The Darkest Night

See disclaimer in Part One

Part Two -- by Becky Ratliff

As Vansen had expected, she weakened quickly under the AI's renewed attentions. If anything the pain was worse, but somehow today wasn't as difficult to endure as yesterday had been. Because fear had no more claim on her. Whenever the AI's threatened her with something new, she had the memory of the night before to get her through it, one moment at a time. Unconsciousness released her with greater frequency and longer duration, for all the AI's could do to keep her awake.

At some point they started giving her water, and then she realized she really was dying. They had been using thirst as yet another form of torture, but now her condition had become so fragile they were trying--and failing--to get her stabilized. They just didn't know enough about humans, she guessed. She could have told them what to do. But at best it could have bought her a few hours, and for the benefit of the next poor bastard who ended up in this place, she decided not to educate the damn AI's. Instead, she just laid her head back against the table and closed her eyes.

She had always thought of death as a frightening image, like the Grim Reaper on his skeletal white horse. But there was no need for fear in this place. The constant pain receded, taking the rest of the world with it, until nothing remained but a far-away light in the distance. Soon she would go into that light, and she had no more terror of the journey. In the meanwhile, she had never known such a peaceful feeling.

That didn't last long. She heard some kind of a loud noise, at the edge of her awareness. People were yelling and she could hear running footsteps. Shooting nearby woke her up enough to wonder what was going on, she got her good eye open in time to see the chig who had been guarding the door fall through into the room, dead before he hit the floor.

An AI came at her with a knife and she knew this was it. But someone came barging through the door with absolute disregard for whatever might be inside and fired a full burst right over her, the AI flew back against the wall and landed in a sparking heap. The Marine in the doorway was Damphousse.

She screamed, "Shane! I found Shane! Nathan, I need the medikit!" She yanked her K-bar out of its sheath, its keen edge sliced through the restraints holding her wrists to the table. "Oh, God, Shane!"

"'Phousse, where's the Colonel?"

"He's here too?"

"Yeah, they've got him in here somewhere. You've got to find him!"

West came in with his gun in one hand and a medikit in the other. Damphousse grabbed his arm. "Shane says the Colonel's in here somewhere too!"

West shoved the medikit at her. "Take care of her, we'll find him!" He ran out of the room. Damphousse got her feet up and jammed a hypo against her arm, they heard two more thunderous booms and dust sifted down from the ceiling. Damphousse sheltered Vansen with her own body, unwilling to let her horrific burns get full of grit. A squad of people ran by, Damphousse yelled at them that she needed someone to get Vansen out of there. Presently a couple of corpsmen appeared with a stretcher. They tucked a blanket around her and carried her up a long sloping tunnel and across a field to the transport, the cold air cut her injured face to the quick. There was a medic on the transport, an older woman with gray hair and a kind expression. She started hooking Vansen up to the diagnostics almost before the corpsmen had a chance to fasten the stretcher to the holdfasts.

Vansen couldn't keep track of how fast time was passing, she was in and out so much. But every time she woke up she looked over at the stretcher bay on the other side of the narrow gangway, and it was still empty. In the distance she could still hear sporadic gunfire and an occasional explosion.

Booted feet hit the ramp, she almost fainted with relief when she saw West and Hawkes bring McQueen in on another stretcher. The medic started working on him. Shane remembered the misery Hawkes had gone through because some damn medic had given him the wrong painkiller. She reached across the gangway to poke the medic. "Hey! He's an in vitro, you watch what drugs you give him!"

The medic gently turned his head to find the neck-navel and verify Vansen's statement. "It doesn't matter out here, Cap, everything in the field kit is certified safe for everybody -- unless you're allergic? Know of anything?"

"No, neither of us, that I know of. I don't remember seeing anything other than a little square green sticker on the Colonel's ID tags, and Hawkes has one too, so that identifies them as in vitroes, right?"

"Right. Allergy stickers are bright yellow, with the specific allergy printed in black." The medic carried on the conversation without looking up from her work, starting an intravenous drip. Most of her attention was on that, she obviously didn't want to try more than once to get the IV started.

"No, I don't remember seeing anything like that. How is he?"

"Passed out cold as a mackerel, which is God's own blessing and I hope he stays that way until the pain killers have a chance to start working. But other than that, he's in better shape than you are. You were real shocky when they brought you aboard. That's why I want you to keep talking to me, okay? What are your names?"

"I'm Captain Shane Vansen, and he's Colonel TC McQueen. We're with the 58th."

"I knew you were with the Wild Cards. The rest of your outfit's been raising hell from one end of the zone to the other for the last twelve hours."

"How did they find us?"

"I don't know, the scuttlebutt is that Commodore Ross caught a spy aboard the Saratoga. That's your ship, isn't it?"

"That's right. What units are these?"

"488th Seabees. They're going to be building an airstrip here on Marged. I'm with the 7740th MASH unit, we're setting up shop here too. When your kids found out about this place they knew they'd need a few more hands to clean it up, and we were the closest, so here we are. Seabees don't get a lot of chance at any real action, it sounds like they got pretty enthusiastic with the demolitions packs."


"Don't worry, Captain, when the 488th gets done with it, there won't be anything left of that place but a smoking hole in the ground. You'll never see it again."

Vansen grinned tiredly. "I really like the sound of that."

"McQueen, huh? So he's Queen Six? The guy who took out Chiggy von Richtoven?" The medic sounded really respectful.

"That's right," Vansen said. "Oh, by the way, I didn't see your ID."

"I'm Lieutenant Colonel Stefana Michaels."

"Ma'am," Vansen acknowledged -- she couldn't salute with her hand tied up with her IV line.

"For the time being, the rank you've got to worry about is Doctor, kiddo. Generals take orders from me until I release them from medbay."

"Yes, ma'am, Doctor Michaels, ma'am!" Shane snapped out. Only her frog voice kept the effect from being parade-ground perfect. Michaels' answer was a low pitched chuckle in a voice as rich as honey. "As long as we understand each other." She glanced at the readouts from McQueen's diagnostics. "You're both pretty stable right now. I think you're out of the woods. I want to get you back to the 7740th for some scans to make sure before we do anything else, but I think we'll be able to get you on your way back to the Saratoga right after that. Got any info on this incision?"

"The AI's did it, that's all I know."

Michaels looked at his readouts, tapping the blood pressure monitor thoughtfully and pursing her lips for a few seconds. Then she decided, "He's not bleeding. I'm not going to put him through a field scan, that'd wake him up for sure. We'll find out what exactly they did back at the unit." She sounded mad as hell.

"Doctor, is my eye okay? Have I got anything wrong with me that's going to ground me or anything?"

"Not if you make it by the shrinks. Your eye's okay, your eyelid is just swelled up around it. That's an effect of those chemical burns. I wouldn't worry too much about those, in a few weeks the scars won't show at all. Just follow the directions about the gelskins so everything heals up without scarring."

West came in. "Feel like looking out the port, Shane? The Seabees thought you might like to see this."

"Yeah, give me a hand."

He opened the hatch and helped her raise her head, very gently, as if she were made of glass. West checked his chronometer. "Any second now."

There was a spectacular KABOOM and the soil and rock over the chig's hole in the ground fell in with a loud rumble. A great plume of smoke billowed up into the icy Marged sky. The Seabees roared a loud cheer then their commander got them back on the transport.

West lowered her back to the stretcher and locked the hatch back down, it was letting cold air in. "You okay, Shane?"

"Yeah, Nathan, I'm okay. Really."

"Great. I'm going to let the others know, they're pretty worried about you. Better get some rest while you can, there's some intelligence officer back at the MASH unit who wants to talk to you as soon as we land."

Michaels said, "We'll see about that when we land, Junior. These two people have got about a week of sleep coming, for starters."

Vansen said, "We really do need to talk to the intelligence officer, Doctor, even if you only let him in for a little while. It's really important. And we both have to talk to him."

Michaels looked at her, then reconsidered. "Yeah, I guess it must have been something pretty damn-all important at that, to go through this over it. Okay, don't worry, I'll let him visit as soon as possible."

"Can I go to sleep now?"

Michaels examined her readouts. "Yeah, get some rest. We'll be en route about an hour if we ever raise ship. Go on, Junior, get outta here."

"Yes, ma'am." Nathan ducked through the hatch.

Vansen shut her eyes and let relief wash over her like waves at the beach. They were out, they were alive. Right now that was all she could muster the energy to care about. Sleep blotted out everything.

The next thing she new, she was being moved from the stretcher to a hospital bed at the MASH unit. A nurse rearranged her IV line and put a clean, fresh gown on her. Vansen thanked her sleepily.

"The 58th found your gear, ma'am, here's your ID."

"Thanks." Vansen put it around her neck, it was squeaky clean. Someone -- Damphousse, probably -- had apparently disinfected it and gone over it for anything that shouldn't be there.

The nurse pulled the curtain back. McQueen was in the next bed, he was awake and sitting up. He looked a hell of a lot better. "Vansen, are you okay?"

"Yeah, you?"

He nodded. "I am now."

"I don't believe it! I don't believe we got out of there! God, this is unreal! Hey, some Seabees helped rescue us, they blew that chig base all to hell. I saw it, it is GONE."

He grinned, as gratified with that as she had been.

The doctor came in and checked them out, made some notes in their charts. "Lieutenant Belvedere from intelligence is outside, if you feel up to seeing him now."

McQueen said, "Show him in, we've got a report to make."

Belvedere was a tall man with close-cropped hair and an eye patch. Vansen was scared of him as soon as she got a look at the expression in his remaining eye. She had learned to spot the type, this man was a stone cold killer. He wore the black beret of a Special Forces operative.

His expression turned into genuine respect as soon as he got a look at them, he came to attention and snapped McQueen a sharp salute. "Lt. Belvedere reporting, sir!"

"As you were, Lieutenant. Is this room secure to report?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Recognition code Charlie Alpha Delta One Niner."

"One Niner Radar X-ray King," Belvedere replied. "Did you get the formula before the research station was overrun?"

"That's right. I'll be glad to have you take it off our hands."

"You and the captain have more than done your share, sir."

To his credit, Belvedere didn't stay any longer than was necessary to debrief them. Vansen was indescribably glad to have the mission completed. She and McQueen once again reassured each other that they were all right, then they got some more much-needed rest.

Dr. Michaels apparently had given orders that they weren't to be disturbed, they didn't wake up until a transport showed up to take them back to the Saratoga.

The next few days were more boring than anything else. They had private quarters in sickbay and got first-class treatment all the way, which meant there was a steady stream of people coming through keeping them company most every waking minute, either doctors or shrinks or a parade of visitors. Commodore Ross stopped in to see them every day, Vansen knew he and McQueen were close friends but he made time to call on her as well. The other pilots of the 58th came in every chance they got, Wang especially because they didn't have to tell him anything about it. Other people stopped in regularly as well. Even when they were ready for lights out, the medical personnel made it quite clear there was someone at their call at all times. Wang advised them to enjoy it while it lasted, because they weren't going to be spoiled rotten forever.

Vansen and McQueen saw each other all the time, they each had plenty of evidence that the other was coming along just fine. Vansen went in for reconstructive surgery twice, she was very pleased with the results. She had told the plastic surgeon to make the scars go away, she didn't care how. He had done the trick by cloning skin and muscle from uninjured areas of her body, the results were nearly invisible. McQueen's scans showed that the worst effects he had taken were due to blood loss, there were no permanent effects from the godawful wounds the AI's had inflicted on him. At least not ones anyone could see, and Vansen suspected he was at least as good as she was at telling the shrinks what they wanted to hear in order to get recertified for duty as quickly as possible.

They were allowed to move back into their quarters the fourth day, which was excellent medicine. They wouldn't be allowed to return to duty for a couple days yet, although technically Vansen wasn't grounded any more.

Even their status as heroes of the day couldn't get Vansen another call home so soon after the last one, but she did manage to get e-mail to both of her sisters moved to the top of the queue. She was afraid the news would get hold of it and scare the hell out of them before she got a chance to let them know she was okay.

After that, she tried to sneak in some paperwork so it wouldn't pile up too high, but West caught her at it and threatened to report her to the doctor if she didn't go do something recreational. Absolutely convinced he was acting in her best interests, he was unmoved by her attempt to pull rank and by her plaintive protests of boredom as well. Ordinarily her idea of recreation involved going down to the gym, but the doctor had advised against doing that until she got all her gelskins off--another three days. She was allowed to walk, though not run, and she had long since mapped out a route around the ship that allowed her to get in a five mile workout.

She found out that she wasn't up to that yet, and gave it up near the docking bay. She wandered in and crossed to her Hammerhead, pulled the maintenance log and started checking her over. As usual, the maintenance was perfect, there wasn't a thing to do. That was when a mechanic came up and delivered the message that Commodore Ross wanted to see her.

McQueen was there as well. Vansen asked, "What's all this about?"

"I don't know, but I saw your doctor coming out of his office."

Vansen scowled. "That probably isn't good."

Ross didn't keep them waiting long. Once his office door closed, he dispensed with formality. "Vansen, according to your doctor he's done all he can do for you here. He wants to send you to a hospital ship to finish up your treatment. It looks to me like they did a great job already, but he says they can make the scars completely disappear there and the work will be easiest if you go now."

"Yes, sir."

"You'll rendezvous with the Nightingale. The two of you can do me a favor while you're at it. I just got a new launch assigned, I'd like to shake her down but I haven't got time. It'll get you out of Dodge for a few days, anyhow."

McQueen said, "That's the best offer I've had all week. I've just about had it with sick list."

Vansen complained, "I wasn't even allowed to catch up on paperwork, sir!"

Ross grinned and promised, "Things will be getting back to normal when you get back."

Vansen snapped to attention as they stood up, McQueen and Ross exchanged salutes that were several degrees less formal. As they left, Ross said, "Good trip, Ty."

They went by their quarters to get their gear, Shane explained to the rest of the unit where they were going. "Commodore Ross' orders. I've got to go to the hospital ship for more plastic surgery. They say you won't be able to tell at all when they get done with me."

Five minutes later, as she stowed her gear aboard the fanciest launch she'd ever seen in her life, she realized something. That explanation satisfied everyone's curiosity. Not even Hawkes had made a smartass remark about the two of them being alone together on the launch two days in and two days out.

She blushed red as a beet. Vansen would have bet her life McQueen hadn't told him. But all the same, Ross knew. Well, it stood to reason. Officers had some kind of built-in LIDAR where the people in their command were concerned, she should know, she was developing the same thing about the 58th. She had suspected that Damphousse and Wang were attracted to each other before they had admitted it to themselves--not until after `Phousse's boyfriend had sent her a Dear Jane letter. They didn't have chain of command as a consideration. And McQueen and Ross had been close friends for a lot of years. Of course Ross knew. And he wouldn't say a word about it unless they made it an issue.

The business of pre-flighting the launch took up all their attention, they didn't lose sight of the fact that it was a new craft and no one had yet had the chance to find out all its little quirks and bad habits. No one with brains ever skimped on pre-flight, especially with something they'd never flown before. Then they got in the low-priority launch queue and waited for clearance to take off. Vansen was thankful for the chance to get over her embarrassment doing routine things. But it didn't take a genius to figure out Ross had thrown them together to sort things out and figure out where they stood with each other now.

End Part Two

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