Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 01
By Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor
PART I: ADRIFT
“Franky, get strapped in now!” Xander Bird said.
“You’re not my mama!” the red-haired little boy snapped back in a frightened tone. “You can’t tell me what to do! And I’m not Franky! I’m Francisco Alejandro Coronel!”
Xander closed his eyes for a moment, ignoring the lifeboat drill alerts, and took a deep breath, running his fingers through his slightly-too-long curly hair before opening his eyes again. “I’m sorry, Francisco. But you know the rules; your parents – and Tavana’s, too – were at that dinner party on the other side of the hab ring, and so they had to go to a different lifeboat. You’ve got to strap in. Your mama would want you to be a good boy, right?”
At his apologetic tone, Francisco stopped glaring, and finally nodded unwillingly and sat back into his assigned seat in LS-88, their lifeboat and landing shuttle for the starship Outward Initiative, currently bound for the colony world of Tantalus. Under Xander’s watchful eye, the eight-year-old carefully pulled the multi-point restraint harness on and locked it in place. “There.”
“Thank you, Francisco. Hopefully the drill will be over in a few minutes, unless they go to Phase II.” Xander looked over to the Polynesian boy in the next seat. “You okay, Tav?”
“I’m not a baby, of course I’m okay,” Tavana Arronax said. The sixteen-year-old’s voice wasn’t so much angry or defensive as abstracted; Xander could see that Tav’s eyes had the distant look of someone viewing data in their retinal implant displays. Reading or maybe playing a game.
“I’m strapped in and secure!” announced Maddox Bird. “Can I play Jewelbug with Tav while we wait?”
“That’s up to Tav if he wants to,” Xander said, “but I don’t have a problem with it if you guys keep it down to a dull roar.”
“Okay! Tav? Tav, you wanna –”
Tavana sighed, something which was very visible in someone that wide-bodied, but smiled. “Okay, okay. Seventh Gate Adventure, yes? We were about halfway through that one.”
Good, that’ll keep them occupied. He checked on Francisco again to make sure that he didn’t feel left out, but it looked like whatever book their youngest shipmate had chosen was holding his full attention for now. No guarantee that’ll last for more than a minute, but hey, I’ll take it.
He looked up front at the vacant navigator’s station. He had to admit that made him a little nervous; yes, the lifeboats were completely automated, with their own capable if limited AI systems that would handle even complex situations well, but still, it would be nice to have someone up front. Unfortunately, that someone was supposed to be Ariel Coronel, Francisco’s mother, and she, her husband, and Tavana’s parents were –
His thought broke off as another form dropped perfectly down through the hatchway and landed with practiced ease.
The man straightened to his full intimidating one hundred ninety-eight centimeters – eight centimeters taller than Xander himself – and his hard brown eyes, the color of dark, polished oak, surveyed the whole cabin in an instant.
As he was already strapped down, Xander couldn’t salute, but he had an impulse to anyway. “Master Sergeant Campbell!”
“Relax, son, sorry to intrude. This boat’s the closest to my position, so you’re stuck with me for this drill.” Campbell’s voice was dry, mildly humorous, but his size and the smooth, pantherish stride still reminded Xander that this was a man who’d spent two decades in military service across the settled worlds. His age showed some – there was a sprinkling of gray through his black hair, his weathered, deep-brown skin showed lines of time and strain, and one scar stretching from his chin almost to his right ear – but he moved like someone not much older than Xander’s nineteen rather than someone considerably more than twice that.
“Parents stuck somewhere else?” he asked, glancing at Francisco and Tavana.
“Captain’s Table party,” Maddox said.
Sergeant Campbell nodded. “Then if you don’t mind, I’ll take the hotseat.”
“Please, sir. It’d be an honor.”
“Leave out the ‘sirs’. I’m enlisted, I work for a goddamn living. I wasn’t ever ‘sir’.”
“Wiseass.” Campbell took his place at the pilot’s console and strapped in; Xander saw him touch the panel and the manual controls extruded, just as the manual required. “Outward Initiative,” he said, “this is Samuel Morgan Campbell, Chief Master Sergeant, Colonial Security. Put me down as present in LS-88, which was closest to my position when the alarm went.”
“Acknowledged,” replied the AI running the immense colony ship. A chime echoed through the shuttle. “Proceed to Phase II of drill.”
Campbell leaned back in the seat. “All right then, people; as I’m senior present and the qualified pilot, I’m your acting captain on this tub, so we’re going to do this by the numbers. Samuel Campbell present and secured. Sound off, the rest of you – in order of age, oldest first!”
“Xander Bird, present and secured,” Xander said promptly, checking his harness reflexively; it was tight enough but not too tight.
There was a pause. Sergeant Campbell’s eyes narrowed, and Xander sent an interrupt ping to the Jewelbug server. Tav, Maddox, we’re doing countoff and Sergeant Campbell’s here! Your turn, Tav!
Tav’s eyes snapped wide open and he immediately half-sat up in his urgency. “T…Tavana Arronax, present and secured!”
“Maddox Bird, present and secured!”
Xander held his breath, but relaxed as he heard a slightly accented voice say “Francisco Alejandro Coronel, present and secured!”
“Well all right then. I’d do the assigned station check-in, but Pilot Station – mine – is the only one currently manned, and everything’s green across the board. The rest of you can just relax; this’ll be over once they’ve done the random inspections and all the boats have checked in.”
“We know that, Sergeant,” Maddox said. “We’ve been through a lot of these before.”
A chuckle from up front. “I suppose you have, at that.”
“Inspection!” sang out a voice from the hatchway. A small woman – in full protective suit gear, helmet back to reveal her short-cut, brilliant-red hair and green eyes in a slightly-freckled, tanned face – dropped into the shuttle.
Random inspections my butt, Maddox sent him over their private omni link. That’s the Sergeant’s girlfriend!
“Why, hello, Lieutenant Haley,” said Sergeant Campbell with a quick grin. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“Just checking in.” She quickly examined each person’s harness, made Tav’s tighten a slight bit more, and then winked at the Sergeant before turning away. “Lieutenant Pearce Haley reporting: LS-88, all secure.” She started up the ladder, glanced back. “See you after the drill, Sam?”
“Look forward to it, PG,” Campbell answered.
Xander admitted to himself that he felt a pang of completely irrational envy verging on jealousy. Stupid. I just haven’t had the time to go dating or anything – taking care of Maddox without Uncle or Mom and Dad takes up a lot of time, plus my studies. And it’s not like the Sergeant’s getting in my way or anything.
Just as Lieutenant Haley disappeared through the hatch, alarm klaxons ripped the air; the sound of the hatchway closing was as abrupt and fatal-sounding as a guillotine. At the same time, the forward display suddenly switched to a view of the velvet-black of Trapdoor space with the exterior-lit Outward Initiative and its hab ring.
There was a chunk missing from the ring; even as they watched, another piece … faded, and then was gone, leaving a ragged gap.
“Trapdoor Field instability,” Outward Initiative reported calmly.
“Merde!” Tavana said in a panicked voice that echoed Xander’s own shock and disbelief. “Instability? How? Who’s messing with the Field? That should –”
Poison-green light flared from the screen; there was a ripping crash and Xander heard himself yelling incoherently as LS-88 spun crazily, tumbling as it plummeted into the infinite darkness of space. Lights flickered, went out, came back on.
The spinning and whirling continued, on and on, and Xander felt himself starting to get ill. “Medical options, on,” he said quickly. The omni display appeared, asking him for instructions. “Motion sickness, counter. Activate for Maddox, too.” He didn’t know what to do for Tav and Francisco; he had no authority for their omnis, let alone their medical nanos.
Sergeant Campbell showed he was already thinking ahead on that. “Francisco, Tavana, give me Omni access to you both now.”
Neither of the two argued with Campbell – not that almost anyone would. Once the anti-vertigo started to work, Xander felt some better – though he was still shaky, shocked, and honestly terrified. But at least I’m not going to puke in a free-falling, spinning shuttle. “S…Sergeant? What –”
“Don’t know yet, son. All of you stay quiet for a minute.” He did something at his board, but nothing seemed to change.
Lighting’s… off, too. Thought I saw a flicker.
“Attitude jets won’t fire,” the Sergeant said after a minute. “Automated systems completely out, but that shouldn’t be stopping the manuals. Telltales claim they’re still locked down.”
“Manual lockdown, Sergeant?” Tavana asked hesitantly.
“Looks like it. Almost as though we were still docked.”
Tavana nodded. “Maybe… maybe when we… broke free, sir, some pieces of the dock got stuck, so they’re still registering.”
“Maybe.” Sergeant Campbell shook his head. “I don’t like the rest of what I’m seeing here. No AI response. Integrated controls out; can’t access the other cameras yet, just getting the forward view. Hard to get an overall picture. Xander, you finished the freefall maneuvering course, right?”
“All right.” He hesitated, then sighed. “Unstrap carefully and go check the hatch. See if you can see anything out there that looks like it’s still stuck to us. Take your time and do not make the mistake of thinking this is ordinary freefall. This thing’s spinning like a tumbling pigeon in a hurricane, and you’ll get all sorts of tugs and pulls on you as you move through the cabin. Last thing we need is someone slipping and bouncing through the cabin.”
“Yes, Sergeant.” Xander first unlocked the cable at the waist of his suit and hooked it to the eyelet on his chair; he saw the Sergeant’s approving nod. Then Xander carefully unsnapped his harness.
As soon as he started to rise, cautiously, he could feel what the Sergeant meant; moving shifted the forces on him, and as Xander began to slowly, cautiously make his way through the cabin of LS-88, he had to take exquisite pains to keep from being shoved or pulled from the chairs and handholds. In the chaotic whirl of the tumbling lifeboat, the journey from his assigned seat to the ladder of the hatch was like climbing a tree in a storm; he had to stop, remove his anchor cable from one point and attach it to another, then move forward a meter or so before repeating the maneuver.
Finally he was at the ladder, so he hooked to the highest rung and then climbed up carefully to the point that he could get his head up to look through the hatch window.
To find himself looking across the tiny sealed airlock straight into the frightened, wide green eyes of Lieutenant Pearce Greene Haley.