Portal – Chapter 07

Chapter 7.

“We have to rescue the General.” Horst Eberhart said the words emphatically, ending with a challenging glance at A.J.

     “Damn right we rescue him,” A.J. responded. At Horst’s raised eyebrow, he continued, “Yeah, I raised the necessary question about the funeral, but that was about people we couldn’t help any more. If it weren’t for the General, none of you people would’ve gotten off Odin – or if you did, Fitzgerald would’ve been on board. I can’t see any way that could’ve worked out well.” And that’s an understatement. That guy was someone who worried Madeline Fathom, and he damn near got everyone on both ships killed. “So we all owe him big, since we’d never have landed alive without you people. We can’t just let him drift out there and die if there’s anything we can do about it.”

“But… is there anything we can do about it?” Joe Buckley asked, reluctantly. “We’re just starting to figure out how to save ourselves.”

“I think there is,” Larry Conley answered. He brought up a diagram of the inner Jovian system. “Here’s big daddy Jupiter and his big kids Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Odin was originally scheduled for a grand finale hard landing on Io, but the General pulled off a genuine miracle and managed to shift his orbit to avoid that. The combination of his shift and the encounter with Io put him into this orbit.”

A.J. watched as the dot representing Odin cycled through an obviously elongated orbit while the Galilean moons performed their effectively circular orbits around Jupiter. “He’s orbiting between Io and Europa!”

“Exactly, and that’s what gives us an excellent chance, if we can get everything working soon enough.” Larry paused the animation. “Here, he’s at maximum distance from Jupiter, and just a tiny bit outside Europa’s own orbit. Here, he’s at his closest, almost exactly on Io’s orbit. Relative to us, he’ll go through periods where he’s really going quite slow, comparatively speaking. If we can rendezvous with Odin at those times, we can transfer people or equipment pretty easily without crowding Munin’s safety margin.”

“Right,” Dr. Masters said, “but I think the earlier bit there is the sticky one. If we can get everything working soon enough. Can we? The General said that he could be out of air in a few weeks.”

A.J. opened his mouth but it was Mia Svendsen who spoke first. “General Hohenheim’s managed some miracles so far, but he isn’t an engineer. I would be very surprised if the engineers we have here can’t give him some better guidance to stretch out his survival. Dr. Baker –”

“Call me A.J., please,” he said reflexively. I’m not quite as bothered by the title I haven’t really earned as I used to be. But habit stays with you.

“A.J., then. A.J., would any of your Faerie Dust still be operative on Odin?”

“Yes,” he answered promptly. “I was going to say something about that just a minute ago. I’d concentrated a lot of the Dust into the control systems of the neo-NERVA drive and the drive spines – as you know. Some of it got lost in the disaster, but once we started talking to Odin I was able to focus some comm lasers on it and then use both Munin and Nebula Storm’s RF antennas to pick up some pings back from the Dust. Problem is that in all the hash of interference Jupiter likes to throw out, it’s really hard to get anything decent out of the things at this kind of range.”

“Would it help if you could have an onboard control node?”

“Well of course it would, but –” he broke off and then whacked himself on the head in reprimand. “Of course, there’s got to be onboard comm and programming nodes for the drive dust. Maybe real simple –”

Mia shook her head and smiled. “Not very simple, no. We assumed that various types of nanodust might be used, including in the future some quite complex ones. All we need to use them as interfaces are your protocols and security codes.”

A.J. hesitated, instinctively unwilling to hand control of his Faerie Dust over to anyone else – even if, as was true here, it was likely that all he was doing was just letting someone else talk to it so he could control it more efficiently. “Er… Yes, of course, you’re right.”

“What will we get out of that, Mia?” asked Anthony LaPointe.

“Lots more information, that’s what,” said Dan Ritter. “We had a lot of built-in sensors throughout Odin, but the whole system was pretty much destroyed by the accident, and for all I know some of what Fitzgerald did might have wiped other parts by accident. We stopped getting any significant updates from the main PHM systems onboard once the main net went down. If we can get A.J.’s much smarter smart dust spread through the crucial areas, I’m sure I can figure out where the worst leaks are, help the general plug them, and maybe even find how to activate some of the backup air supplies that still have to be on his chunk of Odin.”

“All right,” Madeline said. “Let’s assume we can help General Hohenheim seal Odin better and preserve enough air so that he has several months instead of weeks. We still have to get Munin filled with reaction mass, and we can’t just detach Munin from Nebula Storm without losing our shielding.”

“We’re about ready to deploy Athena,” Horst spoke up. “She was designed with piping to help dispose of water as it was melted, and Jackie and I have put together fittings that will take that water and put it directly into Munin’s tanks – and another set that will do the same for Nebula Storm’s tanks. Water is not the very best reaction mass, but it is the best compromise we have – abundant, stable, noncorrosive, easy to handle, no need for high compression or any of that trouble.” As usual, only a slight hard edge on some of the consonants showed that German was Horst’s mother tongue.

“Athena does a roughly one-meter bore,” Larry said, “which means that you’ll get a metric ton of water for every meter or so she goes down.” He grinned. “Which is what Maddie meant about doing science while we rescue ourselves; we’ll be cutting a deep bore into Europa’s crust, studying this cross-section of the moon, and getting our reaction mass at the same time.”

“That’s… a long bore.” Hundreds of tons of water would be needed, A.J. knew – 500 tons or maybe more for each ship.

“But actually pretty short compared to what we were looking at on Enceladus,” Anthony pointed out. “Sure, where the vents are seen, there the crust must be very thin, but if we wanted a place thick enough to stay on without it cracking apart, we might have to find a place with kilometers of ice crust.”

“Good enough,” Madeline said, “but what about the Nebula Storm and the fact that we need to maintain a radiation shield? Those of us left behind could just retreat inside Nebula Storm’s main hull, I suppose, but…”

“Not necessary, Maddie,” Joe answered. “Given the problems we’ve already had, Brett and I have been modeling various changes to the Nebula Drive interface, and there’s ways of running a reasonable-sized shield version of the drive with a lot less power. If Munin fully charges our ring batteries before leaving, I think we can keep everything going a lot longer than we used to.”

Maddie smiled. “Excellent. So we believe we can keep General Hohenheim alive long enough, we can get to him, and we can keep ourselves alive while we do it. That leaves just one more problem: why are we going out to Odin?”

Everyone, A.J. included, stared at her. “Er.. what?” Joe said after a pause. “We’re going there to rescue the General, Maddie. Wasn’t that what we were all just talking about?”

She shook her head. “Yes, and of course that’s what we’re doing. But what do we want everyone back home to think we’re doing?”

Now A.J. got it. “Crap. Of course, we’re trying to keep the General a secret. So we need a reason to go out there that makes sense but doesn’t involve rescuing someone.”

“Well, couldn’t we be trying to salvage something from the wreck?” Helen asked.

“Maybe, yes,” Horst said, frowning, “but it would have to be something very valuable – crucial for our survival. Look at how much we are risking. To help another survivor, it makes sense, yes, people will often do things that are very risky for that; but if we’re not admitting that this is our reason, then we need a motive that’s very, very strong.”

“What about superconducting cable?” A.J. suggested. “We could say that a big chunk of Athena’s got heated too high during the landing.” As with many other materials, heating the Bemmie-derived room-temperature superconductors too much could destroy critical parts of the metamaterial structure that made it work.

Maddie looked thoughtful, but Horst shook his head. “Never work; there’s only one place on Munin that Athena would have been stored, and for it to get that hot, we’d have had a lot more problems. Ones probably ending with us all dead.”

“Why not just say we’re going to look for survivors?” Brett asked. “We didn’t know there was a piece of Odin intact before, now that we do we feel obligated to check.”

It was Madeline’s turn to shake her head. “That one unfortunately fails the strength-of-motive test. Oh, it could be assumed we had that discussion, but anyone would know that I would be against it – and, not to waste our time with false modesty, I’m fairly certain that I could make sure we didn’t go down that road if I felt it was a bad idea.”

No one seemed inclined to argue; the Nebula Storm crew had worked with Madeline Fathom for years and knew exactly how formidable she was, and of the former Odin crew, several knew that Madeline was the only person who had worried Security Chief Richard Fitzgerald.

There was a short silence as all twelve castaways tried to think of something that met the stringent requirements.

A rippling chuckle suddenly broke the quiet. Startled, all heads turned to the source. “What’s so funny, Doctor?” Dan asked.

Petra Masters smiled. “Well, it’s a tad trite, that’s all. But why not medical supplies? I used up quite a bit of ours,” her face was momentarily shadowed, “trying to save David and Titos. We’re going to be working on a damaged nuclear reactor, on a moon – let’s be honest, actually, a planet that just happens to be going ’round an even larger planet – that might be unstable enough to get us injured rather directly. And we still could get ill in other ways – that old hackneyed standby appendicitis could rear its head, to name one. Munin was supplied with the assumption that Odin would be orbiting overhead in case of any real emergency, at least in terms of medical supplies. Now we have twelve people and a real state of emergency.”

A.J. found himself nodding along with Madeline; the delicate-looking blonde said, “I like it. Yes, I think that’s excellent. Most of the experimental medications for low-gravity exposure are on Odin as well. That’s really a very good idea, Dr. Masters.”

“Well, we do tend to think of our own specialty first.” The English doctor tried not to look overly pleased.

“All right then, people. Let’s get to it. Keep the General breathing, get the tanks refilled, and prepare our stories to withstand any questions.” Madeline said briskly.

“Concocting stories to mislead and confound the enemy?” Joe inquired as everyone stood up. “And I thought you gave that up for Lent.”

“Oh, don’t spoil her fun, Joe.” Helen said, and gave a delighted chuckle herself as she saw a touch of pink on Madeline’s cheeks.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Joe answered. “She’s never quite happy if she doesn’t have SOMEONE to confuse,” he continued, with a fond look at Madeline, “and I’m just too easy a target to be worth it.”