Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 14

Chapter 14.

Tavana let out a whoop and for a few moments everyone was cheering except for the Sergeant, who was just grinning from ear to ear and leaning back in his seat with obvious relief.

Finally the noise died down and the Sergeant stood up. “Whoo. Feels real funny standing now, but also seems my medical nanos didn’t let me get too weak. Still, everybody be a little careful moving around ’til you get used to walking again.”

He looked around the little group. “Now, we’ve got one question left: can we breathe the air? If we can, odds are a hundred to one in our favor that Emerald’s a Terran-type world, and we can live here.”

Tavana thought, and suddenly a chill went down his spine. “Sergeant… we don’t have any chemical sensors, do we?”

“Not without ripping them out of LS-88’s air system, and ripping the air system apart – even a little bit – before we know exactly what the air outside is like… sounds a little bass-ackwards to me.”

Maddox pursed his lips. “If I had my collection, some of those would have sensors on them.”

Xander shook his head. “Sergeant, there’s got to be something in the cargo with a sensor that could be adapted.”

Campbell looked at him. “If you’ve got a suggestion, son, I’m all ears.”

“It’s oxygen we need to check for, right, Sergeant?” asked Francisco.

“That’s right, son. The chemistry that supports an oxygen-rich atmosphere is the one we depend on. We’ve only found one exception.”

“Well… then can’t we just put something in the airlock that’s on fire, and if it stays on fire after we open the airlock, then we know there’s oxygen?”

For a minute Campbell just stared, and then threw back his head and laughed loudly. Xander snickered and started to laugh, and then Tavana joined in. Dieu, how we miss the obvious.

Francisco was looking embarrassed and angry; but before Tavana could call the Sergeant’s attention to it, Campbell stopped on his own and knelt down next to Francisco. “Hey, son, we weren’t laughing at you. Laughing at myself, really. Here we were looking for some fancy high-tech way to find out if we could breathe the air, and damned if the youngest kid in the crew sees the answer that was right in front of us! Good work, Francisco! Great work!”

The uncertain face suddenly broke into a brilliant smile. “De veras? You mean it?”

“I sure do! And let me tell you I’m relieved as all h… heck, because without some trick to tell us if there’s enough oxygen out there, the only way we’d have known is to have someone step outside and find out.”

Tavana shuddered inwardly. Of course if the air outside wasn’t breathable… He shoved that thought as far away as he could, but it wasn’t that far.

Francisco had blushed visibly. “It wasn’t just my idea, though, sir. I remembered something in one of the old books my mama read to me; one of the people in it said ‘where a light can’t live, I know I can’t,’, so…”

“Memory or your own idea, you were the one who came up with it for us.”

Campbell went into the cargo, came out with a plastic bottle of clear liquid. “Alcohol. All-round good disinfectant, useful for a lot of things. And perfectly flammable. Now, lessee… sure, I can use a cooking pan to hold it.”

“Can I do it, sir?” Tavana asked.

“Why not? You’ve got the idea, I’m sure.”

“Go into the lock, put alcohol in the pan, set it on fire, then go out and close the door and then let it equalize with exterior air.”

“Simple and straightforward. But here,” he handed them a wad of packing material, “add that. Pure alcohol flames can be tough to see; adding something else fixes that problem.”

“I wanna light it!” Francisco said.

“Your idea, your right to help out. Okay, you two.”

Tavana walked to the lock – slowly, feeling as though his pants were made of lead, and his shirt too – and opened the inner door. Placing the pan on the floor, he poured it half-full of alcohol and dropped in the packing material which swiftly absorbed a lot of the liquid and sank in a sodden mass to the bottom. “All right, Francisco. Careful! Don’t get too close, there’ll be fumes.”

But Francisco obviously knew how to light a fire – his pocket TechTool actually had a firestarter mode, which Tavana knew his didn’t. The little multitool extended into a slender wand that allowed a hot, bright spark to be generated quite a distance from the user’s hand.

With a gentle whoomph! the alcohol ignited, the vapors around it making a momentary, ghost-blue fireball; the alcohol-soaked packing material began burning briskly with orange and blue flame.

“Okay, let’s get out!”

Tavana felt his gut tensing sourly as the airlock door swung shut and the cycle began. He turned to watch, but Campbell was standing in front of the door, looking through the port already. “Excuse me, sir.”

“Eh? Sorry. Here, everyone crowd around, we might as well all watch this.” He lifted Francisco up so he could look through the port and the others managed to stand and peek through one way or another.

The little pan of fire was still burning, but the air exchange was still going on. It flickered and guttered momentarily, and Tavana felt sick. Is it going to go out?

But whatever air current had wafted its way around the room had faded. The fire rose slightly higher in blue-tinged orange.

Then the outer door opened, admitting brilliant sunshine and the pure air of Emerald.

The dazzling sunlight dimmed the flames… but they were still there.

The fire was still burning!

“Sergeant –”

“It’s burning. By GOD it’s still burning! Boys…” and suddenly his voice broke and he sank to his knees. “Oh God, I think we’re gonna be okay. I finally think we’re okay…”

Tavana felt a burning in his throat and eyes, tears answering those pouring down the Sergeant’s dark, lined face; suddenly he realized how terrible the strain must have been on the seemingly invincible Sergeant Campbell. He said it himself, he was responsible for all of us. And no matter what he could do, he couldn’t change whether Emerald was livable. He knew how thin the chances were before we even started for this system.

“Sergeant?” he said, seeing the others as dumbfounded as he by Campbell’s sudden breakdown. “Sergeant, it is all right. You did it, you got us all here safe, and it’s okay.”

“Yeah… yeah, I know. Sorry, kids. Just… just finally had it all catch up to me, you know? Started as a goddam milk run, then suddenly we were stranded in space. Couldn’t take time to panic.” He stood up. “Sometimes it gets you like that, when you finally aren’t in a crisis. The relief, you know.” He grinned at them, wiped the tears away. “Felt good, actually. Released all that tension I had.”

He looked at the door, then at the rest of them. “Well, this ain’t going to be a picnic, either, but if we’re smart and careful, I’ll bet on us living here. So we’re going to get us some proper equipment for a little expedition, and then we are going to be the first people to step foot on this planet!”