It was all too much. After everything they'd been through and after everyone they'd loss…now someone had to volunteer to die. Silence surrounded them as Sharp finished updating the shuttle crew on the events of the last twenty minutes. Alex closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. Could it really have only been twenty minutes? The feelings from her brother's return and their triumph upon hitting their drill mark were now grossly overshadowed by Grueber's death and a rock storm demanding a necessary suicide. Her eyes squeezed tighter at the thought of losing anyone in the room. How could she stand to return home and face the family of whoever had to stay? Blue eyes flashed open as the obvious finally crossed her mind.
"I'll do it."
Seven heads snapped in her direction and there was a clamor of disagreement, but Alex stood and shook her head. A sense of call settled over her before she spoke again.
"I'm the most obvious choice," she reasoned, her voice steady. "If I stay, the only family I have is here, so they understand; there's no one on Earth who will miss me. Plus, it's about time I pulled some of the weight on this mission, don't ya think?"
"Not a chance, Lex," A.J. argued. "I'm not going to lose my sister."
"I've lost you twice since we started this." He froze at the gentle reminder, his face stricken with guilt. "You all can go home to your families. Lev is an actual astronaut, so he can co-pilot for the colonel. Everyone wins."
As she finished, her eyes finally locked with Will's and she had to resist taking a step back as his icy gaze cut to her core. It didn't matter how angry he was, as long as she got him back to his girls.
"Actually," Lev cleared his throat. "I have never seen a shuttle like this before…I-I cannot fly this…" He gestured meekly to the ship.
Will grabbed Alex's arm as she stared at Lev, defeat written all over her face. "Well, that settles that." Needing to physically move her from the danger of the conversation, he pulled her behind him. "It takes two people to fly this thing. Either we all stay and die or you guys draw straws."
"I saw we all stay and die," Rockhound offered. "But that's just me."
A.J. reached out to squeeze his sister's hand, surprising her. "I'll draw." He gave her a small smile before facing the rest of the crew. "Let's draw."
"Nobody's gonna draw straws. I'll stay and take care of it," Harry announced.
Chick stood up. "Well I can't live with that sort of thing."
"Nobody asked you if you could live with it, all right?"
"Bullshit!" Lev leapt to his feet in indignation. "No way I will let you volunteer for this so I can go back to my home country like the man who didn't volunteer. No way!"
Bear's deep voice silenced any more arguments. "Hey, man. Let's draw and let's see who's gonna stay up here and dance."
"Guys, I-I know you guys think I'm crazy right now, but I would really like this responsibility."
Rockhound's words fell on deaf ears as Harry got to his feet. "All right. All right." He moved over to stand by his best friend, continuing to ignore Rock. "Let's just draw and get it over with. Come on."
"I'm not drawin' against you, Harry."
"Well I'm gonna draw against you, Chick, so you better just go ahead and do it."
Chick shook his head and grabbed a green straw. "Gimme this thing."
Everyone but Rockhound, Sharp, and Alex drew a straw, the tension thick.
"Is this good or bad?" Lev asked in confusion, examining his straw.
The bottom of Alex's stomach seemed to fall away as she and her twin stared at the short purple straw in his hand.
"Oh man," A.J. uttered in disbelief.
"A.J.," Alex whispered in horror as the world swam around her.
Her brother blew out a breath. "Well, we all gotta die, right?" He laced Alex's fingers with his and gave her a crooked smile. "I'm the guy who gets to do it saving the world. So, uh, let's go. We-we got about ten minutes, right?"
Will held the trigger up for A.J. to watch as he demonstrated how to detonate the nuke. "You plug this into the port: lift, press, hold. That's it."
"Lift, press, hold. Shouldn't be too tough." He smiled at Harry as he joked, "Even I can't screw this up."
Harry offered to take A.J. to the surface as Alex wrapped her arms around her brother's waist. He returned the embrace after a moment of surprise. His gaze locked with Sharp's over her head and he easily read the colonel's concern for his sister. He briefly wondered how long that had been going on before he focused on Alex again.
"I'm sorry to put you through this again," he told her quietly, his voice rough with restrained emotion. "It's about time I did something to make you proud of me."
Her foot connected with his shin in irritation as she shook her head and glared at him. "Idiot."
He smiled as he watched her fight the tears that threatened to fall. "Love you, too," he told her as he pulled away to grab his helmet.
Alex watched helplessly knowing there was nothing she could do to save him.
"Hey, Angel." Alex was suddenly caught in a quick embrace. "Take care of our team. I love you." He planted a kiss on her forehead before stepping into the elevator.
She was so shocked by his emotional display that Harry's words didn't sink in until Will closed the lift doors. With a gasp she whirled around and could only watch in agony as the man she thought of as a father and her brother disappeared from view. She tried to regulate her breathing as the world swam once more and her emotions threatened to break free.
Will sood beside her in silence for a moment. "I'm sorry that A.J. is the one who has to stay behind," he offered eventually.
Alex shook her head. "If you think A.J. is the one we're leaving, then you don't know Harry at all." She looked up and met his surprise with resignation. "Get changed. I'll see you in the cockpit."
Will's gaze rested on the top of the lift as Alex began climbing the ladder and he knew he couldn't argue. He'd known since the issue had first arisen that Harry wouldn't have allowed anyone else to sacrifice themselves. It was his turn to shake his head as he moved to shed D.A.T. suit as fast as possible. Around him the rest of the crew erupted into a flurry of motion.
Minutes later Will began to flip the switches to lock down the bulk of the ship. "Alex! Get ready to initiate thrusters!" he called as made his way to the front of the shuttle, pulling on the top of his flight suit as he weaved his way around the crew. "Grab a seat, guys, let's go! Strap it in, guys!" He sank into the pilot's chair. "O2 modules, are they green? Are they green?"
Alex settled into the seat beside him, focused on her work. "Set. O2 vents locked. /pressure loaded."
"Engine board is green. Electrical system's primed."
"A.P.U. is set. Oxidizers are loading."
"Houston, we're out of here in T-minus three minutes."
Alex faltered as Grace's voice came through the ship's speakers, "Daddy?"
She raised wide eyes to Will and whispered, "Are we on open comm?"
He nodded and whispered back, "He should at least get a chance to say good-bye."
Her features became stricken before she nodded and turned back to the control panel. Her attention was split as she tried to focus on her work and soak up Harry's final words to his daughter at the same time.
"I know, baby. But there won't be anything to be scared of soon. I want you to know that A.J. saved us. He did. I want you to tell Chick that I couldn't have done it without him; none of it. Tell Alex that it's my turn to look out for her, okay?"
Will watched the muscles strain in Alex's neck as she rallied against her tears and his chest tightened in response to her pain. He hated that he couldn't offer her any reprieve at the moment when all he wanted was to gather her in his arms and try to shelter her from this suffering. But he also felt immensely proud as he watched her rally herself and concentrate on the job at hand. She really was an amazing woman.
"OMS pod prestart," she announced. "Confirm: O2 vents locked, pressure loaded."
"What the hell's goin' on up there?" Harry demanded. "Why haven't you guys left yet?"
"We're goin', Harry," Will assured him. "Houston, we got OMS pod prestart."
"OMS pod prestart confirmed," Alex relayed to mission control.
They both froze as the engines sputtered and died.
"What's the problem?" he questioned her.
"I don't know…"
"What's wrong?" Lev hollered.
"Fix it now!" Sharp tried the engines again with the same result as Alex ripped off her belts and flung herself from her chair. "We got no time! No time!"
"What?" Lev asked again as Alex raced past the crew.
"What's happening?" demanded Chick. "Where you goin'?" he asked as Lev followed Alex.
She raced back to the engine room and tried to figure out the problem.
"Uh, it's stuck, yes?" Lev asked as he came up behind her.
"You said it yourself, you don't know the components," she snapped. "Hell, I don't really know them."
Lev examined a panel in irritation. "Eh, components. American components, Russian components; all made in Taiwan!"
Alex chuckled bitterly as everyone crowded the radio wave with demands to fix the engine. Her brain raced as she tried without success to fix a shuttle she barely understood.
Behind her, Lev tried to get her attention. "I know how to fix it. Please move. I-I have to take you away if you don't move."
Watts' voice joined the others on the radio. "Alex, you gotta get that shuttle started. You gotta fire it up now!"
"No shit!" she yelled.
She clutched the machine as a wave of dizziness hit her and her vision went dark at the edges. Lev shoved her out of the way and swung a large wrench up for her to see.
"This is how we fix problem on Russian space station!" He began to whack everything in reach. "Because I don't want to stay here anymore!" They both glanced up as the engine stared humming. "Yeah! Finally! We can go home!"
Alex laughed in delight as he threw the wrench on the ground. She grabbed his face and planted a kiss on his lips, shocking him.
"My hero," she told him with a smile.
He returned the smile and they started back towards the cockpit.
Will's eyes lit up as the engine hummed back to life. "She's got me back. She's got me back. Alex!" He called over his shoulder. "Let's go, let's go!"
Alex raced back to her chair. "Go, just go!"
"We don't have time. Hurry, hurry," he urged the crew as they buckled themselves back in. "We got no time! Initiate thrusters on my mark: two, one, mark."
Alex pressed the ignition for the thrusters before she'd settled into her chair, her safety straps hanging uselessly beside her. Everyone was thrown back as the engines pushed them off the surface of the asteroid. Alex clung to her belts as she tried to keep her seat.
"Come on, get some altitude," Walter Clark urged. "Let's go, let's go."
"Yes!" Sharp cried. "Come on!"
Rockhound hollered in delight at the bumpy ride as Alex rode waves of nausea.
"We've got max thrust," she informed Will.
With a final burst from the engines, they rose far enough away from the asteroid that the flight smoothed out. Everyone turned to take a last look at the rock before they pulled away.
"Thank you, Harry."
When she heard that, Alex stopped buckling herself in and stared at the airman. With the slightest of nods in her direction he told her to secure her restraints. She swallowed her emotions again and complied.
"We-" She had to clear her throat when her voice cracked. "We're out of range."
"Something's not right," he muttered. "Too much time has gone by."
They all waited with baited breath but there was still no explosion.
"We're goin' back and do it ourselves."
"Just don't," Chick argued. "Wait one minute."
Will's hand rested on the control.
"Colonel?" Alex's voice was small, her indecisiveness showing.
His fingers curled around the lever. If neither he nor Alex were confident, then they had to turn around.
"Colonel!" Chick urged. "I'm askin' you, just one more minute!"
He froze and met Alex's gaze as she subtly shook her head.
"Harry'll do it," A.J. affirmed. "He doesn't know how to fail."
Will held Alex's stare as he curled his hand into a fist above the lever. She gave him a small smile in gratitude and then they were all blinded by a large flash of light. Shockwaves from the blast rocked the ship and they all hung on. Things settled down as the light faded and they heard mission control erupt into cheers. As tears flowed unchecked down Alex's face, she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Bear floating beside her. Her attempt at a smile failed as a sob escaped. A.J. floated to her right side and grabbed her hand as Chick squeezed her free shoulder.
"Houston, we're coming home," Will radioed in solemnly.
"We copy, Freedom."
"You, Harry," Bear murmured. "You the man."