Even Kittens have Claws

Part Nine -- by Becky Ratliff

See Disclaimer Information in Part One

Vansen half-wakened from dreaming with her sheet wrapped around her neck. She struggled to get out of the smothering, confining cloth and whacked her elbow painfully on the bulkhead. She gasped a breath and then another. No wonder she’d dreamed about Marged ... dragged up the one about the plastic bag. The AIs had put it over her head until she nearly passed out, then let her have just enough air to keep her conscious before the drawing it tight around her throat again.

The first time she’d had to touch a plastic bag after their rescue, she’d had to run straight to the head to throw up. After that, she’d been able to control the reaction ... but still ... she shuddered hard and hugged her arms around herself. It was a wonder she hadn’t suffocated right here. How the hell had she got her sheet wound around her throat? She must have been thrashing around in her sleep.

Cooper asked, “Shane? Are you okay?”

Vanessa fumbled with something beside her rack and a flashlight came on, blessed light dispelling the darkness. “Shane?”

She could see West’s sleepy face lit from below by Vanessa’s flashlight, he gave her a long searching look then lay back down to sleep, he knew she was all right.

“I’m okay!” She reassured Cooper and Vanessa. “Just one of those damn dreams. No sense in everyone being awake!” She drew on the anger to hide how her hands were shaking as she pulled on her sweats and stuck her feet into her old running shoes. She couldn’t stay here in the dark after that. Nothing like a good hard run to get it out of her system. She started to drape her towel around her neck, but shuddered at the feel of the rough cloth and stuck it in her waistband instead.

She almost took the turn to McQueen’s quarters, but she glanced at her watch. It was two-dark-hundred-hours and she wasn’t going to wake him up just because she’d had a bad dream. She turned the other way and started her run.

She was often out and about during the night watches, no one was surprised to see her out for a run in the wee hours. The dreams were what kept her awake at night. Even so, she liked the feel of the ship at night. When there weren’t so many people around, she could hear the power of the engines, feel their deep vibration through the deck plates. It was as if the Sara were alive tonight. Vansen could feel the pulse of her mighty heartbeat, ran in time to it. It wasn’t long until there was peace in the rhythm.

Finally, she slowed to a walk to cool down for a while, and went in one of the observation bays.

She had the bay to herself only for a moment, then she heard the hatch open.

“Shane? I thought I saw you come in here. What are you doing up?”

It was Ty. She smiled. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Another nightmare?”

“New one this time. I was dreaming about that God damned plastic bag, and somehow I woke up with a sheet around my neck!” She admitted. She could laugh about it now ... sort of.

McQueen crossed to her. “That must have been a bad one.” He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss the memories away for a while, but anyone could walk in here. They stood a chaste distance apart.

“I didn’t want to wake you, I didn’t know you were already out and around.”

“I haven’t been back to my quarters, I’ve been with the Commodore all evening,” he said.

“All night, you mean, it must be 0300 by now.”

The run had helped, but McQueen could still see the haunted look in her dark eyes. She didn’t need to be alone, but she wouldn’t go back to the 58th’s squad room and bother everyone else. “I expect so. Come to my quarters, Shane, if you see anyone in the corridor you can just keep going.”

Vansen nodded. No one would think anything of seeing her pass by, dressed as she was.

McQueen went on to his quarters, he turned the light on in the head. It was just enough light that she would be comfortable. He had been a little bemused at first to find out that tough-as-nails Shane Vansen was afraid of the dark. Soon that had turned to an even deeper respect for her, as he’d watched her shove the terror into the back of her mind and get the job done on more than one occasion ... he’d never known the price she paid for doing that until after Marged. He’d found out then about her nightmares. He knew what they were like, because he had them himself ... but not every night. Shane had rarely slept a night through without one, since her parents had died.

She gave him about ten mikes, then she followed him down there. She ducked inside and came into his arms. He doubted she was even aware that she was shaking. “Shane...”

“Just hold me for a while.”

She closed her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder, McQueen took her weight easily as she leaned into him. He had never been more frustrated about being grounded than he was at that moment. There was nothing he wanted more than to make the enemy pay dearly for doing this to her, to both of them. He still had the edge, if he climbed into a fighter right now it would still be as much an extension of him as the day they’d met the chigs at Jupiter. Soul deep, he knew he would never lose the talent, no matter how long he was grounded. It didn’t seem possible that the only thing holding him back was a damn chip smaller than his fingernail.

But none of that was helping Shane now. He held her close, stroking her hair until she relaxed against him. “Come to bed, Shane. Try to get some sleep.”

She nodded, kicked off her shoes, let him draw her into bed and pull the covers around them both. McQueen thought she fell asleep as soon as she rested her head on his chest. He was surprised that he slept also, but the unaccustomed comfort of having her in his arms let him drift off.

They woke at colors, which was late for both of them, but neither of them had anywhere they had to be until after lunch. The 5-8 didn’t have patrol until the mids. Some time later, Shane lazily dressed. “I guess I’d better take this time to see about the monthly requisitions. Come down to the office with me?”

He teased, “Do you need me to protect you from Todd Flannery?”

“Oh, God. No.”

“Did you see him jump to your defense in that fight last night?”

Shane winced. “Ty, I don’t know what I’m going to do about Todd Flannery right now. I like him as a friend, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”

“Natural-borns make things so complicated. Explain to me why it wouldn’t be simpler just to tell him that.”

“Well, he hasn’t actually said anything to me yet.”

He laughed and kissed her. “Todd isn’t a worry, Shane. I guess you’ll just have to go on like you have been, he’ll get the idea sooner or later.”

“What if he doesn’t?”

McQueen said, “Look, Shane, I’m not jealous. You look at this completely differently than I do. I know Todd can’t steal you away from me. You’re his friend, that’s all, and there’s no way you could show the way you feel about him that would upset me. It doesn’t affect what we have between us. That’s an IV thing, Shane. We don’t play by the same rules as NBs ... unless we decide to. I know damn well you’d go ballistic if it were some woman hitting on me!”

She laughed and admitted, “You got that right, I was ready to kick Amy’s ass when she made a play for you ... until it dawned on me that you weren’t interested.”

“What concerns me is that the situation might make you upset enough to make a mistake out there, and I’m not having that,” he said firmly. “You have more than enough to worry about without that.”

“I won’t let it upset me any more, Ty,” she promised, smiling as she rested her cheek against his shoulder for a moment. “If Todd makes an issue, I’ll think of something to say to him then.”

“Stop and pick up a box of donuts or something on the way to the office, and I’ll check the coffee maker when I get there.”


He checked the hatch to see if the coast was clear, then she slipped out.

McQueen hadn’t been entirely truthful with Shane. What he’d told her was true of In Vitros in a general sense. While most IVs were in no way as promiscuous as racist slander made them out to be, they certainly didn’t have the cultural taboos that, in his opinion, needlessly complicated things for natural-borns.

But the truth was, every time McQueen saw Shane with Todd, it was obvious that Flannery had a lot to offer Shane. Not the least of it was that she could see him openly, without fear of either breaking regulations or upsetting the bigots. McQueen knew he could trust her implicitly ... her commitment to their relationship was beyond question. But he also knew Todd was a determined and resourceful individual who was unlikely to give up on Vansen without a good reason.

McQueen had no intention, however, of doing anything to make things worse for Shane. She was the one putting her life on the line every day ... and so was Todd, for that matter. It was his responsibility to see that his behavior didn’t cause a problem, and if that came with a cost to him, so be it.

Todd wasn’t in the office when McQueen got there, but their other two office mates, Lt. Colonel Holly Myes of the 32nd and Major Jefferson D. Wright of the 27th were working at their desks.

Holly looked up. “TC, have you heard the news this morning?”

“No, why?”

“Turn it on there, Jeff-D.”

He waved the remote at the TV without looking up from his reports, but when the story came on again, he was drawn to the screen.

A CNN reporter that McQueen remembered seeing aboard the Sara once was commenting on the morning’s issue of the Times Sentinel. The front page was dominated by a picture of the dead miners. He felt like he’d been hit in the stomach when he saw it, nearly as much as the first time he had looked into that tunnel. Amy had chosen to print the picture in black and white, its stark simplicity leant a formality to the horrifying scene that etched it into the memory of everyone who saw it. Here was one photograph that crystallized all the brutality his people had suffered for years into an image that no amount of rhetoric could erase.

Vansen came in. She set the box she was carrying on the counter beside the coffee maker and stood with him, watching the TV.

The story that followed didn’t pull any punches, it named names all the way up to E. Allan Wayne. The networks were pointing out the fact that Diane Hayden had been Wayne’s immediate superior at Aerotech from the initial surveys of Vesta until operations at the mine were well under way. There was no indication that Hayden had any knowledge of it, but the scandal was going full blaze.

Holly asked, “TC, you used to know the Secretary General a long time ago, didn’t you? Do you think she could have ... been involved in this somehow?”

He’d once seen Holly take on a whole chig squadron solo, and blow them out of the sky one by one, without a trace of emotion in her voice. She sounded scared now, and for good reason. No one knew where this was going.

“I was acquainted with her a long time ago, through the In Vitro rights movement. At that time it wasn’t politically correct for progressives to approve of people in uniform. We had a few discussions about that. We were both a lot younger ... she was one hell of an idealist back then. More of a geek than an administrator. At that time, I’d have said there was no way she could be involved. But that was then, and a lot’s changed. I want to think she wasn’t, and it’s possible. Knowing Wayne and knowing the Secretary General, he could have pulled this without her knowledge. It won’t matter in the long run, though, it happened on her watch.”

Wright said, “I hope she’s not too good a friend, because I doubt Aerotech is going to let this pass.”

Myes objected, “She’s the Secretary-general of the UN Don’t you think you’ve got the cart before the horse?”

Wright leaned back in his chair. “With all due respect, ma’am, no, I don’t. Aerotech put her where she is. They can pull the rug out from under her just as fast.”

McQueen said, “It may be they won’t be pulling the rug out from under anyone before this is over.”

Myes asked, “Is that hatch closed, Shane?”

“Yeah, it’s okay.”

“People, if this is all on the level.... Is it, TC?”

“There was nothing in that news report that Shane and I didn’t see for ourselves,” he replied.

“Then where does that leave us? If Aerotech started this thing--”

McQueen looked at Shane, then at Holly and Jeff-D. “Aerotech has a lot of blame in this. It looks like most of the people responsible have already paid for what they did. But that doesn’t change anything!

“If you want to look at this in the most favorable light possible to the chigs, five or six members of a survey team trespassed across the border and committed a murder. An unmanned probe crashed on their moon. Then a couple of small groups tried to jump the claim to some uninhabited planets that the chigs can’t put to any real use, because the atmosphere is all wrong for them.

“Okay. If they’d come forward at that time and told us to get the hell off their land, that would have been one thing. They knew about us, they can communicate with us, they knew we would have negotiated something. Why the hell at that point would we have wanted a war with them? But they were the ones who decided to take the course they did.

“Nothing we’ve seen so far changes the fact that the chigs started this thing. And it doesn’t change a damn thing that we have to finish it, because there’s no going back if we don’t!”

Everyone nodded, no one had anything to add to that. After a while, Jeff-D said, “It isn’t our worry, anyway, Holly. We’ve got our job to do. This is all someone else’s lookout ... nothing we can do about it one way or the other.”

“Yeah. Story of my life,” Holly said.


They weren’t the only ones to hear the news. Christy, Mark and Cooper were just finishing up a session in the gym that had ended up with Mark taking Christy’s side against Cooper, when someone watching the news on one of the sim screens let out a yell and put the news report up on the main screen. Everyone in the gym stopped what they were doing to watch, then people broke off into small groups to talk about it.

Mark said, “Jesus Christ. Coop, why didn’t you say something?”

“We were ordered not to, ‘til it hit the news,” he replied.

“Yeah .... I can see that. My God. What kind of people could do something like that?”

“Same ones who were gonna hang me off a bridge once,” he replied.

Mark nodded, looked between him and Christy. “I don’t know how you can stand to look at us.”

Cooper replied, “You didn’t have nothin’ to do with it, Mark. There’s only one guy I can blame, the mine supervisor, from what we could tell it looks like he got away. Wayne’s dead. We don’t know who else knew about it. I can’t start blaming all NB’s for what some people did. I’ve seen what that kind of hate can turn you into.”

Christy put her hand on Mark’s arm, and laced the fingers of her other hand with Cooper’s. “Until the other day ... those guys in the hall...the prejudice wasn’t real for me. Nothing like that ever happened to me before. It never went further than name calling, and I just never paid any attention to that. But, oh, Cooper, what you’ve been through--!”

“You should hear some of McQueen’s stories if you think mine are bad,” Cooper said. “He doesn't complain much, but ... all I can say is, God, I’m glad I wasn’t born back then. There’d be thirty or forty people start their five years together and maybe half a dozen come out of it alive. The IV platoons weren’t trained or equipped, they were just cannon fodder. And no one gave a damn back then. But now ... this happens ... and there are a lot of people who do care. That’s a real change. And ... it’s a real change just over the few years’ difference between us that you haven’t had any first-hand experience with lynch mobs or anything like that, Christy.”

Mark asked, “Do you think things are really changing? I mean, over all?”

Cooper jumped over the ropes and held them up for Mark and Christy to climb out of the ring, some other people were waiting. “Sometimes it seems like every time we win one, we lose one someplace else, and I wonder if it’ll ever be like it was with other races. Vanessa’s told me lots of stories her grandparents told her. She let me read about this great-great-grandma of hers. I’m not sure how many ‘greats’ there were, but anyhow this woman used to be a slave, and when she was real old her granddaughter wrote down a bunch of her stories about those days. It was the same thing, only they were more open about a lot of things. Did you know they’d have these big sales where they’d auction people off?”

Mark pointed out, “They used to burn people at the stake hundreds of years ago, too. I sure hope we aren’t that ass-backwards any more!”

“That’s what I *meant*, Mark. I mean, used to if a black person kissed a white person, these people would freakin’ kill the black person...both of them I guess. Now it isn’t any big deal to be different colors, is it? Maybe one of these days how you happen to be born won’t make any more difference than that...”

Christy was looking at the TV. “Oh, God, those poor kids ... they must have been so scared!”

Cooper drew her away from the screen. “Come on. Let’s hit the showers.”

<end part 9>

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