Part Six -- by Becky Ratliff

See disclaimers and copyright information in Part One.
Vansen was sure the doctors drew more blood than the creature had. She was worn out by the time they were released from sickbay. She wasn't surprised to find McQueen waiting. He'd looked in on Todd, she was relieved that her friend was going to be all right. The doctors weren't sure about Snowdon yet. As a lifeguard, she knew that all depended on just how long she'd been oxygen-deprived. No one could be sure how long that had been, and seconds counted. After four minutes, without treatment, the average person would be irreversably brain damaged. Immediate emergency treatment could extend that limit to as much as ten minutes. They could only hope the medics had gotten to her within the time limit.

She nodded. "It took a lot of blood really fast. I'm grounded for 24 hours because of it. Kenny's okay. I think I'll stick to chigs from now on, if you don't mind."

McQueen replied, "Okay by me. Are you sure you're all right?"

"No, I feel like crap ... but Dr. Walker's sure, and I'll take his word for it," she wisecracked.

Alison saw them and stepped out of Heather's room. "What happened, are you okay?"

Shane replied with a reassuring smile and a line straight from her lifeguard days. "We had a little excitement, but everything's fine now."

"Well, if you say so...." She obviously noticed that Vansen was pale and looked tired, but she didn't say any more about that. She asked McQueen, "Will you come by later?"

"If I can. It may be late. There's a lot going on right now."

She smiled. "That's okay."

Heather surprised everyone by darting past Alison and running up to Ty. Shane and Alison both laughed at his startled expression, he gave the little girl a quick hug before handing her back to Alison. "We really do have to go, but I'll make time tonight, unless something else happens," he promised.

McQueen saw Vansen back to her hatch, then went on up to the bridge. Ross already knew, of course, that the creature was no longer a threat. But for some completely illogical reason, he was relieved when McQueen confirmed that he had seen the thing dead.

"How's Shane?"

"Lucky. They all were." McQueen shook his head. "I looked in on Flannery and Snowdon. Flannery will be fine. They think Snowdon's going to live, but they won't know until and unless she wakes up whether there will be any permanent effects."

Ross nodded. It was a hell of a thing when you counted yourself lucky that the cost had been one death and possibly another person crippled for life, but they had been lucky ... they'd realized quickly enough what the problem was before the death toll had risen any higher. Realistically, incidents like this one were going to be the ongoing price they paid for exploration into new, potentially hostile ecosystems.
(USS Saratoga, February 4, 2065)

The study of the derelict had gone on in a more or less routine way after that. As Damphousse had predicted, the scientists had been somewhat less than pleased when they had been presented with the charred carcass of the alien monster. But they were mollified when several more of the creatures were discovered ... safely dead ... on board the wreck. Apparently as the life support had failed and the air had gone bad, the creatures had first hibernated then gone into a naturally-occurring cryosleep. It seemed that only the one that had gotten aboard the Saratoga had revived when the conditions had improved. Only a couple of diehard xenobiologists seemed too awfully upset about that.

Exploration of the unpressurized bow section of the ship had gone more slowly, because damage there had been far more extensive. But that was where the discovery had been made that had changed everything.

It was a recording, almost certainly intended to be viewed by whoever might find it. There still was little progress in interpreting the language, if Chigese was any indication that would take many months of work. But the video was self-explanatory.

It had all started with the crash-landing of a civilian cargo vessel on what turned out to be a chig-held world. After Tellus and Vesta, the massacre of the crew was no surprise. Following that, the chigs had deciphered the data in the ship's computer memory and traced her back to her home system.

A peaceful people, they had used such military resources as they did have to mount a brave but doomed resistance. The chigs had taken the system within weeks. Once the resistance was neutralized, the chigs had enslaved the native population. The recording showed the chigs setting aside those they wanted for slave labor and exterminating the rest by the millions. They had proceded to strip the planet of everything they considered of value.

These people had been possibly the last survivors of their race.

There had been an underground resistance all through the chig occupation of their planet. This ship had been built as a cosmic ark, in order to assure the survival of their species ... though the threat they had anticipated had been a natural cataclysm such as a meteor strike. Now, the desperate refugees had made use of it to take as many people off-world as possible. The ship had escaped just as the chigs had begun massive bombardment of the planet.

General Merick shut off the recording and looked around the room at the faces of the men and women gathered there. "Intelligence?"

General Thomason said, "We've received preliminary reports back from the reconnaisance mission we sent to the system identified in this recording. Those reports are consistent with what we've seen here, it looks like the chigs bombarded the planet with a combination of nuclear warheads and mass-driver projectiles. Right now, we're looking at a time frame of fifty to seventy years ago, and the planet is still completely uninhabitable."

Ross said, "They were sending one hell of a message: Come near us and we will destroy you."

Admiral Burke clasped her hands behind her back. Her cold gray eyes had regarded the destruction of a planet and the genocide of its inhabitants without a trace of emotion. Ross suddenly found it a lot easier to believe the accusations that Danny Wolfe had made about her to McQueen on New Jerusalem. She said to Merick, "This isn't anything new, Karl. We've always known what we were up against, it's us or them."

Merick gave her a level glance. "We suspected before, Stella. Now we know. I think that's a big difference. We've been arguing for months about giving Operation Hellgate the go ahead. It's time to quit arguing about it. As of 0600 this morning, the security council has given me full authorization to proceed with this."

Burke replied, "The historians are still arguing about the use of atomic weapons to end the second world war. Posterity will demonize us for this."

Merick nodded. "I suspect that you're right, Stella. Let our posterity have their chance to be born, and grow up to call me whatever they damned well please. Humanity has never fought a war of survival before, and now we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the price of losing this war would be our survival. We didn't make the rules that the chigs live by. If they refuse to surrender, then let them die by the rules they made."

Burke said, "Aye, aye, sir."

Merick said, "We won't have to make a lot of preparations to pull this off. We'll fly the modified bombers off the carriers. The only modifications you'll need to make will be storage for the compound itself. Glen, have you seen those specs? Realistically, how long will it take you to make those modifications?"

Ross thought about it. "Realistically, sir, a couple weeks supply time and then four or five days for the actual conversion."

"Good. Then every carrier in the fleet should have the conversions in place by the time we meet again on the Colin Powell in three weeks. Until then, ladies and gentlemen."

The conference broke up. Once the last of the brass were on their way, Ross glanced over at McQueen. "What are you thinking, Ty?"

McQueen stared out a view port. Usually the starfield gave him a sense of peace but now that was out of reach. "That compound has to be the formula that Shane and I brought back from Marged."


"Sir, it is my sincere hope that the enemy gives us the option not to use that weapon. And that, given such an option, we choose not to use it."

Ross nodded. "That is my hope as well, Colonel. It's up to them now."

"Yes, sir."

Ross took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was out of their hands -- had never been their choice in the first place. They weren't making history, they were caught up in its tide....

He changed the subject. "Did you see the look on Admiral Burke's face while General Merick was playing the tape?"

"Yes, sir."

"Do you believe Danny about her?"

McQueen took the time for a deep breath before he replied. "Yes, sir, I have to say that I do."

"Then this operation could be scuttled before it starts."

"We'll have to assume that there will be sabotage attempts, and take precautions. That's the best we can do, Glen."

(Maine, February 6, 2065)

After the third time she threw up in the morning, Kylen began to suspect what was causing the problem. Still, it was a surprise when she peered at the little test gadget and saw two bright pink stripes staring back at her.

Rosie asked, "Well?"

She gave her friend a dumb look, and all she could get out was a weak, "Oh, wow."

Rosie looked over her shoulder. "You're pregnant. You guys must have been busy! You were only in there a few hours."

"It only takes once and we had plenty of time for more than that!" Kylen replied. She sat down on the side of the bathtub.

"Are you okay?"

"I don't know ... God, Rosie. I'm gonna have a baby."

"Hey, wait, didn't you guys want this? Are you sorry?"

"No, no, I'm not sorry! I want the baby! It's just so unexpected. No one ever really gets pregnant on her honeymoon."

"Well, you -- you have to tell Nathan."

Kylen said, "No, wait, should I? When he's out there flying, I want him thinking about that, not worrying about me! You know how men are, they think pregnancy is some kind of a disease instead of a natural thing. I don't want to scare him!"

"Then think about exactly how you're going to break it to him, but you have to tell him. He has a right to know he's going to be a father."

"Wow. A baby. How am I supposed to raise a kid?"

"What, you feed 'em, you change their diapers -- what's the big deal? It's gonna be a long time before it gets more complicated than that!"

Kylen shook her head, starting to smile. "Yeah. I guess that's right. There isn't much that's complicated about little babies."

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah." Kylen felt an incredible sense of wonder beginning to take the place of the flood of apprehensions. "Maybe I'm more okay than I've ever been in my life. As hard as they tried to destroy us, they couldn't ... and here's going to be this ... this wonderful little person to prove it." She jumped up and hugged Rosie. "I'm going to write to Nathan and then I'm going to tell everyone!"

(USS Saratoga, February 6, 2065)

No one was really paying any attention to West as he sat at the computer terminal reading his mail ... until he dropped a can of soda on the deck. Hawkes turned around and saw his friend had gone white as a sheet.

"Nate! What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong --" He swallowed hard and took a couple of deep breaths. "Kylen's pregnant!"

The rest of the squadron gathered around, sharing the excitement and offering their congratulations. They practically dragged him down to the Tun for a round of drinks, and West swallowed the first one in one gulp. He felt like the deck had gone out from under him and suddenly left him drifting without an anchor. He was more scared than he had ever been in his life. They hadn't talked about babies. They hadn't talked about a lot of things. He wasn't ready to be a father ... it was hard enough to be a husband long-distance.

He heard Vansen ask, "Is he okay?"

'Phousse replied, "I think he's in shock! Nate? Radio check, King!"

He laughed at himself. "CFB, Ace."

Vansen put her hand on his shoulder. "Nathan, you will make a terrific father."

"Are you sure about that, Shane? Because I'm not."

"Yeah, I'm sure. Do you want another drink?"

"No, any more and I'll be drunk.... I've got to write back to Kylen. And my folks -- I have to tell them. What am I thinking, she probably ran up there to tell them as soon as she told her dad. But I still have to write to them." He still looked like he'd been hit over the head. "Oh my God, Shane. A baby."

Vansen made herself grin and squashed the sudden jealousy she felt. "Hey, it'll be great. Think about all the fun you're going to have teaching this kid to ride a bike and throw a football and all that stuff."

West made himself act reassured, even though he felt anything but. As soon as he could he hurried back to the computer to write to his wife. He got as far as "Dear Kylen", and sat there staring at the blank screen for a long time before he figured out what to say.

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