Disclaimer: The characters and situations of 'Space: Above and Beyond' depicted in this story are legal property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Hard Eight Production and 20th Century Fox Television and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement intended.
Author's note: I wrote this quite a few years ago, so if it seems clunky in places ... that's because it is. Also, this story takes place after the episode Dear Earth.
Comments are welcome at Karin L.
PG-13 rated, for explicit language and war time violence
He was a slang phrase.
- Stephen Crane
Behind him the In Vitro facility exploded, spurting flames and roils of black smoke, throwing debris all around him. He felt his back heated and singed, felt the painful prickling on the skin of his forearms. Miraculously the flak evaded him. Secondary blasts tossed his hair forward into his eyes but Cooper Hawkes kept walking, a steady pace into the moonlit world.
On the other side of the perimeter fence stood two shadowed figures, one taller than the other. The taller one beckoned and Cooper increased his pace. The sound of fire and falling wreckage rushed up behind him, eruptions of heat and noise. He hit the fence at a run and hooked his fingers through the mesh, face pressed against wire. The man and woman who stood on the other side of the fence stretched out hands to touch his fingers. They had pale eyes and shadowed faces. They said, "Come through, Cooper."
He looked up. The fence was impossibly high - ten, fifteen meters - with concertina wire running along the top. He dropped his gaze back to the dark faces.
"I can't reach that high." Sweat ran into his eyes and trailed stinging lines out again, down his cheeks.
Their hands dropped away. They turned their backs and began to walk off into the night, fire-dancing shadows making them flicker in and out of sight.
"No!" Cooper shook the fence violently. "No! Come back!"
But they didn't turn around. The wire dug into the skin of his palms.
"Mom!" he cried. "Dad! Come back!"
Cooper opened his eyes on darkness and the sound of his own ragged breathing. Cool, recylced air touched the heat of his face. He felt his muscles tense, the sheet tangled around his legs and torso, restricting movement. With a frustrated grunt he kicked at the sheets, managed to push them to the foot of his bunk, and pulled himself up on one elbow, wiping the back of his hand over his eyes. He listened to the breathing and faint snoring of his comrades, all of them dead to space. Squinting at his chrono, which he tapped to make glow, he made out 0515 hours. Almost reveille. He fell back on his pillow with a heavy sigh.
Nightmares. He couldn't prove it, but he'd bet In Vitros had more of them than they did dreams. And he was personally, truly, emphatically damn sick of them. He knew he had no parents. And yet he dreamed of them. Not nice, comforting dreams, either. They abandoned him, just - walked away. He didn't know why he got upset. It wasn't like they were real or anything, that he should be so distraught when they left him at the ruins of an imaginary In Vitro facility. It made no sense. He awoke stressed and sweating when all the stars knew a body needed sleep. Regular sleep. You took it when you could, saved up Z's for when you didn't have the luxury. And he, stupid tank that he was, squandered it on nightmares.
Cooper shut his eyes. He tried to fade out, he really did, but all the tiny and not-so-tiny noises an active carrier made, no matter the time of day, crept through the walls and into his ears. All his nerves jumped and sighed to the night-time commotion. His eyes felt dry and tired but he couldn't find sleep. So he got frustrated, and not far behind that, angry. Always angry at things he couldn't control.
It was a relief when the door to the wardroom whipped open and the lights came up. Black clad McQueen, ever the sleeping beauty of the 58th, banged a fist on the hatch.
"Briefing in twenty mikes!"
The door slammed shut.
Then reveille sounded.
"That man never sleeps," came from Damphousse.
Wang mumbled, "Sure he does. In his uniform."
Groans, curses, and general disgruntled sounds filled the room. But bodies began to drag themselves up.
Cooper wasn't as bleary-eyed as the rest. He hit the showers first.
Crammed into the orientation room, everyone sat attentively listening to Lt. Colonel McQueen. "This is the weapons cache that's been fueling Chig planet activity in this sector . . ." Cooper watched the pointer flash. He had, he thought, an advantage over womb-men. Hours spent in the In Vitro facility staring at images, taking them in and spitting them out on command had made his mind a little sharper where intake was concerned. He remembered things, technicalities, quite easily. Even though he was still frustrated about the nightmares he was able to zero on McQueen and put on a face of rapt attention.
McQueen, unfortunately, was also In Vitro. He knew all the tricks.
"Hawkes," the voice clipped. "You're either in love or purposely trying my patience. Pay attention."
The 58th slid glances at him, eyes darting to his corner. Christien Hill, the little backward-born bastard, made goo-goo eyes at him, smirking.
"I said pay attention!" McQueen snapped.
Everyone sat up, practically clicking their heels. Cooper stared at the back of Hill's shaved head. Hill felt it and shifted in his seat. Cooper looked back at the maps and the colonel's waving pointer and promptly, temporarily, forgot about Hill and his prejudices. If he didn't listen McQueen would skin him.
And later: "You're go in an hour," McQueen said finally, which was dismissal. So everyone got up, gathering slates, until McQueen added, "Hawkes, a moment."
Interesting how many ears pricked when the colonel was speaking only to him. Movement paused for a second before everyone beat it out of there. In that second Wang wagged his brows at him and Phousse shook her head; West's look said, "What've you done now?" Shane's said plainly, "Not again, Hawkes."
Cooper walked up to the colonel, folded his arms and braced himself.
McQueen's face was impossible to read. His pale eyes looked at you straight and you were pinned.
"What's going on with you, Hawkes? These last few weeks you've been ducking your head like the lazy tank Hill thinks you are."
He felt his hackles rise. McQueen did it on purpose. Cooper said, "Ain't nothin' wrong with my work, sir." Meaning he never screwed up on the job.
"I never said so," McQueen said. "But your downtime's a sad thing to watch, mister."
"Downtime's my own," which came out his mouth before his mind thought better of it. Which was usually the case. He watched McQueen's face tighten and stood a little straighter. "Sir."
"What's going on?" McQueen didn't like to ask things twice. But his tone was surprisingly temperate.
Cooper shrugged. It was how he knew to answer difficult questions.
"You sleeping okay?"
Cooper fixed his gaze on the edge of the table just to the left of the colonel and pressed his jaw tight. He wished the colonel would yell at him. He was losing control. He didn't know why and it made him damn mad, it made him frustrated, so he just stared at the table edge until his eyes hurt.
McQueen said, "Hill?"
Maybe it was. On sudden inspiration he realized his nightmares had started, resurfaced, the same time Christien Hill had been assigned to the 58th. Along with his fighting skills (admittedly fine-honed) and a damn lot more kit than was necessary, Hill had brought barbed comments, sidelong glances and innuendos. And he had to bite his tongue and drive on because pounding the guy's brain would only land this In Vitro in the brig and prove to every backward-born that tanks were violent and uncontrollable.
Pent up stress. Pent up hate. He didn't know why he cared. Hill wasn't worth the split-second thought it took to dismiss him. Hill wasn't worth much, end report, except maybe as a Chig target.
That wasn't nice. After all, Hill was human, barely.
"It's not like you to be quiet, Hawkes."
"Ain't nothin' I can't handle," he managed tightly. "Sir."
McQueen's hand landed on his shoulder. That brought his eyes up, straight into a blue stare.
"Preoccupation is deadly, Hawkes. Some time in the thick it'll come round and bite you. You reading me?"
He nodded once. McQueen's grip tightened then fell away. Cooper took that as dismissal and walked out. He felt the colonel's gaze on his back.
Christien Hill had just finished strapping on his gear in the wardroom when a shadow appeared at the edge of his sight. He looked up into McQueen's gimlet stare.
"Outside," the colonel said, turned and left.
Hill didn't look around into anybody's eyes. The room had fallen silent at the unexpected sight of McQueen. He took his time getting to the corridor, fixing his face into calm blandness. But as soon as McQueen yanked the door shut and leaned into his face, Christien felt the bottom drop out of his gut. He bit down hard.
"There are two things I refuse to tolerate in this universe, Mr. Hill: Chigs and fools. Therefore I find it hard to believe that one of my men would be so foolish as to jeopardize his mission and his buddies because of his own ignorance. If something bad happens because of one ignorant fool I will personally see that ignorant fool's ass kicked straight to Chiggy homeworld. Are you reading me loud and clear, Mr. Hill?"
McQueen stared at him for such a long moment Christien found it hard to keep his expression from twitching. But he didn't move, just glared at a point somewhere over the colonel's black-shirted shoulder. Finally McQueen swung and disappeared down the corridor, his steps echoing.
Hill took a breath, fists tight against his sides.
"Tank," he spat, whirled and punched the wall. Heads poked out of the doors at intervals down the passage, but they saw him coming and retreated, fast. He stormed the length of the corridor, whirled and strode all the way back to his original position. By then he'd stopped shaking, his face had fallen back to stony calm and he met the others with a cold eye as they emerged from the wardroom.
They didn't see his anger. His humiliation. A years long humiliation he could not be rid of, that he slept with and woke with and felt in his gut when he laughed, killed, made love. Memories of a night in Manhattan, a dark street, a cold wind, and steam coming off the gutters like a drunk's breath. A runaway. And an angry tank that had something to prove to the humans who'd used him. You couldn't think of that all the time, the violence of turning a corner, unknowing, unprotected, facing a creature trained to kill without passion, without remorse, with a methodical anger built from so-called slavery. You didn't replay the long minutes in your nightmares and expect not to hate. You didn't always feel the creature's breath on your skin, its fists in your gut; you didn't always see the shadowed face in your waking hours -
- and expect not to hate.
Cooper knew if he could die just from someone else's thought he'd already be on a trajectory to the nearest sun. It took no radio to pick up the freq coming off Chris Hill, especially in the close quarters of the ISSCV cabin. He wasn't the only one feeling the vibe, either. Shane looked like she'd had enough of Hill's pouting prejudices. She barked at everybody, "Make sure your rifle muzzles are taped good, people. And cover all your sharp edges. We don't want one of you stabbing yourself on landing." She looked at Hill, as if to take back that last.
It was a HALO jump. From previous recon reports they'd picked a DZ on the outskirts of a thick of trees they were going to penetrate on foot; the Chig cache was hidden just within the border, in a buried bunker. They expected heavy resistance in the forest if they were discovered and would have to use the night. In the dimness of the cabin white eyes stood out against surrounding camo grease, ghost eyes, staring inward. Cooper figured they were thinking the same thing he was: running through the movements of the mission. Or maybe not. They were all womb-born. Maybe they thought of their families.
Unfortunately Hill was one of the best riflemen in the 58th, as well as being a demolitions expert, so Shane had put him in the assault group along with Wang, Phousse, West, and himself. The other teams were flanking security.
"We're over the way-point," the pilot said through the com. "Twelve klicks to the DZ."
"Look alive," Shane said. "Fleming, your squad's up."
Cooper fit his nighteyes down and covered the lower half of his face with the oxygen mask. The door yawned opened, letting in cold and wind and a truly spectacular view of the sun almost set behind jagged, red-lit black mountains.
"I really hate this part," Wang muttered.
"Go go go!" Shane was screaming.
When it was his turn Cooper looked down for a split second at the dark beneath him, then dropped into it.
Once down it was a matter of ditching the chute and hauling butt to regroup - barring a Chig welcoming committee. Fortunately the treeline was dark and silent. The tall grass bending under his boots was wet from recent rain, making his steps muffle. He didn't have a long way to go before he met up with Shane; on the way he picked up West and Wang. Hill and Phousse were already there, hunched bulky shadows against the darker, graceful outlines of the individual trees. Shane signaled the security groups to head out, motioned him to walk point and they started in.
He had a directional readout on his wrist and spared it quick glances. Around were the noises of nocturnal, alien creatures, pipes and whistles and little feet rustling across his path. He filtered through that stuff, listening for the grating thrum of Chigs on patrol. Nothing. The undergrowth was thick, making tricky going and providing a million spots for Chig booby traps. He stepped carefully. Skeletal branches clawed at his body and face, trying to unsecure his web-fastened grenades. Behind him were the soft steps of the squad.
He didn't know what it was, maybe some mechanical sound his unconscious knew didn't belong among the trees - and it wasn't coming from the squad - but in a split he was down and stitching the night with photon pulses. Then the Chig sounds erupted, it seemed, out of nothing. Thrum and buzz. The others opened fire, aiming at Chig muzzle flash. Thrum and buzz, all around. Shane snaked to his side.
"Came outta the trees!" he grated.
In the distance, right and left, the security groups were giving grief.
"We gotta get to that bunker!" Shane snapped, and coolly took down a buzzing shadow some twenty meters away.
"Hell with this!" someone yelled, sounding like Hill. A whistle went over their heads, a relatively quiet moment and then the night lit with a boom and explosion, hot air rushing over them. Chig bodies went flying. Hill laughed in berserker triumph. More grenades soared toward dark and trees, the others taking Hill's cue, followed by biting rifle fire. Hill had a hell of an arm, Cooper had to admit. In short order they'd sterilized the area and consequently made a little clearing in the middle of the forest.
The flanks still spattered fire in the distance. Let the security groups take care of it. Cooper scrambled to his feet and advanced in a fast crouch, swinging his rifle at the swaying, wounded trees. Fires crackled in their path on decapitated trunks and branches fell like matches to the scorched undergrowth.
"You leadin' us right, tank?"
Hill was closer to his shoulder than he'd thought. His whisper carried.
"Keep your interval!" came from West, harsh undertone from behind Hill.
"I'd lose you in a mike," Cooper shot back.
"Just try it, nipple neck!"
Shane caught up, elbowing Hill to the side. "We got a job to do, so stow it!"
Cooper said, "Thirty meters that way." He indicated with his chin.
Cooper led them to the bunker entrance, a meter-wide black box in the ground with a hatch on top.
"Stand clear," Hill said, jostling him aside. Cooper almost shot him. The little crud knelt and set a charge on the lock with a ten-second fuse, then scrambled back. "Fire in the hole!"
The explosion was small, just enough to pop the lid. Cooper moved forward, weapon ready as Nathan yanked the lid open. Nothing came up at them but he disengaged a grenade from his webbing, pulled the pin and tossed it down, just to make sure.
A hollow explosion and a gray poof of smoke. He advanced and looked in and heard nothing, saw nothing through the already-dispersing smoke. He slung the M-590, then hung his legs over the side for a split before dropping down. It was a longer distance than he'd expected and he had to fall to a roll to save his knees. He came up rifle-ready, saw only gray crates and finger-wisps of smoke. And a dimlit tunnel leading somewhere.
He looked up quickly. "Clear!"
Wang, Phousse and Hill dropped in. Hill moved about setting charges while he and Phousse and Wang headed toward the tunnel. Hill was going to catch up while Shane and West stood guard above.
They took the tunnel on a slow advance, saw only blasted dirt-and-rock walls, occasionally reinforced by steel panels. Finally they came into a smaller room, empty but for more crates, with another tunnel leading out opposite them. Phousse started to unload her explosives with Wang to stand guard while Hill came up behind. He and Hill went down the second tunnel, turned a corner and practically walked right on a Chig.
Cooper swore and opened fire. Down it went. Four more Chigs suddenly poured out of extended tunnels and he and Hill retreated double-quick, shoulder to shoulder, spraying the lot. The steel panels on the walls began to open, sliding aside, exposing hidden rooms.
"Behind us!" Hill shouted.
They stood back to back and lay down a fireworks display that half-blinded him, up and down the tunnel.
"Clear!" he yelled, seeing their retreat wide open, and ran. Footsteps pounded close behind. They barged into the room they'd left Phousse and Wang in and saw them rifle-ready, aimed at the tunnels.
"We're buggin' out," Cooper told them in passing. So all four of them beat it back to the first roomful of supplies, Hill and Phousse on their tail firing behind to keep the Chigs at bay.
West had paid out the rope from above and Wang jumped on and up, then Phousse. Cooper fired into the tunnel, tasting smoke. Hill sent in a smart grenade. The explosion boomed and echoed, too far to throw out much debris. But they saw the tunnel walls and ceiling collapse, creating an effective barrier of rock and dirt.
"C'mon you two!" West called down, sounding agitated.
"After you," Cooper told Hill with exaggerated solicitude.
"Go to hell." Hill grabbed the rope and monkeyed up rapidly, showing off.
The charges were set on a twenty mike timer.
Cooper slung his M-590 over his shoulder, grabbed the rope and started to shimmy up. Suddenly someone above swore and opened fire, flashes above his head, and the rope abruptly went slack, dumping him on his kiester amid a handful of bombs.
"Dammit! West!" He looked up but could only hear the firefight going on. "West, you moron! I'm in a hurry here!"
A face appeared in the hatchway. Not Nathan. Hill's ugly mug.
Cooper silently swore to all the gods of the petrie dish.
"Throw me the rope," Hill called down, calm as you please.
He hadn't a choice. He tossed up the lead, Hill caught it one-handed and tied it around a forearm and wrist, gripping it tight with both hands.
"What're you waiting for, tank, a formal invite?"
He didn't damn well trust that Hill wouldn't wait till he was almost clear then dump him back among the bombs.
But he caught the rope, having no other options, and started the climb, arms burning, sweat leaking into his eyes. He didn't know how much time was left but he thought he felt the heat of coming fire at his back, his own crazy imagination. To his shock Hill actually extended a hand and helped him the rest of the way. He pulled himself flat on his stomach onto the ground, breath struggling, muscles on fire.
"It ain't a habit, tank," Hill said into his face. And to Shane's back, "We're clear!"
"Sorry," Nathan managed to say, standing over him, firing into the trees. "Got kinda hairy."
"Yeah yeah," Cooper snapped, hauling himself up.
Wang and Phousse lay down covering fire as they ran toward the edge of the forest and the LZ. They were being engaged all down the line; Cooper heard the security groups returning fire. It was a hairy bit of noise and confusion, buzz and thrum of Chigs passing too close, shots whizzing by his ears. Shadows that moved and spat hell.
He cut loose on the chaos, running, barely remembering to breathe before he passed out.
"We got five mikes to get to the LZ!" Shane yelled.
Behind them a blast went off that shook the undergrowth, seemingly the entire forest; heat and fire and smoke rushed at their backs, chasing their heels. Light from the explosion exposed a dozen Chigs among the trees and Cooper ducked and let loose short, deadly accurate bursts.
"Boloed!" Hill hooted, referring to the fireworks behind them, his handiwork.
"C'mon Hawkes!" Wang yelled.
Chig potshots chased them. Darting through the woods, shadows ahead and behind, and the heat and scent of burnt metal, plastic, trees -
- he saw the low branches intertwined like fence mesh. Blink, and they broke from the forest just as the ISAPC roared into landing. The flanking groups were collecting toward the LZ - with injured and dead, he saw at a glance. The two high moons made the night brighter than when they'd landed. The door, their haven, whipped open and they piled in, a grunting, sweating, swearing heap of bodies clambering over and past one another. Then the violent boost and tilt of retro rockets and they were away, leaving Chiggy dead behind.
Cooper didn't know what he'd flashed on back at the treeline. He'd gone out, just a second, an all-too-fatal second that could've meant his life or his squad's. He was angry at himself. He breathed hard and thought violent thoughts, adrenalin run-off making his hands shake. He yanked off his helmet and nighteyes and rubbed the sweat from his forehead. Someone was leaning hard on his shoulder, rifle stock sticking into his side. He glanced and saw Chris Hill.
Hill didn't know where he'd landed in the sort out of bodies trying to get a safe position for the hell-bent flight. Hill was busy wiping dirt from his eyes.
Cooper scowled and shoved him with an elbow.
"Get off me, womb-boy."
A flash of pale eyes in a dark, greased face. Cooper saw the signals. With no other warning Hill grabbed for him and he for Hill. They shoved and punched, colliding with other bodies before Shane launched herself over, along with West, yelling at them to quit it and she meant now.
He got in a shove and kick before West dragged him back.
"Tank!" Hill spat hoarsely, words being his only ammo now with Shane in the way. "You lay a paw on me and I'll cut it off!"
"In your dreams, womb-boy!"
West bodily removed him from the blast zone, hauling him straight down to the other end of the cabin. Shane's threats followed them both while everyone else ducked their heads. West got a hand on his chest and shoved him against the bulkhead. He didn't like people touching him. He shoved back.
"Settle down, Hawkes!"
"I'll finish it, man. You let me at 'im!"
"He wants you riled, can't you see that?"
"I'll give 'im what he wants - straight back to his mama's womb! You hearin' me, Chrissy?"
"Just try it, you stinkin' tank!"
West got in front of him again, close and hard, and pushed him against the bulkhead.
"One more word and you'll take a cold walk home!" That from Shane, who was speaking in general, Cooper figured. Her dirt-streaked face swung on both of them. "I'll jettison you both! - Hill, sit your ass down! Now!"
Shane strode through quickly retreating feet and pushed Nathan aside to stand in Cooper's face.
"And you - I expect this behavior from an idiot like Hill, but you ought to know better! You get your head in order, Hawkes. Are you hearing me?"
"Yes, sir." He stared into her eyes.
"You don't move from this corner till we touchdown on the 'Toga." In a whip of ragged ponytail she headed back aft.
Except for the groaning wounded, the cabin was silent.
Cooper ignored Nathan's look and crouched down, hugging the rifle against his chest, staring at scuffed floorplates. He hated Hill. He hated Hill like he hadn't any other natural born in his life, except the Monitors. He hated the fact he let Hill get to him.
And what was worse, he owed the backward-born bastard his life.
Which Hill doubtless knew.
Scrubbed, changed, and flat on his back on his bunk, Cooper shut his eyes, slipped on his headphones and keyed the music. Drums, guitar, and some guy named Mick Jagger roughing it out on vocals. He hadn't picked the song, really; it was what had been cued on the disk. One line: ". . . I see people turn their heads and quickly look away . . ." Some songs just hit something in him, some music said what he only half-formed in his mind, and he could shut his eyes and listen and believe. This track was called, "Paint It Black."
That sounded about right.
He slipped his arms behind his head.
Clothes. Something was wrong with them. He walked quickly down the street, noticing sidelong glances his way. It was cold, he had no jacket, just what he'd been wearing when he'd broken out, and this loud, chaotic place made no sense. His skin prickled. He noticed eyes and hands too hidden. He jumped at sudden movements, shadows at the corners of his sight. His neck felt exposed.
Someone yelled, "Tank!" Someone caught his arm, swung him round, and Cooper reacted on reflex. The heel of his hand came up, knocked the guy on the jaw, sending the head back with a snap. His foot shot out and the guy went down. People screamed and scattered. "Crazy tank!" came at him and he didn't know what they meant and why they yelled at him when it was the other guy who'd started it.
"Don't get up," Cooper told the man. He really didn't want to kill him. The man didn't look like a Monitor.
The man groaned and didn't seem capable of coherent thought. Cooper stepped over him and hurried down the sidewalk. Shouts of, "Get the tank!" followed him.
So he ran.
He ran for a long time, but the voices still dogged him and one street looked much like another.
He grew his hair. He hadn't any means to cut it for a while, but he also figured out that long hair hid things and people didn't look at him twice or harass him. Surprisingly, the Marines didn't make him cut his hair. Later on he decided to cut it on his own. If anyone cared to notice now, they noticed the navel at the back of his neck. Nobody had cared to notice until Hill came along. And then people who hadn't cared to notice before began to notice now and hang with Hill and he was suddenly wishing his hair was long again.
Even though he knew he had nothing to hide. Even though he didn't care what people like Christien Hill thought.
And he hated how much he had to tell himself that.
Someone shook his foot, kept shaking until he opened his eyes and saw Shane crouched by his bunk. He pulled off the headphones and killed the music.
"What? We goin' out again?"
"No, nothing like that." She stood and stepped back as he pulled himself to his feet, rubbing his eyes. "I want to talk to you."
"Yeah?" He folded his arms and leaned his shoulders on the upper bunk.
Her eyes flicked up and down and she sighed. "C'mon, Cooper, I'm not blind. I know Hill's getting to you."
The denial came out before he thought about it. "I can handle him."
"Oh, like today." She sounded disgusted and a little upset, but not particularly at him. He picked that up and wondered at it. "You gotta find some way to handle him that doesn't include violence. I'm telling you this as a friend. Don't make me tell you as a captain."
He just looked at her. He didn't mean to confuse her with the stare, but it seemed to bother her on a few levels, as if she couldn't read him. And then it occurred to him that she probably couldn't, not now. They were from different places. And no matter how close they were, some things couldn't be bridged.
She said at length, "Sometimes I wake up at night and see you tossing."
Under the unflattering fluroescence of their quarters she looked tired and pale. He remembered she sometimes had nightmares still, about her parents.
He said, offered, "Stress makes 'em worse. I guess I've been kinda stressed lately." He smiled a little. "Sometimes there're things you don't wanna admit in the day. So I think they come at night, y'know?" She was the only one he could really tell things to. And sometimes Nathan. Sometimes words escaped him but they usually understood when he didn't. He figured it had to do with them being natural born and not indoctrinated by Monitors in their first days of life.
He wished he had that. Some in-born level of understanding.
"Hill's irritating," Shane said, a statement of fact. "You don't let him make you something you aren't."
"A tank?" That fell out before his mind caught up, in a tone he usually reserved for himself.
She looked him in the eyes. "Like him."
So it turned out, once he was rested and thinking half-way coherently, that he made up his mind about Christien Hill. Hill was no womb-born devil and Hill for sure wasn't the lord of the petrie dish. Hill was just a bastard, a man, and he happened to have some irritating faults. Cooper tallied up all his anger, frustration and self-doubt, and came up with a sane answer: fatigue had brought it all on. He didn't have to expend so much energy dealing with and thinking of Christien Hill. He could keep the little crud at a distance, physically and mentally, and only get in his face when it was time to work.
Cooper Hawkes had friends. Cooper Hawkes was a good - make that a damn outstanding - Marine, and nothing Hill said or did could take those things away. McQueen had told him once about integrity. It was nothing you were given and it was nothing others could take away. You had it and you lost it. And at the end of the day you looked yourself in the mirror and that answered all the questions.
McQueen was living proof. People didn't dare call McQueen a tank. McQueen didn't pine after parents he never had or a heritage he wasn't born with - born, no matter how or why, but born just the same. He was alive today and that was proof. Cooper figured he was pretty accurate about McQueen, and there was no reason why he couldn't be that way too.
So Hill just became Hill, when he looked at the guy. Not encompassed by all the nightmares he'd had, or the shadows of his past that Hill didn't know and was no direct part of. When Hill had arrived, just before that news crew had invaded the 'Toga, his prejudices hadn't much bothered Cooper. Well, not bothered to the extent he had to lose his cool over it - except that once. But he'd settled that and things had become easy. And then Hill and his comments became constant and it was like a chronic itch, the nightmares had resurfaced, and it all brought him to this point - reasoning and figuring until his brain hurt with the words in his head.
At the end of the day he looked at himself in the mirror. Hill was no part of that reflection. He intended to keep it that way.
He felt much better, then, with all of that worked out, jogging through the narrow corridors of the carrier, feeling his heart beating happily and sweat soaking his workout wear. He tugged an end of the towel he had tucked in the collar of his sweatshirt and mopped his face, not breaking rhythm, not slowing down. Pace, pace, pace, pace. He squeezed by soap-scented crewmen, past the officer's mess, the Tun Tavern. All the familiar places he knew with his eyes shut, everywhere that was home.
He clattered up stairs. Crew quarters, doors shut, corridor currently silent as everyone was inside or on duty. Pace, pace, pace, pace down the length of it and then a right that would take him to more stairs -
And bang! straight into Hill. It flung him back, flung Hill back, who staggered against the wall, being the smaller of the two. Cooper got his balance first, breathless, heart hammering from exertion.
What was Hill doing sneaking around up here?
"Lookin' for you, tank," Hill said, an invitation to violence.
That answered his question. And all his previous careful reasoning went right out the airlock. Anger surged to the surface as he glared at the other Marine. But he stayed where he was, a lunge distance away, hands on his waist, gathering breath.
"Yeah? I'm flattered. But I'm kinda busy, so get outta my way."
He knew he had a mouth. He wasn't going to rein it for Hill's soft sensibilities.
"You smug bastard," Hill sneered. "Don't think I'll make the same mistake twice, saving your sorry ass. You're so proud, aren't you, tank? You think you got a right? You think you got any rights, tank-spat that you were?"
Cooper slid the towel from around his neck and held it in both hands, taut. "You got a problem, man, and it sure as hell ain't me. What happened to make you such a jerk?"
He knew what the question would provoke. Hill launched at him. Cooper side-stepped him swiftly, brought up the towel and whipped it at Hill's passing butt.
It was much more satisfying to humiliate. And surely Hill knew he couldn't beat Cooper in a hand-to-hand.
Hill swung around, his pale skin now a startling shade of red.
"Don't," Cooper warned.
Hill wasn't going to listen. His whole body was tense.
But right at that moment a door opened on the corridor and two laughing crewmen came out. They spared cursory glances for the two Marines but edged by them and down the corridor, chattering and shoving each other good-naturedly. Their passing cut through the tension and deflated it just as surely as a hull breach would. Hill seemed to have calmed himself. Cooper felt his own anger subsiding, a slow wave at a time.
Hill looked him in the eyes. "Watch your back around me, tank," he hissed, and strode by, purposely nudging shoulders, straight up the stairs with heavy, echoing bootsteps.
Cooper stared after him, furious at the explicit threat. So reason wasn't worth a damn when a fool's pride was involved.
Which fool and whose pride was anybody's guess.
They sat again, barely forty-eight hours since the last time, crammed into the orientation room with a hard-faced McQueen at the front, pointer in hand.
"Our last sorties went badly," he began, never one to mince words. "The forty-third lost half their squadron. We've confirmed that ten went down on Dellas. Dead or alive, we don't know. There's a very good chance they're still alive; Dellas isn't heavily occupied by the Chigs. However, Tangiani sector is on one of their heavily-trafficked supply routes, so getting to the planet through their convoys is the trick. Our mission is two-fold: disrupt the supply route and retrieve our people. These are their last known co-ordinates." The map of Dellas lit, showing the continents. Glowing yellow dots indicated where the 43rd's Hammerheads had gone down. Thankfully they were all in the same general vicinity, bunched on an eggplant-shaped peninsula. "That's marshland down there. It won't be easy going."
"Bug patrol," someone in the back muttered.
"What's that?" McQueen asked loudly, rather angrily.
Nobody answered. The colonel continued: "The forty-sixth, thirty-ninth, and nineteenth are going to attack the convoy and distract the Chig fighters. The five-eight will punch through to Dellas . . ."
Slog duty. Cooper saw it on the map. It wasn't sane, but he hoped they met some enemy on-planet. He was in the mood to waste some Chigs. He jotted notes. Shane was scribbling rapidly. A rescue mission. They could be the worst. You felt pretty bad if you had to abort a mission where you had to, say, rig Chig supplies to blow. But if you had to abort a rescue mission - it was hell on the conscience.
By the same token, when it all went right, there wasn't anything like it. You felt like you were accomplishing something tangible at last.
When McQueen finally dismissed them, Shane motioned briskly to him, West, Damphousse and Wang.
"With me," she said.
Cooper gathered up his slate and followed his captain out. Nothing mattered now but the mission.
"This planet sucks," Wang declared, hip deep in greenish-brown bog water. "Ahh, man!"
Cooper turned half-way, saw the other with his elbows high, holding his rifle above the viscous surface.
"What is it, Paul?"
"D'you think there're leeches here? You think leeches are, like, a universal gross-ingredient?"
Wang and his bugs. Cooper had to smile. "Let's just get across. I'm pickin' up the signals real strong, just a little further into the jungle." He gestured with his chin and started forward again, feeling his boots sinking with every step. "Just feel lucky we got through to the planet in the first place."
"I'll feel lucky once I'm back on the 'Toga and out of this wet gear."
Ten downed Marines. Six had crashed close together, the other four a couple hundred meters east, but relatively together. So Shane had split the rescue party: himself, Wang and two others for the downed four; Shane, West, Phousse, Hill and two more for the downed six. The teams took the rescuees, whether the latter were dead or alive, reported it and headed back to the rendezvous between the two sites to wait for pick-up, unless one of the teams requested assistance.
He was glad Hill wasn't with him.
Behind Wang slogged two young Marines, baby-faced and clear-eyed. They'd been in two dogfights in their lives, maybe, and hadn't humped any terrain outside of boot. Certainly not in someplace as wet and humid as Dellas. Their sweating faces were screwed up worse than Wang's. The large bog stank as awful as it looked.
Cooper reached the muddy banks first, and it was a steaming struggle to get purchase and get on his feet above the waterline. He was covered in muck by the end of it but his rifle was clean. No small accomplishment. He turned and gave Wang a hand, then the two kids. One of them, free of the thick water, started to slap his neck and scratch at his face.
Cooper snapped, "Didn't you spray on that insect repellent?"
The kid, Ruiz, stared at him.
"I thought the captain was talking about our weapons."
Cooper looked into the kid's eyes and didn't laugh when he saw dead honesty. "C'mon," he muttered instead, turning away.
"Danny," he heard Ruiz whisper behind him. "You got any bug water?"
"Keep at their six," Cooper told Wang and started ahead, tracking box bleeping. He didn't really need it once they broke into the treeline. A few meters of thick jungle made it hard going, but soon enough he emerged into a patch of open space, a burn track receding north, thick foliage on either side and a wrecked, mostly-camouflaged SA-43 at the close end of it. Sitting, leaning against the dented fuselage with rifles pointed out were two Marines, bloody, sweaty and stinking of their surroundings.
"'Bout time," one called. "What'd you guys do, stop off to sunbathe?"
"Chigs threw a tea party," Wang said back.
"Can you walk?" Cooper asked the pair.
"If we had to," the same one answered. He looked healthier than his female comrade, banged up but lively. "I think Ripley here's a little dehydrated."
Ruiz and Danny approached to help them up. Cooper unhooked his canteen and passed it to Ripley. She had a nasty bruise on her forehead and bleary eyes, but her hands were steady enough.
"Where're the other two that crashed around here?"
Hicks, the name badge said, jerked his chin into the jungle, south. He held his arm where blood was seeping through a hasty bandage. "Dead."
"We'll get them," Cooper started.
"Don't bother," Hicks said. "Jungle swallowed 'em." There wasn't any humor in his face now. His eyes were slick and red. "Just get us out of this hole."
The sun beat on their heads, silent and furious.
Cooper said, sizing their injuries, "We gotta cross that bog water to get to the rendezvous."
Hicks nodded wearily. "Lead on, Zumie."
"Call it in," Cooper told Wang and motioned Ruiz and Danny to help the injured Marines. Wang took the rear, muttering in his com to Alpha 1, and he took point. It was slow going because the last thing they wanted was for Hicks or Ripley to drown in the marsh. The damn planet was too eager to suck down every visitor into its deep, wet throat.
They'd just slogged back through the bog and climbed the banks onto relatively sturdier ground when rifle reports echoed through the humid air. Everyone ducked reflexively, their own weapons at ready, but Cooper quickly realized the fight wasn't aimed at them.
"The others!" he called to Wang. "Let's hustle."
Hicks and Ripley managed to pick up their pace, no doubt encouraged by the noise of battle ahead. The quicker they all got out of here, the better. They tried not to fight the jungle every step of the way, but the clinging vines, branches and thick undergrowth made any haste a frustrating task. The heat sucked out their breath. The rifle fire sounded like it was coming from the rendezvous point, where they were approaching steadily. Shane came on the com soon enough and confirmed it, nailing down enemy positions; she couldn't confirm they were Chigs because she couldn't see definitely. AI's were the next hunch. Cooper motioned Wang up and sent him and Hicks to the left flank. He told Danny to stay with an unsteady Ripley and took Ruiz with him to the right. Shane was doing the same from her position, hoping to pen in the enemy for one big take-down.
Listening carefully, advancing slowly, the enemy fire didn't sound like Chigs.
He didn't have time to think about it. A shadowed figure darted across his line of sight and he let go a sharp retort, Ruiz following suit. Bush trembled, feet hurrying through. Shots answered back, forcing his face into the ground. Swift tick.
"Danny, there's a Chig heading your way!"
More rifle fire, keeping his head down. Shots behind him, hopefully it was the kid giving grief. He snuck up a look, saw movement to his right, aimed -
"Marines!" burst through the comline. "Lieutenant - "
Gray uniform in his sights. A flash of arm, a familiar patch: red, white and blue -
"Ours," he whispered hoarsely, and swung back to knock down Ruiz's raised rifle. "They're ours - "
Shots whizzed by his ear, cutting into foliage behind him.
"Shane," he shouted into his pick-up, ducking low. "It's friendly fire, man - "
"Copy that," she said back. And he heard her, they were close enough, through the air and through the com: "Cease fire! Cease fire! This is the five-eight - "
Rifle sounds. Someone swore viciously.
"They've gone nuts!" came from Wang's side.
"We gotta take 'em down," Cooper said. "Gotta get close enough - " He hit Ruiz's shoulder. "Draw their fire - and don't be a hero. Just distract 'em."
Ruiz nodded, wide eyes. He scrambled off. Shots followed in his wake and Cooper rushed forward, saw a gray-uniformed back, dirty, torn, bloody, and he prepared to launch -
A force knocked him from the side, throwing him to the ground. His head slammed down and the world flared and dimmed painfully, came back with Hill in his face, pinning him. He'd lost his rifle, was stunned for a moment, gathering breath. Hill quickly tore off Cooper's helmet, pick-up and all, tossing it aside. He'd ditched his own. Cooper struggled but the bastard was crouched on his chest, forcing his breath out, had his arms pinned out of play. A malicious smile cut across Hill's grease-smudged face.
"Friendly fire," he rasped, and bent close. "I call it an opportunity, tank."
Cooper spat in his face.
It got the reaction he wanted. Hill released his left arm long enough to aim one at his face. His own fist was moving, came up under Hill's chin, and suddenly they were grappling, rolling, fists flying, knees jabbing, and he saw Hill go for the K-Bar in his boot.
That did it. He was sick of playing. He sunk his knuckles in Hill's stomach, took advantage of the reflexive jerk of knees curling up and pulled the knife himself. His arm arced down before he thought about it, but in a desperate heave Hill wrenched his shoulders away and the knife plunged into the soft earth. Hill shoved Cooper back and rolled free as Cooper yanked the knife clear and swung, expecting to see the other Marine in a fighting stance.
But Hill wasn't. He was kneeling with both hands on the ground, breathing so hard Cooper thought he was having some sort of asthma attack. It took a moment for him to realize the other man was fighting back tears.
The noise of the jungle seemed to pour in on him. Buzzing insects, breeze through branches, and the blunt hollers of the 58th, calling all clear.
Cooper lowered the blade, then finally tossed it down as if it burned his hand.
He levered himself to his feet, never taking his eyes from Hill, and stood looking down, the heat of the jungle like licking flames on the back of his neck. His breath came shallow and hot. Hill was still blinking back tears. Cooper didn't understand that at all, but he swiped a fist across his own weary eyes then held out his hand toward Hill.
The Marine stared at him a long moment, then finally broke his gaze and pushed himself up to stand without aid, straightening with effort, not looking at Cooper. The humid air sat heavy between them.
Cooper bent and scooped up his helmet, walked two strides and retrieved his rifle. Footsteps suddenly crashed toward them and Shane and Nathan appeared out of the trees.
"Where were you two?" West asked, eyes darting, taking in the scene.
Shane said nothing. But her expression was dark.
Hill went by them, bent and picked up his K-Bar, slipping it into his boot with practiced swiftness. He glanced back at them. His voice was hollow. "Got confused." Unreadable eyes flickered in Cooper's direction. "Thought you were something else."
That stood for awhile in doubtful silence.
Cooper looked away from Hill, said, "Did you get the rest of the forty-third?"
West nodded. "Only three of them. The others were dead. Those three were really gone out. The blood, the heat . . ." He didn't finish it.
It had been so swift, sordid in its ferocity, the silence that had fallen on him and Hill when nothing existed but their hate for each other. The strong sunlight on that blade as he held it aloft . . . he didn't want to think the thought that had shot through his mind. How easy it would have been. How he could have said, no doubt what Hill had wanted to say, that one of the others had done it, those crazy others they'd come to rescue ...
To take away from the pain.
Those others turning on their own, mad with grief and death and memory.
"Let's get off this damn planet," Shane said wearily.
Cooper nodded. He didn't answer their looks. He walked past, kept going past even Hill, and felt the other's gaze on the back of his head. Burning.
McQueen met them, as usual, as they filed out the ISSCV, jostled out of the way by the medics come to attend the injured. Cooper made to walk on and out the loading bay but the colonel snagged his sleeve, looked him in the face.
"You all right?" He didn't mean about the mission. His gaze flickered toward Hill, who edged by them carefully, not in his usual brusque manner. "Something go down I should know about?"
Cooper followed Hill's progress for a moment then met the colonel's gaze.
McQueen looked dubious.
"Sir," Cooper said, "I'd really like a shower now."
McQueen let go his sleeve with a slight, accepting nod.
Maybe he suspected it was more than dirt Cooper wanted to get rid of.
He was toweling his hair dry, face muffled, and emerged looking into the mirror to find Shane standing behind and to the left of his shoulder, long hair still damp and creating wet patches around her t-shirt collar.
"You work it out?" she asked. "With him?"
He ran a hand back over his hair, flattening it before it dried the way it was. He found it in himself to smile at her reflection, a wisp of a grin. Didn't matter that his back was to her and his neck was exposed. Didn't matter with a lot of people, least of all himself. That was where the smile came from.
"Worked it out with myself," he said finally. "Don't know about him."
Her chin tilted, lips curling. Approval.
Outside Wang was calling for victims in a round of poker.
"You comin' in?" Shane asked, smiling archly. Probably already counting her winnings.
Cooper laughed. What the hell, he'd risk it. It was only a game, and besides, his friends needed one more man.