See disclaimer in Part One
They finally got their launch clearance, and a few minutes later they were underway. McQueen checked out the ECM. They were headed away from the front lines but that was no guarantee they wouldn't run into a chig patrol. In a little craft like this one, your tactics were pretty simple. There were cannons fore and aft, but you didn't want to hang around long enough to use them. You wanted to make good use of the launch's superior velocity and outrun trouble. If the ECM was working right, you could get out of a hot spot before the enemy knew you were there. Vansen remembered her father talking about blockade runners using craft like this to supply the black market during the AI war, and this generation of launch was still the vehicle of choice for getting from one place to another quietly.
In the war zone, there were four kinds of traffic -- large convoys consisting of the supercarriers and their smaller attendant craft, supply convoys which were heavily armed and well defended by patrol craft and fighter squadrons, free-roaming squadrons of fighters out looking for enemy convoys or fighters, and small, stealthy craft like this one whose objective was to avoid the enemy's version of all of the above. Behind the lines were command craft, and convoys belonging to the multinationals. It wasn't unheard of for rival multinational forces to settle things with gunfire, and some of the factory ships were built on the same hulls as supercarriers. Vansen had seen a few corporate convoys. She wouldn't have been surprised if those so-called factory ships held squadrons of their own in among the ore barges and grain haulers. That was when she had started to understand the political situation between the civil government and the corporate sector. And why the multinats were able to have so much influence over the way the war was fought. They were de facto governments unto themselves, complete with paramilitary forces of their own.
Sometimes Vansen had the unpleasant premonition that the next war would be a civil one, when the multinationals went public and tried to add to the power they already held in secrecy. She hoped to God she was wrong about that. Fighting aliens whose obvious goal was genocide of the human race was one thing. Fighting the AI's whose long list of atrocities began for her with the murder of her parents was one thing. Fighting fellow humans was something else again.
There hadn't been a real war of human against human in decades. There were sometimes small localized squabbles when passions ran too high over religion or something, but they were usually quickly settled and non-combatants were left strictly alone. Anything that got out of hand would bring about a UN police action. Local warlords knew going out of bounds would get them arrested. It wasn't the dark ages of the late 19th and 20th centuries, when some strongman could kill millions of people because they were the wrong color or held different political views.
At least, that was the way Vansen had always seen her world. If West's suspicions were correct, the multinationals were responsible for bringing the war down on them. If they had known about the chigs, and Vansen had seen enough circumstantial evidence to accept the possibility that they had, they had sent in the Vesta and Tellus colonists anyway without informing them, the government or anyone else of the danger. Her main reservation about the conspiracy theory was that she couldn't see what the multinats could gain from such a course of action, and where the corp sector was concerned, profit was always the motive. But she knew now how casually the multinats regarded life. And there were questions about survivors of the massacres that hadn't been answered to her satisfaction -- certainly not to Nathan's. His crazy solo attempt to rescue Kylen had failed to locate her, but he had learned that she had survived and probably been taken prisoner, and he had succeeded in rescuing another survivor of the colony. Vansen had never seen anything about that part of it on the news and she wondered what had become of the woman whose life West had saved. Also, West's actions had been grounds for a court martial, they had all expected him to land in prison for the rest of his life over it. Instead, the whole incident had been officially declared non-existent. Nothing had happened to West, but they weren't allowed to talk about it. Officially, they weren't even supposed to discuss it among themselves.
Oh, the multinationals were careful in the home system. Public outrage went a long way towards keeping them honest. If someone got greedy and did something morally repulsive where the news media could get hold of it, then some executive who thought he was above the law would find out otherwise real quick. There were scandals like that every now and then, involving the highest levels of corporate management.
But out in the colonies, the level of corporate arrogance rose in direct proportion to the reduced observation. If there was no one to put a picture of conditions in the colonies on the evening news, the companies could very well be getting away with murder. That the colonists involved were often in vitroes exacerbated the situation, given the reality that prejudice against "tanks" was unfortunately common, and that most people had never actually met one. Now that Vansen knew McQueen and Hawkes, she saw corporate colonies worked by in vitroes in a different and much more suspicious light.
She knew McQueen had worked five years in a uranium mine to gain his freedom from the multinational that had arranged for his birth. The aftermath of the AI war had led to some reforms. In vitroes were no longer legally indentured to the corporations, they no longer had to actually buy their freedom. They had the same human rights as anybody else -- but no relatives back on Earth to squawk to the media if those rights were violated. McQueen never spoke about those five years. Never. Once the topic had come up in Vansen's presence, and she would never forget the look that had come into McQueen's blue eyes for just a moment before his guard had come back up. She wasn't sure exactly who or for what specific cause, but in that moment she had become quite sure that somewhere in the galaxy were some people she could very cheerfully kill with her bare hands.
And, more recently, an attempt had been made to hang Cooper Hawkes. He was convinced -- but could not prove -- it had been because somebody didn't like his ideas -- because they considered him disloyal to the company. If the hanging had succeeded, it would have looked like he had been lynched by tank-bashers. Vansen now harbored the cynical suspicion that some appropriate tank-bashers might well have been arrested and executed for the crime. That was something that wouldn't have crossed her mind before. As it was, Coop had survived by turning out to be unexpectedly meaner and tougher than his assailants. When he had got in some trouble with the cops shortly thereafter, the company had sent a lawyer who had pled with the judge to give the angry young man a second chance in the Marine Corps instead of sending him to jail. Vansen couldn't fault that, on the face of it. But the war had broken out right after that and here was Coop on the front lines. If the multinats had known a fight was coming, then steering people you wanted to get rid of to the front lines seemed to Vansen like a good way to thin their numbers with no one the wiser. Vansen had no hard evidence yet to support the suspicions she was forming. But the pieces were coming together and she didn't like the picture they were making. She was also starting to think that foolhardy attempts to get that evidence could very well cause you to have an accident. That was one reason she hadn't voiced her ideas to the rest of the squadron. Coop or Nathan might just do something stupid, God knew they'd had the provocation.
McQueen commented, "You're quiet today."
"Oh--I was just thinking about things. Did you ever hear anything about that spy they caught on the ship?"
"Yeah, I asked the Commodore about him. There isn't much to tell, Hawkes broke his neck when he tried to murder Damphousse. She caught him breaking into my quarters. When the body was examined they discovered he had soil from Marged on his boots. That was what got us rescued."
Vansen scowled and turned in her seat to look at him. "I wonder why in the hell he'd break into your quarters to steal something you put in there before we went to Marged?"
"I don't know what he wanted, Shane, as far as I know there really isn't anything in there worth breaking in to steal. I hope I've got more sense than leave anything classified lying around in my quarters. And as for run of the mill theft--I had my money and my watch on me, and I don't have anything else that's really valuable, other than for sentimental reasons. It doesn't make sense."
"Wait a minute, don't you have a pocket computer instead of a terminal?"
"Yes, but no one's going to break in to steal my bank statement or whatever book I happen to have downloaded this week. As a matter of fact, I usually have it in my pocket." He produced the computer. "It was only in my quarters last week because I forgot it."
"Which the AI's would have realized when it wasn't on you or on board the transport," Vansen pointed out. "That's right."
"If that was what he was after. Maybe he was going to plant something, not steal."
"I don't know what it would be, they didn't find anything of interest on him. I suppose he could have been going to bug the room, and they just didn't find the bug when they searched him," McQueen theorized.
"Well, it's a damn shame Hawkes had to kill him -- I'd have liked to have had a little talk with him."
"Unless you believe in seances I doubt we'll ever find out what he was up to."
"Did the AI's say anything...question you about anything besides the formula?"
"Sure, they wanted command codes, names of high-ranking officers, really anything they could get. But nothing that ties in with the contents of my quarters." He scowled. "Was the formula all they asked you about?"
"Yeah," she said. "It was just that -- over and over again -- you know, just this one little thing and we'll stop." She swallowed hard. "Pretty goddamn effective, too."
"No it wasn't, you didn't give them jack," he grinned. Then he turned serious. "Shane, you stop getting sick when you think about it after a while."
"Okay, then. Uhh -- just how much trouble are we in?"
McQueen said, "We're not in any trouble. As far as the Corps is concerned, nothing happened. Nobody's going to ask."
"So, what, did nothing really happen?"
"No. Not for me, anyhow. You promised me a memory for the rest of my life, and I mean to hold you to that. You saved my life."
"That goes both ways. I wouldn't have been able to hold on much longer, but I lived long enough for help to get there because of what we did. But...is that all there is to it? Where do we go from here? What really happens when something like this comes up?"
"Want the truth? Nothing, usually. When I was with the Angels the honcho and Collins were having an affair for years. As far as I know it was still going on up until they were killed. They were discreet about it, but it was an open secret. I can't believe Commodore Ross wouldn't have known about it. It never -- once -- interfered with their duty, and it didn't make a problem with the rest of the squadron. Under those circumstances, nobody says anything. That's really the only way you can deal with having normal healthy people thrown in together for months or years at a time, people are going to do what they're going to do and if you court-martialed everyone who did it, there wouldn't be anyone left in the service."
Vansen laughed. "I guess so." She pulled thoughtfully on her ID tag chain. "I just -- I didn't think I'd still be here to worry about it. I don't know what I want. Commitment scares me. My parents were so perfect together, to me that's what a relationship is supposed to be. I never want anything else. But maybe losing what might be the best thing I'll ever have in my life scares me too. Maybe we could be that perfect together."
"I was married before. It didn't work. Basically, she wanted kids and I couldn't give her any."
Vansen blurted out, "She must've been a brass-plated four door fool! I wouldn't have let a man like you get away when I could have adopted or gone to a fertility clinic or something!" Then she flushed red. "I'm sorry. I didn't have any right to say that."
"She wasn't a fool...or maybe we both were. I guess it was more than just children. That was only part of the life I couldn't give her. We were too young, we weren't ready for the responsibilities. And she ... I don't think she realized what the prejudice was going to be like, day after day. How many times can you hear tank-lover without some kind of a reaction?"
"Well...look...I get that anyhow. I mean, if some asshole wants to start a bar fight with me, that's the first wisecrack they always make. It's about Hawkes as often as it is about you. I used to just grin and tell `em I could always tell a real man, and they weren't it and you guys were. I doubt I could use that line with a straight face now that it's true, but---! It always worked, they'd take the first swing in front of God and everyone. I don't take that kind of bullshit seriously, it's their problem not mine."
He smiled. "I can't imagine Leah in a bar fight."
"Now that we've been together, I keep thinking it should change the way I feel about you. That I should be `in love' whatever that means. But I cared about you before and I still do. The same way. You're still my CO. And I still have a lot to learn. You would have got through what happened on your own. I wouldn't have."
"You're more sure of that than I am. I don't know that I would have made it without that night. And I don't know that you wouldn't have. But I know what you're getting at. I don't think I could honestly say it changed the way I feel about you, either."
"I don't think I could sneak around. I mean, don't get me wrong, discretion is a good word for most people, but for ME it would be sneaking around. If we're together, I want the whole ship to know it. I'm the jealous type."
"I figured you would be. You'd probably want a big formal wedding."
"Sure I would. Back on Earth so my sisters could be bridesmaids."
"That would mean one of us would have to leave the 58th."
"That means I would have to leave the 58th. Me captain, you colonel. Besides, you're right where the Commodore wants you, he isn't going to let you transfer anywhere. Would I get to stay aboard the _Saratoga_?"
"Most likely, they'd just move you to another squadron. We could get assigned to different ships, but they try not to separate committed couples. It causes more trouble than it's worth, it's easier just to staple their records together. Otherwise what you've got are two people spending every waking moment trying to figure out how to get a leave together instead of thinking about their jobs."
She nodded. "It doesn't seem fair to the rest of the Cards. I just can't help thinking we'd be putting our needs ahead of the squadron's."
"You really aren't being fair to yourself about that, Shane. It's more likely they'd just be happy for us. This is about us, not anyone else."
Slowly she said, "We could have a good life together. You'd make me a good husband, and I'd make a good wife for you."
"How do you mean that?"
"Well, for one thing, when you get just one more promotion, you're going to be a command officer. There's a lot of politics connected with that, especially where officer's wives are concerned. I could do that. And as far as I'm concerned -- if you made a commitment to me I know I would always be able to depend on you. I'd be really lucky to have a husband like you. If we decided we wanted to raise some kids, we'd be good parents together. There's no reason why we couldn't have a really wonderful life together. I can see us forty years down the road, a couple of retired generals --"
"I don't doubt it a bit," he said, looking at her. "I believe you. If I married you, you'd make a home for me that would be ... everything I ever wanted out of life and thought I couldn't have."
"But. It would mean changing everything. _We'd_ change. Right now our careers are our whole lives and that's how we fit together. What would we be like in five years if we become a married couple with a mortgage and maybe even adopted a baby or two? Would we lose track of what makes us work right now with all of that going on in our lives?" She shook her head. "I've been doing all the talking and I'm only half of this. What do you think we ought to do?"
He thought about it, looking out the viewport for a moment before turning back to her. "You said you don't know what you want. For once in my life, I don't either. This is all happening so fast we don't have time to understand it. We're taking this on the assumption that we have to decide whether or not to make a commitment to one another. As if it were something new. But I thought we already had a commitment. We already have a friendship that's going to last the rest of our lives. Shane, don't mistake me. I'm glad the other night happened even if I did have to go through hell to get it, and I'd do it again. But if it never happens again, that's okay too. Some things just stand on their own, they don't need anything else to make them perfect."
"That's how I feel. That's _exactly_ how I feel."
"I think what we need to do is just slow down. We went through an experience that changed us both, but neither of us is sure yet just how. You haven't even started to deal with being a POW, and you'll have to deal with it. We don't know yet what you'll have to do. In six months you might find >out you need to transfer off the Saratoga to face some things alone, and I want it to be okay for you to feel that way if that's what it takes. I swear to you, I will always be here for you when you need me."
Shane reached across the console to take his hands. "I'll always be here too. I'd never run out on you, you know that, don't you?"
"I know. And I think that's all the commitment we need for now."
"I -- I can't forget there's a war on. I made my first commitment to the 58th. They're counting on me being there. Nathan doesn't want my job, but he'd have to take it if I transferred out."
"I know, Shane. I think we both know that's the way it has to be."
She nodded, and felt tears in her eyes. "I feel like Cinderella...like I just told the fairy godmother `no'. What if we never get another chance?"
"We make our own chances. We aren't closing any doors. We aren't saying `never'. We're saying `not now'. Maybe we're saying `after the war.' In the meanwhile, we can be everything but lovers, right?"
"Right," she nodded. "If one of us decided to date someone else, we'd talk about it then, right?"
"That's fair." But after a few moments, McQueen added, "I haven't got any immediate plans to go out with anyone else."
She smiled. "Me either. Are you hungry yet?"
"I could eat," he allowed.
"Take her for a while and I'll see what I can find."
She was pleased to discover that the launch had a full, if small, galley in the back. She liked to cook, hadn't had the chance since she had cooked for her sisters. She checked supplies and found a fully stocked preservation unit. "Jackpot," she grinned. She decided it could only be a good thing if McQueen knew that cooking was just one of her many talents!
She found some chopped steaks -- they were real meat, not soy -- and a pouch of tomatoes. From that she made Swiss steaks, one of her best recipes, and fixed mashed potatoes and gravy to go with it. She came across some self-rising flour and made biscuits. She would have preferred to fix a salad from scratch, but that wasn't practical. There were prepared salads in the preserver, she had to be satisfied with adding some cheese and boiling an egg to chop up in it, and she found the ingredients to prepare a nice vinaigrette dressing. Dessert was real ice cream. She thought about wine, but decided that while McQueen might be familiar enough with the Commodore to borrow from his liquor stock, she wasn't.
It didn't take long for the whole launch to start smelling pretty much like heaven, McQueen put the ship on autopilot and joined her as soon as he heard her start setting out dinner. As they shared their meal, Shane thought about what they were putting off -- maybe giving up entirely. She felt a moment of panic and wanted to change her mind and set a date. But all their reasons for waiting still made sense. So she made herself cheer up and be good company.
As she finished clearing off, the beginnings of a headache reminded her that she wasn't off sick list yet. McQueen told her to get some sleep, he went back up to the cockpit to check things. The autopilot was dependable getting from point A to point B, and the ship's computer was monitoring the sensors. But still it was prudent to keep a close eye on the automatics.
Shane let the banquette table down to make a bunk, she found the mattress under one seat and bedclothes under the other. She wasn't sure if there was another berth, so she made herself at home over against the bulkhead. It wasn't a featherbed, but it was a hell of a lot more comfortable than her bunk aboard the Saratoga! She reached overhead to touch a panel and dim the lights, and lay there for a long time just watching the starfield through the viewport. She wasn't sure when she went to sleep.
The next thing she knew, she was back on Marged. Except this time when the AI bent over her, her hands were loose. All hell broke loose as she came up fighting, punching and kicking like a wild animal. Someone grabbed at her wrist, she threw a hard punch that was hampered only by the fact she was lying down. Then she heard her name and things started making sense. McQueen let her go when he realized she knew where she was at.
He was rubbing his arm, she apologized. "God! I thought I had nightmares but that was too damn real! I'm sorry--!"
"It was my fault, I should have known you'd come up fighting if I woke you! Are you okay now?"
"I think so."
"You can really throw a punch for a short person, you know that?"
Shane lay back, still reeling from the nightmare. "You're lucky I didn't connect with a kick," she muttered. "I really am sorry."
"Shane, there's nothing to apologize for. I kicked Ross's rack down on top of mine one night, then I knocked him clear across the room before I woke up enough to know what was going on. He had a black eye you wouldn't believe. After that the rest of the Angels wouldn't get near me when I had a nightmare, they'd just stand back and throw things." He grinned, for just a moment it was ten years ago. He and Ross were the only ones left who'd been with the Angry Angels then.
"What time is it?"
"About 0100, we're about halfway out."
"Oh! I didn't mean to sleep so long."
"You needed your rest. I lost track of time myself, I've been sitting up there reading."
"I'll take it while you get some rest, if you like."
"I'm not throwing you out of bed," he said.
"There's room," she invited. At his momentary hesitation, she smiled. "I trust you."
He didn't take much convincing, a couple of seats forward made another bunk but it was short and narrow for a man his size. Neither of them much wanted to admit they didn't want to be alone. Vansen thought she would never get back to sleep again after a nightmare like that one, but her body demanded the rest. She was vaguely aware of McQueen getting up a few times to check on the automatics, but he was too tired himself to prowl around too much. Vansen was thoroughly convinced by now that sick list was a pain in the ass, but there was no way she would have signed off on either one of them being fit for duty.
End Part Three
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