Portal – Chapter 04
I am the only living thing within hundreds of millions of kilometers, thought General Alberich Hohenheim.
The thought was not, he admitted to himself (there being no one else to admit it to) strictly true. There were undoubtedly a number of bacteria, possibly fungal spores and such, still living on the remains of the giant mass-drive vessel Odin, and there was the possibility that the water-oceans under the surfaces of Europa and Ganymede harbored some form of life.
But of course when we think such thoughts, we mean beings like ourselves – other people, or perhaps dogs or cats, something that feels as we do and would be able to alleviate our loneliness in isolation. And there is nothing like that save for me until you reach – at least – the asteroid belt and Ceres.
Seated – strapped in – at the engineering console of Odin, Hohenheim could see the exterior view displayed faithfully by the still-operating external cameras of Odin, or the half of Odin that remained at all. The forward portion, separated from the rest in Hohenheim’s last-minute desperation maneuvers to prevent a meteoric crash into lethal Io, had impacted on the volcanic moon of Jupiter just scant minutes before Hohenheim’s section had passed – just barely – by Io and continued onward.
In the following days he had gathered supplies from the wreck which seemed both far larger and more cramped than it had before. Sometimes he had to wriggle his way through crumpled metal that half-blocked a corridor, or find a way to force open a door whose frame no longer quite fit and which no longer had power to control it.
It was, he had to admit as he took a bite of the tight-wrapped liverwurst sandwich that was his lunch, something of a miracle that any of the systems were still functioning. Fitzgerald’s shrapnel-filled shell had detonated at what might have been the worst possible angle and shredded the huge EU vessel like a bird hit by a shotgun blast at point-blank range. Angles of explosion and of other hardened components had protected engineering itself and some of the other core regions, but the damage was so pervasive, so heavy, that even systems which would normally have been able to recover some function were failing, and even with the references and augmented reality overlays that the central engineering systems and his own in-suit computers could provide, there was only so much he could do to fix any of them. Most of the status board showed red, with considerable splotches of yellow and virtually no green anywhere.
At least I can manage to spend a fair amount of time out of the suit. The suits had been designed well and a man could live in them for a long time… but everything chafes, everything becomes dirty, no matter how well designed, no matter what special materials or even self-cleansing materials and miniaturized systems exist.
The air of Odin was almost clean, but the sharp, urgent smell of burned electronics and heated metal still hung in the air, perhaps permanently a part of Odin’s surfaces by now. Still it was far better than being a prisoner to the suit, giving him time to take zero-G showers, clean out the suit, refill its vital reservoirs (and empty other, equally vital, reservoirs), and even to rest in a suspended hammock – with a helmet always nearby, naturally.
The lack of additional crew also meant that he did not have to ration out the better remaining supplies, such as the actual meat content of his sandwich; even though many storage areas had gone with the other half of Odin, the giant vessel had been provisioned for a hundred people for over three years. Even a very small fraction of that would sustain General Hohenheim for as long as he was likely to survive.
That might not be for too terribly long; the critical indicator of air supply was a brilliant amber and there were times he thought it was starting to shade to red. Overall, though, he was fairly certain of the integrity of the remaining hull of Odin, even if a large proportion of her main air supply had been lost. There were very small leaks somewhere, but whenever he could trace them he sealed them, and the cold, hard fact was that ninety-nine percent of his crew were gone; he didn’t need all that much air. Oh, it would run out eventually with the slow leaks bleeding it away; a month, two months, three at the outside and he’d be reduced to staying in his suit, trading and refreshing air supplies until the rechargeable oxygen renewal systems finally gave out, but that didn’t really matter. His real mission would be complete long, long before that. It was a simple mission, just one that had required a good deal of work, but was now almost complete.
Back to work. Hohenheim made sure he had no significant crumbs in the air and carefully placed the wrappings from his lunch in a disposal chute. He unstrapped, shoved himself with practiced ease over to his suit, and donned it, running through the full functionality checklist before sealing the suit and making his way over to his tool bundle. One more set of connections to go.
The theory was very simple, and the practice not much more complex. While Odin’s structure incorporated a lot of composites, it also included a great deal of metal, and some of that structure could be used as a gigantic antenna. Not, perhaps, the most efficient of antennas, but he could spare power to make up for that. Indeed he could, with virtually all other ship systems shut down, the mass-beam drive offline, and even environmentals only required for a fraction of the original vessel. The important thing was to make sure he could transmit with enough power – across a number of different bands – to make sure that he was heard.
Because what he was going to say… was going to be something many people did not want to hear, and he could not afford to be silenced. His honor – the only thing really left to him – demanded that much. The truth about Fitzgerald’s actions, and those behind him, had to be known. That was the least that he could do for those on the Nebula Storm, as well as his own crew, who had been their victims.
It was in a way terribly unfair that he was the only survivor, but the Odin’s radar and remaining imaging systems – both infrared and visible – had found no trace of Munin or Nebula Storm since he had regained control of Odin. What had happened to them he could not guess; Munin had departed with the survivors many hours before Odin’s final rendezvous with Io, but perhaps it had been unable to escape that collision itself. Nebula Storm, crippled by Fitzgerald’s brilliant if completely sociopathic attack, may itself have crashed somewhere, or merely lost power and dwindled into the distance, so far away that neither infrared nor radar could find her now. He had no idea of the full capabilities of these systems, nor was he an expert in their use.
Perversely, he still had an occasional flash of wishing that Fitzgerald were here; the security expert had hidden a tremendously able mind behind his deliberately-affected accent and had undoubtedly been nearly as omnicompetent as Madeline Fathom, his chief opposition. He would certainly have figured out a better way to accomplish this objective, and might even have been able to tell them what really happened to the others.
On the other hand, he’d simply have shot me for even trying to send the message I intend to send. He wanted Fitzgerald’s competence, not his presence.
Hohenheim sailed with economical, efficient movements through the corridors and through rooms. Sometimes his passage disturbed the slow, drifting dance of ordinary objects – pens, paper, fragments of broken glass – in the air, leaving a rippling trail behind him that rang a distant bell in his memory, a fragment of one of the novels a younger Alberich Hohenheim had read while dreaming of space. He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead…
Indeed, though not that long has passed, or is likely to. Still, the memory was a sort of grim symmetry; like Gully Foyle, Hohenheim was trapped in the wreckage of his own ship, living only to strike back against those who had condemned him to this space-drifting tomb. The difference was that Hohenheim knew how to achieve his goal, and he needed no miraculous re-awakening of the drive of his ship to do so.
The next door showed only vacuum on the other side. He sealed his helmet and opened the lock. The corridor looked superficially untouched, but a close look showed the neat hole, nearly large enough for Hohenheim to put his fist through, that had let the air out of this section. A distorted and frozen corpse – Lieutenant DeVries, Hohenheim thought sadly – drifted in the weightless emptiness. He tried not to touch the lieutenant’s body as he went by – out of respect, not squeamishness. I must devise some kind of ceremony after I’m done. There are at least ten bodies on board this part of Odin and if I cannot commit them to the deep properly I must at least pay the proper respects – perhaps make Odin itself a tomb worthy of their sacrifices.
He opened a panel at the far end and checked. Power still flowed here. Good. He inserted the end of one cable into the power source and locked it to the repeater and transceiver box, then moved on. Ten more meters…
Naturally the door between there and here was stuck. He extracted the compact spreader-cutter rescue tool and inserted it into the gap. As he already had a power-connected cable, he removed it from the transceiver and plugged it into the spreader-cutter. The rescue tool hummed to work, the sound not audible through the vacuum but transmitted to Hohenheim through his suit as he held the tool in place. He could also feel and hear the groaning protest of the door as it gave grudgingly under the tons of force the tool could generate. A few minutes sufficed to force the door open wide enough for Hohenheim to wriggle through with the cable and transceiver.
He left the tool behind him for now; it was “compact” only in the sense that it could be carried around by one man, but it was still a massive and clumsy instrument, and he had no more barriers to pass, just a panel to remove. Behind the panel was one of the main structural members of Odin, metal and carbonan composite combined. He attached the antenna connections to the metal portion, re-inserted the power line into the transceiver, and clamped all pieces down to make sure they stayed in place in the unlikely event that he made any maneuvers which put stress on them.
Almost impossible, actually, he thought. The neo-NERVA drive was no longer operable, its damaged nozzle having blown off in the final maneuvers, and the few functional reaction thrusters were very low on fuel. With Jupiter’s magnetic field available, Odin’s magnetorquers had been able to eliminate her unwanted rotation partially, with the field-parallel vector being dealt with by those few remaining reaction jets. Any maneuvers he could manage would be slow, ponderous, and unlikely to be felt by anything in the ship.
The main engineering console verified the connection and began running the program to characterize and balance the jury-rigged antenna system as best as could be managed. While that was ongoing, Hohenheim made his way back, picking up the rescue tool along the way.
The calibration run was nearly complete as he finished stripping off his suit and strapped back into the console seat. The computer had flagged a few anomalies for him to examine, and he sighed. I am hardly a radio engineer, and if this requires more than a bit of look-up and basic calculation…
Most of them, fortunately, were simply areas of signal loss that he’d expected. Most of the radio noise being received was what he expected as well; Jupiter’s entire solar system was filled with it.
He frowned at the last one. It was narrow in spectrum. And the cutoff bands were …
“Gott in Himmel,” he heard himself whisper. It couldn’t be…
But there had been distinct peaks, peaks that corresponded to the movement of Odin in her drift through the Jovian sky, and that meant direction, a triangulation that would tell him if the impossible was true.
And when he had his answer, the amber warning of Odin’s air supply was no longer irrelevant at all.