Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 07
Campbell activated the shaped pad inside his suit; the sweat on his forehead and eyebrows was quickly wiped away. “All right, Tavana. I’m out.”
He stood on the dimly-visible hull of LS-88, the innumerable stars of the galaxy sprinkled across the utter darkness like frozen sparks embedded in obsidian. Low down and towards the rear of the landing shuttle, he could see the enigmatic nearby star – one he was pretty sure was less than a light-year off – gleaming steadily. He still wondered where in the name of God that star came from. It wasn’t possible for stars to materialize out of nothing.
“All right, Sergeant. The first broken Trapdoor coil is … three meters forward from your current position and, um, two point two meters clockwise around from that point – clockwise from your point of view facing the front of the ship.”
He made his way cautiously across the shining surface of the shuttle. You couldn’t rely on magnetic boots when so much of a modern vehicle was nonferrous, nonmagnetic material; you had to walk carefully, make sure you were always clipped onto a safety eyelet, and so on. In a few minutes he was floating at the described location. “I see a dark indentation; is that the right target?”
“Umm… yes, sir. That should be the only depression near you.”
People need to work on these. Where’s the handrail and lockdowns?
He muttered to his omni, which shifted spectra slightly and enhanced the view. “Ah, there we go.”
Clipping onto the now-easily-visible handrails, Campbell was now secured near the Trapdoor field coil. “Right, now display me the release sequence.”
Unlocking and removing the field coil from its proper place in the hull was a five-step process that had to be followed in precise order. Naturally the first step involved getting a specialized tool into the least-accessible spot just under the forward portion of the coil. Even with a modern flexible carbonan suit, that took some bending. “I am getting too old for this s… er, crap.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like one of us to do that, Sergeant?” asked Xander in a concerned voice.
“Absolutely not.” With the tension of a spacewalk and the situation weighing on him, that came out sharper and louder than he intended. “Sorry, son. I appreciate the offer. But my job’s to keep you kids safe, and I’ve spent more time in spacesuits than Francisco’s been alive. I know what I’m doing here.”
Which of course is the signal for me to screw up bigtime with some rookie mistake. Dammit, Campbell, you know better than to wave a red flag at Murphy that way!
“It’s okay, Sergeant,” answered Tavana. “It’s just… we worry about you too, scary man.”
He couldn’t keep from chuckling. “Well, thank you for that, anyway. And I’ll try to be a little less scary, okay, Francisco?”
“O… okay.” The youngest of his impromptu crew sounded like he wasn’t sure whether he could laugh, but wanted to.
He felt the first locking clamp move. “Got that part. Moving on.”
It took about fifteen more minutes to finish removing the coil, following the procedure carefully, by the numbers, one step at a time followed by rigorous double-checking. Finally he opened the case at his waist, and very carefully stowed the coil inside. “One down,” he said, and heard a subdued cheer over the comms. “How’s Operation Unwind going?”
“It is actually doing well!” Tavana’s voice held both surprise and pride. “Two motor’s windings are now unwound and we’re working on the next one.”
“What I see of this coil… it looks pretty fancy. Can we adapt something to wind it?”
“We think so,” Maddox said cheerfully. “Tav found the winding patterns in his reference books, and if we can salvage the armatures in the originals, we’ll have the right core configuration already.” A note of concern crept into his voice. “But boy, between the motors we’re taking the wire from and the ones we’re using to make the winding machine… there’s not going to be much left in the cargo.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Maddox,” his older brother admonished. “You mean there won’t be many small motors left. The main motors and drives on the machinery, we haven’t touched those.”
“That package of additional TechTools sure helped,” Tavana noted.
“Sounds great. You boys keep at it while I finish this work.”
He moved to the next location with Xander verifying his movements, then settled down to remove the second coil. Good kids. I know this is wearing on them, but they’re keeping it together so far.
The success at a coil-winding (well, currently unwinding) machine was gratifying. Unlike the others, he’d seen failures of jury-rigged repairs in the field, and they couldn’t afford failure here. The Trapdoor coils depended on some pretty demanding precision – way beyond what he thought hand-winding could ever accomplish, and even if it could, the thought of winding hundreds, maybe thousands, of turns of wire by hand onto a complex armature, then doing it twice more? His hands ached just at the thought of it.
But modern controllable motors, programmable omnis, simple actuators – Tavana, Xander, and even Maddox had figured out how they could be combined and mounted on one of the excavator machine’s supports to make a winding device.
The second coil was out. He rested for a moment, watching the unmoving stars. “Hopefully we can make ’em move soon enough,” he muttered to himself, and then went to remove the third coil. “Last one, then I can get back inside.”
Then he mentally kicked himself again. What the heck was wrong with him? Never, ever start looking forward to the end, or you start rushing! Campbell made himself go over the steps extra-carefully on the third one. He was not going to make a mistake on this last coil.
He didn’t. Finally he was done, and made his way – with exquisite caution – to the airlock. He didn’t let himself relax until he entered the main cabin and swung the lock door shut.
“Whew!” he said, letting his helmet retract. “That was a long bit of work.”
“You got them all, Sergeant?”
“All three, Tav. Guess we’ll have to cut away the old wire, then you’ll be ready to wind again?”
“Well, soon, yes. First we must finish the unwinding of all the motor wires, you know.”
“I’ll leave it to you. I’ve got just one more thing to do today before I take a break.” He moved to the pilot’s console and strapped in.
Xander looked puzzled. “What are you going to do, sir?”
“We’ve got a friend to pick up, son. Now that we’re working on what we hope is the last repair we need in order to get somewhere, it’s time we started heading towards her.”
“But… how can we find her out there?” Francisco sounded a little scared as he gestured towards the star-spattered endless dark, and Campbell couldn’t blame him.
He gestured for Francisco to come join him. Once the little boy reached him, Campbell pulled Francisco gently over to sit in his lap, and strapped him down. “Here, lemme show you. You know that in space, if you were to throw something, it’d just keep on going forever. Right?”
Francisco nodded. “Si. I mean yes, I know that, Sergeant.”
“But it’s more than that. If you throw something on Earth, or any planet, gravity accelerates it, changes its direction. Air can slow it down. Other things that it hits will change direction. But that’s not true in space. There’s no gravity to speak of out this far, a light year or more from any star; there’s nothing to hit for millions, billions, of kilometers, more – practically forever. Space is big. And there’s no air.” He looked at Francisco expectantly.
The boy wrinkled his forehead, obviously thinking hard. Campbell knew Francisco wasn’t a tech-head like the others – more an artist, from what he’d heard – but he wasn’t stupid. “So… the Lieutenant, she will keep going and going just like she was?”
“Exactly like she was. More, we know exactly how fast – and in what direction, from our point of view – she went. We were all watching, and the cameras were watching. I’ve had my omni keep the numbers current; if I’m right, she’s about fifteen thousand kilometers that way,” he made his omni generate an arrow in Francisco’s field of view. “Been drifting that direction at about eight meters per second ever since we separated.”
“That’s a long way away.”
He couldn’t keep from laughing. “Sorry, son – but for a spaceship, that’s like a baby step. If we had all our sensors running, we could still probably detect her on radar. Not like there’s anything else out here to look for. So right now, I’m going to start us back towards her. We’ve got reaction jets – the basic rockets work fine. They won’t get us home, or even let us cruise fast around a solar system, but for landing – or a slow chase – they’re just fine.”
Francisco sat still in his lap as Samuel reached for the controls. “Now, I have to turn us just like this – so we’re centered on her vector.” He triggered another program and routed it to the boy’s omni. “Watch that green dot and blue circle on your retinal display, Francisco. You see ’em?”
Francisco gave a quick nod. “Yes, Sergeant!”
“Now, you let me know when the dot’s getting close to the circle.” He could see the same display of course – and a lot more detail – but Francisco had been feeling left out of a lot of things, and he needed things to do.
Campbell slowly started adjusting LS-88’s orientation.
“Getting closer, Sergeant… closer… it’s heading high, should it be doing that?”
“No, it shouldn’t. Good catch.” The boy did have a good eye, and he recognized when things didn’t look right. “That better?”
“Much better. Do we want the green dot right in the middle of the circle?”
“We do indeed.”
“It’s really near the circle now… touching… a little low… it’s gone past the middle!”
He slowly reversed the rotation the tiniest bit.
“Right in the middle!”
He was actually surprised. The kid’s eyes were good. His own instruments couldn’t find significant error. “Very, very good, Francisco! Thank you!”
“Now we go catch her, that’s what. She’s goin’ away from us at about eight meters a second, and it’s going to take a while for us to take apart the coils and rewind ’em and put ’em back, so… I’d like to start closing with her a little faster than we separated. Stay, start getting closer to her at about ten meters a second.”
“So we need to accelerate by ten…” The boy hesitated. “No, we’re going away right now, right?”
His face lit up. “So we need to stop, and then accelerate by ten meters a second!”
He chuckled. “It’s all the same acceleration, but yes. So about eighteen meters per second all told.” He looked back. “You boys lock down everything for a few seconds – including yourselves. I’m going to start us after Lieutenant Haley.”
“Yes, sir! Hold on, I’ll let you know when we’re secure.” After a few moments, Xander said, “I think it’s all secure here. Tavana?”
“Secure, check. Maddox?”
“Let me look… yep, I check you! All secure back here!”
Campbell nodded. Good procedure, there; they hadn’t relied on one person to make sure nothing was loose. “All right, then, come up and strap in. This won’t be much of a burn, but still, best to be safe.”
Once they were all strapped in, he continued, “I’m just going to run her for nine seconds at a two-meters per second burn. That’ll still feel pretty massive to you, after all this time in microgravity, so be warned.”
If it weren’t for modern medical nanos, he’d be really worried about the effects of microgravity on health, but that should be okay, at least for now. He hoped.
True to his warning, the sudden force of acceleration came like a ton of lead weights dropped across his chest. He had to verify the thrust twice before he relaxed. After exactly nine seconds, it cut off.
Pearce, we’re on our way. And just maybe with the stuff you need. But in any case… you’re not going to drift away alone.