Portal – Chapters 01 & 02



Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor

Recovery, N:

1. the act or process of returning to a normal condition, especially from sickness, a shock, or a setback; recuperation

2. restoration to a former or better condition

3. the regaining of something lost

4. the extraction of something useful from materials or a situation which is otherwise useless or poor

Chapter 1

I still have no answers.

That was the thing that kept him here now in an office lit mostly by the ruddy glow of Mars swinging regularly by. Nicholas Glendale was used to having answers, to knowing what he wanted to do and how to achieve it. By the time he’d been five, he’d known he wanted to be a paleontologist, and he’d succeeded – beyond his expectations, even.

Then when one of his best students, Helen Sutter, had discovered something impossible and the impossible had turned out to be true – a fossil of an alien creature whose species had built bases across the Solar System in the days of the dinosaurs – he had wanted to become a part of that, follow the dream into space. And he’d succeeded in that, too, and again beyond his wildest dreams.

But now that brilliant student, and her friends – his friends as well – now all of them were gone, and a hundred other people with them. The faces refused to leave, the crew of the half-alien vessel Nebula Storm kept coming and going like phantoms in his mind: Helen, with her blond hair tied back, looking at a dessicated Bemmius Secordii mummy sixty-five million years old; A.J. Baker, irreverent and irrepressible sensor expert whose blond hair, cocky smile, and not-too-well hidden vulnerability had eventually led to his marriage to Helen; dark-haired, dark-skinned Jackie Secord, who’d found the first trace of Bemmie on her family’s ranch and later become a rocket engineer for the first manned interplanetary vessel, Nike; Joe Buckley, brown hair above a face whose lines showed patience and acceptance of whatever the universe threw at him – good or bad. Madeline Fathom, golden-blonde, delicately built, the single most dangerous – and most reliable – person Nicholas had ever met, one-time agent for the least-known American intelligence agency, later Nicholas’ own right hand and married to Joe; Larry Conley, tall and always somehow stooped over as though to apologize for his height, slow-talking but with encyclopedic knowledge of astrophysics.

But Nebula Storm was lost with its crew, as were over a hundred others on the ship she had been pursuing, the immense mass-beam drive vessel Odin, both vessels lost with all hands in what was in all likelihood an act of corporate greed gone utterly insane, or – possibly – a terrible accident triggered by misunderstanding.

And now he had to decide what to do. The others at Ares Corporation – Glenn Friedet, Reynolds Jones, and the rest of their Board – were waiting on his decision as “Director Nicholas Glendale of the Interplanetary Research Institute of the United Nations”.

He snorted at the pomposity of the title and stood angrily, the rotation of Phobos Station keeping him as firmly planted on the floor as if he’d been on Earth. Out of habit he began pacing again. If I keep this up, I’ll wear a hole in the exceedingly expensive imported carpet.

It had all started so simply – as most disasters do. With the discovery of the first two alien bases, one on Mars and one on Mars’ moon Phobos, it had become a virtual certainty that there must be other alien installations, possibly with incalculably valuable artifacts within, waiting for salvage elsewhere in the Solar System. The Buckley Accords gave the first discoverer to, literally, set foot on any other system body long-term rights to exploit resources on that body, within a certain range of that first footstep. That was the starter’s gun on the greatest race in history – a race to discover these new locations and reach them first, claiming those resources for the country – or the corporation – that first placed a human being upon the planet, moon, or asteroid on which the alien base was located.

Larry Conley had made it three-for-three discoveries for the Ares Corporation; his co-worker, A.J. Baker, had made the first earthshaking discovery within Phobos, and later found the pieces of the puzzle that led to a huge installation in Mars’ Melas Chasma region, and now Larry had found unmistakable clues indicating that the minor planet or giant asteroid, Ceres, was the site of another alien base.

Keeping the discovery a secret, Ares and the Interplanetary Research Institute (usually just called the IRI) had prepared and finally launched an expedition to Ceres, locating and setting foot directly above the base – which turned out to be at least as extensive as the one on Mars.

And that, Nicholas thought sadly, was probably the last straw.

The European Union’s flagship vessel, the Odin, had visited Ceres and remained there for some months. Cooperation had seemed to have been established, and many wonderful results had come of it – ranging from the commercialization of room-temperature superconductors found on Phobos to the discovery of structures which might hold the key, finally, to successful commercial fusion, and a completely intact alien vessel whose drive system and purpose was a mystery.

But the Odin had a secret agenda, and within the mass of scientific data one of their people – astronomer Anthony LaPointe – found indications of another alien installation on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn known to have many strange characteristics indeed. Keeping their discovery secret, the Odin prepared for departure, even as a meteor impacted the IRI-Ares base and took out her main reactor.

Except that it hadn’t been a meteor, and A.J. Baker had been able to show that it was almost certainly a projectile from a coil gun, a magnetic acceleration cannon concealed – against all international and established space travel law – within the mass-driver elements of Odin. There was no proof of this, and neither the IRI nor Ares could afford to accuse the European Union of such things without ironclad evidence. The action showed that their worst fears had been true; the security officer of Odin, Richard Fitzgerald, was an old adversary of Madeline Fathom’s and was just as willing to use extreme methods to assure the completion of his mission.

Ares and the IRI had, in the meantime, discovered the principle behind the alien vessel’s drive system – something called a “dusty plasma” drive which acted like a solar sail combined with a magnetosail, requiring no physical “sail” to capture much of the sun’s incident energy to propel it – and using the most advanced nanotech sensor and effector motes had restructured the key elements to work again. For various reasons the Ares personnel decided to attempt to beat the Odin to the now-known base on Enceladus, and revived the sixty-five million year old vessel, launching it as the IRI vessel Nebula Storm.

The modified alien vessel had performed well and the Nebula Storm caught up with Odin near Jupiter, where both vessels were expected to perform an “Oberth Maneuver” to increase their speed and change their course to send them on a rendezvous with Saturn and Enceladus. The situation had been tense but Nicholas had felt that it was under control. Madeline’s terse but informative final report had indicated that they had preliminary evidence that the Odin was indeed armed with up to four coilgun-based cannons concealed as part of the main mass-beam drive system, and thus was virtually certainly the cause of the apparent meteor strike that had temporarily disabled the Ceres base and almost killed Joe Buckley.

She had also stated that they were going to be able to obtain proof during the Oberth maneuver. From the specific way the former secret agent phrased her report, he suspected they were planning some actions which he, as Director, would be better of not being aware of since he would be then required to advise against it, but he couldn’t be sure. Still, he trusted… had trusted… Madeline Fathom (Buckley) to take no unnecessary risks four hundred million miles from home.

And in the normal course of things, he still would have at least known what happened. While professional astronomical instruments, both land and space-based, had more important things to do, WASTA would have been focused on the most exciting space travel event in history. The World Amateur Space Telescope Array had been a project started shortly after Meru, the Indian space elevator, had become fully operational, to deploy an inexpensive array of optical telescopes which would be able to be synchronized and controlled from the ground for amateur astronomers to use. It had been an ambitious and ultimately surprisingly successful project, with its multiplicity of smaller aperture space telescopes sometimes nearly matching the performance of some of the professional telescope arrays.

Unfortunately, only minutes before Odin and Nebula Storm had passed out of sight around Jupiter, WASTA’s control system had crashed due to an adaptive virus infection which had taken a day and a half to eradicate, and another twelve hours had elapsed before the multiple elements of WASTA could be realigned properly; even a very small element of uncertainty in the positioning of the several dozen WASTA telescopes would eliminate their tremendous light-gathering capacity and resolution.

So instead of pictures of the ships down to less than a meter resolution – almost enough to read the Odin’s name on the hull – we lost them entirely for a few days. Odin’s a shattered hulk,front half severed from the rear and most of two of its drive spines shattered, and Nebula Storm… is nowhere to be seen.

Even radar had been misled, because whatever had happened, the two vessels had completely changed their courses. Instead of charging forward out of the Jovian system, both had for reasons unknown decelerated and emerged – or not emerged, he corrected himself, since Nebula Storm was nowhere to be seen – on utterly unexpected vectors. It had actually fallen to the Infra-Red Survey Telescope (IRST) to detect the wreckage of Odin and allow the others to home in on it and try to start making sense of the disaster.

As no trace of Nebula Storm had yet been found, the theory that made the most sense – a terrible sort of sense – was that she had for some reason slowed enough to drop orbit, scrape the atmosphere of Jupiter itself and be drawn ever closer until the friction melted even her alien hull and Jove pulled the remains down into the crushing blackness of its deadly atmosphere.

Nicholas shook his head and felt the ache not just in his head but in his joints, seeming buried in his bones. I’m getting too old for this, he thought.

It dawned on him with a faint chill that, in fact, he was getting old. I’m past seventy now. It’s been nearly fifteen years since Helen, Joe, and Jackie first dug up Bemmie. Ten years since I stood on Earth and watched Nike blaze its way out of orbit. Almost five years since we discovered a base on Ceres.

These days seventy wasn’t that old, true. When he was born – when personal computers were new and the web not yet worldwide – seventy was nearing the end of a man’s life. People lived longer now and the last great medical advances had pushed active, healthy lifestyles even farther, so that he was physically more as his father had been at forty or forty-five.

But right now he felt more like twice that.

He sat back down and called up the almost blank document which was supposed to be a press release – one he simply couldn’t put off much longer. Oh, there’d been a quick one expressing everyone’s shock and loss, with some hope that perhaps Nebula Storm would be located soon – but this was different. He would have to decide what direction he would take, both in public and behind closed doors, in placing – or not placing – blame for the disaster.

The European Union itself certainly wouldn’t have resorted to such tactics… but the European Space Development Corporation might have; according to Walter Keldering, who was still the United States’ representative here at Phobos Base, the ESDC’s Chief of Operations Osterhoudt had some rather dark-gray, not to say black, operations history.

“Not directly, of course,” Keldering had said, some weeks ago, “but he’s connected. We’re sure of it back at the Agency. And with the political pressure and having seen the benefits coming out of the discovered bases thus far… no, I wouldn’t put it past him.” He’d made a very expressive face. “And picking – rather forcefully – FITZGERALD for this? Sorry, Nick, but that pretty much screams ‘dirty tricks’.”

He’d appreciated Keldering’s honest input – the more so since he could get it now. The President who’d tried to screw Madeline over and, when Maddie foiled him by resigning and signing on with the IRI, sent out Keldering as a replacement was gone now, his final term marred by a completely home-grown scandal that put the opposite party in power. The new President was much more interested in cooperation, the more since he could then rely on others to do a lot of the work while he showed a focus on domestic issues. With those pressures gone, Agent Walter Keldering had become more an associate who simply had to be treated with respect and the same caution over proprietary information as any other, not a specifically-assigned spy.

He sighed again and started dictating. “The IRI apologizes for the delay in this announcement, but we have all been in a state of shock, and mourning, ever since we received the news that the Nebula Storm and the Odin had both been lost or suffered terrible damage, presumably resulting in the deaths of all aboard. We have lost friends and even family on those vessels, as have those in the European Union, and we extend our own sympathies to our brethren in the EU over this terrible accident…”

This was, naturally, the obvious and wisest course, to say nothing to anyone. Treat it as a terrible tragedy whose cause would likely never be known and perhaps arrange a true joint mission to Enceladus with the EU.

But he had to stop the dictation again, because the very idea made his gut rebel. They killed my friends. How can I allow anyone to get away with that?

He knew he couldn’t really live with himself if he did. That was the reason Madeline, Helen, A.J., Joe, and even Jackie and Larry had gone out on that half-mad venture, chasing down the Odin in a vessel sixty-five million years old: because that kind of action, that sort of robber-baron treachery, could not be tolerated, must not be tolerated in the greater reaches of the solar system.

But at the same time he couldn’t afford to lose the support of the European Union.

I really should have stayed a paleontologist. I had no trouble dealing with the petty politics there.

A light blinked on his desktop and he touched the icon. A message from Ceres. Encrypted.

Perhaps they’d found some evidence, at least. If he could prove what had happened on Ceres…

He was startled to find it was heavily encrypted. The standard decrypt key in the desktop wasn’t sufficient; it was demanding a personal one-time key and biometric verification. It must be something important.

The screen lit up and his heart seemed to stop for a moment.

Then it gave a great leap and he felt a laugh of joy and relief rising as the golden-haired (if somewhat bedraggled) woman on the screen smiled at him.

“Hello, Nicholas,” said Madeline Fathom. “I’m using the secure Ceres relay for this because I’m sure you’ll want to decide what to do – and what you want us to do – very much in private.

“A warm hello from all of us here on sunny Europa.”

Chapter 2

“Pull – gently, dammit, smoothly, don’t jerk!” A.J. couldn’t keep the tense exasperation from his voice as he barely reacted in time, commanding one of the three autonomous “Locust” drones, Hopper, to ease the tension on the all-too-vital cable.

“No need to snap,” Dan Ritter said mildly. The dark-haired former environmental systems tech for Odin spoke English with only a trace of his native Germanic accent.

“Sorry. But snap is exactly what we’ll get if we’re not careful. We’re crossing a hundred meters of ice frozen to minus one-seventy, and the cable’s dropped a LOT of flexibility.”

A.J. felt his hair sticking to his forehead, barely kept himself from trying – futilely – to wipe sweat away. That doesn’t work when you’re in a spacesuit.

He stood between two spaceships – the Nebula Storm, half-embedded in a huge ridge of ice that had stopped her final slide after Madeline Fathom had, impossibly, managed to land her on Europa – and the Munin, one of Odin’s two explorer/lander vehicles, which had joined them after Richard Fitzgerald’s ill-fated mutiny led to Nebula Storm’s main reactor being shut down and Odin being crippled and most of her crew dead. Six people on Nebula Storm, six on Munin; the only survivors of this whole disaster.

Of course, on his side that meant that Nebula Storm hadn’t lost anyone (yet), while the survivors of Odin had lost a hundred of their friends and colleagues.

“Run the sheath heaters again?” Joe asked over the radio.

So close now. Four meters, maybe five… but…”Yeah, you’d better. If we break this we may be totally screwed.” A.J. heard his voice shake slightly and realized that he was far from recovered from the tensions of the last few days. Running on a few hours sleep for days on end will do that to you, especially when you’re not twenty any more.

The cable he was helping string from Munin to Nebula Storm was, quite literally, the lifeline for the entire expedition. The superconducting coil batteries on Nebula Storm had been heavily drained for the landing – since her reactor was down – and the remaining energy was being quickly consumed by maintaining the dusty-plasma “Nebula Drive” over the two crashed vessels as a powerful radiation screen, diverting the thousands of rems of lethal radiation that screamed down onto Europa every day from Jupiter’s hellish magnetosphere.

Had Munin not been equipped originally as the lander and exploration beach-head for the expedition to Enceladus, they might have been out of luck already. Fortunately, that was its intended function, with last-ditch lifeboat a distant second, and that meant it had Athena on board. The independent nuclear-powered melt-probe was meant to penetrate the icy shell of Enceladus and reach the presumed Bemmie base beneath – and for that it had a lot of superconducting cable.

So it wasn’t, strictly speaking, the breaking of the cable that would be the problem; it was the fact that they didn’t have time to do this over before the Nebula Storm and her barely-visible pearlescent shield shut down and let invisible, deadly hellfire in again. If that happens, we’ll have to splice cable and try to manipulate it almost all by remote, and I really don’t know how well the Locusts will do in that kind of environment.

“Activating sheath heaters,” Mia Svendsen said cheerfully. She’s doing well, A.J. thought. Possibly because she’d become so sure she was going to die at Fitzgerald’s hands that she was still riding on relief. A.J. hoped she stayed that way, at any rate; they were going to need all the engineers they could get, and it was an incredible stroke of luck that they’d ended up with not one, not two, but three – four if you counted Eberhart, who was technically an engineer but focused more on computer software/hardware than the heavy gadget sort.

He set the cable down gingerly and waited; his suit’s imagers showed the progressive glow of infrared marching down the length of the cable with its embedded heaters, and his other sensors reported the slow but steady rise of its temperature. He chuckled slightly.

“What’s so funny, A.J.?” asked Helen.

“We’re busy trying to heat a superconducting cable above the temperature that we used to have to cool them down to just a few years ago, so that we won’t break the damn thing like a stick.” The cable was considerably warmer already, but nowhere near room temperature yet. His smile faded as he looked to the side, at a counter projected in the upper left corner of the suit display; it showed the steady and inexorable drop in Nebula Storm’s power.

That’ll have to do. “Mia, cut the power. Joe, Horst, I’m ready to pay it out again, you guys pull it through slow and steady on the count of three until you reach the interface. We don’t have time to wait any more, it’s going to take you at least ten minutes to mate the adapter and get it linked in and then another ten to test before we can really throw the switch.”

“Understood, A.J.” Horst Eberhardt’s voice was steady as a rock, betraying none of the tension A.J. knew he had to be feeling.

“On three. One… two… three!”

A.J. felt the pull begin and the cable began to move again. Behind A.J., inside Munin, Dan Ritter and Anthony LaPointe were feeding the cable through the ship. Outside it was just A.J. and his three Locusts – Hopper, Kwai Chang, and Jiminy. The sensor and exploration probes multiplied A.J., synchronized with his movements so that all four could feed the cable across the gap between the two ships with minimal chance of snags or miscoordination.

Now the cable rippled smoothly from Munin’s hatchway, through the manipulators of Kwai Chang and Jiminy, through A.J.’s hands, and thence from Hopper into Nebula Storm. One meter. Two meters. Three. Four.

“That’s got it!” Joe’s voice was triumphant. “We’re starting to attach the adapter now. The rest of you lock down the cable and put the pads around it. Mia, I’ll give you the go-ahead for the heaters as soon as soon as we get them connected and grounded – that’s priority one in the adapter.”

A.J. breathed a sigh of relief and told the Locusts to stay steady as he slowly released the cable. One bullet dodged.

But this far away from home, there’s a lot more bullets on the way.