Author's note: This is my first piece of S:AAB fanfic, but not my first ever piece of fanfic (not by a long shot). But be kind to it, any way. I don't pretend to know what I'm talking about. This is just a bit of musing. It examines the episode "Who Monitors the Birds" from the 58th's perspective. This story was screaming to be told, and I couldn't shut it out. Enjoy!

This is a work of amateur fiction not meant to infringe on copyrights held by Twentieth Century Fox Television, Hard Eight Pictures, Inc or anyone involved in the making of the TV series Space: Above and Beyond.

VERSUS: DISAPPEARING ACT
by
Paula Sanders




Day One
58th's Quarters
0630
She stretched lazy muscles, drifting up out of the comfort of sleep.

Lieutenant Vansen knew it was better to wake up faster, to jump to her feet, but Shane was feeling lazy today, so she took her time. Her eyes opened and she blinked back the fog of sleep, to find that she was the only one awake. Vanessa Damphousse was absolutely still in the bunk above her. Paul Wang was dead to the world, across from her. And, in the bunk just above, Nathan West was stretched out on his stomach. She stood up and stretched, heading for the window, yawning, when her eyes met Cooper Hawkes' empty bunk.

He had been there the night before. She remembered that. Well, actually she had just taken it for granted that he was there. Cooper had been uncharacteristically quiet, last night. It was like he wasn't even there.

*Had he been there?* She had been so tired she could have just thought he was.

*He just got up before me,* she told herself.

She knew he often had trouble sleeping, they all did from time to time. Cooper never slept soundly, but rather as if keeping one eye open all night. A habit never lost from growing up on the streets.

*What growing up?* she laughed inwardly. He had only been born six years ago.

Shane stared down at the crumpled bedcovers and rumpled pillow. He had slept in his bed, but for how long? Reaching down, she laid a hand against the sheets. Cold. He hadn't just gotten up.

"Shane?" Vanessa called. She was leaning down from her bunk."What're. . . . Where's Coop?"

"I don't know," Shane admitted. "He's just gone."

"Who's gone?" Paul asked, just sitting up in his bunk.

"Where's Coop?" Nathan asked, as he hopped down from his bunk.

"Geez, weren't you people listening?" Shane all but shouted. "I don't know. He's just gone." She threw the words at them and stormed to her locker, flinging the door open, grabbing her clothes and slamming the door. She hesitated as she passed Cooper's locker, staring at the name plate, then moved on to get dressed.

Cooper had been acting so strangely, like he wanted to tell her something, all last evening. Ever since they had met with Major John Colquitt. She remembered seeing the Major at the firing range, watching over them; an evaluation, so they had been told. That had not been all that unusual. But what was odd was that he had not called them back and they had never seen or heard of any kind of report given by him about their performance. Except for Cooper. She remembered him being called away, just after dinner. After that he wouldn't talk to any of them. He returned to the bunks like a lifeless automaton.

*Like a good InVitro,* she thought maliciously. What had Colquitt said to Cooper? What was going on? She last remembered seeing the Major heading for the flight deck and then he had vanished, just like that.

*Just like Coop,* the words played in her mind as she dragged her brush through her hair, with each stroke they repeated.

"Shane?"

Suddenly, she became aware of hands on her shoulders and found herself staring into a brown t-shirted chest. She looked up to see Nathan West standing in front of her.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Yeah, why?" she replied innocently.

"Because you nearly walked into me," Nathan told her, dropping his hands from her shoulders.

"Sorry, I wasn't watching where I was going."

She moved around him but could almost feel his eyes following her with that sweet, innocent, pitying look Nathan always used to wear her down. Well, she was not going to let him do that to her this time. She was not going to turn around. Let them figure it out for themselves.

Hawkes was missing. Didn't they have eyes? Didn't they notice that their friend and squadron mate had been acting strangely and was now suddenly missing, without saying a word to them? If something had been bothering Hawkes why hadn't he come to her? He had been able to come to her before. She encouraged them all to come to her with their troubles. That's what a good squadron leader did for her people. So, why had Cooper shut them all out?

"Shane?" Nathan was trying it again, she tensed. "Shane, we can't be sure anything is wrong. Coop probably just went for a run around the deck."

"Sure," Vanessa put in, as she walked up to her friends. "He'll probably come jogging through that door any minute."

"Yeah, don't worry about Coop," Paul added, placing a hand on Shane's shoulder.

The sharp knife of betrayal slashed through Shane's chest. She knew they were wrong. Something was telling her that there was more going on. Anger at Cooper for leaving without telling her and fear for him, of the possibility of something happening to him, were threatening to overwhelm her and she clamped down on them, embarrassed by the strength of her feelings. She calmed herself with a deep breath, and tried to rationalize with the others.

"No," Shane said quietly. "There's somethin' more goin' on here. Didn't you all notice how weird Cooper was acting yesterday?"

"Weird compared to what?" Paul jibed, with a smirk. She glared at him.

"Shane, I think you're over reacting," Nathan told her.

"Me over reacting? You're telling me *I'm* over reacting? Who are you to talk, Mr. I-See-Tellus-Survivors-Everywhere?"

"Hey," he shot back. "Shane, cool it. We have absolutely *no* proof that Hawkes is not on board the Saratoga. He's just not here. Listen," he calmed, she could feel him projecting his mood onto her. "We'll give it until this afternoon." He shifted his weight, and grinned at her sideways, adding, "And then we'll panic. Okay?"

She drew in a deep breath, in another attempt to calm her nerves and nodded.

"Okay."

The door flew open, making her heart skip. She turned expecting to see Cooper, but instead saw Colonel McQueen standing there.

"Heads up people," he said. "We're shippin' out in an hour."

"Sir," Shane said, stepping forward. "We can't go anywhere without Lt. Hawkes."

"Well, get him here, because the clock is ticking. There's a mission briefing in 30 mikes."

The Colonel was gone before she could say anything more. She turned to the others who only shrugged and went about donning their flightsuits.


Briefing Room
0700 hours
Nathan West fidgeted in his seat, his gaze repeatedly shifting to the empty seat behind him and next to Paul Wang, the seat left empty by Cooper Hawkes' conspicuous absence. He should have shown up by now. Hawkes never strayed so far away that he couldn't get back in a reasonable amount of time. Besides, there wasn't that much space on this carrier for him to hide.

After McQueen had left the 58th's quarters, they had all split up to search for Coop. They had checked everywhere, and come up with nothing. Hawkes had disappeared. It was quite obvious he was no longer aboard the Saratoga. Yet, Hawkes' Hammerhead cockpit was sitting, unmoved, on the flight deck. Damphousse had gone up to the control deck to find out about any ships which had left during the night. While only one ship had depart the Saratoga during the night, there was no record of who had been on that ship. So, maybe Shane wasn't being paranoid. No Marine would leave the Saratoga without notice, unless there was a cover up of some kind. This was a possiblity, but it didn't seem to fit since even Colonel McQueen seemed surprised when he had not seen Coop with them. There was something amiss in all this.

Cooper Hawkes was never one to stray from the pack. He almost always blindly followed orders. He was one of the most reliable people Nathan had ever known. It was so out of character for him to bail on his squadron. So, what had made him leave?

Out of nowhere, an image of Major John Colquitt sprang to Nathan's mind. The Major had been aboard the Saratoga, yesterday. Nathan could not forget that sullen, gray figure who had evaluated his, Shane's, and Cooper's target practice. Colquitt had seemed particularly interested in Cooper, having called Hawkes in sometime late yesterday. And Colquitt was no longer on board the Saratoga. Like a shot it became clear to Nathan, Major Colquitt could be the only one who would have been on that ISSCV.

*Oh great.* What had Cooper gotten himself into? What if he went and got himself killed?

*Stupid, Tank,* he growled, the words holding more malice than he actually felt, sounding more like he was scolding one of his brothers. He was more concerned than angry, but the anger floated to the surface. What did Hawkes think he was doing? What if there had been a mission for which they really needed him? Then where would they be? What gave Cooper the right to just up and leave?

A flush of embarrassment rose to Nathan's cheeks as he remembered his own little bout of the AWOL disease. He knew he'd been stupid taking that Hammerhead and going down to Tellus. But he had only wanted to risk his own life. It had never been his intention to bring the others into it. He hadn't realized, at the time, that just by leaving them he would be involving them. Now he was in their shoes and he didn't like it one bit.

He glanced at Shane, catching her eye, then shifted to indicate the empty seat. She shrugged, shaking her head at his unspoken question. Her face was a sullen mask, her eyes flashing with anger. Oh man, he would not want to be in Cooper's place when he did show up.

Watching Shane worry and fume about Hawkes, Nathan was surprised by the memory of an old conversation overheard in the dead of night. Shane confided in Cooper that she had joined the Marines to get away from the responsibilities of looking after other people. She needed to do something for her life. He pulled down the smile that was playing on his lips. Enlisting in the Marines was probably not her best choice, if what she wanted was to get away from her responsibilities. Now, instead of just two sisters to look after, she had a whole squadron to keep alive. She had run smack into exactly what she had been trying to run away from. Nathan had tried to take some of the weight off of her shoulders whenever he could, but there were times when it didn't seem to be enough. And there were times when he was guilty of needing her support just as much as the others.

West was too lost in his thoughts to really register McQueen entering the room, just barely aware that he had automatically followed the others to attention and was again sitting in his seat. McQueen's gaze swept over the room and Nathan grimaced as he saw the Colonel's eyes land on that empty seat.

"Where's Lt. Hawkes?" Colonel McQueen asked.

"He's not here, Sir," Shane answered.

"I can see that, Lieutenant," he returned. "That's not a satisfactory answer. Do you know where Lt. Hawkes is?"

"No, Sir," she answered. Nathan could see the tension in her jaw.

The Colonel's eyes flashed with something akin to panic, but it was quickly washed away in the blink of an eye.

"Well, I guess we'll just have to do this one without him," the Colonel said, with his usual brusque manner, surprising Nathan with how he let the matter drop.

"Okay, listen up, this one's on the ground. Routine sentry duty. . . . ."


Day Two
Commodore Ross' Office
1645 hours
Colonel T. C. McQueen stood ridgedly before the desk behind which Commodore Glen Ross sat, leaning back in his chair. He had put his worries about Cooper Hawkes' sudden disappearance to rest until the 58th had returned from their mission and there was still no sign of the Lieutenant. McQueen wasn't certain where Cooper had gone, had only been told that First Lieutenant Hawkes was being considered for a top secret mission. When T.C. had seen that it was Major John Colquitt who was heading this mission he had badly wanted to find an excuse to throw Hawkes in the brig, to keep him from going on whatever mission that was. He knew Colquitt and knew the Major was infamous for running suicide missions. There was more than a slim chance that Cooper wasn't coming back.

"Hawkes went with Colquitt, didn't he, Sir?"

"You know I am not at liberty to answer that question, Colonel," Ross replied.

"Sir, I think I have the right to know where all of my people are, at all times," McQueen tried.

He knew his relationship with the Commodore was more casual than was probably protocol, so he hoped he could break through the barrier to find the truth. Cooper had become more important to him than he ever wanted anyone to. He felt a common bond with the kid, seeing something of himself in the brash, often hateful cloud that shrouded Hawkes' innocent, gentle nature. He had found himself looking forward to seeing Cooper mature and even helping him find his way. He didn't want to lose him so soon.

"Yes, you have a right to know," Ross replied, after a moment's thought. "But you won't." As McQueen started to protest, he held up a long, quieting finger. "These orders come from the top. Classified, compartmentalized. You are not to question them, or Lt. Hawkes when he does return."

McQueen's hands balled tightly into fists of restraint as he tried to control his angry impulses. Ross, detecting the Colonel's exasperation, stood up, walking around the desk slowly.

"Trust me on this one, Ty," the Commodore said, with more sympathy. "A tight lid has to be kept on it."


Tun Tavern
1700 hours
*Thunk*

The dart hit dead center in the round board, kicking her first dart off to the side.

"Way to go," Wang congratulated Shane, amid half-hearted applause.

Shane, Paul, Vanessa and Nathan had decided to go to the Tavern. It was better than sitting around staring at the walls. Their last mission had, for once, gone off without a hitch, and they had turned in their reports that afternoon. Now, they were just plain bored. All any of them had been able to think about, as they sat around in their much too quiet quarters was the fact that Cooper wasn't there. Paul had suggested that they go down to the Tun, just to take their minds off of things. But it wasn't working.

"Coop'd be pissed," Paul added. "You're blowin' his record all to hell." This stopped everyone cold. If ever there was a wrong time to say something, this was it. He glanced around nervously, trying to judge how badly he'd stuck his foot in it.

With the loss of the Jack of Spades the Wild Card's balance had been shaken to it's foundation. One important piece of the puzzle was missing. And Shane and Nathan were the ones to feel the loss most deeply.

Paul's gaze stopped on Shane, their almost maternal center. She cared about them all deeply, would do nearly anything for them. But Cooper was special to Shane. Where Hawkes was concerned, Vansen's maternal instincts kicked into overdrive, immediately seeing the frightened, confused little boy in him. Even so, she was well aware of his all too adult attraction to her and fought hard not to tread on that ground. She wanted to be his friend and to let him know that he was cared about and important, something Cooper had never felt. They all knew it, no matter how much bravado the InVitro used to cover that up. He needed their reassurance, guidance, and friendship. Funny thing, they needed his, too.

Wang's gaze shifted to Nathan and he was struck by the almost resigned expression on the young man's face, like he had expected something like Hawkes' desertion to happen. Sometimes, Paul felt Nathan never expected anything to go right in his life. He seemed resigned to the fact that Murphy's Law had locked target on him, but he still held to his faith that in the end it would all work out, somehow. Wang wondered at the strength it must cost West to keep his faith, when it could so easily be lost. Paul was still struggling to maintain his dignity and faith, after what had happened to him on Kazbek and it wasn't easy.

"Yeah, well, he's not here to defend it," Shane spat, then flung her last dart. It was imbedded deep into the board, by the force of her throw, splitting the other two apart. The dark, gloomy cloud that had hung around Vansen for days followed her as she moved to sit next to Nathan, who was leaning back against the bar, drink in hand.

"Shane," Nathan said softly. "We have to keep the faith that he'll be back."

"Faith?" Shane said, with contempt. "That's a big thing with you, isn't it. What if he ran off? If Coop went AWOL he ain't comin' back. And faith ain't gonna do anything to change that."

"Shane, Coop didn't go AWOL," Vanessa stated, a bit harshly.

"We all know about Colquitt," Nathan reminded her, in hushed tones. "We can't ignore the info we have. The Major was here after somethin'. And I think he found it."

"You mean in Coop?" Vanessa surmised and he nodded.

"The firing range," Shane stated flatly.

"Coop's the best natural shot there is," Nathan put in.

None of them really wanted to say what they all knew was true; Cooper had gone off on some top secret mission and it was likely he wasn't coming back.

The clatter of the tavern's swinging doors caught their attention and they all spun to see Colonel McQueen standing at the entrance. He looked like he could use a stiff drink, and when he saw their eyes were turned to him he looked more like he would sooner face a firing squad than the 58th.

"Before you start badgering me. I don't know anything more than I did before." McQueen moved to the bar, deliberately not looking at his "kids."

Paul felt that irrational prickling feeling that told him something was wrong. McQueen was keeping something from them.

Finally their Colonel turned his head a little their way, his gaze fixed on the floor. He spoke quietly, "The only thing I can tell you is, Hawkes didn't go AWOL."


Early morning - Day Five
Loading Bay Four
0340 hours
Colonel McQueen fidgeted outside the door to loading bay 4, waiting for the all clear signal. He could see the carrier box slowly lowering down into the bay.

Unable to sleep, the Colonel had wandered up to the control deck. He had been there when the call for permission to land had come in and he caught the subtle, deliberate way the communications officer scrambled the message. This had to be the the ship Cooper would be on. He glanced nervously around him, there was no one in sight. They had sealed off the area and he'd had to pull rank to get through.

McQueen was embarrassed by how far he was willing to go for the 58th Squadron and how crazy he got when they were in trouble. He had never wanted to think of this group as his family. He didn't even like most of them. But he cared about them, more than he thought was good for himself. The possibility of losing even one of them had a nasty habit of making him unreasonable.

The all clear sounded and McQueen pushed the door open, hard. He took a breath to calm himself and slowly stepped into the loading bay. The door to the carrier slid open, in painfully slow motion and when Hawkes stepped out, T.C. knew something was wrong. Cooper's head and left arm were bandaged, there was no Major Colquitt, and Cooper's eyes were more tired than the Colonel had ever seen them. He felt a wave of sympathy flood through him.

"Colonel?" Hawkes said, in surprise. "I didn't think anybody--"

"No one else knows," McQueen told him, stepping down from the ledge. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just a few little scrapes," Hawkes brushed it off, with false confidence. He looked like he had been through hell and back.

"What happened to Colquitt?"

"He was taken out right off the bat," Hawkes growled. "They jumped us. I caught one in the temple, just grazed me. It's no big deal."

Feeling the sympathy retreat and the anger take it's place, McQueen stepped to stand toe to toe with the Lieutenant, preventing him from walking away.

"What did you think you were doing, Hawkes?" he all but shouted. "What the hell got into you? You knew it would be a suicide mission."

Cooper stared at his boots, shifting uncomfortably. His voice low and soft he finally answered, "They offered me an Honorable Discharge." McQueen breathed a long sigh, looking away from Cooper. "I couldn't not do it. He told me I was the best for the mission. It was important. What was I gonna do; tell him 'no thank you?' "

McQueen tried to ignore the betrayal flaring in his soul. Hawkes had every right to accept that Honorable Discharge. He had been forced into the military. It had never been his decision, but rather that of some stiff, narrow-minded judge. The young man was fighting for nothing. When most soldiers had already answered the ultimate question - what would you die for? - Cooper was still looking for that answer. Maybe he never would find it.

When McQueen did not speak, Hawkes moved around him toward the bay door. T.C. found himself at a loss for words, he just stood there, frozen.

"Colonel?" Hawkes waited until McQueen turned around, stiffly, before he said, "I tore up the discharge paper."

McQueen let out the breath he'd been holding for days.

"I'm the best natural shot on board this bucket," Cooper smirked. "I figure you guys need me, if you want to keep the 58th's reputation intact."

"Go get some sleep, Hawkes," McQueen said, unaware of the relieved tone in his voice.


58th Quarters
0630 hours
Shane Vansen was propelled out of sleep, gasping, heart racing. She'd had the dream again. It was always the same one. But she hadn't had that dream in months. Why now? She stared at the underside of the top bunk, regulating her breathing, calming her heart. She sat up and gazed around her. Paul was sound asleep, snoring faintly. Nathan was pretending to be asleep, she could tell by his breathing. Her eyes automatically followed the path to Hawkes' bed. It was not empty.

Cooper Hawkes lay on his side, curled up like a kid, asleep, a sheet draped over his lower half. Shane swung her feet off the bunk, pushed herself up and moved carefully to his side. She suddenly became aware of the bandage on his temple. He was wounded. Dammit! What was going on? Crouching down, she reached out in a mothering gesture, to touch his uninjured forehead. Four whole days without knowing what had become of him. Now that it was over, maybe he'd be able to tell them what this was all about. At her touch, he made a purring sound of contentment, deep in his throat, and started to wake up.

Shane immediately withdrew her hand and sat back. When he opened his eyes the first sight he saw was her face, a careful blank mask.

"Welcome home, Wanderer," she whispered.

"Home?" he returned, with childlike innocence and she nodded.

Shane noticed Cooper's gaze shift to look past her shoulder and she turned, following his gaze, to see Nathan leaning around the head of his bunk to look at them, a faint smile touched his lips and he nodded.

The End

Paula Sanders
1996