Vansen and Damphousse started back to the capsule first thing the
next morning. The ground had dried out more during the night, so
they had easier traveling -- less slogging through mud. They took
the repeater unit with them, slung between them on a pole.
`Phousse planned to slave it to the LRR in the capsule and use it
to boost their signal out to the carrier. They would only use it
when the planet's rotation put them at the right angle for the
Saratoga to pick them up. The rest of the time, they would let
the automated beacon go on its own, so that, hopefully, it would be
heard by SAR recon flights.
When they got back to the wreck, it was beastially hot. The sun
had come out, and the steam off the wet ground turned everything
into a sauna. All the hiking and climbing in and out of the cave
had aggravated `Phousse's injury, she found she couldn't crawl
around the outside of the capsule the way she wanted to. For the
most part she had to stand on the ground and give Vansen
instructions to fix the antenna. Vansen stripped off her flight
jacket and tied a sweat band around her forehead, and followed
`Phousse's instructions as exactly as she could. But still,
nearly every time she got an instruction, she found herself asking
which thingamabob was the framistat. A couple of times,
Damphousse did have to climb up there and do something herself.
The second time, she pulled the burn open and it started bleeding.
She finished the job she was doing before she said anything -- and
then, she probably wouldn't have said anything if Vansen hadn't
noticed a bloodstain on her pants leg. They climbed down and
Vansen treated the burn again.
After that, Damphousse had to reset a few things inside the
capsule. By evening, they had the radio going again. They
retreated to the forest and took cover in the shelter of some
brush, once again using the camo tarp to disguise themselves.
Later that night, far overhead, two Hammerheads skimmed the
clouds. West was on lookout while Hawkes operated the sensor gear
his bird carried as a payload. They had been volunteering for
this duty ever since they had got back to the Saratoga with
Kylen and the others, now it was about 0100 the morning of the
fifth day. They intended to continue as long as Commodore Ross
permitted them to do so.
Suddenly Hawkes came completely alert and shot his hand out to
adjust a device attached to the top of his instrument panel.
"King, this is Jack, I've got a recording of about thirty seconds
of something here! It's real faint, but it's a definite signal!
I can't tell what it is, though."
"Patch it through to my frequency." Hawkes did so, and they both
listened to the signal for a while with no idea what it was.
Hawkes finally compressed it and transmitted it back to the
Saratoga for her communications techs to work on. Then they
continued their search, trying to pick up more of it.
Finally, West checked his watch. Reluctantly he ordered, "That's
our time-over-target, Jack. Take her back to the barn and let's
see if the techies had any luck with that signal you intercepted."
"Acknowledged." As one, the fighters swung over in formation and
set a course back to their carrier.
Ross was waiting with a huge ear to ear grin on his face when they
strode into the communications center. West asked, "Commodore, do
we have something?"
"You sure do, son. It's the automatic distress beacon from the
ISSAPC. You're going to have some more sets of eyes out there
helping you look. Get something to eat, get some sleep, then get
back out there."
Nathan snapped a sharp salute. "Sir, yes sir!" Hawkes also
saluted, then with a much lighter step, the two men headed off
towards the mess hall.
Hawkes asked, "Do you think they could have made it after all?"
"I don't know. The computer indicated that they would have come
in really hard. But if the capsule's still in good enough shape
for the radio to be working -- it sure sounds a lot better than it
The next morning, Vansen and Damphousse started their project with
the repeater. It was a long job to unpack the unit and set it up.
Vansen did the heavy work of assembling the antenna and digging a
hole to set it in the ground, while `Phousse ran wires from inside
the capsule and worked on the electronics. Except for a break at
lunch time, they kept at it as long as they had light to work by.
When they retreated to their camp that night, Damphousse said, "I
think this is really going to work. I'm getting a stronger signal
out than I thought I would. As soon as I get it narrowed down
enough to go long-range, we'll be in business."
"You mean we could be talking to the Sara first thing tomorrow
Damphousse nodded excitedly.
"How's your hip doing?" Vansen asked, concerned. She had seen
`Phousse favoring the injury quite a bit today, and it should be
healing better. Deep electrical burns were dangerous, sometimes
they didn't want to heal up properly.
Damphousse said reasonably, "How do you think it is, Shane, it
hurts! As soon as we get back to the Sara I'll go to the doctor
for it. We're doing all we can for it now, though."
"Yeah. Do you want a pain pill? It might make you sleep better."
"I'm afraid it might. I don't want to sleep too sound in case a
chig patrol comes this way."
"Right." Shane couldn't deny the danger. The same signal that
would alert their rescuers would also be heard by the chigs. If
the enemy was going to try to hold this planet, they would send a
recon patrol to investigate the radio transmissions. It was now a
question of time, whether they would be reached first by a SAR
team or by a chig patrol.
Vansen's mouth went dry as too-fresh memories of previous
captivity came flooding back. Unconsciously, her hand went to the
side of her face, now unmarked and smooth. She remembered
screaming until her voice gave out. She remembered agony so all
inclusive it had precluded awareness of anything except itself,
suffering so horrible she had no longer been able to remember
where she was or even who she was. Her entire existence had been
reduced to one simple reality -- one more breath had been a few
more seconds of survival.
She had chosen to survive.
Now she had even more reason. With an ocean of stars as
witnesses, she had made a promise that now meant more to her than
anything. I'll always be here....I would never run out on you.
Her fist clenched so hard the nails bit into her palm. She would
do everything in her power to avoid capture until she and
Damphousse could be rescued. If they were captured, she would
keep them both alive whatever they had to endure. Because McQueen
had made her the same promise. And she knew there was nowhere in
hell the chigs could take her that he wouldn't find her somehow.
Damphousse fell asleep as the last daylight faded. Silently,
Vansen rearranged herself so her back rested against a tree and
pulled her visor down to keep watch.
(on the medical transport)
Ames came back up to the cockpit after having checked on the
others. McQueen asked, "How are they holding up?"
She settled herself in her seat before she answered. "Good. The
air isn't getting to them as badly as it is to us, because they
don't need as much oxygen right now. Mark's burns look worse.
I'm glad it won't be much longer."
McQueen looked across at Ames, the black circles around her eyes
gave away her exhaustion. "Our ETA is about two hours. We can
hold out that long." McQueen hoped he was right. The air already
had a definite metallic smell to it, chemicals in the recycler
were starting to break down. He didn't know if they had enough
air for two hours or twenty minutes.
He tried the standard radio again. "Saratoga, this is Queen
Six, do you copy?"
They waited for a reply. Ames said, "We aren't close enough yet,
"No, but I was hoping one of her patrols might be," he replied.
"We're just going to have to be patient for a little while
longer." He shifted his weight uncomfortably, what he wanted to
do was get up and move around but he disciplined himself against
wasting the oxygen that would require.
Ames didn't answer immediately, just sat there looking out into
the starfield for a long time. "That's the hard part," she said
at last, quietly. "I've almost got killed before, the first time
was in an avalanche back home. But it's always been something
that happened, and I dealt with it, and then it was over. I never
had to sit and wait to see if I'd live or die before. I'm a
nurse, I'm not supposed to panic, but I've done all I can do and
I don't know if it was enough."
McQueen said, "Take a look out there."
His gesture took in the panorama in front of them. "Christy, do
you know how many people ever get a front-row seat for that view
out there? Most people will never see that anywhere except on a
vid screen. You've got twenty-five millimeters of viewscreen
between you and infinity. What more do you want?"
After a little while, a slow smile lit her expression as she
thought about it. "Yes, sir."
Glen Ross stepped onto the command deck and put his bridge
officers at ease. He stopped a moment to watch how everything was
going, and started across to his station. He detoured over to the
LIDAR station as the officer there caught his attention with a
"What have you got, Mr. Maxwell?"
"A single ship, sir. It's an ISSCV, but she's not responding to
our hails. She's on a course directly for us."
"That isn't one of ours?"
"No, sir, all our transports are accounted for."
He ordered the comms officer to have the fighter patrol check it
out, and watched on LIDAR as the Hammerhead squadron swiftly
closed with the transport.
McQueen saw first one blip, then two appear at the edge of the
LIDAR display. He waited to see the rest of the formation, to
tell whether it was friend or foe. If the chigs had found them,
he didn't give much for their chances. When the rest of the
squadron appeared, he let out the breath he'd been holding.
"Well, Lieutenant Ames, we have company."
"What? They found us?!"
"It's one of the Saratoga's patrols."
The Hammerheads dropped into a formation alongside the transport
and the flight leader requested identification. McQueen spoke
into his pickup. "This is Queen Six, my LRR's out and we're short
on air. We need a pickup."
Ten minutes later, the Saratoga came into view. And five
minutes after that, they were safely aboard her.
McQueen stayed back while the medics got everyone else off the
transport, Ames went with them to sickbay. He followed them down
the ramp. Ross was waiting, the Commodore couldn't help grinning
at the sight of his friend up and around, even if it was on
"Ty, you have a genuine talent -- I sure as hell don't know what
you have a talent for, but you have one. What happened?"
"We were three days out when a chig patrol jumped us. The
commander and one of the pilots bought it, and we lost our LRR and
most of our air recycler." He explained the rest of it. "Any
word on Vansen and Damphousse?"
"West and Hawkes recorded about 30 seconds of their emergency
beacon. I've doubled the number of units assigned to SAR duty.
We'll find the wreck today."
"Glen, get me off the disabled list."
Ross gave him a long searching look, taking in everything from the
look on his face to how steady he was on the crutches. "If I did
that, I'd have you hanging over my shoulder on the bridge," he
said finally. "Just catch up with West and Hawkes, what you do
after that is your business. And, McQueen!"
"Don't make me sorry I did this."
He headed down the corridor towards the Wild Cards quarters. West
and Hawkes were asleep, it created one bit of excitement when he
turned the light on and then another when they saw who it was.
Hawkes didn't say anything, any more than they had said their
good-byes out loud when he had been taken aboard the transport.
But there was a look of relief in his eyes that spoke volumes.
West just said, "Welcome home," and he didn't look too surprised
to see him there.
"The Commodore says you picked up Vansen's emergency beacon."
"Yes, sir. There was a lot of interference, the planet isn't the
best place in the world for radio transmissions. We didn't know
what we had until Comms cleaned up the signal." West cautioned,
"It could just be running on automatic."
McQueen said, "I know. But they didn't crash and burn if there's
a signal at all."
"No, no sir, they didn't," West agreed. He kept his voice
carefully neutral, not wanting to admit to anything that might
create a false hope. He had lived with nothing but the twin
shadows of doubt and hope for the better part of two long years,
until Kylen had been brought back to him. McQueen wasn't
surprised that he was being the voice of reason now.
"The Commodore expects Search and Rescue to find the wreck today.
Let's be ready to move when they do."
Damphousse had been on watch about an hour when she saw movement
overhead. She realized the clouds had cleared, in places she
could see the stars. The movement wasn't a star, and it wasn't
the rescue ship she had hoped for.
She woke Vansen. "We've got trouble! A chig transport just
landed, looks like it came down a few klicks due west."
Vansen rolled out and grabbed her gear, fast. "We have to get the
radio on line and let the Sara know we're alive down here,
`Phousse, we aren't going to get another chance. You do that,
I'll break camp."
"Right." Damphousse ran for the wreck. When Vansen caught up,
she found `Phousse working on the antenna. "Try it now."
Vansen climbed into the capsule and pulled on the headset. "Queen
of Diamonds to Saratoga, mayday, mayday!"
A moment later, she heard one of the sweetest sounds she'd ever
heard in her life. "Queen of Diamonds, this is Saratoga, go
She gave the best description of their location that she could,
and reported the chig landing. "We will have to abandon this
position, as well as our radio, within the next few mikes."
Ross's voice came over the radio. "Do what you have to do to stay
out of enemy hands. The SAR team will find you."
"Roger that, Boss Ross."
Damphousse stuck her head in. "They're about a klick downstream,
I can see their lights moving. We've got to get out of here."
Vansen signed off. "I got through!" She said. "All we have to
do is keep from getting caught until someone can come after us!"
`Phousse said, "Thank God!"
"Let's go. I like the water back in under those trees, don't
"How many of them did you make?"
"Hard to tell," Damphousse replied. "Three of them had lights,
but there are probably more than that. How long do you think it
will take help to get here?"
Vansen said, "An hour and a half, tops, wouldn't you think? It
won't take the guys any longer than that to grab a transport and
come after us, now that they know where we are."
"Then the closer we can stay to the wreck the better. They'll
start looking from these coordinates."
Along one swampy section of shoreline, the trees grew right out
into the water, which was four or five feet deep in places. The
water was jet black, like the silhouettes of the trees; the only
light was the occasional starlight that filtered through transient
breaks in the clouds. Mist rose off the stream, especially in
this quiet backwater. Back home, it would have been the kind of
place Vansen would have expected to find water snakes. She was
less afraid of running afoul of a snake than of being spotted by
the chigs, so she waded out into the water without complaint.
Damphousse did say something under her breath about snakes, but
she didn't wait around on the bank either. They found a hiding
place under a thick low-hanging branch and ducked down until only
their visored helmets were out of the water.
A few minutes later they heard the chigs coming along the bank,
Vansen counted ten of them. She could never lay eyes on the enemy
without getting a chill up her back. The Otherness of the aliens
at once repelled and fascinated her. They were nothing whatsoever
like her. They didn't think anything alike. It seemed the only
thing they shared was a desire to kill one another at the first
opportunity. There was no common ground to start building a
peace. Watching the chigs cross the grassy stream bank to the
wreck, Vansen wondered if it would be possible for this war to end
until either the last chig fell -- or the last human.
The chigs approached the wreck with all due caution, circled
around it and checked out their improvised broadcast tower before
they examined the inside. Finally, one of their number approached
the hatch carefully, weapon in hand, covered by the rest of the
After a while, they finished their search of the wreck and
gathered for a moment. One of them ordered the rest to fan out
and search the area. They broke into pairs and did so, one team
headed back directly towards them. Vansen and Damphousse ducked a
little further down into the water, back against the trunk of the
tree, and waited.
(on the Saratoga)
Ross looked up from the comms console, unable to hide the grin on
his face as he ordered, "Tell Lieutenant West to bring the rest of
his team and meet me on the flight deck."
"Mr. Oliver, you have the conn."
Ross was very much at home on the flight deck. It had been a lot
of years since he'd been a hot young Navy pilot on detached duty
with the 127th, there had been such a shortage of pilots in those
days that it was common for units to contain pilots from different
branches of the service. Nowadays you didn't see too much of
that. It was a jarring thought that he was old enough to be the
father of most of the kids down here...somehow a generation had
changed hands while he wasn't looking. It still felt as though
his fighter ought to be around here somewhere, that Collins and
the rest ought to be waiting for him just around the corner.
Maybe they were.
It was good, for once, to be delivering good news. He found
McQueen sitting on a crate watching West and Ames get the SAR team
organized. "Ty, they made it," he said simply. "They're down in
a river valley near the equator, flight control has the specifics.
But they're both okay. They rigged up their radio repeater for
LRR and got a distress call out just a few mikes ago. You're
going to have a welcoming committee, they spotted a chig transport
landing a few kilometers from their position."
"We've been there before, Glen."
Ross saw all the old fire and confidence in the other man's eyes.
He had been worried, ever since Marged, but now he wasn't worried
any more. He nodded. "Bring `em home."
Ross stepped back out of the way and let McQueen start getting the
<End Part Four>
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