Castaway Resolution – Chapter 01
Third in the Castaway Planet series
By Ryk E. Spoor and Eric Flint
Part 1: DISASTER
Sue Fisher tried to force herself to stay awake. Three more hours of this. If only something would happen!
But nothing ever happened in Orado Port Control. Once in a great while a starship would arrive — an event scheduled usually years in advance — or somewhat more frequently one of the inter-system shuttles or the few private vessels would want to dock. Mostly, though, it was just the automated manufacturing pods, bringing raw materials from the asteroid mining operations to be sent down the beanstalk to the ground, or collecting manufactured cargo or key materials from the ground and distributing them around the system.
If I actually had to do anything, that would make it less boring. But all of that was automated. The only reason she was there — the only reason anyone would be here on the Port Control Deck — was that regulations stated that a qualified human observer would be present at all times in case of emergency. AIs could handle virtually any situation a human could — usually better. It would take something extraordinary to make the AI even consider cutting a human into the loop, or for Sue to decide to override the machine herself.
And the last time there had been an emergency in Orado system had been â€“
ERRRRT! ERRRRT! ERRRRT! ERRRRT!
Sue snapped out of her half-daze, adrenalin washing through her in a cold tingle that drove subtle spikes into her gut as she focused, triggering a situational download to her retinals.
The first thought she had was a starship? There isn’t one due for at least six months, the Explorer’s Compass out of Vellamo.
But the second thought was spoken, as enhanced imagery from the distributed telescopic array materialized. “Oh my God.”
It was one of the Initiative line of colony vessels, immense transports three kilometers long and over a kilometer wide that carried colonists and cargo to and from the now dozens of colonial worlds that could be over a hundred lightyears from old Sol. Sue had seen Initiative-class ships twice before, beautiful graceful spindles with a perfect, sparkling circle of a habitat ring standing out from the central body.
Except that this one was anything but perfect. Chunks were gone from the hab ring, cut in what seemed impossibly smooth arcs, as though some titanic spacegoing shark had taken a series of bites out of that circle of carbonan, titanium, and steel.
She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. What in the name of God happened to her? You can’t attack a ship in Trapdoor, and even if you could, how could you find a ship between the stars? But if it wasn’t an attack, what was it?
Even as she was taking in that horrific sight and trying to grasp what it meant, she saw that there was an incoming transmission.
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Orado Port, this is Outward Initiative, out of Earth,” it began. But not in the calm, measured voice of a ship’s AI, which nearly always controlled communications, but the exhausted, worn, yet triumphant tones of a human being. “Request assistance immediately. We have suffered severe damage on multiple ship systems, we have multiple severely injured people on board who require medical assistance, and our remaining ship systems are unreliable. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Orado Port, this is Outward Initiative, out of Earth. . .”
She sent a query to the station, and once again found herself stunned. According to the schedules received eight months ago, Outward Initiative should still be en route to Tantalus! Her closest approach shouldn’t have brought her closer than ten light-years from Orado!
Focus! Her brain had finally caught up to the situation. She restrained the impulse to try to respond directly by radio; Outward Initiative had arrived about one point two billion kilometers outsystem from Orado Port, meaning that the Mayday itself had taken over an hour to get there. Unfortunately, that part of the Orado system currently had almost nothing there. Odds were that she really was the first person to hear that terrible message, and if she tried to respond by radio, it would take hours just to ascertain the ship’s condition and decide what kind of help was needed and could be sent.
But there was an alternative. “Orado Port,” she said aloud.
“Yes, Sue?” answered the Port’s AI instantly.
“Relay that alert to the Portmaster immediately, even if you have to wake her up from a dead sleep. Alert the Alabastra and Vilayet that we will probably need towing duty and they should prepare to intercept Outward Initiative and help bring her home, and they’ll need to have medical personnel aboard. This is a rescue operation; I don’t see a Nebula Drive deployment yet, and with that much damage they certainly won’t be able to do short-range Trapdoor hops, so I don’t think they can come in by themselves. Also, make sure that President Jami is briefed. Whatever happened here. . . I don’t think anyone’s ever seen it before.”
“No reasonably parallel situation is found in my databanks,” Orado Port said. “That is why you were immediately given full authority. What are your intentions?”
She was already pulling on her EVA suit, settling her helmet over short-cropped blonde hair. “I’m taking Raijin.”