Portal – Chapter 06
“I’m not seeing much of a lightshow,” Joe observed as he watched A.J. hard at work. Of course the “hard at work” was more conceptual than actual; much of A.J.’s work looked more like a man reclining in one of Munin’s pilot chairs, wearing a pair of reflective sunglasses and waving his gloved hands semi-aimlessly in the air in front of him.
“Give this iceball a decent atmosphere and you’d be seeing a pretty good one,” A.J. retorted. “I’ve just finished re-tuning Munin’s topside comm lasers and we’d already figured out the tweaks for those we put on Nebula Storm. They’re all running now.”
“Maddie mentioned you were working with the lasers, but she didn’t say for what. So, for what?”
“We need all the resources we can get, right? Well, the most versatile single resource we have is, of course, Faerie Dust. I can’t get any more of mine delivered here, but –”
Joe laughed. “You’ve still got it, I see. Of course, there’s just tons of the Odin’s drive-dust floating around out there. And the more of it we get, the better off we are.”
“Right in one. Oh, it’s practically chipped-flint level compared to my babies here,” he patted the sealed bag he carried practically everywhere, “but even that stuff can do a LOT for monitoring activities, basic PHM/CBM over every millimeter of both ships, be a sensor net over a wide area… and let us save the fancy stuff for when it’s needed. Like if the Doc needs some very detailed imagery of someone.”
“I thought you said your Faerie Dust wouldn’t survive long in a human body. You know, when you went all Mad Science on Modofori.” Joe was speaking of the not-so-distant time when some of Fitzgerald’s agents (actually more unwitting pawns) had made the extremely bad mistake of kidnapping and threatening Helen.
“And that’s true, but if one of us is hurt or sick, I’m not going to whine about sacrificing some of my toys to get our medical officer the best data she can use. At that point the very minor risk from the dust will hopefully be a lot less than whatever’s threatening our crewmates.” Another lazy set of gestures with a glissando ripple of the fingers. “Shouldn’t you be working?”
“Break time. Those of us doing outdoor work –”
“— do pretty short shifts to prevent any chance of getting bored, overstraining the suits, and such. So do we need heaters?”
“Not so far. As you so aptly observed, Europa only has an atmosphere in the very technical sense that astronomers use – basically that it has a higher density of gas around it than the surrounding medium. So it’s not conducting or convecting any heat from us, and only direct contact with the surface poses any kind of threat there. We’re still trying to dump heat, not trying to keep it.”
“That’s good. I’m not sure how we’d retrofit some of these suits for heating.”
A.J. suddenly sat bolt-upright, the motion bouncing him almost a meter into the air; whatever he was looking at in the VRD had captivated him so completely that he seemed utterly oblivious to the fact that he somersaulted halfway around and came down nearly on his face, breaking his fall with an instinctive and unconscious movement of one arm. “Holy flying wrecks, Batman!” he said.
“The Odin! She’s still flying!”
“No way. Show me! I thought we’d calculated that she was headed for a hard landing on Io.”
The forward screen lit, to show a terribly mangled yet still somehow recognizable shape. “Damn. She looks even worse than the last time we saw her,” Joe said slowly.
“A lot worse,” A.J. muttered, his voice abstracted. “She’s lost her entire forward half. More than half, if you’re counting by mass – everything very far forward of the main engines and drive spines is gone.”
“Could she have had a one-in-a-billion grazing collision?” Joe remembered an old video he’d seen of a huge meteoroid that had passed through earth’s atmosphere and then headed back out into space without actually hitting the ground.
“Umm…” More waving of the hands. “Not with the orbit we left her in. Something had to have shifted her orbit a bit. Not much, or maybe quite a bit, depending on when…” Some more motion indicated A.J. was trying to figure out how much change would be needed at what point in the orbit.
Joe stared at the mangled vessel on the screen, turning very slowly. “A.J.,” he said finally, “What’s that?”
“What’s what? For an engineer, your dialogue is amazingly imprecise sometimes.”
“That… green flickering on the Odin.”
“What green…” A.J. trailed off, then froze. “MADELINE! Get in here RIGHT NOW!”
The suit and ship control systems were not particularly smart by human standards, but they were very good at context-sensitive transmission. Not only did they immediately relay that order directly to Madeline Fathom (Buckley), they recognized the urgency and context and did not send it to anyone else. Joe, of course, stayed put. Anything that got A.J. that excited he wanted to know about right away.
The lock cycled and Madeline entered, retracting her helmet. “What’s wrong, A.J.?”
The screen flickered, and suddenly, looking out of it, was a face. A face with a sharply-cut blond beard and a slightly-beyond-regulations haircut, looking at them with startlingly golden eyes. “Nebula Storm and Munin, please answer. This is General Alberich Hohenheim. Nebula Storm and Munin, please answer. This is…”
Even Madeline seemed frozen in shock for long moments – though Joe realized later it could only have been for seconds. Then she snapped into action. “Can we reply?”
“Huh?” The question broke A.J. out of an incredulous stare. “Oh, yes. Certainly. He’s using Odin’s remaining dust-collecting lasers as a comm beam. Probably homed in on ours once we started them up.” A.J. scratched his head, then tapped out invisible commands. “Didn’t think the General was quite that tech-savvy, though. That was fast response – I’ve only been working these things maybe twenty minutes.” He nodded sharply. “Okay, that should do it. I’ve patched it through for you and you alone to speak, although anyone here – that’s the three of us – can hear you.”
“General, this is Madeline Fathom. We receive you. Over.”
“… and Munin, please answer. This is General Alberich Hoh—”
The repeating message abruptly cut off and the living General Hohenheim was on screen. The golden eyes showed hints of tears shed and unshed, but he was smiling broadly. “Guten Tag, Agent Fathom,” he said. “A very good day indeed.”
“A marvelous day, General! I won’t ask you for the details at the moment, but… are you all right?”
The face paused for a few seconds before responding; A.J. said, sotto voce, “He’s only about five hundred thousand kilometers away right now – figure about one point seven seconds each way.”
The general then nodded. “I am, for now. I am afraid that there are no other survivors on board this vessel, however.” His smile faded, as he asked carefully, “Might I ask… how many of my crew survive?”
“Only six, sir. I’m sorry.”
The figure on the screen closed his eyes once enough time had elapsed to send the message back. “Sechs… Six.” It was, indeed, a small enough number when his crew had numbered over a hundred in total. “Still, six is infinitely preferable to zero. Then you and Munin did indeed join forces. Still… why are you there, on Europa, instead of using your magnificent ‘Nebula Drive’ to sail home?”
Madeline explained the situation. “So we expect to find a way to get home eventually, but we couldn’t do it as things were.”
Hohenheim nodded. “Yes, I see. Excellent thinking. Munin has more than enough power to bring both of you back into space, as she was designed to be able to reach Earth orbit on her own, and Europa has scarce an eighth of Earth’s gravity.”
“Pardon me for butting in,” A.J. said, “but – no offense, sir – how is it you were able to lock your beams on ours so quickly? I’m not sure I could have pulled it off that fast.”
“Unless,” the General responded with a more natural smile, “you had that trick set up beforehand. Once we had recognized that you had captured some of our dust and were playing with the beam, it occurred to us that you might be planning to somehow interfere with our drive. I accordingly had instructed Mr. Eberhardt to create options within our control systems whereby our lasers – much stronger than your own – would automatically track yours and attempt to overwhelm any signals you sent. That particular application was not difficult to repurpose to using for a transmitter.”
“Speaking of transmitters… General, you haven’t communicated with anyone farther in-system, have you?” Madeline’s voice was tense, and Joe suddenly realized why.
“No, not yet. I very nearly did, I admit, but just before I was prepared I detected radio activity and realized that it was coming from Europa.” General Hohenheim looked grim. “I was going to transmit a detailed account of this entire affair – a completely honest account. But once I realized that your people might have survived, I decided to at least try to contact you and find out what your intentions were.”
Maddie sighed with relief. “Thank you for that, General. As we proposed before Mr. Fitzgerald mutinied, we wish a co-operative venture – previously for the exploration of Enceladus, now in getting us off of Europa and home. Sending an unvarnished account would completely destroy that co-operation. Understand,” she continued in a harder voice, “we have every intention of bringing this home to those who were behind Fitzgerald… but not in such a way as to make all of the E.U. our enemies by embarrassing them publicly.”
After the pause, they saw Hohenheim nod slowly, his lips tightening for a moment. “As you wish. Mr. Fitzgerald himself is dead; while I cannot claim to have killed him – he was a terribly capable man, as I am sure you are aware – what little data I could wring from the computers indicates that in his attempt to reach the location on Odin where I had sent Munin, something happened which either killed him directly or, possibly, ejected him into space. Either way would be most certainly his end – and one far too good for him. But his backers… I assure you, we are of one mind on this.”
Madeline was smiling narrowly, the kind of smile that sent a slight shiver down Joe’s back; it always meant trouble. Trouble for the people Maddie didn’t like. “And I think you, General Hohenheim, are going to be our secret weapon.”
“I believe I have an idea of what you mean,” the General said after a moment. “But you may only have me for a short time.”
“What?” Maddie looked concerned. “Don’t tell me the Odin is headed for a crash?”
“Nein, nothing so dramatic, I am afraid.” General Hohenheim gestured to the ship around him. “The Odin is too damaged to work forever. In particular… she is leaking. In a few weeks – maybe a few months – there will be no air left on her that I can breathe.”