Portal – Chapter 24

Chapter 24.

“Careful!” Joe said reflexively as the huge assembly wobbled.

“Sorry,” Horst said from the other side. “It is not easy, moving this thing while keeping it steady. Not exactly the best-balanced object we’ve moved.”

     He couldn’t argue that. Nebula Storm’s rocket nozzle, once meant as a replacement for Nobel’s in case of damage, was a massive, bell-shaped assembly that looked deceptively simple from the outside. However, there were complex channels built into the bell to keep it cooled below critical temperatures, control and sensor runs, and other components embedded inside. The nozzle was essentially symmetrical radially, but much heavier towards the narrow end, and they didn’t have any transport vehicle to move something nearly that big; it was nearly as far across as one of the smaller inflated hab units, and twice as tall.

So they were having to essentially drag it to the Munin’s bay with improvised rails and rollers. “I feel like an Egyptian pyramid slave.” A.J. said, pushing with what feeble leverage Europa allowed.

“Actually,” Maddie said from her vantage point ahead, “the Egyptians didn’t use slaves for the Pyramids, at least for the most part. They were public works projects constructed by regular, paid workers, something like the large construction projects in the 1930s.”

“Really?” A.J. sounded startled. “I didn’t know that.”

“I’d say I was surprised,” said Madeline, “but alas, A.J., I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that your education has… interesting gaps.”

“Everyone has ‘interesting gaps’ from someone’s point of view,” A.J. retorted, but his defensive tone, Joe was pleased to note, was much less strident than it used to be.

“The only ‘gap’ I’m interested in is whether this thing’s going to fit in the landing bay. I know the measurements say it should, but this nozzle seems bigger every time I look at it,” Jackie muttered; the low-voiced comment was still picked up and transmitted by her helmet microphone.

“It will fit,” Joe assured her confidently. “Now that we got Deep Thoat out of the bay. Wouldn’t have before.”

“Stop calling it that! It’s the Zarathustra. You’re sure the connectors will mate up?” Jackie continued. “On Odin, I mean. I know I’ve asked before, but…”


A couple of seconds later, Brett Tamahori answered. “I’ll guarantee it. I compared the as-built adapters with the designs, and then with the actual connectors on your nozzle, using A.J.’s high-res models made from the actual thing. It’s all well within tolerances.”

Brett rarely made such sweepingly confident pronouncements – anyone doing models knew how the real world could trip you up – so just hearing him state things so clearly with no “weaseling” made Joe and, he guessed, the others feel a long more comfortable.

“All right, everyone,” said Maddie, having moved two of the rails slightly. “Another shot… one, two…”

On “three” Joe threw his strength into pushing, as did the others around the rocket nozzle. This time it slid smoothly forward several meters, and Joe nearly lost his footing trying to keep up; his leg gave a twinge, but that didn’t really bother him; the fact he COULD push was proof enough that he was pretty much healed. “Whoa, slow down! Damn, this really-low-gravity thing is a pain.”

“Tell me about it,” said A.J. dryly. Joe saw that his friend was skidding slowly across the ice; as he watched, A.J. hit one of the ripples in the surface and was launched on a slow-motion arc into the nonexistent air. The sensor expert took advantage of his position to rotate his body and landed in a better position to slow himself down. A few moments later he was slowly bounding-walking his way back. The chuckles at his predicament had mostly died down by then.

“How long will it take to get the nozzle fastened on and working?” Helen asked.

“Well,” Jackie answered after a speed-of-light pause, “just putting it on will take a couple of days since that’s regular spacewalk work. Once it’s on we’re going to do a lot of very carefully calculated tests to ramp us up to full functionality… figure a couple of weeks. No reason to rush and every reason to take it slow when this is the only nozzle we’ve got left.”

“How about the Nebula Storm coupling setup?”

“Still working on that, and it probably won’t get finished until after we’ve verified the nozzle working.”

“Once that is done,” Hohenheim said, joining the conversation, “we will need one more load of water, if your prior calculations are correct, and then Odin will move to orbit around Europa. After that, we will finish filling Odin’s tanks as much as possible before preparing for the final maneuver which will bring Nebula Storm back to space and bring Munin home at last.” Joe could hear the smile in General Hohenheim’s voice, and felt it on his face as well as Hohenheim spoke so matter-of-factly about the final steps in their bootstrap-based rescue. “With Athena continuing to run well, we now have no reason to fear any other immediate disasters. Have you selected the crew for Zarathustra’s exploration of the interior?”

“We have,” Maddie answered, gesturing for another, more careful, push that moved the nozzle forward about one meter. “Either Larry or Anthony was an obvious first choice, and they elected to choose which by a random method, which Larry won.

“As we have also already found one layer with extremely interesting xenopaleontological significance, Dr. Helen Sutter was also an obvious choice. That covers the obvious scientific members of this expedition. With two other slots available, as we had agreed on four people, no more, I felt that I was one of the other obvious choices. Not to sound full of myself –”

“– but you’d have every reason to be,” A.J. interrupted. “You’re our best all-around everything, really, and if you run into anything you don’t expect down there, well, you’re the one who’s going to deal with it better than anyone else.”

Joe could hear that Maddie was pleased with the compliment. “Thank you, A.J., and that’s my basic thinking.”

“And your last crewmember?”

“That’d be me, General,” Joe said. “There should be at least one engineer with them, I know Deep… er, Zarathustra better than anyone else except maybe Mia, and Mia’s supervising all the work on Odin.”

General Hohenheim gave a grunt of assent. “That all sounds quite sensible. Have you found the precise access location?”

“Kwai Chang located the thin crust area yesterday,” A.J. said, while pushing. “At its thinnest it’s no more than half a meter thick. Maddie’s already calculated the charge points and from the one side of the hole I think we’ll have a drop of no more than two or three meters, which Zarathustra will handle just fine in this gravity. After that it should be all clear. If we run into an obstacle we can’t clear, well, okay, that’s that, but Jiminy didn’t find anything when I sent him through before.”

“Very good. Then once Munin has safely brought the drive nozzle here, I would expect you shall begin this exploration?”

“That is indeed the plan, General.”

Joe had to admit, as he saw the nozzle slide a few meters nearer Munin – now only about thirty meters away – that he was excited by this prospect. Oh, sure, it was just an icy tunnel, really, but he’d be descending into a moon. And there might be more exciting finds; Helen had uncovered at least six pieces of something Bemmie-like, and other as-yet unidentified fragments of something that might be animal, plant, or something else. He remembered those long-ago times on Earth, driving or walking along weathering cliffs and arroyos, trying to spot something just a tiny bit different that might mean a fossil. And we just might be doing the same thing here, six hundred million kilometers from Earth!