Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 04

Chapter 4.

“What next, Sergeant?” Xander asked as they put the wrappers from the ration packs into the disposal.

“Yeah, that’s the question, isn’t it?” Sergeant Campbell glanced around the shuttle’s cabin. “What do you think, son?”

“I think you’re probably better qualified to answer –”

“Damned right I am, son, but in this situation we all need to learn to be qualified. We’re in an emergency like none of us ever expected to deal with, and something could happen to me any time, or to any of you. So I ask you, what do you think is next?”

Xander understood now. He doesn’t want us just letting him boss us around; he wants us doing the thinking with him. “Well… I think there’s at least two things we could work on right now. Technically… even if all the other systems were working, the vital ones – the drives – need reliable power. That means the first thing we have to do there is get the reactor back online.”

Samuel Campbell nodded slowly. “Sounds reasonable to me. What’s the other thing?”

“Find out where we are – if there’s an inhabited star anywhere near us. If we get the drives working, we’ll need somewhere to go.”

“Spot-on, son.”

The approval in the older man’s voice warmed Xander, and he saw Maddox grin. “But… where’s access to the reactor?”

Tavana gestured to the back. “Through the main cargo hold and down. So first we have to get the cargo hold door unlocked.”

“We can do that together,” Maddox said confidently. “Right, Sergeant?”

“Sounds good to me,” the Sergeant said.

“Which is good,” Xander said slowly, “because I think you’re probably the only one of us who might be able to tell us where we are. You’re not just a pilot, you’re trained as a navigator, right?”

“Spot-on. I’ve done a lot of things in my time, but yes indeed, flying things both fast and slow, that’s what I do best. I’ve got the star maps stored in my omni; I think I can get us at least a reasonable guess, since I know where we should have been when we were dumped off.”

“Okay, then, Sergeant, I say you work on finding our position, Maddox and Tavana work on getting the cargo door open, and me and Frank… Francisco will check out the other systems that I can access and see if we can get some more details on what LS-88 has for us.”

“As the old-timers sometimes say, make it so,” the Sergeant said, and moved over to the pilot’s seat.

Francisco came to join Xander; the startlingly red-headed, dark-skinned Mexican boy looked up at him with a worried expression. “You’re just pretending I can help,” he said bluntly.

Xander remembered similar situations with Maddox and how he’d handled them – or not. Try to learn from the right and wrong I did with him. He grinned down at Francisco. “Well, not pretending, no. I know what you’re good at is more the artistic stuff. But like the Sergeant says, we’ve all got to learn, and I know you can learn whatever you need to. So we’re going to check out all the systems that I know anything about while they do the top priority work.”

“Do… do you think… we’ll ever get home?”

The little boy’s tone sounded even more lonely and scared in the original Spanish, which Xander could hear under the running translation from his omni. He reached out and hugged the little boy to him. “I won’t lie and say I know we will. But I know we’ll do our best, and Sergeant Campbell’s best is damn scary good.”

Francisco managed a giggle. “He’s a scary man.”

“But a good one. Look, Francisco, I’m almost as much a fish out of water as you are here. I’m a mechanical engineer, and honestly, if we had major mechanical problems on LS-88, we’d be screwed. So we’re both just doing some make-work right now while the others get stuff done. But that’s better than doing nothing.”


He moved over near the pilot’s console, which with its deployed manual controls and displays was the only one with useful data; careful not to get in the Sergeant’s way, he studied the indicators he could. “Okay, let’s go look at the airlock,” he said to Francisco. “If anyone has to go in or out, we’ll need that working.”

“Sounds good to me,” the Sergeant said. “Be warned, everyone; I’m gonna tumble this bird – slowly – a few times over the next hour or so. I’ll warn you with each burn, of course. I’m doing this to get a good look in all directions of the stars.”

“Understood, Sergeant. C’mon, Francisco.”

The little boy made his way over to the airlock panel. “How’s it supposed to work?”

Xander made sure they were both clipped on. “Pretty simple, really. The thing that keeps that door tight closed is the pressure inside here compared to the pressure outside. If we could flood that little room – the airlock – with air of the same pressure, we could open this door, and go into the airlock. Then with the door closed, you pump the air out again and then you can open the second door and be outside in space.”

“Hold on,” came the Sergeant’s voice. “Rotation burn in three, two, one… now!”

The two of them gripped and held, but the rotation was very slow; with their anti-vertigo settings still active in their nanos, it didn’t bother anyone.

“Air pressure?” Francisco said, puzzled. “The air doesn’t push on me when it’s still.”

“Actually, it does, so evenly across every square centimeter of your body that you don’t feel it; your body’s pushing out with exactly the same force – about a hundred kilopascals, roughly, or a little less here – so your body doesn’t squish in or out. But on the other side of that door, there’s basically nothing, so there’s literally tons of pressure holding that door shut. You could get a crowbar and have all of us try to pry that door open and all we’d do is bend the crowbar. But equalize the pressure and it’d open just as easy as anything.”

“So why wouldn’t it work before?”

“Radiation pulse disrupted the circuits that control most of our systems. Plus the tube being connected made some of the sensors think we were still docked, which cut in other safety interlocks.”

“So the only way to open the airlock is if the circuits are working?”

“Well, no, there’s a set of manual controls.” He indicated a couple of buttons and a wheel set into the wall, then they both held on as the Sergeant tumbled LS-88 again. He pushed the green – which was the “flood” control actuator – but it felt flat and inactive. “But they’re not active, and I don’t know why, at least not yet.”

The little boy floated up and looked into the little airlock. “That’s a small room.”

“Smaller the better for getting in and out. You can’t recover a hundred percent of the air you put in, so you’re always losing some, so the smaller the room, the less you lose.”

Xander studied the controls, wishing he had been an electrical engineer instead. “Hey, Tavana, how’re you guys coming?”

“This door, it is not as easy to trick as the air circulation,” Tavana answered. “Everyone has reason to want to keep the environmentals running, but going to the cargo, not everyone is supposed to go there.”

“I got a kinda stupid idea here and I wanted to run it by you.”

“Okay, let me hear it while I think about how to get the cargo door open.”

“Electronic controls are the default even for the airlock, right?”

Oui. We have manual backups, but the electronics and photonics run everything normally.”

“Well, we never really lost power, even though the reactor went down, and the sensing and analysis circuits got kinda fried, right, which is why I can’t just toggle the manual on and off?”

“Right. What are you asking?”

“I guess… look, is there a way I could cut the power to the airlock? Make it think the whole ship lost power? Maybe that would trigger the interlocks and let me use the manual controls?”

Tavana paused for a minute, during which Sergeant Campbell sent LS-88 on another leisurely spin; then Xander heard a chuckle. “The brute force approach, eh? It might work. Hey, Maddox, see if you can get my TechTool to extrude the control contacts for these parts here, while I look at the circuits to the airlock?”


A few minutes later, Xander saw areas of the wall highlighted in red in his omni display. “See that, Xander?”


“See if you can get any of those three panels unlocked and open.”

He sent Francisco to work on the closest indicated area while he moved to the other two. In a minute, Francisco gave a triumphant yell as he got the recessed panel to slide open.

“Good work, Franky!”

Francisco was so proud of his success that he didn’t object to the use of the nickname. “So what do we do in here?”

“See those cables? I’m highlighting one. If you pull that cable out of its connectors, you should cut power to the airlock controls. If your idea works, it’ll unlock the manuals. It’s a SSJ standard connector.”


Tavana audibly restrained a sigh. “Secure Superconducting Junction connector. Like old-style BNC, it’s a push and twist to unlock.”

“Got it.” He looked at Francisco. “Wanna be the one to try?”

“Can I?”

“Just be careful. Grab that part, push it toward the other part as hard as you can, and then turn it towards you like unscrewing a jar top.”

Francisco reached in and managed, with difficulty, to grasp the connector. His fingers weren’t quite strong enough to manipulate the cable end himself, so Xander ended up helping him a little.

Even from where they were, Xander heard a sharp clack! from near the airlock. Tense but hopeful, he floated himself up to the manual controls and pushed in the green button; this time the button sank in and clicked satisfyingly, engaging a physical relay. Feeling hope rising, he turned the wheel slowly.

The sound of air flooding the compartment became swiftly audible. “Yes!”

“Great, son. Can you reverse it?”

“Umm… I don’t think so. The manual system assumes that you’ve got minimal power, so it’s not trying for recovery; it’ll dump the flooded atmosphere out through the valves.”

“You didn’t let it flood all the way, did you?”

“No, sir.”

“Good for now. I think we can reasonably assume it’ll work now, and no point in wasting the air we put into it. Leave it that way, in case we have to use it. Later we’ll see if we can get the powered systems working so it’s not going to waste our atmosphere. Tavana, when you got the environmentals tripped, did you get a look at our reserves?”

“We’re good, sir. None of them got released in the accident, and we were fully supplied, so we’ve got months of air, at least, even if the recyclers don’t do so well.”


“How about you, Sergeant? Any luck?”

“Wouldn’t say it’s so much luck as good preparation, son, but yes, I know where we are. And I’ve got myself quite a puzzle, too.”

The others turned to look at Campbell. “What sort of puzzle, sir?”

“Take a look here.”

A starfield shimmered into view in front of them, scattered pinpoints of brilliance dusted across the blackness of space. “See, that’s the projected perspective view for the area of space I thought we were in, taken from the files I’ve got onboard.”

“Doesn’t it fit?”

“Fits perfectly… with one little exception.”

The starfield blinked, and a brilliant point of light blazed out in the middle of the darkness. The point faded, then reappeared. “I’m toggling back and forth between the projection and what I actually got from scanning the starfield.”

“There’s… another star there.”

“Which shouldn’t be there at all, yes. And judging by the brightness and all, I’d guess it’s the closest star to us. Not in the catalogs, and there shouldn’t be anything this close to Earth that isn’t in the catalogs. Last I knew they were done even with the brown dwarfs and well into categorizing the rogue planets in the region.”

“How close do you think it is?”

Sergeant Campbell shrugged, running a hand through his graying hair. “Hard to say for certain, son; don’t know what the spectral type is, and that makes a huge difference. But if I had to guess, it’s less than a light-year off. If I get the color right, it’s possibly a G-type star. Nearest colony, though, is Orado – and that’s about ten lightyears off.”

Xander nodded. “Well, that’s not TOO bad, if we can get the Trapdoor running. That’d be, what, about two months, maybe?”

Samuel Campbell’s face looked a lot more grim all of a sudden, and Xander felt a chill. “Not quite, son. That’d be true for Outward Initiative, probably a bit less than two months, but these lifeboats can’t keep the Trapdoor running all-out constantly; figure it’s about a third the speed of a regular Trapdoor, on average, so you’re looking more at six months. If everything works perfectly, and honestly, I’m not sure it will. But that’ll be more on Tavana and me later on, once we get power up and running.”

Six months. That was a long time to live in this little shuttle… and it was six months added on to the time it would take to repair things. “But we can’t just go to some other star, sir.”

Sergeant Campbell grunted. “Not unless we have no choice, no. We don’t know there’s anything livable there, even if it is a G-type star. But I’ll tell you, it’s a mystery… and mysteries make me uncomfortable until I get answers to them.”

Maddox was looking at the Sergeant wide-eyed. “Sergeant… you don’t think… something from that star caused our accident?”

Campbell stared at Maddox a moment, then burst out laughing. After a moment, he got himself under control. “Sorry, Maddox. No, no, I don’t think that. Sorry if I sounded too melodramatic there. I think what happened to Outward Initiative was just an accident, field instability that rippled around the outside of the hab ring. I doubt that star had anything to do with it. I’m just saying that stars don’t just appear out of nothing, and so I really, really want to know how this one managed that trick.”

He looked back at the front screen. “But that’ll be a question for someone else to answer, I’m afraid. We have to get ourselves somewhere safe first; Outward Initiative will probably already have gotten there, since it’s the closest colony, and I’ll bet the answer will already be obvious.” He leaned back. “But no point in even worrying about it until we get the reactor back, eh?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Tavana said. “And I think I’m going to need your help just to get through this door. What was your clearance on Outward Initiative?”

“Full security clearance, secondary command clearance. You need my biometrics?”

“Yes, sir. I hope it’s still got all the data loaded in the onboard memory, so it’ll recognize you. Maddox and I, we’ve got the TechTool configured to act as a simple security gateway but we can’t fake the door out.”

“No, they definitely did not want the average Joe being able to walk into the cargo holds. Lot of stuff in there that’s very valuable… and some of it’s real delicate.” Campbell levered himself out of the pilot seat and pushed off to come to a quick rest near the rear door. “All right, let’s give it a try.”

“Hold it here – careful, the probes are very thin, do not break or bend them! Then look directly into the flat surface there.”

The TechTool blinked swiftly, projecting a faint laser beam against Sergeant Campbell’s face.

Abruptly the door swung outward.


“Well, now, good work there, all of you!” Campbell was grinning like the rest of them. “Now we can get to the cargo… and find the access to the reactor. Let’s get a move on!”