This is mostly a T.C. McQueen
story, though Ross and the 'Cards do play significant roles. Despite the title, this story
is not a "romance." Exactly. It does, however, introduce a character of my own,
and provides McQueen with a friend from the past. All backstory concerning McQueen and
A.J. Barnes is my own invention and does not reflect any intention implied or stated by
the writers, producers or actors of "Space: Above and Beyond." I have also taken
the liberty of providing McQueen's ex-wife with a name. Time lines are a guess based on
the hints from past episodes, and should not be taken as gospel.
Would You Have Loved Me if I Knew How to Dance?by
He sat at the bar alone. The rest of his squadron, the 42nd Air Cavalry, spread out behind him, laughing, drinking, celebrating their continuing survival. He did not move to join them. They would not welcome him, if he did.
Captain Tyrus Cassius McQueen stared into his beer. He sensed, rather than saw, the figure that took the stool next to him.
"Beer," the woman said. "And Captain McQueen's drink is on me."
"No, it's not," McQueen countered tersely under his breath.
"Don't be an asshole, McQueen," the woman said, "just because *they* are."
McQueen turned and looked at her. She was attractive enough, about his age, though not exactly beautiful, in any classical sense of the word. Her features were too strong, a little too fierce, for anything like classical beauty. There was something *arresting* about her, though. An intensity, an energy, that was very compelling. Captain A.J. Barnes. Her nearness, her gesture buying his drink, made McQueen uncomfortable.
"Barnes, you don't need to do this," he said, his voice still gruff, but the anger gone from it. The woman shrugged.
"Maybe I'm not doing it for you," she said, stroking the side of her beer glass absently. "Maybe I'm doing it for me."
McQueen watched her finger trail up the side of the glass, and felt his groin crawl in response. He pushed the thought away angrily.
"Why?" he snapped. "What, are you slumming?"
"You saved our asses out there, yesterday," Barnes said, unperturbed by his tone. She pushed her fingers through wavy dark hair. "Maybe I'm just trying to say thank you." She glanced over at him out of the corner of her eye, her expression suddenly impish. "The polite response is generally considered to be 'you're welcome,'" she quipped.
McQueen looked at her sharply, his guard up, he eyes wary, braced for ridicule, for pain. Barnes expression was bland, almost placid, and no malice showed in her dark eyes. He relaxed a little, after a moment, and ventured a small smile.
"Yeah, well, I'm not real up on good manners," he replied, "not having had the benefit of a familial upbringing." He regretted the words the moment he spoke them. He hated the self-pitying sound. But Barnes did not seem to notice.
"You're in good company," she grumbled, nodding her head behind her. "And they don't have your excuse."
"A.J.!" a male voice shouted behind them. Barnes turned and McQueen shifted his weight around so that he could put a face to the voice without turning, himself.
Richard Luth. He should have guessed. Major. Squadron leader of the 23rd. Handsome. Dashing, even. Arrogant. Natural born.
"Come on!" the man demanded.
"In a minute," Barnes replied evenly, turning back to her drink.
"Look, I don't want any trouble," McQueen began. Barnes glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, and McQueen could see anger in her expression.
"He doesn't own me, yet," she growled. "He's just showing off." McQueen looked down at her hands and acknowledged the diamond solitaire on the third finger of her left hand. He felt a sudden foreboding, and an inexplicable sense of loss. He looked down at his drink.
"A.J. What does it stand for?" he ventured hesitantly, after a moment.
"Anjelica," she said, sounding pleased to change the subject. "Actually, I kind of like the traditional pronunciation - ang-gay-'lee- ka. It's Greek."
McQueen nodded thoughtfully. "Pretty."
"It's kind of a mouthful, though. Not the kind of thing you want to have to say in a hurry."
McQueen offered her a faint smile. "Does it have a diminutive? In Greek, I mean."
Barnes laughed. "Yeah, but it's just as long. Ang- gay- 'lee - kee. Just change the final 'a' to an 'ee.' A.J. works as well as anything. I'm not wild about Angie, and that's about the only other choice." She took a sip of her beer.
"And T.C. stands for Tyrus Cassius, right?" she asked. McQueen could not decide if he was more amazed that she knew this, or that he was even having this conversation. He made a surreptitious glance over his shoulder, but no one seemed to be paying them any attention. Luth appeared to have gone back to his friends and his drink.
"Yeah," he replied to her question. "Talk about your mouthfuls."
Barnes smiled. "Were you named for anyone special?" she asked. The question seemed innocent enough. McQueen held back the angry retort on his tongue, and answered her honestly.
"A baseball player and a boxer, from the late twentieth century. The head monitor in my facility had a thing for sports history."
Barnes nodded. "Anjelica was my great grandmother's name," she glossed. McQueen looked at his beer again.
"It must be interesting, having a great grandmother, having parents, family," he said, his guard slipping, finally. There was no self-pity in his voice, this time, just wonder.
"It's not all it's cracked up to be, actually," Barnes replied matter-of- factly. "My mother's an alcoholic. I don't know my dad too well. I'm not sure they're all that worth the having, to tell you the truth. I joined the service to get away."
"At least, you know who you are."
"You are who you are," Barnes shrugged. "The only person you can blame for yourself is yourself. Doesn't matter if you're natural born or IV. Ultimately, we're each responsible."
McQueen looked at her in wonder, realizing she was completely serious. He also noticed, suddenly, that she always referred to In Vitros as IVs, and not the more common, and derogatory, "tanks".
"A.J.!" Luth called again, insistent now. Barnes turned in irritation.
"Leave the tank alone and get over here!"
Barnes stiffened belligerently, but McQueen headed her off.
"I really *don't* want any trouble," he reiterated. She hesitated, then nodded.
"Look, I'd invite you to join us... I'd like it if you *would* join us, but they'll treat you like shit, and there's not a whole lot I can do about it."
McQueen nodded. "It's all right. I was going back to my quarters, anyway."
"It's not all right," Barnes insisted fiercely. "I'm sorry life sucks, I wish there was something I could do to make it different. I wish things *were* different."
McQueen just looked at her. "Yeah, me too."
"Thanks for saving our asses out there," Barnes said. McQueen quirked a wry smile.
"You're welcome," he replied. "Thanks for the beer."
SCVN U.S.S SARATOGA: 2064
"Hey!" Lieutenant Cooper Hawkes protested from where he sat with his back against the wall sorting through a box of gear. "Cut it out! I just got all that stuff sorted out!"
"Not on *my* bunk!" West yelled back. "Nobody said you could use my rack to sort your shit. Look at this mess..." he kicked over a small pile of magazines Hawkes had stacked on the floor.
"Damn you, West!" Hawkes grabbed at the foot.
"Come, on, Nathan." Paul Wang, also lieutenant, also with the 58th, put down his book and leaned over on his bunk to get a better view of the commotion. "Leave him alone. He's not hurting anything."
"He's making a mess, he's cluttered up half the wardroom with his crap, and I don't want to live in this pigsty with him!" West insisted.
"Kin fix that," Hawkes threatened, on his feet now and squaring off.
"What the *hell* is going on here?"
The three men turned to look toward the new voice. Captain Shane Vansen, their team honcho, stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips. She looked at them each in turn.
"It's Hawkes," West jumped to the defensive. "He's spread his garbage all over the place, and all over *my* bunk, without asking anyone. He's a slob, he's got no manners, no regard for anyone else's rights... Just look at this!"
"I'm just sortin' out some stuff," Hawkes fairly whined. "What's it to you? You weren't sleepin' or nothin'."
"That's not the point, and if you weren't such an ignorant bastard, you'd know that!"
"All right, knock it off!" Vansen barked, more weary than angry. Feeling a little like Wendy with the Lost Boys, she glared at the three of them; Hawkes still braced for assault, West belligerent in self righteousness, and Wang looking like he wished he was some place else. Anyplace else.
She knew what was wrong.
After months of almost constant action, of mission after terrible mission against an enemy whose motivations and strategies they only barely understood, the region patrolled by their current assignment, the U. S. S. Saratoga, had become suddenly devoid of Chig activity. They had not had a mission in twenty days. Over half a standard month they had been left to sit on their thumbs, trying to keep busy. Highly trained fighter pilots reduced to maintenance assignments on board, catch-up paperwork, and reorganizing personal gear. Trying desperately to stay out of each other's hair in their cramped quarters. They had about reached the ends of their collective ropes.
"Who are you callin' ignorant?" Hawkes blustered, still squared at West. "Mr. Hotshot!"
Hawkes swung. Lt. Cooper Hawkes was big, and he was fast, but Shane Vansen was small, and faster. She had also seen the move coming. Springing forward, she grabbed Hawkes arm, deflecting the blow.
"Nathan!" she shouted. "Dammit, if McQueen heard you, he'd have you runnin' laps down the length of the 'Toga in full battle gear til you fell on your face, and I wouldn't blame him a bit!"
McQueen, Lt. Colonel Tyrus Cassius. War hero, and their commanding officer. A man Shane Vansen respected more than she would have thought it possible for one human being to regard another. And an In Vitro, like Hawkes. An artificially gestated human being. A "tank." Vansen cringed inside, imagining what their commander *would* do, if he heard West's remark.
"What's going on?"
They all turned, this time, and looked. Lieutenant Vanessa Damphousse looked in on them in innocent curiosity.
Hawkes jerked away from Vansen's grasp and stormed out of the wardroom, shoving Damphousse into it, as he forced his way by her. Damphousse watched him go, then came the rest of the way into the room. She asked Vansen her question, again, with her eyes.
"Listen up," Vansen said, with more authority than she felt. "Word's come down from command. We've got a job to do."
The others came alert with sudden anticipation.
"A mission?" Wang asked tensely. Vansen took a deep breath.
"Not exactly," she admitted, then headed off their protests with a wave of her hand, "but at least we get to fly." She sat down at the nearest desk.
"We're being assigned to test a new piece of equipment, some kind of software enhancement to the LIDAR system. I'm not sure exactly what it entails, but we'll be briefed at 0730 tomorrow."
"AeroTech?" West sneered. The young man harbored a deep suspicion of that technological giant, probably due to the fact that AeroTech had sponsored the colonization missions that may have triggered the Chigs into war in the first place, and may have gotten West's fiance, Kylen Celina, captured or killed when the Chigs attached the Tellus colony. West suspected that AeroTech had always known about the existence of the Chigs. Vansen would never admit it, but she half suspected he was right.
"No," she answered him. "This is the military. Developed by Design Support, from what I know. AeroTech's not involved." She suddenly smiled a small cat smile and looked mysterious.
"I also heard," she continued, "that the senior designer, a Major Barnes, is an old friend of McQueen's. That's why we pulled the assignment. She served with him, years ago, in the AI wars."
"She?" Wang quipped, his voice dripping with speculation. Vansen just shrugged, all business now.
"I don't know anything," she replied. "She's arriving as we speak in Bay 9, but that's all I've heard."
The first thing Lt. Col. T.C. McQueen thought, irreverently and unprofessionally, when he saw her was that she was prettier than he remembered.
Major A.J. Barnes stepped through the bay door and snapped a crisp salute at Commodore Ross.
"Permission to come aboard, sir." The protocol was not *strictly* necessary, but McQueen could see the man at his right puff up a little at the formality, enjoying it. Ross returned the salute.
"Permission granted," he said, holding out his hand. "Welcome aboard, Major. I believe you already know Colonel McQueen?"
Barnes shook Ross's hand, then turned fully to McQueen and smiled.
"I do, sir, thank you," she replied, her voice pleasantly husky. She held out a hand to McQueen. "Colonel? It's good to see you again, sir."
She *was* prettier than he remembered. McQueen knew that his memory was not at fault. A.J. Barnes was one of those rare women whose pleasant but otherwise unremarkable features in her twenties blossomed into beauty at forty, and by sixty would bring a room to its knees. Her slender figure looked crisp in uniform, and her dark hair was pulled back in a neat upsweep that somehow managed to look elegant as well as efficient. The small lines around her eyes and mouth only served to soften her somewhat hawk-like features and there was a thoughtfulness in her face now, and a humor that time and experience had applied over her native intensity. But more to the point, her manner and expression exuded a confidence that had not been there years ago. A sense of self that was secure and fulfilled. McQueen grasped her outstretched hand. Her grip was firm and warm.
"Major. Welcome aboard."
They adjourned to the Command conference room, where awaited several other officers, and a small cadre of technicians that McQueen assumed belonged to Barnes. One, a slim, blond haired young man stepped forward, and saluted sharply, confirming McQueen's speculation. It was uncertain, however, exactly who the younger man was saluting. Ross returned the salute, halfheartedly; McQueen kept his hands behind his back. Barnes gestured generally.
"Gentlemen, my assistant, Captain Lance Hickman. Commodore Ross, Colonel McQueen..."
Nods passed for greeting, and McQueen stepped back where he could watch the proceedings relatively unobserved.
"Excuse, me, Major, but where do you want the simulator set up?" Hickman asked.
Barnes turned to Ross. "May we use your table, sir? It's easiest if we can all gather around."
He nodded. "As you will." Barnes gestured to Hickman, and turned to the rest of the group.
"Let me start by giving you something by way of background, if I may," she began. "The LIDAR II enhancement system is just that, an improvement to the existing LIDAR. It is not a new device, and, from an end-user standpoint, it works very similarly to the existing LIDAR. Some programming has been redesigned, but the actual working mechanism will not differ significantly from what your pilots are used to using today.
"Frankly, we are very cognizant of the fact that new equipment and new materials can often create more havoc in the field than they help, due to their unfamiliarity. Anyone well read in history will be familiar with the sorry number of casualties suffered through the introduction of poorly tested, and poorly understood equipment. It is our intention, with the LIDAR II enhancement, to avoid this sort of danger at all costs. There will be an absolute minimum of training required; we have no time, and no personnel, to conduct such training, anyway. Our goal is zero-defect processing, and minimal front line user impact."
Barnes moved over to a flip chart that Hickman has set up near the wall. "There are two functions associated with the LIDAR II," she continued, drawing a flow chart diagram on the white paper. "A tactical function, and a strategic function. The second is really the more involved, so I'll start with that.
"The strategic function - which we call the "equalizer" - expands upon the existing capabilities of the Laser Infrared Detection and Ranging device. Today, LIDAR can locate the enemy, and paint the pilot an immediate picture concerning that enemy's range and postion. It provides valuable data for plotting specific attack and counter attack strategies. However... this function is segregated, independent in each individual fighter. There is no shared information, and while data is stored for analysis back home, it is generally not accessible until it is downloaded from the fighter's Optical Disk Playback after battle.
"The "equalizer" is capable, through the use of specific programming modules, of collecting data discerned by the LIDAR, and downloading it into the carrier mainframe computer. Expanded programming will allow the system to identify maneuvering patterns, weapons effectiveness data, and firing response times and patterns. We are working on a spectrum analysis capability so that in the future we may also be able to gather information on materials analysis as well, but unfortunately, we're not there yet."
Barnes drew a "system canister" on the flip chart, and labeled it "mainframe. "
"A master program in the home SCVN's mainframe computer will process this information as it is received. The master program is designed to analyze, collate and compare collected data against other known data collected through LIDAR II downloads from other craft, and from intelligence gathered through other sources. Data will be date and time stamped to assist in further evaluation. Certain strategic models will be overlaid against the data as it is collected, providing command personnel back on the carrier with immediate feedback as to the overall strategy of the attack, allowing them to make informed adjustments, *as the battle progresses.*"
Commodore Ross sat forward and narrowed his eyes at the diagram.
"The database warehouses all the information gathered during battle," Barnes went on, "together with the new strategic models, and all other data gathered during all other battles, for postmortem analysis after the fact. In other words, every time we fight the Chigs, we will come away with a little more usable information, with a little better understanding of what we are - specifically - up against. It's not so *very* different from what your own command personnel do today. The difference is that with the "equalizer" you will have access to the collective experience of your entire force not just those few officers immediately at hand. Hopefully, with further development, this database will be shareable inter-ship, and you will have access to the collective experience of the entire fleet."
Ross sat back in his chair, and steepled his fingers. "This is... impressive, Major," he said. "The implications are... considerable."
Barnes smiled. "If it works, sir. It has yet to be tested under battle conditions. In fact, it has yet to be significantly tested in exo- atomspheric conditions at all. That is the main reason I'm here." She turned back to her flip chart.
"We are dealing, gentlemen, with an enemy completely outside the realm of our experience and understanding. But, then, I hardly need to tell *you* that. Even the AIs, to some extent, could be anticipated because we built them, we programmed them. We could guess, with a fair degree of accuracy, what they would do, and why. Comparatively, we are completely in the dark with the Chigs. We do not know what motivates this enemy, what he cares about. Why he fights us. What he hopes to gain. Is he defending himself from a perceived threat? Is he trying to gain new territory? Did we merely kick over a hornet's nest of militant beings in our attempts to colonize space? We just don't know. And not knowing puts us at an extreme disadvantage, because we cannot anticipate. Our only hope is to gain what insight we can through analysis of the ways in which the enemy engages us."
Heads moved up and down warily, not yet sold, but definitely in the buying market. McQueen stepped forward out of the shadows.
"You mentioned a second, tactical function..." he ventured. Barnes looked at him, and smiled.
"That's correct, Colonel. The tactical leg of the programming," she drew some more on her flow chart, "is really just an extension of the mainframe analysis, but it is, potentially, the more useful tool in actual battle situations. As the master program performs its initial analysis against the database, this information will be backfed to the originating SA-43's on-board computer. Using the principles of artificial intelligence..." she paused, but when no when reacted she resumed her discussion, "immediate tactical 'recommendations' will be fed to the pilot's control board, providing the pilot with instant by instant information about the attacking craft with which to formulate his tactical plans. Now the operative word here, is 'recommendations.' The pilot is in no way required to act upon them. This is only a tool, to be used at will, to assist the pilot's skill and intuition. It should never inhibit or override the pilot's own instincts. This on-board "genius" as it were, is merely a second set of eyes and ears. Another brain, a kind of 'prescience,' perhaps. We call it the "genie."
"What if I don't like the 'recommendations' this genie feeds me?" McQueen asked. Ross looked over at him.
"Ignore them," Barnes replied. "I reiterate, this is a tool, and only a tool. The pilot has complete control. We are talking about nanosecond response time, here, gentlemen; I'm a fighter pilot myself, I know. The pilot's intuition will always take precedence. The recommendations provided can simply be ignored."
"Suppose the backfeed itself distracts or irritates me?" McQueen persisted.
Barnes nodded. "Turn it off. Disengaging the genie does not interfere with the strategic functioning of the equalizer. We will continue to receive strategic download to the mainframe as long as power remains to the LIDAR. In fact, a grim, but perhaps ultimately useful factor that has come out during the simulations, is that the equalizer will continue to function as long as there is power to the LIDAR, even if the pilot is dead or the ship disabled."
"There are limits, or course," Barnes concluded, "to what this enhancement will accomplish. It is primarily an intelligence gathering device, and will not ultimately make all that significant a difference in individual battles. If Colonel McQueen had had the equalizer and genie on board when he went up against Chiggy von Richtoven," she smiled at McQueen, "I doubt it would have helped him much. But," she turned back to Ross and the Admiral, "we might now know more that we do about Chiggy von Richtoven. We might be in a somewhat better position to deal with his kind in the future."
"It sounds almost too good to be true," Ross said. Barnes smiled.
"Doesn't it always, sir," she agreed. "And I'm not holding out any vain promises. However, if you will permit, we are prepared to demonstrate the functionality for you, now, on the simulator..."
The Commodore nodded. Barnes glanced at Hickman.
"Captain, are we set?"
"Yes, ma'm, whenever you're ready."
Barnes quirked a smile at the group before her. "Gentlemen, would you like to play a game?"
Shane Vansen ducked her head into the Wildcards' wardroom, and stopped in surprise. Hawkes had not returned, after storming out earlier that afternoon, nor had he showed up in the officers' mess at dinner. Worried about his state of mind, Vansen had checked in all of his known haunts, but she had not been able to find him. And now, just when she had decided to give up, and go join the rest of her friends in the Tun Tavern for some after-dinner beer and gossip, there she found him sulking on his bunk. She wondered how long he had been there.
"Coop. I've been looking all over for you." She walked into the room slowly and eyed the Marine. Hawked leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, and stared at his boots.
"Where were you? You didn't come to supper."
"Wasn't hungry," Hawkes grumbled with a shrug. Vansen sat down on the edge of his bunk, next to him.
"Come on, Coop. Don't be like that."
Hawkes just shrugged, again.
"Don't let West get to you. Nathan's just blowing off steam. He didn't mean anything."
Hawkes gave her a look that told her he was not exactly convinced. Vansen sighed.
"Look, we're all under a lot of stress right now, because of the inactivity. We've all got to make an effort to be a little more tolerant of each other. I'm not saying Nathan was right in what he said to you, but you did set him off, putting your stuff on his bunk without asking him first. I know you didn't mean any harm by it. But we've got so little space in here, you know? So little privacy..."
She looked at him closely, wondering if she was getting through. Hawkes glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.
"He didn't have to fly off like that," he replied. "He could have asked me, too."
"You're right," Vansen agreed. "You both acted like jerks." She meant it as a joke, and she hoped he would take it that way. Sometimes, with Hawkes, it was hard to know how he was going to react. "But Nathan didn't mean anything by it. He's just wound up. We haven't had enough to do lately, that's all."
Hawkes nodded, but Vansen could see that vague look of bewilderment the In Vitro got on occasion when confronted with some unfathomable behavior by one of his natural born squad mates. Vansen knew he had been hurt by Nathan's attack, perhaps more than, say, Wang would have been under similar circumstances. Hawkes had never had that sort of sparring, love/hate relationship with a sibling or childhood friend that would provide him with a basis for comparison. He did not, despite her explanation, get it.
However, the fight that afternoon had caused a serious breach in the team's unity, and morale was at an all time low. If they were going to make any kind of a decent, cohesive presentation in the morning, Shane knew she was going to have to get this breach mended, and everyone back on track, again. If she could just get Hawkes and West to agree to kiss and make up.
"Look, Coop. The rest of us are going down to the Tun for a while. Why don't you come. Shoot some pool and have a beer."
Hawkes shook his head. Vansen reached over and put her hand on his back.
"I know you're feelings are hurt. But you know Nathan didn't really mean what he said. It was stupid, but he was just mad."
"It just that..." Hawkes began, then stopped. Vansen leaned forward to peer in his face.
"It always comes down to it, ya know? Everything's fine and I'm one of the gang, until somebody gets pissed off, and then I'm a dumb tank. Nothin' changes."
Vansen nodded. She knew why he felt this way, and she knew there was some justification in it. But she also knew that she did him no favors by encouraging self-pity.
"Uh huh," she nodded, "same as you calling Nathan a hotshot. You know he's sensitive about his own abilities as a leader and a warrior. You know he has doubts. And when you get pissed off, you go right for them.
"It's human nature. We know the most about the people we care about most. We know what their soft spots are, where their vulnerabilities lie. And when we get mad, we use that knowledge to hurt them the most. I don't know why it is. But it's true. I used to do it to my sisters all the time. And they did it to me."
Hawkes looked at her warily, but he was listening. And considering. He grimaced.
"So he calls me a dumb tank because he likes me?" he challenged her. Vansen smiled.
"He called you a dumb tank because he wanted to hurt you in that moment. He wanted to hurt you because he really cares about you. If he didn't, why would he bother. If you didn't care about him, about us, why would it upset you."
Hawkes frowned, trying to take it in. He shrugged, but she could see he found some truth in her words.
"Come down to the bar with me," she repeated.
Hawkes shifted and looked up at her. She could see he was weakening, and she smiled.
"For me?" she cajoled. It was not fair, perhaps, but she was pretty sure he would do it on that basis, and she really needed to get the two men together again. Besides, Hawkes was her friend and she cared about what happened to him. He *was* hurt, and she knew the only way to make him feel better was to get him to join the group again. Let him know he *was* part of the whole. "Okay?"
Hawkes huffed, but he nodded.
"Okay," he sighed. Vansen smiled, and stood up. She extended a hand, and pulled him to his feet.
Next : Part Two
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