Forgotten in Kaggen
Earl T. Roske
The Hospitaller ship, Pryderi, bucked underneath Lieutenant Dewey Tyler’s feet. Down the corridor, several Hospitallers yelped as they collided with each other. They helped each other to their feet while Dewey gripped a handhold tighter with one hand. The Hospitallers who’d regained their feet came in his direction.
“Lieutenant Tyler,” said one of the Hospitallers, Corporal Merle Fleming. He had his fireteam with him. Private First Class Lela Ramirez was limping, favoring her left leg.
“You need to get to your escape pod,” Dewey said. He was watching a small window on an auxiliary data drive he’d plugged into an emergency access port. He turned to take a quick glance at Cpl Fleming’s fireteam before returning his attention to the data drive. “Move now.”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” said Cpl Fleming. “What about you? Do you need help?”
Dewey shook his head. “I’m good, Fleming. Get your people to safety.”
As if to encourage them, the ship tilted, staggering Cpl Fleming’s fireteam, causing PFC Ramirez to gasp in pain. Dewey, still gripping the handhold, reached out to steady one of the other Hospitallers.
“Move now, Corporal,” Dewey said. “You don’t have much time. I’ll be along in a moment.”
“On it,” said Cpl Fleming. He slipped PFC Ramirez’s right arm over his shoulder. “You heard the lieutenant. Section C. Let’s go.”
The ship screeched. Somewhere, an alarm for decompression went off and was quickly muffled by the slamming of an emergency hatch. Dewey could only hope that none of his people or those operating the ship were stuck on the other side.
Meanwhile, a green bar visible on the screen of the data drive was slowly growing longer. Numbers below it counted their way to one hundred percent. He was almost there.
“It’s not your ship to go down with, Lieutenant Tyler.”
Dewey didn’t have to look to recognize the voice. It was his platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Diane Castro.
“I’ve no plans on going down with this or any ship,” Dewey said. The green bar had almost reached its end. Ninety-four percent and climbing. “Hopefully, Major Toronto doesn’t plan on staying either.”
It might have been an ancient ritual that a captain stayed with his ship as it went under the waves. But these were modern times, and no one was expected to remain with a spaceship breaking up while in jump space.
“He’d like to leave,” said SSgt Castro. She laughed, as she often did when things were at their worst. “But he says he needs to at least be the last one off. You’re holding him up. He’s ordered me to drag you to the escape pod.”
Ninety-eight percent. Dewey tapped the screen. “Almost there.”
Deep in the ship, something exploded. The vibration shook the deck where Dewey and SSgt Castro stood. They both staggered but kept their feet. Another decompression alarm sounded and was quickly muffled by a closing emergency hatch.
Ninety-nine point four percent.
“Wasn’t there a closer access port?” asked SSgt Castro.
“No,” said Dewey. His hand hovered over the plug connecting the data drive to the emergency access port. The moment the growing, green bar touched the right side of the screen and the number flashed one hundred percent, he yanked the connecting plug free. He grabbed the drive and turned to SSgt Castro. “Ready?”
“Been ready, Lieutenant.” SSgt Castro turned and started running down the corridor.
Dewey was right behind her, the drive cradled in his right arm. The ship bucked several times as he and Castro made their way to a stairwell that would take them down one level. Castro used the handrails and slid down to the next deck. With the drive in one arm, Dewey had to settle for jumping when he was halfway down.
The ship chose that moment to buck, and the deck came up to meet him. His feet slammed hard against the deck. He bent his knees to absorb the shock, hitting himself in the chin. His mouth was awash with the taste of blood as he bit the side of his tongue.
“You okay, Lieutenant?” SSgt Castro helped Dewey up and got him moving.
“Been worse,” Dewey said. He allowed SSgt Castro to guide him along.
Not far behind them, a decompression alarm sounded. They immediately lunged for the next hatchway, colliding with each other and the deck. At their heels, the hatch swung shut.
Several hands suddenly pulled Dewey and SSgt Castro to their feet.
“Cutting it a little close, Lieutenant?”
“Don’t we always, Sergeant Maxwell?” Dewey clapped her on the shoulder and then pushed her toward the access hatch leading to their escape pod.
There was a row of escape pod access hatches. All save one was closed. The red lights over them indicated the escape pods had already ejected. Each red light was a relief to Dewey as it meant Hospitallers had gotten to safety. Of course, where they were safe at remained to be seen.
“Lieutenant?” SSgt Castro was standing near the hatch entry, her eyebrows raised in expectation. Dewey knew she was waiting for him to board.
“You know it doesn’t work that way, Castro,” said Dewey. “Get these people on board first. I have to comm Major Toronto first.”
SSgt Castro shook her head but turned to Cpl Lena Wong. “Wong? Get your people on board.”
Cpl Wong hesitated for a second, looking in Dewey’s direction.
“Go, Corporal,” said Dewey as he tapped his comm.
“Russell, let’s go,” said Cpl Wong. She grabbed Pvt Russell by the arm and guided him to the hatch. “Bryant. Webb. You’re next.”
“Lieutenant Tyler,” said a voice over Dewey’s comm. “You’re buttoning up your escape pod, I assume.”
“Loading now, Major.” Cpl Wong had disappeared inside the hatch. Sgt Maxwell was ready to step in.
“Unfortunately, there was a decompression in our corridor, and I had to get inside my own and shut the hatch. But I’m not leaving until you do.”
Dewey laughed. “Of course, Major Toronto. I’ll comm you right before we exit.”
“See that you do. I have no intention of blowing up with this ship.” The comm went silent.
Everyone was in the escape pod but Dewey and SSgt Castro. She had a stubborn look on her face that Dewey had to fight to keep from laughing at.
“Get in, Staff Sergeant. That’s an order.” He didn’t have to force her into the pod, but he could see on her face she didn’t like him going last, despite that being the tradition. However, as soon as she’d cleared the entry, Dewey was right behind her, slapping the button that started the hatch closing.
Inside the escape pod, Sgt Maxwell and the others were either buckled in or in the process. The two seats nearest the control panels were empty. SSgt Castro took one but didn’t touch her restraints until Dewey was sitting. This time Dewey did laugh.
After securing the restraints, Dewey did a visual check on everyone else in the pod. The seating arraignment was circular with the hatch and several cabinets on one end, the control panels for launch and navigation on the other. In the floor were several hatches that provided access to food, emergency EVA suits, adjustable-sized clothing, and weapons. There were more hatches overhead securing more supplies.
“Everyone ready?” Dewey asked. When he got a thumbs up from everyone, including SSgt Castro, Dewey tapped the comm to let Maj Toronto know they were exiting the ship.
Instead, the ship exploded, forcefully ejecting the escape pod into jump space.
Though he couldn’t feel it, Dewey knew the escape pod was tumbling as it sped away from the ship. They hadn’t heard it explode, but they felt the vibrations and the clatter and thunking of debris colliding with the pod. Dewey hadn’t the chance to speak with Maj Toronto. He could only hope that the major and whatever crew was with him had managed to escape the explosion as well. It would be a long time under the best circumstances before he knew. It might also be never.
That was the problem with an emergency ejection while in jump space. Those inside the pod had no control over where they would exit. The absolute worst case would be that their escape pod would be destroyed dropping out of jump. The second worst would be coming out of jump space between solar systems. Truly in the middle of nowhere.
However, as long as their pod’s systems were working when they reached their unknown destination, they would be able to send out a signal. Then, as long as someone reached them within ten days, they’d still be alive. After that, chances of survival diminished by the hour. So, all Dewey had to do was hold on until they fell out of jump, hope the systems were working, and that help wasn’t far enough away.
He’d been in worse situations.
“How’s everyone holding up?”
“Good here, Lieutenant Tyler,” said Sgt Maxwell. “Corporal Wong? Have your fireteam check in.”
Cpl Wong didn’t have to respond. PFC Webb, PFC Bryant, and Pvt Russell responded in the affirmative.
“What about you, Staff Sergeant Castro?” Dewey asked. “You holding up okay?”
It was rare for Dewey to not see a smile on SSgt Castro’s face. Typically, the more dire the situation, the broader the grin she wore. This time, despite the direness of their situation, Castro was not smiling.
“Our beacon’s busted.” SSgt Castro tapped the screen she’d been watching. “Something hit us hard enough to damage the internal antenna. Power’s glitching, too.”
“So, a normal day in the corps?” asked Sgt Maxwell.
Castro flashed a quick smile, but it was clear to Dewey that she was worried. Their survivability depended on ample power for lights, air scrubbing, heat, and the aforementioned beacon.
“What about comms?” asked Cpl Wong.
“Can’t tell,” SSgt Castro said. “Not until we’re out of jump.”
“Wait,” said Sgt Maxwell. “We’re still in jump space?”
Castro nodded. “Whatever hit us knocked us at the right angle. Or the wrong angle. So until we slow down, we’re stuck in here.”
That was a problem Dewey hadn’t anticipated. There were tales of ships being lost in jump space forever. Those were usually reserved for serial vids on Friday nights. But Dewey’s reading and his near-perfect recollection of everything he’d ever seen reminded him of fourteen times since the Radial War that it had happened.
“We don’t have propulsion powerful enough,” Dewey said. “We will slow down. It’s inevitable.”
“But where will we end up, Lieutenant?” asked Pvt Russell. He was looking too pale for Dewey’s liking. He didn’t need anyone losing control. “We don’t have a beacon.”
“We’ll know when we get there,” said SSgt Castro. “Hopefully, it’ll be someplace interesting.”
“I could read a book,” said Dewey. He reached for this tablet, secure in the pocket along his outer right thigh.
“Please, not that.” But Dewey could see the smile returning to SSgt Castro’s face.
Twice, Dewey had his reading interrupted by the discovery of a lost planet. Each time there’d been an adventure that involved attacks and ships exploding. SSgt Castro liked to blame the events on Dewey, but Dewey denied them. Well, most of them. He was going to make a retort in response to SSgt Castro’s comment, but a beeping noise filled the air.
“There we go,” said Sgt Maxwell. “We’re about to drop out of jump. That wasn’t so bad.”
“Don’t curse us,” muttered Cpl Wong.
It was the traditional military fear that pointing out the good fortune would ruin it.
No one responded to Cpl Wong’s admonishment as the pod began to vibrate and shiver. Dewey had never been in an escape pod in jump space. He was pretty sure not even SSgt Castro had, either. He could only hope that this was a normal response for a pod dropping out of jump.
“It’s the speed we’re going,” said SSgt Castro. “Ships usually exit at high speed at a chosen point. We’re tumbling along, rubbing against the tunnel created by the Pryderi before it exploded.”
The vibration increased. A whine spiraled high enough to hurt Dewey’s ears. He was considering that this would be the end of them all when the sound disappeared and the vibrations ceased just as abruptly. Now, the only noise was the heavy breathing of seven Hospitallers counting their lucky stars.
“Is this what being dead is like?” asked Cpl Wong after several moments of silence.
“I hope not,” said Pvt Russell. She looked at the others with a slanted grin on her face, adding, “No offense, but I don’t want to spend my death with just you all.”
“Likewise,” said SSgt Castro. “However, all that has happened is that we have fallen out of jump and are in normal space.”
“Where in normal space?” Dewey asked. Around him, the others turned to SSgt Castro, eager for her declaration.
“Let’s see, shall we?” Castro tapped at the virtual keyboard on the screen. Dewey could see the screen’s light and various windows opening on it, highlighting SSgt Castro’s face. Though she looked relaxed, he knew her well enough and long enough to know that the way she composed her face was telling him she was concerned.
Dewey’s concern escalated when Castro dramatically tapped the screen and the interior of the pod was engulfed in darkness.
“Not funny,” said Sgt Maxwell. Her voice had a nervous edge.
“You’re right,” said SSgt Castro. “It’s not funny. It’s very serious.
“What’s going on, Staff Sergeant?” Dewey asked.
“Everything. Nothing. We’ve lost all power.”
It had been silent before SSgt Castro’s bad news. Dewey noticed that it had now gone even more silent as nearly every breath caught in their respective throats. The only positive in the dark moment was the gravity plates having their own uninterrupted power supply. Customarily intended to keep the pull consistent even during power fluctuations, the plates now provided some comfort from the disorienting feeling of being in zero gravity.
Less than fifteen seconds after the power left them in darkness, Dewey reached into a side pocket of his uniform and pulled out his tablet. He tapped it awake and set the screen to its brightest setting, bathing the silent space in a weak glow.
“Good idea,” said Cpl Wong. She repeated Dewey’s actions, adding a little more light with her tablet.
Seconds later, the interior of the pod was awash with pale light from seven tablets.
“Now what?” asked PFC Webb.
“Sergeant Maxwell,” said Dewey in response to Webb’s question. He spoke slowly and calmly. “I need you to open that floor hatch between you and PFC Bryant. You’ll find the emergency evac suits inside. Distribute them and get everyone suited, starting with Pvt Russell.”
“Will do, Lieutenant Tyler.” Maxwell’s words were followed by the sharp, metallic snap of her restraints being released. Once Dewey saw that she had the floor hatch open, he turned his attention back to SSgt Castro.
“Can we reboot the entire system?” Dewey asked. The forceful ejection from the ship, followed by a tumble through jump space, could have been too much for the systems to correct for and they’d shut down out of precaution.
“Doing it now,” said SSgt Castro. She looked over at the other Hospitallers. Dewey followed her gaze to where Sgt Maxwell was handing each of them an evac suit. When he looked back to Castro, she was already looking in his direction. She added in a whisper, “I don’t think that’s the problem.”
Dewey hadn’t thought so either. “We need to try everything, Castro,” he said. “So we start with the simplest and move on to the more difficult.”
“Of course,” said SSgt Castro. “On the bright side, we haven’t lost atmo, so the pod hasn’t been compromised.”
“There you go,” Dewey said. He cracked a smile before adding, “Let’s count that as a win.”
“I’ll try and get us another one.”
“I don’t doubt you one bit.”
SSgt Castro nodded and turned back to the console, a determined look on her face. Dewey had known from the first day that he’d joined the company with Castro as his Staff NCO that he’d gotten lucky. She’d always shined with a positive attitude, loved being a Hospitaller, and would wade through fire for her people.
Dewey turned at the sound of Sgt Maxwell’s voice. The sergeant was holding two emergency suits and two helmets.
“Thank you, Sergeant Maxwell.” He looked at the others, still partially into their emergency evac suits. “Get everyone sealed, helmets off for now, and adjusted. I’ll look after Staff Sergeant Castro.”
“You got it, Lieutenant Tyler.”
Dewey took possession of the two suits. Sgt Maxwell returned to the others, helping PFC Webb adjust the leg length of his suit. The suits were a one size fits all affair. That being said, they were also adjustable so that people didn’t have suit legs encumbering their movement or loose material that could catch and tear.
“Castro. I need you to suit up.” Dewey held the suit out for SSgt Castro.
Without looking in his direction, Castro replied, “You go ahead, Lieutenant Tyler. I can wait.”
She continued to tap at several keys at her station. All that Dewey could see was the single, blinking cursor and nothing more. The reboot didn’t seem like it was working.
“It’s an order, Castro,” Dewey said. He gave her a crooked smile when she looked his way.
After a pause, she nodded and shifted over one seat, freeing up space in front of the terminal. As she took the suit, she said, “We need to try a hard reboot now. So that panel by your leg needs to be removed.”
“On it,” Dewey said.
While SSgt Castro unpacked the suit, Dewey knelt on the deck and started removing twist-locks that held the indicated panel in place. By the time he had the panel off, Castro had her emergency suit over both legs and up to her hips. She paused to join Dewey at the opening where the panel had been. The aroma of outgassing from long-stored supplies newly set free followed her.
“You need to open that back box. The orange one. Disconnect the green connectors and then connect them to the unpaired orange connectors.”
“And you need to finish suiting up, Staff Sergeant.”
Castro laughed softly and moved back. She began fishing for the suit’s armholes as she went.
To reach the box with the connectors, Dewey had to hunch down even further. Opening the box and handling the connectors was challenging to do one-handed. It was also hard to lean forward without support. He found, though, that he could rest his forehead against the cabinet wall above the opening to steady himself. That, though, also limited his point of view.
“Whoever designed this must have been in a bad mood on that day,” Dewey grumbled.
“I can help, Lieutenant.” Pvt Russell had joined Dewey on the deck. “I’m a bit smaller, so that might make a difference.”
Dewey sat back, feeling a pulse of pain on his forehead where he’d been leaning against the cabinet. “I’ll take you up on the help, Russell. I’ll get in my suit while you have a go at it. Disconnect the greens -.”
“Reconnect them to the orange connectors. Yes, Lieutenant Tyler.”
With a laugh of surprise, Dewey moved out of the way. Something nudged his arm. He looked to see Sgt Maxwell once again holding his suit. He nodded his appreciation before taking the suit and unsealing it.
As he unrolled the legs of the suit, Dewey watched Russell. She had sat cross-legged, no mean feat in an evac suit, and was leaning far enough forward that her arms and head were in the opening. By the time Dewey had his feet in the boots of the suit, he heard a hum in the ship. Seconds later, the emergency lights flicked on.
“Nice work, Russell,” said SSgt Castro. She sealed the front of her evac suit and scooted back over to the pod’s terminal.
Pvt Russell sat back, a smile on her face. Dewey had his suit up to his waist and one shoulder in when Castro gave him the news.
“We’re on life support, Lieutenant,” she said. “There’s no comm, no exterior cams or sensors, no propulsion.”
Dewey shoved his other arm into his suit. He noticed the others were watching the conversation intently. “What do we have?” he asked.
“What do we have?” Castro asked back, more to herself than to Dewey. He could see her gaze moving across the screen. “We have air. The scrubbers are operational. We have lights. Looks like the water recycler is available, too, in case anyone needs to use the head. We have back-up power for all of that for nine days.”
“And then?” asked Sgt Maxwell.
“Then it’s all suit power,” said Dewey. He started pressing the front of his own suit closed. “That’s good for another four days.”
“No need to ask what happens then,” said PFC Webb.
“That’s right,” SSgt Castro said. “No need.”
From where she sat on the deck, Pvt Russell asked, “I’m assuming we’re not going to just sit here and wait to die.”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Dewey. He tapped the collar of his suit closed after making sure the helmet’s gasket was aligned correctly. “We have time. I think we should put it to use.”
PFC Bryant raised her hand and asked, “What did you have in mind, Lieutenant Tyler?”
“On a list of things we should do, what would you suggest we work on first, Staff Sergeant?”
Castro nodded and paused to look at the screen even though Dewey knew the answer she wanted wasn’t there. “Exterior sensors might be helpful. But getting a message out would be my priority.”
“And mine,” Dewey said. “Also, it’s something we can address without having to use the airlock, which would waste oxygen and power we don’t want to expend unnecessarily.”
“We’d need the computers online to access the schematics for the comms,” said Cpl Wong. She looked confused when Sgt Maxwell coughed and the others looked at her with wide grins. It took her a second, then she rolled her eyes. “Right. My mistake. I forgot which officer we had with us.”
She earned the laugh she deserved for recognizing the vital fact that Dewey was with them. They didn’t need to access the computers to call up the schematics because he had read a book once about emergency pod construction, including all the schematics and the troubleshooting guides. It wasn’t instantaneous recall, which was why SSgt Castro had taken the time to tell Dewey how to do a hard restart of the ship’s systems. But with a few minutes to sift through related materials, he was able to pull up what they needed to know.
“That’s assuming you did read the right tech manuals,” said SSgt Castro. She punctuated her comment with a grin.
Dewey returned the grin and said, “First thing I do when on a new class of ship is to do a quick read of all relevant documents. Let’s unbolt those seats over there and we’ll get started.”
The seats Dewey had pointed to were beneath Sgt Maxwell’s and PFC Bryant’s backside. “We’ll need to pull the seats up and remove the plate behind them,” he said. “As we don’t have a lot of space here, Maxwell, I’d like you and Bryant to handle that.”
“On it, Lieutenant Tyler.” Sgt Maxwell stood and waved for Bryant to follow. Then, as a team, they started to disassemble the seats.
“What should the rest of us do?” asked Pvt Russell.
“Good question,” Dewey answered. He’d reopened his evac suit and removed his tablet and a connector, still in the plastic bag it had been issued in. He held both out for Pvt Russell. “I believe you’ll find a connection port for that cable. It should be just to the left of the box you’ve already opened. Cable to the ship. Then cable to the tablet before powering it up.”
“You got it, Lieutenant,” said Pvt Russell as she tore the plastic bag for the connector open.
SSgt Castro was watching the exchange between Dewey and Russell. Once Russell had the connector free and was looking for the port, Castro asked, “You think that’ll work?”
“Technically, it’s supposed to,” said Dewey. “I’ve only done it in training simulations and VR. But if we’re going to even have a hope of getting a message out, we’ll need it to work.”
“So, cross my fingers?”
“Toes, too, if you think that’ll help.”
The other Hospitallers laughed quietly at the exchange. Not every officer had the same relationship with their staff NCO. Some were very formal. Dewey had even heard some of the officers and their staff NCO interact on a first name basis. That would never fly with SSgt Castro, so Dewey didn’t bother. But he was also so used to referring to everyone by their rank and last name, he sometimes forgot they had first names. He’d even had to pause on occasion to remember his own.
“We’re in,” said Sgt Maxwell. “Everything looks okay. Should I run a local diagnostic?”
“You have the tools?”
“Sure do, Lieutenant.” Maxwell opened her suit and removed her own tablet and a small, hard case half the size of her hand. She waved it proudly.
“Let us know what you find,” said Dewey. He turned back to Pvt Russell, who was sitting back, the connector cable snaking its way out of the cabinet interior, the other end attached to Dewey’s tablet. “How’s it looking?”
Russell held the tablet out for Dewey. “Nothing yet, Lieutenant Tyler. It’s still booting up. If there’s something to access, you’ll know soon enough.”
“Thank you.” Dewey laid the tablet on his lap. The loading icon was still pulsing slowly. He took the time to watch the rest of the Hospitallers. Sgt Maxwell was running her diagnostic with PFC Bryant watching over her shoulder. Pvt Russell had turned her attention to PFC Webb. They were both checking in with each other, seeing how the other was holding up. Across from Dewey, SSgt Castro was doing the same thing. When their eyes met, Castro grinned.
“Doing okay there, Lieutenant?”
Dewey nodded and checked the tablet. It was still booting up, looking for some operational system in the pod to connect with. “Doing okay. You doing okay, Staff Sergeant?”
Castro’s eyes shifted to the others and then back to Dewey. “Okay,” she said. It lacked all the jovial energy Castro’s voice usually contained. “I know I keep saying I’m bored, and I’d like some adventure, but I didn’t think the universe was actually listening.”
“Or that it had a sense of humor more wicked than yours?”
SSgt Castro laughed. She sounded relieved to Dewey. “Certainly seems that way.”
Dewey lowered his voice, his tone serious. “I can’t promise you anything, Castro, but I’ll do all in my ability to get us out of here somehow.”
“I know you will,” Castro said. Her smile had squashed into a straight, hard line. “I promise to do the same.”
“Deal,” said Dewey. He looked down to see that the screen of the table was now scrolling lines of code. “Sergeant Maxwell?”
From her position facing into the hardware under the seat, she flashed a thumb’s up. “We have access to the comms, Lieutenant. Just not sure what we can do with them.”
Dewey could now see several comm control windows on his tablet’s screen. He tapped one to enlarge it, revealing the communications systems status. It didn’t look good.
“Well, we won’t be sending any messages,” said Dewey. “Some of the equipment is down. Likely damaged from the explosion.”
“Anything we can do, Lieutenant Tyler?” asked Pvt Russell.
“Can we pick up traffic?” SSgt Castro asked. “Maybe it’ll give us an idea where we are?”
Dewey nodded in agreement as he was tapping the screen, already looking for comm signals to tap into. “Excellent idea.”
Everyone seemed to hold their breath as Dewey tapped and slid his fingers across the screen. It went like this for several minutes. He continued to look even though the first pass through the data had already made it clear. Finally, he closed the program window and sat back.
“Not a single signal, Castro. Not even a satellite ping.” Dewey wiped his hand across his face in frustration.
“So we’re all alone?” asked Cpl Wong.
“Seems that way,” said Dewey. “What makes it worse is that we don’t even know where we are.”