Author's Note: This story, "Promises to Keep", takes place immediately following the episode "Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best." It is also contains references to my previous story, "The Darkest Night." "Promises to Keep" is rated PG for language and non- graphic violence.

Many thanks to Gabrielle Bessey for all her help.

Promises TO Keep
Becky Ratliff

Part One
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep"

From "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
by Robert Frost

There was a bird singing somewhere close by. Vansen shook her head, opened her eyes. It was steaming hot, and her field of vision was obscured by something hazy and translucent red. She blinked her eyes a couple of times.

The parachute had fallen over top of the cockpit...and she was still alive to be aware of that fact. After that last hard bounce, she wouldn't have bet the rent on that outcome.

She turned in her seat so fast her restraints bit into her shoulders. She struck the release hard with her fist to get out of the seat belts. "'Phousse!"

Her co-pilot was still out cold--for all Vansen knew she hadn't regained consciousness since they'd first been hit.

The cockpit was sitting at a definite angle, making movement in the crowded quarters an exercise in caution. She found the medikit and pulled out the little hand scanner. It wouldn't tell her much but it was better than she'd had as a lifeguard. She attached the clips and sensor tabs and waited for the little unit to boot up.

The results were fairly good, Damphousse's pulse and blood pressure were a little low but not dangerously so. And she didn't have that shocky "look" about her that Vansen had come to associate with people who were about to need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The unit recommended a mild stimulant to help bring her around, but Vansen did what she could to check for obvious injuries first. She didn't want Damphousse to aggravate a fracture by moving around...especially not a neck injury. But when the most thorough exam she could manage produced no evidence of any such thing, she tore open a stim patch and stuck it on the back of her friend's hand. Presently, the drug began to work, the scanner showed `Phousse's vital signs creeping back to normal. Ten minutes later, her eyes started to flutter open.

"Wha'appen? Paul?"

Vansen said, "Vanessa, it's me. You're okay. Don't move around too much yet."

Damphousse blinked a few times and the confusion slowly faded -- to be replaced by a violent bout of nausea. That was the usual result of getting knocked out! When she finally felt like she was back on dry land instead of tossing on the high seas in a rubber raft, she asked, "Shane, what happened up there?"

"Don't know, we took a hit that activated the cockpit separation sequence. We got caught in the planet's gravity well. I ordered Nathan to leave us and pick up the colonists, `Phousse, but I'm sure an SAR team will be on their way in no time."

"Right. I've got to move, Shane, let me out of this seat."

"Let's make double-sure you don't have anything broken, first."

"I got shocked. I've got a burn on my hip where that wire got me, it really hurts. But nothing else does."

"Okay, then, but don't move too fast. We don't want you passing out again."

`Phousse nodded and carefully bent the live wire back out of the way, she did NOT want to come into contact with that again! She stood up very gingerly -- and the cockpit shifted, slid maybe half a meter!

"Hey, Shane, where did you land us?!"

"You're lucky I landed us at all! We bounced three or four times, I thought the last one was going to knock my teeth out!"

"Well, it busted the viewport right behind you. Turn around real slow and see if you can poke a hole in the chute so we can see where we're at!"

"Right. Hey, we found out one thing," Vansen said.

"What's that?" Damphousse asked.

"We can breathe the air down here."

Damphousse gulped. "That's really good to know, Shane."

"Yeah, I thought so." Vansen slowly turned around to face the viewport behind her. She drew her k-bar, a section of the viewport about a meter in diameter was broken out. The thick safety glass broke into chunks, not shards with sharp edges; she didn't have to worry about getting cut on glass as she made a hole in the parachute. Carefully she stuck her head out. They had come to rest on a loose gravel hillside, there was a high cliff to port and, about fifteen meters downhill to starboard, a wide shallow creek. On the other side of the creek was another gravel bank and another cliff. Here and there near the stream, short, wide trees with fat lime-colored leaves grew in the gravel. The sky was obscured by thick cloud cover. Looking up, she couldn't see the top of the canyon for the steamy haze.

"We're sliding down this gravel hill," she reported.

"Does it look like we'll roll over?"

"It doesn't look like it, but I don't think it's a good idea to stay in here all the same."

Moving very carefully, they removed their gear from the capsule. Damphousse got the radio beacon working. "The chigs are as likely to pick this up as our people are!"

Vansen said, "No one's going to pick us up from here unless they're right overhead. Those cliffs could go up forever for all I know! They'll block the signal."

Damphousse said, "Oh, what a wonderful place you found to shipwreck us, Shane! At the bottom of a canyon, at the bottom of a gravity well!"

"I think I bounced us off the top of the cliff, aren't you glad the jets still had some power when that happened?" Shane shot back, but she couldn't help grinning. They were VERY lucky to be alive at all, the odds were against making a parachute landing on dry ground without a carefully planned trajectory. If they'd entered the atmosphere at the wrong angle, they would have made a very pretty shooting star, had anyone happened to have been looking. The chutes could have deployed too early for local conditions and burned up in atmosphere, or too late to slow their descent, and let them smash into the ground at a fatal velocity either way. The atmosphere could have been poisonous -- most were, after all. Had the planet been nearer or farther away from its sun, conditions could have been unsurvivable for humans. Landing in an ocean would have been much gentler, but then they would have been floating out in the middle of all that water! "Let's look at that burn, then find somewhere to make camp. I don't want our camp visible from here, in case the chigs do find the wreck first."

(Aboard the med-evac transport)
McQueen woke up to the persistent beeping of a monitor. He tried to sit up and a wave of drugged dizziness forced him back. He had a needle in his arm. Looking around, he saw a pole with an almost-empty bag of saline solution. He remembered they'd been giving him blood while he had been lying on the stretcher earlier, and he wondered how long he'd been out. Then it hit him again. Wang was dead, Vansen and Damphousse missing in action and presumed dead. He had to know how long he'd been out. His watch had been broken in the explosion, but there was a clock on the bulkhead. At least six hours.

He tried again to get up, found out he couldn't, and then remembered why. He'd lost at least his foot in the explosion, wasn't sure how much more. It was hard to accept the truth of that. He could still feel his foot there, as long as he didn't look. But the helplessness was worse...they were giving Shane up for dead.

He had always known, in an intellectual sense, why West had gone AWOL looking for Kylen...but now he finally understood it. He was certain Shane was alive, as sure as he was of his own existence. If finding her alive and rescuing her from that rock was the last thing he ever did it would have been worth it. But this transport was carrying him further away from her every minute, back to an Earth that didn't give a damn about either of them.

A pretty, Nordic-looking nurse checked on him. "Is there anything I can get you?"

He just shook his head and turned his face to the bulkhead, pretended to sleep. It was easier than trying to think of something to say. He hadn't felt this kind of despair since the mining colony, watching friend after friend waste away from radiation sickness without being able to do a damn thing to help them. There was nothing left to hope for and even less to live for. Except that, if he was the only one who believed Shane and Vanessa were still alive, then giving up wasn't an option.

(Planet 2063Y)
It was getting dark, the signal light back at the wreck was coming on. Vansen wondered how much good it would do, though, its beam filtered up through the ever present haze and she wasn't sure how far up in the clouds it could be seen.

Vansen looked around their camp, it was well hidden in the rocks. Camo tarps worked better some times than others, but this time it had done an excellent job of emulating the mottled gray pattern of the gravel. She knew chigs wouldn't want to climb that loose stuff without a real good reason, they moved too stiffly in their battlesuits. From here, they could see the wreck through their scopes, and they'd have plenty of warning to move along if the wrong kind of company came calling. They'd stuffed their packs with supplies and cached what they couldn't carry in a recess in the cliff. Even if the chigs did force them to abandon their camp and run for the hills, they were going to do everything they could to avoid another Demios situation.

There didn't seem to be any large wild animals around. They hadn't seen anything all day that was bigger than some little avians, the creatures looked closer to pterodactyls than birds. As evening came on and the canyon darkened, some large-eyed furry creatures the size of woodchucks had crept out of their hiding places to search for food, but they hadn't seen or heard anything to indicate any large predators were around. They had the camp blacked out rather than building a big fire as protection against animals, which would allow them to stay hidden at night as well as during the day.

Satisfied that they had done as good a job of concealing the camp as they could, she headed back up. Damphousse had opened two packages of rations and made coffee. She turned off the little heater unit and hid it behind a big rock where it wouldn't show up to infrared lenses. They crawled under the camo tarp and she passed Vansen her supper tray. "How does it look?"

"Pretty good. I think they could walk right by us along the stream and not spot us. We'll take turns keeping watch, though, I'd rather not put it to the test."

"We're going to have to get the repeater unit out of the wreck tomorrow and get it up on one of those cliffs somehow, to boost our signal up out of this canyon. We don't have a snowball's chance of being spotted down here."

"'Phousse, I was looking at the cliff while we were hiding the supplies earlier. I did some rock climbing back home in California, and it looks like we could do it."

"With the radio repeater?"

"We haul it up on ropes!" Vansen explained. "We won't have a real climbing rig, of course, but it looks like there are plenty of handholds and we can belay one another. I'll make a test climb tomorrow, and then after I scout it out, I'll teach you. You aren't afraid of heights, are you?"

"No, but falling is another story!"

Vansen agreed that falling was to be avoided. "If we didn't have the chigs to worry about, you know, this wouldn't be too bad."

"Shane, my idea of a dream vacation would be visiting the French Riviera, not going on safari! I'm scared. At least, when we were stranded on Demios, people knew where we were!"

"I know, `Phousse. But as soon as we get that repeater going, they'll know where we are, right?"

Damphousse hesitated only a moment. "Right," she said decisively.

"There's one thing I can promise you. The Colonel won't let them leave us here. Somehow he'll make them come after us."

Damphousse had stretched out on her bedroll upon finishing her coffee, but now she rolled up on one elbow and stared at Vansen. "Whoa, girlfriend, you just lit up like fireworks on the Fourth of July! You are in love with the man, aren't you?"

Vansen was completely flustered at the velocity with which the cat had just leapt out of the bag. "Well -- I -- It's a real pain to try to keep something quiet around a psychic, you know that?"

`Phousse smelled a good story. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone. Is something going on--?"

"No. We decided that would be a bad idea. There's too much happening."

"Yeah. I guess you're right. Paul and I decided the same thing, you know, we didn't want to cause trouble with the rest of the unit. It doesn't change the way you feel, though."


"Oh, Shane, who could believe something good could come out of being captured on Marged?"

She smiled and lay back. "Score one for the good guys."

`Phousse reached over almost shyly to pat her shoulder. "Shane, thanks for sticking with me. You risked your life to bring that capsule down in one piece. I'll never forget that as long as I live."

"You'd have done the same if I'd been knocked out."

"That doesn't change what you did. You're a real hero."

Vansen made a rude noise. "Real heroes don't give the battle plans to the enemy! We wouldn't be in this mess if I'd had more sense back on Anvil!"

"We were all as guilty as you were."

Vansen said miserably, "The only good thing is -- if we hadn't done what we did, I doubt the truth about Aerotech would ever have come out. But that doesn't seem like enough of a good thing to make up for what we did. Oh, `Phousse, if we'd never brought that damn chig on board -- what happened to the Colonel was all my fault!"

"Oh, no, it wasn't! We may have done a lot of things wrong, Shane, but we weren't the ones who decided to trust that chig far enough to let him sneak a bomb into the peace conference! I know damn well the Colonel doesn't blame you for what happened."

Vansen knew that was true, but the fact was that she was blaming herself. She wasn't the only one who had made the mistake but that didn't matter, it had happened on her watch. She was silent a long time, and when she finally spoke, it was barely above a whisper. "'Phousse...I don't think the Colonel has ever needed anyone in his life, but he needs me now, and I can't help."

"The guys will be there for him until we get home, you know that."

"I know."

"He's tough, and so are you. You just keep believing and hang in there for him -- and you can bet he's doing the same thing for you."

Vansen nodded.

"Go to sleep. You're going to need it if we're going to go rock climbing tomorrow! I'll take first watch."

Vansen burrowed her hand under her bedroll to pull out a couple of especially uncomfortable rocks, then curled up and tried to fall asleep. It was so hard to believe that this morning they had all been together and the war had been all but over. Her biggest concern then had been completely selfish, that as punishment for her stupidity on Anvil she'd be reassigned to permanent garbage detail on some outpost far away from McQueen. Now, she would have welcomed being busted back to private and assigned to an iceball, if only he hadn't been hurt. Some good people had been killed in that explosion. But for the grace of God Commodore Ross would have been in that room as well. For all Damphousse's words of encouragement, she couldn't stop feeling responsible for everything that had gone wrong today.

This, Vansen thought, was a lot like the day her mom and dad had been killed. The family had been planning to go to the beach later that day. For the most part, though, it had been an ordinary day just like any other, as late summer had faded into autumn and school had been getting ready to start. And then in an instant, everything had changed. By nightfall, her parents were dead, and she and her sisters had been just three more orphans in the county home.

But, Vansen reminded herself, they had survived and kept their little family together through all the adversities that followed. They had been batted from one foster home to another, some had been good and a couple still made her skin crawl. But they'd managed somehow until she was old enough to sue for emancipation and get custody of her sisters. She'd worked a lot of minimum wage jobs to keep the rent paid and food on the table. She'd stayed out of trouble, got her diploma, and kept her sisters out of any serious trouble as well.

She knew she had the determination to make it through the hard times, and she trusted Damphousse to be tough and resourceful too. They'd be okay. They'd get the repeater working, boosting their SOS signal up out of this canyon. And someone would rescue them. She couldn't let herself think about anything else right now!

Her watch was almost over when it started to rain. They weren't, she realized, going to be doing any rock climbing today! There was going to be nothing to do except huddle under the tarp, listen to the steady rainy drumbeat, and get soaked all over again every time they had to venture out of the tent. Her only consolation was that, if there were chigs out there, they just had to be even more miserable than she was with all that water around! Disgusted, she let Damphousse sleep, and sat watching it rain on the rocks outside.

(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 bunk!

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 often.

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 every night.

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 so.

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 chair.

Fallon was at the computer station analyzing a blood sample from Tyler, she prepared a shot and brought it to him.

"More chemo?"

"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 further arguments.

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 happen, sir!"

"I was."

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 guns?"

"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 goggles."

She complied, but asked, "But what--"

"I know how to fly this thing, and you've got an injured man to take care of."

"Yes, sir!"

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 of here."

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 three."

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 intercom.

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."

"Yes, sir."

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 sights.

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 me?"

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 breathe?"

"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?"

"Yeah, right!"

"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 others."

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.

Next : Part Two

© June 1996 Becky Ratliff