Castaway Planet – Chapter 02

Chapter 2

Laura smiled as she dropped through the entry hatch to see that her husband, Akira, had just finished strapping Hitomi into her crash seat. The seven-year-old was behaving very well, clutching her winged-wolf plush and pretending it was flying back and forth in front of her, but otherwise sitting still. “You made good time,” she said, giving Hitomi’s inexplicably blonde hair a ruffle and kissing Akira on the cheek as she passed.

“Hitomi and I were taking a break in the exercise room,” Akira replied, making sure his own long, black hair was firmly tied back, “so we were not far away.” He glanced back to their second-youngest. “Melody, tighten your restraints.”

Daaaad,” Melody protested in the tone of put-upon children everywhere, “it’s a drill, not an emergency, and the straps squeeze too much.” She looked appealingly at Akira, her face and hair looking like a miniature mirror of her father’s Japanese features.

“Don’t argue with your father,” Laura said firmly. “The point of a drill is to do everything right all the time, so that if a real emergency ever does happen, you don’t have to think about whether you’ve done it right when it counts; you just do.”

She finished locking down her carryon. “We’re still two short. Outward Initiative, this is Laura Kimei. Where are Caroline and Sakura?”

The omnipresent AI that ran the starship Outward Initiative responded immediately. “Caroline is very nearly at your assigned shuttle. Sakura was in cross-corridor E-3 and will arrive in a few minutes.”

Laura nodded, and tried to ignore Melody’s predictable grumbles. Sure enough, Outward Initiative had barely finished speaking when Caroline dropped precisely through the center of the entranceway, landed, and walked to her location, locking down her own carryons with perfect, practiced motions. “All ready, Mom,” she said, sitting down and locking in.

At least one of my children is organized. Though sometimes a bit much for her own good.

Laura sat down and strapped herself in, bringing up the telltales for the shuttle on her own iris displays. She couldn’t pilot such a ship — few people could, and of her family the only one who had any idea how such a ship flew was Sakura — but she knew the check routines.

Landing Shuttle LS-5 was one of over one hundred similar shuttles, spaced evenly around the spinning habitat ring of the giant colony ship Outward Initiative. The “Trapdoor Drive”, which was how the ancient Bemmie word for the faster-than-light device translated, may have reorganized a lot of views of physics, but it hadn’t given them the ability to generate gravity on demand, so habitat rings still spun, and probably always would. For a lifeboat, this was convenient; to launch away from the main ship simply required detaching the links and centrifugal force would hurl LS-5 away from Outward Initiative.


LS-5 was already loaded with most of the cargo the Kimei family was bringing with them to the colony on Tantalus (formal designation EC-G5-4-100-11) — medical equipment and supplies, biological research and analysis systems, and the most current 3D manufacturing systems which would produce just about anything given the right materials as input. They were lucky they got one all to ourselves, given that there were over a thousand colonists on this mission.

No, she corrected herself. Not luck, just supply and demand. The only luck is that they needed both doctors and biologists, so we got double priority for me and Akira.

Sakura suddenly plummeted through the hatch and instantly ran toward the pilot’s console, dragging her carryall bag with her. The console wouldn’t actually be active except in a real emergency, but Sakura had argued that if there was a real emergency, it only made sense to have the only person with any flight training already sitting there. “Hi Mom, Dad, drill number one thousand six hundred twenty seven can now complete! And look who’s with me!”

“It’s only drill number thirty-seven,” Caroline corrected Sakura. “We do one drill a week on average and we’re almost halfway to Tantalus. And what are you doing here, Whips?”

Laura saw Whips’ arm-tendrils curl inward nervously. “Well, Sakura said the regulations claimed I should go to the nearest designated boat, and…”

“And she was perfectly right, Harratrer,” Laura assured him, using his official human name; the tendrils relaxed. “Just get your tie-downs on. Outward Initiative, let Harratrer’s pod know that he’s with us during this drill.”

“They have been informed,” Outward Initiative replied. “Proceed to Phase II of drill.”

Melody sighed from her seat. Some drills ended once Phase I — getting to the lifeboat — was completed, but with Phase II — actual preparation for launch — being tested, there was no getting around the need to finish strapping in properly. “What a pain…” she muttered.

The display in front of Laura was a “reality overlay” that included status telltales as well as enhancing key images in reality. She could see everyone’s medical condition and current location status, but there was still procedure to follow. “Everyone settle down, we’re doing count-off. Laura Kimei, here and secured. Nothing to report.”

“Akira Kimei here and secured,” her husband said immediately. “Nothing to report.”

“Caroline, here and secured. Nothing to report,” the seventeen-year-old said quickly.

“Sakura, here and secured! Nothing to report!” said the irrepressible black-haired girl from her pilot’s seat.

“Melody, here and secured,” came the bored voice of the ten-year-old in the seat behind her. “The straps dig into me. Otherwise nothing to report.”

“Hitomi and Skyfang!” announced Hitomi proudly. “Ready to fly!”

“Harratrer of Tallenal Pod, here and secured,” said Whips in his usual calm, slightly buzzing tones. “Nothing to report.”

“All present and secured. Pilot’s station, report status.”

She could see Sakura straighten with pride. “Pilot Station reporting! Launch systems… green, on standby. Autopilot and AI Support, green, on standby. Maneuver rockets, green, all self-checks complete. Life support, all green, fully supplied. Cargo integrity, all green. Nebula Drive, green, seals intact, updates complete. Emergency Trapdoor Drive, green, seals intact, updates complete. Nuclear reactor, all green, on minimal operating level. Atmospheric jets, all green, secured and sealed. Variable configuration actuators, all green. Sensor systems, all green. LS-5 ready for launch, Mom.”

Laura smiled at the last word. Not quite the formal tone preferred, but she’d checked off all the vital systems. Laura could, of course, see all of that on her displays, and in fact the operation of LS-5 would be done entirely by the onboard AI if a real emergency occurred. All AIs except the main shipboard AI were kept shut down at most times, of course, because the colonists would be on a world with minimal automation aside from whatever they brought with them.

“Good,” she said, then went on with the procedure — it was her turn. “Medical station — all crew and passengers show green.” Not surprising, of course; not only did she track her family’s health, and that of over half the colonists on board, regularly, but modern medical treatment combined with the standardization of medical nanotech implants had virtually eliminated poor health for those who didn’t simply abuse their bodies to the limit. It won’t be long before doctors become completely obsolete, she admitted to herself. And honestly? I think I’d be okay with that.

The simple check procedure done and everything on LS-5 showing green, Laura relaxed back into the secured chair. There was nothing to do now but wait while everyone else finished checking off and the usual wait to cycle through the launch sequence as though they were actually doing an evacuation. This week, unfortunately, the sequence was starting from the last shuttle and counting down, which meant they’d be waiting a while.

She activated the nose cameras, giving her a view of Outward Initiative. As the whole ship spun, not just the hab wheel, there was no relative motion, so the great ship’s forward section, silver with multiple patterns of other colors from the logos and flags of its builders and supporters, glittered unmoving and stark in the exterior floodlights against the utter, unrelieved blackness of the… not-exactly-space that was generated around them by the Trapdoor Drive. Three kilometers long and well over a kilometer wide, Outward Initiative was one of the larger human vessels operating today — though not quite the largest.

She could never look at that sight, of the impossible-black space and the brilliant starship, without thinking on what it meant that she could be here, with her family, traveling at eighty times the speed of light to another star. Barely two hundred years ago, we were still stuck in our own solar system, all alone in the universe… and then it all changed.

Changed, when Dr. Helen Sutter discovered an alien skeleton in earthly strata sixty-five million years old. Changed, when NASA and the Ares Corporation discovered an ancient alien base hidden within the Martian moon Phobos, and another on Mars itself.

And changed forever when Dr. Sutter, trapped beneath the ice of Europa, discovered that the aliens had left behind one last, incredible, wonderful legacy: a new, intelligent species that turned out to be as curious and eager to learn as any human being ever was.

Laura smiled and glanced back, seeing everyone — even Hitomi, for a miracle! — sitting quietly. Melody’s slightly-glazed look showed she’d brought up one of her immersive games to pass the time, or maybe one of the interactive books she liked. Whips was relaxed, his three-sided form rounded slightly from the pressure of the artificial gravity, and the rippling patches of light and color on his sides showed he was in a good frame of mind.

Her husband caught her eye and smiled and winked. He’s still as gorgeous as when I met him, she thought. Akira Kimei was dancer-slender, delicate featured, with black hair so long he had to pay constant attention to controlling it whenever he might be entering a low-gravity area — a bishonen even at the age of forty-three.

She winked back. Of course, being forty-three now is a lot different than it used to be; I’m forty-five but I haven’t aged that much since I was in my early twenties. With average lifespans over a hundred and seventy-five, “old” had been redefined quite a bit.

Sakura’s wireless link was active, and Laura smiled. Sakura never stopped talking even when she had to be quiet. Sometimes she was a bit sorry for Whips, but the Bemmie adolescent and Sakura had been best friends for years, even before they applied for the colony trip. She supposed he’d gotten very good at listening along the way.

She gave a satisfied sigh and settled back.

Alarm klaxons suddenly screamed, and as her stunned mind tried to grasp what that meant, the pressure door to the hatch slammed shut and locked.

“Oh, my God…” Sakura said, and Laura heard fear in the usually fearless voice.

Stars bloomed into existence around them; Outward Initiative was — incredibly — no longer in the Trapdoor Drive mode.

No, her horrified mind said numbly, It’s worse than that.

For one splintered fraction of an instant, she saw something in the displays that was utterly impossible; a ghostly shimmer of structures below them, as though part of Outward Initiative was here, with them, and the rest… not.

Even as she saw that, even as Sakura’s shocked gasp was dying away, there was a thud and a virulent flare of green-white light, and LS-5 was suddenly spinning away, uncontrolled, free-falling, lights momentarily flickering and threatening to send them into darkness. With only fragments of metal and composite following it, LS-5 hurtled away into the emptiness of interstellar space.