(See Disclaimer in Part 1)
(on the transport)
McQueen paused in the hatch for a moment. It was
Hawkes' watch. Damphousse had put her seat back and
gone to sleep right there, she could wake up like a cat if she
had to. He went back through into the main bay.
Amy was in her rack asleep, seeing her lying there abruptly
reminded him of mornings back at Loxley. How she would
wake up with the dawning sun in her eyes and they usually
ended up making love before he left for the base. It had
been good between them at first...but that hadn't stopped
their differences from tearing them apart. Had it been his
fault, or hers? Or maybe just that the difficulties inherent
in any relationship between an in vitro and a natural born
were too great to overcome?
McQueen turned away and found himself looking out a
viewport, where Vansen's fighter paced them. He got
himself a cup of coffee and tried to find something else to
keep himself occupied, but he always found himself going
back to that viewport. He and Amy hadn't had a chance,
because of what he was and what she was. Shane was
natural born too. He couldn't shake a flood of doubts.
Everything was fine now, but what would happen when
their relationship became more widely known...as one day
it would, he doubted Shane would be satisfied for long with
a hidden affair. She always insisted, any time he brought
up the subject of prejudice against him affecting her, that
she didn't give a damn if it did. Even if that were true, there
was the fact that her promotions had come along very
quickly for an officer as young as she was. It had all been
very much deserved, but that wouldn't stop rumors from
floating that she had slept her way to the top.
None of that would make any difference when he went back
on active duty. At that point they would have no choice
except to keep things quiet, no matter what either of them
wanted. He knew full well what he was doing and the kind
of trouble he could get into, he didn't mind taking his own
chances...but ruining Shane's life wasn't part of the
equation, and he could see far too many ways that could
The smart thing to do would be to back away, protect both
of them from the troubles he could see coming. But the
smart thing wasn't always the right thing....
He gave up on trying to figure it out, let the doubts and
fears fill the cabin like hovering ghosts, and just turned back
to the viewport to watch Shane fly.
(on the pleasure station Bacchus)
Ethan Hodges let his eyes adjust to the subdued lighting as
he stepped through the stained glass door into Diamante's.
The hostess, a pretty little redhead in a low-cut velvet
gown, greeted him with a smile. "Your usual table, Mr.
"No, I'll be meeting someone in the lounge, thank you,
For a moment Hodges glanced over the dining room.
Champaign bubbled in crystal glasses, as the elite dined on
the best the galaxy had to offer. Just in that one casual
glance, he recognized a couple of Admirals and one new
executive vice president. Cool piano blues covered the
quiet hum of conversation.
Hodges stepped into the lounge. The atmosphere here was
a little less formal but no less refined. His eyes met the
bartender's, Jose indicated the banquette at the far end of
Hodges had never met Aerotech's senior troubleshooter
before, but he had no trouble recognizing the man. Daniel
Wolfe was almost a full two meters in height, with the
graceful form of the world-class martial artist that he was.
His skin was only slightly lighter in color than the black silk
dress shirt he wore; a plain, understated gold chain was his
only jewelry. Although he had left the military years
before, he still wore his curly hair cropped short. A thin
scar across his cheekbone did nothing to detract from his
appearance, if the hungry looks he was getting from a
couple of young executive-looking females at the bar were
any indication. If Hodges hadn't known better, he would
have taken Wolfe for any of the other wealthy and
powerful men who came here.
There was something about the man's eyes that warned
away casual trouble, though. Something about that calm,
icy stare put Hodges on the immediate defensive -- and that
wasn't a feeling he liked in the least.
He joined Wolfe at the banquette. "Please, sit down, Mr.
"Thank you, Mr. Wolfe."
A waitress took Hodges' order for scotch on the rocks, and
after she brought it, Wolfe got straight down to business.
"What kind of fire does Aerotech need to have extinguished
Hodges lowered his voice. He would have preferred to
meet in private, but a man like Wolfe was far too intelligent
for that, considering the enemies he'd made over the years.
"There's a reporter, Amy Goldstein. She's been a thorn in
the company's side for several years now, but she's
become a little too persistent for the comfort of the powers
Wolfe registered some surprise. "Amy Goldstein -- you
mean Amy McQueen?"
"Ah, yes, you would have known her at Loxley, wouldn't
"That was a long time ago, but yes, I knew her."
"Will that make a difference?"
"She wasn't a friend. What's the situation?"
"She came aboard the Saratoga four days ago. The 58th
squadron left the next day, she was with them. They were
supposedly on their way to Groombridge, but our
operatives report that they never entered the wormhole.
Find them, find out what she knows and make the problem
"The 58th. As a general rule, I don't mix business and
"Aerotech is prepared to double your usual incentive to do
just that. One half now in a numbered account, the other
half upon completion."
"Double. All right, Mr. Hodges, you have a deal. But I
pick my team, and I do this my way, with no interference
from the front office."
"That's understood. I've been instructed to make sure you
have everything you need."
"The first thing I'll need to do is talk to our man on the
"That can be arranged."
Wolfe smiled. "I love it when the company's in a
cooperative mood, Mr. Hodges."
After almost twenty-two hours in the cockpit, Vansen was
thankful enough to set the Hammerhead down on anything
solid that she didn't complain about the blast of hot dry air
that flooded in when she cracked the canopy. The
hydraulics whined as it levered up. She glanced around, the
transport's ramp was cranking down and West had opened
his canopy as well. They'd picked a landing site up a little
arroyo, the canyon walls gave them fairly good cover from
anything except a direct fly-over.
Vansen reached behind her to unhinge her helmet, and
extricated herself from the fighter. She wanted to walk
around and get a hot shower and some sleep, in that order.
But getting their base camp in order had to come first.
The desert reminded her at first of Mars, mostly because
the prevailing color scheme was shades of red. But the
conditions here were more nearly earth-normal -- taking
Death Valley as the standard for what constituted normal,
that was. If it was still this hot in the evening, tomorrow
afternoon was going to be miserable.
She pulled off her gloves and stuffed them in a pocket, and
combed back her hair with her fingers as she joined West at
the foot of the transport's ramp.
He looked just as tired as she felt. His gaze settled
somewhere far beyond the horizon to the north and
east....where the ill-fated colony had been. Shane put her
hand on his shoulder. "Penny for your thoughts, Nathan."
"They're worth a hell of a lot more than that," he said
quietly. "Aerotech has a lot of payback coming."
"I read somewhere that the best revenge is to live well."
"Would you be saying that if it was AI's?"
She smiled a little. Exhaustion pulled at her like gravity, she
had the insane urge to stretch out on the ramp and go to
sleep. "Maybe I've been doing some re-evaluation lately.
Living well could have its merits, you know?"
He looked at her and smiled. "Yeah. I've got the plans all
drawn up for the house I'm going to build for Kylen, after
the war...but I don't want anything in it to have an
Aerotech label, Shane. Not one damn thing. She shouldn't
ever have to look at that again."
"I hear you," Vansen said.
The ISSCV's hatch opened, and everyone else joined them.
Amy looked around with an expression of wonder on her
face, just like everyone else had the first time they set foot
on another planet. The rest of them got down to the
business of establishing a perimeter around the LZ.
Hawkes made a fortuitous discovery, there was a
good-sized cave in the cliff wall. It was dry, with a sandy
floor. It was much cooler inside, and most importantly the
rocks would prevent them from showing up as heat
signatures on infrared. It didn't take long to set up camp in
Wolfe studied the team he'd assembled. Aside from his
partner, Gordon Crae, he'd had to pick and choose from
people available on the Bacchus. But he wasn't
complaining about that, over all.
The team members he'd hired at the Bacchus were at the
table with him. To his right was Natalie Hanes, she was
probably his age but looked in her early twenties, the better
to gain the trust of people the company wanted to
disappear. She could look like anything from the girl next
door to the girl on the street corner...anything other than the
expert marksman and explosives expert that she was. He'd
worked with Natalie before, she was a pro who followed
orders well and could be trusted to get her assignment done
without complications. Wolfe had noticed, though, that she
seemed to enjoy her work a little too much sometimes.
She was dwarfed by the man sitting next to her, John Waite.
He went by "Bad John" and the name looked like it would
fit. He was an IV, taller than Wolfe and built like a
wrestler. He was involved with the anarchists, he blamed
the government for the way IVs were treated. He'd assured
Wolfe that he'd have no problems with taking on a couple
of tanks who'd turned traitor to their people, which was
how he saw McQueen and Hawkes. Wolfe wasn't too
concerned with the man's motivations, a sparring session
had convinced him that Bad John could back up his
nickname. Although Bad John preferred to do his fighting
close in, he knew how to handle a rifle if he had to.
Richard Pennman occupied the next seat. He had worked
with Pennman before, he was one of the best at bypassing
electronic security. Wolfe had hired him for this job
because he knew Pennman to keep his nerve when things
got tough...something he couldn't usually count on from
Finally, sitting between Wolfe and Pennman was Maggie
O'Donnell. He'd chosen to bring her along because, as a
planetary survey specialist, she was an expert at survival
and recon in alien environments. Without knowing where
they were going to end up, he considered those skills to be
vital to the team.
The information Wolfe had gotten from the spy aboard the
Saratoga had been sketchy at best. Commodore Ross
obviously knew the mole existed, from the precautions he'd
taken to avoid discovery of the 58th's destination. But
Wolfe had a few bits and pieces of information that, taken
together, were starting to make sense.
For one thing, the aircraft McQueen had chosen had been a
transport and two Hammerheads. That spelled out
ground-pounder to Wolfe...but still something within the
fighters' range. That had still left a lot of possibilities, but
by eliminating the wormholes he knew they had not used,
he had cut the list drastically. The reason why Amy
Goldstein had taken on Aerotech in the first place was the
final piece of information. Her boyfriend had been silenced
because he had found out something he shouldn't have
It was still possible that he was wrong, but Daniel Wolfe
had learned a long time ago to trust his instincts. They
were fourteen hours out of Vesta. He took one last look
around at his team, then put map of Vesta up on the screen.
"Ladies and gentlemen, our next port of call."
O'Donnell shifted in her chair. "Didn't think there was
anything left on Vesta after the colony was wiped out," she
"That's what the company would prefer to have people
think. But there is something on Vesta. It's our assignment
to prevent that knowledge from becoming public." He
brought up a picture of Amy. "This is Amanda Goldstein,
a reporter for the Washington Times Sentinel. She's
gotten too close to Aerotech's big secret for her own good.
It's our job to find out how much she knows then see to it
that she has a nasty little accident.
She's picked up some big league help to try to keep us from
doing our job. You've all heard of the 58th squadron and
you've all heard of their leader, TC McQueen. People, I am
here to tell you that everything you've heard about the man
is true and then some. If any of you believes you've come
up against serious opposition in completing an assignment,
you are up against it now. McQueen is smart, he's tough
and he has more lives than an alley cat. For the stakes
involved here, if you choose to cross swords with him and
make just one mistake you are going to be very dead. Aside
from everything else this man is, he is also Amy
Wolfe waited a moment for the surprised discussion to die
down. So far only Bad John had known who they were up
against. He hadn't wanted any surprises regarding where
people's loyalties rested so he had told Waite, but none of
the others until just now.
Natalie Hanes smiled coldly. "All I have to do is get him in
my sights, Danny. If I take him down, that'll throw the
rest of them into disarray and we can pick them off one at a
Wolfe said, "That's a good plan. It's so good that you'd be
mistaken if you assume the chigs haven't already thought of
it--especially after he relieved them of Chiggy von
Richtoven. McQueen isn't about to just hand you a clean
shot. But if you pull it off, so help me I'll double your fee
out of my own pocket!" He grinned affably. The one thing
to remember in dealing with Hanes was never to show any
disrespect for her ability. And her pride was justified,
Wolfe considered that if anyone was capable of holding him
to that deal, she probably was. He didn't think he was
going to be arranging any clandestine transfer of funds out
of his numbered account any time soon, though.
Hanes obviously disagreed with him. "For you, Danny?
I'll even make sure you've got a front row seat."
"The rest of the Wild Cards are worthy of McQueen's
leadership, from what I've been able to find out about them.
There are four survivors out of the original eight who fought
in the Battle of the Belt at the beginning of the war.
Honcho is Shane Vansen, recently promoted to Major.
She's the leader of the unit and probably the best all around
pilot in the outfit. Born and bred Marine Corps, her
parents bought the big one during the AI war.
Her exec is Nathan West. If Vansen isn't the best pilot, he
is. I don't know if this young man knows it or not, but he
was pretty much single-handedly responsible for keeping
up the pressure in the right places behind the scenes that
got his fiancee and the other survivors included in the
demands at the peace conference.
Cooper Hawkes is another In Vitro, he was bred as part of
a government super-soldier program that got shut down
when its security was compromised. He was trained as an
assassin. I would advise that none of you except Bad John
take him on hand to hand unless you have some clear
advantage, especially if Hanes here has already collected her
bonus--Hawkes is known to be a protege of McQueen's.
Finally, we have Vanessa Damphousse. Average jarhead
pilot, to all indications--she's their tech expert, she's got an
engineering degree from Cal Tech and her daddy's the chief
of operations at the power plant at San Onofre. There's
something about her, though...I've picked up a few rumors
that the Spook Squad was interested in her a few months
back and they still may have their eyes on her. Don't
underestimate her because her name's at the bottom of the
Obviously, the only one we need to take alive is
"Vesta's a big place," O'Donnell said. "Any idea where to
start looking for them?"
Wolfe tapped the wall screen. "Right here. Goldstein first
started her investigation of Aerotech a few years ago, before
the site finally chosen for the colony was surveyed. This
was the area they were concentrating on at that time. It's
typical desert badlands: fry in the daytime, freeze at night,
rocks and sand everywhere, and everything alive there is
poison. Aerotech was interested because of the mining
Crae spoke up for the first time. "It's going to be a job to
find them in that mess, Danny, we could spend a hell of a
long time looking for a transport and two Hammers in those
Wolfe grinned at his old friend. "What did you tell me was
the first rule of running a good con?"
"Let the mark come to you."
"Exactly. I know what they're looking for."
A slow grin spread across Crae's face. "You always have
all the bases covered."
"All except one, Gordy. And here it is." Danny turned
back to the table. "The five-eight has one advantage over us
that we can't overcome in the time we have available to us.
They've been fighting together since the war started, every
member of the squadron knows the others' strengths and
weaknesses as well as his or her own. They know what
tactics work for them. And what's more important, they
can count on the loyalty of the others without the slightest
doubt." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a
handful of gold coins, let them pour between his fingers into
a pile on the table. He picked up the top one and casually
flipped it to Gordy, four sets of eyes watched its glittering
arc across the cabin until it dropped neatly into Crae's
"People, make no mistake, right here's where our loyalty is.
If you want to live to collect yours, you have to start
thinking the same way the Wild Cards do. We commit that
we will go to the wall for each other, if that's what it takes.
You do your job to the best of your ability, and the
responsibility for our success or failure will rest with me.
From now until we get back to the Bacchus, you give me
your trust. You do what I tell you. If you do that we will
get this job done and we'll live to tell about it." He scooped
up the coins and sifted them through his fingers again.
"Keep in mind that there's plenty more where this came
from, and teamwork is the way we're going to have a hell of
a party spending it when we get back." He divided the pile
of coins four ways and poured one quarter of them into
Hanes' waiting hand. "What do you say, Natalie?"
"You know I'm with you, Danny, you never let me down
"How about you, John?"
The big man dropped his money in a pocket. "I'm in."
Pennman's eyes practically glowed with greed. "You
always did know where the payoff was. I'll ante up."
The last of the coins went to O'Donnell. "What about you,
The scout licked her lips. "This could be the start of a good
thing, you know it? Count me in too."
"Good," Wolfe said, meeting each pair of eyes in return.
"Pull up a seat, Gordy. It's time for a crash course in team
<end part 5>
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