Portal – Chapter 03

Chapter 3

“All right,” Madeline Fathom said, her voice just slightly amplified by the walls of the common room of Munin. “Now that we’re all reasonably safe for the next few days, we need to evaluate the entire situation and come up with a real schedule of action.”

     “Were you able to contact Dr. Glendale, Madeline?” Horst Eberhart asked.

“I was. He relayed a quick acknowledgement of our message through the secure channels, thanking us for bringing him up to date, and saying that he could delay a couple – but only a couple – of days to do a press release all of us can live with. So that’s part of our agenda today, but I’d like to leave it for a bit later.”

She looked around as the others nodded. The Munin was, relatively speaking, large, and had been built as a mobile command post and a vessel capable of entering and leaving atmosphere as well as airless environments. The common area was meant to hold crew for just such meetings, and the number of people there seemed to make it crowded, but a headcount would make it exactly one dozen, including herself.

Not very many to survive on a barren iceworld hundreds of millions of miles from home.

“First,” she continued, “after this meeting we’ll arrange a funeral.”

“Not meaning to sound cold about it,” A.J. said diffidently, “but is that a good idea? I mean, given everything else we have to do.”

He winced and withered under a number of glares, which only subsided slowly.

“Yes, I think so,” Maddie said, deliberately not sounding either hostile or exasperated – although exasperation was certainly a common emotion even with the new improved A.J. Baker. “Nebula Storm was incredibly lucky; we lost no one on board. But not only did Munin have two people die on the way here, but also Odin lost virtually all of its crew. We need to salute them, we need to say goodbye, we need to stay civilized and human.”

“Sorry. I still think someone needed to ask. We’ll be using power and resources for every thing we do here.”

“I… suppose someone did.” The Kentish accent belonged to Doctor Petra Masters, late the Chief Medical Officer of Odin. She was a moderately tall woman with the solid, heavy-boned build that was common in certain English families. “A question we will probably have to ask ourselves every day from now on.” Her expression was controlled, but Madeline could still see traces of strain and sadness; she had fought hard to save both David Hansen and Titos Xylouris, but Hansen had been badly wounded in the devastating scattershot explosion that had crippled Odin, while Titos, outwardly appearing to be fine when he boarded Munin, had quickly succumbed to acute radiation sickness; he had, it turned out, been in a side section which had lost shielding – and the geometry had meant that the remaining shielding had actually caused more radiation to be channeled through that area. Even with modern medicine and some experimental anti-radiation drugs, there was nothing that she could do. Hansen had died hours after landing, and Titos followed him about half a day later.

Okay, let’s get back on track. People need purpose. “Now that that’s out of the way, let’s focus on what we have to do. I don’t think there’s any argument that we are on our own in both surviving and getting home?”

Brett Tamahori shook his head. “No argument here. I’ve run some sims – being as that was my specialty – and worked with Joe, Jackie, and Mia on different assumptions, and the answers’ always the same.” The slightly dark skin tone was the only sign of Brett’s partly Maori heritage, but the accent was, as Bruce Irwin would have put it, “pure Kiwi”. He had been one of the few members of Odin’s crew not from one of the EU’s member states, hired specifically for his modeling and simulation skills which could be invaluable on a vessel that would have to evaluate situations constantly with limited information.

“There’s just no reasonable way they can get us help in time,” Brett continued. “The infrastructure was pushed to the breaking point to get us out here in the first place. If they start right now – within the next few days – to build a new Odin, or maybe a dusty-plasma sail rescue ship, and everyone gives it top priority, maybe. Maybe. But most likely we’re looking at a couple of years before anyone else can make it.”

“And even if we can survive a couple of years,” Helen said, “I suppose we’ll still have to assume they’re not coming at all, with that kind of timeframe.”

“Exactly. So how long can we survive, Dan?”

“We’re actually not in desperate straits there,” answered Dan Ritter, calling up a display that Munin echoed to everyone present. “Thank the General for making sure Munin was prepped for just about every contingency. Even with scientific equipment on board, she was provisioned for eight people and an expedition length of one and a half to two years, and the General’s decree of prepping her to be a lifeboat added to that. Your crew had planned on a round trip of three years and most of that’s still to come. So provision-wise all of us together could make it at least two and a half to three years, especially if we’re careful with rationing.” He grinned and gestured toward the outside. “Water, of course, won’t be a problem.”

That was true enough; they were sitting atop a world-girdling ocean roofed over with water ice. “What about general environmentals?”

“We should be okay on that too. I’ll have to keep up on maintenance on both ships, but with some good PHM programs and A.J. doubling our sensor coverage in those areas, I don’t see any trouble. We’ve even got some backups if we have to scrounge – the large rover we brought has its own environmental plant.”

Maddie could feel the tension drain from the room as the environmental technician made his cheerful, matter-of-fact statement of hope. “Thanks so much, Dan. Doctor, I think we need to hear about the rest of us.”

While taking careful physicals of the desperate combined crew hadn’t been feasible, Dr. Masters had carefully gone over the medical records of the survivors and examined the telemetry of the extensive sensor suites in their suits. “Overall, that news is tolerable,” Petra said promptly. “Naturally the majority of the crews of both vessels were chosen for physical health and capability as well as for their professional ability, and this is evident in my examinations. Some of us are getting older than the usual optimum, but that’s actually not a terrible concern; everyone here has had a lot of preventative medicine applied and, speaking honestly, are likely in better shape even at 50 or 60 than they might have been at 25 or 30 in the early part of the century.” She glanced over at A.J. Baker. “Mr. Baker’s lungs are a matter of slight concern, but I’ll keep a monitor on them.”

Madeline saw A.J. wince reflexively, as he usually did when reminded of the horrific accident in which he had nearly died, and had lost his perfect health, inhaling enough superheated, toxic air to cause damage that even modern medicine could not completely undo. “Good. But I hear some reservations in your voice.”

Dr. Masters nodded briskly. “Obviously I must be concerned with the gravity. Mars-normal gravity was shown by three IRI studies to be adequate to minimize many of the effects of microgravity, but indications are that anything below a third of a gravity will be a serious problem. If we are here for a year, there could be long-lasting complications.”

“I thought they’d figured out treatments for that,” said her favorite voice in the world. Joe Buckley was seated over by the door, as though ready to exit in case of an emergency.

“Some,” conceded Masters, “but the efficacy is still under research and there are clear side-effects. The intention at Enceladus was that we would regularly rotate the ground-side scientists back to Odin, where they could re-accustom themselves to normal gravity in the habitat ring at periods which prevent bone loss or any of the other problems.”

“This is a long-term problem,” Maddie agreed, “but not an immediate one. I’d like you and the others, especially Brett, to work together to see if there are better solutions, but for now we need to concentrate on the mission-critical issues. Which really boil down to getting us off of here, which means fixing Nebula Storm.”

“Exactly.” Jackie Secord stood and floated up slightly before Europa brought her back down; she looked slightly embarrassed. “Ahem. That’s going to be the biggest project.” She called up simplified schematics of Nebula Storm to the room’s projector. “Fitzgerald’s bullet went through right about here. The problem is that Nebula Storm was a cobbled-together mess in some ways – no disparagement meant to you or A.J., Joe; she served us well and hopefully will get us back off this rock, but she was put together with not much time and some really crude compromises, which means that while I know it punched the core, I can’t tell exactly where because I can’t check the housing and angles as precisely as I’d like. I’m not sure we have all the tools I’d like to have, and it’s going to be touchy work. We’re talking about disassembling a nuclear reactor and fixing what’s wrong – with tools never meant for that job. Which just emphasizes one of our biggest worries.” Jackie glanced towards Dr. Masters.

“Oh, my, yes. Radiation. We have radiation meters already, of course – all of us going into the outer system knew this would be an issue. However, it is terribly more important now. Medical supplies are our most limited resource, and radiation illness… well, poor Titos gives us an immediate example. If you exceed your dosage, you are dead. You may feel fine, you may be walking, but you are dead and there is not one thing I will be able to do about it.” She looked levelly around the room, making sure she caught everyone’s eyes. “Remember that. Nebula Storm’s shield is protecting us from what would be a lethal dose every day, but nothing is perfect, and it is also always possible that something might go wrong and bring the shield down.”

“They’re all set to alarm automatically,” A.J. pointed out. “And I can give us backups.”

“That would be ideal, Mr. Baker. But anyone working on Nebula Storm will have to be doubly careful; radiation, please remember, is cumulative over quite a long period of time, and the more you absorb now, the less safety margin you have for later. I know this is repeating things said before, but it really does bear repeating, and I shall continue to repeat it at intervals until I am quite sure you have all got it. We will be here… a year? Perhaps longer. And during all that time we must be vigilant.”

“We understand, Doctor,” Joe said. “And repeat it all you want. Everyone should stay inside the ships when possible; they’re built with shielding, especially the crazy stuff Bemmie used for Nebula Storm’s hull. But the big radiation shield from the Storm’s drive is our main interest, so we’re going to be fool proofing that two ways. First we’re going to armor the cable up so that you can drive over it without a problem, and second we’ll be stringing a backup cable over another route. No power interruptions unless something can take out both.”

The floor under their feet quivered and something rattled in another room. Madeline found everyone standing and looking at her.

“A … Europaquake,” she said slowly. “Larry? Do we have something to worry about?”

The tall, slightly stooped astrophysicist glanced at his opposite number, Anthony LaPointe, and shrugged. “Hard to say. We might. The reason Europa has a liquid ocean is that Jupiter keeps squishing it around and generating heat. The following bulge moves back and forth every day…”

“And the one theory is that many of the cracks on the moon, if the ice is relatively thin, may be opening up every time this happens,” Anthony finished. “We may have some very interesting times. Though the Conamara Chaos isn’t thought to be a direct feature of that behavior; I and others think it’s the remnants of a meteor strike. Still, significant quakes on a substrate that may be capable of splitting are not to be taken lightly.”

“See what the two of you can come up with insofar as how bad the quakes are likely to be, how frequent, and what we can do to keep from getting killed or our ships and equipment damaged. The last part you’ll probably have to work with Joe and Horst.”

“Got you,” Larry said equably. His even-tempered willingness to go along was one of his strongest points, especially in crowded spaceships. Anthony LaPointe also nodded his agreement.

“This,” Maddie continued, making sure her tone lightened in a way to draw people’s attention back to her, “brings me to the other major effort we’ll be undertaking.” The others looked at her in puzzlement, and she smiled.

“Let’s be honest; we’re going to be living here in very cramped conditions for probably over a year, with danger looking over everyone’s shoulder almost every minute. I think we need to remember to give us something to do beyond just survival… especially if we can make it part of the whole effort.”

Everyone’s attention was fully on her now. Jackie grinned, the sudden flash of white that always seemed to brighten the room she was in. “I see you’ve got something brilliant in mind as usual, Maddie.”

“Just efficient. That’s my job, after all. We’re going to need a lot of reaction mass, what we sometimes sloppily call ‘fuel’, for the main drive engines. We’ve used water in the past when we had to, but the ideal is hydrogen or at least some other lighter material. I know that our tanks are designed to handle multiple materials; what I want is a determination as to whether we can get away with just water for current purposes. It may not be as efficient but it is so much easier to work with that if we can, we probably should.

“In any case, whether we use water or hydrogen, we have only one real source: Europa’s ice. Which we have to melt. Fortunately, we have a device meant to melt a lot of ice: Munin’s nuclear-powered thermoprobe, Athena. And it was thinking about that which brought the whole idea clear.

“We are all here on a journey of discovery,” she continued, seeing some of the faces already brightening in understanding. “I see no reason we shouldn’t continue to be scientists and discoverers even now.

“We can’t protect Europa from our contamination really; we didn’t plan on this landing, and we had no chance to sanitize our material in the manner required by international protocol. More, we can’t afford the time and effort to maintain such strict controls, even if we had the resources.

“But we can continue our research. Athena was meant to probe Enceladus’ interior, but she can tunnel into Europa’s just as well – and provide us with all the water we will need. Unmanned probes have traveled through the system, but as we know from Phobos and Mars, all the automated probes in the universe still aren’t nearly as good as human beings on-site, if you can get them there. Well, we are here, and we will not just survive. We will not just rescue ourselves. We will learn, just as we came all the way out here to do.”

Helen suddenly laughed, and A.J. looked at her in confusion. “What’s the joke?”

The blonde paleontologist shook her head bemusedly. “It’s … so typically Madeline, three steps ahead of our own thoughts. If we were all thinking of this as survival and nothing else, we’d be doing our science all right… but feeling guilty about it, as though we were somehow wasting valuable thinking resources. She’s already seen that and this makes it all part of our job – so we can just enjoy as much as we can.”

Madeline felt a touch of pink on her cheeks, and – unlike in some instances – it wasn’t entirely at her choice. “Anyone else taking a few minutes to think about it would see it. I just want us to remember to be human in all ways. Not just for remembering the dead… but for keeping us among the living.” She looked up involuntarily, and – like the others – she wasn’t really seeing the low ceiling of Munin, but the immense black sky with mighty Jupiter low in the west and Sun a tiny disc less than a fifth that seen from Earth. “Especially when there’s nothing else living within hundreds of millions of kilometers.”