Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 06

Chapter 6.

Xander blinked himself awake and stretched, letting the tensing of his muscles start the blood pumping. The interior of LS-88 was quiet except for the faint hum of various pieces of equipment and the murmur of the environmental systems.

It should also have been pretty dark, but there was a glow from the pilot’s seat. Probably what woke me up. He glanced around. To his surprise, not only were Francisco and Maddox asleep, but the Sergeant hadn’t woken up. Well, he had been doing an awful lot of work before we all turned in.

That plus the nearby empty seat/couch told him who was at the controls.

“What’s up, Tav?” he asked quietly, once he’d gotten close.

Tavana twitched but didn’t jump – not that his restraints would have let him jump far anyway. “Don’t do that.”

“I tried not to startle you.”

“Sorry.” As Tavana turned to face him, Xander suddenly realized how worried the other boy looked. There were dark circles under the eyes, the usually smiling mouth was drawn tight. “What’s wrong?”

Tavana muttered something in a language that wasn’t in Xander’s translation protocols; probably Tahitian, given Tav’s ancestry. Then the younger boy sighed. “The drives… they’re not in good shape.”

That was not something Xander had wanted to hear. “What do you mean by that?”

“What do you think? I mean that neither the Trapdoor or the Nebula Drive are working, and I am thinking that it’s going to take a long time to get them working.”

A long time… Xander couldn’t help but glance back at the cargo area. There was food there… but it wouldn’t last forever. And if any other systems were damaged…

“Do you think we can get them working?”

Tav gave an elaborate shrug that was partly restrained by his harness. “I am trying to figure that out now. Maybe.”

Then his fist clenched and he shook his head. “No. Not maybe. Yes. Because we have to. The Sergeant… he told us that we have to rescue ourselves.”

Xander grinned. “That’s the way to talk!” Inside, he wasn’t fooling himself; all their dedication wouldn’t make a difference if the ship was too damaged. But thinking positive was better than getting discouraged right away. “So… can you tell what’s wrong?”

“Well…” Tavana rubbed his broad chin and paused for a moment. “What do you know about the Trapdoor Drive?”

“Not much, really. It lets us go up to about seventy times lightspeed, it still has a lot of physicists arguing about it, and when it’s running we’re in some kind of warpspace, right?”

To his credit, Tav kept himself from sneering or rolling his eyes, though Xander could tell that he’d nearly done both. Instead, the French Polynesian simply shook his head. “Not really. A ‘warpspace’, if we actually could make such a thing, would be a distortion, a bubble in our own spacetime. The Trapdoor Drive drops us into a sort of parallel space to our own where we effectively travel much faster; that’s why the old Bemmies called it the Trapdoor Drive – you’d open a sort of door and drop out of sight.”

Xander nodded. “Okay, that makes sense. You’re saying it’s sort of like dropping into a lower floor and running along until you decide to go back upstairs, except that somehow you run faster on the lower floor?”

Tavana nodded. “Though my professors would hate that analogy. Or those words, really. They didn’t like the word “faster” used that way because velocity’s still supposed to be relative. Anyway, the mechanism that does this, the Trapdoor Drive, it has to be very precisely balanced and tuned to the vessel, sort of the way a good resonant antenna has to be properly tuned.”

“And something’s screwed up the tuning?”

“Worse than that.” Tavana gestured, linking their omnis. “See that? That’s a scan image of one of the main Trapdoor field coils.”

The strange-shaped coil at first looked reasonably all right to Xander, but as he studied the rotating image, he noticed what looked like small spots, asymmetries on the delicately wound wire. “There. Those –”

“Right.” Tavana stared at the image as though willing it to change. “See, the field coils have to be located in niches outside the hull; I think the rad pulse generated enough fluctuating current that parts of the coils melted.”

While mechanical engineering was his specialty, Xander didn’t need any explanation for that. If elements of a coil melted, that amounted to multiple short circuits in the actual material of the coil. “So they won’t work.”

“Not unless I can fix them.”

“But you can’t just cut out the defective parts. That would leave cuts –”

“I know,” Tav said, cutting him off. “I think … if we don’t have spares, I think we’ll have to re-wind the coils.”

Xander swallowed, looking at the gleaming shape with the multiplicity of faint lines across its surface. “That… that could take a long time.”

“Like I said. Yeah. Especially since you gotta do it right. The coil geometry’s crucial. You can do some compensating in software, but only so much.”

“What about the Nebula Drive?”

“Well… first off, even if it was running, it’d be useless for us right now. We’re in interstellar space. Theoretically the dusty-plasma sail could eventually get up near lightspeed, but out here there’s pretty much not enough light to push us. Even if there was, we’d take years getting anywhere, and I’m pretty sure our supplies won’t last years.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Anyway… I think the main problem there is the dust dispensers. They’re on the outside too, so the pulse probably fried them. Those should be easier to fix, though.”

“But that won’t matter if we can’t get the Trapdoor running again.”

Tavana nodded. “Yeah.”

“Did it fry all the coils?”

“No. Two seem untouched. But you need all five running to close the field. Believe me when I say you do not want an incomplete field. On Outward Initiative, they had twenty-five, and we still saw instability, did we not?”

Xander didn’t even want to contemplate what would happen if they turned the Trapdoor on without everything working right. They’d all seen what happened when the Trapdoor field intersected matter. “We did, and I understand. So we should go see if we have the stuff to replace the wire with, right?”

“I… yes, of course. I hadn’t thought that far yet. But I guess it wouldn’t hurt to find out if we’ve got stuff we can use first.”

“Exactly right, son,” said a rough voice from behind Xander.

“Sergeant! When did you wake up?”

“Few seconds ago; combination of light and you talking. No,” Sergeant Campbell raised his hand, “don’t go apologizing. You were quiet, I just spent a lotta years in places where you wake up and check every sound you didn’t expect. Now,” he looked at Tavana, “what kinda wire do we need?”

“Two kinds, really. RTSC-B7 in gauge one-two-five, preferably, plus E-M structured alloy in the same gauge.”

“A little under old-style 36-gauge. Pretty skinny stuff to work with by hand, but if that’s what we gotta do, that’s what we do. But we might be in luck. I’m sure some of the smaller motors in the equipment back in storage use thin RTSC, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s B-7.” He gestured. “Since you’re both up, why don’t we just take a look now?”

Tavana unstrapped, looking a lot less unhappy than he had a few minutes ago. “Lead on, Sergeant.”

Xander followed them both, and felt some of his tension turning to hope.