Castaway Resolution – Chapter 09

Chapter 9.

Xander forced his eyes to focus on the designs being projected in front of him by his omni. His mouth was dry and he could hear his breath coming more quickly.

“Do I need to move away?” a breathy, buzzing voice said, only a few meters distant.

Yes! “No,” he said. “No, we need to work together, me, you, Tav, everyone. Not letting this beat me.” His heart vibrated in his chest with unreasoning fear — a fear that made him furious. Whips is not a monster. He doesn’t even look that much like the. . . he shuddered, the raylamps.

His conscious mind agreed and could even specifically and in detail point out all the many differences, even in the feeding apparatus, between the native Lincoln scavenger-predators and Bemmius novus sapiens. His subconscious, however, was having none of it. Any sight of the front end of Whips triggered the fear and flashbacks to that horrific few minutes underwater when a horde of the raylamps had nearly dragged him down into the endless ocean.

“Then,” Whips said reasonably, “show me you are going to beat it. Look at the designs and tell me if you’ve got any thoughts.”

Xander nodded and clenched his jaw as he stared at the designs.

The one for the proposed probe was fairly straightforward. A long body, with a shape that oddly combined aspects of a cylinder and a rectangular tube, ending with a wedgelike nose, stretched to about three and a half meters in length according to the visible scale. It had an odd multi-flanged tail assembly and an underslung scoop, and there were obvious separable boosters on each side of the device.

“Show cutaway,” Xander murmured, and the view shifted to show a section cut down the longitudinal axis of the craft. He studied it a moment. “Jeez. It looks like most of it is battery.”

“Superconducting storage batteries, ultra-high power density exceeding that of any chemical fuel, yes,” Whips said. “We’d be using a large portion of our larger powerpacks for this.”

Now that he was really thinking about the design, he felt a little less shaky; his hands were still a bit unsteady, but he wasn’t having to do any hand work right now, so that was okay. “Yeah, I get that. It’s a heated-air hyperjet, right?”

“A non-combusting scramjet, yes. We’d be cannibalizing the one damaged thruster in the wing of Emerald Maui for that. Tavana?”

Tav moved up and pointed; since all their omnis were linked, they were all seeing the design as though it was physically in front of them, so Tav was actually apparently touching the part of the probe design that showed the engine. “It is fortunate, the damage to the engine? It did not affect the key parts for this function. I can salvage the high-efficiency heat transfer manifold and make it into the heart of the jet. I think.”

Xander raised an eyebrow at that. “You think?”

“Xander, it is not like there is a manual for this, no? Whips, you, me, and even the Sergeant have been combing through available data for the last week to put this together.” He gave a quick grin. “And that is very, very fast; imagine if we actually had to do the design like in the old days, actually, you know, drawing it out ourselves, with every detail, instead of telling even the rather stupid automation we have to do most of the work!”

“Yeah, okay, you’re right, sorry. The base design. . . looks old.”

“Partly based on one of the oldest hypersonics we know of, the X-51 Waverider. One of my reference books, it had a whole lot on that one for some reason.”

Xander tapped the projecting boosters. “What about these guys? They don’t look like jets. I didn’t work on this part.”

“Those,” Whips said, “are rockets.”

Xander glanced at him, repressed the shudder, made his eyes meet those of the Bemmie. “And just where are we getting rockets? Unshipping some of the attitude reaction jets on Emerald Maui?”

“Screaming Vents, no. That’d be a crazy job and might end up damaging the hull. Well, this is also a crazy job but it’s interior work. We’ll cannibalize the ejection charges.”

“The ejection — what? Are you telling me that Emerald Maui –”

“– has an ejection system? For the main control cabin and crash couch setup, yes, it does,” Tavana said. “Required for craft of this class, though as Whips and I agree, it seems not likely to be useful in too many cases.”

Xander scratched his head, looking up as he thought, and shivered slightly; the breeze seemed unusually cool in the clearing today. Ejection charges. A standard ejection charge, from what he knew, was basically a rocket tube with a method for igniting it in precise sequence with all the others. But they were strictly on/off things. “Are there enough? I’m guessing you want them to get the probe off the ground and going fast enough that the scramjet can take over.”

“More than enough. The probe is three and a half meters long and will mass less than five hundred kilograms fully loaded; the ejection rockets were meant to eject something far heavier and get it clear of a disaster. If we can get the rockets out, and if our design can be assembled, and if everything holds together, the rocket boosters should be able to get it up to sufficient speed.”

“Even a hypersonic jet isn’t going to get this thing into orbit.”

“Doesn’t have to,” Tavana said positively. “Once it’s in space — enough so that the mass-fraction of air is below the critical value — the Trapdoor drive goes on for a few seconds. Then the auto-nav system — which is a pretty dumb autopilot we can cobble together — will lock onto Orado and then it starts doing jumps until it gets close enough to Orado. Then it starts transmitting distress signals until it runs out of power.”

“That part of the Trapdoor feels like cheating.”

Whips gave a rippling shudder that Xander knew was equivalent to a shrug. “From the naïve physics point of view? It went beyond cheating and into direct offenses against nature.” A brighter flicker and pattern that was more a grin. “The physicists figured out how to reconcile it, but if you read the arguments I think there were some conferences where the attendees almost came to blows.” He pointed at the projected design. “Questions? Comments?”

Xander studied the design again. I still feel dizzy. I mean, even more than I did. “Umm. . . the coils. Tav, we did some for Emerald Maui when it was LS-88, but they gave us problems. How about –”

“It was my first try! Give me a break!” Tavana sat down with an uncharacteristic heaviness. “Sorry; feel kind of off today. I think we can do much better in winding coils for a hull we design ourselves. It will take months, but we are not pressed for time, yes?”

“No, I guess not. But if we’re cannibalizing stuff like this, does that mean that building this probe probably means we’re giving up the chance to somehow get Emerald Maui airborne?”

Tavana grimaced. “Well. . . oui, yes, it is that kind of tradeoff. If I am to attempt to salvage enough of the materials and components of Emerald Maui to make this probe, some of them will be parts I would have used in any attempt to repair Emerald Maui.”

“Damn. Well, that kind of decision is for later anyway. You’re working on those designs too, right? The ones to let us all get off the planet ourselves?”

“Oh, we are,” Whips said. “And we’ll keep both options open until we have to make a decision. We –”

“Help!” Hitomi was running towards them from near Sherwood Tower. “Something’s wrong with Frankie!”

“Wrong? What happened?” Xander felt a quick, cold stab of adrenalin. What could have happened to him?

“He said he was feeling tired and dizzy, and then he just wanted to sit still, and now he’s saying he feels sick. I’m worried!”

Tired and dizzy? He looked sharply over at Tav, even as he noted that his own thoughts seemed slower. “Tav, are you –?”

The big Polynesian tilted his head as he stood, and it seemed he, too, felt unbalanced. “Merde. The Sergeant?”

“Yeah. No, wait — the doc. Doctor Kimei! Laura Kimei!

“What is it, Xander?” Laura’s voice was tense; she had clearly heard and understood the dread in his voice.

“I think something’s wrong with Frankie, Tav, and me — maybe all of us from Emerald Maui!” He noticed with even more trepidation that his footsteps felt unsteady, the level ground not so level any more.

Frankie came into sight, behind one of the many scattered patches of bushes. He was lying on his side now, shivering, and even though his skin was normally the color of coffee with cream, he looked pale, with hectic patches of red touching the cheeks. “Oh, crap.”

“I’m on my way,” Laura said. “It will take me a few minutes to get there, but I’m checking telemetry. . .”

The pause went on far too long. “Doctor?” he asked, realizing that his own heartbeat was still too fast, too hard, and his stomach was doing a slow, squirming roll.

“Sergeant Campbell, get your people to your shelter immediately!” Laura Kimei’s voice was sharp, commanding, and utterly final as it cracked out over the radio waves.

Xander managed to lift Francisco up, and began to stagger towards the shelter. I . . . don’t know if I can make it, he realized.

A forest of twining, bifurcated tendrils caught him as he stumbled, prevented either he or Francisco from hitting the ground. “I will carry him,” Whips said.

The dizziness intensified, overriding the panic that tried to ambush him at Whips’ nearness. “Thanks,” he managed, and forced himself to his feet. Holy crap, this is getting worse literally by the minute!

By the time they reached the shelter, even Tavana was leaning on the doorframe. Half-supporting each other, Tavana and Xander made it inside and collapsed on their beds.

The pillow felt as though it were coated in ice — a strangely comforting ice — as his cheek rested upon it. “Doc,” he managed, “are we. . . dying?”

Laura Kimei did not answer at once. Then she said, in a quiet, certain tone, “Not if I have anything to say about it.

Xander closed his eyes. That wasn’t completely an answer, he thought. But he was astounded to find he had no more energy to even worry; uneasy darkness descended upon him.