Castaway Resolution – Chapter 19

Chapter 19.

The stench was the first thing that struck Sue as the airlock door finally opened, a smell that combined the worst features of sweat, bad breath, mildew, and rot. She coughed, almost gagged before her nanos cut in and damped the reaction, and hesitated for a moment at the threshold. Modern ships and space stations had highly advanced filtration and atmosphere reclamation systems which were designed to remove even the worst odors from the air and leave it with only the faint background scents that had been determined to make air smell “fresh”. Even Outward Initiative, cut to pieces by its own Trapdoor field, multiple systems failing, had mostly cleansed the stench of smoldering insulation and other damage by the time it had arrived in Orado.

What that implied about the conditions in LS-42 was horrific.

“Hello?” she said.

The interior lights of LS-42 came on, low, and Sue sucked in her breath, even in that miasma.

In some ways, it wasn’t as bad as she had feared. Despite the smell, the cabin wasn’t strewn with rotting litter. But what was there was still heart-wrenchingly, nauseatingly bad.

The majority of the acceleration seats were occupied, by what looked like half-mummified corpses. Dressed mostly in the simple two-piece ship undergarments, ribs and hips and shoulder bones jutted out under skin somehow both slack and taut. Most of them had their eyes closed, but though they seemed either unconscious or dead, there was no sign of relaxation; the faces were lined, even with the skin tighter against the bones, with fear and exhaustion.

The normally bright surfaces of the shuttle were dimmed, scummed over with thin but definite traces of mold or some other growth. The air in here feels humid; that must have promoted the growth. Water reclamation falling behind? Sue’s analytical, professional brain was assessing the situation, even while the remainder of her was screaming in sympathetic revulsion.

Doctor Ghasia stepped in behind her; his low voice murmured something she thought sounded like “Besime’ābi!”, almost certainly a prayer or expression of shock.

At the pilot’s position, one figure turned its head. Long hair straggled, brittle and dull, around the woman’s skull-like face.

But then the eyes widened and the faintest smile appeared on the cracked lips. “Oh, thank God. You’re here. You’re real, aren’t you?”

“Yes, we’re real.” The faces she could see were vastly distorted from those on file, but she thought she could make out key features. “Josephine Buckley?”

“That’s. . . my sister.” It was clear even this much conversation was exhausting. “Jo. . . Jo died last week.”

One week too late. And that would make her… “I’m sorry. Jennifer Buckley, then. How many. . .?”

“My omni. . . says five of the nine of us are still alive.”

I wouldn’t have bet on one. “All right. Just. . . relax, as much as you can. This is Doctor Buriji Ghasia. He’s a fully qualified surgeon, general practitioner, and nanomedical technician. He’s going to take care of you all.”

Sue keyed up the system overrides they’d established in the rescue of Outward Initiative and managed to link up with the badly-damaged shuttle, as well as the local nano-net, and hook that into her own and that of the doctor.

“Well, now. . . astonishing. This is some kind of nanosuspension. But. . . it appears to be a sort of ad hoc design,” Dr. Ghasia said after a moment, frown lines appearing on his ebony brow. “Nothing standard at all.”

“No one. . . had any suspension applications available,” Jennifer said.”

“No need to talk,” Ghasia said quickly. “There’s nothing wrong here, though obviously it’s not an ideal solution in many ways. But. . . I think we have a good chance of saving the rest of you.”

“I could get back to Orado Port in a few hours,” Sue said. “Should I take one or two of these people with me?”

“Give me a few minutes to do an actual evaluation?” the doctor said, a testy edge to his accented voice. “It is possible that will be necessary, yes, but for now begin bringing in the supplies. The most important thing to do now is to get proper nutrition started, and to improve the conditions in this cabin.”

“Got you.” Sue sprang back easily through the airlock back to Raijin — whose air-recycling systems were already noting the offensive material from LS-42 and responding with nanoelectronic speed — and grabbed the nutritional nanomedical packs in one hand and her engineering troubleshooting kit in the other. Another quick bound brought her into LS-42’s cabin, where she locked the case of nanomedical packs to the chair nearest Dr. Ghasia, and turned to the main control panel.

As they’d deduced would be the case, the board had switched over to almost entirely manual systems, and was showing vastly more red and yellow than functional green. Her access codes allowed her to query the systems that remained at all operational.

Jesus. Reactor’s working, but only on low-power mode. . . why would that be? It seemed obvious that the passengers had no reason to throttle the power down, so some aspect of the disaster must have caused it. That partly explained the condition of LS-42 right there; virtually all of the reactor’s low-power mode would have gone to recharging the Trapdoor drive for the allowable periodic jumps. In fact. . . Sue nodded, feeling her lips tight with empathic understanding. The low power mode wasn’t even quite enough to maintain the jumps. They’d have had to stretch out the recharge interval. No wonder it had taken so long; not only had these people had to — somehow — get the landing shuttle working after the Trapdoor pulse shut down multiple shipboard systems, but also they’d had to make the Trapdoor drive take far longer to get them anywhere.

She shook her head slowly as the data from the shuttle and her own engineering diagnostics built up the whole picture. No, it wasn’t surprising it had taken this long. What was surprising was that they’d gotten here at all. Multiple system failures, several of which could have — should have — proven fatal, and none of the crew on record as having any of the relevant skills needed to diagnose and repair those failures.

But the fact that this shuttle, with apparently no trained engineers or medical people aboard, had somehow ended up here did add a new mystery, a mystery she’d thought of as solved by default months ago:

Where are LS-5 and LS-88?