First Encounters

The van rumbled its way over the desolate ground, dust blowing up and out around it. The driver carefully avoided coming too close to the rare trees -- the dust they traveled through had the most annoying habit of clinging, choking out the life it attached to. Frequent dry O-Storms tended to electrify the surrounding air, lifting light particles and messing up traditional conduction.

A dun hawk beat its wings frantically, then regained its balance outside the turbulence created by the passage of the van. It squawked angrily at the metal vehicle, then resumed its flight northward. There was a gathering of scavengers, and where the scavengers gathered, the hawk could also get a meal. It was hungry.

"Completion of Pie B-4. Proceeding to C-7." Valdoon checked off the circuit on the digi-screen as he reported in to HQ. They radioed back acknowledgment. He glanced back to the rear of the van where 23 was monitoring the scanners. "Need a break, 23?"

23 stretched, rolling his head from side to side. "Sure." He stood up carefully and moved to one side as Mendi silently slid into his spot without waiting to be asked. 23 watched as Mendi brought up the records of last Rec Pack sightings and traditional habitation areas. The Refugee pickups tended to go in waves, and there had been none for the last few months. The winter had been harsher than normal, and the members of HazLib feared it hadn’t been easy on those humans wandering the Wastelands. Even the Recessives showed the signs, ranging further from their areas in search of food and water. There had been several interpack squabbles, and the Niner pack had tossed their old leader out after a fierce battle. 23 shook his head in remembrance. The pack had been uneasy about their leader ever since HL had tagged him and then let him go a year ago. When they’d first picked him up, the Niner leader had been the strongest and healthiest of the lot -- tough in battle and stubborn as heck. When they’d had him in captivity, he’d been bewildered by the Force Field holding him in his cell, but still defiant, issuing challenges to anyone passing by. When HL-1 had found him after the Pack had tossed him out, he was trudging down a dry gully, slumped and limping from his many wounds. He’d barely looked up when the vans had slowed for confirmation of his tags, despite the pain the electrical fields of the vans must have caused him. They’d followed him at long distance until he passed beyond the C-22 pie, and out of their surveillance range.

"The Niner Leader?" Doc’s soft voice reached through 23’s thoughts. He looked at her and nodded slightly. Her blue eyes regarded him with sympathy, "We can’t save them all."

"No..." 23 moved past his station, where Mendi was carefully reading the scans, and sat down in the auxiliary seat next to Tom. Neither Tom or Michael looked at 23, but he could feel emotions radiating from both. On Tom’s part, it was the same sort of sympathy that Doc had exhibited, combined with the pain that 23 felt. Michael Mendi was slightly bewildered and trying not to show it. It’s the younger crowd. Not just Michael. They just don’t know who the Recessives might be. 23 and Tom had known the Niner Pack Leader fifty years ago, when they’d all been young and on the same side. When they’d all been human. 23 deliberately leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes, pretending to relax as, instead, he felt the loss again.

Michael concentrated on the scans and bit his lip on the sigh that wanted to come out. Something had just passed between the three older military personnel that he could not share in. Didn’t really want to, if the truth was known. He chewed on the side of his lip. The Recessives are not human. They’re barely more than animals, and they kill humans. With long years of practice Michael kept his emotions from reaching his face as he remembered living in the Wastelands and seeing what the Recessives did to those they caught without protection. Mother, Jacine... He didn’t turn his head, but his attention moved again to the other three. How can they have sympathy? It doesn’t matter what they were; what matters is what they are. We have a job to do, and people are more important than Recessives. Again, he stifled a sigh. He’d already debated the FRE with his commanding officer when he shouldn’t have, and he wasn’t going to bring it up again unless it looked like a real bad situation. 23 was trying to teach him tact -- which was amusing considering how little 23 had at times.

A little red dot started blinking in the bottom right corner of his screen, then a few more became visible. "Tags," Michael announced. "Four so far. They’re moving off to the south." He transferred the pertinent data up to the Colonel’s screens and the navicomp.

Colonel Valdoon grunted as he examined the grouping. "What do you think, 23?"

23 sat calmly in the auxiliary driver’s chair, which was compliment to Michael’s ability to run the scans. He replied, "It looks as if they’re heading away from something, not towards. I recommend we ignore them for the moment, and see what they were up to." He leaned forward and tapped the satellite map, "Over that way, I think."

Valdoon glanced over, his mouth drawing into a frown, "A hunch, 23?"

"A hunch." 23’s face settled into grimmer lines. He dealt mainly with what was, and didn’t trust much in conclusions without data, but there were times... He didn’t like the way the small group was moving. And for every tagged Rec this far away from the City, there were usually three or four untagged ones. Getting up abruptly, he turned too quickly and tripped over the chair -- or his own feet. Ignoring the various bruises he could feel, 23 picked himself up and moved down to the scanner section.

Michael restrained his impulse to move over and help 23. A sense of deja vu descended briefly over him as he noticed the look on his friend’s face that indicated nothing in particular had happened. His sister Jacine often had the exact look, and she never thought anything was wrong. Michael shrugged and moved out of the scanner seat.

"Stick around, Michael." Every opportunity to teach Michael on the scanners, 23 took. A lot of it was stuff that wasn’t in the books, but a person just got to know after a while. He switched the types of scans around. They were improving the technology, what they could build, bit by bit, but all too often searches relied on pure visuals.

The van crawled on, deeper into C7 and out toward the search boundaries. One of the more telling readings changed. 23 glanced aside and waited only a few moments before Michael noted it as well.

"Faint detect readings out there."

For Tom’s benefit, 23 added, "Nothing yet visually. Recommend proceed on current heading."

"Any Tags?"

"None reading." They’d outpaced the first Tags that had appeared on the screens.

"Detect readings stronger." Michael pointed to a different set of numbers, "What’s that?"

23 squinted at the screen, then pulled up some data sheets. "Better slow down, Tom, we’re getting close to something."

"What?" Tom Valdoon reacted with instant preparedness to the tone of uncertainty in his second-in-command.

"Assault weapons," 23 responded grimly. "I’m reading high levels of disruption in the ground O-layers." Turning slightly to Michael, he added, "Indicative of rapid dispersal of high speed projectiles."

Valdoon opened up the mic connections to the transport van and relayed the news, directing the two vans into an intensive search pattern until one should find something. A few tense minutes went by.

23 double-checked his sight, was that a higher infra-red? "M’Kinsey, your two-o’clock." They waited for the answer, then the troop transport reported back, "Got them! Refugees -- they look hurt!"

"No Tags or other indications of Recs in the area," the infra-reds weren’t high enough among other readings, "I think they cleared out."

Doc was gathering her medical equipment, examining the screen by her own station that she had tuned to the visuals the transport was relaying. After an incident the year before, 23 had gone out and by himself bought all the spare parts necessary to install a separate screen for the doctor. He didn’t ever want to compromise his scans again. Once had nearly lost him a good friend. Never again.

The Recs weren’t known for setting ambushes. Valdoon waited a moment to be sure, then ordered everybody out. He had Bower, Anderson, and Telasner take point positions for look out, and the rest dispersed to aid and reassure the Refugees. It looked like Doc would have her hands full.

"... So it looks like they found a new weapon’s cache." 23 sipped his orange juice and looked over the glass at his friends on the sofa across from him. Andy got up and started to pace around the carpet. Connie glared at 23, who just shrugged slightly, I really don’t think he’ll come back to HL. As much as he might want to... Don’t worry so, Connie.

Andy sat back down, and notice the look on Connie’s face. Guiltily, he slipped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently. "So, you’ll take a group out?"

"Yes." 23 measured how much juice was left in his glass, then drank again. "We’re coordinating with Major Walker and Major Koss for the shift coverage of their units. Michael’s testing the body armor for deterioration. HL-3 is moving out tonight to narrow down our search range -- It’s the Fourzars, but this horrid winter has screwed with the normal range areas. If they find a possible site, HLs 1, 2 and 4 will head out tomorrow. 5 is recalled to duty and will take both Altha and Beta shifts for the duration of this sortie." The last of the orange juice went down smoothly as he tilted his head back. 23 put the glass down with a sigh, "Thanks, Connie. I never realize how dry my throat can get."

"No, you never do." Connie responded tartly, masking her care as she always did.

23 grinned at her, and her expression lightened in respond to his openness. She smiled at her fears and asked about else the HL bands were doing to prepare. They talked for over an hour, then 23 excused himself. HL-3 would be sending back preliminary reports, and 23 wanted to review them directly. It wasn’t his shift time -- actually, it was the middle of the night, but he was picking up bad habits from Tom.

23 reported, "It looks like a bunker." There were a lot of Tags clustered around one area in particular, and the X-Sat showed high iron and steel concentrations in that location. More than a simple cache. Oh joy. Underground bunkers were rare in this age. Most had already been looted and destroyed.

"More than a cache?" Major Koss walked to peer over 23’s shoulder. 23 restrained his impatience -- he knew what Captain Ramirez, who covered scans for HL-2, was like. 23 affirmed the Major’s question, pointed out the specifics that indicated such.

Colonel Valdoon directed the three troop vans to flank out with the Command vehicle. He put HL1-Transport on the North side of his HL1-Command, HL-2T on the South, and sent HL-4T with Major Walker and his troops around the far end. With them apart, the Recs would sense them coming earlier, but Valdoon felt that events were drawing close. The medical van had standard orders to stick to the rear of any action until directly called, and the Colonel reinforced the SOP with a direct command.

"Colonel," 23 frowned at his readouts, "Something doesn’t look right."

Valdoon looked intensely at his own screens, but didn’t comment immediately. Major Koss opened his mouth to ask for a report, but took his cue from the Colonel and said nothing.

23 expanded as he sorted out the problem in his mind, "I’m getting very intense disruption of ground O-layers, in a non-linear pattern. It’s different than what we got yesterday. I don’t recognize it."

Valdoon looked around sharply. For 23 not to recognize something was unusual. He called the other four vans to get their reports and opinions. The Command van had the most sophisticated equipment, but all vans had the basics. Major Jiang was on scanners in the 4T van moving around the East. She didn’t see anything unusual. Master Sargent Telasner of their own 1T was getting O-layer disruptions, but it was standard to assault weapons and terrain. They waited a long time for Captain Ramirez’s report and it came back negative. The Medical van didn’t have extensive scans, but what they had looked normal.

23 adjusted his X-Sat patch-ins, trying to get more details on the site, seeing if he could match the O-layers with landscapes. Details refused to come clear and he frowned over the interference as the satellite bounced back images through energy laden air. "I think an O-Storm is compacting."

"Oh great. That’s all we need." Valdoon’s fingers tapped on the steering wheel. 23 could see him thinking, I hate O-Storms, I hate O-Storms, and 23 grinned briefly even though he agreed completely. "Could that be the reason for the unusual disruption you’re picking up?"

"Negative." Besides, I’m still the only one picking them up.

Valdoon tapped his fingers in a steady beat. He stated the obvious, "We need to retrieve those assault weapons while they’re still in one place." It was a five hour drive from Island City to this outer bunker, far outside the C-10 pie. The assault weapons the other day had been in C-7. Two more days and the weapons would be scattered across the Wastelands. And the refugee group they’d picked up yesterday had told of others coming in. Their first duty was to protect the refugees. Out of a group of 14, eight had died yesterday because of the assault weapons. "23, what are our options for waiting out the O-Storm and proceeding after?"

23 scowled at his scans. "Possible -- the Storm looks like it’ll be light -- not heavy enough to knock out our systems. But the light Storms tend to last a longer time. We’ll be here for at least 16 hours."

Major Koss grimaced and contributed, "Putting our sortie in the middle of night with a bunch of tired, cramped, and smelly soldiers. Gives the advantage rather to the Recessives."

Valdoon sighed, and his fingers tapped one last time. "We’ll stay with the original plan. 23, are there any landscape problems for the vans’ approach?"

"Negative, Colonel." 23 frowned as another burst of static fuzzed through his images. He transferred the X-Sat to a smaller screen and opened the wide screen on the LOS visuals from their van and the three troop vans. The infra-reds were confirming what Tags he’d picked up, but as yet were beyond the visuals. They had passed beyond the O-layer disruptions, though 23 thought it headed off to the South. He wished he trusted Captain Ramirez’s talents on the scanners more. He called him one more time. Ramirez reported no change.

Keying open the main communication channel, Valdoon first reported their position and ETA to home base, then issued the deployment orders for the troops. The moments to implementation went by seemingly slowly. "All personnel: Use Tranquilizers only." Valdoon hesitated after his general reminder and looked towards Mendi, who met his gaze steadily. The FRE was an important part of Colonel Valdoon’s command and the troops under him respected it. Michael didn’t completely understand the reasoning, but he was learning. It had to do with the same thing that had happened yesterday -- the view that the Recessives used to be human and might be again someday. With these thoughts running through his head, Michael was taken completely by surprise as the Colonel added, "Use of lasers will be authorized by Lieutenant Mendi at such time as necessary." Michael’s eyes widened and he could sense 23 turning in his seat to look at Valdoon. Koss noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Colonel Valdoon said nothing else for a moment, then continued preparation orders. Michael thought about the tension around the Colonel’s eyes and realized that Valdoon liked the situation they were in no more than Mendi himself.

"Stay within a fifty-foot perimeter by your base vans." Valdoon switched off the general mic. "Why haven’t we had any encounters? They know we’re here. 23?"

Michael’s friend didn’t turn around, but responded with prompt accurateness. "They’re gathered around the bunker. It looks as if they headed for it when they heard our engines."

"Electronics," Michael muttered under his breath, but not loud enough to be heard.

"Right." Valdoon brought the van to a stop. "HL-1C in position."

The next van reported in almost immediately, "4T in position." Then M’Kinsizie’s familiar drawl came through, "1T rattler down." The last HL troop van was barely five seconds later, but it seemed like forever, "2T in position. Have Recessives on visuals."

23’s voice came clear immediately, "Standard gathering, Colonel. It’s definitely the Fourzars."

"Alright. Move out." The tense command started the recon mission. Valdoon and Koss moved out immediately to join their troops. Mendi stayed in the van, peering over 23’s shoulder to get an idea of what was out there.

The left side of 23’s screen divided into a series of six boxes that resolved into eyecam visuals and started rotating through the group. Each person’s name was in the lower right corner in small print. The top right screen remained the scan composite, and the lower right had data scrolling through. 23 and Mendi were both concentrating on the eyecam pictures.

"Talk to me, 23." Valdoon’s brief command carried with it all the unspoken requests for any information picked up through the eyecams.

"2T is dealing effectively with the Recessives in their area. Verified assault weapons. I’m still getting unusual O-layer disruption. 4T picking up Recessives now-- what the heck?"

Michael studied the pictures with more detail. The visuals coming in from the 4T had looked normal to him...

"23?" Valdoon’s voice was sharp.

"4T is fine, Colonel. Private Kroll, turn a 360." 23 had put a rotation-stop on the top eyecam visual and put Private Kroll’s relay there. Michael realized that while he’d been concentrating on the Recs, 23 had spotted something else from the swirl of data coming through the 2T cams. Through the open mics they heard the troops talking with each other for backup, positioning, stats on Recessives, and the other typical info. Valdoon was issuing new deployment orders to the 1T and 2T groups, but was waiting for 23’s confirmation before sending them closer to the bunker.

"Whoa. There. Tim, move in towards that ravine."

Michael picked up what had alerted 23, the scarring on the rocks showed a pattern... "Damn." He keyed his own mike, "Colonel, they have SMGs among the cache." He paused, then amplified, "Submachine guns."

Next to him, Michael heard a muttered, "O-layer disruption, non-linear... Curses." 23’s voice grew louder, "Colonel, I just figured out what those readings earlier were. Granades."

"Granades???"

There was a different scoring on the other side..., Michael’s feelings of uneasiness took a definate form, "They also have needlers."

"SMGs, Granades, and Needlers... What sort of a cache--?" Valdoon broke off as an explosion rocked the ground. Michael ran to the door, grabbing the laser cannon on his way. Despite the Colonel's preference to the FRE, Michael felt much better holding the deadlier weapon. Recessives recognized death. He dashed out the van, turning his eyecam on, hearing 23's steady commentary through his receiver.

"Grenade. Concussion," was 23’s report. That wasn't the best news, but it could have been worse. "1T reporting minor injuries." A lot worse.

Michael headed to point, rightly assuming that the main offensive was coming from that direction. He slung the laser over his shoulder and drew the trank. The grounds were full of blue nimbus' flaring out as the HL teams took out Recs. Colonel Valdoon’s voice was calm and composed as he issued deployment and tactical orders, trying to spread the cover without exposing themselves to the deadlier weapons.

"Mendi! Down!" Michael threw himself flat as a whistle above his head informed him he'd barely avoided a needle shearing. He threw Telasner a wave of thanks as he scrambled up. In front of him, a Rec lifted a SMG and aimed it towards the HL-2T group, who had moved inwards in support of their comrades in 1T, but defiance of the 50' perimeter. Michael had his trank aimed and fired even as he analyzed the situation. Before the nimbus indicated a hit, the Rec had thrown down the gun with a growl. Jammed. That's one nice thing about SMGs, you have to be competent to keep the intake smooth. The Rec collapsed as the trank hit.

"Telasner, shield Kroll's retreat -- he's bringing Bower in." 23's voice came over and Mendi turned his head to watch Telasner as she moved smoothly back. He could see Kroll, carrying Bower over his shoulder. Bower looked bad.

Michael made a decision, "This is Lieutenant Mendi. All personnel authorized to use force up to G8, no more." That would be laser cannons and low level screamers. In between running, dodging, and firing, Michael dug out his own ear protectors and fitted them on. Screamers were particularly nasty to Recs. And half-Recs.

He moved forward, pressing for cover and advantage. The bunker itself became visible. Michael forced himself to stay as steady as possible as he looked it over, knowing his eyecam was recording the details. This was a deep one, dug out by the force of O-Storms, and found by Recessives looking for shelter from those same Storms. With the advent of battle, Recs had scattered everywhere the HL troops were, but there were still a fair number gathered near the bunker. A crackling of energy overhead made Mendi wince and he saw several of the Recs move deeper inside. The O-Storm was gathering.

Anderson moved up beside him. "Nasty," was his remark.

Michael agreed. He glanced at his comrade, "You're bleeding."

Anderson shrugged, "Minor."

An explosion near the bunker knocked both of them to the ground and showered rocks down on them. They both covered desperately. "What the hell? That wasn't a grenade!"

Looking cautiously up, Michael saw bodies of Recessives lying bloodied and torn in a circle around a tangled piece of metal. Tapping the side of his eyecam for amplification of the area, he and 23 identified it at the same time. "Rocket Launcher."

Valdoon's voice came through loud and clear, "That's it. We're starting a retreat, now! All personnel to the nearest vans -- I don't care what your normal designation is. M'Kinzie, coordinate."

"No argument," Anderson heaved himself up with a sharp groan.

Michael looked at him; the officer was obviously hurt, "What?"

"Ribs. Cracked a few, landing."

They headed back. No others had penetrated so close to the bunker. Michael had a moment to reflect that he himself was well out of the 50' perimeter originally ordered. They were now effectively covering the rear for the retreat. He continued to use the trank, though the laser made a reassuring weight on his back. 23's voice was a steady background as the Lieutenant-Colonel mapped escape routes and detailed coverage points for retreating personnel.

All vans were near equidistant to Mendi and Anderson at their current position, but 4T had the highest casualty list so far. 23 directed them that route.

"Recs moving in near 4T. NxNW and near W. They have grenades and a single Tri-mount. No needlers or SMGs."

Good news. The grenades had been only partially successful as the overexcited Recs kept forgetting to pull out the pins.

"Jiang, you're closest. Take a position 9 o'clock to your present one. See that gully? No, that one."

It was a little strange listening to snippets of conversation as people were directed by a ghost voice to the most advantageous positions.

"Chung, Sanchez. Halt retreat and cover on the NW." "Which way's that?" "5 o'clock from your position."

"Mendi, Anderson. Your cover's clear for now, but you'll run into the band as you come in. Careful."

Deployment complete, the field personnel took over on their initiative. In this grouping, Jiang was senior. In the receiver, 23 was giving directions to a different group coming in to the HL-1C. The command vehicle would be crowded for a bit until they could regroup. Michael heard Valdoon announce he was heading in to the Med van with a serious casualty from the 2T group.

Jiang's voice came over the local channels, "Engaged. Sanchez, left!"

Mendi and Anderson exchanged glances and Anderson headed over the hill on a flank position while Michael continued straight. The wastelands were too good at providing cover on both sides, attackers and defenders both cursed and blessed the terrain they fought in. If Recs can bless; we know they curse... Figuratively... Another rock and Michael was there. Blue nimbuses flared. Half the small group of Recs were down. There were a few scattered grenades, but none appeared active. Jiang was engaged in a hand-to-hand with one Rec and Michael briefly wondered how she got in that situation. Anderson emerged to the side, knocking the Rec down with a well-timed side-sweep. Michael instantly tranked the Rec. He moved towards them.

"Chung! Watch the--!" Sanchez's voice rang through the small gully and the three personnel turned to see the Rec with the Tri-mount blast the bigibets out of a boulder seven feet away from Chung, who was diving for cover. There was a brief, stunned, silence from Mendi, Jiang, and Anderson as they fought to keep from hysteria over the more humorous aspects of a skirmish. Sanchez tranked the Rec. Chung sat up and glanced towards Mendi. He stiffened, looking behind him.

23's voice came through the receiver loud and urgent, "Mendi, 7 o'clock, up!"

Michael whirled around. A Rec was above and behind them, closer to Michael than the other two, fumbling with a handful of grenades. Instantly, Michael saw what the urgency in 23's voice was -- these grenades were fragment, not concussion. Three trank nimbuses closed around the Rec, who fell to the ground with the slowness that indicates the watching party is in adrenalin hype. The grenades fell also, bounced, -- one was missing its pin... Michael already knew the available cover -- not much. He turned, feeling his body moving ever so slowly. He closed the gap between him and the others. He saw Jiang clamber over the gully wall with quick action. Anderson was attempting the same, but his broken ribs were keeping him from doing it as quickly. Pain was not necessarily a deterrent, but torn muscles and ligaments were. Jiang reached down from the top to give him a hand up, but Michael knew it was already too late. Mendi swept Anderson off the wall and flattened them both down by the nearest boulder, shouting to Jiang to get back. The grenade went off before they hit the ground.

The sound of the grenade exploding rang in his ears despite the protection. Anderson wasn't moving, and Mendi feared the worst. Another second creeped by as everything stayed in slow-motion. Michael rolled over and levered himelf up. Next to him, Anderson groaned and Michael realized he'd been knocked unconscious, not dead. But there was a lot of blood over him. Michael's attempt at cover hadn't completely worked for Anderson and blood seeped through all areas of punctured spidersilk. But the armor had done most of its work. The main areas of penetration were on the arms, which had been up to protect his head. A nasty gash in Anderson's neck needed immediate attention. He pulled the headset off to get at it. Sanchez and Chung came up, "How is he?" Michael didn’t look up as he stablized the neck gash, "Moderate. Will need surgery on the fragments, but I’ve got a strong pulse at the moment. He had broken ribs earlier. No apparent lung penetration yet. The Rec?"

Chung’s voice shook just very slightly, "Dead."

Considering the Rec had been right next to the granade when it went off, Michael was not surprised.

Jiang dropped back down over the ravine, pulling out her med kit, "Sanchez -- sentry. Mendi, you’re bleeding too." She rolled out the stretcher and activated the chemicals that would stiffen it. Chung assisted.

Michael couldn’t feel anything. "Blood’s his. I’m not hurt."

Jiang looked up in surprise, "Mendi, tha--"

"Recs!" Sanchez alerted them. Flashes of light showed his position. "SMGs."

"Damn. Sanchez, get back here and you and Chung take the stretcher." Jiang stood quickly and pulled her Screamer in her right hand and her Trank in her left. Michael also stood, his left leg buckling slightly. Taking no notice, Michael stiffened the leg to carry more of the weight from his thigh, and unslung his Laser. Chung and Sanchez had only Tranks -- the deadlier weapons were rarer. Michael and Jiang spead out to either side and covered.

Michael looked around, he saw three Recs, all coming from the South. "23, how many, and what’s with the positioning?" Michael could hear 23 talking to the 2T van, which apparently was having trouble with its electrical systems. He broke off with them to reply to Michael, "Tags are fuzzing out. It looks like four. They’re apparently retreating back to the bunker -- you’re just in their flight path."

"Great." Michael exchanged an exasperated glance with Jiang, who motioned to him to cover as she scrambled back up to the top of the ravine. He shot the laser into the ground directly in front of the leading Rec, who jumped back and hesitated, holding the gun loosely. He shot again, directing the blast just past the Rec, who turned and fled. The one behind him dropped her gun and dashed to the side. Michael frowned as the laser blast sparked out along the ground from where it hit. He looked up, and noted the crackling of energy. Damn O-Storms. Michael turned his attention to the third, and now he could also see the fourth. Jiang had them covered from her position and fired the screamer. She didn’t bother with any fancy tricks, and the lead Rec went down. Michael winced as the concentrated sound reached his ears as pain. The fourth Rec, closer than Michael and with no ear protection, fell to his knees, howling with pain. Jiang tranked him, then glanced around. Seeing the path clear, she motioned Sanchez and Chung to head out, Michael taking lead point.

"There’s the van."

"Thank God." The small group was eager to get in to safety. Hazardous duty might be in their job description, but none of them had to like it. Especially when they didn’t even get the mission accomplished. This was a diaster. Complete and utter diaster. A sharp squeal of electronics made Michael halt and tear off his headset, thumping his ear to try and rid himself of the aftershock of the noise. Another crackle of energy overhead showed the problem and Michael’s bones started hurting in response to the O-Storm. Electrical amplification -- no wonder the Recs are retreating. I bet the bunker is quiet. The vans wouldn’t be. Michael mentally hiked another notch on his pain tolerance in preparation. Chung and Sanchez were already in the van. Still holding his headset, Michael turned to Jiang for orders.

"Jiang!" Michael shouted desperately. The Rec he’d earlier thought had fled had instead grabbed the Tri-mount and was in direct line with the Major. Jiang threw herself flat, and the blast of energy went over her head, spiking out. A lightning bolt from the sky came down to met it and the energies exploded, radials of current flashing out to connect with anything electrical. Michael’s headset blew up in his hand, and his vital’s chip sparked. "Ow!"

Jiang screamed -- a sound of pain so intense it could barely be comprehended. Michael’s heart leapt in his chest as he realized that she’d been wearing her headset. "No..." He reached her in a second, and knelt down. Jiang was lying still, moaning, bloody hands covering her face, the right side charred black, hair burnt away. He glanced briefly to look for the Rec. She was laying twisted next to a shattering of scorched blue chrome. Don’t have to worry about her. Michael turned back to Jaing and picked her up as gently as he could, bringing her in the van where the other personnel were already in the process of aid for the wounded.

Lieutenant Hess at the driver’s seat watched them come in, then shut the door by remotes and started off, "You two are the last, sir. You’re senior."

Michael glanced around, "Where’s Major Walker?" Michael let Chung take Jiang from him, assessing her wounds.

"2T. Major Koss is in 1C, and Colonel Valdoon in the Med van."

"What’s your present deployment?"

"Colonel 23’s last orders were to move out as soon as you were in. Rendezvous at this location," he pointed to his screen, "our ETA is 10 minutes."

"Carry on." Michael forced himself over to the auxilery seat. Battle weariness was making itself felt, and there was a lot to do. He looked over the group in 4T. He, Sargent Chung and Corporal Sanchez were the only unwounded. They were tending Anderson, Jiang, and Bielitzki. Hess had a wrapping around his chest, but seemed to be alright. Michael checked the deployment of the other vans, and his eyebrows rose at the scattering. "Didn’t anybody keep a 50’ perimeter?"

"Doesn’t look like it, sir." Hess carefully didn’t look at him. Hess was from 2T, but Michael couldn’t very well say anything considering how far he and Anderson had strayed from their own positions. 2T was just about empty, with only Walker, Peterson, and Ramirez. And Walker and Peterson were originally 4T. The Command vehicle was the most crowded, being the closest to the Med van. Michael sighed, and began gathering data for transmittal to the doctors and 23 when the vans were close enough to break the interferance.

23 noted with relief the departure of 4T from the immediate danger area. He transferred that data into the front screens, and saw Major Koss nod as he read it. Communications were still sporatic, but 23 was putting special punch into his scanners. They couldn’t afford any more problems, and needed to keep the muster clear. At the contact point, 23 would have to transfer over a lot of his special equipment so the Med Van wouldn’t have to worry about electronic failure in the O-Storm. He wished the RCF budget was higher. Half of the things in the 1C vehicle were things 23 had bought and installed himself, but even his hazard pay wasn’t enough to re-equip the whole fleet.

---

Later, there would be the download and compliation of information, sorting, retrieving, organizing, and filing. And decisions to be made for the next trip in. But for now... 23 turned to the people crowded in the van and started gathering medical data to be sent to Sam and the other doctors. M’Kinzie had coordinated the personnel from the three vans, making sure everybody was in and accounted for, but as soon as they could, the most seriously wounded were to be transferred directly to the MedVan.

---

Jacine was deeply involved with the functional attributes of composite metals when a mild shock from her wrist comp demanded her attention. Pulling her mind out of numbers and images she suffered a moment of disorientation as she emerged into the office. Straightening up with a protest from her back muscles, Jacine looked at the code on her wrist comp. The page was from an Island City terminal -- not Michael’s, but probably still RCF. Jacine was suddenly very worried, as she could think of only reason that the RCF would put out an emergency page for her. Stress factors and melting temperatures were instantly forgotten.

Putting down the track pen, Jacine looked at her fellow engineer sitting across the way, deep in his own set of computations, "Siu, I've got to make a comcall -- I'll be right back." The engineer spared her enough attention to nod that he'd heard. Jacine headed for one of the secure rooms with comsets.

Jacine dialed the number on her pager. The screen cleared and she was looking at a tall, sandy-haired man dressed in grimy RCF fatigues. She glanced automatically at the tags; the name was unreadable, but the rank was Colonel. There was a moment’s pause before he looked at the screen.

"This is Colonel Valdoon."

Jacine paled slightly. Michael’s Commanding Officer. "I’m Jacine Mendi. I received an emergency page for this number?"

"Yes..." The Colonel cleared his throat. "Your brother has you listed as his next-of-kin..."

No. Please, no.

"He was hurt in a mission earlier today. The doctors are operating now. His condition is currently listed as ’critical’."

Jacine’s relief at Michael’s not being dead was almost enough for her to overlook the fact that ’critical condition’ was not all that good. She closed her eyes while the various emotions whirled around. When she opened them again, her heart was no longer in her boots, but she was still worried. "How soon before they’ll know anything?"

The Colonel glanced to the left of the comscreen, then back at her. "Dr. McLendon gave an estimate of ’several hours’ for the surgery. You can talk with one of the doctors after that."

Jacine’s mind clicked on the name. Tamlynn McLendon. Harried and tired. ’I’m researching a plague -- I need help.’ Cats. VR. A grin with honesty and survival. She’ll keep him alive if anybody can. "Can I come down now and wait?"

"It will be a long wait, are you sure, Miss Mendi?"

She chuckled grimly, "Well, I can’t go back to work now. And it will take me at least an hour to get a Gate into Island City. I am definitely coming down, I was just wondering who I would see when I got here, and where the best place to wait for Ta... Dr. McLendon would be." Read that as: The best place to harry the doctor.

The tired looking man glanced over at his readouts again, punched a few buttons, then looked back. "I’ll leave notice that you’re coming down, Miss Mendi. One of my people will meet you at RCF Gate B-Delta-5, if you could just let us know when you arrive in Island City. The Officer’s Club is only a corridor down from Surgery, and the doctors normally check in there after they are done."

Jacine managed to summon up a smile but her attention was already far away from the officer, "Thank you very much, Colonel." She placed her finger near the disconnect on the comset.

He nodded, and spoke again, "Miss Mendi, your brother is a very valuable member of our team and a good man. You have my sincere hopes that he recovers."

Jacine mumbled another thank you and a good bye, then severed the connection. In the small comset room, she put her head down on her arms and started to cry.

23 approached Colonel Valdoon’s office. He paused in front of the door and closed his eyes to collect himself. A slight draft blew across his face and he looked up. The door was open and a tired Valdoon was standing at the entrance looking at him with sympathy. The expression on Tom’s face made him look twice. He called the families. He bit his lip and tried not to think of it.

Valdoon gestured and they both headed down to the main control room.

Reporting in a tired voice, 23 updated his Commander on the bunker situation, now that all the recorded information had been downloaded from the HL vans into the main files. He concluded shakily, "I think we’d better ask for some explosive specialists when General Mede sends the replacements for Bower and Bacraft.

Rubbing his forehead, Valdoon agreed. He added, "I just finished calling their families. Mrs. Bacraft will be by to claim her son’s body for a personal funeral. Mrs. Bower agreed to have her husband’s funeral with full RCF honors."

"Did you call Michael’s family?"

Valdoon paused to peer over a technician’s shoulder. 23 glanced too -- she was detailing the tasks for the next HL group. Valdoon replied to 23’s question, "And Anderson’s. Major Walker and Major Koss are informing the families of their units’ dead and wounded. Mendi’s sister will be coming over here to wait for the results of the surgery. I’m going to get someone from Admin to meet her. Anderson’s son will stay at home with the grandkids until the doctor calls him." He didn’t mention Bommerson -- she was a former Refugee and had no family beyond the RCF.

"Jacine’s coming here?" 23 stopped momentarily, then hurried to catch up. He needn’t have bothered, as Colonel Valdoon stopped to look at him. They collided.

Emitting an ’ouch’ as 23’s elbow caught him on a bruise, Valdoon steadied both of them then backed up a step. "You know Mendi’s sister?"

The shorter man shrugged in both answer to the question and apology for the collision. "Only from listening to Michael talk about her -- they’re very close." He hesitated, then offered, "I could meet her. Now that I’ve finished the download, I was going to pace around in the Officer’s Lounge for awhile."

Valdoon gave him a tired, sympathetic smile. "You’d do better to go to your quarters and rest."

"No..." 23 looked down at the floor. "I want to be there, even if I can’t do anything."

"All right. I told her to call when she got here. If you’ll stay in the Snake Pit, Connie will let you know when she calls."

23 didn’t quite manage to hide a smile at the Colonel’s use of the unit’s nickname for the Officer’s Lounge. Valdoon saw it and gave an embarrassed shrug.

The Medtech put the file on ‘search’ and then waited. Dr. McLendon had started Lt. Mendi on plasma replacement the moment she saw him, and switched to stored ‘A’ blood when they had him typed and found no abnormalities, but with such extensive loss, the Doctor wanted a closer match. The Medtech was going through the records now to locate A-Positive people in Island City with a _____ match. The computer beeped, and he leaned in to look at the list. He gave a sigh of relief when he saw five names. _____ matches weren’t so common that he could even rely on getting two or three, five was a good safety margin. The top one looked excellent --- matching to 5 places. The next two down were the more common 3, and the last were only 2. The Medtech reached out to the vidphone, glancing at the name. Mendi? Maybe he’s a cousin.

"This is Jonathan Mendi." The businessman was at ease seated at his desk, work spread out in neat piles. His blonde hair was cut short, framing his handsome face, immaculate in every detail, but he didn’t look like a dandy -- just very efficent. Jonathan Mendi evaluated the Medtech’s uniform and asked, "How can I help you?"

"Sorry to disturb you, sir, but you’re on our donors’ list and we have an urgent need for blood of your typing."

Mendi blinked and shoved some of the papers in front of him to one side. "Of course. Exactly how ‘urgent’ is it?"

"If you could come down as soon as possible, we’d really appreciate it. The patient is undergoing surgery right now, and his blood loss is considerable. The sooner we can get a matching type into him, the better his chances will be."

"Of course," Mendi repeated. "What’s your Gate coordinate, and your number?"

The Medtech replied, watching him. He suddenly realized that if one took away the Recessive heavy bone structure, this person was obviously a relative of Michael Mendi’s, even without a clue to the name. They looked a great deal alike.

Mendi jotted down the Gate coordinate on a notepad, then looked back up, "RCF?"

"Yes."

Mendi looked like he’d swallowed something bitter, his mouth twisting, "And I match the typing. This wouldn’t be for Michael Mendi, would it?" Then he paused, "Damn. Shouldn’t have asked that."

"It’s all right sir, I’m sure you’re worried about your cousin."

There was a sharp, short laugh, "Cousin? Oh, that’s a good one. How is he?"

The Medtech hesitated. Patient confidentiality was important, but no doctor ever wanted to give out misinformation. The other man’s eyes were now unreadable, a strange intensity burning in them. "Are you a family member?"

Mendi bit his lip, then reluctantly said, "I’m his half-brother."

There was something definitely strange about this, but the Medtech brought up Michael Mendi’s files and verified the statement. "That’s all right, then, sir. I’m sorry to say that your brother was badly hurt earlier. The doctor is operating now, but the prognosis is uncertain."

"And how much difference would my blood make?"

"Unknown, exactly, but the more of the closest match we can find will be better for him rather then us trying to make it up with lesser products. You match his HLA to a 5 and are also an A-positive. That is the best possible combination. Since you are a relative, we’ll have to irradiate the blood, but it won’t have any effect on the products that we need -- the platelets, plasma, and red blood cells."

"I’ll call you back." Mendi was suddenly very abrupt.

"Sir?" The Medtech was astonished.

"I’ll call you in a few minutes." He reached out and disconnected the line.

The Medtech stared at the blank screen for a moment, wondering what had just happened. Then he shrugged, putting it to one side, and called the next person on the list. Even if Mr. Mendi would donate, they would need more blood than he alone could provide.

Jonathan stared at the blank screen, then let his breath out all at once. This is a fine situation. He turned his chair around so his back was to the desk. He stared at the wall and remembered.

"Mommy!" The young child ran to his mother and held her tight. He’d been allowed to see her briefly yesterday in the Medical Center, but they’d shooed him out. Now she was home. Home again. Warmth, security, strong arms holding him. He’d cried for months after she’d disappeared, and even when he’d stopped crying after a year, he’d never stopped missing her.

"My Jonathan." The murmur of his mother’s familiar voice was music. He started to cry. She raised a hand and brushed his cheek, wiping the tears and feeling his face. He held still, watching her intently. They’d told him she couldn’t see, but she looked no different, except that her eyes didn’t meet his. He saw a movement to one side and looked to see his father standing there, watching them with love and joy in his eyes. His father had never given up. For two years, an uncomprehending child had watched his father struggle to keep the searches going, raising a young child while never giving up hope. Seeing the love his father now showed, Jonathan thought he might understand. He was a lot smarter at seven, then he was at five, and not so much the child anymore.

"Mommy. Don’t ever leave again. Please." His voice went high with urgency.

"Oh, Johnny. I --" A wail interrupted her and Miranda turned to one side, untangling herself from Jonathan to reach out and pick up a small bundle. "Hush, little one. It’s okay." Her voice was soft and caring, full of the love that had once been Jonathan’s.

He stood there in stunned silence, the tears streaming down his face changing from joy to pain. She doesn’t want me. She doesn’t love me anymore. "Mommy?" he whispered.

A hand reached down to his shoulder, and he turned to see his father looking at his mother with the same bewildered look that he felt. He sobbed, and his father hugged him tight.

"Miranda... Your son..."

Miranda turned unseeing eyes to them, "Yes. My son. I fought for him, and I raised him. I don’t care what you think -- he’s mine, and I’m not giving him up for anything or anyone." She returned her attention to the baby, who was now making happy gurgling sounds.

"That’s not..." His father stopped speaking and simply held him tight.

Later, mother and father were gone, in a separate room while they fought. The love in his father’s voice had gone harsh. Jonathan looked down at the baby and for the first time in his young life knew what it was to hate. His hands clenched to fists as he looked at the ugly baby with it’s bony head and puffed up face. "You stole my mother from me." But the baby just waved a small hand. I could kill it now, and then Mommy would love me again. It’s so small...

Jonathan sighed, and slowly turned his chair to the desk again. If I didn’t kill him then, I can hardly do so now. He picked up the paper with the Gate coordinates on it, and left the room.

After Jacine had contacted her mother and the others at the Caves to let them know what was happening, she headed back to the Engineering room.

"Family Emergency. My brother's hurt. I'll be back when you see me."

Siu looked up in surprised concern, "Which brother?"

Jacine started out the door again, "The one in the RCF."

"Figures." Siu put down his console and started heading for another door. "I'll let the management know and take care of the paper work."

His words trailed far behind Jacine, but she still heard them and was as grateful as she could be under the circumstances. She limped to the nearest Gate -- the executive one that was twice as expensive as a normal Gate only because of its accessibility -- and transferred to one as near as she could get to her house. From there she took a people-mover to her block and walked the rest of the way. Wren greeted her as she walked in, but the greeting was subdued.

Jacine paused briefly, "You’ve talked with Oracle, I see."

Taking a quick look around the living room, she determined nothing she needed there and proceeded to the bedroom. She tossed a few shirts and pants in a knapsack, then picked up an old, stuffed owl and carefully put it in as well. I’ll crash for the night in Michael’s room, and then I’ll ask Tamlynn if I can stay at her place so I won’t be in Michael’s way while he’s recovering. I suppose I could also ask Jonathan, but I’d really rather not.

Reminded, she limped to the computer room, and typed a message to anybody who inquired of her that she would not be on-line for a few days. She carefully closed and locked the computer room doors, and then looked around the dining room. Scar-Face was sunning himself in front of the patio door. He flicked his tongue at her approach, but made no other moves. Jacine leaned down and stroked his smooth skin. "Wren, when did I last feed Scar-Face?"

"About three days ago. He’ll do until you get back. But I had better keep some attention circuits on the kelm." The computer’s voice hesitated, then added, "Jacine? Could you please hook up a cat to the diagnostic medical machines? We’d really like to keep tabs on how Michael’s doing, and if you’re in Island City, you may not be able to call out to us."

’Us’ meaning her and the others at the Caves. How am I going to hook up a cat in the RCF? "I’ll see what I can do. I better get going now."

"Give our love and support to Michael." Wren sounded like she was going to add more to her statement, but she didn’t. Jacine hefted her knapsack and left the house.

The main Gate terminus wasn’t crowded on her end, but as she had expected, the Island City main terminus was on a waiting list. She fretted, but knew that this was not a time to use the emergency code that would allow her to bypass the others. She could be patient for 30 minutes. Or at least, I can wear a path on the side wall as I lean on it while pacing. A limp, drag, path. She pictured it in her mind, and that switched her thoughts. Side-winders have interesting track patterns. Can they slither if they break their tails? Wandering the Tangent Lines, Jacine didn’t have any problem waiting. She deliberately kept her mind from speculating on how badly hurt her brother was, and the other, darker, thoughts beyond. She would be no good to anybody if she got caught in a Stream.

Her turn finally came. A voice came over the PA system, "Jacine Mendi -- Gate A3. Jacine Mendi -- Gate A3." She walked over to that Gate and verified that the Island City code had been programmed in. Activating the system, the blank wall in front of her rippled with rainbow colors, then cleared to a scene of the Island City terminus -- a much more busy and crowded terminus then her own. Jacine waited until she was sure no-one would be walking right in front of her (the Gates were set up in cubicles, but you never knew when somebody would mistakenly walk into the one you were using) and then she stepped forward. Her vision blurred and she saw rainbow sparkles instead of Island City. Her sense of time stretched out until it seemed a minute before she finished her step inside the terminus. Behind her, the synthetic voice murmured, "Thank you for using Long-Distance Sprint."

Jacine looked around her. She hadn't been in Island City for over a year. At that time, Michael had been working at the main RCF headquarters under General Mede. Currently, he was in a HL unit. For most of that year, Jacine had been in Morocco, working on the Tangier Project. Michael had kept in touch with her through comcalls, but she hadn't had an opportunity to Gate over and see his new unit. She hated to depend on strangers -- being raised in a close-knit family, she hadn't known strangers until they moved to Island City, and then hadn’t been impressed with the ones they did meet. Biting her lip with nervousness, she moved over to the line of comsets and waited for a free one. She punched in the standard HL number, rather than the Colonel's direct line, and informed the dark-haired admin on the other end that she was in Island City. True to his word, Colonel Valdoon had left instructions about her, and the woman had been waiting. The Lieutenant made the appropriate connections on her communications board and told Jacine that Colonel Craig-23 would be waiting for her at the Gate. Jacine's eyebrows raised up, first one, then the other. A Colonel will meet me? Wait a second, I thought he was a Lieutenant Colonel. Her eyebrows snapped down again as she remembered that Michael considered the Lt. Colonel a friend. He's probably also waiting for news about Michael and was looking for something to do. 23... She wondered, as she often did when Michael mentioned his name, can you call a number, a name?

Jacine waited for an open local Gate, and then transferred to the RCF Gate B-Delta-5. Nobody was there, and she paced in the corridor for a minute until a slight, brown-haired figure came hurrying around the corner. He clipped the edge of the corner with his shoulder, but made no outcry other then grimacing and rubbing the sore spot.

23 waited for some sort of comment on his clumsiness from the blonde woman in front of him, but she said nothing, just patiently waited for him. He looked at her with a bit more curiosity, I think I’m going to like her. Of course, she’s Michael’s sister, why did I think I wouldn’t?

"Hi. I’m 23." The man extended his hand with a faint smile. Jacine had the impression that the smile would normally be brighter if he wasn’t so worried.

"Jacine." She shook his hand. He didn’t say anything else, but turned to one side and gestured, "This way to the Snake Pit."

Jacine’s eyebrows rose, but the man had turned away. She followed and questioned him verbally, "The ’Snake Pit’?"

"Oops. I meant the Officer’s Lounge." 23 bit his lip at the verbal gaffe. He had too much on his mind right now. And I wanted to give Michael’s sister a good impression of the place. His lip hurt, and he rubbed a finger over it.

"Is that suppose to be disparaging to snakes? I warn you, I’ve got a pet boa." In spite of the situation, she couldn’t resist the mischievous comment. She often thought about forming a group, ‘Persons against people against snakes’.

23 got the distinct impression he was being teased. It caught him off guard and he looked over. He saw a faint hint of a grin on her lips, but before he thought of something to say, he was distracted by her limp. Without thinking, he blurted, "What happened to you?"

Jacine raised her eyebrows again. She wasn't used to people being so blunt. Thinking about it for a moment, Jacine decided she preferred it that way. On the other hand, that didn't mean she was going to give him an answer. "I hurt it a long time ago."

When the woman hesitated, 23 felt the usual sensation of embarrassment. Why can't I learn to think first? Her reply was mild enough, but obviously designed to avoid questions. He nodded and pulled open the door to the Officer's Lounge.

Jacine stepped to one side so she wasn’t blocking the door, and looked around the lounge. It was a cross between functional, accommodating, and severe -- a lot like the RCF itself. As with all Officers’ Lounges, it was a multi-purpose area for officers to rest, meet, catch a quick bite to eat, or talk quietly. Low tables and overstuffed chairs were bunched in the corners of the room. In the middle were more functional tables and straight backed chairs, several grouped as in a cafeteria. On the back wall were the small food banks.

23 watched Jacine look around and felt his stomach twist, she was very like her brother in mannerisms. He studied the woman he’d escorted here. Michael was half-Recessive, and his sister full human. In spite of that, she looked remarkably like him. In her, the qualities were rendered favorably. Her clothing was decidedly functional rather than fashionable, which made incredibly tall boots she wore all the more interesting. She was studying the lounge with an abstracted air which belied the very fact that she was doing so. Though she seemed calm now, 23 saw her red and puffy eyes, evidence of previous crying, and he remembered Michael’s injuries again. Jacine’s features blurred as 23 watched her but saw her brother instead. 23 directed his attention towards Surgery and worried for his friend.

In the room, there was no evidence of computers, or computer hook-ups, which surprised Jacine. The tables were all designed to look like wood, and the walls had halo-paintings/pictures interspersed with real plants hanging from the ceiling, which was high enough not to disaccomondate her brother. Michael... Jas heard a low sob, and was startled at herself, then realized it had come from somebody else. She looked over and saw people in one of the corner groups of chairs/couches. A man had covered his face with his hands, hunched over. There were a couple of people next to him looking worried themselves, and trying to give comfort. One of the women raised her head and met Jacine’s gaze evenly, then gave a slow nod before turning back to the group. They also are waiting for news on their family. There were more people hurt. What happened? Now that she was aware of other humans, Jacine could see several small groups together, and a few loners. Some had RCF fatigues on, others were civilians. Nearly all were in the corners, or against the walls, as if hiding from their pain and others’.

Reminded that she was not alone, Jacine looked back at her guide. His eyes were focused beyond the entrance, and his left fist was clenched. In the short time she had looked around, he had managed to bite his lip hard enough to bleed. Walking to one of the functional tables in the middle of the room, Jacine sat down. The man called 23 didn't move. She took the opportunity to study him intently, filing details to review later, when it might matter more. He hadn’t noticed her vacating his side for the table. Gently, she cleared her throat. He jumped, then turned to her.

A sound jolted 23 out of his worries, and he turned around. Jacine was sitting at a table, watching him with sympathetic eyes. Did I just make a fool of myself? Oh well. 23 walked to the table. "Would you like anything to drink?" The girl studied him with those focused blue-green eyes, then she waved him to the seat across from her. Without thinking about it, he sat.

"What I'd like," she said, and 23 could hear a tremble in her voice, "is to know what happened out there. How did Michael get hurt?" Even though her voice only trembled a little, her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. The question was a plea for explanation, but not an accusation. 23 looked again outside the room in his mind's eye, then brought himself firmly back. He got up again and moved to the machine that dispensed drinks.

"I definitely need something liquid. Are you sure you don't want anything?" The statement and questions weren't evasions, Jacine recognized that he just needed time and probably really did want something to drink. But she was too pent up to make a decision about anything. A tear leaked out of the corner of one eye. She shook her head as an answer to the man's question and lowered her knapsack to the floor. Her fingers worked out kinks that she hadn't known were there. Absently, she wondered how long she'd been clutching the knapsack like that.

23 saw the tear and the shake of her head. Biting his lip, he winced as it hurt. He turned away from Jacine and brought his hand up to his lip. Lowing his hand, 23 looked at the blood on it with surprise. I don't think I'm going to have Lemonade. Coffee? He finally settled on chocolate milk, and a soft napkin, for himself, and a regular milk for Jacine. 23 was 65 years old, and even though he regularly made social gaffes, he knew people and he knew that this woman was subsisting purely on nerves. She would drink the milk out of reflex if nothing else, and the rich proteins would help to settle her. He took the drinks back to the table and settled himself to tell about something he really didn't want to remember in the first place.

"It started when we picked up some Refugees a couple of days ago. Members of their party had wounds that were... not consistent with what we encounter normally. Those that we had rescued had barely gotten away from the Recs. We concluded that a pack of Recs had found a weapons’ cache. So we banded three HL groups to find and confiscate or destroy the weapons." He paused for a sip of his drink. 23 tried not to lose himself in the memories, but it was hard. Hindsight was always 20/20. He watched Jacine across from him as she stirred from her tense position, then drank from her mug.

Jacine hated to leave a tale before it had gotten to the part she wanted to know, but the man was obviously trying to pick and choose what to tell her. She respected that there were some military secrets that she was not authorized for. Jacine also knew from years of listening to Michael, that rescuing people in shock and wounded and dying was not an easy task, and it was hard to keep caring. This man still cared. He was telling her, but in his own time. She picked up her mug and sipped from it, not knowing or even caring what was in it. As the warm liquid soothed her sob-torn throat, she looked at the mug.

"This is good!" The girl glanced down with surprise written on her face, and 23 grinned.

Jacine took another cautious sip of the warm milk. She felt another couple of tensed muscles uncoil. She hadn’t forgotten that her brother was laying in an operating room down the corridor, while others fought for his life, but the concern the other man radiated had its own effect. Jacine sipped the milk and forced herself to relax another notch. "There’s a hint of... alfalfa, clover, in this?" It was a question, as she tried to figure out what have the milk its taste.

"Cow’s milk is dependent on what they eat. These cows..." 23 shook his head. Dairy concerns. He would have liked to talk with her about the milk -- about anything other than what had happened to the group, but her brother was his friend and he owed her the rest of the explanation. Turning his attention back on the past, he continued, "When we found the weapons’ cache..." He shook his head. "We should have scouted more. But we had no idea..." Caught in retrospect yet again, 23 sighed. They had seen only evidence of ‘assault’ level weapons, which they had fairly good armor for, and experience with, but not one of them had given a thought to anything more serious -- the serious stuff had mostly been used/destroyed in the years following the madness caused by two-thirds of the world turning Rec. Still, I should have known that patterning... "We used a standard siege tactic that has been successful in previous problems with weapons’ catches. But this cache had... more than we’d anticipated. Lots of long distance weapons. Grenades. Tri--" 23 cut himself off before he revealed military secrets, what else was obsolete? Oh yeah, "Single rocket launchers. Luckily, they couldn’t figure out how to use them. Blew up a lot of their own with it, though. That’s when we knew we had to get out of there. We started a retreat. A grenade landed near some personnel retreating. Anderson, who’d been wounded earlier, couldn’t get away fast enough. Michael shielded him with his own body, but nobody realized he’d been hurt." Fresh guilt raked 23. "I should have. I was monitoring the eyecams and vitals. But there was so much... Jiang’s eyecam blew up... I should have seen--" 23 stopped as the sister of his friend reached out and grabbed his hands. 23 closed his eyes, watching events play over and over again in his head with the clarity of hindsight.

Jacine listened with tension. Visualizing what the Lt. Colonel was talking about was no problem. She had visited Michael often enough during his training. She had lived in the Wastelands -- still did if you counted her frontier town as part of the Wastelands. Recessives had their own brand of hatred for the humans that they used to be. And they hurt so badly... Intelligence; the ability to manipulate language, symbols; most of that had been lost in the genetic changes of the youth drug. Some basics seemed to remain. They were more intelligent than a group of apes, but also more violent. Part of that came from the pain, the constant pain... Jacine shuddered to think of Recessives with weapons. The ones near her town had only their bare hands, deadly enough in confrontations. Her horror rose as 23 mentioned the grenades. And then he told about Michael protecting his peer. Her lips twitched for a moment in a sad smile; Michael -- always the Knight Protector.

The man’s voice started shaking and Jacine’s attention switched from the tale to the person. Her own heart was wringing itself inside out with worry for her brother, but it was no worse for hearing what had happened, if anything, it was less -- Michael would always be the person to help others. But this man in front of her, Michael’s friend, was hurting badly. She heard him say he monitored the eyecams and her mind seized that scrap of information. He hasn’t changed out of the uniform yet, he was inside the van. Jacine shook off the tangent. The man, Craig-23, was turning all his undeserved guilt upon himself. Jacine couldn’t sit by and watch him do that. He wasn’t looking at her at all, eyes focused inward on the memories. She moved her mug and his drink to the side and reached across the table to take his hands in hers. He stopped mid-sentence when she took his hands, but his thoughts seemed to remain within.

"It’s okay." She spoke gently. "Cra..., uh, 23?, umm, Lieutenant...no, Col..." Jacine’s attempt at reassurance floundered as she couldn’t figure out what to call him. Michael called him 23, but how could a number be a name? And he wasn’t a Colonel or a Lieutenant, but the whole thing was too long... Damn the Tangents! That’s not important now!

23 felt her hands tighten around his. Reassurances were meaningless to him, he knew he should have done better. But she wasn’t saying what he’d expected. His attention focused as the girl fumbled over his name. That, more than the routine sympathy, brought him out of his guilt and gave him a new focus. He couldn’t help but smile at the frustration on her face as she tried to work out the details of his name and rank. I guess Michael didn’t tell her about the Pentagon experiments. 23 was surprised and slightly pleased at that, his background was what had ’made’ him. Apparently Michael knew what it was like... But his sister? He cleared his throat, "I prefer to be called ’23’. Did Michael ever tell you about me?"

Jacine looked at him, then beyond him with mingled relief and embarrassment. She focused on nothing in particular as she retreated emotionally. She was relieved that he’d come out of the guilt he’d put himself in, but that wasn’t how she’d meant to do it... "He mentioned you as a friend. The day after he first served with your unit, he called me and told me that he’d finally found someone else who would know him. I didn’t understand that." She paused, then frankly admitted, "I asked him about your, uh, name, but he just said I’d have to ask you. I was surprised at that, but it tells how much he valued your friendship." Jacine paled as she realized she’d used the past tense while talking about Michael. No!!! Inadvertently, she started crying again. He’s alive, I know he’s alive, he’s my brother.

When Jacine burst into tears, 23 started in surprise. Then, without thinking about it, he traded her grip on his hands to move around the table for a closer hug. With some amusement, he reflected that all they seemed to be doing was trading places on who needed and who comforted who. After a moment, Jacine pulled away from him and dashed one hand across her face.

"Where’s a computer terminal or hookup?" she demanded.

23 regarded her, trying to figure out what she needed. The girl didn’t seem to notice his attention, but she again asked for a terminal, starting to get up. Her voice didn’t sound hysterical yet, but 23 thought she might be turning that way. He pushed a button on the side of the table and a projection screen formed in front of them. A section of table stopped pretending to be plastic imitating wood, and a panel of touch-control instruments appeared in its place. Jacine immediately started typing on the touch sensitive keyboard. A few of the other people in the room started to wander over, but 23 gave them a glare and they backed away. The rest were too lost in their own misery to notice.

In the short time it had taken for him to do that, Jacine had gone through all the preliminary connections and was deep in the RCF codes. 23 just stared, open-mouthed, at the ease which she bypassed security. She paused at one ‘door’, and 23 felt a sinking feeling, recognizing the code. Great. What am I going to tell the MPs when they come? Then Jacine unhooked the compuset at her belt and, finding the auxiliary connections, hooked it into the main computer. Activating a program stored in the compuset, she passed that code as well. 23 took a moment to examine her compuset. That thing must be at least as powerful as mine, probably even more. He didn’t recognize the brand. In fact, it looked home-made. He looked at the pale sister of his friend with dawning respect and not a little wariness.

When 23 looked at the projection screen again, Jacine had gotten into the Medical files and was scanning the systems in the OR room. She started to activate one and 23 shot out his hand to stop her.

"No." A firm voice came from above and behind her, as a hand grabbed her own. Jacine twisted her head to see the Lt. Colonel watching her. His expression was one of sympathy, but hardened with authority.

"But I need--" Jacine started to say, looking back at the screen.

"No. You don’t need to see that. Monitor the diagnostics, okay, but activating the visual scanners, no."

Jacine sat still, chewing on her lip, watching the screen, thinking of her brother. Reluctantly, she felt she had to agree with Craig-23. It probably wouldn’t be good to watch the doctors operating on her brother, cut open and bleeding, pale as death, dying, frantic yells as they tried to save him, the warmth fading to cold... Jacine started to shiver as she accidentally slipped into a Stream.

23 was alarmed when the girl started trembling violently. She was looking towards the screen, but he’d bet she wasn’t seeing it. "Jacine, it’s all right! Jacine?" The hand he had grabbed was growing cold. That’s not your usual shock... I need a distraction, quick. He let go of her hand to work the computer. He moved through the systems until he found the diagnostic readouts that the doctors used as they monitored their patients. 23 isolated Michael’s and put it up on the screen. Then he looked at it. Oh great. I don’t have a medical background! What does all that mean? As with all RCF officers, he knew First Aid and emergency rescue procedures, but the field work was very different than the series of technical terms and numbers scrolling across the screen.

Jacine heard a concerned voice beside her, but was lost in the Stream. Then part of her registered a change on the screen she was looking at. Diagnostics... She shook herself out of the Stream and paid attention. We need interpretation. Reaching out to her compuset, Jacine made some changes on the settings. On the main computer, she split the screen and worked through the codes needed to bring an outside program in. She had just about finished when a thought occurred to her. With surprise, she wondered why she hadn’t thought about it before: Yes, she was concerned/panicked about Michael, but she never forgot security... Jacine turned her head to regard the man next to her, the person Michael called his friend.

23 felt himself under the weight of a deliberate scrutiny. Looking beside him, he saw Jacine regarding him with the seriousness and concentration of someone making an important decision. Even as he stood there, he felt his actions, speech, and even thoughts of the last several minutes being weighed and evaluated. Without even knowing what it was about, he thought, I hope I pass!

Abruptly, the girl turned back to the computer and activated the program she’d been setting up. 23 wiped his sweaty palms on his pants legs and stood silently as he thought about the inspection. Even when Tom first interviewed me for entry into HL-1, even when the ICS recruited me for the SunSpot affair, never have I ever encountered such... intensity. What the hell? Stopping his internal ramblings, 23 paid attention to the computer screen. When he’d deciphered enough of the codes that Jacine was merging into the Medical monitoring system, he pulled up a chair and sat down heavily in it. By all that’s electronic and holy... I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s powerful.

Jacine made the last of the connections and watched Oracle work on the diagnostics. She thought grimly, Well, you wanted a cat -- how’s Oracle himself? When she brought in the hookups that allowed the sentient computer access to the RCF area, Oracle and Jacine had a short discussion in the special language that Wren had taught her for easier and quicker communication between sentients. Jacine persuaded Oracle that it was okay for him to be here, and Oracle trusted her. Jacine was left to worry. She didn’t think she was wrong about the man standing next to her, but she knew the chance she was taking. Her decision to continue surprised herself. While she was wondering, Oracle did preliminary work on the diagnostics and the screen projected a complete evaluation on Michael's lifesigns and summaries of the procedures taking place, along with a commentary on the effectiveness of the doctors' techniques. Leaning forward, and letting her worries and questions about why she’d risked Oracle slip to the far reaches of her mind, Jacine poured over the readouts.

23 didn’t forget about his concerns, but he wasn’t immune to the form of flattery of being trusted, and the information that was scrolling on the screen was interesting. He watched it intently. Another piece of shrapnel out. That one had worked its way into the lining on Michael’s lung. Now the doctors are doing some tricky reconstruction work there. Lifesigns are reading... well, they’re there. Even if the news wasn’t the best, at least it was news. With wonder and amazement combining in questions of how all this was being accomplished, 23 knew better than to ask just then. He allowed himself to stop thinking about anything but the reports scrolling on the screen.

Jacine frowned as she evaluated her brother’s condition based on what the computer was reading and what she knew of Michael’s constitution. He didn’t just get his iron health from his Recessive half -- their mother was pretty tough. She’d survived many times when she’d been expected to die. And Jacine herself had been hurt worse than Michael was now and lived. Well, mostly lived -- if not intact. She whispered Oracle’s name as a question. He put up two percentiles: That of a normal human surviving Michael’s injuries, and an estimate of Michael’s chances. They were: 37% and ~64%. Jacine stared at the second one for a long time. It’s better than 50%. Her attempt to reassure herself was feeble. Michael. Don’t die. Please. I couldn’t live without you, brother, please. They had lived together for most of their lives. For eight of those years, they had been by themselves with their mom and a few other adults out in the Wastelands. Then Jacine had been hurt. Two of the friends, Ki and Carlos, had taken both children to Island City for medical treatment. There, the siblings had encountered other children -- and hatred and jealousy. As close as they had been, the experience drew them even closer. Michael had joined the RCF when he was twenty, and Jacine had moved out of Island City to a frontier town when she was twenty-two, but they’d always kept in touch. Calls every other night, when the O-Storms would permit communication. Jacine visited him as often as she could -- except for this past year when she was working in Morocco. And now he was hurt. She felt water gathering at the edges of her eyes. Angrily, she blinked them back. How much crying can I do?

They watched together in silence. At one point, Jacine switched the records to evaluate the conditions of the other personnel who were hurt. 23 didn’t say anything, but accepted the gift with gratitude. It looked like the others would make it, though the hopes for Jiang ever regaining her eyesight were slim. Michael was still the shakiest on percentiles, considering how much blood he’d lost before anyone even knew he’d been injured. 23 cursed himself once again for not noticing.

The sound of a low tone filled their immediate area, coming from 23’s wrist. He activated his comdeck and spoke into it, "This is Colonel 23."

"23, this is Tom. Are you in the middle of anything?"

Hesitating before answering, 23 was reluctant to leave Jacine. But responsibility... "Not exactly. What do you need?"

"General Mede has requested that we hold a quick meeting to discuss the situation."

23 could tell that Tom felt bad about calling him. He smiled sadly as he replied, "Tom, it’s okay. Where are we meeting?"

"The General’s office -- as soon as we can get there."

23 had expected this, and had even warned Tom earlier. He’d just forgotten that he’d expected it. "Are you in HQ right now? I’ll come by there first."

After 23 disconnected, he looked apologetically at Jacine, "I have to go?" He made the statement into a question, asking if she’d be okay.

Jacine was looking at him a little quizzically, but nodded, "Go ahead. I’ll be fine." Turning back to the computer, she changed one of the program values. 23 felt as if he was being dismissed, and recognized it as a form of bravado. He watched her for a moment as she worked on the computer and wondered with amusement that was also serious if he should be the one to be worried about security. But trust had to run both ways of necessity. With a shock, 23 realized that with one action, this young woman had indebted him to her. Trust? His face narrowing, he studied her for a moment, wondering at the ramifications. It’ll have to be unresolved for now. I have a meeting to go to. Turning away, he left the room and walked down the corridors to HQ.

Jacine looked up and around as an attention-getting sound made it presence known. She hadn’t located it when 23 reached his right hand over to a device on his left wrist and activated a toggle, "This is Colonel 23." She remembered her earlier confusion and shrugged at herself, Okay, a Lieutenant-Colonel is a Colonel. I guess it’s something like a black belt is a black belt, regardless of dan level.

23 asked her if it was okay that he left. Jacine felt her eyebrow raising at the concern, but controlled her automatic skepticism. If I trust him for Oracle, I should trust him for me too, and Michael. She nodded in response to his question, then turned back to the computer and deliberately focused on finding something else to do, not noticing the actual moment when Craig-23 left the room.

23 made his way to Tom’s office in the HQ room. Technicians and officers were all moving around, working on their jobs. Most of the techs and officers greeted 23 as he walked by. A few of them asked him for information on the raid. Normally, 23 would have at least stopped and told them what he knew, but the memories were too fresh and the pain too great. He bypassed the questions with a response to attend the briefing later, and walked up the steps.

Tom opened the door at his knock and they headed down again, after Tom gave 23 a searching look to evaluate his condition. 23 shrugged off Tom’s concern, though he knew that if Dr. Helding hadn’t gone straight into surgery with the wounded, she would have confiscated his vitals chip and not let him within ten feet of any work. The intern who had done the diacs wasn’t familiar with 23’s unique readings, and he’d bluffed her into thinking everything was okay. He couldn’t bluff Tom like that, but Tom wouldn’t order him off unless something was seriously wrong -- at which point, 23 would have since removed himself from duty. He was stubborn, but not that stubborn. And he tried never to endanger other people’s lives.

They arrived at the Gate, and 23 programmed the General’s number, with the appropriate command authorization codes.

"How is Lieutenant Mendi’s sister doing?" Tom broke the silence, as he watched 23.

23 thought back to the woman he’d left in the Officer’s Club -- and the Program with a capital ‘P’ that she’d worked into their circuits. "I think she’ll be find as long as Michael makes it. I don’t know what’ll happen if he dies." 23 didn’t want to think of it. Haz Lib was a dangerous job, and he’d lost a lot of friends, but it was never easy. He wondered if it was time for him to take a Leave of Absence, or transfer temporarily into a different job. They had nearly lost Andy last year, and he had been 23’s best friend. Andy had transferred to a different division after he recovered. 23 didn’t see as much of him as he use to, and Michael had taken Andy’s place both in the unit and as a person that 23 could talk to. Now Michael was hurt, and 23 didn’t know who could take his place -- or if he could stand losing another friend.

Tom had let 23 think in silence, for which 23 was grateful. He hadn’t even noticed when they moved through the Gate into the General’s receiving room. Now General Mede came in and greeted them both.

"Hello, Tom, 23. Thank you for coming over. I know it’s been a long day for you, but after reading your prelim, I thought it best to call a Command meeting. Ms. Rizvi is attending the meeting to hear about the weapon cache directly."

"No problem, General." Tom restrained himself from saluting: The RCF wasn’t that type of an outfit, but his old soldier’s habits were hard to get rid of.

Mede brought them into the conference room where other high-ranking officers were seated, and two other people at the head of the table. Even warned, both Colonel Valdoon and 23 stiffened to respectful attention at seeing them, and this time Valdoon did salute. 23 didn’t only because he’d learned not to try with his coordination.

The lady was dressed in dark maroon with black piping. She smiled at the salute and said, "At ease, Colonel, Lt. Colonel. This isn’t a formal visit. I just wanted to hear about the situation in something other than a report." Her bodyguard watched them with wary eyes.

"Yes, sir," Valdoon and 23 responded. All officers were ‘sir’ regardless of gender, and a member of the High Council ranked as the highest of officers. They sat down after looking for permission from General Mede.

One of the generals at the table spoke first, "First we’d like a summary of events..."

---

The High Council member got up to leave. All the officers at the table also rose. She spoke briefly, "Thank you for discussing the situation with me. I will be assigning an ICS agent to be my liaison until the bunker has been destroyed. If you have any questions or problems regarding any of the armaments, let her know, and she will advise or contact me." She left, the bodyguard with her, and there was a stir around the table as they decided what topic to progress to next.

Colonel Vasser cleared his throat and said, "About your personnel problems, I have a couple people in my unit who are experienced in demolitions -- one in explosives and the other in strategy and trouble spots. They’ve been wanting to transfer out for awhile, but they requested a transfer together. And they do work well together."

Valdoon and 23 glanced at each other -- there was an expression on Vasser’s face that they didn’t like. Valdoon responded, "I’ll look at the dossiers, of course. General Mede has already given me a few others to look at." He indicated a disk on the table next to him.

Vasser pushed his own disk over to them, "I had it with me."

General Kristich also spoke, "I don’t know who Cecilia has recommended to you, but there is a cadet that just got out of the academy..."

---

23 and Valdoon left the meeting room, their arms full of disks and flimsies. They exchanged looks, but didn’t say anything until they’d gone through the Gate back to Headquarters.

23 sighed, "What, does all of RCF want to pass their rejects off on us?"

Tom yawned. "It does seem like that. I want to review these more objectively in the morning. You need some sleep."

"So do you." 23's comment was wryly depreciating of both their conditions. It showed how tired they were that Tom didn't protest the statement, even in a joke. After dumping the disks in Valdoon's office, they both headed to their rooms.

Jacine leaned her head against her arms, closing her eyes wearily. They had finished the surgery. Michael wasn’t out of danger yet, but Oracle had upgraded his chances to ~87 percent. That was good enough for Jacine to gamble on his survival. She had been watching the readouts for three straight hours since the Lieutenant-Colonel had left. At one point, the readings had dropped alarmingly, but the doctors worked frantically, and the readings straightened out again and had risen steadily since than. Jacine was even more impressed than ever with Dr. McLendon. If Michael had died, it wouldn’t have been the Doctor’s fault at all, and Jacine wouldn’t have blamed her, but Michael’s survival was directly attributable to Tamlynn’s skill and persistence.

"Jacine?" A tired voice interrupted her tired thoughts. Jacine raised her head to see the same person she’d been thinking about.

"Tamlynn." Jacine rose, balancing with one hand on the table, and limped forward to embrace her friend. "Thanks..." Words couldn’t express her emotions adequately, and she tried to put her feelings into her hug.

Tamlynn returned the embrace, then moved back a bit, gripping her friend’s arms, "He’s not out of danger yet..."

Jacine waved a hand at the computer, "87 percent is good enough for me. He’ll live. Thanks to you."

The doctor’s eyes traveled to the computer and studied the program scrolling across the screen for a moment, then she gave a tired laugh. "You minx. You set up a cat in the system. I wondered how you knew." Then Tam raised a hand to her mouth and looked around the room. The Officer’s Club was empty except for them, and Tamlynn relaxed again.

"The last of the others got word on Anderson’s condition two hours ago and left. Officers keep coming and going, but this isn’t a popular time of night." It was past 12 midnight. The end of the Beta shift and beginning of the Gamma had swarmed though the place just an hour ago, and Jacine had shut down the computer while they were there, but most of them had left her alone.

"No..." Tamlynn smothered a yawn. After eight hours in surgery, keeping herself alert at every moment, the suddenness of relaxation was catching up on her. "I guess you just came over when you heard. Want to crash at my place?"

Jacine looked gratefully at her. How her friend could possibly think about such a thing after all that... "Thanks," she replied, again, inadequately, but it was all she could think of.

A brown-haired man came in through the door, but hadn't opened it wide enough before he started to do so, clipped the edges of the door and frame with his shoulders, and stumbled. Tamlynn took two quick strides over and caught him before he fell.

"Hello, 23. Making your grand entrance as usual?"

"Tamlynn!" 23 ignored her quip and concentrated on his friend, "If you're here... How's Michael?"

Tam released him after she made sure he had his balance. "Not out of the woods, but the undergrowth is less thorny."

23 sighed in relief, but his relief changed to apprehension as he saw Tamlynn looking him over in a professional manner.

"23, what are you doing still on active duty? If you don't say right now that you're about to go get some rest, I'm confiscating your vitals chip!"

"I'm going, I'm going!" 23 exclaimed hurriedly. Trust a doctor...

Tamlynn laughed as she studied his expression, "I bet you conned another intern at the diac tube. What was your energy reading, zero?"

"Well--" 23 started to answer with an abashed affirmative, but a choked-off exclamation of disbelief attracted his and Tamlynn's attention. In sparring with Tamlynn, 23 had forgotten about Jacine, even though he'd come to the Snake Pit to see if she was still around. After the meeting, he'd gone to his room and had gotten five feet inside when he remembered her, still waiting for word on Michael.

Jacine was looking at both of them with wide eyes, "Isn't a zero energy reading--"

"Dead." Both 23 and Tamlynn cut in with the answer. 23 made a throw-away gesture and explained, "I have abnormal energy readings because my nervous system is..." he searched for a polite word to describe it.

"Screwed up," suggested Tamlynn.

23 accepted the suggestion with a grimace, "That's about the best way to put it." He'd used stronger language when explaining it to Michael, but he wouldn't in front of his friend's sister.

Jacine didn't say anything, but her inquisitiveness was plain. 23 expanded on the explanation, "You were wondering about my name earlier. My brothers and I are the... screwed up result," he borrowed Tamlynn's term, thinking it fit rather well, "of an old genetics experiment by the Pentagon--"

"The Craig Series!" Jacine exclaimed. "Of course!" She started laughing, and both 23 and Tamlynn looked at her strangely... It wasn't the usual reaction of most people.

Trying to find a reason , 23 asked, "You've heard of us?"

"Oh my, yes!" Jacine subsided with a chuckle, then apologized, "I'm sorry. I just can't help it -- I converse regularly with The Terror of the Internet. Uhh, Craig Ofwano."

"Oh." 23 couldn't help but grin as well. "7." His brother had immune problems and rarely left his special rooms, but spent a lot of time on the Net. 7 had a highly developed sense of humor to compensate for his problems.

Jacine looked at him curiously, "Seven? Oh. Craig-7. Craig-23... Craig never told me the series was labeled by number... I guess that's why I had such a hard time figuring out your name. It does make sense, but kindof sloppy science when you're dealing with humans. But then the old Pentagon--"

A snap of fingers under Jacine's nose stopped her rambling and brought her attention back. Tamlynn's cheerful face was in front of her.

"Yo, Jas. Don't get stuck in a Stream now. I want to go to bed."

Jacine grinned wanly, "Sorry, Tam. I was trying so hard not to earlier, I think it's bouncing back on me now. I'll be ready in a minute." She moved over to the computer and started shutting down systems, disconnecting her compuset and withdrawing out of the security programs with even more care than she'd penetrated them. Behind her, Jacine heard Tamlynn and 23 talking in low voices, and she caught her name, but she was concentrating too hard on the programs to care about what they were saying.

Craig-23 looked after Jacine with more than a little puzzlement. That is not a normal person. When Jacine turned to the computer, 23 looked at Tamlynn with a raised eyebrow, giving her the option to answer or not.

Seeing the inquiring expression on 23's face, Tamlynn rubbed her forehead with her hand. I'm too tired to make a decision now. She thought about the concern in 23's eyes. Actually, I don't think she'll mind -- especially not after just hearing about 23's problems.

"Jacine has an eidetic memory. When one thought strikes another apparently at random, we joke about her riding the Tangent Lines. Sometimes, though, she gets stuck on a particular memory or line of thought and her concentration for outside things fades. She calls it 'Streaming,' or 'getting stuck in a Stream'."

"Oh..." That explains a few things. 23 had only known three other people with perfect memories -- each one a brother. 27 was idiotsavant -- severely retarded except for his exceptional memory; 31 was autistic -- withdrawn from the normal world; and 52 had the lesser form that was more commonly known as a photographic memory -- he was a great artist, worked in acrylics and watercolors mostly. 52's series of the Second Cataclysm were famous and prized by historians. 23 shook his head, talk about wandering the Tangent Lines. He grinned, I like that expression. He turned back to the question of an eidetic memory, I've always associated it with 27 and 31 -- you can't have it all. I never thought about the problems it could create with otherwise normal thinking.

Jacine finished undoing the security blocks on her computer setup. She disconnected the compuset, hooking it again to her belt. Lifting her knapsack, Jacine stared for a long moment at the well-worn fur poking out the edges. Gently, she lifted Harry out of the pack, holding him with care, thinking about the numerous times Michael had brought him to her. The ratio in the other direction was slightly less. "Tam? Can we drop by the recovery room first?" Her eyes misted with tears again as she clutched Harry. He’ll live. He’s got to live.

Tamlynn frowned for just a moment, then she saw the stuffed owl and her expression lightened in sympathy. "Sure. We can't stay, though. He has to be kept under observation for at least another 10 hours before visitors can be allowed."

Jacine nodded, and smiled her thanks yet again, her throat too tight to speak.

23 had forgotten until this moment that he wasn't really with the other two. "Can I come also?"

Tamlynn looked at him, and 23 tried his best to look under control. He didn't think he succeeded, but Tam suddenly grinned and shook her head in capitulation. "What can I do with the two of you? Sure, 23, but you can't stay either. Remember, I've got you under orders to go straight to bed."

23 panomined an 'X' over his left chest, "Cross my heart. Straight to bed." He stifled a yawn, "That won't be too difficult an order to follow."

---

The sound of priority code beeps penetrated the room. The action within slowed and gently stopped as people finished up whatever throws, falls, kicks, and blocks that had been in motion before the interruption. 14 assorted black and brown belts bowed themselves out and rushed to their piles of clothing on the sides of the gym.

"Mine." Azami read the codes on her comdeck.

"And mine." Rhin was a few seconds behind her friend since she’d been in the middle of the air when the codes sounded.

Dennis glanced around, but the other RCF personnel were drifting back to the mat area, waiting for acknowledgment before resuming their positions. None else had the priority calls. "Okay, Twins. Let me know if you’ll be out for a long time."

"Will do." Azami and Rhin left the dojo without changing, going straight around to the row of comsets and checking in with the codes registered on their comdecks. Rumors of the disastrous mission of the HL groups had already reached the rest of RCF, and half the HRC was expecting calls for assistance.

They each left the comsets slower than they’d approached. Azami raised an eyebrow, inviting comments, as she looked at Rhin. Rhin shrugged, "Well, we’re transferring together."

"To an HL unit that just sustained casualties." Azami grimaced.

They looked at each other, then shrugged. "Well, let’s report."

The two officers headed to their rooms to change.

---

"Major Azami, reporting for duty."

"Major Shea -- ditto."

The first voice barely disturbed Valdoon’s concentration, even though it projected well. Tom checked off another item and compared the ratios. Then the second voice penetrated. Not particularly loud, the rich contralto combined with the slight Irish brogue gathered his attention and Tom raised his head. He looked at the two people standing patiently in front of him. One was a very tall, muscular woman, with long black hair braided and coiled securely around her head. She projected the assurance and strength of natural command. The other woman was almost half the size of her tall partner, lean with the deceptive flexible muscles of a gymnast. Her flaming red hair matched the expectations of the brogue and there was a wicked glint in her blue eyes as she looked up at him with no compromise, but the respect due a commanding officer.

Tom looked up at the one woman, down at the other, while running the sequence of numbers through his head. "The timing’s bad." Azami and Shea looked at each other in surprise and he caught it, "Oh, not you. Sorry." He looked at the console and sighed, "I have to take care of this now. The timing is off and I need to calibrate..." He cut himself off again, and spoke more firmly in the appearance that he knew what he was doing -- the calibration was normally Jiang’s job and it was puzzling the heck out of him, "Majors -- please report to Colonel 23 for debriefing."

Azami and Rhin looked at each other as they about-faced and headed for a non-com to tell them where the Colonel was. "Bad timing," Azami remarked with a straight face.

"Indeed..." Rhin agreed with the same perfectly sober expression. But their eyes glinted with held-back mirth.

"Colonel 23?"

"Umm." That tri-mount was abandoned there. 23 marked the position in red. I’m sure they had another... Maybe it showed on Peterson’s eyecam. He called up the relevant data and scanned the scenes, looking for the tell-tale glint of blue chrome that was the standard mark of the early experimental tri-mount. Defense comes up with the damnest things...

Rhin bit her lip to keep from laughing. Beside her, she could feel Azami also holding back. They didn’t dare look at each other. It was a serious matter they were getting into, but she couldn’t help it. The second in command was so deep in concentration, they’d spoken to him three times and he still hadn’t noticed them. And the Colonel earlier...

Azami shook her head, then snagged a near-by chair to sit down beside the Colonel. It looked like he was updating the site maps as to what they could reasonably expect to find. Both she and Rhin would need to know the info, so they might as well pay attention now. Rhin simply stood by her, lips moving as she watched the replays of the eyecams and analyzed the Recessive tactics. The eyecam recording stopped, and the Colonel transferred another red mark to the map. Azami drew in her breath with a hiss as she studied the screen, "Lords of Kobol! That’s a tri-mount."

"Early experimental model, it appears -- but works on the same principles." The slight man addressed her directly for the first time, but didn’t remove his attention from the screens.

"How many of them do they have?"

"I think just the three. There were a couple of others, but they blew up."

"Blew up?" Azami blinked in surprise.

"Blew up," 23 confirmed. He saved the program with the automatic reflex of one used to computer crashes, and then looked at the woman next to him. The combination of features showed her Oriental background mixed with generations of Caucasian. Her almond eyes were of an unusual beige-brown color. The black pupil made an interesting contrast and 23 paused a moment as he appreciated the aesthetics. The same eyes were twinkling at him in mild amusement as she acknowledged the interest that he showed. 23 grinned as he acknowledged her acknowledgment, then got back to the subject. "The early tri-mounts apparently didn’t have the energy safe-guards constructed yet. When the Recs fired off the first one, it charged the O-layers in a radial pattern, rather than the safe grounding used in later ones." He pulled up another eyecam readout that he’d already saved with a special bookmark. "You can see in this one where a shot passed near another Rec using, ah, trying to use, a launcher pack." The screen was already adjusted to highlight and flourish the appropriate scan data. The energy burst from the tri-mount spiraled out to its target straight enough, but there was non-visual, highlighted spoking of energy waves that also went out. When the highlight waves reached the launcher pack, there was a point where no charges read as the energy dispersal swerved into the pack. Then the launcher pack blew up.

"Interesting reaction." Azami commented. That was not supposed to happen. I’ll ask to look at the records again later -- it could be important.

"Very." And I have no idea what happened. I’ll have to look into it later. 23 activated the next recording. The eyecam recording was jolty and hard to follow, though 23 had cleaned it up as best as he could. The fighting in this portion was much more intense, he’d pieced it together through multiple sources, and almost nobody had been looking right at what he needed to see. The recording showed one of the Recs with a tri-mount edging around the perimeter, trying for a sneak shot to the vans. Her face was drawn in a horrible grimace of pain from the electronics in the vans. There was a brief screen of black, indicating that no cuttings could be complied to connect the next sequence. Then it showed the tri-mount’s spiral burst flaring off the van. The highlight sequence showed another story of the non-visual energy wave sparking out around the van, then bouncing back. When the returning wave, apparently amplified, reached the tri-mount, it blew up. 23 let the screen fade back to the ground deployment, and he added, "It played havoc with that van’s energy systems. Knocked out their communications and functions for a few minutes." Then there was what happened to poor Jiang... It was apparently another of the same problem, with extra effects from the O-Storm, but there were no recordings of the sequence since both Jiang and Michael’s eyecams had blown up. He really hated not having Michael’s eyecam for records -- his friend was good at paying attention to what 23 needed to know.

"Weird. That must be why they added the grounder in the later ones." Azami frowned. "But the O-layers are compounding the basic effect by creating a stronger conduit through the charged dust." She leaned over and traced a outline on the screen, "Was an O-Storm compacting?"

23 looked at her in respect. Few people would have figured out the compound effect just from observing the screen. It showed a knowledge of the history of weapons and the current situations involving the reactions of energy and explosives in O-layers. "You must be Major Azami."

Azami blinked, he really hadn’t heard us! "Yes. And this is Major Shea."

Ah yes, there were two of them. 23 assumed his second-in-command responsibilities like pulling on an overcoat and turned to his other side. He blinked and turned his head to check the first woman. Yes... The first woman he’d been talking to, he’d been looking up at. She was sitting. This new woman was standing next to him, and he was looking near straight in her eyes. And she’s very cute, too. The overcoat fell off, and 23 didn’t try and put it back on.

Hearing her name, Rhin looked up with a slight start. She’d been intently studying the layout of the area on the screen. She saw the handsome Colonel watching her with the interested glance of a man who’s sure of himself and the women he goes out with. He held out his hand with a smile when their gazes met. Oh my! Down girl.

The very cute red-haired woman shook his hand with a firm grip -- strong, but not the sort of testing death-lock some people tried. 23 grinned inwardly to himself, then returned to business.

"Major Shea, you’ll be wanting the whole kit and caboodle." He moved the track ball to start highlighting files. "I was working on more a detailed ground analysis, but we’ve already finished the general ones, plus the Rec Pack characteristics, and Team Strengths rundown. You’ll, of course, be doing..." He paused, "Has anyone told you yet what happened?"

"No, actually. There were a lot of rumors flying around the RCF last night, but when we were ordered to report this morning we saw Colonel Valdoon and he sent us straight to you."

"Really?" 23 was surprised. "That’s not like Tom." Tom normally liked doing the debriefings and introducing the new members around.

Rhin and Azami looked at each other again. "Bad timing," Rhin murmured. Azami bit her lip and focused her attention across the room, her shoulders shaking.

23 eyed them both, there was something there..., then he shrugged. "Well, what happened was..."

---

"Are you authorizing use of Exterminators, then?" asked Maj. Azami, sounding concerned.

"No! Not if we can help it. You're familiar with the use of nitromide?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good, we should have enough to destroy the bunker." He stood, indicating the door. "If you've no further questions, let's go." They preceded him out of his office and down to the transports.

The drive out to the site took several hours. Major Shea went over all the scanner and camera data with 23, while Major Azami double checked her equipment.

After 23 had shown Shea all the video, she sat for some time, biting on the second knuckle of her thumb, thinking. 23 guessed she was going to stay that way for a while, so he turned around in his chair to see what Major Azami was doing.

"That stuff isn't going to go off if we hit a rough patch, is it?" he asked her, thinking of the roadless terrain they'd be covering.

Azami grinned at him. "Nitromide? Heh, you could drop this stuff off the Cliffs of Insanity and it wouldn't go off; not without the detonators. This isn't Challengeite or anything."

23 made an 'oh' shape with his mouth. Then he blinked. "'Cliffs of Insanity'?"

Beside him, Shea chuckled. "She's referring to an old 2D movie; The Princess Bride."

"I thought that was a book," put in Valdoon from the driver's seat, vaguely recalling having read such a book as a kid. Something about pirates and a Princess Buttercup...

"It was that, too," said Azami.

"Lost me," said 23.

"You've never heard of it?" said Shea. "You must've been a deprived child."

"I was," 23 agreed, grinning back at them. Valdoon made an amused noise in the back of his nose. Shea went back to her planning; always at the back of her mind, in situations like this, was the thought that the life of her best friend may very well depend on her strategy. She outlined her plan to 23, and considered his suggestions, making any necessary changes. Azami completed her checks, then joined them; she knew she was ready, any further fussing would do no good. ---

KA-BOOM!!

"Got it!!" Azami was practically doing a little victory dance. She held a hand out and Maj. Shea slapped it, grinning.

"Okay, people, let's wrap this up and go home," came Valdoon's voice over their commsets. "Take a couple of Recs for tagging."

Azami helped Richards haul a Rec inside.

"It's chocolate sundae time," said Shea, following them into the transport.

"Innn-dubitably, my dear comrade." Azami agreed.

"Did someone say chocolate?" 23 queried from his station.

"Yep," replied Shea. "You wish to join us, Col. 23?"

"All in?" Valdoon interrupted, sounding amused.

"All in," M'Kinzie confirmed. "On our way."

The mood in both vehicles was one of subdued jubilation. A major threat had been effectively dealt with, but they had paid for that success dearly. On the way back to the City they spoke in quiet voices, about their friends in the Infirmary, and the two who would be sent back to their families for cremation or burial. Azami and Shea were mostly silent; they had lost mates before, too, but now they were the new ones, whose presence could only remind the others of those lost.

---

After running through decontam, the incoming unit assembled for the diac procedure; disrobing in the changing room beside the machines and filing into the tubes four at a time. Shea had the body of a gymnast, 23 noted with the objectivity of someone used to seeing naked bodies on a regular and clinical basis. She wasn't entirely without womanly curves, though, unlike the barely-pubescent gymnasts one used to see in the old Olympics. She had a pixie face and freckles, and even with her long coppery hair bound up in a utilitarian bun on top of her head, she made 23 think of the Faery Queene.

Azami's build was somewhat mannish, and from the neck down one would be tempted to wonder if she was part Recessive; she was only a few inches shorter than Mendi. But her facial features were almost incongruously rounded; she had the slightly flattened oval face and almond eyes that bespoke her largely Asian heritage. Both she and Shea had clear implants.

Odd coincidence, thought 23. He knew the clear DII's meant they were sterile, but with modern medical technology, naturally occurring and irreversible sterility was rare. He was curious, but knew that whatever the cause, it would be a touchy subject, not to be broached casually.

So, as they got dressed after Doc cleared them, he initiated a subject more innocuous. "Are you two still interested in chocolate sundaes?"

"Does Bruce Norris know how to kick?" Shea responded, referring to a famous VR martial arts star.

"May I make a suggestion, then?" Most 'chocolate' in the City was an artificial flavoring; the real thing had, after the Cataclysms, become as rare and coveted as it had when the Americas had been 'discovered' by Europeans and had brought the delicacy back to be enjoyed by emperors and kings. She and Azami looked at each other and nodded in unison. "I happen to know that there is real chocolate to be had at the 'King's Ransom'."

"Yeah," said Shea, "And that's about what you'll pay for it there, too."

"Not so," and 23 leaned toward them conspiratorially. "The owner was a Refugee and gives a substantial discount to Haz-Lib unit members."

She and Azami's eyes lit up. "We should have transferred back to Haz-Lib sooner?" They had just finished a twenty-year stint in Haz-Reclamation.

[OK, where I'm going with this is 23 is going to take this opportunity to get a head start on getting to know these two. He's the second in command of the unit, and he's a sociable guy, and he might remember their names as being friends of Tamlynn's.]

---

"Chocolate, then?" As she reaffirmed their earlier plans, Azami glanced down at the Colonel. Azami and Rhin were new in the HL Unit and had just finished their first mission. Despite being their immediate superior, Colonel 23 seemed to be the most friendly and open of the group. Azami suspected that if they made friends with him, the rest of the people would follow his example. Not that that was why they’d invited him to chocolate, of course. Actually, he had kindof invited himself...

"Mmmm. Yes..." 23’s eyes followed Tom as the Colonel went into his command post. We’ve got everything wrapped up as far as administrative details go. Major Azami just dropped the salvaged weapons off at the Research Lab. Rhin... I mean Major Shea, should be out of decom now. Sam’s checking on her patients. Patients... He glanced up at the tall Major Azami, who looked involved in her own thoughts. "Would you mind if we drop by the hospital first? I’d like to check on Lieutenant Mendi."

"Oh, sure. Not a problem." Azami blinked, her thoughts redirected. Our mission went so smooth, I forgot there were casualties on the previous attempt. It hadn’t been an obvious situation, and their ‘no casualty’ success was due in great part to the information gained from the earlier sortie in the area. Rhin’s plan had been smooth and efficient, and Azami had known what to avoid and where to go. It had come off well.

Rhin started to shrug her jacket on, then wrinkled her nose in disgust at the layers of dust and sweat on it. The things one didn’t notice while on a mission. And the decom chemicals... She tossed it in the hamper in the corner of the room to be cleaned later. Next time they went out, a private would distribute the jackets. Even though she knew the new soldiers supposedly enjoyed getting the chance to match names with faces of the upper ranks, Rhin couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor sods who got stuck with the duty. Time to join Tes for chocolate. They invariably went out after every successful mission. Rhin and Jessie would discuss the latest finds... A pang of sorrow whipped through her body as she remembered Jessie on their last mission together, excited and enthusiastic, "Hey Rhin! Come look at this! I swear, it’s a complete collection of ‘Stray Cats’!" Then an explosion rocked the building they were excavating as Beth found some unstable nitro that had been stored on a shelf... They’d lost Beth, Jessie, and Nguyen. Others had been in the hospital for months. Rhin had escaped by the skin of her teeth. Azami had been reconning the area and was nowhere near. After the new people came in, including a replacement commander, Rhin and Azami had asked for a transfer out. The group didn’t feel right anymore. There wasn’t the same easy give-and-take they’d always shared. And the new commander just didn’t seem to understand a friendship that had lasted 70 years.

Rhin approached the command center where Tes was waiting. A handsome man stood beside her, and Rhin sucked her breath in, that’s right! Craig was going to join us tonight. She thought back to her previous team, mentally looked over the new one and started to feel better. I think, this time, it’s going to turn out right.

"Ah, there you are." Azami unobtrusively looked her friend over. Rhin looked tired. Not unusual for what they’d been through. And she’d decidedly perked up when she saw the Colonel... Azami grinned internally but kept her face straight, "We’re going to drop by the hospital first."

"Lieutenant Mendi? Of course." Rhin reviewed the personnel statistics in her head. Mr. Mendi was the Weapon’s Officer. The newest person in the unit until the introduction of herself and Tes. Apparently he and Craig were also good friends. That spoke well for him. He had a half-Recessive background, but there were few details about it in the open personnel listings. The records currently had him listed as in ‘stable’ condition, with a red tag for continuous observation. From the records Rhin had reviewed of the disastrous sortie she knew it was a miracle he’d survived at all. The way he handled himself and the teams was well done. Needed some improvement, but he’s young. His reaction to save Anderson looked like an instinctive move, not thought out. No wonder he’s in Haz Lib. Must be tough, psychologically speaking, with the refugees. Or it might be good. Things are different in the City and the refugees need to learn that and adjust. Humm. Rhin shrugged, It’s something to think about.

Rhin and Tes waited outside the room when Craig went in. They waited in silence until a doctor passed by them into the room. The doctor’s arms were full of books, but she was through the doors before the titles registered. Tes’ astonished expression met Rhin’s and they both looked back at the door. Rhin opened it and poked carefully inside, Tes following closely.

They saw the group gathered around the single bed. The doctor was speaking, "... Guaranteed to keep your attention and entertain. Bed rest is never boring with good literature for company. And this author--" The doctor paused as she saw Tes and Rhin in the door.

Rhin immediately filled in the gap, "Is wonderful. Excuse us, but--"

Tes broke in with the other half of the sentence, too excited to stay still, "-- isn’t that the complete set of the Belgariad?"

"And the Mallorean?" Rhin’s eyes were shining bright.

Tamlynn looked with surprise at the two officers in the door, but her attention was more caught by the recognition. "Yes!" She whirled back to Michael, grinning from ear to ear, "See? I told you they were good. Proof positive!"

Michael Mendi laughed weakly, but with more genuine emotion then she’d been able to coax from him previously. "Oh all right. I guess I have to read them now."

Tam couldn’t supress a glance to Jacine to see her approval at Michael’s good humor, but Jacine hadn’t noticed. Tamlynn suppressed a grin -- her friend was completely concentrated on one of the two new people who had walked in. Tam couldn’t tell what had caught Jacine’s attention, but she was muttering under her breath and not noticing anything else. Typical Jacine.

Azami took a step back. Despite the 15 or so feet in-between them, the intensity of woman’s stare was disconcerting. Rhin looked up at Azami, as puzzled as she.

The blonde woman’s green eyes blinked. Her pupils contracted as her attention receded, turning the same eyes more a blue color. Azami noted with curiosity, What an interesting effect. She’d be an easy target in poker. Huh. Maybe that’s why Rhin gets me all the time when we’re playing Rastisk -- my eyes probably do the same thing.

"Eight feet, 5 inches -- approximately." With a tone that spoke ‘problem solved’, the woman refocused on Azami, but this time with the general friendly curiosity that was more common.

Azami recognized the measurements immediately, but left her more puzzled than before, "That’s it exactly. But how...?" She raised a hand to the braid hanging over her shoulder -- she’d just checked the length a couple of days ago, but she knew it wasn’t in her personnel files...!

Jacine responded absently, her mind now on different tangents, "Braid thickness with appropriate ratios per coil based upon the assumption that your hair is nearly the same density per cross-section at the top and carrying through to the bottom. But that’s longer than you are? Don’t you trip over it when it’s loose?"

Beside her, Azami noticed Rhin silently collapsing into a chair, her shoulders shaking as she fought to regain enough breath to laugh outloud. On the hospital bed, Michael Mendi wasn’t silent, but obviously hurting with each belly laugh. The doctor kept an eye on Mendi’s readings, but she was grinning. 23 met Azami’ eye with an expression that read more what she herself was thinking -- amusement, yes, also surprise and respect for the mind that could calculate her hair length seconds after meeting her for the first time. Goodness. Azami replied, "Sometimes. But I rarely let it down completely. And when I trip over it often enough, I get it cut back to my knees."

"Umm." The woman looked at her another moment, "Since birth? Four times?"

Azami stared, "Uh, five, actually. I’ve lived 70 years."

The woman nodded, apparently satisfied, "Hi, I’m Jacine." She walked over and held out her hand, evidently not at all concerned that Azami overtowered her by over a foot.

"Azami."

Jacine noted the calluses on the woman’s hand, didn’t remark, but filed the info away for future review. Turning to the others, Jacine introduced them as well, "This is my brother Michael, and Tam.., uh, Dr. Tamlynn." Jacine flashed a grin at Tam to apologize for the more official intro, but she was there in official capacity. The women hadn’t come in with 23, but they were obviously officers as well. The auburn-haired woman was watching her with amusement still glittering in her eyes. Jas looked at the auburn hair also braided and pinned up, and she blinked after finishing the computations -- it was almost as long as Azami’s. Goodness.

Azami finished the introductions on her end, "And this is Rhin." She saw Jacine’s attention refocus and, correctly deducting the reason, hurriedly added, "Rhinnion. It’s a goddess _____________."

"Humm." Jacine hadn’t met many Irish, even Americanized. "You speak Gaelic."

Rhin’s eyebrows rose slightly, but she answered the comment calmly, "Yes. A lot has been lost over the years, and it’s rather generational, but our clan remembers what we can."

"Good." Jacine spoke with a decided emphasis that indicated she meant what she said. Her face showed sadness that Azami was accustomed to seeing on scientists’ faces. A lot has been lost. Azami decided that she liked this young woman.

Jacine moved back after being introduced to Rhin. The last response had evoked a swirl of tangents, and while they weren’t overwhelming, Jacine wanted to be by her brother’s side. She’d been up too long, keeping Streams at bay.

Tamlynn verbally moved into the gap Jacine was leaving, "So, you read Sci-Fi?" It had been a long time since she had direct companions that read. And ones who loved the Belgariad as much as she... "Silk’s my favorite character!"

The red-haired Rhin nodded, "Mine too!"

Azami quoted, "‘She had a snake in her bodice!’"

Tam instantly responded with the other half of the quote and Rhin joined in, "‘And what were you doing in the Magravaine’s bodice?’"

The three women joined in laughter, leaving the others looking tolerantly between them.

Michael looked up at Tamlynn, "Am I sure I want to read this?"

Tam swatted his foot under the covers, "Oh, you’ll love it. Never mind us quoters." Tamlynn suddenly realized what a familiar type of gesture that had been, and turned away from the hospital bed as she felt the heat raising in her cheeks. She ended up looking straight at Jacine, who regarded her with a raised eyebrow. Tamlynn shrugged slightly as she tried to sort out her own feelings for Jacine’s brother. Jacine’s eyes flicked beyond her to the bed and then back at Tam. She also shrugged, but then flashed a smile that showed she wasn’t upset. Tamlynn turned again to answer a question about the publishing dates on the books. The whole interplay between her and Jacine had taken place in a few seconds and apparently unobserved by anybody else. Thank goodness. I don’t know how I want to take this. Michael certainly had no idea that she was interested, and Tamlynn had absolutely no intention of starting anything while he was a patient of hers. For a moment, Tam was lost in a swirl of conflicting emotions. She put them aside, and attended to the discussion she was having with Azami and Rhin regarding the books they’d each read.

 

---------------------------------------------------

[Some time in the intervening week or two or three it takes for Mendi to mend somewhat. This bit doesn't have to go in here, but it's a convenient place for now.}

"No way!"

"I'm serious!"

Indira (or whatever name was used before for her) Telasner glided into the Snake Pit in search of a quick cup of coffee.

"Let's ask her," said one of the junior officers engaged in a disbelieving conversation in one corner. "she's in HL-1. Hey, Telasner."

"Yes?' she answered, pushing the sequence for her coffee.

"Didn't that Major Azami used to be a man? Before the Youth Drug?"

What? Indira almost didn't believe what she was hearing. Coffee in hand, she turned to cast a derisive gaze at the junior officers for a moment, then left without dignifying their question with and answer.

23 usually hated to perpetuate the rumor mill, but this one bothered him. "Azami," he said quietly. "May I talk to you for a moment?"

"Sure thing, 23, what's up?"

23 led her over to the alcove to one side of the circular stone room of Ops that served as his little-used office. "Someone's started the rumor that you were a man before taking the Youth Drug."

Azami snorted, amused. "If Rhin ever finds out who keeps dragging that old thing out of the closet she'll wring his neck.." She shook her head. "They're not entirely off the field, but they'e not particularly close to the target, either."

23 raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes. Azami grinned.

"I'm a freemartin."

"A what?"

"I should make you ask Tam. She hates it when I use that term. 'Freemartin' is a veterinary term used of cows, but that's the word used to first explain it to me when I was little. On second thought, if you go up to Tam and ask her what a freemartin is she'll know it was me leading you astray."

23 sat on his desk. "You can lead me as astray as you want, but are you going to tell me what a freemartin is or not!?"

[Explanation. Actually, now that I think about it, this either needs to go after Turnabout, or I need to change to conversation in Turnabout somewhat. Recommendations? I think this will be the only full explanation in the story itself of what Azami's condition was, though I won't write all that out yet, until we decide where to put this, or even if it warrants keeping at all. I'm not sure how silly this bit is...]

"Ah, so that's why the clear," he said, tapping his own green DII.

"Yep. Look, 23, this is an old, recurring rumor, don't worry about it. Rhin and I think it's started by a particular guy, probably someone whose toes I've stepped on."

"Literally or figuratively?"

Azami laughed. "Probably both."

"So, why hasn't Rhin found and pounded him already?"

[Good question...! Now you see why I think this might be too silly...]

*** ### ***

Valdoon poked his head out his office door. "Shea, Azami, may I have a word with you two?" The two majors, who were walking by on their way to their duty stations for the morning, stopped and looked up at him in unison; Valdoon, amused, was struck again by the contrast in their appearance.

The two came bouncing up the stairs, curiosity plain on their faces. Valdoon ushered them into his office and shut the door.

"What's up, Colonel?" Shea asked.

"Nothing official," Valdoon answered, hitching one hip onto his desk. "Dr. McLendon informed me that Lieutenant Mendi is going to be released from the Infirmary tomorrow or the next day. You've probably already heard that he's half-Recessive; I just wanted to let you know that he's more than earned his place in the RCF, and is a well-liked and valuable man in this unit."

Shea and Azami traded surprised glances. "We gathered that, sir," Shea said.

"Ah. Well, most people tend to react...strongly on first meeting him."

"And you don't want us to freak out and upset him and everyone else," Azami said. "We've already seen him, from a distance. Tam McLendon is a friend of ours. We'll behave."

"Ohh." Valdoon was suddenly not sure what to say; how much had Tamlynn told them about him?

"Was that all, Colonel?" Shea asked, with too much innocence, Valdoon thought.

"Yes. Unless either of you has any questions...?" They shook their heads. He stood and opened the door for them, shrugging. "Carry on, then."

Azami paused briefly at the top of the stairs to glance back at him. It was unusual for a CO to show that particular kind of concern. But, then, how many CO's had a half-Rec in their unit? Mendi himself must be quite remarkable...

*** ### ***

When Mendi was finally released from the infirmary, he found 23 in Ops, running routine diagnostics on the eyecams, assisted by several of the HL-1 unit (including Jeffrey Anderson, who'd been released from the infirmary a couple of weeks before) and the newest transfers, Shea and Azami. It was a tedious job, but in Valdoon's unit everyone helped out with such tasks. Mendi came in silently, pulled up a chair and picked up the next headset in the pile. The HL-1 veterans were all glad to see him, but they kept a collective eye on the two newcomers.

That must be their Lieutenant Mendi, that the Colonel 'warned' us about, Rhin thought, as she watched the big weapons officer approach. I sort of expected a half-Rec to be as brutish-looking as the Recs themselves; this fellow's actually rather striking... She snuck a quick look at Azami. The larger woman was also watching the Lieutenant, with a peculiar intensity Shea recognized. She managed to stop the grin at her eyes: later tonight, back in her quarters, Azami would be furiously sketching.

"Hey, Michael!" 23 said, amidst greetings from the other HL- 1 veterans at the table. "Tamlynn finally let you out of Medlab! It's good to see you vertical again; you had us pretty worried for a while."

"I guess so, if Jacine came all the way over here," Mendi replied, half grinning. He looked over at Shea and Azami.

"Oh! Um," 23 remembered his manners just in time. "These are our two new transfers; Majors Hatsu Azami and Rhiannon Shea."

"Hello," said the two. 23 did a mental double-take. He had heard that subtle note in women's voices, seen that look in their eyes before; but not directed at Mendi! They weren't being obvious, but 23 knew a spark of interest when he saw one.

"Pleased to meet you both," said Mendi, oblivious, or doing a very good job of pretending to be. He reached over to shake hands, Azami first, as she was nearer.

"Yikes!" she said as she took his hand, half standing. "Mendi, you're burning hot! Are you sure Dr. McLendon knows you're out here?" Shea stood, reflexively extending a hand toward his forehead. The slight recoil on Mendi's part made her freeze and withdraw the gesture.

Mendi actually laughed. "No, no. My normal body temp runs about 38 degrees, Celsius. I'm fine." Azami still held his hand, looking at Shea, then back at him, blushing.

"Oh dear," murmured Azami, as she let go.

Michael just smiled at them; the while reflecting that he'd never gotten quite this sort of reaction from people before. 23 and the other attendant members of the HL-1 unit were thinking along similar lines. Over the past year, 23 had found himself in part evaluating new people by their initial reactions to Michael. It wasn't necessarily a fair judgment, but he had developed the habit nonetheless. These two were certainly unique. Michael himself looked as though he wasn't entirely sure how to take them, either.

23 kindly changed the subject. "You two must be the "Twins" I've heard M'Kinzie talking about. I didn't appreciate that...um...title until meeting you." He couldn't resist a mild jibe, though; "You even blush in unison."

The two sputtered while 23 grinned and Mendi had to cough to cover a bark of laughter.

"Well," said Valdoon as he came in, "If you all are enjoying yourselves so much, I ought to have you running diac full-time.' He was greeted with unfriendly glares. "Just kidding!"

"We were just teasing the 'Twins', here," 23 explained.

Valdoon regarded Shea and Azami with sudden comprehension. "Oh, no. I knew there was something about your dossiers."

"Now now," Shea protested. "As long as we get transferred together, there aren't any problems."

"That only happened once," Azami reminded her.

"It was an accident," said Shea.

"The goat recovered," said Azami.

"Major Healy never did, though," said Shea.

"Oh. Well..." said Azami.

"I do not want to know," Valdoon said firmly, sitting down at the ExSat console.

"Who's Major Healy?" 23 asked.

"He's afraid of snakes, now," Shea replied, as if that explained everything. 23 guessed it did.

When they finished with the headsets, Shea stretched prodigiously. "When this shift is over, anybody want to go for pizza at Sarducci's?"

"Mmmmmm! Sounds good!" said Azami. "23? Mendi? Anderson? Anybody? You guys getting hungry?"

There were several noises of agreement from the group.

"I wasn't, until you said 'pizza'," said 23.

Michael was about to demur automatically, but 23 managed to kick him under the table. Mendi spent most of his free time in his quarters, too much time alone, 23 thought; probably sitting around reading weapons manuals and regs... Michael gave 23 a sidelong look, and accepted the invitation. Jacine had met these two, and found them amusing. What harm could going with them, and the others, to dinner do anyway?

### *** ###

They agreed to meet in the OQ Courtyard at 1900, giving everyone time to shower and change out of uniform. Mendi got there first, in his customary black, high-collared shirt. He sat at one of the benches around the central fountain to wait for the others. 23 and the women came from the southwest and northwest corners at almost the same time. Shea and Azami were racing; they came sprinting up to the fountain and slapped their hands against the rim at almost the same time.

"Azami! Your legs are as long as I am tall! Cut it out!" Shea said, mildly vexed that Azami had let her almost win.

"But it's fun to try to match your stride," Azami replied, laughing. Shea stuck her tongue out and gave her a raspberry.

Michael stood as 23 approached at a more liesurely pace than the Twins. 23 grinned to himself at seeing Michael and Azami side-by-side like that. Shea, on the other hand, barely came up to Mendi's lower ribs. A classic comedy duo...

Anderson, M'Kinzie and Telasner weren't long in joining them, and 23 watched them make almost the same appraisals of Shea and Azami as he had.

[With so many people it's going to be hard to go into the conversation. I didn't want to be continually leaving the sub-characters out, but I'm not sure how to include them without getting bogged down in it...]

Michael snagged the napkin Azami was doodling on and regarded the doodle in mild surprise. "A dragon?"

"Yeah," she replied, tapping her lower lip with her pen.

"Looks kind of like a salamander with wings," he said thoughtfully.

"I like doing them that way."

"Very pretty."

"Thank you."

*** ### ***

 

 

 

 

[Couldn't find your footnotes, so I checked with the hard copy. My personal opinion is that Glasner had some vague notion that gunpowder is made with sulfur, so that's what he used as something one could scan for. I have no idea how one would scan for sulfur from a distance, or whether there's much sulfur in modern gunpowder. There isn't usually much powder in modern bullets, I would think, though you should know more about that than me. It would probably make more sense to scan for weapons in some other way, but until someone figures out a better way, we might as wall just use the sulfur thing and just bear in; mind that we'll have to change it later. 23's comment that they can't scan through lead implies that they're using x-ray, which I seriously doubt! Yikes! Can you imagine? Especially if the ozone is already letting a lot more cosmic radiation in... X-ray equipment would get all fogged... So, I dunno. We have such pitiful stuff to base things on, we almost have to reinvent all the technology anyway... Oh well. Your guess is as good as mine. Energy weapons you'd detect the power source more likely. For assault guns, like I said, my impression is that there isn't as much powder in the newer bullets, or the propelling agent might be altogether different... More likely get some kind of scanning ping off the metals. Glassner was high.

As for the damage done by grenades; depends on the type of grenades. I suppose we can assume some standard type of fragmentation with those bits of shrapnel inside which are the really nasty anti-personnel ones. Maybe we should find some kind of recent military reference...I don't have the GURPS thing on hand, what does that say? I wonder if any info would be accessible on the Net under medical databases? I can get on veterinary databases at school, but I don't think those will help much in this case. Anyway, I would think that damage from grenades would be much messier than the usual assault rifle stuff. As nasty as the assault rifles are, the bullets mostly just bounce around inside and maybe don't exit, so there might not be much external damage. Grenades are designed to rip people apart and tear big holes in them. And take limbs off, that sort of thing. Real cute. Oh. Well, if you don't want them to have it figured out yet...hmmm. Maybe the damage would look enough like animal...no, I doubt it, even for someone unfamiliar with grenades. They would know animal mauling when they saw it. Lessee...people closer to the detonation will have burns, too. I don't know if there's any way they can not put two and two together even without having seen the effects before, unless they're really dense and have minimal reasoning skills, and none of them can be that dumb. OK, I just asked Dad and he agrees that grenades are much messier than bullets; MUCH messier. Jagged pieces of metal flying out at high velocity. Can't mistake it for animal mauling. The HL folks will have an eye for forensics, they'll be able to guess what happened. Even if grenades haven't been used for sixty years or whatever. Valdoon has true military experience, he'd at least have read about them.]

[I like your having 23 training Michael on the Sat console, a nice touch.

Just on a side note, last night I was thinking of more Rec pack names; Mud Valley--a relatively benign pack; the Sharks--a band of second generation Recs, mostly male, extremely vicious, these have migrated down from the north, have lots of shotguns and hunting rifles and things, and these are the ones involved in Turnabout where Rhin is shot. And the unit will have to go back out and trank them all and take their weapons; more stuff I need to write into that story! I suppose the official designations are numbers referring to the pack's territory, but I imagine there will be unofficial nicknames for the closer-in, oft-encountered ones. I wasn't sure which you meant to imply with the Fourzar, Crazy Eights and Niner pack names.

Oh yes, the Snake Pit food gates. Umm. Let's not get that complicated, eh? Nothing wrong with plain old vending machines. Just not coin-operated. You can make your point about Jacine in some other way, later on; too many asides distract form what's going on right now in the story. Nice touch having the other bereaved and worried folk in there, though; we'd sort of forgotten about them! Glad you remembered.

Angela and I still get a kick out of the bit about, 'what, does the whole RCF want to pass their rejects off onto us?" Angela was doing some imagining of the scene where Tom and 23 go over all the files, and I don't remember what she said specifically, but she thinks Rhin and Azami must have met Tom before, since Tam can't keep her hands off him. More prior connections... sigh.

Nice bit at the dojo.

A lot of 'my' stuff after that gets axed. I'm tempted to let you get closer in to those sections and see how things are evolving, but we'll see whether Athena whacks me on the noggin this week or not.