The Newbies

Part Four -- by Becky Ratliff

Vansen wasn’t happy to have Marcy on board the transport with McQueen and herself, but she could see that there seemed to be an understanding between the two of them. Keeping her promise to McQueen, she forced herself to study their companion with an unprejudiced eye. And, as the hours passed, she realized that McQueen had been right. Marcy was different from every Stranahan AI that Vansen had ever met. And there was, she was certain, a similarity between Marcy and Handsome Alvin ... though she had no idea what it was!

Damphousse’ reaction to the AI was the clincher. McQueen went up front to take the navigator's station and serve as another set of hands up there, so she and Coop could each take a short break. Vanessa came back through to the head, then on her way back, stopped for a cup of coffee. She fixed one for Shane while she was at it, but as she was reaching for a cup for Marcy, she stopped, and gave the AI a look that Shane couldn’t fathom. She put the cup back, then gave Marcy another of her looks ... and finally smiled, making small talk that included both Marcy and Shane, before she went back up front to let Coop get his break.

Vanessa had timed her exit to get a conversation started between Shane and Marcy. Shane knew Vanessa was the squadron’s peace maker. She had a good “people sense” that would make her a fine administrator one of these days. Shane relied on her -- and Nathan -- for that, because she was too intense to have much of it herself. Of course, Vanessa had noticed that Shane was wary around Marcy. But this was more than that.

McQueen trusted Marcy, the AI had put herself in harm’s way to save his life. That, Shane told herself, ought to be enough for her. But if she was paranoid enough that it wasn’t -- now Marcy had Vanessa’s endorsement as well. So when Marcy shyly asked Shane what they could expect on the JFK, Shane said, “I’ve only been there once. You’d really have to ask the Colonel, he’s served aboard the Kennedy and he knows people there. But we’re going into a bad situation here.”


“Yes. Our testimony is going to be very damaging to them, besides John Waite we’re the only eyewitnesses to what happened on Vesta. We can’t prove it -- or there’d be hell to pay -- but we think the spy that stabbed me in the back and set off the bomb on the flight deck was Aerotech. So far he isn’t talking, we think he’s covering his bets in case the company sends people to rescue him like Danny Wolfe did Bad John.”

“So someone might try to make sure you never get the chance to testify?”

Shane pulled absently at the strap of her sling, she hated having her arm restrained. “I think they’ll wait until we’re on the JFK. But it will surprise me if there isn’t some kind of attempt. I wouldn’t stand too close, if I were you.”

Marcy said, “The General was right about one thing, this is going to be an interesting assignment! I do wish she hadn’t been talking about Chinese curses at the time.”

From the hatch, Hawkes asked, “What does that mean?”

McQueen said, “I think the curse that General Jeffords referenced is, ‘May you live in interesting times.’”

Hawkes thought it over and laughed. “I’d like to get hold of whoever wished that one on us,” he grinned.


Their first sight of the Kennedy and her entourage affected the rest of the squadron just as it had Vansen. She let them comment for a few moments before she put a stop to the skipchatter, and got them into the docking queue.

McQueen heard Marcy make a little surprised noise back in the bay, and looked back there. She had her head cocked to one side, listening for some sound that only she could hear. He went back there. “What’s wrong?”

“I thought I heard -- yes. Colonel McQueen, there are another two AI’s very close by here, I’m picking up their communications. I can’t tell what they’re saying, it seems to be encrypted somehow and if I tried to decode it, I’d be exposing myself to the Stranahan virus.” She looked up at him, suddenly frightened. “I just thought of something. Aerotech knows about me, that geek who was with the General and Col. Penderson when they picked me up from Groombridge--!”

“That explains the encryption. Can you get a fix?”

“If I can access the transport’s sensors, probably.” She was whispering to keep from being heard in the cockpit.

He glanced around. They were in line near a couple of grain barges -- and a little too near a Ganelon transport. He could see a group of school kids ganged up near the rear view port, pointing excitedly at the Hammerheads. “Do it. Hawkes, put some room between us and that school bus, we could have a problem here.”

“Sir.” He edged them off a little to port, nearer the second grain hauler.

Vanessa said quietly, “She can tie into the sensors at the midline junctions.”

Everyone else in the transport turned to stare at her. Unruffled, she just gave a tight little smile and adjusted the range on the LIDAR. “I don’t know what you expected, I was an electrical engineer for a long time before I was a psychic.”

Hawkes said, “’Phousse, with you around, I think I’m just going to have to get used to being the last one to know everything. Is this something I ought to know about?”

Vansen had taken the navigator’s station that McQueen had just left, it was starting to look like things might get hairy. If they did, she didn’t want to try to balance in here with just one arm to hold on with. “Sorry, Coop, orders. We can’t confirm or deny anything right now. ‘Phousse, that goes for you, too.”

“Roger that,” she replied.

McQueen showed Marcy where the junction box that Damphousse had mentioned was located. He wanted to look away when she uncapped the interface in her fingertip, he had a number of memories concerning the pair of needle-like contacts located there. He reminded himself that Marcy had nothing to do with any of that.

Marcy noticed his momentary hesitation, as well as his control over it. Most people didn’t bother to disassociate her from the actions of the Stranahan AIs. She wished there was a way she could tell him how much it meant to her that he was trying to do that, in the face of everything he’d been through. But there wasn’t -- at least not in the middle of whatever this situation was -- so she just let it pass. It took her a moment to decode the stream of data from the transport’s sensors, but when she did she was easily able to triangulate the position of the two AIs. It was a simple matter to cross-reference her own position with that of the transport’s sensor array, about six meters forward.

“They’re in the other grain barge, Colonel. And there’s some other kind of a radio source in there, it’s transmitting a tight beam of data but I don’t know that programming language. I think it’s being received by that transport full of kids!”

Hawkes said, “Wait a minute. That transport just yawed a couple degrees to starboard, it looks like the pilot’s having trouble controlling her.”

McQueen jumped straight to the right conclusion, but he knew as he did so that he was probably too late to affect the outcome. “’Phousse! Move us into a position that’s going to block radio contact between that first grain hauler and the Ganelon transport!”

“Sir!” Damphousse moved quickly to obey orders.

The transport pilot yelled into his mike, “Mayday, mayday! I can’t control her, she’s not responding!”

McQueen got up there. “Ganelon transport, this is Queen Six. Kill all thrusters -- emergency shutdown!”

There was a pause. The pilot said, “Nothing’s happening! Rick, get clear, get clear! I need a clear trajectory here to drop my passenger box!” McQueen realized the voice was that of a teenager.

A big red ore hauler got out of the Ganelon passenger transport’s way. Five seconds later, the transport jettisoned its passenger compartment, before the young pilot’s fears could come true and the engines started to fire.

The engine section of the transport spun out towards the ISSCV’s former position. The pilot was yelling at everyone to get out of range, and it was easy to see why. The engines were burning far beyond any capacity for which they were rated safe. It was only a matter of seconds before they overheated and exploded, taking the fuel reserves with them ... but West brought his SA-43 about and rippled off two missiles. Both of them were dead on target, disabling the transport’s engines without doing any further damage. “Hooyah! That was some good shooting, King!” Kenny yelled, amid cheers from everyone else on that channel.

McQueen advised the transport’s pilot, “You’re okay now, son. Put your maneuvering thrusters over on manual and get your spin under control.”

It took the civilian pilot a little while to manage that. By then, rescue teams from the Kennedy had arrived to bring in the transport and its frightened passengers.

The grain barge containing the AIs suddenly lit out for the wormhole. McQueen advised the Kennedy to pursue, and a couple of mikes later one of her patrols did so. Rather than be captured, however, the AIs destroyed the ship.

Shaken, Marcy said, “Shane, I thought you said they’d wait until we got aboard the Kennedy.”

“I’ve been known to be wrong before,” she replied quietly, and the look she gave Ty told him she was referring to more than the timing of the attempt on them. “You saved that boatload of kids, Marcy.”

We did,” Marcy said. “I can’t believe anyone could make that shot--! And Nathan hit both engines--!”

They were ordered to the head of the queue. Admiral Booth wanted to know what was going on. McQueen cautioned everyone again not to draw attention to Marcy or to answer any questions about how they had known about the AI saboteurs.

He had two reasons for wanting to keep Marcy’s nature from Admiral David Booth. The first was the obvious, that they were under orders not to discuss it. But the second went back to the AI war, to the three days in April when the UN forces and the AIs had fought for control of Miami. McQueen had been there, and so had Admiral Booth’s son, though as far as McQueen knew he had never laid eyes on the young man.

During the days, the city had been for the most part as silent as a graveyard. The civilians were either dead at the hands of the AIs or refugees living in makeshift camps north of the city, what they had left behind were kilometers of empty streets and abandoned buildings. By the sunlight, the AIs had stayed dormant and silent. Gunfire only broke the silence when a patrol stumbled upon one of their nests. By night, though, the gangs of AIs had roamed the dark streets and alleys, as the hunter had become the hunted.

Nothing McQueen could have told the Admiral about the reality of that house to house battle would ever have convinced him of the truth ... that for the length of those hellish nights, there hadn’t been NBs and IVs out there ... only humans and silicates. All anyone had looked at were the eyes, to know who was friend and who was foe.

McQueen had done his share of damage ... until he’d found himself in a blind alley with an empty clip and half a dozen AIs between him and the street. Why they hadn’t shot him, he would never know ... and there had been more than once he had wished they had during the days to follow.

All that mattered to Booth where McQueen was concerned was that, sometime during the battle, his son had taken a bullet because of some damn tank, and there had never been any love lost between them because of that. McQueen knew Booth to be cunning and resourceful as well as vengeful, there had been more than once he had found himself in highly dangerous situations that he had never been able to prove the Admiral had engineered.

Booth had never had a personal grievance against McQueen. Marcy would be a different story. If Admiral Booth was willing to go to those lengths to carry out a vendetta that had its basis only in bigotry, McQueen could very well imagine his reaction to an AI like Marcy. She wouldn’t survive five mikes aboard the Kennedy if the Admiral found out about her. Before the docking bay doors had time to close behind them, he made sure the junction box that she had been using was secure.

They hadn’t any more than stepped onto the deck when they were mobbed by a crowd of cheering kids. The transport pilot pushed his way through the children to thank them. Marcy kept quiet and to the back, she used her civilian status as protective coloration to blend into the background and let the Marines attract all the attention. As soon as they could, they escaped the crowded disembarking area.

It was fortunate that they had got their story straight aboard the transport, because they were hurried immediately off into debriefing. That lasted an hour, and all of them stuck firmly to their story that just how they’d known about the attack was classified. Marcy found herself wishing she had learned how to pray. AIs could pass for human under most circumstances, but the most rudimentary medical tests would certainly give her away -- if anyone decided to subject her to a lie-detector test, her true nature would be revealed immediately.

She remembered the General’s advice about staying in cover: keep it simple, tell as much of the truth as she could, and play dumb whenever possible! She claimed to have been nothing more than a passenger, and said she hadn’t been sure what was happening until the incident was over and the Marines had explained it to her.

Finally, she was let go, and taken to a conference room where the rest of the Wild Cards were waiting, except for McQueen and Vansen. Hawkes and West were treating it like the usual hassles they had come to expect. Moore was just waiting to see what happened next. Damphousse looked upset about something, but she wasn’t saying what. Avery was mad, someone had insinuated that he was a liar and he didn’t take kindly to that. Yamauchi was counseling him to take it easy, since his cockpit recorder would confirm that he was telling the truth about what he’d seen out there. Lucas was hiding his apprehension under a layer of tough-guy bravado.

The hatch opened, and Shane came in. She stared daggers for a moment at the Lieutenant Commander who had brought her in, he left them. She looked around, her gaze settled on West. “Where’s the Colonel?”

He shook his head. “I thought he was with you.”

Hawkes said, “He’s with the Admiral. I saw them together.”

That initiated a tense wait of nearly half an hour, before McQueen joined them. He passed his computer to Marcy. “Log us into the ship’s system and find out what our orders are,” he told her. He turned to the rest of them. “Damphousse, what is it?”

She swallowed. Aloud she said, “Nothing, sir.” But she was staring directly at the intercom unit on the wall. McQueen nodded slowly.

Marcy returned his computer and said, “We’re all supposed to report to Conference Room 14B to meet with Commander Baumgarten. He’s in charge of the trial on this end.”

He tucked the computer in his pocket. “We don’t want to keep the commander waiting,” he replied. Conference Room 14B was at the other end of the ship, they walked down there in a tight group with Marcy in the center.

Baumgarten was already there. He looked to be in his early fifties, and he wore a JAG insignia. After they were seated, he made sure all the witnesses were present and then briefed them about the nature of the hearing, and what would be expected of them.

“The trial is taking place in New York City. Due to the time differential, those of you under subpoena will be expected back here at 1400 hours tomorrow.” With that, they were free to go.

They headed for the O-club to get something to eat. It had been a safe place to talk before when they had met with Jimmy’s father here. McQueen asked Damphousse, “What was it you didn’t want to say back there?”

She leaned forward, as if to stir her drink, and answered softly. “When Cooper and I saw you and Admiral Booth together, I had one of my visions. I saw the Admiral murder a man. One of the ship's junior engineers was working on a panel. Admiral Booth turned the breaker back on, and the man was electrocuted. He deliberately waited several minutes before he pretended to find the body and call for a medical team. When they investigated, what it would have looked like was that the engineer forgot to turn off the breaker. It’s stupid, but we’ve all done it. I’ve been thrown across a room once myself, I’d have been dead if it had been direct current.”

McQueen silenced the rest of the squadron with a look. He reined in his first impulse to warn Damphousse against making that accusation where anyone else could hear her. She certainly realized that if Booth knew she was onto him, but couldn’t prove it yet, she would be next.

Jimmy looked saddened, but not surprised. He met McQueen’s eyes for a moment and then looked down. “The last time I saw Dad, he mentioned being concerned about the Admiral, sir.”

“Jim always was caught in the middle between the Admiral and myself, son. I don’t believe either one of us ever consciously allowed our differences to affect your father.”

“Yes, sir, and I know that my father had a lot of respect for both of you because of that, sir. But after Mrs. Booth passed away last year, Dad said the Admiral changed. Dad didn’t want to let it turn into a falling out at a time like that, but ... I don’t think they had a lot in common any more.”

“Changed in what way?”

“I can’t be sure. All he said was that he was afraid he’d find a bottle of vodka and two glasses on the admiral’s desk. Dad never explained what he meant by that, and I never saw him again face to face after the war started. The subject never came up again.”

That made sense, it wouldn’t have. Jim might have mentioned concerns about a superior officer to his son in private, but not in an email or a possibly monitored vidphone call. As for the bottle of vodka -- McQueen knew the reference. Years ago, right before he had first come to Loxley, the base commander had committed suicide. It had still been the most common topic of gossip. The usual version of the story was that there had been no note, only a bottle of vodka and two glasses on the general’s desk. Jim Avery had said that he must have committed suicide to avoid some sort of scandal. The first glass of vodka had been a toast to whoever had given him the option to take the honorable way out. The second had been to Lady Death.

McQueen had commented at that time that he couldn’t imagine a circumstance in which he would raise a glass to the Lady and put a gun in his mouth. Having survived Omicron Draconis, and the IV Platoons, and four months in solitary, he’d thought he had known it all. It had seemed the coward’s way out, then. Jim had agreed with him, at the time. A few years’ experience had made a hell of a lot of difference, he wasn’t as inclined to judge ... but he sure wondered what Jim had known about Admiral Booth that led him to suspect he might be considering something like that. Whatever it was, maybe that junior engineer had found out about it as well.

Anita asked, “Are these visions a sure thing, Vanessa? Have you ever been wrong about one?”

She shook her head. “Never. Not about things that already have happened. I understand your concern, and I wouldn’t have taken a chance on making a false accusation if I weren’t completely sure.”

West took a drink of his beer. “The question is now, are we going to do anything about it?” His tone was completely neutral, but he was obviously looking to McQueen and Vansen to make a decision now one way or the other. And he was right about that. They were on very dangerous ground here, the squadron had a right to expect an objective and a clear plan to achieve it.

Even if they did know that a murder had been committed, and how it had been accomplished, they still had no proof. McQueen knew Booth well enough to doubt that, if he had made the engineer’s death look like an accident, they could ever prove otherwise.

It wasn’t their job to investigate murders, in any case. They were here to testify and that was all. He couldn’t justify putting the lives of his kids at further risk by getting involved in it. “We don’t have a dog in that fight,” he replied. “When we get back to the Sara, there are channels to go through. In the meanwhile, we’ve got plenty of trouble from Aerotech already without looking for more.” He glanced at Shane, and she took her cue.

“Damn straight, I don’t want anyone playing Sherlock Holmes and giving an Admiral any ideas about us, is that clear?” She looked around at everyone, but especially at the new kids. She got an immediate chorus of “Yes, ma’am.”

<End Part Four>

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