Portal – Chapter 15

Chapter 15.

“This,” Helen said to apparently empty air, “is possibly the most boring thing I have ever done.”

“Coming from someone who used to think spending weeks scraping away a centimeter of rock from some dead bone using dental tools was fun, that’s a hell of a statement,” A.J. said.

     “It’s nothing but the truth. At least with those rocks you got to do something. With this,” she gestured to the images in front of her, “all I can do is stare at a lot of frozen nothing!”

The screen before her – several screens, actually – showed various angles of the same thing, specifically, the ice through which Athena was steadily, implacably, and very slowly moving. Half a meter an hour, a hair under twenty inches, or about an inch every three minutes.

“Sorry, Doc, but them’s the breaks,” her husband said in his usual not-very-sympathetic tones. “Everyone gets a turn at the boredom, and we’re back to your turn.”

“I’d think this would be something the machine could do itself.”

“Yeah, you’d think that. And according to Horst and Mia, it would have, probably, except that the prep and programming for specific circumstances was supposed to happen on-site. Turns out no one actually finished the smart-video suite that was tailored for this rig – or else someone really screwed up and failed to load it, but I don’t really believe that.”

“Can’t you write it? You’re the super-sensor expert, right?” Helen was aware that she was probably sounding a bit plaintive, but – despite the probably literally groundbreaking science that Athena was doing – she really would rather be doing just about anything else. Unfortunately, the emergency cutoff and other direct controls were integrated into Athena’s control station and no one had felt like trying to tamper with the design. Thus, someone had to sit right where she was during the entire time the melt-probe was active.

A.J.’s still-handsome, only slightly lined features popped up in a corner of her VRD. He grinned apologetically and shrugged. “Could I? Sure. Almost certainly, especially with Horst and Mia to back me. But that kind of work – which, for our current circumstances, would be absolutely mission-critical stuff, no failures of any kind allowed – takes a lot of time and patience. And a LOT of checking. Even with our current software tools, that’s weeks, at least. And there’s so many more things to do here. So everyone gets shifts watching, because we’re already good at picking out patterns.” He glanced sideways, obviously looking at a feed of the same video. “And that wouldn’t have been an easy analysis problem, let me tell you.”

“No,” she had to concede, “it wouldn’t.” Even naïve as she was with respect to the precise difficulties in smart image processing, she needed no explanation of this problem. The ice of Europa – at least, in this area – was filled with varying concentrations of cloudy colored materials ranging from cream to pale orange to dark brown, even black. A lot of those were from various organic molecules, which was certainly exciting and had Larry and Anthony in a constant running debate, trying to make sense of things; from Ceres and Ares Base on Mars, there were a large number of other scientists hanging on every transmission – especially, of course, the xenobiologists. Helen couldn’t really restrain some smugness at being the only person even vaguely in that field who was actually on-site.

But all those impurities in the ice meant that it was often the case that even with bright lighting you couldn’t see more than a few centimeters into the ice – and there had been at least three cases where the observing party had spotted something just before Athena melted through. The last time it had been a rock – probably an old meteorite fragment – which could have seriously clogged an intake pump if Athena had melted the ice away. They’d had to pull the probe up, lower someone – Joe, to be exact – down, and pull the stone manually. This wouldn’t have been necessary if all of Athena’s components had worked perfectly, but the accessories that were intended to remove and eject such obstacles stubbornly refused to deploy.

Up until an hour or so ago, Athena had been passing through an area of relatively clear ice, visibility through it up to half a meter. But over the last hour or so, reddish-brown haze had become ever closer, and now almost entirely blocked Athena’s vision.

Which meant, naturally, that she didn’t dare take her eyes away from the screen for more than a minute or so at a time. That meant that idle chatter would be her only real relief.

Fortunately, wireless connections meant never having to be silent. “I know you’re refining the wide-area sensor network. What are Joe and Maddie up to?”

“Surveying the ice around us for the flattest, hardest stuff we can get for the centrifuge,” Brett answered, interrupting A.J.’s attempt to reply. “I’ve pretty much got the design modeled and we’re fairly confident we can drive it whenever Munin’s down here to give the power. But we can’t make it terribly huge – just don’t have the resources – so it’s going to have to spin pretty fast and hard, and the last thing we need is it to come loose and start walking like a badly-balanced washing machine.”

“Well,” Joe said, his own image popping up on the other side of her VRD, “we’re going to try to counterbalance whenever someone’s in for a run. Not hard to put opposing mass in the other chamber, at least I’d hope not.” The blue-brown jagged mass of the nearby ridge showed in the background as he turned, holding some device pressed to the ice below him.

“No, not hard,” Brett conceded, “but not hard to forget, either. A.J., we’ll have to program in some failsafes.”

“Already thinking about it, along with all the other ‘leventy-dozen things on my plate. Not that you guys don’t have all that same amount of stuff to worry about either,” he added quickly. She couldn’t repress a small grin. Her darling A.J. was still learning how not to casually insult people.

“And always one more than we thought,” Maddie’s voice said. “For example, we completely neglected to realize how important it was to figure out some substitute for gravity because we were so busy, and then it was two months gone by. Dr. Masters – Petra – reports that even the short burn to make Europa escape almost completely exhausted our crew. So now we work on the centrifuge and slow down other work.”

“Well, it’s not like we can really take the nozzle off right away,” Joe said. “Until Odin is in a lot better shape, we won’t even be able to install it. So that job has to wait. And… hold on…” he stopped, adjusted the device – a sort of geosounder, she thought – and put it down again. “And a lot of the work needs more people. Who’re doing stuff on Odin.”

“Is… is this going to affect our timetable?” Helen didn’t want to sound afraid, and she wasn’t, exactly… but there were some completely immovable limits, most especially food, on their survival, which meant that anything that significantly delayed them was eating – literally – into their time margin.

“Some,” Madeline answered cheerily, “but not terribly much. Don’t worry, Helen. We’ve got a lot of contingency plans. We’ll get home one way or another, I promise you.”

“Thanks, Maddie.”

She glanced back at the screen. Now there was additional darkening in the center screen. Wonderful. A thicker layer? Visibility is almost down to one centimeter. “A.J., what do we do if I get to a patch that I can’t even see a centimeter in? That’s about one minute of decision time.”

“Hm. Well, keep an eye on it is what I’d say. A minute is actually a long time, but much less than that and you might not have time to study what you’re seeing and make a decision.”

“All right.”

The colors were not uniform either, but were often swirled through, like water with multicolored drops of dye added and then suddenly frozen. In the direct forward, or downward, view, the dark patch was becoming darker still.

Odd. The video processor is still claiming visibility slightly over a centimeter. No drop.

Most darker layers were a wispy swirl in basic shape – supporting the thought that they were frozen traces of various currents or specific processes. But this deep-brown phantom looked more defined, almost… almost oval…

And suddenly she was shouting “STOP!” and hammering the emergency cutoff, hitting it half a dozen times before it registered that Athena had already complied with her signal, had stopped instantly.

“What? What is it? Helen, answer me!” A.J.’s voice was concerned, worried.

She was speechless, staring at the screen in front of her; she was barely able to activate the feed for the others.

“What is… Holy shit.”

“Oh. My. God,” Maddie said reverently, after a momentary pause.

For there, half a centimeter below the visible level surface of Europa’s ice, was a small object.

An object that looked something like an oval shoehorn.

Just like the one Jackie brought me fifteen years ago…