Return to Kazbek
Part Three -- by Becky Ratliff
(USS Baton Rouge January 2065)
Kylen pulled off her boots with a heartfelt sigh. It felt odd to be back in a flight suit again after all these months. She had gotten used to the comfort of jeans and sneakers. At least it wasn't an Aerotech flight suit -- it was a simple, unadorned military one of the type issued to civilians, everyone from civilian advisors to war reporters to the kid who scrubbed pans in the galley. The only marking on it was her name. Celina. A real pity she didn't know who that person was any more.
Rosie plopped down beside her on her bunk. "God, what a trip. Did you ever see so many people at Dulles?"
"Millions of them, and I think every one of them was trying to get on our shuttle," Kylen groaned. "Not much like the colony ship, huh?"
"Two years makes a hell of a difference," Rosie grinned. "Who would've thought we'd have shuttles taking off like the redeye from New York to Beantown?"
"Damn Aerotech," Kylen replied reflexively. All the survivors had that opinion. They'd talked to lawyers, there was going to be a lawsuit. It would probably drag on in the courts for years. They'd probably never see credit one, and even if they did, what could pay for all those months of hell? The survivors just wanted to make the Aerotech bigwigs stand up in court and listen to some judge tell them they were guilty of all the deaths they'd caused. Maybe that was justice.
Most of the survivors were getting on with their lives, but that didn't mean they didn't keep in touch constantly. Rosie had to grin at the memory of Kylen telling that damned officious Colonel Spradlin that unless he wanted a bunch of very irate former POWs pounding their location out of him with a tire iron one day soon, he'd better let them inform the rest of the crowd that there was nothing sinister about their being out of communications for a while. Spradlin had started to argue with her ... until he'd looked in her eyes ... and realized that she had been perfectly serious about the tire iron. It was just a matter of course that Rosie or Kylen or any of the rest would walk in front of a bullet for any of the others. Rosie wondered if Spradlin had anyone he'd do that for. She hadn't, before the mission....
"What are you laughing about?" Kylen asked.
"Colonel Spradlin," she replied.
Kylen grinned. Her dad had called him an REMF. He'd refused to explain what the term meant, just said it was an old military term from the round of Persian Gulf troubles back in the early 40's. Kylen had laughed that she could figure out what the MF stood for, what she didn't understand was the RE part. It turned out that was Rear Echelon. Well, someone like that belonged in the rear -- not up at the front lines where he would get someone killed! "What a jerk."
"I think we missed supper," Kylen observed. "It's been a long time since lunch. At least the colony ship had snack machines."
"Yeah, but there were so many 'nat' and 'tank' remarks flying around, it sounded like a damn civil rights riot whenever I tried to get near them."
"It wasn't really you guys. People were just pissed about the way Aerotech handled the whole thing. Springing it on us the last day like that --"
"Oh, hell, it lasted about five minutes anyway after the shooting started. I sure never thought anyone was really prejudiced. Well, Cleo, but she's prejudiced against everybody."
Kylen snickered. "Cleo is an equal-opportunity politically incorrect person. And you laughed every bit as bad as everybody else did when she told the one about the tank and the --"
Rosie actually reddened a little. "Well, it was funny," she said. "I won't turn her in to the IV rights commission for telling it, as long as she doesn't turn me in for laughing at it." She paused. "Of course, if anyone but Cleo had told it, I probably would have smacked him."
"I know what you mean, she can just get away with it. I guess because everyone knows she'll get them too sooner or later. With me, it was farmer's daughter jokes."
"Some of them were pretty funny, too."
"Yeah, and the Good Lord knows we needed to laugh at something. Rosie, thanks for coming with me. I think I know what you meant when you said I had to do this. But it's really hard. I don't know if I could have got on that transport by myself. It's one thing to think about it from here, that -- yeah, I have to face the past before I can get on with the future. But I don't know if I'll have the guts to get the job done when we actually get to Kazbek. What if I panic?"
"You won't, Kylen, I know you're tougher than that. Look at everything you've done already! You've got to start believing in yourself." Rosie sighed. "I understand how you feel. I've got a lot of the same kind of ... unfinished business ... on Demeter."
"You want to go back there?" Kylen asked after a time.
"It isn't that I ever want to," she replied. "It's just that there are things I need to put behind me."
"So why don't you?"
Rosie looked beyond the bulkhead to endless fields where the hot sun beat down on weary laborers. "Because I don't trust myself not to commit murder if I ever see some of those people again."
"Hey, Rosie. I'd drive the get-away car if you did."
"Yeah, I know you would. So that's why we're both here, all right?"
Rosie poked her boots under the bottom bunk and climbed up to the top one. "I hope they have lots of breakfast on this tub."
(USS Saratoga, January 2065)
The flight deck was a zoo. There was a huge crowd of people hanging around waiting for mail call, others unloading cargo from the line of transport pods. Kenny Lucas tried to see over the crowd to figure out which one of the pods had the civilians on it. His orders were to meet two of them and escort them to a briefing up in officers' territory. Must be some kind of important briefing, too, Captain West had got all cleaned up in dress olive to attend it.
He saw an old man leaving one of the pods. It was unlikely he was on active duty at that age. Kenny figured that had to be it. He went over that way, there were half a dozen civilians standing around on the other side of the passenger box. He announced, "Are there two civilian advisors present to be conducted to a briefing?"
Two women, both blonde, one tall, one short, stepped out of the crowd. Jackson and -- Celina!? Nobody had said anything about that! "Ma'am, are you Kylen Celina?"
"That's right, Lieutenant ... Lucas. Is there some sort of problem?"
"No, ma'am, it's just that we hadn't been told to expect you. Your bags will be taken to your quarters, I'm to conduct you to the briefing now."
Kylen said, "You mean to tell me Nathan doesn't know I'm here?! Whose idea was that?"
"Security, probably, ma'am."
Kylen and Rosie looked at each other. "Okay ... conduct away, Lieutenant."
Nathan jumped half out of his seat when they entered the room, Vansen restrained him then looked to see what had set him off. She nudged McQueen's ankle and shot a significant glance at the hatch, where Ross was greeting Kylen and Rosie. The Commodore looked just as surprised as they were. Under her breath, Vansen whispered, "What's going on?"
McQueen answered with a barely perceptible shake of his head, he didn't know either. The only one who didn't seem to be startled by the young women's appearance was the Naval Intelligence officer standing next to the Commodore.
When Ross brought Kylen and Rosie to the table, Kylen staked out the chair across from Nathan.
Ross skewered the intelligence officer with a glare. "I believe that this explains your insistence upon Captain West's attendance at this briefing, Mr. Gray. I am waiting to hear the rest of the explanation."
Commander Gray came to attention. "Commodore Ross, sir, it was decided that, for Miss Celina and Miss Jackson's safety, as little information as possible about their trip here should be made available. Otherwise you would have been informed, sir."
Ross nodded, but he didn't like that answer. It was pretty damn obvious to him that no one had wanted them to know Kylen was involved in this until it was a fait accompli ... and the plan had been successful. There wasn't much he could do about it now. He gave Gray a stern look. "Very well. You may continue, Commander."
"As you know, sir, up until now, Kazbek has been too deep in enemy territory and too well guarded to be a viable target. But the Cerrus fleet was broken at New Jerusalem. Now we have information that they're evacuating the Cerrus colony, and that most of the remaining forces which had been deployed to protect the Kappa Reticuli system have now been recalled to the homeworld. The chigs have been forced to leave Kazbek lightly guarded, and now we have an opportunity to strike. It should be possible to capture the facility there intact, if we act swiftly."
McQueen leaned forward. "Capture it, Commander? I'm surprised the chigs would leave such a valuable facility intact if they were forced to pull out."
"It appears the chigs are taking the raw ore offworld as fast as they can, stockpiling all of it that they can get their hands on. As you know, they had been refining it on Kazbek and taking the fuel itself offworld. Not now. They're stripping the place and rigging it to blow. Now, the High Command has leaked information suggesting it's going to take us two weeks longer to get into position than it really will. The enemy wants to keep running the mine until the last possible moment. That gives us a window of opportunity to get into the system. If a commando team can eliminate all the chigs and the AIs inside the mine, we can capture it. I don't need to tell you how important this mission is. But the only individuals who have actually been down in the mine are the 58th squadron ... and the former POWs."
McQueen asked, "What about that force recon team that pulled us off Kazbek? They were down there too."
Gray said, "It was decided not to include that unit in this operation, Colonel."
McQueen and Ross shared a glance. So their suspicions about how Aerotech had come by a sample of Sewell fuel in the first place had been correct ... they hadn't known for sure, there had always been the possibility it had come from Vesta. McQueen remembered that grunt sticking a backpack under his seat when they were pulling out, he'd thought at the time that the kid looked nervous....
Nathan said, "Excuse me, sir, but how are we supposed to get onworld? If just one of our ships lights up their LIDAR, it'll blow the whole mission. With that much traffic, I don't see how we can even get in close enough for a HALO jump without being seen."
Gray looked at him and grinned. "We captured a few of their cargo barges on New Jerusalem. Most of them died, but the techies kept one healthy."
McQueen asked, "Are you sure it'll fly?"
"It'll fly," Gray assured him. "Colonel, they're taking those barges in and out of there like the evacuation of Miami, and there's just as much confusion on the ground. The 5-8 can get in there and secure the mine before the main attack."
McQueen knew no commando mission ever went as smoothly as that, but it sounded possible.
The discussion went on for another hour. Kylen and Rosie were able to answer enough questions to demonstrate that they did know their way around the mine better than anyone else did, though they admitted readily that there were areas of the complex they had never been allowed to enter.
When the briefing was over, Nathan drew Kylen aside. First he held her close and kissed her. Then he asked her, "What do you think you're doing here?"
She didn't have a good answer -- not in so many words -- and no time for the long version, here with all these strangers around. She replied, "What I have to do, Nathan."
"No, you do not have to. They could have debriefed you on Earth. You certainly could stay here on the Sara, you could be in radio contact with the command post all the time." He looked around. "Colonel, will you talk some sense--?"
McQueen could see Nathan's side of it and he wanted to agree. He didn't want to have civilians along, especially civilians who might react unpredictably. On the other hand, he saw a look in Kylen's eyes that he knew very well. After he'd kicked the green meanies the first time, he had seen that look in his own eyes when he'd been wondering if he had the courage to go up against the AIs without the drug, after they'd broken him. He hadn't really slept until he found out the answer to that question, and if he had died in the next skirmish, it would have been worth it to know the truth. Now, Kylen just as desperately needed her own truth.
Kylen saw the understanding in his eyes, and the worry in West's. "What about this? Nathan, what if Rosie and I stay with Colonel McQueen? We won't go anywhere until he says it's okay."
Nathan looked at McQueen, who nodded. "Anything that gets to her will have to come through me."
"That's good enough for me," Nathan said. He knew McQueen wouldn't let Kylen put herself at any unnecessary risk. Never mind that there were going to be a hell of a lot of necessary ones!
For McQueen's part, he was glad he didn't have to answer that one out loud. It was a matter of course that he and Nathan trusted each other with their lives ... but that Nathan so readily trusted him with Kylen's life was something yet again.
Looking at Kylen, though, he wondered if it would be possible to keep her safe and still give her the chance to slay her demons. He hoped that setting foot on Kazbek as a free woman would be enough to answer her questions.
<end part three>
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