Return to Kazbek

Part Two -- by Becky Ratliff

(USS Saratoga)

Nathan found Cooper at a corner table in the rec room, staring out the port and idly pushing an empty pop can around the table top. "You really hacked Shane off," Nathan observed.

"Yeah, I know. She was right. I could've got myself killed out there just doing something stupid."

Nathan couldn't honestly deny that one. "At least there would've been a big argument about whether it was brave or stupid."

"Yeah. But what she said about going to my funeral ... I could just see that. I mean, with Christy there and everything. Shane was right, if that happened because I messed up, that'd be the worst thing I could ever do ... and I'd never get the chance to make up for it."

"If you figured that out, that's what's important. That's why Shane was yelling at you."

"I know that now, Nathan. You think she's still mad?"

"Maybe. I don't think it's so much she was really mad, as that you scared the crap out of her. The worst lecture my parents ever gave me was for climbing a water tower."

"Why the hell did you do that?"

"I don't know, I was just a dumb kid and I wanted to see what was up there," West said. "The point is, it's a wonder I didn't fall and break my neck. When you scare people, it makes them mad. My parents went ballistic, I couldn't sit down for a week and I forget how long I was grounded. Never climbed the water tower again, that's for sure!" Nathan was silent a moment. "That's one thing that really sucks, Coop."

"What does?"

"Well, everybody screws up like that. I mean, everybody goes through this phase where you think you're immortal, nothing can happen to you. So you do something stupid like that, and it dawns on you that you're not bullet-proof. But we get the chance to do it while we're kids. Everyone expects kids to make stupid-ass mistakes. So for what was really the same thing -- it just sucks, that's all."

"Nate, I've been around almost eight years, I shouldn't still be sticking my foot in it so often. I'll bet McQueen wasn't still screwin' the pooch when he was my age."

West grinned. "Well, now, it really isn't fair to try to compare yourself to McQueen --"

Hawkes threw the empty can at him, but grinned back in spite of himself.

West barehanded the can easily and sailed it into the trash. "Let's go down to Tun's, it's too quiet in here!"

That was where Shane found them a little while later. She walked up to the table and gave them both a mean look. "I don't know whose idea this was, but here." She put the envelopes on the table between them. Only when they had opened them and started to read, she let the grin she had been hiding spread across her face. "Congratulations, Captains. And Captain Hawkes?"

He looked up. "Ma'am?"

Vansen realized something. That was the first time Hawkes had ever referred to her as ma'am. And it was the same look, the same tone of voice that McQueen used when he called Ross "sir". She had to work really hard to reply in a smartass tone of voice, "Try to be around long enough to enjoy the pay raise."

He saw in her eyes that all was forgiven, and returned the smile. "I will."

Vanessa Damphousse wandered over to Julie's keyboard and idly picked out the melody line of the new song they were learning. Julie had found it in the library's music files, and thought it would be perfect for Vanessa's voice, as well as a very appropriate piece for them to perform.

... From a distance, the world looks blue and green,
and the snow-capped mountains white.
From a distance, the ocean meets the stream,
and the eagle takes to flight.

That was a beautiful image, she thought, it reminded her of her hometown in California. She had no trouble imagining the view from the deck out by the pool, the mountains reaching into a blue sky. And no American -- certainly no Marine -- could help but hear two meanings in the line about the eagle! She could almost feel the cold mountain air on her face.

She blinked, and the scene she imagined suddenly became real. She was standing in a hatchway -- but it was a six-sided one, and she knew the feel of it all too well. This place had been built by chigs.

She was dressed in BDUs, they were still damp and she could smell salt water on herself. But the sea was far below her, down the mountainside and across an emerald green expanse of forest or jungle. And she knew that this place was tainted by the presence of something venomous.

There was a great evil waiting for her, here ... the same icy, cruel presence she had felt once before in a vision such as this one, the presence that had slapped her aside as if she were an insignificant child. At first that thought frightened her, but then she became aware of her Ka-bar hanging in its sheath. She saw the image of an eagle diving out of the azure sky towards its prey. Its outstretched talons blended with the image of her own hand holding the Ka-bar.

She was the eagle. Whatever else Vanessa Damphousse was, she was no insignificant child. That had been a mistake on her enemy's part. It was her destiny to face whatever waited here, her challenge to defeat it.

But not today. She didn't need her talent to tell her it was high time to get out of Dodge. She drew a deep breath and pulled up images, the Sara, the rec room, the keyboard and the sheet music she knew were right in front of her ... Mark sitting on a folding chair just behind her tuning his guitar ...

Reality replaced the vision. She shook her head and looked around the rec room.

Neither Mark nor Julie had noticed anything out of the ordinary. Vanessa decided that it would be best to leave it that way, for the time being. She finished the practice session, though her mind wasn't really on it. Julie's boyfriend came by, she tucked her keyboard under her arm and the two of them went off together. Mark and Vanessa put their instruments away and pushed the chairs back into place under the table. Mark coiled the extension cord he'd been using for his amp and stowed it neatly in a locker.

"Would you like to make popcorn and watch a movie?" Mark asked.

She smiled and forced a light tone into her voice. "Can I take a rain check until tomorrow evening? We have patrol first thing, I've got to be on the flightline at 0600."

He grinned. "That will give me time to get us one of the big screen TV's," he said. "Do you like westerns?"

"Why, shore do, pardner," she drawled.

"They got in a bunch of spaghetti westerns the last time, there are some good ones that I haven't seen before."

"That sounds great. Have you ever seen 'Pale Rider?' I think that's the best one."

"That's one of the ones I haven't seen. Is it one of the Man with No Name series?"

"Well, not exactly ... I don't want to spoil it! Just get it if no one else has."

"Are you sure you don't mind seeing it again? We can get one that you haven't watched, if you'd rather," Mark said.

"No, it's been a long time. I'd like to watch it again."

"What's your favorite movie?"

"Oh, my ... I think I'd have to say 'Casablanca.' Or maybe 'Glory.'"

"They both have sad endings," Mark objected. "I refuse to believe in sad endings," he declared.

She smiled at that. "It's life."

"Not always." He grinned. "My favorite movie is 'Star Wars.' And the good guys win every time I watch it!"

In spite of herself, a slow grin spread across her face. To her surprise, Mark leaned close and planted a quick kiss on her lips. She expected him to kiss her again, or to apologize, but he did neither one, just stood there with his dark, dark eyes looking into hers. After a long moment, Vanessa drew his head down to hers in a long, slow kiss. Soon she felt his strong arms around her and relaxed into the warmth of his embrace. Finally, they drew apart.

Breathless, he said, "I'd better walk you back to your quarters ... before I keep you awake way past lights out!"

"Maybe you're right," she replied, and she couldn't seem to stop herself from grinning.

They parted at the 58th's hatch. Vanessa wasn't surprised to find Shane there alone.

Her CO gave her a quizzical look. "You look like you just got --"

"Very thoroughly kissed!" Vanessa replied. "Or, rather, Mark kissed me, and then I kissed him back!" She sat down on the opposite end of Shane's bunk. "I'm happy. And I feel guilty about that."

"Well, quit that."

"What do you mean, quit that."

"I mean you have nothing to feel guilty about. I love Ty with all my heart. That doesn't mean I stopped loving John, or that I will ever stop loving John, or forget him for one minute. You're going to feel the same way about Paul, and whoever the lucky guy is that you end up with. You have too much love to give to spend the rest of your life alone, and Paul wouldn't want you to do that."

Tears sparked Vanessa's lashes and she leaned over to hug Shane. Her friend held her for a moment, then leaned back. "So tell me all about it!"

So, Vanessa told her everything, from the vision to the kiss in the deserted rec room. "I have to tell the Commodore about that flash I had, he said he wanted to know if I ever had any more of them."

"Well ... if I know him and the Colonel, you can probably catch them both together around the coffee pot around 0530-hours tomorrow morning. That would be a good time for a little quiet ... off the record report."

Vanessa nodded. She would do just that.

Shane asked, "What are you thinking?"

Vanessa threw her head back and laughed. "That I could get very used to making music and watching old movies with Mark Miller."

(USS Saratoga, one week later)

It was just after colors, but Colonel TC McQueen had been at work for a couple of hours already. He had known how busy he was going to be as Honcho, he was responsible for everything from pilot readiness to maintenance and supply for the squadrons' equipment. His style had always been hands-on before, he wasn't used to putting his name on things until he was as sure as he could be that it was accurate. His duties now were too time-consuming to do things to that level of detail, and it would have been micromanagement in any case. He was learning to delegate duties he really felt he ought to be handling himself, and that wasn't easy.

For once, Commodore Ross had been able to show him a few things -- he'd followed the usual progression from Air Boss to XO, and finally command of the Saratoga right after the war started. On board the carrier, the Air Boss and the Honcho did basically the same job. The only difference was that if a number of the ship's Space Cav squadrons went in on a ground pounder, it would sometimes be his job to set up a command post dirtside -- the Air Boss never did that, since Navy aviators were strictly that, aviators. But every Marine was still a rifleman!

The ship's current Air Boss, Roberta Carey, came in and landed on the corner of the desk. She was in her mid thirties, she had been the CO of one of the best Navy squadrons aboard the Eisenhower. Of eleven kids in the Thunderbolts, only three had survived the loss of the Ike. They'd been reassigned to the Sara a few weeks into the Battle of Ixion. He had watched Carey pay little attention to the promotion to Captain that her heroism over Demios had earned her. For a long time there, she had lived from one sortie to the next, for the next opportunity to make the chigs pay a steep bill for the Ike and her crew.

In the time following, she had put her grief behind her, and they had started to see flashes of a ready sense of humor and a genuine love of flight. By the time the peace conference had gone awry, she had found herself the highest ranking Naval squadron commander on the Sara.

Then, while McQueen had been in rehab back on earth, the Sara's former Air Boss, Pete Kramer, had a heart attack. He'd survived, McQueen had heard that had been as much by sheer cussedness as anything else. But it had got him a ticket back to Earth ... and now Roberta Carey was the Sara's CAG. It was the last thing she'd ever expected, and McQueen suspected the last thing she'd ever wanted. But she'd done her job, quietly, without complaint.

He had found out a few things about her as the months passed. Carey was Navy all the way through to the bone, her family had an Annapolis tradition that went back before World War II. She was divorced, she didn't talk about her ex-husband except as an aside when she was discussing their teenage son. The boy was in a military school back on Earth, and working towards following his mother to Annapolis. McQueen had the impression of Robbie that if she wasn't going to be allowed to do what she felt she did best and head up a fighting squadron, she'd do the next best thing and become the youngest Admiral in the fleet. It wouldn't surprise him a bit to see her succeed. At the same time, though, she could spend a whole evening over a chess game, or discussing some obscure volume of military history that no one else on the Sara besides the two of them had ever heard of, much less read.

McQueen had learned that he could tell a lot about Carey's current state of mind by a glance at her short cornsilk-blonde pony tail. She started out in the morning with most of her hair pulled up and back, except for a neatly combed lock at each side of her face. If she pulled off the clip, stuck it in her pocket, and shook her hair loose, she was in a good mood. However, if she had it all slicked back severely at the nape of her neck, it was best to tread carefully. This morning, not only was the hair clip riding her collar, her green eyes looked like sea ice.

Mildly, he asked, "Did Shackleford buzz the bridge again?"

She gave him a look that would have put a laser to shame. "If he changes his call sign to Maverick, so help me God--!"

For a while there back in '55 or '56, the 127th had been the terror of the Loxley tower crew for doing that -- a few times in formation. Now didn't seem like it would be a particularly good time to reminisce about that to Roberta Carey, though. Especially since Shackleford was one of his Marines.... "If I know Jeff-D, he's already got hold of him."

Carey snorted, but he could see the ruffled feathers start to smooth back into place. "If I know Jeff-D, he'll dress him down for everyone to hear it -- they've got it scripted by now. But when those two good ol' boys get back to their quarters, they'll laugh about it the rest of the day. If the chigs weren't cussing him louder than I am, I'd be a little more upset about it."

McQueen nodded. Beau Shackleford's antics upset Carey's sense of order, but she had the grace to be a good sport about it. She was also perceptive enough to realize that the tales of his "insubordination" which circulated around the Saratoga raised morale considerably. So, she played her part when he pulled one of his stunts. As for Shackleford, he knew just how far he could go without making either Carey or Commodore Ross mad enough to ground him ... and, come to think of it, he'd never tried any of that stuff while McQueen was on the bridge....

Vansen came in, neither McQueen nor Carey noticed her brief scowl as she took in Carey's pose on the corner of McQueen's desk. She had a stack of papers, she set them down between him and Carey. His eyes lit up when he saw Vansen, that more than anything reassured her that she was being silly. She said, "Here are our weekly checklists, I went over them already."

Vansen's support was something McQueen never had to think about, it was just always there. The 5-8's paperwork was only one example of that. Anything that needed his attention would be flagged, otherwise he knew the reports would be in order. He had discovered that he had a great deal to learn about how many quiet little ways there were to say "I love you," and it seemed that Shane had found a new one every day since he had gone back on active duty.


Vansen found a message waiting for her when she got back to her desk. She looked at it once, then read it again to make sure she had read it right the first time. It didn't change. Someone had finally realized she hadn't been assigned private quarters when she had been given command of the 5-8. That oversight had been corrected.

She made a wry face. Wonderful! She hadn't expected that one. The last thing she needed was to be alone at night, she hated it. But there was nothing she could do about it.

She did a double take of the cabin assignment. Hell, she was two doors down from Ty. A lot of good that did now!

At least she hadn't had the chance to collect a lot of stuff to move. One good size box ought to do it.


'Phousse found her packing her things that afternoon. "What's going on? Shane?"

"Rank hath its privileges. I now have a private cabin," was Shane's surly reply.

'Phousse took up an armload of her belongings. "I know that look, girlfriend, you need some company -- and you don't need Lisa or Nita asking why. So I'm helping you move."

Shane carefully detached her pictures from the bulkhead and laid them one by one in a manila folder, by the time she was done with that she had most of the bad attitude under control. "Thanks, Vanessa. Walk down to the PX with me later, I want to buy some picture frames if they have any."

That afternoon and evening, with Vanessa for company, it wasn't so bad. But late that night, when she woke up in the dark from her usual round of dreams, it was just as bad as she'd expected. She kicked the sheets off, staggered over to the head and turned on the light in there, then sat back down on the side of her rack and put her head in her hands. She could go for a run ... but she decided, maybe later. She could never run fast enough or far enough to leave the memories behind for long. Right now, she didn't feel like running away.

<end part two>

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