Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV-Programme 'Space: Above And Beyond' depicted in this story are legal property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Hard Eight Production and 20th Century Fox Broadcasting and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement intended. This story is not open for distribution or sale in either fanzines, ftp-sites or elsewhere without the permission of the authors.

The characters appearing in this story not invented by Wong & Morgan are legal copyright of the author.

PG-rated


Separation Anxiety

by

Dylan Humphries


Part One

Shane Vansen hated black ops with a vengeance.

She hated having no recon.

She hated having no backup.

Above all she hated the alarming frequency with which members of her squad were selected to take part in them. It was starting to become a joke amongst the senior members of the 58th.

If I'm late for dinner don't wait too long, I'm probably on a black op. I'm probably in a great big hairy furball on some dark cold planet, trusting my life to a group of complete strangers with no way out if things go wrong.

No-one ever laughed.

She supposed there might be some guy in a suit back at the Tactical Command Center who thought it was funny to send small groups of Marines deep behind enemy lines and see how many made it back. No matter how hard she tried Shane had never been able to see the funny side. Right now she was doing her best to see the humour in having to carry one of her men back to the ISSCV, and rapidly coming to the conclusion that that guy at Tac-Com didn't get out much.

In hindsight what had happened seemed perfectly logical and obvious, but if anything this only made Shane feel worse. If you were only seven years old, she reasoned, you'd probably just accept what your instructors told you, the way you'd been conditioned to since birth. If you were in exceptional condition and you'd actually bothered to practice it, you might be able to manage the ridiculous set of contortions that they had told you would get you clear of a buzz-beam. If you'd been arguing with your CO you might even be angry enough to fry it before she could get to you and apply the simple trick with a field mirror that every Marine knew but had somehow managed to elude the lab-techs. Still, there must have been some merit in the technique they'd been taught because Cooper came through in one piece, the vicious chig lasers narrowly missing their target. Such close proximity to the cutting beams, however, had caused severe burns over most of his body, burns which were beginning to crack and bleed as Shane stumbled over the unforgiving rocky ground.

He'd passed out shortly after the return journey begun, a fact for which Shane was thankful. She didn't even want to think about the level of agony needed to put Cooper under. She drew a small measure of comfort from the fact that her whole squad had been chosen for this mission, rather than just one or two as was usually the case. The Wild Cards might be angry at her for letting this happen but they'd make sure that he was taken care of. They wouldn't give up on him just because he was an InVitro.

She wasn't worried about what the others would say or think as she made her way across the rocks though, she was far too busy dressing herself down. Any op, let alone a black one, was a bad time to get into an emotional discussion with one of the Marines under your command. Especially when that Marine was Cooper, and definitely not in a conversation about family.

She went back over their discussion as her boots trudged their way across the rocks, trying to find the point at which it had blossomed into an argument but she soon gave up. He had opened up during the time he'd spent with the 'Cards but there was still so much they didn't know about him, much of his past and many of his thoughts were deliberately kept hidden. In the past whenever she had tried to help him he would throw her own words back at her, remembering her claim to have joined the Corps to escape responsibility for her sisters.

Despite her feelings at the time she'd said it, as Shane had come to know them she had discovered that she didn't mind responsibility for the 58th. Even coming to welcome every chance to help them, either as a CO or a friend although she doubted that she'd ever learn the delicate trick of being both at once. She had also come to learn that having only part of Cooper's trust was more maddening than having none at all.

"We're almost there, Cooper, once we get over this ridge we'll be able to oh shit!" Shane flattened herself against the rocks, her lieutenant falling unceremoniously to one side. Below she could see the ISSCV surrounded by armoured chigs and watched as her squad-mates were marched out with the muzzles of chig weapons at their backs. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw two of the aliens carry McQueen's limp form from the transport, before realizing that they must have drugged him. The chigs would never have touched him if he were dead.

"Shit Coop! We're in it up to our armpits now. Come on, we'd better get going before they decide to start patrolling the area more closely." She lifted him up onto her shoulders and set off into the direction she'd just come from.


She was exhausted by the time she got to the caves they'd seen earlier, and for a while all she could do was to lie next to her heavy wingman, listening to the flutter of her heartbeat. Reluctantly she dragged herself into a sitting position and took stock of the position. She drank a little water from her canteen and used most of the rest to clean the dust and caked blood from Cooper's face by the comfortless light of a magnesium flare.

She was tempted to remove the flight suit he was wearing and see if there was anything more useful she could do, but she shied away from the knowledge of exactly how hurt he was. Even now she could see several places where the suit had fused to his badly scorched flesh, any attempt to separate them would only do more damage. The flare flickered and died on the ground, and Shane simply couldn't find the motivation to light another.

As she closed her eyes and leant back against the cold rock wall the cave began to fill with its night sounds. Sleepless nights on a hundred god-forsaken planets had taught her that each place has its own collection of sounds which, for no apparent reason, you never notice when a light is still burning. They were always the same kind of noises, small animal, water dripping, footsteps in the corridor and rather than disturbing her Shane now found them comforting. She could hear the wind whistling between the rocks outside, the calls of some alien insect, Cooper's much-too-shallow breathing. She could hear

Click.

Clack.

It was a harsh staccato sound, the sound of something hard against the rock. It stood out like an armoured chig in the Saratoga showers. Cursing the fact that her M-590 was off in the darkness somewhere Shane pulled her handgun from its holster and waited as the sound continued its steady approach.

Click.

Clack.

A light appeared between her and the cave mouth and, acting entirely on instinct, she shot it out immediately. The next beam of light struck directly into her eyes, blinding her. Strong, confident hands disarmed her quickly but she tore free and was ready for a fight when her sight returned. When she saw the newcomer she almost collapsed with relief.

"Peace friend Vansen" the drothern said, hands outstretched in a calming gesture. "You look like you could use some help." The only answer was a small moan as Shane finally let exhaustion carry her away.


When she opened her eyes again she was presented with two parallel strips of light against a stark metallic background. Taking much longer than usual to orientate herself, Shane realised that she was lying on her back looking up at the strange drotherni light source that lit the room clearly, yet Shane could stare straight into them without squinting at all. She groaned as she struggled to sit up in the bed and was rewarded with a strong, though unseen, pair of hands to aid her.

"Please be gentle Trothtan, you have slept for almost 2 days. You are safe here." With the sound of his voice to guide her Shane was finally able to focus on the male drothern who was helping her. He was wearing the black body suit that Shane knew was common to all members of the scorpion sept, but in this case the bright green insignia was overlaid with a red symbol which she guessed to be a part of the drothak alphabet. His face, like all those of his race, was alien and imposing but his eyes held a glimmer that betrayed the otherwise fearful exterior. Taking care that the talons on his fingers didn't harm her he held Shane steady in the bed as he rearranged it so she could remain upright without assistance.

"Where uhhhh where am I?" Shane mumbled, still groggy from her protected slumber.

"You have not left Basalt," he told her, "but I find these accommodations more comfortable than those in the caves above."

"Basalt?" Shane raised an eyebrow in inquiry and was replied with a nod. "I guess it's a more descriptive name than SM-33, isn't it?" Now it was the drothern's curiosity that was caught.

"Do you name all the planets with numbers?"

"Mostly," she nodded, "They get proper names afterwards but this planet is well " Shane trailed off. She had learnt early on what the drotherni thought of the war she was fighting.

" behind chig lines, and not of particular strategic importance." The drothern finished for her, smiling at her surprised expression. "I have begun to take an interest in this war of yours, Trothtan. I have something to loose."

"Your hide if Nadrak were to hear you speak so!" Shane turned from her companion to see a familiar female drothern enter the room, laughing softly at the other's embarrassment.

"I'm sorry Calara I " He trailed off as the newcomer waved him into silence.

"It is of little importance Merrin, although I would like to speak with captain Vansen." The speed with which Merrin left the room told Shane that he was more than a little thankful for the medic's forbearance.

"Shane," the drothern whispered as she wrapped her arms around the Marine, "It is so good to see you again." Shane nodded in reply.

"It seems like so long, though I'd like to know what you gave me to put me out for two days."

"I did nothing. You were at the edge of endurance when you staggered into this room, and were asleep before I could decide what to do with you. Even you have limits my friend."

Shane managed a weak smile. "I guess three trips over that ridge was pushing it, especially two of them carrying " She drew a long breath as the events of the last day condensed from the fog of her memory. "How is he, Cal?" The drothern gently pried Shane's fingers from where they dug into the scales of her arm.

"He will be alright, although I have had to replace much of his skin. His recovery is being closely watched by Cerberus and Merrin."

"Cooper is his something to loose?" The grin that Cal had been suppressing broke loose across her face.

"Yes, and so he watches as though his eyes might catch something that the array has missed." Although the words were spoken in good humour the image they conjured in Shane's mind killed any laughter that might have been working its way through the haze. The two friends let silence settle over them as each contemplated a private vision of the wounded Marine.

"Trothtan," Shane spoke at last. "Merrin called me Trothtan before. What does that mean?" Calara's head dipped and swayed in an elegant but unreadable display of drotherni body language and when she spoke again the levity was gone from her voice.

"This was inevitable perhaps, but that does not reduce the trepidation I feel. Trothtan translates roughly into 'Friend of the Hunter,' although the English version carries none of the deep feeling implicit in the drothak word."

"This is because of Cooper."

"Yes, but they do not honour you so at his request. It has been quite some time since the hunters have had a leader like Cooper, he commands much respect and friendship amongst them. They have all heard of you from him, and many saw you at his vakor. Despite the council's displeasure Merrin is not the only hunter who follows the fortunes of 58th squadron." The weight of Calara's voice quashed the reply Shane had been about to make. Silence fell once again as the pair considered the implications of what had been said.

"I think that you have almost recovered," this time it was the drothern who spoke first. "I'd like you to sleep some more this morning but Xon has asked to see you once you're able and there's something else who I'm sure you're anxious to check up on. I'll be back later."


Shane had seen some impressive examples of drotherni technology when she was on Chitin, but the medical array in from of her was something else again. It occupied almost half of the room and was kept behind a security screen that only Calara could open. On first seeing it Shane had wondered whether the separation was to protect the equipment or those who watched. A hundred shards of drotherni crystal, each as large as her hand, hung in the air without apparent support forming a well ordered 3d grid. Emitters in the wall shot brilliant white light into the array and, as each shard danced slowly to its own internal logic, the colored light they refracted fell across the body of the InVitro lying unconscious at the center of the device. It obviously combined stunning beauty with precise effectiveness as Cooper wore none of the various tubes and apparatus that marked human medicine. He was naked bar his standard issue boxers but, as Calara had promised, his skin showed no sign of the grievous burns it had suffered only days before. Even the sensitive tissues around his eyes and mouth had been restored without scarring, although she had been told that it would be a couple of days before his hair began to grow back.

"Spectacular is it not? A shame that it only sees use when one of us is so badly wounded." Startled by the voice Shane spun around to find Xon standing just inside the doorway, his crude robotic arm hanging limply at his side.

"I've never seen anything like it, why don't you use them more often?"

"You know how often a cuff has to be recalibrated?" Shane nodded, she'd never forget the consequences of allowing one of the devices to break down.

"The array is even more fragile. Not only does it have it's own constant link to Cerberus, but the equipment required to keep conditions in the room within tolerance levels is almost as complex as the array itself." Despite herself Shane grinned, it appeared that drotherni techs could be just as blind to practicalities as their human counterparts. Although she did have to admit that the array might be worth the extra work needed to look after it.

"Something amuses you?"

"It was just nothing. It wasn't all that funny really. Calara said that that you wanted to see me today." Shane could see Xon's transition into business mode, and it sent chills running down her back as he moved further into the room.

"Lock the door please Cerberus," the drothern instructed the computer which permeated the installation. Behind him the door slid closed and gave three sharp reports as deadbolts as thick as Shane's arm slammed home.

"I need to know what the wildcards are doing here, why the Marines consider this location to be of importance and where the rest of your squadron is." Shane fielded the questions with a raised eyebrow.

"You're not interested in what the secretary general had for breakfast this morning?"

"As long as she's getting enough fibre I don't see it as my concern. You, on the other hand, are. I understand that as a Marine you're not supposed to give me anything beyond name, rank and number but I find it extremely disturbing that you should be here at this time. To accept that it is coincidence would stretch reason to it's breaking point."

"Why? What is your interest in this place?" Xon caught Shane's eyes with a wry smile. After a moment's silence he was willing to play the game.

"There is a chig research facility not far from here that is conducting research that my colleagues in the council consider unallowable. Since scorpions had this facility in place we were asked to invade the station and disrupt a critical experiment. This is expected to alter the course of the research program, hopefully the specific discoveries which concern us will not occur."

"You're going to stop them from developing some new weapon," Shane hissed, "and you'd do the same to us. Your fear will extend the war, killing thousands of humans and chigs!"

"Do not try to blame your foolish war on me, Marine!" Shane's accusation, born of her loathing of such clandestine manipulation, had touched a sore spot in the drothern and he clearly did not intend to let it pass unanswered. "The history of you race contains enough suffering and war to make the stars weep!" Shane stepped back, intimidated by the magnitude of the rage she had awakened inside him. She spun away and set her hand on the glass viewing window, struggling to control the emotions twisting in her guts. Despite her feelings about what Xon was doing she knew that he would never harm any sentient being, be it chig or human, unless he had no other option. Furthermore it had been Xon who rescued Cooper from death at the hands of a silicate orbital drone, and later convinced the council to sanction their release on Chitin.

"I don't know how they knew about this place," Shane whispered. "We were sent to hit the research station. Take what we can and blow up the rest. The other wildcards were captured by a chig patrol a few hours before Zodra found us in the caves. I have no idea where they are now." She let her forehead rest against the glass, drained by the force of the confession.

"Ahhhh it is no wonder you speak so harshly. I am truly sorry to hear this, Shane, but I can also offer you some hope. There is only one chig installation on Basalt, and a strike force intending to disrupt research will have little difficulty finding your friends, especially not one so skilled as the primes of the scorpion sept." She felt the drothern's hand on her shoulder as he came to stand beside her. "Come with me now. It has been a difficult day and you will want to be at Cooper's side when he wakes tomorrow morning. We will discuss what is to be done about the chigs tomorrow."


Getting rid of Merrin was a task that even Ross' indomitable presence would have found difficult, Shane decided later. Even hours after the InVitro had awoken he was determined to remain, and in the end it had taken what amounted to a direct order from Cooper before the young drothern would leave the two of them in peace. Although she'd never be able to prove it Shane also suspected that Calara had interceded via farspeek, adding her voice to Cooper's in order to secure their privacy for now. Shane had found it hard living among aliens and Cooper's eyes met hers as she released the sight that had been building inside her for the last day and a half.

"You never answered my question." It was one of those apparently simple statements that hid a universe of complexity and misunderstanding.

"Which one would that be, Coop?" She smiled as he clambered out of the bed and dressed in the drotherni skin-suit Merrin had left. Calara had given strict instructions that Cooper was to rest, but neither she nor Shane truly expected them to be followed.

"About Kim," Cooper replied once he had made himself presentable. Shane was silent, regretting that she had let him bring the subject up again. She understood Cooper's intermittent interest in her sisters, as the most prominent of any of the 'cards' family members in was natural that they would become a focus for his curiosity, but sometimes his questions probed into areas that Shane felt were better left undisturbed. This latest spate of questions had been especially awkward and she had no intention of carrying it any further. The consequences of their last argument were still too fresh in her mind.

"Shane?"

"I don't get it, Coop, why the sudden interest? I mean you've asked about everything from what we liked to see at the zoo to our favourite types of ice-cream. What's going on?"

"Uhhhh nothing. I was just you know thinking." Cooper was barely as transparent as when he was telling an outright lie. There must be something serious on his mind. Shane said nothing, following him with her eyes as he crossed the room, clearly agitated by the turn this conversation had taken and torn between his instinct to hide and the need to know the answers to his questions. He had his back to her when he spoke, and with his voice lowered Shane almost missed the words.

"It would have been my sister's birthday a couple of weeks back." Shane's attention was caught instantly. Cooper had never mentioned that he had a sister, although she knew hat most InVitros spent huge amounts of time searching for someone they could call family.

"A sister? Coop, that's great! Where is she? When did you find out?" The young InVitro turned to face her, his ashen face in stark contrast to the news he had just given.

"She was on that cargo ship, the McArthur. In section 46." Shane was thrown for a moment, tracking back more than a year to the memory of a passage on the cargo vessel. All the InVitros on McArthur had died when Cooper had cut off

Oh No.

"Cooper I " I what? I'm sorry you had to kill your sister? Sorry that we made you chose between saving her and saving us? There were no words for what she felt at that moment, and even if she could have found some he probably wouldn't have understood them.

"We thought it was just because they were InVitros" Shane offered, her voice ladden with pain and sympathy. "You could have told us. You shouldn't have had to do that." He shook his head wearily.

"I still didn't know you guys so well and I I didn't " Shane watched emotions flash across his face as her tried to force them into words and failed. "I told McQueen" he finished miserably. Those words rocked Shane to her foundations. McQueen had known? He'd ordered Cooper to kill his own sister and he'd known? Shane found it hard to believe but a single look at Hawkes, standing in the corner immersed in his pain, was all it took to prove the truth of his words. Any one of the wildcards could have pushed that button, Damphousse had even been down at the reactor the whole time. It would have taken her 30 seconds to walk over to the main board and shut off the power, maybe even less. Unable to change what had happened so long ago Shane turned to a more immediate need, gathering Cooper up in her arms and holding him, a promise that he'd never have to be alone again. As always he slipped from her embrace too soon, crossing back over to sit on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands.

"She wasn't even born yet" his whisper held Shane's full attention. "They were sending her to the mines and McQueen said it was really bad down there so sometimes sometimes I think maybe I did the right thing." By the time he was finished his voice was barely audible and tight with the pain of his guilt. When his head snapped up suddenly he was looking in her direction but his eyes, bright with unshed tears, were focused elsewhere. His gaze slowly arced back towards the floor before he spoke.

"You have to go. The others are waiting for you in Xon's suite. Cal said you knew the way."

"Yeah. Will you be OK?" The very thought of leaving him in this condition seemed like a betrayal, but the officer in her demanded that she be at this meeting. It may be her only chance to guarantee freedom for the 5-8.

"I'll be fine. It's OK" he told her, his voice making a liar of him. "You'd better go before they send someone to find you." Shane nodded, the last thing he needed was to have one of the drotherni walk in on him while he was like this. She leant against the wall outside, wondering how the hell she was going to deal with this, only to be shocked back into motion by the sound of locking bolts sliding into place.


Much later she was thankful to be collapsing into her bed, and wondering at the strange nature of the drotherni. Their aversion to warfare ran deep enough to make them hide their entire civilization, but once they actually decided to hit something they did so startlingly well. This afternoon's meeting, which had run well into the night, had been a picture of efficiency that some of the Marines on Saratoga could learn from. Drotherni troop structure, however, was baffling in it's complexity and Shane had been completely lost in a discussion that, despite Calara's best efforts, had gradually shifted into drothak. As a result she had been severely shocked when the subject moved to the best way to attack the base itself and every drothern in the room turned to her. Shane had done her best to help them, more for the wildcards' sake than for scorpions', but if she was honest with herself she had to admit that her mind had been on other things. Cooper. She had wanted to hold him longer, to help him through his pain as she had done for her sisters, but Cooper shied away from such open displays of affection. He was always more comfortable when the 'cards feelings for him were unvoiced but strongly felt nonetheless. Like so many of the unwritten rules of InVitro behaviour that she and Nathan were constantly butting their heads against it was a survival mechanism he had developed on the streets, one he was reluctant to let go of. Shane had seen the young InVitro open up a lot since he had joined the 5-8 but she was now beginning to wonder how much of his pain he was hiding. Their eventful voyage on the McArthur had been more than a year ago, and she had had no idea that anything was wrong until the words had been said. She whinced as she remembered her jubilation over the thought that Coop had finally found a sibling. She was Cooper's commanding officer and, she was proud to say, his friend but this revelation opened levels of complexity that she had never seen in him, and left her wondering.

Wondering how anyone could find the strength to kill a sister.

Wondering how a commander could possibly order one of their men to do it.

Wondering if there was anything she could have done.

She strode through the corridors towards Cooper's room, still unnerved by the way that so many of the drotherni moved to give her room. She had expected the reptilians to react coldly towards her after Cooper's brief mind contact with Calara the day before, but they had been as friendly and considerate as ever, even more so amongst the few hunters at the tiny installation. For a while Shane had allowed herself to believe that things wouldn't change as a result of Cooper's revelation but that fragile hope had shattered when she realised that his monitor had been lost along with all the other gear in the ISSCV. Without it Cooper's mind was as mute as Shane's, able to receive transmitted thoughts thanks to whatever technique had been used to heal him, but not strong enough to reach out to others. The door had still been locked when she had come past on her way to bed last night, so she assumed he hadn't spoken to any of the drotherni during the night. She came to a halt in front of the door and stared at it for a few moments. Since she had left yesterday this door had held back whatever consequences there would be. Her own feelings of guilt made her fear what she might find behind it. Suddenly the door slid open to reveal a young, fresh looking InVitro, his hand falling from the manual locking mechanism.

"Are you gonna stand there all day or what? Cerberus said we're moving out this afternoon and I still don't know what the hell's going on!" Shane exhaled slowly, never having noticed that she held her breath.


Part Two

Cooper watched the chig below intensely, examining it with his eyes shut. Without other sights to distract him the cold metal beneath his hands and knees was the only distraction from his practice anat.

It was a skill cultivated by drotherni scouts and hunters that allowed them to extend their perception beyond what could be seen and heard, giving them a distinct advantage in situations where they didn't want to be seen. Sentient beings like the chig were especially easy to spot due to the thought waves that they constantly broadcast, betraying their positions to those who were able to receive them.

Slowly Cooper opened his eyes, concentrating on merging the messages from his sixth sense with those provided by his more mundane facilities. The chig was in a room to his left, not directly attached to the ventilation duct he was crawling through.

He reached back and tapped Shane on the shoulder, breaking her out of whatever thoughts she had been engrossed in and beckoned her to follow. He hoped that she was coming up with something that would explain why these ducts were filled with an oxygen atmosphere. He knew that chigs were obsessive about wearing those armored suits, but why would the researchers feel the need to impose the additional hardship on themselves when they were so far from the front lines?

Experience had taught Cooper how hard it was to sleep in an environment suit. Not that he was worried for the chiggie lab-techs, but he had been hoping that the puzzle would give Shane something to obsess over and break her out of this mood she seemed to be in. She'd been acting kinda weird ever since she turned up in his room this morning to fill him in about this mission. The only reason he could figure for her behaviour was that she was worried about the others, of course she was and so was he, but that was no reason to get all weirded out like she was. She'd even questioned the mode of entry for the mission, thinking that the narrow vents might trigger his claustrophobia. There was no way that she could have known about the number of times that vents like these had saved his life, sheltering him from pursuers or from the elements.

He stopped at a fork in the duct and cast his mind about, trying to determine which branch would be best to take. Unlike his other drotherni skills Cooper's anat sense was very well developed. Since it relied on passive observation of the environment it was a skill that he was able to use without the help of his monitor, and thus one that he could practice aboard Saratoga without fear of being exposed. The loss of his monitor was a blow which he hadn't been expecting. He hadn't realized how much he valued the strange drotherni tool until it was gone. On the streets objects, like people, had passed in and out of his life rapidly. Even after his entrance to the Marines he was able to count the number of things he had ever owned on his fingers.

The monitor had been a gift from a drothern whom Cooper had hardly known, one of two that she had given him in the hop of breaking the depression he had fallen into, believing that he would never see any of the wildcards again. The faith that Kinet had shown in him had gone a long way towards healing Cooper's shattered self esteem, much as Calara and Teclis had worked to heal his drug-damaged body.

"Cooper?" Shane's whisper shocked him and he realized that he'd let himself sink a little too much into his thoughts

"One's as good as the other," he reported, "I can't find a difference between them."

"The one on the left looks a little larger, do you want me to go first?" He replied by moving off down the left duct as she had suggested.

He knew Shane well enough to see the offer as a sign of compassion rather than a suggestion that he was in some way incompetent but the knowledge did nothing to cheer him up. He would much rather have gained some insight into what was bothering Shane so much, but he knew better than to just come out and ask her.

They made their way along the shaft in silence, painfully aware of the possible consequences should some chance sound reveal their presence. The lack of accurate intelligence on the layout of the station had been a problem with this mission from the start, and the drotherni had had precious little to add to Tac-Com's sketchy report. Engrossed once more in the shortcomings of the mission Cooper would have missed the chig passing on the very edge of his perception had it not been carrying an object that emitted regular pulses of energy. Examining the alien Cooper found his suspicions as to the objects identity confirmed.

"What's wrong?" Shane hissed, alarmed by his sudden stop.

"My monitor, a chig has it." He was silent for a moment as he focused his sixth sense on the chig. "It's coming this way."

Cooper set off down the duct again, tracking the chig and it's precious cargo through so many twists and turns that he had soon lost all sense of direction. The intent pursuit eventually led him to a grate through which he could see the chig as it entered a small undecorated room. The armored alien took up position behind a bench on the other side of the room and held the monitor up to the light.

Shane, who had been left behind during the chase, came up beside him and the two of them watched as the chig turned the monitor over and over in it's hands, obviously fascinated with the device.

"They probably picked it out when they were going through our gear on the ISSCV. It wouldn't exactly blend in." Shane whispered.

"Nah, they couldn't have. You know I never leave it where people can see. The chigs would have had to check behind every panel an the ship to find it."

"Maybe Nate or 'Phousse tried to save it for you." Shane suggested. Cooper turned his head to face her, horror and shock dominating his open features.

"Don't even think about it."

"Coop, what's the big deal? I know you're touchy about it but " Shane was cut off by a bright flash and two sharp buzzing sounds emanating from the room below.

"I kinda prefer you guys alive," Cooper explained as Shane peered through the grill to see the chig lying in three pieces on the floor, a familiar green liquid beginning to seep out of the charred armour.

"They have to be custom made for their owners," Cooper elaborated, "They don't like other people fooling around with them."

Shane leaned back from the grating, shaking her head in disbelief.

"You never said it could do THAT!"

"You never asked" He shrugged off the question with a carelessness that came from plenty of practice.

Cooper straightened his arm and twisted it, allowing the wickedly sharp tangen knife that was hidden in his sleeve to slide down into his hand. It took him only a few seconds to get the grate loose before sliding down into the room. Giving the growing pile of spooge a wide berth, he padded across the room to where the monitor lay on the floor. He bent slowly to pick the monitor up and wipe it carefully on the leg of his drotherni skinsuit.

Once the alien tool was safely in hand he dashed back towards the duct entrance, jumping lithely over the chig's remains and dragging himself back up next to Shane. Only when he was safely back in the ventilation system did Cooper let himself examine the prized possession. Turning it over in his hands he examined it with eyes and mind, searching for any signs of damage the chigs may have inflicted on it. Unable to find anything wrong with the device he slipped it over his hand and pressed the small scorpion symbol marking it's surface.

The monitor shrunk to fit around his wrist, automatically positioning itself so that it's probe would contact the large nerve running into his hand. He was immediately alarmed when, having painlessly connected with his nervous system, the monitor failed to produce the usual enhancement of his senses.

= Report = he commanded silently.

= Reserve power discharged. Estimated time to operational status is 72 hours. =

= Report on monitor enhancements. =

= Reserve power discharged. No enhancements available. =

He raised his head to she Shane sitting a small way off, waiting for his to finish.

"Batteries are flat," he told her, "Can't do nothing for us.'

"You can still do that other thing though can't you? Could we use that to find them?"

"Yeah, if we get close enough." He shrugged helplessly, "It'll be a hell of a lot of crawling around in these pipes though."

"Well if that's what it takes, that's what we've gotta do." Cooper turned and continued down the duct, his anat sense extended to its limit. He didn't even want to think about how small the area of his perception was, and how long the two Marines could spend wandering around without coming anywhere near their imprisoned friends.

It was unlikely that the chiggie scientists would have either the means or the inclination to torture the captives, but Cooper couldn't escape the feeling of urgency that had come over him. With one of the researchers reduce to a puddle on the floor it could only be a matter of time before the others became aware that there were humans in the compound.

At that point things would start to go downhill very quickly. They had found early on that the ventilation system was also attached to some sections that maintained a chig atmosphere. It would take less than a minute for the chigs to break the seals on those areas and flood the pipes with poison gasses. As an InVitro Cooper was mildly resistant to a variety of poisons and with the additional protection provided by the scrubbers that the drotherni implanted in his body there was a slim chance that he might be able to escape to the breathable air outside.

Even if this were the case there would be nothing he could do for Shane except be with her while she choked. He knew that Marines weren't supposed to engage in this sort of defeatist thinking, McQueen, Ross and Vansen had all had occasion to berate Cooper for airing such opinions, but it was an outlook that he'd held almost since birth. On which events in his life had borne out more often than he cared to remember.

Disturbed by the turn which his thoughts had taken Cooper returned to doing what he did best, which was whatever his CO was ordering him to do. This was one of the few things that the program had taught him that turned out to be useful on the street.

Do what you're told.

Don't question.

Don't be noticed.

Blend in.

Disappear.

When all else fails run as if your life depends on it.

Because it does.

It was a fairly effective commentary on his life to note that one of the few places he felt safe was in the middle of a war zone.

He swore under his breath and forced himself to consider something less personal, something safer. Once again Cooper found himself envying the iron control that McQueen had over his feelings. He couldn't imagine the older InVitro falling prey to one of the uncontrollable storms of emotion that occasionally paralysed him. Although he'd taken extreme care never to let any of the wildcards see one of these attacks he suspected that they knew anyway, tipped off by those thousands of subtle signals which he was never able to grasp. Last night had been the first time in quite a while that his emotions had overtaken him but this time they had been particularly horrible, strengthened by his reborn guilt over

He quickly pushed the thought to the back of his mind. Even skirting on the edges of the subject was inviting waves of despair that he was unable to deal with. Nathan and the others needed him to be in control of himself. Frustratingly the walls of the shaft offered no irregularity or imperfection to focus on, and his marine equipment was so familiar that it sometimes seemed an extension of himself. There was nothing on hand to hold his mind's attention, to keep it from the dangerous wandering which it was prone to.

Nothing, that was, except for the alien tool clamped to his wrist. A monitor. It was a word which had once carried a very different meaning.

"The monitors had absolute power over everything that happened in the facility," he said quietly, little caring weather or not Shane could hear him. "They chose our names for us and told us who we were. They told us how old we were, when we were well and when we were sick, when we should sleep and when it was time to wake up. They told us what we were to do for every hour of every day. Everything we knew came from them. We believed every word they said." He paused for a moment as a chig moved down the corridor to his right.

"They taught us how to fight and how to kill, how to hurt someone so that they'd tell us anything we wanted to know and what we should do if we were ever on the receiving end of that deal. Whenever we weren't in class we were working, they told us that we had a debt to them because they'd paid to have us born. Usually I'd be cleaning the rooms, or burning trash or something, but sometimes they'd make me go up to the incubation rooms where the unborns were kept. Now I know that they were just keeping a closer eye on me but at the time it seemed pretty cool, walking in between all those tanks and helping the monitors to keep all the machinery going."

There was a slightly longer pause as he examined two possible paths leading deeper into the complex. With his anat extended so far he couldn't help but notice Shane behind him, her attention fixed on what he was saying.

"Not that they trusted us at all," he elaborated once he began moving, "In all the time I spent in that place I wouldn't have gone even half an hour without one of the monitors checking up on me. When I was in the incubation rooms there'd be three or four monitors up there watching, and I never saw another live InVitro go in there. We weren't even allowed to talk to them unless they asked us something, and they looked at me real funny if I ever asked any questions. I think that might be why they were always watching me, they said they were sparing us the agony of decision so they didn't like tanks who thought they could decide for themselves. They told me that I was defective, that I would have to be erased. You don't get a prize for guessing I wasn't too happy about the idea. I didn't mean for it to turn out the way it did, but it came down to being them or me. I guess I was just lucky that they taught me everything I needed to know about busting heads and busting out."

The words were out before he realized that he'd said them, and he knew that Shane would draw the meaning out of them as easily as she read his face as the poker table.

For the first time in his life Cooper had admitted to the worst crime a young InVitro could possible commit.

He had killed a god-like monitor.

Look out for part THREE of the story, coming soon!

Dylan Humphries 1997/8

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