter. The numbers say a fourth plane's firepower is needed to do the job, and right now, I'm in better shape than Hawkes. There is no one else. So I go."

"You've done a good job of convincing yourself, anyway. Sir."

McQueen brooded quietly for a moment before answering. "Look at it this way," he said finally. "Even if I don't make it, at least, one last time, I got to fly." He looked around her, spotted Cooper's skittish bulk some distance back. "Hawkes?"

"Yes sir?" He was restrained, his voice small and a little scared, as it had been in sick bay.

"Get up to the Gunny and tell him I said to put you on weapons. You should be up for that, and you still shoot a whole hell of a lot better than you drive."

"You got it," Coop grinned. "I mean, yes sir!" He hobbled eagerly from the bay.

Shane knew what McQueen was really doing. He was as much mentor to the younger In Vitro as commanding officer. Wounded, with one team mate still in intensive care, the rest of the squad flying without him, Cooper would be directionless and angry. And McQueen wouldn't be around to help him focus that anger. She wondered how much of himself the Colonel saw in Hawkes. A lot, she hoped. Earth would need all the men like him she could get, if they were to win. And it pissed her off he was wasting himself.

She didn't like to think of herself or her friends as expendable, but the truth was, her CO could mold a new squad into the same deadly force as the Wild Cards, maybe better. Not one of them had the experience, skill or wisdom yet to lead as he did, to replace him. "OK, Hawkes is off your back, but you can't get rid of me by letting me play with the pulse cannons. I'm not that easy. I'm getting the Commodore down here; he'll stop you."

"No, he won't. Ross and I have already had this conversation, and he agrees with me. Finally."

"How...How could he let you do this? He knows --"

"What? That I'm a cripple?"

"That's not what I meant. I --"

"It had better be what you meant. Objections based on the medical facts that grounded me are the only objections you can make, Marine. None of this can have anything to do with what's happened between us."

She swallowed her anger and the urge to scream at him. "I don't want you to die," she choked out. "I don't want to die. I don't want any of my friends to die. But we're all fit to make the effort. You're not. You told me once that if I went out and didn't make any mistakes, I'd come back; it was that simple. Well, you're making a huge mistake even getting in that 'pit."

"Cold equations, Vansen. If the Chigs are where they're supposed to be, if you have a home base to come back to, it won't make any difference: four planes, not three. Three fit pilots, three wounded. Of those three, who's the most capable? Would you put Hawkes in here right now?"


"Good. Otherwise, I'd have to think you were putting your personal desires above the needs of your team and your mission. Or that you were just plain stupid." He stared hard at her a moment. "Vansen, let me ask you something: when you were in boot camp, did your sergeant ever line your squad up, tell you to grab the next guy's butt, and give you a speech about that Marine's ass was your's, and your's was his?"

"Yeah." She was puzzled enough some of the anger washed away.

"Me, too. Only, I was the last in line, the Marine left with nobody's ass to grab but his own. I look after myself. I have this odd tendency to survive when I shouldn't. Believe me, while I know the probable consequences of this mission, I have as much reason to think I may come back from this, as good a chance, as the rest of the squad."

"I don't believe you."

"Too bad." His canopy began to close and she turned to her own plane. Quietly, behind her, just before the canopy snicked shut, he murmured, "Regrets, Vansen?"

She stopped, but didn't look back. "Not yet," she breathed as she heard his cockpit descending to merge with the body of the SA-43. "Not yet."

She moved out as West snugged up tight on her wing and Wang took his position opposite. The last plane dropped and she saw it wobble, then steady back on true and move up behind her. Shane resisted the urge to send something scathing over the link. Instead, she confirmed the launch to Saratoga, had her team synchronize on her hack, then gave the order for speed. As a unit, in perfect formation, the Wild Cards leapt away from the carrier, and she began her own maneuvers. Soon, they left the big ship so far behind she was invisible against the backdrop of darkness and stars, out of instrument range and cloaked in silence. Flying blind, as they were.

The squad was silent as well, and would remain so for hours. They couldn't risk the Chigs discovering their ploy on idle skipchatter. Within the practiced routine of flight and instrument checks, she thought of many things: of her parents; the indifference on her sisters's faces when she told them she was joining the Corps; the first night of the war as the news had come across the screen in the middle of the Wild Cards' bar fight with the Angels; the empty, emotionless stare of the Silicate she had killed as she had smashed its head in; of Nathan and Paul, Vanessa, Cooper; if the Saratoga would look as McQueen had described the Yorktown, should it die amidst alien fire.

But mostly she thought of the last plane, and watched how it hinked a little now and then. Hours, and she felt cramped and sore. She wondered what pain his damaged muscles endured, if he allowed himself to feel it, as he allowed himself to feel so little else.

The clouded planet gradually rose and grew in her field of vision. Just before they reached their insertion point, specks of light that were not stars sparked at the periphery of her vision. Instruments still showed nothing, snowed with static and registering only the few klicks of space immediately about her. Saratoga must be engaging the enemy. No Chig fighters lifted to meet them, nor appeared beyond the line of the terminator. So far, so good. She broke their long silence.

"Queen of Diamonds to Wild Cards. I have visual on Saratoga. We're going in now." Her three pilots acknowledged, and she led the way into the planet's murk. Without warning, the squad broke into free air beneath a ceiling of night gray clouds roiling above them. Instruments that had been giving wildly false readings reset and cleared. A startlingly sharp image of the landscape beneath sprang to her screen, and she grinned mirthlessly.

"Did you see that?" Paul asked.

"Roger that, Joker. We got all instruments back at 3,500 meters," Nathan replied. McQueen made no comment.

"That means we can get right down on the deck," Vansen answered. "OK, Wild Cards, kiss dirt."

The four Hammerheads sleeked along so low they kicked up dust storms in their wake. They shot over a last ridge and the eerie green lights of the enemy base lay sprawled before them.

"There it is, right were you said it would be, Queen 6."

"Aim to please, Queen of Diamonds."

She grinned hard again. That could have been a thank you or a command. Automatically, gloved fingers began tapping routines for arming and readying weapons. The unscrambled instrument readings were beautiful after the fuzz and radiation hiss of passed days. There was a C3 tower she could spot visually, and a variety of sensors were pointing out structures and ground vehicles only hinted at by the base's lights. "Joker, Queen 6, knock down that tower. King of Hearts, you're with me. Looks like a supply and munitions dump to the east; I want to see how big a fireball we can make with it. And gentlemen, shoot anything that moves. Or doesn't."

That first fly-by was exquisite. No guardian fighters, no AA fire, just a wide-open field of targets. The ground burned with the garish red light of explosion after explosion. It felt like a payback -- for the rookies, for Damphousse and Hawkes, for a lot of things. The 58th swung around for a second run, and that's when she saw it. "My God! Is that the weapon? What the hell is that, Queen 6?"

"Gotta be. My instruments are freaking again."

"Yeah. It happened when we over-flew that...crater." Nathan sounded puzzled. Shane could understand why. They hadn't seen the "weapon" before because there wasn't anything to see. It was a featureless hole in the landscape to the east of the base, easily big enough to swallow all four SA-43s flying wingtip-to-wingtip, with room left over for a pocket battle cruiser. There were no lights, no activity to indicate it was anything more than a hole in the ground, but its sides reflected a dull glassy sheen that was obviously unnatural. At its center, it appeared bottomless.

"There's a lot of metal, a lot of mass down there," Paul said. "You don't read it until you're directly over it. Mass-magnetic rail gun? Gravity hammer? What do you think it is?"

"Doesn't matter, Joker. That's our target this run. That thing is why we're here."

Sporadic ground fire met them on their second pass, but that was all. AA was thickest over the weapon's crater, but they juked like crazy and made it through. Everything they let loose made it in or exploded at points along the rim. She hoped they were doing damage; the thing was so big it was hard to tell.

Before they could turn for a third run, two clusters of alien fighters dropped from the clouds and arrayed themselves formidably across the 58th's bows. Her gut hurt; Saratoga had failed.

"Pull up! We got nothing to waste on these bastards! Get back to the base!" And she wrestled her Hammerhead into a bone-wrenching upward skid and flip. Nathan and Paul followed suit, but McQueen overshot the Chig line before he could turn and one cluster went for him. He pulled a maneuver she had never seen before, something that looked like a cross between a split-S and a victory roll. She thought he'd lost it completely, but then he churned through the alien unit, scattering them. They fired recklessly; one of their own missiles took out a ship from their second cluster. The remaining ships in the unit trying to close on the three lead Hammerheads kept up their blistering fire.

McQueen's plane still juddered uncontrolably, the hand on the joystick obviously lacking the power to steady it. He must have been capable of at least one more dirty trick; barely avoiding collision himself, he somehow suckered two of the Chigs after him into a head-on crash. He tried to form up with the squad, but wasn't quick enough. The last fighter cut him off and he veered away.

Lines of light stitched the sky in front of Shane. A siren shrieked, and she saw a missile off the rails, coming between her and Paul. "Joker! Get out of there!" She juked right, slipping under Nathan. Paul rolled left, but there was a bright explosion beneath one wing, then a puff of smoke. More smoke began to trail from his fuselage.

"I'm hit! No stick! Wait -- I've got her, but I can't hold her long."

"Long enough, Joker. Unload all you've got and sit her down." There was silence from the wounded bird. "Joker, do you copy?"

"I copy, Queen of Diamonds," he responded quietly. Then they were over the base again.

Shane focused on the black crater of the strange weapon as before, while Nathan went after what they thought was the supply dump and vehicle pool by himself. Paul blazed in and let fly with everything he had at the tower. With a deliberate, gratifying grace, it toppled. She watched it go, collapsing onto more outlying buildings, powerful secondary explosions ripping along the ground where it landed. She heard Paul's victory cry, saw his plane wobble over a ridge to the northwest and begin to settle sluggishly. "Good luck, Joker," she said softly over the link.

"Semper Fi, man," sent Nathan.

"Semper Fi, Wild Cards. Don't...don't leave me here, OK?"

"Never, Joker. We're always with you." She felt she should say something else, but there was no time. She checked sky and instruments, found Nathan closing up on her wing again, but where was --

"Queen 6 to Queen of Diamonds. I've got a problem. Check me at one o'clock." Shane looked up. Her heart stopped.

"Damn!" Nathan cursed.

Fully one third of McQueen's right wing was gone, tattered debris falling away as they watched. Most of the plane's dorsal surface was on fire. The flames hadn't reached the one working thruster yet, but it wouldn't be long. Then it registered on her he was climbing, a Chig still on his tail. "Eject, Queen 6."

"Negative, Queen of Diamonds. I'm gonna ram her down the barrel."

"Queen 6, eject. Eject, dammit!" The Hammerhead winged over at the top of its climb and plummeted toward the dark center heart of the weapons array, flames streaming back in a long plume that stood in the night sky like a banner. "Eject! Eject!" she screamed, over and over, heard Nathan yelling something, too, then the fiery wreckage disappeared beneath the surface. The pursuing fighter swerved away and hovered, was joined by the two from the second cluster.

"Did.... Did he make it?" she risked.

"I don't know. I couldn't see.... There! I've got his beacon, near Wang."

"Where? OK, I've got him, too." Shane paused. The hovering Chigs seemed to suddenly discover her and Nathan. "Come around on my mark. We're going to finish this thing once and for all."

"I roger that." Nathan's impassive voice steadied her.

She didn't let herself think about whether McQueen was alive or not, if he could find cover from their final run, if Paul was safe and sheltered. "Balls to the wall!" And they were screaming in, wing to wing.

The alien fighting unit never came close; their previous onslaughts had silenced the few ground batteries that had been able to fire on them. Shane surveyed the hell of flame and smoke she and Nathan left in their wake and was sure nothing could have survived. The base was dead. And unless he had made it to Wang's position before the last furious attack, McQueen was, too. But the unknown weapon....

She had more immediate worries. The last Chigs might have been ineffective so far, but they were persistent. Shane and Nathan were bingo fuel. They had nothing left to fight with. And if they ran for the Saratoga, there was a better-than-even chance the carrier was gone. But she had no choice. There had to be someone left to try one last time. "Good job. Now, let's get the hell out of Dodge."

"I'm with you. But what if --"

"Don't think about it! She'll be there!" Has to be, Shane thought. Coop, Vanessa, had to be safe. Paul and McQueen must have made it. She would get a hauler and hustle back as soon as possible, get her people off this rock. She wouldn't let herself imagine any other possibility for fear it would come true.

Their planes clawed for the ceiling, and the Chigs went with them. Just before the night clouds surrounded them, there was a groundburst like daylight, and a thick column of sick red light punched skyward. It came from the weapon's crater.

"Holy --! Is that thing firing on us?"

"Like using a pulse cannon for a fly swatter -- hold it. Check your readings, the energy expenditures. Looks like an uncontrolled explosion to me!"

"I'll say. McQueen killed it!" She didn't respond. After a moment, Nathan came back, his voice subdued. "Paul, the Colonel. Think they made it?"

She drew in a gasping breath and called on her anger. "Only way to know is to find Home Base, get an ISS CV and go after them. Which isn't going to happen if we let those guys catch us. Burn what you got. We have to make it." They hunkered down and ran, following the ruby spear of sleeting radiation. The Chigs couldn't keep up, but she knew they were back there. Night, clear and empty, met them above the clouds. The strange beam burned on as far as she could see. Saratoga was not there.

Shane slotted for an orbital position; maybe the carrier was behind the planet. As she did, the powerful push of her plane's thrusters faded away and she was coasting. Nathan was slowing, too. All fuel gone. It was over.

"Nathan? I...I'm sorry."

"Not your fault, Shane. We all did our best."

"I meant for --" There was a white flash behind her and the sudden slap of a shockwave. "Nathan!" She screamed it; she didn't want to be the last. Then two more bursts and a familiar voice crackled over her com.

"Wild Cards, this is Home Base." Saratoga! She sailed around the limb of the planet, fires burning on her hull where oxygen and other gases leaked through. Shane could see where some deck structures had been shot away, a chunk taken out of the flying bridge. Aft cannons were still pulsing at a thinning swarm of Chig bombers that peeled off and fled at the sight of the Hammerheads, unaware they were dead in space. Tattered and brave, the big carrier was beautiful. Nathan started yelling, and she joined in. "You people really know how to send up a flare. Do you need any further assistance?" That just made them cheer louder.

Next : Part Three

Previous : Part One

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