Portal – Chapter 14
“Disconnecting in three, two, one – off.” Horst, with Anthony’s help, dragged Munin’s small section of the thick, insulated, double-wrapped cable back and stowed it securely near the reactor housing. “Everything stable?”
“No problems, Horst,” answered A.J. “Batteries all full, we’re running on them, drain shows what we expected. Get back here in a couple of weeks and we should be fine – though I’d a lot rather you get back sooner, if you can.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem, A.J.,” Jackie said from her position in the copilot’s seat. “But now comes the tricky part.”
“Horst, are you sure you’re comfortable with this?” Madeline’s question, he could tell, was for his ears only. “If you’d rather, I’d still be glad to do the first part for you.”
“Don’t worry, Madeline,” he answered, hiding the slight nervousness he was feeling. “Besides, that would mean you would have to set Munin back down and get off. The more ups and downs, the more chance for something to go wrong, I think.”
“You’re perfectly correct. Then good luck and take care.”
“Danke Schön, Maddie. I will be very careful.” He switched back to general broadcast. “Everyone, clear the area of Munin now, please. Is the power cable all stowed on your end?”
“Just got it in, Horst,” Joe answered, sounding slightly winded, obviously still trying (with Helen and A.J. helping) to get the much larger and bulkier cable section into stowage.
“Everyone’s clear, Horst,” Madeline said. “I’ve just checked everyone’s positions. A.J., will you verify?”
“Hold on, Joe,” the sensor expert said. A pause. “According to readings on all sensors – mine and the primary suit and individual monitor chips – we have Horst, Andy, Mia, Jackie, Dr. Masters, and Dan on board Munin –”
“Might I ask,” Petra Masters inquired mildly, “why I’m called by my last name and a title and everyone else is by their first?”
A.J. gave an embarrassed chuckle. “Always taught to be very, very respectful of real doctors, I guess. So, Petra, Horst, Andy, Mia, Jackie, Dan on Munin; Madeline’s up front of Nebula Storm playing observer, me, Joe, and my lovely and talented Helen still wrestling this superconducting anaconda, and Brett and Larry watching over Athena. I check you, Maddie; all clear.”
Horst finished locking himself into the pilot’s seat, touched the controls, watched to see that Jackie was ready to back him up. “All right. Munin is preparing for liftoff. Cold maneuver jets first, to get separation.”
The Munin’s maneuvering thrusters spurted in quick, controlled bursts, skidding the lander sideways. Screeching, grating sounds echoed through Munin and a shower of pulverized ice rose and fell, a motion both too fast and too slow, alien and strange. Horst felt Munin wobbling on her skids, and – not for the first time – griped to himself inwardly about the winged design. Oh, he knew why Munin had been designed with wings – not merely for the possibility of skimming the atmosphere of one of the giant planets, which would be exciting but in his view far too dangerous, but much more importantly for the opportunity to land on Titan. Not this trip, which means those wings are a complete waste.
But they didn’t cause him to tip, which was the important thing. “Munin now well clear. Engaging auto-launch sequence.”
As with most vehicles, Munin could pilot herself most of the time, given the right circumstances and assuming nothing too terribly unusual; the last few flights had, of course, been rather decidedly unusual. A takeoff, however, even from a low-gravity moon with rough ice terrain, was something for which Munin had been designed. The onboard computer surveyed the area with LIDAR, millimeter-wave scanners, and optical imagery and came to a decision. There was a staccato burst of activity from the forward nose jets, and Munin reared up on her tail – and then with a silent roar of flame blasted up into the black sky of Europa.
Horst grunted as almost two gravities of acceleration crushed down on him; it had been almost two months now since they had landed, and in that time he’d gotten far too used to Europa’s puny grip.
The others felt worse. “Jesus!” came the strained voice of Jackie, and Anthony LaPointe croaked, “Horst… is Munin running away? This acceleration, it is… far more than you said!”
“I hate to tell you, Andy,” he said, trying to force a relaxed tone into his voice, “but that is only one point eight gravities.”
LaPointe said something obscene in French. “We are in worse shape than I thought.”
“Which is precisely why we must cannibalize parts of the drive spine coils to make a controllable centrifuge,” Petra said, her voice labored but clear. “Drugs may or may not work, but hours spent in heavy acceleration will definitely help. Brett and Joe should have the design perfected by the time we return.”
Intellectually, Horst approved of this plan immensely. There was, however, a small part of him that was already complaining.
Real gravity was tiring.
“Mon Dieu.” Anthony said softly.
Though he’d have phrased it in German, Horst would have said the same thing.
The wreck of Odin loomed large in Munin’s forward port. They had of course seen the pictures A.J. had been able to capture… but that was, somehow, completely different from seeing it in person.
The proud, sleek ship, the vessel that had stretched nearly one and a half kilometers from end to end, longest if not most massive vessel every constructed, was no more. Even the tattered, shrapnel-riddled wreck they had last seen when leaving to rendezvous with Nebula Storm was gone.
In its place, a truncated, sharp-edged hulk drifted through space, now silhouetted against the half-illuminated Jupiter. Three long spines jutted from Odin, and for a moment she looked like an alien, long-taloned hand grasping at the largest planet to claw it from the sky. The fourth drive spine was of course gone, blown off at the base – almost in the position of a thumb, a ragged, torn thumb.
Odin looked dead, a tomb for those sacrificed to Fitzgerald’s calm insanity. But there was a living voice coming from that metal mausoleum:
“Munin, this is Odin,” the deep voice of General Hohenheim said, filling the cabin with its confident warmth, dispelling the momentary feeling of gloom. “I now have you by visual. Horst, the number three airlock is clear. I have activated its beacon and it should be visible to you.”
He studied the screen. “I do not see – wait.”
A small, steadily blinking green light was coming slowly into view as they approached. Zooming in, he could see that it was indeed the beacon light for Airlock Three. “Visual of target acquired, General. Proceeding to docking maneuvers.” He activated the autopilot program, painted the target airlock with a target laser, verified target acquisition. “Transferring control to autopilot… now.”
The little autopilot knew what it was doing. Munin slowed and approached the airlock with precise care, lining up, matching vectors, even rotating Munin to make sure that the airlock exit matched in orientation with the internal corridor layout as stored in Munin’s memory bank. There was a rustling shifting sound, followed by clear metallic vibrations transmitted through the hull. “Contact… locked. Telltales show airlock pressurizing.”
He stood, his heart pounding surprisingly fast, and headed for the airlock; Anthony was right behind him, magnetic adhesive boots thudding clearly on the deck.
Munin’s airlock door opened easily, pressure now equalized. He stepped in, closed the door, and reached out, spun the wheel to unlock Odin’s side.
There was hardly a whisper of air, showing that the equalization held for both vessels, and he heard – through his suit, in the air! – the door behind him open again. He removed his helmet; the smell was sharp, a lingering faint but clear burning odor that tried to send little spikes of worry through him. A waft of air from behind brought suddenly – clear other scents, and he wondered just how badly they stank from the point of view of another, presumably neutral, party.
Enough musing, he told himself, and pushed the Odin’s door open.
Standing on the other side, not three meters away, was General Alberich Hohenheim. He was drawn to his full height, in what looked like a carefully – if not perfectly – repaired dress uniform, rows of ribbons and medals showing bright colors in their lights, wide shoulders set straight, one hand up in a salute to just above the bright golden eyes. “Welcome back aboard, Mr. Eberhardt.”
For a moment he was back in the Munin’s landing bay, watching the General stand proudly, alone, sending them off to live so that he could deal with the man who had killed his ship. He returned the salute, but heard his voice waver. “Thank you, General…”
Anthony LaPointe managed to stand next to him and return the salute as well. “We… did what you asked, sir.”
The simple words broke the general’s poise and he suddenly strode forward, caught Horst and Anthony in a double-armed bear hug. “I … thank you both, and it … it is very good to see you again,” Hohenheim said. “To see you all again,” he continued, looking past them into the airlock where Petra, Dan, and Mia were now waiting, and his smile was both bright and painful, the look of a man who had almost lost hope, only to find it standing before him. Horst realized that only now, with living, breathing survivors of his crew before him, could General Hohenheim truly believe that they were not all dead; only now was it real.
And as the General pulled away, straightening his uniform, Horst saw a sparkle in the air nearby.
In space, both tears and dreams could fly.