Castaway Resolution – Chapter 29


Chapter 29.

Sakura tried to ignore the telltales at the corner of her omni’s display. Maybe I shouldn’t leave them there at all.

But the idea of not having an eye on her best friend ever was intolerable. And really, she just had to remind herself that there wasn’t any reason to keep checking every second. Whips was in suspension, his metabolism slowed to something like a hundredth of normal. That didn’t entirely apply to other aspects of his injuries, of course — he wasn’t going to live a hundred days, or even half that, in the suspension — but they had time now, and that was what they needed more than anything.

What was important was to figure out how to get Emerald Maui back.

“Ready, Hitomi, Franky?”

“Ready,” the two said. Francisco didn’t even complain about the shortened nickname, something he usually did without fail.

Sakura triggered the engine cycle, forward, back, forward, back, as fast as the motor could safely shift direction. The idea was to unstick the, well, whatever-it-was that was currently jamming the portside jet.

Unfortunately, even after several different cycle patterns, there wasn’t much sign of change. Whatever was caught in the jet was tough, and wasn’t going to be easily dislodged. She sat back in frustration and drew in a breath.

She regretted the deeper breath immediately. The mud and wreckage, filled with innumerable corpses of creatures large and small, was acquiring an increasingly terrible stench. “Ugh. Mom, can I adjust my smell nanos again?”

“Go ahead, Saki. Though even with the best discrimination work, that means you’ll lose more of your sense of taste too.”

She grimaced. Taste and smell were so closely intertwined that you couldn’t mess with the one without affecting the other. So dulling your senses to all the organic components of that vile smell. . .

“Well. . . for now, anyway. I need to focus on the work. But we can’t stay like this forever, Mom.”

“Hate to say it, but Saki’s right, Ma’am,” Sergeant Campbell said. “We don’t have the cleanup crews a city’d have to get this muck out of here, and it’s going to be months before it starts to get better on its own.”

“We have to leave Sherwood Tower?” Melody’s incredulous shout made Sakura jump, as it came from right behind her.

“Jeez! Don’t do that, Mel!”

“But we did so much work,” Melody said. It was a mournful sound, so like a dirge that Sakura almost laughed; Mel had gotten a lot better at throwing herself into projects and actually putting forth effort, but that wasn’t her natural tendency, and the old, unreformed Melody’s voice was the one lamenting all the hours of effort put into Sherwood Tower.

“I’m afraid the Sergeant’s right,” Pearce said. “We’ve already seen a couple of those giant worms coming up to scavenge, and the combination of new scavenger threats and whatever this. . . mess is going to do in terms of disease and such? We’ll have to move; we won’t even be able to rely on our earlier sources of water — look at Blue Hole.”

Sakura bit her lip, nodding involuntarily. From one of the windows of the Tower they could sometimes see Blue Hole Lake, which — before the tsunami — had been a beautiful pure blue, one of the deepest lakes on the explored section of the continent, with at least twenty to thirty meters of pure fresh water overlaying less palatable stuff below.

Now it was a filthy, stinking mud-brown eyesore, no better than the wreckage visible in all other directions. “It’s not going to clear up?”

“Eventually, of course,” her father answered, obviously listening into the conversations as many of them did. “But this event completely disrupted the balance of Blue Hole and the other two similar lakes on this section of the island. The mud cascaded into them and overturned the thermocline and density barriers; they’re not only contaminated, they’re brackish. It will be a matter of years, I would guess, before they’re back to what we remember.”

“I remember how hard it was to make Sherwood Tower the first time,” muttered Caroline. “Not looking forward to that again.”

“I don’t think it’ll be that hard,” the Sergeant said. “Remember, there’s still another excavator, and a lot of other stuff, on Emerald Maui. If we get them back here, it’ll solve a lot of our problems, not the least of ’em being safe, clean, accessible shelters, not to mention tools. We’ve lost a lot of stuff, no arguing that, but we’re a long way from having to go the way of re-inventing civilization from the stone age again, like you folks had to. God forbid we ever have to.”

“Saki? What about our engine?” Hitomi asked.

Her lips tightened, and she looked up, seeing Tavana across from her in the little room. He didn’t look any happier. She cut out the transmission to Emerald Maui. “Tav? Any other ideas?”

He shook his head. “No, Saki. And from what they’ve been saying, neither do Xander or Maddox or our adult friends. The thing stuck in that engine, it is staying there until someone pulls it out.”

Sakura swallowed hard. “You mean Hitomi or Francisco has to go out there and dive? That’s. . .” she remembered the story of Xander’s near-death experience, and her own family’s siege by the raylamps. “That’s crazy.”

“Crazy or not, he’s probably right,” Laura said. “None of us can get there. The only one of us who could have reasonably safely gotten to them on his own was Whips.”

“But that, it is not entirely true,” Tavana said. “We could make a raft, or maybe an outrigger canoe, like my own ancestors did. It would not be an easy thing, but we could get there fairly quickly.”

“Hmmm. Maybe, Tav,” Xander said. “But first, with the limited tools we have left, it’d take quite a while to make a seaworthy canoe or raft, and second, Emerald Maui‘s in a current that’s taking her in a different direction from our continent. So you’d have to either have good winds for a sail, or be able to paddle like mad to catch up to her.”

Sakura saw Tavana’s face fall. “It was a good idea, Tav, but I don’t think we have the time to try it,” she said, trying to comfort him. But that reminds me — how’s it possible that Emerald Maui is in a current and we aren’t? Shouldn’t we all be drifting the same way?”

“You’d think so,” Caroline spoke up. “But I think you’re forgetting what we’re really drifting on. This floatcoral continent is like an iceberg — there’s a lot more below us than there is above the water. So my guess is that the lower parts of the continent — the keel of our boat, you could say — are in a deeper-water current that covers a lot more area, or maybe is stronger, than the surface one that Emerald Maui is caught in.”

Oye, everyone, we still need help here!” Francisco’s voice was sharper than usual, and Sakura smiled ruefully.

“You’re right, Francisco,” she said. “Okay, first we’ll need to get a look at what you’re dealing with. That means someone’s going to have to go out and put an omni or some other camera into the water near the rear jet that’s not working. If we get some good imagery we can figure out what needs to be done.”

“That’s me,” Hitomi said.”

“Why you?” Francisco asked.

“‘Cause you’ve been doing all the outside stuff, and now it’s my turn,” Hitomi said reasonably.

She could see Francisco turning that over in his head in the view from Hitomi’s omni, then he grinned and shrugged. “Okay, yes, we all have to do the work. I will hold the safety rope and you will put the camera in the water.” He looked at the tiny girl with a concern that echoed Sakura’s own. “But are you sure? If you’re out there, one of the raylamps might come for you.”

“Francisco has a point, Hitomi,” Sakura heard her mom say. “Honey, no one doubts you’re one of the bravest here, but Francisco’s a lot bigger than you.”

“Mr. Sergeant Campbell –”

A snort of laughter. “That’s Mister Campbell or Sergeant Campbell, honey, not both mashed up together.”

“Sorry,” said Hitomi, sounding genuinely contrite. “I thought Sergeant was your first name, Mr. Campbell.”

“Ha! Of course you did. But go on, what about Mr. Sergeant Campbell?”

“Well, you told me that that’s why you taught us to use guns. ‘Cause they make it not important who’s bigger.”

Sakura felt her eyebrows raise, but Campbell simply chuckled again. “Well, you’re right about that, Hitomi. And you and Francisco’ve done pretty well learning. But using a gun in a fight, that’s a lot different than plinking at a target, you understand, Hitomi?”

Her image nodded in the omni’s view. Then Franky’s viewpoint slewed around and they saw another raylamp, slowly approaching up the hull of Emerald Maui. Franky picked it off with a single shot that sent the scavenger plummeting back into the water.

“I know. But I’ve been watching Francisco. I can do this and I don’t want to stay inside all the time!”

Sakura looked up to her mother, who had just entered the room. “Mom?”

“I’m thinking, Saki.” It didn’t take any special effort to see the frown on Mom’s face, or guess what she was thinking. But finally Laura Kimei drew in a huge breath, and nodded. “You’re right, Hitomi. We’re trusting both you and Franky — Francisco, sorry — to get the job done. It’s going to take both of you, maybe at some point both of you at once in the water, much as that terrifies me, to get Emerald Maui running in time to save Whips. Francisco, you belay her good.”

“I will. Promise.”

Fortunately, along with the cheap omnis had been a few view extenders — simple descendants of the “selfie stick” of the early smartphone era. The extenders had some other useful features, but the important one now was the original function: allowing the user to put the camera somewhere they, personally, couldn’t reach. Hitomi put one of the spares onto an extender and tested it; the unit easily linked in and showed the little blonde girl standing next to a worried-looking Francisco. Well, good. I want him worrying about my little sister!

To her credit, Hitomi didn’t look like she was all smiles; her expression was sober. She’s done a lot of growing up. Not the wandering distracted girl she was when we first landed.

“Good pics there,” the Sergeant said. “Tav, can you highlight where she’s going to have to put the stick?”

Oui, I can do that easily. Hitomi, when you get outside, the engine area will be highlighted. Your omni will show you where to put the extender into the water, and it’ll guide you to holding it just in the right place.” He hesitated a moment. “You’re going to have to go over the support so you can get a rear view of the engine, too. Both you and Francisco keep an eye out when you’re doing this, right?”

“Right,” agreed Hitomi, and Franky echoed her.

“Well, then, no time like the present,” Sergeant Campbell said. “Once you’re on belay and the rope’s secured, get to it.”

Sakura watched as the two youngest members of their group got ready for their latest expedition. Francisco was conscientious, seeming to be checking off parts of the preparation from a mental checklist. He insisted on verifying for himself that Hitomi’s weapon was properly charged and loaded for use, and had her check his, before he fastened the rope onto the improvised harness they’d made out of cargo straps at Xander’s instruction.

Hitomi made an efficient production of yanking and jumping hard against the knot to make sure it would hold, then nodded and stepped out cautiously, the view extender in folded configuration hooked to the harness, her weapon already out. “No raylamps toward the back.”

She dropped gently down to the extended outrigger, then moved carefully along until she could reach the second exterior set of handholds and climbed up toward the top of the hull. Francisco paid out the line until she was standing atop Emerald Maui, then said “Wait.” She halted and looked back, watching.

Francisco, keeping the rope loosely in his grasp, moved quickly to catch up with Hitomi. He then braced himself and let her move down the hull.

Hitomi moved hesitantly to the base of the shuttle’s tail. From her omni’s viewpoint, Sakura could see the drive jet, its upper housing just breaking the water’s surface. Hitomi stood there, staring at the water and the blue-green tinted curve of the underwater housing. Then she took an audible breath and jumped.

It was a good jump; Hitomi cleared the gap and landed on the small patch of wet composite, skidding a bit but catching onto the support strut and keeping herself from falling into the water. Sakura loosened her own grip, feeling her heart hammering as fast as Hitomi’s must be.

Hitomi swallowed hard, that sound also audible to everyone, then steadied herself. With the careful precision that Saki remembered well, she removed the view extender and omni from her harness, stretched it to a length of over two meters, and dipped it into the water.

A split-screen in the omni view showed the underwater imagery. Hitomi rotated the camera slowly, obviously checking to see where raylamps might be hiding. None seemed terribly close to the location. One of Tavana’s highlights showed on Hitomi’s view, directing her to stand almost directly above and lower the omni to face into the engine.

Saki heard Tavana’s indrawn breath echo her own. Something was visible there, sticking half a meter out of the engine housing. Hitomi lowered the omni more, giving them a view of the entire forward jet opening. With Tavana’s prompting, Hitomi scanned the camera across the jet three times, then climbed over to the other side and repeated the process from the rear.

As Hitomi was finishing up, Francisco called out, “Hitomi! A raylamp, coming up the support strut!”

The little girl retracted the view extender and turned to study the glistening black creature. It rotated in place, somehow adhering to the vertical side of the strut, and tendrils extended in Hitomi’s direction.

Hitomi’s hand was on her gun, but she hadn’t drawn it, and Sakura could see why. Francisco was visible along a line very close to that of the raylamp; if she missed by even a small amount, she could hit Franky.

Even as the black, gelatinous stingray-shape began to ooze towards her, Hitomi very carefully unsnapped the omni from the extender, and then pointed the shaft at the approaching raylamp.

Without warning, the view extender shot out to its full length of three meters, the blunt tip ripping entirely through the body of the creature. It gurgled and plummeted into the water without a pause.

The impact also drove Hitomi backwards and she teetered on the edge, but Francisco yanked back hard, and Hitomi instead was drawn upward and half onto the support.

“That was close,” Sergeant Campbell said after a moment. “But excellent thinking, Hitomi. You really made me proud, there.”

“Made us all proud,” Laura said, her voice perhaps a little shaky.

“All of us,” Sakura echoed. “Now Hitomi, you get inside. Time for use to take a look at this data and figure out how to finally get you moving!”