The Darkest Night

See disclaimer in Part One

Part Four -- by Becky Ratliff

Vansen woke up about 0800 and pushed herself out of bed, she must have really put up a fight the night before because every muscle ached. She grabbed her kit, limped over to the head, and took a catbath at the sink, wishing fervently that she had been allowed to get in the shower. She ran the dryer over her freshly cut hair and fluffed it out a little with her comb, got dressed quickly, and joined McQueen up front.

"We're about an hour out, but we're meeting some traffic," he told her. "Have you ever seen anything like this?"

She checked out the display he indicated, they shared the sky with something she could only describe as a gypsy caravan. Led by a converted surplus cargo barge, a flotilla of about two dozen little ships had banded together into a convoy. They were escorted by four Hammerheads. "Jeez, are those really 38's? I didn't know we really still had any of them in service!"

"We don't, those are surplus. Someone must have picked them up and gone into business guarding merchant convoys."

"I've never heard of anything like that before. The rumors about increased pirate activity must be true." She scrolled through call signs. "Here they are, Transcolonial Security. And it doesn't look like any of those little cargo haulers belong to the same outfit, except for those two ore boats."

"There always was a problem with pirates, but before the war we were pretty much able to keep them under control. Probably one mission out of five that we flew during peacetime was pirate suppression. Now all the manpower's at the front, it doesn't surprise me the independents have had to resort to tactics like this. The pirates don't bother the multinats too much unless they're sure they can be long gone before company security shows up. Even the big boys might be having a problem with their more isolated outposts now, though, a lot of corporate pilots enlisted when the war started so they're fairly understaffed."

"I always thought the huge companies like Aerotech controlled private spaceflight."

"Only new commercial colonization, it costs too much to set up a profitable colony for anyone else to deal themselves in. But once a trade route has been established, it creates a market for services the smaller companies can get into," he replied. "I worked for a merchantman for a few months. Didn't get along with the skipper too well, she wasn't what you could call sorry to see me go when I enlisted." He grinned. "She thought I hot-dogged the cargo shuttle. Looking back on it now, well, she just might have had a point."

Vansen didn't say anything, just grinned. A few traffic cops had made the same observation about her on occasion. Radio skipchatter increased as they approached their destination, in orbit of Ganelon III. The hospital ship Nightingale was under the protection of the flagship of the Earth fleet, the John Fitzgerald Kennedy. There were two other supercarriers there. The Robert E. Lee was in for repairs of damage taken during the battle of Ixion, the Lee was surrounded by a swarm of repair craft. Nearby was the British ship HMS Princess Beatrice. The three capital ships each had an attendant fleet of fighters and patrol craft. The mulitnats were represented as well. McQueen pointed out the Aerotech headquarters ship JP Morgan. Vansen guessed there were at least fifty small traders around the edges of the flotilla, craft much like the convoy they had followed in.

McQueen radioed the Nightingale for permission to come aboard. They had only a short wait for a docking bay, and as soon as the bay pressurized a crew of mechanics appeared to get the launch out of the bay in case it should be needed to take aboard a medical emergency. They asked directions from a security officer, who directed them to admissions.

About twenty other people were in the admissions area, so they waited a while before Vansen's name was called. She stepped up to the desk. "Captain Vansen. I've been ordered to report to Dr. Sebastian."

The nurse directed her down a corridor. McQueen started to go with her, but an MP politely directed him to a waiting area "where he could have a cup of coffee." Apparently visitors weren't allowed beyond the admissions area. He shrugged, and took Vansen's duffel bag off her hands. She followed the desk nurse's directions to Dr. Sebastian's office.

When she got there, she realized why you weren't supposed to bring a parade back here, the doctors all had their own private offices but there was room only for the patient. Dr. Jack Sebastian was a young man, just a few years her senior, but his office wall was covered with diplomas. He had a friendly grin and a firm handshake. Like many of the physicians here, he was a civilian who had volunteered his special skills to aid the wounded. The picture in the central spot on the wall showed him standing in front of the huge main building at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center with a woman and two little boys.

"My wife and kids," he explained. "What brings you here?"

"Chemical burns," she said shortly. She surrendered the data chip containing her medical records which her doctor aboard the Saratoga had sent with her. "It's--ah--all in here," she explained by way of apology for her clipped response.

He slotted the chip and looked over the first couple of screens, as he read his expression changed from interest to anger to compassion. He stood up and came around to make a preliminary examination. "Let's see what we're up against here, Captain. Turn your head a little to the left."

He didn't disturb the gelskin, didn't need to. "Yeah, looks like the grafts are coming along just fine. Who actually did this, Belson?"


"Good man. The only reason this shows at all is that little dip in the skin surface parallel to your cheekbone. What it looks like we'll need to do is build up under the graft to even up the skin surface, and maybe a little laser work to remove this discoloration here. That may not be necessary, we'll let the gelskin work for another day or two and see what happens. I want you to have a few scans done, and I'll review your charts. It's hard for you to talk about this, isn't it?"

"A little."

"I won't ask you any more dumb questions than I have to. The orderly will take you to have your scans made, and then I'll see you again tomorrow." Vansen stood and shook hands with the doctor, and met the orderly in the corridor. Having the scans made was becoming a matter of routine, once she finished that she went up front to get an appointment for first thing the next morning.

Vansen met McQueen back in the waiting room, he stood up as she came in. "What did they say?"

"They did some more tests, and I have to come back in the morning. It sounds like I'll have to be here at least two more days."

"I got us cabins up in the B.O.Q. Let's get settled in, by then it'll be time for lunch."

"Right." She took her belongings back and once again they had to ask directions, this time of the MP outside.

The Bachelor Officer's Quarters was pretty much what Vansen had expected, small but comfortably appointed cabins. They were next door to one another. Vansen put her gear away and ran a comb through her hair. She'd had it cut very short to get rid of several acid-burned patches, she didn't really care for having it that short but it would grow quickly. She decided not to worry about her looks, the one place a big patch of gelskin on her cheek wouldn't attract that much attention was a hospital ship.

They found a sign directing them to the officers' mess, and waited for a lift going down two decks.

Vansen was resigned to either a military mess hall or a hospital cafeteria, but she was happy to find that the officers' mess was neither. The doctors, both Navy and civilian, ate here, she suspected that had a great deal to do with the superiority of the arrangements here. She could have eaten a great deal more than she should have, decided on soup and a salad. The soup turned out to be French onion, rich with melted cheese and big chunks of bread.

McQueen had ordered a steak sandwich, but she realized he was doing a lot more looking out the window than eating it. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I was just thinking about something. I was still trying to figure out what the hell that guy wanted in my quarters back aboard the Saratoga. You know, I spent a good hour going through my stuff trying to figure out what they could have been interested in and there's just nothing."

"Maybe he was after something he only _thought_ you had in there," Vansen speculated.

"Maybe. I guess we'll never know. I just have the feeling it ties in with what the AI's wanted back on Marged. The chigs wanted the formula, which makes perfect sense. But I think the AI's had their own agenda."

"Something they wanted from you, that didn't involve me," Vansen said, scowling. "What one of them knows, they all know--they had to have identified you from when you were their prisoner before."

"Oh, yeah," McQueen confirmed.

"What were they after then?" Vansen's mouth was dry, and her hand trembled as she reached for her water glass. That didn't escape McQueen's notice.

"They wanted the location of a science station where AI's were designed and built, before the revolt. But it couldn't have anything to do with that, the station was destroyed at the time. Shane, the only direct connection I can make from then to now is they wanted some computer recognition codes. Most of them were current. But one of them was an old-style code, one we don't use any more, and I think they may have asked me about the same one before. I don't know any more about it than I did then. Are you sure you don't remember them asking you about codes, Shane? Because you'd have been as likely to have had access to some of that stuff as I was."

Her hand jerked and cold water spilled over her fingers. She deliberately set the glass down and reached for her napkin, took two deep breaths. Answering that question took every bit as much courage as keeping her silence to the AI's. She didn't want to think about anything connected with it. "No, they didn't say a word about anything other than the formula. Maybe...that old code was all they wanted...the rest of it was just a smoke screen so you wouldn't realize how important it was?"

"That would make sense," he replied.

"I can't believe this. I've been all through what happened with the shrinks."

McQueen shook his head. "No, that was too soon, Shane. You were still in shock. And if you were anything like me, you were more concerned with telling them what they wanted to hear so you wouldn't get sent home. I know they were no damn help the first time I was captured."

"What does help?"

"Other survivors. There was a support group, the doctor was this old guy named Hsieng who'd been a political prisoner during the Chinese Revolutionary War. Remember that from history class, back in 2014?"

"Sort of. It was the last war where humans fought humans."

"That's right. The communists shot Hsieng's whole family and put him in what they called a reeducation camp. It was really a POW camp, of course, the communists thought he knew more than he did about the rebels. That was all that saved his life, they kept thinking he was holding out on them right up until the UN forces liberated the camp. He emigrated to North America and became a psychologist, saw similarities between his experiences in the camp and the symptoms displayed by survivors of domestic violence. There was a woman in the group who'd been beaten for years first by her father and then by a long parade of boyfriends. The last one doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. Shane, she felt like she was at fault somehow, that she deserved it! And then there were two other Marines besides myself who'd escaped from the AI's. We could talk to each other because we were all speaking the same language, if you know what I mean. I didn't get over it right away, nobody did. But just knowing there were other people we could talk to who would understand got us through a lot. In one of those groups, you know you're back to normal when you stop calling your sponsor and the new people are calling you."

"How long does that take?"

"It took me about a year. Bill and I didn't have to go off duty or anything, we just went to sessions twice a week as long as we needed to. It took Sally two months, her real problem was that no one ever taught her to stand up on her own two feet. So I taught her how to fight. Some punk tried to assault her outside Dr. Hsieng's office after a session one evening. By the time the rest of us could run over to where her car was parked, he was on the ground begging for the cops to arrest him. After that, she came to sessions a few more times but she was ready to get on with her life. But Vic -- he finally went away to a VA residence for a couple of years before he got things back to normal. It's different for everybody, there isn't any set time."

"A year."

"You were a prisoner before, though, and you got through that."

"Right," she said thoughtfully. "What about now? I mean, you keep talking about getting over that. But this time -- Jesus Christ, I don't see how anything could have been worse!"

"I believed I was going to die that time. It never crossed my mind I'd get out. But then this AI got cocky and thought I was harmless, he found out otherwise real fast and I used his keys to let out a bunch of other people. This time in the back of my mind I always knew if I could just keep breathing long enough they'd find us and get us out."

Shane drank some more of her water. "I was afraid to let myself believe it. As usual, you were right."

He shook his head. "However you survive is right. Don't ever let yourself forget that, Shane. When you start second guessing yourself and wondering what you could have done differently, just remember that what you did worked. We're both alive, so we made the right decisions."


"Another thing is, back then, I really had no idea what you could go through and stay alive. I didn't believe I could be broken -- that I could let myself and the rest of the Angels down."

"But everyone will break, eventually!"

"Shane, they told you that back in boot camp. But back then I'd been told my duty was to give them name, rank and serial number. I think the people who indoctrinated us really thought they'd done a good enough job genetically engineering my generation of in vitroes that we actually could do that. It wasn't true, of course. We're stronger, we have faster reflexes, but we're still human where it really counts. For all the strengths and weaknesses that gives us. I had to learn the hard way that everyone has limits and that includes me."

If they hadn't been in public, Vansen would have reached out to him. But that was one of the new rules. A rule she realized she was going to grow to hate. Slowly, she said, "I think part of that is a male thing. Paul went through that too, and he had the same preparation I did. But I can't believe they're allowed to cut you loose with so little survival training for the real world. Coop didn't know what Christmas was about. Or how to ask a girl out on a date. Or those damn preapproved credit cards, for all anyone told him the credit limit was some kind of pay raise or something. Or those pills -- how could a doctor be so careless? There's just so much -- it makes me so angry and ashamed."

He smiled. "You are not the problem. I appreciate your anger. People need to get angry if there's ever going to be a real change, you and other natural-birth people like you who care enough to get angry are the only hope I have that things are going to get better. But you have nothing to be ashamed of."

Vansen said, "Whatever I can do." That came out as a promise, a solemn vow. "A long time ago one Fourth of July my dad took me to watch the fireworks out over the bay, and we talked about why he had joined the service. He spoke about freedom and justice and honor. About how those things had to be for everyone or they were for no one at all. About how, even though we so often fell short of our ideals, those ideals were all that are important enough to be worth people's lives. He and Mom were dead before the end of that summer. I was too young to understand, but I was old enough to remember. Now, I look in your eyes, and it's so clear what he meant. Things will get better. At least, this much is true -- it's my fight, too, for as long as it takes."

"It'll take more than our lifetimes, Shane, you know that. After everything we've been through there are still some people who are bigoted against people of other races. Religion still divides people enough for them to start shooting at each other. How could this be any different?"

Vansen never knew where the answer came from, but as soon as she opened her mouth she knew what to say. "Because we've already done the work of defining bigotry. It's a matter now of making people understand that bigotry is the word that applies. My grandmother was among the first women allowed into combat units in the Marine Corps. She was discriminated against by a lot of men who didn't want her there. A century ago, different laws would have applied to me because I had the luck to be born with two X chromosomes instead of an X and a Y. You could have just as well as owned me because of that. That's what the law was like. Do you think any woman can ever forget that kind of thing? Two centuries ago you could literally have bought and sold Vanessa. Paul would have been something less than human too. We outgrew that as a people. After all the misery people survived for thousands and thousands of years, after all the wasted lives, somehow we woke up and we changed. The foundation is already there, all we have to do now is build on it."

Their waitress stopped by the table, bringing the private conversation to a sudden halt. A moment after she left, a flurry of activity outside the viewport caught McQueen's attention. "Hey, will you look at that!"

Shane followed his gaze. The JP Morgan was getting underway, quickly enough to send any number of tramp traders scurrying out of the way. Ponderous and slow at first, the Morgan came about. Then her huge engines came online and she took off in the direction of the wormhole like a bat out of hell.

"I wouldn't want to be a traffic controller on the JFK right now! I'll bet they're getting blistered from those trader skippers!" Shane commented. "I wonder what all that was about?"

"I don't know, but they got under way hotter than a two dollar pistol. I hope they didn't run anyone down! Something must have started a fire under them!" McQueen sounded avidly curious about it, and Vansen was wondering herself what could have gotten that kind of reaction out of the Aerotech vessel.

End Part Four

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