Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 22
Campbell blinked his eyes blearily, forced them to focus. What… Oh. I’m inside my suit.
For a moment he was confused. Was I on EVA? Fixing something? What happened?
When he tried to sit up, he felt the tremendous lethargy and pain of having been still for many hours, even days, and his leg gave a dull throb despite what his nanos reported as “significant pain reduction”.
That cleared his head, and he knew exactly why he was here.
“Sergeant? Sergeant, do you hear me?”
He managed to force his lips into a grin, though that hurt too. “Loud and clear, Captain Xander.”
The other boys were crowding round, all looking relieved. “So, how long have I been out?”
“Longer than we expected. Earth-time, about a day and a half?”
“Damn. That is a long time. Hold on.” He consulted his nanos and winced. That venom was a nasty cocktail, that’s for sure. “Looks like I’m conscious but a long way from running a marathon. Damn thing’s venom ate a hole in me that goes to the bone and you could fit two, three fingers into it right now.”
Tavana made a face and Francisco shuddered. Xander nodded. “Yeah, I saw that. Took it a while to get all the necrotic under control; there were some kind of other elements to the poison, like boosting factors or something, that didn’t count as venom themselves but helped it work. Same for the neurotoxin.”
Campbell reviewed the data and nodded. “I see that. It neutralized most of it fairly quickly, then there was a second wave of activity. Wish I was a biochemist, I might know exactly how that worked. Anyway, looks like I’m on the mend, just slowly. Good thinking, by the way, in putting me into the suit; a lot easier than bedpans and such.” He could see that one arm was out of the suit, so that the IV could be used.
He smelled an unidentifiable but still savory scent, and his stomach growled. “Now that smells good, whatever it is. I’m starving. No surprise there.”
“That’s what bit you,” Tavana said. “And I’m sorry –”
“Not your fault, mine,” Campbell said instantly. “You didn’t know what to watch for. I damn well did, and didn’t brief you; I earned that bite. Let’s just learn the lesson it taught us, right?”
Tavana glanced at Xander and the two grinned. “So, you were right, Xander.”
Campbell raised an eyebrow. “All right, you boys obviously had a talk or two. Anyway, before we go around eating the native food, how do you know it’s safe?”
Xander hesitated; to Campbell’s astonishment, Francisco stepped forward. “Because I tried some first, and my nanos decided it was all safe. I was watched for a whole day afterward.”
“Francisco? How’d that happen?” he demanded.
Xander, looking nervous, related the entire conversation that had led to the decision that Francisco would test native food.
Campbell was silent for a few minutes afterward, and he could see the others becoming increasingly nervous. Finally, with an effort, he forced himself up to a semi-sitting position. “Francisco, that was damned brave of you,” he said finally. He saw the boy’s chin come up proudly. “And in principle, you boys were right. Right now, Francisco’s the one we can risk most, no matter how much that sounds bass-ackwards.”
“But in practice?” Xander said after a moment, clearly bracing for a major dressing-down.
“Relax, Xander. In practice, you boys just don’t know how to do this thing right. I think you already realized there’s poisons out there that even a small nibble of could kill, right?”
“There’s a procedure for this kind of thing that avoids most of the danger, and from now on we use it. We’re not in danger of starving; we have time to work in. We’ll work out details later, but basically you first do a contact poison test – touch it to part of the skin, like inside the arm, the wrist maybe. Wait a while and see if you have a reaction – the nanos would be able to tell if it’s an allergy or a toxin. Then you take a tiny bit, chew, and spit out – don’t swallow ANYTHING. Rinse out your mouth, even. That will catch really virulent poisons that are mobile through the mucous membranes. Then you try a little nibble.
“For animals, internal organs are ‘be real careful’ things. Might have a lot of nutrients, or might have heavy-duty toxins.” He had to pause then. Damn, this lying around poisoned sure takes it out of you. Good thing the nanos keep you more functional than you might be otherwise. “But really, you did good, both of you. Anything else to report?”
Tavana summarized the other work they had done, including finishing the job that had gotten the Sergeant laid up. “Got back on that horse, did you?”
Tavana nodded. “Xander said we had to. I… I’m glad he did.”
“So am I.” He let the two of them – with occasional interruptions and additions from Maddox and Francisco – finish their impromptu briefing.
When they were finished, he nodded, then opened a private channel to Xander. You done good, son. Kept things going, prevented any panic, moved our little colony forward – quite a ways in the little time I was out.
Thank you, sir.
No, thank you. I had to dump the whole load on you in the middle of an emergency. I’ve seen trained recruits that would’ve dropped that ball, but you took it and ran the whole length of the field.
He spoke aloud. “You all did a great job. Makes me proud of all of you to know that even if the old Sergeant’s out of commission, you’ll still get things done.”
All four of them straightened, looking proud and happy – and, in Campbell’s view, they damned well ought to.
“Now,” he said after a moment, “can I get some of that, what did you call it? Centisnake, that’s it, and see what the native food’s got to offer?”
“Yes, Sergeant!” Francisco said eagerly, and ran to the other room; both Maddox and Tavana followed, obviously to make sure he remembered things like plates, utensils, and such.
In the momentary quiet, Xander nodded to him. “I guess you can send that revocation code now.”
“I could, but I ain’t.” At Xander’s startled, gratified look, he grinned, then went serious. “Son, first off, I’m a long way from being in any shape to run things. The boss of this expedition’s got to be able to cover the ground – run his ass off, really – and best guess I see here is that it’s gonna be at least a week or so before I’m even starting to get on my feet, and a couple months before I’m going to be close to my old self.”
“Necrotic damage is nasty, Xander. And regenerating lost muscle tissue… well, if these weren’t military grade, might not be happening at all. Another reason I didn’t hesitate to take the hit for Tavana; I can afford that kind of injury more than any of you.” He shook his head. “So while I’ll be givin’ you all the advice and support I can, for the next few weeks, you’re still the damn Captain of this crew.”
He took a breath, but at that point the others came back in, bearing a length of well-browned meat on a plate. The smell was extremely tempting; however, knowing how long it had been since he’d eaten and how he was still really adjusting to consciousness, he controlled his initial ravenous impulses and cut a small piece, chewed thoughtfully and carefully. “Well, now. That’s not bad at all.” He took another bite. “Eaten gators that tasted worse. This could be a pretty good staple, if there’s a lot of them.”
A ping from a private channel – Xander, of course. And after you’re better?
Still not revoking your access to them, he replied silently. Might tweak it so that I can still override you, but honestly? We can’t take the risk that we will lose access to key capabilities here just because one of us – even me – gets killed. Truth be told, we should probably make sure that Tavana has the codes and they go active if we get taken out.
Makes sense. Thank you again, Sergeant.
You’re welcome. And thank you again.
“Well, there were four of them here, at least,” Tavana said in response to his last audible comment. “But probably harder to hunt them when you have not plowed their holes down to rock!”
“A better choice would be to see if we can find out what they eat,” Campbell said. “Carnivores are always a lot rarer than their prey. But we won’t be doing much exploration for a bit.”
He took another bite, feeling better already – not from some sudden healing, but because he was now sure that, even without him, these kids would make it. Oh, Emerald’s got more surprises. I know it. I can smell ’em out there. But Xander’s got sense, Tavana’s got more guts than he knows, and the other two ain’t lacking, either.
The only thing left to mar his mood was knowing that Pearce Haley was still in deathly sleep a dozen meters away. But we have months to work on that, too. Maybe, just maybe, we can save her, too.
And now… now I know we have those months.