Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 12

Chapter 12.

Tavana gazed at the brilliant disc of the star – filtered, of course – that was the center of their hopes. “Program concluded, Sergeant. We made it; I think we must be, um, what, something like a hundred eighty million kilometers from the star right now. What now?”

Now we have to look for a planet we can land on,” Campbell said easily. Tavana knew he was putting up a front, mostly for Maddox and Francisco. There was no guarantee of a planet at all, let alone one worth landing on. “Tav, what I’d like to do is use the Trapdoor to do really short jumps around the system, do a survey. I can pilot like that – I did a stint with a survey team some years back. But I know that takes some tricks with the coils to let you do that any shorter than four hundred million miles, and precision’s not the Trapdoor’s strong point.”

Tav found himself rubbing his chin. “I hadn’t thought about that, sir. Too busy just hoping they didn’t give out on the way here.”

“Well, we’re here, so I’m not so worried. You boys figured out the solution for the Nebula Drive, right?”

Xander laughed. “Brute-force solution, yes, sir. We manually operate the dispensers. The autodispensers got fried pretty completely, according to Tav, so we just made some we can control from inside the cabin. The control field extensions for the Nebula Drive seemed okay.”

“So,” the Sergeant said, “that means that worst comes to worst and the Trapdoor coils go down, we just use the Nebula Drive. Right?”

“Right,” agreed Tav. There wasn’t much point in disagreeing; the Sergeant was basically right, though the Nebula Drive – or “dusty-plasma containment sail”, as his professors preferred – was a lot slower.

“Then what about it? Can you give me short-jump capability, or not?”

“Um… let me check some things.”

“Take your time, son. Don’t do it fast, do it right.”


Tavana accessed his notes and references. He hadn’t gotten to the classes that covered short-jump approaches, but he had actually read ahead; that was an interesting part of the Trapdoor engineering, pushing its limits, and he’d had some discussions with his teachers on it. The keys were synchronization and field control and dissipation.

Let’s see… one nice thing is that all those jumps from where we were marooned to here have given me a lot of data on the regular coils and the ones we had to rewind. I can nail down their resonances and quirks pretty well. If my omni can crunch all that data…

It turned out that the omni could crunch that data pretty well. Looking at the plots, it was easy to see the hand-wound ones; they had a lot of anomalies. But none of them seemed fatal to Sergeant Campbell’s idea. There was one limitation, though…

“Sergeant, I think we could. But it would need you to go out and add a couple components to each drive coil circuit. We have the components, and they’re not hard to install I don’t think, but to control the timing and dissipation of the field well enough, we need to install these networked synchronizers.”

“In each bay? So about a day, a day and a half of work to save us weeks of cruising? Let me suit up while you get the components together, son.”

It actually only took Campbell most of a day to do the work, with Tavana guiding him through the first couple and then just watching as the Sergeant carefully and precisely installed the components, verified function with Tavana, and then moved to the next.

The next ship-morning (Tav doubted they were still synchronized with any clock in the Galaxy, but still, they needed some kind of schedule), Campbell had them strap back in, settled back, and gripped the controls. “All right. So I should be able to do a short-jump now?”

“Should, yes, Sergeant. I’m not an expert, though, so –”

“Tavana, it’s all right. I’m the only expert here right now, and I’m not an expert in most of the things we need. You did your best and that’s all I’m ever gonna ask of you.” The Sergeant strapped in. “All right, let’s test this bad boy. All set, Francisco?”

“Yes, sir, Sergeant!” Francisco had been showing extreme mood swings during the journey here, but right now he sounded cheerful. Well, we’ve gotten where we were going and we’re talking about finding a planet. He’s feeling hopeful.

“Then let’s go!”

Sergeant Campbell first tumbled the ship carefully on two axes; Tavana knew that this gave a full view of the entire sky around them. “Okay, here goes nothing.”

The port went black, and then stars flashed out, after a pause that Tavana thought was no more than ten seconds. It worked!

“Nice jump, Sergeant.”

“Thank you kindly, son.”

“So where did you jump us to?”

“Didn’t really matter; not towards the star, not away from it really, just a sort of lateral line. That should give us a chance to locate planets, by checking any parallax from the motion. Let me tumble her again, and then we can start looking.”

“I think I’ve got an automatic comparison set up in my omni,” Maddox said. “Not too hard, right?”

“Shouldn’t be,” Tav agreed.

The stars spun by once more, and Tavana looked over at Maddox. For a moment everything was quiet, and then Maddox shouted, “Yes… yes! There’s planets, sir! And maybe… um, a couple other things?”

“A couple other ‘things’? What kind of things? Let me see what you’ve got.”

Maddox broadcast the detected targets – objects that had changed their relative position due to the microjump. Ignoring the central star, there were no fewer than nine targets.

“Well, now, I see what you mean. We’ve got a couple comets, good-sized ones. And that’s a Jupiter-type gas giant. Maybe another one there. Rocky planet, way too close in, you can tell that by relative position…”

A few more minutes went by; Tavana did some calculations on some of the targets that had a questionable relative position, but his spirits were falling. None of them are in the right location.

He looked at the older man and at Xander, and saw the grim reflection of his own fears. “Sergeant –”

“We ain’t giving up yet!” Campbell said quickly. “See, from these measurements, it turned out we were actually pretty close to the ecliptic before we jumped. There’s a whole swath of the sky over here that we couldn’t see clearly enough to get a match on. What we’re looking for could be right there.”

Tavana didn’t argue, but the “swath” wasn’t very large; it was just the relatively tiny angle where the central star’s glare had made it impossible to resolve – basically little more than the star’s apparent diameter at their prior distance. “Doing another microjump, sir?”

“You got it. Everyone locked in?”

Assured that they were, Campbell triggered another short jump; this one lasted about the same length of time, and the stars shimmered back into existence. After the obligatory tumble, Maddox ran his comparison again.

“Sir, there’s one new target!”

“What’s the location, Tavana?”

Tavana triangulated from the two observations and compared it with the prior results. A trickle of hope started, a painful trickle because there were so many things that could dash that hope. “It’s at… about one hundred twenty million kilometers from the primary, maybe just a little less. That’s well inside the Goldilocks Zone!”

“Well, now, that’s looking up. Can we get a good look at it from here?”

“If you can point us directly at it.”

“I will most surely do that, then.”

A few moments passed and Tav finally got the newly-discovered planet centered, then triggered the telescopic function of the viewport camera.

The enigmatic dot of light brightened, then expanded, becoming a tiny but distinct crescent… a crescent of brilliant green and white.

“Looks like atmosphere. And something else, but I’m damned if I can tell what,” the Sergeant said after a pause. “But if it’s got an atmosphere, our odds just shot way up. Strap in, I’m getting us closer.”

“But, sir,” Tav said, “it’s not at the right distance for a microjump –”

“No, son, but if you’re really good at feeling these things out, just about everything’s at the right distance for two microjumps.”

Tavana thought for a moment, then wanted to smack himself. “Triangulation!”

“Exactly right, son. Once you get close enough, find the direction and distance that will put you a minimum jump away, then jump to that point. Hold on, we’re doing it now.”

Another ten seconds of blackness, a moment of the ship turning, realigning, and then another few seconds.

The screen cleared, and before them was a small globe, but still far larger than the magnified image they’d seen before. Tavana triggered the telescopic magnification again, and the new world swelled hugely; from their new vantage point, slightly to starward of the planet, the surface was more complex; swirls of white cloud contrasted with brilliant green and darker green and brown and buff-colored areas. Seas and continents!

“Sure does look promising. Shame I ain’t got a spectrometer, but it looks good. Except that green color’s funky.”

“Algae bloom?”

“Over the whole planet? Well, if so, that’d be good news for us; that looks like chlorophyll green to me. Let’s check out her vitals, shall we?”

The view from the other microjumps helped refine the size of the new planet – slightly larger than Earth – and Tavana spotted a couple small satellites of the planet which helped pin down the gravity and thus mass of the target. “It’s a little bigger than earth, but surface gravity’s going to be just a little less.”

“Is it… is it going to be safe?” Francisco asked. “I mean… will we be able to go there? It looks very pretty!”

“Does, doesn’t it? Sure a lot better than just black space and stars, I gotta say. But honestly, son, the only way we’ll know if it’s safe is to go there. All the survey software that might’ve been on this tub is gone, and all I’ve got to go on is my gut.”

“So what does your gut say, Sergeant?”

Campbell got up and stretched. “It says that tomorrow’s another day. We’ve been busy today and I’m not going to think about doing a landing until I’ve gotten some rest.”

“We should name the planet first!” Francisco was emphatic.

“I am tempted to call it ‘Hope’,” Tavana admitted.

“Too obvious. Xander?”

“Looks like it has a lot of water, and looks sort of tropical. Call it Lagoon?”

“Hm. I could live with that, I suppose. Maddox?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It looks like a gem to me. We could call it Gem?”

“I say we call it Esmeralda – Emerald, to you.”

The Sergeant chuckled. “You know, I think the kid’s got it. Emerald it is.”

Francisco beamed, overjoyed at being the one to name the planet they had found. Tavana wanted to object, but he suddenly realized that the Sergeant probably would have approved any suggestion by Francisco; the boy needed things to make him feel better, and Tavana was old enough not to need that kind of help, right?

So he shoved the petty disappointment back and clapped; the others joined in. “To Emerald, then – tomorrow!”

“Tomorrow,” Sergeant Campbell said. “By this time tomorrow, we’ll be landing!”

Tavana knew that landing wouldn’t mean anything if it turned out that Emerald’s atmosphere was toxic, the green color caused by something lethal and alien… but in his heart, he didn’t believe that the universe would be that cruel. Looking at the brilliant green sphere, he closed his eyes and said a silent prayer. Please… be a place that we can live.