Portal – Chapter 22

Chapter 22.

“Holy shit!” A.J. did not apologize for the curse.

At nearly the same instant, Joe Buckley said, “God damn it!”, followed by “Ow ow OW!”

     “I see yellow and red on your telltales, Joe!” Petra said, having obviously switched in her medical monitors. “Talk to me!”

“Goddamn… stupid… universe…” they heard Joe mutter. “Got a hole punched through the suit.”

“Through the carbonan?” A.J. said incredulously, jamming his way into his suit as fast as he could.

“Yeah, right through. My guess, something like one of the support fasteners on the rig snapped… god DAMN that hurts… shot out like a bullet…”

“Joe!” Maddie’s voice did not have its professional calm, and A.J. was struck again by the sheer intensity of her attachment to his old friend. Not that Joe doesn’t deserve her, or her him, but she’s usually so controlled. “How’s the air?”

“Leaking like a sonofa… but it’s through the leg, not chest. My other leg, so I guess I’ll have matching scars.” Joe was referring to the lovely scars he had from the one leg being severely fractured to the point of bone poking through the skin after his crash on Mars. “Got a… temp patch in my pouch. Think I can get that on, and I’m heading into Munin right now.”

“Dr. Masters?”

“Mr. Buckley’s going into mild shock but still functional,” the Kentish voice replied calmly, “and I’m seeing no indications yet that a major artery has been severed. I am on my way over, but I think that Mr. Buckley has once more, shall we say, dodged the bullet.”

A.J. heard his sigh of relief echoed by the others as he bounced his way toward Nebula Storm.

Reaching the IRI spaceship, he dove through the airlock and was still stripping off his suit as he reached the control console, where Larry was staring at the panel, not even touching it for fear of making things worse. “What happened?”

“I don’t know! Don’t look at me, I didn’t touch anything I haven’t touched a billion times before.”

“A.J., what’s wrong? Is Athena –”

“Don’t know yet, give me a few seconds.” He brought up screens and telltales, connected his own displays and sensors. “Okay, everyone quiet down, and nobody go anywhere near the rig until we get a handle on what’s happening.”

“Understood,” came Madeline’s now-calm voice. “It’s your call now, A.J.; we’re on standby.”

Normally, A.J. loved being the center of attention and having everyone hang on his words, but this was different. He might be telling them they were totally screwed, which was not at all the dramatic effect he wanted. A completely unfamiliar sickening tension knotted his gut as he tried to make sense of the sequence of events. Support gantries crumpled under a downward force. Only thing that could have done that would be Athena, but how…

Some of the connections in the control cable were misaligned, possible breaks in the fiber, or something else – he couldn’t be sure. Not getting full telemetry back… but the melt part’s shut itself down, did that according to timestamp just seconds before impact. So not from damage or even a jolt, but from…

“Well, that is interesting. I hope.”

“A.J. –” There was a warning note in Helen’s voice.

“Hold on, hold on, let me finish this.” He keyed in overrides, activated the lights for a moment. A jumbled, confused image, lines and curves blurred at distance, appeared. And the cable monitors… “Whoa. Better check the gantry feed… Oh, damn, it’s twisted half around. No way to get it loose right now. Argh!”

“What’ve we got, A.J.?” Joe asked finally.

“Not quite sure yet, but I think I know… Ha! Yes, I can check.” He reviewed the telemetry from the scattered sensors around the bore from the time just before the event to some time after. “Okay, I’ve figured it out. It’s not good, but it’s not a complete disaster, at least not yet.” A.J. opened up the communications links to full. “Let’s go to full conference mode, people, and I’ll fill you in.”

It only took a few seconds for the images of his friends and colleagues to fill the display as though they were all sitting around a conference table; even Joe was there, helmet off, looking pale and somewhat sweaty but with Petra Masters next to him. “Okay, the short version is that Athena just broke through the crust, but instead of dropping – as we expected – into water, she fell into a void under the ice. A pretty big one, too – haven’t been able to measure it, but it’s at least ten meters high where Athena went through.”

“How do you know that?” asked Larry.

“Simple; that’s how much slack Athena took when she dropped. Which meant she fell for more than seven seconds and was doing about thirty or so kilometers an hour when the cable caught her. That was the stress that yoinked the whole support gantry down – like trying to stop a medium-sized car with one pull.” He sighed. “One more thing that didn’t quite go right – there were cable arrestor brakes that failed to kick in right away. I can think of a couple reasons but that doesn’t matter right now.”

“No, it doesn’t, not really,” agreed Madeline. “How do you know it didn’t drop through the crust into the subsurface ocean we’ve been expecting?”

“Two ways. Indirectly, it’s too soon, we’re not quite 400 meters down, and I really don’t think there’s water closer than a kilometer. More, though, the melter section shut down on its own because it was overheating. If it dropped into water it’d be cooled just fine by the water, though the boiling might cause other problems. But instead it was out radiating its heat in empty space instead of into ice. I confirmed that by checking the borehole sensors; a small but measurable wash of mostly water vapor came up the bore after she dropped through, from presumably really slow sublimation or maybe warmer ice farther down.”

“Where the hell would such a void come from?” asked Dan.

“I am perhaps not entirely sure,” Anthony said, “but I would be thinking it might be a result of the impact structure. If the crust came back together unevenly…”

“That’s an idea,” Larry said slowly. “It’d keep closing up, eventually erasing everything, but might take many thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years to fill in all the empty spots. The pressure’s not going to be anything like that on Earth – even a kilometer down is only equivalent to about, oh, a hundred thirty meters on Earth. You get plastic flow at about fifty meters in glaciers… but at these temperatures, ice is a LOT harder. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pressure a kilometer down is just barely into plastic flow at all on Europa.”

“I guess that’s an interesting theory, but it’s not getting our problem solved, people. So now what?” Brett asked from the Odin.

“Now we’ve got some tricky work,” Joe answered, having been examining A.J.’s data, obviously distracting himself from whatever Petra was doing to his leg. “The gantry sections got twisted and they’ve pinched the cable hard. We’ll need to keep the cable anchored so she can’t drop farther, then work Athena free, repair the gantry, and see if we can get the thing working enough to get her back topside and see what damage has been done. Ow! Watch it!”

“I’ve used anaesthetic, Mr. Buckley, it can’t really be hurting, and would you rather I left whatever this is in there?”

“Well it still feels… wrong, even if pain isn’t exactly the right word. But no, sorry, go on. Um, where was I? Oh, yeah. I’m betting that some of the dropout we’re seeing on the data feed comes from the pinch, but some of it’s almost certainly right near Athena, probably near where the cable attaches. Hopefully we can control her well enough to melt any impediments along the way back up.” Joe cursed again.

Oh, that’s not good. Unless that’s just another thing Petra’s poking at. “What do you see, Joe?”

“Water feed tube snapped. At the top.”

“Oh, son of a… it’s going to be freezing solid all the way down. Hundreds of frickin’ meters of ice-filled piping.”

“Yep. We’ll have to bring it all up and thaw it out, patch it, and then send it back down when Athena is repaired and ready to start up again.” Joe shook his head. “At least it is open at the one end, so hopefully the ice will all push its way up and out rather than busting the pipe longitudinally.”

“How long?” Madeline asked calmly. It was, of course, one of the crucial questions.

“Can’t be sure yet,” A.J. answered reluctantly; he preferred to be certain, but there was no way to tell yet. “Depends on how bad the damage is. I don’t think that Athena actually has any crucial damage anywhere, and we’ve got enough feed to show that the I/O is working. So if we can get her back upstairs I think we’ll be in good shape. Brett, can you –”

“Already on it, m’man.” There was a pause. “Fixing the gantry support structure won’t take long with the right tools. Which you now have, thanks to the runs we’ve already managed from Odin. But until that’s fixed you won’t have the gantry for support, and you don’t want to leave Athena hanging if you can avoid it. I’d recommend doing a manual lift back to solid tunnel, if you can do it.”

“And,” A.J. pointed out, “if we can get Athena running enough to start travelling up.”

“There is that,” Brett conceded.

“A.J., give me direct feed from Athena, as much as you have,” said Mia.

“Sure thing… here you go.”

Mia Svensen knew more about Athena than any of the others, A.J. knew. She was hopefully going to be able to do a better job diagnosing the melt-probe than he would.

A few minutes later, Mia’s voice came back, noticeably more cheerful. “I do not think anything crucial is broken. It may take some minor trickery to get her to work under the current circumstances, but trickery is your business, yes?”

“I prefer the term wizardry, but close enough,” A.J. said, feeling the knot in his gut slowly relaxing. It wasn’t entirely gone – there were a lot more potential problems – but so far it didn’t seem like doom. “Maddie, if you want a wild-assed guess, I’m thinking this will take about two weeks to straighten out. A month at the outside, assuming we don’t find out that Mia’s wrong and Athena herself is broken. That’s the only thing we really can’t fix – don’t have the tools for most of what makes the key parts work.”

“Even a month we can afford.” They could all hear both relief and reassurance in her tones. “Once we get Athena and the gantry pieces clear, I would also like to send one of the Locusts down to see what’s in that void. Would that be reasonable?”

“If Helen’s willing to –”

“Of course I am,” his favorite voice in the world cut in. “I’ve got a fair amount to work on by myself, so you’re welcome to stop my digging to look at something new, at least for a while.”

“Then in that case, since my talented and lovely wife has no objections, sure, I’d love to. Find out how big it is and how far it goes.” He grinned. “Back to my original job, really, the same one that got us all here in the first place, so to speak.”

“I suppose so,” Maddie agreed with a quick smile. “All right, people, it looks like we’ve all got some real work to do. General, I’m sorry –”

“Do not apologize,” the General said, having kept quite respectfully silent as the others handled the immediate disaster. “Let us instead consider this an opportunity; you now have another pair of hands available to assist.”

“And one hell of a pair of hands it is, sir. We’ll get started now,” A.J. said, “but you don’t have to come out yet, General. Really, enjoy yourself for a few hours.” He looked at the damage report and the estimates of time and operations to be performed now coming in from Brett’s simulations, and winced. “I can promise you,” he continued wryly, “there’ll be no shortage of work for you to do later!”