Castaway Resolution – Chapter 20
“Jennifer?” Sue said softly.
The young woman’s eyes opened and looked around; for at least the third time, Sue watched the tension in Jen Buckley’s face ease into relief as she took in the clean brightness of Orado Port’s main medical facility. “I still keep thinking I’m going to wake up on LS-42.”
“I can’t blame you. You spent a bit over a year on that ship. But you’re safe now.”
“How are the others?”
“All five of you are making a good recovery, Doctor Ghasia assures me. The four who. . . didn’t make it have been preserved for whatever their next-of-kin want done.”
Jen’s brown eyes closed, a flash of pain. “Jo. . .”
“I’m sorry.” Sue reached out and touched the too-skinny shoulder. At least now there was starting to be a feel of some muscle underneath, a living tension in the skin instead of the horrific half-deadness of the people they’d found on the shuttle. “The doctor says you’re well enough to talk for a while, and as the Emergency Watch Officer responsible for addressing this situation, I need to start getting to the bottom of what happened. We can’t just drag people’s private data out of their omnis without permission, so that means we need personal consent, at the least.”
“Oh.” Jen Buckley got a distant expression on her face, then laughed. “God, where do I start? None of us ever had any idea we’d be. . .” She trailed off.
“I know. Let me give you a starting point. We know what happened to Outward Initiative — and why. We know –”
“You know why?”
“Yes.” She outlined the solution she and Numbers had come up with in those days following Outward Initiative‘s arrival.
A hollow chuckle from Jen. “Well, I guess we can’t sue them for negligence. They were so careful that they almost killed us all. Without knowing it.”
“Basically, yes. I don’t know it if helps, but because the crew did get Outward Initiative back to us reasonably intact, we were able to make this discovery and by now most of humanity’s faster-than-light fleets know about it. With luck, this won’t ever happen to anyone again.”
“I hope to God not,” Jennifer said. “Sorry I interrupted you.”
“No, its fine; you’ve got far more to bother you than I have. Are you ready to talk?”
“I. . . guess. Yeah, I suppose. The others aren’t ready?”
“Your father and mother are still in serious recovery; that level of starvation causes biochemical changes that nanos aren’t programmed well for, so getting them back in functional shape is taking time. Barbara Caffrey should be well enough soon, although she was also in pretty bad shape. William Fields seems okay, but he, well, clams up and seems nervous about saying anything to us about what happened.”
“Bill? Not talking?” For a moment, Jen looked puzzled. Then a look of comprehension spread across her face. “Oooohhh, I get it. He’s afraid that he might be held responsible.”
“Umm. . . Okay, so if you know about the disaster, I guess you know that when we got cut away from Outward Initiative, just about everything shut down hard?”
“Yes. Primarily caused by the Trapdoor radiation pulse.”
“So, yeah. Everything shut down and we were all freaking out and I was screaming and I think my sis. . . Jo was too.”
“Were you the pilot?” Neither of the Buckley sisters seemed old enough, but she had ended up in that chair.
She shook her head. The dead-dry hair had been cut off; the new fuzz starting to replace it was a glossy brown, the best sign of returning health Sue had yet seen. “No, I. . . well, I sort of was later but that was because our real pilot, Mr. Costigan. . .”
“He didn’t die en route?” The detailed examination of the bodies had taken a back seat to the care of the living, and the forensic specialists from Orado itself had just arrived.
“No. He seemed okay for the first few days, then he got really sick.” Her quick description of the symptoms confirmed Sue’s immediate guess.
“Was he out of his chair when the accident happened?”
“How did you know? Yes, he was in the airlock, trying to check on a warning light, when it happened.”
Sue nodded. None of the actual acceleration berths were in line with the airlock, which meant they were all more-or-less shielded from the radiation pulse that would have come straight down the access tube. “That makes sense. Trapdoor radiation pulse. The rest of you didn’t get enough of a dose.” She brought up visuals of parts of LS-42 in her omni, linked it to Jen’s. “What I’m interested in, really, is how you got here. For instance, do you know why the reactor was in forced low-power mode? What about these indications that the Trapdoor coils here and here,” she pointed to one point towards the front end of the shuttle, and another underneath, about halfway back, “were accessed? The coils obviously worked to get you here.”
“Well, they weren’t at first,” Jen said. “Bill said they’d, um, microwelded themselves together at points around the windings. So we had to take them out and make new ones.”
Sue blinked. “How did you know how?”
“Well, Barb — Barbara Caffrey? She’s a research information specialist. She was bringing a whole technical library with her, and once Bill figured out how to trick the rear door seal to open, she was able to get it activated.”
“Mr. Fields did that? He’s listed here as a minimum-technology mechanical specialist — the kind of person who does things like simple plumbing, non-autoassisted electrical wiring, and so on.”
Jen grinned; that still looked unfortunately skull-like in her current condition. “Well, yeah, but he tinkers, you know? He did a lot of stuff in his spare time — he talked a lot about it while he was showing us what to do. He’d ask Barb about something and she’d look it up, like the manual for the reactor, and then he’d dig into the diagrams and logic and figure out something. The low-power mode was because we couldn’t operate the reactor on full power any more.”
“Because we needed to take out some of the coils for the wire, to replace the wire on the old Trapdoor coils.”
Sue blinked at that. “Wait. You mean Mr. Fields disassembled some of the harvesting coils in the reactor and then started it up again? And it worked?”
Jen nodded. “Is that hard to do?”
Sue bit her lip. “In theory. . . well, you’d have to remove just the right coils. In just the right positions. Or you’d end up with an imbalance in the fields keeping the fusion reaction stable and the whole thing would shut down.” No wonder they were kept on low power mode. “And your research specialist Caffrey and Mr. Fields did the other repairs?”
“With the rest of us helping.” She took a deep breath, and the reason for her nervousness was suddenly obvious with her next words. “Um. . . I did a lot of the coding for them.”
“You coded the suspension app?”
“Well, with help from the database. Yeah.”
“So you’re an application oversight specialist? That wasn’t on your file.”
“I just did it as a hobby. I didn’t mess it up, did I?” she asked, and swallowed. “I mean. . . people died.”
Sue considered the answer carefully. Technically. . . yes, of course Jen had messed up parts of that design. Even with the best database to help, suspending the function of the supremely complex machine that was the human body — and especially the brain — was one of the most delicate and difficult tasks known to humankind.
But that wasn’t the right answer. “You did an astounding job, Jen. It took you. . . months, I guess, to do the repairs, and by then, even with rationing, you knew there wasn’t enough food. All of you would have died — all of you, Jen, without question — if you hadn’t done what you did. The fact that more than half of you got here alive tells me that you may not have done something perfect, but you did something more than good enough.”
Jen’s eyes were haunted. “But. . . I lost Jo. And Zahir and Alia.”
“Even professional doctors don’t save everyone, Jen. And there are trained doctors that wouldn’t have tried making suspension code like that — and they’d have lost everyone.” Sue made sure Jen’s eyes focused on her. “Be proud of what you accomplished. You’re not going to be in trouble over this, and neither is Bill Fields.”
“You can’t know that.”
Sue grinned herself at that. “Oh, yes I can. Because it is my job to decide where the blame goes, and I’m not dropping any on people who managed to pull off a miracle. How did you navigate home?”
“Oh,” Jen said, “that was the easiest part. Once we made sure we were going towards the right star, it was just sleep a long time, wake up and check that Orado’s star was still pretty much in the centerline of our course, and sleep again.” She looked sad for a moment. “The only person worried about it was Alia.”
Alia Manji had been an astronomer, one of the few pure science types headed for Tantalus (although she had a number of more practical skills that made her a good candidate). “Why was she worried?”
“Because of the extra star. Said it shouldn’t be there. But that wasn’t a problem, if you just ignored it you could tell that all the other stars were just where the databases said they should be.”
“Wait,” Sue said. “What do you mean, extra star?”