Degrees of Guilt
Part Eight -- by Becky Ratliff
See Disclaimer in Part One
West set the transport down carefully in the only bare spot within a kilometer of the LZ they had chosen, about eight klicks from the airstrip. A couple of pings over his headset informed him that Miller and Crae had the medical transport and the Lucky Lady in place. McQueen was in his usual place at the navigator's station, West released his harness and turned around. "Baker and Charlie Teams are in position, sir."
"Then we're good for go. Good luck."
Nathan saluted sharply, McQueen returned it. The younger man said, "Good luck to you too, sir."
Pennman grabbed his sawed-off and bush hat from the locker where he'd stowed them, and slung a bandolier holding his reloads and some other gear over his shoulder. Richie Pennman's specialty was cat-burglary, he'd disparaged this operation as a kick-it-in job that was beneath his dignity. Under usual circumstances, he never used a gun -- the only firearm he owned was a recently acquired sawed-off shotgun, the small-time trader's usual response to uninvited boarders.
McQueen seriously missed the intell they usually had from recon in planning something like this, but they ran into no opposition from chig patrols on their way in. They made good time to the target, but slowed down to a much more careful pace as they crossed the ridge overlooking the airstrip and worked their way down through the rocks and thickets of brush on the other side.
The Wild Cards' Hammerheads came roaring out of the afternoon sun and made a low strafing pass over the airfield. One by one the fighters and transports on the ground exploded in flames. The chig air raid siren wailed and the troops started running for their battle stations. The anti-aircraft gun lit up, Lucas stayed just ahead of the tracers and blew the gun to hell. Seconds later they disappeared over the opposite ridge. Pennman said, "That was fast!"
McQueen replied, "That was near stall velocity."
A moment later, the chig squadron came in from the east, Vansen engaged them right over the base as he had hoped. So far, so good. He and Pennman continued on to the bottom of the hill.
McQueen watched Vansen take out a chig fighter that was proving troublesome for Damphousse. The two of them came about for another pass on the airstrip, to take care of some transports they'd missed the first time. One of the damaged chig fighters on the runway unexpectedly got into the air about 100 meters and fired a burst at Vansen. Damphousse made easy work of him, but Shane yelled an angry curse as flames broke out in her port engine. There was no way to save her plane now. And she was too low to bail out! Her plane disappeared over the ridge again, he could tell she was fighting for control.
The problem immediately dawned on McQueen. Nearly all of Vansen's training and experience was with exo-atmospheric operations. She was in a whole world of trouble. He switched his radio to the 'Cards usual combat frequency. "Queen of Diamonds, this is Queen-6, get the stick back and climb."
Her reply was short and to the point, but not panicked. "I got a small problem with a fire here. The extinguisher isn't working."
"The slipstream will pull the flames away from your 'pit! Do it!"
There was no reply, she was too busy flying the crippled plane. McQueen counted off the seconds. That fire could spread to the fuel reserves any second. "Shane, what the hell are you waiting for, get out of there!"
"That's a roger, Queen-6." There was all manner of reassurance in her voice.
Then, the world froze in place. Her flaming plane came back into sight, then went into a dive. Halfway down, the portside fuel reserve ruptured and engulfed the wreck in flames -- and it crashed into the chigs' fuel dump. The resulting explosion was nothing short of spectacular.
A chaotic flood of images ran through his mind -- Shane laughing at Tun's -- Shane's eyes veiled with passion as they made love in his quarters -- and one thought went through his mind, oh God, if there is a God, take me instead.
Then, his radio crackled to life and he heard Vansen's voice. "I'm clear, I'm fine! Jack, you're honcho, I'll see you in a few!" In that instant, if the Salemites' God had held him to his bargain, he would have kept his end of it without a second's hesitation.
Hawkes' startled voice replied, "Roger that! Ace, where's her chute?"
"I see it, Jack. I'll cover her." Damphousse made sure none of the chig fighters went after her chute, but the remaining ones were catching too much hell from the rest of the 'Cards to do anything about it. It was Nita who got the last one.
Pennman asked, "Is she okay?"
McQueen remembered he didn't have a radio. "Yeah, she's fine. Let's do it." The chig facility was surrounded by a high electric fence, rather than get fancy he took it out with a grenade. They ran through the hole hell-for-leather and made directly for the cooling pump.
Most of the chigs had headed to battle stations at the other end of the complex. The attack, so far, had gone exactly as the chigs had expected it to -- take out the planes on the ground and then strafe other valuable targets. A lot of the enemy that they would have met had traveled that way to confront the threat they knew about. He and Pennman ran across a few sentries and foot patrols, but no more opposition than he had expected ... until they got to the cooling station itself. There must have been a whole platoon of chigs there, listening to the string of orders some officer was giving.
Pennman thumbed new shells into the magazine of his shotgun as they looked over the cooling station from the shelter of a big flatbed cargo truck. "Hot damn, it's a chig convention," he commented.
McQueen looked around for a way to get over there, then he looked at the cargo truck. It had an open cab, just some posts in the back to keep loose cargo from flying forward and hitting the driver. There were no wheels or tracks, just some skids for the vehicle to sit on while it was parked -- it was a hovercraft. He couldn't make head or tails of the controls. Hell, hot-wiring a human-built vehicle wasn't a skill he'd ever acquired -- military vehicles rarely had keys. "Hey, Richie, were you telling the truth about being able to hot-wire *anything*?"
"You mean this thing...? Let me see it." Pennman crawled across the passenger seat and looked at it. "I don't know if they built this mess or grew it ... but this has got to be the ignition right here ...." He yanked a wire and poked it into a soft mass of something under the dashboard panel. The truck's engine sputtered to life. "Yes, Colonel, I believe I was perfectly honest about that statement," he grinned.
McQueen replied, "Keep your head down and hang on!" Pennman crouched in the passenger seat and got his head *way* down. McQueen got into the driver's side and yanked his gloves off, stuffed them in his pocket. There was one hand-hole, it was just as slimy as he'd expected but the truck did what he wanted as soon as he had a good solid contact with the terminals inside. It shot forward, right over the chigs' heads and clipped the electric fence in a shower of sparks.
The chigs had done exactly what anyone would have done with a big truck coming at them -- they'd got the hell out of the way. By the time they figured out what was going on, McQueen had brought the truck to a stop. Using it for cover, they headed for the door. Pennman raised his shotgun. "Ready?"
"Go!" As soon as Pennman blew the door open, McQueen hosed the corridor inside with a burst from his M-590. Pennman stepped over a dead chig and fired through a glass window just inside, the chig inside fell forward across the machinery he'd been standing by.
Pennman asked, "What the hell is this stuff? Where are we supposed to put the charge?" He looked over his shoulder -- they didn't have time to argue about it.
McQueen looked around, and found the pump itself. He put the charge in place and set the detonator, allowing them sixty seconds to get clear. They headed back to the truck, to find the chigs pouring through the gate.
McQueen dived in the driver's seat. Pennman threw himself prone on the flatbed, holding on for dear life as the chigs opened fire. The truck lurched forward, then took off at full acceleration. It skidded across the gravel for about twenty-five or thirty feet, then got some altitude and crashed through the fence. McQueen knocked the front stoop off a building across the street learning how to steer the truck. Then he got the hang of it and they headed back for the perimeter as fast as they could go, and to hell with the risk of crashing the truck. Their lives depended on getting somewhere else in a big hurry.
The charge he'd set went off, all the windows blew out of the pump building. By the time they got to the fence, a piercing whistle went off in the power station.
They ditched the truck at the bottom of the hill and headed for the ridge. They'd got about halfway up when the power station went up. Pennman looked through his binoculars. "I can't tell if it knocked out the cannon or not!"
McQueen shaded his eyes against the afternoon sun. "There's a lot of damage -- wait a minute. The explosion must have damaged their fire control --" He ordered the 5-8 to get clear, planes scrambled out of the cannon's vicinity.
Deep within the cannon, a bottle of magnetic energy formed, containing a plasma field the temperature of a small sun. But the remaining generators, overloaded after the explosion, couldn't meet the strain and the magnetic bottle weakened, letting the hellfire within start to leak through. Within seconds, the bottom third of the plasma cannon glowed cherry-red. Chigs were running away from it as fast as they could go, the ones on the western edge were running right into the sights of the snipers on the hilltops. It was complete confusion down there, from that vantage point McQueen could see where the old expression about setting a fox among the hens had come from.
Everything flammable around the base of the cannon began to reach its combustion point. And then the magnetic bottle failed entirely, releasing its contents in a fireball that immediately vaporized everything it contacted. Anything within a couple hundred meters of the cannon's base met the same fate. Further out, buildings incinerated so quickly they seemed to disappear in a flash of light. A firestorm boiled out another thousand meters or so, igniting everything in its path. McQueen and Pennman dived for cover, expecting a pressure wave. There was one, but not as bad as they had expected at that distance ... one blistering hot blast of wind, like a breath out of hell that passed over them in only a moment's time. McQueen ordered the snipers to pull out at that, and watched the squadron head for black sky.
He put his radio on scramble mode and sent a ping to Vansen, it was immediately answered. "Queen of Diamonds, what's your situation?"
"Pretty good, Queen-6, but I can't make it back to the LZ in time. I'm too far away. You'd better get the transports out of here, I'll hole up and wait it out."
"Roger," he acknowledged after only a moment's hesitation. Delaying the transport's evacuation would endanger everyone on it, and Vansen as well.
The problems with getting the colonists all back on the transports in the time frame they had were just as bad as he had expected. They were cutting it close to the wire as it was ... but there was no need for him and West to both go back.
Nathan volunteered to stay with Shane, as a matter of course. They both knew there was no way McQueen was going to take him up on the offer. And they both knew that if situations had been reversed, and it had been Kylen out there, Nathan would have made the same call.
Where McQueen really needed to be right now was on the bridge of the _Sara_. He knew Roberta Carey, the _Saratoga's_ CAG, would cover both stations. He knew also that wouldn't be the same for Cooper, in command of the 5-8 for the first time. And, he found himself thinking about the CO's of the _Sara's_ other Marine squadrons, there wasn't a one of them who hadn't come to respect him at least on a professional level. Somehow while he hadn't been looking, he'd come to consider most of them friends as well. Somewhere in the last couple of months, the differences between them caused by accident of birth had ceased to matter.
It wasn't the same as the sense of family that he shared with Commodore Ross and the 58th. Those were bonds forged under fire, nothing could come close to that. All the same, these were people who respected him and counted on him to be there at the other end of a radio connection when they went into harm's way. It felt all wrong that he was trapped on-world when they needed him. By the time he located Shane, he realized that he'd made his decision, if he were offered the job of Honcho he was going to take it. That was what Shane had understood all along.
When he found her, for a long moment he just held her close, reassuring himself that she really was alive. "Shane, you scared the hell out of me! When I saw your plane go in--!"
Her arms tightened around him. "Oh, God, what you must have thought. I'm sorry, Ty, there just wasn't time to tell you what I was planning. I just wanted to get out of there--!"
"Damn straight about that!" Her breath hissed between her teeth as he held her a little too tightly. Bad luck had landed her in rough territory and she had reinjured her shoulder. He let go ... remembered he wasn't supposed to be holding her at all ... and took a reluctant step away. "Why didn't you tell me you were hurt?"
She replied with the hard-headed practicality that was one of the things he most admired about her, "Same reason I didn't tell you not to come after me. What difference would it make? I knew you'd find me if you could. Otherwise, I didn't want you worrying."
She'd made herself a good place to hide out, in the middle of a heavy thicket of bushes, with some brush thrown on top of her camo tarp it blended right into the undergrowth. McQueen had to admit he could have walked right by it and never known it was there. Her injury didn't seem to be that serious, a bad bruise that would be fine in a couple of days. If you got a plane shot out from under you and walked away with nothing worse than that, you counted yourself lucky.
The Battle of New Jerusalem was later to be considered by historians to be one of the major engagements of the war. All Cooper knew about it at the time was that he had been unexpectedly singled out as honcho of the 5-8 during one of the hardest-fought battles of the war. They barely had time to land on the _Sara's_ flight deck and report the existence of the plasma cannon on New Jerusalem, before the Earth fleet engaged the chigs.
The new kids had fought a few skirmishes with chig patrols, but they always considered the Battle of New Jerusalem to be their baptism of fire. By the time the fighting ended, it wasn't Hawkes and Damphousse on one side of a line, and the three rookies on the other. They were all Wild Cards. And half their squadron was still stuck on New Jerusalem.
McQueen and Vansen had been unable to do anything except listen to the battle on the other side of the ridge and to radio skipchatter as they tried to piece together what was going on. Right before dusk, they were found by an S.A.R. team from the Princess Bea. They found out the high command had declared air superiority over the planet forty-five minutes ago, and that all the known chig installations had been overrun. They finally caught up with West and Yamauchi a little before midnight.
West reported, "I think the Wolfe Pack made it out okay. They raised the Lucky Lady while there was still enough confusion to cover their escape."
"Have you been in contact with the Sara?"
"Yes, sir. The Commodore is sending supplies and guards down for the colony, we'll be able to pull out as soon as they get here." That wasn't more than an hour later.
Elder Elisha and his family came to say goodbye just as they were preparing to leave. With everything the colony had lost, most of them were alive, and with supplies and help from the Sara they would be able to rebuild. "We can't thank you enough."
"We were just doing our job," McQueen replied.
"That's all the more reason."
Lissie smiled, "I hope you'll come back after the war, when everything's settled. I won't say everything's changed here or anywhere else, but you'll always have a place at our table."
"Thank you," he said simply.
Elisha said, "Godspeed, Colonel."
"Good luck." They shook hands, then Elisha ushered his family down the ramp.
Their last sight of New Jerusalem was Eldress Hepzibah and a crowd of children standing on the heights overlooking the ocean, waving lanterns to see them off. Nathan and Mark dipped the transports' wings in salute, then the engines flared as they made the long climb out of the gravity well into familiar open space.
The next morning, things had settled out enough that Ross, McQueen and Carey had a chance to get a cup of coffee. Ross said, "As for Danny, I guess he got lucky. What with all the priority radio traffic, the report that he was here didn't go out until about an hour ago. And if he expects any more favors than that out of me, he's got another think coming."
McQueen replied, "Well, Danny and I are even as far as I'm concerned. Vansen said he saved her life down there. I still don't care if I ever see him again, though."
Carey asked, "What about those religious separatists down there? That was an unsanctioned colony, they could be in a lot of trouble."
Ross said, "I pulled a few strings. It was the least we could do. Their colony is eventually going to be legally recognized, although it might take a little while to work it through the bureaucracy. In the meanwhile, I've got it from higher up that any attempts to enforce the colonization regs will get pigeonholed. We had plenty of volunteers to go down there and help them rebuild their town. They'll be all right."
McQueen nodded. All the Salemites had ever wanted was the opportunity to live according to their beliefs, and now they would have that right. They had paid a high enough price for it.
After a short break, he went down to the office to get caught up on the mountain of paperwork that had accumulated in his absence.
Marcy was at her desk, staring thoughtfully at the screen as she tried to compose an e-mail. Every little while, she backspaced and started over. Finally, she turned to him and asked, "Colonel, what do you say to someone who's in the hospital?"
"What do you mean?" He looked over that way, and saw the address on the e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. St. Anthony's was a cancer hospital, he remembered.
"General Jeffords is in the hospital. She's doing a little better, they think she can go home in a few days. But she can't go back on duty ... not yet anyway. She needs to take a few weeks of treatments that make her sick. They say when that's over she should feel better for a few months." Marcy was glad that the General had released her from her promise to keep the illness a secret, now that everyone knew.
McQueen said, "Well ... there isn't a lot to do on medical leave, Marcy. The best thing you can probably do is to keep her up on the news. Anything that isn't classified."
"Colonel Penderson said not to upset her," she said doubtfully.
"When I was laid up at Bethesda, the mail I got from the people back here on the Sara helped a lot. Even when it wasn't the best news, it was a connection to where I belonged. A hospital is its own little world, mail and calls from outside keep you in the real world. That's what the General needs you to do, Marcy, to keep reminding her that she still has a real world to come home to."
Marcy looked at him, processing a new concept in whatever mysterious way she did that. She smiled as she made sense of it. "I think I know what to say now, sir." She turned back to the screen and started to type.
McQueen watched for a moment longer before he went on into the office. In a little while, Shane came in with some work of her own to do. But she paused to lay his music player and a few albums on his desk. "I thought it might pass the time," she smiled.
Her hand barely brushed his -- it could have been an accident, but he knew better -- then she turned to her own duties. After a moment, he chose an album, and they listened, working in a quiet, comfortable familiarity. Wherever the path led, they walked it together, and that was enough.
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