Portal – Chapter 23

Chapter 23.

Madeline checked the integrity of the support structure member again. We don’t want a repeat of the last time, that is for certain.

The new gantry was being heavily reinforced. While they didn’t expect to have this problem again, especially with a new set of modified automated brakes in place that Brett and Joe had designed and tested, no one saw any point in taking chances. Athena’s new supports would hold even if the probe fell a good thirty meters instead of ten.

     “This one’s good,” she reported. “I’ll finish checking the last two; if they pass, we’re good for re-assembly when everything else is. Joe, how are you doing?”

That was a double question; given how many times her husband had been the receiving end of near-lethal accidents, she couldn’t help but worry, but he was also working on other aspects of getting Athena back up.

“Me personally, the leg aches like a bastard today, but Dr. Masters says there’s every indication of fast healing working, and I don’t need to baby it any more, so that’s good; hole like that could’ve taken a lot longer to get better than a week or two.” His smile lit up a corner of her display and she felt immediately less tense. “I’ve just finished re-attaching Athena’s main control cables, and everything checks out. Mia’s working on part of the linkage for Odin but she’s going to run Athena through a full workup in a couple hours. Unless she finds anything wonky, we should be good to start redeploy soon.”

“What about the piping?”

“Making progress,” Larry replied promptly. “We’ve cleared a hundred and forty-six meters of the stuff so far, clean-cut the one end in prep for splicing, and as we clear it we’re stowing it neatly indoors to keep it as flexible as possible.”

“Good work. At that rate we should have it clear by, what, this time tomorrow?”

“Think so.”

“A.J., what have we got? I gave you the day you asked for after getting Athena out and doing the major repairs.”

“It’s … big. Really big.” A.J.’s voice held both the irrational yet common pride of a discoverer in the thing that he’s discovered, and unwilling awe. “It’s a pretty smooth tunnel that’s triangular in general cross-section. Near as I can tell, with some input from Larry, Anthony, and some of our brains way back home at the IRI, the impact theory has to be the explanation. Looks like what we have are three huge chunks of ice that clumped on top of each other, leaving this void – which was probably even bigger back then – and then they froze up in this position. Incline’s only a few degrees, but the path got broken up, probably by crustal movements – some of those look like they’re almost circular, dunno how that would work –”

“Heated ice and convection currents, maybe,” Larry put in. “Different states of ice might interact in funny ways.”

“Maybe. Anyway, the path turns out to be sort of like a half-spiral made from long straight sticks laid together at angles, and it goes a long way down. I’m still getting trace water vapor coming up from the lower reaches, which makes me wonder if this thing actually gets down near the ocean itself.

“But you want the kicker?”

Ah, A.J., you and your sense of drama. But you wouldn’t be you without it. “Of course we do. What’s your big secret, A.J.?”

“The last part of the half-spiral almost reaches the surface only about a kilometer over that way,” he caused an arrow to materialize on the display, overlaying a map of the crash site. “And it’s got a crust so thin on it that you could break through with a few charges.”

She blinked, realizing what he was saying. “A.J., do you mean to say that we can get into that tunnel?”

“Not just us. I said, this thing’s big, easily large enough for that rover that Munin has on board.”

“Mr. Baker,” came the deep tones of General Hohenheim, “are you suggesting that some of us might actually drive into the interior of Europa?”

“And call yourself Arne Saknussemm! Why not, General? As Maddie said, we’re here to do science as well, and exploring the interior of another world rather than just looking at whatever’s exposed as we drill through it, that should be useful, I’d think.” He grinned. “Besides, it’d be kinda neat to think that we’d actually get to use that rover for what it was meant for, rather than looking at it as a potential emergency refuge or extra reactor or source of spare parts.”

“I thought you had cannibalized part of the rover,” Dan said from the Odin.

“We almost did, yeah, but turned out not to need to. LGT-1 is still fully operational, or should be once we prep her.”

“I certainly won’t say the idea’s ridiculous,” Madeline said cautiously. “We have the tools, the rover was meant for exploring low-gravity worlds, and while we have work to do there will also be significant down-time once Athena is back in business. A.J., you said the slope was reasonably gentle – that means quite a jaunt. If we assume that it goes to the subsurface ocean, and the minimum distance below us for that ocean is a kilometer, the total length of your path will be several tens of kilometers, am I right?”

“That’s right. I think it’s averaging about three degrees, which is pretty gentle for this kind of setting, and would mean that if it’s a kilometer down you’ve got about thirty, thirty-five kilometers of tunnel to drive down.”

“I wouldn’t mind taking a look-see,” Larry said slowly, “But what about the quakes?”

A.J.’s image shrugged. “Well, yeah, that’s a danger, but look at it this way; near as we can tell this thing’s stayed open for several thousand years, it probably isn’t going to collapse on you guys in the next month.”

“I still don’t like the thought of the possibility,” Madeline said firmly. “What if it did happen?”

“Well… we’d lose the rover, probably.”

“Just the rover?”

“He’s right,” Joe said. “Unless the whole thing came down and just crushed them – and in this gravity I wouldn’t bet against the rover being able to keep itself reasonably intact, at least for a while – the worst that’s likely to happen is that the way back gets blocked off.”

She raised an eyebrow at Joe’s image. “That sounds rather grim to me, given that it would be an airless, frozen passage with no replacement air or food. Water I’ll give you.”

“Oh! Oh! I know the answer to this one!” Jackie’s voice cut in. “Athena.”

“My thoughts exactly,” A.J. agreed. “As long as the rover’s got reasonable supplies on board, all we need to do is reposition Athena over the tunnel near where the rover’s stuck and melt down, then bring up everyone through the borehole. Athena’s borehole won’t let the rover come up, but it’s more than wide enough for a person. And we already have multiple tests and proof that she can cut fast and reliably through ice of whatever depth we’ve sent her to.”

“What do you think, General?” Madeline said finally. “It is your equipment, after all.”

He chuckled. “Agent Fathom, here we are a good socialist collective and we have contributed what we have to the common cause.” He looked thoughtful. “Once Athena is clearly working again there will have to be several trips to Odin to supply reaction mass, and all of us appear to be approaching completion in the basic survival and preparation tasks. There will be much more, as you say, down-time. So perhaps it should be literal down time for some of us?”

She heard A.J. snort at the General’s pun. “If you’re comfortable with it, I have no problem,” she said.

“Comfortable… perhaps not. There are many dangers. But we did not come these hundreds of millions of kilometers to be comfortable or safe, but to learn, and we have the equipment and the personnel to do the job.”

“Thank you, General. Joe, you helped direct similar operations back on Mars when we got Thoat running, so I’ll put you in charge of setting this operation up as well, once the other essential work’s completed.”

“Great! We’ll figure out who to send when the time comes, I guess.”

She nodded. “Some choices are obvious. I’m thinking no more than four people, though.”

“Mmm-hm.” Joe sounded slightly distracted, so she didn’t say any more; he might be working on auxiliary components of Athena.

Midway through checking the next support, she heard a triumphant Ha! from Joe. “Something good? Athena running?”

“Hm? Oh, I wasn’t working on her. Just trying to figure something out, and I got it perfect.”

She smiled fondly. “And what was that?”

“Well, LGT-1 isn’t much of a name, so if I’m going to be getting her ready to roll, she needed a name, and given what we’re doing with her, it became obvious.”

A terrible foreboding stole over her, but she couldn’t stop the question from slipping out. “And the name is…?”

“Deep Thoat, of course.”

Divorce is always an option, she reminded herself as she heard A.J. dissolve into juvenile snickers. Always an option.