Chapter Eight

The Marines were not alone on their flight back to the USS Saratoga, thwarting the chance for conversing on the impending mission but they were not in the mood to make conversation anyway.

During the last week the Marines had prepared the mission meticulously, visiting family and friends. Nathan had wanted to ask Kylen to marry him but after he had thought about the impending mission he had simply said good-bye to her. Too many things had happened and he was still not sure if he had done the right thing when he had rescued Kylen only to let the others die ... When he had joined McQueen and the others again, he had been aware of the tension between Chambers and Hawkes. He had tried to ask his friend about it, especially after he had detected the fading black eye on Meg' s face and Cooper nursing his ribs but all he had gotten out of Coop had piqued his curiosity rather than laying it at rest and even asking Chambers hadn't helped much. She had been as tongue-tied as Coop. Wonderful, Nathan had thought after that. It was always a pleasure to go on an Op when your mates tried to kill each other rather than the enemy.

After McQueen's warning, Cooper had been determined to keep his distance from Meg. He knew he should concentrate on the impending Op but in order to do that he needed to make up to her. Each night he had walked up to Megan's room, determined to work it out with her but he just couldn't find the courage. He didn't know which words to use. Her anger had bothered him to no end because she had hit a soft spot. She hadn't told him anything he had not told himself over and over again and yet all he wanted to do was take her into his arms and kiss the hell out of her.

As they arrived onboard the USS Saratoga, the newly-established five-eight retreated to their quarters to await their orders from McQueen and Ross. Nathan and Meg had just inspected their lockers when McQueen limped in. The determined look on his face, telling them far more than any words.

"Listen up!" he announced and gave every one of them a curt nod. "The window to 2063-Yankee will only be open for forty-five mikes tomorrow, Cdr. Ross will sent out the four-six for cover and bait, but as soon as we are in the vicinity of the planet, we are on our own!" he said matter-of-factly.

The Wild Cards looked at each other, then directed their gazes in unison to the Colonel again.

"Hawkes and Chambers, your callnames will be Spades and your Hammerheads will be covering the ISSCV. In case of an attack you have to shoot down as many Chigs as possible because we don't have a regular bord-sniper." He directed his gaze towards Nathan.

"West and I are the Aces, as soon as we have landed on the planet, about three klicks away from the alleged POW camp, you and I will advance from the Southwest, whereas Chambers and Hawkes land in the north and advance from there."

The young Marines nodded. They had gone through the attack plans more than once and they knew them by heart now.

"Any questions?" McQueen inquired not expecting any questions.

"Sir, no, Sir!" The Spades answered.

After McQueen had left, the Marines prepared their gear in silence. Everyone haunted by their own thoughts about the impending mission.


Hawkes switched the digital readouts on again, checking his HUD and LIDAR. For several moments he stared at the readouts, then he realised that he had done so over and over again for the passed ten mikes. With a sigh he punched the buttons off again and turned his head over to Chambers' jet. Meg's hood had not been slid down yet and she was arguing with one of the techies.

When the canopy slid finally into place and they were given their thumb's up, Cooper switched the digitals on again, this time for good.

Never before an impending mission he had felt so nervous. It was as if he was slowly going mad, confined to the small space of the cockpit. He felt the deep fear of confined spaces rising in him again and he took a deep breath, reminding him that his head was inside a rebreather flighthelmet.

"Ready?" Meg inquired over the com and Cooper closed his eyes for a moment.

"Ready, Ace'o'Spades!" he answered.

Slowly, the cockpits were lowered into the pits, awaiting their connection to the Hammerheads. As soon as they were connected, both pilots hit the propulsions and they were shot out of the hull of the Saratoga. In a low dive they headed away from the space-craft carrier, decreasing the distance between them and planet Anvil.

"Boss Ross, here Spades. Are on our way to 2063-Y ..." Cooper stated over the com.

"Affirmative, Spades," Ross acknowledged. "Good luck!"

Cooper switched to his own channel, contacting Chambers.

"Arriving at the rendezvous co-ordinates in three-hundred MSKs, Ace'o'Spades!" Cooper said and checked his HUD. "HUD and LIDAR all clear, so far. Friendlies on three, four, seven, eight and ten!"

"Copy, Jack of Spades!" Meg answered, slowing her propulsion to go alongside Cooper's jet. "We should remain CS for the time being. As far as we know the Chigs can turn up any minute."

They had travelled for half an hour, avoiding all skipchatter when another voice was heard over the intercom.

"Spades, here Queen Six," McQueen acknowledged over the com. "Enter Anvil's atmosphere in thirty mikes!"

"Affirmative, Queen Six!" Chambers replied. She turned her head to see the ISSCV on her ten.

McQueen switched off the com-channel to keep CS. He was still not sure if Hawkes and Meg were able to work out their mixed feelings for each other but at the moment he had other things to consider. He slowly turned his head and watched West at his side. The young Lieutenant was concentrating on the displays ahead of him but when he noticed his CO's glance he turned his head slightly.

"I don't like it, Sir. We should have at least encountered a Chig patrol by now..." he said.

"Perhaps they're taking a nap," McQueen replied sarcastically.

Both men laughed at that, but it wasn't a cheerful sound. Their chatter was interrupted by Chambers' voice when she announced:

"Aces, bandits on four, seven and ten! We are going in!"

The Colonel switched on the VR-displays for the bord-sniper and adjusted the VRGs. Squinting his eyes to the virtual reality horizon of the goggles, he looked for a prey to lock on.

The Chig patrol consisted of five fighter jets, immediately engaging on the two Hammerheads and the ISSCV. Hawkes put the propulsion to maximum thrust and criss-crossed between two Chig jets. He banked hard to the left, almost colliding with a third jet who had been tracking him. The LIDAR told him that the remaining two jets had been engaged by Chambers but at the moment he directed his gaze directly to his weapon systems' readout.

He immediately engaged his lasers onto one Chiggy fighter. He strafed the jets' thrusters, hitting the hind fuel tanks with a perfect shot. The jet exploded in in-numerous pieces of scorched metal.

The patrol leader veered around, turning head-on to Cooper and he had a hard time riding in a steep rise to avoid a head-on collision.

"You bloody sucker," he said through clenched teeth. He jinxed hard down again and rolled away, scanning his LIDAR and HUD.

Chambers had locked onto one of the Chig fighters, easing her gloved finger over the trigger of the laserguns. The excitement and anticipation she felt every time she sat in an endo-exo transatmospheric fighter jet released a rush of adrenaline into her body. She felt one with the Hammerhead for the moment, intent on coming down on her prey like an eagle with deadly talons.

Soon the Chigs had been shot down and the Marines resumed their course towards the planet. Shortly, before the Hammerheads and the ISSCV reached the atmosphere of Anvil, the crafts split up.

"Aces, rendezvous at four-four-eight on 1400 hours," McQueen announced over the com. There was a long pause before the Colonel continued: "Watch your six, Queensix out!"

Meg switched off the com and punched the landing co-ordinates into her computer. Since the last time she had been in a Hammerhead, she had improved her skill with it. For months she had read every manual concerning the Hammerhead's controls and now she felt as at home as in her Spittie.

She turned her head to see Hawkes' jet on her ten and she tipped her wings when she noticed that he was looking out for her jet as well. They entered the planet's atmosphere smoothly, without any detection of Chigs which made both pilots edgy.

"Ace, here Jack," Cooper announced over the com as they glided through the highly dangerous atmosphere of Anvil. "Do you copy?"

"Copy, Jack," Meg answered. "Go ahead!"

"It's strange but the last time I got here, uh ... there were more patrols around. This is the planet where they hatch their offspring for crying out loud," Cooper groaned. "Sorry, I think I kinda get paranoid ..."

Chambers understood his feelings, from what she had learned of the classified reports Ross had given her, she had at least expected that they would encounter heavy attacks and defensive lines but there was nothing. Only the odd satellite probes which were so far spaced in orbit that they were not able to pick them as targets.

"Then make that two, Coop. I've got this bad feeling creeping up my back. It's as if they are awaiting us ..."

"Yeah ..." Cooper replied and probed his HUD. "Reaching landing co-ordinates in five mikes!"

"Copy, Coop," Meg said and adjusted her HUD and NAV. She was so engrossed in what she was doing that she nearly missed the readouts on her LIDAR. Two Chig fighter jets were quickly advancing towards Hawkes' and her own co-ordinates.

"Shit, Chambers, look out!" Hawkes yelled over the com and at the last possible moment she jinxed the on-coming jet and missed its laser fire only by inches.

Megan clenched her teeth when the Hammerhead rocked under the impact of another canon of bursts. She hit the thrusters hard, forcing the jet into a steep rise. She grimaced as the force of several Gs threw her back into her seat and she propelled the jet towards space again.

The databars were all flashing red lights at her and a computer-voice announced: WARNING: THRUSTER CONTROL MALFUNCTIONING! HULL INTEGRITY DOWN! AUTO-OVERRIDE IN FIVE SECONDS!

She angrily punched the off-button and the databar flickered into darkness and the voice ended abruptly. She had almost reached the stratosphere of the planet when the Alien fighter had caught up with her and the LIDAR acknowledged that he had locked on.

"Not if I can help it," Chambers murmured and killed the thrusters, letting the jet drop down towards the ground head-on as the natural gravity of the planet caught the jet. The Chig fighter who had been trailing her from behind almost collided with her as she dropped down on him and when he tried to jinx she got the target lock on and with a mocking salute, she engaged the laserguns on him.

Cooper had watched after he had taken out the remaining jet and he shook his head angrily as he noticed her dare-devil manoeuvre.

"Shit, Chambers, you're not a kamikaze!" Cooper shouted, barely hiding the fear in his voice. "If ya do that shit again I gonna kill ya!"

"Oh-uh ..." Meg mumbled over the com, concentrating on her HUD. She had switched the databars back on, but the flashing lights commenced.

WARNING: THRUSTER CONTROLS MALFUNCTIONING!

"Shit!" Chambers exclaimed and almost ripped the flight-stick out of the panel. She desperately tried to force the jet back into a level position to the ground but as the swamps of planet 2063-Yankee gradually filled the window of her hood, she knew she had just one chance to get out of the Hammerhead alive.

"Coop, have to get out with the standard emergency exit. Repeat: Engaging STANDARD emergency exit!"

She let go of the stick and securing her rucksack firmly to her chute harness, making sure in her haste that nothing would entangle the strips, she engaged the emergency button.

"NO!" Cooper yelled and witnessed as the canopy of her Hammerhead was blown away and she was shot out of the cockpit.


Chapter Nine

Anvil

McQueen and West landed the ISSCV on the designated co-ordinates and prepared their gear. As West picked up the additional rucksack containing rebreather helmets and masks he exchanged a glance with McQueen.

The Colonel seemed concentrated on the task of slipping another rucksack containing the additional O2 supply onto his shoulders but when he noticed the weary glance, he looked up.

"Everything ok.?" McQueen asked and West slowly nodded.

"Yes, Sir," he answered and handed him his rifle. As Nathan turned away to open the hatch, McQueen held him back with one hand.

"West," he said and after the young Marine had turned around to face him, he gave him one of his rare half-smiles. "It's all right to be scared," the Colonel said slowly. Nathan swallowed and nodded.

"I know, Sir. But it's not that I'm afraid to die, I'm afraid of what we find once we've reached that bunker ..."

McQueen nodded his head. He had seen too many atrocities back in the AI-wars not to fear what happened if they encountered the POWs. He squeezed the young man's shoulder reassuringly.

"Let's go!" McQueen said and both Marines left the transporter.

Slowly, the two Marines made their way through the swamps, careful to avoid any Aliens patrolling the countryside after they had camouflaged the transporter. After half an hour of continuous hiking, McQueen gestured West to duck for cover.

Nathan edged his way to the Colonel, slithering through the water. When he had reached McQueen, both men watched as a Chig patrol scanned the area. Through the fog of the swamps, the Aliens looked even more dangerous and archaic than usual. McQueen counted five Chigs, two of them carrying the dangerous photon blaster rifles whereas the remaining three only carried their scythes.

"They seem to look for something," West whispered and McQueen nodded his head.

"I just hope, they find what ever they are looking for soon," McQueen retorted, slowly adjusting his M-590, he had locked onto the nearest Chig with the TS when a sixth Chig came forward, gesturing wildly.

"What is it?" Nathan asked.

"They have probably found something," the Colonel murmured. Through the TS of his rifle, he could see that the Chigs were examining a piece of cloth. As far as he could see it was a torn piece of a standard-issue USAF flightsuit.

"Shit," he exclaimed underneath his breath.

"Sir?" Nathan asked and crept nearer.

"Either they've found the missing Marines or one of our Spades ..." McQueen answered sternly and Nathan shuddered when he saw his eyes. Besides the usual 'thousand yard stare', the young Marine saw the cold fire of bloodthirst in his eyes. Before Nathan could recover, McQueen had jumped to his feet and took the Chigs under fire. Nathan knew that IVs were quick, he had seen Cooper more than once reacting in a split second but McQueen ...

Hell, this man was a quick killer, Nathan thought before engaging his rifle as well.


When the Chigs brought me back to the cell, I heard screaming from one of the other cells. Although I had a hard time, knowing what the silicates did to the other POW I was somewhat relieved that I was not alone. That there was someone out there ...

They didn't come for me again ... Something is going on. I remembered something last night ... or was it day? I wish I could see if it was day or night. I remembered about a poker game ... It was dark and we played poker ... I remembered the faces again .... Nathan and Cooper ... and the names Wang ...Vansen ... Damphousse ... Why are those names important to me? Why do I think that they are part of me, of what I am?

And something else crossed my mind. I was part of the Wild Cards once, whatever that means. The AIs keep telling me that I should give in, but I won't, I can't. Not again! Never again!

Why am I so determined to withstand them? I got this feeling that I've gone through something like this before and everyday one small piece of the puzzle falls into place, I just don't know if I can stay alive long enough to finally realise who I am ...


Keep breathing. Keep breathing, you stupid bitch, Chambers reminded herself over and over again as her parachute opened and yanked her up again. Taking in great gulps of air inside her helmet she tried to fight the sudden dizziness she was experiencing. Falling at a current rate of twenty feet per second due to the low-oxygen atmosphere, she could count herself lucky that she had not passed out. When she heard the soft throb of propulsion engines above her head she looked up and saw Hawkes' Hammerhead giving her a wide berth.

"Ace, do you copy?" the com crackled into life and Megan slowly raised her hand to turn up the volume on her helmet.

"Copy, Jack. I hear you loud and clear!" she replied.

"Ace'o'Spades, about two klicks to your pos on forty-seven degrees left there's a clearing. Try to go down there. Repeat: forty-seven left to your pos," Cooper said, forcing his voice to a non-committal tone. But despite his try to sound all business Meg could hear the fear in his voice.

"Affirm, Jack. Forty-seven to current pos," Megan acknowledged. She grabbed the strings of the parachute and tried guiding herself towards the co-ordinates.

The falling rate increased and when she could see the first trees below her, she knew that the impact would hurt. Working like a functional automaton, Megan raised her knees to her chest, preparing herself to make a good schoolbook downer. But as she could make out the ground below her better, she thought that was not such a good idea after all. For all she knew that swamp down there could be a quagmire and she didn't want to risk drowning.

"As if I'm not mucksweating all along," she whispered as she prepared herself for the impact. She hit the ground feet first, almost spraining her ankle on a protruding root but she caught herself before she fell head-on into the mud.

"Great, just what I need, a good, soaking mud-bath in the middle of a black Op," she chided herself as she unclipped the ruck-sack and rifle. After she had unclipped the harness and despotised the chute, shoving it under a nearby tree, she shouldered her back-pack and checked her weapon.

"What are ya drivelling about?" Cooper asked over the com and Meg closed her eyes for a moment. "Get your ass over here so we can get on with the Op. With your stupid stunt we lost a helluva lot of time ..."

"Give me a break, will you?" Chambers asked through clenched teeth. "Do you think I'm stupid enough to pull such a stunt on purpose? I'm not a bloody tank!"

"That could be questioned, Chambers. After all your father sure is!" Hawkes retorted to her challenge and Megan had to laugh despite herself. Over the passed days, Hawkes had begun to treat her with an air of superiority and he had tried to do his best to ignore her. But she had known better for she had caught his eyes on her every time she had happened to look at him.

"Whadda ya know," she said in an exaggerated drawl. "I sure ain't forgetting when you keep reminding me!"

"Would you stop babbling and advance to my pos?" Cooper suddenly asked with an exaggerated sigh and for a moment Meg could figure him as a CO himself in a few years time.

"Don't push a Royal Air Force Squadron Leader, Lieutenant!" she growled and switched on her digital compass. She could make out Cooper's PLB just a few hundreds away from her and quickly, she made her way towards him.


Hawkes had landed his Hammerhead according to USMC manuals and after he had booby-trapped the jet, he staked out the immediate area. He heard Chambers even before she came into sight and he asked himself what she had learned about black Ops during boot camp.

"You sure skipped 'stealth' during your HIST," he greeted her, his voice dripping with sarcasm, as she came forward between two large trees. Megan rolled her eyes to the tree tops and sighed.

"Cut it out, Hawkes. You're talking standard-issue US Marine Corps HIST here. I've only got a RAF HIST where I learned to be a jet-jockey ..."

She checked the compass again but when Cooper did not give a retort, she looked up. Cooper was standing right in front of her.

"You scared the shit out of me, Meg," Cooper said hoarsely. "And I swear to you if you do anything like that kamikaze stunt again, I gonna kick your ass. VC or not ..." He was so flustered about what had happened that he almost reached out to kiss her, but then he remembered that they both were wearing rebreathers and not on speaking terms with each other. Megan had to grin despite herself. This idiot really cared, she thought. Perhaps she wasn't on a lost cause crusade after all.

"What's so funny, uh?" he asked gruffly.

"You sure make a woman feel cared for ..." she retorted and grinned. Cooper just stood there, watching her.

Yeah, he cared, so what? he asked himself, not sure why she had reacted to his yelling and ranting in such an unusual way. After all why shouldn't he care? She had scared the living daylights out of him when he saw her engaging the emergency exit. The Marine shook his head and turned away but Meg's laughter still followed him.

This woman can drive a man nuts with her teasing, he thought. His first intention had been to throttle her as soon as he could get his hands on her, but when she had stepped out of these trees, seemingly unscathed, he had been relieved. Cooper looked up from the SRR and squinted his eyes. The initial terror of almost loosing Chambers and his urge to break her neck for scaring him so much had worn off and as he looked over to Chambers who was standing a few yards away from him, he imagined doing different 'stuff' to her, like kissing.

Oh, boy, he thought; you're sick, pal, you're really sick. What you need is a vacation. He almost laughed.

Right; that's what got me into this in the first place.

The SRR showed no enemy movement in the immediate area and he let out a sigh. Chambers had heard it over the com and her head jerked up abruptly.

"What is it?" she asked over their com-channel and Cooper shrugged his shoulders.

"No enemy movements so far!" he answered according to the rules. He had to smile at that. When Shane had been his CO, he had deliberately unnerved her with his off the book remarks.

He changed the SRR channel to detect the PLBs of the rest of the five-eight. He picked up Nathan's and McQueen's signs about one and a half klicks to the Southwest, slowly advancing towards their point.

"We should move on," Coop said and switching the SRR off, he handed it over to Megan. Picking up his M-590, loading it without giving the rifle another look, he waited until Chambers had joined him. Slowly, they advanced onto the co-ordinates of the bunker. Over the passed fifteen mikes, Megan had been able to detect several PLBs coming from the bunker, but either the atmospheric disturbances or some material in the walls of the bunker prevented him from getting definite readings.

Steadily, they moved to the bunker co-ordinates, their boots squelching in the mud of the swamps they were crossing, making every step they took difficult. Cooper had just helped Meg out of what looked like a small baby quagmire when they both saw the disabled ISSCV-cockpit. Both pilots rushed forward, crashing through the calf-high water as they approached the cockpit.

Hawkes eased the hatch open carefully with Megan covering him from across his position.

"Calling card?" she inquired but Hawkes shook his head no.

"Cover me ..." he simply said and swung himself over the rail into the cockpit. The cockpit was empty, only the faint light of the databars glowing in the darkness. After he had checked the readouts, he switched them off and looked around. The distress beacon had not been engaged and he could not find any clues about the whereabouts of Shane and 'Phousse.

Megan had circled the cockpit and when she stood on the far side of it, she detected something lying on the ground. She had almost stepped on it and when she squatted down and examined the carefully cleared rock beneath her feet, she held her breath.

"Coop?" Megan asked over the com. "I think I've found something ..."

Hawkes rushed out of the cockpit and immediately was at her side. When Megan pointed her hand towards the rock on the ground he drew in his breath. Someone had carefully cleaned the rock, making sure that the flat surface was dry. On top of it lay a shattered piece of the cockpit's window.

"Shane and 'Phousse?" Megan asked and held up a small torch light. Cooper nodded and directed her hand towards the glass. Beneath it lay a ripped off five-eight squadron patch and a small packet of sugar.

At least Shane survived the crash, he thought and had to smile despite himself. He hadn't known that Vansen still stashed sugar, harking back to their distressing stay on Demios.

"They are alive ..." Megan whispered and put a hand on Cooper's shoulder. She watched as he picked up both and tucked them in one of his breastpockets beneath his armour.

"McQueen has to see this ..." he said and stood up. Together they made their way towards the bunker.


Chapter Ten

Anvil

The screams ... they keep on and on and on. Last time I heard something like that I was screaming ... but those aren't my screams now. It's not my flesh that is being tortured ... The silicates have brought me some food and I can hear someone just across the corridor. There's another cell with people in it. I could hear them speaking ... a man and a woman ... But now everything is silent ...

Perhaps they have just given up ... but I won't. I know it is important! I will never give up on me again ...


T.C. McQueen cocked his rifle to the ground and let out a sigh of relief. For twenty, long-lasting minutes he and West had waited for their crew-mates to arrive and he had to fight the urge to give up on them. Ever since they had encountered the Chig patrol he had thought that they were dead. Or that they had somehow managed to kill each other in one of their unnecessary hustles. He watched as Chambers and Hawkes crossed the wide clearing, keeping close to the shadows of the trees.

"Thank God," he heard West whispering beside him and McQueen shot him a stern glance.

"What did you expect, West, they are Marines!"

West was about to point out that Chambers wasn't exactly a Marine but he held his tongue. Ever since McQueen had taken out the Chig patrol almost single-handedly, he had been wary, almost afraid of the Colonel. But then again the young man knew what In-Vitroes were capable of. Cooper had proven that again and again on many ground Ops.

Immediately, after Chambers and Hawkes had reached the Colonel and West, Cooper showed them about what they had found. McQueen was silent after that and the Marines waited.

He felt relieved that at least one of the Marines had made it safely to the planet's surface and yet he feared what the Chigs had done to the Marine when they had found either Vansen or Damphousse.

Or both, he added to himself. Perhaps they had made it out here alive and perhaps they were hiding somewhere, though that was out of the question. Their O2 supply would have run out by now.

"Alright, we're going in, "McQueen said and checked his rifle. "Chambers and Hawkes, you're team B, West and I are team A. As soon as we're in the bunker, we split up. SAR estimates that there are two corridors running along each side of the bunker connected through air vents. They also think that there is enough O2 inside, so save your supplies and take off the rebreathers. We comb the area for the MIAs and as soon as we have them we gonna get out, understood?"

Each Marine nodded solemnly and they all checked their gear again.

"Sir, perhaps West and I should team up," Hawkes said suddenly and three pairs of eyes watched him.

"You got a problem with Chambers, Lieutenant?" the Colonel asked in a cold voice, challenging him.

Yeah, I got a problem with keeping my hands off her, Cooper thought but he remained silent and shook his head.

"Sir, no, Sir!" he replied.

<"Alright, one more thing: save your last bullet if you encounter silicates ..." McQueen watched each of the pilots closely as they nodded gloomily.


Careful, not to draw any attention to the patrolling Chigs, they made their way to a side-entrance of the bunker. The structure was almost hidden behind great trees, obscuring the view even more with hanging lichens. Two Chigs were standing at the side-entrance and McQueen gestured towards Hawkes and West. He pointed towards the two guards then at both men and the Marines edged forward slowly. Silently, both Marines crept up behind the Chigs and took them out without a sound. West cleaned his K-bar on his battle suit and watched Hawkes. The IV had attacked the Chig without a weapon, killing him with his bare hands.

For a moment Nathan squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. After all those months being friends with Hawkes he still had to come to terms with the fact that the In-Vitro was a genetically created killer. He shrugged off the bad feeling creeping up his back and gave the sign for all clear to the Colonel and Chambers.

After they had entered the bunker, the teams split up and West followed McQueen through the dimly lit corridor. Communicating only with signs and gestures they methodically searched the air vents and doors leading off from the corridor. West wondered why the place looked so deserted when his thoughts were disturbed by screams coming from further down the corridor. McQueen stopped dead still and Nathan almost barged into the Colonel from behind.

"It's almost over," the Colonel said and turned towards Nathan. "If someone screams like that it's not going to take long anymore before they break down ..."

Nathan shivered at the cold, matter-of-factly voice but he knew that his CO talked from experience.

Slowly, they advanced towards the open room where the screams were coming from and from what the Marines were able to detect from their hide-out, two silicates were standing around a stretcher in the middle of the room.

"I don't want to hurt you, Marine ..." Elroy's voice drooled and Nathan felt his hairs stand on his neck.

"Just tell me what you know and all will be fine. Did you want to destroy the Alien's hatches? It isn't very humane to destroy a whole race in infancy, you know ..."

"I don't know what you mean ..." the prisoner said.

McQueen's head snapped up and he exchanged a glance with Nathan.

They had both recognized the voice.

"'Phousse ..." Nathan whispered and McQueen nodded.

"Let's get her out of here!"


There is a commotion outside, I can hear them coming. But it doesn't sound as if they are silicates ... Yesterday I had a strange dream. Images floated by and I couldn't make hand or foot of it. But I remembered some faces again and at least I could name them. Vanessa Damphousse ... yes, and Nathan West, with his phototag around his neck, and Cooper, the big tank. But I still can't figure out why I'm here or what the other names and faces mean that keep coming up in my mind.

But it doesn't matter at the moment. What matters more is that I was not tortured for at least two days as far as I could estimate. A Chig came in yesterday or the day before, and tended to my wounds. Why did he or it do this? The Chigs are my enemies ... and yet one of them helped me.

Why? - They 're coming, I can hear their voices ...


Hawkes looked back over his shoulder and watched as Chambers advanced to his position on the far side of the corridor. When she had reached his point, she nodded and Hawkes pried open the door. Rifle ready, she rushed into the room beyond. Megan stopped dead-still in her track when she had reached the prisoner. In shock she stared at the Marine.

Lord, she thought, as she slowly went over to the prisoner. That cannot be! When Cooper heard no sound coming from the cell, he cocked his head into it.

"Chambers?" he asked. "You alright?"

"Yes, Coop, but I need your help," he heard Chambers say.

Megan was squatting in one corner of the small confinement. When he advanced into the cell he could see that she was kneeling in front of something which looked like a pile of clothes. When he came to a halt beside her, he was able to see that the clothes moved and a smudged face appeared from inside of them.

"Jeez," Cooper exclaimed and slid off the back-pack. He almost couldn't believe his eyes. He shot Meg a glance and he could see that she was as shocked as himself.

Megan closed her eyes for a moment, then she slowly reached out a hand but stopped immediately when the Marine flinched at that.

"Shh, it's alright. It's me, Meg Chambers and this is Cooper ... We don't want to hurt you," Meg said. "We are your friends ... Don't you remember?"

The Marine looked at them and then suddenly a faint smile of recognition appeared on his face.

"Yeah, I know you ..." he whispered. "You're the Cards ..." The Marine closed his eyes and tears streaked his cheeks. Then he took Cooper and Megan into a tight embrace and laughed and cried at the same time.

"I remember ... everything ... I'm Joker ... GOD, I know who I AM. I'm Lieutenant Paul WANG, 58th squadron, US Marine Corps ..."


Chapter Eleven

Vansen sat with her back against the wall, facing the door. Ever since they had taken Vanessa away again she had made plans to escape. She had to get out of here, no matter what. She pushed herself to her feet and groaned when her leg gave way beneath her. Slowly, she limped over to the door, examining it closely. When she pulled at the handle she was surprised that it gave way towards her.

It could be trap, she thought but eased the door slowly open nevertheless. The corridor outside was only dimly lit and when she cocked her head around the doorframe she couldn't see anyone.

"Do or die," she whispered to herself and slipped out of the cell, not noticing the Chig who stood hidden in one of the ventilation ducts.

When the Marine disappeared into the opposite direction, the Chig stepped out of the shadow and walked over to the cell. Quickly, his hands engaged the closing-mechanism and deleted his access code to the panel. The last time when he had seen the red stinkers in this cell, he had been surprised that they didn't turn on each other. His race didn't know and understand the concept of compassion and yet he had felt something like that when he had watched the humans as they had looked after each other. He had even rescued one of them when one of the Elroy units had tortured him and now, he had even helped one of them escape.

The Alien shook his head at this. His superiors had told him and all the others from his hatch that the red stinkers were their mortal enemies and that they would kill everything, even their own race, to win this war. But everything he had been able to detect about the red stinks seemed to be opposed to the things the silicates had told them. It was not common to have these doubts, there were rumours spreading throughout the hatches that some who had asked had been erased and their tags destroyed. If one of his superiors found out about what he had done, he would be erased as well but at the moment he didn't care. All he could think of was that a race, albeit smelling unbearably, must not be that bad if they cared for their living and their dead.


Careful not to draw the attention of the silicate, McQueen slipped into the interrogation room. The room was empty besides the stretcher and a communication panel. The Colonel stared mesmerised at the scene and somewhere deep down inside of him the beast which had been created back at the mines of Omicron Draconis slowly, but definitely emerged from the abyss of his soul. With a feral sound escaping his lips, he threw himself onto the silicate, K-bar glistening dangerously in the brilliant light of the room. All his fury was released as he engaged the silicate, his anger ruling his body as the knife slashed through processors and interfaces, seeking the one thing that destroyed the AI's existence. The Elroy-unit tried to ward off the furious blows but it was to no avail, soon the silicate lay dismembered on the floor.

After all was finished, McQueen turned around and looked for other attackers with a crazed look. He went towards the still figure lying on the stretcher and Nathan, who had come in behind the CO held his breath for a moment, readying his rifle. It seemed as if the Colonel wanted to kill Damphousse as well, a hard look in his eyes, but then the young Marine was relieved to see that he tucked the K-bar back into its sheath and released the metal-clamps around the young woman's wrists and legs.

"Hey," McQueen exclaimed hoarsely when Vanessa Damphousse threw her arms around the Colonel and awkwardly, he petted her back. He still suffered the aftershocks of the killing and he did not trust himself to be gentle now. He pushed the woman slightly away from him and lowered his lids. "Thank me later, Damphousse. Now is not the time nor the place!"

The young woman gave him a crooked smile and nodded.

"Sir, yes, Sir!" she replied and with West's help she swung her legs to the ground and stood up. "Vansen is in the third cell to the right ..." Her legs buckled underneath her and Nathan grabbed her around her hip and straightened her.

"Keep it easy and slow, 'Phousse," he said and Vanessa smiled shyly at him. It was the most beautiful smile, Nathan had ever seen and he was relieved that despite what the silicates had done to her she had not lost her sense of humour. Half dragging, half carrying her, Nathan followed McQueen out of the interrogation room and according to Vanessa's directions they went to the cell where Shane was kept.

McQueen cocked his head around a corner to the corridor where the cell was situated. Three Chigs were standing at the far side of it and from what he was able to detect, all three of them were carrying photon-blasters. The Colonel turned back to West and Damphousse and he was relieved that the young woman had regained some of her strength again. Although she still needed West's help to keep herself upright, she had taken his gun and looked more like a Marine again than the defeated POW from five minutes ago.

"That's the situation. Three Chigs are standing just in front of the cell. We've to use smart grenades to take them out ..." Both Marines nodded at that and West slowly unclipped two grenades from his belt.

Nathan crept forward after he had made sure that the Colonel and Damphousse had hid in one of the air vents, he edged towards the corner of the corridor. After he had made sure that the Chigs were standing within a yard of each other he sent one of the grenades flying.

He was almost urged to watch as the grenade hit them but he ducked his head beneath his arms as he threw himself onto the hard ground.

The boom of the explosion reverberated through the corridors of the bunker and after the noise had died down, Nathan looked up. The Chigs had been hid by the full force of the grenade and for a moment he felt the bilge rise in his throat as he saw the dissected body parts, oozing green slime from every crevice. Quickly, the Marines rushed over to the door of the cell and opened it. The cell was empty and for a moment Nathan closed his eyes.

"But she was here, Sir ..." Vanessa whispered and turned towards the Colonel. McQueen checked the small confinement than gave the sign to further their search.


After Cooper had examined Paul's wounds and tended to them, he hauled the young Marine over his shoulder and they made their way to their meeting point. Megan checked her com and after she had established a secured line, she contacted team A.

"Team A, here team B. Roger?!"

"Team B, Queen Six here. Have retrieved Damphousse, repeat have retrieved Damphousse..." McQueen announced over the com and Cooper who had adjusted his mike mouthed 'hoo-rah', even Paul murmured a sigh of relief.

"Roger that, Queen Six. We've retrieved Wang as well ..."

There was a momentary silence over the com before McQueen's voice was heard again, together with two other very excited Marines all shooting questions at Chambers.

"Repeat: you found Wang?" McQueen asked, his voice heavy with emotion.

"Affirmative. Wang is safe and sound!"

After that the skipchatter died down and the search for other POWs continued. Megan raised her hand when they had come to another corridor leading to the north side of the building and Cooper put Wang onto the floor.

"What is it?" Cooper asked and Megan switched on the SRR.

"I'm picking up two more PLBs and various CPU signs. Straight ahead there have to be about six, no, eight silicates," she said and disconnected the SRR. "There are too many, I don't think we can take them out with ..." she shot a glance towards Wang whose head had wearily lolled back against the metal wall behind him. Cooper followed her gaze and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.

"Meg, we can't leave either the pilots or Wang here ..." he whispered and Megan lowered her lids.

"I know, Coop. I'm just thinking about getting the hell out of here in one piece," she rubbed the bridge of her nose wearily. "I tell you what we do. You get Wang back to McQueen and the others and I try to stall those silicates as long as it takes, alright?"

Cooper stared at her, then shook his head.

"That's suicide, Meg, and you know that," he hissed angrily. "You're not a Marine, you told me that once too often!"

"There is no other choice, Coop. I can't carry Paul, he's far too heavy for me, besides he's in no fit condition to walk by himself with these burns on his legs. If we all backtrack now, those bastards will probably kill the pilots ..."

Cooper remained silent for long moments, then he slowly nodded. It was against his better judgement to leave Megan but what could they do? He knew she was right. But he didn't want to loose her.

"O.k.," he said and checked his ammo strips before he handed her three more strips. "Kill those bastards!"

Megan nodded and stashed the strips into one of the breast pockets of her battle suit. When she looked up again, Cooper was still squatting in front of her. Suddenly, he made a grab at her, encircling her neck with his broad palm and kissed her brutally, desperately.

"Don't you dare die before we get that stuff worked out, Chambers," he growled and let go of her. Together with Wang he made his way quickly back to McQueen and the others. Chambers watched him go and for a moment she wanted to call out after him, but she remained silent. She had a task to perform and she was determined to succeed.


When Hawkes returned to the designated co-ordinates McQueen had given them, the others were in a dogfight with a Chig patrol and silicates. In the midst of the battle the Marines did not realise that one of them was missing but when they had taken out the attackers with smart grenades, making sure that no enforcement were coming, McQueen took a long look at his Marines.

"Chambers?" he asked wearily and Cooper reloaded his M-590.

"We split up. She is looking for the remaining pilots," he said matter of factly but it was clear to them all that he was scared for her. Nathan shot him a glance then shifted uncomfortably. He and Vanessa exchanged a look with each other, then Damphousse stood up.

"I'll carry Wang back to the ISSCV, then West can accompany Hawkes, Sir," she said sternly.

Paul who had remained silent until then shook his head and tried to scramble to his feet.

"No need to carry me, 'Phousse. I'll manage, just give me a helping hand now and then," he said. All eyes watched him wearily and the young Marine returned their gazes with an almost stubborn look.

McQueen watched his determined face then nodded.

"Alright! You have thirty mikes to find Chambers. If you don't turn up at the ISSCV on 2100 hours we're out of here," he checked his watch and West and Hawkes did as well. "It's 1930 sharp. Ready, ready, hack!"

Both Marines stood up and made their way back to Chambers' position.

McQueen watched them until they disappeared behind a bend of the corridor.

He closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed them wearily. He knew that some of them might die but unconsciously, he had thought that it would be him, not any of his Marines. If he had been a religious man, now would be a good time to start praying but he couldn't.

"Sir?" Damphousse inquired and McQueen's head snapped up.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"They'll find Chambers and Vansen, I know it." She said reassuringly and he nodded his head but still he had doubts.


Chapter Twelve

Photonblaster fire exploded right behind Chambers and she threw herself onto the ground, her rifle ready. The young Squadron Leader could feel the heat of the fire grazing her back and legs and she bit her lips to suppress the pain. The silicates had hidden themselves behind an open cell door while the Chigs just kept alongside the walls, raining her with fire.

She gazed through the TS of the M-590 and took the attackers under fire, making sure that she killed or disabled the enemy with one shot. She was pretty low on ammunition as it was and she could not waste any. The fire died down all of a sudden and she crept forward on all fours.

"Hey, Carbon-shit!" the voice of a silicate sounded through the silence. "You try to take us and your buddies here die, understood?"

"Hiding behind the skirts of POWs, silicate?" Megan yelled. "Why don't you come out and we both settle this matter alone! Or are you frightened to fight face to face with a RAF officer ?"

"Those POWs are US Marines, RAF OFFICER. They're none of your business ..."

"Just shut the fuck up, silicate, and come out! I'm here for business, not idle chatter!" Megan shouted and took aim through the telescopic sight. She saw movement in the shadows of the door but try as she might she couldn't get a clear target.

"You should watch your manners, Carbonite," the silicate said. The voice sounded farther away now and Megan cursed beneath her breath.

Slowly, she raised to her feet and advanced towards the door.

When she had reached it within a few yards, she saw that one of the persons lying on the ground was wearing a standard flightsuit.

"Help me," the man whispered and turned his head slightly towards Meg. "Help me die!"

Megan had come closer and she pulled the man out of the way.

"No, you will not die!" she rasped and slipped off her back-pack. She rummaged through it until she found the first aide kit and after a look onto his name tag, she said: "You just keep breathing, Patterson. Alright?"

The USAF pilot shook his head slightly and flinched, when Megan ripped open the flightsuit and took a look at the stomach wound. To her relief it was not a bullet wound, one of the Chigs must have stabbed him with a scythe. While she worked to stop the bleeding, Patterson groaned and tried to edge away from her hands.

"They have Carlson ..." he said and grabbed Megan's arm. "You've got to get her. I doubt she'll hold herself together any longer. She needs more help than I do ..."

"First of all I will get you fixed up and then I'll get Carlson," Meg reassured him and continued dressing the stab-wound. It was a poor job, she knew this but for the time being it had to suffice. She was glad that Patterson had passed out again and she put the aide kit back into her ruck-sack, when her com crackled into life.

"Chambers, do you copy?" Nathan asked and Megan readjusted the mike to her mouth.

"Yes, West, I can hear you," she answered. "There are at least two more POWs. I've found Cpt. Patterson, he is severely wounded and needs medical help ASAP. Another POW is named Carlson, the silicates have taken her with them."

"Roger that, we are on our way. Just sit tight until we meet you!" Nathan said.

"Negative, West. The silicates already have an advantage, I'm going after them!"

"Don't be so stubborn, Meg!" Cooper growled over the com. "You don't have to prove anything to either McQueen or yourself. Just stay put, understood?"

"Since when do you give orders, Lieutenant? I'm going after them, end of discussion!" she switched the com off and raised to her feet. After she had made sure that Patterson would be alright, she headed into the direction the silicates had disappeared.

She could hear them before she caught sight of the silicates and the POW. They had reached a second exit and the Felicity-unit was quickly working on the air locks.

"Shit," Chambers exclaimed beneath her breath and hid in the deep shadows of an air vent. If the silicates opened the air lock she was done for. Meg had left the helmet with Patterson to make sure she wasn't hindered or slowed down by anything. Now she wished, she had taken it with her.

Now what? she asked herself and rubbed her temples wearily. She checked her ammo strips and she had seven bullets left. If she aimed correctly, she should be able to use one bullet each to take out the three silicates.

IF she was able to hit and kill the silicates first time around, that was! Being in a Hammerhead or a Spittie it wouldn't have been a problem at all but here ... Since boot camp she had been a lousy marksman with a rifle and even now, almost seven years after she had first joined the RAF Corps, she still wasn't a good shot with handguns.

But time was running out. She had to act now or the silicates would get away with the POW and she would die due to the oxygen loss.

Carefully she took aim, suppressing the quiver of her hands and arms as she raised the rifle. The second code for the air lock was punched into the panel and the system gave off a soft beep. Suddenly, a Chig appeared from an adjoining corridor and Megan reacted purely on instinct. Taking out Felicity first she gunned them down, using almost all of her rounds. One of the silicates, Justin, hid behind Carlson and rained Megan with gunfire.

Suddenly, she saw a movement on the fringe of her perception and when she ducked her head slightly, she saw someone creeping up from one of the ventilation ducts on her left.

"Get the hell over here, Chambers!" Shane Vansen called and Megan started to rise. She was halfway across the corridor when she saw another Chig coming up behind the Marine.

"Vansen, duck!" she yelled and threw herself unto the attacker. Shane Vansen flung herself unto the floor, trying to get hold of the M-590 Megan had dropped. Checking it she realised that there were only two bullets left and she cursed. She aimed at the AI and with one perfect shot in the head she took him out. When she turned she saw that Megan was in a hand to hand fight with the Chig.

Too late, Chambers duck for cover and soaring pain shot through the left side of her torso as the scythe hit her. She cried out in pain and rolled over on the ground, the K-bar sliding across the metal floor. She tried to grab her gun from the hipholster but her left arm was paralysed. She yelled out frustrated and used her right hand to get to the gun. A shadow fell onto her and when her head snapped up, she looked straight into the metal mask of a Chig. Scythe in hand, he towered over her and Megan inhaled deeply.

"Come on, Chiggy, do it," she rasped, blinking away the dizziness.

This is it then, do or die. But she wasn't afraid, she felt cool, calm and collected. The Chig raised the scythe and Megan braced herself as the blade came rushing down towards her in a perfect, blazing arch.


As soon as they had left the bunker, they ran into Chigs and silicates. McQueen and Damphousse engaged fire on them, while Wang threw the rest of their smart grenades. When all was over, Paul trotted over to one of the AIs, it was an Elroy model, still functioning.

"Paul ..." Vanessa said but broke off when McQueen touched her arm and shook his head no. As the young Marine knelt down awkwardly and grabbed the silicates head, the 'Cards held their collective breath.

"Wang, Paul," the machine said in an unnerving soft tone and gazed up at the man. "How can you do this? We told you that we did not intend any harm, we're your friends ..."

Relentlessly, Paul drove a K-bar into the silicates' head and shoulders, twisting the blade around once, twice, three times and more.

"You wanna have some more, AI?" he shouted and let go of the dismembered Elroy-model. Aching all over his body he managed to get onto his feet again. They had played around with his mind but this time he had been prepared. He had not given in to their coaxing, he had remained strong. When he looked up, he saw his friends and CO still staring at him and he gave McQueen the knife hilt first.

McQueen took it and nodded, he knew what Paul must have gone through and as the young man passed him and stumbled, he caught him around the shoulders and they made their way to the ISCCV.

There weren't too many patrols around after that and McQueen wondered for the umpteenth time why the Chigs had no reinforcements on this planet. He couldn't understand that these Aliens did not protect the lairs with their unborns better.


Shane took aim and sent the last bullet on its way, the head of the Chig almost ripped apart under the impact. Gas escaped in a furious hiss from the downed Chig, blinding Shane and Megan for a moment. When all was over the two women exchanged a look and Shane answered Meg's crooked grin despite herself. They were both covered in green ooze and blood and after Shane had pulled the Chig off Chambers she exhaled softly, blood was pooling around her slowly.

"How bad?" Meg asked in a whisper and Shane shook her head slowly.

"Bad ..." the young woman answered and quickly stashed some gauze from the medikit onto the bleeding and when she wanted to give her a shot of painkillers, Megan cringed away.

"Don't be such a sissy, Chambers," Shane coaxed. "You don't want to tell me you're afraid of syringes, do you?"

"The meanies ... make sure there's no phyllophetamine in it!"

Shane understood immediately and checked the tag on the syringe, after she had made sure that it wasn't an addictive drug she gave Megan the painkiller. Soon, Megan could feel that the pain slowly subsided and she drew herself into a sitting position.

"That was close," Megan said, hugging herself and Shane watched her.

"What are you doing here anyway, Meg? Did you go AWOL again on one of your private crusades?"

Megan had to laugh at this.

"Believe it or not, Shane, I'm actually on R&R. McQueen, Nathan and Coop are here as well," Meg answered and shifted uncomfortably to raise to her feet. Shane bent over her and helped her up.

"Come on, girl, we've to get out of here!"

Suddenly, a loud blast went off and Shane swung around. Lt. Carlson had grabbed one of the discarded weapons and had shot at ... them. Now the woman was screaming at the top of her lungs and it seemed as if she was loosing her grip.

"Shit, woman, are you mad?" Shane growled and making a grab at her, she kicked the rifle out of her hands.

But the woman avoided the kick and turning on her heels, she headed towards the nearest corridor. Shane flashed Megan a questioning look and after Meg had nodded, Shane grabbed the K-bar and ran after the woman. Megan followed more slowly.

Following the crazed POW down the corridor was more difficult than Shane had expected. Obviously, this woman knew which way to go and which turn to take. The young Marine had just rounded another corner when she spotted the POW with two silicates at the other end of the passage. Shane hid quickly behind the corner and closed her eyes for a moment.

Two against one! she thought. And counting in the woman it looked even worse. Her head snapped up when she heard a noise coming up from behind, and ready to pounce on her alleged attacker she swung around. She exhaled softly when she came face to face with Chambers. The woman's face was pale and the dressing around the middle of her body was drenched in blood again. Somehow Meg had managed to get her gun out of the holster and she was holding it awkwardly in her right hand.

"How are you doing?" Shane whispered, knowing full well that in Megan's condition the woman wouldn't be any help.

"I'll manage as long as I don't have to break an Olympic record," Megan retorted. "Shane, do me a favour and get the safety off," she shoved the gun into Vansen's hand and she did as she was asked.

"Are you sure you can handle the gun with your right hand?" Shane inquired, knowing that Chambers was left-handed.

"Just keep out of the way when I'm firing," Megan said through clenched teeth. She clutched her left arm as pain shot through the left side of her body. "Where's Carlson?"

"At the end of the passage. It seems she's quite friendly with the AIs ..." Shane replied and both women each took a turn at catching a look at the end of the corridor.

"Stockholm syndrome," Meg whispered and Shane looked at her somewhat confused. "She thinks that we're her enemies ..."

Both women took a look again when they heard a door open. They edged slowly closer, always using the shadows of the dimly corridor to advance, they reached the door and the guardroom behind it.


Chapter Thirteen

Hawkes and West almost stumbled over the discarded backpack lying in one of the corridors. Cooper quickly took a look at the items and when he noticed that the rucksack and the floor around it was covered in blood, he cursed loudly.

West looked up from the medikit and both men exchanged a long look.

"It doesn't have to mean anything, Coop," Nathan said softly, trying to reassure himself as much as Cooper. "Probably one of the POWs needed help ..."

"But why didn't she take the backpack with her then?" Hawkes snapped sharply and stood up. Squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, he tried to suppress the image which was rising in his mind.

He saw Meg bleeding to death in some remote corner of the bunker and try as he might he couldn't banish the image out of his mind. Why hadn't he ordered her to stay with Patterson? he asked himself over again. Why hadn't he just told her that he didn't want her to go after the silicates because he was scared for her? Suddenly it became clear to him that he might loose her, that he might never get a chance to tell her that he ... He shook his head and opened his eyes again.

How could he tell her that she was the only one besides the five-eight he would die for? That she was in fact the only one worth living for ...

Cooper glanced around and scanned the floor. A track of blood was leading away from the backpack and after he had shown it to Nathan, both men checked their rifles and followed it.


"We have to get out of here," the female AI said and bent over the small screen of the control panel. "I thought you said that four Marines wouldn't stand a chance against us and yet they have decimated all but two of us ..."

The person on the screen scowled at that and gave off a sigh.

"I told you to be prepared, Sandra-Z. Ever since we received the information that there was a black Op concerning the POWs I told you to be on guard! You should have known from your former encounters that those Marines are a cut above the others but no, you wanted to take a chance ..." the man cleared his throat. "But never mind that now. You have screwed up the mission, Sandra. My associates will not take that lightly on the account that your friends Elroy and Felicity promised to get rid of the Wild Cards once and for all ..."

"Ah, shut up," the silicate cut in. "The Chigs wanted to know what had happened to the hatch-master and we had to keep up the impression that the humans took him out instead of us. If the Chiggies ever grow suspicious we're all done for."

"That is your problem, not mine. Do you know how much time it cost us until we got the information about this Op? It is no easy task to kidnap a high-ranking officer and make him talk, especially if the officer in question is a tank," the man replied. "But we've taken care of that. Chambers is so high on the meanies that he won't even recognise his daughter and once we get rid of him, Fleet-Com will put the blame on him. Just make sure that you cover all traces relating to AeroTech when you move out ..." The screen went blank and Sandra straightened.

Back at their hide-out Shane had watched Megan ever since the name Chambers had come up in the conversation. She almost expected that Megan would do something foolhardy as barging into the room but the cold look on the young woman's face made her shiver to the bone.

"Meg," she whispered. "We don't know if he was talking of your father."

"Yeah, but there is no other IV called Chambers in the US Army," Megan replied and readied herself. "I'm going in and if it is the last thing I do in my life. Are you with me?"

Shane nodded slowly and clutched the K-bar hard.

Megan rolled across the floor, taking the room under fire, and Shane, awaiting the attack of the silicates as they tried to escape the trap, readied herself. But it never happened.

Meg had taken the two silicates out like a sniper, emptying the magazine of her handgun by doing so. The room grew quiet, only the occasional beep of the disabled silicates disturbing the silence. Cautiously, Shane stepped into the room, making sure that the AIs were completely wiped out. Vansen shook her head slowly and turned back where Megan still lay on the ground. The woman had put her head on her outstretched arm, her right hand still clutching the gun.

And she keeps telling me that she isn't a good shot, Shane thought and she was about to go over to her when suddenly someone jumped onto her back, taking her in a deadly chokehold. With a sudden jibe of the K-bar Shane managed to get herself released from the choke and when she turned she came face to face with Carlson.

"You killed them," the woman cried and threw herself onto Shane. Meg had rushed dodgily to her feet and tried to pull Carlson away but it was too late. Carlson fell onto Shane and both women crashed down onto the floor, almost taking Meg with them. The Lieutenant gave off an awful sound when she slumped against the young Marine.

Vansen closed her eyes for a moment then she felt that the body was pulled off her. With a sucking sound the knife disengaged from the dead woman's body and Meg sat down beside her.

For long moments both women were silent when suddenly, they heard footsteps and West and Hawkes rounded the corner to the room.

Ever since they had found the discarded backpack and the rifle further down the corridor, Nathan had expected the worst. They had followed the blood on the floor to the guardroom and seeing both his friends covered in blood, his heartbeat quickened.

"Hey, what took you so long?" Megan asked in a shivering voice and looked up at the two Marines, clenching her teeth when pain shot through her body. "You told me you were right behind me ..."

West and Hawkes exchanged a look with each other.

This woman was crazy, here she was, bleeding all over the place and all she could do was teasing them, Nathan thought and he wanted to open his mouth when Cooper stepped forward and, despite his heartfelt relief, he pointed an accusing finger at Chambers.

"I told you to stay put, Meg, but no, the RAF Squadron Leader had to have it her own way! I should kill ya, you stupid tank-brat!"

"Don't bother, Mr. GI-Geequed, the Chigs almost did the job!" Megan snapped back.

"Now wait a minute, you two," Shane cut in but Nathan touched her arm and pulled her away.

"Leave them, Shane. They're like this during the whole Op ..."

"This is sick, Nate. She needs medical care and all they can do is yelling at each other ..." she broke off when Nathan turned her around to their two friends. The yelling had stopped and Cooper was squatting down in front of Meg and was holding her in his arms, then after a quick, almost embarrassed kiss, he helped her to her feet.

"You sure, you're alright?" he asked and Megan, despite her pain, was touched by the raw emotion in his voice. She put a hand on his shoulder and smiled dodgily.

"Yes," she whispered. "I'll be fine now!"

Shane grinned when she saw that and when she met Nathan's gaze she rolled her eyes towards the ceiling.

"Alright, end your skipchatter, we're moving out!" Vansen said.


McQueen and his team had made it to the ISSCV unharmed.

He checked his watch again and shook his head slightly. Only ten mikes left before their flight window would close. Once outside the bunker they had had no ways of communicating with Hawkes and West and the waiting made him nervous. He looked back into the shuttle through the open cockpit door and saw that the POWs were recovering. He had examined Damphousse and Wang earlier, cleaning and dressing their wounds with skin-gello. When Vanessa looked up she met McQueen's level gaze and came over to him.

"I'm a bit worried about Wang, Sir," she said slowly. "He's still disorientated and he can't remember everything that happened. From what he told me, he had been in the ISSCV shuttle when the Chig took him out. He had set the board gun on automatic and engaged the safety pod. I still can't believe that he made it out of there alive ... It's as if he has returned from the dead ..."

McQueen had listened to that and watched Wang who lay on a makeshift bunk, his eyes closed.

"Do you think he's a clone?" he queried and Vanessa's head snapped up.

"You mean like that Kylen-thing Nathan encountered on Kazbek, Sir?" she asked and when McQueen gave her a sharp nod, a shiver ran down her spine.

That couldn't be true! She knew Wang and she hadn't had noticed anything different about him when she had tended to his wounds but then again she had been intend on keeping her stomach and hands under control. Thinking of blood always made her nervous.

"He bleeds like any other human, I don't think that they can imitate that. As far as we know they hate blood because it reeks."

"We'll find out as soon as we get him to the infirmary back on the 'Toga," the Colonel replied and checked his watch again. Five minutes left before they had to lift off.


Getting back to the transporter was more difficult than they had thought. The bunker had been swarming with Chigs and more than once the Marines had to duck for cover and backtrack several times.

Megan hid behind Cooper's broad back, as they took cover in one of the in-numerous ventilation ducts. The blood loss had weakened her and she sleepily cuddled up against him and closed her eyes.

It was soothing to feel his body warmth against her cheek, she thought and tried to stay awake. Try as she might she couldn't stay mad at him, all his ranting during this Op had shown her that he cared for her.

She had to smile at that.

Unconsciously, Cooper's arm slipped around Meg and after he had made sure that she was alright, he checked his watch.

"We have to get out of here," he told Nathan and Shane and both nodded.

Shane had grabbed one of the discarded AI weapons and had taken point. When West and Hawkes had turned up, she had felt relieved and she had almost wept. It had been so good to see them again and after they had told them that Damphousse and Wang were with McQueen, she indeed had started to cry. But right now, she tried to think hard about leaving the camp and get back to the transporter.

"Alright, listen up," she suddenly said and Nathan had to grin at that. After all she had been through, the torture, the pain, the uncertainty, she acted like a real pro.

"You said that the main corridors run at each side of the bunker. What if we find a vent duct which is connected to the outside? The Chigs will concentrate on the main entrances and we could sneak out of here without them knowing ..."

"Negative, Shane," Nathan said. "We don't know if the vents have any connection to the outside. What if we follow one of those ducts and it turns out to be a dead end? We can't grope through the bunker any longer ..." he nodded is head towards Chambers.

Cooper had noticed it and he tightened his grip on Meg's shoulders.

"She'll manage!" He said in a determined voice. "She just has to!"

Shane smiled at that and put a hand onto his shoulder.

"Yes, Coop. I didn't want to say that she ..." Is going to die, she wanted to say but she cut herself short. It was no good making all of them more scared than they actually were. It was a small miracle that Chambers had kept up with them as she had so far but she feared that Meg's time was running out.

"Hawkes, Vansen," Nathan suddenly hissed and the CO swung around. In front of their hide-out, a Chig was standing and was looking around.

Nathan and Hawkes crept forward slowly, avoiding all sounds. The Chig was unarmed and alone. Slowly, Cooper pulled the safety off his gun and edged closer. The Chig swung around and held his arms up as he saw Cooper and Nathan advancing from the duct. It gave off a series of sounds, then it ducked his head towards a sidedoor. Cooper hesitated for a moment. This whole situation was like a deja-vu. When he had been on a secret mission on the planet Tigris, he had encountered one of the Aliens but instead of killing one another, they had headed for two different directions.

"What does it want?" Nathan inquired breathlessly and aimed his rifle at the Chig. The Alien held up his hands, gesturing towards the door with the control panel and took a step towards it. Cooper stepped closer, his gun ready and the Chig stopped immediately.

Shane had come out of the ventilation duct with Megan close at her heels and when the Chig noticed them, it made the click-clicking sounds again, this time gesturing towards Megan. The Marines looked at Chambers but she shrugged her shoulders wearily.

"Don't look at me, I don't know what it wants!" she rasped, drawing in her breath in painful gasps. When the Alien heard her voice he clawed his hands and then his left side.

"It's the blood, isn't it?" Nathan asked and pointed towards Meg.

To his surprise the Chig nodded and pointed at Megan again.

The Chig moved closer to the door; acting as if he wasn't held at gun-point, the Alien punched the access code into the panel and the door opened noisily. Giving off clicking sounds again he waved the Marines to the door.

"I'll be damned," Shane whispered and the Marines exchanged a long look.

It could be a trap, they all knew that but try as they might they needed this free passage to get to the transporter in time.

"Go, I'll cover you!" Nathan said and held the Chig at gunpoint. Carefully, the Marines filed out of the side entrance, when Megan passed him, he reached out one of his claws and Cooper, who was carrying Patterson, stepped between them.

"Don't you dare, Chiggy-man," he hissed. The Chig shook his head, then held up his hands in a surrendering motion.

Nathan watched as his squadmates left the bunker. He didn't know what to do after he had made sure that they were safely outside. He should kill it but try as he might he could not kill this Chig in cold-blood. After a moment's consideration, Nathan swung his rifle and sent the Chig down to the floor. As quickly as he was able to he crashed through the swamps, stumbling over roots and rocks, following the rest of the five-eight towards the ISSCV.


They haven't made it, McQueen thought as he checked his watch again. If he didn't start the propulsions now, they would miss the flightwindow to the Saratoga.

The Colonel grabbed the helmet and was about to put it on when he heard Damphousse's cry.

"Sir, they're coming," she exclaimed breathlessly and opened the hatch.

He scrambled out of the cockpit and helped dragging the dead body of the pilot into the transporter. When Hawkes lifted Chambers into the shuttle, McQueen was shocked to see her more dead than alive. He was reluctant to leave her at first but then his sense of duty took over and he quickly returned into the cockpit-seat beside West.

As soon as they started the propulsion thrusters, the ISSCV was grazed by photon-blaster and gun-laser fire, but they got off the planet's surface without major damages.

Shane and Vanessa had grouped around Paul and Meg and they were conversing in hushed voices. Now, the aftershocks of their ordeal and their rescue had come back in a rush. Ever since they had reached the transporter, Cooper had kept to himself, watching his crew-mates. He was still coming to terms that they had made it, that they were re-united again. He had his family back!

He inhaled deeply and his eyes wandered from one of his friends to the other, making sure that this was real. When he caught sight of Chambers who was lying beside Paul on a makeshift bed, their eyes locked. For long moments they stared at each other before she turned her head away. Cooper shook his head.

Was she still mad at him? he asked himself. Man, he had wanted to believe her, he really wanted to. When he had seen her sitting on the ground, with the blood slowly seeping through the bandages, he had thought he would freak out. She was so small and yet she had kept going as if she was one of the Marines. The feelings he had for her confused him, he wanted to throttle her and at the same he wanted to protect her. He didn't know what those feelings meant but if it had anything to do with the love-stuff, he didn't understand how the NBs worked that whole thing out. He had to make a choice, he told himself silently and resolutely, he stood up.

When he reached his mates, Shane looked up at him and made room for him on the floor beside Megan. He slumped down beside her and Shane gave him a crooked smile. She petted his knee and turned towards 'Phousse.

"Let's see what Nathan and McQueen are doing," she said and both women stood up. After Vanessa had made sure that Paul was sleeping, she followed Vansen to the cockpit.

Megan had noticed Cooper coming over to her and she turned her head towards him.

"We made it," she said slowly and grinned at him.

Cooper nodded his head and looked shyly down on her.

"Yeah," he answered and a smile curved his lips. Megan reached out her hand and put it onto his.

"It seems as if I'm making a habit of almost getting myself killed and you sitting at my bed," she said. Both thought about the time when she had been hit by friendly fire during the UFEP and he had sat vigil over her. She smiled at that, even back then they had not been able to fight the inevitable.

"Coop?" she asked. "What I said back on Earth ... I didn't mean it, well I did at that time but not as it might have sounded ..."

Cooper shook his head at this.

"You were right, Meg," he said. "Uh, I behaved like a stupid tan..."

"Idiot!" she cut in. "People sometimes behave like idiots when they deal with love, Cooper!"

They exchanged a smile and Cooper bent down towards her.

If what she was saying was really true then he accepted this.

He knew he felt SOMETHING for her and if it was love ...

His lips met hers briefly, confirming his doubts and yet reassuring him nevertheless.

They had travelled for about thirty mikes when West noticed friendlies on the LIDAR, covering their tail and when he looked through the cockpit-window he could see the 'Toga on his four.

"Thank God for small favours," Nathan said beneath his breath and McQueen nodded. The com crackled into life and he switched it on.

"Five-Eight, you're looking good on my LIDAR," Ross said. "LZ on flightdeck four."

"Roger that, Queen Six out," McQueen replied with a grin and he stirred the ISSCV towards the designated landing co-ordinates.

When they boarded the flightbay, Ross already awaited them.

After he had made sure that all members of the Wild Cards were safely back on board he gave off a sigh of relief.

"Sir, the five-eight asks permission to come aboard, Sir," Vansen said and those of the 'Cards who weren't severely injured snapped to attention.

"Permission granted, Captain," he said and grinned. "Welcome home!"


Epilogue

McQueen stood in front of the ICU and a body bag was lying not far off from where he was standing. On their ride back Patterson had died, never regaining consciousness again and the burial of both USAF pilots was scheduled for the next day.

The Colonel closed his eyes for a moment and thought back to those unnerving minutes until the Wild Cards had been finally reunited again.

He had almost given them up, McQueen thought and shook his head. He should have known that they make it but deep down inside him, he had doubted that they would get out there alive.

When Vansen had examined Chambers' wounds, he had not thought that she would stay alive a minute longer, but she had kept on fighting.

Ross had called them to a debriefing immediately after he had made sure that most of the Marines were alright. In the O-room the 'Cards silently had listened to the Commodore's words, as he had told them about the newest development.

Chambers had been kidnapped and tortured by the silicates back on Earth and Vansen had confirmed that after she had reported the conversation between Sandra-Z and an AeroTech executive, confirming his doubts about the corporation's involvement in this war. All those deaths of good Marines and civilians had been in vain, for the good of some dubious corporation ...

McQueen swallowed hard and brought his mind back to one of the doctor's coming out of the ICU.

The 'Cards had only minor injuries considering what they had been through, though they all had to pass psychological tests once their wounds were healed.

After McQueen had inquired about Chambers' condition he was surprised that the doctor told him that given the amount of blood she had lost, it was looking well as long as her crew-mates would leave her alone.

At first the Colonel was confused at hearing this but when he rounded the bend of the corridor, he saw West and Damphousse scurrying into the infirmary, carrying what somehow looked like bottles of beer and tequila.

He heard their giggles and stepped closer.


"Where did you get this stuff?" Shane inquired as she took the beer Nathan was handing around.

"My father gave me some cash when Coop and I were back on Earth. The bar-tender just couldn't resist the prospect of having some money on his side ..." Nathan answered with a smirk and plopped down on a chair between Paul's and Megan's beds.

Wang sighed when he took the first gulps of beer and then he grinned.

"Hoo-Rah," he exclaimed and flashed his friends a smile. They were all laughing, even Megan who had been sewn up in the ICU and despite the doctor's orders had refused to be drugged by anything, joined them. Cooper was sitting beside her and she was propped up against his broad chest, sharing a beer.

Cooper suddenly unzipped one of his breast pockets and handed Shane a photograph which her sister Lauren had given him back on Earth. The photo showed all of the five-eight. Shane looked at the photo then at her friends and she raised her drink.

"To absent friends!" she said and they all bent forward, joining glasses by doing so. "And for staying alive one more hour!"

"To the Wild Cards!" Meg responded softly, eyeing each of them. "And McQueen!"

"Yeah, to McQueen!" they all joined in.

McQueen watched the scene through the window of the door and smiled.

His kids, he thought, it was good to have them back again. Despite the fact that they had gone to hell and back again, they had not let themselves down, they had remained strong, a gung-ho. He was proud of them and seeing the 'Cards and their unusual vigil over Chambers and Wang, a feeling slowly emerged from the depth of his soul. But this time it wasn't the beast he had come to hate and despise and for a short moment had raised its ugly head on Anvil, it was another different emotion altogether.

Once, he had thought that he was not capable of loving any other human being but right now, he felt such a deep, protecting love for those young people in that room, it frightened and shocked him for a short moment.

After the panic of this newly discovered feeling subsided, he turned with a smile and was faced with Commodore Ross.

"Is that a proud father's grin I'm seeing there, Ty?" Ross asked and petted his friend's shoulder. "I think we should drink to that. I still have this thirty year old Scotch stashed somewhere and it's about time that we really get socked!"

McQueen smirked at his words and both men went off to the Commodore's cabin.


The End

Una December 1997

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