Return to Kazbek
Part One -- by Becky Ratliff
Creative consultant: Mike Lee. Thanks to the space-l mailing list, which inspired this story. As always, many, many thanks to my beta readers, Claudia Patarra, and Susi Patzke, who have patiently tolerated silly questions and misspelled names!
The Darkest Night
Promises to Keep
An Echo of Yesterday
Even Kittens Have Claws
Degrees of Guilt
A Very Merry Christmas
Return to Kazbek
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The characters and situations of the TV program "SPACE: Above and Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
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"From a Distance", lyrics and music by Julie Gold, copyright 1987 by WING AND WHEEL MUSIC & JULIE GOLD MUSIC (BMI) all rights administered by IRVING MUSIC, INC. (BMI) All rights reserved. Used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
"Up Where We Belong", lyrics by Will Jennings, music by Buffy Sainte-Marie and Jack Nitzsche, copyright 1982 by FAMOUS MUSIC CORPORATION and ENSIGN MUSIC CORPORATION. All rights reserved. Used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Return to Kazbek
copyright Becky Ratliff, January 1997
(_USS Saratoga_, January 2065)
Vansen yanked off her helmet and jumped out of her pit, her mechanic took one look at the expression on the young Major's face and got out of her way. "Hawkes!" She yelled. "What the freakin' hell were you doing out there?"
She heard Nathan comment, "Incoming!" She glared at him. He had sense enough to realize this was Major Vansen the CO, not good ol' Shane, and shut up and looked innocent.
Hawkes said, "Shooting down chigs, I guess."
"Damn near getting yourself killed while you were at it." She reached up and grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around, a combination of strength born of anger and total surprise let her get away with it even though he was easily head and shoulders taller than she was. She pointed up to a row of neat score marks right behind his cockpit where he had barely been grazed. "If Kenny had been half a second slower, Coop, you show me where the next one would have gone."
He stared, and suddenly swallowed hard and pointed at the back of his cockpit. "Shit, I didn't know he hit me."
"There were six of them. You are good but you are not that good!" She wanted to give him a good hard shake, but she controlled that impulse. No matter how much she felt like it sometimes, he wasn't her bratty eight-year-old kid. "And you do not ever leave your wingman. You know that! It's a damn good thing Kenny was looking out for you, because you sure as hell were not looking out for him!" She looked him straight in the eye. "So help me God, if I have to go to your funeral because you did something freakin' stupid out there--" She shamelessly dumped a guilt trip in his lap, if that was what it took to make him think so be it!
Hawkes looked at her contritely. "It won't happen again," he promised.
She glared at him a moment longer, until she started to feel sorry for him. Before he could realize that, she said, "See it doesn't. Dismissed!"
She had the mission logs to file, which was just as well, because the rest of the 'Cards were giving her a wide berth for a while anyhow. It took a lot to really get Vansen riled up, but Cooper had accomplished it. Kenny had looked around, expecting to see Coop on his port wing, and he'd just been gone. Instead, he'd been somewhere on Kenny's seven or eight, mixing it up with a whole pack of chigs who'd come out of God knew where, reinforcements for the ones they'd already been in a furball with. They were lucky they hadn't lost someone today. Cooper had come just that close to getting himself killed.
She had yelled at him, but she hadn't been supposed to say the thing he'd done that had made her the angriest -- almost left her to grieve over him, her world without Cooper as a part of it. As his CO she didn't have the right to say that or even to feel it ... but as his friend, as someone who'd been his friend since boot camp, how was she supposed to help it? As someone he considered his mother, as someone who couldn't help but think of him as her son, how in the name of God was she supposed to just let it go? She prayed she'd gotten through to him, because the next time he might not be so lucky. She doubted she could have got her hand between that last score mark and the back of his canopy. Thinking about that, she started to shake all over, and swallowed hard and refused to allow tears to start.
She sighed deeply and rubbed her hand across her forehead. She was tired, that was part of it, they all were. In the weeks since they'd captured New Jerusalem, there had been a number of battles and it seemed as though the tide of the war was finally turning. The _Saratoga_ had helped to defeat an attempt by the chigs to retake Ixion, the main staging area for the attack on the chig homeworld. The chig home system was still too well defended for the Earth fleet to get any further in-system than the orbit of the planet where Shane and Vanessa had been marooned after the peace conference. The chig fleet was slowly being turned back, however, as the enemy was forced to commit more and more of their resources to the defense of their homeworld.
The cost to the Earth had been immeasurable, so very many lives had been lost in the conflict. Very few families were untouched by losses out here. Shane remembered the dark early days of the war, though, when they had been losing and losing badly. Now, there was virtually no one who felt they were fighting a war they could not hope to win.
Her beeper went off, she smiled as she recognized the number. Ty's quarters. She reached for her phone and dialed back.
"Where are you?"
"Want to talk about it?"
"I could sure use the company," she replied.
Five minutes later, he joined her there. "What happened?"
"Oh, Ty, what happened the last three times you jumped on Cooper for something? He was on Kenny's wing, Kenny looked around and -- guess what, no Cooper! This time was almost the last time, too, go look at his pit if you want to know what I was yelling about."
"I heard. It may not be the best time to make this announcement, Shane, but maybe a little responsibility will make him a little more serious about things."
"What do you mean?"
He handed over a printout, it was the promotion list. "Hey, he and Nathan made captain!" She looked up to the top of the list, and a wide smile lit her face. "Congratulations, Colonel. It's about damn time."
He handed her two envelopes with the new captains' names on them. "The Commodore has it on good authority that the orders making my CMCD assignment official ought to be coming through any day now," he said.
"About time for that, too," she said.
(Maine, January 2065)
Before dawn, Kylen Celina slipped silently from between the covers. The centuries-old farmhouse was cold, she searched in the dark for her slippers. She didn't want to wake her friend Rosie Jackson, who was still sleeping soundly over on her side of the room. She pulled on her robe as she went down to the kitchen.
She put on coffee and turned up the thermostat while she waited for it to brew. Maxie whined but didn't raise his head from his paws as she leaned on the windowsill to drink her coffee. Her breath frosted the glass. There was a yard light over the barn door that lit the snow-covered back yard, but the front of the house was dark. A mile across the valley, she could see the lights of the West place.
Before the war, how often she had walked that familiar mile to join Nathan in his kitchen for a cup of coffee before school, or sat right here with him.... Now, he was out there somewhere among the stars, putting his life on the line to defend her and all they both held dear. There was a garland of yellow ribbons tied around the porch post out front, the oldest one for Nathan that her father had put there at the beginning of the war, and the others she had tied with it for the rest of the Wild Cards upon her safe return. She missed Nathan so much ... but there were times she felt so near him that all she would have to do was close her eyes and reach up to the stars to touch his hand.
She heard sounds behind her in the kitchen. She should have known she couldn't sneak out without Rose knowing about it. The In Vitro had ears like a cat. "I tried not to wake you up, Rosie."
"Is that coffee I smell?"
"Whole pot full," she replied.
"How come you're awake this early?" Rosie scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand and yawned widely. "Looks like we got more snow." Her only concession to the cold was a sweatshirt instead of a tee-shirt over her jeans, she didn't seem to notice that the linoleum floor was too cold to run around barefoot.
Kylen sighed. "I was dreaming about Kazbek again."
"I used to wonder about dreams, Kylen, but after what I've seen you go through I'm glad I don't have them."
Kylen had always thought the business about not dreaming was baloney, but Rosie said it was sort-of true ... everyone had REM sleep, and would remember dreaming if wakened in the middle of it ... but otherwise, like a number of other IVs she had talked to, she didn't recall her dreams. Nobody really knew why that was. Kylen suspected, from what little behavioral science she'd taken, that it was probably a coping mechanism of some sort. Just as well not to remember nightmares ... Kylen wished she didn't remember hers. "Do you know what they did with that genetic material they took from me, Rosie? They used it to make a ... a zombie that almost got Nathan killed!" In her dream, the zombie had taken her place, and no one had noticed she was missing....
"He really went AWOL looking for you? He must think you're the hottest thing on two legs!"
Kylen looked up at her friend. Rosie had got through their long months of captivity by strength of will and by a healthy dose of smartass. She'd find some wisecrack to make no matter how bad things were ... though maybe not always out loud. And to think, Kylen had started out resenting the IVs because they'd cost Nathan his place on the colony ship ... she'd ended up thanking them for that from the bottom of her heart. Only two of the ten had survived, Rosie and their friend Josh, who had never gotten out of the hospital after their rescue. The rest of the survivors had made sure he had gone into a nice place in upstate New York, and that one of them came to see him at least once a week. The survivors who lived near him visited more often.
Kylen thought that, one way or another, she and Rosie were probably the best off of all the former prisoners. Rosie had the strength she'd developed to survive her indenture on Demeter, the plantation had been as bad as the prison camp in its own way. And Kylen ... she'd known, always, that she wasn't alone, that Nathan was looking for her. That one glimpse of him she'd got on Kazbek had been enough to keep her hope alive. They had watched friends give up hope of ever being rescued, and slip away one by one. They had fought fiercely to keep the others from surrendering to despair. And then ... one day it had ended and they'd gone home.
Now, months later in the house where she had grown up, she still sometimes felt an overwhelming sense of unreality. It was better now than when she had first come home, but even now, there were hours at a time when she wasn't sure if her captivity had ever happened, if it had all been a horrible nightmare. And sometimes she was terrified that her freedom was the dream, that any moment she would wake up back in that place. The progress of seasons in the Maine woods ... life on the farm, the cycle of planting and harvest ... had helped her center herself in the present, and convince herself of the truth of her situation.
Kylen hadn't been the only one who had found healing in the quiet New England hills. She had watched Rosie cry for happiness for the first time in her life as she did the work that she had been born and trained to do, for the first time as a free woman, because she had wanted to, not because some overseer was standing over her with a cattle prod. Using the skills of a lifetime for a purpose of her own choosing, Rosie had planted beds of flowers all around the house and watched them fill the yard with a riot of colors, and as fall came on prepared the flower beds for winter and the next year.
They had planted crops in the garden, just as the Celina women had for generations, and picked and preserved the things that had grown there. They had laughed and gossiped over the hot work of boiling the canning jars, as women had done in that kitchen for year after year after year. Life for death, joy for sorrow ... all things pass and the seasons change.
Kylen pulled herself out of her reverie and said, "Nathan was colossally stupid to do that, when I think he could have got himself killed looking for me--!"
Rosie laughed. "You trying to convince me that if you'd been in his place, you wouldn't have done something colossally stupid to try to rescue him?"
"Well," Kylen conceded. She heard her father moving around in his room and started breakfast.
The sun had come up on a gloriously bright winter morning before they got outside. Kylen and Rosie were taking down the holiday lights on the front porch when they heard a car coming up the road. It slowed and turned into their driveway. Maxie jumped up and started barking, Kylen called him to heel but he didn't stop growling.
Two men in uniform got out of the car. Rosie heard a crash and saw that a string of lights had dropped from Kylen's fingers to shatter on the concrete porch, and that she had gone white as a sheet. "Oh, my God, it's Nathan," Rosie heard her whisper.
The two Marines came up to the porch. "Miss Celina, Miss Jackson?"
Rosie replied, "That's us. What can we do for you?"
"May we come in?"
Kylen found her voice. "Of course, please. Is it Nathan? What happened?"
The two men looked at one another. "Ma'am?"
Rosie asked, "Is this about her fiance, Nathan West? He's a Marine, 58th squadron, on the Saratoga."
"No, ma'am, it's nothing like that!" The older of the two men hastened to assure them. "Miss Celina, I'm sorry to have frightened you. I've tried to call, but your phone doesn't seem to be working."
Kylen recovered swiftly. "That's Maine in the winter." She opened the door and they went inside, it was hot in the living room after being out in the cold.
Rosie asked, "What's all this about?"
The man didn't like Rosie's attitude, but she made no apologies, just looked him straight in the eye and silently dared him to make the race remark that she suspected he wanted to say. He had better sense. He introduced himself as Colonel Emory Spradlin. "I'm here to ask the two of you to volunteer for a mission that's vital to your country's security. I can't tell you what it is here. You'll be gone for perhaps several weeks."
Kylen said, "And I suppose by the time we find out what it is, it'll be too late to change our minds?"
From the door to the dining room, her father said, "In that case, get your asses out of my living room and off my property. These girls have done plenty for their country, thank you very much."
Rosie looked like she was about to help them on their way. Spradlin said, "I can tell you this. The mission will involve a chance for you to spend some time with your fiance, Miss Celina."
Kylen's eyes widened, then she yelled, "How dare you come in here -- do you have any idea what you're asking us to do? How can you even think--"
Rosie laid a comforting hand on her arm and gave Spradlin a level look that almost sent him running for the car. "I've got a pretty good idea what you want, Colonel Spradlin. Everyone else turned you down, didn't they?"
"I figured, nobody is going to drive up here in January without a freakin' good reason," she snapped. She looked at Kylen. "I'm sure these ... gentlemen ... could use some coffee to warm them up after that long drive. Let's go in the kitchen and fix some. If you'll excuse us for a minute --?"
She shut the kitchen door behind them.
Kylen said, "Rosie, you're not thinking about going along with this?"
"Well ... yeah."
"Have you lost your mind?"
Rosie took her hands. "No, Kylen, I haven't. Listen to yourself, just the idea of going back there is giving you a panic attack."
Kylen swallowed hard, and then looked up at her. "It never crossed my mind I'd ever have to."
Rosie nodded. "Honey, I don't know about family, but I know you're the closest thing to one I'll ever have, and there is nothing I wouldn't do for you. If you can't do this ... I understand. I'll take care of it. But I think you have to. For yourself, Kylen, not for them."
"I don't know if I can."
"I know how hard it is," Rosie said.
Rosie was sure Kylen was going to refuse to go. But then she said, "He as much as said they're sending Nathan on this mission, and if something happened to him because he didn't know something that I could have told him, I couldn't live with myself."
Rosie saw resignation replace the fear in her friend's eyes, as one more time Kylen found the courage to sacrifice herself for someone she loved. Spradlin's tactics were emotional blackmail, they didn't have any right to send Nathan on this mission just to force Kylen to work for them! She felt like going out there and wiping that smartass expression off his face for him. But ... what they had a right to do and what they could get away with were two different things. She couldn't stop them from using Nathan. And if he died on this mission, whether she deserved it or not, Kylen would carry the guilt for it for the rest of her life. In the end, the only thing she could say was, "I'll be there, too."
"Rosie, you don't have to go. They don't need both of us."
"Ha! If you think I'm letting all those good looking men on the Saratoga go to waste on a girl who's engaged, keep right on dreaming."
Kylen grinned. "Well, when you put it that way...." She turned serious. "Just don't ever tell Nathan what they did. I don't want him trying to pay that slime back if something happens to me."
<end part one>
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