Disclaimer: The characters and situations of 'SPACE: Above And Beyond' featured in this story are legal property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Hard Eight Production and 20th Century Fox Broadcasting. No copyright infringement intended. The characters of Flight Lieutenant Chambers and the rest of the number 9-8 RAF squadron portrayed in 'A Class Of Its Own' are purely fictional and legal property of the author.

My special thanks to Anja whom I pested with my various drafts of the story and keeps up with my 'S:AAB'-craze and her useful remarks. Perge, qua coepisti!! Also, lots of 'thank yous' to Susi Patzke for beta-reading.

PG-13 rated (for slight swearing)




Shane Vansen looked up at the stars of the dark planet Nox and squinted at the incoming attack jets who bombed the area in front of them with sniper and gun-laser fire. For the last five weeks, the combined squadrons of the five-eight, the seven-one and several United Forces' squads had tried to secure the area around mount MS-8117 on Nox, a fitting name for a planet in constant darkness because it was too many MSKs away from its sun. The young Lieutenant sighed softly and took off her NVGs for a moment to rub her eyes. The fifty-eighth squadron waited patiently until the gun-fire had died down, then Vansen gave the sign to advance. Slowly, they made their way up to the hill where the Chigs had established several gun nests on the far side of it. Volleys of bursts surrounded them and more than once in the passed weeks, the squadron had to duck for cover before gunned to pieces by the 7.2 mm laserguns operated by two Chigs in each nest.

"Oh man," Cooper Hawkes groaned as he threw himself onto the hard ground again. Slowly, he edged his way forward to the side of Vansen who used one of the night-vision binoculars to observe the Aliens.

"You see 'em coming?" the young Lieutenant asked and Shane frowned at him after she had securely tucked the binocs away again.

"Cooper, go back in line ..." she demanded but she knew from experience that the In-Vitro would want to argue with her.

"Do you mind telling me what this shit-bucket is all about? For weeks we tried to secure this dammed hill and all you say is 'go back in line'. That's shit, Vansen, and you know that!" Cooper hissed and re-adjusted his NVGs. "I'm sick of listening to this kind of crap, I don't even understand why this blasted hill is of any importance to the outcome of this damn' war!"

The young woman sighed and looked at him. Through the goggles his face beneath the helmet was cast into a ghostly green light.

"Coop, if you try to argue with me I gonna ..." she broke off when Cooper threw himself on top of her and pushed her deeper to the ground. Gun-fire blazed all around them and she heard the click-click sound of the Aliens communicating with each other.

She heard Paul Wang's battle cry as he engaged gun-fire onto the Chigs and when Cooper lifted himself off her to get some good shots at the Chigs as well, she could see that the five-eight had baited three Chigs from their gun nests. Without thought she raised her M-590, her movements deriving from months and months of experience and training. The booming of the fire was all around them, when they suddenly heard the loud roar of jet engines driven too hard above their heads.

"Look at this!" Vanessa Damphousse cried and pointed at the sky. The Wild Cards looked up and saw several endo-exo attack jets slicing through the flak fire with dare-devil melee. One jet made a very unusual and under these circumstances quite a dangerous manoeuvre as it was almost hovering dead still only a few metres above the ground and with three perfect shots the gun-nests were destroyed and the way up the hill was freed. As Shane looked up at the belly of the attack fighter, she realised that this was not a Hammerhead at all, the plane's wings were of a different shape and a Union Jack was painted on them. When she asked Paul about it, he grinned.

"That was a Spittie ..." he said and gave a wolf's whistle. "Boy, that must be a hell of pilot, I wouldn't do such a manoeuvre with a BC-48, even if my life's at stake ..."

"Why not?" West asked breathlessly. "That was an unusual but true combat manoeuvre ..."

"Because, West, if you'd read some of the technical manuals in the library back at the 'Toga, you'd know that the British attack jets are far too heavy handed to begin with. Their LIDARs and HUDs were state of the art ten years ago to say the least ..."

"Would you two mind, and help us secure the hill?!" Shane asked impatiently.

The remaining Chigs had either fled into the dense forest or had been killed. The five-eight secured the gun-nests and waited for their back-up to arrive and after another day on the planet they were picked up by an Inter Stellar Space Transport Vehicle.

The whole squadron was relieved when they returned aboard the USS Saratoga but their relief was short lived because as they entered the mid-deck of the spacecraft-carrier, a group of techies were nervously working on the Wild Cards' attack jets.

"Hey, what's up?" Cooper asked one of the techies and the young man saluted nervously.

"Sir, I don't know, Sir," the young man stammered. "I mean there will be new attacks coming soon," the young technician muttered and ran off to his duties.

Cooper and Shane exchanged a look and the young Lieutenant sighed. She knew what Cooper was about to say: that the five-eight was assigned to yet another mission without their expected break.

"I don't want to hear it," she exclaimed and turned towards their quarters. But the voice she was hearing behind her back was not Cooper's but Nathan's.

"They can't do something like this. Last time we were on Op for more than five weeks I've almost got myself killed because I fell asleep! They have to grant us at least a rest, dammit!" Shane closed her eyes for some moments before opening them again. She was just as tired as her friends but she was their commanding officer and she had the duty to follow every Op they were assigned to.

Although the rumours about the impending mission spread aboard the Saratoga throughout the following day, the five-eight had their expected break. Hawkes and Wang went over to the tavern where they played their usual round of table soccer on the old dilapidated table while Damphousse and Vansen sat at a table in the corner sipping their drinks. West was nowhere to be seen but the rest of the squadron knew that he had sought a quiet corner on this huge spacecraft carrier to write a letter to his parents.

"Hoo-Ya," Paul exclaimed when he had just won another round at the soccer game and Cooper kicked the table angrily.

"One day I'll get even for this, Wang!" he said good-naturedly and trotted off to the bar and got himself and Wang some drinks.

Wang went over to Damphousse and Vansen and plopped down on a seat beside them.

"Congratulations, Mr. Super-Soccer!" Vansen said and Paul grinned at that.

"Hey, Coop. Do you want to loose another round?" he yelled towards the bar where Cooper shrugged his shoulders and gave him the V-sign.

"Don't tease him, Wang!" Vanessa said and gave Paul a kick on his shin. "You just want to have another free beer!"

"Hey, that hurts," Paul yelped.

"Serves you right, Marine!" Shane commented and took another swig of her beer.

"Thank you, Vansen. For once we agree!" Cooper said who had come to the table.

"Don't let it go to your head, Coop!" Shane retorted tartly and nudged him in his ribs. The In-Vitro grinned and sat down beside her. He was glad that she took up with his constant complaining during Ops for she knew that he still had to adjust to life.

"I don't think Coop would gloat," Vanessa said and winked at him.

"Sulking at a lost game, yes. But not gloating ..."

Chapter One

Col. T.C. McQueen went over to the Wild Cards' quarters in the evening. He had deliberately given them some time off, but their break had come to an end. A few days ago, he had received a pre-recorded message from his old friend Major General Ray 'Champ' Chambers, the highest ranking In-Vitro in the Army at that moment. Chambers had informed him that his daughter Megan was on her way to the Saratoga as part of the United Forces Exchange Programme. Meg had been born shortly before the AI-wars and after McQueen had helped Chambers escape at Omicron Draconis, the two In-Vitroes had become friends for life and despite McQueen's growing uneasiness he had been part of Chambers' family ever since. When he entered, the voices inside the room died down.

"Ten-Hut!" Vanessa shouted and all the Marines stood more or less tight in front of their commanding officer.

After a cursory glance around, McQueen gave them a curt nod. Paul and Nathan exchanged a quizzical glance with each other and Nathan nudged Cooper questioningly but the young tank only shrugged his shoulders in reply.

"Wild Cards, you may have heard that the US Marine Corps takes part in an exchange programme with other allied nations ..."

"Exchange programme?" Vanessa whispered and smiled. "Perhaps we were chosen ..."

"A RAF squadron is on its way to the Saratoga and they have been assigned to the 58. I count on it that you give them a warm welcome. They arrive here at 2000 hours. Any questions?"

"Sir!" Vanessa stepped forward and watched McQueen.

"Yes, Damphousse?"

"Sir, is there any chance that we will be assigned to this special exchange programme, Sir?"

"Do you feel uncomfortable onboard the Saratoga, Damphousse, or why are you so eager to leave?" McQueen inquired.

"Sir, no, Sir!" Vanessa answered.

"Well, the 58th squadron is not and WILL NOT be assigned to this programme, we are needed here."

"Sir, yes, Sir!" The Wild Cards replied in unison. After Col. McQueen had left, the Marines sat down again.

"What does he mean, a RAF squadron?" Hawkes asked and Paul grinned.

"RAF stands for Royal Air Force, it's been the British Air Force for almost 150 years now."

"Yup, and they have these BC-48 transatmospheric attack jets which we've seen on Nox. Some people say they have a left hand drive!" Nathan added and sent Cooper into more confusion.

"Left hand drive?" he asked and Shane and Vanessa laughed at that and Vanessa put her hand on Cooper's shoulder.

"Coop, the British still drive on the left side of the road and it is a running gag for other nations because they adamantly refuse to change it!"

"And therefore, their jets have a left hand drive!" Shane added.

"They're crazy, those Brits ..." Cooper snorted and they all laughed.

"What do you think?" Paul asked his friends after the laughter and stupid jokes had died down.

"Are we expected to change their diapers or what?"

"Dunno, Wang. Perhaps they're real good pilots!" Nathan said thoughtfully.

"Hah, if they're so good why did Fleet-Com let 'em leave? You heard McQueen, We're needed here ..." Cooper said.

"O.k., I rectify my words," Vanessa sighed and rolled her eyes to the ceiling of their small quarters. "He definitely gloats!"

"Well, he's right, ain't he?" Paul replied in his broadest Chicago drawl. "The Cards ARE the best!"

At 2000 hours sharp McQueen stood on the 14th middeck and watched the arrival of the RAF ISSCV. Cdr. Ross, commanding officer of the space craft-carrier USS Saratoga, stepped to his side.

"Did you tell your Marines that they will team up with the RAF squadron?" Ross asked and McQueen nodded.

"Yes, Sir, I've informed them!"

"I just hope they behave themselves once the pilots are on board!" Ross replied and McQueen gave him a sideways glance.

"Sir?" he asked.

"Oh, come on, Ty!" Ross said. "Don't play dumb with me! You and your Marines always seem to seek trouble along the way!"

"If you want to say that the Wild Cards are a safety problem you've to dismiss us, Sir!" McQueen answered sternly. Ross sighed and shook his head. He knew very well how stubborn McQueen could become for they went back a long time together.

"You know as well as I do that you've got a mighty good squadron on your hands there! Fleet-Command would be out of their minds if they'd dismiss this particular squadron of very fine officers ..."

McQueen was about to reply when the transporter was announced to have landed.

The two men headed for the landing area and when the door opened they saw five flight officers in the squeaky-clean blue dress uniforms of the Royal Air Force. The Colonel watched the pilots as they filed out of the transporter.

As he recognized his godchild, he was awe-struck by the resemblance to her father and somehow, the Colonel grew nervous. Like Major General Chambers, she had brown eyes and hair, betraying the Native American heritage of the Gamma 3401, gene-pool 34F of her father. From her mother's side of the family she had inherited the pale complexion and the delicate bone structure.

For a moment McQueen had to steady himself. Somehow he had expected to see the same awkward fourteen year old teenager from six years ago, when she had announced that she had applied at Innsworth to pursuit a career as an officer in the RAF. To his surprise and much to his dismay, she had turned out nicely, giving him a definite start. But what concerned him even more was the bleak look in her eyes. In former times, her dark eyes had been the doors to her soul, always laughing despite her problems as the daughter of an In-Vitro. He was afraid that he knew what this sudden change had provoked, having seen this look in too many soldiers who had lost their faith in the war.

The female Flight Lieutenant saluted and stood tight in front of the officers.

"Sir, the number 9-8 squadron of the 6th Flight Wing RAF Corps asks to come aboard, Sir!" she announced and McQueen nodded curtly.

"Acknowledged, Flight Lieutenant," McQueen said, tasting the strange rank on his lips.

"How is your father, Major General Chambers?"

"Sir, the last time this officer saw her father, the General was in good health, Sir!" Chambers replied, she gazed sideways to one of her fellow-officers.

She knew that she had a hard stand as a senior officer in her squadron as it was and it would be even harder now as they knew that her father was a General with the US Marine Corps. She saw the smirk on Urquhart's face, her second in command, and sighed inwardly.

"Nine-eight," Ross announced and inspected the pilots. "Welcome aboard the USS Saratoga, I'm Commodore Glen Ross. Colonel McQueen here is your new commanding officer, he and his squadron, the Wild Cards, are your new wingmen." The Commodore glanced over to McQueen who had been studying the RAF pilots closely.

The Commodore had sensed immediately that something was wrong. Ever since he had heard that Megan Chambers was coming, he had thought to assign her squadron to any other than the five-eight. As far as he was concerned it wasn't good to let Chambers come near any IVs. Not that she was a racist. But her last squad had been an all-tank squadron and all but one had survived a disastrous Op in the Procyon Sector. As he watched McQueen watching the nine-eight, he noticed that the Colonel was watching a tall blonde pilot in particular who stood in front of him with an unmistakable air of disinterest.

Ross sighed inwardly and stepped over to McQueen.

Beside Chambers there was another woman in the squadron whose eyes darted back and forth nervously. McQueen reckoned that she hadn't be a Flight Lieutenant for long. The other two male pilots were of slim built and one of them had the freckled complexion of a Celt.

"If any problems occur, you will report them immediately to the Colonel. Dismissed!" Ross said and the officers followed McQueen to their new quarters.

"So, our tankbrat is the daughter of a tank-general," Urquhart whispered to Firth, one of his friends. "I just hope they haven't got any more nipplenecks in the assigned squadron..."

"Fat chance, Urquhart," the other officer replied and pointed towards McQueen who was walking in front of them, the collar of his flight suit not covering but in fact enhancing the birthmark at his neck.

"He's an In-Vitro as well ..."

When McQueen opened the hatch to the Wild Cards' quarters, four Marines rushed to their feet. Hawkes had sneaked out to the VR-cade yet again to top his aim as a VR-sniper. When the RAF pilots scurried into the sleeping quarters, Shane, Paul, Vanessa and Nathan were tense as barb wire.

"Wild Cards, here are your new crewmen, the number 9-8 squadron of the RAF Corps!" McQueen announced.

The British pilots entered slowly, eyeing the Marines as they looked for vacant beds. The Marines on the other hand watched their CO for they could always tell whether something was amiss or not by reading his face. At the moment, McQueen looked tense and when he shot his pilots a warning glance, the Wild Cards knew that they were in for some trouble. After another cursory look around, he noticed Hawkes was missing.

"Where's Hawkes?" he asked in a stern voice when the hatch to their quarters opened and the AWOL stumbled in.

"Having another go at the VR-cade, Lieutenant?" The Colonel asked sarcastically.

"Sir, yes, Sir!" Hawkes answered, flashing his fellow crewmen a bewildered grin.

"You'll be present in the briefing room at 0700 hours tomorrow morning, so make yourself comfortable ..." McQueen said.

He eyed each of his Marines closely and when his gaze rested on Hawkes, he nodded shortly, directing his head towards the young female Flight Lieutenant. Shane noticed this exchange and when she looked up to Cooper, he stood there dumbfounded. She nudged him in his side.

"You should keep an eye on the CO ..." she whispered and Cooper nodded in reply, for the first time noticing the female Flight Lieutenant standing at the hatch and exchanging some last words with the Colonel.

The woman looked pretty enough, he thought and was about to turn away when she faced the room, after McQueen had left, their eyes locking immediately.

I'll be damned, Coop thought. This woman was ... what was the word the NBs used: beautiful? Yeah, that was the word. And something else struck a deep chord inside of him, something familiar. Perhaps she was a tank like him. He had recognized McQueen as one the moment he had walked into the bar back at the Loxley Marine Corps Space Aviator Base.

"You can have the free bunks over there," Shane told the pilots and pointed towards several beds at the rear end of the room.

The RAF pilots slowly walked over but when Chambers put her bag onto one of the free lower bunks, Urquhart pushed her away.

"That's mine, tankbrat!" he hissed under his breath and threw her bag down onto the floor. The woman shot him an angry glance, but after a few moments of thought she nodded and picked up her bag.

When she looked up, she saw that the Marines were staring at her and she lowered her lids. She quickly turned and ran almost into Cooper and Nathan.

"Flight Lieutenant, you can've the bunk above mine ..." Cooper blurted out which was commented with a hilariously overdone eye roll from Vanessa.

"Thank you, Marine," the RAF officer replied and hauled her army pack onto the vacant bunk above Cooper's.

The young Marine watched the woman intently but he could not see any tell-tale signs whether she was an In-Vitro like him and McQueen. He shot Shane a glance and while shaking his head, he rubbed his neck. Vansen understood his gesture and her curiosity was piqued.

Why did McQueen have a special interest in the Flight Lieutenant? she asked herself.

"So, you are the RAF pilots ..." Shane said and looked around.

"How many sorties have you flown against the Chigs?"

Urquhart grinned devilishly and came over to her.

"More than you have ... Marine!" he said. "We are real pilots and not some Navy personnel trying to be Air Force ..."

"Hey, we didn't ask ya to join us," Nathan said and pushed Urquhart back. "We were told that we would fly with the best and not with a pack of snobbish high and mighty Brits!"

"You stupid Yankee ..." Urquhart blurted out and charged against Nathan.

"Stop it, both of you!" Shane and Chambers had stepped between them and Chambers pushed Urquhart away.

"Urquhart, if you don't cut it out, I have to report you ..." Chambers said, giving him a hard look. It seemed as if Urquhart wanted to challenge her but then he bowed mockingly.

"Yes, Ma'am!" the man answered through clenched teeth.

Shane was aware of the tension between the two crewmen and when she shot a glance at Chambers, she could see that the Flight Lieutenant was desperately trying to remain calm. Vansen nodded towards Wang, who stood beside her. The Lieutenant understood immediately. He had to seek for a diversion and stepped forward.

"What about a drink in the 'Tun?" Wang suggested, trying to relieve some of the tension and opened the door.

After the new arrivals had stepped out of the room, the Marines exchanged a look with each other. It seemed as if they had received more than they had bargained for.

Chapter Two

At the 'Tun, the British officers made it clear that they wanted to keep to themselves. They sat down at one of the vacant tables, grouping around Urquhart. Only Flight Lieutenant Chambers sat alone at the bar, sipping a coke.

"What was that all about?" Vanessa asked in astonishment. "I mean what is a tankbrat? Either there are In-Vitroes or natural born humans ..."

"Children who have In-Vitro parents are often called tankbrats, Damphousse," McQueen replied who had entered the bar unnoticed. The Marines looked up at him expectantly after this bit of information.

"Chambers is obviously their CO, why doesn't she report this idiot to the Commodore, Sir?" Paul asked. "I wouldn't put up with this ..."

McQueen nodded, then leant forward.

"Flight Lieutenant Chambers' father is a Marine Corps Major General, the highest ranking In-Vitro besides an Admiral, and I guess she had had to put up with a lot of nicknames over the years ...", he said while glancing over to Chambers.

"You mean, Colonel, she is an American serving in the British Air Force?" Cooper inquired but McQueen shook his head.

"Her mother's an English Group Captain with the RAF, Hawkes," the Colonel replied. "From her mother's side she comes from a long line of career officers, so she joined the RAF. I know Chambers and I guess he expects only the best of his daughter ..."

Shane shook her head.

"It seems as if she has given up fighting, Sir! If I'd the chance I would clobber Urquhart from here to the homeplanet of the Chigs!" she said. "He is an asshole ..."

"You're right, Vansen, and I trust that you'll give him something of his own," he nodded and went over to the bar.

"Did anything happen in the quarters, Meg?" he asked when he sat down beside Chambers.

The woman looked up and shook her head.

"No, Sir. The number 9-8 squadron took up lodgings as demanded, Sir!"

McQueen watched her closely. She had the features of her father and to look at her he saw her father's face the first time he had met him. It had been shortly after he had been assigned to the Marines and on a secret mission during the AI-wars and Chambers had been his commanding officer. Later, Chambers had asked him to be the godfather of his daughter who had just been born. When he had been informed by her father that she was coming to the 'Toga, Chambers had also told him that she had lost her entire squadron only a few months before. She had been in therapy for three weeks before she had signed herself out and taken up duty again but he had been able to see the tell-tale signs of fear and defeat. Seeing her like this, he felt a strong feeling of protection towards her just as if she were his own flesh and blood.

"We are in the 'Tun, Meg. You can quit your 'I'm an officer talking to my CO'- stuff."

The young woman smiled and raised her glass in silent salute.

"And I always thought you were an officer through and through, Uncle Mac!"

"Yes, I am but you are my godchild and I'm not as inflexible as some people might like to believe." McQueen answered and took a sip of his beer.

"Do you still watch the W.C. Fields films?" she asked suddenly.

"Yes, but we aren't talking about my hobbies, Meg. Tell me something about your squad!" he demanded and saw Meg's soured expression.

"Flight Lt. Michael Urquhart is the tall one on the right," she said and pointed to the blonde man at the table nearby. "He's a good shot but his skills as a pilot are mediocre. Nevertheless, he is my second in command though I'd rather had Mullen. Susan Parsons is the woman. She has just left boot camp and is still a bit uncertain about herself but she is made from good stuff and I have high hopes in her that she'll be promoted to Flight Lieutenant soon."

"What about the other two?" McQueen inquired.

"Petey Mullen is the redhead. His temper is fierce but he's a born pilot and his shots are good. He was a techie before he joined the Corps, so he's our trouble-shooter on sorties and Ops. He also likes play-acting..." she grinned at that and pointed to the last man at the table.

"Con Firth is the one over there. He gets angry if someone makes fun of his height. But he is a good soldier and takes point in any ground Op."

McQueen turned around to face his niece again. The nine-eight was the second squadron under her command and he had serious doubts if she could pull this assignment around. Ever since she had lost almost her entire squadron, the number seven-two RAF squad, on some miserable Chig-planet in the Procyon Region, she had lacked her definite edge as a commanding officer.

If she didn't get her act together she would loose this squad as well and he was sure that it wouldn't be due to a battle.

"Do you have any problems with Urquhart?" He sensed her tensing and he knew that he had hit bull's eye.

"Did your Marines tell you that?" she asked defiantly but McQueen shook his head.

"Even a blind man would sense that something's wrong with the two of you ..." he replied and turned towards the table where her fellow officers sat.

It reminded him of the many times when he had sat apart from his Angry Angels-comrades because they did not accept an In-Vitro among them.

"The nine-eight is a newly established squadron, Uncle Mac. We all have a lot of getting used to each other. And Urquhart has been with the number 9-8 only a few weeks, he will come through ..." Meg said reassuringly but McQueen shook his head.

"And in the meantime he rallies your fellow officers against you, Meg," he turned around to face her. "This man is dangerous. If a squadron does not form a gung-ho, no-one's watching your back when you need it ..."

"Don't you think that I know that, Uncle Mac?" Meg inquired. "But I have never reported a fellow officer just because he didn't accept my family ... And you should know from own experience that you have to keep a low profile. In the end they grow bored with their wisecracks ..."

The Colonel emptied his beer and stood up.

"It's your choice, Meg. But you are the commanding officer of this squadron and sometimes it's better to make a counter-attack instead of sitting out ..." Chambers nodded and turned towards her coke again.

"Meg?" McQueen inquired suddenly and her head jerked up.

"You were not responsible for the deaths of your crew-mates," he said nodding towards the ring with the RAF signet on her hand. Meg closed her eyes, clutching the hand with the ring into a tight fist.

"In war we all lose people who are dear to us but we just keep on fighting. If you can't do that than you lose yourself ..."

She knew he was right but the pain over the deaths of her crew-men had left a deep pain inside of her. The first time she had been assigned to a regular flight Corps, the seven-two, she had been the only natural born human. Soon she had found out that other CO's had refused to lead a squad of tanks and because of her outstanding family, she had been assigned to the job. Until then she had known that people made a distinction between In-Vitroes and natural born humans but in the RAF she had learned that there was a third distinction; that of tankbrats and she was one of them.

"Do you think McQueen and Chambers are more than mutual acquaintances?" Paul asked and nodded towards the Flight Lieutenant.

"They seem quite close to each other ..."

"Paul," Vanessa said. "You know the proverb: Curiosity killed ..."

"The cat ... yeah, I know, 'Phousse," Paul interrupted her and grinned.

"But you get paranoid around here without the mail arriving in time, so I'm looking for some exciting news ..." The Marines laughed and Shane nudged Cooper at his side.

"Why don't you go and invite her over, Coop?!" she suggested.

"Yeah, then Paul can satisfy his curiosity," Nathan said and grinned towards Paul who lowered his eyes in embarrassment.

"Go on, Coop. You are the charmer of the five-eight," Vanessa urged him with a smile.

Cooper smirked at that and stood up. Slowly, he went over to the bar and sat down beside Chambers. From time to time he shot her a sideways glance, not sure how to invite her over. Chambers had noticed his stare and after a while she grew annoyed.

"Alright, Marine. Are you finished with your freak show?" she snapped angrily. "Now, leave me alone and tell your friends that I'm not a googy-eyed monster..."

Cooper squinted at her in surprise, then he smiled shyly.

"Uh. No, obviously you're not!" he said and extended his hand.

"Lieutenant Cooper Hawkes of the five-eight US Marine Corps," he introduced himself. "My friends and I ... uh, wonder if you'd join us, Flight Lieutenant," he nodded towards his friends who sat at their table expectantly. Chambers watched them for awhile and the Marines exchanged glances with her. She turned towards Cooper, shaking his hand.

"Flight Lieutenant Megan Chambers, Meg to my friends!" she introduced herself. "And one thing I want to make clear from the beginning, my father is a tank!"

"I can live with that," Cooper answered and turned around to reveal his navel at the back of his neck. "I never had a father, IV or not!" She stared at the birthmark and lowered her lids when he turned to face her again.

"I guess I put my boot right in, didn't I?" she asked. "I'm sorry that I snapped at you but at the moment I have it up 'til here ..." she touched her forehead with her hand. She picked up her glass and stared into it for a few moments.

"I would like to join you and your friends," she said slowly and Cooper led her over to the table.

"Chambers, these are my friends," he said and pointed from left to right. "This is Paul Wang, Vanessa Damphousse, Nathan West and Shane Vansen, our honcho."

"Hello, Meg Chambers!' she introduced herself. Paul pulled a chair to the table and urged Meg to sit down.

"So, what do you think about the Saratoga so far?" he asked. Meg laughed and shook her head.

"Besides being on the flight deck, I have just seen the sleeping quarters and the tavern but she is an impressive sight as far as I could see her from the ISSCV. My squad is stationed on a similar dreadnought in the Procyon region."

"We were assigned to the Procyon region a while ago and we were met with severe counter attacks by the Chigs. The last thing we heard were that the United Forces had to retreat ..." Vanessa said and bent forward.

"Yes, it was awful," Meg replied wearily. "We were outnumbered and the Aliens flew one attack after the other against us. My last squadron, the Dark Knights, had severe casualties, only two of the original set-up are still in active service ..."

Oh God, she sounded just like the after-mission reports which had been issued after the 98th ill-fated transport Op. Ever since she had asked herself if she had done everything possible to maintain the safety of her crew. If she was up to be a commanding officer. Three of five pilots were dead and she had the uncanny feeling that she had not done her best as their CO.

The Marines exchanged a look with each other for they knew that something like this could happen to them as well any time their were on Op. They grew silent and only hushed whispers were heard from the nearby tables. Cooper stared down at his hands. The thought of loosing his friends made him both sad and angry at the same time.

"Is it true that the Air Force has left-hand drive attack jets?" Cooper suddenly blurted out and was rewarded with a bright smile from his friends.

"In a way, yes!" Meg answered, smiling despite herself at him. "The cockpit is a bit different than the one of the SA-43 attack jets. The propulsions are all on the left hand side as well as the turbo thrusters ... I would like to have a go at one of your Hammerheads to see if I can handle it! Uncle Mac ... I mean Colonel McQueen promised me to fly one during the patrol flights ...."

"Uncle Mac?" Nathan asked in surprise. "I didn't know that McQueen had family ..."

"My father and the Colonel were in the AI-wars together. He saved my father's life and ever since he had been part of the family. When I was a child I really thought he was my uncle until I found out that In-Vitroes didn't have any natural born relatives ... well ..., no brothers or sisters to speak of, anyway ..." Meg answered thoughtfully.

The next day the Marines inspected their SA-43 transatmospheric attack jets which had been fitted out with new LIDARs. The British pilots were curious about the jets, lingering around the flightdeck in more than an obvious way and when Cooper and Shane ran into Meg, they asked her if she and the others wanted to have a look.

Shane watched as Chambers scurried down the corridor to inform her squadron.

"I think you're doing a good job ..." Vansen said and smiled at Cooper.

"McQueen must have sensed that you two would take off like a house on fire ..."

"What do ya mean?" Cooper asked in surprise.

"Chambers' never distinguished between natural born humans and In-Vitroes. She thought it was normal and now, without the shelter of her family, she has to learn it the hard way that most people think differently." Shane touched his arm. "You've been through all this and you can help her ..."

Cooper nodded, not quite sure what she meant. But then most of the time things eluded him. Since he had left the gestation tank six years ago and had escaped from the Gestation Facility in Philadelphia when one of the monitors had tried to erase him, he had been on his own and tried to teach himself the ways of humans.

When the rest of the Wild Cards arrived in the corridor leading to the flightdeck, Shane briefed them.

"I guess McQueen wants us to show them our jets, so ..." she paused and nodded towards Wang. "You will show your jet to Mullen; Vanessa, you will take Parsons and Nathan ..."

"I will take Urquhart ..." Nathan replied and smirked.

"No," Shane shook her head. "You'll take his buddy, Urquhart is mine and I'll make damn sure that he hates every second of it!"

The Marines laughed at that. Shane Vansen had not been elected their commanding officer for nothing, although she was a charming and easy-going woman, she had fierce claws when pushed too far.

The British pilots arrived after being rallied by Chambers, but Urquhart made it unmistakably clear that he was not interested in the Yankee's jets. Fortunately, he was outnumbered by his comrades-in-arms for once. They were eager to learn more about the famous Hammerheads and when Urquhart wanted to sulk he should do so.

Soon, the Marines found themselves in friendly arguments about the advantages and disadvantages of the British and the American attack jets with the British officers. Shane treated Urquhart like a child after she had ordered him to sit down in the cockpit, making sure that the British pilot felt as uncomfortable as he had made Chambers feel.

"If you pull a right handed turn, you have to make sure that the thrusters are at full max otherwise the Chigs kill ya ..." Shane tried to explain and when she saw that Urquhart barely hid a yawn, she pulled the button of the emergency exit and Urquhart was slammed hard into the seat, his teeth clattering.

"If you think, that these explanations are just to bore you, think again, Lieutenant!" she hissed. "The Chiggies won't be impressed that you bloody Brit gives them the honour to KIA you."

"Lieutenant, do you think the Colonel would allow us to have a go at these?" Con Firth asked Nathan and looked up at him sheepishly.

Nathan had given him a hard time as well but instead of following Urquhart's lead, he had realised that the Marines were the better pilots and that Flight Lieutenant Chambers was made of the same stuff. The young British Lieutenant had realised that he had treated her badly, just because Urquhart had a grudge against her. And he was determined to make up to his CO.

"I guess so," Nathan replied. "Unless you guys think you aren't up to it!"

"Gosh, sometimes I wish I was born right-handed," Meg groaned and sighed. Being a natural left-handed person the set-up of the digitals and buttons in the BC-48 came in handy but here, where almost all of the important gear was reversed, she had a hard time getting used to it. When she missed the propulsion button again by half a mile without looking directly at it, she cursed underneath her breath.

"Hey, you gonna get used to it," Cooper said reassuringly.

The two pilots had not noticed that McQueen had strolled into the flightdeck and when he appeared beside Cooper who was squatting at the pit of the cockpit, the young Marine stood up quickly and stepped aside.

"So, what do you think, Hawkes?" the Colonel asked. "Is Chambers fit to have a go with one of the Hammerheads?"

Hawkes nodded his head, glancing at Chambers who sat in his cockpit.

"Yes, Sir, I think she is up to it ... Sir," he replied and ducked his head. After so many months serving under the command of McQueen, Hawkes still felt shy around the Colonel for he had the greatest respect for this man who seemed like a father-figure to him.

McQueen nodded and turned around.

"Wild Cards ..." he announced. "Number 9-8 squadron ... you are assigned to a patrol flight near the Kali wormhole and I want you to get acquainted with the jets. You will be assigned to Hammerheads as soon as the technicians have inspected them ..."

Parsons and Mullen made war cries in an ear-shattering volume and Shane sought eye contact with Nathan. Together with Cooper they were the best pilots of the 58th squadron and it was a challenge to prove that to the RAF pilots as well.

"Sir," Chambers said, she had stepped out of the cockpit of Cooper's Hammerhead.

"Yes, Flight Lieutenant?" McQueen asked.

"Sir, it's not that we are not excited to fly these Hammerheads but SPACECOM informed us that our own Spitties will arrive here soon ..."

"That's right, Chambers," the Colonel answered. "After the Kali wormhole sortie you will serve your remaining time with your acquainted gear!" he turned to face both squadrons.

"You will be present at 0600 hours sharp in the briefing room tomorrow morning," he said.

"Until then ... you are dismissed!" The Colonel left the flight deck.

Next: Continuing Chapters

Back: Return to General Fiction