Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 03

Chapter 3.

Tavana stared at the screen, where Lieutenant Haley and the severed boarding tube from Outward Initiative were dwindling out of sight, and felt cold horror spreading through him. He’d seen the readouts, known how bad LS-88 was damaged, but this – a living person, now cast away into the endless void so that they could get some systems back online – hammered home the terrible situation in a way that no words could have.

He found himself shaking and gripped the arms of the seat so hard he saw his knuckles whitening. He was barely aware of the fact that the tumbling of the shuttle was slowing, had stopped, and the distant, somersaulting tube was steady in the middle of the screen.

There was the sound of a harness unsnapping, and Sergeant Campbell rose slowly, and then brought his hand up in salute, gaze focused resolutely on the receding wreckage, far enough now that it was almost impossible to make out the figure of Lieutenant Haley.

Tavana heard another harness release, and Xander was rising, taking the same stance, and Tavana followed suit; he knew this wouldn’t change anything, but somehow the gesture, the effort meant something. As he stood there rigid, his boots keeping him firmly attached to the deck, he saw Maddox and finally even little Francisco do the same, sniffling and clearly not really sure of what the gesture meant, but that it was something important.

They stood immobile together for long moments, until the tube had become a near-dot and there was no way, in the feeble starlight, to see any details. Then Sergeant Campbell slowly lowered his arm and turned.

Tavana saw surprise and a moment’s gratification on the usually controlled face… and also saw water sparkling in the air near the Sergeant’s face.

“Thank you, all. Now we have to make sure her courage doesn’t get wasted, understand?”

Tavana swallowed hard. “Yessir.” The others echoed the agreement. He tried to shove the thought of the Lieutenant out of his head; it wasn’t easy. “Sir… if we get things running… will we be able to find her?”

Campbell nodded. “We know exactly at what speed, and on what vector, her piece of wreckage separated from us. In space, that’ll stay constant. Plus here in interstellar space? She’s gonna be the only thing within millions of miles bigger than my thumb, and even on absolute lowest power setting she’ll still be radiating heat we can spot. Yes, son; if we can get things running, we’ll find her.” He made it sound like an order. “We good, now?”

He nodded, feeling a tiny bit better. “Yes, sir!”

“Right, then. Tavana, get back here and talk to me. I need to know what our condition is.”

Without the shuttle tumbling it was easy to switch seats. He slid into the pilot’s seat and locked in, noticing how much the straps had to pull up to secure him. Sergeant’s a big man.

There were some more green lights, and some of the reds had turned amber, but still… merde. “Do you want the good news or the bad news first, sir?”

“Stop calling me… ahhh, never mind.” The Sergeant shook his head and grinned, something Tavana found astounding given the situation. “Gimme the bad first, son; I like to know how deep it is before I take an inventory of the shovels I have.”

“All right, sir.” Que Dieu nous aide, he thought. There was so much bad news he might have to summarize, because doing it in detail would take a long time. “Well… the worst news is that right now we’re running on stored power, the reactor’s dead. Even if we had power, the Trapdoor Drive is completely down. I’m going to have to do more diagnostics before I know what’s really wrong. Nebula Drive basics show green, but dispensers won’t respond and I’m getting yellow status from the smart dust for the dusty-plasma; why, I’ll need more time to do diagnostics. In fact, whenever I say I don’t know the details, just repeat that. Um… environmentals are borderline; I think what I’ll need to do is figure out something to kick the air exchangers into activity every so often, because usually it’s controlled by the onboard AIs.”

“AIs still down?”

“All of them that were in the main ship and operating, anyway – which means all of the LS-88’s system AIs. My guess is that the Trapdoor Pulse disrupted the systems. Worse, it took out the advanced interlocks – not AI systems but using some of the same core technology – between the automated and the manual systems. Without those, a lot of systems won’t work at all until we figure out how to force the switchover to manual. Sensors… I think most of the cameras and other sensors got fried by the pulse, certainly the ones on the belly and sides. Communications are totally down; even the emergency distress beacon’s dead, which isn’t even supposed to be possible if the beacon wasn’t just crushed or something.” He paused; the litany of things gone wrong was even worse when he listed it out loud. I haven’t seen a sign of a sun anywhere on the screen, and if we’re between stars with no Trapdoor Drive…

“Good news?”

“Ummm… well, the front camera’s still working, and that one’s actually got a lot of sensing and control capability, so we’re not totally blind. The reactor… I’m not seeing anything that says the reactor’s damaged, and controlling its operation doesn’t require an AI – or at least not one any more capable than that of a standard omni, and we’re all wearing one of those, so I think we’ll be okay there if we can just switch control and safety over. Storage coils were fully charged, so we’ve got… um, weeks at least, before power runs out.”

The Sergeant scratched his head. “What’s the reactor for this thing?”

“This model’s got a Toshiba-IEM FP-300M,” Tavana answered, the data sheet shimmering in his internal display.

“Really? Well now, I helped maintain a 300M back some years on Piper colony. You tell me what needs doing, I think some of that might come back.”

Dieu merci!” The relief was astounding. “I’ve never actually –”

“Not a surprise, son. You’re still studying; no one’s gonna want you playing with neutrons this early in your career, no matter how good your medical nanos are. Still, you’ve got most of your propulsion degree, right?”

“Er… yes, sir. Most of it. I think I can figure this out, especially with some help.”

“No rush, we got time. What’s our cargo like? I’m especially interested in food, water, medical supplies, things like that.”

“I think I can get the manifest –”

“Got it!” Maddox Bird said, his voice still a little thick from crying, but now wearing a smile. At Tavana’s startled glance, Maddox said, “Well, I was already looking for it before the Sergeant asked.”

“Well, don’t keep us in suspense, then,” Sergeant Campbell said. “What’s our cargo?”

“There’s the standard emergency rations for a lifeboat…” Maddox was squinting at the invisible listing in his retinal display, even though squinting wouldn’t help. “Um… oh, there’s a bunch more in the cargo! Two pallets. Water… don’t see anything, sorry. But… there’s emergency medical kits, quantity… two hundred.”

Tavana noticed the Sergeant stiffen a bit. “Those kits, they have medical nano injections as part of the standard supply?”

“Yessir. They’re military issue, too – new as of our departure.”

Campbell murmured something Tavana couldn’t catch, but it sounded hopeful. “Good news. What else? Together that stuff wouldn’t take up much space.”

“Well… looks like power equipment, digging, construction type stuff. Plus some finished materials that’re hard to produce on new colonies, a bunch of other things, but nothing I think’s helpful right now.”

“We’ll go over that list in detail later, though.” The Sergeant nodded. “Tavana, I think first order of business is to figure out the environmentals. Don’t matter how much equipment or food or medical supplies we got if the air goes bad. Can you handle that?”

Tavana looked at the board. The readings were suddenly intimidating. He knew what his answer would be if this were just some test, but this was real. If he screwed up this answer…


With a start, the French-Polynesian realized he’d been just staring at the lights and indicators for a minute without moving. “S… sorry.” He shook himself. “I… sir, I’ve never actually done this kind of work…”

“I know, son. But we’re kinda short on professionals, so you, me, Xander, and maybe Maddox for a couple things is pretty much all we got. Francisco’s a good kid, but he’s not quite ready for the job. Can you do it?”

“I… I’ll try.”

“All any of us can do, as long as it’s our best try. Now get to it. Francisco, why don’t you come with me and we’ll see what’s in the rations we can reach?”

Francisco nodded reluctantly and followed Sergeant Campbell. I’m not sure how much he understands of what’s going on yet, but he’s already figured out that he’s not seeing his parents for a long time.

Neither am I. Or any of us. The truth tried to sink in, and he gritted his teeth, shoved it aside. I can’t afford panic now.

Mouth dry, Tavana turned to the board and adjusted the controls to accept direct I/O from his omni. My brain already trying to tell me the air’s getting stale. Stupid! The cabin’s big enough for more than twice this number of people, and the environmentals aren’t actually completely down.

At the same time, they were down. While the main system showed that it was operational, there was no indication that the recycling system had done anything since the disaster, and it really should have.

Okay. Think of it like a test. “Given this situation, consider what element or elements of the system could fail to produce this situation. Remember to apply Ockham’s Razor.”

That meant to choose the simplest explanation first. Okay, simplest explanation was a power failure. That wasn’t the case here, though; board showed that the environmentals were getting power from the storage coils, and connectivity was good. So that wasn’t it. Next… the relay? But those relays were pretty much foolproof, and showed green anyway. As long as they weren’t physically damaged, they should activate whenever the sensors –

The sensors. That made sense. The air-quality sensor suite was actually a distributed network of sensors all interconnected for comparison in a way that could have received enough energy from the pulse to damage the sensors.

Tavana got up and carefully moved to the rear of the cabin; his retinal display highlighted the service panel he was looking for. “Sergeant Campbell, can you authorize me to open service panels?”


The panel popped open, showing several of the control relays, including the environmental control relay. If I can force it to trigger…

Examining the panel’s design showed him that there were, as he hoped, subtle but definite holes meant for test points during manufacture and installation. Which I don’t have the probes for. But…

He called up data on test procedures from his omni – given that this was one of the vehicles he’d expected to be maintaining on Tantalus Colony, he had the complete maintenance handbook. It didn’t take long to get data on the test probes.

Tavana felt a cautious trickle of optimism. The test points had been designed for relatively crude methods of interface, since they might be maintained in far less than optimal conditions. He had a pocket TechTool – similar to the typical pocket Shapetool, except designed for electrical testing and engineering work, so it had several elements of different composition to work with. He thought the TechTool might barely be able to make test probes small enough to fit the holes.

After a few minutes, though, he was tempted to curse in Tahitian, something he didn’t do unless he was really mad. Instead, he settled for “Merde!” again.

“Problem?” Xander asked from nearby.

Tavana grimaced. “This TechTool me fait chier, as my mother would say. I need probes half a millimeter wide and it stops at one millimeter.”

Xander pulled out his own TechTool and checked. “Sorry, mine’s not even as good as yours; then again, us structural engineers don’t need your fancy gadgets.”

“But then how am I going to get to these circuits?”

“Hold on, don’t get all frustrated again. Let’s ask Maddox.”

Maddox? He’s mechanical all the way. And,” he lowered his voice, “still a kid.”

“Don’t sell my brother short, Tav. Hey, Maddox! Tav’s TechTool’s not testing.”

Maddox bounced up – and immediately bounced into the ceiling with a grunted oof!

With scarcely a pause in his examination of the rations stored in the LS-88‘s cabin, Sergeant Campbell snagged Maddox and dragged him back down until the boy’s boots touched the deck.

Watch yourselves!” he snapped. “You do that kind of damnfool trick too often, someone’s gonna get killed. And I ain’t joking, Maddox; that little stunt you pulled, I’ve seen rookies in training do it and hit a little harder and break their goddamn necks! You understand me? Zero-g maneuvers are no joke, and if you don’t take ’em seriously I’m gonna lock you in your seat for as long as it takes us to get to a planet! You understand?”

“Yessir! Sorry, sir! I won’t do it again, Sergeant!”

“All right, then. Carry on.”

Maddox made the remainder of the little trek without incident. “What’s wrong with your TechTool?”

“I don’t know if anything’s wrong with it, I just may have hit its limits, that’s all.”

He explained the problem to Maddox, who nodded and asked if he could access the TechTool; Tavana allowed it, and didn’t let any of his doubts show in his voice. No point in making Maddox feel bad.

After a few minutes, Maddox grinned, and then handed him the TechTool; two glittering probes were visible, seeming barely wider than hairs in the cabin light.

Tavana couldn’t conceal his surprise. “Are you serious? No, wait, hold that thought. Let me see if this works.”

According to the manual, if he put a pulse of 3VDC through those test points, it should…

There was no sound – the relay wasn’t a physical switch – but he could immediately detect a shift in the flow of current, and more importantly an instant later a gentle breeze began flowing through the cabin – a breeze noticeably cooler and fresher than the now-obviously-stale cabin air. “Yes!

“Good work, son. Breathing easier means we can breathe easier. Can you automate that, or does someone have to kick it every so often?”

“Um… When I don’t need it, I can leave the TechTool to do that every couple hours, sure.”

“Good. Do that whenever you’re not using the thing, then.”

Tavana turned back to Maddox, who was still grinning. “Okay, I admit it, I didn’t think your brother had a clue when he called you over. How’d you do that?”

“I love tools. I have a collection of TechTools, Shapetools, and a lot of old-fashioned regular tools…” his face fell. “Well, I had a collection. They were on Outward Initiative. Anyway, I’m not into software or use design in most things but I really dug into the controls for the tools. Link up and I’ll show you.”

Tavana connected his omni with Maddox’ and suddenly saw the interface for the TechTool – with layers visible he hadn’t known were there. “What –”

“Yeah, see that? What you ran into is over here – see that?”

“It’s a handholding limit,” Tavana said slowly, hearing the disgust in his own voice.

“Well… it’s a limit to keep the user from damaging the tool, yeah. Below a millimeter thickness it gets real easy to do damage to the controlled conductive alloy that’s hard to repair, so it normally doesn’t let any component go below that thickness. But here’s the overrides; you can pretty much tweak anything in here.”

Tavana grinned as he realized how much he hadn’t known about his own TechTool… and how much more he could now do with it, precisely when he was going to need it more than ever. “C’est genial! Awesome! Thank you very much, Maddox!” He nodded to Xander. “And you – for insisting we call him over. I would’ve started trying to rip things apart for tiny wires next.”

“Word of caution,” came Sergeant Campbell’s dry voice. “No ripping anything apart without my permission. No matter how much you think it might be necessary.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“No problem. And now that we’ve got our air for sure, me and Francisco have our next problem covered.” He gave an exaggerated bow and indicated a small stack of ration packs. “Dinner is served.”