Part Two

"Good evening, Colonel."

McQueen turned at the voice, and looked up from where he sat at the bar in the Tun Tavern. Major A. J. Barnes smiled down at him, a little hesitantly, a little uncertain after all the years and the shifts in rank. She had changed out of her uniform, was dressed now simply in slacks and a jersey, and her dark hair was loose. She wore it shorter than he remembered, curling to chin length, and held back from her face with a narrow band. The style became her.

"Major," he responded. He waited, curiously, to see what she would do next.

"You know what occurs to me, sir?"

McQueen just cocked his head.

"I believe owe me a drink. Sir."

McQueen looked a little shocked by the lightly veiled flirtation. A bemused half smile spread itself across his face. He gestured at the stool beside him, and looked up at the bartender. "What are you drinking?"

"What are the chances I might get an ouzo, with water on the side?"

McQueen snorted. "Pretty poor," he replied.

Barnes grinned and sat down. "I'll have a beer." She looked over at McQueen, raising her glass to him after the bartender set it down.

"It *is* good to see you, again, sir."

McQueen nodded. He was tempted to tell her to drop the "sir," at least in private. After all, they *had* been friends, served together as equals, years ago. "Equals" was not something he had often experienced among natural born humans, and he had not forgotten the acceptance she had offered him. Something inside him was not quite ready to relinquish the protection of formality, though.

"It's good to see you. I'm, uh, very impressed with that new LIDAR. If it'll do what you say it will..." He let the statement trail off, but at least it seemed like a safe subject anyway. McQueen was a little surprised at how nervous Major Barnes was making him feel.

Barnes flushed a little. "Let's hold the applause until we see if it really works..." she said.

"The design is yours." It was not quite a question.

Barnes nodded, and sipped her beer. "I wrote the master control program and the equalizer leg," she admitted. "I wrote it in four days, actually. Ninety-two hours to be exact. It was very strange really, it just seemed to pour out of me. I hardly ate or slept..."

She gave McQueen a rueful smile. "That's one of the reasons I was so insistent on testing it in deep space, under quasi-battle conditions, before we released it. I just got this awful feeling I missed something important in the fever of development."

"Still, it's good to know the military can still do this kind of thing for ourselves, that we haven't become completely dependent on *civilian* technology," McQueen said, with just a bit of an edge in his voice. Barnes just nodded.

"Hickman wrote the genie leg, under my supervision," she concluded. They both looked at their drinks again, suddenly at a loss for what to say to each other. McQueen took a deep breath.

"I was sorry to hear about Richard..." he said, remembering that her husband had been killed in an accident a couple of years earlier. He had meant to send a card, or something, but he had never gotten around to it.

Barnes sighed and stared at her drink. "I never wanted him to die. I never wished that on him. But the truth is, we were separated, I was filing for divorce."

Somehow, McQueen was not surprised. "What happened?" he asked, more to be polite than because he expected anything but a standard answer.

Barnes ran her finger up the side of her glass. "Are you asking to be polite? Or do you want something besides the standard answer."

McQueen gaped a little. "I asked because I'm interested," he replied, realizing that he was, now. "If it's something you want to talk about." After all, he owed her that much, for old time's sake.

Barnes smiled a little. "There was much about Richard that was good. Fine. Noble. Much that I loved. But there was a lot about him that wasn't very admirable, too." She glanced over at McQueen. "Like this is news, right?"

McQueen just shrugged.

"I learned to deal with a lot those things. The arrogance. His temper. It was mostly bluster, anyway. You may not believe it, but Richard was really very insecure.

"After I transferred to Design, and we weren't competing for the same honors, things were okay for quite a while. Then they just started to go sour..." She shrugged. "Same old same old. I eventually filed for divorce. He, uh, wasn't very happy about it, I think I hurt his pride..."

McQueen narrowed his eyes at her. There was more to this story, he was sure, but it was hardly his place to inquire. He had not had more that a half hour's conversation with this woman in years. Had not seen her at all since his own wedding day, in fact, though they had exchanged the occasional bit of correspondence for a while. She had been on the Christmas card list. The list his wife had kept.

"Anyway," Barnes concluded, "four months later he was killed in what was called a training accident."

"Called a training accident?"

"Yeah. He flew his plane into the side of a mountain. The official story was an equipment failure."

"And the unofficial story?"

Barnes took a sip of her drink. "There was no equipment failure. He never even tried to pull out of that dive."

McQueen gazed down at his glass, looking very much like he wished he had not asked.

"So," Barnes quipped lightly, changing the subject. "How's your life been?"

McQueen shrugged. "I'm still livin' it. These days, that's sayin' a lot."

"Congratulations, by the way, on your Silver Star for the Chig Red Baron. That was quite a kill. I was surprised when I heard, actually. I'd heard you'd been permanently grounded at the beginning of war."

"Thank you," McQueen nodded. "Yeah, I bitched my inner ear in that very first battle. The one that wiped out the 127th. I've got an MEF implant, which effectively grounds me from fighters - but I had it removed when I went up against him. It was a temporary measure, though. For the time being, at least, I'm still grounded."

He sounded more like the *grounding* was a temporary measure, and Barnes smiled. She gave him a sideways glance.

"It must be killing you, not to fly," she shook her head sympathetically.

McQueen blew out a breath. "A.J., you have *no* idea!" he exclaimed. He startled himself with his own vehemence, and with his sudden desire to confide in someone who might actually *really* understand. He realized, rather abruptly, how *nice* it was talking to her. Comfortable. Almost seductive in familiarity, even after all the years. He was not at all sure he liked it. Unnerved, he pulled back abruptly, and looked into his drink, again. Barnes noticed the retreat and assumed it was the subject. She changed it.

"I heard that you and Caroline split. I was sorry to hear it."

McQueen shrugged. "Same old same old," he quoted.

"The, uh, social pressure?"

McQueen nodded, without shame. "That was a lot of it. That was the root of it. I guess it was just more than she could take."

"Well, she wasn't very well equipped to deal with it," Barnes suggested generously. "Her background could hardly have prepared her. Of course, I only met her that once."

McQueen glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "I tried to tell her what it would be like, but I guess I was naive, too. And you're right. She'd had a very sheltered upbringing. Maybe I expected too much from her."

"Maybe you expected too much from both of you."

McQueen shifted uncomfortably, and Barnes suddenly took a deep breath, responding to the depth of tension these topics inspired. There did not seem to be many safe subjects for them, somehow.

"Boy, we're a barrel of laughs tonight, aren't we?" she quipped. She smiled at McQueen. "Tell me about your squadron. About the 58th."

McQueen shifted, grateful for the change in subject. "They're mostly right behind you," he replied.

Barnes turned.

"That's West, and Damphousse at the pool table. And Paul Wang..."

Barnes nodded. "They've made quite a name for themselves," she said. "They're on their way to becoming legendary..."

McQueen made a face. "That's war," he said. "You manage to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and walk away from it, they make you a hero."

"Takes a lot of ability to be able to do that," Barnes countered. McQueen nodded.

"Oh, they're good. Damn good. Maybe the best there is."

Barnes smiled at the obvious pride in his voice as he said it. McQueen turned further as two young Marines walked in the door.

"And there's Vansen and Hawkes. Shane Vansen may be one of the best fighter pilots I've ever encountered," he mused.

"Better than you?" Barnes teased him. McQueen looked at her quickly, startled, then smiled a little.

"Close," he replied. "Give her time."

He watched a moment, as Vansen and Hawkes took a table near the others. He saw Vansen lean close to Hawkes, say something, pat his arm. McQueen knew the young woman had a particular affection for the tank kid, though he did not think it was anything more serious. Still, the sight filled him with an odd sort of foreboding, and an ache he could barely name. He watched as West approached the table, stuck out his hand and Hawkes shook it. The two men eyed each other warily, but some sort of truce seemed to be struck. McQueen wondered vaguely what it was all about. He knew they were feeling the tension of inactivity, badly. He frankly expected a serious blow-out at any moment. Vansen seemed to be keeping morale up, though, keeping things under control. She *was* good, he thought, with a sudden burst of pride.

Then he watched as Vansen smiled and playfully ruffled Hawkes' hair. McQueen shook his head, knowing why the scene disturbed him. He sighed a little, as memory kicked up dust in the back of his mind.

"Are you sleeping?"

Captain T.C. McQueen rolled over onto his back, and shaded his eyes with one hand. The woman silhouetted above him on the grassy slope looked like an apparition, backlit as she was with the early afternoon sun. McQueen half sat up.

"Barnes?" he said, startled and a little disconcerted to find her there. "No. I wasn't asleep." He made a quick, nervous motion finger combing bits of straw out of his sandy hair. Barnes sat down in the grass beside him.

"It's nice up here," she ventured, looking out over the pasture land below them. In the near distance, by the tree line, she could see horses grazing. "You know, I think horses are among the most beautiful creatures imaginable. Perfect, really. Majestic, powerful, graceful..."

McQueen grunted in agreement. He liked the horses, too. One of the reasons he liked that particular slope was the fact that it afforded him the opportunity to watch this herd of brood mares and foals. They *were* magnificent creatures, the new spring babies already almost self-sufficient just weeks after their birth. He had never told anyone about these feelings, though. He looked at Barnes out of the corner of his eye.

After too many straight days of duty, the 42nd squadron, along with the 23rd, and 36th, had finally earned some well deserved liberty. Many Marines had gone home to visit family or loved ones, some had headed for town to blow some paychecks and a little steam. With no family to visit, and no place he was particularly welcome to go, T.C. McQueen had retreated to the protective solitude of this hillside; protective because it allowed him to be alone honestly. There were no rejecting presences, here, shutting him out. He was not forced to acknowledge his desires for his squad mates' acceptance, not forced to deal with the bitter loneliness their treatment of him caused.

What he could not figure out was what Barnes was doing there.

"Where's Luth?" he asked, knowing the 23rd was on liberty, too. Barnes shrugged.

"He went into the city with the others," she said. McQueen could not tell if she was disappointed about it or not. "Guys only," she added, though he had not asked why she had not gone, too. "Maybe you should have gone with them."

McQueen snorted sourly. "Oh, sure. Your boyfriend would have *loved* that. It's not 'take a tank to town' week..."

Barnes sighed. "Richard and I talked about it. Maybe you should give him a chance. He's not a bad person, Ty," she protested. "He's just a little narrow minded about some things."

"A little," McQueen sneered. "I'm a tank, A. J. He hates my guts. They all do." He knew the words sounded bitter, almost whining. He lay back on the grass and crossed his arm over his eyes. He half expected, and half longed for, some words of protestation from her, but she was too honest to lie.

"They're really just afraid," she said instead. McQueen removed his arm and looked at her.

"They're afraid of me?"

Barnes nodded. "Of who you are, of what you represent. They don't understand. They only know that you're different, that the method of your creation is somehow outside what nature intended. That concept frightens them. It has nothing to do with you, personally."

McQueen thought about that. Barnes lifted something in her hand. A book. McQueen had not noticed that she had been carrying it.

"Have you ever read this?" she asked. He eyed the slender volume more closely.

"Frankenstein? Is that what you think I am? Some monster who's gonna go berserk and start eatin' babies?"

Barnes laughed. "You really *haven't* read it, if that's what you think it's about."

McQueen rolled over onto his stomach and put his head down on his arms. "No, I haven't read it."

"Can I read it to you?"

McQueen cocked his head up at her. "The whole book? Now?"

"It's a short book," she replied reasonably. "And it's a nice afternoon. We could see how far we get..."

McQueen shook his head in amazement. Still, it *was* a nice afternoon, and he did not have anything else in particular to do. It was nice to have company. If this pretty woman wanted to sit there and read him fairy tales, who was he to argue?

"Sure," he sighed, putting his head back down.

Barnes nodded, and opened the volume. " 'Letter One..." she began. "To Mrs. Saville, England. St Petersburg, December 11, 17something. You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with evil foreboding...' "

McQueen closed his eyes. The spring sun felt wonderful on his back as he lay there, caressing, enclosing, almost like some liquid medium, a nurturing, replenishing fluid surrounding his soul. He felt himself wrapped in it, encompassed. Its warmth contrasted pleasantly with the cool dampness beneath him, and the sweet dry smell of the grass under his head was soothing. The sound of Barnes voice pleased him, and he felt himself drawn into the strange sensuousness of her story, lulled almost into a half dream state. Time passed, but McQueen was only vaguely aware of it as he drifted on the rhythms of the Victorian language, on the sheer sounds of the words.

" 'Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life precede?' " Barnes narrated the musings of the story's protagonist. "It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries...' "

McQueen shifted uncomfortably. Even in his state of peaceful half sleep he sensed a turning in the story, a step toward something dangerous. Something he might not want to hear. Barnes continued reading, ignoring, or not recognizing, his subtle tension.

" 'It was on a dreary day in November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils... The different accidents of life are not so changeable as to the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body... but now that I had finished, the beauty of that dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart...' "

McQueen stiffened involuntarily and against his own will his memory was shocked back to his early days in the In Vitro facility, to the faces of his monitors as they gazed down upon him whom they had brought to life. He had known, even then, that they had faced him with hatred, with revulsion, and perhaps, with fear. Some subtle instinct told him that these God-like beings were not gods, that they had flirted with obscenity in creating him, and that they despised him for it, though he did not understand why. He could not imagine what he had done to deserve their revulsion. His ingenuousness would not let him grasp the possibility that it was their *own* sense of guilt and horror that cause these creators to look upon him, their creation, as they did. As they continued to do. He could hardly believe he was hearing his own perception echoed in the pages of this ancient manuscript. He rolled a little, once again, turning his head so that he could watch Barnes out of one eye.

The story droned on, sliding back into the safety of narrative, and McQueen found himself once more relaxing into the rhythms of the tale. Some part of him protested; some warning bell rang deep inside his mind. But he was loath to surrender the comfortable hillside, nor to abandon the rare pleasure of company willing to spend time time with him. He closed his eyes, again, finally, and drifted into the story, letting the hot sun lull him back into his half dream state. He was totally unprepared, then, when the monster began to describe his own birth.

" 'It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my beginning...' " Barnes gave voice to the monster's story. " 'All events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard and smelt at the same time... ' "

"Yes," McQueen said suddenly, raising up on his elbow, a look of shocked confusion on his face. Barnes smiled over at him.

" 'It was dark when I awoke, I felt cold, also, and half frightened as it were, instinctively, finding myself so desolate...' "

"Yeah," McQueen gasped. Barnes reached over and rested her hand lightly on top of his head. She stroked gently, and nudged him down until his cheek was resting once again on his arm. She left her hand there as she continued to read.

" 'No distinct ideas occupied my mind, all was confused. I felt light and hunger and thirst and darkness; innumerable sounds rang in my ears, and on all sides various scents assailed me...' "

McQueen found himself suddenly plunged involuntarily into the terrible memory of his decanting, the sheer wrenching horror of suddenly finding himself alive, conscious, cognizant, full grown. His heart pounded and he broke into a sweat.

"It *was* like that," he cried softly. "It was *just* like that. It was so terrible..."

"It's all right," Barnes murmured softly, rubbing her fingers against his scalp soothingly. "It's just a story, Ty." He eyed her warily, nodding. She moved her hand back into her lap, and turned a page.

"A lot of tanks don't survive decanting," McQueen said. "The shock is too great."

"The strong ones do, though," she replied. McQueen nodded again, slowly, but he could no longer be lulled by the sunshine, or the language of the story. He sat up and turned, cross-legged, watching her as she continued to tell the monster's tale.

He closed his eyes and imagined the monster's "education." Compared it to his own. He could *see* the DeLacy family, could feel the monster's agony at his isolation. And then, as swiftly, McQueen saw, again, the hateful faces of his monitors, cold, harsh, hard. Teaching him well what they wanted him to know, but offering nothing of warmth, of comfort or human affection. Tears pricked behind McQueen's eyes, and he struggled to keep them back.

The story continued, merciless and unrelenting. McQueen felt himself plunged again into a constant stream of pain and rejection. He wanted to run, and yet, some strange fascination held him. He needed to hear what the creature had to say. What it might say to him...

" 'Frankenstein, I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me. What hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing?' "

McQueen suddenly felt rage overwhelm him and terrible despair. He reached over and slammed the book out of her hands.

"That's enough," he croaked. Barnes reached out and caught his hand, holding him.

"What is it?"

Her eyes were shocked, troubled. Reaching. Caring. Trying to find him. Trying to understand.


He climbed to his feet, distraught. He did not want to hurt her feelings, but he had to get away. "I've, uh... We can finish it another time..." and he hurried down the hillside, away from her.

Barnes watched him go, stunned. Then she pressed her fist to her mouth and struggled to hold back sudden tears. After a moment, she got to her feet and followed him down.

McQueen looked up from his reverie and saw Barnes watching him curiously, her expression veiled and thoughtful. He wondered, suddenly, what she was thinking, if she, too was remembering some poignant bit of the past. He found his mouth oddly dry, and there was a peculiar turmoil in the pit of his stomach which was not caused by the scotch in his glass.

"You'll meet them all in the morning," he said, cocking his head back at the Five-Eight. Barnes nodded, and slid off her bar stool. There was a question in her eyes, but McQueen was relieved to see that she was not going to ask it. She just smiled at him, instead.

"And on that note, Colonel, I think I'm going to call it a night. It's been a long day. I feel like I *pedaled* that transport here."

McQueen smiled. "Goodnight, Major," he said.

"Good night, sir. Thanks for the drink."

At their table, Vansen nudged Wang and nodded at the retreating figure.

"That's her," she hissed.

"Atten-hut!" The 58th snapped to attention in the briefing room early the next morning. It was 0730, exactly, when Commodore Ross walked in followed by Colonel McQueen and a slender, dark haired woman with a Major's insignia on her uniform.

"Be seated," McQueen said.

"Nice," Hawkes murmured appreciatively under his breath, eyeing the newcomer as they shuffled to find places.

"Shut up, Hawkes," West hissed. He bumped the other man in warning as he started to take his seat. Hawkes shoved him back.

"Knock it off, both of you," Vansen breathed. She dropped into her seat and turned toward the front of the room.

So this was the mystery woman, the comrade-in-arms from McQueen's past. She's lovely, Vansen thought, as she arranged her notepad before her. The brief glimpse they had gotten in the dim lighting of the Tun Tavern had not told them very much. It embarrassed Shane Vansen to admit it, but the anticipation of meeting this person this morning had kept her awake for most of the night. Even the prospect of going into battle did not keep her sleepless, anymore.

It was just that they all knew so little about their commanding officer, really. Oh, they knew he was a hero, and a "lifer," they respected him as a warrior. And they knew he cared about them, cared about what happened to his people as a Marine, and maybe even cared about them on a personal level. They knew he would be there for them, they trusted that completely. But they did not know anything *about* him. Kelly Winslow, before she had died, had mentioned that he had been married, once. Vansen found it hard to believe. And now here was this woman out of his past, and Hawkes *was* right, if crude, she *was* attractive, and there was McQueen, *smiling* at her.

Vansen was not sure her curiosity could be contained.

"All right," McQueen said, gruffly. "This one's a little different." He strode across the front of the room.

"Given the recent lull in Chig activity in our region, the 58th has been requested to assist in the testing of a new enhancement to the SA-43 Laser Infrared Ranging and Detection device. Now, I know test flying isn't exactly what you were trained for. However, the thorough development of new technology is vital to the success of this war..."

"And it's not like we're doing anything *else* important at the moment," Wang whispered to Damphousse.

"This is Major Barnes," concluded McQueen. "The Major is responsible for the design and implementation of the new LIDAR enhancement. She will brief you. Major?" He nodded to the woman at his side. Barnes stepped up to the podium and McQueen stepped back.

Taking an unobtrusive stance near the Commodore, McQueen watched his people as Barnes told them basically what she had told Ross the day before. They were attentive, but fidgety, and McQueen had not missed the head-butting between Hawkes and West before the briefing began. He was not worried for the long term, he knew that the two men had generally worked out their particular differences a long time ago, but he also knew that their blood was up with all the sitting around, and he felt for their restlessness. Apparently Vansen's attempts at defusion and reconciliation had been only *so* successful. Well, perhaps this little exercise would help alleviate some of the tension, get the kinks out.

"So the bottom line is," Barnes drew her briefing to an end, "that I need two volunteers to fly the equalizer and genie. The others will play Chig."

They were all on their feet, volunteering simultaneously. Barnes turned to McQueen a little helplessly. He frowned a moment at his squadron.

"Hawkes and Damphousse will fly with the enhancement," he picked arbitrarily.

Hawkes hooted. "Look out for your ass, Chig-man," he chortled at West.

"Yeah, don't be too sure about that," West blustered back at him.

"Toast, West, Chig toast!"

West braced.

"Knock it off!" McQueen barked, deciding they had had enough indulging. The room went silent suddenly. Both Hawkes and West had the decency to look a little chagrined.

"All right, let's make this happen!" McQueen ordered. The Five-Eight did not quite trip over themselves in their hurry, Barnes following out of the "O" room with an amused glance over her shoulder at Ross and McQueen.

Twenty minutes later, Barnes entered the bridge, and took a seat beside McQueen at the LIDAR terminal. The Colonel handed her a headset, and she sat down at the station beside him. Adjusting the ear piece, she nodded to Hickman, at the station to her left. He nodded back to her.

"Everything okay?" McQueen asked, capturing her attention again. Barnes turned to him, bewildered, then smiled and nodded.

"Those two? Fine. They're just pawing the ground." She toggled a switch. "You know, we take these kids, train them to a peak, and then tell them to sit still and be nice until something interesting happens. And we wonder why they start bouncing off the walls." She glanced in McQueen's direction. "How long have they been inactive?"

"Twenty days, seventeen hours, thirty-seven and a half minutes," McQueen deadpanned.

"But who's counting," Barnes chuckled deep in her throat. "Well, let's see if we can stretch their legs a little." She leaned back, and looked over at McQueen. "They're good kids. If the circumstances weren't so dire, I think I'd envy you. The only squadrons I've been fielding lately are lawyers."

"How's that?" McQueen asked.

"Oh, just that our friends at AeroTech have been trying to relieve us of this new technology, and a few other things I've been working on."

McQueen frowned at her. "Can they do that?"

"I don't know, yet," Barnes shrugged, keeping her voice low. "It's a little complicated. It's not that they don't want us to *use* the technology we develop for ourselves - they just want to control it. So far, I've been able to convince The Powers That Be that the honor of the Corps would be significantly impinged if we give in to AeroTech's demands, but they *are* persistent."

"What do they want?"

"AeroTech has made some kind of deal with the government to be exclusive providers of certain kinds of what they call 'emergent technology.' Basically, that means brand new stuff nobody thought of before. We're still waiting to find out if this enhancement programming qualifies as emergent technology or production support technology. If the courts rule it "emergent," Aerotech may be able to commandeer it, under that agreement. Like we didn't have enough to do in this war..."

McQueen looked a little glazed. "I know AeroTech has a lot of government sponsorship, but I've always wondered exactly what the relationship *is*. Seems a little 'cozy' to me."

"You and a lot of other people," Barnes agreed tightly. The monitor beeped before them.

"There's your feed," McQueen said.

Barnes nodded, jotting something down on her clipboard. She turned to Hickman.


"All set here," the man replied.

"Hawkes, Damphousse?" McQueen touched his headset, "you're coming through loud and clear. Okay, people, let's mix it up. "

"Try not to kill each other out there," Barnes added playfully, "that equipment's expensive."

Chuckles and affirmatives answered her back over the communications link. Barnes glanced at McQueen.

"I hear you've had your own adventures with AeroTech, up here," she commented. McQueen just grunted.

"Yeah, they can get in the way." He watched the numbers scuttle across the bottom of his view screen as the dots representing the Hammerheads darted and bobbed. "Howard Sewell died up here not too long ago. Burned to death in a lab fire."

"I heard that," Barnes replied, leaning closer to him. "How do those numbers look?"

"They look good," McQueen said watching a bar graph of data slide up a small screen beside his LIDAR monitor. He tapped some numbers on a small hand held data pad and nodded with satisfaction. He handed it to Barnes.

"Horrible way to die," she said taking it from him with a pleased nod the results. "Still, I can't say I'm gonna miss the little creep..."

McQueen looked over at her in surprise. "That comment sounds like it's got some history behind it."

Barnes sucked her cheek thoughtfully. " 'Bout eighteen months ago, almost exactly on the one year anniversary of Richard's death, AeroTech decided I was interesting enough to start courting. They wanted to seduce me away from the Corps and into the private sector. *Their* private sector, specifically. I suppose I should be grateful they allowed me the requisite year of mourning." She shot McQueen a sideways glance. "They sent Sewell to wine and dine me."

McQueen looked at her blandly. "Things didn't work out?"

Barnes turned to him, her expression eloquent. She shuddered elaborately. McQueen smirked but refrained from further comment.

"How's it going," a voice asked behind them. McQueen turned to see the Commodore leaning on the rail.

"So far so good, sir," Barnes told him politely. She nodded at McQueen. "Let's shift this over to the mainframe. They look good out there."

McQueen nodded, and began throwing switches on the panel before him.

In space, thought Nathan West, no one could see your heart pump with excitement, no one could hear you hoot out loud with the sheer delight of flying. Unless, of course, you com-link was open.

"Cut the skipchatter, King of Hearts," Vansen's voice came over the link.

Oh, give it a rest, Shane, he thought but did not say. It's just an exercise. But he knew she was right. He drew back gently on the controls and watched the wall of velvet and stars rotate through his forward cockpit viewscreen. God, it felt good to be flying again, even if it was just a silly test operation. Weapons were loaded with "blanks," just impotent flashes of light, but the illusion would be satisfying just the same. It felt good just to feel the "Gs". He dipped a wing and scanned the night for Cooper Hawkes. Boy had it coming to him. Even if he *was* practically West's best friend.

Somewhat distantly from West, Cooper Hawkes looked out his side window and nodded to Damphousse, tight on his four o'clock. She grinned and slid cleanly ahead of him. Hawkes glanced down at the small display to the right of his HUD. Well, whatever this newfangled thing was, it did not seem to be interfering with anything he wanted to do. Now where the hell was West. They had a score to settle, even if it was with fake weapons.

McQueen's voice came over the com-link telling them it was time to mix things up. And that pretty Major, making a joke. Cute. Hawkes smiled.

And there was West and company!

"Bandits!! Five o'clock - low!" he shouted into his com. He pivoted his Hammerhead and began firing. "Eat this, Chig!!" he shouted, making bullet noises with his mouth. He peeled off sharply to the right and shot past them.

"Jesus, Coop, take it easy!" Vansen's voice came over the link. "We're not *real* Chigs!" To her own side she said, "Go get 'em!"

Hawkes could hear Damphousse hoot. "Way to go, Cooper!"

"You're toast, Hawkes!" West cursed.

Nathan swung his Hammerhead around, bearing down on Hawkes from above. He hit the button for his cannon, could feel the turret vibrate under the nose of his craft. It felt good. It felt *very* good.

"Juke left!" Damphousse warned, as she swung her craft toward West. Then suddenly, there was Wang in her screen, out of nowhere, and she forgot about Hawkes. "Comin' atcha, Wanger!" she chortled gleefully as she opened fire on Wang's Hammerhead.

"Like hell!" Wang shouted back.

Hawkes swung his plane away and looked down at the numbers scuttling across the bottom of the LIDAR screen. That "genie" thing was "recommending" certain courses of action, in the face of what was going on. He looked up and saw West bearing down on him. And the genie suggesting a counter attack. Interesting, he thought in the fraction of a second he had before he had to react. He blinked, and there was West, in his face, twelve-o'clock high. He dove.

"Nathan! Take it easy! You guys are gonna *kill* each other!" Vansen demanded.

"West!! Hawkes!! God dammit, cut it out!!!" McQueen's voice cracked over the com-link. He sounded pretty pissed off. The two planes soared away from each other, to Wang's and Damphousse's laughter.

Hawkes leveled his Hammerhead grumpily. Leave it to the Colonel to spoil the fun. Still, Hawkes knew when he had pushed his CO too far, and he was not interested in winding up on the business end of McQueen's temper over an exercise. Oh well, might as well have a better look at this genie thing. That pretty Major had told them they could actually turn it off and on, if they found the display distracting. Well, might as well try.

Hawkes flew levelly back toward the others, thumbing the genie off and on as he did. The row of data disappeared, and reappeared, with no apparent effect to anything else. Off, on, off, on... off... and the Hammerhead shook. It was not a shake like a hit, it was more like a hesitation, like...

"Ennhhh?" he grunted into the com-link.

On the bridge of the Saratoga, McQueen watched the two dots representing Hawkes and West careening toward each other, head on.

"What the hell are those two *thinking*?" Ross growled behind him. McQueen jumped to his feet.

"West!! Hawkes!! God dammit, cut it out!!!" he bellowed into his headset. He hoped he blew their eardrums out. Damn fool kids, playing "chicken" with *attack jets*! Beside him, Barnes giggled. He glowered at her, and she looked away. Turning back to her controls, she swallowed her mirth, but caught Ross's smile out of the corner of her eye. She winked at him, and took a deep breath. She glanced over at McQueen.

"Think we've let them play long enough?" she asked with attempted sobriety. "I've gotten all I need, for now."

McQueen looked at her, sourly, then relented and quirked the side of his mouth. He was reaching for the mouthpiece on his headset when Hawkes' voice interrupted him. It was not exactly a word...


"Hawkes?" McQueen barked into his mouthpiece. "What's going on?"

"I dunno," Hawkes replied, too confused to be formal. "That was weird."

"What was weird, Marine?" Barnes asked sharply. Hawkes pulled himself together.

"There was a - I don't know - it was like a "hitch" or somethin'. I was flippin' around with this genie thing, you know, and I felt, like, a tremor..."

Barnes glanced at McQueen, then over her shoulder at Hickman.

"That's not right," she murmured. "All right, let's bring 'em in."

"Wildcards, this is Queen Six. Return to Saratoga."

"Roger that," Vansen's voice complied.

Barnes got up from her seat, and started to pace. She turned to Ross. "Sir, would you mind if the flight deck officer sent Hawkes and Damphousse up here as soon as they get in?"

Ross just nodded and gestured for the request to be sent.

"What do you think it was?" he asked ducking under the railing and coming up behind McQueen. He glared at the view screen.

"I don't know, sir. Maybe nothing." Barnes turned to McQueen. "Is Lieutenant Hawkes given to flights of imagination?"

"Not that I've noticed," McQueen replied.

It did not take very long for Hawkes and Damphousse to reach the bridge.

"What happened out there?" Barnes asked almost before they had come to a full stop. She gave Hawkes such a penetrating stare that the boy physically squirmed.

"I don't really know, Major," he admitted, baffled. "It was like I said, like a 'hitch' or a 'bobble' or something. Like the computer bogged for half a mike then everything was okay again."

"Could you have imagined it?"

"No, ma'm." Hawkes answered quickly. Sure.

Barnes scowled and shook her head at Hickman. "That shouldn't happen."

"I'm sure it was nothing. Imagination," Hickman shrugged.

"It was not my imagination," Hawkes insisted, forgetting himself. "I *know* I felt something."

McQueen shot the boy a warning look, and Hawkes added a "sir" without much conviction. Barnes nodded, and sat back down at her terminal.

"What was the time on the clock?" she asked. Hawkes told her, remembering. Polite, this time, as well as accurate. McQueen gave him an approving nod. Barnes began tapping keys. The screen suddenly filled with ones and zeroes. She stared at them thoughtfully, tapping her mouth with her hand. Finally, she sat forward and froze the screen. She tapped a spot with the eraser on her stylus.

"That's a little weird..."

Hawkes leaned forward and looked. It all looked like zeroes and ones to him.

"You can read that?" he asked, incredulous. Barnes laughed, and even McQueen smiled faintly.

"It's not that difficult, if you know what you're looking for," Barnes chuckled. She turned to Hickman. "What do you think?"

Hickman leaned closer. "That could be anything," he argued, shaking his head. "You have to expect *some* slight anomalous behavior..."

"Maybe," Barnes agreed. "But I don't like that it seems to be simultaneous with Hawkes' 'bobble.' I want it checked out. The last thing we need is a problem with the on-board computers..."

"Even if there was a hitch in the computers," Hickman continued the debate, "it can't have anything to do with the LIDAR. The code never touches."

"Not going in..." Barnes sighed.

McQueen turned to Hawkes, again. "Preflight checked out okay?"

Hawkes just nodded.

"Have you ever experienced anything like it before in that plane?" Barnes quizzed.

Hawkes shook his head. "No ma'm, not in that plane, not in any plane. It was really weird."

McQueen turned to Vanessa. "Damphousse? You didn't experience anything out of the ordinary? No hitch, glitch or bobble?"

"No, sir, nothing," Vanessa replied, a little sheepishly. Maybe she had not been paying all the attention that she should...

McQueen looked at Barnes, who pursed her lips. Beside her, Hickman fidgeted in obvious irritation. McQueen eyed the other man narrowly.

"All right, let's pull Hawkes' black box, and run it through," Barnes finally said. "I want a complete soup to nuts diagnostic - and regression test through all systems again if we have to. There's got to be a reason, someplace. I want special attention on the backfeed. There *are* places where the code touches the navigation and ordnance systems going back in on the genie leg."

"Does the Major recommend that we begin to upgrade SA-43s with this new program?" Ross asked, fully prepared to make a stink if the answer was yes.

"No, sir," Barnes replied, standing up again. "Not until we figure out what's wrong."

"Major Barnes, with all due respect," Hickman finally protested. "that could take days, weeks. Longer. We have *no* evidence that this "hitch" of Lt. Hawkes has anything at all to do with the LIDAR, or that it represents a danger, even if it does. Nothing *bad* happened. Maybe nothing happened at all." He glared at the two young pilots. "*She* didn't feel anything."

"I know what I felt," Hawkes muttered. "Didn't feel right."

"And I'm not going to risk lives on guess work," Barnes concluded forcefully. "You got anything better to do with your time, Captain?"

"Oh, for Chrissake," Hickman exploded with frustration. "I *wrote* the damn thing. This kid's just a t..."

Barnes turned, and Hickman froze. McQueen's head came up. The whole bridge seemed to hold it's breath, waiting.

"A boy?" Barnes finally asked evenly, almost quietly. "You're concerned about the accuracy of Lieutenant Hawkes' observations because of his youth, is that what you meant to say, Captain?"

Hickman swallowed hard. "Yes, ma'm."

The room started to breath again.

"Perhaps," Barnes nodded sagely. "However, Lt. Hawkes has had considerable experience for his years, I'm told. He has flown, what, dozens of missions against the enemy? I would venture that in the last half year Lt. Hawkes has literally lived and breathed his plane, wouldn't you say so, Lieutenant? No one could know it better." She looked at Hickman hard. "I think we can trust him if he says he felt a 'hitch'. I would just like to know what it was. Is that understood, Captain? Was I not clear enough before? You understand now, though?"

Hickman nodded slightly. Barnes turned to Ross. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I need to supervise a download?"

She waited only just long enough for Ross to nod, then left the bridge. Hickman hesitated only a heartbeat, then followed her. Hawkes turned and watched their retreating backs.

"Wow," the boy breathed. Behind him, McQueen hid a smile behind his hand, and Ross struggled not to laugh.

"Dis-missed, Marines," Ross barked, sending Hawkes and Damphousse back to their quarters. As soon as they quit the bridge, he turned to McQueen.

"Boy's got that right!" he acknowledged, his voice tinged with amusement.

McQueen did not say anything. Ross looked over at his friend out of the corner of his eye. Kid'll die for her, now, he thought. And why do I have this peculiar feeling that he's not the only one?

Next : Part Three

Previous : Part Two

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