Castaway Odyssey – Chapter 16

Chapter 16.

“This,” Campbell said, “Is a JD-CAT Model 450 Universal Excavator.”

The boys were all watching attentively, even Francisco. Heavy machinery still held a fascination for most children, and these – thank goodness – were no exception.

He walked around the big machine and smacked the wide, thick bar that was held up by the manipulator frame. “Excavator is just part of what the 450 can do, though. This is a fully controllable advanced SMA – Shape Memory Alloy – universal blade component, similar to the main control surface units on LS-88. It can be a bulldozer blade, a backhoe scoop, a snowplow – pretty much any kind of tool you need to clear an area, dig a hole, smooth the ground, and so on. The rear “ripper” attachments are also SMA units, and can be configured for hole digging and other operations.”

“Cool,” Maddox said with a broad grin.

“It is that,” he agreed. “We have four of these beasts, each one massing fifteen metric tons, and believe me, Tantalus colony’s gonna be real unhappy they don’t have them. These were designed specifically for new colony setup.”

Campbell grabbed the door, opened it, and swung up into the small cabin. “C’mon up, take a look. Manual controls built-in and parallel to the automatics.”

“So they can be automated?” Tavana asked. “That will be useful!”

“You better believe it. We’ll start out doing things by manual, because with the AIs knocked out by that Trapdoor pulse, we can’t count on them to make the right evaluations and decisions. But once our satellite network gets established, we’ll have an Emerald-centric GPS system to guide everything they do.”

Xander was checking the drive systems along with Tavana. “Superconductor loop batteries, right?”

“Right. No fuel, minimal maintenance – moving components sealed as much as possible, with near zero-wear bearing materials. We just plug her into the shuttle mains and recharge every so often.”

Francisco looked at the machine longingly. “I wish I could drive it, but I’m too small.”

“Maybe not,” said Tavana.

Campbell looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “How you figure, Tav? His feet won’t even reach the pedal pads.”

Tavana grinned, holding up his omni. “Manual can still be via remote, yes? And I know that Francisco, he is quite good with delicate control in the games.”

Yeah, but still, that’s fifteen tons of machinery with a lot of power behind it. But he caught Tavana’s meaningful stare, and knew what the kid was up to. Francisco’s an artist and a kid; he’s not like the rest of these boys, an engineer or on the way to being one. He wants to contribute, and Tavana wants to show him a way he can.

And, Campbell had to admit, it couldn’t hurt to have someone with an artist’s as well as an engineer’s eye in on the work. If they were going to be stuck here, letting Francisco try to add aesthetic touches would be a good thing.

“That’s… not a bad point at all, Tav,” he said, after a momentary pause. “Tell you what: I’ll start teaching Xander and Maddox how to run it, but you can hook into the controls in parallel and we’ll see if you can figure out a good control interface that Francisco can use. I’m not giving any remote control, though, until I’m sure whoever’s doing it knows exactly what they’re doing; this thing can do a lot of damage real fast.”

The others nodded, and Xander said, “So what’s our plan, sir?”

“I want to clear a perimeter all the way around us,” Campbell said, gesturing in an arc around them. “Clear the ground, make sure there’s no surprises waiting for us in our base camp. Take everything down, out to about fifty meters in all directions from LS-88, down to the water’s edge in the direction of our little lake there.”

Maddox frowned. “We’re just going to wipe out everything around us? That’s pretty mean! What about the animals and things that already live here?”

Campbell sighed. “Son, if this was a proper survey and colonization setup, you’d probably be right. Modern approach to colonization is to try to find a way to fit in. But honestly, Maddox, even there, once we decide that we’re setting up a colony in a given area? Everything has to go that might be dangerous, or even just something that’ll weaken the structures you’ll be building.”

He pointed out at the towering spiral-leaved trees, the distant columns that he couldn’t quite figure out, the shadows under the trees. “We don’t know anything about what lives here. We don’t know if we’re sitting on top of, oh, a nest of chojago like they ran into on Porlumma, sort of super-fire-ants, and we sure don’t want to find out the hard way. It may not be the proper environmental approach, but for survival this is the way we have to do it. Everything for a certain radius around this ship goes. Got it?”

Maddox bit his lip, but then nodded. “Yes, Sergeant.”


The controls of the Model 450 were fairly simple; manual control of a bulldozer, backhoe, and similar machinery really hadn’t changed in centuries. Handgrips to steer, hand and foot controls for moving forward and backward, for raising and lowering the blade or bucket, and so on. He configured the universal blade to a standard “scraper” blade shape, lowered it, and – after making sure all the kids were well clear – started forward.

Unlike the old-fashioned internal-combustion designs, the 450 didn’t roar and rumble, but it did move forward with massive authority, and the sound of earth and stone and plants being torn and scraped was loud and emphatic. Moving nice and smooth. That’s good.

He noticed movement to the rear. “Hey! Boys, don’t follow me! You can keep monitoring and watching, but you stay right there at the ship!”

“I thought I’d just look at what you were uncovering, Sergeant,” Xander said, slightly defensively.

“You gotta start thinking more paranoid, son. What if there was a nest of… something, like I mentioned? What do you think the reaction’s gonna be? You boys have to stay away from the machine in case something here takes violent exception to our trying to clear everything up.”

There were no arguments to that, and he was pleased to see the boys simply went and watched from the main ramp; his occasional glimpses showed that Francisco was paying close attention to whatever Tavana was doing, so maybe the boy would learn how to run one by remote.

He took the 450 out the full fifty meters and a little more, then turned at right angles and started carving out a wide, flat perimeter border.

Ha! Saw something there, long and pretty nasty looking, wiggled out of a hole ahead of me and ran off into the forest. There’s animals on land and some of them probably dangerous. With the cabin door closed, he wasn’t worried for himself here; even if a swarm of this world’s equivalent of bees or something came after the 450, they’d never get in to bother him. But he was now more sure than ever that they needed this perimeter.

After a couple of hours, he’d managed to cut a swath all around the grounded LS-88, a double-wide pathway of scraped earth showing white, dusty streaks where he’d been digging into rock running a total of several hundred meters. The debris from the scraping ran in a bulwark all around the encampment. “There we go. You got it now, Xander?”

“I think so. Can I try it?”

“I’ll bring her back in and you can. Now, what I want us to do is work from the inside out now, and push everything out. We’ll end up with quite a wall, nice earthworks that’ll discourage casual intruders, and a smooth place for us to set up camp inside those walls.”

“I heard some things running away from you,” Tavana said. “I guess there are some animals here for sure.”

“And probably a lot more farther in. Like I said, when we landed we probably made most things run far, far away. The few things still here were in burrows – which was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to make sure we got rid of.” He finished running the excavator back in to near LS-88. “Once we have the area cleared, we’ll have to pack it down, steamroller it as they used to say, and we can start really getting set up.”

Maddox was looking at the small lake. “Sergeant, do you think we might be able to do some fishing? We saw something jumping out there…”

“I’m sure we will. While your brother gets the hang of clearing our field here, you’re welcome to see if you can figure out some good fishing gear.”

“Should we get out a second excavator?” Tavana asked. “I could start prep on that now.”

He considered, while keeping an eye on Xander’s first hesitant attempts with the 450. “Not right now. Maybe we’ll want two of them, but keeping them charged will be a bit of a chore, and it’s not like we’re going to be building miles of highway. Keep working with Francisco; if he gets a hang of running one of these things by remote, that’ll free the rest of us to do other work.”

Tavana nodded and sat down next to Francisco.

The older Bird seemed to be getting the 450 under control; the movements were smoothing out, and the scraping noise becoming smoother, more constant. Campbell leaned back with a grin, thinking. Positive mental attitude, first aid, shelter, fire, signaling, water, and food. That’s survival in a nutshell. Attitude, well, the kids are doing pretty well on it. We’re not hurt. LS-88’s a dandy shelter, even if I really look forward to getting into something bigger. We’ve got all the fire we need. The SC-178s are the best we can do for signaling. Water’s not a problem, as long as the whole planet isn’t a deathtrap, and we’ve got food for a bit.

He sat down and let himself relax against the hard, strong alloy of one of the landing struts. Not bad, Campbell. Give yourself a pat on the back and five minutes of peace.

“Yeah,” he muttered to himself with a wry grin. He could probably afford five minutes. But not much more, because if his years in the Service had taught him anything, it had been this:

Planets hold surprises.