Portal – Chapter 21
“Welcome to Europa, General,” Madeline said as he stepped out of Munin.
For a moment, he didn’t answer. He had seen many spectacular and awesome views already on this journey, enough to make him fear at times that he would lose the capacity for wonder. But the sight of mighty Jove looming above the jagged-spiked horizon, looking down upon the small white-shining collection of shelters and the bronze-colored alien shape of the Nebula Storm stopped him in his tracks, filled him once more with an achingly strong feeling of mingled triumph and awe that here his people and those of the IRI had survived, had built, had made this first foothold on a world in the Outer System, under the very eye of deadly, beautiful Jupiter, and he knew that there was much wonder left in the universe.
“I thank you, Madeline,” he said. “I am very glad to be able to come here, to see this world and the base that you have all built together.”
Left on Odin now were Jackie, Horst, Mia, and Anthony. Madeline had come out with the last crew to help fly the Munin back, as it had been universally agreed (before he was even asked) that he should have the opportunity to visit, and she was the only other even vaguely qualified pilot for Munin.
That of course is not quite accurate, the General mused to himself as Madeline and Joe followed him down the ladder. I could fly Munin myself, if the occasion arose. “Where should I expect to stay? Aboard Munin?” The fact that the two were carrying his personal belongings seemed to argue against that idea.
“No, sir, General. You get the vacation suite for the few days you’re staying. We’ve cleared it out for you.”
His initial instinct was to protest, but he certainly liked the idea of a shower, even under low gravity, a great deal, and of a place that seemed able to at least somewhat pretend to be on a safer and more comfortable world. “I am very grateful.”
“Live it up, General!” A.J. Baker said. “The rest of us actually have had a few days there over the past few months. You should’ve had a turn a while back.”
The General did note that the sensor expert’s voice sounded oddly strained. “Are you all right, Mr. Baker?”
“Oh, about as all right as you can expect. Look directly across from you.”
The large circular structure on the far side of the camp showed movement, and Hohenheim understood. “Ah, yes, you are in your gravity practice now.”
“Yep. And still not used to it. You’ll get your chance at that, too. Doc Petra insists.”
“Yes, General. You really should have been brought down earlier,” Petra continued. “There’s no excuse for people not spending some time even in this … feeble gravity field, let alone avoiding the centrifuge now that we have it built.”
“I look forward to it,” he said with a smile. “I have had much time to exercise, of course, but actual weight on my feet is hard to come by.”
He found himself slightly disoriented by that weight, in fact. After many months of weightlessness, the existence of a completely stable frame of reference was highly peculiar, and weight itself felt… wrong. It became clear just how unused he was to this experience when he suddenly tumbled across the ice.
“General! Are you all right?” Madeline Fathom drifted down near him as he began to carefully right himself. “What happened? That didn’t look like an ordinary fall.”
“I am physically unharmed,” he answered, trying to keep the chagrin from his voice. “Somewhat embarrassed, that is all. I must pay more attention to my movements in future, until I re-acquire the habit of gravity.”
“Oh, man,” Joe said. “Of course. You haven’t had even this much ever since the fiasco.”
“No, and I have developed excellent new reflexes for living in constant no-gravity. I stopped concentrating and in mid-stride my body tried to shift to prepare for deceleration against the habitat ahead.”
“Yeah, I guess there’s still a world of difference between zero gravity and one-seventh or eighth, like here,” A.J. remarked. “And a few world’s difference between that and this.”
“Do not overdo it, Mr. Baker,” Petra Masters’ voice was stern. “I know you are proud of maintaining your physical condition and dislike the shifts you have seen, but you will make nothing better for yourself by pushing too far.”
“Yes, Doc. I’ll try to distract myself with that stuff Ares sent us on the monitor designs for the Mars colony.”
Hohenheim raised his eyebrow; the motion did not go unnoticed by Madeline, who was apparently watching his imagery closely. “A.J. designed all the condition monitoring for the Mars Colony, and they’ve been having some problems expanding it. Now that we’ve managed to establish reasonably good contact through Odin, we’re all able to get stuff from back home.” She caught herself. “Well… almost all of us.”
“Hm.” He had actually been doing a great deal of thinking about that. It was hard not to, given that he was aware of the data traffic passing through his vessel and that much of it had initially consisted of heartfelt thanks and greetings from the relatives and friends of his surviving crew and those of Nebula Storm.
They passed through the airlock into Vacation Hotel Europa. He stumbled again in surprise. The interior did indeed seem to be lit by bright, real sunlight pouring through the windows. He caught himself this time, and took some time to slowly remove his helmet.
The air actually smelled… fresh. “How in the world… or perhaps I should say in the worlds… did you manage this?”
“Manage what?” Joe asked, perplexed, then, as he took his helmet off and saw the General sniffing the air, grinned. “Oh, that. Well, keeping the filtration systems up to top standard has of course been one of our top priorities, given that breathing is the first crucial survival necessity. Ours, of course, weren’t as abused as poor Odin’s – we didn’t really have fires, damaged insulation, all that kind of stuff forcing the recyclers and filters to take the insult of that level of aromatics. But it’s really Dan who takes that credit.”
“I just happened to be tracking a lot of the research being done on space environmentals. It’s my job,” Dan protested uncomfortably.” And while we couldn’t get some of the unique filters and supplement cartridges shipped to us that the latest deployment on Phobos Station was using, I was able to get the specs and how they worked – exactly what chemical species had to be removed, and which ones had to be added, and the exact structure of the metamaterials involved in making it all work pretty much automatically. Still wouldn’t have made any difference because I saw it as just theoretical. It was actually Reynolds Jones who pointed out that we were missing a bet.”
“Jones? I’m unfamiliar with the name. Oh, wait a moment. Yes, he was one of the people from Ares who came out to assist you, as it turns out, with the vessel that came to be Nebula Storm?”
“Right. Ren’s one of the best materials science experts around,” Joe confirmed. “And so when we sent him the one report, I mentioned what a shame it was that we couldn’t get one of those filters, and he replied – how’d he put it, A.J.?”
“Heh. He said, in typically polite Ren fashion, ‘It’s a shame that you can’t adapt A.J.’s materials repair dust to work on other materials.’ That’s about as close as Ren ever came to calling us stupid.”
“And we were being stupid. Though I guess the fact we’ve been working on a thousand survival-type things since we crashed is sort of an excuse.”
“We have all been guilty of various forms of stupidity, I suppose,” the General agreed with a smile, finally stepping out of his suit into the startlingly warm air. “But what materials repair was he talking about?”
“Oh, yeah, you wouldn’t know about that. Well, the Nebula Storm wasn’t exactly in launchable condition when we found her, and the biggest single problem was the drive control spines and related circuitry relied on a lot of the RTSC – room-temperature superconductor – stuff we discovered on Phobos,” A.J. explained. “Since all the basic elements were there in mostly the right patterns, I had some Faerie Dust made that was tailored for fixing that kind of thing. Used it to process the stuff back into the proper metamaterial structure. So Ren was just pointing out to us that if I had something capable of doing that, there wasn’t any good reason I couldn’t – with Dan’s help – make it generate the right structure on a filter, if we had all the materials available. It took a few weeks, but it worked. I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to do that to all the key filters in the Odin,” he continued, “but we might. But the one in Vacation Hotel Europa’s special; we sent back to the Japanese, who’d come up with the process, and begged ‘em to tell us what to do to give the interior of the place the smell of a seaside cabin. They turned that request around in less than 48 hours.”
“Not too surprising,” Madeline pointed out, hanging the General’s bag inside one of the small closets. “As they have been focused on exploiting the entertainment and vacation aspects of space – and are doing well at it – I suspect they already had that figured out and were using it. The surprising part is that they didn’t charge us something for it.”
“I’ll bet they have,” Helen’s voice said. “Welcome to Europa, General,” she added. “They probably sent us the formula here, and billed Nicholas. And he probably paid the license fee for the patent without argument.”
“You’re probably right,” A.J. said. “And it’d be just like him to not say anything to us about it, either. He’s good people.”
“He is,” agreed the General, along with several of the others.
“Well, General,” Madeline said, “I’ll leave you to get comfortable and relax for a bit. You can have a tour a little later, if you want.”
“I would like that. But if you would be so kind, Ms. Fathom, I would appreciate it if you would stay for a bit. I would like to talk to you privately. Nothing untoward, of course,” he said, looking at Joe.
“General,” Joe said cheerily, “you outweigh her by at least three to one I think, and I’m sure you’re a dangerous man, but I’m perfectly certain that if you did mean anything ‘untoward’, Maddie would break you like a twig. I’ll let you have a Commander’s Conference in this lovely resort center while I go set up the water transfer connection to Munin.”
“Thank you, Mr. Buckley.”
Once Joe had left, Madeline looked at him curiously. “What can I do for you, General?”
Alberich Hohenheim let himself sit slowly in one of the chairs near the artificially-bright windows. “I have been thinking about the current situation – the fact of our likely conflict with the ESDC and any of their allies.”
“I see,” she said, taking a seat of her own. “And you’re wondering if we need to keep your existence a secret any longer.”
He blinked. “You are… a very perceptive woman, Ms. Fathom. Or do you prefer –”
“Fathom in this, which is my professional capacity. I’m only Fathom-Buckley when it’s a social circumstance.”
“Fair enough. Yes, that is indeed the question. I have some family at home, and a large number of friends. Not only are they mourning me, they are undoubtedly now processing my estate. This will be… complicated to unravel when I get back.”
She nodded. “No doubt. And there’s little point in my sending inquiries in that direction; just doing so could trigger suspicions in the wrong quarters.”
“Unless we do drop the mask and let them know I am here,” he said. “I am not married, so it is not as though I have a wife and children living through this – which would make this a vastly harder decision – but I do have a brother and sister, and several nieces and nephews who are very dear to me. I am unwilling to keep putting them through this pain unless it is necessary.”
She studied him for a moment, with an analytical gaze that, he found, actually made him somewhat uncomfortable. A dangerous woman in many ways. It may be that Mr. Buckley is a much more formidable man than he appears, to have won her apparently exclusive affections. “So you want me to confirm that this is necessary, or to say we do not need to continue the charade?”
“I… suppose in a sense. I don’t expect you to make the decision by yourself.”
“General, if you’re waiting for me, I think that means that you already have thoughts on the matter, but were hoping I would make a decision and solve the problem for you.” She shook her head. “You are a commanding officer, a military man who’s made no few decisions in his life. You’re not the sort to not have a clear opinion. And also, why just me?”
“But,” he countered, “I am also human, and there are aspects of this that are very personal. I need to be sure that I am making the right decision, and not being either overly sentimental, or being deliberately hard-hearted in order to avoid sentimentality.
“As to your second question, your husband put it succinctly enough; this is a commanders’ conference. You and I are equals in this mission, and this is a command decision.”
She smiled. “A reasonable response. All right.” She sat back in her chair and thought for a moment.
“General, as I see it, much of the damage of your silence is already done. It has been months. Once we reached the Odin and said nothing, it would be considered an absolute fact that you had perished on your vessel along with most of your crew. At that point, funerals would be held, wills would be probated, all the processes of a death would be set in motion, and most of them would have concluded by now, unless your will and estate were most complex to handle. I would expect that you would in fact have had a very straightforward will.”
“On the other hand, the question is whether there is still any benefit to maintaining silence. We now have deduced good reason to believe that we are not entirely out of danger, and will not be until we have arrived safely at some destination in-system – most likely either Phobos Station or Meru at Earth; I think most projections of likely departure make Ceres an increasingly unlikely destination.”
He waited as she paused, thinking.
Finally Madeline continued. “As the commanding officer of Odin, you have certain unique traits. Perhaps the most important here is that you are a high-ranking military officer, rather than a civilian as are all of the other survivors of Odin. You were Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, and you were directly aware of a number of his actions which led ultimately to this situation. You have the best grasp of the entire sequence of events as it happened aboard the Odin, and you were also the last one to confront the immediate culprit. Your testimony will be – if not absolutely critical – one of the most powerful arguments against our opponents. And while they can obviously anticipate anything that your other surviving crew might say, or that we might say, it is very unlikely they will be assuming a dead man might come back to accuse them. It is also possible,” she went on, “that they may try first to use overrides based on your personal command codes; if so, you can counter those directly.”
“So you are of the opinion that I should remain a dead man for now?” He felt some sense of relief.
“I think that if we were to do otherwise, we’ve then put your friends and family through unnecessary pain. These months of mourning and acceptance will have been a waste of time for no reason. Perhaps it will turn out that hiding your presence has no real effect on the outcome – but if it’s even a small possible effect, I would say that it’s worth it now to keep that ace in the hole.”
He nodded decisively. “I thank you, Madeline. This was the tentative conclusion I had reached, but I was afraid I might have been selfishly justifying these actions.”
He smiled, feeling a touch of embarrassment again. “Yes. You see, I am a man who appreciates dramatics, and I cannot help but feel a great anticipation in revealing my presence in direct accusation when we arrive.”
Madeline laughed, and shook her head. “You’re not the only one that likes dramatics here, General, and I can’t blame you. In fact, I’m sure we all would like to get a chance to see their faces when that happens.” She stood.
He rose to help her with the suit. “I appreciate your willingness to help me see my way clear.”
“My pleasure, General. I –”
Alarms screamed through Vacation Hotel Europa, as they must have been throughout Europa Base, and the artificial projected light vanished, replaced by the actual view outside the windows; Hohenheim watched in shock as the support framework for Athena, the absolutely vital melt-probe, suddenly crumpled under some invisible impact.