Castaway Planet – Chapter 06

Chapter 6

Akira’s arms hugged Laura tightly for a moment. “Are you all right?”

“I think so,” she answered on the same channel. One good thing about having private comm channels was that you could have a private conversation even in the middle of a not-too-large cabin. “But my God, Akira.” Even after four days it was still hard to grasp what had happened, and only now that they had successfully reached that target solar system had she started to allow herself to think beyond the question of whether something would happen to the little shuttle’s Trapdoor Drive.

“I know. We weren’t prepared for this.”

She rotated around to face him and then retightened her sleeping tether. “No one even knew this could happen. I wonder if this is the first time, or whether it’s happened to other ships, too.”

He shrugged. “No way to know, Laura. And doesn’t matter now.”

“Now that we’ve found a good star… what are our odds?”

She felt him draw a deep breath. “One in twenty that there’s a planet we can live on — in theory. If Sakura can land us.”

That was one of the things that worried — no, to be honest, terrified her. She didn’t doubt Sakura normally, but without the AI running, everything would depend on one fourteen-year-old girl piloting a ship from orbit to landing.

“Stop worrying about that,” Akira said firmly. “First, it’s useless; we can’t change what we have to work with. Second, the main automatics may be gone, but there are still some basic stabilizers and other safety devices to help her. Third, she’s been studying and doing calculations with Caroline every spare moment. Caroline, Whips, and Melody have been working on display apps for Sakura’s omni to help guide her down. Sakura will do fine.”

“You’re sure?”

He kissed her quickly. “Sure? Nothing about this is sure, Laura. But what I am sure of is that Sakura will do her best, and that’s all we can ask her to do. If we die trying, well, we’ll die anyway if we don’t.”

She smiled and nodded. “I suppose you’re right. It’s not like we have much choice.”

“No. Sakura’s the only one of us with any idea how to operate this ship. And so far she’s doing just fine. I can tell how proud you are of her, too.”

“I’m proud of all of them. No panic, yet. All listening, all pulling together. I’m most worried about poor Harratrer.”

Akira was silent for a moment. “Well, we’re only a few weeks from the Goldilocks Zone, if Sakura’s current estimates of speed and what the Nebula Drive can do are right. I checked our stores and what you gave me on his biology. We can keep everyone well-fed, even Whips, for longer than that. The ship was pretty well-supplied.  And if there is a livable world, it will have an ocean that he can probably handle; remember that we made sure they had the adaptations to deal with wide variations in water salinity and mineral content.”

That much was true, and just hearing Akira repeat the facts calmly helped to relax her. When the Europan Bemmies and human beings had established long-term contact, the relatively primitive aliens had turned out to be surprisingly open to understanding. They had showed little of the signs of culture shock that had plagued various human societies — although that was probably at least partially because the Interplanetary Research Institute and its sponsoring U.N. had managed to strictly control interactions with the aliens at first.

The Bemmies, AKA Bemmius pelagica sapiens Sutter, were not identical to the similarly named aliens who had, sixty-five million years before, set up bases in humanity’s solar system and then nearly killed themselves off in a war, but were instead evolved descendants of lifeforms with which Bemmius secordii sapiens had seeded Europa prior to leaving the system. But evolution had taken them down a similar path, and to human eyes the two species looked very similar. The Europan natives had been fascinated by the idea of a real world beyond the sky — given that the most prevalent religion on Europa had been about gods that lay “Beyond the Sky”, which meant above the crust of ice that covered Europa, this was not surprising.

It was impractical, to say the least, to have starships filled with water (for many reasons, ranging from sheer mass to electronics issues), so for a while it seemed that only a rare ambassador, scientist, or student from Europa might travel from their home world. But then one of the now-aging survivors of the first Europan venture, A.J. Baker, had suggested that — just possibly — the Europan Bemmies could be adapted to live in air and water, as had their long — vanished distant cousins. “We’ve seen what we can do with genetics in the last few decades — life extension, engineering healthy organs, engineering new versions of lifeforms for our own use — and it’s not like it’s a new idea. Heck, it’s the exact idea Bemmie used when they seeded Europa to begin with!”

There was much reluctance at first, but to many people’s considerable surprise, once word of the idea got to the Europans, some of them practically insisted that this be tried, none of them more vehemently than Blushspark, the Europan Bemmie who had made First Contact. And with careful, painstaking work… the design had succeeded.

She sighed. “I’ve figured out a way to wet him down without choking us on mist. It won’t work forever but… a few weeks, yes, though I don’t think he’ll be in top shape. Now… if there is a decent planet?”

“I can’t give odds on unknowns. What I know of biology tells me that we will probably be able to find something to sustain us there.” He glanced at her with momentary concern. “That is, if you can keep our medical nanos going to filter out incidental toxins, and maybe convert some materials to any vital nutrients we’re missing like the vitamins.”

She thought about that for a moment. “I think so. LS-5 has a good nano updating installation onboard, and I have my medical kit. I’m not sure we’ll be able to update them like we do at home, though, and over some time the concentration may drop. Medical nanos are strictly limited in self-replication.”

“If you can get LS-5 to do so, I’d have it replicate some nanos now for a reserve. No telling what demands we’ll put on it later. We’ve got a few weeks at least.”

That was an excellent suggestion, and she checked LS-5‘s systems. “Yes, I think I can do that, and it shouldn’t interfere with other operations. Good thinking, love. What about other survival issues?”

“LS-5 is nuclear powered, and there’s a lot of equipment and material we can use in her. We were, after all, going to a colony world that’s just opening up. She’ll serve as excellent shelter for a long time, and we can move around as we need. Don’t worry, Laura, if we find such a planet, we’ll be okay.”

She looked over at Whips, who was floating at his own station, clearly awake, probably observing the comparator. His people, Laura remembered, didn’t generally sleep in the same cycles as human beings. They went into a sort of not-entirely-unconscious torpor for a few hours, then wake for several hours before going back into the recuperative torpor. Only when they were severely exhausted or injured did they seem to sleep deeply the way humans did — although they did, in torpor, have something like human dreams. “It’s a good thing he is so close to Sakura.”

Akira glanced in that direction, some of his black hair trying to escape its netting. “Yes. He has a connection to us and that should help against the loss of his pod.”

Suddenly, Whips stiffened, and then shouted in his deep, vibrating voice, “Found one!

The others jolted awake, Sakura blinking blearily at her friend, Hitomi giving a little yip! of startlement, and Melody glaring at the big alien. But Caroline seemed instantly alert. “A planet? Where?”

“Here — I’ll send you the coordinates in my viewing field.”

Sakura unsnapped and drifted herself over to the controls. “Everyone secure? I’m going to turn us towards the coordinates so Caroline can use the telescope.”

Laura checked on everyone, especially Hitomi, who had a habit of unsnapping herself at the most inopportune times. “Everyone’s secure, Sakura.”

The ship pivoted and turned and the stars swirled by, then steadied. “Okay, Caroline, that should do it.”

Caroline studied the view, her hands twitching slightly with control gestures. Suddenly she stiffened. “Oh. My. God.”

“What is it?”

For answer, Caroline sent the image to the main channel. Laura heard herself give a gasp.

Floating in the star-speckled blackness was a world, illuminated in a crescent by the nearby sun, a crescent that showed swirls of white and brown but mostly a beautiful, rich green.

“Caroline?” Akira said tensely. “Where is that? Is it –”

“Measuring now, Dad. Sakura, can you check me?”

“Now that you’ve bullseyed it, I can track back through the data for the parallax, yes.”

Another few moments passed, then Caroline leaned back, and her voice was shaky. “I put it at one hundred nineteen million kilometers from the primary, a little inside the middle of the habitable zone.”

“Yes, yes, I check you, Caroline! It’s there, it’s a planet in the Goldilocks zone.”

“It’s the right size, too,” Caroline said, her voice showing almost as much excitement as Sakura’s. “I make it about thirteen thousand kilometers across.”

“Caroline,” Akira said calmly, “give me the feed, please. And Melody, your spectroscopic app?”

“Yes, dad,” they both said. Laura understood what he was looking for, and said a silent prayer to whoever, or whatever, might be out there.

Hitomi was staring at the image of the planet. “It’s so pretty! What’s its name?”

She smiled. “It doesn’t have a name yet, little girl. We get to name it.”

Hitomi stared up at her with huge eyes. “We do?”

“We do.”

The eight-year-old looked back at the screen and then gave a nod so emphatic that it would have caused her to spin if she hadn’t been strapped in. “Then I wanna call it Lincoln!”

“Lincoln?” repeated Melody in a puzzled tone. “Why would you ever call it after President Lincoln?”

“Presi — who?” Hitomi looked confused. “No, because that’s its color — like the clothes those men wore in that story!”

“Those men — Oh!” Melody suddenly laughed. “You mean Robin Hood’s Merry Men, and they wore Lincoln green!”

Laura smiled. “Well, I think that’s a perfectly good name. What do the rest of you say?”

As Laura had expected, while obviously Sakura and Melody had hoped to name the planet (and, she admitted to herself, so had she), none of them wanted to disappoint the excited Hitomi. “Then Lincoln it is.”

“Why are the oceans green?” asked Sakura. “I’d think they’d be blue, like Earth’s.”

“It could be due to any number of reasons,” Caroline said. “A different mineral/particulate suspension in the water than we have on Earth. Or –”

“An abundance of chlorophyll-bearing creatures,” their father interjected. He was smiling broadly, and pointed to the virtual display they could now all see, a pattern of dark bands on bright. “We’re down to those odds I couldn’t guess. Chlorophyll. A beautiful, unmistakable variation on chlorophyll, and a perfect indicator of life like our own. The other ecologies use other pigments.”

As the meaning of the words sank in, the others cheered. Hitomi didn’t exactly understand, but she knew good news when she heard it, and cheered as well.

“It’s possible it may even be a seasonal thing,” Akira continued. “Something like huge algal blooms that periodically making the sea brilliant green across most of the globe, then fade away. Even on Earth you can sometimes get very green water that’s visible from orbit.”

Laura felt immense relief go through her. “Sakura?”

“Yes, Mom?”

“This is your Captain speaking, Navigator.”

Sakura snapped her an exaggerated salute, grinning from ear to ear. “Yes, Ma’am! What are your orders, Captain?”

“Set us course for Lincoln and give us an ETA.”

“On it, Captain Mommy!”

Sakura immediately went into conference with Caroline and Melody. Laura had to admit after a few moments that she honestly didn’t really understand the discussion. Unlike her offspring, physics calculations and orbits and vectors just didn’t interest her much. But she could tell the three girls were arguing over the best approach to use the Nebula Drive and heard terms including “constant acceleration”, “orbital transfer”, and “least-time course”. Whips drifted over and joined the debate. She noticed that the Bemmie’s normally smooth, flexible skin already had a fine network of lines over it, like dry human skin.

After a few more minutes, Sakura nodded and the other three seemed to have reached agreement. The fourteen-year-old strapped herself back into the pilot’s chair and carefully manipulated several controls before turning back to them. “Deploying Nebula Drive dusty-plasma sail. According to calculations, ETA is three weeks.”

Laura finally felt herself relax. That was well within Akira’s estimate of their food supply and, she thought, her ability to keep Whips in functional shape. It wasn’t going to be easy, no. But they had a livable destination, they could get there fast enough, and they had the tools and equipment they needed.

The worst was over.