Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 10
Samuel Campbell went into the cargo hold once he was sure that Tavana and Maddox were securing themselves. He still felt shaky inside; the relief that â€“ once more â€“ the suspension procedure had worked warred with his worry that Pearce still might not make it. It wasn’t a good place for his head to be in, but he accepted that it would take a bit to drive the personal turmoil out. These ain’t the best circumstances for keeping my distance, either.
“Hey, Xander. How’s it going?”
“Just about done, Sergeant,” the older Bird answered. “There’s a few more boxes we have to unseal and sort, but I don’t think they have rations or anything like that in them.”
“Nevermind, then. Francisco, go up front and strap in. We’re getting ready to start moving.”
“Yes, sir!” Francisco looked excited as he bounced towards the front of the shuttle. Kid still probably doesn’t grasp that even once we start moving, it’s gonna be a long time before we get to civilization.
That did, however, leave him alone with Xander, which was what he’d intended. “So, sonâ€¦ what’s the final word?”
Xander looked serious, then suddenly broke into a broad smile. “It’ll be a little tight, sirâ€¦ but we’ve got enough to last us the full six months, maybe a little more if we tighten our belts.”
Campbell felt a huge knot loosening in his gut. He’d been even more worried than he’d realized that the long time spent rigging repairs to the little ship would have taken their chance to live long enough to reach the colony of Orado, which was the only one within any reasonable range â€“ ten light-years off. “Well, now, that’s just great. Let’s get up to the front and strap in. I’m going to get us set for the long trip right away, then.”
Once Xander was in place, Campbell strapped into the pilot’s chair and then spun to face the little group. Kids all of them, except Pearce, who’s out and not waking up. “All right, crew. We’ve finished our repairs, we’ve retrieved our castaway. Now we’ve got one more long trek to make â€“ so we can go home.”
There was a ragged cheer.
“Thank you, but thank yourselves. I couldn’t have done this all alone. All of you should be proud of the work we’ve all done.” He waited a moment, then said, “and now let’s get going!”
He spun back to the main console and locked the chair in position. Everything by the numbers. He checked every system, calling them off, the reds, the yellows, and the now far-more-numerous greens â€“ enough green and yellow to get them home, anyway. “Destination, Orado colony. Distance, best as I can guess it, ten point zero five lightyears. That’ll be a haul â€“ about six months â€“ but we’ve got what we need to make it there. Air purifiers and oxygen reclaiming facilities show green. Water reclamation, green. We’ve got enough food. We have power. Setting course and maximum jump sequence.”
LS-88 reoriented itself, pointing now in the direction of the moderately bright K-class star that was Orado’s primary. With even the reduced velocity of their Trapdoor drive, the motion of stars was effectively zero over human timescales, so he just needed to point and drive, adjusting some when they got closer, but if he could see and line up on his target, they’d get there.
“Trapdoor driveâ€¦ engaging!”
The stars wavered and vanished, the perfect blackness of the Trapdoor space replacing them, and Campbell found himself joining in the near-deafening cheer that erupted from behind. “It WORKS!” he heard Tavana shout gleefully. “Mon Dieu, it works!”
“It does indeed,” Campbell said, “And another round of applause to Xander, Tavana, and Maddox, who figured out how to rewind the darn coils.” He unstrapped. “We’ll be doing about four-hour jumps before the coils need to be recharged, which will take about eight hours. In the meantimeâ€¦ it’s almost dinnertime, and in honor of our successful jump back to violating the speed of light, I’ve got a little surprise.”
“When I was digging around back in storage, I found a little box that looks to me like it was a special present for someone at our destination, probably one of Tantalus’ top admins. Turns out it’s a box of Buckleys.”
“Buckleys?” Xander blinked, then suddenly his eyes lit up. “You mean, Buckley’s Space Gourmet Dinners?”
“The very same, yes.”
“Wow,” Francisco breathed. “I’ve had some of those; they’re even better than what they served at Captain’s Table.”
“That’s why Buckley retired richer than anyone else in the Europa crew, ‘cept for Baker,” Campbell agreed. “And we’ve got enough for a few special feasts. Figure this is the right time, especially since we’ve spent a couple months eating regular rations.”
The others enthusiastically agreed, and Campbell went into the cargo area and extracted five dinners from the box he’d hidden inside one of the construction machines’ casings. He shared them out and the group let the dinners’ built-in superconductor batteries warm the meals to the proper temperature.
As he was taking his third bite of buttered garlic asparagus, there was a loud ping! from the front console, and the starfield appeared again.
He barely restrained himself from swearing; instead, he locked his dinner down and started checking the board.
“What’s wrong?” Xander asked tensely.
“Don’t know. Tav, you’re the closest we’ve got to an expert. What’s going on?”
Tavana gestured for him to move out of the control seat, which he did. He continued eating, but the Buckley Dinner didn’t seem nearly as good as it had been a few minutes ago.
A few moments later, he heard a phrase in Tahitian which he knew was not something you’d say in polite company. He also knew that Tavana never swore in that language. “What is it, son?”
“It’s the windings, Sergeant.” Tavana’s voice was rough, filled with anger and at the same time on the edge of tears. “They’re not perfect, we knew that, but I thought it might be good enoughâ€¦ butâ€¦”
“But what, son? Are theyâ€¦ ruined again?” It was hard to ask; even assuming they had enough wire to re-wind the coils, the amount of time needed would be almost fatal; it would be fatal if they had to do it more than once.
“No, not ruined; the failsafes cut in. What’s happening is that the field resonance through the coils that aren’t perfectly aligned makes them heat up slowly, so eventually they get too close to the transition temperature.”
The transition temperature, of course, was the point at which a superconductor stopped being a superconductor. When that happened, all the energy stored in the superconductor was liberated pretty much instantly â€“ an explosion, in other words. Thus, any superconductor that carried or stored significant power was monitored for temperature. “Does that mean that when it cools down, we can start it up again?”
Tavana looked a little less angry. “Well, yes, sir. Butâ€¦”
“I can guess. That takes a while.”
“The coils are sealed up in enclosed, insulated spaces. Normally they don’t heat up appreciably. But now, they have to radiate the energy away, and there’s no good way to do that. We can’t take the covers off; they’re designed as part of the field resonation circuits. Soâ€¦ I guess I’ll have to model it and see what the optimum duty cycle is. I know it’ll take a lot longer to radiate this away than it did to build up, and it was only twenty minutes to build up.”
“Get to it, then.”
The cabin was deathly quiet as Tavana worked. Campbell wished he could think of some way to break the tension, but in all honesty, there wasn’t any way he could imagine. This was a potential death sentence, and Tavana was going to tell them when the execution would occur.
Finally, after what was probably only a few minutes but felt like forever, Tavana turned slowly to face them. From his expression, Campbell knew it was bad.
“We’re all here, son. Give it to us straight.”
Tavana swallowed, then sat up. “Best case, modeling heat buildup and â€¦ well, never mind. We can run them for about five minutes every two hours.”
The words hit him like a blow. “That’s one part in twenty-four, Tavana. You sure?”
Tavana looked down, miserable. “Yes, sir. Other scenarios take longer for various reasons. It’s going to be almost ten hours before we want to start that cycle, because we want the coils to drop to as low a temperature as we can get them, and they’re hot right now.” He looked up with a slightly less miserable expression. “On the positive sideâ€¦ we will have plenty of time to recharge, so we gain that time back. Recharging won’t heat the superconductor, so it won’t hurt us.”
Campbell gritted his teeth, tried to relax. “Still, If I get you rightâ€¦ that means it’ll take eight times as long to get anywhere as we thought before.”
From two weeks per light year, they’d now gone to four months. Forty months to Orado. Even starvation rations would never get them that far.
For a moment he was overwhelmed with a sad, sick fury. No. It’s not fair, it’s just not acceptable that we could have done so much, come this far, and just end up crippled in space. These kids have worked so hard, hardly complained â€“ shoot, I’ve had squads of recruits who were more of a pain in the ass.
But he got a grip on himself. There has to be an answer. I won’t let there be no answer to this.
Even as he thought it, he suddenly knew the only possible way out.
“All right, son. Then we’ve only got one choice left.”
He took the controls, spun LS-88 slowly around, and then steadied the little ship, now pointing at a brilliantly blazing point of light.
“That’s the only star near enough. Just comparing its position in the sky with our little jump, I can tell it’s less than a light-year off â€“ a lot less, maybe a little more than a quarter light-year. It’s also probably a G-class star. It might just be a barren system, nothing there for us.
“But maybeâ€¦ just maybeâ€¦ there’s a planet we can live on there. It’s a damn sight better chance than drifting here praying for a miracle. So what do you say?”
Xander stared at the star. “That’s the star that shouldn’t be there.”
Tavana nodded. “Like it was waiting for us.”
“I’m scared,” Francisco announced suddenly.
“So am I, son,” Campbell said quietly. “So am I. But I’m not giving up yet, and that looks like our last throw of the dice to me. If you’re sure the coils will last that long, Tav?”
Tavana bit his lip, then straightened and nodded. “If we don’t push themâ€¦ yes, Sergeant. They’ll last that long.”
“Then set up the program, Tavana. Like it or not, we’re about to become explorers.”
He looked at the enigmatic point of light, blazing in the dark. You damn well better have something for us when we get there, because I’ll be damned if I’m leading these kids to their deaths.