Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 02
“Sergeant!” came a half-panicked call from above, and Samuel Campbell turned from the mostly-unresponsive board.
“You see something, Xander?”
“It’s… It’s Pearce Haley, Sergeant!”
“What?” Of all the answers he’d expected, that hadn’t been one. Given the timing, a part of him had thought that Pearce might have been killed at the interface, but the idea that she was just outside… “Is she alive? Her suit intact?”
Alive? And outside? “What the hell’s she standing on?”
“Looks like the whole entrance tube,” Xander replied, his voice still incredulous. “The far end’s open though, so she’s definitely in vacuum.”
Samuel switched to the private channel. “Pearce? Pearce, you copy me?”
There was no response. “Tavana, you’re a comm whiz, aren’t you?”
The French Polynesian boy straightened a bit in his seat. “I’m pretty good at them, yes, Mr… Sergeant Campbell.”
“I can’t get through to Pearce on my own comm. Are all comms out?”
“Permission to unstrap so I can see the board, Sergeant?”
“Permission granted. Just make damn sure you hook on securely with every step.”
He watched the broad form of Tavana Arronax make his careful way across the cabin, and nodded approval. Kid may be mostly an egghead, but he knows when to be careful and follows instructions. I’ve had lots worse recruits. As Tavana got close, Samuel locked himself to the console and unstrapped from the seat. “I’ll move back one seat, let you get a look. Actually, while you do that – Xander, you come back down and strap back in. I’m going up.”
By the time he managed to get up the ladder, he heard Tavana grunt. “Yeah… sorry, Sergeant, all comms except the interior relays and personal nano-based and omni networks are out. And I’ve got a lot of other bad news coming up.”
“Wonderful.” He lifted himself the last half-meter and looked into green eyes that immediately looked slightly less worried. She’s not looking sick; that’s good. Must’ve thought of activating her nanos right away. Good soldier. He gave her a smile and a wink, and mouthed “We’re working on it” through the glass.
“She’s only a couple meters or so away from me; why can’t I hear her personal net?”
“I don’t…” Tavana paused, forehead wrinkled in obvious thought. “Windows and the airlock include a lot of shielding. No transmissions directly through them, supposed to be relayed through the antenna layers cross-connected with the interior. But with even the backup software down, there’s nothing to tune the antennas to our personal frequencies, which you really need to do with the low power our personal nanos and most omnis can generate.”
“Got it. So… can you tell me the natural frequencies for these antennas?”
“What?” Tavana’s face suddenly lit up. “Ohhh, of course. We can adjust our own transmit frequencies. Let me see, I think that’s in my internal manuals… yeah! It’s a three-layer antenna design… two of the main resonant frequencies are too low for us to reach, but you should be able to get through the airlock with a transmission on four point two gigahertz.”
Samuel checked his omni controls. “Yeah, I can transmit on that band. Hold on.” He triggered his omni’s external display and had it display “4.2 GHz”, then pressed his wrist up to the window.
Pearce grinned broadly and nodded. A moment later, he heard a warm contralto voice: “Sam, can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, PG,” he said, feeling cool relief spreading through his chest at that simple exchange. “You okay?”
“Well… for now. The airlock won’t open from the outside; can you exhaust it? Once pressures equalize it should open.”
“Sorry, Sergeant. That’s part of the bad news. I’m getting almost nothing. If you hadn’t deployed the physical controls we’d have nothing at all, but whatever happened… I’m not sure I understand all of what I’m reading, but it’s taken all the AIs offline, most of the instrumentation, the drive systems are reading yellow at best and none of that will work unless we can get the external locks to release… I think we’ll have to just wait until Outward Initiative gets back –”
The boy’s words made Samuel wince. Kid’s trusted his technology all his life, never been in a situation where it’s failed like this.
He took a breath, let it out, then shook his head. “Sorry, son, but we can’t plan that way. What if that instability didn’t end when we dropped off? We saw at least two other bites taken out of the ring? If Outward Initiative isn’t completely wrecked already, they’ll be diverting to the nearest colony.”
Francisco’s head snapped up. “No! My mama wouldn’t leave without me!” The panicked exclamation was actually spoken in Spanish, but that was one of several languages Samuel’s omni would automatically translate.
Blast it. Tavana reset everyone’s comms. I hadn’t wanted to get into this conversation yet. “Xander, I hate to drop this on you, but try to explain to Francisco why his momma’s not going to override the Captain and the regulations. And that it doesn’t mean his family wants to desert him.”
He tried to tune out the tearful discussion that followed – one that got Maddox crying also – and focus on the problem at hand. “Do we have atmosphere reserves? If we could all button up suits and blow our own atmosphere –”
“Sergeant, really, it’s worse than that.” Real fear was audible in the underlying tones of Tavana’s voice. “Maybe we do have atmosphere reserves, but right now I’m not even sure the environmentals are working right. Dumping our atmosphere and bringing it back? I don’t think we can. And there’s some alerts on the medical systems…”
He hadn’t even thought to check the medical systems; aside from the freefall and tumbling nausea, it seemed obvious everyone was physically fine. He switched channels, tapped into the internal alerts.
Holy mother of god. I’ve never seen a radiation pulse like that. For a moment, despite his lifelong training to never put off looking at bad news, he couldn’t quite force himself to look. He hadn’t been prepared for a literal lifeboat situation when he did this drill – stupid of him, but after twenty or thirty drills you did start treating them like routine.
When he checked, he finally was able to relax a bit. The dosages were high, but he had the military combat parameters for internal nano treatment of radiation damage; he could transmit that to the kids, and Pearce would already have –
He froze. Pearce… Pearce was outside the hull. He turned his head back to look at her questioning face.
This time he set it to private communication, and spoke quietly enough that no one else could hear him – not that anyone was likely to, with Francisco crying and the others talking. “PG… Look, hon, can you check your medicals, especially –”
Her smile faded. “Already did, Sam.” Her voice was apologetic, as it always was when giving someone bad news.
“The tube –”
“– probably shielded me some, but… the burst seemed to happen along the interface, and that meant it had a straight line on me from the end that got cut. Sorry, Sam… Sergeant Campbell, I’m walking dead. I’d just hoped…”
… hoped to be able to die comfortably inside, not in a vacuum suit in the middle of space. “Yeah, I know. Is it really that bad? Internal nanos –”
“– got partly fried themselves, Sam,” she said quietly. “If my omni wasn’t a top-flight military model, it’d be dead too. Even if they hadn’t gotten toasted… I had some surgical tech training, I know what I’m looking at. I’ve got a little while before it hits, but only a really, really heavy infusion of top-flight medical nanos – within a few hours – would give me a chance.”
His mind cast about, desperately trying to figure some angle, a way to keep this from happening. He’d lost soldiers before – after over twenty years in the business, you couldn’t help it – but he’d never failed to save someone who hadn’t been killed outright. “I don’t know the whole cargo of this boat, there might even –”
“Sam!” her tone was sharp, and her green gaze caught his with anger and sympathy. Then she smiled and shook her head. “I heard that boy’s report. You can’t even stabilize LS-88 right now. It will be many, many hours before you could get to the cargo, if there’s anything there for me at all. You can’t help me, Sam. I’m sorry. But maybe I can help you.”
He swallowed, feeling the rough, acid tightness that came from suppressing tears. “Help us?”
“This piece of junk I’m standing in is what’s keeping your remaining systems from running, if I understand what Tavana’s saying correctly. Well, there’s a manual disengage mechanism out here, meant for being able to launch a lifeboat in the event of power failure.”
Samuel closed his eyes, then sighed and nodded. “That should do it. It would sever the connections and let the manual interlocks register that the lifeboat was free, so we could work the attitude jets and drives, at least.”
“Then I’ve got a job to do, Sergeant.”
“Wait!” He took another breath, thinking. “Look… you’re right. But… give me access to your nanos and omni?”
“I… guess? All right, Sergeant.”
He linked up and surveyed the display. Yeah, as bad as she says. Maybe four, five hours before she starts really feeling it. But there’s enough nanos still up for something else…
He checked his own systems, assembled the code he’d used a few times before on badly-injured comrades. “Here. Program this in. Once you… once you cut us loose, make sure you’re locked well down and then start this program running.”
“I don’t read nano code; what’s that for?”
“Either a comfortable way to die, or a real, real long-shot at living. It’s called field suspension – suspended animation using your nanos and your suit environmentals. You never got deployed to active combat duty or you’d probably already have it; me, I’ve had it, and watched it get upgraded, for more’n twenty years. This’ll give you weeks, maybe a couple months, before the damage can’t be fixed… and…” he heard his voice almost break, got it under control, “… and it’ll put you to sleep once you activate it. So if you don’t get rescued…”
She smiled wanly. “… at least I don’t die puking my guts out inside my suit. Thanks, Sam.”
“If there’s any chance… we’ll come back for you.”
“I know you will.” She stiffened her spine, held by her boots so she could stand ramrod-straight, and saluted. “Sergeant Campbell.”
He saluted as best he could. “Lieutenant Haley. Do what you have to. Give me a few minutes to get to the controls; this bird’s going to shift a lot when you blow the tube.”
“Yes, Sergeant. And… goodbye and good luck, Sam. Take care of those boys.”
“I will, PG. I promise.”
Samuel turned and immediately, methodically, began making his way back down the ladder, shoving all the grief and anger away. “Tavana, move back. I gotta get to the controls.”
Tavana nodded. “Okay, Sergeant. But nothing’s working –”
“It will be in a minute. Lieutenant Haley’s going to use the manual launch controls to disengage from LS-88. That should at least give us back attitude jets, and maybe other systems will come online once the mechanical linkages confirm complete isolation.”
“That’s good,” Tavana said, a little relief in his voice.
Xander Bird, however, had already recognized the flaw in the plan. “But sir – Sergeant – if she does that, she’ll –”
“– be flying away with the boarding tube, and we might have a long, long time before we can catch her, yes. But my responsibility – and hers – is to keep you, the passengers, safe.”
He looked horrified. Too much imagination, that boy; he can figure out what drifting through space alone in a spacesuit would be like. “But Sergeant –”
“She has to do this, son. We’ll save her if we can, but she reminded me what my job is, and that’s to keep you four alive. Now be quiet and let me do that job… and let her do hers.”
Xander bit his lip but said nothing more.
“Lieutenant, I’m at the controls. You may proceed when ready.”
“Roger that, Sergeant. I am now unlocking the manual controls.” A pause. “I have grasped the release wheel. Beginning to turn. Please be braced.”
“Everyone – Francisco, I mean you! – sit straight, make sure your harnesses are on correctly. This could be rough.”
A few minutes went by, silently, with the faintest sound of exertion being transmitted from Lieutenant Haley’s suit.
“Manual clamps disengaged; go for CAD actuation?”
CAD; short for Cartridge Actuated Device, and a military euphemism for “controlled explosion”. For this, that meant detonating explosive bolts that finalized the separation. “Lieutenant, we are all prepared. We are go for CAD actuation.”
Almost instantly, a sharp, loud BANG! echoed through the cabin of LS-88, and the tumbling of the forward view twitched, shifted, now slower and along a different line; across one edge of the view he could see, for a moment each revolution, a metal tube, trailing ragged lines of severed pipes and wires, spinning with slow deliberation away into space.
“Separation achieved. Good job, Lieutenant.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. Activating suspension protocol.” There was already heavy reduction in signal from Pearce Haley; it would not take long for them to be out of range entirely.
“Good luck and Godspeed, PG,” he said.
“You too, Sam. And…”
The signal faded to nothing, and he closed his eyes. Later, he told himself, but for a few seconds it was all he could do to not cry, to not break down, and a part of him realized with surprise just how very much he had cared about Pearce Greene Haley.
But then he shook himself, put his hands on the board, and – not without a prayer – touched the controls.
The attitude jets rumbled to life.