Disclaimer: The characters and universe of Space: Above and Beyond 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.

Thanks: Great thanks to Eggblue for beta, comments, support - and for being there :-) Thanks to Quinn for kindest response. Thank you both for putting up with me while I was writing these stories!

Feedback: juxiantang@hotmail.com and Juxian's stories Rating: NC-17 for slash m/m.



Juxian Tang

The door opened - a square of dim light that still seemed blazing in even dimmer cell - and West was pushed inside, falling on his knees, his arms pressed awkwardly to his belly. His face was a mask of white-smeared-red with ink-black eyes staring at Cooper - and then the door slammed behind him, leaving the cell in near darkness again.

West's breath was small gasping sounds - and Cooper knew all too well the shivering oddness of it, too shallow due to broken ribs, too loud with pain. He moved, careful not to shift his left arm that sent blinding spikes of pain through his brain at every motion. He didn't see but he reached his hand to what he thought West's shoulder must be and felt the warmth and hardness of the bones through the thin material of uniform shirt. West tensed immediately, involuntarily - and Cooper recognized these usual unreasonable attempts to make his breath even, tranquil. He slid his good hand along West's folded arms, as much in a comforting gesture as checking for damage.

Wet. He felt the liquid on his fingers, already cool, not dense but sticky. The smell was unmistakable - blood. He felt a familiar wave of tired anger overcome him.


They had done it to him - his little finger and the ring one on his right hand - the pressure of the vices reminding sharply about the subtle difference in width between his knuckles and finger-bones. Until the juicy sound of the joint crushed.

If West had his hands crippled, it was the end. They already had one arm less than they needed.

"No," furious relief flooded him; West's voice was breathless - but with a hint of humor Cooper found impenetrable and redundant in the situation. "Just fingernails."

"Okay. So," he moved away and rather heard than saw West slump against the wall. He must have tried to get a blanket and made a small distressed sound, apparently bothering his raw fingertips. Cooper got back to him, sighed, helping him to wrap in the blanket.
Why did West always had to pretend he was okay when he was not?

"Eat something?"

They were brought the meal while West was away - the stuff as uneatable as usual - but they needed it to sustain their strength. Besides, it was not so much worse than what Cooper remembered eating sometimes in the streets.

"Just water."

He shrugged. There was a bucket of water in the corner and he dipped a skimmer there, brought it to West. True, he felt the same after those sessions with Alexander - thirsty, as if dehydrated - even though sometimes the little medical knowledge he had told him that he shouldn't drink, not with something slurping and sloshing inside him.

The things were getting strangely routine. Freezy nights - dark days - and intermittent sessions of torture after which either West took care of him or he had to take care of West.

He handed the skimmer when Nathan suddenly dropped his head on his palms with a short moan.

"What?" the intensity of his own reaction surprised him.

"Nothing," after a small pause West's voice was cool and sober and Cooper saw the chalk-whiteness of his raised face in the darkness.

"Just tired."

Tired... it was a good word. How many days were they here? The watches had been taken from them when they were captured, just like everything else except their clothes. Perhaps Cooper would know the time at least approximately but he was not conscious all the time since then. It might have been five days... or a week.

He recalled McQueen talking to them about the mission - it was not a particularly difficult one. The planet Atreius used to be a Chigs' outpost several months ago - but after a few attacks of humans they seemed to leave it. There were the indications of left equipment there and the high command wanted it to be picked up.

More a task for the archeologists than for militaries. And when they landed among grey swamps at the empty, half-demolished facilities that had held the aliens once - it seemed just a dull work to do, nothing else. Cooper thought then that he didn't like the surroundings because they reminded him strangely about the glass- less deserted buildings where he had to sleep during his life in the streets - and was secretly glad they were not going to spend there more than a few hours.

Then there were shots - and AI everywhere around - and a few people were dead at once. They retreated to the carrier... and a jet of fire lashed over Cooper's left arm. The blow was so strong that he fell on his face - and someone pulled him up - Damphousse - and dragged him while someone else fired, covering their retreat.

He stopped and turned and started shooting, too, having shaken Damphousse off of him with a fierce:

"Get out!"

He saw through the smeared plastic of the helmet how something changed in her face abruptly - but she ran and he continued to shoot.

He heard the roar of the carrier getting off and only then he looked at the man near to him and knew it was West. They nodded to each other - and West was telling him something but Cooper couldn't get the words through the noise for a moment. Then he guessed what it was:

"Transmitter! Get rid of it!"

Transmitter... their only chance to be picked up by the carrier again. Not that they had this chance, anyway, with how the fight was going. He stopped shooting, tearing the transmitter off of his belt, and threw it as far as he could into the swamps. It was when the shell blew off in front of them - and after a moment of blinding light there was only darkness - no feeling, no sound - no anything at all.

He came round already in the cell, agonizingly sick, with blood dried around his nose and ears - and his arm hurting so much that he was ready to howl. He found West by touch in the near darkness - and as soon as he came round his first words were:

"Don't get into any games with them, Coop."

He was not going to - he didn't need West to tell him about it - and with pain driving him mad, he didn't know what he was more pissed off at - at the situation or at West who thought for some reason that Cooper needed a special reminder about his duties.

"You start talking your way out of them - and then they will have you," in the dimness of the cell Nathan's eyes seemed feverishly bright and very dark as he clasped his hand on Cooper's shoulder. "Think about others. Think about McQueen. You owe it to them."

"You're hurting me."

And it was true. West helped him to make a bandage on his arm - with the sleeve of his shirt - but it hardly made any difference. Especially taking into account what waited for them.

Well, eventually it had nothing to do with how nice or how insistent West asked him to be uncompromising. In the dark cell, alone, he listened to the cries of pain that sounded from behind the door. First near-hysterical name-serial number laced with lower, heavy sounds of blows - and then just incoherent broken screams when they used other means.

He caught himself on pacing around the cell; fear and anger making a bitter mixture in his mouth - and only when he felt something trickling wetly in his hand he realized that clenching his fists made his wound bleed again.

When a little while later Nathan was brought back and thrown on the floor bonelessly, he crawled towards him as soon as the door was shut, touching his wet-smeared face.

"Bad?" what did he think? But to his bewilderment his felt how West's blood-crusted lips stretched apart as he said with a tinge of humor:

"It might be worse."

In fact, it was worse - and very quickly. A few hours later they came again - and they were after him this time. Then, in the littered room, dim-lit with dirty fluorescent lamps, he saw Alexander AT for the first time.

"Little In-Vitro? What I always found incomprehensible is why your people fights against us. AI didn't do anything bad to you in the first place, as far as I remember - or should I consult the collective memory for that?"

He knew the Silicates didn't have emotions. But the voice sounded almost amused. And the pupil-less eyes on the tanned face stared with a kind of ironic fascination.

"Meanwhile humans... They use you and they hate you - the same as they hate us. Oh sorry, probably more. Maybe, because you are more difficult to define?"

The cool slim hand bent his head forward, lay on the back of his neck briefly - and let go as Cooper tried to shake it off angrily.

"I wouldn't think it sensible to use our usual methods on you, little In-Vitro. I mean if my arguments convince you. But this way or that - we will get from you what we need. Both from you and from your cellmate - mind you, I don't call him your friend, you are not friends, right? Natural born and IV cannot be friends. No matter... I'll try to appeal to your reason at first. What do you think?"

Cooper grinned silently, grouped his body, clawing into the chain he hung on, and slammed his boots in the belly of the Silicate. He heard Alexander cry out in surprise - in cadence with his own desperate scream as the scalding pain pierced his arm and all his body. He hurt himself more than he hurt the AI. And it was just for the start.

"A clear answer, I suppose," there was no pliancy in Alexander's face any more. He moved around Cooper, holding a short thick club in his hand. "I see your arm hurts. It was us who injured it, right? Not so bad injured - not yet."

These were probably the last Alexander's words he heard clearly before the Silicate hit him. When he emerged from the mist of unconsciousness, he was back in the cell and Nathan was with him, wetting his face and lips with cold water.

The things didn't get better since then. How could they be? Feeling the lick of the flame against the umbilical circle was not better. Or seeing the swelling and bright red spread along his arm from the wound and feeling long, inescapable pangs shooting through it. Or having Nathan withdraw into himself for hours after every interrogation. And listening to Alexander pour on him the endless flux of his philosophy that didn't work all so well when Cooper had to hang on his twisted up arms - but there was not much he could do to escape it.

"What I cannot understand is why In-Vitro still have this absurd deference towards humans. Why do you think they are so much better than you. You even want nothing more than to be taken for one of them. But humans fail all the time. They created us and lost control over us and had to create you because they were too weak to fight us themselves. Did you ever think what will they create to demolish you?"

"An Armageddon?" his mouth was full of blood and he swallowed it to be able to speak.

"Don't, little In-Vitro. In fact, humans failed so many times on their way that one must regard them as a fiasco - a dead-end branch of evolution. And your cellmate is a failure, too. He wouldn't be able to survive even a part of what you would. He is nothing. Humans are nothing. I will prove it to you one day - and I hope you will enjoy the process."

A few hours later Nathan seemed to loosen up a bit. The pain must have been still bad - Cooper didn't need to be told about it. He could tell everything about how sharp, aggressive pain that seemed to be maddening at first blunted little by little not because it really abated but because his mind was too tired to perceive it. He only wished West didn't make such a point for himself of enduring everything silently, of trying to appear as if he was invulnerable - but there was not much he could do about it; that was the way West was made.

"Cooper," in any case, hearing his voice again gladdened him in the way he didn't expect. It was not that the darkness or closed space especially affected him - but having West talk to him made him sometimes forget about these things.

"I thought about that story I read once," West's voice was soft and slow, leaving Cooper time to interrupt him - holding the pause to get a clue if he was not interested.

"Which one?" West seemed to have read an endless amount of books related to prisons, escapes - successful and not - camps, battles and war-life. Mostly these tales were grim ones, even those that didn't end in death - but Cooper liked to listen all the same.

v They talked a lot here. Well, no wonder - with all this time on their hands. But it was strange - in the 58th Cooper used to talk more with everyone else than with West. They were okay with each other - the edges had rubbed down a long time ago - and yet he couldn't imagine that he would ever be talking like this with Nathan - would know so many personal things beyond those known to everybody.

"There was a man arrested for his activities during the war - whose interrogators used a special tactics on him to break him down. They didn't torture him, didn't deprive him of any comfort - but they locked him in solitary confinement, without books, information, without anyone talking to him, without anything he could do."

"It might have taken a long time to break him down like this," Cooper commented sensibly.

"Yeah, about four months," West agreed. "But then he was on the verge of insanity. And by chance he got hold on a book of chess games - and he started playing these games in his mind - in his imagination, he didn't have a board or figures. He became a genius of chess."

"And what happened?"

"Well, eventually, he got out. He lost, however - his mind snapped. He is on the ship going to Argentina and out-plays the champion of the world in the end of the story - and he is about as close to madness as possible."

"I see," that was what Cooper didn't like about the stories like this - he wanted something flashy for the denouement but he knew better than to tell West about it. "What war was it?" the basic facts of history he had for some reason usually blurred in his head.

"World War II. Against fascists. My great-great... eww, grandfather participated in it," Nathan said absently.

Cooper tensed slightly - as he usually did when hearing about such long lines of kinship someone was aware of. Well, there was enough time on Atreius for him to get a very clear notion about Nathan's family - and relatives, and childhood, and friends - and he didn't know if it upset or fascinated him more.

He treated his own memories and knowledge for that - as much as he had to tell and it was certainly not much. Something about his life in the streets - mostly funny or entertaining, not about hunger and feeling chased all the time. About Pag - about McQueen - that West liked to hear most. But about his family - what he had of it, the phantom sister that he found and lost - he couldn't talk about it.

"He enlisted right after Pearl-Harbor," Nathan continued meanwhile and Cooper settled more conveniently, lulling his arm on his lap, closing his eyes. "Think about it - he spent two years in training camp in America before they were moved to Europe - but he didn't see his wife since they parted, he didn't have a leave long enough to go to her. He died right before the war ended - in the end of April and on May 8 the treaty was signed."

"Bad luck," they both knew a lot about bad luck, didn't they?

"Someone of his own people shot him," West added easily, making Cooper raise his head in interest.


"He was a Jew, you know. Some guys couldn't stand Jews - I don't mean Germans - in America, too. He had problems all the way since he got to the army - and then, in Europe, when they freed some concentration camp and found all these things there... It was as if their attitude to Jews was thrown them in face. I think some people's tempers just came out of control."

It was not what Cooper might have understood - but somehow he did.

"The Captain wrote he died in combat - but my great-great... grandmother got a letter - maybe, from the one who killed him. It must be weird to know that someone from those you fought side by side for all these months hated you more than he hated the enemy," Nathan said thoughtfully.

"Yeah," Cooper didn't want his voice to sound harsh like this but it happened. "It must be weird."

He listened to the pause that fell and shifted uncomfortably - and continued already in another tone:

"So, what about that chess playing? Without the board?"

"Are you good at chess?"


"Well, since neither am I, maybe, we should try playing cards without a deck," West suggested seriously. And added while Cooper tinkered with the idea. "I have twenty. But you, Coop, have in excess."

"No, you little..." he started indignantly and couldn't continue, giggling. "I'll square with you."

"Come on, get up," Nathan suggested. Well, no squaring - not with the state of Cooper's arm - although for a while Cooper regarded the possibility of getting up and going to sit next to Nathan. It was so cold in the cell - getting significantly colder at night although he couldn't understand why, Atreius' sun never shone brightly even by day - and there was some strange, feverish warmth always coming from West's body.

He didn't get to feel it often, however - just on one of the most freezing nights when they were driven to despair with cold and finished hugging together under both blankets eventually. And also when they discussed their plans - no, not plans - their hope for escape and for resistance and had to sit close and whisper in case if the cell was bugged.

"If there is a chance, we'll do it," Nathan said about escape - but Cooper knew he wanted him to be prepared that there would be no chance at all - something he couldn't accept.

Last time when they sat like this the Silicates brought their meal - and Alexander must have been told about it because on the next session he said to Cooper suddenly:

"It looks like you are enjoying it too much with your cell-mate, little In-Vitro. Didn't you understand what I told you about humans? I think I will have to make the things clearer. Maybe, it is time to draw the line between you."

He had no idea what Alexander meant but he waited for Nathan to come back from his interrogation in anxiety he didn't want to admit to himself.

Well, so far it looked like the things were neither worse nor better than always: torn and burnt fingernails were bad enough but it was on the same lines as everything else the AI did to them. And although somewhere deep in his heart Cooper suspected that one day the accumulated pain and tiredness might have made his mind snap, they still survived for now; they still were ready to fight.

He was asleep when the door swung open. Not that there was anything unusual - the Silicates didn't follow day or night order. Squinting his momentarily blinded eyes, he dragged himself on his knees, the thought of another interrogation making him sick.

There were four AI - crowding the tiny cell at once, one of them towering right over him. Cooper felt the cold muzzle of the gun push under his chin.

"Hands," the voice was flat, unfamiliar. He knew better than to resist, reached his hands forward blankly and bit down a cry when the cold steel clasped on his wrists sending a long shot of pain through his arm. He was pulled up, his hands raised above his head and fixed tightly to the ring in the wall. It was something new, he thought dizzily and couldn't work out what.

In the light cast through the open door he saw that West was still sitting on the floor, rubbing his temples. His dark eyes stared up at the Silicates around him. Did they come for him, Cooper asked himself - finding every little deviation from routine threatening, making him wonder how bad it was going to be.

At last they moved. Dragged West up to his feet, two Silicates holding his forearms - and then the third one sank the butt of his gun into his belly. Cooper suppressed a curse as he saw West go limp abruptly and hanging in the grip of the Silicates.

There was nothing new in AI's casually rough handling; Cooper knew they didn't do it out of cruelty, just because it was a means of control - but, al always, he felt his nostrils flare with anger. He watched as they shook West upright and held him again. West looked dazed, his eyes, blank with pain, wide open and unfocusing. He made some little instinctive movements of struggle - as if trying to get free - and the AI hit him again, catching him by the shirt to keep him from sagging.

He must have waited for West to regain full consciousness - and then, looking in his face, ripped his shirt apart.

Cooper thought it was the moment when he realized what was going to happen - as he saw West's bare chest between the halves of the torn shirt. He couldn't say what so definite was in the AI's gesture - but the thought struck him and he felt the taste of bile bitter in his mouth. The Silicate pulled down the fly of West's pants in the same jerking abrupt motions.

Shit... oh shit! They couldn't... But they certainly could - and there was nothing he or West could do about it. He saw Nathan struggle wildly against the hands that held him - he must have got it, too - until the Silicate grabbed his hair and slammed his head in the wall, stunning him. They threw him the floor and two Silicates pinned his arms down with their knees. The third one knelt fumbling with his clothes.

Cooper clenched his teeth on the cloth of his shirt grimly and tasted sweat, dirt and blood. He could shield his eyes with his arm - but he was not sure it was the right thing to do. In the pool of light he saw West's face distorted in pain and anger as the Silicate slammed forward.

West didn't make a sound, not even a gasp and the total silence gave the scene the edge of unreality - but there was screaming despair in his eyes when the futile resistance was broken. West's mouth looked thin, dark and fluid and Cooper understood it was blood that appeared on his lips, bitten through.

He yanked on the chains angrily, not in hope to get free but unable to keep still. The flash of pain through his arm blurred his vision, made him sick.

He heard the sounds now - wet, slippery - that made his stomach twist. He remembered how it felt, too - to have someone's hands on you, to be helpless to fight off the thorough, inside-out possession. It had been a long time ago. He had never thought he would be reminded about it like this.

He didn't know if the Silicate took any pleasure in what he was doing - if AI were supposed to get pleasure like this. The rhythm didn't change - and then the Silicate just stopped and rose on his feet, arranging his pants back. The smell was different now, however - more distinct than usual. Then another Silicate, the one who cuffed Cooper, took the place.

Four of them, right? Oh he could count! Cooper felt how his fury was drained out, leaving the huge emptiness instead that seemed to be able to explode his chest. There was nothing that would prevent it; it just had to be gone through.

He watched how Nathan tossed his head back in pain, the teeth slicing his lip, red with blood, as he tried not to cry out. For God's sake, scream if you need, Cooper thought in despair, if it can make the things easier. He saw Nathan's fingers claw agonizingly in the dirty floor of the cell until blood leaked from where his torn-off nails were.

Eventually the other Silicate got up to give the place to one more - and at that moment Cooper saw the trickles of blood crawling on the floor slowly between Nathan's legs. His vision blanched to bright white as his anger clashed with the clearest understanding of its utter uselessness. He pressed his forehead to the moist dirty cloth of the sleeve.

"Do you want to say that you don't enjoy it, little In-Vitro?" the voice was so clear in the silent cell that he jerked. And saw another, flawlessly gracile figure of a Silicate leaning against the doorway, his arms folded on his chest. "Did I do my best for you in vain?"

You scum. He wanted to scream, to curse aloud - and bit his lip. It would be just what Alexander would like him to do. He wouldn't give this to him - at least this.

Alexander smiled pleasantly and made a small sign with his hand. Cooper heard Nathan's sudden cry, short but agonizing, saw his eyes roll up - and at the next second he realized that the Silicate was pushing his hand inside him.

"Bastard!" his voice was tight with hatred, unrecognizable. The Silicate turned briefly, his position making him look feral, the scarred eyes cast a brief look at Cooper. He pulled his hand out, glistening with blood, looking at it as if it fascinated him. West was conscious again, making little gasping sounds, blood leaking around his white mouth.

Cooper made an angry wordless sigh of despair.

"I am sorry to see that your attitude is like this," Alexander's voice was so calm, almost balmy. Shrugging, not unfolding his arms, he stepped into the cell, looked down at West and then at Cooper. He must have made another sign because the Silicate who was on his knees rose immediately.

"I just wanted you to see that I was right about humans. But I think you will learn your lesson - even if you don't realize it right now, little In-Vitro."

The lock clicked, releasing his hands from the cuffs. He thought he would set on them as soon as he would be free - and Alexander must have guessed it. The punch in his solar plexus was vicious; Cooper fell down on the knees briefly, gasping when his painful arm hit the floor - and a second later the Silicates were gone.

The door closed, cutting off the only source of light in the cell. The darkness seemed impenetrable for now but he knew it was not - he would be able to see soon enough. And he did.

On his knees on the floor he gathered the strength in his doubled over body to get up. The anger in his chest was heavy like a stone and the same awkward to handle. And this anger was partly despair. Because he didn't know what to do now. Anything he knew didn't teach him how to behave in these situations - and something told him that even if he didn't skip eighteen years of his life, he wouldn't know all the same.

He unclenched his jaws slowly and found out his tongue bitten through and bleeding. In the dim light he couldn't see West properly but he could guess his movements: too abrupt - as if he was not hurt, not physically hurt at all - and Cooper recognized this familiar denial expressed not in words but in motions. He would do - had done - the same. He saw Nathan tie the torn shirt at his waist - not a good imitation of undamaged clothes but that had to do - not worse than the rest of their clothes were, anyway. There was not much he could see of Nathan's face - and for all he knew, there was no expression on his face at all.

Pushing up with his good hand, Cooper got on his feet. He knew suddenly what he could do. Not talking, no. He walked to the bucket of water and dipped a skimmer. He knew West was watching him, could feel these dark, scalding intense eyes on himself - and almost with his skin felt that he was afraid Cooper would say something, not wanting him to.

He handed the skimmer of water to him and turned away.

Listening to the splashing of water, Cooper stuck his fingernails in the soft skin of his palms. He will kill them. He will kill Alexander. He didn't need these thoughts for comforting - he plainly knew it.

"It is time to draw a line between you."

He shoved his fist in the stone wall and bit his tongue not to make a sound of pain. He felt dizzy with anger and dismay.

A perfect way. To use one of them as a thing to prove something to the other. He was used as a thing enough in his life - all his life - to know how it hurt. He thought West might not have known what Alexander meant - he didn't know what they talked about on those interrogations - anyway, Cooper trusted him enough to hope he wouldn't take it in his mind.

Would you?

"Hey," as West took the bucket and looked around as if searching for something, he felt safe to talk. "What are you doing?"

"Need some rag to clean the floor," the voice came out muffled and Cooper wondered if it was because of West's lip bitten through.

"Oh no problem," he stood up, a bit amazed how easily - unaffected - his voice sounded. "I'll do it. I washed enough floors in my life."

He walked up and West stepped back hastily, giving him way. Too hastily, maybe, because Cooper saw him sway suddenly and had nothing else to do but to reach his hand and grab him. It was just a moment - a moment later West straightened.

"Thanks," the word slurred, unclear whether for the offer to clean the floor or for the support. He moved away immediately and Cooper let him go, realizing upon the involuntary gesture West touched his upper arm with that he must have grabbed him where his arms were bruised to black under the hold of the Silicates.

The only way to wash the floor was to splash some water around that place - and Cooper hoped it was enough at least to wash off the blood, not to really clean anything.

He didn't notice he was shivering until he finished. He thought how the nights were usually cold there - but now it must have been the nerve tension taking its toll on him. He felt so weak suddenly that hardly managed to get to his place and pull the blanket over himself. There was the ringing in his ears that frightened him because he seemed not to be able to hear anything behind it. But there was nothing else to hear.

He felt so shitty in the morning that he found himself unable to get up to take his bowl of food when it was brought. It was not good, he thought through the mist that clouded his mind, he couldn't afford to be weak, it was not the right time for it.

He had been shivering all through his sleep and shivered now, too, huddling in the blanket desperately and hating how thin and threadbare it was. West brought new water and took out the other bucket that served as a toilet for them - a simple way that spared Silicates from any expenses for sewage system.

"Hey," he heard West call him and muttered something incoherent, like:

"I'd like to sleep a bit longer."

"And how about eating?" Cooper was always the one who advocated any kind of food they could get. He saw West near to him, the bowl in his hand. "It is not so bad today."

As if he tried it.

"Okay, thanks," he took it and Nathan stood up quickly, backing away to his corner - the self-imposed quarantine. What are you doing, Cooper thought helplessly and didn't have strength to say it. He couldn't eat - couldn't even think about swallowing some food. He pushed the bowl away and fell again, face up, looking with glazed eyes at the dirty ceiling above him.

"Can I..." he felt bad about it but he couldn't stand the cold any more. "Can I have your blanket?"

West didn't use it by day, all the same.

There was a tiny pause while West processed his request.

"Yes, sure," and after another spell he got up and covered Cooper. "You are ill," he stated.

"No, I..." he didn't finish. The door opened and he saw three AI come in. As usual - one directed his gun at him to keep him on his place, other two came up to West, put the cuffs on his wrists. He recognized one of the Silicates - he was there last night - and the Silicate knew he recognized him, smiled indifferently in the manner that some AI seemed to keep since they were in service to people.

"You follow us. You stay."

Damn them, damn.

If he was cold before, now Cooper felt as if a huge pile of ice was thrown on his body. The door shut behind West and he was left on the floor, so exhausted that his anger was more like resentment now.

His feverish state didn't let him stay conscious all the time - he dived in and out of oblivion, knowing only that West was not back yet. He heard some sounds - as always the things were heard in the cell - and tried to cover his ears but he still continued to hear. Maybe, it was in his head.

The door opened and the light, impossibly bright, hurt his eyes. He moaned in pain involuntarily. He saw West just like a blurry figure, no matter how he tried to strain his eyes.

"How..." he intended his voice to sound strong and firm but what came out of his mouth was a mere rustle. "How are you?"

"Fine," West's voice was very soft. Liar, he thought, liar.

He didn't know what made him do it. His muddled brain sent the signals that were erroneous and downright stupid - but he suddenly realized that he was scrambling on his feet and getting towards West shakily. It was a long way - he nearly fell on West, tossing his good arm around him, clinging to him. And felt how Nathan tensed against him - away from him.

"Don't, Coop..." the voice was high-pitched, desperate.

Bastards, he thought helplessly.

He wouldn't let go.

The warmth of West's body was absorbing, wonderful - and he kept pressing to him - until suddenly he felt as for the tiniest fraction Nathan melt into him, too.

Then he was racked with a shiver that was painful in its intensity and, sliding on the floor, he felt Nathan's hands shake and pat him, Nathan's panicky voice cursing and stuttering:

"Shit, Coop, you are burning... shit..."

The next thing he knew was the interrogation room. He was in the chair, slumped limply over it - and Alexander put a pill in his mouth, washed it down with a flow of water.

He coughed trying to push the pill out of his mouth and felt it meld on his tongue.

"There, there," there was something like fondness on Alexander's face as he looked down at Cooper, tilting his head from side to side. "It is just what you call antibiotics. It is not in our interests to have you die too fast."

The almost immediate flood of warmth going through his body was so relieving that he moaned involuntarily. His eyes slowly focused on the Silicate. He realized he was not cuffed - but Alexander must have known he was of no threat to him. His body felt immobile, heavy - as if someone else's. And his arm felt strange - swollen as a log and the same cumbersome - but the huge throbbing in it that reverberated in his brain and spine didn't let him doubt that it was his.

"A good example of In-Vitro's supremacy over humans," the club in Alexander's hand tapped the swollen wrist, making Cooper grit his teeth. "It would already kill a human. The resistance of your organism is spectacular, little In-Vitro. Do you want us," a small capricious smile curved the pink lips, "give you a plastic arm when this one rots off? We can make you a Silicate by parts."

"An AI with sense of humor... can it be any worse?" he mumbled.

He didn't know if Alexander understood him. He still felt not completely cognizant, the room swinging around him. He saw the dry stains of blood on the table in front of him and swallowed ropy saliva; he didn't have strength for anger.

"Oh we can do it," Alexander's voice was almost silvery, melodious. "And do you know what? You don't have a word to say here. I will decide what will be."

Sure. The face of the Silicate closed to him and he looked at generically handsome features that swam in front of his eyes. He felt a hand lay down on the burnt flesh on his nape and stiffened to suppress a wince.

"Did you make any conclusions from what I did, little In-Vitro?" Alexander asked suddenly. "To you and your cell-mate?"

He grabbed the edge of the table, straining to get up - and saw the gun directed point blank at him.

"No, why? I'm a stupid tank, ain't I?"

The lively mouth of the Silicate became a thin line - and the hand left abruptly.

"Perhaps you are. Perhaps I was wrong about you," was it artificial anger? It was a good imitation then. Anyway, now there was no more sing-song quality in Alexander's words - and somehow Cooper felt relieved to hear it. No more 'little In-Vitro'. "I don't have any use of you. I will need you just to do one more thing. To make others come here from that ship of yours that keeps hanging around. And you will do it."

He didn't think he could still react at Alexander's words, there were so many of them - threats, insults, seducing - but he did. He shivered with cold again. No. Not others. Not McQueen.

"You'll help us to capture others," Alexander repeated with satisfaction.

"They plan something," back in the cell he said to West.

"I know," sitting against the wall, he stared right in front of himself into the darkness and Cooper could see how the pale blood-smeared fingers tapped against each others unceasingly. "They found the transmitter. They need the callsigns."

Maybe, the Silicates decided to do without the callsigns, after all. Maybe, they were short of time. Well, they didn't need a callsign to make a transmission - the other thing was that McQueen would not answer a call like this. Cooper was sure he wouldn't. Or would he?

The door opened one more time and the Silicates pushed them out - but not to the interrogation room as usual. It was outside - a truck waiting for them.

They don't want to make the trap somewhere around the former Chigs' facilities, Cooper thought. They will do it in the swamps... so that it looked more credible. McQueen would not come for them. He wouldn't. Cooper repeated it so many times that he must have already believed in it - only he didn't.

Alexander stood at the truck, the comely smile back on his face. It wouldn't do good to pounce on him, Cooper knew - he didn't have a chance here, with all other Silicates around.

"You will be a welcome delegation," the AI cast a quick glance over them. "Come back sooner! Bring your friends."

Cooper jerked towards him all the same - and Alexander slid back graciously, shaking his head reproachfully. West was pushed into the truck and cuffed to the rings under the ceiling with his arms wide apart. Cooper was next - his right hand, at least. Then the Silicate tried to put the ring around the wrist of his left hand... well, there was no wrist at all. His arm was equally swollen along all its length, skin taut and black over it. He tried not to scream when the Silicate pressed the ring - but he did scream - and heard Nathan's hateful voice through the mist of incredible pain.

"Do you want to kill him? Go ahead! That's what your plan will be worth of!"

And how about not to getting into the arguments with them?

He didn't know what happened - Alexander must have ordered it - the ring was gone and the door was locked behind them. The truck moved.

"Coop," West's voice was quiet and so low that he didn't know how he heard it through the noise of the engine. "I have a sliver. A bit of metal. Can you pick the lock?"

The feeling of relief, almost ecstasy, flooded him even before he considered if he really could do it. Maybe, he couldn't. But he would do it.

"Give it to me."

He shifted his arm, the red lightnings of pain shooting behind his eyes. He felt so faint that he didn't know how he remained on his feet. Not that he would fall, with the cuff on his wrist - but he didn't have to lose consciousness. It would be their death then.

"In my left hand," West whispered. Cooper sank teeth in his lip - he needed to clear his mind... even such an elementary thought as to where West's left hand was seemed almost insurmountable. He reached into the darkness.

"Here! Careful!"

At first Nathan's alarmed voice surprised him. Then he realized he was already touching his hand - gripping it, actually - the cuff, the palm, the fingers - without realizing it - so little sensation was in his swollen fingers.

You must do it. There were not enough spurs in his mind but he used all of them. Even if you can't - you must. He closed his hand around Nathan's and howled thinly with pain. It didn't matter - the Silicates that drove them couldn't hear him all the same. He knew there was blood running from his wound - but the sensitivity returned briefly in his fingers. He got the sliver.

One easy step. Now to the next one... It was dark in the truck and he felt grateful for it because West couldn't see how the tears started running on his face. Getting hold of the sliver was an agony. How could it be expected from him to do more?

West didn't say a word - not hurried him, not asked anything. Maybe, he thinks, Cooper thought, I've lost the sliver. It still could happen; maybe, it would happen.

He bit and bit in his lip, already not feeling this pain. He threw his hand up and felt blindly for the lock. He was not sure whether there was a part of his mind that worked clearly - he thought there was none. But there must have been - because a while later - seconds or minutes, he couldn't say - he felt the ring open - and he crumbled on the floor without the support of the cuffs.

He made it, he made it - now he was going to die.

For the first time in his life death appeared this desirable to him. The end of pain. Maybe, light. And somewhere there was Kate, he was sure about it. He wanted to go to Kate, not to stay in this stinky truck with West, with what they had to do.

Had to. He hated this thought that caught him and brought him back into consciousness. He didn't think he would be able to drag himself on his knees but he was and it didn't kill him.

"Cooper? Cooper, are you all right?"

"Yeah," his voice sounded raspy, strange. He shook his head as if trying to shake out dizziness. And at the next moment the thought hit him, making his mind blaze with horror. He lost the sliver! When he slumped on the floor, he let it go.

He heard his teeth chattering thinly. His good hand groped blindly on the littered floor of the truck and found nothing. Then he reached for his left hand, pulled it on his knees, the habitual pain re- filling him immediately - and there it was, embedded in the bloated skin of his palm.

He took it firmly in the good fingers of his right hand and got up on his feet. Now the things were as easy as eating an ice-cream.

The jerk of the truck threw Nathan against him - and Cooper felt him shiver. Don't worry, he thought, I have you. There was this strange heat emanating from West's body. Cooper's senses were so sharpened as he tinkered with he next lock that it seemed he could hear West's eyelashes flopping up and down. Then the cuffs opened and Nathan's arms were around Cooper, hugging, shaking him slightly in the passionate gesture that made him feel almost too high.

"You did it, Coop! When you fell, I thought... but you did it!" West's whisper was warm on his ear - and he found himself smiling involuntarily.

"You bet I did," he whispered back, realizing suddenly that he unconsciously imitated lame and not always suitable irony West used on Atreius.

"Now we'll do it," it was not a question, it was a statement. And he knew it was true.

The truck pulled to the stop - and not being able to see each other in the darkness, not needing even a glance to exchange, they took their places at the sides of the door. It slid open, showing the grey dusk and the Silicates' guns shimmering through it. They hit together.

The Silicates didn't expect it - that worked in their favor. With the peripheral sight Cooper saw West knock a Silicate down, yank the gun from his hands, point it at others. He seemed to be doing something, too, his fist and his boots sinking into the hard body in front of him, then there was the heaviness of the gun in his hand. He didn't know how he shot - but he saw the AI fall down and he knew he was the one who did away with them.

Then it was quiet. For seconds - and it was enough for West to get the transmitter from the bag, hit the buttons expertly.

"Queen Six!" his voice was distorted with the emotions and Cooper felt the same exhilaration and sadness reflect in him, too. "It is King of Hearts, hear me? Queen Six - do not - I repeat - do not approach Atreius. It is a trap!"

So, that was all. They did it. What they had to... now they were free to die. He saw West put the transmitter on the ground quietly and turn to him. Suddenly Cooper thought that after so many days it was the first time when he could see his face normally, with enough light. White and unshaven and dark with bruises - and with these huge dark eyes of his that could seem so mild sometimes but could stare so hard. Calm face.

"Carry on dancing, Hawkes?"

"As long as it takes."

He weighed the gun in his hand.

The bullets hit, splitting the ground at their feet. They shot back and ran - until, covered with a thick veil of mist, there was a river.

It might have saved them. At least for a while. AI disliked water.

The river was chest-deep and scalding cold, the fast current swirl around them as they walked away from the shore. The Silicates must have lost them - there were shots but not towards them - and the soft voices on the bank didn't stop.

Keeping his right hand with the gun above the water, Cooper felt how everything else of him was freezing dead. But they kept walking - and even quietly enough... A good material for Maquis, he thought absently, weren't they? A bit more nuisance for AI to have a kind of one-man war against them... two-men war but his arm probably would kill him in no time at all, so, it would be just Nathan...

There was not even a sound - just for a brief moment he saw West's eyes grow huge - and suddenly he was not going forward any more - but thrown past Cooper, his head sinking under the water and appearing again, even farther. It seemed Cooper knew what it was - but it was already too late. He stepped into the same underwater current and there was no more ground under his feet - but nothing - and he was pulled and twirled in the cold, even colder than before, water - back to where they heard the voices of AI.

He lost the gun eventually - but it didn't matter because it got wet all the same - and he needed at least one hand to save his life, even if for a few moments more. He was pushed and thrown against West and knew Nathan lost his gun, too. Then the angry bees of the shots swished around them, making the water foam.

They dived; it couldn't save them - but they tried, at least. And when Cooper submerged, the fire scalded his left shoulder again, with the pain so bad that he knew it was just one step before dying. West was near to him - and he suddenly thought he didn't want to see how he would die.

But he didn't have to.

A bright light flooded them - so blinding that it seemed to Cooper it was what he believed death was like - only it was not. The carrier from the Saratoga hovered over them in the air. The bottom hatch was open and there were the hawsers falling to the water to them.

The Silicates shot both at them and at the transport now. The hawser, immediately wet, whipped Cooper on the face - the rescue so close that he could taste it. He reached his good hand - and missed it, his body going down like a stone.

All the next must have happened within a split second - but it seemed to him later that it took something like hours - or he wouldn't be able to feel so much during this time. Surprise - disbelief even as the current continued to take him away - then horrible disappointment. So, after all, he was still going to die. He was ready to die - but not like that! Not because at the most crucial moment he was so clumsy that he missed his chance.

He said to himself that he had to put up with it - when a steely cold hand grabbed his swollen wrist - making him convulse in pain and at the same time filling him with the elating sense of being held, of being safe. Then another sharp jerk told him that Nathan caught the hawser. Cooper looked up at his face, wet and white and painfully determined, as they were pulled out of the water into the insides of the carrier.

They fell on the solid floor, the hatch shutting after them immediately, the bullets drumming at the metal - and Cooper knew it was done, they were safe.

The water made pools around them - and someone already tried to wrap them in a cloth or a towel. And there were the familiar faces of the 58th - and among them, smiling and crying face of Damphousse.

She knelt in front of them, hugging them both at once - although Cooper was too frozen to feel it.

"God, Coop, your arm, your arm!" she repeated and he found himself smiling silly at her. "What's so funny? You look like shit!" Phousse was suddenly angry. "You look like shit, too, West!"

They looked at each other and smiled again, estimating the truth of her words - and suddenly Cooper felt something shared between him and West, something warm and gentle - that must have come >from their captivity and their escape. He felt something melt in him under the gaze of West's dark soft eyes - and he thought that what he saw in them - was something that he missed all the time and didn't even know that he missed it.

And even through pain and huge tiredness that overwhelmed him, he still felt how the strange, glowing joy fill him.

Then something clicked in these eyes - still dark and bright - but as if the light was switched off there. No absorbing openness any more, no warmth that made Cooper feel as if he was touched inside. There was wariness... almost hostility... and he tensed immediately, knowing that everything went wrong, not knowing why.

West leant to him briefly - so close that nobody else around them could hear it - but Cooper heard - low, dull - resounded painfully through him:

"You can tell everything - but not about that. Do you understand - not about that, Hawkes. If you tell someone about it, I'll kill you."

It was not a threat - it was the voice.

"I understand," he heard his own answer as if from away and was mildly surprised that he could sound so calm and quiet while something inside him hurt worse than the Silicates could ever hurt him.


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