Portal – Chapter 09

Chapter 9.

“The E.U., it did not advertise that its astrophysicists were expected to do heavy physical labor,” Anthony LaPointe said with dry humor.

     Helen laughed as she tried to position her piece of the huge gray-white mass of material. “I don’t remember them specifying that for their xenopaleontologists, either,” she said.

“Yeah,” Larry said, “but at least paleontologists spend their time breaking rocks regularly. We astronomical types look at computer screens and expend our heavy effort lifting coffee cups.” He pulled perhaps slightly too hard on his piece and it slid up and slightly over him so he had to back up, and tripped, falling in slow-motion. “Bugger, as some of our Down-Under friends would say.”

Helen restrained another giggle. Larry’s protest was of course mostly pro forma and exaggerated the stereotype; on Earth, the best observatories were generally in areas of the world which remained both remote and challenging, while any space-based operation required top-flight fitness; Larry had shown his physical capabilities while helping to build Ares’ fledgling colony. “Is this thing built like our shelters on Mars?”

“Not really,” A.J. said. He wasn’t physically participating, but mainly because he was once more being the nerve center for coordinating several operations at once; it was something ideally suited to him and Maddie had made sure to emphasize that, both to prevent anyone else from resenting the sensor expert’s apparent indolence (not that many were likely to) and just as importantly to prevent him from feeling guilty that he was inside while most other people were doing “real work”.

“On Mars,” A.J. continued, while Helen and the others finished spreading out the largest of the shelter units Munin had been carrying, “we used mostly the old ‘tuna can’ hab units, like the ones we lived in on the way here to Jupiter system, plus the Cascade-SAIC designed subsurface inflatables. But there we could take advantage of the Martian soil, bury stuff underground and insulate with the native material.

“Here on Europa, we’re dealing with ice frozen so solid that digging through it is like trying to take a shovel to steel. Athena can cut through it, yeah, but can you imagine how long it’d take to keep repositioning and running Athena in order to clear out anything of reasonable size? So we can’t really go underground, at least not for quite a while.”

“Actually, the original plan would put us underground anyway,” Horst said, “but the excavation equipment was supposed to be brought down from Odin after the lander had verified the site, and the space for it was taken up by a lot of the additional supplies the General had us load up to make it a viable lifeboat.”

“Yes,” Anthony said. “We are lucky, I think, that these shelters stayed on board.”

“All right, Maddie, you’ll have to set the first holddowns,” Helen said, seeing that they had the fifteen meter long, ten meter wide structure spread out fairly well. “I think we can stretch it out a bit after you get a couple in place to keep it from sliding all over.”

“On it,” Madeline said. To set something down well into the steel-hard ice required something more complex and forceful than the standard tent stake, and that was why it was Maddie’s job; the hold-down units were a combination of shaped-charge and spike, blowing a small hole into the ice and inserting a long spike which then extended anchor points.

“So to finish answering your question,” A.J. continued, “These are more self-contained – though they need some power run to them from Munin or some other source – and designed for much more extreme environments. There’s a big difference between operating in even a relatively thin atmosphere like Mars and going to hard vacuum, and sitting on ice that’s cold enough to liquify air is another major difference. You’ve got a lot of specialized LTP aerogel insulation in the floor, carbonan-reinforced puncture-resistant layered synthetic walls – interior and exterior – plus a lot of built-in amenities. Well, ‘amenities’ by the Spartan standards of the Outer System; we don’t have a Jacuzzi in any of these. But there’s power, air filtration and renewal, temperature control, all the stuff to make it livable… and give us a lot more space while we’re here.”

Helen cut in the private channel. “Which I am so looking forward to.”

She saw A.J. grin and wink in her VRD. “I want to lay claim to our own hab unit again. And I know Maddie and Joe want theirs back…” he glanced sideways and she could guess where he was looking. “And it’s hard for Horst and Jackie when there’s like no privacy at all!”

Ain’t that the truth, she thought. The two married couples in the group had established and assumed relationships, and the rest of the “castaways of Europa” had assumed and arranged – without, as far as Helen could call, even being asked directly – for occasional hours of privacy for those two pairs.

As Horst and Jackie had pretty much just begun the dance back… Good Lord, a year and a half ago… during Odin’s visit to Ceres, and had minimal chance for privacy since, no such automatic arrangements had materialized. It wasn’t beyond the pale that another couple might materialize within their midst, either; Helen had no idea of the preferences or interests of the others from Odin, but – as Madeline had once mentioned to her – with two other women and (counting the General) seven other men in a highly emotionally-charged environment, she’d be surprised to see nothing else happening.

Besides, even without the romantic pairings, there was plenty of reason to want a few hours away from anyone else.

Maddie arrived next to her. “Stand very still.” The smaller spacesuited figure bent down, did something with her hands; Helen felt a sharp shock or vibration through the soles of her boots, and a moment later Madeline straightened up. “Okay, let go.”

The material tried to pull back but the spike held firm. “All right, then. Let’s all get the rest of them stretched out and set at intervals. Watch for the indicator tags.”

“You mean the square over the hold-downs?” Anthony asked. “It looks just gray and has not changed ever since we started working.”

“That’s because we haven’t had any part of it anchored,” Madeline answered. “The indicators sense tension and extension along the length in two dimensions. When they’re pulled to the right distance and tension levels, that gray square will turn bright green. Pull too far and it’ll go red. If you’re too far off angle, determined by the way the spikes and other walls are set, it will start going either yellow for an angle that’s too acute, or blue for one that’s too obtuse. So you want to get each square as perfect bright green as you can before I lock it down.”


The process took another hour and a half, by which time Helen was starting to feel awfully tired. Low gravity reduced the weight of the suits, but the mass remained, and it was actually in some ways a lot harder to move around in low-g with extra mass all over you – especially if you were trying to pull or drag things that didn’t want to move to begin with.

But as soon as the last spike was in place, she heard Maddie signal A.J. “Okay, A.J., check status. If everything’s green, pull the trigger.”

“Checking now… nice job, everyone. That thing’s within a very small percentage of being perfectly straight on all sides.” A pause. “Maddie, the third spike near the center of the far wall – away from Munin – didn’t set right. For some reason the anchor points didn’t deploy.”

“I can’t move the hold-down, though. What do I do?”

“Pull the first spike, then take a new one and just disarm the charge, then put it down the hole and I’ll trigger it; hopefully it will deploy the anchor points. Normally I wouldn’t really care about one being not perfectly set, but we’re still not sure how heavy the quakes are going to get, and I don’t want to take chances.”

Neither do I, Helen agreed silently. A few minutes passed before A.J. confirmed the substitution had gone well. “A.J.,” she began, “what if there’s a big quake – one that really rearranges the landscape?”

A.J. shrugged. “Honestly? We may be totally screwed. Imagine one of these cracks opening up for a second. I think we have to assume we won’t get something really big – like Richter 8. A 5 or 6 we can probably handle, though it’s possible it would hurt something. But we need the space – for work, and for our sanity – and that shelter’s built tough; I think it can take anything the rest of us can.” He spoke more loudly and was broadcast to the whole group. “All right, I’m activating the shelter.”

Helen stepped back; almost instantly she saw the almost shapeless mass, staked out in a rectangular pattern, begin to stir.

“Active composite elements responding. Constructing first level wall grid.” The sides of the perimeter began to rise systematically, a low wall coming up almost as though being elevated from below. It reached a height of about one and a half meters before stopping. “First level wall grid complete. Interlocking supports connecting… connected… locked. Structure is solid! Looks like the design’s working! Starting second level wall grid with reinforcement elements.”

The shelter continued to raise itself under A.J.’s direction; the main walls were three meters high, with the roof curving gently to a maximum height of four and a half meters. “That’s deceptive, though,” A.J. noted. Insulation, structural flex capabilities, internal wiring and such, plus lots of cushioning and redundancy in the structure and leakproofing, make the walls about half a meter thick now that it’s assembled.”

Completed, Helen had to admit it looked pretty impressive up close; spaced-out transparent aerogel-filled windows would admit light and a view to the rooms that made up the interior (it could be divided up several ways). This was going to give them large, open, brand-new spaces where all of them could go around without suits. But most importantly… “A.J.? How long?”

“After you get the power line connected? I’d say… about an hour and a half.

“But for you, it’s probably going to be at least another hour after that,” he continued, and she could see him grinning. “Because I think our esteemed leader is willing to pull rank AND her extreme badass nature in order to be the first one to get a real, if low-gravity, shower!”