Portal – Chapter 05

Chapter 5.

Nicholas checked himself in the camera-eye view once more. Every stitch in place, every line correct. And my hair going mostly white, I have to admit, has added an extra soupçon of dignity to my appearance.

     He also checked the VRD display, making sure the “augmented reality” display of his announcement would allow him to focus on the attendees while still able to see the announcement notes. Good enough. Let’s get to it, then, as Maddie would say.

He stepped out onto the tiny stage that was in place in Phobos Station’s conference room, and acknowledged the smattering of applause with a nod. “Please, all of you, sit down,” he said with a brilliant flash of his trademark smile; he noted that for once there really were enough people present that addressing them as a group actually made sense. There were no fewer than ten other people present in the conference room – one representative from each of the five acknowledged space powers (the E.U., the USA, China, India, and Japan), Glenn Friedet from Ares, and all four of the people who, in addition to regular jobs on Phobos Station or the IRI base below, acted as reporters for various news agencies.

“I know everyone’s been waiting for a real announcement and some details, but I hope you understand it’s been a very trying time for us all and we didn’t want to make any announcements until we were absolutely positive of our findings.”

That last bit was a deliberately ambiguous statement, and Nicholas thought he saw the slightest twitch of concern on the face of Giliam Maes, the E.U. representative from Belgium. He probably doesn’t know much, but there has to be some sense of worry pervading the E.U. space community right now. They’ve lost the most expensive ship ever built, at least by some measures, and it was at least to a great extent their own fault.

But the idea of this conference wasn’t to cause trouble, so he went on with a sudden broadening of his smile. “And the first thing I want to tell you… should be said by someone else.”

On cue the display behind Nicholas lit up with Madeline Fathom’s face; behind her could be seen a number of other people from both the Ares and the E.U. expedition. Madeline smiled and repeated the line she’d said first to him some days before. “A warm hello to all of you from all of us, here on sunny Europa.”

It was amazing how a mere ten people then managed to sound like three times that many, and it took a few moments for him to get them to quiet down. “Please, everyone, I’ll answer questions in a little bit, but let me get through my announcement; I’ll undoubtedly be covering many of your questions as I do so.

“As you can see, by both tremendous luck and some absolutely heroic and inventive actions on the part of the crews of both Nebula Storm and Odin, there are some survivors of this double tragedy, and they are – at the moment – healthy and safe. They made a spectacular landing on the sixth moon of Jupiter, Europa; for those interested, the Institute will be releasing the footage of that landing as taken by the survivors themselves.” As if anyone in this group wouldn’t be interested. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if that video clip becomes the most-viewed in the history of mankind.

“Unfortunately, while – at the moment – all of the Nebula Storm’s six crew have survived, there are only six survivors of the Odin. In addition, these twelve people are currently marooned on a moon whose environment makes Mars look like an Earthly island paradise.”

He paused for a moment, taking a sip of water from the glass on the lectern. The ten faces in front of him, five men and five women, waited tensely. “I know all of you want to know what happened – how we came to this point. The preliminary events are already known and I think we all want to put those behind us.” He was referring, of course, to the fact that the E.U. had taken the information on Enceladus’ possible Bemmie base and run with it, while concealing that information from the Ares-IRI consortium on Ceres. No point rehashing it, either. “I’m sorry to say that at this point we still only have partial information as to what happened in those crucial hours as both Odin and Nebula Storm prepared for their final maneuvers in preparation for heading to the Saturnian system, but I will tell you what we know at this point.

“As both vessels prepared for what is called an ‘Oberth maneuver’, a method of using a combination of the interaction of the gravity well of a large planet with a ship’s reaction drive to greatly change the speed and direction of your vessel, something went wrong with the automatic systems of Odin. Instead of firing her systems to accelerate out of the Jovian system, the ship swung effectively opposite the intended vector and fired to slow down the vessel. Subsequently there was a large explosion on Odin.” So far, I’m telling the truth – just leaving out a few details and confusing the timeline a bit. Now I have to add some bald-faced lies, however. “Upon detecting this event, Nebula Storm changed her own maneuver to try to match up with Odin. This attempt was not entirely successful but did at least allow the two vessels to remain near each other.”

He could see that Mr. Maes wasn’t sure whether he should relax or not. Don’t worry. We’ve reached an agreement on how to handle this, and you’ll be able to relax soon enough. “We still have no evidence as to what caused this explosion.” Strictly speaking one might be able to argue that this was true; he had some hearsay about what happened but no direct testimony by Odin’s personnel – yet – and he hadn’t gotten copies of the sensor records from A.J. which would undoubtedly have demonstrated just what happened.

“What we do know is that it was violent enough to shatter at least one of Odin’s mass-driver spines and send shrapnel through most of the entire vessel. Most of the Odin’s crew, I am afraid, died within minutes of the explosion, as the shrapnel penetrated most of the living quarters in the ‘hab ring’ around the vessel. The damage also severely impacted the radiation shielding which led to further casualties. Intra-ship communications were almost completely wiped out, and even in the areas of the vessel that remained livable immediately afterwards there was little to no way to communicate with other components, nor to reach them unless the people in question were fortunate enough to have their EVA suits with them. The vessel’s magnetorquers apparently malfunctioned along with some of the other systems, and this caused a spin in the ship; this eventually revealed that serious structural damage must have been done, because in the end Odin broke up into two separate pieces.”

“My God. How did any of them survive?” The involuntary question came from Diane Sodher, once a NASA information specialist on the Nike project, now main IT for Phobos Station and freelance ‘stringer’ for CNN.

The question fit into his narrative, so he went with it. “Fortunately, on the far side of Odin from the explosion was the bay with its remaining landing craft, Munin. Even more fortunately, General Alberich Hohenheim had directed that Munin be kept prepared for use at all times, even though arrival at Enceladus was not projected for many months to come. Because of this, the few survivors who were able to make it to Munin found themselves with an excellent and well-supplied ‘lifeboat’.”

“Excuse me, Dr. Glendale,” Giliam Maes said, “but… was the General one of the survivors?”

“I am afraid not,” Glendale answered regretfully. “According to the survivors, he was still alive but remained onboard to make sure that, in fact, the Munin could launch successfully.” And that much is, in fact, true.

The two successive questions had succeeded in breaking the briefing into a question and answer session, but that didn’t bother Nicholas; he’d gotten the main introduction out of the way and the rest could be presented in this format as well as any other. “Nick,” Glenn said, “I’m confused by this. The Nebula Storm’s dusty-plasma drive isn’t really limited by mass as such, and even if we assume that Munin, fully loaded, was maybe a thousand tons – I think it’s considerably less – there’s no reason for them to have landed anywhere. If the two ships could rendezvous at all they should have just made sure they were secured together and then headed home. It might have taken a little longer but…?”

“That would indeed have been the plan,” Nicholas said, acknowledging Glenn’s question with a nod, “but apparently fate was not quite through with our friends yet.” Time for the next part of the big lie. “As they had slowed down to match with Odin and – later – with Munin, something struck Nebula Storm and penetrated the hull It’s possible that this was purely coincidence, or it may be that one of the fragments from Odin managed to take Nebula Storm with it. Be that as it may, whatever it was managed to damage the ship’s reactor core.”

“Christ Almighty,” Glenn muttered, and similar sentiments rippled around the attending group.

“I see you understand. Without an operating reactor the Nebula Storm could not continue operation of the dusty-plasma drive, especially at full size and with full control.”

“Dr. Glendale,” Yoko Hyashibara, the Japanese representative, spoke up with an apologetic tone. “Forgive me for bringing this up… but as I understand it, the Nebula Storm and the Odin were, in truth, the only vessels currently capable of outer-system travel – even if, for instance, the Nike or Nobel could be spared from their current support duties. Does this mean that we are only going to witness another tragedy as the survivors starve or freeze to death?”

“I believe not,” he said with another smile. “We are already working on plans which – with, I hope, the assistance of the E.U. and others – will allow us to get a new outer system vessel constructed in the next year or so. But more importantly…” he activated the second clip from the interplanetary castaways.

“We’re not just sitting on our asses here waiting to be rescued,” Jackie Secord said from the display, smiling confidently at the assembly. She stood on the surface of Europa, the immense banded gibbous disc of Jupiter touching the horizon behind her, the black of space faintly pearlescent with some strange mist. “We have engineers. We have tools. We have food, air, and a whole planet of water, and we’ve got the Nebula Drive working some as a shield so that we can live and work right here on Europa.

“So you go right ahead and build a rescue ship – we need all the ships we can get anyway. But don’t be surprised if we meet that ship halfway, because we’re going to fix the Nebula Storm, and fly her and Munin all the way back home!”