Make your own free website on Tripod.com


Six Against the Dealer
Episode Two: Gametime
by Jessi Albano

Disclaimer: 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 infringement is intended.

However, this version of the second season and all its episodes, as well as all non-canon characters, especially Morgan Tyler, Jordan Rain, Sarah Cullen, Mariah Pagodin, and Hudson O'Neill (and whoever else I might think of in the course of writing this thing), belong to me and may not be used without my express permission.

Also, the biases and prejudices found in this story are of the characters themselves and do not necessarily reflect my own beliefs.

Rating for this particular episode is R for the language and the general nastiness and violence of the lead characters -- for whom I make no apologies, by the way.

Please send comments at SeuneAeryk@hotmail.com. Death threats to Morgan Tyler will be duly forwarded. (But we already know USMC mail is monitored, so I make no guarantees. ;) )

Enjoy!

Jessi Albano
SeuneAeryk@hotmail.com


"What ravages of spirit conjured this tempestuous rage 
Created you a monster broken by the rules of love? 
And fate has led you through it 
You do what you have to do 
Fate has led you through it 
You do what you have to doÖ" 

- Sarah McLachlan 
"Do What You Have To Do" 


+++ 

“Commodore, we’re not ready for a ground mission!”

The voice that interrupted the briefing was emphatic, even angry. Not
a wise tone to take with the commander of the _USS Saratoga._

“Captain Tyler,” responded Commodore Glen Ross, “you seem to be
harboring the belief that you have a choice in this matter.”

“I’m sorry, Sir.” Captain Morgan Tyler, newly appointed leader of the
58th Squadron tried to answer more calmly. “I need more time.”

“_You_ need more time?” repeated Ross with dark humor. “Weren’t you
the one who was so hot to test her team’s mettle she went out and
engaged the enemy not two hours after she arrived on my ship?”

“And with all due respect, Sir,” responded Tyler, “weren’t you the one
who didn’t want any more ‘unnecessary displays of foolhardiness’?”

“The 5-8th has been on active duty for nine days and you’ve performed
excellently.” The Commodore pointed out.

“The dynamics of a ground mission are entirely different from aerial
combat, Commodore,” replied Tyler. “You of all people know that.”

“Isn’t that precisely why you’ve been drilling them so mercilessly
this last week?” asked Ross.

“Yes, Sir,” she agreed readily. “And that’s how I know we’re not
ready.” She hesitated, then continued. “Commodore, you know I’d go
in a second… but we’re not ready. The 5-8th was given to me for a
reason -- let me do my job.”

“This _is_ your job, Tyler.” Ross’ patience was wearing thin. “You
said it yourself, they’re Marines, they’re ready by definition.” He
quieted her next protest with a wave of his hand. “I need the 5-8th
on this one. You know as well as I do that --.”

“That we need a win and we need a big one?” supplied Morgan, dryly.
“That this mission wouldn’t be so important if it wasn’t so
high-profile?” She snorted impatiently. “Sir, if you want to boost
morale and perk up the troops then bring in some movie stars and do a
show or something. I can’t guarantee the success of this mission,
Commodore. That sort of defeats the purpose entirely.”

“Let me end this discussion right now, Captain Tyler,” stated Ross,
with finality. “You _will_ go on this mission and you _will_
accomplish your objective. Failure is not acceptable. Is that
understood?”

“Aye, Sir,” she nodded, grimly.

 “Brief your team,” the Commodore ordered flatly. “You leave for
_Styx _ at 0420. Dismissed.”

+++

*Damn,* she thought, *hoisted by my own petard.*

She had known her outburst was a mistake but she couldn’t help
herself. If it had been just her, or if she still had the BlackWings,
she’d have been on-planet already – why waste time? But she didn’t
have the ‘Wings anymore. All she had was this bunch of school-kids.

She had run out of time. They were going on-planet in three hours and
they weren’t ready. Separately, she had to admit that they were
better than most. But it wasn’t enough. They refused to gel, somehow.

She had been misled by that first aerial exercise. During their
patrols the rift wasn’t so obvious, but Rain was right. They could
fly together well enough. Fighting together was a different matter
altogether. Sure, during patrol they followed the formation she’d set,
-- West on her left, supporting her probable weak spot – damn that
scar! – with Rain in turn supporting him, Hawkes on her right and
Cullen right behind him. It was the most effective combat formation,
but she also had a secondary objective. Only it wasn’t working.

They were just as capable during their ground exercises – Hawkes and
Rain being particularly impressive when it came to hand-to-hand, but
again, they refused to work together. She had hoped that the harsh
demands and the close quarters required by the exercises would force
them to work together, to get to know each other and get used to the
idea of being a team, but when West had run into that cleverly
camouflaged pole, it was Hawkes who had helped him up. Cullen was
nearer, but she had hesitated. And Tyler had noticed the way that
West’s eyes had automatically turned to Hawkes.

She gritted her teeth at the memory. They annoyed her no end, those
four --. Hawkes and West acting so nasty and prickly, Cullen and Rain
acting like nervous recruits, jumping every time she gave an order.

She knew they had their reasons. Hawkes and West, still reeling from
the loss of their companions, clung to each other like Siamese twins,
like the last of a pack defending their territory. She knew they were
resisting because somewhere inside themselves they believed that
acceptance translated into betrayal. Into forgetting. Into letting
go.

She couldn’t blame them for that.

As for Cullen and Rain, they had heard stories about the 5-8th
throughout the war and held the other two in awe. Nevermind that
they had been Marines longer. Nevermind that they were every bit as
good, if not better. Nevermind that if those two had been anybody
else Cullen and Rain would have kicked their butts by now.

She could understand that, too.

But she was still _this_ close to knocking all their heads together.

They weren’t two pairs, dammit. They were a team.

And this was a war.

She sighed irritatedly. *Dammit,* she thought again. *You’d think
they’d all be best friends by now, considering how much they all hate
me.*

She smiled to herself, suddenly wickedly amused.

Maybe they didn’t hate her enough…

+++

“Hey guys, can you believe it?” exclaimed a slightly-hyper Lt.
Cullen. “My first official ground mission!”

Lt. Rain smiled back wryly. “I do wish you’d stop being so perky
about these things, Sarah,” he commented while doing a last minute
check on his gear. “You sound like we’re going on field trip or
something.”

“Yeah,” agreed Hawkes from his spot by the lockers. “Ground-pounding
is the pits.”

“Can’t help it,” she grinned. “I can’t believe we were given this
assignment. It’s so cool!”

Sarah ran the details of the mission through her mind, reviewing
Tyler’s abrupt summarization of the situation.

The planet they would be going to was called ‘Styx.’ Twenty hours
earlier, while investigating the planet, an SAS squadron had shot down
three Chig crafts. Closer inspection had revealed that one of the
crafts was a cargo transporter carrying four containers of _refined_
Sewell fuel. Sarah knew that it was an incredible coup. Enough
Sewell fuel to create more of those special missiles in case the Chigs
manufactured more of their black ‘Ace’ fighter ships, plus enough to
spare for research and experiments – a luxury they didn’t have before.

The brass had decided that the best place for the fuel would be on the
‘Toga since its science team had experience dealing with the
substance. The SAS squadron was on its way to the ‘Toga when they
were attacked by more Chigs. One pilot, the last pilot, managed to
dump his cargo and transmit the coordinates before being blown up.
Though the loss of the squadron was mourned by all, everyone was
excited by the possibilities afforded by the opportunity. With luck,
the Chigs believed the last container destroyed along with the
others. With luck, they would now, unknown to the enemy, possess the
secrets of this alien power source. Them. Not Aerotech, not the
Silicates, _them. _ The good guys.

The mission of the 58th – insert on planet via nighttime parachute
jump, find and retrieve the last container and bring it safely back to
the _USS Saratoga._

Simple.

“This is an easy one, people,” Tyler had commented dryly. “Let’s not
embarrass ourselves.”

Sarah was so excited she could burst.

“So where is she?” asked West, voicing the question currently in
Sarah’s mind. “Launch is in 20 mikes.”

“She said she had to go do something,” provided Rain. “We’re supposed
to wait for her here.”

“Well, I hope she gets here soon,” said Sarah. “I don’t want to be
late for --.”

“Your first official ground mission,” completed West, tongue in cheek.

“You know it,” Sarah grinned again.

The next ten minutes took forever but at last Tyler walked in, already
dressed in combat gear.

“We’re ready, Captain,” Sarah greeted the taller woman. “The boat for
Styx leaves in 10 mikes.” She figured the reminder couldn’t hurt.

Tyler nodded shortly and looked over to where Cooper was standing.
“Hey, Hawkes,” she said with deceptive casualness. “I bought you a
present.”

“You did?” Hawkes asked, forehead wrinkling slightly in his innocent
confusion.

“I realized that you and me got off on the wrong foot,” Tyler smoothly
explained. “So I decided on a peace offering.” She thrust her hand
into one of her fatigue pockets. “Here,” she brought out a small
plastic packet and extended it towards Hawkes. “These are for you.”

Hawkes took a half-step towards her then stopped cold, the bright
emerald contents of the packet finally registering.

“Green meanies,” he mouthed, a cold sweat suddenly breaking out across
his brow.

“I heard you had a thing for them,” Morgan stated simply. “Go
ahead.” She waved the packet invitingly. “Take them.”

“No,” Hawkes stated through clenched teeth – both a refusal and a
denial.

“No?” Morgan asked with an affected pout. “You don’t like my
present? These cost me a bundle, you know. Top quality. Menck said
I couldn’t miss with these… He should know, he _was_ your supplier,
after all…” This time she was the one who stepped closer. “Come on,”
she pressed. “You know you want them.”

Hawkes recoiled at her movement, automatically taking a step backward.

West stepped in between them. “Captain Tyler,” he snapped. “You’re
out of line!”

“Stand down, Lieutenant,” Morgan said lightly, completely unthreatened
by Nathan’s ire. “I’m just trying to make friends here.”

“Get away from me,” snarled Hawkes. “You’re not my friend.”

“Ouch,” mocked Morgan, placing a hand dramatically over her heart.
“I’m hurt. Really.” She looked with feigned sadness at the packet
and sighed exaggeratedly. “Well, it looks like I just flushed big
bucks down the toilet.” She shrugged. “What the heck, might as well
go all the way,” she announced, walking to the barracks’ garbage
disposal unit.

Like pedestrians showing morbid curiosity at an accident site,
Hawkes and the rest found themselves strangely fascinated by her
actions. They found themselves following her, almost against their
will, but keeping at a safe, they figured, distance.

Morgan ripped open the plastic packet and held one of the bright green
capsules to the light. “These are pretty,” she commented, “almost too
pretty to throw away.” She sighed again, still dramatically. “Oh,
well.”

One by one she threw the capsules down the hole, slowly,
deliberately. Sarah saw Hawkes swallow convulsively, and slightly
tremble as one by one the phyllophetamines disappeared.

Morgan paused as she held the last green capsule in the palm of her
hand, then, again deliberately, she returned her attention to Hawkes,
coolly noting his discomfiture.

Sarah actually saw Hawkes flinch as the hand that held the last
capsule moved in his direction.

“Last chance, Hawkes,” Morgan stated, the slightest hint of challenge
in her voice.

*If looks could kill,* thought Sarah, as she noted Hawkes’
countenance.

“Go to hell,” Hawkes whispered harshly.

Tyler shrugged gain. “I probably will,” she said, dropping the last
capsule down the shoot and making a display of dusting off her hands.
Then she threw him a sardonic glance. “But at least I’m going
somewhere, _tank._”

Sarah gasped.

The insult was unmistakable. Undeniable.

_Unforgivable._

In a blur of movement Hawkes exploded, going after their leader with
dangerous intent. He only managed a few steps, though, before three
Marines, moving in unison, tackled him from behind.

Tyler didn’t even blink at Hawkes’ aborted attack. A strange
suspicion grew in Sarah’s mind at the sight of their leader looking
calmly down at the four of them on the floor, a strange light in her
eyes.

“Don’t do it, Cooper,” gasped West as he grappled with Hawkes’
flailing arms. “You’d be striking a senior officer!”

“She’s just testing you,” added Rain, who was pinning Hawkes’ legs to
the floor. “Think it through, man!”

“For Pete’s sake, Morgan,” Cullen couldn’t help snapping as she sat on
Hawkes’ back. “Can’t you do these things with a little more finesse?”

“Finesse?” Morgan snorted contemptuously. “Be wasted on a tank stupid
enough to get hooked on green meanies.”

“That was an accident!” protested West indignantly, simultaneously
trying to calm Hawkes down. “And he beat it!”

“Has he?” she challenged acidly, watching dispassionately as West and
the rest helped a still-shaking Hawkes to his feet. “Mission launch in
five mikes,” she announced coldly after consulting her timepiece.
“Let’s move out.”

“What?” demanded West angrily. “You actually think we’re going on
that mission with you after what you just pulled?”

The moment the words were out of his mouth Sarah knew it was the wrong
thing to say. West knew it too, judging by the look in his eyes as
Morgan smiled coldly at him.

“Well, Lieutenant,” Morgan said with perverse humor, “Like everything
else in the USMC, that is, _of course,_ your choice. Either be on
that APC when it leaves or don’t be here when I return. It’s that
simple.”

“No, Nathan,” gritted Hawkes, placing a prohibiting hand on West’s
shoulder. “That’s what she wants. Isn’t that right, Captain Tyler?”
He turned to Tyler, his eyes spitting fire. “Well, hear this, it
ain’t gonna happen. You’re not getting rid of us. The 5-8th is _our_
team. You’re the one who doesn’t belong here.”

Morgan met his gaze squarely. “One mistake, Marine,” she said without
inflection. “That’s all it takes.” Her own gaze moved to touch all of
the others. “That goes for all of you,” she added.

“And you,” Hawkes roughly returned the challenge. “That goes for you,
too.”

“And me,” she accepted readily. She looked again at all of them.
“Launch is _four_ mikes, Marines. Playtime’s over. On my six,” she
ordered, and one by one they followed her out the door,

Sarah, who was the last in line, closed the hatch behind her.

“Gametime,” she muttered under her breath, then stepped lively to
catch up with the rest of the 5-8th.

+++

Styx was cold, and damp, and in the mist Sarah couldn’t see three
inches past her nose.

“Hang tight, people,” ordered Tyler lowly. “The sun will be up in an
hour and we can start moving.”

“You’re smiling,” Jordan commented to Sarah.

“This place is one huge swamp,” replied Sarah. “Louisiana in the
spring. Mosquitoes and everything.”

“And that’s a good thing?” questioned West.

“Just as long as we don’t run into any crocodiles,” shrugged Jordan.

“Crocodiles?” asked Nathan, slightly nervous. “Did Intel say that
this place had crocodiles?”

“Nothing bigger than an iguana,” Sarah assured him, grinning.

“Except for Chigs,” interjected Tyler dryly, “so look alive. Rain,
get me those coordinates.”

“Sixteen degrees north by twenty-seven degrees west, Captain,”
answered Rain after consulting his portable console.

“That’s about 30 clicks… thataway,” calculated Cullen, pointing.

“You heard her,” said Tyler, grabbing her pack. “Soon as it gets
light, we start walking ‘thataway.’”

“We could start walking now,” suggested West.

Sarah threw him an amused look. “You’ve never been to the swamp, have
you, Nathan?” she asked dryly. “Trust me, it’s bad enough when you
can see where you’re going.”

+++

“You know,” Jordan commented after they had been walking silently for
a few minutes, “this mission seems a little too simple for the
Commodore to be sending us. Couldn’t they just send in a recon team
to retrieve the fuel?”

“Is that a complaint, Lieutenant?” Tyler asked silkily. “Think you’re
too good for this mission?”

“That’s not what I meant, Captain,” protested Rain. “I just meant
that --.”

“Save it, Lieutenant,” Tyler cut him off. “Just keep walking.”

“Wouldn’t it be cool, though,” said Sarah, “to have planes with those
Sewell missiles? Just in case the Chigs make any more of those black
fighters.”

“I think that’s the general idea,” muttered Hawkes.

“I wonder why they didn’t make more of them anyway,” mused Sarah.

“Who says they didn’t?” asked Rain. “Maybe the enemy’s just keeping
them under wraps till they work all the bugs out, or till they train
new pilots.”

“I don’t think so,” contributed West. “I think it was just that one
fighter.”

“What makes you say that?” asked Rain.

“Well, I think they know that they may have better technology but
we’ve got better pilots,” explained West. “Once we learned the secret
of the Sewell fuel, we more or less leveled the playing field again.
And why would they make more of those planes when they know that we
can beat their pilots one-on-one.”

“That statement’s a little presumptuous considering that they’ve been
consistently kicking our butts since the war began,” commented Rain
dryly.

“Only because they’ve been attacking us in large groups,” clarified
West. “But one on one… I mean, McQueen beat their Red Baron, didn’t
he?”

“So our best beat their best,” granted Rain. “You think that sets the
tone for the whole war? Even if they develop those black fighters,
they’ll still come at us in groups. We’ll still be at a
disadvantage.”

“Not if we had those missiles,” argued Nathan.

“But –-.”

“Which we never will if you two don’t quit yapping,” Morgan
interjected irritably. “Is there an actual point to this conversation
or are you two just trying to attract every Chig that might be on the
planet?”

“I wonder why we can’t make our own fuel anyway,” Sarah asked.

“Enough,” snapped Tyler. “Save it for the chat rooms.”

“We’re just trying to break the tension, Captain,” offered Rain.

“This is a mission,” returned Tyler. “Not a tea party. Quit the
chatter, is that clear?”

“Yes’m,” said Sarah meekly.

Their path led the 58th into dense growth of trees.. After
travelling a few more minutes they stopped, their visibility somewhat
compromised by thickness of the trees and foliage.

“Great,” said Tyler, sarcastically. She turned to Rain. “Lieutenant
Rain,” she said, gesturing towards a particularly large tree bearing
a great resemblance to an oak, “why don’t you get up there and give
me a location report?”

Jordan blinked at the order, but obediently dropped his pack and
grabbed hold of the trunk.

“I hope this doesn’t give me a rash,” he commented under his breath as
he scampered up.

“Oh pooh,” Cullen dismissed his concern. “Be a man.”

“Nothing conclusive to report Captain,” said Rain after he had
carefully climbed down. “The leaf canopy is too thick to see anything
on the ground.”

“No sign of breakage where the container could have fallen through?”
Morgan pressed.

“Sorry, Captain,” he answered.

“Chig activity?”

“Couldn’t see anything, Captain,” he repeated.

“Dammit,” she breathed. “I guess we’re going to have to do this the
hard way. We’ll break into two groups to cover more ground.
Establish a 10-K perimeter and move inwards. West, Cullen, Rain, you
get the east side. Hawkes and I will take the west.”

“Captain Tyler,” interjected West. “I don’t think that’s such a good
idea.”

“They have swamps in Florida, too, Lieutenant,” Tyler answered
dryly. “I know what I’m doing.”

West looked furtively at Hawkes. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I’ll be okay,” Hawkes answered curtly.

“Maintain radio silence unless absolutely necessary,” continued
Tyler. “Check back every ten minutes. Parole is ‘lightning.’
Response is ‘panda bear.’”

“Panda bear?” asked Cullen, mouth twitching.

Morgan ignored her. “You know the drill.”

“Panda bear?” This time it was West who asked the question.

“Actually, Captain,” added Rain, “the panda isn’t a bear at all, it’s
a marsupial.”

“Work with it,” Morgan said dryly. “All of you. Let’s move out.”

+++

“Stop worrying, Nathan,” Sarah said softly, noting West’s troubled
features. “Cooper will be fine.”

Nathan sighed heavily. “The truth is I know which one of them to
worry about,” he confessed. “Coop has a temper… and he’s not very
good at controlling it.”

“Morgan can handle him,” she assured him.

“That’s what’s so scary,” he said, shaking his head. “He’s gone
through so much already, I don’t know how long he can hold out.
Emotionally he’s just a child -- he’s not capable of dealing with
people like Morgan Tyler.”

Sarah was impressed with how much the quiet young man seemed to care
for his friend and wondered briefly if they had all been like that to
each other — the old 58th. She supposed she couldn’t blame West and
Hawkes for not welcoming them with open arms, -- and for resenting
Morgan.

Shane Vansen must have been very different from Morgan Tyler.

But Morgan was her Captain.

“What do you mean, ‘people like Morgan’?” she asked.

“You know,” West shrugged.
“Gung-ho-run-over-everybody-else-power-mad-Semper-psycho. And a
tank-hater to boot.”

“You don’t even know her,” she protested.

“You know what I heard?” interrupted Jordan.

“What?” prompted Nathan.

“Well, you realize this is just ‘butt, and it never made the courts –
but I heard she almost got sent down, supposedly for pulling a knife
on her CO.”

“That’s funny,” commented Nathan, wryly. “That’s what _I’d_ like to
do.”

Jordan laughed and Sarah shot him a disapproving glare. “West,” she
admonished, softly. “Don’t. Don’t make this harder for her, for us.
She’s our Captain.”

“She’s a lousy Captain,” retorted West. “She’s mean and nasty and
power-mad and she doesn’t think about anyone but herself. I don’t
trust her. Neither should you.”

“You don’t even know her,” Sarah protested again. “You haven’t
tried.”

“Oh, and you do?” asked West, acerbically. “Besides, I’m not
interested in knowing her. As far as I’m concerned this is a
temporary set-up. All I care about is she doesn’t make Hawkes do
anything he’ll regret.”

Sarah knew that Morgan would kill her for what she was about to do.
The Captain’s threat about the ‘Wings wasn’t an idle one. Sarah had
been present when an Army doctor had commented to Morgan that it was a
pity ‘Phoenix’ -- Lt. Laura Gallagher of the 114th -- was dead, she
had been a great lay. The next thing anyone knew the doctor was lying
on the floor, flat on his back, and Morgan was coldly stepping on his
throat. Only the quick response of the two orderlies present and
Morgan’s own weakened condition had saved the doctor from a crushed
windpipe.

Imagine what Morgan could do now, to a woman who was four inches
shorter…

But Sarah had never truly been part of a team before. And she very
desperately wanted to be. More specifically, she wanted to be part of
_this_ team.

She had been an only child and in school her father’s status had
always pushed the other kids away. The Corps had been a way out for
her, like it had been and still was to many -- part rebellion, part
standing-up-for-herself. But even in the Corps her father’s influence
had existed. Though she had all the necessary training and
requirements to be a combat pilot, he – Senator Edward Cullen of
Georgia – had pulled strings to get her assigned to a ‘safe’
position. In fact, if the war hadn’t broken out she would probably
still be stuck pencil-pushing in San Diego.

She had been part of the Search and Rescue contingent for almost a
year but the S.A.R. teams were formed and deployed as necessary. They
weren’t really teams in the sense that the regular squadrons were.
There was never any time or opportunity to form deep friendships or
relationships.

Life wasn’t bad in S.A.R.. She was a hot pilot and her rescue record
was among the highest. In fact, since she was widely recognized as one
of the best, it was always understood that on-mission she would drive
the “getaway car.” It was always her escorts who actively engaged the
enemy. Her job was to get away, fast and safe. Soon she got tired of
seeing everybody else get hurt or killed while she remained safe. At
least as safe as person could be in the middle of a war.

She had been on Earth between assignments when her transfer order came
in and she learned that she was to be part of the 58th. The new
Captain had apparently insisted that one of her wingmen be a fully
trained medic as well as an outstanding pilot.

She had met Morgan formally for the first time during the trip from
Earth to the _USS Saratoga,_ but from the older woman’s raised eyebrow
Sarah had known that Morgan had recognized her. Briefly, she had
wondered if Morgan had anything to do with the transfer itself.

She looked at West and Rain. They didn’t understand, she thought.
Morgan was the bravest person she knew, the strongest. Maybe it was
time they knew what she knew.

“West,” she began tentatively. “You were on the Demios, weren’t you?
The 58th, I mean.”

West nodded.

“Well, so was she,” she continued.

“What?”

“The 114th – the BlackWings—they were there, too. That’s where…”

“Where her men died?” Rain supplied quietly.

“Yes,” she nodded. “She won’t talk about it. As far as I know she
gave her report once, in full detail and then refused to talk about it
further.”

“I don’t blame her,” West had to admit, trying to dispel his own
memories of Demios.

“They survived the first attack. I imagine they lived a lot like you
must’ve, West – waiting for extraction, day by day, fighting Chigs
hand-to-hand after they ran out of ammo…. Burying the dead they came
across… Trying to find food, trying to stay alive.” She shook her
head, ruefully. “Forty-seven days in they stumble across a supply
carrier. It seemed undamaged by the crash…”

“It was a trap,” Rain guessed softly.

“Booby-trapped,” she confirmed. “Their preliminary check revealed
nothing. Her XO said it was safe. But as soon as they had come
through the door slammed shut on them. She was last in line – she got
left outside. Next thing she knew they were screaming. A chemical
fire had been triggered inside.” She shuddered. “You’ve seen her
hands,” she continued. “All those scars… She tried to save them.
But by the time she managed to get the hatch open and pull them out it
was too late. They were already dead. Then she hurt her hands
further by digging graves for them all. Six graves, can you imagine?”

“God,” breathed Rain, heavily.

Sarah looked at West. “She was alone on that planet for eighteen
days. I don’t know how, but she survived. She went through
everything you must have, except she did it alone. She was in pretty
bad shape when she was found --.”

“All the troops on Demios were,” Nathan pointed out, unwilling to
sympathize.

“She was dehydrated, starving…” continued Sarah. “When she was found
the only things she had on her was a knife, a canteen, and the dogtags
of the 114th. She wouldn’t let anyone take them. She said she’d
return them to the families of the 114th herself.”

Rain looked at Cullen curiously. “How do you know all of this,
Sarah?” he asked.

“I was still S.A.R. then,” she answered simply. “I was the one who
found her.”

“So why are you telling us all this?” West inquired, slightly
skeptical.

She shrugged. “You’re blaming her for things that aren’t her fault.
I know she can be hostile but maybe you should wait till she lets you
down before you start judging her. She’s been through a lot, too.”

“She’s a nasty human being,” retorted West, his tone still caustic.
“What happened on Demios doesn’t excuse her actions.”

“And what happened to your friends doesn’t excuse yours,” returned
Sarah, snapping slightly. “And the bottom line is, no matter what kind
of person she is, she’s still Captain.”

Cullen and West stared at each other, at a stalemate. Finally, West
turned to Rain.

“What about you, Rain?” he asked. “Were you on Demios, too?”

Jordan shook his head. “The 71st were stationed on the _USS
Michigan,_” he answered quietly. “I was at the Battle for Ixion.”

“You see?” said Cullen quietly. “We’re all fighting the same war.
Just give her a chance, okay?”

“After that stunt she pulled on Cooper?” asked West indignantly. “I
don’t think so.”

“I told you,” she said, starting to lose patience. “It was just a
test.”

“Some test,” West growled. “It was mean and cruel and…”

“And if he follows her after that she know he’ll follow her no matter
what,” finished Jordan musingly. “It makes sense.”

“Excuse me?” snapped West.

“A test of fire,” Rain explained, looking strangely at West. “You’re
a soldier, West, you should know about these things.”

“You’re insane,” West stated, flatly “She’s playing games, that’s
what she’s doing.”

“What for?” asked Sarah quietly.

“Because she’s a nasty human being,” repeated West. The realization
came to him suddenly. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why she hates us.
Because we came back from Demios and her men didn’t.”

“You can’t seriously believe that,” said Cullen. “Two thousand
soldiers came back from Demios – you think she hates all of them?”

“I’m sure she wouldn’t find it too hard,” he retorted.

“West --,” she began warningly.

“Shh --,” interrupted Rain, urgently. “Do you hear that?”

As one, the three fell silent, their senses alert.

“Weapons fire,” announced Rain, automatically shifting to what Sarah
thought of as ‘combat mode.’ “Laser blasters. Due west.”

Right on cue Hawkes’ harassed voice came through the communication
unit.

“Alpha Two, this is Alpha One – we are under heavy fire…”

“Tell them to get over here!” They heard Tyler shout at Hawkes.

“Copy that, Alpha One,” responded Rain urgently. “What’s your
position?”

“Just head towards the gunfire,” snapped Hawkes. “And hurry!”

Rain started moving westward then changed direction abruptly, forcing
Cullen and West to follow.

*Here we go,* Sarah thought. *Real bullets, real Chigs.*

Not only was it her first official ground mission, she was going to be
in an actual combat situation with the enemy. It was turning out to
be her lucky day…

+++

“How long till they get here?” demanded Tyler, as she steadily
returned enemy fire.

Hawkes rapidly calculated the area West and the others must’ve
covered. “About fifteen mikes,” he guessed. “If they run.”

“They better,” growled Tyler. “There’s no way our ammo’s going to
hold out much longer than that.”

The Chigs seemed to be were everywhere. Tyler and Hawkes were
definitely outnumbered and for every Chig they put down , more
appeared. The Marines’ only advantage seemed to be that they were
better camouflaged than the enemy, and were thus harder to find.

“Keep firing,” Tyler ordered, as she paused momentarily to reload.

“Don’t you think we should pull back and wait for reinforcements?”

“And risk them finding the fuel before we do?” she asked.

“Maybe they’ve already found it,” Hawkes argued.

“They’d have left already if they had,” Tyler countered. “It’s still
out there somewhere.” She glanced at the barely visible enemy line.
“Dammit,” she muttered, “where are they all coming from?”

“There has to be a ship,” said Hawkes. “Maybe there’s a nearby
clearing.”

“That has to be it,” she agreed. “Let’s go hunting…”

Hiding behind trees and using the foliage and shadows as cover, they
slowly made their way through the forest, stealthily moving closer to
the source of the Chigs.

The ship was indeed in a small unnatural clearing, obviously
manufactured by the Chig ship by blasting the trees and then blowing
the fire out with its exhausts.

“Shit,” cursed Tyler, as she stared at the ship. “That means they had
a head-start on us.”

“But they obviously haven’t found the fuel yet or they’d have left
already,” Hawkes returned her earlier words to her.

“There’s more of them and they got here first,” she snapped. “Do the
math, Lieutenant, their chances are better unless we do something.”

“Well, what do you recommend?” he growled back.

She glanced at his ammo belt. “You got any of those smart grenades
left?”

“A couple,” he answered.

“Gimme one,” she said, holding out her hand. “You go to the side and
toss yours inside the hatch. I’ll go to the tail…”

Hawkes understood immediately what she planned to do.

“There’s no way we can get that close,” he protested. “And even if we
can, we can’t get away in time.”

“Of course we can,” she insisted. “The grenades’ self-propulsion
system gives us a head start. All we have to do is make it back here
and the trees’ll cover us.”

“Not with that magnitude of explosion,” he answered.

“Just pick the right tree and you’ll be fine,” she answered dryly.
“Let’s go, Lieutenant. Watch me, we gotta time this just right.”

Like two shadows they moved closer to the ship. Hawkes had to hold
his breath as once or twice a Chig came near enough for him to touch,
but their luck held. Almost simultaneously they arrived within a few
meters of their designated target. After receiving a signal from
Tyler, Hawkes launched his grenade then ran full speed back towards
the relative safety of the trees.

The Chig ship exploded just as they dove behind a huge tree resembling
a banyan.

Debris and flaming metal pieces fell through the air but the forest
ceiling protected them from the main force of the torrent.

“See?” Tyler grinned at Hawkes. “Told ya.”

Hawkes was startled by that smile. It came out of nowhere. Sure it
was smug –annoyingly self-satisfied, in fact, -- but it was genuine.
It was real. It was… nice.

It occurred to him then, under a shower of fire and ash, that Morgan
Tyler, she-devil of the _Saratoga,_ was a very beautiful woman. With
her intense moss-green eyes, her black waterfall of hair, and that
smile… She couldn’t hold a candle to Shane, of course, but she was
beautiful nonetheless.

No wonder she was so stuck up and high-and-mighty, he thought. Pretty
girls always were. Especially to tanks.

_Except Shane._

Fortunately, the atmosphere was too damp, and the fire was over in
minutes. After a while all they had to deal with was the smoke and
ashfall.

“Polluting a planet that isn’t even ours,” Tyler muttered under her
breath. “Nice.”

“You were the one who wanted to use the grenades,” he reminded her
testily.

She threw him an annoyed glance. “I’m just talking, Marine,” she
responded irritably. “Someone as supposedly smart as you are should
know when to listen.”

She managed to confuse him again. Her tone was nasty, even
insulting. But… That was a compliment, wasn’t it?

They waited a few minutes more to see if any of the Chigs had
survived. None had.

“Get me Alpha Two on the radio,” she ordered. “Those three better
have a good excuse for missing all the action…”

 “Well, actually, Captain, we do,” interrupted Cullen appearing
suddenly from the depths of the forest. “In our hurry to get here,
Rain and West tripped over something.” She shook her head amusedly.
“They obviously didn’t believe me about the swamp.”

 Rain and West arrived next, both limping slightly, and carrying a
metal container between them.

 “The bad news is that West and Rain are sulking,” Sarah grinned.
“The good news is, we found the fuel!”

+++

 “Commodore Ross is going to be so happy with us,” Cullen was still
grinning as they made their way to the extraction point.

“We’re not home yet,” Tyler said shortly. “Keep walking and stay
sharp.”

“You guys wiped out all the Chigs, we found the fuel, and extraction
is in thirty mikes,” Cullen pointed out. “Our first ground mission is
a huge success.”

Tyler didn’t answer. Neither did the rest of the ‘Cards.

Thirty mikes. In this war, lives could change, could be lost in a
fraction of a second. Thirty minutes were a lifetime.

+++

“Captain, wait.”

The ‘Cards stopped at Rain’s words.

“What is it?” Tyler asked lowly.

“Something’s wrong,” he responded, his head cocked to one side, as if
trying to listen. A look of urgency suddenly crossed his face. “Get
down, all of you!” he shouted, a split second before a barrage of
laser fire bore down on them.

“Scramble!” Tyler shouted the order. “Find cover and return fire!”

Separately, they rolled across the forest floor and made their way to
the safety of the trees, away from the Chig attack.

In seconds they were back on their feet, returning fire and paying
back the Chigs big time. From her position Tyler could see West and
Rain sharing the cover of the same tree, and Hawkes crouching behind a
stump. Sarah, she though wildly. Where was Cullen?

She found Cullen, also behind a tree, gasping for breath. A sudden
movement caught Tyler’s eye.

“Cullen!” she shouted. “On your eight!”

Tyler saw Cullen’s head turn towards the fast approaching Chig, saw
Cullen’s eyes widen in horror, saw her instinctively step back and
stumble across a tree root.

Tyler fired at the Chig, aiming with deadly precision. She watched
coldly as the Chig fell to the ground, then returned her attention to
the main battle.

Again, it was over in minutes. They had obviously killed off the
majority of the Chigs back at the ship and this bunch was probably
just the scouting group.

When she was certain everything was clear, Tyler stalked furiously
over to Sarah’s position. “What the hell was that, Lieutenant?” she
snarled, savagely. “What happened back there?”

“It… moved too fast, Captain,” stammered Cullen. “I --.”

“You’re lying, Lieutenant,” Tyler cut her off.

“I couldn’t get a clear shot,” Cullen tried again.

“You froze, Lieutenant,” Tyler stated bluntly, harshly. “You lost it,
and you endangered your life and the life of others.”

She grabbed Cullen by the collar of her shirt and forcibly dragged the
other woman over to where the fallen Chig lay. With horror Cullen saw
that the Chig was still alive. Tyler shot it at its spine. It’s back
was broken, and it couldn’t move, but it was alive.

“Kill it,” Tyler ordered, gesturing to the wounded enemy.

Cullen felt sick. “Captain…” she protested feebly.

“That could be you,” Tyler stated coldly. “That could be me. That
could be West or Hawkes or Rain. And all because you didn’t do your
job. It’s your fault it’s suffering. Kill it.”

“Captain Tyler,” began Rain.

“Stay out of this, all of you,” Tyler warned the others grimly. “I’m
waiting, Cullen.”

“I can’t,” whispered Cullen.

“That’s an order, Lieutenant.” Tyler’s tone brooked no argument.

Cullen, hands shaking, slowly leveled her M-590 at the Chig’s head,
her finger tight on the trigger.

For an endless moment she wavered, then slowly lowered the gun.

“I can’t,” she whispered, closing her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Tyler’s gaze was burning, but steady. “You are out of here,
Lieutenant,” she announced flatly. “As soon as we get back on the
‘Toga I’m putting you up on charges.”

“You can’t do that,” declared West.

“Section 892, article 92, Uniform Code of Military Justice,” responded
Tyler. “Failure to obey orders.”

“Captain,” protested Rain. “You --.”

“Section 899, article 99 – misbehavior before the enemy,” continued
Tyler.

“Dammit, Tyler,” snarled Hawkes.

“Section 890, article 90 --.”

 “Willful disobedience,” whispered Cullen, bowing her head as she
felt tears begin to prick her eyes.

Tyler glared at Cullen. “I don’t know what war you’ve been fighting,”
she hissed harshly, “or what Corps you joined, but it’s not mine.
You are out of this squadron, do you understand?”

Cullen nodded without looking at her.

With a look of utter disgust Tyler turned away. “Rain,” she ordered,
“Clean this mess up, and let’s move out.”

A shot rang out. The Chig jerked once and stopped moving entirely.

Rain was still standing in front of her so Tyler knew that it wasn’t
he who had fired the shot. Neither was it Hawkes or West.

“Rain, help Cullen clean up,” she changed her order. “West and Hawkes
grab that box and let’s move out. Rain and Cullen can catch up when
they’re done.” She glared at the unmoving Marines. “_Now,_ people,”
she growled.

She started walking without a backward glance, and West and Hawkes
reluctantly picked up the container and followed her.

+++

Sarah sat on a boulder, staring at the gun in her hand, trembling
slightly from the aftershocks of what she had done.

Nearby, Rain quietly dragged the Chig bodies to the nearest quagmire,
allowing the swamp to do the majority of the work for him. It wasn’t
really necessary, but it was Tyler’s orders and it gave him something
to do.

“I never killed anything face to face before,” whispered Sarah
feebly. “I didn’t realize…” She shuddered again.

Rain looked at her incredulously. “For heaven’s sake, Sarah,” he
almost sputtered. “You’re a Marine. What do you mean --.”

She shrugged helplessly. “I guess I was pretending…” she said. “In
my plane, it seemed like a game…”

“God, Sarah,” Rain muttered.

“Stupid, huh?” she asked, her eyes bright with tears.

He shook his head. “Not really,” he answered solemnly. “We all tell
ourselves something, Sarah. We all do whatever it takes to make it
easier, to help us survive.”

She looked at him. “What do you tell yourself, Jordan?” she
questioned softly.

Rain stopped what he was doing and sat beside her on the rock. “I
tell myself…” he began, “ I tell myself that that’s one less Chig to
kill my friends. One less plane to endanger our future. That I’m
helping to save lives, not taking them.”

“Does it work?”

“Sometimes,” he answered sadly then shook his head in mild
exasperation. “For heaven’s sake, Sarah. You were safe. Why did you
come here?”

She gave a short, tearful laugh. “Because I got tired of sitting at
the sidelines. I got tired of being safe.”

“Then you got what you wanted, didn’t you?” he pointed out.

She was silent for a moment. “I made a mistake, didn’t I?” she asked
him next.

“Killing the Chig?”

She shook her head. “Thinking we were friends,” she answered. “Morgan
and me.”

Rain didn’t know what to say. “She’s Captain,” he answered
helplessly. “I’m sure she’d want to be your friend… under other
circumstances…”

“She thinks I’m a coward,” she whispered.

“Then you have to show her you’re not,” he answered simply.

+++

After they had walked for a few minutes Hawkes signaled for them to
stop.

 “Is there a problem, Lieutenant?” Tyler questioned.

 “I think we should wait for Rain and Cullen here,” he answered,
hostility evident in his voice.

“Fine,” she conceded. “As long as they don’t take too long.”

“Or what?” Hawkes snarled. “We leave them behind?”

“We’re Marines,” she snapped back. “We don’t leave our people
behind.”

“How could you do that to her?” Hawkes finally lost control. “How can
you be such a cold-hearted…”

“Watch it, Lieutenant,” she warned. “You’re treading on thin ice.”

 “You had no right to treat her that way,” insisted Hawkes. “Cullen
--.”

“Is a Marine,” she finished.

“Is a _ person,_” corrected West. “Hawkes, Cullen, Rain, me – we’re
all people. And I don’t give a damn who you are or how many bars you
have on your shoulders, you can’t treat us this way.”

“You’re _Marines,_” she repeated coldly. “Ready to kill, ready to
die. Less than that and you have no business being here.”

“You have no business making Cullen kill when she’s not ready,”
insisted West.

Tyler looked at the two Marines incredulously and then burst out
laughing.

“I don’t believe this,” she gasped in genuine amusement. “Who are
_you_ people? Where do you think we are?” She gestured around her.
“Look around, Marines. This isn’t Kansas.”

“You could have given her a break,” Hawkes gritted.

“Like the Chigs would have given us a break?” she countered, the ice
back in her voice.

West’s mouth tightened. “You had no right to make an already
difficult act harder.”

“I made it easier,” she returned coldly, her gaze direct and
unrepentant.

“Easier?” demanded Hawkes in disbelief. “How in hell do you figure
that?”

 “I gave her an excuse, Lieutenant,” she answered flatly. “I made it
my fault instead of hers. It’s all anybody ever needs.”

+++

The flight back to the _Saratoga_ was quiet, painfully so. Hawkes
and West alternated between staring awkwardly at Sarah and giving her
pitiful looks. Rain, on the other hand, kept nudging her until
finally, she went up to the cockpit where Tyler was keeping the APC
pilots company.

“Captain?” she began tentatively.

“Yes, Lieutenant?” Tyler’s reply was polite and perfunctory.

“Could I speak to you privately?”

Tyler nodded indifferently, and got up. She walked to the back of the
APC, away from the rest of the ‘Cards. Sarah followed.

“Well, Lieutenant?” she questioned when they were relatively out of
earshot.

 “Captain,” began Cullen tentatively. “I’d like another chance.”

 “No.” The refusal was flat and direct.

“I know you have to write me up for what I’ve done,” Cullen pressed,
“and I’m willing to take whatever punishment you think I have coming.
But please, Captain, I’d like to stay part of the 58th.”

“You don’t deserve to be in this squadron,” Tyler stated.

“Yes, I do,” Cullen insisted. “I’m a great pilot. I deserve the
chance to prove I can be a good soldier. I know I screwed up. It
won’t happen again.”

Tyler looked at her coldly. “When I give an order, Lieutenant,” she
said, “I expect it to be obeyed immediately and unconditionally.”

“Yes, Captain,” Cullen answered.

“I need to know I can depend on my people,” Tyler added.

“I know that, Captain. I’m sorry I let you down.”

 “You let your team down, soldier. That’s even worse.”

“It won’t happen again, Captain,” she repeated with quiet certainty.

“It better not.” Tyler looked at Cullen without emotion. “For the
next thirty days, you’re restricted to quarters when the 58th isn’t on
duty,” she announced. “You’ll also do all squadron chores for that
duration.”

“Yes, Captain,” Cullen readily agreed.

“And one more thing, Lieutenant--.”

 “Yes, Captain?” Cullen braced herself for any additional punishment
Tyler may have suddenly thought of.

“Are you alright?” Tyler asked gravely.

“Not yet,” Cullen answered, honestly. “But I will be.”

“It gets easier,” Tyler offered. “Not better, but easier.”

Sarah nodded, accepting her words. “Morgan?”

“Yeah?”

“What do you tell yourself?”

“Tell myself?” Morgan asked, slightly confused.

“Jordan… Lt. Rain… He says we all tell ourselves something to make
it easier,” Cullen explained. “What do you tell yourself?”

For a moment Sarah thought Morgan wouldn’t answer. She had that
far-away look in her eyes again.

“I tell myself…” began Tyler, “that if anyone at all has to do it, has
to go through it, it might as well be me.” Sarah could see that she
was going to say something else but cut herself off. “Jordan’s right,
Sarah,” Morgan said instead. “Tell yourself whatever you need to
hear. But remember this, you’re a US Marine. You followed orders.
You did your duty. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing.” Then she
returned to the cockpit, leaving Sarah to think about her words.

Hawkes and West came up to Sarah then.

“You okay?” West asked softly.

She nodded.

“You sure?” Hawkes pressed, awkwardly patting her shoulder.

“Yeah,” she nodded. Somewhere inside her, she found the strength to
smile. “I am now.”

+++

Captain Morgan Tyler sat in the Tun, listening to Sarah McLachlan,
nursing her third shot of Absolut, the last of her limit for the day.

*Easy mission my ass,* she thought, tiredly.

 Still, Ross had been pleased by their success. That was something.
They didn’t mess up too badly. Besides, she hadn’t lost anyone today,
at least not physically, and as Miguel used to say, if you can still
walk away from the plane, it’s a perfect landing.

 Mentally, she raised the shot glass of vodka to the memory of her
dead XO. Lt. Miguel De Dios. ‘Angel.’

 One by one the images of the rest of her men flashed through her
memory.

 Laura Gallagher. ‘Phoenix.’

Daniel Hoffman. ‘Draco.’

Simon Wilding. ‘Falcon.’

Kenneth Peralta. ‘Gryphon.’

Caitlin York. ‘Cygnet.’

*All for one and one for all,* she thought, downing the contents of
her glass in one straight gulp. *Semper fucking Fi.*

She realized belatedly that someone had joined her at the bar and
looked up to see Jordan Rain staring at her solemnly, almost
reflectively.

“Can I do something for you, Lieutenant?” she asked testily, annoyed
to be caught at an unguarded moment.

He shook his head and signaled the bartender for a beer. “Can I buy
you a drink, Captain?” he asked.

“Reached my limit,” she refused, starting to get up. “Maybe next
time.”

Jordan halted her progress by placing his hand over her own. “Keep me
company while I drink this beer?” he requested.

“I’m tired, Rain,” she said, scowling slightly. “I’m getting old and
I need my sleep.”

“I’ll hurry,” he promised. “And you’re only… what? Twenty-seven?”

“Almost twenty-nine,” she admitted, reluctantly returning to her
seat. “Drink fast.”

“We’re off duty, Morgan,” he reminded her. “Give the intimidation a
rest.” He took a long gulp of the beer. “You’re scary, do you know
that?”

“Of course I know that,” she snapped irritably. “I work hard at being
scary. Drink faster.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said. “I meant the way your mind works
– it’s incredible.”

Her head snapped towards him so fast for a moment he was worried she’d
get whiplash.

“Let’s get one thing straight, Lieutenant,” she said, her voice low
and dangerous. “Don’t think that because I’m still sitting here that
makes us friends. The brass gave you to me because I’ve had
experience dealing with people like you.”

“People like me?” he asked, carefully.

“And I know there can be certain… advantages… to having someone with
your particular abilities around.”

Rain turned pale. “Morgan, that’s not what I meant,” he repeated,
hoarsely.

“But if I ever find you in my head,” her tone was deadly. “I’ll have
_yours._ You know I can.”

Again Jordan Rain had to marvel at the complex puzzle Morgan Tyler
presented. He wondered how someone could be so honest, yet so closed
up. So straightforward and yet so convoluted.

He could feel the exhaustion emanating from her, from the rigid,
unbending strength of her spirit. He decided then that he wouldn’t
add to that exhaustion, not if he could help it.

“You know I couldn’t,” he answered, still carefully, testing the
waters. “It doesn’t work that way.” He took another drink. “You
can’t keep playing us like chess pieces, Morgan. People aren’t that
durable. Or that malleable. West, Hawkes, Cullen, -- they don’t
understand what you’re doing.”

“They don’t have to understand,” she retorted. “As long as they
follow orders.”

He smiled at her wryly. “Doesn’t it get tiring running the world?
Deciding everything for everyone else?” he asked. “Don’t you get
tired of always being separate? I’ve had that all my life. Just once
I’d like to be part of something that worked.”

“I had that,” she answered flatly. “Now I’d rather be part of
something that survives.”

He grasped at her words. “Is that what all of this is about? You
can’t protect us, Morgan.”

“I told you, Lieutenant, stay out of my head.”

Rain realized that he had gone as far was he was going to that day and
withdrew gracefully. “It’s s not your head I’m worried about,” he
confessed.

“That’s right,” she agreed darkly. “You should worry about your own.”

+++

Epilogue

Lt. Sarah Elizabeth Cullen stood at the Observation Deck of the _USS
Saratoga,_ looking up at the stars. Actually, the stars were all
around but she figured it was human nature to look up.

Stars, she thought. They look so pretty, so calm and peaceful, but
anyone who had been to space knew better. Stars were dangerous,
vicious. But they had to be or they wouldn’t be stars would they?
Stars were what they were. They did what they had to do.

So had she.

She was a Marine.

Lifetaker, heartbreaker.

She had followed orders.

She had done her duty.

It didn’t have to be a bad thing. 

Copyright Jessi Albano 1998
11 August 1998, 5:00 AM

* * *

previous episode | next episode