Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 08
Xander watched the installation of the precious coil in his VRD, one of the gloved hands gripping the coil and the other tightening part of a not-quite visible fixture.
“There, that’s got it!” the Sergeant said. “Check the connectivity, would you?”
“Connection shows good, sir!” Tavana answered from the pilot’s seat. “We just had the Trapdoor status light go green!”
“Well, now, that’s a relief and a half.”
A tiny glint in another part of his VRD caused Xander to straighten. He murmured and gestured directions, and the remaining camera on LS-88 shifted its focus and resolution to maximum in the indicated area. Something was there, ahead and (in a relative sense) above them, tumbling slowly, showing a reflection of dim, dim starlight on something shiny.
“Sergeant, I think I’ve just spotted the Lieutenant’s piece of the wreck.”
“You have? How far off?”
“If it is her… three to five kilometers, I think, ahead, starboard one and a half degrees, azimuth two point oh-five degrees.”
“I’m on my way in, then. Get everyone strapped in, we’ll be doing some maneuvering to match up with her.”
“Yes, sir!” Xander raised his voice. “Okay, everyone, strap in again. Francisco, you can play one of your games if you want while we’re maneuvering. Maddox –”
Francisco suddenly let loose with a torrent of Spanish which, roughly translated, said how much he hated the little cabin of the shuttle, he wanted to go home, Mommy should be here, he didn’t want to play any games, and he wasn’t going to be strapped in, no!
As the tantrum gained momentum, Xander looked helplessly at Maddox and Tavana. The little boy’s voice was cracking as he spoke faster and faster, tears starting to form and break off to float like tiny glimmering diamonds through the air.
Maddox launched himself slowly towards Francisco. “Hey, Francisco, it’s okay. None of us are happy about –”
“No!” Francisco’s flailing arm took Maddox by surprise, sending the older boy spinning end-over-end in one direction and shoving an also-spinning Francisco into the back of one of the chairs face-first. The impact was a dull thud that Xander could hear several feet away, even as he sprang to intercept the stunned but still-crying boy. “Francisco! Are you okay?”
The red-haired boy had one hand clamped over his mouth, the other now gripping Xander, keeping Francisco from floating away again. The tears looked like they were also tears of pain now, and with a pang somewhere near his own heart Xander found himself reminded of Maddox, looking up at him with the same expression of pain and loss after a similar tantrum.
He reached out a little farther, hugged Francisco to him. “I’m sorry, Francisco. I really am. If we could wave our hands and fix everything, believe me, we would. Can I see your face, please? Come on, let me take a look.”
Francisco swallowed audibly, then nodded and slowly took his other hand down.
Blood dotted the boy’s hand and his lip. “Okay, Francisco, I need to take a closer look at your lip. Hold still, okay?”
“O… okay.” He winced as Xander gently pulled the lip out and examined it. Xander relaxed slightly.
“You’ll be all right,” he said, and gave the smaller boy a hug. “You know… Maddox had almost the same thing happen to him when he was a kid.”
“Oh, Xander, you’re not gonna –” Maddox caught himself, then nodded. “Y… yeah. I did. We were left on Earth with our uncle, and then Unc got sick…”
“And he threw a tantrum about pretty much everything, tried to run away, slipped, and smacked his face on the stairs,” finished Xander. “Scared me half to death when he got up crying with blood all down his face. Worse than yours; his front teeth almost went through his upper lip, had to get stitches. You’ve just got a little cut. It’ll hurt for a while – Maddox, can you see if you can get us a cold pack, get the swelling down until his nanos can get to it?”
Francisco was silent for a moment, then said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. We all feel the same way.”
“But you didn’t act all stupid and cry and yell like a baby,” Francisco said, now angry with himself.
“That,” said the Sergeant, coming in from the airlock, “is because we had plenty of years to have all our tantrums before you ever met us. Once Maddox gets that pack on, Francisco, can you get strapped in?”
Francisco nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Good man.” Xander gave their smallest crewmember one more hug and let Maddox take over. I’m lucky I’ve got a brother like him.
As he helped the Sergeant get the gear stowed back in place, Campbell murmured, “Good work, Xander. You handled that just right – probably better than my reflexes would have.”
“Oh, they’ll listen to you a lot better than me.”
“Maybe, but partly because they’re scared of the old guy with the scars. You, it’s because you understand how to talk with ’em. Just wanted you to know I appreciate it. It’s a good thing you were on board.”
“Hey, it was our shuttle. It was a good thing you were on board.”
“Okay, good thing both of us were. Now, you get yourself strapped in; we’ve got one more castaway to bring home.”
By now, the glint was visible through the forward port without any assistance. “Gettin’ close now. Everyone strapped in?”
Securing his last strap, Xander reported, “Xander, all secure.”
“Tavana, all secure, Sergeant.”
“Maddox, all secure.”
“Francisco, all secure.”
“All right, then. Here we go!”
Xander tied into the navigation systems so he could really watch what the Chief Master Sergeant did; he could tell that Tavana was doing the same thing. Maddox and Francisco just watched the forward port.
Two quick hissing rumbles echoed through LS-88, and the little ship rotated slightly. Suddenly the tumbling, glinting object was centered in the viewport, perfectly centered and unmoving, merely growing larger. Xander was startled. The Sergeant wasn’t calculating anything; he had just adjusted their vector and alignment on the fly, and made it so they were heading directly towards the wreckage.
Now he could see clearly that it was, in fact, the broken boarding tube that they’d left the Lieutenant in, somersaulting lazily through the endless black, growing swiftly larger in the port. The forward rockets fired once, and now the approach was slow, leisurely, down from a speedy bicycle to a casual walk, the tube a hundred meters away… fifty… twenty-five…
A rippling flash of thrusters activating in a sequence too fast to follow, and abruptly the tube seemed frozen in space, neither approaching nor receding, simply rotating slowly like a model in a 3-D projection.
“C’est magnifique,” Tavana murmured. “Sergeant, you can fly.”
Campbell leaned back, a pleased grin on his face. “Guess I haven’t lost my touch quite yet. All right, I’ve got one more spacewalk to do now. For this, I do need someone else. Xander, you’re coming with me. I’m gonna have to float myself over there, unsecure her from whatever she locked herself onto, and come back. It’ll be easiest if you can haul us in at my direction.”
“That means that while we’re both out there, Tavana’s in charge. You two younger ones got that?”
“Yes, Sergeant!” said Maddox.
“Yes, Sergeant,” agreed Francisco.
Xander felt his heart beating faster. I took all the classes, but… I’ve never actually done a spacewalk on the outside of a ship.
Suiting up and preparing was quick enough; old-style suits and EVA approaches, in the dawn of the space age, used to take a lot of time because the suits would run at much lower pressure for ease of physical motion and other issues, but modern skintight EVA suits maintained full pressure while allowing full range of motion, and were far more resilient than old-fashioned spacesuits. That suited Xander just fine; waiting hours slowly decompressing just to go outside would have driven him nuts.
The external door opened, and Xander looked out into pure darkness with scattered gems of unwinking light. Sergeant Campbell was ahead of him, blocking most of the view. “Now listen carefully, son. You will follow me out. You will lock on to each and every holdfast, guardrail, or anything else that I do, and you will do it in the exact same sequence I do. If I tell you to stop, you will stop immediately. If I tell you to go back, you will do so – in order, as carefully as we came out.”
“All right. When we get to the right position, I’ll tell you how we’ll handle the retrieval.”
The Sergeant clipped onto a guardrail just at the edge of the airlock, swung himself carefully out, keeping a grip on the rail, and lowered his boots to the surface. Once the older man had moved out of the way, Xander locked his suit onto the same guardrail and tried to maneuver himself out of the airlock with the same ease and grace; instead he ended up failing to stand, twisting his hand free, and bouncing off the hull and outward. Fortunately, the resilient energy absorption of his tether slowed and stopped him, so he could pull himself back down with care.
“Not as easy as it looks, is it, son?”
“Not nearly as easy as you make it look, sir.”
“You’ve learned your first lesson on real spacewalks, then: don’t try to pretend you’re the guy who’s done it all when you haven’t done any of it.”
Xander looked up and around. “Wow.”
He’d seen thousands of views of the stars – through ports, simulations, and the night sky on Earth. But there was nothing to compare with this.
The pure, unadulterated darkness that surrounded them made the darkest black he had ever seen look gray. Yet at the same time there was no sense of the dark that one had on earth, because everywhere were stars – not the blurred, dimmed, washed-out wavering pinpricks of light seen on Earth, but an innumerable set of intense, blazing points set against darkness, or shining brightly out within a glowing band of light and dark that he could see – really see – was a section of the Milky Way Galaxy itself, mottled with black banding of gas and dust, glowing with the light of not hundreds but hundreds of millions, billions of stars. Thousands of suns illuminated the darkness all around him – not dispelling it, or even reducing its absolute pitch-blackness in the least, but instead making it not an oppressive, threatening presence, but a backdrop of beauty.
“Yeah, I get the same reaction every time I come out. Doesn’t ever get old. Especially here, between the stars.” Sergeant Campbell was silent a moment, letting him admire the view. “All right, son, let’s move along. Follow my every move, right?”
They made it to the forward portion of LS-88 easily enough; the Sergeant had been out twice before, so he knew where everything was already and could make sure that Xander took the right path the first time.
“Okay, listen up, son,” he said finally. “This part of the ship we’re standing on, it’s magnetic. Stay here; nothing better than having more than one thing keeping you in place.
“Now, this here is going to be tricky. We don’t have any attitude jets to adjust the spin of that piece of junk out there. She’s only rotating at about one and a half RPM, luckily, or it’d be even tougher. If she was spinning at say five or ten RPM, we’d have to figure out a way to slow her down, and I honestly haven’t a clue as to how we’d manage that without risking LS-88. But at forty seconds per rev, we can pull this off without having to do that.”
Xander stared… up? Out? Directions were odd when there was no gravity. He decided on “up” since they were on the top surface of LS-88. He stared up at the slowly-turning tube; inside, he could make out a shape that had to be Pearce Haley’s suit. “So what do we do, Sergeant?”
“Mostly what do I do, son. You’re here to back me up. I’m going to jump across, timing it so I end up inside and stop myself around the middle. Problem is that with it rotating, I can’t have a tether on me; snap right off as it rotated, or drag me out. Other problem is that these suits don’t have real maneuver jets on ’em, just some dinky anti-spin thrusters with real, real limited delta-V, so if I make a bad mistake, I might be haring off into the black without a way to turn around.”
“But then, Sergeant…” He swallowed, then continued, “Sergeant, I hate to say it, but shouldn’t we…”
Xander felt his grip on the nearby rail tighten, but forced himself to finish, “… shouldn’t we think about, well… whether we can afford to rescue her?”
When Campbell didn’t immediately answer, he felt a spurt of shame. “I’m sorry, Sergeant, I –”
“Don’t apologize, son. You asked the hardest question there is, and it’s the right question. The question she’d want us to ask.” Campbell looked up. “Is it worth risking me – when I’m pretty inarguably invaluable for you boys’ chances of getting home – to bring her in when she might already be a goner?” He turned back to Xander, and Xander’s retinals showed Campbell’s serious expression inside the helmet. “What do you think?”
“Me? Sergeant, I –”
“Don’t back out on me now, son. You asked the question, now answer it.”
Xander felt shaky just contemplating the idea of turning away, but he made himself think about it. “Well… Sergeant, given what you see up there, and what you know about your own skills… what’s the chances that you won’t have something happen that’s so bad we can’t get you back?”
A soft chuckle. “I’d say about ninety-five percent. I’d have to screw up pretty damn bad for us to get to the point that either I couldn’t rescue myself or you manage to catch up with me somehow. I’ve done zero-G work a lot over the years. I ain’t saying this one isn’t one hell of a tricky maneuver, but no part of it’s really ridiculous for someone with the experience. It’s just not gonna be following the best practices manual.”
“And… again, from what you know… what’s our chances of getting back home without you?”
“That’s a harder question, Xander… but we’re close to finishing the coil replacement. If that doesn’t work, none of us are getting home anyway, so let’s say it works. If it does… I’d say even without me you boys have at least an eighty-five percent chance of getting home now, since you’ve got power and ship’s key systems up. With the Trapdoor at this distance, you can see the star you’re goin’ towards, and you have to drop out of Trapdoor periodically anyways, so if you just keep heading towards that star,” he indicated the star that Xander already knew was the one for Orado, “you’ll get there. And you’re pretty levelheaded; I think you’d keep ’em together until you got there.”
Xander felt a huge sense of relief. “Then I say we don’t leave anyone behind, Sergeant!”
“That’s the way to talk, son! But you asked the right questions. Now let’s cross our fingers that we stay just a little lucky today.”
“So after you get across, Sergeant, then what?”
“Then I go and unsnap Lieutenant Haley from where she’s locked herself down. Once I’ve got her hooked to me securely, then I move to one end of the thing and use my omni to time my jump back so I head back here at reasonable speed. You throw me a lifeline as soon as I get clear; I’ll probably be headed close enough to reach some part of LS-88, but a lifeline locked down to the hull will really help make sure.”
“Got it, Sergeant.”
“You understand how to throw one of these lifelines?”
“We did study that, yes, Sergeant. Throw underhanded, not too fast, and use your fingers to slow it gradually down. If you do it perfectly, the line will stop and not bounce back.”
“That’s the classroom method, but it’s like how we teach kids to do multiplication longhand when they’ll pretty much never be without an omni in real life. There’s a lot better way to do it if you know how those lines work. See, they’re wrapped in a jacket of electrorigid polymer; zap it with electricity and it stiffens, like a hose with water running through it. So what you do is throw it out in the general direction you want, and then stiffen it up so you can point it at your target. Once you’ve got it set where you want it, you turn off the juice.”
Xander looked at the shiny, looped cable. “Really? That’s a lot easier. But how do I get the electricity through it?”
“Check your settings for your gloves. The menu will give you an active option. Set the glove holding the lifeline to active and that’ll do the trick – electrify all the part of it extending away from you, as long as the other end’s clipped to your suit. It’s low voltage so there’s no danger.”
Xander drew about a meter of the line out and activated the gloves; the line swiftly straightened itself out, feeling something like a very flexible fishing rod. “Got it!”
“All right, then.” Sergeant Campbell unsnapped his short tether and wrapped it safely around him, locking it securely to his suit. “Here goes nothing.”
With a single jump, Campbell broke the connection between LS-88 and himself and floated away, directly for the remains of the boarding tube. At first Xander thought he’d badly mistimed the jump, because the entrance to the tube wasn’t even visible; but as Campbell gradually approached the rotating wreckage, the tube opening appeared and Campbell travelled straight into the ten-meter-long piece of boarding tube. “Bullseye!” he heard Campbell announce cheerily. “All right, I am now clipping myself to a holdfast and making my way up to Pearce. She’s about two meters from me now.”
A short time later, Xander could see Campbell next to Pearce’s suit. “I have reached her and… secured. Checking Lieutenant Haley now.”
A few more minutes elapsed, then his cheerful voice returned. “She’s in full suspension, suit systems maintaining her at minimum temperature. Everything looks good. She’s locked down at two holdfasts. Clipping myself to her now.” A pause. “All right, releasing first holdfast. Releasing second holdfast. Verifying secure to carry. I am secure to carry. Now heading for the end of the tube. Xander, verify you have the lifeline ready.”
“Good. Watch the rotating end. Get a feel for where its maximum silhouette is against the stars. That’s probably where I let go. I probably don’t even have to jump; the rotation will allow it to pitch me straight at LS-88 at less than a meter per second. So before I jump, see if you can get that lifeline out there.”
Xander nodded. “Got it, Sergeant.”
He took the lightly weighted line in his fingers, remembering the simulations he’d gone through. The peak of it seems to pass just underneath those two stars, so I’ll aim there.
The throw was a little off, but as he’d thrown the line gently he had plenty of time to wait and very carefully slow it down with his fingers. When it seemed almost stopped, he activated the gloves.
The line straightened out, feeling almost like a skinny snake lazily trying to wriggle out of his grasp. He stood as still as he could, waiting for the rippling movements to fade away. Then he very, very slowly moved it to point straight at the rotating cylinder, where he could now see the Sergeant, with Lieutenant Haley in his arms, waiting. “All right, Sergeant. I’ve got it set, I think.”
“Looks good from here, son. Now just let it go inactive; unless you pull on it, it should stay right where it is, and I want it real flexible for me to catch.”
“It’s inactive.” Xander could feel the line go the tiniest bit loose in his hand, but kept stock-still.
“All right, I have moved to a nonmagnetic part of the tube, and letting my omni time my release… countdown to release in three, two, one, release!”
As the rotating part reached its apex, the Sergeant let go and was flung slowly outward like a ball released by a pitcher. Xander could immediately see that the Sergeant’s timing must have been not quite perfect because he started drifting very slowly to one side. However, he was very near to the end of the lifeline, and managed to snag it with his left hand. “Clipped to lifeline,” he announced as he slowly approached. Xander noticed the line stiffening and relaxing several times in succession; the stress in the line as it curved seemed to pull just enough on the Sergeant to reduce his drift.
“On my way in, son. Just step back and give me a little room. Remember no magnetics back behind you there.”
He edged back, watching the incoming suits. Leaving the magnetic area caused him to bobble slightly, but he kept himself mostly under control and didn’t say anything.
Moments later, Sergeant Campbell rotated himself and came to a perfect landing on the magnetic section of the nose of LS-88. Xander could see Pearce Haley’s face now through the helmet, looking as though she were sleeping peacefully.
“Retrieval accomplished. Good work, Xander. Now let’s keep focused for a few more minutes – by the numbers, back to the airlock, and then we can breathe a little easier!”
Xander allowed himself to relax – just a little bit – as they made their way back. Now we just have to get home!