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Six Against the Dealer
Episode Four: The Left Hand
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 or distributed 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 language, violence and adult content. However, an NC-17 version is available upon request only. Email me at lisan@geocities.com or SeuneAeryk@hotmail.com. Yes, your name, age, rank and serial number will be required. I refuse to debate about censorship and compartmentalization of information. This is my story. The Marine Corps is not a democracy.

I'd appreciate hearing from readers. All comments are welcome -- positive or negative. Whether you liked this, hated it, was bored to death or just want to give me a piece of your mind, please write and share. I just want to know if people are reading this. As is with all series, continuation greatly depends on the interest shown. (Not to mention the faster I'll write. Comments inspire me.) Please send comments at SeuneAeryk@hotmail.com.

Special greetings and thanks to the 7th Asian Airwing for keeping the faith on this side of the hemisphere.

Enjoy!

Jessi Albano
SeuneAeryk@hotmail.com


“I've fallen from all I know
To keep you here
I need you here."

- October Project
 “Adam and Eve”



She was driving him insane.

Lt. Cooper Hawkes lay awake on his bunk, unable to sleep. For seven
weeks now, the woman that lay on the bunk across his had been getting
on his nerves.

Morgan Rhianna Tyler. Captain. Callsign 'Ace of Spades.' He had
protested violently against her use of the name. 'Ace' was
Damphousse, everyone knew that. But she'd coldly laid claim to the
name anyway.

"It doesn't matter," West had told him. "Vanessa's the Ace of
Hearts."

And Shane was the Queen of Diamonds.

He didn't even understand why Tyler insisted on that name, why they
had all made such a fuss over it. She didn’t use the goddamn callsign
anyway. Even her damn flight helmet still read 'Raven.'

No, he _did_ understand. It was one more contest, one more power
play, one more opportunity to prove her control.

As if they could forget.

As if it wasn't bad enough that they had to replace Shane, hard enough
to see someone else sitting in her chair, they had to choose a bitch
of the highest order -- belligerent, overbearing and undoubtedly
psycho.

She was like… Ray Butts in a bra.

Not that she was, at the moment. From his own bunk he could see every
inch of her, and there was no bra in evidence. She was sleeping
sprawled face down on her bunk, _Shane's_ bunk, wearing nothing but a
thin cotton top and boxer shorts. The Marine-issue sheets lay across
her feet, where she'd kicked them twelve seconds after she'd fallen
asleep.

Almost in spite of himself he kept looking. There was just something
about her that drew his gaze; something fascinating, something
petrifying.

She almost looked harmless, lying there. Black hair lay fanned across
her pillow and down her back. It was crazy, but he was beginning to
understand her hair, to recognize the patterns it made and predict
just exactly how long it would take before the captured length and
masses would free themselves from their bonds. Every night, carefully,
ritualistically, she would arrange the dark strands into a braid but
they always escaped anyway. As neat and as orderly as her hair was
when she was awake, that’s how unruly and disobedient it was when she
slept, as if rebelling from the constant confinement.

His eyes followed the loose strands tracing the lines of her body
through the thin cloth -- her neck, her shoulder blades, the small of
her back. Her hips and long legs.

And from where he lay he could smell her -- almonds and cream.

He closed his eyes and thought of Shane.

He loved Shane. He'd known for a very long time. Watching her
plane go down, he'd wanted to die. He had no problem, no problem at
all with spending the rest of his life to looking for her and killing
the ones that had hurt her.

He opened his eyes, strengthened by that certainty.

_He loved Shane._

And this woman who now slept on Shane's bed, he was just as certain
that he hated her. Hated _everything_ about her. Hated her
coldly-issued commands, hated her mocking smiles, hated her sadistic,
calculating mind. He even hated her skill as a combat pilot -- the
precision, the impeccable instincts and the cool, detached killings.

He and West had talked about it in hushed whispers -- the combat
‘rush,’ the adrenaline, the heightened senses, _emotions,_ involved in
battle, in danger, in teasing death. Not her. She could've been
shooting at paper targets at the local gallery for all the emotion
she'd display. During ground combat she was the same -- just as
cold, just as efficient, just as detached. He doubted she had any
emotions at all.

Scratch that. She had them. In spades. And for some reason still
unclear to him, she'd apparently decided to get her kicks by making
his life miserable. Every time he got near her he could feel the
anger seething, simmering just under the surface. Maybe it was
because he was an InVitro -- maybe she was one of those people who
hated without reason, without logic. Well, let her, he decided. He
could hate just as much, just as good.

Except he couldn't. At least not with the same relentless, unthinking
ease that she could. Every time he thought he'd gotten a hold on his
hate something would make him waver. A tilt of the head, a hint of a
smile, an unexpected word that sounded like anger but echoed,
somehow, of kindness. But they were just flashes, those moments of
softness, dissipating even before they could be recognized and
identified. He must have imagined them like he had imagined that
woman on Tigris -- moments born out of madness; smoke and thunder, a
trick of the light, a misheard inflection.

Take the way she had taken care of him on Gethen. The same woman who'd
waved green meanies in his face, daring him to take a shot at her and
destroy what little he had left of his life and sanity, had later
saved both. She'd gone above and beyond, without hesitation, without
misgivings. Without reprove, even. He'd thought that meant something.
That maybe she didn't hate them all as much as she seemed to.

He'd tried to thank her, after he got out of medbay. He'd looked all
over the ship, finally found her in the officer's lounge, sitting in
front of a computer. For a moment he was reminded of Paul, who was
always using the computer for one reason or another. When he didn't
have his nose stuck in a book, that was.

She had glanced up briefly as she saw him, but went back to whatever
she was doing, acknowledging his presence only when he was practically
beside her.

"What are you doing out sickbay?"

He'd been slightly surprised by the curtness of the question, the
annoyance in her voice. He'd stolen a glance at the console. What
could be on the SpaceNet news service that was so riveting? She'd
seemed pretty intent on whatever it was.

He should've taken the hint. Instead, fortified by their shared
experience, he had plunged on.

"They released me," he had answered. "Said I just needed some rest
and I'd be fine."

"Then why aren't you back at the barrack getting some?"

"The rest of us are going to the 'Tun to play some cards and relax,"
he had volunteered. "Do you want to come?"

"I'm busy," she had returned flatly.

"But you already gave Ross your report, and --."

"I said I'm busy," she had repeated in a sharper tone.

Despite his good intentions her tone had made him snap back. "Look,
just let me buy you a drink, okay? Give me a chance to thank you."

She had spared him an irritated glance. "Thank me for what?"

He had blinked, not believing that she couldn't know. "For what you
did… Back on that planet…"

She had shrugged dismissively. "Just doing my job."

He couldn't believe that either. "But --."

"Look, Lieutenant," she had interrupted coldly, impatiently. "You
think I enjoyed our extended stay on Gethen? I _didn't._ Our mission
was almost compromised, you almost died and I had to spend a very
uncomfortable night on a planet that I had planned to be off of as
fast as possible. I hate being cold, I hate sleeping on the ground,
and most of all, I _hate_ having to make up for other people's
failings. You think saying thank you makes up for all that?"

"I just thought --."

"You wanna thank me you make sure you never do it again. Now go
away."

How was he supposed to make sense of that?

He didn't try. Instead he gone to the 'Tun and drunk one shot of
bourbon after another, celebrating the restoration of the bitch and
the revival of hostilities. So much for being civil. So much for
making friends.

It was better this way anyway. This way he was sure about where he
stood, about just exactly what she thought of him.

That only made him more angry, more determined to hate her. Because
he _still_ didn't understand. And because since that day -- that
_night_ -- he had been assailed by her presence. And damn her, it
was probably nothing to her. Or worse, it was probably exactly what
she wanted. It was probably another one of her little amusements, to
confuse and befuddle him till he couldn't see straight and he had no
choice but follow wherever she led.

And damn if it wasn't working.

 Sometimes he thought that if she showed just the tiniest bit of
compassion and caring it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe if she was just a
little bit like Shane he wouldn't hate her so much. Then he realized
that that would have made him hate her even more. Because then he
wouldn't only resent her not being Shane, he'd resent her being _like_
Shane. It was bad enough she had Shane's command without her trying
to take Shane's _place._

And that only confused him all over again.

He wondered if this was one of the things he would have understood if
he'd been able to stay longer at that InVitro training facility. He
seemed to have missed everything that had to do with human nature.

Morgan shifted, turning to lie on her side, and he was distracted by
the face that came into view. Her eyes were closed but he knew they
were green, dark green, the color of dew-kissed moss. Long, thick
lashes lay against sculpted cheekbones, followed by a straight nose.
Then, a beautiful mouth. When it wasn't set into a grim line, or
stretched into a mocking smile, that was.

God, he had to stop thinking about her mouth.

And her hair.

And the way she smelled.

Almonds and cream.

He looked over to the other bunks, to the other new members of the
58. Lt. Jordan Blue Rain, callsign 'Black Jack.' What kind of name
was ‘Jordan Blue Rain,’ anyway? He didn’t know much about Rain yet,
the man kept to himself mostly. Not even West, who was way better at
making friends than he was had better luck at getting the guy to talk.
Rain and Cullen had an easy, lighthearted relationship, full of quick
wit and teasing, but he knew that was only because Cullen just brought
out the lighter side in everyone. Rain wasn't that free and open with
everyone. Sometimes Rain would go to the Tun to slug back a few beers
with him, Cullen and West, but that was it. If there was anyone Rain
really talked to, it was Tyler. Sometimes he would see them deep in
serious discussion, their heads close together, their voices low. He
couldn’t explain it but that bothered him. A lot. He didn’t like it
at all.

And then there was Lt. Sarah Elizabeth Cullen, callsign 'Red Queen.'
His ‘buddy,’ a seemingly delicate and dainty thing. Rain once teased
her about being a debutante and belonging in a high-society tearoom.
Flaxen hair and baby-blue eyes, she had smiled sweetly up at Rain
before flattening him with a punch like a stevedore's.

"You forgot about the bear-baiting and the alligator wrestling," she
had added mildly.

Sarah was probably the only new addition to their squadron that he
actually liked. She had a rough time for a while, after ‘Styx’ but
she seemed to bounce back okay. She was sweet, cheerful,
uncomplicated, and she could handle herself in a dogfight with the
best of them. Not to mention that she was nice to have around when
you got a little banged up during ground missions. When Rain had
caught that graze on his thigh she had patched him up even before the
regular medic could get to them.

He smiled, remembering how for once the Rain had lost his cool,
refusing to let her near his wound.

“Don’t worry,” she had said cheerfully. “I promise to be impressed,
whatever I see.”

Funny bunch of people, he thought. Interesting in their own way.

But they weren’t the 58th.

And their new Captain wasn't Shane.

He thought again of Shane. Shane who he loved. Shane who was lost
somewhere on a planet full of Chigs. Shane who had always been there
for him, even when she didn't want to be. Shane. Brave, beautiful
Shane -- mother, sister, friend.

Love.

He loved Shane. He was certain of it. Knew it with every beat of his
genetically-engineered heart.

His gaze returned to the woman sleeping across from him.

He loved Shane.

But Shane never made him feel like this.

+++

The problem with being angry is it requires so much energy, Morgan
thought tiredly. And right now she didn't seem to have that much to
spare. But exhausting or not, she had to hold on to the anger. The
alternative would be so much worse. Anger was easier. She had
learned that a long time ago.

There had been a renewed surge of attacks. Now the enemy was
everywhere, attacking at all hours, and the more losses the Earth
forces suffered, the greater the intensity of the Alien assault. Their
new strategy seemed to be to overwhelm the humans with sheer numbers,
leaving them no time to rest, no chance to plan their own attack, and
no place for refuge.

The last sortie had been a disaster. They had encountered an enemy
squadron in the eleventh hour of their 12-hour sortie and they had
been tired. A Chig had shot off Cullen's right wing before they even
realized they had been engaged. Ten minutes later Rain's SA-43 had a
cracked, though thankfully not punctured cockpit, West had a dead
number one engine, and Hawkes had scratched the side of her plane by
shooting off his guns when he was flying too close. It was a miracle
they weren't all dead. Then they, minus West, had to do another
sweep of the area to make sure it was clear -- that had taken another
three hours. She would have lectured, even screamed at them, but it
wouldn't have done any good. They needed the sleep more.

It wasn't that they couldn't handle a twelve-hour sortie. It was
just that they had _just_ come back from a supply run and had slept a
mere four hours prior that. Add the 15-hours outside, that amounted
to a grand total of four hours sleep in the last fifty.

They weren't dead, but it sure felt like they were.

To make matters worse, they had gone out with two other squadrons and
returned with only one. The 161st Paladins had been lured by a fake
distress call and then ambushed. They were gone even before support
could be deployed.

She shook her head, sorrow and resignation mixing into one gray lump
in her chest. One more squadron was lost to the enemy, and the
tragedy of it was all they could think about was the loss of the
fighters, not the loss of lives. Someone would have to make up for
that loss, someone would have to take that watch. Nine more people
were dead and their first reaction was to pray that the task would
fall on another squadron.

This was what the war had reduced them to -- uncaring bodies who cared
more about sleep than lives, the sacred duty of safeguarding their
home degraded into a mere chore, and a reluctant one at that.

She glanced at West and Cullen, already in their racks sleeping the
sleep of the exhausted righteous. She wondered what was taking Hawkes
and Rain -- they should be taking advantage of the lull, too. Maybe
this time they'd get actually get enough sleep before the claxons went
off.

She'd already gone to Ross to protest the scheduling glitch but it had
done no good. They were short of squadrons, it was as simple as
that. And now, with the loss of the 161st the situation was even
worse. The best the Commodore could do was promise them at least
eight hours of rest before sending them out again. Unless, of course,
there was an emergency.

There was _always_ an emergency.

She wondered if she could if she could manage a quick trip to the
officer's lounge and access the rest of the data on McQueen that she'd
failed to download the last time.

She'd almost been done -- she'd been up to his time with the 'Angels,
reading the events that had led to his last promotion -- when Hawkes
had stumbled in. She was annoyed even before he'd reached her. The
point of her using a computer in the officers lounge instead the one
in their barracks or one in the rec room was because she had needed
privacy. The last thing she needed was for one of them to walk in and
see what she was doing. As it was she barely had enough time to pull
a shell over the information before he glanced at the screen. By the
time she'd gotten him to leave they'd attracted too much attention and
it had been pointless to continue. So she had put the rest aside for
another time. Except she hadn't had another chance since.

She frowned again at the memory of Hawkes inviting her to the 'Tun.
What was it about these people, she thought again grumpily. Didn't
they spend enough time together?

She glanced at her timepiece and nixed the idea of another round with
the computer. She was too tired, and her hands hurt.

Her damn hands.

Repeatedly she clenched and unclenched them, fighting the pain,
fighting for strength and flexibility.

The doctors had told her she was pushing it, that even with the
marvels of twenty-first century medicine, second and third-degree
burns still needed time to heal, and that her strained body needed
more time to recover. They were wrong --- her hands were fine. The
flesh and skin had grown back almost perfectly. Sure they were still
a little tender, but they were whole, and they were hers. What they
needed was toughening up, not pampering. And what was still broken
they couldn't fix with their damn machines or multi-colored pills.

Besides, one more psych-evaluation and she'd _really_ have gone
insane.

She grabbed the bottle of lotion from out her locker, then sat at the
edge of her bunk and twisted the cap off. This was the one concession
she allowed herself. A crack on her skin now would be dangerous. And
she might be stubborn, but she wasn't stupid.

The hand that came into view was large, very capable-looking. "Give,"
ordered Rain quietly. She sighed and handed him the bottle. "Now
give me your hands."

Jordan Rain should have been a healer. His hands on hers were gentle,
using enough pressure to work the lotion into her skin without hurting
her. When she had mentioned it before he had merely grinned and said
that his people were used to being both warriors and healers.
Balance, he had said, was the key.

Balance.

That was one of the things her old shrinks had said was wrong with
her.

“Displaced," one shrink had said.

"Imbalanced," said another.

"Unstable."

"Insane."

She'd beaten them all. They'd been so proud of themselves when she'd
passed their six-month test. The truth was she had been tired of all
of it anyway, and she had been three months away from being seventeen
-- her next conviction would be as an adult. Again, she might have
been crazy, but she wasn't stupid. Besides, it had made her parents
happy.

So she had learned control. She had learned to smile and make polite
conversation. She’d taken her equivalency test early and gone on to
graduate with honors from Florida State at 21. Two days before her
23rd birthday, she had joined the United States Marine Corps.

"There's not enough aloe vera in this lotion," Rain complained,
bringing Morgan back to the present. "And I keep telling you to wear
heavier gloves."

"And I keep telling you you're not my mother," she retorted. "But
there you go."

"It wouldn't kill you to use another lotion," he stated.

"I've been using this all my life," she answered. "Any other kind
makes me puke."

"Hold still," he ordered, when she started to fidget. "You need this."

"I'm perfectly capable of putting a little lotion on my hands," she
said. "Stop fussing."

"These are hero hands," Rain said quietly, intensely. "You have to
take better care of them. Our lives depend on these hands."

She gave him a frosty look. "Heroes are a dime a dozen in this war,
Lieutenant," she stated coldly. "And you don't depend on anyone's
hands but your own." She tried to pull her hand away. "That's
enough," she ordered lowly. He held on.

"How sweet," a caustic voice interrupted.

They turned to find Hawkes standing at the hatch of the barracks, a
mocking smile on his face.

"Did I come at a bad time?" the InVitro sneered. "Should I leave and
come back later?"

For a moment Rain was confused by the implication. Then his hand
tightened on hers, stifling her equally caustic reply. "We're done,"
Rain said quietly. "And that's no way to talk to your Captain."

"_Shane_ is my Captain," snapped Hawkes.

"Really?" Tyler asked, sweetly sarcastic. "You must be lost then,
little boy, 'cause this is _my_ squadron."

She returned his murderous glare with a cool look, unmoved by the
barely concealed violence warring within Hawkes. Hawkes hands
actually itched with his desire to throttle her. With a muffled curse,
he turned away and stalked out the barracks.

"At least he remembered not to slam the door," commented Rain,
glancing at West and Cullen who had slept through the entire
exchange. "Should I bring him back? We all need to get some sleep
while we can."

She shook her head. "He'll be fine. There are empty racks all over
that he can use. Besides, he's disappeared before -- he always shows
up in time." She didn't tell Rain that she knew where Hawkes went
in times like these, she could always find him if she really needed
to.

Jordan replaced the cap on the bottle and returned it to her locker.
"This has to stop, Morgan," he told her, quietly. "We can't spare the
energy."

"I don't know about that," she answered noncommittally. "Hawkes and
West seem to have a reserve specifically for being difficult."

"Because you keep baiting them," he pointed out. "Whatever it is,
Morgan, whatever you've got against them, especially Cooper, you've
got to get past it. Get over it."

She shrugged off the comforting hand he tried to place on her
shoulder. "I'm just doing my job, Lieutenant, and making sure he does
his. If he can't handle it then he shouldn't be here."

"You've had it in for him from the word go. And frankly, I don't
understand. He's a good guy. You know that. He's taken everything
you've thrown at him."

"And you think that excuses his insubordination?"

He shook his head. "It's not that," he repeated. "I don't know what
it is, but it's not that."

She sighed, too tired to be openly exasperated. "Look, Lieutenant, no
matter what I do, I still won't be the one they want here" she told
him, calmly. "I know that, they know that. So I might as well do
things my way."

This was one of the things he most respected about her, the honesty,
no matter how twisted the logic behind it. "Maybe they're thinking the
same thing as you," he pointed out quietly. "That they'll never be
who you want them to be, so they might as well do things their way."

"That's too bad," she returned flatly. "'Cause I'm the one who gets
to choose, not them. The sooner they accept that the better."

Rain shook his head. "Morgan, you're the Captain. You're who we get
our cues from. It's up to you. Whatever it takes, you've got to
pull this team together."

+++

Lt. Nathan West burst into the 58th's barracks with a whoop of joy.
"McQueen's coming back," he announced to Hawkes, rushing the words in
his excitement. "I just heard it from Boss Ross."

"It's about time," grinned Cooper. "Yeah!"

"What are you so happy about?" asked Rain, coming in from the showers.

"McQueen's coming back," West repeated. "He's on the next shuttle
from Earth. It's scheduled to dock within the next seventy-two
hours." He and Hawkes exchanged enthusiastic high-fives and
back-slaps.

"McQueen," mused Sarah. "Is he as cute as he is on the vids?"

"Cuter," answered Rain, tongue in cheek. "But not as cute as me."

"Can it, people," said Tyler, who had come in with Nathan. "Show some
respect. Colonel McQueen is going to be our CO."

"We should do something for him," West stated. "Let him know we're
glad he's back."

"Sure," replied Tyler, flatly. "Sarah, you bake the cake and I'll
order the flowers."

"I didn't mean it like that,” West protested. "Meet him in the
docking bay or something."

"Sing songs and wave little flags?" suggested Tyler, arching one
eyebrow.

"Maybe," Hawkes responded, irked by her mocking tone.

"Well, we won't have time for it," replied Tyler, turning to the
others. "West didn't tell you the bad news. We're pulling an extra
sortie till the new squadrons come in."

"But Tyler," protested Rain, "We're already on a 12-hour shift in
addition to our special assignments. And we haven't had a free day
since we got here."

"It's just for a few days," Morgan told them. "Hopefully."

"But --."

"Stow it," she interrupted. "We're short of squadrons, that's all
there is to it. We go where we're needed."

Sarah sighed in resignation. "Starting when?" she asked.

"We start our usual shift at noon and go on from there," Tyler
answered. She looked at them gravely. "Look, people, I know you're
tired. Everyone is. The difference is, we can fly tired, and not
everyone can. The new squadrons should be coming in any day now,
probably with the same convoy that'll be bringing in Colonel McQueen.
We hang on till then and _then_ we negotiate a break. Right now it's
just impossible. Complaining about it'll serve no purpose. Save your
energy, take advantage of the downtime we do get. Trust me, it won't
be much."

Tyler's words proved to be prophetic, though paradoxically, the next
three days were the most peaceful they'd ever spent together. With no
extra energy to expend their activities were severely limited to the
necessary. There were no snide remarks, no irate challenges, not
even a half-hearted insult or two. In fact, aside from the occasional
groan due to strained muscles or muffled cursing when someone missed
the pillow and hit his head on the metal rack there was hardly any
complaints at all. It was even restful, in a strange sort of way. At
every opportunity they slept, too tired to even dream.

Morgan had no doubts about the current good behavior of her team, but
that didn't stop her from being thankful. She knew it could easily
have gone the other way -- the intense pressure resulting in high
tension and quick tempers. They couldn't afford it now, and to their
credit, they seemed to recognize that.

Or maybe, she thought with a wry smile, she'd finally found the key
to making them behave -- drive them to the point of exhaustion. Rag
the fight out of them. Except she needed them to fight. Even if she
got most of the overrun.

For the first time she was seeing glimpses of their promise. Not just
the skill, not simply their courage, but the strength of their spirit,
-- the resolution, the purpose, the heart. And for the first time in
a long while she thought that it might just be possible that they
could win this war.

She just had to make sure that they lived long enough to win it.

That was the hard part. The same spirit that made them good soldiers
could also be their downfall. They were aptly named, these WildCards.
Even Rain and Cullen had that recklessness inside them; they were just
better at hiding it. Or maybe they just hadn't been tested yet.

She was so wrong for this squadron. The brass had no idea how wrong.
Just because she was able to do it once didn't mean she could or
wanted to do it again. The 'Wings had been different.

She dug into one of her flightsuit pockets and brought out a tangle of
chains and dogtags. She hadn't had a chance yet to deliver them like
she promised. And, after learning that the _Eisenhower,_ along with
most of her personal possessions, had also gone down during the
assault on Demios she couldn't bear to leave them on the _Saratoga_
when they went on assignment. So now she carried them with her
always, sort of like a lucky charm, a talisman.

She raised the hand that was clutching them to her chest and enclosed
her own dogtag within her palm. *Soon, guys,* she promised again,
silently. *Soon.*

+++

The claxons went off mere seconds before Tyler burst into the 58th
barracks.

"On your feet, Marines!" she commanded urgently. "You've got five
mikes to get suited up."

Cullen moaned in protest. She opened one eye and sneaked a peek at
her timepiece. "What're you doing? We've got an hour left."

"Whassamatter?" Hawkes asked blearily.

"Chigs attacked the Earth convoy 70 MSKs out," she informed them
grimly, grabbing her gloves from her locker. "We've already lost two
of the escort squadrons and one APC. The remaining squadrons and four
Izzies are holding their own but they need help. The 30th and 94th
have already been dispatched, and Ross just gave us the word to go."
Once she had the gloves on she turned to leave. "Meet me at launch
bay in five."

The four who were left stared at each other silently for exactly one
second before exploding into activity. There was only one
interruption, a hushed whisper in the midst of the flurry.

"Nathan…" Hawkes' voice was a mixture of fear and worry. "That's the
convoy the Colonel is on… What if --?"

"Don't say it, Coop," Nathan cut him off. "Let's just hurry."

+++

The trip seemed to take forever. Longer. But eventually they got a
visual of the convoy, complete with swarming Chigs.

Three Izzies huddled together, firing at the Chigs, but there was no
activity from the fourth. Debris was everywhere, testimony to the
ISSAPC and planes that had already been lost. A few dozen Hammerheads
zoomed around, protecting the convoy as best they could, but they were
outnumbered and outgunned. New fighters, just out of the Academy, the
best of the new class, but still hardly a match for the seasoned
pilots of the enemy.

"This is Captain Morgan Tyler of the 58th to the Earth Convoy
'Odysseus,'" announced Tyler over the radio. "Hang tight, folks,
cleanup crew's here." Then she spoke to the 58th and the accompanying
squadrons. "Okay, kids. This here is what we call a free-for-all. I
don't care how you get them as long as you do. Do the words 'fire at
will' ring a bell?"

This was what they were here for, what they lived for. In nanoseconds
adrenaline had set their blood on fire and starbursts were littering
the dark sky. They were still outnumbered but now the enemy would
have to deal with the best of the 5th Wing -- the 30th Wreckers, the
94th Shadows and the 58th WildCards.

Legends have been born from less.

Without discussion the squadrons separated, claiming areas of the
battlefield like they had been labeled with their names. The
WildCards went straight for centerfield, going after the Chigs that
had been swarming around the convoy.

Tyler took the lead, taking out two TriWings with her first pass. The
rest followed closely, breaking off from formation when they reached
the hub of activity.

"Black Jack and Red Queen, I want you to stay near the convoy and give
those gunners a hand," instructed Morgan. "The rest of us are gonna
do a little fishing farther out."

"Roger that, Captain," responded Rain. "We'll babysit while you guys
do the town."

"Hey," said Morgan. "Just cause you can't leave the yard doesn't mean
you can't play."

"Do we get a present if we're good?" asked Cullen.

"Only if you're very, _very_ good."

"Hey, guys, I've got two bandits on my six," complained a pilot from
another squadron. "I could use some help here."

"On our way, Lieutenant," responded West, even as he

The next few minutes was a tableau of lights and explosions.

The passengers in the Izzies, those that hadn't been paralyzed by
fear, would later describe the battle to be breathtaking, -- an
amazing display of skill and grace, of violence and valor.

It seemed, they would later say, like one of those Air shows on Earth,
aerial acrobatics and split-second coordination. Except here there
was no colored smoke, no announcer to explain the complicated rolls
and turns. There was only one way to keep score -- who died against
who lived.

And for once, the Chigs were dying a lot faster than the humans were.

It wasn't long before the Chigs were on the run.

"Raven, we've got them in retreat," came Lt. Antonio's voice over the
radio. "Should we pursue?"

"That's a negative, Dagger," responded Tyler. "Keep the game in the
field."

"Roger that, Raven," stated the leader of the 30th squadron. "We'll
keep close."

A few more minutes and there was only a few TriWings left and it was
obvious to everyone that they would have left the battle if they could
have. The extra APCs from the _Saratoga,_ travelling much slower than
the SA-43s, had finally arrived, and the actual rescue could begin.

"This is Tyler. Shadows, why don't you and the new squadrons start on
home? We'll secure the convoy and the Wreckers can pick up what's
left of the litter."

"Copy that, Raven," responded Captain Scott of the 94th. "See you back
at home base."

Scott ordered the new squadrons into formation and began leading them
away, back to the _Saratoga._ Meanwhile, Tyler communicated with the
crew of the Izzies, assessing the damage and determining how best to
get them back to the _Saratoga._ Mercifully, though the fourth Izzy
had suffered major damages, including the loss of all its engines, the
crew and passengers inside the CV were, for the most part, safe. She
gave instructions for the CV to be transferred to the vacant APC.
That required careful maneuvering on the part of the crew but no
particular hardship. Their main concern was time.

The CV had just interlocked with the new APC when, suddenly, one of
the last remaining TriWings reversed, taking the pilot in pursuit by
surprise. After sweeping the trailing SA-43 it headed straight for
the convoy, firing lasers straight at the vessels.

"Shit!" cursed the pilot, as he tried to regain control of his plane.

The active APCs did their limited best to respond or get out of the
path of danger. The wounded APC caught the brunt of the attack and
the new APC, in the process of disengaging the CV from the damaged
one, received part of the blast.

Hawkes saw red. His temper, already strained, flared at the sight of
the falling ISSCV. Suddenly, a series of scenes flashed through his
head: Paul's CV going down, Shane and Vanessa's APC being torn in
half, Kelly Anne's escape pod being blown to bits -- every death,
every loss. Suddenly that one Chig plane represented all of them and
it became his duty, his destiny, his very reason for being to blow
that Chig out of his sky. Out of their lives.

Something in his brain, in his system, clicked, and his whole being
shifted into warrior mode. He was, after all, an InVitro -- born and
bred for war. His makers had left nothing to chance: his genetic
makeup, his early training, and his subliminal conditioning -- all
carefully orchestrated to produce the supreme soldier, the ultimate
weapon.

A weapon honed to perfection by the United States Marine Corps.

He fired his guns and the Chig he had been chasing, effectively
getting rid of it, and changed course to pursue the one that had fired
on the APC.

Dimly, he heard Tyler's voice over the radio. "This is Tyler of the
58th to ISSAPC-24196. Respond. Are you guys alright?"

There was no response.

"Dammit," Tyler cursed, then tried again. "This is Captain Morgan
Tyler to ISSAPC-24196. If you can hear me, _respond._"

The radio crackled, and then a thin voice answered. "ISSAPC-24196 to
Captain Tyler. The package was delivered, singed but intact. We're
ready to go home."

Tyler breathed a silent sigh of relief. "Copy that. Hang on,
24196. WildCards, regroup. We're taking our people out of here."

Meanwhile, the TriWing, taking advantage, sped on. Hawkes continued to
tail it.

"I said WildCards regroup," repeated Tyler in a sharper tone. "That
means you, too, Hawkes."

"The bastard's getting away," gritted Hawkes. "I'm in pursuit."

"That's a negative," snapped Tyler. "Do not pursue. Leave it to the
Shadows. I repeat, do not pursue. We're taking our people home."

He ignored her, too angry to just break away. He locked on his target
and refused to be shaken. No matter how the Chig swerved and juked,
he was on its tail, and closing in.

"Cooper, what are you doing?" West demanded over the radio.

"Lieutenant Hawkes, return at once and take your position. That is
an order."

Hawkes kept following the Chig, moving further and further away from
the rest of his squadron. The enemy pilot, as if knowing that Hawkes
was unshakable, finally turned sharply and headed straight for Hawkes.

In Hawkes' mind they seemed to pause in mid-flight. Though he knew it
was impossible he thought he could see the other pilot, in his own
cockpit, staring at him down the barrels of his own guns. They
started shooting at the same time, going at each other at full speed
on a collision course.

A showdown, plain and simple.

Miraculously, both survived the first pass. Hawkes twisted around and
waited for the Chig to do the same.

Tyler's voice came over the radio again. "Lieutenant Hawkes, you have
been given a direct order. Return at once. "

He ignored her. The Chig had started its attack again, heading
straight for his plane. Again, distantly, he heard Tyler order Lt.
Antonio to take over guiding the convoy. The WildCards were going
after their rogue wingman.

A quick glance at his LIDAR revealed that he had traveled a great deal
farther than he had thought, and his HUD warned that they weren't
playing one-on-one anymore. He counted at least half a dozen bandits,
all with their weapons primed and heading straight for him.

*Oh, hell,* he thought.

"Goddammit, Hawkes, get out of there _now._"

The snarled command jolted him out of his semi-trance and he dived
down, narrowly escaping the first volley of lasers from the enemy. He
juked left and right and twisted and turned but there were too many of
them.

An explosion to the left of him alerted him to the fact that the rest
of the 58th had joined the fray. Rain had just very conveniently
wiped out the Chig that had been closing in on his two o'clock.

He flipped over and succeeded in shaking off the weapons lock of the
closest Chig. A quick burst of fire from his guns and another Chig
was scratched off the playlist.

Another explosion followed. This time West had popped one that was
coming in from his seven.

He was almost home free, Hawkes thought. But that was before he saw
the other three Chigs heading towards him.

Three in front, three behind, and all of them had their weapons
locked. On him.

*Oh, _hell,_* he thought again.

"Eject!"

For a fraction of a second he hesitated, confused that the voice in
his head sounded like Tyler. Then he realized that it had been her
voice on the radio, shouting the order at the precise same instant the
thought entered his head.

"Eject, you stupid tank! Eject!"

He ejected.

It was almost overkill, he thought later. The three Chigs in front
fired at the same time the three Chigs behind him did. And to add to
the fireworks, West, Rain, Cullen and Tyler had all also fired their
guns. At the three Chigs at his tail. The guns found their targets.
His plane blew up. The Chigs from his tail careened wildly due to
their hits. Then the Chigs, both from his noon and his six, ran
headlong first into his fractured SA-43, and then into each other.

The result was one very big, very loud explosion.

As his escape pod floated in space, helpless, a plane came out of the
cloud of fire. He got cold. Through some miracle, or through some
extremely lucky maneuvering, one Chig had escaped and was now heading
straight for him.

He knew somehow that it was the original Chig that he had been
pursuing. Their planes all looked alike, no marking to help tell them
apart, but he knew. There was no way to escape now, no way to fight
back. The WildCards had veered away from the force of the explosion
and were nowhere to be seen. The Chig, knowing that, paused
again. Hawkes could almost see the smile of cold victory that would
have graced its face had it had been human. Except it wasn't human,
so he didn't really know.

When it came down to it, he didn’t really know anything.

Except that everything ends. Everyone dies.

For some reason he felt extraordinarily calm.

He was, in fact, even sort of looking forward to seeing how being
blown to bits felt like. It was a good way to go. A lot of his
friends went the same.

He saw the Chig move into position and braced himself for impact.

The explosion that rocked his pod was, strangely enough, less powerful
than he had anticipated. And he'd thought that there would at least
be a moment of pain before the darkness or the light claimed him.

At the exact place he had last seen the TriWing Tyler's plane
materialized. He realized then that since the Chig had been out of
range of her guns she had used a missile to take it out.

He was alive. And strangely disappointed.

She moved closer. He waited for her to throw him a line and tow him
back to the 'Toga, but she just hovered there, looking coldly down at
him. His eyes widened as, slowly, her guns moved and locked on to his
pod.

"Captain…" Cullen's soft interjection brought his attention to the
fact that the other WildCards had found and joined them.

Tyler ignored her and kept her guns on Hawkes. "Is this it, Hawkes?"
she asked, harshly. "Is this what you want? Do you want to die?"

He knew she was furious. Quietly, deadly furious. Furious enough to
kill him right there and then, in the middle of space, with the
WildCards as witnesses and the entire crew of the _USS Saratoga_
listening in on the radio.

"Captain," Cullen said again, interjecting quietly. "We need to get
back to the 'Toga."

There was silence, terrible silence for a full minute.

Finally, Tyler stood down and moved away. "Bring Hawkes back to the
'Toga," she instructed them, flatly. "I'll see you all there."

+++

She stood at the flight deck, motionlessly, arms crossed over her
chest, waiting for the rest of her men to arrive. Waiting for _him_
to arrive.

The trip back hadn't diminished her rage, instead fueled and fanned
the flames higher than she had ever had them before. Hands that tried
to be helpful were swatted away; an officer who tried to deliver a
message was halted in his tracks by the look on her face, and more
than one person crossed themselves and found an excuse to be somewhere
else.

"You."

Just stepping out of his battered cockpit, Hawkes froze at the sound
of Tyler's voice and then reluctantly turned to face her.

She stormed up to him and it took all of his strength not to take a
step back when she reached him. He'd never seen her this angry. Oh,
she was always angry, but not like this. While before her rage was
cold, freezing, this fury blazed like fire in her eyes. Electricity
charged the air around them, actually lifting the baby fine strands of
hair surrounding her face, giving the impression of barely-checked
violence.

That's what she wanted to do, he realized. She wanted to lash at him
physically, to unleash her anger in ways that would leave him battered
and bruised and scarred so he would never forget this day.

“You wanna kill yourself you don’t do it on my watch, do you
understand?” she hissed, jabbing his chest with an index finger.

West, Cullen and Rain were standing behind him, looking grim and
concerned, but they stayed back, keeping away. He couldn't blame
them, they couldn't help him with this. They knew better than to try.

“You go into a dark corner somewhere and off yourself quietly, and
without fuss," Tyler continued, harshly, each word punctuated by
another jab at his chest, each one successively stronger than the last
until she was almost pushing him. "You don’t take anybody else with
you, and you don’t do it in public where people are obligated to stop
you!”

“Stand down, Captain,” a low voice interrupted.

She turned to see McQueen and Ross entering the flight deck. She
cursed inwardly -- this was _not_ how she planned her first meeting
with her new CO would be.

“I’ll take it from here,” McQueen continued.

“Sir,” she stated hotly, turning back to Hawkes, “this Marine broke
formation, disobeyed direct orders, recklessly endangered his life and
that of his squadron, lost his plane, endangered the convoy and its
passengers, went against the primary directives of the mission and
generally fucked up _big time._ I demand he be subject to disciplinary
action.”

“Believe me, he’ll get it" answered McQueen, his voice quiet, but just
as dangerous. “But _I’ll_ be the one to mete it out.”

If she hadn't been so angry she'd have been amused. So, it was
starting already, was it?

It took her a while, but finally she managed to rein her anger in.
“Very well, Colonel,” she acquiesced, stepping away from Hawkes.
“I’ll leave it in your hands. And Sir?”

“Yes, Captain?”

She saluted, and the rest of the WildCards did the same. "Welcome
back, Sir. Now if you'll excuse us, my team and I need to discuss
certain things." She turned to the rest of them, her eyes still
flashing mayhem. "The rest of you, on my six."

West risked a helpless, backward glance at both Hawkes and McQueen.
The Colonel was glaring at the top of the younger InVitro's bowed
head. He wished he could stay and greet McQueen properly, ask him to
go easy on Cooper. He had an idea of what had gone on in his friend's
brain during that battle, and that McQueen being inside one of those
APCs had played an integral role in Hawkes' brief stint as a
berserker. He only hoped McQueen realized that and give Cooper a
break.

McQueen caught his look and gave him a short nod of acknowledgement.
The blackness of his countenance didn't ease Nathan's worry. But, he
thought, hurrying back to catch up with the rest of the 58th ,
whatever it was McQueen had in store for Hawkes, it had to be better
than what Tyler had planned for them…

+++

West, Cullen and Rain collapsed on the floor of Cargo Bay 5, out of
breath. Defeating an entire Chig division hand-to-hand was nothing
compared to a full half an hour of squats. And that was after fifty
running laps around the area, and a hundred push-ups.

Tyler stood motionless, with her back to them, ignoring the sound of
their collapse and the groans now filling the air. Inside, she
couldn't stop shaking. At first it had been from anger, but now it
was something else. Oh, the anger was still there but now the rage
was tainted by an unexplained fear, and a helplessness she didn't
understand.

*Goddamn stupid tank.*

She gritted her teeth and fought down the emotions. She was _this_
close to throwing a temper tantrum and that wouldn't do at all.

"On your feet," she ordered, lowly, still without facing them.

"So, Captain," West asked when he had caught his breath and they had
all found their feet again. "What little torture do you have for us
next?"

She turned around, noting their exhaustion impassively. "Ten minutes
rest," she answered coldly. "Then another hundred push-ups."

"And after that?" West challenged.

"Then six passes each in the flight simulator, extreme scenarios.
After which you have exactly one hour to get a meal and get cleaned
up. You're all confined to quarters till we go on patrol."

"Captain, we didn't do anything wrong," protested Cullen.

"I'd belay that if I were you," she growled. "In fact I don't want to
hear anything from any of you. You are all _this_ close to serious
disciplinary action as it is." She glared at them in disgust. "The
only thing that is keeping me from throwing the lot of you in the brig
is my own role in this goddamn mess."

She faced them squarely. "We almost lost a man today. One of your
team, your _friend,_ took it upon himself to disobey orders, risk his
life, your life, and the life of every grunt fighting in this goddamn
war, and for what? For _himself._ And do any of you know _why_ it
happened? It happened because he believed, because he was allowed,
perhaps even _encouraged,_" -- here she glared specifically at Nathan
-- "to believe that this squadron is less than what it is -- a United
States Marine Corps Space Calvary squadron. A team. _My_ team." She
started pacing. "It happened because he believes that it is
acceptable to put himself before the team and the mission. It
happened because he thinks that personal opinion has an actual place
in the life of a Marine. It happened because he somehow got the idea
that an order is something that resembles an option. A choice."

She stopped pacing and faced them again. "_None of us_ have a
choice." In contrast to the fury still blazing in her eyes, her voice
was quietly, deadly, calm. "I'm telling you right here and now,
people. This is gonna end."

She gave up any pretense of generalization and went to stand before
Nathan, who stiffened at the accusation in her eyes. "Hear this CFB,
the 58th is _my_ team. You wanna stay on my team, you play by _my_
rules. I didn’t ask for this, but I’m stuck here, same as you. I
don't like you and you sure as hell don't have to like me, but I am
not going to stand for any more of the bullshit you’ve been dishing
out like so much candy. I don’t care what your other commanders
allowed, but we're gonna be clear about _my_ rules until you can
recite them in your sleep."

"This is a war," she continued, her glare once again encompassing them
all. "I need fighters. I need warriors. _Real_ Marines, not
children who think that putting on a uniform automatically makes them
soldiers. I need people who think and who obey orders and who don’t
make it so fucking easy for the enemy to take our future away.” West
looked like he was going to protest but she quelled his words with a
look of sheer contempt. "The best squadron in the fleet," she sneered.
“This squadron is a joke. You’re insubordinate and undisciplined and
you think all you need to do is be on _this_ side and we’ll win.
Well, you can’t BS your way through this war, Lieutenants. You are
_not_ children. I am not here to babysit. _This is not a fucking
game!_"

She turned away, taking a deep breath to control herself. When she
turned back to them her face was unreadable. Calm, almost, but
something glittered in her eyes. "You think you're so hot," she
mocked softly, huskily. "You think you're special." She shook her
head slowly. "You're not. All you've been is lucky. And someday
that luck is gonna run out."

She dug her hand into one of her flightsuit's pockets and brought out
a palm-full of dogtags. "You see this?" she asked harshly, waving the
tags in front of them. "This is all that's left of the 114th
Squadron. The BlackWings. At Pensacola there's a collection of medals
-- Silver Stars, Montgomery Stars, Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts, heck,
even a couple of Congressionals. Six years' worth, fighting everything
from AIs to hostile governments to eco-terrorists to Chigs." She
closed her fingers around the tags and bit her lip, her eyes
glittering, but her control held. "This is all that's left of
them," she repeated, her face set in stone. "Six men and women who
were better Marines than you could _ever_ hope to be. They didn’t play
around, they didn’t fuck up, and they didn’t take chances. They did
everything right and they _still_ died." She shook her head, her
expression a mixture of sorrow and contempt. "What the hell kind of
chance do you think that leaves you?”

She held her fist against her chest for a moment, before thrusting the
tags back in her pocket. "None of us have a choice," she said again,
grimly. "Except maybe to go easy or to go hard. You're Marines.
Make it impossible." She gestured coldly at the floor. "Now drop and
give me a hundred."

+++

No one knew he was here.

It wasn't the first time, but now that McQueen was back, it'd probably
be the last.

McQueen's quarters were a little cramped for a Lt. Colonel, but Hawkes
already knew that the man didn't have a frivolous bone in his body.
McQueen's cabin was spare, painfully neat, not an inch wasted, no item
unnecessary. This was his space, his haven. And McQueen would kill
him if he ever found out he'd picked the lock.

Well, he'd worry about that later.

He should have gone somewhere else, but he couldn't face the idea of
facing Tyler or any of the others right now. He'd checked the new
schedules and their next rotation wasn't for another ten hours. The
rest of the 5-8 were either down at the Tun tossing back a few or
grabbing some shut-eye in their barracks. He wouldn't be missed.

He just needed to be by himself for a while. McQueen would
understand.

He hoped.

He knew McQueen didn't want to see him right now he had tried to see
him anyway. Angry or not the Colonel was still the closest thing to
a father that he had. The doctor on-call had made him wait until
after the examination before telling him that McQueen was confined to
the medbay, under observation, for the next forty-eight hours. They
told him McQueen needed to rest. That he'd been through a lot in the
last eight weeks and he hadn't gotten through the trip as well as the
doctors had hoped he'd come here. It was the closest thing to being
able to talk to McQueen, to having that comfortable presence around.

He felt so alone, it was tearing him apart. But being with the others
was worse. With Nathan, who didn't seem to care about anything now
that Kylen was safe back on Earth. With Cullen and Rain and their
endless bickering. With Tyler.

Shit, anything was better than being with Tyler.

The truth was that woman scared the hell out of him. She looked at
him like he was something that had crawled out from under a rock,
making him feel useless and unwanted. Since joining the WildCards
he'd started to believe that there was actually a purpose to his
being, that he was necessary, important, _special._ Tyler brought
back all the cold hard insecurities he thought he'd left behind.

He could still hear her words: *Eject, you stupid tank!*

_Tank._

McQueen had said once that they weren't tanks, they were Marines.
More than the Corps itself, it had been being part of the 58th that
had made him _feel_ like a Marine. The acceptance, the friendship,
the mutual respect. But Tyler, Tyler made him feel like a tank, made
him feel like a liability. And the sad truth was, she was right.
He'd fucked up, big time. Even McQueen agreed. He could still
remember McQueen's ice-blue eyes glaring at him after Tyler and the
others had left.

"I didn't spend the last eight weeks trying to get back here just to
see you get blown up, Lieutenant," the Colonel had stated, his
ice-blue eyes glaring. "What you did out there was irresponsible,
thoughtless and incredibly stupid. I don't even want to look at you
right now. I'll call you when I do."

So he was hiding.

So what?

He tried to get some sleep, but the events of the day kept repeating
in his mind. Finally, he got off the rack and made his way to
McQueen's head.

This was by far the cabin's best feature.

A shower. With hot water, bless the Corps.

He stripped quickly and stepped under the spray.

The water felt wonderful. It had been a while since he'd taken a
shower for the simple pleasure of it. The heads provided them were
cold sterile places, not encouraging leisurely ablutions. They were
never private, and someone was always waiting to take their turn. He
would always finish as fast as he could, and get back to the relative
privacy of the 5-8 barracks.

He let the water wash over him, through his hair, and on his face,
over his shoulders and the rest of his body. He let it wash away the
tension in his body, the aches, the pains, the stress.

He didn't hear anyone come in, but suddenly he knew he was no longer
alone.

He turned around slowly and found her standing there. From his
dreams, from his nightmares.

He should have been surprised, even startled to see her, but he
wasn't. It seemed inevitable that they would find themselves here.
Each second since they had met, counting down to this one single
moment.

He would have backed away, but she stood so still, so motionless, a
strange expression on her face that he found himself oddly
transfixed. Everything about her was so tightly coiled he was afraid
to speak, afraid to break the strange trance-like air that surrounded
her. Something else was different… Her hair. Usually it was
braided, in a low ponytail or coiled behind her head in an impeccably
neat bun. Now, it fell, free and straight, cascading down her back to
disappear into the blackness of her shirt. A few stray drops of water
from the shower spray landed on her hair, on her skin, but she was
dry, and she was dressed. That seemed wrong to him somehow.

Finally, she spoke.

"You will _never_ go against a direct command again, do you
understand?" she said lowly, intensely. "You do and I swear to God
I'll blow you out of the sky myself."

He didn't answer.

"Do you understand?" she demanded.

"Yes," he answered, responding to the command in her voice.

She stepped into the spray and looked up at him, his greater height
protecting her from the main force of the water.

"When you're out there," she stated succinctly, "there's only you and
the enemy. There's no room for anything else. No distractions, no
deadweight, no baggage. I won't tolerate it, I won't accept it. Is
that clear?"

He stared at her, unmoving.

"Is that clear?" she repeated harshly.

Somehow, he found the will to nod.

Her hands moved, and for a moment he thought she was going to hit
him, to let him feel the full lash of her fury. But he stood
unmoving as her hands found their way to his shoulders and behind his
neck.

"No baggage," she repeated, and pulled his face down to hers.

He was lost then. In the kiss, in her. His soul fell squarely into
her hands, to do as she willed.

She moved closer, fitting her body to his, and he deepened the kiss,
closing his hands around her. Open mouth, tangled tongues —heat,
scorching heat. Her clothing frustrated him – he wanted to feel her
skin, wanted to taste it, wanted to taste _her._ His hands moved
lower, found the fringes of the shirt and pulled up.

He lost contact for a moment, and it was the longest moment of his
life.

His hands moved lower, encountering more cloth. Her sweat pants. Her
briefs. Her hands moved over his, helping him. Somehow, he… she…
_someone,_ got them off.

He had no idea what happened to her shoes.

He was engulfed by the smell of her, a scent that he would know
anywhere, that had laced his dreams for longer than he cared to
admit. His hands tangled in her hair, falling straight and true
behind her back like a river of darkness.

In the last moment of sanity, before his mind closed-off and
overloaded, before his brain short-circuited from the heat and
electricity, he managed to pull out of the dive.

"It won't work," he whispered, urgently. “Whatever it is you’re
trying to do.”

"Yes, it will,” she said, just as urgently. "It has to." Then she
kissed him again and he surrendered. To her, to the insane need that
suddenly seemed to own him.

+++

For a long time afterwards he lay awake, stroking her tangled,
still-damp hair, enjoying the weight of her head upon his chest, her
soft breath warming his skin.

He realized he could get used to it, to holding her, very easily.

She should have ended it earlier. She should have left the bed, or at
the very least moved away and redrawn the lines. Instead, she had
snuggled against him, and fallen asleep, his arms still wrapped around
her.

He didn’t understand what had just happened. It was as if he had
stepped inside a vortex and had been swept away. He didn’t know why
she had come here, why she had said the things she’d said. Why she
had let him touch her, make love to her. She was Natural-Born. She
was Captain.

And she wasn’t Shane.

+++

Morgan faced the cold spray, resisting the urge to knock her head
against the tiles, _hard._

*Shit,* she thought. What had she done?

She been careful, so careful, each move precisely orchestrated, each
decision weighed and counter-weighed.

So where had last night come from?

All she could remember was being so furious she wanted to choke the
life out of that stupid tank. Instead she had kissed him, allowed her
mind to shut off and her body to take over.

Why?

And why, in the name of heaven, did she want nothing more than to go
back to that bed and take further advantage of the still-naked,
still-vulnerable Cooper Hawkes?

The doctors were right after all, she _was_ insane.

*Okay,* she thought, steeling herself mentally. *Regroup*

She groped for the water control and turned it to the extreme left.

That was better…

+++

He awoke to find her already dressed, staring at something posted on
McQueen’s wall. He moved closer and he saw that it was the satellite
photograph of the Chig black ‘Ace’ fighter. The one had been
responsible for Kelly Anne’s death. McQueen, for some reason, had
printed the words ‘Who am I?’ in bold silver letters across the image.

He wondered now what Kelly had felt as she floated in space, staring
at Chiggy Von Richthoffen as the bastard prepared to kill her in
cold blood. Had she been afraid? Or had she felt like he had, during
that insane minute in space, when he thought it was over – unafraid,
accepting, slightly expectant.

He wondered how McQueen had felt, facing that heartless bastard.

When Morgan saw that he was awake, she pointed dispassionately to a
stack of clothing on a nearby chair. A set of his clothes, he
realized. He wondered how she had managed that, and the fresh set
that she herself was wearing. Last night they had left her clothes
wet and crumpled on the shower floor.

“Get dressed, Marine,” she ordered lowly. “We go on patrol in 30
mikes.”

He tried to reach for her, but her haughty gaze stopped him. She
looked cold, untouchable. As if she had never slept naked in his arms,
as if he didn’t already know every inch of her.

“I don’t understand,” he said, softly, trying to hide his
bewilderment. "Last night --."

"Was last night," she finished flatly. "And has nothing to do with
today."

"But --."

"Make no mistake about what happened here, Lieutenant," she cut in.
"I told you I would tolerate no distractions. This,” she continued
gesturing broadly to the room around them, “was an exercise, that’s
all. It needed to be done to bring back the focus. Tension and
release, that’s all it was.”

He didn't really understand what she was saying, but he knew enough
about natural-borns to get the general idea. "So…” he said
carefully, “you’re saying it never happened.”

She looked away, her gaze returning to the photo on the wall. “It
happened,” she acknowledged, tonelessly. “It just didn’t mean
anything.”

The first impulse was hurt, overwhelming hurt. Then anger took over,
coming to his rescue as it had so many times in the past. "I get it,"
he whispered harshly. "I've known people like you before. I'm a
tank, I'm just meat, right?"

To her credit she looked surprised by the accusation. Then she gave a
small shrug, neither denying nor confirming the charge. “Do
yourself a favor, Lieutenant,” she said instead, still flatly. “Don’t
take anything I say or do personally. It’s not about you. None of it
is.”

“Not even this?” he asked, echoing her earlier action of gesturing
around the room.

“Especially not this,” she stated matter-of-factly. "I told you, it
was an exercise, that's all."

He recoiled at the even tone of her voice, at the lack of expression
on her face. "An exercise?" he demanded harshly. "Or another one of
your little games? Isn't that how you get your kicks? Seeing how
badly you can screw me up?"

She returned his look coolly, implacably. "I repeat, Lieutenant.
This wasn't about you."

"Bullshit," he snarled. "It was me on that bed, lady. Me and you."
He caught himself reaching for her again, this time wanting to do
violence. He wanted to hit her. He wanted to grab her and break her
neck. But whatever she said, whatever she implied, he wasn't like
that. "You can't stand it, can you?" he challenged harshly. "You
can't stand not being in control. You think it's that easy? You
think all you have to do is touch me and I'll do anything you want? "

She glared at him. "That was never my intention," she denied lowly.

"It didn't work," he sneered, not listening. "Whatever it was that
you were hoping to do. It didn't work."

She smiled then, coldly. "Actually, Lieutenant, I think it has."

"You think going to bed with me changes things?" he continued on.
"You think I'll forget everything that's happened? You think I'll
forget Shane?"

She blinked, but her smile stayed in place. "You're starting to sound
hysterical, Lieutenant. I have no idea what you're talking about."

 "'No distractions, no deadweight, no baggage,'" he quoted mockingly.
"Ain't that what you said? Wasn't that what last night was all
about?"

She looked at him squarely. "You are amazingly obtuse, Lieutenant,"
she said wryly. "You really don't get it, do you? I wasn't talking
about you. I was talking about me."

+++

"Who's at my hatch?" Ross barked through the closed door of his
office.

"It's Morgan Tyler, Sir. You wanted to see me?"

"Enter."

Commodore Glen Ross looked up from the file he was reading but didn't
stand up. He waved away the salute that Tyler was beginning and
gestured for her to sit down.

"Commodore, we're due to launch in fifteen mikes. I should be doing
my pre-launch checks."

"I took the liberty of delaying the 58th's launch for now," Ross
answered calmly. "But it doesn't matter -- you won't be joining
them."

Her gaze flew to his in sudden alarm. "Sir," Morgan protested, "if
this is about the incident at the flight deck --."

"You could have handled that better," Ross waved cut her off with
another dismissive wave. "But I'm willing to acknowledge that
everyone's been under a lot of pressure and you may have had reason.
No, I called you in here because of an entirely different matter."

Momentarily pacified by his calm demeanor, she cocked an eyebrow
questioningly. "What have I done now, Sir?" she asked dryly.

Ross tossed the file he was holding on to the desk and motioned for
her to take it. "You requested a particular assignment some months
ago," he replied. "One of an especially delicate nature."

Her eyes widened in surprise as she read the contents of the folder.
"Corps Command finally okayed it?"

Ross nodded grumpily.

"I'll have to leave right away --," she began, then stopped as the
full implications of what she was about to do hit her. She cursed
under her breath and raised a hand to her temple to ease a sudden
headache.

"Is there a problem, Tyler?" Commodore Ross asked, watching her face
carefully.

She shook her head. "The timing, Commodore," she explained lamely,
"could be better… Colonel McQueen's arrival…"

"Is one of the factors that Command has considered in green-lighting
this mission," finished Ross. "It says in that communiqué that you've
complied with their conditions and they feel that now would be an
'appropriate' time for this mission." He gave a quiet snort of
disagreement. "Frankly, I have my doubts about this entire matter."

She reversed quickly, worried that he might actually nix the mission
because of her hesitation. "Sir," she protested softly, "we need to
do this. We've cooled our heels long enough."

"Yes," he agreed, somberly, "and I realize that for the most part to
blame for that. I just wonder if, at this point, such a mission won't
do more harm than good." He shook his head sadly. "You realize the
possible consequences? Whether this mission is a success or a
failure, it will have serious repercussions. I'm not sure that any
of us are ready."

She knew exactly what he was talking about, but couldn't let it
matter. "Sir, whatever outcome of this mission, Corps Command will,
as always, have absolute discretion over the distribution and use of
whatever information I bring back. I'm sure they'll do what they
believe is best and appropriate." The last was laced with just the
slightest hint of sarcasm but Ross ignored it.

"Whatever you find, Captain, has the potential to disrupt the course
of this war," he repeated. "Your squadron, for example --."

"With respect, Sir," she cut him off as politely as she could. That
was something she didn't want to get into right now. "Whatever comes
after, the 58th will just have to live with it, just like the rest of
the Universe."

He shook his head again, slightly exasperated with her uncaring
attitude.

"Sir," she said again. "We have to do this. We have to know."

"And is that what propels you on this mission, Captain Tyler?" Ross
questioned pointedly. "Curiosity? A simple need to know?"

"Sir, my reasons for requesting this mission have always been open and
straightforward." She looked at him directly. "You _know_ why I
want this."

"I still think it's a dangerous idea," he huffed.

"I _am_ a Marine, Sir," she answered with a wry smile. She returned
the file to him. "I should leave right away, Sir," she said again,
carefully adding, "preferably while Colonel McQueen is still in
quarantine and before he officially becomes my commanding officer."

Ross nodded. "I agree. Let's not further complicate this matter
needlessly." He punched a button on his table, calling in an aide.
"I suggest you make your preparations while I okay your arrangements.
You'll also need to talk to your squadron."

She nodded. "Sir, I believe that the 7th Asian Airwing is nearest
that sector. I'd appreciate it if you could arrange to have the 41st
WildFuries or the 88th Firebirds as my backup. In fact, if you could
get me both…"

"I'll arrange it," he nodded. " I wish the 58th could come with you
on this mission… "

"You said it yourself, Sir," she reminded him dryly. "There's no need
to further complicate this mission. They're better off here." She
stood up. "Permission to be excused, Sir?"

"Just one more question, Tyler," said the Commodore.

"Yes, Sir?"

"Are you planning on coming back?" The question was quiet, but
serious.

She cocked her head, confused by the question. "Sir, you know that
all depends on what I find."

"Are you coming back?" he asked again.

She frowned slightly. "What exactly are you waiting to hear, Sir?"

He gave a slight shrug. "I know you didn't want to be here. I'm
wondering if you're going to use this as an excuse not to be."

She stiffened, her frown intensifying. "Sir," she said coldly.
"I've never done less than my duty. No matter how badly I wanted
out."

"Don't take that tone with me, Morgan." The Commodore's voice held
only the slightest hint of a reprimand. "We've been very good about
observing formalities, but I'm still allowed to ask a few touchy
questions."

"You phrased your question wrong, Sir," she returned, still coldly.

"_Are_ you coming back?" he asked again, looking her straight in the
eye.

"I don't know," answered Morgan, honestly. "But if I don't, it won't
be because I looked for a reason not to."

Ross nodded, his face grave and somber. "Alright, Morgan," he said
quietly. "That'll have to be good enough."

+++

"What's the deal?" asked Cullen with her trademark energy. "Why'd the
Commodore halt our launch? And where the fudge is Tyler?"

They'd been in the briefing room a full twenty minutes and Tyler still
hadn't made an appearance. Worse, no one had told them what was going
on, and that always made them feel edgy.

"Did the Colonel say anything to you?" West asked Hawkes. "Do you
know what's going on?"

Hawkes shook his head.

"What's wrong with you?" West questioned sharply, irritated by his
friend's stubborn silence. Hawkes hadn't said a word since he'd shown
up at the flight deck for their pre-launch checks.

"We're in trouble, aren't we?" asked Cullen, biting her lip worriedly.
"Morgan's still mad at us, isn't she?"

"The Commodore halted the launch," Rain pointed out. "Not Tyler."

"Maybe _she's_ the one in trouble," speculated West. "She did sort of
freak out yesterday."

"You better hope she isn't," said Rain. "I have a feeling it takes a
lot to get Tyler into trouble, and if she is you can bet we'll be in
for worse."

"Has anyone seen her at all today?" demanded Cullen.

"Not since yesterday when she left us in the simulation room,"
answered Rain. He looked at Hawkes. "What about you, Cooper? Have
you seen Tyler?"

Hawkes started to answer, thought better of it, and simply shook his
head.

"Are you gonna be like this all day?" West demanded, just as Tyler
walked in.

"Finally!" said Cullen by way of greeting.

"Okay, sit down and listen up," said Tyler, gesturing to the seats in
the room. "You got twenty mikes till you have to go on patrol so
let's make this quick."

"Till _we_ have to go on patrol?" repeated Rain curiously.

"You're going," Morgan explained, flatly. "I'm not."

"What?" demanded Cullen. "What do you mean you're not going?"

"I have a mission," Tyler answered.

"_You_ have a mission?" asked West. "What about the rest of us?"

" You're staying here," she said. "And going on patrol in twenty."

"Where are you going?' asked Rain.

"It's classified," she answered. "While I'm gone--."

"Wait," interrupted West. "What do you mean 'classified?' We don't
get to know where you're going?"

Tyler sighed impatiently. "That's generally what 'classified' means,
West," she answered dryly.

"Is this a solo mission?" inquired Rain. "Won't you need backup to do
whatever it is you're going to do?"

"I'll have it," she answered shortly.

"Just not us, is that it?" demanded West. "So much for your 'this is
a team' speech."

"Does this have anything to do with what happened yesterday?" Cullen
asked the question that was in everyone's mind.

Tyler shook her head. "I was supposed to do this months ago," she
answered. "Even before I came to the _Saratoga._ But the clearance
only came through today."

"So why can't you use us as backup?" probed West. "We're not good
enough for this classified mission, is that it?"

"You said, it, Lieutenant," she replied, coldly. She raised her hand,
palm out, stilling his next words. "Enough." She gestured for them
to return to their seats. "Let's get this briefing over so we can all
get on with our lives."

"How long will you be gone?" asked Cullen.

"At least ten days," said Tyler. "Colonel McQueen will be out of
quarantine shortly, so you shouldn't get into too much trouble. So,
while I'm gone, unless Colonel McQueen decides otherwise, West is
honcho."

"Me?" demanded West, without thinking. "Why me?"

Her eyes rolled to the ceiling, her exasperation obviously at its
peak. Shaking her head, she motioned to him to follow her. "You and
me, Lieutenant, in private." She led him outside to the hallway, and
then faced him with her arms crossed over her chest. "You're lucky
I don't have time to pound you into the ground right now, Lieutenant.
What's the matter now? You not up to the job?"

"I'm up to it," West assured her coldly.

"So what's your problem?"

"I just thought… Rain is your XO, shouldn't he be honcho when you're
gone?"

"Rain will do as he's told," Tyler answered. "The only soldier in
question right now is you. Last chance, Marine. You up to this or
not?"

"I'm up to it," he repeated.

"Then you're honcho. Let's go."

"Wait," said West. "Don't you have any instructions for me?"

"Why" she inquired dryly. "Do you need any?"

 "Well, who gets to be XO?"

She threw him an irritated glance but kept on walking. "You're
honcho," she reminded him. "You decide."

Back inside the briefing room, she repeated the announcement. "West
is honcho. Aside from that, it's business as usual."

She sat on the desk facing the chairs and looked them over seriously,
one by one. "I got something to say to you people and you better
listen good," she announced softly, somberly. "I'll be gone ten
days. Maybe longer. This is a golden opportunity for all of you.
While I'm gone you can do anything you want." She shrugged carelessly,
but her eyes were steel cold. "Screw up if you like. Get yourselves
thrown in the brig. Let yourselves get killed. Whatever you wanna
do, do it. _But do it before I come back._ When I come back, all I
wanna see are Marines. Anything else and you've got no place with
me. Anything else and you've got no place in this squadron." She
stood up and moved closer to make her point. "Yes, people, that is a
threat. That is a promise. You have ten glorious days of freedom
left before you either shape up, or ship out. And if you harbor any
doubts about that, if you think you are in some way special and can
get away with less, I'm telling you now you won't. See, this is _my_
squadron, and unlike the lot of you, _I_ am a Marine." She looked at
them coldly. "_ I can make it happen._"

+++

>From the corner of his eye he could see her. She hadn't told any of
them goodbye but now she was standing at the other side of the flight
deck observation window, watching them take off. That was sort of
confusing, giving him the uneasy feeling that everything was turned
around. They should have been the ones watching her take off.
After all, she was the one who was leaving -- they were only going on
patrol.

It was just as well she was leaving, he thought. Chances were if she
stayed one of them really would kill the other one.

He didn't really believe her, didn't believe that her leaving had
nothing to do with what had happened the day before -- with everything
that had happened. How could it not?

He didn't understand what had happened himself, didn't understand any
of the feelings that were still coursing through him. All he knew was
that he couldn't even look at her straight or he'd explode.

The funny thing was, as happy as he was that she was leaving, he was
afraid she'd never come back. He was worried that this was the
opportunity she'd been waiting for to leave and find another
squadron. She'd said she'd have backup to do whatever it was she was
gonna do. Had the brass offered her another gig and she was leaving to
check out another squadron? Why couldn't she have taken the 58th with
her if this mission was that important? And come to think of it,
what could be so important that she'd leave them so suddenly, at such
critical point of the war?

Then again, if she never came back, wouldn't that be a good thing?
McQueen was back -- he could lead the 58th, and Nathan could be
honcho. They'd have peace again, whatever they could have of it. He
wouldn't have to be on guard all of the time, losing sleep over the
tangled mass of emotions he felt in spite of himself. Shane's place
would be safe.

Didn't he want that?

Shane's place would be safe.

They cleared him for take off and he stole one last glance before his
cockpit dropped into the lower deck to hitch to his plane fuselage.
He saw her turn away, disappearing from sight even before his cockpit
had dropped completely into the shaft.

A strange thought popped into his head then, -- this was an end. He
felt almost sad, almost sorry, and he didn't understand why. He
didn't know what would follow, didn't know what would come next, but
he knew something had ended, here and now. Something he hadn't known
had even begun.

And he thought that maybe he should have told her goodbye after all.

+++

An hour later she was doing her final checks, preparing to launch.
She was a Marine, after all, practically everything she owned she
could stuff in her pack, and what she couldn't the Corps would
provide. What was important was she get there as fast as she could.
They had already wasted too much time.

"You're right," a voice said above her. "I said the wrong thing."

She glanced up, saw Commodore Ross standing beside her cockpit and
stood up to get out.

"No, as you were, Captain," said Ross. He moved closer and knelt down
beside her cockpit. "I said 'are you coming back?' What I should
have said was 'come back safe.'"

She looked away, refusing to meet his eyes. "You tell that to all your
Marines, Sir?" she asked him dryly.

"You're not just any Marine," he pointed out. "And you're not just a
Marine."

"Yes, I am, Sir," she corrected calmly.

"Fine," he conceded. "But even if you were, even if you were anyone
else, I'd still tell you to come back safe. In fact, I _order_ you to
come back safe."

She shook her head in amused exasperation. "You can't order me to do
that, Sir."

"Oh, yes I can," he answered, grimly. "I'm the supreme commander of
the _USS Saratoga,_ and what I say goes. You will execute this
mission, and you will come back safe. That is a direct order."

She almost grinned. "And have you sent the same instructions to the
good Lord above, Sir?"

"I am damn serious Tyler," he growled. "You think this mission is
necessary. You might even think this is the most important mission in
the entire war. But I will not lose you, and I will not lose anyone
else to that accursed planet." He stood up and glared down at her.
"_Do you hear me?_ I will not lose anyone else to 2063Y..." 

...to be continued...
Copyright Jessi Albano 1999
15 February 1999, 4:16:06 PM

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