The rain had continued without a break for the last three days.
Vansen was soaked and chilled to the bones, in spite of the
tropical heat, and huddled in her bedroll too miserable to sleep.
Damphousse was on watch at their lookout point, a pile of boulders
a little way from camp where they could hide from visual and
infrared sighting. From there, they could see everything from the
wreck site upstream of them to a sharp bend in the stream about
five hundred meters the other way. Vansen checked her watch, and
had just decided to go relieve `Phousse on lookout a few minutes
early, when she heard her partner's boots scrambling on the gravel
outside. "Shane, we have to break camp and get out of here now!"
"What is it, chigs?"
"Worse! The creek's going to flood!" Vansen wasn't sure how the
creek flooding was worse than chigs stumbling onto their camp.
But Damphousse was busily grabbing her pack and her bedroll.
Shane jumped up and did the same, didn't bother putting on her
outer clothes or her boots, she just stuffed everything in her
blanket and slung it over her shoulder. They grabbed the tarp,
`Phousse bunched it up and jammed it under one of her pack's
Vansen looked down at the creek through her visor. What had been
a shallow stream was now a boiling brown torrent carrying the
occasional uprooted sapling in its strong current. It didn't look
anywhere near their camp, but she wasn't about to argue with the
expression of fright on Damphousse's face.
Vansen asked, "Do you think it'll get as high as the cave where we
stashed our supplies?"
"No -- it didn't look like the water had ever been in there when
we were putting things away!"
Together they made a run for the cliff. The rocks hurt Vansen's
bare feet, and the rain streaked her visor until everything was a
translucent blur. There was an odd stale, sour smell in the air,
she couldn't identify it but it set her teeth on edge. (Vansen
didn't know it at the time, but such an odor is often a warning
of an impending flash flood.) When they got to the cliff, she
pushed the visor up out of her way, water streamed into her eyes
as she looked up to find the stepping stones she'd used to get
up here before. Pushing and pulling each other, they scrambled
up into the cave and crowded in among the supplies.
A roaring sound was the first evidence that `Phousse's premonition
had been genuine. They poked their heads out of the cave entrance
to watch as a wall of water swept down the canyon, extending from
cliff to cliff. They still had a couple meters of grace between
them and the water, Vansen hoped it didn't come up any higher
because they had nowhere else to go. If they had tried to run for
it along the stream bank, they would certainly have been swept
away. She was an expert swimmer, but she had no illusions of
surviving for very long in that.
They heard a couple of loud clanging noises and looked at each
other. As they watched, the beam of light directed upwards from
the wreck started to move. At first, it swayed from side to side,
illuminating first one cliff then the other. And then it started
moving towards them. They could only watch with their mouths open
as the wreck floated past them, as serene and majestic as an ocean
liner setting sail.
It ran into the cliff down at the bend, for a moment they hoped it
would hang up on the rocks there. But then it continued on
downstream to its unknown destination.
`Phousse cried, "There goes our radio! What are we going to do
Vansen shook her head, still staring at the spot where she'd last
seen the capsule, before it had floated on downstream. "I don't
know about you, but I'm going to sleep until the rain stops.
There's not a damn thing else we CAN do!"
`Phousse nodded. "At least we can get dry in here. How long do
you think the water will stay up?"
Vansen thought about it. "Jeez, I don't know. Until it stops
raining, I guess."
"Duh," `Phousse said, in her best I-am-an-idiot tone.
Vansen grinned. "Don't be so hard on yourself, you saved our
"Yeah, you're gonna freeze yours off if you don't get your pants
Vansen burst out laughing, as much in relief at their narrow
escape as at her appearance. "Oh, God, if Ty could see me now
he'd run the other way so fast -- I look like a drowned rat in
skivvies!" They both howled with laughter until the tears rolled.
Then they looked at each other and broke up all over again, they
were covered with mud and their hair was plastered to their heads.
They weren't exactly pin-up girls at the moment!
Vansen found her clothes and got dressed, then they settled in to
wait out the storm. By dawn, the water had receded somewhat, and
soon after, the rain stopped. By midday, the stream began to
rapidly return to its banks.
Their immediate concern was what had become of the capsule and
their precious radio. They headed downstream after it.
About a klick downstream, the creek was joined by another that
spilled over the cliff on the other side in a lovely waterfall,
its top lost in the mist. From there on, the stream was much
deeper and wider as the canyon opened up into a wider valley.
They crossed the tree line and fifteen minutes later, they were
hiking along the edge of a forest. The trees here were a little
taller, but still the same general type, the branches spreading
out in a wide canopy from the trunk. Small bushes with feathery,
fernlike leaves grew knee-high in places.
Everything was still soaking wet from the flash flood, Vansen was
just as glad of that because it would prevent them from making
noise in the underbrush. Chigs, on the other hand, would make as
much noise in their battlesuits as they ever had.
Damphousse found the first sign they'd seen of an animal larger
than a woodchuck. "What's with this tree?"
Vansen followed her gaze and stepped over that way. Several sets
of deep parallel V's were incised into the bark. From the spread
of the claws, the animal's front paws were the size of her hands,
and its reach was as high as her own. "This is something the size
of a mountain lion," she commented. "No tracks in this swamp,
Damphousse said, "I think it comes here a lot."
"Is that a psychic impression?"
She grinned. "No, I'm not reading your alien wildcat! I don't
think I want to try! But look, some of these scratches are older
than others. I think it pissed on the tree, too, you're probably
standing in wildcat pee."
Vansen laughed. "Like the rain wouldn't have washed it away.
Still, keep your eyes open. If this thing does act like a cat, it
won't have any fear of us if it's never seen humans before, and we
probably would look like supper to it."
"Yeah, right! Supper that shoots at it!" Damphousse replied.
"It just might start looking like supper to me, if I see it first.
Shane, do you think we could eat stuff here? I mean, if we ran
out of food? I mean, they said in boot camp it would probably be
poison. But you can hunt on some of the colonies, can't you?"
Vansen scowled. "Yeah, but you have to know what you're doing.
It's like mushrooms, you eat the wrong one and it's, like, `You
ate me but now guess what! AMF!!'"
Damphousse nodded. "Payback time. Don't worry, I'm not ready to
start hallucinating that you look like a Thanksgiving turkey yet."
Vansen shuddered. "Oh, don't even joke about that! Didn't you
hear the rumors?"
"You mean from Demios? The one where they found this whole unit
dead except for one guy -- one really well-fed guy? That was just
scuttlebutt, it never really happened!"
"Well...I don't think so either. But there was the Donner party.
And those asteroid miners. Those incidents really happened, a
long time ago."
"Oh, God. I'm sorry I brought it up. Let's talk about something
else!" `Phousse exclaimed.
"Maybe we better not hang around here too long, if this is Kitty's
favorite scratching post," Vansen said.
After that, they had their eyes open for signs of animals. There
were some creatures that seemed to fill the same ecological niche
as beetles, although they had only four legs. Along the stream
bank, they caught a glimpse of something slick and black and about
the size of a football, it dived into the water as they
approached. On the opposite bank, they saw five or six animals
that reminded them of small pigs rooting in the sticks and leaves
under the trees, even through their scopes they couldn't make out
just what the creatures were eating. The little woodchuck
creatures they had first seen in the canyon were plentiful here as
There were swarms of flying "bugs". At least they called them
bugs. So far their bug repellent appeared to be working. They
didn't want to be bitten by something that might carry an alien
disease! Most alien germs were harmless to humans, their
physiology was not evolved to feed off homo sapiens. But there
were some known exceptions.
Water oozed up around her boots with every step she took. Vansen
realized that if they did run across hostiles, all they would have
to do would be hole their suits and knock them down, the water
would do the rest. In order to conserve their ammunition, she
passed the observation along to Damphousse and watched her switch
her weapon from rapid to single fire.
There was still no sign of the capsule. Vansen shook her head.
"It could be headed for the ocean for all I know," she said.
"Let's take a break and have some lunch."
Lunch was ration bars and packets of water, they took a breather
back in the trees. Vansen heard a sound overhead like a hawk's
cry, and looked up to see that the mist had thinned considerably,
to partial cloud cover. A pterodactyl soared on a thermal with
the sun on its wings, Vansen was reminded of her youngest sister's
stories of dragons. Well, now if she ever made it home, she could
tell her sister she'd seen one -- if only a small one, and she
didn't know if it breathed fire!
"If" she ever made it home. Vansen might spend the rest of her
life here. She would never accept that sentence as final, but she
had done and was doing everything possible to assure their rescue.
For this moment, it was enough to stand in a forest where no human
had ever set foot before her and watch the alien creature soaring
on the heights. They were kindred spirits, two predators who knew
the fierce joy of the wind under their wings and their prey lying
unsuspecting before them. More peaceable sorts would never
understand that. But she and the "little dragon" did.
When she spoke, her voice was hushed, as if she stood in a
cathedral. "Hey, `Phousse, take a look at this."
Damphousse followed her gaze. "Beautiful."
For a long moment, they stood together and watched the pterodactyl
circle overhead. Suddenly it spotted movement out in the water
and dived, at the last moment extending its wings. Its talons
closed on a struggling eel-like animal and it flew back up to the
cliff heights, burdened by the weight of its dinner, but for the
moment victorious in the struggle to survive.
Vansen slung her rifle over her shoulder and they continued on
An hour later they spotted the capsule, it had come aground when
the flood had abated and hung up on the muddy bank. Anxiously
they climbed aboard, afraid water had got in through the broken
port and shorted out everything. Fortunately, it had not, but the
radio dish had been damaged in the flood.
Vansen slammed her fist into the side of the capsule. "Damn it,
we can't have come through all this to be stranded here by a
`Phousse reassured her, "I can fix it, Shane. I just need some
time, and a few tools we left cached back at the cave. It's okay!
We're better off than we were. We're out of the canyon, so as
soon as I get us on the air again, the SAR patrols will be able to
pick up the signal."
"Right," Vansen said. "Are you up for heading back today, does
your burn hurt too much?"
Damphousse shook her head. "No, it's okay. The sooner I get my
tools the sooner we can get the radio back on line." To prove it,
she set off upstream with a resolute stride. Vansen shut the
cockpit hatch and double-timed it a few steps to catch up.
(On the transport)
Ames reported to McQueen, "We've got everything we need."
"Good." He rapped on the table for attention and said, "Okay,
people, listen up. We've got a situation here."
Tyler and Fallon came forward, Miller winced as he sat up on the
side of his rack. Bailey turned in her chair, finding him by the
sound of his voice, and waited, listening intently. They were all
giving him the same look, he was their commanding officer now and
they trusted him to solve whatever "situation" had come up. There
was no way to say it except just say it. "The explosion that
killed Commander Holsinger and Lieutenant Wyeth also severely
damaged our air recycler and knocked out the LRR. The closest
ship to our position is the Saratoga, and our ETA to her
position is sixty hours. We have enough air for forty hours." He
held up his hand to quiet everyone. "Lt. Ames and Lt. Fallon have
come up with an idea, though. I'll let them tell you about it.
Save your discussion until they're finished."
Ames and Fallon looked at each other, then Fallon said, "You go
Ames said, "Okay, our idea is this. At the beginning of the war -
- this was before you came aboard, Mark -- we rescued some
scientists from a research station on an asteroid. They were up
against the same thing we are, except they didn't have enough air
for even one of them to live long enough for us to get there. So
what they did was put themselves into a drug induced coma. You
use a lot less oxygen in that state. Now we need Col. McQueen and
Lt. Miller to fly the plane. The rest of us sleep through it.
This isn't a perfect solution. There's a chance that the medical
personnel might not be able to bring us out of the coma later.
But it's a lot better chance than one in three, which is what we'd
have if two of us have to jump out of the lifeboat."
Tyler raised his hand, McQueen nodded. He directed his question
to Ames. "You've seen my charts, right?"
"Then I need the real answer to this question. Is there really a
chance they can cure me back on Earth, or were they just sending
me home because I'm going to be too sick to do my job real soon?
Because, listen, if I've got a chance to live I want to give it my
best shot. But if I'm dead anyhow no matter what, it don't make
sense for me to make everyone else's chances worse."
Bailey objected, "No, Sarge, wait, even if they don't think they
can cure you now they might find a cure tomorrow! I don't think
any of us should quit. We're all in this together, right? If
this is the best chance for all of us to live then I think we
ought to do it just like Nurse Ames said. All for one and one for
Ames said, "I agree with Bailey, Sgt. Tyler. But the fact is that
you do have a chance. You've been selected for a program at
Bethesda that's showing a lot of promise in cases like yours.
You're still a Stage 3, and there are Stage 4's who've had this
treatment and been cancer-free for eleven months now. That isn't
a cure -- yet -- but it's plenty of reason to keep fighting!"
Mark said, "I'm in. But, Christy, you're not the one who ought to
go under. I am."
"Mark, your injuries--"
"Are exactly why I'm not fit to fly this thing. I'm going to need
tons of pain pills just to keep going -- you don't want me behind
the stick in that condition. I won't be any help to the colonel.
Now, civilian SAR team members are all checked out on the Angstrom
Jetstream, aren't they?"
She hesitated, then admitted reluctantly, "Well, yeah."
"The Jetstream is the civilian version of this transport," he told
her. "Yeah, she looks a lot different. But it's the same bird."
"But I'm only checked out in atmosphere, and I'm definitely not a
combat pilot! I don't think being able to taxi us around the
flight deck would be a lot of help!"
"You trust the colonel, he'll teach you everything you need to
know. And if the chigs show back up, you'll be shooting, not
flying, anyway," he pointed out. "Yeah, these burns give me a
little worse chance than everyone else of surviving a sedative
overdose. But kid, being an IV gives you a hell of a lot worse
chance. Your body doesn't react to drugs the same way ours do,
the truth is we just don't know the right dosage to almost kill
you but not quite. Tell me I'm wrong," he challenged.
She stared at him for a long moment, and swallowed hard before she
was able to answer. "You're not wrong, Mark," she admitted
Gloria said, "Listen to him, Christy. The whole idea is to do
what gives us all the best chance of getting out of this alive.
We don't need you playing Russian roulette here. And another
thing, Mark has thirty kilos on you and your metabolism is more
efficient than ours to boot -- that means you'll use less air.
Besides all that, we'll all be a hundred percent safer if
someone's awake who can watch the monitors and adjust our dosage
if something goes wrong!"
That was the decisive argument. Once the decision was made, they
wasted no time carrying it out. McQueen went back up front and
checked out the autopilot--they were right on course--then he
checked out the starboard controls. The transport was still
flyable from that side, if you knew what you were doing. There
was also the added benefit of being able to rest his injured leg
on the side ledge.
Presently, Ames came forward. McQueen asked, "What's the
situation back there?"
She said, "So far everyone's doing fine, sir."
"Okay, then, there's no time like the present to get you started.
How much flight training have you had?"
"Well, sir, it's like Mark was saying. I'm certified to fly a
Jetstream. He said it was the same, but -- jeez, I don't know."
She was looking around the cockpit, obviously she didn't know what
half the controls were for, much less what she was supposed to be
"Make yourself at home and show me what you do recognize."
"Y-yes sir." She strapped in by habit and did a flight station
check, someone had trained her well in what she did know. McQueen
watched her gain more confidence as she identified the controls
found in a civilian transport and realized that Miller had been
right, she really knew enough to fly this thing after all. Once
she stopped being scared of the ship, he started showing her the
basics. She was a quick study, after just a half an hour she was
perfectly capable of the simple job of traveling from waypoint to
waypoint in clear space. That was all she really had to know to
get this job done, but he wanted to keep her too busy to think
about their situation.
Landing and taking off were the most dangerous parts of the trip.
He set up her station for VR practice and had her touch and go off
a virtual carrier for several hours, she stayed at it steadily
when she wasn't doing her job as a nurse. She checked her
patients' condition every thirty mikes, and didn't forget about
his injury either.
"It's healing really well, you'd expect an infection from an
injury like this resulting from an explosion but there's no sign
"Lieutenant, tell me something. Why do you think they were
sending me home? I've been hurt worse than this before and been
treated aboard the carrier! How long will it be before I'm healed
up enough to put my weight on this artificial leg? A week, maybe
two, with the gelskins? What am I overlooking here?"
"It wasn't just the amputation. Colonel, you were more dead than
alive when they pulled you out of that conference room. I didn't
think you were going to make it when I first saw you -- it wasn't
until I saw you and the Commodore saying goodbye that I realized I
was wrong. But you weren't out of the woods for a couple of days
after that. Commander Holsinger was a very good doctor, sir.
A lot of people would be crippled by what you went through -- not
as much by their actual injuries as by their own emotional
reaction to the trauma. I've never seen anyone go through
something like this before and not grab a medical discharge with
both hands. But you're different. You weren't crippled because
you decided you weren't going to be. If you can keep that state
of mind, from here on out this won't be any worse than a busted
ankle, with the technology we have available to us. Once you get
your own personal prosthesis, no one will know it's there unless
you tell them. Did you know the last winner of the Olympic
marathon ran on a prosthetic leg?"
McQueen hadn't known that, and he suspected Ames hadn't either --
she had done some research for his benefit while he was out.
"If your doctors on board the Sara had known how well you were
going to come along, they'd never have evacuated you," she
concluded. "There's a lot they just don't know about us. We're
tougher than naturals in a lot of ways, medical science hasn't
really caught up with us yet. So they err on the side of caution,
and that usually means they underestimate us. But it was a
miracle for the rest of us that you were aboard, sir. Mark was
barely conscious, he could never have outflown those chigs the way
you did. You saved our lives."
"Including my own," he pointed out, grinning. "Believe me, there
was nothing altruistic about that one."
"No, sir, I suppose there wasn't." She laughed a little, then
sorrow came into her expressive blue eyes and she turned back to
her console, checking things that didn't need checked until she
got herself back under control.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm really going to miss the Commander and Terri," she answered
in a small voice.
In combat units, they knew that losses were inevitable. That
knowledge colored everything...you lived in the moment because you
knew that was all you had. But Ames was a nurse, and medical units
weren't supposed to have casualties. He told her, "I know how you
feel. I lost a member of my squadron the same day this happened,
and two others are MIA. I'd give anything if that hadn't
happened. But there's no way to change any of it and we have our
jobs to do. The people we lost would want us to do our jobs
She nodded. "Yes, sir. Thank you."
"Tell me a little about yourself."
"Well, there isn't much to tell. I was decanted in Chicago four
years ago and started training as a nurse there. But I didn't
like it when I found out I was going to be a nurse on Ganelon."
"What's wrong with Ganelon?"
"Well, nothing, sir. But what we really were supposed to be was
mail-order brides! There are a lot more male colonists on Ganelon
than females, and with the war on, no one wants to move to Ganelon
and live with a bunch of us. There still aren't very many
naturals on Ganelon, you know, and the ones there are almost all
married to one of us. So the company decided to send a crew of
female in vitroes out there. The other girls I talked to didn't
mind. I mean, on Ganelon, we're in the majority, and the courts
are making the multis ease their control over the colonies all the
time. They were excited about living somewhere that we can make
our own rules, and more power to them. But I didn't want to get
sent off to some farm in the middle of nowhere and marry some guy
I didn't even know! I complained, the monitors said I didn't have
to get married if I didn't want to and I could go wherever I
wanted after I came of age. But I'd still have had to stay on
Ganelon two years. I think they were hoping I'd change my mind
once I got there and fall in love with somebody. Instead I
climbed over the fence and started hitch-hiking! I met some
people who were on their way to Aspen, that's how I ended up
I didn't have any money, and the park service was hiring. I
planted trees for a while. Then I found out they'd pay me to
finish my nurse's training if I'd commit to work for them the same
number of years I went to school, that's how I ended up in search
and rescue. I liked it a lot.
But then the war started and they needed nurses. I decided I'd
better volunteer before I got drafted, that way I got into the
Navy nursing program instead of an Army MASH unit. I didn't want
to get stuck on planet. So here I am!"
"Are you going back to Aspen after the war?"
"Most likely. Aspen's home, I've got a lot of good friends there
and a job waiting for me. I've just about got Mark talked into
coming with me, he thinks he wants to be a beach bum but ski bums
McQueen grinned. "I know a California girl who'd disagree with
"Your girlfriend, sir?"
McQueen found he was hard-pressed to deny it with a straight face.
"No, she's one of the Wild Cards, Captain Vansen."
"What's wrong? She's one of the people who's missing, isn't she?"
"That's right. Missing, presumed dead. Her bird got shot out
from under her. She took the nose cone of a transport a lot like
this one in on a `chute landing. The other officer in the cockpit
with her was injured, Vansen wouldn't leave her. The computers
don't think they could have survived the landing."
"But you think different, sir."
"I've never seen a computer yet that could fly worth a rat's ass.
It's intuition, not logic, that will save your life when things
get hairy. You can't program that. If there's one thing I know
about Vansen, it's that she's one hell of a pilot. I can't know
for a fact that she managed to set that capsule down in one piece,
but I believe that she did."
Ames touched the resets on the VR console to go through another
practice run. "Sir, after we get to the Saratoga, if you need
someone with SAR experience to help you prove that, you know where
to find me."
"They're down on a chig-held planet and that's all we really do
know about it."
Ames' impish humor was back in spite of everything. "Never saw
one before, sir," she wisecracked.
McQueen shook his head. "What makes you think you want to see
one, you lunatic? Run your program again. That last landing
would've been survivable, but it would have cost the taxpayers a
hell of a lot of money! You've got to lose a lot more delta-V
before you hit the lift."
She turned serious. "Yes, sir. I thought I started the burn
about where Mark always does, but I guess I was late."
"He comes in short and hot. There's a reason for that. When you
slow down, you lose maneuverability. Mark keeps his option to
abort the landing right up until the last second. In a combat
situation, that makes good sense. I've had the bay where I was
going to land get hit right ahead of me. If I'd already committed
to landing there when that happened I'd have set down right in the
middle of a fireball. Now, when you start your deceleration burn
sooner, you're going to commit to the landing further away from
the carrier, but you'll also have a lot more control over your
landing because you won't have to max the thrusters. Start your
burn as soon as you pass beacon two, you should be able to line
right up on your marks this time. You should have your thrusters
at about 1/100th by the time you reach the last beacon. Now, you
don't get it in VR, but in real life, that's when you feel the
magnetic grapples take hold. You just kill the thrusters and let
the grapples pull you right down onto the lift. If the grapples
are out, or you're landing on an asteroid or something, then
feather them the rest of the way out as you go in to dump that
last bit of delta-v. You can come in smooth enough to land
without spilling anyone's coffee that way."
She nodded and did as he told her, this time the landing was
perfect. "Hey, I did it! In VR, anyway!"
He was glad she knew the difference. "Your first carrier landing
is one of the scariest things you can do as a pilot. There are a
million things you can do wrong -- things that can get people
killed -- and you'll think of every one of them on your way in.
And you can't reset the VR unit and try again if you screw up.
You COULD do it if you had to, Christy, and if you kept your cool
and did exactly what I told you, you wouldn't screw up too bad.
But you wouldn't have to, the flight deck would send out a tug to
bring you in."
She nodded. "I need to check on everyone."
"If you think you can get some sleep the next shift, go ahead.
After that, I'll show you how to check up on the autopilot, then
I'll take a break."
<End Part Three>
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