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Six Against the Dealer
Episode Three: Black and White
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, "Six Against The Dealer" 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), are mine and should 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.

The name "Gethen" is from the Ursula K. LeGuin novel "The Left Hand of Darkness" and is used without permission.

"The Cremation of Sam McGee" is by Robert William Service, also used without permission.

Rating for this particular episode is R, for language, violence, and scenes lacking in clothing. ;) (Special note to specific people who are waiting for a certain scene… ep 4, I swear.)

I'd appreciate any and all comments. Please send them at SeuneAeryk@hotmail.com.

Enjoy!

Jessi Albano
SeuneAeryk@hotmail.com


I love to see, when leaves depart,
The clear anatomy arrive,
Winter, the paragon of art,
That kills all forms of life and feeling
Save what is pure and will survive.

- Roy Campbell
“Autumn”



Lt. Nathan West was quiet as he entered the 58th barracks. He hadn’t
done well in the earlier skirmish but for some reason, he didn’t
really care. Though he never really had the taste for bloodshed and
warfare that his fellow Marines seemed to have, he at least used to
pride himself in being one of the best pilots on the _USS Saratoga._
He knew for a fact that people were _still_ talking about the time he
wiped out six Chigs at the same time through his fancy flying during
the Battle of the Belt. Now he was content to just support the others
and let them have the dubious honor of blowing the enemy away.

He threw his flight helmet on his rack and climbed up, still
brooding. It seemed to him that for the past six weeks his life had
been alternating between limbo and hell. In limbo – waiting for word
regarding McQueen, waiting to hear from Kylen, waiting for the pain of
defeat and loss to go away. The arrival of his new ‘teammates’ had
been the hell part. Much as he would have liked to accept them, they
were a constant reminder that the Corps wasn’t in any hurry to find
out the fate of Shane and Vanessa. A fate which in a chicken-shit
kind of way he wasn’t in a hurry to learn anymore, either.

*I used to be braver than this,* he thought, a little wistfully,
remembering the day he had stolen an SA-43 and gone to Tellus to find
Kylen. Then, everyone had been so sure that he was deluding himself
but his belief, his _faith,_ had been absolute. That had given him
that strength and the courage to go to Tellus and prove everyone
wrong.

But somewhere between Tellus and now his courage had abandoned him.
Maybe it was losing his younger brother Neil, something he had been
helpless to prevent though he had only been a few feet away. Or
perhaps it was losing Paul while he was still reeling from the shock
of seeing Shane and Vanessa’s plane go down. Maybe it was that he
already carried such a burden of guilt over Shane and Vanessa, part of
him acknowledging that maybe Hawkes had been right when he had accused
him of choosing his girlfriend over their teammates. Whatever it was,
he now felt powerless and paralyzed, and even the slightest bit
fatalistic. Hawkes was stubbornly sticking to the belief that Shane
and Vanessa were still on 2063Y, slightly scuffed, but whole, waiting
for rescue. He was trying to believe that, too. He just wasn’t quite
prepared to risk that belief by going after them himself. Which
brought him back to limbo.

*They should have let us look when we wanted,* he thought again,
angrily. *We still had a chance then.*

He shook that last thought away, feeling slightly traitorous. Shane
and Vanessa were still alive. He had to believe that, _had_ to. That
was the only thing that was keeping him and Hawkes sane.

Now that he thought about it, Hawkes hadn’t mentioned Shane, Vanessa
or the Colonel in quite some time either. Nathan wondered if Cooper,
too, was starting to lose faith, or was just afraid to bring the
subject of their friends up. He sighed. He wasn’t even brave enough
to be the one to talk to Hawkes about them. It felt like everything
was slipping out of his hands, one by one. His friends, his family,
his life. Even his sanity.

He wanted out. He wanted to go home. He wanted to wake up and find
that none of it – the Chigs, losing Neil, the whole goddamn war – had
been real.

Nathan snapped out of his introspection as the hatch of the barracks
opened and the rest of his ‘team’ filed noisily in.

“Your barrel rolls need work,” Captain Morgan Tyler was telling Lt.
Jordan Rain. “You’re not coming out of them with your nose flat and
they’re not as tight as they could be.”

“Are you kidding?’ interrupted a grinning Lt. Sarah Cullen as she
flopped down on her own rack. “We were hot! The WildCards -- 14,
Alien Scum – nothing. And presenting our MVP and consistent top
scorer,” she announced grandly. “First Lieutenant Jordan Rain! Six
fighters, sports-fans, all by his lonesome.”

Rain just smiled and along with Tyler went straight to their lockers
for their shower kits.

“You know, Cullen,” commented Tyler, dryly, as she started to remove
her flightsuit. “If you paid more attention to actually engaging the
enemy instead of just cheerleading you could have gotten more than
that one plane.”

As ambivalent as Nathan’s feelings may have been for Rain and Cullen,
there was no question about what he thought of Tyler. The woman was
pure unadulterated bad news. She was everything that Shane wasn’t –
cold, nasty, manipulative, power-mad and certifiably psychotic. He
had always thought of himself as a fairly open-minded and tolerant
person, but as far as Tyler went… he’d rather trust a cobra not to
strike.

“What for?” dismissed Sarah cheerfully. “You guys had it covered.”

“I remember West being in a tight spot once or twice,” Tyler pointed
out. “And I didn’t see you giving him a hand.”

Nathan paid no heed to the fact that he was now the topic of
conversation and shifted his attention to Cooper, who had sat down on
one of the utility tables and was now busy unlacing his boots. For
some still unknown reason Hawkes was handling Tyler’s presence better
than he was. A surprise, considering how the InVitro felt about
Shane. He wasn’t even complaining that much about their new Captain
anymore, though he had borne the brunt of the woman’s snide remarks
and vicious attacks. Lately, Hawkes had been tight-lipped about the
subject of Tyler -- reticent, even, and he had taken to watching her
with what Nathan could only describe as dark fascination. Nathan
hoped that his friend wasn’t secretly planning the woman’s sudden and
violent death.

Though, of course, if he was, Nathan couldn’t blame him.

“Oh, pooh,” said Cullen. “He was just playing with them. He was
bored.” She threw him a sideways glance. “Weren’t you, Nathan?”

Reluctant to be brought into the conversation, Nathan only shrugged
carelessly.

Tyler halted in mid-zip and Nathan realized that he’d managed to make
their new leader angry. _Again._

“Is that true, West?” she asked, her voice dangerously low. “This
war not exciting enough for you?”

Nathan shook his head. “No, Captain. It’s just that…”

“What?” she prodded, still lowly.

He doubted she’d understand, that any of them would. The four of them
were warriors, born and bred. All they knew was fighting. “Well, it
seems that lately all we’re doing is reacting. They attack us, we
respond, they retaliate, we punch back.” He shrugged again. “We’re
like… I don’t know – feuding factions in one of those old soap operas
-- we’ve been fighting so long we’ve lost sight of everything else.
I don’t even know what we’re doing anymore. And I’m starting to
wonder if…”

“If?”

“If any of this still makes sense.”

Tyler stared at Nathan, her face unreadable. By now he knew that that
wasn’t a good sign.

“So what do you want to do, Lieutenant?” she finally inquired, softly,
silkily. “Surrender? Give up everything we’re fighting for? Forget
everything we’ve sacrificed?”

“No,” Nathan protested. “I just--.”

“This isn’t a game, Lieutenant,” she cut in, her eyes flashing
furiously. “We don’t get to go home when it gets dark and play again
tomorrow. No one’s gonna call a timeout. Our dead, those hundreds of
thousands of dead bodies – your friends and mine – they aren’t gonna
stand up ever again.”

Rain placed a placating hand on Tyler’s shoulder. “He didn’t mean it,
Captain,” the tall Cherokee said quietly. “He’s just tired.” Like
Cullen he looked to Nathan for confirmation.

Morgan shrugged off Rain’s hand. “He better not have,” she said
coldly. “And you,” she continued, turning to Cullen. “I don’t care if
West had those planes dizzier than white mice drunk on fermented
fruit. In this squadron, we back each other up, is that clear?”

“Yes, Captain,” Cullen answered, chastened.

Nathan had to breathe a silent sigh of relief as Tyler turned away and
went back to her locker to pull a sweatshirt over her tank-top. Maybe
for once Tyler would let something drop.

No such luck.

“Goddamn, I hate this squadron,” Tyler muttered suddenly, fiercely,
slamming the door of her locker vehemently. Her murderous glare
encompassed them all. “Goddamn you people,” she spat and stalked
savagely out the barracks door.

“Damn,” cursed Cullen, sending West an apologetic glance. “Sorry,
Nathan. I wasn’t thinking.” She turned to Rain and softly made a
suggestion. “Maybe you should go after her -- save some poor Private
from getting run over…”

“No,” Rain shook his head, “she needs time to cool off.” He looked
at the West and Hawkes solemnly. “She didn’t mean it, either.”

“Yeah, she just adores us.” Nathan’s retort was sardonic, focusing on
Tyler’s outburst rather than his guilt. “Fortunately, she makes it
_real_ easy to return the favor.”

+++

Mission briefings were always solemn occasions but this one seemed
particularly on edge. West was feeling especially sensitive to the
negative vibrations in the air. The last blow-up hadn’t been
relegated to history. Tyler was maintaining her icy disdain, and
Cullen was uncharacteristically somber, as if afraid that something
she might say would spark another argument. Even Hawkes was still
acting awkward towards him.

After Tyler had stormed out of their quarters, Hawkes had turned to
him, his tone accusing. “I can’t believe you said that.”

“What,” he had retorted defensively. “You’re on her side now?”

“You didn’t mean it, right?” Hawkes had pressed

Nathan could only shrug.

Hawkes had looked stricken. “You can’t mean that, Nate,” he
repeated. “What about the Colonel? Paul? Shane and Vanessa?”

“That’s just it, Coop,” he answered, jumping at the chance to
explain. “It’s just not the same without them. This 58th – it’s
just not us.” He had thrown Rain and Cullen an apologetic glance
before continuing. “And being here just makes everything harder, you
know? I don’t think we can do this without them.”

“Don’t say that!” Hawkes had interrupted wildly. “They’re coming
back!” Then Cooper had fallen silent and bitten his lip, as if
realizing how unsteady he had sounded. Unsteady and unsure.

That was a thread Nathan wasn’t prepared to follow. Instead, he tried
to make Coop understand how hard it was for him, how tired he was.
“We’ve done our part – I’m thinking it might be time to quit this war
and let someone else handle it.”

Hawkes had backed away, confusion evident on his face. “You’d leave
me?” he whispered hoarsely.

Nathan had been taken aback by the hurt Cooper’s voice. “No, Coop,”
he had tried to protest. “I was thinking maybe we’d leave together,”
he had added lamely.

Hawkes had just emphatically shaken his head. “I ain’t leaving.
_Ever._”

Cooper had sounded very young, childish even, and Nathan had reacted
impatiently to the need in his friend’s voice. “Come on, Coop,” he had
snapped angrily. “Why stay? What’s here?”

“My life,” Hawkes had answered, his voice thick. “I ain’t like you.
I ain’t got nothing else.”

Stunned, Nathan could only watch silently as Hawkes turned away and
left the room.

Rain had shaken his head disapprovingly. “Good going, West,” he had
drawled sarcastically. Rain didn’t often get angry so it was
especially noteworthy when he did. “That’s _really_ what Hawkes
needed to hear right now. That the only friend he thinks he has left
is leaving him, too.”

“Stay out of this,” Nathan had warned Rain. “This is between me and
Coop.”

“That’s the problem,” Cullen had interjected, also angrily. “It’s
_not_ just you and Hawkes here. The 58th includes _us_ now, and we’re
not going anywhere. We’re doing our best but you have to give us a
chance.”

*A chance,* Nathan had thought then. *Was that really all it took?*

“I know it’s not the best situation in the world,” Rain had continued,
“but I really suggest you deal with it. This prima donna act isn’t
doing anybody any good. Tyler’s right. You’ll only get yourself, or
_us_ killed.”

“Tyler,” Nathan had returned nastily. “You two think she’s so hot,
but she’s not. She has no idea what it takes to be a leader. Shane
---.”

“Isn’t here,” Rain had interrupted coldly. “We’ve heard all the
stories and we’re suitably impressed, _but she’s not here._ Morgan is
our Captain, can’t you understand that?” Rain had turned away in
disgust, heading for the door with his shower kit. He had turned
back at the last second, glaring at Nathan. “You know what’s so funny
about all of this?” he had asked acidly. “Vansen is the one who
crashed on that planet. She’s the one who’s missing. But you’re
acting as if _she’s_ going to burst in here any moment and rescue
_you._”

“Gethen,” announced Ross, bringing Nathan back to the present.
“Those who are fans of 20th Century literature might recognize the
reference to the classic LeGuin novel.”

“I presume that means it’s an ice planet, like the planet it was named
for,” commented Jordan.

“It’s not so much an ice planet, as much it’s winter 70 percent of its
year,” explained the Commodore. “Intelligence has uncovered a Chig
base hidden on the planet, one that functions mainly as a refueling
and holdover station for troops.”

“Refueling?” questioned Nathan. “That Chig bomber we were able to
study showed that the Chig ships power source was practically
inexhaustible.”

“And what about the Sewell fuel?” added Cullen.

“Apparently, the late Mr. Sewell was right,” answered the Commodore.
The fuel is new technology to the enemy as well as to us. So far we
haven’t engaged any other ships using it. As for the regular ships,
they are admittedly amazingly fuel-efficient, but that doesn’t mean
their fuel reserves are inexhaustible. Sooner or later they need to
refuel -- it’s as simple as that.” He gestured towards the star chart
behind him. “And the base on Gethen is the only facility of this type
in eighteen light years.”

“So we take out the Gethen base, we own this system.” Tyler smiled in
anticipation.

“I wouldn’t exactly put it that way, Captain Tyler,” responded Ross,
‘but yes, we destroy this base, we hopefully take this system out of
the equation.”

“But sir, the Chigs can always build another base,” Rain pointed out.

“Yes, they could,” agreed Ross, “but it would take months.”

“And they probably won’t want to if they know we can always get to
it,” added Cullen.

“It gives us an advantage, however slight,” stated Ross. “And that’s
how wars are won. Which brings us to your mission.” He brought up a
series of photos on the holoscreen. “The base is logically well
protected. Our bombers would never get within range.”

“So we’re bombing them from the ground?” asked Hawkes.

“Not exactly,” answered Ross. “Though the base has air and ground
forces protecting it, Intel shows that they have no anti-ballistic
capacity. So, our forces will engage the enemy here,” he pointed to a
spot on the star chart, “hopefully luring most of their air forces
away. Meanwhile we’ll be utilizing long-range smart missiles, deployed
from the _USS Michigan,_ from this position,” he pointed to another
spot at the star chart. “About three quarters of an astronomical
unit away from the planet.”

“Hey, Rain, that’s where your old unit is stationed, isn’t it?”
commented Hawkes. “The 71st?”

Rain didn’t answer. “And where will the 58th be, Commodore?” he asked
instead.

“We’ll be on Gethen,” answered Tyler coolly. “Lacing the target.”

+++

“I can’t believe that the Chigs would actually want a planet like
this,” commented Cullen as she fought the wind and the snow. “It’s
nasty.”

“I think it’s pretty,” commented Rain, looking down the side of the
mountain they were climbing. “Sort of like home. It’d make a great ski
resort. Very Christmas-sy. Besides, aren’t you the girl who
actually _liked_ Styx?”

“Hey, Styx had trees with leaves,” argued Cullen good-naturedly.
“Styx had birds. Styx had…”

“Don’t you two ever keep quiet?” asked Tyler. “Watch where you’re
going, West, I don’t want you falling off this mountain and messing up
my schedule.”

“I don’t see why we couldn’t have dropped at the top of the mountain
instead of parachuting down to the foot of it and _then_ climbing up,”
complained Hawkes. “In fact, why do we have to climb this rock at
all?”

“Because we need to target the center of the base from at least a mile
away and the only way to do that is to get elevated,” answered Tyler
shortly. “I’m sorry, Hawkes, next time you don’t listen to a
briefing tell me and I’ll send you a memo,” she added sarcastically.

“The winds at the top of this mountain can get up to 500 mph,” added
Cullen. “If we had tried to ‘chute down we could have been battered
at the side of it. You should be thankful that we found this path. At
least we don’t have to grapple up.”

“Actually, I think it’s a frozen stream bed,” interjected Rain. “It’s
the path the water will take down the river during the spring thaw.”

“I thought this was an ice planet?” asked Cullen.

“It is,” answered Tyler. “But it has its seasons just the same.
That’s one thing you should look out for, by the way, underground
rivers, and the like. Be careful where you step. Not everything that
looks solid is.”

“And keep an eye out for sudden storms,” Rain added. “In this
temperature, we could freeze to death in minutes.”

Cullen grinned. “Good thing I wore my long underwear,” she commented,
tongue-in-cheek. Actually, she was wearing two sets of thermal
underwear. They all were. Plus a minimum of two shirts, three pairs
of socks, two pairs of gloves and two ski caps each in addition to
their winter combat ensembles.

“Just keep moving, and save your breath,” instructed Tyler. “And be
thankful we don’t have to climb all the way up to the top. Rain, how
far to that ledge?”

“About two hundred feet straight up, Captain,” answered Rain.

“And how much time do we have?”

“We have 155 mikes till the drop, Captain,” answered Rain after
consulting his timepiece. “Plenty of time.”

+++

“You’re doing better,” observed Rain under his breath as the rest went
on ahead.

“Excuse me?” Tyler asked irritably.

“You explained the reason behind your orders instead of just ending
with the ‘do as I say and deal with it’ speech,” he clarified. “I
think it shows progress.”

She shot him an even more irritated glance. “I don’t believe in
explaining myself, Lieutenant,” she stated shortly.

“Come on, Captain,” Jordan protested, lightly. “You can’t just expect
them to swallow everything, do you? They have the right to ask a few
questions.”

“Stopping to ask questions could get you killed, Lieutenant,” she
answered. “You know that as well as I do. Obey first, ask questions
later, that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“Well, even you ask questions, don’t you?” he asked quietly. “Isn’t
that what happened at Gilead?”

She stopped, the question taking her by surprise. *Oh, God,* she
thought with a pang. *Gilead.* She tried to ignore the sudden rush
of memories, both precious and unwanted. Did people really still
remember Gilead? It had been so long ago… In another life.

 “What do you know about Gilead?” she asked, glaring at him
suspiciously.

“I was at the PX a few days ago,” he explained. “This Navy lieutenant
comes up to me and asks what it’s like working with the ‘heroine of
Gilead.’ Naturally, I looked it up.” He nodded approvingly. “You did
good work. Saved a lot of people.”

“The _‘Wings_ saved a lot of people,” she corrected coldly. “We were
a team. Something this squadron wouldn’t know anything about.”

“But the ‘Wings had been together for more than a year by then,” he
pointed out. “We’ve been together barely a month. You have to give us
time to get to know one another.”

Actually, the ‘Wings had only been together eleven months, Tyler
remembered. And Caitlin and Simon had only been with them for a few
weeks. She could still hear Caitlin complaining that they hadn’t left
her any good handles. The ‘baby’ had spent her first week trying out
different nicknames – ignoring her colleagues who teased her
good-naturedly by calling her things like ‘Gnat’ and ‘Tick’ because
she had not only been the youngest, she had been the smallest – before
finally deciding on the handle ‘Cygnet.’

“’Black Trumpeter Swan’ is a little too long for a handle,” the young
New Yorker had grinned then.

*Better times,* thought Morgan, allowing herself a moment of mourning
that never registered on her face. Instead she turned to Rain with an
air of exaggerated patience. “Lemme explain this to you again,
Lieutenant. We’re at war. We don’t have time to throw soirees and
mixers.”

He returned her look calmly. “I’m just saying you can’t expect them to
automatically trust you just because you’re in command.”

“And I say they don’t have to trust me,” she responded. “They just
have to obey orders.”

“And did you?” he challenged. Just obey orders, I mean. On Gilead?”

She was careful to keep her surprise hidden this time. *Damn,* she
thought. *How the hell did he know about that?* As far as she knew,
the exact details of the Gilead mission were still classified and
compartmentalized. That had been the only thing that had saved their
collective asses from a court martial.

“If you had followed MacLaughlin blindly then,” Rain continued
relentlessly, “those people could have died. You questioned then, and
when things didn’t add up you made a decision and did the right
thing. At the risk of your careers, not to mention your lives.”

“That has nothing to do with now,” she stated icily. “MacLaughlin was
not only stupid, he was insane,” she added. “This isn’t Gilead. I’m
not MacLaughlin.”

“They don’t know that yet, do they?” he asked quietly.

*Enough,* she thought fiercely, slamming that part of her mind shut.
She’d revealed too much already. She had to stop thinking about
Gilead. About the ‘Wings. About anything that meant anything.

With every ounce of her self-discipline she forced herself to speak
calmly and without emotion. “I thought my instructions were clear
about staying out of my business, Lieutenant.”

“You said stay out of your head,” he returned, smiling slightly. “You
never said anything about the Corps Command database.”

“Maybe you just have a death wish you don’t know about,” she informed
him. She put up her hand and stilled his next words. “Enough,
Lieutenant. This conversation is over.” She nodded towards the rest
of the 58th who were steadily moving farther and farther away. “Let’s
pick up the pace before we lose those three.”

“Don’t worry,” Rain answered gently. “We won’t.”

+++

“Hoo-rah!” the shouts of victory were lost in the series of explosions
that followed almost immediately. From their vantage point the
WildCards could clearly see that the missiles from the _Michigan_ had
hit the target dead center. What was just a few moments ago a
cloister of metal structures lay in shambles, ravaged by fire.

Morgan watched silently for a few moments before she gave the order to
pack up the equipment. “Rain, you, Cullen and West take the equipment
and head to the extraction point. Hawkes and I will pop down to that
base for a while and see if our guys missed anything.”

“Aww,” said Cullen, disappointment in her voice. “It’s not often we
get to watch fireworks like this. Usually we’re in the middle of it
and can’t enjoy the view.”

“You know, Sarah,” began Rain with a slight smile. “Studies during
the 20th Century showed that most sex offenders were pyromaniacs as
well.”

“Hmm,” answered Sarah, returning Rain’s grin. “Now why doesn’t that
surprise me?”

“Captain,” interjected West, “I think we should stay together.”

“Here we go,” Tyler muttered. “Is this, like, an automatic reaction
with you, Lieutenant West? Is your prime directive to disagree with
everything I say, or do you actually have a good reason this time?”

“I just think we should stay together,” West repeated stubbornly. “We
don’t know what you could run into our there.”

Tyler sighed impatiently. “Well, as much as I appreciate this sudden
concern and team devotion,” she answered sarcastically, “there’s a job
to be done.” She motioned to Hawkes, who had already strapped on his
pack. “Let’s move, Lieutenant.”

+++

Morgan and Cooper trudged through the snow, operating mainly on
auto-pilot. The biting wind had come out of nowhere, and with it, a
thick curtain of snowfall. They continued on, putting one foot in
front of another, relying on their instincts and near-frozen compasses
to point them in the right direction.

“We should turn back,” Hawkes shouted to Tyler over the wind. “This
is turning into a real storm.”

“The base is nearer,” returned Tyler. “We can take shelter there and
wait this out. We’ll radio the others from there and advise them of
the situation. Stay near me. We can _not_ be separated.”

Neither of them saw the ravine till it was too late. It hadn’t been
on any of the Intel maps and from their elevated vantage point all
signs of the precipice had disappeared against the uniformly white
background of the planet. Tyler was just a few steps ahead of Hawkes
when it happened. With no warning, the ground beneath her feet gave
way.

“Tyler!” screamed Hawkes as he saw her go down.

At the last microsecond she managed to grab hold of the edge and hang
on.

Hawkes wasn’t exactly sure what had happened, just that Tyler had
disappeared from sight. “Tyler!” he shouted again.

“I’m fine!” she shouted back, trying to find a foothold on the
slippery side of the cliff. “Just give me a chance to catch my
breath.”

He was aghast when he made out her gloves against the slightly less
brilliant white of the ground. “Hang on, Captain,” he said, taking a
step towards her. “I’m coming after you.”

“No!” she shouted. “Stay back!”

Again, the warning came too late. Hawkes had already come too close.
The ledge collapsed under his weight, and he went down in a flurry of
arms and legs, right on top of Tyler.

+++

“There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
When I cremated Sam McGee.”

Rain ended the poem with a flourish as Cullen giggled. He cocked an
eyebrow in her direction. “That’s not an appropriate response,
Sarah,” he said dryly.

“Sorry,” she grinned unrepentantly. “You just looked so, um,
_dramatic._ It was actually quite impressive.”

He grinned back. “That’s my patented ‘mystic-Native-American’ look.”

“Do you guys really have to do this?” Nathan gritted. He turned away
from the opening of their makeshift camp to glare at the two.

“Hey, you sounded just like Morgan just now,” Cullen teased. “Though
she can glower a lot better.”

“Pardon the pun, Nathan,” Rain interjected, “but why don’t you chill
out? It’s minus 2 hours till extraction. We have to pass the time
_somehow._”

“Why don’t you try Tyler and Hawkes on the radio again?” urged Nathan.

“They just radioed in five mikes ago,” Cullen reminded him. “They
should be nearing the base by now – Tyler said radio discipline till
they check back.”

“I still say we should have with them,” muttered West. “Come on,
guys, let’s go after them.”

“No,” said Rain. “Tyler’s orders are clear. We stay here.”

Nathan glared at Rain for a moment longer and then went back to
watching the path for signs of Hawkes and Tyler.

“So,” Cullen ventured after a few moments of silence. “Anybody wanna
sing Christmas carols?”

+++

Fortunately, the side of the chasm turned into a slope of sorts about
thirty feet down. Morgan slid, more than fell, the last hundred of so
feet, landing at the bottom with a bone-jarring thud.

*Ouch,* she thought, momentarily unable to voice the feeling as she
struggled to catch her breath. She tried to open her eyes and had to
shut them again against the glare of the snow. She replaced the visor
that had been knocked off her eyes and tried again.

The icy sub-zero ground temperature demanded that she move, and she
did, slowly, reluctantly, trying to gauge if she had broken any
bones. She was grateful that she had so many layers of clothing on –
the padding had provided more than protection from the cold. Her
clothes were torn in several places, and she felt bruised all over,
but she seemed whole. Which was more than Hawkes would be able to say
once she got ahold of him, she thought.

She struggled to her feet and looked around for Hawkes, experiencing a
moment of panic when she didn’t immediately find him. “Hawkes!
Hawkes, where are you?” Damn the white of their clothing – if he was
knocked out they would make it that much harder to find him.
“Hawkes! Goddammit, answer me!”

“Here!”

She turned towards the voice to see him plodding towards her. He had
landed a few dozen meters beyond her own position, his greater weight
no doubt propelling him further. She saw him stagger and go down, and
she ran to his position, falling on her knees beside him.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded. “Are you hurt?” She examined the
shivering form and cursed as she realized that the lower part of his
body, from mid-chest to this feet – was encrusted with ice. The
clearing they had fallen into wasn’t a field after all, but a lake,
and one that was obviously not frozen all the way to the bottom.

“I went through the ice,” Hawkes tried to explain, signs of shock
evident in his eyes.

She cursed again and grabbed his arm, using all of his strength to
help him stand up. “We can’t stay here,” she announced. “We have to
find shelter, _fast._” She looked around her – the lake stretched as
far as she could see. Behind her was the rock face of the ledge. At
least it could protect _some_ protection from the wind and the snow,
she thought. Anything was better than being out in the open. Hawkes
swayed and she grabbed his arm tighter, keeping him upright.

“Let’s go,” she ordered, and led him back towards the mountain.


+++

“Shit,” said Rain, suddenly. “Our radio’s out.”

“What?” Nathan demanded. “What do you mean our radio’s out?”

“Which word didn’t you understand?” asked Rain, dryly, as he pried
open the radio case ad inspected the inside. “I think the circuit
board fried out.”

“How did that happen?”

“What, you think technology exists to make life easier?” Cullen asked
with a wry grin. “We can make ships that go faster than light,
Nathan, but they still can’t make a radio that works in bad weather.”

“SO what do we do now?” Nathan asked.

“What _can_ we do?’ returned Rain. “We sit tight, rendezvous with
Hawkes and Tyler, and wait for our ride home.”

+++

She dragged Hawkes on, pushing, pulling, nagging him to keep moving.

It felt like they’d been walking forever. Through ice, wind and snow,
hating the cold as she’d ever hated anything else. *I’m from Florida,
goddammit,* she complained silently. *I wasn’t made to ever be this
cold.*

She hoped Rain and the others were doing better than she and Hawkes
were. The one casualty of their fall had been the radio. Her call
for help had met with no response, possibly due to the huge dent now
marking its center. There had been no time to actually check the
hardware. Hawkes was faltering, fast. They had to find shelter.
Out of the snow, away from the wind.

He really should have known better, she thought. Going after her had
been a stupid move. If the ledge couldn’t hold her, it certainly
couldn’t hold him. But she supposed he had commendable, though
faulty, instincts. At least he hadn’t yelled ‘Hoo-rah!’ and
applauded as she fell.

But he really should have known better.

Now the two of them were lost in the middle of a snow storm on an ice
planet. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, he had to choose a
lake to fall in. Smart. Very smart.

Through the fiercely falling snow she spotted an opening, a slight
indentation on the side of the cliff and angled them towards it. She
doubted it was more than a small hole on the hillside, but some
shelter was better than nothing.

“Almost there,” she told Hawkes, her worry increasing when he didn’t
answer.

Their luck was holding after all. It _was_ a cave. The opening was
small, barely three feet in diameter, but a quick peek with her
flashlight revealed that it got bigger a few feet in -- big enough to
hold both of them, and deep enough to provide shelter from the wind.
She had Hawkes crawl through the mouth of the cave first, pushing and
prodding to keep him moving.

Hawkes collapsed, losing consciousness, just as they came to a cavern
that was about five feet high and ten feet across. Still on her knees
beside him, she quickly and dispassionately stripped him of his
clothes. That plunge into the icy water had been bad enough, but now
the water had frozen and plastered the clothes to his skin, further
advancing the fall of his body temperature. There wasn’t time to
check for frostbite or wounds. What was important now was to raise
his body temperature to prevent hypothermia.

She winced as she worked on the ski masks and thermal underwear,
hoping she wasn’t taking off his skin in the process, but she couldn’t
take the time to be more careful. Every second counted. After she
had stripped him completely, she took a thermal blanket from her pack
and briskly rubbed his entire body, trying to get rid of the liquid,
generate some heat and restore his blood circulation. When she was
done she threw another two dry thermal blankets to the ground.
Grunting with exertion, she shifted his dead weight onto the blankets
and then wrapped the ends tightly around him.

Now working double time she took the wet thermal blanket and did her
best to cover as much of the opening of the cave as she could, tacking
it on to the porous stone with the attached pins. Hopefully that
would be enough to keep the main force of the wind from entering and
maybe block out some of the cold, too.

She dug into Hawkes pack next, thanking God that it was waterproof and
that it hadn’t been submerged into the water he had fallen in. She
was annoyed to find only one thermal blanket – she herself had had the
three. Maybe Hawkes was more used to the cold, she conceded. Or
maybe it was just typical male machismo. She took that blanket and
wrapped it around him, too, this time covering his head for added heat
and protection.

She took a moment to glance at her timepiece. She wondered if she
dared to leave Hawkes while she went for help. No, it was twenty
mikes to extraction – she’d never make it. Best they could hope for
is that Rain and the rest would come looking when the time came and
she and Hawkes didn’t appear. But considering the building storm
outside, she didn’t count on a speedy rescue. Ross would know better
than to send planes out in all that white.

She didn’t worry about the others finding them. Rain already had
instructions on what to do in a situation like this. In the event
that they got separated and one or more teams missed extraction,
extraction would be attempted again the next day – same time, same
place, -- pending other instructions. The practice had been Standard
Operating Procedure with the ‘Wings and had served them well. That
way, there was always a plan and a rendezvous point, even if there was
no way to communicate with each other. She and Hawkes just had to
survive the next twenty-four hours and they’d be home free.

Six hours till sundown. She remembered that, at least, though she
couldn’t recall just how long the nights were supposed to last on
Gethen. The temperature would drop even further, she thought. She
had to stabilize Hawkes’ condition by then. She had to find a way to
raise the temperature of the cave or he’d never survive the night.

She dug into her pack once more and brought out two flares. She
snapped one in half and threw the suddenly blazing stick to the other
side of the cave. Fortunately, this was a flare designed for
night-use – light and heat with minimal smoke. The designers hadn’t
been able to completely get rid of the flare’s accompanying smoke,
but it would be bearable, especially since she hadn’t been successful
in completely blocking out the wind, either. Hopefully, the heat
this flare generated would be enough to raise the temperature inside
the cave for the next few hours. As soon as the storm abated a
little, she’d go out and look for some sort of fuel for a fire.

She saved the other flare for later, just in case, along with two
other flares designed for daytime use -- colored smoke being more
effective against the white background of snow than mere light.

She turned back to Cooper and laid the back of her hand against his
temple, noting with dismay that his temperature seemed to be falling
further. And she realized, with even greater dismay, that there was
only one thing left to do.

Even in the twenty-first century, shared body heat was still the best
way to combat hypothermia.

Grimly, she bent to take off her boots, her uniform, the thermal
underwear, leaving only her regular underwear. Then she joined him on
the cave floor, rearranging the blankets to cover them both. She
covered everything, including their heads, hoping they wouldn’t
smother. She had no choice, too much of their body head could be lost
if their heads were left unprotected. Besides, it helped to further
filter out the smoke from the flare. Wouldn’t it just be a kick if
to survive hypothermia only to die from carbon monoxide poisoning?

She shivered as the coldness of his body finally registered. She was
cold herself, but he was practically frozen. Maybe it was the extra
layer of fat that females were cursed with, she thought idly, that was
keeping her that much warmer. She rubbed her hands over his arms and
shoulders, slid her feet and legs against his, trying to stroke away
the cold, and massage the blood through his veins. She even warmed
his face with hers for good measure, rubbing her cheeks against his
cold ones.

At least he had tons of muscles, she thought. Muscles generated heat.

He started to shiver, a good sign, and she hoped that his color was
beginning to look better, -- she couldn’t tell from within the
confines of the cloth. She held him more tightly, trying to
prevent him from hurting himself as his shivers intensified, wracking
his body. Unconscious, he turned his body towards her, trying to
get closer to the source of the warmth, wrapping his own arms around
her, and pulling her body over his like a blanket.

Morgan fought down the instinct to struggle and remained still. When
he had settled a bit she started rubbing his arms in a soothing
motion and murmuring comforting words in his ear. After a few minutes
his tense muscles relaxed and he began to breathe more easily. She
breathed a sigh of relief of her own as she realized that his shivers
were becoming less intense. She hoped he hadn’t hit his head when
he had fallen into the river, a concussion would seriously complicate
their situation. But by the sound of his breathing he seemed to be
resting more easily so she allowed herself to relax, fractionally.

At least he was warm now.

So was she. It was strange – now that his temperature was climbing
she was actually starting to feel comfortable. Cozy, even. Cocooned.

As soon as his temperature stabilized, she thought, she’d get up. She
just didn’t want to risk leaving him too soon and undoing all her
work. Just a few minutes more.

Suddenly she felt exhausted. She continued to stroke his back but the
rhythm, as well as that of his breathing, as well as the sound of his
heart beating beneath her ear, began to make her feel drowsy.

She tried to shift, but he was holding her too securely. She sighed,
and somehow, the sigh turned into a yawn.

Two minutes later she was asleep.

+++

“It’s ten minutes to extraction,” announced West, his worry well on
its way to developing into full-fledged hysteria. “Where _are_
they?”

“Settle down, West,” instructed Rain, trying to stamp down his own
apprehension. “Tyler and Hawkes know the time of extraction. They’ll
be here.” He looked out of the makeshift camp, noting that the
weather seemed to be worsening, but not so bad that Hawkes and Tyler
would have real problems with it. A storm was building up, but they
had time to spare. If Hawkes and Tyler made it back in time they’d be
off planet before it _really_ hit.

“They’re in trouble,” Nathan protested. “I’m going to look for them.”

“No,” Rain snapped impatiently. “For the last time, _no._ Think it
through, Nathan. _We’re_ the ones with the dead radio. We have no
means to communicate either with Tyler or the _Saratoga._ Tyler knows
we’re here. The Commodore knows we’re here. We’re _staying_ here.”

“They could be trying to reach us,” objected Nathan. “Without the
radio we have no way of knowing.”

 “If they’re in trouble and couldn’t reach us then she’d call the
_‘Toga,_” Cullen pointed out. “In either case, Rain’s right. We have
no choice but to stay here and wait.” She placed a comforting on
Nathan’s shoulder. “I’m sure they’re on their way, Nathan.”

+++

Cooper awoke first, reacting with panic to the darkness, his
claustrophobia attacking in full force. He was hot and he couldn’t
breathe – something was wrapped tightly around him and something heavy
pressing against his chest.

He groped carefully around him, his hands encountering cloth – thick,
soft, slightly damp. Slowly, he dislodged the weight of it from
around his head and blinked at his green-tinged surroundings.

Where the heck was he?

He seemed to be in a dugout of sorts, and the green haze seemed to be
coming from a light source a few feet away. His surroundings smelled
damp, with just a hint of sulfur. It took a second more to conclude
that he was in a cave, and that the light source a flare.

The weight on top of him moved slightly and he froze, his senses
alert. When no further movement was forthcoming he slowly, cautiously
lowered the cloth some more.

Masses of raven hair spilled out, followed by a familiar face,
currently asleep.

*Holy hell,* he thought, blinking in confusion.

He was suddenly aware that beneath the blanket he was naked, and Tyler
practically the same. He could feel her body against his, her soft
skin, the warm breath, the dark hair wrapped around them both.

Well, this was certainly an interesting development, he thought. He
was either hallucinating or he was hallucinating.

He took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of her. No – it was more
than that. It was her scent and his, together. Her hair smelled like
the shampoo that Corps provided everyone, chamomile and various herbs,
which he himself used. But her skin – he’d know that scent
anywhere. Something deep inside him reacted, in ways he wasn’t
prepared to deal with at the moment.

He had never held a woman like this, not even an InVitro. Not even
Suzy during that ill-fated visit to the Bacchus. Sure, they had done
everything else – at least according to Suzy – but Suzy’s rules had
been clear: no kissing, no lingering, nothing unnecessary. And
afterwards she had rolled over to her side of the bed and stayed
there. He didn’t even remember that much of it, he’d been so
hopped-up from the green meanies that everything had been a blur.
_This_ was astonishingly real.

Captain Morgan Tyler was lying asleep in his arms. And it felt…
good.

*Holy hell,* he thought again, completely at a loss as to how to react
or what to do. In the end, he did the only thing he could think of,
the only thing that made sense.

He closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

+++

“Any word, Sir?” Nathan asked an equally harried Commodore Ross.

“I’m afraid not, Lieutenant,” answered the commander of the _USS
Saratoga._

It had seemed like a sound plan at the time. When the APC had landed
and Hawkes and Tyler still hadn’t made an appearance, Rain had
pronounced that they would get in and fly over the path the two had
supposedly taken, find them, and pick them up. Five mikes later the
storm had hit them with a vengeance, lowering the pilot’s visibility
to zero, leaving them no choice but to return to the _‘Toga,._
against West’s vehement protests.

“No Chigs sightings,” Ross continued, “but none of Tyler and Hawkes
either.”

“Sir, I would presume that the Captain and Hawkes took shelter
somewhere from the storm,” stated Rain. “Their radio could have
fritzed out just as ours did.”

“Let’s hope so, Lieutenant,” responded Ross. “Right now it’s just too
dangerous to continue with this search. We’ll have to try again when
the storm breaks.”

“But, Sir --,” protested Nathan.

“When the storm breaks, Lieutenant,” repeated Ross. “Both Tyler and
Hawkes have had extreme conditions survival training. We’ll just have
to hope that’s enough.”

+++

Hawkes was just the slightest bit disappointed when he awoke for the
second time and found himself alone. Though the flare was dying out
and the cave was steadily getting darker, he could see well enough
that she wasn’t there.

It was just as well, he supposed. He wouldn’t have known how to
handle it anyway. At least now he had a few minutes to pull himself
together before he had to face her. Right now he was at a definite
disadvantage. It had just occurred to him that Tyler had very likely
saved his life and that placed him in a very awkward position. The
fact that he was lying naked on the floor of a dark cave didn’t help
any.

She returned then, brining with her a gust of cold wind and a
sprinkling of snow. She placed the small armload of twigs and dead
leaves she was carrying in the center of the cave, a few feet away
from Hawkes, and then proceeded to remove her jacket and headgear,
shaking the snow from the cloth and her hair. Then she rummaged
through her pack and brought out a large tin cup and waterproof
matches.

“I have a laser torch in my pack,” he volunteered tentatively. “In
case you need it.”

She didn’t act startled to find him awake. “I prefer matches,” she
answered, calmly. “They’re lighter and more dependable.” She glanced
at him, unperturbed. “Your clothes are still wet – you’re gonna have
to wear that blanket a while longer.”

“How much longer?” he asked, fretfully.

“At least until your clothes air dry,” she replied. “By the way, I’m
gonna have to use the GEEQUED comic I found in your pack for
kindling.”

*Oh, shoot,* he thought. He hadn’t finished reading that particular
issue yet.

She smiled wryly at his reluctant look. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you
another one.”

“How long was I out?’ he questioned.

“Not long,” she replied, “just a little over a couple of hours. Must
be that famous InVitro healing.”

She gathered some rocks from around the cave and placed them in a
circle around the twigs and leaves, creating a makeshift hearth.
Hawkes winced as she took the comic and tore out its pages, crumpling
them into small balls and adding them to the pile. She then touched
a lit match against the balled up pages, pleased that they caught fire
immediately. The leaves and twigs took a little longer, but soon she
had a small fire blazing brightly. “There wasn’t too much wood to
find,” she continued, “but I think we have enough here to heat up some
water for coffee. Maybe some MREs, if you’re up to it.”

He grimaced at the idea. “No, thanks,” he said. “A couple of energy
bars’d be more my speed. Coffee sounds good, though.” He hesitated.
“I’d help, but…” He glanced sheepishly at the blanket covering his
body.

“Modesty isn’t a valued trait in the Corps, Lieutenant,” she retorted,
dryly, “but don’t worry about it. I have everything under control.”

She always did, Hawkes thought, a little resentfully, watching her cut
open a couple of their water ration bags and dump the ice into the tin
cup she had placed on top of the fire.

“We could melt some snow for the coffee,” she commented when she saw
him watching her, “but I don’t really think we should risk it.”
Leaving the water to heat, she moved over to his side. Hawkes almost
jumped out of his skin when she gently laid the back of her hand on
his forehead. “You don’t have a fever,” she remarked idly. “How do
you feel?”

“Cold,” he grinned.

“Aside from that, I mean,” she chided, her answering smile almost lost
in the shadows. “Headache? Broken bones? Did you hit your head when
we fell?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What about frostbite?”

He wriggled his fingers and toes experimentally. “Nope,” he
answered. He was surprised again when she took hold of his hand and
checked for herself. “I’m fine,” he insisted. “Just cold.”

She let go and went back to the fire to check on the water. “Well,
hopefully the coffee will help with that. You really should eat more
than energy bars, though. You burned a lot of energy these last few
hours. You need to recharge.”

“Maybe later.” He frowned worriedly, remembering the rest of their
squadron. “Do you think the others are okay?”

“They’re safe and warm on the _’Toga_ by now,” she assured him calmly.

“I hope they didn’t get lost like we did.” Hawkes wanted to bite back
the words as soon as he had said them. It was the perfect opportunity
for her to point out that their getting lost was his fault entirely,
first for falling on top of her, and then for falling into the lake.

“Rain grew up around mountains like these,” she said, “so that’s not
likely. Don’t worry about them. Were the ones trapped in a
snowstorm.”

“The ‘Cards worry about each other,” he returned, defensively.
“Didn’t the 114th?”

Her eyes flared and Hawkes could have kicked himself. Tyler had it
very clear that the subject of the BlackWings were off limits. “We
trusted each other to know what we were doing, and to do our jobs,”
she answered coldly. “So we didn’t have to worry. At least not
unless we had good reason to.” She removed a couple of sachets from
her pack and ripped them open. “Rain has instructions on what to do
in a situation like this,” she continued. “If he followed them, and I
know he did, then I don’t have to worry. It’s when people _don’t_
follow the rules that I have to.” She removed the tin cup from the
fire, stirred in the coffee and sweetener, and then handed it to him
brusquely. “Here.”

“Thanks,” he said, discomfited by her answer. “The ‘Cards aren’t
real good at following rules,” he had to admit. “That’s how we got our
name.”

The look she gave him was flat. “I know.”

+++

Nathan looked out the Observation Deck, the familiar feeling of
helplessness threatening to cut off his breathing. It was happening
all over again. Hawkes was lost, in danger, and there was nothing he
could do but wait. Wait till it was too late.

“Come away from the window, Nathan,” Cullen urged softly. “The
Commodore promised he’d let us know as soon as the storm broke. Come
back to the barracks and get some sleep while you can.”

“I can’t,” said Nathan, stubbornly maintaining his vigil.

“We’re all worried, Nathan,” stated Rain, “but there’s nothing we can
do right now.”

“_You_ said they were fine,” he reminded them testily. “_You_ said
they’d be back in time for extraction. We should have gone after them
like I wanted.”

“Then there’d be five of us missing, instead of just two, with the
_Saratoga_ having no idea where to find any of us,” Rain replied,
shaking his head exasperatedly. “If you don’t mind me saying so,
West, for someone who’s been acting so… shall we say _lukewarm_ about
everything, you seem to be heated up all of a sudden.”

“My friend is missing,” he snapped at the two. “Can’t you understand
that? And he’s missing with that… that…”

“Don’t even say it, Nathan,” Rain warned. “_Our friends_ are
missing. Hawkes _and_ Tyler.” He took and angry step forward but
Cullen’s hand stopped him. He sighed and addressed Nathan coldly.
“Believe it or not, the fact there’s two of them down there is the
only thing that makes this situation bearable.”

Cullen nodded her head in agreement. “Give them a little credit,
Nathan. Tyler and Hawkes are survivors – not people bent on suicide
as you seem to be.”

“Believe what you want of them personally,” added Rain, “but those two
are _Marines._ Captain _and_ Lieutenant. Marines look out for each
other. You may hate Morgan but trust me, she would never let anything
happen to Hawkes. And the same goes for Hawkes. Trust them that much,
will you?”

Nathan shook his head, angrily, helplessly. “Hawkes is the only one I
have left,” he whispered harshly. “I can’t lose him, too.”

Rain softened slightly at West’s words. “We’re worried, too, Nathan,
but we can not do anything stupid. Right now the best help we can
give them is to stay right here. They can’t worry about themselves if
they have to worry about us.”


+++

In stark contrast to the howling of the wind outside, the interior of
the cave was deathly quiet. For once, Hawkes missed Cullen’s cheerful
chatter. It was bad enough being stuck inside a small dark cave,
there should at least be some small talk to cut the tension, he
thought.

He ventured a look at his companion who was sitting cross-legged at
the other side of the cave, scribbling on a small computer console.
She looked busy. And annoyed.

Unconsciously, he began humming a Pink Floyd song, tapping his hand
against the ground in time to the rhythm.

“Settle down, Lieutenant,” she ordered dryly, without looking up.
“This cave isn’t big enough for that.”

“Sorry,” he grinned sheepishly. “I kinda have a problem with small
places.”

“Claustrophobia is a common problem among InVitros,” she said,
matter-of-factly. “Try not to think about it.”

*Easy for her to say,* he thought as she continued with her
scribbling. “What are you doing?”

“Getting a head-start on my report,” she answered shortly. “And I’d
appreciate no more interruptions.”

“You know,” he said tentatively. “You could at least talk to me.”

“No, I don’t,” she contradicted. “Entertaining bored wingmen isn’t in
my item description.”

“But,” he ventured with a small smile, “if I actually die of boredom,
how would you ever explain it to the Commodore?”

“I’d just tell him you started singing and I had to put you out of
your misery,” she told him flatly, though he could tell, somehow, that
she was kidding.

He was heartened. Maybe this situation wasn’t as bad as he thought.
He nodded somberly, mimicking her expression. “That could actually
happen, you know,” he said. “Come on, talk to me. Please?”

She sighed and conceded, saving the document and replacing the small
console inside her pack. “Fine,” she told him. “You go first.”

“Me?” Now that he had her attention he didn’t know where to start.
“Um… You got a family?”

“Husband and kids? No. Parents and siblings, yes.”

“Big family?”

“Huge,” she said, giving a small smile at the thought of her family.
“Two parents, four brothers, two sisters, two sister-in-laws, two
nieces, a nephew, a dog, four cats, assorted horses, and a partridge
in a pear tree.” The last few words were said in a sing-song tone,
but he focused on one word in particular.

“Horses?” he asked, his eyes round with almost childish wonder.

“My Mom’s a vet,” she explained. “She raises them on the side.”

“And your Dad?”

“Dad runs a citrus nursery for the neighboring farms.”

“Must be nice to live in a place that has trees,” he commented
wistfully. “Especially a place near the ocean.”

“Very nice,” she agreed.

“You miss it?” he asked

“A lot.”

“I never had a family,” he commented, longing unconsciously lacing his
voice.

“You should be thankful,” she answered without sympathy. “Nothing
screws up a person worse than a bad family and a lousy childhood.”

He looked at her curiously. “But… your family sounds wonderful.”

“They are,” she answered. “I got lucky. Trust me, that’s not always
the case.”

He hesitated, wondering if it was a good idea to ask the question he
had in mind. “Can I ask you a question?”

Her eyebrow lifted. “And what have you been doing so far?”

“I meant a real question. Personal.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding, mock-sagely. “We’ve exhausted the
icebreakers and have graduated to ‘truth or dare.” I should warn you
that not a lot of people are actually good at this game.”

“So can I?”

“You can always ask, Lieutenant,” she shrugged. “Whether I answer is
another thing entirely.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Excuse me?” she asked, not understanding the question.

“If your home is so wonderful,” he clarified, “what are you doing
here? Why aren’t you back on Earth enjoying all of that?”

Her gaze narrowed. “I’m here, Lieutenant,” she answered deliberately,
gesturing broadly around her, “to make sure that none of _this_
touches _them._”

Something in the steely tone of her voice caught at him. Her voice
was quiet but she sounded fierce, protective – a leopardess willing
to kill and die defending her lair and her family. Suddenly, he
wondered just how far that circle extended. A question popped into
his head and the words were out of his mouth before he could stop
them. “Morgan, would you die for us?”

For a moment he saw her falter, startled by his question, a shadow
appearing in her eyes. Then she laughed and it disappeared, along
with the oddly intent emotion that he hadn’t understood.

“You really shouldn’t play this game, Lieutenant,” she said, still
smiling in amusement. “You’re very bad at it.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, confused.

“’Would I die for you?’” she mocked. “Good grief, Lieutenant, you
don’t even know the right question to ask.”

+++

“The storm doesn’t seem to be dying down,” Hawkes commented much
later. “I thought for sure it’d be over before sundown.”

“It’ll take a while longer,” agreed Tyler.

It was the first sentence spoken in the cave for a while, Hawkes
having given up the idea of having a decent conversation with Morgan.
He had managed to amuse himself by taking out his own portable
computer and playing some of the games built into it, but he had been
forced to stop by the lack of light.

Hawkes shifted nervously as the cave grew steadily dimmer. In his
imagination it seemed to be shrinking around them. “The fire’s dying
down,” pointed out, just in case she hadn’t realized it. “Maybe you
should light that other flare,” he suggested.

“We should save that,” she answered. “In case they mount a nighttime
rescue.”

“I thought you said Ross wouldn’t chance it?”

“The Commodore wouldn’t,” she repeated. “But just in case we don’t
want to waste their efforts. We should be able to signal them
somehow.”

“So what do we do now?” he questioned. “It’s gonna get a lot colder
soon.”

She moved closer and repeated her earlier action of placing the back
of her hand to his forehead. Hawkes was ready for it this time and
didn’t flinch. He realized he sort of enjoyed having her hand there,
and the hint of concern lining her features.

“Your temperature has stabilized,” she stated, taking away her hand.
“We should be fine.” Then, to his surprise, she went on her knees and
unzipped her jacket.

“What are you doing?” he asked uneasily as she shed the rest of her
outer clothing with practiced efficiency, folding and laying them
neatly on top of her pack.

“Getting comfortable,” she answered calmly. “It’s going to be a long
night.”

With an aplomb Hawkes both admired and hated, Tyler moved back to
where he was sitting and drew open the blankets that were still
covering him.

“Lie down,” she ordered, and when he did so, too befuddled to argue,
she lay down next to him, her back against his front, and redrew the
blankets over them both.

“Um, Captain…” he began, edging away slightly.

She followed, plastering her back against his skin. “Stay where you
are, Lieutenant,” she commanded coolly. “I’m not about to freeze just
because you’re shy. Just close your eyes, pretend I’m someone else
and go to sleep.”

That should have been easy, he thought. Since she had arrived that
was all he’d been doing. Every night for the last five weeks he’d
closed his eyes and pretended it was someone else lying on the rack
across his. But he’d be lying if he didn’t admit that that had been
getting harder and harder with each passing day, and that right then
and there, with her so near, the heat of her skin warming his, it was
impossible.

He tried to get comfortable, but he didn’t quite know what to do with
his hands. One served adequately as a pillow, but the other lay
uneasily on his side, trying not to touch more of her than he was
already. His indecision was brought to a halt when she casually
reached behind her, grabbed his free arm and placed it securely around
her waist.

“Stop fidgeting and go to sleep,” she ordered again.

He wondered if that was what she was doing, too. She didn’t seem
uncomfortable, maybe she had done this before. Maybe she was used
to lying beside someone else, his arm wrapped around her waist. Was
she thinking of someone else while she lay there, was she wishing he
were someone else? Was that why she had been so quick to present her
back – because it was easier to pretend that way? He didn’t quite
know what to think, or feel, about that possibility.

He wished he could talk to Nathan about it, but Nathan would _never_
understand. He doubted anyone would.

He lay awake long after the darkness claimed the cave, just listening
to the sound of her breathing, wondering why he all of a sudden felt
so alone.

+++

“Seventeenth, Thirtieth and Fifty-eighth Squadrons to launch bay seven
immediately.” The announcement cut through the quiet of the 58th
barracks. “Squadrons 17, 10 and 58 to Launch Bay Seven.”

In minutes the members of the three squadrons arrived at the launch
bay on each others’ heels.

“Chig attack jets have been spotted 150 MSKs out,” announced Ross
grimly. “Headed straight for Gethen.”

“How many, Sir?” was Nathan’s only question.

“Four squadrons,” answered Ross. “Maybe more.”

Lt. Antonio, squadron leader of the 30th, just grinned. “That’s not
gonna be a problem for the Wreckers, Sir.”

“WildCards, you’ll be joining the Wreckers on this intercept.” The
Commodore turned to the 17th Squadron. “Captain Georges, you have the
coordinates of both the extraction point and the last recorded
position of Captain Tyler and Lieutenant Hawkes. The StingRays are
to escort the SAR team and assist in this rescue in any way possible.”

“Aye, Sir,” nodded Captain Georges.

“You have your orders,” finished Ross. “Dismissed.”

Lt. Antonio turned to his team and to the WildCards. “Let’s go, men,”
he ordered. “We got us some bugs to squash.”

+++

It was the cold that woke her, more than the absence of the sound of
the wind or the light that was streaming through the gaps in the cloth
covering the mouth of the cave. Hawkes was nowhere to be found. The
clothing that had been laid out to dry on a nearby rock was gone as
well.

*Goddammit,* she thought. How the hell had that happened? She wasn’t
a sound sleeper, not by a long shot. Six years in the Corps had made
sure of that. That unscheduled nap the day before had been bad enough
– now Hawkes had managed to get up, get dressed and leave the cave,
all without her waking. She was slipping, dammit. Not acceptable.

She hurriedly dressed and replaced everything in their two packs. The
two extra thermal blankets she placed in the bottom of Hawkes’ pack –
she could always get more and the stupid tank was probably too
stubborn to accept that he might need them again someday to get his
own.

Hawkes returned just as she was finishing up. “Well, Lieutenant?” she
asked as he came in. “Anything to report?”

“The storm seems to be over,” he answered. “But I couldn’t find any
more wood.”

“Won’t be needing it,” she told him. “We still need to get out of
this ravine and get back to the extraction point. You up to it?”

“Do I have a choice?” he asked, dryly.

She got on her knees and strapped on her pack. “I can go ahead and
come back for your once I’ve found one,” she answered coolly. “Or
throw you down a rope once I’ve reached the top. The last thing I
need is a repeat of yesterday’s incident. If you’re not up to it then
you’re better off staying here.”

“I can manage,” he assured her grimly.

She looked at him carefully and then nodded. “Alright, let’s move
out.” She frowned suddenly as her ears picked up a low humming.
“What the hell is that?” she asked rhetorically.

“Chig attack jets,” Hawkes identified the sound anyway, hurriedly
strapping on his own pack and palming his pistol.

“Shit!” cursed Tyler. “Did you cover your tracks?” she demanded.

“Tyler, there’s no way they can spot --.”

“Did you cover your tracks?” she repeated with greater intensity.

He nodded.

“Alright then,” she stated. “We stay here. Maybe it’s just a patrol
squadron sent to check out the base. With luck they’ll pass over
us.” She palmed her own pistol and peered out of the cave.

“What if they don’t?” asked Hawkes.

“Then we get to play in the snow, Lieutenant.”

As they spoke, three Tri-Wings flew into their sky, pursued by three
Hammerheads. In the distance, far behind them, two more Hammerheads
appeared, flanking an ISSAPC.

“That looks like our ride home,” commented Hawkes.

“We need to find a way out of this ravine fast, Lieutenant,” stated
Tyler. “We can’t risk that APC landing on that lake, and with the
Chigs around I doubt our people can mount another rescue soon. We’re
gonna have to grapple up.”

She took off her pack and readied her climbing equipment, checking her
ropes and hooks carefully but efficiently. Hawkes did the same, and
they waited till the Chig jets had flown past their position before
moving.

More than his Corps training, it was his years as a construction
worker that served Hawkes as he climbed the sheer face of the cliff.
Navigating half-completed skyscrapers carrying I-beams on his back had
been everyday fare then; climbing the slippery side of a mountain
wasn’t that much different. Just had to be careful where you placed
your feet and remember not to look down.

He stopped as he realized that Tyler was falling behind him but she
waved him on. It was still more than a hundred feet to the top –
straight up. The cave had obviously been in the deeper part of the
ravine. If this had been they’d fallen the day before they would
never have survived.

In the sky above them, the lead SA-43 winged one of the Chig planes,
which then faltered and crashed to the ground. Five planes to go.
The Chig planes retreated back into space, followed closely by the
SA-43s.

Below Hawkes, Tyler paused to catch her breath. Even through the
heavy gloves she could feel the rope burning her hands, and her
shoulder was aching. She cursed herself mentally. She had climbed
less than two hundred feet and already she was faltering.

She did her best to hide it, to compensate, but there seemed to be no
escaping the fact that she just wasn’t as strong as she used to be.
Maybe she should have listened when the doctors prescribed a few more
weeks of rest, but she had been in a hurry to get back to war. She
took another deep, steadying breath and resumed her climb with
increased determination. Demios had taken so much from her already,
it wasn’t going to rob her of this, too.

The rope jerked in her hands and she panicked for a split second,
thinking it had broken. Then she realized that Hawkes had reached the
top, and was steadily pulling her upwards, aiding her ascent.

*Damn, but he’s strong,* she admitted grudgingly, even enviously. And
he had recovered from his ordeal so quickly. *Must be an InVitro
thing.*

She accepted the hand he reached down to her, and he pulled her all
the way to the top. As soon as she was steady on her own legs, she
pulled out one of her smoke flares, breaking it in half and throwing
it a few dozen feet away in one easy motion. It took a few seconds,
but the APC that had passed their position and was steadily mowing
away finally made a U-turn back.

“Cool,” said Hawkes, grinning slightly. “We’ll be back in time for
breakfast.”

+++

Nathan watched silently as Cullen and Rain fussed over Hawkes in the
medbay. Rain kept giving Cooper hearty slaps on the back, and Cullen
was feeding him breakfast. Hawkes was grinning widely, a little kid
enjoying the attention.

Upon alighting from the APC, Tyler had headed straight for the standby
medical unit, and conversed quietly with the doctor-on-call. Before
anyone knew it, a team of interns had dragged Hawkes off to medbay for
a complete physical. She had then spared a few moments for the rest
of them before going off to report to Ross.

“I see you made it back okay,” she had commented to them, before
turning to Rain. “Run into any trouble?”

“Nothing we couldn’t handle, Captain,” Rain had assured her.

“Good,” she had stated. “I’ll expect the mission report by 1700
today.”

“I’ll get on it, Captain,” Rain had nodded.

She had shaken her head. “No.”

“Excuse me, Captain?”

West had been surprised when she had turned to him. “You do it,” she
had ordered.

“Excuse me?” he had echoed Rain’s question.

“The mission report, Lieutenant,” she had repeated. “In my hands by
1700 today. I’m sure you’re up to it.”

She had left then and Nathan could only look helplessly at Rain,
expecting the tall Cherokee to resent Tyler’s arbitrary pronouncement.

Instead Rain had grinned good-naturedly at Nathan. “Great. I hate
paperwork.”

Now, as he watched the three of them, Nathan had to reconsider his
opinion of Cullen and Rain. They genuinely seemed to care for
Hawkes. And he had to admit that as much as he may dislike or
distrust Tyler, she _had_ taken good care of Hawkes.

Hawkes was alright, he thought, and he knew somehow that Hawkes would
be fine. Maybe he _could_ leave and not have to worry. Maybe he
could go home.

Hawkes finally saw him and gave him a huge grin and a thumbs-up
signal. Rain and Cullen saw him, too, and made their excuses to
Hawkes.

“You guys don’t have to leave,” he told them as they went past him.

“He says he has something he wants to talk to you about,” Cullen
said. “We’ll come back later.”

“Hey, man.” He greeted Cooper as he sat on the bed. “You okay? They
said you had a cold.”

“I sneezed a couple of times, that’s all!” Hawkes protested.
“InVitros are immune to the common cold, you know that.”

“Well, there’s hardly anything common about falling into a lake and
practically freezing to death,” argued West. “We could have lost you,
man.”

“Yeah,” said Hawkes, looking thoughtful for a moment.

“Hey, I didn’t mean to bum you out.”

“It ain’t that,” said Hawkes. “Nathan, remember that fight we had
about Kylen?”

“Yeah?”

“I know it ain’t true. About you not caring, I mean. But, heck, you
joined the Corps because of her.”

“Yeah,” he said again. “So?”

“Then when the war began, you fought because you thought she’d been
killed…” Hawkes continued. “And later on you stayed because you
needed to find her… so maybe…”

“Maybe what?”

“Maybe now that she’s back on Earth, maybe that’s where you should be,
too.”

Nathan’s head snapped up, his eyes staring at Hawkes like the InVitro
had gone insane. “You think I should leave the Corps?”

“Maybe,” said Hawkes.

“But I thought you didn’t want me to,” he protested. “I thought…”

“Hey, man,” said Cooper, intensely. “You’re the only family I got
left. I need you. But I’d rather have you back on Earth than watch
you get blown up because you ain’t paying attention.” He leaned
closer, concern and sincerity evident on his face. “Hell, buddy,
you’ve done so much for this war – I bet they’d give you a discharge
easy if you asked. And if they don’t, I could always break your leg
or something.”

Nathan grinned. “You’d do that for me?” he asked in wry amusement.

“In a second,” Cooper assured him seriously.

“But what about you? What about the 58th?”

“Well, Cullen and Rain, they’re okay,” answered Hawkes, obviously
having already considered the question. “They’re okay. They’re not
Wang and Damphousse, but they’re okay. They’re good guys.”

Nathan noticed he didn’t mention the other party involved. “And
Tyler?”

“Tyler?” Hawkes’ forehead wrinkled slightly in consternation. “I
don’t know, yet. But I think I’ll be okay. It’s you I’m worried
about.”

*It’s you I’m worried about.*

That one sentence hit Nathan like a ton of bricks. Seven year old
Hawkes, the product of government who didn’t care shit once they found
out their experiments were useless, who had been dragged into this war
by a judge with a twisted sense of humor, who had lost practically
everyone he cared about, who had been screwed by the again and again
world his entire life, was worried about _him._

He looked at Cooper somberly, wondering how he could have forgotten
all that in his self-pity. The team wasn’t gone, he thought. Cooper
was still here. This was still the 58th. “God, Coop, I’m sorry.”

Cooper looked confused. “Sorry for what? What’d you do?”

“For worrying you,” Nathan answered simply. “You don’t have to do
that anymore. I promise I’ll pay attention from now on. I’ll even
try to get along with Cullen and Rain. I don’t know about Tyler,
though,” he said, teasing Cooper by echoing his earlier words.

Cooper perked up. “So you’re not leaving?” he asked, hopefully.

“Not without you.”

Cooper blinked, once again confused. “But I already told you -- I’m
not leaving.”

“That’s what I said,” agreed Nathan, grinning. “We’re not leaving.”

+++

“Glad to see you and Lieutenant Hawkes made it back in one piece,
Captain,” said Ross as they neared the end of the debriefing session.
“For a while there you had all of us worried.”

“There’s going to be a few pointed comments about the accuracy of the
Intel submitted to me in my report, Commodore,” she informed him.
“Not only did they fail to inform us of the storm, there was an entire
canyon missing from their maps.”

“I’ll be sure to reprimand those responsible,” he assured her. “Our
latest reports show that the Chigs are leaving this sector. I’d say
this mission is a success, Captain, and with no lives lost.”

“I’d say this mission was a success, then, Commodore,” she commented.

“Yes,” Ross answered. “Would that all our victories were this easy.”

“Let’s just enjoy this one, Sir,” Tyler responded coolly.

“I suppose you’re right,” said Ross.

“You’ll have my official report by 2000 tonight, Commodore,” she
added, briskly. “If there’s nothing else I’d like to be excused. I
really need to get into a shower and some fresh clothes.”

“Actually, Tyler,” Ross said with a small smile, “ I do have some
additional news for you. News I believe you’ve been waiting to hear.”

“Let me guess,” she said, mock-seriously. “Corps Command has taken
pity on me and is giving me another squadron.”

“No.” The Commodore shook his head, the smile never leaving his
face. “But in two weeks you will no longer shoulder sole command or
responsibility for the 58th.”

She looked at him in surprise. “You found us a new CO?”

“Even better than that,” he answered, the smile turning into a
full-fledged grin. “I got your old one back.”

She grew cold at the possibility and struggled to keep her expression
neutral. “Major MacLaughlin?” she inquired, casually.

“Colonel McQueen.”

+++

Epilogue

Captain Morgan Rhianna Tyler sat at a lone computer console accessing
all available information on USMC Lt. Colonel Tyrus Cassius McQueen.

Colonel TC McQueen, she thought. Major Murphy MacLaughlin. Shit,
even their names sounded the same. She suppressed the instinctive
shudder and determinedly went on with her work.

*Okay, regroup.*

Having a CO was a fact of Marine life, like bad food and rock-hard
beds. One of the things she couldn’t do anything about.

Well, at least not _obviously._

So what if he turned out to be the biggest hard-ass in the Corps and
he was coming back to bust _her_ ass from the ‘Toga to the Earth for
picking on his two sweet-cheeked little boys, which, by the way, they
made so easy?

She’d find a way to handle him.

Maybe she’d get lucky and he wouldn’t give her any problems. After
all, all signs seemed to indicate an easygoing CO, one whose laxness
would be responsible for the insubordination Hawkes and West seemed to
thrive on.

Still, an InVitro didn’t survive 120 days of solitary and the AI War
to become Lieutenant Colonel by being easygoing and nice. And the man
did used to be an Angel.

*Why, the Angels had been _almost_ as good as the ‘Wings,* she
thought, smiling wryly. *Amazing what good PR can do for a
squadron.*

She’d managed to convince the Commodore not to tell the group about
McQueen’s return for now. West and Hawkes were distracted enough as
it is, she’d pointed out, and she didn’t want them to be disappointed
in case anything happened and the plan fell through. Thankfully,
Ross had agreed. That gave her a little more time to make some plans
of her own.

She keyed in the grand total of her knowledge about McQueen so far.

 Decanted 2043, InVitro batch control number 2025 Kappa 9757, Gene
pool 13-C, Anchorage Facility.

USMC serial number 821-36-97440.

Divorced.

Cross-reference: Omicron Draconis Mining Colony.

Port Riskin, Munitions Sector.

Artificial Intelligence War.

127th ‘Angry Angels’ Attack Squadron.

58th WildCards.

She hesitated a second and then added: US Navy Commodore Glen Van
Ross.

SpaceNet had some stuff on McQueen, mostly general information. Some
press articles published by the InVitro Rights Association. And then
there was that video the Armed Forces Network shot and aired earlier
in the year. Aside from that there were just stories, mostly urban
legend-type stuff. Nothing really very helpful.

She scowled at the console as her search came up empty. McQueen’s
military file had been shut tight, ultra-classified. Served her right
for going after the information directly, she thought. She should
have known better. Nothing was ever that easy.

That didn’t mean, however, that she couldn’t get the information she
needed. Ignoring the slight twinge of pain in her hands, she
continued, her fingers flew over the keyboard, coaxing the system to
respond.

For the good stuff she had to get into the system.

It was a great system, practically foolproof. After the AIs had
rebelled it had been overhauled, redesigned completely from scratch by
some of the best minds in the military. But if there was anything she
knew about computers, it was that every system had a backdoor. She’d
bet her late grandmother’s entire CD collection that there was one
here, too, and that she could find it. Men were always horribly
predictable when it came to passwords and key-codes.

Besides, it was just a personnel file. What kind of security could
they have given it?

Two hours and seventeen minutes later, she was in. She would have
been done sooner, but her hands gave her some problems. She stared at
the scars on her right hand for just a moment, then closed her fist
and dismissed the pain.

She turned her attention back to the computer monitor.

*Come on, Colonel,* she silently challenged as it began spewing out
information. *Surprise me.*

Copyright Jessi Albano 1998
17 December 1998, 12:34 AM

* * *

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