DISCLAIMER: Only Sara, Drew, Xon and the Drotherni belong to me. All other characters and names remain property of Glen Morgan, James Wong and Hard Eight productions. They are used without permission, no copyright infringement is intended.
The Thoth incident occurs 6 months after "... Did Our Best," the dart was a 2 or 3 months before that.
It wasn't until Zodra was crawling through the cramped supply linkage that she realized what a stupid way to deliver a message this actually was. Of course any message from Xon warranted personal attention, and it would be good to see the recipient again after all this time.
Despite this Nadrak's decision to send his blood-sister all this way to deliver the message personally had been called insane by others, and Zodra was beginning to agree. Finally inside the ship's ventilation system Zodra found that she had little more room here than she had had in the linkage, or on the small supply station.
"Humans build everything too small" she grumbled to herself as she crawled forward, the front of her pressure suit pressed hard against the floor while the back brushed uncomfortably against the roof. She dragged herself forward almost ten meters, until she was past the pressure doors that would close when the linkage was removed.
She quickly removed her suit and threw it back across the line, so that it would be vented into space when the time came. Preservation of the Secret demanded that she leave no trace of her passing. After stretching her wings as well as she could in the vents Zodra crawled onwards, in search of a human she had once called her brother.
While Zodra was crawling through the cramped ventilation system Cooper Hawkes was playing hide and seek. It wasn't that Cooper liked to play games, in fact he was starting to feel really stupid, but Drew and Sara had challenged him and Cooper had never been able to let a challenge go unanswered. The two newest members of the 58th had bet Cooper that they knew more of the hidden places on Saratoga than he did. Nathan had been there at the time and had come up with some rules for the contest, knowing all along that the two sooners would loose. Coop could have shown the techs working on board a thing or two, if they'd ever bother to listen. He was now resting comfortable in his favorite of all the secret places, while the other two stood three meters away arguing with each other.
"This was a stupid idea Sara, we're never going to find him in time." Drew was the youngest of the current wildcards, and the shortest but he was built like a bull on steroids. He was a calm and easy-going guy most of the time, but if you got Drew pissed at you it was time to run for cover. Coop could still feel the bruises from the first time they'd met. He moved with a kind of flowing confidence that reminded Cooper of the big cats he'd seen in movies.
"Don't be such a looser Drew, we've got half an hour and we've already searched most of the ship." That was just typical of Sara. She was kinda like a diamond, Coop had decided. Real pretty to look at, but hard and cold if you tried to get to close. He seemed to remember that people had said the same sort of thing about him straight out of training, and found himself wondering what had happened to Sara, that she felt the need to distance herself from everyone.
Coop's ears pricked up as Drew muttered some derisive reply to Sara's optimism, and had to stop himself laughing when he saw the look on her face. "My God," he whispered, "they're going to go for it in the corridor!" He tried to shift into a better position to see what was going on but froze when he felt a numbing coldness at the base of his neck. Seconds later it was joined by a familiar voice echoing in his head.
He was stunned. He hadn't heard this voice since . . .
Cooper, can you hear me?
The name that went with it was . . .
Cooper this is important. I have a message from Xon
Zodra. She was close enough to farspeek directly into his mind. Cooper? Answer me!
There was a Drothern on the Saratoga.
It was almost midnight before Cooper dared to take the monitor out from it's hiding place. He had to be sure that the others were asleep so that none of them would see the strange Drotherni tool. Now he was lying on his bunk plying with it, putting off the moment when he would have to put it on. The monitor was a ring of black Drotherni metal, a little thicker than Coop's little finger and slightly larger than the circle he could make with his thumbs and first fingers. Taking a deep breath Coop slid his left hand through the center of the monitor and thumbed a small green scorpion symbol, the only decoration on the ring's surface. Silently the monitor shrunk, adjusting itself to fit comfortably on Cooper's wrist, and extended a small probe through his skin. As the monitor made contact all of Coop's senses were sharpened disturbingly. He shook his head and blinked fiercely, no matter how many times he wore it he would never get used to this first moment. Ready now Coop stretched out on his bunk, closed his eyes, and extended his thoughts into the corridors of the Saratoga.
Zodra? Are you there? His thoughts echoed noisily in his head. He'd forgotten how long it was since he'd done this.
It's not as if there's a whole lot of places I can go to you know. Zodra was upset at having been kept waiting and it showed in her farspeek.
You took your time contacting me.
I can't just do this in the corridor you know. You're the one who always insists on secrecy.
As he talked with Zodra, Cooper's monitor was being anything but secretive. It glowed in a soft blue light, as an indication that it's powers were in use, no to strongly but if he used it in plain view it would attract more than attention.
What does Xon want, Zodra?
You. In two days the 58th will be assigned to escort a transport from Saratoga to Sigma 2. I'll be on it. Once we get there we are to use a one-time Cerberus terminal hidden there to get the two of us and your plane to Chitin.
Xon didn't say, as usual, but if your plane's coming it's a fair bet he wants you to fly with us again. Coop could feel his friends unease. Zodra was someone who liked to have all the answers.
It won't work Zodra. The marines are different to Scorpions, I can't just go wondering off.
You can have some instrumentation problems or something, you know we can always get you back to Saratoga
In his bunk Cooper groaned, she had no idea ...
One sudden re-appearance is just strange Zodra, two looks like something's going on. I'll think about it. Cooper quickly cut the connection before Zodra could reply. Threatening the Secret of the Drotherni was cruel of him and he'd feel bad about it later, but now he badly needed some time to think.
With the monitor safely hidden away again Coop returned to his bunk knowing that he wouldn't get any sleep. Going with Zodra would mean leaving the wildcards, and having no idea of when he would be able to get back to them. On the other hand Xon must have a serious reason for contacting him, sending out his unit was like betting your life against an AI, you only did it if things were serious. He wished he could talk to West about this, or McQueen even, but they had no idea the Drotherni existed, and his strange friends preferred it that way. Xon, Nadrak and the others would be expecting him to come, but to leave the wildcards ...
The 5-8 didn't have any missions to fly the next day, and it was a good thing. Cooper couldn't even keep his mind on the small routine tasks he was assigned for the day. By lunch time the others had given up on trying to get him do any work and were starting to wonder what was bothering their friend so much.
"Well, it must be something serious," Shane Vansen concluded, "He hasn't been himself all day."
"No if it was that bad he'd tell us about it. We've been through too much together to secrets from one another." It might not show sometimes, but over the two years they'd known each other Nathan West and Coop had become like brothers.
"Not true West," Sara butted in, "None of you know what happened to him on Thoth."
The three older 'cards became very interested in the floor. Finally Vanessa Damphousse spoke into her lap.
"We don't care what happened, Sara. We thought we'd lost him, what little there was left. But when McQueen found him in that cargo bay . . . He was back and he was well. That's all we care about."
"What do . . ." Sara trailed off, confused. She thought she knew everything about her unit's history, she was about to discover how wrong she was.
"Coop's second addiction isn't in the records Sara." West seemed less happy than the others to be on this topic and sent vicious looks at Sara for bringing it up.
"We were on security for a transfer of nuclear fuel. Terrorists shot him with a tranq dart."
"It was a cocktail of drugs," Vansen continued when it was obvious that West wasn't going to, "Including the meanies. It really messed him up. He was in isolation for ages, and when he came out they told us that the damage to his nervous system couldn't be repaired."
For a moment no-one spoke.
"So," Drew said, breaking the silence, "When McQueen found him, alive and in good conditioning considering he'd been gone for four months, you were to happy to have him back to ask too many questions." The silence spoke for itself
Cooper also had trouble sleeping that night, but it was due less to the need for a decision than to Zodra's continual attempts to get him to talk to her. It was not long before, under the guise of a trip to the head, Cooper retrieved the monitor. Back in his bunk he used it to erect a shield strong enough to block out Zodra's thoughts, lying on his hand and forearm to hide the blue glow from the others. Even this provided little relief as Zodra was soon projecting so strongly that he could feel her pushing on the barrier. Eventually he did respond, one message.
I'll come allright? Just LEAVE ME ALONE
He knew as soon as he'd done it that the shouting was a mistake. It had it's desired effect, though, and Cooper was left alone with his thoughts.
Vanessa's hands flew nimbly across the control panel, repeating actions they had performed hundreds of times before. Check the screens, make some small adjustments, check again, the routine was automatic now. There was nothing unusual on her panels this time except . . . she punched the small blue light flashing on the comm panel.
That was a bad sign, the 'cards hardly ever called her that, preferring her callsign "Ace" when flying or the more casual "Phousse" when not.
"What's wrong Drew?, and why are we on a private channel?"
"I've been thinking about what you guys said yesterday, and I think Shane and West would kill me if they knew"
"They would," she agreed, "Especially Nathan. Exactly what's the problem?"
"How bad was Hawkes' nerve damage?"
"His hands and feet shook, he stuttered, blinked a lot. It got really bad when he was excited"
"Then how did he get to be in a hammerhead near Thoth?"
Vanessa took a deep breath. "Being an InVitro, Coop never had much in the way of material possessions, so he measures himself by the sorts of things he can do. Remember when he recovered, he spend all that time at target practice? That's because he used to be a brilliant shot with his handgun, and he is again now, but with the damage he couldn't do that at all. He couldn't shoot, or fight, and it looked like they were going to stop him from flying as well. You can imagine what that did to him. So West did some work on his plane , enhanced the auto-pilot and some other stuff, and then got Ross to let him come with us on our supply runs. You should have seen his face when we told him."
She fell silent for a moment
"He was shot by an AI drone, the thing was just sitting there in orbit, don't ask me why. Half the fuselage was blown away. The next time we saw his was in the med unit after McQueen dragged him up there from bay 3."
"Wow," the story elicited a reverent silence from the younger marine, "Whoever helped him did Coop one big favor" He cut the connection.
"They gave him back himself" Vanessa whispered, alone in her cockpit.
Sigma 2 was hot and dry, but Coop had come to expect that from the Drotherni. He was standing next to the ISSCV, rifle in hand, looking out over the dunes and ridges nearby. Beneath the sleeve of his flight suit the monitor glowed brightly as he scanned for the Cerberus terminal that would take him and Zodra off this dustball.
It's not here, he reported silently, Do you think they would have set it up so close to the research station?
He received a brief image of Zodra rising from her haunches and dusting off her hands.
You could be right. How far can you go without the others noticing?
Not far enough to make a difference
This time the image was of miles and miles of sand, and was so hopelessly exaggerated that he had to stop himself from laughing. It's not my fault, I tried to explain this back on 'Toga
Zodra cut the connection without replying. Cooper was much happier with his farspeek now, he wasn't echoing at all any more, and could now send quick thought-images, something he'd never done in his four months with the Drotherni. He wondered weather his other powers were now stronger as well, if the treatment he had be given had somehow interfered with the monitor before.
Probably, Zodra cut in, you could call Teclis once we reach Chitin and ask him if you want
ZODRA, Coop screamed at her, sending visions of a number of bloody deaths, DON'T EVER DO THAT AGAIN
Hey calm down Coop. You know I can't do anything like that, Zodra's voice was cautious, You're leaking mind noise that's all. Actually now that I think of it your shields look awful, are you OK?
Yeah, I just don't like guard duty, OK? Bad stuff always happens. Did you find it?
Large ridge, just to your left. It's just on the other side
My next check in is a couple of minutes away. I'll be there as soon as I can
It'll be ready by the time you get here.
Zodra was as good as her word, and Coop was soon scrambling down the ridge to where she waited beside a half-buried cube of red crystal. Looking over her shoulder he could see the radius of the transit window laid over a map of the area. At the bottom a destination was written, in the strange angular letters of Drothak, along with a countdown. In just over a minute Cooper would be taken from this place. From his friends. "Are you sure you're all right?" Zodra asked him. "Your shields are really . . . Cooper what's wrong?"
The pain was unbearable, any natural born would have passed out, but Cooper was an InVitro and had felt many kinds of pain in his short life. He didn't cry out, or fall to the ground, he just clutched his side, grimaced and tried to get his mental shield back up.
"Every sentient being radiates thought," Zodra had once explained, "whether they want to or not. Usually this is very low level mind-noise, just a hum, so in a society where we can hear thoughts we shield ourselves to filter out the background noise. It's not like the force shield you use to protect yourself from a mental attack, its more like . . . well humans have this game where you make shadow shapes against a wall? Yes? The shield is like putting a white sheet up in front of the wall, it lets you see the shadow easier by blocking out the background textures of the wall. Of course under certain conditions transmission can be much stronger, without the shields every time a Drothern told a good joke, half the city would laugh." That was what he was feeling now, someone else's pain slicing through his flimsy shields, someone close. Not Zodra because the Drothern had too much self control and was obviously not feeling anything like this. That meant it was human. That meant the 58th. One of his friends had been shot.
This realization spurred Cooper on to a greater effort and he finally got the shields up. The pain in his side receded, becoming more like a muscle cramp than a gunshot wound.
"Have to help them" he groaned, his shields still not perfect. Zodra stared at him not understanding.
"Friends. Under attack. Help them" Cooper gasped. He watched comprehension dawn on his friend's face, followed closely by frustration.
"Twenty seconds" she replied gesturing towards the forgotten cube.
"In fifteen?" Zodra shook her head "Too many codes"
Cooper nodded as he unbuttoned the cuff on his flight suit. Zodra had no way of providing the codes needed to shut down the terminal in time, but Coop did. He bought the monitor down heavily on the surface of the terminal as he filled his mind with Drotherni security codes. As quickly as he recalled them the monitor transmitted them through it's surface into the terminal. It only took seconds to go through all the codes he had learnt. They hadn't worked. Not one of them even got him past the first level of security. With only seven seconds left he tried something desperate and then smiled as he saw the blue circle on the display dilate. The wave of shock hit him from behind, blurring his vision even though he'd been expecting it.
"Tai Kora?" Zodra whispered in Drothak, mostly to herself. What have you done?
Suddenly their time was up and the world imploded , sucked inwards towards the center of the cube, which Cooper could feel buckling under his fingers. Then it expanded again, but into a very different place.
Zodra was off to his side, shaking her head to clear it of the mind-noise transit caused. The members of the 58th lay on the floor unconscious, knocked out by the pulse as he had been the first few times. They were safe from whatever enemy had been shooting at them, but were still in danger of their lives. Coop took two drunken steps towards the lone Drothern who stood waiting, determined to help his friends before he let pain and shock and noise draw him down to join them. He half walked, half fell into the watchers arms and gripped it's shoulders. He whispered a single word in it's ear before the darkness hook him.
Shane Vansen woke with a start, her heart pounding and her breath ragged. She forced herself to calm down, taking deep breaths and pushing the horror of yet another nightmare to the back of her mind. Siting up in her spartan bed Shane noticed immediately that she wasn't in the 'cards familiar wardroom. This room was much larger and, although Shane had hardly thought it possible, even barer. Everything was made from the same dull gray metal, walls, floor, even the six beds that held the sleeping marines. Shane swung herself out of the bed and began to look around. The room's light was provided by two parallel strips in the roof that emitted bright yellow light, like sunlight. Much easier on the eyes than the harsh white globe-light she was used to. To room had two doors situated at opposite ends. The first led to a smaller room containing shower and toilet facilities, the other was locked. This bought several obvious and disturbing questions to Shane's mind. Where are we? How did we get here? Why is this door locked? Shane threw her mind back, dredging up her most recent memories. A day on the 'Toga, an unpleasant conversation, flying, all the images were blurry an uncertain except ... the attack. Of course! She had been on guard duty on Sigma 2 and the attack had come from nowhere. They never even knew who was shooting at them. Shane remembered shouting and gunfire and chaos. Then nothing, the next thing she remembered was waking up here. Are we prisoners of war?
McQueen had never told them much about his days as a POW, but then he'd never had to. The small hints and allusions he sometimes let slip had been more than enough to ward the 58th off the subject permanently. Her pulse quickening, Shane moved between the beds that her squad-mates occupied, checking on them as she went. All were still wearing their flight suits, like Shane, and all were sleeping soundly, as she had been. All except McQueen. He had been stripped down to his green USMC boxers and was encased in a thin shell of crystal. It stretched from his shoulders to his hips, leaving head, arms and legs free, and was completely transparent. Shane eyed it uncertainly, wanting to help McQueen but wary of any surprises the crystal might produce. Finally turning away from her CO Shane suddenly realized that one of them was missing, and a mental roll call confirmed it.
Cooper Hawkes, who was both the easiest and the hardest of the group to hurt, was gone. Stories of cruel torture and punishment, some learned from McQueen and others from her peers, rose unwanted from the depths of Shane's mind. They were quickly replaced by a more personal realization, that the two InVitros from the squad had been singled out for unusual treatment.
Had they been captured by the Silicates? Shane slammed her fist against the wall. She was alone, had no way of answering these questions and was, she had to admit, starting to get spooked. An electronic beep sounded behind her and Shane spun to see a figure silhouetted against the newly opened door. They simply stared at each other until the door slid closed of it's own accord. Moments later another chime sounded, sounding like nothing more than a doorbell, and a soft patient voice filled the room.
"May I enter?"
"What?!" Shane wasn't sure what she had been expecting, but politeness wasn't it.
"Can I come in?" the voice repeated.
"Will it make a difference if I say no?"
"Of course." The speaker seemed confused, and perhaps a little amused, by Shane's distrusting tone.
"Come in then." She conceded after a moment's thought. The door opened again and the figure stepped through, allowing the door to close behind him. The two of them stood silently, appraising one another with their eyes.
The visitor was slightly shorter than Shane, slim and male. His hair was cropped close to his head and was jet black, except for a thin white streak that ran down the center. His eyes, Shane was relieved to see, were a striking blue-green color that reminded her of the Earth seen from space. He was dressed in a black, one piece body suit that was loose enough to fit him comfortably. It was decorated by a stylized scorpion insignia on his chest, it's bright green clashing garishly with the black background.
"I did not know that you were awake," he said apologetically, "The medics said you would all still be asleep"
"We've been to see medics?"
"Well actually they had to come and see you, none of you guys was in any condition to be going anywhere. Oh, most of it was just concussion and severe shock and the like, but that one," he nodded to indicate McQueen, "had been shot. We had to perform some quick and complex surgery, it was embedded in one of his ribs near where they join the spine."
"What is that ... that thing?" curiosity and concern conspired to defeat Shane's distrust.
"You mean the cuff? It is a medical device. It is monitoring his recovery."
"Yeah ... Right" Shane made no attempt to hide her sarcasm. The cuff had no drug storage, no way of administering treatment and no way of telling a medic about the subject's condition. It was just a lump of crystal.
"I'm serious, here let me show you." He moved further into the room.
"You stay away from him!" Shane growled viciously, putting herself between the newcomer and McQueen.
"The cuff needs to be adjusted regularly or it will start to malfunction. They are rarely used in a med bay," he admitted, "let alone outside of one."
That pulled Shane up. "Is he in danger?"
"No yet, but he soon will be. The cuff is very sensitive and the electronics in the false leg will interfere with it."
"You have to trust me sooner or later. You can call me by using this." He showed her a glassy panel set into the wall. "Ask for Bolt. In an hour it will be to late." Shane just glared at him unlit he walked out.
She had no idea how long it was before it began. She was sitting on her bed, trying to figure out as much of what was going on as possible. She wasn't getting very far. The first groan was so quiet that Shane wasn't sure she had heard it, but the second confirmed what she had hoped. She leapt from the bed and hurried to McQueen's side, arriving just in time for the scream. It went on and on and on, a soul-shattering scream from a man that Shane relied upon to be strong. After an eternity he fell silent and stood frozen with shock. Her commander's face was quiet and serene, he was sleeping again. The second scream was worse than the first. Shane staggered towards the panel Bolt shown her and punched it hard, the physical pain providing a short respite from the anguish McQueen's cries caused her. The panel glowed green and an intercom tone sounded.
"I need to talk to Bolt" she told it, hoping that she could get this done before McQueen screamed again.
After a moments silence Bolt's voice filled the room as clearly as if her were standing there already.
"You need to come and fix this medical thing." She told him. "Now."
"What? Who is this?"
Shane's answer was drowned out by the beginning of the next scream. "I'll be right there." Bolt told her, barely audible over the noise
© Dylan Humphries 1997