Exhaustion was the only thing on Shane Vansen's mind as the ISSCV (Internal Solar System Cargo Vehicle) pulled across the bow of the giant spacecraft carrier USS Saratoga. Her shoulders ached and the cut on her leg smarted. Casting her glance across at the rest of her USMC squadron ,The 58th, Wild Cards, her gaze rested on their commanding officer Lt. Colonel T.C. McQueen. His shoulders sagged wearily and his eyes were closing displaying the bruise that was spreading across the left side of his face. The only thing she looked forward too was a long shower and her bed. The ISSCV swerved abruptly in its landing approach, shaking its tired load and sliding Lt. Paul Wang onto the deck. He woke with a start and Shane wandered at his ability to sleep anywhere, as Lt. Vanessa Damphousse, sitting next to her snorted and pointed out of the window opposite . Shane looked up as six SA-43 Hammerhead Endo/Exo Assault craft executed a perfect display turn and side swiped into the runway under the Saratoga's massive hull.
" It looks like the 48th finally got here." She said with a hint of disgust in her voice. "They look fresh and ..."
"Too flash." Lt. Cooper Hawkes finished for her.
Colonel McQueen shot an odd look in Hawkes direction. "It always takes time to re-arm a squadron after their carrier has gone down." His quiet voice cut through the air like a knife. "Some of those marines spent two weeks adrift in life pods after the Hornet went down."
An uneasy silence fell across the group, each marine lost in his or her own thoughts. Many times it could have been them. Vansen watched the Colonel's face, his expression had taken on a cold tone.
The ISSCV landed and the personnel unit descended into the docking bay. Shane wearily picked up her pulse rifle and pack and stepping down onto friendly territory stretched her shoulders.
The walk back to the 58th's quarters took them past the fighter docking area and the activity there was visible through the observation windows as they passed by. The 48th squadron pilots and flight crews were securing their craft for emergency take-off should it be necessary and Shane was amazed at how young some of them looked. Her thoughts were brought up short as she collided with the back of Lt. Nathan West. The 58th had stopped to look at the new arrivals.
"Like I said. Too flash." Hawkes comment was directed towards the two marines at the end of the hanger.
The eldest and obvious commander was a stern faced woman in her late thirties or early forties. Her hair pulled back in a tight unflattering pony tail her head was bent slightly as she leaned towards a younger and slightly taller woman in her early twenties. The two were deep in conversation. Then as if on cue the older woman looked up and stared briefly in the direction of the 58th. The expression on her face had been one of hate and disgust. It took Shane a few minutes to realise that it had been directed at Colonel McQueen and as she glanced at him he was obviously returning the animosity.
Taken aback by this unnatural if brief display of emotion from her normally very rigid and professional commander Shane missed the beginning of the conversation now directed at her. She made up her mind to grab a member of the 48th and see if she could find out what was going on.
"Well what do you think? Shane?" West's blue eyes fixed her.
"What? I'm tired lets hit the showers."
"Yeah." Hawkes continued. "A few days of 12 hour patrols and a ground mission will knock the stuffing out of that lot."
The 58th pushed on toward their quarters trailed by Colonel T.C. McQueen who looked tired and sick.
The next day the 58th returned to 12 hour patrols of the area around the Saratoga. Operation Round Hammer was in full swing and enemy activity was heavy. The 48th had pulled the opposite patrol shift and so Shane had not been able to carry out her plan to discover what was behind the look that had passed between the two commanding officers.
It was three days later, while the Saratoga was relocating to a position nearer the new offensive front that Shane first encountered members of the 48th. She had joined the other members of the 58th in the marines bar 'Tun Tavern' and was watching her four companions playing foose-ball when the female she had seen talking to the 48th commander walked over to where she was sitting near the bar.
"Captain Ginny Galley." The young woman offered her hand. "Can I get you a drink?" She had a pleasant smile and Shane found herself liking the woman.
"Beer thanks. How you settling in?" Shane indicated the seat next to her own.
Ginny was pleasant company. They talked about the inconveniences of Saratoga quarters and action both squadrons had participated in. Shane was just trying to turn the conversation around to the 48th's CO when she noticed Colonel McQueen sitting opposite them at the bar. The colonel was watching two more officers from the 48th. The two second lieutenants were obviously new to the squadron and wanting to make an impression, were swaggering around the foose-ball table talking louder and louder.
"Come on. We can take on you old guys. Let the new blood in." The tallest was obviously the worse for alcohol.
"O.K. Chum." Wang was trying to put on his most diplomatic voice. "I'll tell you what. You can take on the winners of the next round. Just let us finish this game."
Seeming placated the two leaned against the nearest table. Shane noticed that McQueen didn't take his eyes off them for a second.
The foose-ball game was hotting up. Hawkes was finally getting his eye and hand co-ordination together and Wang and Hawkes looked like they were winning. Then the tall lieutenant moved his elbow, catching Hawkes under the back of his ribs. Cooper lost his grip on the little players and a final goal slipped through the defence into Wang's net.
"Hey! What did you do that for?" Hawkes protest sounded over the rumble of victory and defeat from the other players.
McQueen carefully put his glass down in front of him and stood up.
"You stupid tank. I can't help it if your too stupid to play a simple game." The marine squared himself up to Hawkes but was still several inches shorter. He had his hand on Hawkes shoulder.
Hawkes tensed and as Shane realised that a fight was about to erupt so did the girl to her left.
"Anders, Netton stand down." She was shouting as both girls propelled themselves toward the foose-ball table.
Shane caught the black streak of McQueen's flight suit as he raced passed them hooking his arm around Hawke's arm and pulling him almost to the ground. He threw the Lieutenant hard in the direction of the bar at the same time another black arm hooked itself around the loud mouthed marine dragging the man towards the back tables. Shane watched, the surprise on her face mirrored in the marine as he catapulted backwards hitting the nearest table with an audible crack.
"If you can't behave you are confined to quarters." A quiet voice that cut through the tension in the room. "Get out of my sight."
The commander of the 48th squadron was close in to the lieutenant and as she turned around Shane glimpsed the Angry Angels logo above her top left pocket. She also caught the look that passed between her and McQueen as she moved passed where he and Hawkes stood. The woman followed her errant officer from the room slamming the saloon doors as she passed through. McQueen propelled Hawkes in front of him as he followed.
"What's between them?" Ginny asked leaning close to Shane's ear.
Shrugging her shoulders Shane fixed her with a stare. "I thought McQueen was the last of the Angry Angels?"
"No there are a few left. There was a reshuffle just before the Chigs hit Vesta and several officers were promoted out of the unit. Colonel Chatterton was assigned to the 4-8 six months before the 1-2-7 took on the Chigs."
"So she knew McQueen before?"
"I guess so, she never talks about it. I get the impression that all the ex-angels are fierce about what happened."
"It's not McQueen's fault he survived though."
Looking towards the swinging doors as though they could confirm her suspicions Shane felt that Chatterton blamed McQueen, a tank, for being the only one of her comrades to return that fateful day.
"I hope this feeling doesn't come between our squadrons." Her voice was low. "We have to work together."
Ginny nodded and returned to the bar to pick up her drink. Shane downed her drink in one. There was a nasty feeling growing in her stomach. Captain Galley obviously felt the same way because both girls left the bar to return to their respective quarters in silence.
McQueen was in a foul mood the next day. The squadron gathered in the briefing room to run over the new additions being added to their SA-43's and before the Saratoga arrived at their next station the airwing would have to practice with the new equipment. The colonel stood ramrod straight, his arms clasped behind his back trying to look relaxed but failing miserably.
Behind her Shane could hear Damphousse and Wang muttering about his mood and the 48th.
"Listen up Marines." McQueen began. "The new type 443-a Lidar assembly is the state of the art. The five-eight and four-eight squadrons have been equipped with this to aid in the new initiative in Operation Round Hammer. Commodore Ross feels that to be battle ready we need to practice using this real time. We are to take on the 4-8 squadron in a drill using blank ordnance. This is a head to head drill. If you are hit you are out. We are the best, I expect you all to come back and no taking out any personal feelings. Mission briefing will be in 17 mikes. Be ready." He spun round and marched from the room.
"What can we do for 17 mikes?" Wang drawled. "And who rattled his box?"
"I get the feeling that the colonel doesn't like the 4-8 or its CO." West leaned conspiratorially towards the group. "Did you see the looks that passed between them yesterday."
"And when they arrived here." Damphousse added.
"They knew each other before. " Shane wanted to stop the feelings growing in the room. "We can go over the Lidar manual again. So the 4-8 can't pull anything across us. They must be feeling the same."
It wasn't 15 minutes latter that members of the 4-8 squadron began to filter into the briefing room.
"Hey! Goody two shoes and her merry men have beaten us. " The tall lieutenant, stage- whispered to his partner from the previous night.
"Anders button it." Captain Galley called from the rear of the party.
The 48th squadron seated themselves as far away from the 58th as possible. Ginny caught Shane's eye as the rest of her wing shuffled noisily around. She shrugged apologetically. Shane responded determined the two of them were going to have their work cut out to get these two groups working together. It didn't help with the obvious antagonism between the two commanding officers.
"Hey tank!" Ander's voice was low and cutting. "I hear your a hot shot. Well so am I, we'll see who is best I guess."
"No competition." Netton cooed from his side.
Shane shot Cooper a glance and gritting her teeth lowered her voice to a whisper. "If anyone responds here, I will personally take them apart. You got that?"
Her friends nodded sullenly. Turning back Shane could see that Ginny was also whispering to the marines around her. From the expression on their faces they didn't like what they were hearing either.
The situation didn't have time to develop because the door opened allowing Commodore Ross, the commanding officer of the Saratoga, Colonel McQueen and Colonel Chatterton to enter.
The Commodore stood at ease at the front of the room. Looking intently at each of the fliers and their flight crews he outlined the advantages of the new Lidar systems and the importance of real practice not only for combat readiness but also to bring groups of marines together.
Shane listened instantly, catching each reference the officer made to working together. Her mind racing, she concluded that he was aware of the animosity growing between the two groups and may be had a mission that they would both be working on.
Brought back to the room suddenly she realised her attention had wandered. Colonel Chatterton was pointing to the nearest planetary system and outlining the ground rules for engagement and hit acknowledgement. She also pointed out that the 5-8 was short of a pilot as Lt. Colonel McQueen was prevented from flying and this was not going to be taken as a disadvantage. She would be leading the 4-8. The expression on McQueen's face told Shane he was not pleased with this. Chatterton kept on oblivious to the reaction from all of the 5-8. It was not a personal battle. Each wing was to use its new technology to protect its designated planet and destroy its enemy. Lt. Colonel McQueen was to be co-ordinator aboard the Saratoga and his decision about hit success and death of the attacked craft was final.
The briefing over, the marines began to file out of the room. Shane hung back to speak to Ginny and as they passed the senior officers she was amazed to hear anger in Commodore Ross's voice.
"You two had better sort this out before it tears your squadrons apart. You have twenty-four hours and then I will intervene. Got that Ty? Got that Helen? You are both adults. Do it."
"They all know each other!" There was surprise in Ginny's voice as the two girls passed into the corridor.
"I guess its up to us. The adults are fighting and so are the kids."
Shane felt depressed as she entered the 5-8 prep deck. Pulling herself into her cockpit she glanced around at her friends. Something had changed since the 4-8 had arrived. Something that had to be stopped.
Pre-flight checks completed the squadron cockpits lowered on their flat beds to engage with the hammerheads on the flight deck. The klaxons were sounding to indicate airlock doors open.
"Wild cards this is Queen-six" McQueen's voice came over her intercom. "You are on channel 32. In emergencies the Knight Raiders are on channel 35 repeat 35."
Saratoga's control came over the intercom.
" Wild Cards this is Saratoga control you are cleared for take-off on runway 1. Queen of Diamonds you are number one on the runway. Good luck."
"Acknowledged Saratoga control. I copy." Shane pushed her control consul forward and her hammerhead shot out into space followed by the rest of the Wild Cards. To her left she could see the after burners of six other hammerheads in tight formation headed into the nearby star system.
"Keep it close Wild Cards." Shane loved being in space. "King of Hearts go to 34." She shifted the channel frequency as she spoke and heard McQueen's complaint as she did so.
"OK Shane. What?"
"I'll be quick Queen-six will be on us soon. Your a hotshot pilot so is Chatterton. In a dog fight you get on her six and show us how good you are."
"Got that and copy Queen of Diamonds." There was triumph in West's voice.
On the bridge of the Saratoga the illegal conversation still echoed from the intercom as McQueen turned and flashed Commodore Ross a knowing smile. The commodore shook his head like a Father who knows his children will play up no matter what he says but there was a smile on his face as he acknowledged McQueen.
The exercise was now underway in earnest. The next twenty minutes Shane spent playing hunt the enemy around the planets in the system. Then it was there. Her Lidar showed up six bogies.
"This is Ace of Spades. I've got them. They are sitting pretty at 139.05 mark 277.09." Damphousse was elated.
"Wild Cards." Shane ordered "engage the enemy and I expect you to kick butt real hard."
With a whoop the wild cards charged toward their target.
There was something wrong. The Knights had turned to meet the oncoming assault but her Lidar was blipping far to fast. Then she saw them.
"Shit Chigs. Break, break. Queen-six. We have company here. Repeat we have hostile company here and we are not armed."
"This is Queen -six acknowledge stay on channel. Head for the barn."
"You heard him head for the barn." Shane called.
"This is Black Knight to Queen of Diamonds." The Colonel's voice was cold and calm. "Spread out there's only three of them. Keep your heads low and run for the barn. We are right with you."
The eleven hammerheads formed a loose formation as they turned and ran towards the Saratoga. Shane could hear McQueen ordering an armed wing out to cover them and in the background the Saratoga's battle station sirens were echoing.
The three Chig vessels caught up with the group quickly.
"Juke, Juke." Shane recognised Ginny's voice. "This is White Knight. Chigs are on your six. Green Knight repeat juke."
Ander's hammerhead swerved sideways then up and down in an attempt to shake the Chig vessels coming up on his tail. A stream of weapons fire burst passed him as he evaded the action.
Then Shane felt the cold hand of fear as Hawkes voice came over her intercom. "This is Jack of Clubs. I've got two Chigs on my six. I can't shake them."
"This is Queen-six. The cavalry will be there in four mikes." McQueen sounded worried.
"We won't be here in four mikes, Queen-six." Chatterton's voice. "White knight double blind right. Repeat double blind right, then head for the barn."
Shane watched as the two hammerheads broke formation slammed to a halt, spun round and going down both sides of Hawke's hammerhead, zigzagged behind him. The Chigs were temporarily put off their fight and as one of the hammerheads turned and headed for the fleeing group the other continued to dance around their formation.
Streamers of weapons fire played around the lone hammerhead. Shane lost sight of the craft as she concentrated on getting to the safety of the Saratoga, but her Lidar continued to play out the battle going on behind them.
"Thanks White Knight." Hawke's voice sounded shaken. "That was close. Where is the Black Knight?"
She watched in disbelief as the unarmed hammerhead baited and played around the three Chig ships. Then as if tiring with the game turned and headed, not towards safety but straight into the systems star.
"Black Knight this is Queen-six. Don't do it." McQueen sounded concerned.
The hammerhead's intercom responded with static bursts that got louder as the little fighter entered the upper atmosphere of the star. Then there was silence. Shane looked at her Lidar and the four blips had vanished. Then as she looked back at the star a tongue of fire burst from the surface reaching out into space.
"No!" It was Commodore Ross's voice she heard.
Then as a burst of static, raised by the solar flare, hit her intercom she heard the distinct scream of a Marine Warcry.
"AHHHHHHHHHHHH. I owe you that one Mac. Are the chickens back in the barn safely?"
"This is Queen-six acknowledged Black Knight chickens are all safe." Shane wasn't certain but there sounded like an edge to McQueen's voice. "Good flying."
McQueen was waiting to meet the fliers as they returned to the prep decks. Colonel Chatterton stepped from her cockpit and high fived Ginny as she passed her.
"Drinks are on me." She called a she walked towards McQueen. "Make sure the 5-8 are there as well."
Shane made her way into the prep deck just as Anders was shaking Hawkes hand. "Nice flying Tank"
"He's an Invitro not a tank." Ginny's voice echoed across the flat beds. "And if I hear you call him that again I'll kick your butt so hard you'll transfer to a ground team to get away from me, right."
The look of surprise on Cooper Hawke's face made Shane laugh.
"She stood up for me too." He grinned at the 4-8's Captain.
Shane was nearest the flight door as Colonel Chatterton reached Lt. Colonel McQueen's position. She watched as the two officer's met and stood staring coldly at each other.
Then she heard McQueen, a cold hard edge to his voice. "Loading bay 4. 2200 hours."
Chatterton stiffened and nodded before walking off towards the showers.
After her shower Shane made a point of finding out Ginny. The 4-8's captain was sitting at the bar with two drinks in front of her.
"Here. I got those in for you." She pushed one towards Shane.
Sitting close to Ginny and leaning in so that no one else could hear Shane whispered to her friend. "It looks like we've broken the ice with the kids but the adults are still rowing. McQueen's challenged Chatterton to a fight tonight."
Ginny's jaw dropped. "I wandered why she had paid for the first round but wasn't here. You really think they are going to fight?"
Shane gulped down her drink nodding as she did so.
"That would really undo the good today achieved." Ginny continued, nodding towards the two groups of Marines drinking and laughing together.
"I reckon we need to go to the old man. He'll sort this out." Shane looked forlorn.
"Go to Ross!"
The two girls nodding to the marines now partying left the Tun Tavern and headed towards the Commodore's cabin.
Commodore Ross listened carefully to Shane as she explained what she had overheard and their concern for the two commanding officers and squadrons.
"Captains." Ross said at length. "I don't think the two Colonels know what good seconds they have in you two. I do know that they are both private individuals and have to sort this out themselves. I will accompany you to bay 4 but whatever happens, you will have to respect their right to privacy."
Shane and Ginny nodded and followed the Commodore as he headed towards the loading bays.
Hidden in the shadows the sight that greeted Shane almost made her gasp. The two senior officers stood facing each other on the empty deck. They were both dressed in the distinctive uniform of the Angry Angels Squadron. Colonel Chatterton held a small wooden box its lid raised.
"I have kept these with me at all times." Chatterton handed an object to McQueen.
"So have I." McQueen added something of his own.
As the girls and Commodore watched Colonel McQueen began placing name and Angry Angel insignia in the box. At each pair the two of them spoke the name of the dead Angel. When they had finished they both closed the box lid and walked to the waste disposal hatch. Shane wasn't sure but Chatterton seemed to stumble slightly as McQueen opened the hatch and taking the box from her hands placed it in the shoot.
As the door closed Shane heard a mournful cry escape Colonel Chatterton's throat and the two officers clung to each other. After what seemed like hours McQueen reached down and gently wiped a tear from his friends face. Then turning they walked towards the exit.
"I've a fresh bottle of whisky in my cabin." McQueen's voice was soft as they passed the hidden watchers.
"I need it Mac. I've had a hard day."
The silence that fell in the bay was eerie. Finally the Commodore broke the spell.
"I think this had better not be spoken of."
"It was a funeral, that neither of them wanted to attend." Ginny had a catch in her voice.
"Sometimes that is the only way you can let go of the past, your friends." The Commodore's voice was low as Commodore Ross returned to his cabin and the memories of old comrades.
Shane and Ginny returned to the party shaken, but knowing there would be no more animosity between the two squadrons.