Castaway Planet – Chapter 14

Chapter 14

Whips wallowed his body back and forth, feeling the coral-based sand squish reassuringly under him. “Hm. That will be good.”

It had been quite a while since he built a land-nest — years ago, when he and his father had gone on a camping trip with the Kimeis, and that was long enough that he’d had to think about just how you did this right. His first attempt, about three meters away, hadn’t quite worked and ended as a loose sort of sand crater. It was supposed to be soft in the middle but still packed at the edges in certain ways.

This one felt right. He thought he would be able to crawl out of it and get back in without it collapsing, which was the way a land-nest was supposed to work.

Night had fallen on Lincoln — well, their part of Lincoln, anyway — while he’d been busy digging. Built-in solid-state lights illuminated the area near the shelter, and Laura was bent over her medikit while Akira cooked on the portable stove that had come with the shelter. Carefully, Whips pulled himself forward and up, and slid from the nest, keeping his anchors carefully pulled in. He glanced back once he was far enough away. It was still intact!

Feeling better at that minor triumph, he began moving towards the stove to see what Akira was cooking; as he slid along, though, he noticed Caroline almost directly in his way, apparently staring upward. “What are you looking at?”

“The answer to one mystery, I think,” Caroline answered absently.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I think I understand why this system could be here, halfway to Tantalus, without it being anywhere in the databases. Because any G-type star would definitely be in the databases.”

“Okay, well, don’t keep me waiting. Why?”

“Look up, about there.”

Used to following human pointing fingers, Whips reared up and gazed in the indicated direction. There were stars of all colors and sizes scattered across the night. “Where, exactly? I see a lot of night sky.”

“Your omni active? Okay, here.”

A set of dim crosshairs materialized in his field of view, and he turned his attention there. “Just night sky and stars there. Well, there isn’t a star exactly there, but –”

“That’s the key. See, exactly there is where the Sun should be. At about magnitude 5.8, but with my omni’s enhancement and your naturally sensitive eyes, that should be easy to see.”

“Oh, my,” came Laura’s voice. The tall woman joined them, looking up. “So something is between Lincoln’s sun and ours.”

“And has been for probably a few centuries, at least, so it wasn’t ever mapped out. Lincoln’s star would be pretty dim from Earth-magnitude six, I think, what with being a little dimmer than the sun overall — so naked-eye astronomers might not have caught it regularly. And if our relative motion to Earth’s solar system isn’t big, a pretty small nebula could cover it up for quite a while — a Bok globule, maybe.”

“But wouldn’t the other colonies have noticed it?” Whips asked. “I mean, they’re going to be looking from another direction, so the same cloud of stuff isn’t going to be in their way.”

“Maybe. But like I said, it’s going to be pretty dim from any reasonable distance, and most colonies aren’t going to be looking for new, close-to-home stars that we missed.” Caroline continued staring up. “Maybe, if Outward Initiative didn’t get totally destroyed, they’ll check images of that region of space and figure it out, though.”

She glanced down suddenly. “Do you… what do you think the chances are that Outward Initiative … well, didn’t get totally wrecked?”

Whips bunched inward slightly, tense. He knew why they’d ask him. He was as close as they had to an engineer or physicist, he knew more than anyone here about how the ships worked. But…

He thought about it seriously. He’d studied those brief, terrifying sequences of images, the fading of most of Outward Initiative with only a few ghostly pieces of the hab ring remaining before the disaster, and in the weeks it had taken to get here to Lincoln he had, in fact spent a lot of time mulling over what had happened, what could have happened.

“I can’t give you a… well, a good probability estimate,” he said finally. “But I think there’s a chance it survived. The hab ring’s built with a lot of redundancy in the structure, and the ship itself has a lot of safety cutoffs that should cause it to reduce rotation or otherwise adjust if it suddenly lost chunks of the hab ring. If the Trapdoor field wasn’t just oscillating out of control, then it was some kind of glitch that probably only lasted a few seconds on the outer perimeter of the field. There’s some minor instability in the field all the time, it’s just that the wavering of the field is usually kept many meters away from any actual components of the ship. If you got a really huge peak in that instability… I think they’d damp it down in ten seconds or so, and after that they’d be okay.”

“Will they come and rescue us?” Akira asked from the stove.

Whips waved his arms in a shrug. “If they survived? They’d have to somehow guess that someone could have survived falling off the interface; I never heard of anything like that, and I think I would have in my studies. Maybe their records will have ghost images of that happening, like we have ghost images of part of the hab ring, but without that… maybe.”

“No point in worrying about it,” Akira said firmly. “Our job is to survive, to build this into our home, and if rescue comes, wonderful. If not, we leave for the people who will, eventually come after us a record showing that we didn’t despair, but we did everything we could to survive and prosper.”

He rapped on the table set a ways from the entrance. “Now come on over and let’s find out if the native food’s going to be a trial or a treat.”

“Oh, wow! That’s what you were doing, Dr. … I mean, Akira?”

“Since you’d brought enough to cook up, yes. It’s not much, and we’ll certainly all have to have some rations, but it seems to me that we might as well have a taste right away.”

“Not leaving me out of this!” came a sleepy voice from the tent doorway. Despite her heavy-lidded eyes, Sakura was moving a little better than she had when she went into the shelter; Whips felt relieved.

“Me! I want to try some!” Hitomi said excitedly. Melody emerged from the tent as well, but hung back. “I want to see what happens with the rest of you first.”

“Suit yourself, Melody. Though either way we’ll have to eat it sooner or later; our rations won’t last forever, and in fact I’m going to require we stop eating them as soon as we find enough sources of food that we have an assured supply,” Laura said. “I want as many rations left as possible for emergencies, travel supplies, and so on. They’ll last more than ten years, so having them as a backup will be something very comforting.”

Whips looked at the dark fried pieces of meat on his plate, reached out and gingerly picked one up between two fingers. “Warm. All right, here we go!”

The texture was reassuringly meaty — tougher than many vent-dwellers, softer than some patrolling creatures like orekath. Overall it was something like miremaw or, for Earth creatures, beef. The taste was… Good, actually, now that he tried another bite. Really good! It wasn’t exactly like anything else, but… “I’d forgotten what fresh meat tasted like after being in Outward Initiative so long!” he said finally.

“It’s like … alligator, I think,” Akira said slowly, a relieved smile spreading across his face.

The others’ faces wore the same expression, as they realized that not only was there something to eat, but it would be something worth eating. “A stronger taste than that… but you’re right, Dad,” Caroline said after a moment. “It’s got that cross between land and sea taste going.”

Hitomi had already cleared her plate and was looking hungrily at the chunks on Melody’s plate. Whips couldn’t help but laugh when Hitomi’s face utterly plummeted as Melody snatched it up and stuffed one of the pieces into her mouth. As Sakura and Caroline echoed the laugh, Hitomi looked at first betrayed… and then suddenly started laughing joyously herself.

Then he noticed Laura. “Laura? Are you crying? What’s wrong?”

Everyone else immediately stopped, staring, worried. “Laura, honey, what is it?” Akira asked softly, going to his wife and putting his hand on her shoulder.

The tall human woman blinked fiercely, but the tracks of shining tears were obvious, and her voice was a little thick when she answered. “I’m sorry. Oh, god, I feel so silly. It’s…” She shook her head, wiped her eyes, and smiled brilliantly. “I was just so worried about everything. About Sakura, about having to live on our own, about how many things might be out there waiting to cause another disaster for us, and … well, just suddenly seeing everyone sitting here, eating food we found on our own planet, eating good food we found here, seeing us all smiling, laughing…” She shrugged helplessly and laughed, still with tears in her voice. “I just felt everything let go in me, and I was so relieved, so happy that we did survive, that we’re all here and alive and living…”

Whips felt the strange tight tingle of the same painful, joyous whirl of emotions, knew his skin was shimmering in a clash of colors, and then saw that all around the table, the other Kimeis were also crying in exactly the same way, even little Hitomi.

Akira hugged Laura tight, and suddenly, without any word or gesture, the others all gathered around and hugged, as they had after they knew they had survived and found a destination. Whips enfolded his whole adopted family and squeezed tightly, as he would have twined arms with his mother. Now we know we can survive, that this world is a place worth surviving on. And so now, we will survive, no matter what Lincoln has to throw at us.

Our family will survive.