Portal – Chapter 12

Chapter 12.

“So there’s no chance of repairing the reactor?” Madeline asked, looking mostly at Jackie but keeping an eye on everyone else in the conference room of Munin. This was a crucial factor, and she had to make sure that no decisions were made without as much certainty as possible.

     Like most engineers, Jackie instinctively shied away from absolute certainty. Centuries of experience had taught the profession that real life machines and structures would fail – or, sometimes, survive – in ways that you simply wouldn’t have believed or anticipated. “Well… no chance? … Um, if we were to…” She paused for a moment, clearly thinking, then shook her head. “What am I saying? No, Maddie, there isn’t any way we’re fixing it. Oh, I could come up with some ridiculous maybe-possible scheme with the combination of A.J.’s super-dust, all the engineers we have, and some luck, but in this setting? No, that reactor’s shot, and it’s not getting fixed.”

Funny how we seem to go from triumphant confidence to crisis mode on a regular basis, Maddie thought. Now to navigate this crisis. “All right, the Nebula Storm’s reactor is shot. What’s the next steps?”

“Well, first, we get the reactor and reactor-specific support components out,” Joe said. “There’s no purpose in keeping a damaged and potentially dangerous reactor onboard, and the thing – along with support components – weighs a lot. I know the “Keep our Solar System Clean” contingent will have kittens at the concept, but we’ve got to dump the weight when we can. No point in dragging our trash with us.”

“Makes sense, and I wouldn’t worry about the complaints; we’ll deal with that if and when we get home for them to whine at. But what next? How do we get ourselves home?”

The silence was not encouraging. But there has to be a solution. We have too many resources for it to not be possible. “Horst, what about the Munin’s main reactor? Couldn’t it run the Nebula Drive?”

Horst grimaced, wrinkling his usually handsome face so it looked like he was sucking on lemons spiced with habanero peppers. “Ja, yes, in theory. But… Madeline, you remember we did connect our reactor to your systems for the travel and landing to Europa.”

“Yes, which is one reason I asked.”

“That worked for a short time, but that was because it was a short time,” Horst said. “The connecting of the ships was done through an airlock for each of us and took up a great deal of space. We could afford that space for a few days, but it will be months – perhaps a year – for us to make it back to the Inner System and a location we can be rescued or make a good orbit and landing from ourselves. As it is, we will have to be taking turns in the rotating sections to reaccustom ourselves to real gravity and minimize degeneration of our bodies from constant low-g exposure, yes?”

Maddie nodded reluctantly. “I think I see your point. The twelve of us – thirteen, after we rescue the General – are crowded enough as it is, even though with the equipment on board Munin we have been able to set up those self-contained living quarters – not to mention the absolutely wonderfully designed showers – in additional insulated structures intended for the exploration and study teams. We simply cannot afford to sacrifice room for such a connection.” She looked over to Mia and A.J. Baker. “I don’t suppose we could not use the airlocks? Put in a dedicated – and out of the way – power conduit?”

Mia looked thoughtful, but A.J. didn’t even hesitate. “No chance in hell, Maddie. Maybe for Munin we could figure it out, but to put a nice out-of-the-way power conduit into Nebula Storm we’d have to run it right through the hull of Nebula Storm.”

She winced. No one knew better than she just how unyieldingly stubborn the composite alloy they simply called “Vault material” was. With what they had, she wasn’t even sure they could put a hole in that hull at all, let alone do so with enough precision and control to prevent them from wrecking something else in the interior.

“There’s another much bigger problem, too,” Dan Ritter said after a moment.

“So what’s your good news, Dan?” A.J. asked brightly.

“Well, it’s related to that bit about gravity. In order for us to manage that at all, we have to spin the ship and use those habitation modules –”

Horst nodded glumly, and Joe smacked his forehead. “And Munin wasn’t designed to spin, probably couldn’t be balanced while attached to us, and making a harness that allowed you to be transferring the power from Munin that was stationary to a rotating Nebula Storm…” Joe trailed off, then finished, “It’d be twice as big, and a huge potential point of failure unless we did a lot of engineering work on it. Slip rings or similar tricks… they’re just perfect invitations for wear.”

Horst shook his head. “Worse than that, Joe. Remember that we need to take turns? Well, unless Munin is going to be just left empty and all of us crowd into Nebula Storm, how would we do that when the one available airlock between the two ships was filled with the power connection?”

They were silent for a moment, then Helen spoke. “Speaking of the hab modules,” she said, looking at Joe, “Can we fix the one we sort of landed on?”

“Yes,” Joe said with confidence. “It got bent and squashed, but all the pieces are still there and we’ve got everything needed to fix it. So we’ll be able to spin up once we’re back in space.”

“That’s good,” Helen said.

Another silence. “How are we doing with Munin and preparations to visit the General?” Maddie asked finally. Might as well touch on other subjects.

“Going good there,” Brett said. “We’ve got good models up on all the critical systems and we think we know how to fix them. It’s going to take quite a while – our good friend Fitzgerald sure knew how to screw things up. But between the resources on Odin and our know-how… well, Odin’s never going to be pretty again, but she’ll be a functioning space station, anyway.”

The last line tugged at something. Space station instead of spaceship. But why? Odin couldn’t move any more, not in any significant way. She retained enough functionality to orient herself in different ways, but neither of her drives were…

“Joe,” she said slowly. “And Jackie… When we threw Nebula Storm together, we used the reactor for the Ceres colony as our main power source, right?”

“Yeah,” Joe said. “Plus a big bank of RTSC batteries to fake up the NERVA drive.”

“And bolted the spare nozzle from Nobel onto Nebula Storm’s rear,” confirmed Jackie. “Why?”

“Oh, oh, oh, I think I see where you’re going, Maddie, and it might work, god-Damn it just might work!” A.J. said, a grin spreading across his face.

The others glanced at him in puzzlement; he looked to Maddie; she just smiled and nodded. He loves explanations, and I think he does get it. “Well,” A.J. said, giving her a quick smile of thanks, “Odin’s pretty much kaput, but her reactors – both of them – are still intact, and the one is just a tweaked drive unit from the original Nike, just like the one on Nobel –”

Joe and Jackie started grinning too, and the smiles started to spread. Horst cut in: “—and the reason Odin can’t use its NERVA isn’t because the drive’s completely shot, but because the drive nozzle was completely shredded! And –”

Suddenly it seemed as though everyone was talking at once:

“— well, that’s not completely true, some of the secondary support systems were damaged,” Mia Svensen said cautiously, but she, too, was smiling. “And we’ll have to do some careful design models, I think Nobel had modified the nozzle design for its own applications –”

“—need to figure out how much water we’ll need, might need several trips –”

“—and Larry, the orbital change needed, not much I think, yes?”

“—transfer valve to move the water from Munin to Odin, sort of a reverse, we never thought we’d have to do the opposite –”

“— cutting tools that might do the job –”

She raised her voice. “People. EVERYONE, please!”

The room went suddenly quiet. She smiled at them. “From the general look and sound, can I assume that we think this is a good solution?”

“It’s a damn near perfect solution, Maddie,” Joe said fondly. “With Odin’s orbit going in to Io and out about to Europa, it’s going to be tracing something like an old-fashioned Spirograph pattern around, which means over time it will get closer and then farther and farther around the circle, eventually catching up to us. But it does mean that it’s going to be a pain to transfer back and forth, especially at different points of the cycle.”

“And Odin has so many resources on board, even in its cut-down state, that we just don’t have,” Mia said. “If we can get it enough reaction mass and put on a nozzle that lets it shift orbit enough to turn to an orbit around Europa…!”

“… it becomes a satellite filled with resources we can access a lot more easily and reliably,” finished Helen, who certainly understood the basics of the situation. “I guess we can’t land it, though.”

Horst snorted at the thought of landing the massive wreck. “I would think not.”

“What about our other objections to the situation with Munin and Nebula Storm?” she asked. “Do they still hold if we add Odin into the picture?”

“I don’t think so,” Mia said. “There are cutting tools and materials aboard Odin which I think could manage to put an access conduit through even the Nebula Storm’s hull; they would be too large and power intensive to be practical to transfer from Odin to us here on Europa, but if we assume that we will do all the design and preparation work ahead of time, we could bring Nebula Storm up when we’re ready to leave, then shut her down and work on her in orbit; the Odin would provide more than sufficient living space which is protected by Odin’s radiation shielding so that we wouldn’t need Nebula Storm to maintain her drive at that time.”

“So we would be able to put a connection for power that would still allow us to transfer back and forth,” Joe said, “and with the tools and materials on all three ships we could probably make one that will survive the rotational demands for long enough.”

Brett nodded, already starting on his simulations via remote. “It won’t be easy at all, but I think it’s all workable. The only question is whether Nebula Storm can actually tow Odin. I mean, whether it can tow it effectively. I know it’s a matter of pretty much constant force so you could in theory tow anything, but is the Nebula Drive able to give us enough acceleration to get home in reasonable time?”

“Yes, it can,” Jackie said positively. “First, Odin as she currently sits masses something like three thousand tons, maybe less, rather than ten thousand, especially if we dump most of the drive spines, which are pretty much useless now. Together, Nebula Storm and Munin are going to be about two-thirds that much, especially once we’re topped off with reaction mass. So that’s, say, one-fifth of our acceleration previously. But since it’s constant acceleration, cutting it by five doesn’t multiply our time by five – time’s a squared term in there; so square root of five is the effect of decreasing the acceleration, it’ll take us a little more than twice as long to get somewhere.” She grinned again. “It took us about three months to get from Ceres to here. We’ve got food for more than a year, will have that much even after we finish all the work; in a year, I could get you across the whole damn solar system!

“Keep those smiles and make ’em bigger!” she said, and Madeline gave her own grin. “We’re going home – and we’ll be bringing Odin with us!”