On the Saratoga
One of the loneliest places in the universe is a crowd.
Despite the fact that the Saratoga had over 6,000 humans onboard, both Cooper Hawkes and Nathan West were alone. Not just in the physical sense, after all there were not just one but two guards outside their hatch, but in a more intimate sense. West was confused. He had always thought that the emptiness within would go when he found Kylen Celina. Part of it had, but there remained a hollowness he could not understand. Nathan acknowledged that the emotional pain was the result of his friends disappearance--and probable death. If someone had been able to see Nathan West, they would have suspected a physical pain-for Nathan moved restlessly in his bunk. West's mind wrestled with the events of the last year in much the same manner that Jacob wrestled with the angel.
But Nathan was not as successful. Nathan traced his path from being kicked out of the colonists program so that he could be replaced by an in vitro (two wrongs definitely did not make a right) through his marine training. Paul Wang--the name wandered through his mind and over his lips. From the first sentence that he had ever hear Paul Wang utter, "I hope that they don't yell too much" to the last uttered by Wang "Hoo-rah" Sergeant Major Bougus was right--the only sound in space that one can hear is the battle cry of the U.S. Marines. West's eyes closed tightly as he could see -yet again - in his mind's eye- the events leading up to Wang's death. Operation Roundhammer --where the 58 had slipped onto the planet--discovered a sentient being-told him/her/it of the pending attack and gone back to the Saratoga. The peace talks, the explosion onboard the 'toga' ; Wang's defense of the former captives- Wang's defense of Kylen with his life. The rapid motion of these thoughts came to a full stop with Nathan's memory of the explosion of Paul's craft--Did Paul Wang die instantly? or was Paul conscious when his ship went down? Did Paul feel his skin start to burn --as well as his lungs? What did Paul feel; and where was he; where was his body-"Paul " Nathan said to himself "I can't even give you a decent burial--at least Butts did that for his men.' From flying his Hammerhead to the furthest parts of the human occupied galaxy Nathan West was now under arrest and confined to quarters.
From Wang, Nathan West thoughts leapt to Shane Vansen and Vanessa Damphousse. He remembered his first conversation with Shane. On the bus to the training facility at Loxley, Alabama they had both stared at the 127th, The Angry Angels. And although they had not realized it at the time, they had their first glimpse of McQueen.
McQueen who had inspired them by example and by poetry. McQueen who did what was right but still got dirt slung at him --not because of what McQueen did but because McQueen -" that damned tank McQueen" -did it. West did not know if McQueen had any genetic material from the McQueen clan, but he certainly lived up to the McQueen family motto "always faithful."
Always faithful. The phrase rang in West's ears. It suited Shane Vansen as well. Vansen who was faithful to her parents. Artificial Intelligences had killed Shane Vansen's parents and now Shane Autumn Vansen was going to make certain that this never happened to anyone else. Vansen who had led the Round Hammer expedition and who had had enough of killing for the sake of killing-- Captain Shane Vansen had decided to let the strange creature on planet live; to take care of its young. She would let it be a parent --something that the A.I.'s had taken away from her mother and father.
Was it the mother in her that had made her yell at West to take Kylen Celina and the other former colonists back to safety while she and Vanessa were sucked down by the planet's gravity? Shane Vansen could have escaped. Vansen could have been on board the Saratoga. But she wasn't. Shane had chosen to stay with her men; to stay with Vanessa Damphousse on the slight possibility that Damphousse was alive. But where the hell was that essence? That special something that made Shane unique? Was it still residing in her body on the planet? Had it dispersed to where it had come from before her conception. West leapt from his rack and paced, but for all the difference that it made his hands and feet could have been tied with rope, not just regulations.
West paced past Cooper Hawkes. Hawkes had taken to sleeping in Vansen's rack. It was easy to see the pain in Hawkes eyes. Not the type of pain that A I s were so good at giving. Not the pain of broken bones, nothing so easy to fix. But the pain of losing someone whom he respected and who had respected him. Cooper Hawkes had spent the first few months of his life living at the In vitro Training Facility--where the "monitors" were teaching 687 ways to kill a human. Hawkes' childlike inquisitiveness had gotten him into trouble--he had committed the sin of asking a monitor a question. The monitor had deemed that the correct response to Hawkes' question was "termination'. Hawkes had killed the natural born in self defense and had escaped.
Two years later, still in the city of brotherly love, Hawkes had been cornered by a gang with a "hang a tank" mentality. In his escape Hawkes' temper had exploded again at the racism of the police and had damaged a police cruiser. At his trial the presiding judge had sentenced Hawkes to the Marines. West paused in his pacing, glanced at his team-mate and momentarily wondered what turn Hawkes' life would have taken if he had been found not guilty?
It was a question that Hawkes frequently asked himself. If the judge had not sentenced him to the Marine Corps, he would never have kissed Vansen--Yes, she had given him a solid right hook for it --but that was because he had tried to kiss her. Not because he was a tank. She had never questioned how he had arrived in this life but only what he did here. She also never questioned McQueen--Vansen had accepted McQueen as her C.O., not as a tank. Vansen had accepted the creature on Round Hammer as a being--a parent. This meant a lot for Hawkes as parents were something In Vitros never had. When he, Hawkes, had brought the Chig out from the caves on Roundhammer ("I may be an In Vitro but I know that I am better than a Chig" Hawkes had explained his actions) Captain Vansen had agreed to let it live. She had even tried to communicate the coming invasion to it.
Even more importantly to Hawkes, Vansen had talked about her family. And the most important feeling of all was the feeling of family that the 58th had given him. The feeling that someone really did "give a damn."
Another person who gave a damn was McQueen--Colonel McQueen. Hawkes in his naive way was 'sorta' beginning to understand his Colonel. McQueen had once asked Hawkes "What would you die for?". And now McQueen was missing most of his leg.
"West, what do you think is going to happen to McQueen?" Hawkes asked once more.
Knowing Hawkes' experiences when Hawkes had been deemed an "defective tank" West found the patience to answer again.
"The doctors will give him a new leg." West instantly regretted using the word 'doctors' as West knew of both Hawkes' and McQueen's addition to the pills that had been prescribed by military physicians. Doctors who could not be bothered to learn about their In Vitro patients.
Hawkes squirmed in Vansen's bunk and asked "Who's that in the hall?"
"No one-you are hearing things because you want the 5-8 and the old man back."
"No, I'm not kidding, there is a whole bunch of people. . ."
"Yeah you're right--I wonder why. . . " Nathan stood up. Hawkes sat up straighter on Shane Vansen's bunk.
In walked the 5-8 replacements. And that is exactly how both West and Hawkes felt, replaced. The 'new' 5-8s were led by a new major, Major Ariel Hyland. Her carriage, confidence and just plain presence gave her more stature in the room that her petite frame required. West shifted uneasily, and thought size doesn't determine the lethality of a weapon.
While dodging a "newbie's" bag Hawkes leapt from Vansen's rack. "Hey, this rack is still taken. Shane is alive ... somewhere."
"Cooper Hawkes in vitro # 204 16A A3439PHL Date of decanting May 15 2057. Shane Autumn Vansen is MIA Deal with it." The new C.O.ís voice cracked like a whip.
"Commodore in the room!" again the verbal whip cracked. She was not going to miss anything, especially when anything was the Commodore.
The room leapt to attention. An uneasy attention as "Boss Ross" never made house calls. Closely at Rossís heels was a JAG officer. Tall and almost slender, Montgomery Farrow stared through his brown eyes, unforgiving at the replaced 5-8. Hawkes and West glanced uncomfortably at each other. Ross cleared his throat.
"Orders have come down to me that. . . " .Ross shifted uncomfortably" . . . after their actions on planet, both lieutenants Hawkes and West are to be confined to the brig, not just to quarters."
Ross glanced briefly at the Jag officer and thought he is enjoying this.
"Fall in. Brig now." Farrow snapped. The JAG officer throw the words like stones.
"Security, escort the prisoners to the brig." Farrow continued. The two security officers out side the 5-8th quarters leapt to life and West and Hawkes were swept away. They were closely followed by Montgomery Farrow, and perhaps most importantly Commodore Ross.
Ariel Hyland stared briefly after Hawkes and West then looked back at her new people. She quite obviously did not associate with potential losers. Hyland had decided a long time ago that she was on her way to the top and nothing was going to stop her.
The package arrived within 24 hours of the disastrous end of the peace conference. With it was a scrawled note:
Doctor Dale Stienbeck opened the package, scanned its contents, then secured himself in his office and made a call.
"You could have gone through regular channels, you know." Was the first thing he said.
A shake of the head. "No, it would be best if his location isn't widely known. Aerotech will want to speak to him and, in the condition he's in, he may do something. . .regrettable."
"Aerotech? Don't worry, I'd help him hide the bodies."
"I know you would. That's what scares me. Can you get him back to the Saratoga in. . .say. . .two months?"
Stienbeck choked on his coffee. "You're kidding. Please tell me your kidding."
The speaker was firm. "He'll be safer there."
"Two months. . ." Stienbeck glanced at the file again. "Well, he's an In Vitro, that'll help. Heal faster, less chance of infection, all that rot. I suppose we can accelerate the process but I'd still say it'll take at least three months. It depends on him, of course."
"In that case, he may be on active duty in one month. Or less. He can be a stubborn cuss. Pass on a couple of things, will you? Without my name being mentioned of course. He's been promoted. . .full Colonel. And there are searches going on for his missing squad members. Those are the important things, though maybe not in that order. And if Aerotech should show up, keep them away from him, at least for now. Bring in those damn dogs of yours and park them outside his door."
"Gotcha. Anything else?"
A long pause followed by a sigh. "Just get him back on active duty, Dale. He needs to back there. And fast."
"I'll do my best."
"I suppose that's all I can ask." The screen went blank.
"And a good-bye to you too." Stienbeck said cheerfully then settled in to study the file closer. For the first time, he actually registered the name and grinned. "Well, surprise, surprise. We're finally going to meet, McQueen."