See Disclaimer Information in Part One
After they finished the sim session, they all stopped off at
Tuns to relax a little before calling it a night. McQueen
was discussing one of the situations theyd gone over in the
sims with West and Hawkes, when Vansen burst out laughing at
something at something Damphousse whispered to her. He looked
down that way, her eyes were shining as brilliantly as any of the
stars visible through the viewport behind her. It had been a long
time since he had heard her laugh like that. Just for this
evening, she could have been any young woman out for a good time
with the people she cared about.
He was never going to fly again. That was a fact, and it had been for a long time, Chiggy von Richtoven not withstanding. And, yes -- the sims were going to throw it up in his face from now on. Somehow, though, with the laughter shining in Shanes eyes, it hurt a lot less...it didnt feel anymore like the world had ended that day.
McQueen pulled his full attention back to the conversation in front of him, and so did Shane and Phousse. They didnt stay at Tuns too late, because they had patrol first watch. As they walked out, Vansen dropped back a couple of paces to say quietly, Thank you.
For one of the best evenings Ive had since the damn war started.
Thats a funny thing for someone who lost an anything bet to be saying.
She smiled. You didnt have to win a bet, you know. You didnt win anything you didnt already have.
Ty looked at her and saw the fire in her eyes. You did say first watch tomorrow, didnt you?
She whispered a truly heartfelt, Sorry. Ive got an early morning.
Damn, he said, but he was smiling. Theyd been running the corridors at 0200 last night, that ought to be enough for a while. They parted at a junction in the corridor, she followed the rest of the 5-8 down towards the barracks while he went the other way to his own quarters.
The Mozart album theyd been listening to the night before was still in the player. He switched off the light, turned the volume down and let the piano fill the darkness with sound and memory.
Vansen glanced to either side to check formation, the 5-8 was flying with the 8-3 this morning to check out the area of a gas giant whose radio emissions were interfering with the Togas LIDAR. Todd Flannery was on her starboard wing, Phousse to port and West beyond her.
Flannery asked, Queen oDiamonds, did you get a team together for paintball?
Sure did, Wildcat.
Is the Jack in the game?
Oh, yeah, he ought to be off sick list tomorrow. He just smacked his hand somehow or other during that last little square dance.
Flannerys X.O. was heard to mutter a curse at that bit of news, Hawkes expert marksmanship was no secret. Shane wasnt a bit surprised they werent happy he was going to be in the game. She didnt mention that the LIDAR tech who was their number 8 had also qualified as an expert.
Damphousse voice cut into the skipchatter. I may have a contact at one oclock, confirm?
Silence for two beats, then Flannery said, Confirm, Ace, I got him. Toga, weve got a contact at...3.47 MSKs. Were checking it out.
McQueen replied, Acknowledged, Wildcat. Toga cannot confirm your contact, we have too much LIDAR interference.
On the Saratogas bridge, Ross stopped at the LIDAR station. Mr. Lee, see if you cant clean up that signal a little.
He continued over to McQueens station. Any idea what it is, Colonel?
The contact was at the extreme range of the patrols LIDAR, sir. It appeared to be fighter-class.
Several minutes passed while the 58th and the 83rd approached the coordinates of the LIDAR contact. McQueen was the same calm, rock-steady presence the bridge crew had come to expect. Knowing the truth about his relationship with Shane Vansen, Ross found it difficult to understand how he could be so calm about sending her and her squadron...his "kids...into the most potentially dangerous type of situation you ever found on patrol. That "contact" could be any damn thing. But that was the job they were out here to do.
Vansen said suddenly, Ive got another contact on my two, confirm!
Sam Smith replied, Queen oDiamonds, this is Lynx, Ive got it, confirmed!
Toga_, stand by for LIDAR feed! Vansen replied. Look alive, people!
McQueen realized why shed made that statement when the feed from her planes LIDAR came up on his board, a note of the same excitement came into his own voice. The hunters had scented their prey. Sir, it looks like theyve found the enemy carrier.
Well, Ill be damned. She must have laid up here for repairs. Sound general quarters! Helm, lay in a course for the patrols location and execute when ready. Colonel, order the patrol squadrons to stand by, do not close with the target. Ladies and gentlemen, it is payback time.
The bridge came to life as those orders and the others to follow were carried out.
This time the Saratoga had the advantage of surprise. She was nearly in range before any of the chig fighters even got off the deck. But when they did launch, it was with the knowledge that they had nothing whatsoever to lose, and the patrol squadrons were closest. All hell broke loose.
Vansen saw Flannery get in trouble in the middle of one of the chigs signature gang attacks. She locked on first one and then another of them, opening up an escape route. But then her lock-on alarm sounded.
Without even thinking, she pulled up into the same spiral turn shed used the night before in the sims. This time, she didnt miss on the first pass. But this time her opponent had a couple of friends. Ace, I could use some help over here.
On my way. Damphousse picked one of them off with a missile and closed in to take the other one out with her guns.
Ross saw McQueen take the time for one deep breath before he turned his attention to another trouble spot off the starboard bow, talking some scared kid out of a jam.
An officer reported, We are in range for the main guns, sir.
Ross said, This ones for the Ike, you son of a bitch. He turned to the weapons officer. Take that out of my sky!
The Togas main guns opened up, with a voice that boomed through the decks like thunder. Ross stood with his hands clasped behind him, watching impassively as fire blossomed on several decks of the chig carrier. Only when the explosion reached the main drive and tore her apart from the inside out did he allow himself a smile. All batteries, concentrate fire on the remaining enemy craft. Comms, get me a channel to theater command.
McQueen was waiting when the 5-8 and the 83rd squadron came aboard. There was a lot of whooping and hollering from the 83rds side of the bay, they had exacted some major payback for Billy Fultons injuries and theyd come through it without a scratch.
Vansen gave Damphousse a quick hug and a simple, Thanks. Good shooting.
Hey, girlfriend, thats what Im here for.
Nathan came up and put an arm around each of them. Shane said, Good going, Nathan.
McQueen took the stairs to the deck two at a time. Shane saw him and gave him a grin and a thumbs-up.
The 8-3 came over in a gang to include them in the celebration which had already gotten started. Catching Shane completely by surprise, Todd lifted her off the deck and spun her around, gave her an exuberant kiss. Thanks for saving my ass out there today, Major Vansen!
Too startled to whack him one, she just stared and finally got the sense to splutter, Next time, you can just buy me a beer!
The 83rd howled with laughter at their C.O.s expense. Nobody noticed the way West and Damphousse were looking at Flannery -- or how close he came to having McQueen put him through the nearest bulkhead. Least of all, Todd Flannery -- he was too busy staring at Shane as if hed seen her for the first time. Ill do that, too. Meet us at Tuns later! With that, his squadron hauled him off towards their locker room.
Shane stared after him for a couple of seconds, still flabbergasted. Then Hawkes joined the party, having been assigned to one of the guns during the fighting, and Todd Flannery was forgotten for the time being.
Mark and Christy headed by, gearing up on the run. Hey, Nate, you up for an SAR run? I need a co-pilot in a bad way.
West didnt hesitate, it didnt take a rocket scientist to figure out that he wouldnt be grabbing someone off the flight line unless there was a pilot out there in deep serious. Vansen asked, You need any more?
Nope, weve got a couple more medical personnel meeting us at the transport.
Cooper was caught flat-footed by the sudden concern he felt as he watched Christy disappear around the corner. If he hadnt been grounded, he would have insisted on going along too. He reminded himself that this was what Christy was trained to do...and that Mark and Nathan would look out for her. He went with the others to the lockers.
Tuns was loud and crowded by the time they got there, the jukebox was going full blast and the bartender was working double-time. Vansen found herself thinking that, even if it was party central in there, at least it didnt sound like the kind of an atmosphere that would encourage any bar fights. They went on in, to find that the 8-3 had got there ahead of them and staked out their usual table for them.
Todd Flannery bought her the beer he had promised her and gave her a boyish grin. Sorry I got carried away down in the hangar.
Quite aside from the embarrassing position it had put her in, with Ty right there, she wouldnt have appreciated being grabbed like that even when shed still been dating. But ... it wasnt every day you looked death in the face and spit in his eye. She couldnt blame Flannery for feeling a little too full of life at that point in time. She didnt want to blow the incident all out of proportion and create a situation where one didnt exist. So she forced a grin. Under the circumstances, Todd, I think I can forgive you for getting a little carried away.
That seemed to put an end to the incident, and after that, it was party time for a while. Vansen stayed until after West got back, reporting that the SAR mission had been successful. Christy had sent Cooper a message by way of Nathan that she was looking at another all-nighter on duty, but it was just normally busy. They didnt have every spare corner crowded with critically injured people the way they had before.
Vanessa got up to leave when she did. Ill get the reports, Shane.
Shane smiled, You certainly will not, I wont have you doing my paperwork after you saved my bacon today.
Vanessa chuckled. At least you didnt kiss me in front of the whole docking bay!
Shane wisecracked dryly, If Id known he was going to do that I might have missed one of those damn chigs.
I really want out of this bar, though. I think Ill see if the chaplains throwing a little bit quieter party, Vanessa grinned. I think Im getting too old to wake up with a hangover every time we find something to celebrate.
Vansen laughed. The guys could drink an elephant under the table, but she agreed with Damphousse about the hangover shed have if she tried to keep up with them round for round. She went back to the barracks by way of one of the large briefing rooms, which the chaplain typically commandeered for parties. Things were no less lively than at Tuns, and only slightly quieter in there, but Vanessa was a lot more at home. She gravitated over to a group of singers who were gathered around a couple people with keyboards, as Vansen walked down the hall she heard Damphousses strong voice raise above the rest in a triumphant rendition of Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty.
It was so good to hear Vanessa singing again. She had quit the choir for a while after Pauls death, maybe it was time to test the waters with her about going back.
She got to work on the reports as soon as she got back to the barracks, she wanted to finish them because she was hoping Ty would follow her down here. She wasnt disappointed, he met her before she was finished and pulled up a chair until she filed the last one.
Is Vanessa okay?
Id say she was more than okay, Ty. When I left her, the chaplain had her singing.
Ive missed that!
I was just thinking the same thing, Shane smiled. Where are the boys?
In a poker game with some of the 8-3.
Ty, I had no idea Flannery was going to do that!
He laughed. I know that. I almost jumped him when he put his hands on you, though!
I saw that, she said. Nobodys ever been jealous of me before. I think I kinda like it.
Now, wait a minute, I wasnt jealous! He protested. I just didnt like him grabbing you without your permission, thats all.
Right, she said solemnly.
Jealousy is an NB thing.
Whatever you say, she said, trying hard to keep serious. Is there somewhere we can go, or what?
He thought. His quarters werent a good place to make a habit, it would be too easy for someone to notice that she was around there on a regular basis. And his usual hideout over the bridge was out as well, the back corridors that lead to it were still being used by the crews repairing the docking bay. There is a place, if you dont mind going down there. Have you ever been to hydroponics?
No, but I know where it is. Ill meet you down there.
There were two sections to hydroponics, the area where food plants were grown was kept secure. But there was another area where ornamentals were grown. That was open to anyone who wanted to come down here, though few took advantage of the opportunity. For one thing, due to the variations in sim-grav, the lower deck was a little higher than 1G. Also, the air circulation wasnt as good down here, it was warm and humid -- perfect for growing plants, though! The hydroponics section produced a lot of the ships oxygen, that was the main reason for devoting so much area to it.
Vansen wandered past several raised boxes growing all kinds of flowers. Just looking at them, they looked like planters, but when she looked straight down into one, she could see that the roots grew in a few centimeters of liquid. She often requested flowers for her desk, all she had to do was send an e-mail whenever she wanted them and presently someone would deliver them. She had never really thought about where they came from, or requested any specific kind, just cut flowers.
She heard the hatch open and got out of sight behind some ferns until she saw that it was McQueen. Then she stepped out where he could see her. I didnt know all this was even down here! I run in the main corridor all the time, but Ive never come in here.
Most people havent. I like to read in here sometimes, and I never see anyone except the techs.
How often do they come in?
Not very often, and if this is like the other carriers Ive been on, I know a place where well have some privacy. Its back here.
Vansen followed him to the rear of the large bay, where several unassuming hatches were set in the back bulkhead. None of them were locked. He looked through the viewport of one and pushed it open. Inside was a supply locker with several rows of shelves. Even if someone did walk in here casually, they wouldnt notice someone in the back. I think youve been in one of these places before! She laughed.
That got a rare, almost shy grin. Ill neither confirm nor deny that.
Vansen let herself down to the deck and leaned back against the bulkhead, eyes closed. It was the first chance shed had all day to stand down. She kept seeing those two chigs weaving back and forth on her six, knowing she wasnt going to be able to lose both of them without some help. The situation hadnt lasted more than a few seconds, but shed been as close to death then as she ever had been. She felt a delayed reaction starting, she kept her hands folded quietly in her lap to hide the way they wanted to start shaking.
McQueen settled in beside her, and held her close. Are you okay?
Yeah, just a case of nerves that Ive been putting off all day, she replied.
You had one hell of a close call.
There wasnt a damn thing I could do except hope Phousse was close enough.
There wasnt a damn thing I could do, period, he said.
Vansen looked up at him, not bothering with phony words of comfort they both knew were meaningless. She understood what it was like for him to watch from the bridge. We knew from the start that was going to be the worst part of this.
I think you described us as a couple of damn fools.
Yeah. Im a live damn fool. Guess Ill take it. Her lips quirked into a little half-smile.
McQueen pulled a ration bar from his pocket and snapped it in half, gave her a piece. She realized she hadnt eaten anything except a few pretzels since an early breakfast of coffee and danish, and bit into it hungrily. She savored the taste of chocolate chips and peanuts. A live damn fool wasnt such a bad thing to be, not at all.
Mark threw his cards on the table. Im out.
Sam said, You and me both, buddy. Looks like this is your lucky day, Coop.
With a wide grin, Cooper collected his winnings. He would have offered to buy another round, but everyone had decided theyd had plenty a few hands ago and switched to pop and iced tea. You guys want to play a game of foosball?
Sam said, I was thinking about going back down to sickbay and keeping Billy company. Hes getting pretty bored in there.
Yeah, Mark said, I remember what that was like. All you get from the nurses is Stay in that bed! and Dont scratch that! It gets old real fast. Maybe we could take him some magazines or a couple of movies?
Sam said, I downloaded a bunch of car magazines for him last night. Maybe some movies, that would be good.
West said, Id better get some e-mail out to Kylen and my folks so theyll know Im okay when this hits the news.
<end part 6>
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