Castaway Planet – Chapter 03

Chapter 3

Sakura clamped her jaw shut to keep from screaming as LS-5 whirled into the void. She gripped the arms of the pilot’s chair convulsively. She heard herself muttering, “Oh my God, oh my God…” and her mother and father both whispering something that sounded very similar.

The whirling, dizzy, uncontrolled spin lasted only a few moments; automatic stabilizer jets fired momentarily and then cut off. She felt the odd floating feeling of microgravity; over the private channel she heard Whips’ own half-formed prayers to Those Beyond the Sky.

For a few moments, no one moved; finally her father spoke. “My God, Laura, what happened?” Dad’s voice was filled with the same disbelieving horror welling up through Sakura, filling her with cold shock. Whips’ electronic link had gone blank, the loss so great that he wasn’t even forming thoughts she could understand.

Her mother was silent. Hitomi was sobbing, the cry of a child who doesn’t really understand, but knows something terrible is happening.

Then she felt a stirring in her best friend’s link. Are you okay, Whips?

I… must be. Panic is useless. His determined statement of that fact gave her a lifeline to hold to, and she sent him a smile that firmed his resolve. I am a descendant of Blushspark herself, child of the Seven Vents, the people who dared the chance to become part of both worlds. I must get a grip, as you would say.

Whips spoke aloud, answering Dad’s question. “The light… looked like a malfunction in the Trapdoor Drive,” he said. “When a ship does the drop into the Trapdoor space, you’ll often see a flash of about that color.”

“So… what, parts of the ship were dropping and others weren’t?” Laura asked, her voice frighteningly casual. Her mother was scared. The thought almost made Sakura panic again. Her mother simply did not get scared by anything.

“I guess so.” Whips squeezed his three hands together nervously. “A field instability — the field’s usually kept larger than the ship by a fair distance, but if something went wrong… I guess it could cause the field to dip down below the outer edge of the habitat ring.”

“Are we going to die, Mommy?” Hitomi asked tearfully.

“We are not going to die!” Laura snapped, and Sakura winced at the underlying near-panic in her tone.

I’m in the pilot’s chair. I should do… what a pilot does. She bent over the displays, searching. “I don’t see any other shuttles. LS-5, are you getting other beacons?”

There was no answer. “LS-5, respond!”

When the AI remained silent, she turned her attention to the displays on the board. Oh… no. “Mom… the AI’s offline. And there’s medical alerts –”

“What?” Her mother had the expression of a doctor discovering their patient had unexpected terminal cancer.

“What is it, Laura?” Akira demanded.

“Radiation. Huge spike, I’ve never seen anything like it. The diagnostics say it was a mixture of the common types plus some particle bursts that I don’t even know.”

“Does that mean we’re going to die?” Hitomi’s voice was almost a whisper.

Sakura saw her mother pause before answering. She’s checking. This is what Mommy does.

Then she smiled and shook her head. “No, Hitomi. It was bad — very bad — but LS-5 shielded us from the worst. We didn’t get a lethal dose, and I’m already directing our medical nanorepair. We all might get a little sick in the next few days, but we’ll be okay.”

Hitomi relaxed visibly, and so did Sakura. She knew her mother wouldn’t sugar-coat anything like this, so saying it was all right meant that it was, indeed, all right. But…

“Mom? What about Whips?”

She smiled. “His pod knows you spend lots of time with us, so his doctor gave me the data and access codes to his medical nanos too. He’ll be fine.”

“Thank you, Dr. Kimei,” Whips said. “I think the radiation explains the problem with LS-5, although I’m not sure why our other systems are working.”

“Trapdoor radiation surge,” Melody said.

Sakura sensed the Bemmie equivalent of a headslap of course! from Whips, but no one else seemed to understand. “What do you mean, Mel?” asked her father.

“The Trapdoor Drive creates a surge of subatomic particles when it’s used,” Melody answered, in the tense, focused tone that she always had when she was thinking to keep herself from being nervous. “That’s why the ship always stops talking whenever you’re preparing for drive activation or deactivation; the particle flux isn’t dangerous to us but disrupts the quantum channels the AIs use.”

“She’s right,” Whips confirmed. “I should have thought of it myself. And the malfunction must have caused the dangerous radiation surge; we were sitting on the Trapdoor interface. But I’m surprised you’d know that, Mel.”

I’m not, Sakura thought. She’s the family genius — heard Mom once say to Dad that Melody might be smarter than both of them put together.

Melody looked pleased, even though still worried. “I studied up on it when I knew we were leaving.”

“Whips, can you get the AI back up and running?” Laura asked.

Sakura saw the rippling pattern of hard thinking on her friend’s skin. “I… don’t think so,” he said, finally. “I’m not nearly finished in my training, and anyway the only way I think might work we can’t use right now. We’d have to shut down all associated systems and extract the cores, then do a clean memory restore. We have a memory backup onboard in the central repository, I think, but the other part means shutting down most of LS-5.”

“Can we handle things without the AI?” Akira asked after a moment. “Shutting down LS-5 and living in our suits may be necessary.”

“There’s still a lot of basic redundant automation in the systems,” Sakura answered, looking at her readouts again. “Exterior comms aren’t working — I think some of the antennas got fried or something — but all the interior systems seem to be okay, and most of the sensing systems are still running.” She halted, staring at the readouts, and felt as though an ice cube were sliding down her spine. “Oh, crap.”

“What is it, Sakura?” her mother asked tensely.

“The piloting and navigation. The automation there is based on the same kind of quantum-channel circuitry as the main AIs, and it was up and running for the drill.”

“My God,” said Akira in a soft voice. “Does that mean we’re dead in space?”

Sakura flipped the controls from Auto to Manual Control. Please, if there’s anything listening… She gripped the joystick and pulled.

LS-5 immediately spun smoothly about its axis, and Sakura felt a relieved smile spreading over her face. She did a quick, sharp test-fire of one of the rockets, and then ran through manual checks of the other systems. “No, Dad. We’re not dead in space. The manual controls are all operating, and systems all check out.”

“Can you run it all?”

She swallowed, then sat up. “I… I guess I have to, don’t I? I’ve got the basics down — the sergeant said I was doing really well. And… well, I think I can pilot LS-5 with Whips to help and Caroline to work with us to figure out destinations and courses.”

Laura looked to Whips. “What is your honest guess as to how long it would take to get the AI back up and running, if we try that? That would bring back our automation, right?”

Whips’ arms curled backward in a momentary defensive posture. “Um, Dr. Kimei, I… I’m not sure we can get it back up at all. I’m just learning, still, you know! If I tried… well, several days, at least. If it worked. And it’s possible I’d mess something else up while I was doing it.”

“Mom, Dad,” Caroline said after a moment, “I think we’d better stick with what already works. If Whips tries and breaks something by accident we could be royally sc… er, in a lot of trouble.”

Laura looked uncertainly at Sakura, and there was suddenly a private channel. Sakura? Honey, this will put a lot on you. Are you really okay with this? Do you really think you can do it?

Mom was being serious, and that meant she had to be serious too. The controls and readouts suddenly looked bigger, more intimidating, and it sank in that what Mom was really saying was we’ll all be depending on you to do it right.

Sakura took a breath and made herself really think about it. Look first, jet later, Whips reminded her. Not the time for your usual charge-forward, Sakura.

I know, Whips. Don’t nag. Still, she knew he was just reminding her of her own worst failing, and she couldn’t argue with him. She considered all the controls, everything she’d have to do — if they could survive at all, something she didn’t want to contemplate. It was terrifying.

But at the same time, part of her was excited. At most she’d expected to get a solo shuttle flight many months from now, with the automatics handling most of it and the sergeant, or another pilot, hanging over her shoulder. This was scarier… but it was real. She, Sakura Kimei, would be the honest-to-God pilot of a real spaceship.

Whips? she sent. Can you keep everything else running?

Everything that’s not damaged now? Yes. I can.

She looked over at Caroline, who met her gaze, frowned… and then smiled and nodded.

Relief burst in on her. Yes, Mom. Me and Whips can run this little ship, I promise.

“All right, then,” Laura said decisively. “It’s not the way I’d have wanted Sakura to get her real flight experience, but I guess it’s our best choice.”

“Yay!” Hitomi said happily. “Does that mean you’re the Captain, Sakura?”

That caused a faint chuckle around LS-5‘s interior. “No, Hitomi, Mom’s the Captain. Dad’s the First Officer. I’m just Navigation. Whips is Engineering, and I guess Caroline’s sciences or something.” She looked over to her mother, who was smiling fondly at Hitomi. “So what next, Captain Mom?”

“Mom or Captain please, the two together are just silly.” Laura looked out the viewport. “Can we get any comm beacons?”

“No, sorry, Mom. Remember I said most of the comm system’s down. Just internals.”

“Can’t you use the other scanning systems?”

“Maybe.” Sakura thought a moment, then after poking around in the controls was able to check out the infrared and radar scans. “Radar’s still working — don’t know why, that’s an RF-based system too. Umm…”

After a few minutes, she shook her head. “I’m not getting any radar patterns that look like other shuttles, no IR glows, either, at least nothing nearby.”

“There might not be anyone else,” Whips said bluntly. “I… wasn’t looking carefully, but can’t we play back the recording of those last seconds?”

Laura looked at him. “I’m sure we can… but why?”

“Because I don’t think I saw any other of those Trapdoor flares. If I’m right that means that we’d be the only ones who fell off, so to speak.”

“Or,” Sakura said slowly, “that if there are any others they’d be somewhere else along Outward Initiative‘s path, dumped whenever the instability reached their area of the hab ring.”

Hitomi brightened. “So once they realize what happened, Outward Initiative can just come back and pick us up, right?”

Sakura winced, and she saw her mother close her eyes before turning to face Hitomi. “I’m… afraid not, honey. If it’s just us, well, they still probably lost a big chunk of the hab ring. There’s going to be a lot of damage to the ship and they won’t dare stop. They’ll have to get to the nearest colony and get repairs, even if they think we might have survived.”

“And with our comm systems out…” Sakura swallowed, but made herself go on, “well, with them out, even if they did come back there’s so much space for them to look through that they’ll probably never see us.”

“And if our comms are out, the same is almost certainly true for anyone else who escaped, so if there are others, we may never see them, and they may never see us,” her father pointed out. “The important thing is to determine what we do next. Are we equipped for a system survey?”

Sakura checked, but got the answer she expected. “Sorry, Dad. No, there’s no survey software installed. No reason to have any. LS-5 is really meant as just a shuttle between orbit and ground and vice versa, and maybe a small ship for moving around a known system. Even in a lifeboat context, it’s assumed we’re in some inhabited system. Surveys are done by big ships, usually.”

She sensed her Bemmie friend suddenly close off, as though he’d had a terrible thought. His next words brought that thought out for everyone to look at.

“Sakura… most of space is… well, very empty. If we’re not in a solar system…”

She saw her mother’s eyes widen, and Caroline’s too; they both understood the implications. “It’s not that bad… I think. The Shuttle’s got its own Trapdoor Drive, so we can go FTL… in hops, because we have to charge the loops to run it — takes more power than the reactor can generate by itself. So… in effect it’s about a third the speed of a regular Trapdoor.”

“So that’s about… what, twenty-five times the speed of light or so?”

“A little more, but yeah.”

Her mother frowned and looked towards the back, and Sakura suddenly understood what she was worrying about. Whips. His people were amphibious, and he had to immerse in water fairly often for his skin and other biological functions. She knew that wasn’t necessary every day, but…

“Honey, let’s say we get to a good solar system. How long will it take to go from, well, wherever we get in the system to landing?”

“Depends on where we come out of Trapdoor,” her sister Caroline said. As a planetographer, Caroline had a good grasp of distances and times in solar systems. “Could be only a few days — long enough to get a good look and choose a landing site — or could be several weeks, maybe over a month.”

“A month.” Mom shook her head. “And each light year will be a couple of weeks, roughly, at the speed we can reach in LS-5. Then… we really have to hope there is a solar system within one or two light-years. Normally two weeks is pushing it for a Bemmie. I’ve got some ideas on how to stretch that — there are recommendations in the literature — but I don’t know if I can stretch it more than two months.”

Sakura tried to hide her dismay. The chances weren’t great that a star was that close. They weren’t terrible — maybe one in two or three — but still, not certain. And even if there were stars nearby, they might not have good planets. And even if it weren’t for Whips… there’s not all that much food on board, especially since Whips’ll eat more than one of us. We’ve got a nuclear reactor with power for years, but our supplies won’t last that long. She glanced at Hitomi — staring back with wide, terrified eyes — and Melody, gripping her seat’s arms so tightly the knuckles were white — and then at her mother and took a breath.

“First thing to do is find out where the nearest star is, I guess,” she said. “I mean, if we are in a solar system, no problem. Everyone keep an eye out.”

Her hands tried to shake, and she paused and took a breath before she reached out to the controls again. Simple. Just a full look around. Methodical, careful, controlled, just like in training.

The gyros and stabilizers could be used to spin the ship without having to use any of the limited reaction mass, so she used that, carefully rotating LS-5 around its axes so that all portions of the sky slowly drifted across the forward field of view.

Stars swam by, and everyone in the ship watched tensely. The beautiful river of light that was the Milky Way pinwheeled around them. Bright stars, dim stars, stars with a hint of red or yellow or blue or pure white shone unflickering against the absolute black of space.


The others shook their heads. “I saw some pretty bright stars,” Whips said, “but nothing that looked like it had a disc. At a light year away, I think the Sun would only look like a bright star –”

“Magnitude about minus three,” Caroline said. “So yes, even if we’re close to a good star, if it’s even a large fraction of a light year away, we won’t see it as a disc. And without knowing what kind of star I’m looking at, I can’t make a guess as to how far away it is.”

Sakura knew what she meant. Given how much stars varied in their actual light output, a really bright star could be a tiny red dwarf just a fraction of a light year away, or a supergiant star hundreds of light years off.

“But…” Caroline continued, smiling, “we don’t need to worry about that. Sakura, just charge up the Trapdoor Drive and give us a few hours hop in any direction.”

Sakura laughed, feeling some slight relief. At least we can find out how bad we’re screwed. “Parallax, right?”

“Right. Move only a little ways and we should be able to see movement of a nearby star against the background of the others. You recorded the whole globe of stars around us, right?”

“Yeah. And really, only the very bright ones matter, I think — over first mag, probably.”

“I’d guess you’re right. That’s only twenty or so back home, probably not much more than that here. We can track that pretty easily.”

“Okay, then — can I do that, Mom?”

Her mother smiled. “Of course you can. ‘Make it so’, navigator.”


Sakura heard the first chuckle since the disaster go around the cabin. “Aye, Captain!” She turned back to the controls. “Unsealing Trapdoor Drive controls. Drive shows green. Coils charged.”

Despite the desperate circumstances, she felt a thrill go through her. Her first solo flight… and she was doing a hop in interstellar space!

“Since we have no idea which direction we want to go, I’m just jumping the way we’re pointing. Set for four hops, total distance a few light-days. We’ll check the big stars after each hop, while the superconductor storage coils are charging. Okay?”

“Sounds good to me, Sakura.”

She found herself holding her breath as she reached out and touched the activation button.

Without a bump or jolt, the universe outside disappeared, and the Trapdoor Drive sent LS-5 hurtling on its unknown course. “Trapdoor Drive activated! We’ll be under drive for… about one hour and ten minutes.”

This is going to be the longest hour ever.