(See Disclaimer in Part 1)
Vansen climbed the side of her Hammerhead and settled in,
activated systems and ran a pre-flight. It was a short hop
to the new LZ. It was nearer the transmitter site but the
conditions here weren't as good for hiding the planes. The
canyon was deeper but also wider, making it more likely
that someone flying over would spot them. That made it
necessary to cover them with camo tarps--which would
have to be removed before they could lift off.
Once all that was finished, Vansen went aboard the ISSCV
to scare up a cup of coffee and took it back out in the air to
drink it, the hour before dawn was the last cool air they
were likely to get all day and she was determined not to
waste it. Then she saw McQueen over against the cliff
wall, kneeling to look at something. She got another cup of
coffee from inside, and took it over to him. "What have
"Take a look at this," he replied, accepting the cup. He had
found a rock shelf some five or six meters long and half as
wide, the desert winds had swept it clear of sand. Looking
closely with the aid of her light-amplifying visor, Vansen
saw a row of parallel scratches in the rock, each about
twenty-five centimeters in length, and spaced about half
again that far apart. She stared at them, puzzled, until it
suddenly dawned on her what they were. Sure enough,
there was another identical row of marks a meter and a half
"These are track marks! Someone's had a bulldozer or
something like that through here." She looked more closely.
"I wonder what...?"
"I don't know yet...but there's no reason a recon team
would have had heavy equipment in here. I've never
known the chigs to use anything on tracks."
"It isn't one of ours? Military, I mean? We don't have
anything with a wheel-base that small, do we?"
"Well, some reserve units are still using those little
lightweight APC's, but what would they be doing here? It
sounds more like construction or mining...."
Vansen sipped her coffee and followed the line of tread
marks as far into the darkness as she could. "Maybe this is
what they're so anxious to protect. If they found some
kind of a mother lode out here...."
"That's about the only explanation that makes any
sense...they found something of value, and they had to go
ahead with the colony to keep someone else from jumping
their claim. They took a bet the colonies were far enough
away that the chigs wouldn't fight to keep them. And they
"We all lost," Vansen echoed softly. "Ty, what if Nathan's
right about the Secretary General? If she decides to cover
this up, do we have a chance?"
He looked up at her, and after a little while asked, "Would
it change anything if I said no?"
She thought about it that way for a moment, then shook her
head. Only then did she see the little smile playing about
his eyes...he had known all along that would be her answer.
She laughed a little at herself. There was _always_ some
kind of chance...even if it was slim to none!
McQueen rose to his feet and stood for a moment,
following the trail of tread marks just as she had, until they
disappeared around an outcropping in the cliff wall. Then
he said, "Let's get us a sniper."
"Got an idea how we're going to do that?"
"I know where they're going to be looking for us."
"Good, you seem to be thinking the same thing I am."
"What's your idea?"
"The transmitter site...they're going to be waiting for us
there. But their sniper almost hit you, from better than half
a klick away--we're going to have to take that into
"Damn straight we are, but that doesn't have to stop us,
with the kind of cover we'll have over by the mesa."
She nodded, that had been her assessment. "Ty, you seem
to be their first priority here..."
"That had occurred to me," he replied dryly.
"You know what I mean."
"I know," he replied. "Don't worry, Shane, I'm not going
to get caught standing in any more hatchways...and I'm not
giving them the chance to make the next move, either. Now
it's my turn."
Vansen was more reassured by seeing him go on the
offensive that she would have been by anything else. By
then everyone else had been lured out by the smell of
coffee, McQueen pounded on the bulkhead to get
everyone's attention. To the 58th, it was the same old kind
of ground assignment they'd been doing for the better part
of two years. They listened quietly as he described the
day's objective...to put the mercenaries out of commission
before they had the chance to set up another ambush.
Amy asked, "What do you want me to do?"
McQueen looked at her thoughtfully. "There are two ways
you can play this, and neither one is completely safe for
you. For one thing, you could stay here. You'd be running
the risk that they'll find our camp while we're gone. They
found us once, and it could happen that they'd cross our
trail while we're looking for them and backtrack here. Or,
you could come along with us. We'll do our best to look
out for you, but no one can guarantee where a stray shot or
a ricochet is going to go."
"Well, I'm not going to get my story sitting here on my
"Then stick with Vansen and do exactly what she tells you.
This is recon, and if I know you you're as good at it as
anybody...just pretend you're trying to get pictures
through someone's bedroom window without getting caught
at it, and you'll be fine."
"Hey!" Amy protested, pretending to be insulted, as
everyone else laughed. "I'm not that kind of a reporter!"
That rare wisecrack was a side of Ty she had never seen
much of, she felt a sharp regret that he was closer to "his
kids" than he had ever been to her...and that it was her fault
that had been the case.
He went on, completely serious now. "People, let me
remind you that they have a damn good sniper! I don't
want anyone else following my shining example from last
night, does anyone have any questions about that?"
There was a chorus of "No, sir!"
"'Phousse, you're with me. Eat up and gear up, we move
out in twenty mikes."
Amy asked Shane, "What are you going to do when you
catch those people?"
"That's up to them, we aren't going to just shoot them but
they're damn well going to stop shooting at us." Shane was
getting something to eat as she talked. "Better get
something, twenty mikes means twenty mikes," she
Amy shrugged and helped herself, she had been a reporter
long enough that as long as she had some good strong coffee
in the morning, she was good all day! All this was bringing
back the excitement of investigative reporting. Her work on
the Washington desk was important. It was satisfying in
its way...but it didn't compare with being out in the middle
of breaking news. She hadn't realized how much she had
missed it. Now, though, she was starting to look forward
to the day when her babies were old enough that she could
put her career back on the track she really wanted to
follow...and there was nothing wrong with that, either.
They were on their way before dawn, Amy managed to get
a couple shots of the Vesta sunrise because she figured that
was bound to make a hell of contrast with whatever she got
later in the day. Then she concentrated on keeping up...and
blessed Julie the supply sergeant to every saint whose
name she could remember for the extra-socks tip.
She got a real quick reminder that this wasn't just a nice
little hike in the desert, they were crossing a wide flat place
covered with plants she wanted to call cacti. They were
little round barrel-like green things with lots of spines, that
was close enough to her definition of "cactus" to suit her.
Someone else could argue xenobotanical niceties. She was
looking at them when something gave way beneath her left
foot and she almost fell in a hole.
A weird noise from down in that hole scared the daylights
out of her, she jumped about a meter straight up and fell on
her backside. Something down in there snapped shut like a
bear trap, she scrambled away from it backwards as fast as
she could go.
Shane's reaction was quick as lightning, she had her rifle
pointed down the hole before Amy even saw her move.
She didn't start firing blindly, though. The sound would
have traveled God knew how far and it didn't look like
there was really anything to shoot at.
Amy struggled to her feet, trying to look down the hole and
stay away from it at the same time. "What the hell is it?!"
McQueen asked, "Hurt your ankle?"
She shook her head. "I'm fine, it just scared me, that's all."
West said, "Then there's no harm done. They told us
about these things in orientation, they can't hurt you unless
you step on them. They're like Venus fly traps,
carnivorous plants. They eat small animals that fall
through. It isn't like they can come up out of there after
you. Are you sure it didn't scratch you?"
"I'm sure! I didn't hang around long enough for it to get
hold of me."
"They're poisonous--it's generally safest to think of
anything sharp as poisonous here."
She swallowed hard and dusted the sand off herself. The
obvious lesson #1 was to be more careful where she put her
feet. The almost-as-obvious lesson #2 was that this was an
alien planet and things that didn't look dangerous on the
surface could kill you before you knew it. She'd always
been aware of the danger from Aerotech's hired thugs. But
she could do just one thing wrong in this unfamiliar
environment and save Aerotech the trouble, kill herself in
some godawful manner.
Close calls weren't going to get her any sympathy from this
crew, *almost* didn't count. So Amy took full notice of
lessons #1 and #2, and put the incident behind her.
The closer they got to the transmitter site, the more careful
and alert her companions got. Hawkes and West ranged
ahead, scouting the way for the rest of them. Amy was
hyper-aware of the dangerous situation they were walking
into, but she was also fascinated by watching the squadron
working as a team. There was a minimum of conversation,
everyone knew their roles so well that lengthy explanations
were usually just not necessary. This was McQueen's
world, she was seeing it up close and personal for the first
time. It would have been an understatement to say that she
Before now, she'd had no idea what it was actually like to
go on patrol into enemy territory...to be shot at. It hadn't
been until last night, cleaning up Damphousse' "scratch"
which would have sent Amy scurrying to the emergency
room back home, that it had dawned on her how fragile life
was out here. That was the reality Ty had lived in...all his
life...and she had never understood. There was so much she
had never known...had never tried to know.
When Hawkes and West reported that they were about half
a kilometer from the transmitter site, they set a big rock
visible for a long ways as a rendezvous, and split off into
teams to find the mercenaries. She and Vansen drew the
rocky area above the site, there was a lot of cover for them
but plenty for the other guys too. Damned if it wasn't
like trying to sneak up to somebody's house and take
pictures through the windows. Not that she'd ever actually
They worked their way up to a ridge, looked down into a
shallow dip on the other side right up against the mesa, and
hit the jackpot. Amy stood at the top of the ridge, staring,
astounded--she knew that guy!
Vansen reached up, got a handful of the back of Amy's
shirt, and yanked her down behind the rocks. "There are
too many of them, we'll have to get the others and come
Amy whispered, "That one in the front--the tall man?
That's Daniel Wolfe. He used to be with the 127th, until
he tried to frame our friend Jim Avery for dealing with the
black market. Ty proved he did it. Jim was exonerated,
and Danny went to Leavenworth."
"The Colonel's never mentioned him."
Amy was a little amused that Shane still referred to Ty that
way...and he'd called her "Vansen" earlier. It was as if they
kept their lives together in neat little categories, business
here and personal there, with no trouble at all shifting
between roles at appropriate times. She said, "I'm not
surprised. Danny was our friend, or so we thought. He
flew with Ty and Glen for several months, they trusted
him. But when he realized they were onto him, he was
going to murder them and frame Jim for that too! He would
have shot Glen in the back if Ty hadn't taken the gun away
Vansen did not want to think about wrestling that guy for
control of a gun. She wanted even less to think about
McQueen doing it--although there was absolutely nothing
logical about that. "Nice guy."
"He wasn't a hit man back then. I guess he must have got
promoted or something."
Vansen laughed a little, but she wasn't at all amused. That
was the guy who had almost gotten Ty killed last night.
She judged the distance, she wasn't a sharpshooter but the
wind was good. For just a moment, her hand caressed her
rifle, and she didn't have to say a word for Amy to know
what she was thinking.
"Shane, if you do that, you'll get court-martialed. It'll
legally be murder if you don't give him a chance to
surrender first...and they'll know the bullet came from your
gun." She paused. "Wait until you can shoot him with his
own gun!" The two women's eyes met.
Vansen paused for a last regretful look. If Danny had been
a chig, she could have dropped him in his tracks. But Amy
was right, there were laws. They had to give the creeps the
chance to surrender.
She said, "Well, we've found one thing we can agree on,
"Danny Wolfe full of holes would be a Good Thing," Shane
replied, perfectly seriously.
Black humor, even the unintentional variety, wasn't wasted
on Amy, enough of it floated around the news room. She
replied with a mean little snicker. They backed carefully
away from the ridge then Vansen sent a single ping over the
radio, that would send everyone else back to the
rendezvous point without giving a scanner time enough to
pick up on the frequency they were using. They were the
last ones in. Amy said, "We found them! Ty, it's Danny!"
"Danny? You mean Danny Wolfe?"
"I thought they sent him to Leavenworth."
Amy said, "Well, either he did his time or Aerotech must
have sprung him, because I got a real good look at him and
I'm sure it was him."
"That figures. Who did he have with him?"
Vansen said, "The sniper was probably a dark-haired
Caucasian woman about my size, her shoulder was really
bandaged up. If that was her, Coop, you really nailed her.
And there was this huge guy with them. Three other
people I didn't get too good a look at."
Amy whistled innocently, then held up her computer
screen, she had taken a picture and downloaded it from her
camera. McQueen said, "That's our Danny, all right. I
don't recognize any of the others, but they look like typical
mercs, if there is any such thing.
Okay, Vansen, Damphousse, work your way around to the
right and take a position near that dry wash. West and
Hawkes, those rocks up there. Signal when you're in place.
Amy, this is it, stay with me but keep your head down."
Hawkes and West worked their way around to the left,
careful to move soundlessly through the loose rocks.
Hawkes heard two soft pings over his radio, Vansen and
'Phousse were in position on the right. Almost immediately
that was followed by McQueen's signal. Up ahead, West
signaled him forward and started to climb between two large
boulders. Hawkes saw him backpedal and go for his rifle, but
not fast enough--Bad John popped up between the boulders
and punched him right in the jaw, knocking him over backwards,
where he lay still in the sand at the foot of the boulders. Bad John
vaulted down the side of the boulders, his intention to kick
West's head in was obvious.
Hawkes knew there was no time to go for his rifle--Bad
John was no idiot, he'd chosen ground where whoever came
after him would have to sling their weapons to have their
hands free for climbing. He charged the giant and hit him
like a linebacker, forcing him back away from West.
Bad John broke the clench and started punching, full-out
blows to the ribs that hurt like hell when they landed.
Hawkes had fought damn few other IVs, with the exception
of sparring with McQueen, and now he realized how much
McQueen had been holding back in those bouts. Bad John
was as fast as Hawkes was, and much stronger besides. To
have a chance, Hawkes knew he was going to have to rein in
his anger and fight smart.
He'd almost died at the hands of the monitors who had
trained him, but that training kept him alive now--he knew
how to fight a bigger, stronger opponent. And he knew
how to make his own blows count. He surprised Bad John
with a spear-hand blow, felt something crack.
Bad John reacted to getting hurt by getting mad, and landed
a punch that knocked him down. Hawkes rolled hard to
avoid a vicious kick. Nobody had ever said there were
rules, he came up with his k-bar in his hand and opened up
a long gash in Bad John's arm and ribs, judging from the
amount of blood he had done some damage. The big IV
yanked a combat knife out of his boot sheath and came at
Hawkes fast enough to make him jump backwards.
The big man growled, "I'm gonna gut you and see what
they got here for vultures comes to eat you, ya lousy
"Traitor? What the hell are you talking about?"
"After everything the damn government's done to us, you
went and signed up for the Marine Corps? I didn't think
the jarheads paid that good," he spat.
"Chigs chop us up the same as natural borns, buddy.
They are the enemy right now."
Bad John held out his bleeding arm, Hawkes' knife had
drawn a line across a track of heavy keloid scars running
from his elbow to his wrist. "See these? Brand marks. Got
'em in my five years, and was lucky 'cause I got out alive.
Chigs aren't the enemy, boy--natural borns are. As long as
they're running the show, we'll never be free. You work for
them, you're a traitor!"
Hawkes slammed home a kick with all his weight behind it,
the impact hurt him almost as bad. He recognized the
earring Bad John was wearing, with the anarchists' symbol
on it. "Man, you think bombs and graffiti are gonna make
the natural borns want us free? You're crazy. They can't get
at you, so they take it out on whoever's handy. If you want
to call anything treason--"
Bad John came at him like a freight train, Hawkes barely
sidestepped and slashed at him...only to find his wrist
grabbed, the k-bar forced back slowly toward his own
body. He twisted violently out of the way, the blade
struck sparks off the rocks beside him. Bad John dug his
thumb into Hawkes' wrist until the k-bar dropped from his
fingers, and wrenched his arm around behind him, forcing
Hawkes to his knees. He knew in a few seconds the giant
would cut his throat. He groped blindly with his left hand,
came up with the k-bar and stabbed behind him, hit the
Bad John bellowed and let loose of his arm, Hawkes jerked
away from him as hard as he could. His right arm was
numb from the force of the giant's grip, he held the k-bar
left handed. He couldn't seem to get his wind, either. He
didn't want to die in a place like this. If it had to be, let it
be out in space. But saving himself would mean abandoning
Nathan and he wasn't going to do that. McQueen had
asked him once what he was willing to die for. He could
answer that question now. He was ready to give his life for
his friend, and somehow it didn't feel like a sacrifice.
Nathan had tried after Neil's death to describe what it was
like to have brothers...Hawkes thought he understood that
Bad John's injured knee shook under him, and he saw the
look of determination come into his young opponent's
eyes. He hadn't survived as long as he had by taking on
people who looked at death with that expression on their
faces. And as the initial rush of adrenaline subsided, he
realized Hawkes had hurt him badly. Hawkes didn't have
to go down alone here. Better to get out for now and deal
with him later. To Hawkes' surprise, the giant backed off,
leaving bloodstains in the sand as he retreated.
Hawkes turned back to West. His partner was starting to
come around. "You okay, Nathan?"
"God, what hit me?"
"That big guy," Hawkes explained, still fighting to get his
wind. "He beat the crap out of both of us, but I think I ran
West swore as he raised his hand to his jaw, but nothing
appeared to be broken. "Let's get into position -- how long
was I out?"
"Couple of mikes, maybe."
He winced and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to see just
one of everything. Coop pressed his hand to his side and
clenched his jaw to suppress an outcry.
"Hey...Coop...how bad did he hurt you?"
"I don't know...I think it's okay," he decided. "Just needs
"Coop...that bastard could've freakin' killed you...."
Nathan's voice trailed off, and shook when he went on.
"He'd have killed me just now if you hadn't been here."
"Come on, there's no telling where he got to," Coop said.
<end part 7>
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