(Aboard the med-evac transport)
McQueen sat up on the side of his bunk to eat lunch. The doctor
had removed the gelskin from around what was left of his ankle and
pronounced that this afternoon he would be fitted with an
artificial leg. It was just temporary, until he got to Bethesda
for something permanent, but at least it would get him out of his
He had made a few observations about his fellow passengers aboard
the shuttle, but up until now being confined to his berth had kept
him from any real interaction with most of them. The Navy doctor,
Commander Rick Holsinger, was in command of the transport.
There were two nurses, the pretty blond one he had first seen upon
waking up three days ago was named Christy Ames. She was bright,
with an almost insufferably cheerful personality. She had
apparently just skimmed in over the minimum height regulations, he
had never seen such a short officer before. He had been very
surprised to realize that she was an in vitro like him, for some
reason, and wondered why it had surprised him.
The other nurse was Gloria Fallon, she was a ten-year veteran with
bright red hair and a nasty attitude. He hadn't talked to her
much, her hard brown eyes didn't invite conversation and she
seemed suspicious of everyone, except Christy. Somehow the two
nurses were best friends in spite of being complete opposites. At
first he had wondered how someone with such an abrasive
personality had succeeded as a career Navy nurse, but then he had
seen how competent she was at her job.
Like the two pilots, they were both Lieutenants. He hadn't seen
much of the pilots, Teresa Wyeth and Mark Miller. From their
uniforms, he knew they were Navy, and that was about all he knew
about them. They didn't come back into the medical bay very
Besides himself, there were two other people being evacuated back
to Earth. One berth forward and across the aisle was Corporal
Jennita Bailey, an Army reservist assigned to the _Saratoga's_
laundry detail. By a stroke of extremely bad luck, she had been
directly outside the conference room when the explosion had gone
off. Flying debris had put her eyes out. She was trying to be
brave, but during lights-out when she thought no one could hear
her, she muffled her sobs in her pillow and cried herself to sleep
The other evacuee was further forward, McQueen knew he was Marine
Sgt. Philip Tyler and he had a rapidly spreading cancer which
could not be treated aboard the Saratoga. But Tyler kept to
himself, so they'd had no contact for McQueen to have learned any
more than that about him.
Looking at the two of them, McQueen had slowly realized that he
didn't have a whole lot of business feeling sorry for himself,
because he could have been hurt a hell of a lot worse. If he'd
been blinded or come down with a chronic disease he wouldn't have
had any chance of getting back to the front, to look for Shane.
As it was, he was determined to choose whatever course of
treatment would get him back to the Saratoga the fastest,
whether that was a permanent prosthesis or a cloned graft.
Ames collected his empty tray, and a little while later came back
with a cart from one of the lockers. She set about the task of
fitting him with his prosthesis and a pair of crutches. He was
warned not to put any weight on his leg until the new tissue was
completely healed, but he needed to wear the prosthesis as much as
he could to get used to the cybernetic links that made it move
naturally. It was going to be his transportation for a month or
She wanted him to limp up and down the aisle a couple of times, he
used that as an excuse to get her to get rid of the saline drip.
After that, he was out of his rack for good until lights out, he
found a spot at a table and let Lt. Ames prop his leg up on a
Fallon was at the computer station analyzing a blood sample from
Tyler, she prepared a shot and brought it to him.
"Yep," she replied.
"That stuff ain't gon' do nothin' but make me sick, why you think
I'm on my way back to Earth in the first place?!"
"It won't make you any better, but it just might keep you from
getting any worse till we get you home. You might as well make up
your mind this is how it's going to be, if you want to live."
Tyler gave her a glare, but rolled up his sleeve without any
Ames put away the cart she had been using on McQueen and took a
treatment tray back to check on Bailey. "We have a VR unit and
some tapes on basic Braille. How would you like to start
learning?" She asked kindly.
"I suppose I should," Bailey replied, in a resigned tone. Then
she brightened just a little. "Say, do you think they'll let me
have a seeing-eye dog?"
"I think they usually do," Ames replied. "Do you like dogs?"
"Yeah. I have a dog back home, she's a miniature poodle. My
mom's taking care of her for me."
"Before the war, I worked for the Park Service. I lived with some
friends in Aspen who have a huge Doberman. He wouldn't hurt a
fly, but I never had to worry about anyone bothering me when I
took him out jogging with me!"
For the first time, McQueen heard a little laugh out of Bailey.
Ames brought her up to the table and introduced them. Bailey had
probably never said two words to a Lieutenant Colonel before other
than "Yes, sir!" and "No, sir!", and she was obviously extremely
flustered to find herself plopped unceremoniously down at a table
with one. "At ease, Bailey, I haven't had a Corporal for breakfast
for at least a week."
His tone of voice reassured her, she relaxed a little. "Yes, sir.
If you don't mind me asking, what are you in for, sir?"
She made it sound like she was welcoming him to a shared cell in
prison. "I was hurt at the same time you were," McQueen replied.
"I lost my foot when the bomb went off, but I think all in all I
was pretty lucky -- most of the blast must have gone around me
somehow, or I wouldn't be here to tell it."
"No, sir! You must have been right on top of it for that to
Tyler was trying hard to stay in a bad mood and ignore everyone,
but that got his attention in spite of himself. "What I'd like to
know is how a bomb got in there in the first place! Sir."
McQueen said, "Believe me, Sergeant, I'd like to know the answer
to that question too."
Lt. Miller's voice came over the loudspeaker. "Commander
Holsinger to the cockpit, please."
Holsinger finished the cup of coffee he was drinking and headed
forward. McQueen wondered what was up, it galled him to no end
that he'd just be in the way up there whatever it was.
He didn't have long to wonder. The transport was rocked by a
blast and the lights went out. Ames' in vitro reflexes were fast
enough that she grabbed a rail; Fallon was thrown sprawling.
Miller yelled, "Fire!" Fallon got her feet under her and ran
forward with a fire extinguisher into a cloud of black smoke,
McQueen grabbed one of his crutches and headed up there after her
to secure the forward hatch. If there was a fire up there, it had
to be kept away from the oxygen tank, or they had all might as
well stuff their pockets with jam.
Tyler threw his blanket off. "Yo, nurse, has this thing got
"Up there, do you know how to fire them?"
"I'm -- was -- a gunner aboard the Sara."
He brushed against Bailey, she grabbed his arm and demanded in a
frightened voice, "What's going on, Sarge?"
"Someone's shootin' at us, I'm gon' return the favor. You just
sit tight!" With that, he disappeared up the ladder to the gun
turret, yelling down for Ames to secure the hatch behind him.
Ames did that, then joined McQueen at the forward hatch. She
peered anxiously through the door's small viewport. The corridor
beyond was obscured by smoke. Presently, though, Fallon
reappeared on the other side of the hatch, coughing violently.
She pounded with her fist to signal that she had the fire out and
it was safe to re-open the hatch, McQueen spun the wheel and swung
it open. Fallon stumbled out, eyes streaming. "Shut it!" She
gasped. "Mark's got his helmet!"
"What about Doc and Terri?!"
"They bought it when that console blew. Mark's in godawful shape
himself, but he's the only one who knows how to fly this thing!
It's crawling with chigs out there!"
The overhead gun turret opened up. McQueen asked, "Does either of
you know how to fire the belly gun?"
They looked at each other. Fallon said, "I'll figure it out!"
"Good. Lt. Ames, get us a couple of oxygen packs and some
She complied, but asked, "But what--"
"I know how to fly this thing, and you've got an injured man to
take care of."
The cockpit was a mess. The whole starboardside console had blown
out, it looked to McQueen like Commander Holsinger had been
standing behind Lt. Wyeth's seat and they had both been
electrocuted by live wires that had broken loose and hit them. An
electrical fire had started in that panel, burnt wiring and
circuitry had been the source of the fumes. McQueen suddenly
developed a lot of respect for young Lieutenant Miller, it had
taken some real guts for him to stay at his post and keep the
chigs off them while the cockpit burned around him.
Ames said, "Mark! Hand off to Colonel McQueen. Let's get you out
Miller got out of the way, the whole right side of his flight suit
was charred and he had third-degree burns on his right arm.
McQueen slid into the seat he had vacated, jarring his stump
painfully in the process. He was too worried about the situation
outside to pay much attention right now, he suspected he would
make up for it later. What mattered now was pulling "later" out
of the fire. "What still works?"
Miller was unsteady on his feet and deathly pale, but he managed
to give a lucid and coherent report. "Controls are still good.
LIDAR was in and out, I think the secondaries kicked in but I'm
not sure. You've got your forward cannons, but don't try firing
the missiles -- fire control's in that mess over there."
"Roger that. How many of them are out there?"
"Two less than there were a couple mikes ago, sir, and I think
whoever's topside just got at least one other. That still leaves
LIDAR confirmed that, McQueen spotted three clouds of wreckage.
He adjusted the LIDAR to compensate for the damage, the other
three chig fighters appeared on screen just in time for Fallon to
get one of them in her sights. Enthusiasm made up for lack of
accuracy, you didn't have to be a crack shot to fire a gun that
could put out 2000 rounds per minute. They could hear her victory
whoop all the way up in the cockpit without benefit of the
McQueen was more concerned about the other two, who were setting
up for an attack run. Unlike a Hammerhead, the transport had
simulated gravity, which would help compensate for the g-forces
generated by the maneuvers he would have to make. He knew he
still had to take them out fast...he couldn't stand up to a
sustained dogfight with his ear implant. And he thought he saw a
way to do it. "Ames, get Miller and Bailey secured back there."
That hit had come close to the main starboardside jet. He
feathered it in and out, giving the chigs the impression it was
damaged, and letting them start listing to starboard. He
spoke into his pickup. "Fallon, Tyler, do you read me?"
Tyler sang out immediately, "Sir!" A beat later, Fallon said,
"Yes, yes sir!"
"Get ready, in about a mike we're going to yaw over to portside."
That was all the explanation Tyler needed, but he figured he had
better elaborate. "Fallon, that means we'll spin hard to the
left, okay? If this works, you should each have a chig right in
your sights when that happens, just open up on anything you see
moving out there!"
He heard Ames slam the hatch behind them. As he had hoped, the
two remaining chigs were drawn in by his broken-wing trick. They
closed in for the kill. One broke left and the other right,
coming in along the transport's midline where they were between
the gun turrets' arcs of fire. However, once they were committed
to their attack run, McQueen kicked the starboard thruster back
on, heeling them over 90 degrees to port and putting each chig
fighter in range of a gun turret.
Tyler knew exactly where the enemy would be coming from, that chig
was smoke as soon as the _Saratoga's_ gunner got him in his
Fallon was a little too late, but her assault made the last
remaining chig abandon his attack run in favor of evasive
maneuvers. Not that it did him any good, because as soon as he
cleared the bow of the transport, that put McQueen right on his
six. One burst from the forward cannons and the fight was over.
McQueen sat there for a moment, recovering his balance and
listening to the noisy victory celebration in the rear bay. Then
he ran damage-control diagnostics to find out what shape the
transport was in. The results were damning. Everything else had
come back on line, but the air recycling unit was only operating
at twenty percent of normal. All the computer calculations
indicated that, for the six of them who remained alive, there
would only be enough air for thirty-six hours. He switched to
long range radio. "Saratoga, this is Queen Six, do you read
He waited thirty seconds longer than the distance indicated it
should have taken the message to be heard and answered, then tried
again. Nothing. More diagnostics indicated why, their long-range
radio was down. Along with everything else in that starboard
panel, it was fried, and the backup system had shorted out as
well. Hyperspace radio was fragile. There were spare parts, but
he didn't know enough about it to make repairs -- even if the unit
wasn't too badly damaged to be repaired at all.
Ames and Fallon came forward to retrieve Holsinger and Wyeth's
bodies, he asked them to come back up when they were finished with
that. He broke the news to them and had them re-check his
calculations. Fallon did that, confirming his results. Ames
asked, "Where's the nearest planet with an atmosphere we can
"We won't make it to a planet. The best chance we've got is the
Saratoga, we should reach her position in sixty hours if I
divert all non-essential power to the thrusters."
Fallon said, "Even counting in the medical reserves of oxygen, we
only have enough for forty hours. That means only four of us --"
It wasn't the first time something like this had happened. The
tradition was to hold a lottery, with everyone taking an equal
chance of drawing a bad number. The losers committed suicide so
the rest could live.
Suddenly Ames raised her head. "Wait a minute. Gloria, do you
remember those scientists we pulled off that asteroid that time?"
"They were running out of air. So they drugged themselves into
hibernation to use less oxygen and give us time to pick them up.
Run the calculations again and see if that would work for us!"
Fallon turned back to the console, inputting the new variables.
"It looks like -- it should work. All of us except you, sir, and
Mark, will have to put ourselves under. Almost in cryosleep, to
cut our metabolisms down far enough. But that should buy us
enough time to catch back up with the Sara! It'll be close, and
it won't be a lot of fun for the two of you at the last."
"We'd have as much chance as anyone else of drawing a short straw,
otherwise," he pointed out. "Make sure you've got enough
sedatives to make it work, then I'll break the news to the
What McQueen didn't say was that he hoped the Saratoga was still
holding her original position. If she'd received new orders in
the meanwhile, they would reach their destination only to find
empty space waiting for them. With the radio down, they didn't
have a choice.
<End Part Two>
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