Sometimes, the Universe respects sorrow.
Lt. Cooper Hawkes didn't believe that sentiment, not for a second. Granted, the past two weeks had been relatively quiet. Aside from the odd Chig squadron, there had been virtually no sight of the enemy, but that seeming calm meant nothing to Hawkes. Some could speculate that the events that followed the aborted peace negotiations may have given the enemy pause, but Hawkes knew that they were just gearing up for an even more intense offensive. The Aliens had wounded the Earth, now they would come in for the kill.
Though Commodore Glen Ross had been very vocal about the need to maintain combat readiness, Hawkes knew that the Commodore's plans were on hold. As much Ross might want to, he couldn't mount an offensive by himself and the world leaders had been dragging their feet. Operation Roundhammer was a no go until new directives were received and it didn't look like they would be coming soon. Hawkes could almost sympathize with the Commodore - the truth was the Earth forces were currently in a state of chaos and no one seemed to know what was happening or what to do next. Time, plans, soldiers and leaders -- major losses suffered due to the catastrophic miscalculations on Anvil and the peace talks.
Losses that were most keenly felt on the Saratoga itself.
Losses that Hawkes could not accept and could think of only in the most disconnected fashion.
Lt. Paul Wang of the 58th - Killed In Action.
Captain Shane Vansen and Lt. Vanessa Damphousse, also of the 58th - Missing In Action. Presumed Dead.
Lt. Colonel McQueen of the 58th - Severely wounded. Status unknown.
And the 59th - the entire Squadron lost in the rescue of the surviving Vesta and Tellus colonists aboard the APC "Homeward Bound."
Their courage had not been overlooked. On Earth, Secretary General Diane Hayden had publicly thanked the families of the Marines whose lives had been lost in the fight to bring the colonists home.
Lt. Wang had been posthumously awarded the Silver Star. On the Saratoga, his funeral had been well attended. The wisecracking lieutenant had been well liked, and his last act had garnered admiration, sometimes even awe.
"Paul wanted his ashes to be scattered over Wrigley," Hawkes had indignantly reminded West, but West had explained that was impossible under the circumstances.
Instead, West had read a stirring eulogy for Lt. Wang, ending with a poem by A. E. Housman:
The time you won your town the race We chaired you through the market-place; Man and boy stood cheering by, And home we brought you shoulder-high.
To-day, the road all runners come, Shoulder-high we bring you home, And set you at your threshold down, Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away From fields where glory does not stay And early though the laurel grows It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut Cannot see the record cut, And silence sounds no worse than cheers After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout Of lads that wore their honours out, Runners whom renown outran And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade, The fleet foot on the sill of shade, And hold to the low lintel up The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead, And find unwithered on its curls The garland briefer than a girl's.
Hawkes had pointedly ignored the way that West's voice cracked during the last few stanzas, and the way many openly cried. Instead, he had stood stoically, focusing on his frustration, on his anger. On his cold contempt for the hypocrisy of the military brass. On his utter disgust that Commodore Ross could stand there and weep for Paul when he had all but condemned Shane and Vanessa to death.
After the rescue of the Homeward Bound, Ross had adamantly refused to let him and West search for their missing companions. Worse, Ross had called off the search after only three days. Seven Search and Rescue teams had been deployed and none of the five teams who returned had found any sign of Vansen and Damphousse's plane. After reading the S.A.R. teams' reports and factoring in all known data about planet 2063Y (mainly that it was an extremely "hot" planet and its atmosphere unbreathable by humans,) he made a command decision. Captain Vansen and Lt. Damphousse were officially declared to be MIA, presumed dead. Their families duly notified of the same.
"Colonel McQueen wouldn't have given up," West had insisted. "Please, Commodore Ross, let us try."
"They would have run out of air by now," Ross had countered. "We did our best, but we have to accept that they are either dead or captured. Either way, right now there's nothing more we can do."
"So you're just going to leave them there?" Hawkes had demanded. "You'd do that to two of your own? To Vansen and 'Phousse?"
"We've already lost two S.A.R. teams looking for them," Ross had shot back. "I'm not going to risk more lives looking for dead soldiers."
"You bastard, " Hawkes had growled -- a sentiment that had gotten him and West thrown in the brig for three days. It was only to himself that Ross could admit the truth - he had grasped at the excuse to lock them up and ensure they wouldn't go off after their friends. It was an irrational, highly emotional response but he wanted these two Marines safe. He owed it to McQueen.
There was still no official word on Lt. Colonel TC McQueen's condition. Rumors ran rampant on the 'Toga, but West and Hawkes shot down every one. McQueen was indestructible, every one knew that.
It had been said that war was hell, and for the first time, Hawkes believed it completely.
War was hell.
And things could only get worse.
Hawkes and West arrived at the hatch of the 5-8 barracks exhausted by the day's maneuvers. Since the 58th was still officially out of commission, the two of them had spent the last eleven days filling in as wingmen for various other squadrons. After two back-to-back sorties, they wanted nothing more than to shower and collapse on their racks. Still, they paused outside of the 58 barracks, dreading the sight of the empty beds.
Would it ever get easier?
The dark-haired woman sitting on the bed startled Hawkes. The Captain's bars on her shoulders assisted in the illusion. "Shane?" he asked, without thinking.
When the woman turned to face him and he saw that she had black hair, that she was taller, that...
That she wasn't Shane.
That was when he noticed the other people in the room. A tall Native American man and a blonde woman. At their feet lay Marine-issue duffel bags - their gear.
"That's Shane's rack," he announced to the dark-haired Captain, unable to keep the hostility from his voice.
"Not any more," came the cool reply. The woman turned back to the gear on the bed, and started unpacking. "Cullen, Rain -- choose your racks and get your gear stored," she stated, then glanced at West and Hawkes with a vague air of distaste. "I assume you two are West and Hawkes? I suggest you two get cleaned up. Ross wants to see us all in the orientation room in half an hour."
"Captain Tyler," the strange man interjected, "maybe we should --?"
"Excuse me," West interrupted the strange lieutenant, "but who are you people?"
"Jordan Rain," the man answered, offering hearty handshakes to West and Hawkes, who were too surprised to react. "This is Lt. Sarah Cullen," he continued, gesturing towards the blonde woman. "And that's Captain Morgan Tyler sitting on the rack." He looked at the two strangely. "Didn't Commodore Ross tell you?"
"Tell us what?" Hawkes asked impatiently.
"We're your new wingmen," Lt. Cullen supplied brightly. "And Morgan is the new honcho."
"I see you've all met one another, " was the Commodore's tired greeting as he entered the briefing room.
Nathan couldn't help himself. "Commodore, it's only been fourteen days," he protested.
Ross's exhaustion evaporated with the outburst. "Precisely, Lieutenant," he barked. "It's been fourteen days. We need the 5-8 flying. In case it escaped your notice, there's still a war on."
If you want the 5-8 then let us look for Vansen and 'Phousse," West demanded. "The WildCards are a team, not just a name. The Corps can't just dump a bunch of people on us and expect us to be the same."
"Oh, it can, Lieutenant," Ross was emphatic. "In fact, we even expect you to be better." He walked parallel to their seats, looking them over one by one. "Hear this CFB, 5-8. This is how it is. This is not kindergarten. You're not here to make friends. You're Marines. You're here for one reason and one reason only. To protect your country and your planet. Your home. You'll fight on command, and you'll work together on command."
"Then Nathan should be honcho." This time it was Hawkes who protested angrily. "He was XO. He should be honcho now."
"Not your decision to make, Lieutenant," Ross growled. "And unfortunately, not mine, either." He brandished a piece of paper in front of their faces. "Your orders are in, 5-8. You're back on active duty. And Captain Tyler is the leader of this squadron now."
"What about Colonel McQueen, Sir?" West asked. "Is he coming back?"
"Only God can answer that question right now, Lieutenant," Ross answered, heavily. "We could certainly use him here now, and the loss of your colleagues still weigh heavily upon us. But we have to play the hand we're dealt. We have a war to win, Marines -- we do what we can with what we have."
He moved closer to them, and Hawkes could feel the tension emanating from the Commodore's body. "We're playing hardball, Marines. We can no longer afford to grope our way across this darkness. There's no room for hesitation or uncertainty. We're in too deep, people. We've paid too much. As individuals, and as a race. Maybe you don't know each other, but I do. And I know this -- you're best we've got. You're a team now, you're the 5-8. And I need the 5-8 flying." He nodded to Tyler, turning the briefing over to her. "Captain, they're all yours."
Morgan had kept quiet through the briefing, but at Ross's signal she smiled, coldly. "Thank you, Sir." She waited until Ross was out of the room before turning to face them. "Let's go, all of you," she ordered finally, and started moving towards the door. "On my six."
"Captain, wait," Cullen raised her hand. "Where are we going?"
Tyler paused momentarily to answer. "On patrol. We're relieving the 89th."
"We just got back from a run," West protested. "We're tired."
"And the rest of us are coming in cold," she retorted. "It all evens out." She resumed walking, and Cullen and Rain hurriedly followed. After a brief hesitation, Hawkes and West reluctantly joined them.
"I don't like this," Hawkes hissed lowly to West. "I don't want another Captain."
"We don't have a choice right now," West whispered back.
At the launch bay Tyler stopped and they all fell into a straight line. For the first time Hawkes noticed the patches on her flight suit. The 114th Squadron. "The Black Wings" Another patch depicted a slash of black against a field of blue.
Surreptitiously, he stole a glance at the others. On Rain's suit was some sort of animal, a wolf or a dog, with long teeth and a feral glare. He couldn't see any more from his position. Strangely, there didn't seem to be any patches on Cullen's suit. *F.N.K.* he thought, in disgust.
"Hawkes, you're on my three with Cullen," Morgan instructed as she strapped on her flight helmet. Hawkes noted that aside from a repeat of the black slash, her helmet also had the words "Tyler" and above, "Raven" written on it. "West, you get Rain. Let's go."
"Wait," West was surprised by the abrupt instructions. "That's it? That's all you're giving us?"
"You need more?" she asked, getting into her cockpit.
"What about formation?" Hawkes inquired, as Rain and Cullen followed her lead.
"But we haven't trained," this time it was Rain who protested. "We don't know each other enough to fight together as a team."
"Newsflash," Tyler mocked. "You wanna tell the Chigs timeout so we can practice our pass?"
"You're going to get us killed," Hawkes predicted, grimly. "On our first run, yet."
"Hey," she shrugged. "Why put things off??"
"She's just kidding," Cullen interjected, looking askance at Tyler. "You are kidding, right?"
"If you're that easy to kill," answered Tyler, flatly, "you're that easy to kill. Let's fly."
West and Hawkes collapsed on their racks, unable to stay on their feet for one second more.
"That woman is a maniac," Hawkes proclaimed.
Rain and Cullen arrived next. "Wow," Cullen grinned exuberantly, "what a rush."
West glared at her. "Are you insane? We were nearly fried. You lost an engine, for god's sake. Hawkes took a hit."
"Hey, we just wiped two Chig squadrons." Cullen held up two fingers proudly. "I personally downed two planes."
"We know," said West, a little sarcastically. "We were there, remember?"
"Sarah hasn't been a combat pilot long," Rain smiled, tolerantly. "Not long enough to know it gets real old real fast."
"We should hit the showers," Cullen said. "We were in transit for 12 hours, and then that 6-hour sortie -- I can feel moss starting to grow in my hair."
"Me, too," agreed Rain. "Morgan made us unpack first.."
"Where's the Dragon Lady, by the way?" Hawkes asked.
"With Ross," Cullen provided. "Debriefing."
"Great," said Hawkes, ironically. "Maybe she'll tell him we're hopeless and demand another gig."
"Gig?" asked Rain, curious. "What's a gig?"
"Well, Captain?" asked Ross. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
Tyler shrugged. "It went fine, Sir."
"Fine?" Commodore arched an eyebrow. "You go after two Chig squadrons in enemy territory without provocation and you tell me 'it went fine'?"
She shrugged again. "They were all we could find, Sir," she answered.
Ross shook his head reprovingly. "Captain Tyler," he said sternly, "do me the courtesy of dispensing with the levity. This isn't a game."
Tyler nodded somberly. "I know that, Sir," she said, her voice low. "I'm sorry. Force of habit."
Ross sighed, heavily. "I can't watch your every step, Captain," he said. "And until I find you a C.O., you more or less have a free hand with the
5-8. But there are always limits. I know you're well aware of that."
"Yes, Sir," agreed Tyler. "Very aware."
"I hope there won't be any more of these unnecessary displays of foolhardiness."
"This wasn't unnecessary, Sir," she objected. "I needed to test their aerial combat skills and they needed a workout."
"Not like this." he said.
"With all due respect, Sir," she stated. "Your 'you're the best' speech earlier doesn't change the fact that this squadron is composed of one ex-S.A.R. with virtually no combat experience, one throw-away and two little lost boys crying for their Mom and Dad. And then there's me. You're asking for the impossible and I'm trying to give it to you as fast as I can. You said it yourself, they're Marines. If they can't handle this they sure as hell have no business being here."
"Those are good people out there, Tyler," Ross said. "And outstanding Marines."
"Sir," she retorted, wryly, "if that was all it took we'd have won this war already."
"Replacements," growled Hawkes in disgust. "The Corps sent replacements. You know what that means, don't you?"
West nodded wearily.
"You," Hawkes hissed. "This is all your fault. You were the one who decided to leave her."
"She ordered me to leave," protested West quietly. "We had to secure the colonists."
"You had to secure your precious Kylen," Hawkes snarled. "You chose her over Vansen and Damphousse."
"That's not true!"
Cullen glanced over to where they were sitting. "You're getting a little loud, guys," she said. "Can we lower the level of testosterone in the room? You're overwhelming little 'ole me."
"Oh no?" Hawkes whispered harshly back, trying to keep his voice down. "If Kylen hadn't been in that APC, would you have let Shane and Vanessa go? Would you have let Paul die?"
"It wasn't like that!"
"Do you think they'd have done that if they didn't know how much Kylen meant to you? And now that you've got her back, now that she's safe and sound back on Earth, you don't care anymore, do you?" Hawkes accused.
"Shut up," said Nathan. "You know that's not true."
"You don't care that they're dead," continued Hawkes doggedly. "You don't care that McQueen's probably dead, too. You don't care about any of them. All you care about is that your girlfriend is back on Earth, getting your white-picket-fence house ready for the day you come home. Well, it's not going to happen."
It wasn't clear who threw the first punch. Suddenly, West and Hawkes were on the floor, grappling with each other.
Cullen looked at Rain calmly. "They're obviously not as tired as we thought," she commented dryly.
Tyler stalked back to the 5-8 quarters, a cold anger coagulating in the pit of her stomach.
*Damn the Corps,* she thought. Of all the squadrons they had to give her the 58th. The WildCards, the pride of the 5th Wing. She laughed to herself, mockingly. It was all she needed.
She was a good soldier. They knew that. That's why they had dared to do this - to send her here, to them. She had honestly believed that she wouldn't care where they sent her as long as they let her back in the war.
She just never thought they'd send her to the 58th. She'd heard about them, of course. Who hadn't? Young blood, fresh meat -- they had surprised everyone at the Battle of the Belt. After that victory they had been considered a lucky charm of sorts, a talisman against the darkness of the war. Stories about them had enlivened many a foxhole, giving the new recruits something to look up to, to shoot for. Poster kids for the Corps -- young, brave, beautiful. Everyone knew them, everyone loved them.
What could the Corps have been thinking? Sending her here?
Once, a long time ago, she had even seen them -- together, laughing, joking. She remembered thinking that they wouldn't last long - they were too green, too young. They had been laughing, for heaven's sake. As if they were on their way to a party instead of a battle. As if the entire war was nothing but a big joke.
Well, the joke had been on her, hadn't it?
Now they were hers.
She could tell that Hawkes was going to be trouble. She had access to all their records, but even if she hadn't, she would have known anyway. They should have taught him better at that InVitro facility. At the very least he should have learned how to hide his stubborn nature better by now. Rebellion had been written on every line of his body, from his tightly clenched jaw, to his rigid, barely-held-in-check fighting stance. On the other hand, she could make that work for her. If she watched him, handled him carefully he shouldn't be too much of a problem. It could even prove to be… interesting.
Cullen and Rain she dismissed easily. Yes, they, too, would bring their share of trouble, but barring any major surprises, she knew how to handle them, too.
West was another matter altogether. Quiet, phlegmatic West with his innocent boy-next-door looks. He would bear watching. Just like he was watching her, reserving judgement. Waiting for her to reveal herself, waiting for her to make a mistake.
Hawkes. West. Cullen. Rain.
Four new people. Four new lives.
In her hands.
She caught herself just as she reached the hatch of the 58th barracks.
Shit, they were doing it to her again.
Dealing the cards randomly, leaving her no choice but to play the ones handed to her.
Like it or not, she was now a WildCard.
She smiled to herself, grimly.
Well, she'd been called worse.
Lt. Sarah Elizabeth Cullen glanced impatiently at the two Marines who were still wrestling on the floor.
"Hate to break up your fun, guys," she said lightly, "but Captain Tyler will be back soon."
"Tyler can go to hell," spat Hawkes, panting in exertion.
The words were already out his mouth by the time he realized that the barracks door had opened and Tyler was entering.
She glanced at him once, coolly, to let him know she had heard him but was choosing to ignore his insult. He and West scrabbled up, more out of habit than of respect for their new leader.
"As of 0600 today," she announced without preamble, "the 5-8 is back on active combat duty. Until further notice, we are on a 12-on, 12-off patrol. Our first shift is at 1200. That's in less than 14 hours." She
glanced at her Marine-issue timepiece and the rest automatically did the same. "The time is 2248… ready.. ready… hack." With one motion they all synchronized their watches. "However," she added, "you will report to the level 5 cargo hold at 0815 for basic and unarmed combat exercises."
"What for?" West's voice was testy and not just a little bit challenging.. "It's not as if we've had a chance to laze about in the last few months."
"We'll end at 1115," Tyler continued, ignoring West. "That'll give you enough time for a meal and a shower before we go on patrol."
"Four hours of exercises?" asked Hawkes incredulously
"Daily," she confirmed. "Until further notice."
"And you are doing this because…?" prompted West sarcastically.
She gestured at the floor in response. "I see you can beat up each other okay, " she commented, "but how much damage can you do to the enemy?"
"Plenty," snapped West.
"You'll have your chance to show me," she returned. "At 0815." She walked to the locker she had commandeered and opened the door.
"Look, Captain Tyler," said West, obviously trying to remain calm, "Maybe you don't understand. This isn't how we do things in the 58th."
She turned back to face them squarely. "No, Lieutenant, you don't understand," she answered West, slowly and deliberately, as if talking to a small child. "So let me make this very clear to you -- this is how we do things in the 58th from now on. See these bars? " She gestured to the silver bars on her shoulders. "These bars mean that I get to call the shots, make the rules and generally make your lives miserable if I want to." She smiled mockingly. "Call it a fringe benefit."
"You'll be sorry when McQueen returns," growled Hawkes.
"If Colonel McQueen returns," corrected Tyler, "then he will of course call the shots and I will follow. If he chooses to discipline me for my actions, I will accept it. But until then, the four of you and your respective asses are mine."
Hawkes couldn't resist one more challenge. "If this is how you treated the 114th it's no wonder you got transferred."
"Oh shit," whispered Cullen aside to Rain, "he mentioned the 'Wings. Big mistake. Huge."
Sure enough, for one split second Tyler's green eyes flared at Hawkes' comment. Then they turned ice cold, and Hawkes almost drew back from the menace contained in them. "The 114th's gone," she said through gritted teeth, "or that's where I'd be." Her next words were soft, but ominous. "Let me give you some advice, Lieutenants. Never ever mention the 114th within my hearing again. Those were good men. Exceptional soldiers. I would trade the whole lot of you for just one, just one, of them back. It's not a good idea to remind me that's never going to happen." She returned her attention to the inside of her locker, brought out her shower kit, and then slammed its door shut.
"Now then," she announced, as she made her way to the 5-8 hatch. "I don't care what you do for the for the rest of the night, but I expect you to be at the level 5 cargo hold, in peak condition, at 0815." She spared them one last disdainful glance as she went through the door. "Don't even think of testing me on this, people."
"See?' Cullen smiled wryly at a slightly shell-shocked Rain. "I told you she wasn't be so bad..."
The 58th barrack was quiet, the lights dimmed for the purpose of sleep, but Cooper Hawkes lay awake, despite his exhaustion.
Lt. Cullen and Lt. Rain were gone, having opted to do a little 'Toga exploration before turning in and still hadn't returned. When invited to join them, West and Hawkes had demurred, explaining that they needed to rest, but actually it had been their unspoken agreement that they'd use the opportunity to discuss their new "situation." Hawkes had ranted for a full five minutes before noticing that West had conked out from sheer exhaustion. Now he was left to try and sort out his thoughts alone.
The barracks door opened quietly, and his gaze automatically shifted to monitor the person that entered.
It was Tyler. Even in the dim light, Hawkes' InVitro eyes could see her clearly. Her long black hair was still damp from her shower, the ends curling up ever so slightly. She was wearing Marine-issue tanks and sweatpants, the latter of which she shed as soon as she reached her locker, revealing boxers, also Marine issue. She thrust the pants inside her locker, Shane's locker, and took out a bottle which she threw on her bed. Further digging into the locker resulted in a hairbrush, and what looked to Hawkes like an extra-thick hairband, one of those cloth-covered rubber bands like Shane used on her hair.
She walked over to the bed and sat down, kicking off white cloth sneakers that had been on her feet. *I wonder where she got those shoes,* Hawkes thought inanely as she uncapped the bottle she had tossed on the bed. Suddenly, the air was filled with the scent of almonds. Almonds and cream and an oil of sorts - *sunflower oil, maybe,* he decided. He was slightly pleased that even after all that time he could still call on the more subtle skills they taught him at that InVitro facility. The scent was pleasant, and incredibly feminine - completely at odds with their new captain, he thought.
She poured the lotion into her palm and started rubbing it into her skin and for the first time, Hawkes got a clear view of the scars - angry red streaks of newly healed skin - that ran across her hands and up her arms. He almost gasped as she turned slightly and he saw another scar, just under her shoulder blade. Even at that distance he knew what it was -- a knife wound, fairly new or the scar would have been lighter. There was something else on her right arm -- not a scar, it was too dark - but he couldn't see it clearly.
When she was finished with her skin, she turned to her hair, brushing it out in long strokes, hurrying the drying process. Then she braided it carefully, tying it up with the band. That done, she stood up and returned the bottle of lotion to her locker.
He saw her hesitate slightly at the locker, and then bring out something else. When she slipped it under her pillow his instincts identified the unknown object.
His eyes narrowed. A knife. Their new captain slept with a knife under her pillow. So much for feeling safe in their own beds.
She got in the bed, wriggling under the covers, trying to get comfortable. Then she turned on her side and caught him looking at her. Their eyes locked, and it seemed to Hawkes that for that moment it was Shane he saw lying on that bed, her eyes soft and loving. Then Tyler moved, turning her back towards him, and the spell was broken.
"Go to sleep, Hawkes." The whispered order hardly disturbed the silence. "You'll need it if you're going to fight me again tomorrow."
It wasn't, by any standard, a truce or a declaration of peace. It wasn't even very reassuring. But for some strange reason Hawkes found the words comforting. Maybe it was the tone of her voice - soft, smoky, sleepy. Maybe it was the scent that still lingered in the air, suggesting comfort and safety. Or maybe it was the fact that in the dark, he could pretend it was someone else lying on that bed.
*Tomorrow,* he agreed tiredly to himself. *I'll fight her again tomorrow.*
Then he closed his eyes and slept.
© JCSA 30 June 1998