Episode One



On The Saratoga

The docking bay was always cold, but never more so than at a funeral. Vansen had attended too many of them, often of people under her command. She thought she was hardened to it, but this one was different.

Seeking any kind of distraction from the coffin on the deck in front of her, Vansen glanced up at their reflection in the observation window opposite. Damphousse looked somehow even more fragile than she had in sickbay.

Next to them, Coop and Nathan filled out the first rank. Hawkes and West and Wang had been the Three Musketeers -- hell, Athos and Aramis to Wang's Porthos. All for one and one for all. This wasn't how the story was supposed to end.

Her eyes traveled back to the coffin. Vansen reminded herself harshly that Wang wasn't even there. They were committing an empty coffin to the stars.

Back to the reflection in the glass. That was a safer place to keep her eyes.

Hill stood right behind her. He had been a royal pain in the ass when he had previously been part of the squadron. She hadn't been sorry to see him go then, before he got himself and half the squadron killed. Now, here he was back, and she could think of plenty of other blessings she would rather have received instead. Stone and Low were another story -- it was good to have them back. She knew she could depend on both of them. Next to them, Keegan and Laturner were still strangers. Keegan didn't seem to be paying attention to Hill at all. His eyes were fixed straight ahead. All the same, Vansen hadn't the slightest doubt he was riding shotgun on Hill, and that the most minor breach of solemnity would have severe repercussions once they got back to the squad bay. Vansen didn't think Hill doubted it either. She decided she liked the older Marine -- they were going to get along fine.

Laturner had stood last night's lonely watch with a grief-stricken Damphousse right along side Vansen. Katrina had been a little nervous about being the only In Vitro woman in the squadron, but that had lasted all of five minutes. Now she was swiftly becoming one of the girls, a place that had been vacant since. . .

. . .Kelly Winslow.

Oh, God.

Had it really been this long since she had stood in this exact spot for Kelly's funeral?

Major Ariel Hyland was one big question mark. She looked the part of a commanding officer burying one of her own. But her eyes. . .there wasn't any grief there. McQueen had never been one to demonstrate a lot of emotion, but even in the early days of the war when they had been burying people faster than they could replace them, there had always been. . .something. Regret for the loss of a young life. Maybe questions about what he could have done to prevent the loss, though he had never talked about any such thing with her. And Winslow -- McQueen hadn't been at her funeral. He'd gone out and put the dog who had killed her at her feet instead. Vansen just couldn't see Hyland doing that. . .self-sacrifice sure didn't fit the profile for officers like her. Of course, Vansen thought cynically, a natural born officer would have been looking at a promotion for taking down Chiggy von Richtofen single-handedly. . .*that* fit the profile perfectly.

Once again, Vansen felt a flood of doubts. Hyland was never going to fill McQueen's shoes--not for her anyway. Vansen couldn't yet put her finger on the source of her unease. Hyland had made all the right moves on 2063-Yankee. She couldn't fault one thing her new CO had done down there. And then back on the Sara, Vansen's testimony not withstanding, Hyland had certainly pulled the right strings with Mr. Blaire to bail Hawkes out of a bad spot. It had meant the rest of them who had been on the Anvil mission shared the hot seat with him for a while, but the decision of the court-martial had been essentially a slap on the wrist and a stern admonition never to do it again. Extra duty and confinement to quarters weren't really punishments when they all wanted to keep busy, and no one felt much like hanging out at the Tun anyway. She had wished McQueen a speedy recovery all along -- she could imagine how he felt about the forced inaction of convalescence -- but looking at Hyland's shadowy image in the glass, she hoped he would return soon for all their sakes. Serving under a glory-hound could be every bit as dangerous as facing the enemy.

The chaplain's prayer came to an amen. Vansen realized guiltily that she hadn't heard one word of it. . .not that she didn't already know the service for the dead by heart.

As one, they came to attention at the order. The three volleys from the ship's guns. . .the achingly clear notes of Taps. . .and the detonation felt through the deck plates that started the coffin on its eternal voyage. Vansen thought she heard an echo of Wang's voice and set her jaw as once again the tears threatened to start.

At last the ceremony came to a close. Out in the passageway, Nathan hugged Vanessa. Shane barely held in the tears. Cooper's hand dropped to her shoulder, and from that silent gesture of support, she drew the strength that she needed to get the rest of the way back to the squad bay.

Once back there, no one spoke as they put their dress uniforms away. It was several hours now before they had to be on the flight line for their next patrol. Vansen idly flipped on the vid and channel-surfed until they came to a public-channel performance of Hamlet. At 'Phousse's choked sob, she turned it off.

After a while, she overheard Hill talking to Laturner and Keegan. "We're not confined to quarters -- let's get the hell out of here."

Laturner said, "You go. I don't feel like it."

"Well, if you like hanging around in a mausoleum, be my guest. Wang's dead. Get used to it."

Stone's eyes narrowed to a dangerous glare as he swung his feet off his rack and started to get up. He had known Wang, and he obviously didn't like Hill's disrespect.

At that, Keegan spoke up. "I've had just about enough of your attitude, son. Like Laturner said, if you want to go, fine, there's the hatch."

"Losers," Hill scoffed.

As the hatch shut behind him, Keegan shook his head. "Damn idiot."

West replied, "Yep. He was a damn idiot when he was here before, and he hasn't changed a bit."

"He was part of the squadron before?" Keegan sounded surprised. "He never said anything about that." Stone and Low blinked as well -- they had already been transferred out of the five-eight before Hill had been assigned to the squadron.

"I said he was here before. Not that he was part of the squadron. That was his decision," West told him.

"I hear you," Keegan scowled.

That bit of gossip ended abruptly when the hatch slid open. Laturner instantly jumped to her feet when she saw who it was. "Commodore on deck!"

Everyone sprang to their feet except Damphousse; before she could carry through with her intention to force herself off her rack, Ross waved her back. "As you were." He was carrying a bag, it contained a bottle of Scotch. He set it on the table and stood with his hands clasped behind his back. "I know the regulations about liquor in the squad bays. However, since that regulation stands in the way of raising a glass to the memory of Lieutenant Wang, I am temporarily suspending it."

Vansen replied, "Thank you, sir. It would be a great honor to the squadron if the Commodore would consider joining us, sir."

"The honor would be mine, Captain Vansen."

She sent Laturner for glasses. Ross raised his. "To Lieutenant Paul Wang: Godspeed, son."

Out in the corridor, Hyland had been about to enter the five-eight's squad bay, but when she looked through the viewport and saw the Commodore inside, she changed her mind.

"What's all that about?" Asked the man at her side.

Hyland said, "Commodore Ross' opinion of the court-martial, I believe."

"Why don't you go inside? He has you to thank for getting Vansen and Damphousse back in time to squash it."

Hyland shepherded him on down the passageway. "You did your share, George. Without your influence, the judge might have ruled either way on the charge of insubordination."

With uncharacteristic modesty, Blaire replied, "Everyone involved wanted to hush this up. I just pointed out a way they could save face while doing that."

"As for the other thing, the Commodore will never be happy as long as I'm CO of the 58th. It's only a matter of time until Colonel McQueen returns. Until that time, it's best if I avoid antagonizing the Commodore. It will pay off in my next command. And if something should delay the Colonel's recovery, well, I don't want the Commodore to feel that I'm too eager to step into his place. I'd rather be invited to move forward than ordered to get back in my place."

"It's all part of the game, isn't it, Ariel?"

"Yes, it is."

Blaire looked at her and smiled. "We do make a pretty good team, you know."

"Now that you mention it, we do at that, don't we?"

"It looks like we may be seeing a lot of one another in the next few weeks," Blaire speculated.

"I can think of worse things," Hyland agreed.

"May I buy you a drink, or a cup of coffee?"

"Yes, you may," Hyland replied, as a smile played around the corners of her mouth.

The End