Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 09
“Do you think we have enough, sir?”
Sergeant Campbell didn’t answer at once; Tavana could see he was still carefully transferring the contents of injector after injector into a treatment pack. Finally he looked up and Tavana was startled to see the lines on the Sergeant’s face; they seemed far more pronounced now than they’d been when they were first marooned. “I wish to God I knew, son. To be dead honest with you… if it were just me and her, I’d use ’em all. But I can’t do that. There’s four more to worry about, and I’m responsible for all of you. I have to leave some in case something else happens.”
“Sir, if it’ll help, you can use any you’re saving for me –”
“Not one chance in hell, Arronax.” The gentle smile took the sting from the sharp words. “I appreciate the gesture, but I am not reducing your safety margin – or honestly, even mine. I have to assume I have as much chance to get hurt or sick as any of you, and if I’m responsible… I have to be ready and willing to treat myself.”
“So,” Maddox said quietly, floating over Tavana’s shoulder, “how many are you using?”
“Half of our supply, one hundred treatment injections’ worth.”
“A hundred injections?” Xander looked at Campbell with his eyebrow raised. “I would think that’s enough to almost raise the dead.”
Campbell didn’t smile. “That’s about the size of it, son. The dose she got? It’s already killed her, her body just hasn’t admitted it yet. The nanos are going to have to work through her body and fix stuff before it collapses, and damnation I don’t know if it can. This stuff’s customized for trauma treatment, though it has anti-rad properties too. But hell, I’m no doctor. If I was I could customize this stuff, program it specifically to fix radiation damage. Then I’d be pretty sure she’d survive. Right now… I just don’t know.”
Francisco, who was sitting next to Pearce, suddenly stiffened. “Sergeant! She opened her eyes!”
All of them immediately floated themselves to the other spacesuit, currently locked down to one of the conformal seats. The Sergeant’s grin was broad and reassuring. “Hey there, Lieutenant.”
“Chief Master Sergeant,” she said, with a slow, surprised grin; her voice was sluggish, sleepy. “So you came back for me.”
“Promised I would. Now, you’re not better yet, Pearce. Think you can help us get you outta that suit and lying down here for treatment?”
Lieutenant Haley’s suit seam unlocked and split open, and she sat up. “Oh, ouch ouch ouch ouch!!”
The Sergeant looked torn between anger and laughter. “Dammit, Haley! You’ve been a popsicle for a couple months now! You can’t just sit up like that.”
Her face was pale and sweat was starting out on her forehead. Tavana realized that what she’d felt must go way beyond “ouch”. “Yeah,” she said in a whisper. “Kinda figured that out.”
“Okay, then, just let me get your back…” Tavana watched the Sergeant ease his arms around to support her in position. “We’ll have to try to move you as little as possible. Tav, unlock her suit from the seat and then with me holding her you and Maddox should be able to slide it off all the way.”
Tavana nodded and released the seat restraints; Maddox followed him to the Lieutenant’s feet, each of them taking one of the boots. “Now, Sergeant?”
“Hold on. Give her a few minutes to recover.” Haley was still pale as a cloud.
“Okay.” Tavana looked to the rear door, where he could vaguely hear sounds of Xander and Francisco moving around, digging into the last sections of cargo they hadn’t touched, performing a current inventory. It had been months they’d been in LS-88 and the Sergeant had said it was time to reassess their situation. Tavana, having noted the glances between Campbell and Xander, guessed that he wanted Francisco well out of the way when they were tending to Lieutenant Haley, just in case.
“I’m okay now,” Pearce Haley said after a moment. There was some slight color back in her cheeks, so Tavana figured she wasn’t entirely lying.
“No, you ain’t, but you’re better than you were. Right, then, kids, remember to brace yourselves properly, and pull steady and slow. I don’t want you flying off and bouncing into the walls if the suit comes off all of a sudden. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Tavana said. Xander nodded, taking a firmer grip on the Lieutenant’s right boot and settling his feet against the base of the seat. Tavana did the same.
“All right, I got her. Together now… three… two… one… pull!”
The suit, already instructed by Haley to be in release mode, slid free with startling ease; even with the Sergeant’s warning, the two boys found themselves drifting backwards with the suit and bumping gently into one of the other seats. An unpleasant odor filled the cabin.
“Ugh,” said Haley. “Sorry, Sergeant.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll take a few minutes to get you cleaned up before we have to put you back under, Pearce.”
She looked around, not moving her neck or body much. That sudden movement sure gave her a warning. “You said a couple months… no rescue, huh?”
The Sergeant looked grim. “None, Pearce. Not likely to be, either.” He cradled her and started towards the tiny free-fall shower. “I’ll fill you in while we get you clean. Tavana, son, you and Maddox have got a not very fun job: clean out her suit, and that means empty all the reservoirs and make sure they’re one hundred percent clean. Then restock everything.”
Tavana winced, but nodded. “Yessir.”
Maddox wrinkled his nose. “He means –”
“Yeah, everything. Even in suspension she must’ve made some waste, and maybe she did when the disaster hit.” I would have wet myself at least if I was standing in a boarding tunnel and it was suddenly chopped off and I was spinning through space. Maybe Lieutenant Haley didn’t though, she’s tough.
But not so tough that he couldn’t hear cries of pain, and an occasional sob. Tavana tried to ignore it, but he could see Maddox’ shoulders tighten. “Tav… why does she hurt so much? Is it… the radiation?”
Tav tried to grin, couldn’t quite manage it, settled for a tiny smile. “No, no. She was in suspension, yes?”
Maddox nodded, wiping out part of the interior of the suit. “Yes. And?”
“Then you know she was not moving for months. Even with nanotech maintaining you, things get stiff. Ever sat in one position for too long, then tried to get up and found it was stiff, maybe sore? Now imagine that after two months without moving even the tiniest bit. Plus she was more than asleep. She was almost dead. Shut down. So it’s like when your foot falls asleep, yes? Slowly feeling comes back, but it tingles and hurts sometimes. Make that a thousand times worse.”
Maddox’ eyes were wide, looking back at the tiny enclosure. “She’s… really tough, then.”
A little while later the Sergeant came over to them and inspected the suit. “Good work. We’ll get her back into it as soon as we give her the nano doses.”
“Um… Sergeant, sir?” Maddox said hesitantly.
“Oh, for the love of… Maddox, you can call me Sergeant, or if you people insist you can call me ‘sir’, but in the name of all that’s holy don’t do both!”
For the first time that day, Tav found himself giggling, as Maddox said in a slightly panicky voice, “Sorry, Sir… Sergeant… I mean…”
Campbell cracked a smile too. “Oh, never mind. What is it, son?”
“Well, I know that Lieutenant Haley’s … well, dying, like you said, even though she looks okay, so why didn’t you just give her the treatment and leave her under?”
“Now that is an excellent question, Maddox. Good thinking. Two reasons, really. First is purely personal; last we left off, she was drifting by herself, alone in space. Some of the eggheads think that once you go all the way into suspension you don’t dream, don’t think at all, but I don’t believe that, so I wasn’t gonna leave Pearce thinking she might just be going to her death in the black, maybe dreaming a slow dream about it for months as she died.” The older man’s face was somber as he said that; Tavana realized how far ahead someone like Campbell must think, and it made him wonder if maybe he shouldn’t start doing that too. “As for the other reason… why don’t the two of you think about it while I go get her dressed and bring her back out?”
It took a few minutes, so Tavana did. Why would the Sergeant risk taking her out of suspension, speed up the deterioration of Lieutenant Haley’s body, rather than leave her in the suspension that would keep her alive as long as possible and give her the treatment that way?
After a few minutes, he thought he understood, and looked over to Maddox, whose frown of concentration had suddenly smoothed out in an expression of surprise. “You got it?”
“Yeah… yeah, I think so. Sergeant?”
“Hold on, hold on… here we come.”
Lieutenant Pearce Greene Haley looked a lot better, with color back in her face, the sweat gone, and less lines of pain written on her face, as the Sergeant carried her back. She was even moving slightly without wincing much, and was dressed in one of the one-piece coveralls that they’d found a small stash of in the cargo; the coveralls were big enough for most adults and could be adjusted to just about Tavana’s size, but they’d had to do some clumsy cut-down work to get one to fit Francisco. Still, it gave them some extra clothes. Tavana suspected that the Sergeant had used the free-fall shower to also clean and dry the Lieutenant’s underclothes; there weren’t any of those in storage, not that they’d found yet, anyway.
“So,” Sergeant Campbell said as he deposited Haley on the seat and they strapped her in, “you got an answer for me, Maddox?”
“I think we do, sir. You’re going to inject all those nanos into her as quick as you can, right?”
“Quick as possible, yes.”
“Well, if she’s awake, her blood’s circulating faster, her whole body’s going to help with transport better, right? So you’ll be able to inject it faster safely, and it’ll be distributed through her whole body a lot more efficiently.” Maddox looked up questioningly at Campbell, who glanced at Tavana.
Tavana gave an emphatic nod. “That’s my guess, Sergeant.”
“One hundred percent right,” Lieutenant Haley said with a wan smile. “Sam thought all that out before he even put me under, I bet. It’s what I would do, too.”
“You’re a surgical tech, aren’t you, Pearce? Don’t suppose you know how to reprogram these nanos to be pure anti-rad repair units?”
She shook her head reluctantly. “Not really. If you’ve made sure the standard options are all active, that’s about all I could do, at least without a full medical setup, which we don’t have.”
“Worth asking. Okay, hold out your arm.”
The infusion of even that many nanos didn’t take very long; ten minutes later, the Sergeant withdrew the injector and replaced it in the kit. “Okay, Pearce… that’s all I can do. I’m gonna have to put you back to sleep now. You okay with that?”
“Better now than I was. At least let me get myself back into my suit.”
“You sure? I don’t want you to –”
“For goodness’ sake, Sam, I’m not a china doll. I may be dying, but I’m not shattered. Let me do something before I have to go back to being a human freeze-pop.” She unfastened herself slowly, and drifted over to the newly-cleaned suit. With stiff, cautious motions, she donned the suit, sealed it, and checked the telltales. “Good work, boys. Everything checks out, and boy, does it smell better in here.”
Sergeant Campbell smiled, though Tavana could see a glitter at the corner of his eyes that said he might rather be crying. “Yeah, well, it’ll be back to stinking by the time we open it again.”
“Sergeant? Does she have to be in the suit?”
“You mean couldn’t I just have the nanos suspend her right here in the cabin? Sure I could, son, but the suit can keep her temperature as low as possible – down to around ten Celsius – which keeps the degeneration as slow as possible. The nanos can continue operating more efficiently even at that temperature than her cells can, so it’s a net gain for them, even though some will have to spend their time preventing the damage of extreme hypothermia, like thrombosis. Plus, if and when we land anywhere, she’d damn well better be in a suit.”
Sergeant Campbell helped the now-suited Haley to the seat he’d chosen for her. “Okay, Haley. Time to go back to sleep.” He gave her a quick hug, which she returned. “See you later.”
Her smile was bright, even through the filmy helmet that was now deployed. “Later, Sam.”
Her eyes closed, and a few moments later she looked almost dead, just as she had when they first brought her in. Tavana shivered; it was an eerie thing to see, even knowing that it was just a trick of modern technology. Campbell stood immobile, holding her hand, staring down at her until the last trace of consciousness had departed. Then he put her hand down gently, bent and locked all the restraints in place, and stood again.
“All right, Tav,” he said. “It’s time we got everyone home.”