The characters and situations of the TV program "SPACE:Above and Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, FOX Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, and have been used without permission. NO copyright infringements are intended. The character of "MJ" is the creation of this author and may not be used without his permission. Comments to the author are always welcome (
This story wouldn't have been possible without the encouragement of Jenny Islander; an old friend I just met; a good friend and voice of moderation to many of us on the Space-l list. May her happiness extend to others, and may her virtual red pens never run dry. To all of the hopeless romantics out there who let something go they never should have, Semper Fi
Timeline note: This takes place one to two weeks after the Fan Fiction Serial "Keep the Faith" concluded Not Rated Tom Bissett

Yellow Ribbons


Tom Bisset

Part One

Planet Earth
Office of the President

"We feel the members of the original party to land on the celestial body you called "Anvil" should no longer be persecuted over their revelation to the being." the proxy said. President Diane Hayden raised her eyebrows only a fraction of an inch over sightless eyes in her apparent surprise at this statement. "The word you are looking for, I believe, is prosecuted. The persons you are referring to were setting up equipment in preparation for the invasion of the Homeworld," she said with her trademark calm. "They are United States Marines, and are under investigation for treason. Why, may I ask, are you suggesting the investigation be discontinued?"

"They, in essence, saved lives. The survivors of the Tellus and Vesta colonies were returned, and there was no further adverse public opinion. The being was not harmed. The embryos were not harmed. These are important points to consider."

For the first time in a very long time, Diane Hayden wished she could look someone in the eyes and maybe get a hint of what was being thought. Instead, she applied the logic she had developed over many years of living with her blindness, and careful phrasing she had learned as a politician. "Sir, I will consider your request. This is *highly* unusual, especially coming from you." She paused to take a sip of water, and continued, "I will notify you of my decision within the hour."

The Chig spokesperson nodded his assent. "I look forward to your decision, Madam President."

USS Saratoga
Bunk Room

"Wang. Wang! WANG! Damnit, Paul, for God's sake, will you *please* wake up?" Nathan West said as he sprang off his bunk. The other members of the squadron looked over to Wang's bed, where West was shaking Wang's arm trying to rouse him.

"Get off of me, you FREAK! I won't--" Wang awoke with a start, but was still affected by his nightmare. West felt Wang's muscles tense, and for just a second, thought that Wang was going to take a swing at him.

"Paul, you OK?" Cooper Hawkes asked.

Fully awake and aware of his surroundings, Wang sat up and buried his head in his hands. "Oh man. I haven't had that dream in a long, long time." Looking up at his squadron mates--his friends--he said, "I thought I was back on Kazbek, and that freakin' AI Elroy was coming at me again with that finger of his. This time, though, I wasn't completely tied down. One hand was free, but . . . I just couldn't . . . move."

"Hey, Paul. Come on, man, it's *us*." Damphousse said. "If you ever want to talk about it, let it go. Get it out of your system. We," 'Phousse declared, waving her hands around the room, "will be more than happy to listen."

"Yeah, especially if you want to talk in the Tavern, and you're buying." Hawkes added.

"Thanks, you guys. I always knew you'd be there for me, especially when it's on my tab." Wang countered. "I'm sorry I woke you all up. Let's all just go back to sleep." He climbed back into bed, turned over on his side, and punched the pillow to make it more comfortable.

Vansen looked over at the clock. Its luminescent dial read 04:56. "Yeah. Good idea. Reveille in four minutes, people. Might as well get up and get a shower before all of the hot water's gone."

"Sounds like a good idea to me. Hey, anyone got a clue as to what we're gonna be doing today?" West asked.

"I'm supposed to report to the ship's power plant and assist the engineer with a wiring problem." Damphousse said. "It seems they finally realized the green wire doesn't get hooked to the power supply."

"The rest of us are to assist the admin section with their mundane message filing." Vansen said from the shower area. "*Why* they actually *print* out electronic messages, instead of routing them through the ship's terminals, is way beyond me. Must have been a decision made well past our pay grades, whatever that may become. Then, at 1400 hours, we get to meet with our counsel to work on strategy for our courts-martial."

"I'd feel much better if we didn't have a wet-behind-the-ears lawyer for our counsel." Wang said.

"Yeah. I agree. It'd be nice if our beloved Corps gave us someone with trial experience, not someone right out of Law School. What's this guy's name again?" West asked.

"Some knucklehead who calls himself "Schmoopy", or "Sloopy" or some shit like that." Hawkes answered.

The 58th completed their morning rituals: personal hygiene, area cleanup, breakfast, and then reported to their duties: Damphousse to engineering, West and Hawkes reported to the filing section, while Vansen and Wang walked to the message center.

USS Saratoga Bridge
0900 Hours

"Commodore Ross, incoming message for you, sir." the comm officer said.

Glancing up at the officer in his favorite 'I'm-busy-it-had-better-be-important' look, he said, "Who's it from, Ensign"?

"The Pentagon, Sir. Office of the Joint Chiefs."

"Pipe it through to me here," he ordered. Picking up the handset, he said, "Commodore Ross here, sir."

"Commodore, this is General Wilson, administrative officer to the Joint Chiefs. I have a message to be relayed to you from President Hayden via the Chairman of the JCS."

Wondering what this new intrusion into his ship's business was all about, Ross replied, "Go ahead with the message, General. I've started the recorder."

"Commodore Ross, by order of the President and Joint Chiefs of Staff, you are hereby ordered to terminate any and all investigations and legal proceedings against the members of the 58th Squadron due to mitigating circumstances. These include, but are not limited to, Captain S. Vansen, Captain N. West, Lieutenants P. Wang, C. Hawkes and V. Damphousse. They are to be returned to flight status, pending successful completion of their flight physicals. There are to be no, I say again, no repercussions against them for their actions in regards to the operation formerly known as "Roundhammer." They are also authorized seven days non-chargeable leave at a port of your choosing. End message." the voice said.

"General. Sir. This is the most unusual . . . Sir, prepare to authenticate this transmission." Ross said. With growing irritation, he snapped his fingers at the Comm Officer, pointed at the authenticators, and waved her over to him. "Give me those, and return to your station." he snapped , snatching the papers from her hand.

"JCS prepared to authenticate, Commodore." General Wilson said.

Putting the handset down, Ross looked around the room and said under his breath, "This has to be the *most* unusual shit I've ever listened to, or had to do." Reclaiming the handset, Ross said, "General, I read the clock in the 1700 block of Zulu. Authenticate two-niner."

"Commodore, I reply to your authentication as one-seven Lima. I say again, one-seven Lima."

"I copy the good authentication, General. Now, would someone please explain to me just what the hell is going on?"

"I'm just the messenger for what sounds like *real* good news to the 58th Squadron, Commodore. If I were you, I'd get the 58th their physicals, give them their week off to give everything and everyone a chance to cool down. This is General Wilson, JCS, out."

'I'll be a son of a bitch', Ross thought. Suppressing the smile he felt coming out, he bellowed: "Ensign! Assemble the Five-Eight. Have them be in the OPS briefing room in five minutes."

USS Saratoga
Corridor Leading to the OPS Room

"What's this about? Another ass chewing? 'Cause if it is, someone's gonna be hungry--there ain't much left." Cooper said, looking down around his waist to his rear.

"I don't know, Coop. I imagine we'll find out here in a second, though." West said as they walked into the room. West noticing the Commodore and Major Davis were already there, as were the remainder of the 58th. The Commodore was leaning on the podium and looking at his watch; the major was standing with her hands on her hips looking unhappy. Hawkes and West quickly took their places with their squadron mates, standing at attention.

Walking to the immediate front of Vansen, looking her straight in the eye, then acting as if he were inspecting them for proper adherence to Marine grooming standards, Ross said, "Five Eight, I don't know what actually happened on Anvil. I don't know what made you do what you did." Turning on his heel, he moved to West. Assuming the same stance, he continued, "Your orders were to be covert. You were not to be spotted." Turning again, he moved to Wang. "You were to set up the equipment, and depart. Simple in-and-out operation. You were not, as I recall, *ever* instructed to reveal the pending invasion to anyone. . . " Moving to Damphousse, his inspection continued ". . . or any*thing*. You should have eliminated this threat to the successful completion of your mission." Moving to Hawkes, his tirade continued, "You should have killed whatever you encountered. KILLED it! Dead! No More. Hasta La Bye Bye, Baby . . . Much less revealed to it the plans of the pending invasion." Moving to the front of the formation, he continued, "This sort of action was determined to be damaging to Operation Roundhammer. So much so, that the Admiral brought you up on formal charges, the least of which would . . . " Vansens eyes perked up at the mention of the past tense "would." . . . have had you drummed out of the Marine Corps--during a *war*, no less. I cannot think of a worse disgrace." Centering huimself on the squad, the Commodore commanded "At ease, five eight. I have news concerning your careers. Pay close attention.

"Five Eight, you are to be returned to flight status as soon as you complete your flight physicals. I have already instructed the medical staff to leave no stone unturned in the physical process. You will be poked, prodded, and bled just like you were in flight school."

Major Davis was inwardly please to see the dismayed reactions of her squadron --and just as pleased when they disappeared an instant later.

Ross continued, "After the completion of these examinations, you will be placed on a temporary duty status, and granted shore leave on the Bacchus. This leave will begin when you enter the cockpit of your Hammerhead, and end exactly seven days later when you better be pulling onto *my* flight deck. You had better return on time. To the *second*, five eight. I mean it. Do *not* be late." He then nodded to Major Davis, who commanded "Squadron, ten-HUT!" Commodore Ross gave them one last look, then smiled as he said, "Welcome back troops. Now go get your temperatures taken and your veins bled. We'll have a launch window for the Bacchus in 12 hours." Turning on his heel, he walked out.

"At ease," Davis commanded.

"Major, what the hell was this all about?" Vansen asked.

"It would appear you all live a charmed life, or someone upstairs likes you five. I dunno who or what that might be, or why, but the charges against you have been dropped, the investigations have been terminated, and you all got a week to relax--and to let the rest of the ship get over their perceived notions about you--before coming back and becoming productive people again." Davis said. "Boss Ross said there was a message from President Hayden instructing the charges be dismissed."

Looking confused, Wang said, "Waitaminit. Last I knew, we and our reputations were deemed to be lower than whale turds, and now we can go have a week off? Playing on the Bacchus?"

"You still have to pass your physical, Wang. The time you've been given is to allow any negative opinions of the 58th a chance to surface, be resolved, and allow everyone a chance to resume their routines. You all are just being taken out of the picture for a few days." Looking at her watch, Davis said "The launch window is now eleven hours, fifty-eight minutes away. If I were you, I'd stop wasting time, and head off to the medical section. WildCards, you are dismissed." she said through a smile.

Bunk Room
the Wildcards

"Geeze, that doctor had . . . large knuckles." Hawkes said. Grabbing his flight bag, he began to pack.

"Yeah, I thought he also had his class ring on during my, uhh, examination." Wang added. "But, at least we are all hemorrhoid free. Don't have to worry about popping one out during high-gee maneuvers, I guess."

"Oh, grow up, you poor pitiful little boys. 'Phousse and I will trade you--any time, any day-- your exam for one of ours." Vansen said. Looking at the clock, she added "Just a little more than an hour before launch. Everyone packed?" Grabbing the pool cue case from her locker, she stood at the door. "Come on, you all. I've got an AI poolshark's ass to kick all over that sector of space."

"Ready here." Hawkes said.

"Me too." 'Phousse added.

"I'm outta here." Wang said.

The four of them stood at the door to the room, and looked back at West. He was sitting on his bunk, bag packed and at his feet. In his hands was the tag Kylen had given him. He kept looking at it, and then at his friends. He pressed the button, and all heard, "I believe in you. I believe in all of you."

"You know, I thought the most important thing in the world to me was finding her. In doing that, I almost lost something more precious." West said. Looking up at his friends, he added, "Now that I know she's alive. . . she's home, she's safe . . . I feel different." He again pressed the button to hear her voice.

Putting down her bag, Vansen asked, "Different? Like how, Nathan?"

Looking up, at the rest of the 58th, he said, "Like my priorities have changed. Like maybe I've changed. Like . . . aww, hell I don't know".

After letting a moment go by so West could collect his thoughts, Hawkes walked over, put a reassuring hand on his friends shoulder, and said, "Come on, man. We gotta go."

Taking a deep breath, West stood up, took another look at the tag, looked at his friends waiting to depart, stood and put the tag in his drawer. "Good-bye, Kylen.", he thought.

Picking up his flight bag, he stood , walked past his friends and said, "Last one out kill the lights. We've got some pre-flight work to do and a vacation to take."

En route to the Bacchus

After an uneventful pre-flight and launch, the Wildcards, to a person, were wondering about how to spend their week. Wang and Damphousse were each giving serious thought to getting to know each other better; Hawkes had entertained the idea of learning to play poker--and maybe spend some time with some people who weren't "professionals". West was still lost in thought, concentrating on his instruments and getting an occasional glimpse out of the cockpit windows. "Anybody recognize that tune my Crew Chief was whistling?" West asked out loud, not really knowing he had done so.

"That was actually a tune?" Hawkes replied. "Whatever it may have been, I didn't recognize it as anything I know."

"It's one of those songs you hear in elevators and department stores and doctors' offices. I think it was a song done a while back--I mean *way* back--about some guy on a bus who sees all these ropes hanging on a tree . . ." added Vansen.

"Oh, yeah, I know now. Something about yellow ribbons, and coming home." West said. "I got it. But, I hope he doesn't expect to make a living singing or whistling . . . Poor schmuck can't carry a tune."

"LIDAR contact!" Wang shouted, interrupting the conversation. "Port side, bearing 330 degrees."

"Just about where the Bacchus ought to be. Stand by." Vansen said. "IFF query positively identifies it as the Bacchus. Switching frequencies to approach control."

"Yeah, *please* make the call. Wouldn't want that things armament and defenses coming to bear on us." Hawkes interjected. "It would suck being shot down by a Pleasure Palace."

Switching frequencies, Vansen made contact with approach: "Bacchus approach control, this is the WildCards. Request landing clearance and ground maintenance support."

"Permission granted, WildCards. Turn left 30 degrees, assume a heading of zero. You should see the flightline transient complex ahead of you. Dock in landing bay nine. Welcome to the Bacchus, Wildcards."

"OK, people. Let's do this and enjoy ourselves. We've got a week. Let's not waste it."

After an uneventful landing and cockpit separation, the Wildcards were met at the door by a different person from the last time they had been there. This time, their host was a small, thin man, dressed in a tuxedo, who had a monocle dangling from his vest.. "Welcome back 58th. I hope your stay here will not be cut as short as it was last time. Captain Vansen, your quarters are just down the corridor, near the pool hall. Captain West, your request has been honored. We look forward to serving you all as you need it. Again, Earth standard credit is always welcome; and still, hard currency is always preferred in some venues. Enjoy your stay." With that, the doors to the inner sanctum of the Bacchus were opened.

"'Your request', Nathan?", 'Phousse asked. "What is it? A quiet sun-filled day, shootin' hoops and having a picnic, or what?"

"Actually, I thought I'd pull a McQueen, request a movie marathon, some popcorn, and a lot of peace and quiet. I can *really* use this time off. I've got a lot of things to think about. We're all still on for dinner tomorrow night, right?" West asked. Grabbing his bag, before anyone else could say anything, he departed the flightline area and walked off toward his room.

"You don't actually suppose everything's gotten to him and he's fallen off his rocker, do you?" 'Phousse asked rhetorically.

"Want the real answer, or the approved Marine Corps one?" Wang countered.

Second day on board the Bacchus

"Man can only live on popcorn for so long." West said to himself. "Great. Now I'm talking to myself. Pretty soon, I'll be answering myself too." Exiting his cabin in search of breakfast, he followed his nose to what smelled like steak and eggs. Inwardly pleased, and suddenly extremely hungry, he walked to the serving line, grabbed a plate and silverware, and stood in front of *the largest* woman he had seen in years. The top line of her name tag read "Dorrie"; underneath, "Aerotech Food Quality Inspector".

"What'll it be, sweetie?" she asked.

"I have never *ever* seen this much food in one place, in my entire life," he said shaking his head in amazement. "I think I'll start with the omelet, home fries and that big monster sized steak over there." He said, pointing out the one he wanted.

"You got it, cutie. Been here before?" Dorrie asked.

"Yeah, but only for a few days." Taking his now filled plate, and finding an open chair, Nathan West sat down and enjoyed the first real five-egg omelet in months. Making a conscious effort to slow down his feeding frenzy, West looked around and noticed the gambling tables in the rear of the room. His curiosity piqued, he grabbed his plate, chewing on another fork full of omelet, and threaded his way back towards the rear.

Dropping some of the food off the plate, he heard a voice call out to him, "Hey, Sport! Wanna sit down before you spill all of it on the floor?"

Looking around, he saw a card dealer pointing towards him. He gladly took the offered seat, and finished chewing. "Thanks", he said. "Much easier to gorge yourself while sitting. You can catch any food falling off the plate with your legs. None goes to waste then."

"What's your name, Sport? Or, should I just call you 'Sport'?" The girl asked, still shuffling her cards; never taking her eyes off the table.

Looking around and not seeing a napkin, he wiped his right hand on his pants, stuck it out, and said "Nathan West. Pleased to meet you."

Taking the proffered hand, which West noticed her grip was cool and firm, she said "The name's Marie Jessup. Most people call me MJ for short."

"Nice to meet you, MJ for short." Taking his hand back, and surprised when he felt the contact was broken too quickly, he said through a mouthful of food, "So, what's a person do around here for fun?"

Looking at West as if he had sprouted an extra eye, she asked, "You really aren't serious, are you?"

Realizing his error, he swallowed his half-chewed food, and said "Hang on a second. That came out wrong. What I meant to say was . . ."

"I think I know what you were getting at." she said through a smile. "What most people come to the Bacchus for is a chance to relax. Some come here to find their fortune playing their favorite game of chance. Some come here for. . ." She looked around the room, found a scantily clad woman, pointed towards her and said, "That. Me, well, I came here to raise enough money to pay for my final year of college working for just over the minimum wage dealing cards."

"But, why here? Wasn't there anything else closer to Earth you could have done?" Nathan asked.

Looking at West straight in his eyes, she said "Sure. But, I needed a break from school, I've got no one at home to worry about, and no one to worry about me. This chance came up, and I took it. Finish your breakfast, Nathan West. I've got to go take some of these people's money." She moved off to one side of the table, and started dealing blackjack.

West finished eating, thought seriously about having more, but decided to play some 21. Exchanging some money for chips, he sat back at his stool and said, "Hey, MJ for short, deal me in."

Looking at him with a look he thought only Boss Ross could muster she said, "OK, smart-ass. Lets just do the MJ part, cool?" Dealing his cards, she gave him a small smile.

"Cool. I'm Nathan . . . Just Nathan." West said. He was also pleasantly surprised when she smiled at him.

"Tonight, dinner is on me, everyone," West announced to his assembled friends.

"In that case, I'll be having one of everything on the menu." Hawkes said. "Seconds on the expensive stuff. What's the big occasion?"

"We never celebrated my promotion, and since we all are back together, I felt like this is a good time. Besides, I got lucky today."

Snorking water out of his nose, Wang asked, "Say what?" Wiping his face, he said through a grin and tears, "Lucky? As in . . ."

"As in I won a couple or three hundred bucks playing blackjack this morning, you pervert." West countered, punching his friend playfully on the arm.

"Yeah, I saw you at the table as I was losing my shirt, my shoes, and my ass in poker. I guess it's true. In Vitros aren't really good at gambling." Hawkes added.

Shaking her head, Vansen added through a smile, "No, I don't think that's quite right. I think it's maybe just because you suck at cards. Anyone can be taught, but trying to get a simple process like counting cards through that thick head of yours might be a little difficult."

Nodding, Hawkes replied, "Yeah, probably. Anyone seen the waiter? I'm getting hungry, and I want to get Wang another glass of water so he can spill it out of his nose again."

The rest of the meal continued along these lines--friends enjoying one anothers company--until Hawkes felt he had to ask the question that was on everyone's mind.

"Hey, Nathan. How hard was it to concentrate on the blackjack while you were making goo-goo eyes at the dealer?"

"I was not making "goo-goo eyes" at the dealer. If she asked me a question, I made eye contact and answered it. It's only polite to look at someone when they're talking to you." West said with an air of indignance.

"Oh yeah. Sure. Right. It was almost *obscene* the way the testosterone was oozing out every pore of your body." Hawkes countered. "You turned on that charm of yours, and started slaying the fair maidens . . ."

"Yeah, that's our Nathan." Vansen added through a smile. "Professional stud."

"All right, all right. Fine, you all go and have your fun at my expense." West said, being mockingly serious. "If you want to think I was up to no good, then fine. Think what you want. I do know one thing, though. I know it's well past the time I had planned on being in bed . . ." He looked at each of his friends in the eye before continuing, ". . .alone. Goodnight, one and all. I've got a Keystone Kops movie to catch early, so I guess I'll see you all in the morning." Rising from the table, he said "Thanks, you guys. I had a blast this evening." Turning on his heel in a perfect Marine Corps left-face, he departed before anyone could say anything.

Watching West march off in the direction of the door, "OK. I've made a decision, so you all pay close attention." 'Phousse said, watching West depart. "That boy has definitely fallen off his rocker. Anyone disagree?"

'Phousse looked around the table at the remaining 'Cards to see if there was a dissenting opinion. There wasn't.

Day three aboard the Bacchus

"Captain Vansen, please report to the Comm section." The disembodied voice said through a speaker.

"'Scuse me, fellas." Vansen said as she picked up her winnings and departed the pool hall. "No rest for the weary . . . Or the semi-wealthy." She said through a half-smile.

The other pool players, each several hundred dollars poorer than when they challenged the woman to play 9-ball, watched her as she disassembled her cue, placed the halves in the case, and departed the room.

"So, whose bright friggin' idea was it to ask her back?", the raspy voice asked from a dark corner of the room.

"She just showed up, Alvin." One of the players replied. "When you gonna play her?"

"I don't know if I will." The AI said as he sank deeper into the shadows.

Bacchus Comm Room

"I'm Vansen. I was asked to report here?" she asked the clerk.

"Message for you, Ma'am. From the USS Saratoga." The clerk said, handing Vansen the message and clipboard to sign for receipt.

After signing for the message and leaving the Comm spaces, she opened the message and read:

"Sorry to do this to you, but your return to the 'Toga has been moved up 24 hours. Boss Ross sends his condolences, but requires your presence for something that came up. Enjoy what's left of your stay. End Message." The communique was signed by Major Davis.

"Well, damn. Sort of figured this had to happen. Nothing good ever lasts long." She slowly walked to each of the other WildCards' rooms and passed on the message. Each understood the message in their own way--Hawkes with anger; West with acceptance; Damphousse and Wang with disappointment.

"Hey, Nathan, how's it going?" MJ asked as he sat at her table. "Could be better. We found out we need to leave a day earlier than originally planned. That sucks." Looking West straight in the eyes, she said, "Yeah, it does. Pausing for a second, she asked, "Hey, are you doing anything tonight?" "I didn't have anything planned." He replied. "I've got some great old movies lined up. . . The old black and white classics, some of the early science fiction stuff . . . Want to join me?"

"I think I'd love that. Can I bring anything?"

"Naw. Just show up whenever you want. I'll have the popcorn ready."

"Cool. I like mine with lots of salt, and just a little butter for flavor." She said, smiling. "Listen, I get off at 1400, so don't start the good ones until I get there. I could use a chance to relax." Taking her place behind the table, she asked the crowd, "Who's in?"

Catching a quick look from her as he started to turn and walk off, he could have sworn he saw a slight wink. "Oh, for God's sake, Nathan. Grow up." He said to himself as he took his place in the breakfast buffet line.

A quiet knock on the door was the only thing that announced MJ's arrival.

West had to admit to himself he was surprised at seeing MJ in this light. She wasn't in her casino uniform; instead, she was wearing cutoff jeans shorts and a University of Maryland Terrapins t-shirt. She was also clutching a raggedy teddy bear, who had one eye button missing. "Can I come in?" she asked, in a tone exactly opposite that of the one she used in the casino.

"You look--different." He said, stepping back and allowing her in.

"Is that bad?"

"No . . . No, not at all." He replied, closing the door. "I just sort of expected you to be . . ." he shrugged one shoulder, shook his head, and continued ". . . hell, I don't know. Maybe the same bold and brassy person I first met in the Casino."

"And, again, is this bad?"

"No, not at all. Sit down, make yourself comfortable, and I'll get the movie cranked up. Popcorn's over there." He said, pointing towards the small kitchenette.

Grabbing a bowl of popcorn, she turned, sat down on a beanbag chair, and said, "Listen, Nathan. I feel it's necessary that I say something."

"Hang on a second -- I can barely hear you." He replied from the next room. Coming back in, he said "What was it you were saying?"

"I said, we need to talk."

"OK, so talk."

Looking around the room, she drew her knees up to her chest, hugged them and her teddy bear at the same time, and said "You have to just listen for a second, OK?" Before he could answer, she continued, "Try to believe me when I say that in the five months I've been here, this is the first time I've ever been in a room assigned to someone else. I'm not the type of person to latch onto someone and jump right into their bed and screw their brains out. If this is what you were thinking, then I'm sorry I gave you the wrong impression, and I'll go."

Absorbing her statements, he thought for a second, and said, "OK, so now you listen. I invited you here to watch movies and eat popcorn until it came pouring out of our ears. Even if I had wanted someone to hop into bed and screw my brains out, then I would have arranged for one in a bar, or something. I've got . . . I used to think I was deeply in love with a girl who was one of the survivors of the Tellus and Vesta disaster. But, since she's been rescued and is back on Earth. . . I don't know what's going on. I wish her the happiest life ever, and I know she'll be happy with whatever and whoever she ends up with."

"What do you mean 'used to think'?"

"I mean. . . I mean I'm not so sure she's my reason for living and loving anymore." Stopping and looking her straight in the eye, he continued "Damn. I've never said that to anyone before. Not even me."

The mood of the evening was starting to get overly serious, so she said, "So, what's the movie?"

"Before I tell you, you gotta explain the University of Maryland thing. What the hell is a terrapin, and what's with the bear?" he asked, pointing at her shirt.

"I'm working on my doctorate from UM in biological engineering. The money ran out, and this came along. Pointing to the mascot, she said, "A terrapin is a turtle. "Terrapin" sounds much more imposing than "turtle", don't you think?"

"I suppose it does, at that." He said, chuckling. "And the bear?"

"As far as my bear is concerned," stopping and looking down, she continued through the beginnings of what was obviously a painful memory, "He's my friend. My mom and dad gave me him to me when I was four years old. They died less than a week later."

"Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't know. . ."

"How could you? Don't sweat the small stuff. What's the flick this evening?"

"I picked out several movies, and thought I'd let you decide. I've got "Escape from Planet X" "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", and a couple others."

"I don't know--you pick." she said.

Holding up a video disk, he said, "This was the first W.C. Fields movie I ever saw. We'll start with that one. More popcorn?"

"Naw. I'm OK." She replied, with a smile.

"So, tell me something. Who's the person in the casino? Your evil twin, or somethin'?"

"That MJ is the one I use to let everyone know who's in charge. In other words, people who think I going to let them get away with things just because I'm a female quickly learn they won't. The MJ before you is the real me."

Nathan sat next to her, and the movie started. He was more than surprised at himself when he started enjoying watching her reactions to the slapstick comedy. Neither one knew when it was, but sometime after the third or fourth movie, they both dozed off, leaning on each others shoulders. Waking up a few hours later, MJ quietly slipped out from beside West, and made her exit from the room. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she bumped into a person in the corridor.

"'Scuse me. Didn't see you." She said, sleepily.

"That's OK. I always enjoy being body-slammed by a pretty woman." Paul Wang said.

Smiling, she said "Thanks. Excuse me, I've got to get ready for work in an hour or so." Turning and walking off, she continued to her room.

Watching her depart, Wang looked at her, looked to see where she had come from, and made the connection. Walking to West's door, he started to pound on it furiously.

"Hey, West! WEST! You beastmaster, let me in!"

"Paul?" West asked through the door.

"Yeah, it's me. Lemme in!"

Opening the door a crack, and still looking half-asleep, he asked, "Paul, what do you want?"

Pushing his way in, Wang looked about the room. He was trying to place events in his mind, and was confused by seeing only a beanbag chair and a couple bowls of popcorn -- and the bed neatly made. "Who was that?" he demanded.

"Who was who? Geez, Paul, make sense, will you?"

"Who's the girl, Nathan?" Wiggling his eyebrows, Wang continued, "Was she the card dealer you were doing the goo-goo eyes thing with?"

"Listen, her name is MJ, and we fell asleep watching movies. Get a grip."

"Watching movies, huh? Is that what they call it where you're from?" Wang replied, smiling.

"We watched movies, Wang. Let it go at that, OK?" West said, somewhat menacingly.

"OK, Nathan. It's gone." Walking around the room, he made a show of sniffing the air. "I can't detect any "Eau de Rut" here. Maybe you did just watch movies."

"You are getting seriously close to crossing that line, pal." West said, clenching a fist. "I told you we fell asleep watching movies. Period. The end. No more story."

"Whatever you say, Nathan." Wang said as he exited the room. "Whatever you say."

Next : Part Two.

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