Portal – Chapter 17

Chapter 17.

“Well, I’ve got good news and bad news,” A.J. said to the others, studying the images in front of him.

“What is it? Can’t you get Athena restarted?” Madeline, currently taking a break from outside work, was up beside him almost instantly – not surprising, he knew, since Athena was one of their most crucial pieces of equipment.

     “Oh, I can, but I can’t do it here. Now that I’ve got her down to her prior level, I find I’m going to have to haul Athena all the way back up the bore, move her over quite a distance – probably as far as we can practically manage it – and start her up again. Which means that until we get that done, we don’t even have her supplemental power running some of the systems, so we’re totally on batteries now.”

“Hm. I’m presuming that’s the bad news, A.J., so I’m also assuming there’s good news somehow involved in this move?”

“Yes, though it’s mostly for the beautiful and talented Helen Sutter-Baker.”

“There’s more?” He felt a grin spreading involuntarily across his face at hearing the excited joy in Helen’s voice.

“Lots more, near as I can tell. I used the instruments on Athena to do some quick near-range sensing and there’s a whole bunch of material scattered in a layer about, oh, a meter thick maybe, stretching out some distance from the bore. How far a distance I can’t tell, and if we’re still here when Athena reaches that level again we’ll probably have to let her keep going rather than keep relocating her, even if there’s even more stuff in her new position.”

“My god. Let me see! Come on, A.J.!”

“Why,” Madeline asked, as he transmitted the preliminary data to Helen to digest, “didn’t you notice this before you sent Athena back down? Couldn’t the Locusts have sensed it?”

He felt his cheeks go uncomfortably hot. “I… didn’t think of it. She wanted me to retrieve it, so I sent the Locust down, had it get the fossil, then ran Athena back down as fast as I could so we got the water flowing again… and then of course this happens.”

“Understandable,” Madeline Fathom said, but her tone carried an unspoken “but I expected better from you” that made him wince. She continued, “A.J., can we afford that move? Sorry, Helen, but we are talking about survival-oriented equipment and limitations here, and we’ve already been without Athena’s water and significant auxiliary power generation for quite a bit already.”

“But –” A.J. could hear Helen stop herself with an effort, take a breath. “I understand.”

“Well… we’ve already set Athena up once successfully. We’ve seen the little snags that we need to watch out for and how to start her. There’s enough power reserves so we’ve got plenty of time to do this. My only real concern is backing her up that far; we’ve already seen on this run backwards that the tunnel doesn’t stay perfectly suited to her, so she’s going to have to do backwards melt too. She’s designed for it, of course, but then she was also designed to deal with rocks and stuff herself, and we know how well THOSE gadgets are working. It went pretty smoothly this time, but every time I shift her gears I’m afraid something’s going to go wrong. I’m still wondering if it’s something in Athena, or one of our systems, that’s causing those occasional readings of water vapor in miniscule amounts.”

“Hmm.” The deceptively delicate blonde rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Taking the other tactic, can you and Helen – with your Locusts, naturally – actually make some significant additional scientific progress down there? Without Athena you’ll have no way to get to the other specimens, would you?”

A.J. shook his head. “Not true. The Locusts can drill, bore, or even melt their way through obstacles. Just not hundreds of feet of obstacle, like Athena. Remember that when I designed them, the idea was that we might have to use them to explore and even extensively sift through remains of a base, as well as having them do heavier lifting type work or fast surface searches. They’ve got a lot of versatility, and since we patched together all our solar cells into a really large array, I’ve got independent power to keep them charged in rotation. So Helen will have her metallic grad students to do the gruntwork under her direction, and it shouldn’t – I hope – cost us much except the time to re-set. And of course we’d have to be willing to let Helen have the time to run it and study stuff.”

“Hold on,” Joe’s voice came. “I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade here, but I’d like to point out that I’m not sure the whole idea makes sense. If there’s a whole layer out there, you’re still going to have to drill through it the next time, and as you point out, every time we do something with Athena other than keep her running, we don’t know whether one of those unknown glitches is going to get us in the nether regions.”

A.J. could just hear a strangled sound, something like a cross between a whine and a grunt, which undoubtedly came from Helen desperately restraining her impulse to argue. He winced with sympathy for her; this was a technical and survival issue and she knew that would trump anything she had to present directly, but this was still her profession. As Madeline began to speak, he sent her a quick hug-and-heart icon. I love you.

“I can’t argue the basic concern, Joe. I share it. On the other hand, it was my idea to emphasize that we do some science while we’re here, and that was really the purpose of Athena as well. Helen, I know you want to say something; do you have anything that might have a bearing on the argument?”

He heard his wife take a deep breath. “Yes, I do, actually. First – as you say, it was your idea that we do science while we’re here, and this is, in fact, the only science I’m really qualified for.

“Second, we have no idea what the extent of the layer is. It could be that it’s just a very small preserved pocket, say the remains of a small ship, or a warm-ice bubble that sort of petered-out most of the way to the surface ages ago.” A.J. could tell she’d been studying some of the ice-geology associated with models of Europa; he hadn’t even known about the idea of warm ice somehow moving up through cold ice before they got here, and even now the idea seemed pretty strange. “Third, if we just keep going, without relocating, I don’t get to study any of it because there isn’t room for me to do so behind Athena. So if we’re going to study any of this at all, why not pull up Athena, move her as far as we practically can, and then not only do I get something to work on, but we get another sample point giving us a starting idea of the size of this layer?”

“Well,” Maddie said after a moment, “Those are reasonable points. A.J., how long should it take for you to get Athena back to the surface and ready for relocation?

A.J. thought for a moment. Let’s see… The probe’s got a couple hundred meters to go. I could just try to winch it up as fast as possible, but I’m sure there’s places the ice has deformed, especially with the pretty-much-constant quakes, so I should probably have it do the climb itself in active mode. It got jammed three times when I tried the fast winch last time, and that wasted hours. Climbing up in active mode’s a lot faster than full-bore ice melting but still not fast, about a meter a minute. Assume it doesn’t run into anything that actually makes it stuck, which it shouldn’t, that’s a little less than four hours. Then I have to shut the reactor down, make sure it’s cool, lock her into transport mode… “Say, maybe six hours?”

“And if we move it as far as we can, set up, and begin drilling… that’s going to be at least that long, I’d think,” Maddie continued, thinking out loud. “So we’re talking basically two work days for you and one work day for several of the rest of us doing the setup.”

“That shouldn’t be a big deal, should it?” Brett asked sensibly from nearby. “We’ve made progress reworking the pieces of Nebula Storm we could repair as she lies, you’ve surveyed a good place for the centrifuge, and my modeling work’s almost done. Until Horst and the others get back with Munin, there’s not that terribly much for us to do other than basic maintenance and such.”

“Hm.” Madeline stared into apparent space, consulting some things on her own VRD, and then nodded. “I agree. We have the resources currently, if an emergency presents we should still be able to survive until Munin can make it, and – as I had said myself – we’re supposed to try to be doing science while we’re here. A.J., get it going.”

“Yes, ma’am!”