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Walsh McKeeg had tried before to salvage the wreck of the old bomber from the desolate planet where they'd crashed during the war. Was the old girl up to one last flight when it really mattered -- and could Walsh overcome his own ghosts?

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The Flight of the Sarah Mae

by Andrew Burt


© 1998 - All Rights Reserved

They haunted his dreams. Like pharaohs in their pyramids, his crewmates from the planetary bomber Sarah Mae still floated in their sleepsacks where his mistakes had killed them. Walsh McKeeg remembered the raid on Gamma Pericles as if yesterday, not forty years past. They had to get out: The fighters kept the orbital platforms busy, but the ground-based quantum pulses were shredding them. He hurriedly entered coordinates for the sublight thrusters so when the hyperdrive kicked in they'd be heading directly toward their base on Ukon Point. Another pulse hit home. His head stung. The air in the cabin screamed as it escaped. Woozy, he slapped a quicksteel patch on the hole. But, no time to weld it—coordinates, he must enter the coordinates. "Go!" he shouted to his commander, Major Franks; and they whisked out of orbit for a dead-man's jump back to base.

The stars looked wrong. That was his first memory of realizing they'd landed near Wejyn's Star instead of home. Just slightly off course before the jump—but close only counts with horseshoes and hand gremlins, as they say. He remembered Salim saying the jump had fried the hyperdrive, and in their need to repair it they'd entered orbit around a rock of a planet as lifeless as it was blood red.

It wasn't until Walsh's failed salvage attempts five and fifteen years ago now that he'd learned their fate. He should have died with them on the Sarah Mae, he often brooded. But this time, with the old girl's orbit decaying like his health, there could be no next try. This time, by God, he was going to bring the Sarah Mae home.

Walsh realized he'd slipped into a daydream during his daily reading of the Communion service from the Book of Common Prayer. He let the reminiscence linger, part of his self-imposed absolution: Major Franks had just shoved him into the lifepod. "You'll die from that head wound before we can get repaired, son," he'd said. "Search/Rescue will pick you up, God willing." The cryo-shell encircled him close like a coffin, room enough for one, barely two in an emergency. "I didn't mean to steer us here, please, don't send me to die," he was protesting . . .

The knock at his cubicle door in the oxy-hut jarred him back to the present. "Need to talk," Jeddy Rubin's voice said beyond the door.

Walsh shook his head to clear the cobwebs and laid the prayer book's datapad face down on his chest. He was in the present; the Sarah Mae was almost ready to go. In a couple months he could attend the crew's Solar cremations. Their peace would be his, and he could finally retire from these damned utilitarian oxy-huts and the motley collection of dear, wonderful death-traps he called spaceships. He could sell Jeddy the business and get to know his wife of forty years. He felt good. "Yeah," he called out.

Jeddy entered and tossed a pencil-thin part on the bunk's taut, tight-cornered blanket. "O'Shea injector's busted," he said solemnly.

Walsh's stomach flopped as if the oxy-hut's gravspin had hiccuped again. "How bad?" he asked.

"Tomas O'Shea himself couldn't kludge this one," he said, in reference to the inventor of the injected sublight drive. "Back to square one. No thrusters, no propulsion, no navigation."

Walsh pressed his lips tight in instant anguish and studied the shiny injector as if looking for a flaw he could fix. He could imagine the jagged, fracturing stress lines Jeddy would have seen in the holo-magnetometer. Like all of his six hand-picked crew, Jeddy knew his stuff. Walsh fought back the guilt, recriminating himself for overlooking it six months ago when they'd stripped all the systems to determine what needed replacement or refitting. "Solar wind, or all the thruster restart attempts?" he choked out. Not that it mattered: No hair-gel would jerry-rig it now like during the war.

"Both, I expect," Jeddy ventured. "Could retool it back at Ukon Point, or pick up a new one. Either way, got to take the Jumper out." Walsh had been slightly embarrassed, but never regretted that he could only afford a Puddle-Jumper for his salvage operations—until now. They were roomy enough to carry parts, but painfully slow, requiring a month's time to get far away from a star to make a safe jump, and another month back in after one. Wejyn's six-year solar storm cycle wouldn't wait.

"Or?" Walsh hoped...

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Copyright © by Andrew Burt. All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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