Thanks to Patrice, Gabrielle, and "Speedbump" for all your help. I can be reached at my husband's e-mail address, Please reference the story title or my name in the subject line.

This story is a prequel, set in the year 2059, which is 5 years before the setting of Space: Above and Beyond.

The Box
Becky Ratliff

Part One

2059 Macaulay's World

McQueen checked his LIDAR again, nothing. The pirates they'd chased into the asteroid belt were lying low, but he could feel them out there. He and Collins were playing a deadly game of tag, using the asteroids as cover just as the pirates were doing.

Collins' voice came over the radio. She sounded, if anything, a little bored. "Black Knight, this is Rattler, I think they've decided not to come out and play any more. I'm going to run that wide place, see if I can draw some fire, you on me?"

"Roger that, Rattler. Watch that big iceball at the end."

"That's a roger." Her Hammerhead swung over and she dropped into the slot, they hoped the pirates would figure she had got lost from her wingman and take the bait. Sure enough, two of them did. Collins made straight for the ice asteroid that McQueen had warned her about... unfortunately for the first pirate, he hadn't heard the warning. Collins' SA-43 danced gracefully between the iceball and a huge chunk of rock. The SA-38 on her six swung wide to miss the iceball, then he saw the rock straight ahead of him and pulled up desperately--too late. The 38 slammed into the rock, several tons of missile, and exploded. McQueen figured, trust Collins to find a way to save the taxpayers the expense of a trial without getting herself court-martialed. The woman was as vicious as the pirates she fought.

McQueen dropped in on the second one's six and switched his radio to the frequency they'd monitored the pirates using earlier, ordered the pirate to surrender.

The response was almost a scream, "Dave, I've got one on my tail, I can't shake this son of a bitch! They got Chris! I need some help out here!"

"Don't piss your pants," Dave Stuart's voice replied. "I've got him."

An alarm told McQueen that Stuart wasn't lying, someone had a lock on him. He dumped chaff and made for a narrow opening between two rocks. "Rattler, I've found the other one."

"Roger that, I'm on my way."

McQueen's LIDAR showed the third pirate had fired two missiles, one of them exploded harmlessly in the chaff but the other one was still on him. He made straight for the pair of rocks, fired his maneuvering jets at the last possible second. The missile couldn't match his turn, it sent a shower of debris out into space as it blew the asteroid to fragments.

The Hammerhead rocked with an impact and his board lit up in a string of red lights.

Having fired on them, Stuart had made himself fair game for Collins. She locked on the 38 and fired a single missile. "Sayonara, sweetheart!" She said with a great deal of satisfaction as the 38 blew apart. She addressed the last one. "Honey, I guess I've got to give you a chance to surrender. But why don't you shoot at me instead? I really wish you would...."

That was enough for him.

McQueen ran a damage control check. "Rattler, can you handle this guy?"

"Sure can, why?"

"I took some shrapnel damage from that last near miss, I'm going to have to set her down on-world."

"Roger that, Black Knight. Do you want me to follow you down?"

He checked the boards again. That would mean letting the pirate go. "Negative, just send me a ride."


Macaulay's World, fourth rock from Timorra, was a cold, arid place. It was marginally an Earth-type planet, with a thin oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere. As far as McQueen could see in any direction, the featureless plain was covered by a sea of grass. A chill wind blew constantly, already it had discovered it could whisper and moan around his Hammerhead. The sky above was leaden gray, as if it could not be bothered to rain or to clear up either one. This was an old, dying world. Only the rich deposits of radioactive ores in the mountains to the south of this bleak plain had given it a name instead of a number. He set up his radio beacon and then investigated the immediate area.

He found no signs of inhabitation, no animals larger than insect size, and no water source. When he got back to the plane, he set up his evaporator unit before he did anything else to make camp. It would take it a while to fill, and it would be nice to make a pot of hot coffee when he finished getting his camp together. He didn't expect a rescue before the next morning at the earliest, by the time a SAR team got organized it would be dark here. There would be no sense in taking the added risk of a night extraction. Spending the night here would be an inconvenience and nothing worse. He expected the temperature to drop below freezing after sunset, but his flight suit and sleeping bag would be warm enough.

There were no lengthening shadows as evening came to Macaulay's World, what sunlight managed to filter through the cloud cover was too weak and diffuse to cast shadows. Rather, the light slowly faded, as if a curtain had gently been drawn across the sky from horizon to horizon. When only a faint glow of distant sunset remained in the western sky, McQueen took a final walk around the perimeter of his camp, then shook out his sleeping bag.

In the scant shelter of his crippled fighter, he watched as the last embers of sunset faded, and night settled in. The wind continued its endless journey over the plains, whispering in the grass and sighing around the plane as if it were searching for something. Alone in the darkness, it was easy to imagine voices in the wind. McQueen tended not to give much credibility to theories of an afterlife, or of ghosts. He wouldn't have minded being proven wrong, but if anything was out there, it would have to provide more concrete proof of its presence than that.

As if in answer to his challenge, he heard a faint snap. That hadn't been the wind. He rolled out of the sleeping bag towards the only cover in sight, behind the landing gear of his plane. Something stung his leg as he reached for his service automatic. He slapped at the sting--and found a dart.

He had time to wonder just whose hands he'd fallen into, before the drug took over and he collapsed, all but paralyzed. His last thought before the darkness claimed him was that he had to warn the SAR team somehow. He forced shaking, nerveless fingers to close around the dart, pulled it free and wedged it in the wheel beside him. Then awareness faded into oblivion.

McQueen wasn't sure if he was really awake at first, it was pitch black and the drug still fogged his remaining senses. For a time, he drifted between sleep and waking. Then he heard a sound that shocked him to full consciousness. AI chatter.

He tried to get his feet under him, found out he was bound hand and foot with thin cord, or wire--whatever it was, it didn't give, and finally cut into his wrist. He forced himself to stop struggling and lie still when he realized there was blood running down his left hand.

Carefully repressed memories started rising from the shadowed depths of the past, like little fishes darting momentarily into the light. His heartbeat hammered against his ribs and thundered in his ears.

He heard the AI modem again -- closer now -- and almost cried out. Where *was* the damned thing!

He made himself take a deep breath, let it out slowly. Calm. Control. He was doing the silicates' work for them, at this rate! Whatever he'd fallen into, panic was not the state in which to face it.

Once he focussed on the silicate and placed where it was -- a couple of meters away, to his right -- the terror became a manageable thing. Reality as opposed to nightmare.

He was lying on cold metal, up against a metal bulkhead. The AI moved -- away from him, thank God -- and behind where it had been sitting was a small yellow telltale light. He knew what that was, the status light on an evaporator unit. This was the main bay of an ISSCV. Not a spaceworthy one, however, he could feel a bitterly cold draft from somewhere. He couldn't see, but he suspected the ports were broken out.

A few minutes later, there was another burst of modem noise, then the silicate opened the hatch. He got a brief look at it in the dim glow from the emergency light. It was a small female model, it had long light brown hair. It was wearing a short cotton-print dress and a pair of raggedy, stringless sneakers. He thought it must have been a secretarial or housekeeping model, it didn't look very imposing in that brief light. It had his pistol in its belt, however, and that tended to equalize the odds considerably. It slammed the hatch down and the dark silence closed in again.

McQueen tried to stay awake, but the drug was still working itself out of his system and he drifted in and out for a while. Lying in one enforced position in the cold soon became such misery, however, that after a while he had no trouble keeping his eyes open.

Eventually, the morning light came stark and gray through the viewports...broken out, as he had suspected. The bay was really just a stripped down cargo box, with only the galley and two bunks left of whatever amenities it had once possessed. From where he lay on aft, the box had been refitted with two rows of wooden storage bins, a narrow corridor ran between them. A clothesline was strung across the bay. On it hung a faded pair of jeans, a somewhat larger black skirt, and two blouses. All of the clothing was old and worn, but oddly enough for AI's, it was clean and neatly mended. The whole area, for that matter, was shipshape, which surprised him. From what McQueen had seen of AIs, most of them didn't care what kind of mess they made.

The hatch came up and two AI's came in, the one he'd seen before and another one, also female, willowy with long silky black hair. An argument was obviously in progress, from the looks the two were exchanging. The new one came over and looked down at him, pointing and exclaiming. The first replied with a short loud burst of sound -- and stamped its foot. The brunette threw its hands up, obviously conceding the argument against its better judgment. Finally it decided to speak English. "My totally glitched friend here caused us all a lot of trouble by bringing you here. I'd have left you where I found you, but -- no! Now I don't have the slightest idea what I should do with you. I don't want any trouble. If we turn you loose, do I have *any* kind of an assurance you won't try to sneak back here and kill us both?"

McQueen asked, "Does my word count as an assurance?"

She said, "I've never met a carbonite whose word I could trust."

"The same goes for me with AI's," he replied.

She looked back and forth between him and the other AI. "I am making the mistake of my life," she muttered. She pulled a knife from her belt.

The sight of a knife in an AI's hand set off reactions that left McQueen literally shaking. He clenched his jaw to keep from screaming as she knelt by him...and cut the cord binding his ankles. Then she disappeared behind him and cut his wrists free. It wasn't until she moved away from him that he could bring himself to move. Aching in every muscle, he pulled his arms around in front of him and got to his feet.

He looked back and forth between the two of them. "What are you doing out here?"

The first AI said, "We belonged to a couple of prospectors. They were working a claim in the mountains. We were jumped by pirates and the transport was damaged. They left us here with the cargo box when they couldn't fix it. You're the only one we've seen since."

"You're just going to let me go," he said skeptically. "Why didn't you just kill me when you had the chance?"

Hastily the second one warned him, "Don't go getting any ideas that we still can't! Marcy has your gun, remember -- just you *think* about bothering us and see how fast we'll use it! We just want you out of here -- there's the door!"

Unable to believe his luck, McQueen made for the hatch. He was going to catch hell for losing the automatic, but he wasn't stupid enough to try to get it back, either. Well out of his reach, Tina watched him very suspiciously as he opened the hatch and backed away from the cargo box. Once the AI was sure he was far enough down the ramp that he couldn't easily grab her, she darted over and slammed the hatch. He heard the lock shoot home.

Good riddance to you, too, he thought. Expecting a bullet in the back every second, he put some distance between him and the cargo box -- and didn't stop until he was well out of sight of the AIs' lair.

Once he was sure he was clear, and not being followed, he paused and looked around. The sea of grass went on for kilometers..... every direction.....
.....and he had no idea where he was in relation to his plane.

McQueen realized he was, as Ross would have put it, in real deep serious. He searched his pockets, the AIs had taken his gun and k-bar but they had missed the butterfly knife in his pocket. As far as supplies went, he had a couple of ration bars in another pocket.

Water was the real worry. Whatever the AIs had used to knock him out had dehydrated him badly. He was lucky that was all it had done, he knew all too well what a supposedly "safe" drug could do to an IV. But if he didn't find a source of water soon, it wouldn't be very long until he'd be too weak to look for one.

He had been captured just after dark, and had regained consciousness several hours before dawn. Macaulay's World, he remembered, had a day of about 20 Earth hours in length. So he couldn't have been out longer than four or five hours. He wasn't sure how strong that little AI had been, but probably not much more than it looked. Those models usually weren't designed as field would have had some trouble carrying him. He couldn't be too far from the plane, it was just a matter of going about finding it in a logical manner.

McQueen started a pattern search, using his compass to keep direction. He was careful not to pass too near the AIs' cargo box in that first circle. After that, he expanded the area of his search slightly each time.

It was fortunate that he had the compass, because it would have been nearly impossible to travel a straight line without it. The plain and the overcast sky were both all but featureless, no point on the horizon distinguished itself as a landmark. This had to be the most singularly monotonous place McQueen had ever seen in his life....even Omicron Draconis had been blessed with some occasional variation in the scenery! Only the elapsed time along each compass heading kept him from giving in to the nagging doubts that he was completely lost out here.

He concentrated on keeping a steady pace, scanning the horizon constantly for any sign of the SA-43, on this flat ground it should be visible at some distance. But there was nothing so far.

Thirst became at first a constant irritant, then gradually a real hardship. By mid-afternoon, he had to stop for a rest at each corner of his search pattern.

Something crackled underfoot, he looked down to see what it was...his sleeping bag.

McQueen's first thought was that the wind had picked it up and carried it. But then he saw the three telltale areas of flattened grass that marked where the SA-43's landing gear had been sitting.

If the SAR teams from the _JFK_ had found his plane, they would have set up a search base here. He would have been located by now.

The only other possibility...was the pirates. A captured Hammerhead...even a damaged one...would be a prize to them. Something to help make up for the loss of three planes and three pilots. That they could leave one of the people who'd cost them so dearly stranded here to die was only a bonus.

His condenser unit! He searched carefully through the grass until he found it. Someone had kicked it over, the condenser was cracked. But the collection container was fine, and it was almost full. That liter of water was life.

He considered how strictly he should ration it. He wouldn't be getting any more, he had no way to repair or recharge the unit. On the other hand, back on Omicron Draconis, people had been found dead of dehydration with water still in their canteens. He decided he would drink half of it, and wait at least a few hours before he got into it again. If he hadn't seen any sign of rescue by then, he would be more careful with the other half.

It would be best to wait right here for his rescuers. Even though the plane and its radio were gone, they had the telemetry he'd been transmitting all the way down. Collins would have been recording that from orbit, and they would be able to locate him easily enough.

The question was, where were they? The _JFK_ had plenty of time to get things together, SAR teams should be on-world by now.

Alone on the windblown grasslands, doubts he could have ignored elsewhere refused to be silenced. What if the decision had been made that one tank wasn't worth rescuing? He had always been able to count on the 127th's professionalism even though he knew full well how some of them felt about him personally. They wouldn't have willingly left a member of the squadron behind. But the decision could have been taken out of their hands. Admiral Booth had no use for In Vitroes.

It didn't matter, he told himself. No matter how much Booth would have relished the idea of marooning him here, he wouldn't risk his career to do it. The SAR teams would be coming.

McQueen recovered his sleeping bag, it made a good place to sit and wait. The time passed by even more slowly now that he didn't have the goal of searching for his plane, but another couple of hours came and went. He idly watched some beetle-sized creatures building a burrow a few meters away.

Suddenly, there was a roar overhead as a fighter went up, gaining velocity and altitude, invisible in the clouds. The engine was running very rough, but it sure sounded like a SA-43, not one of the pirates' 38's. The boom as it went ballistic sent the "insects" he'd been watching diving to the bottom of their hole.

If that was the pirates test-flying his plane, he wished them luck with it--all bad. They had apparently got it flying, anyway.

He looked back where it had come from, and suddenly realized something. That had been near the AIs' cargo box. And there was a thin line of dark smoke rising into the sky on the horizon.

If the pirates had got his plane flying, he meant to get it back. And if he was stranded here, the condenser unit in the AIs' cargo box was the only source of water he knew of. Either way, he had to find out what was going on back there.

Next : Part Two

1996 Becky Ratliff