Degrees of Guilt

Part Five -- by Becky Ratliff

See Disclaimer in Part One

It stopped raining just before dawn. They shared a cold breakfast of rations and water, and then started back to the cave.

Nathan wasn’t sure what was going on, though, when Hawkes knocked him down in the wet weeds and threw a camo tarp over both of them. Then he heard it himself -- chig engines. They peeked out from under the edge of the tarp to see a flight of four big spacecraft traveling overhead. It wasn't a type of chig craft that either of them had ever seen before, but Nathan guessed they were either troop transports or cargo planes. Considering the large hatches at either end of the craft, he tended to think the latter.

They waited a while to make sure there weren't more waves of planes after that one passed over, then they headed back for the cave.


Neither of them was too surprised to find McQueen waiting for them just inside the cave entrance. When they'd got out of hearing of the two Salemites who were on guard duty there, they told McQueen what had happened with the chigs, and Garrett, and their suspicions that he had killed the two colonists as well. Hawkes turned over the piece of vine he’d taken from the chig.

Then they told about the four chig transports they’d seen. West said, "I don't know what they were, but they looked more like cargo transports than anything else."

McQueen said, "Something’s going on up north of us, those transports probably have something to do with that. How well did you hide those chigs?"

West said, "As well as we could, sir, they're in heavy underbrush and covered with leaves. If they know where to look, though, they'll find them eventually. The one good thing about that, spooging the way they do, the chigs probably won't be able to tell exactly how they died either. I threw the spears and the ropes in the river."


Hawkes said, "Colonel McQueen, I'm sorry I let Garrett get the drop on me. If I'd been more careful maybe we could have captured him."

McQueen was thinking that he was just as glad Garrett had taken that decision out of their hands. If they'd brought him back, the colonists would have had to decide what to do with him ... and there would always have been the chance he might escape and kill again. It had been Damphousse who'd been worried about being down here in these caves with the murderer ... and with Damphousse, you never knew whether her "bad feelings" were just the jitters, or something that needed to be taken a hell of a lot more seriously. He just said, "Garrett was certifiable, Coop, sometimes a crazy person can do some pretty incredible things. You're probably lucky to be alive, I don't know if you could have brought him in."

They headed back to camp. McQueen considered keeping Benjamin's fate to himself, but after thinking it through, he decided there was too much chance the colonists would find out or guess what had happened, when Benjamin never showed up. Covering it up and getting caught in a lie would be worse than telling the truth from the outset.

He took Elder Elisha aside and told him what had happened. Elisha had witnessed Benjamin's attack on Elizabeth and little Ephraim after the fire. He already knew his son-in-law had been unstable and capable of violence. The elder nodded silently. McQueen showed him the piece of vine that Hawkes had taken from around the chig's wrists. "Lt. Hawkes believed this might be the same as the vine used to strangle Lydia."

Elisha nodded. "It grows everywhere around here." He paused. "Benjamin. I can't believe ... I let my daughter marry a madman like that. I sheltered him in my house while he preyed on people who trusted me to protect them."

"Who could expect you to be suspicious of your own son-in-law?"

"I knew he had a temper, but I certainly never thought he was capable of something like this. He set the fire?"

"I don't know if we'll ever be sure of that."

"If he did ... then he tried to burn Ephraim and Abbie alive. His own children.... Colonel McQueen, I'll thank God until the day I die that you were there. I could never have gotten up into that loft the way you did."

The old man's eyes were shadowed with the pain of knowing his best years had passed him by, that he couldn't protect his family as he once had. McQueen said, "I was just in the right place at the right time."

"Do you see any reason now why we shouldn't give Sister Lydia a decent Christian burial? It will defuse any possible ... speculation ... if the people realize that Lieutenant West and Lieutenant Hawkes rescued us from a wolf who has been in our fold for several years. Joshua is a good man, but I wouldn't want him to use this tragedy for his own purposes."

McQueen looked at him and nodded. Elder Elisha was no stranger to political maneuvering. "That would be wise."


As McQueen came back to the camp, Wolfe called out to him. "McQueen, got a minute?"

He waited up, Danny jumped down from the upper ledge and joined him near the Wildcards' campsite. "I've been back up to that lookout they call the Crow's Nest, and I saw a lot of big stuff flying over."

"Like their troop transports, only bigger, with cargo doors at either end?" When Danny nodded, McQueen said, "Hawkes and West saw some of them too."

"I don't know what they're doing, but they're ferrying a lot of stuff down from orbit," Danny worried. "A flight of those things went over every twenty mikes or so. They were wallowing so much when they hit any turbulence at all that they must have been right at capacity. This can't be just any old airstrip, TC. I've got O'Donnell up there keeping an eye out now."

"Good. We're going to have to find out what the hell they're up to. In the meanwhile, let me know if anyone sees anything."

"Right," Wolfe replied.

"I'll need to borrow O'Donnell for a few days. I'm going to have to take a patrol up north, I need a scout."

Wolfe took a deep breath. "I can't believe I'm getting into this, but -- TC, I hope you ain't sayin' you think you're better at casing a joint than I am."

McQueen said, "Okay, Danny, what's your idea?"

"I head up the recon patrol. I'll figure out what they got -- you figure out how to take it down."

"Your eye's always on the bottom line, Danny. What's in it for you?"

Wolfe gave McQueen a long, hard look, trying to decide what to say and how to say it. "Might happen when this is all over with I'll need someone to put his ass on the line so the Wolfe Pack can get clear. I don't mean to leave any of my people behind this time."

"That was our deal from the start," McQueen said.

After a moment, Wolfe nodded slowly -- he knew McQueen's word was worth more than anyone else's signed contract.

McQueen asked, "There's one thing I never understood, Wolfe. Why did you do it?"

Wolfe said, "You mean the black market, in the first place?"


Wolfe admitted candidly, "It was Aleisha, TC. Remember that belt pirate who took her out? I had the bastard in my sights. You told me let the law handle it. Remember that? Remember how you said he’d get the needle and I wouldn’t be a murderer?

That son of a bitch copped a plea to manslaughter and walked away with a slap on the wrist because he could afford a big-shot lawyer. The law was a joke. It's always been a joke and it always will be. I figured out then, you get what you can buy in this life, that's the end of the story."

McQueen said, "I remember Aleisha, Danny. She died doing something she loved, something she believed in. She wouldn't even know you now. Don't try to lay what you did onto her, you owe her memory better than that!"

"I had plenty of time in Leavenworth to figure that one out, TC. Nothing I ever did was Aleisha's fault, whatever decisions I made are all Danny Wolfe's. But at the time, I was twenty-one and stupid, and the honcho of that black market outfit showed me more money than I ever saw in my life. All I had to do was drive the bus, she says, it's just a simple pickup. We were using an ISSCV off the Yorktown, looked like a training flight. You all thought I was on leave. We met up with this freighter, I docked up and the kids went aboard to make the pickup. Next thing I knew, all hell broke loose, sounded like the fuckin' battle of Miami all over again. That freighter crew thought they were smuggling in some uncut diamonds. They didn't know they were smuggling the diamonds and the rest of the cargo as well.

Then, I looked out the port and one of the freighter's airlocks opened up, and about six bodies floated out. At least, I hope to God they were bodies before someone opened that airlock. So here I was, up to my eyeballs in murder and piracy. After that, what was I gonna do? Who would've believed the diamonds were the only part I knew anything about? Nobody would have taken my word over the Yorkie's CAG! Yeah, that's right, Captain Stella Burke herself.

So then Jim found out about those M-590s, and you and Glen -- all I could do was take the rap. Burke said if I didn't I'd get the needle for that freighter crew."

"Admiral Burke." McQueen's eyes were unreadable.

"Yeah. Who do you think got me sprung from Leavenworth to go to work for Aerotech? Well, now she's got nothin' to hold over my head, 'cause if we get caught, I go down just as hard as an accessory after the fact. Burke’s part of this mess, she and Hayden -- I saw them together while Hayden was still just Secretary Hayden. And before Burke got involved with all that black ops stuff.

Not that it makes any difference. If you try to do anything about it, you'll need a lot more proof than my word for it. And believe me, Burke doesn't leave proof lying around the way those damn fool Aerotech geeks did."

"Do you know where to find any of that kind of proof?"

Wolfe replied, "Hell, TC, if I did, would I be on the run out here in the middle of nowhere? If I had any leverage on Burke I'd have used it when that Vesta job blew up in my face!"

McQueen didn't know whether to believe Danny or not, he knew Wolfe could run a bluff with the best of them. He couldn't see any reason for the mercenary to lie, though. "I've got to admit, Danny, it surprised me when you went in after John. You knew about the accessory thing."

"Yeah. I did, and so did the rest of the team. We all figured, one way or another, we already made our beds and one of these days we'll have to lie in them. We're all already looking at a death sentence for Vesta.

That accessory after the fact thing is really convenient, you know? I talked to a couple of damn good lawyers after Vesta, and they both told me the same thing. Whatever else we did, it doesn't matter now. There's no way we don't -- all five of us -- go down for those kids' murders, even though we didn't even know about it 'til John told us all. Hell, they can even get us for what happened to Natalie. The only way out of it would be to cut a deal with someone who's got enough pull to get the charges reduced somehow. That's the whole idea in the first place.

So, yeah, we sprung John. We all decided our best bet is to stick together 'til the end of the line, and if we play it smart that ought to be a few years down the road." He laughed. "If we get out of this one."

McQueen couldn’t help but think that Danny had a talent for putting the best possible spin on his story, but there was a lot of truth in it too.


The recon party consisted of Wolfe, O'Donnell, West, Hawkes, Damphousse, and two colonists who had done a lot of scouting, Adam and Margaret Seger. Christy had come down to see Cooper off. He set his pack on a rock ledge and sat down beside her. She said, "Be careful, Cooper."

"I will. The last thing we want is to be spotted."

"And watch out for Danny. I don't trust him."

"Well, I don't either. But he isn't going to do anything dumb out on a patrol, you know you have to be able to depend on your buddies if you want to come home. He's a pro. He'll do what he's supposed to do."

"Just remember that what you are supposed to do is to come back here in one piece."

He kissed her. "You don't think I could forget that one, do you, Christy?" He grinned. "Don't pick up any big dumb farmers while I'm gone."

"If that was what I had in mind, I'd be living on Ganelon right now," she shot back. "I'd rather have a big dumb Marine."

"I'll let you know if I find you one."


He held her close and kissed her again. "Be careful yourself, squirt. Watch out for Elder Joshua and that crowd."

She nodded, thinking that of course Cooper had picked up the habit of calling her "squirt" from Mark.

O'Donnell grinned. "Hey, Romeo, you comin' or what?"

"Yeah!" Coop slung his gear over his shoulders and joined the rest of them. Christy remembered Dr. O'Leary's old Irish superstition that it was bad luck to watch someone completely out of sight, she turned back to the first aid shack before they went around the bend in the trail along the water's edge.

Vansen and McQueen were watching them off from the camp, they saw the worried look on Christy's face as she headed back. Vansen shook her head. "They've got a hard row to hoe."

"I always thought Cooper would stay in the Corps for life, Shane, but it wouldn't surprise me now if he goes back to Aspen with Christy after the war."

She nodded. "I was thinking the same thing."

"You're probably the only one who will make a career of it."

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, Ty."

"I'll bet your sisters heard that a lot."

She nodded and smiled widely. "My mother used to say that all the time. It's really weird, I hear her voice coming out of my mouth all the time any more. I thought I'd lost her, but I never really did -- she's too much a part of me."

"You must feel like a link in a chain sometimes," was McQueen's thoughtful observation.

Shane considered his meaning. "Well, sort of, but not a very long one. I have a few vague memories of my dad's parents, and I can remember seeing pictures of my grandma and grandpa on my mother's side. Neither mom nor dad had any sibs, all four of my grandparents were hit by the fertility plague. All of them except Grandma Vansen died young from the secondary effects. Grandma Vansen like to never had Dad, and Mom was adopted. I never knew anything about my great-aunts or uncles, they all died in the plague. So ... I know there's a chain that goes back ... but it's lost in time. There's no one left alive that I can ask about those people or what it was like back in those days," she answered thoughtfully. "My grandmother Autumn Vansen was killed at Karakorum, she won the medal of honor for her actions there. And I know that my dad never wanted to be anything except a Marine, because he respected her so much. But I don't really know anything about her.”

"That wasn't that long ago. You ought to be able to look up people she served with."

After a time, Vansen said, "After the war, I should do that. Marion, and her brothers and sisters, and her cousins -- they'll want to know later." She looked up at him and asked gently, "Do you miss that a lot?"

"Who, me? No, I wouldn't say 'miss'. I don't give a rat's ass about whoever contributed my DNA in the first place, most of the donors consider it a dirty little secret now. They don't mean any more to me than the parts of my genetic code that were created artificially. They're a biological reality, I suppose, but I don't feel any sort of connection to them."

The understanding he saw in Shane's eyes was the last thing he had expected. She explained, "My mom found her biological parents when she was in college. Nothing ever came of it. It wasn't that they didn't get along or anything, but they stayed strangers. That was exactly the turn of phrase she used -- there wasn't any connection. Her parents, and my grandparents, were Grandma and Grampa Kersey. But you could have sibs."

"Yeah.... After Katie died, Cooper asked me why I never looked for them. I told him I was afraid of what I might feel. I still don't have a better answer than that. No one's ever found me, and I'd be easier than most to find. If anyone started looking with the IV platoons, the records are there. I always told the Commodore, if I ever started looking I'd try Leavenworth and Folsom first."

Vansen gave him a sly look. "What makes you think they'd get caught?"

"Maybe that's another good reason not to go looking! I don't want to shake my family tree and find out it's full of nuts and squirrels. I know who my people are, Shane, I don't need some pre-determined degree of genetic similarity to tell me that."

She accepted that with a little smile. He knew that to her, whatever he decided was right. He wondered if she knew how precious that simple, nonjudgmental acceptance was to someone who was used to "not good enough" and "inferior."

There was no one else around, it would have been easy to steal a kiss with no one the wiser. But something stopped them. Shane said, "I remember, there was this poem we studied in English class. It went something like, 'I could not love thee, dear, so much....' "

He smiled then, and completed the quotation. " '....Loved I not honor more.' " Both of them felt the cold of the distance between them. But there was no lack of connection here, a shared past and present and a promised future filled the gap.

<End Part Five>

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