I wasn't sure whether to rate this R or NC-17. It isn't explicit, but it does deal with mature themes. The ratings I've seen on the net seem to be guided by the rating system used for movies, and I don't believe that there is anything in this story that wouldn't be found in an R-rated movie. However, if you object strenuously to sex, violence and foul language, be advised that these elements are present in this story and you may be more comfortable not reading it.
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.
The character of Jim Avery and all other characters not belonging to Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, are my creations and property. Permission is hereby granted to use them in fan fiction, providing that the author acknowledge my rights to them.
copyright Becky Ratliff, May 1996
THE DARKEST NIGHT
by Becky Ratliff
Vansen's first awareness was of a sharp pain in the back of her head. She opened her eyes and wished she had waited a while to do that. She focused on the geometric veined patterns of the wall of a chig installation.
Gingerly, she felt the back of her head, found a knot and a cut, which had matted her hair with blood and then closed over. She entertained a brief foreboding of a fractured skull, but then decided since there was nothing she could do about it, she had might as well worry about that later.
A low-pitched groan was Vansen's first indication that she was not alone in the room. She sat up and looked around, winced and grabbed at her wound, then staggered across to the room's other occupant. "Colonel McQueen!"
His eyes opened when she felt for a pulse, but she had reassured herself it was strong and steady before they lit with recognition. "Vansen! What happened?"
Answering that question required memory, which was not immediately forthcoming. She fished for data. "We were on Marged. I remember--there was something wrong at the transport. I can't remember--"
McQueen forced himself to a sitting position, looked confused for a moment as he fought the same disorientation, and then dredged up some information. "They caught us in a trank-web. There were a couple of AI's laying for us at the transport."
"I took a crack on the head, everything's all mixed up." But as she thought about what she recalled and what McQueen had just said, the veil started to lift and it all came back. For all the good that did.
They'd been sent to Marged on a top secret assignment to retrieve a formula from a scientific research station there. The researcher had taught each of them half of the formula--a compound highly poisonous to the chigs, one that would not be filtered out by their rebreathers. But then things had gone straight to hell. The station had been overrun by a squad of AI's, the scientists all killed and the place set afire. McQueen and Vansen had fought their way out and escaped back to their ship. But, as McQueen had said, to no avail--the AI's had been waiting for them there. With a trank-web.
The same conclusion occurred to both of them. The AI's knew, someone had sold them out. So here they were, God knew where, in the hands of the enemy, far from the Saratoga and any hope of rescue.
Vansen felt a moment of abject despair. The chigs and their AI allies would sooner or later extract from them the formula and kill them. Then their scientists would go to work developing an antidote. It wasn't the first time she had been a POW. That time, Paul Wang had taken the worst of it. She and Damphousse had outsmarted the enemy by turning their mind games against them, got their hands on a gun and managed to bust everyone else out. She didn't think they'd be satisfied with playing mind games this time. She could see as plain as day the look in Wang's eyes when he woke up from one of his nightmares.
"Colonel. I can't do this again."
McQueen answered immediately. "Vansen. Look at me. Neither can I. But we'll just have to do it anyway, otherwise we'd might as well take ourselves out right now and save ourselves the misery. Or-- we try to hold out long enough to be reported missing so someone can come rescue us. It's a hell of a long shot but it's the only one we've got right now. Your call. Which is it going to be?"
Vansen's mouth was too dry to swallow. She made herself look her commanding officer, her mentor, in the eyes. He'd been a POW once, too, she remembered, in the AI wars. Even so, on his own, he wouldn't have even considered suicide an option. If he had the guts to keep fighting with the only weapons at hand, so by God would she. "Fight."
"Okay, let's recon this place and see if they did leave us a way out. You go that way." McQueen got to his feet, and Vansen pushed herself back up. They began to search the room for an escape route. Except for the doorway, blocked by a shock screen, the room was bare.
Vansen lay alone in the cell trying not to open the eye that wasn't swollen shut. The Elroy AI had done a rough job of patching the worst of her burns with gelskins, enough to keep her alive. Raw nerve endings screamed every time she moved, so she tried not to move at all. She was scared sick for McQueen, if he wasn't in here then they were either still working on him or else he was dead. But there was nothing she could do either way. Nothing except wait and gather what strength she could from the rest.
There was a noise, she opened her good eye in spite of herself. The shock screen over the door was turned off briefly and a couple of AI's pushed McQueen inside. Before Vansen could gather her strength to attempt something rash, they tossed a tube of burn gel into the cell behind him and turned the screen back on. McQueen managed to stay on his feet until they were gone, then sank to the floor beside her.
He looked as bad as she felt, his body a patchwork of burns and cuts and bruises and scraps of gelskins. Vansen gasped as she realized one long thin patch of gelskin across his abdomen covered a row of surgical staples. "Oh, my God--!"
He looked just as shocked at the sight of her. He reached out to brush her hair away from the side of her face just as she instinctively touched the staples. Warding each other off, they ended up holding hands. Under a gelskin, she could see the skin had been carefully removed from the back of his hand, exposing muscle and bone and the web of blood vessels. Vansen was wracked by a violent shudder. The AI's would have enjoyed the artistic contrast between that delicate dissection and the rough gash in his belly. What they must have done to him while that wound gaped open she didn't want to imagine.
"I thought you were dead," he said hoarsely. "When you stopped yelling I thought they'd killed you."
"Lost my voice," she explained, and still all she could get out was a croaking sound just above a whisper. "I didn't stop screaming, I just couldn't get any noise to come out." She paused. "I won't make it through another session like that, sir."
McQueen wanted to deny that, Vansen could see it in his eyes. But one thing he'd never done was lied to them, and said everything would be okay when it obviously wouldn't. Even if he was trying to convince both of them. "I probably won't either," he admitted after a time. "I know I won't if they open me back up again. I went into shock the last time and there was blood from one end of the room to the other. I'll bet the chigs were just overjoyed about that."
Vansen laughed a little in spite of herself, the chigs called humans "red stinks" because they abhorred the smell of human blood. "Kicks Butts made a big deal out of saying goodbye at a time like this. About not leaving unfinished business. But goodbye isn't what I want to say, and I can't think of a single regret that involves you--other than that I wish to God you were back on the Saratoga. Or any other freakin' place but here."
McQueen's hand tightened briefly on hers; if the gesture hurt him she could see no sign of it. "You would've made a hell of an officer, Vansen. It's a damn shame you didn't get to live out a career. To get married and have some kids."
"Me, a mother? Jesus Christ!" She shook her head, laughing--a mistake, that, it started the burns on her face hurting. McQueen retrieved the tube of burn gel and put some on her cheek, she felt him stiffen as he realized the burns made a pattern. "Shane--"
"'S okay. Lord, that feels good!" Belatedly, Vansen realized that was the first time she'd heard McQueen call her by her first name.
McQueen's back was burned, Vansen treated that, and once the gel set up, he was able to lie back a lot more comfortably. She watched him get settled and rested herself. She wondered what the AI's were up to, giving them this time together. Maybe they figured if personal suffering wasn't going to crack either one of them, then seeing the shape the other was in just might. They were too damn professional for that, their duty was worth their lives individually or collectively. But the enemy's miscalculation gave them some time to regroup. Maybe even time for someone from the Saratoga to get his ass in gear, though Vansen could not bring herself to hold out much hope of that.
Vansen was cold, had been cold ever since she had first woke up in this godforsaken place. It sure didn't help that the AI's had taken their clothes and they were lying on the cold concrete floor. She found herself shivering and wrapped her arms around herself, trying to keep warm. If this didn't let up she was going to have to get up and move around, and that was absolutely the last thing in the world she wanted to do right now!
McQueen moved over to make some room for her to lie up against him, gratefully she made herself at home. She wouldn't have asked. They had silently set some ground rules when McQueen had first taken command of the unit. Standard operating procedure when chain of command affected two people whose natural inclinations would otherwise have caused them to consider each other a possible romantic attraction. Vansen knew she was nobody's mud fence--at least, not before the AI's had taken acid to her face--and she sure wouldn't have had any trouble looking at McQueen for an extended period of time. She flatly didn't give a damn that he was an in vitro, so that didn't create any distance. A squadron commander and the executive officer usually called each other by first names in private, that kind of thing. She and McQueen had arrived at something one step more formal than that, a comfortable routine in which they knew exactly where they stood. Over the months they had come to trust each other implicitly -- within the well-understood limits of their duty to the Corps, there wasn't a thing they wouldn't have done or sacrificed for one another.
But it felt good to lie there side by side, sharing the warmth of each other's touch both physically and emotionally. Vansen drank it in, come tomorrow there would be nothing left but more pain and terror and ultimately oblivion. She wondered what if anything waited beyond that. And if they would know each other when they got there. She thought about her parents, who had loved one another body and heart and soul, who had died together defending their children. As a child she had comforted herself with the belief that they had gone to heaven together. Now, she wasn't sure if there was a heaven, or if it admitted Marines if there was. Whatever tomorrow might bring, however, there was now.
McQueen had to move his arm, Vansen drew back a little to let him get settled then lay back carefully. She laughed softly at herself, at life, at death. "God, look at us--this must be what a couple of hundred and ten year old people in a nursing home feel like!"
"Now there's something I never planned on."
"Finding out what it's like to get that old! I guess life plays you for a damn fool."
She laughed and something occurred to her. "I never thought at a time like this I'd be laughing and cracking jokes. Especially after today--"
"You're a hell of a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for, Captain Shane Vansen."
"Yeah? Well, if I am it's because you taught me every freakin' thing I know," she said, a wide grin crossing her face even if it did make the burns hurt. "It wasn't my strength to begin with--it was yours. I didn't join the Corps to be brave, I've never considered myself a brave person. I wanted to fly. I wanted to fly Hammerheads. And I wanted to be the best there was."
"So? You _are_. Not many people get their heart's desire."
"I know that, sir. I know it every time I get in that cockpit and feel the thrusters kick in. But Colonel--thanks to what you taught me, I became so much more. I got to look in the mirror and see a Marine Captain looking back at me. I spent some time planning on getting a command of my own one of these days. And I would have, too. I've had a life that's given me damn few regrets, and that was because of you. I just wanted to make sure you knew that."
She could see that little speech meant a lot to him. Well, Mom Vansen had managed to teach her oldest daughter a few things in the short time they'd had together, after all. She thought of something else. If they did run into each other in the great beyond, she'd out-rank her mother by a pay grade.
Who was she kidding. If there were Marines in heaven, her mother was probably a general by now.
McQueen said, "I figured when I first saw you that you were the one who'd stay in for life. You and Hawkes, but I don't think he has the command ambitions that you do."
"Hawkes just needs to get the bad-boy attitude out of his system," She reflexively defended her friend. "He'll be okay."
"This is going to be rough on all of them," McQueen commented.
Vansen scowled. "It's a freakin' war. People get killed. They know that."
"Not like this."
"No. Not like this. But they'll manage. They'll kill a bunch of chigs for us the first chance they get, and then they'll get on with it. The war won't give them a chance to do anything else," Vansen replied, with the hard-headed practicality that nature has demanded of females ever since Lucy and her sisters roamed the African plains. You buried parents, friends, lovers, babies. And life went on whether you liked it or not. No matter how much your losses hurt, all you could do was cry and go on. Vansen knew the rest of the Wild Cards would do that. After a while, she and McQueen would be people they remembered with a toast and a moment of silence a few times a year. And that was good, she didn't want to think about her friends grieving over her.
McQueen nodded and allowed as how she was probably right. "If they find out. I hope we don't get listed as MIA's. That's the hardest thing."
"Yeah," Vansen agreed. "I hope my family doesn't have to go through that."
"You've got--what--two sisters?"
"And my sister's husband and her new baby," she said. Thinking about her little niece made her feel better.
The hall lights dimmed as the chig's night-cycle began. Vansen tried to remember from the night before how long after that it was before Elroy and his friends would come for them. Without her watch it was hard to keep track of time in here. If she could have one wish--other than getting the hell out of here--it would be to make the time go slower. She started shaking in spite of herself, blamed it on the cold.
McQueen held her tightly. None of the common-sense reasons mattered here and now. All that mattered was surviving as long as they could, hoping against hope that the miracle would happen. Carefully, not wanting to cause him any more pain, she eased her arms around him and they held each other for a long time in a silence unbroken by attempts at conversation. After a while, they started moving together, gently, carefully, yet with insistent and growing passion.
McQueen drew a deep breath. "Shane, do you really want to go any further?"
"Yes," she answered quietly. "Tomorrow they are going to come for us and the odds are we'll never see one another again. We need something we can take with us, something that will be with us for the rest of our lives no matter how long or short that is. Take me--give yourself to me in return--and there'll be nothing we can't do tomorrow."
He answered her with a kiss, and in the embrace of the darkest night they had ever known, they reached out to each other. Bittersweet, they knew it was the last time they would ever share this with anyone. Vansen felt tears welling up through her lashes, as she grieved the things that would never be. She returned the kiss, and as quickly as it had come over her, the sorrow faded away. One night could be an eternity. Tonight was forever.
It took a while to find a position that accommodated both of their injuries. But then they made love with more tenderness than Vansen had ever experienced--or given to anyone. Nothing had ever been more right. There was no hurry, no yesterday, no tomorrow, only now, only each other. And finally, unexpectedly, they shared a sweet, tender fulfillment. One bright star in that darkest night.
After that came a few blessed hours of exhausted sleep. Vansen had tried to think of something defiant to say when the guards came to get them the next morning, it all sounded cliched. Nothing she could have rehearsed, though, would have been as effective as the dumbfounded guards' discovery that the terrified, compliant victims they had expected to find were instead just waking up from what had obviously been a sound and peaceful sleep. She looked at McQueen, there was so much she wanted to say and time for none of it. She unlocked what felt like the last reserve of courage she possessed and smiled and raised her hand in a defiant thumbs-up, she wanted him to remember her that way. He returned both gestures and then it was time, the guards took them opposite directions so she didn't have to watch them leading him off.
End Part One
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