So Helen was no longer bored...
"You've got to be kidding me," Jackie said, glancing at the image of Helen in the upper-right corner of her HUD, then back at the crescent-shaped line cutter she was using to cleanly removed the cracked section of piping for part of the Odin's neo-NERVA rocket nozzle assembly. "A Bemmie arm-plate? In the ice?"
At their current distance, the delays were only a couple of seconds, so she simply had to be patient. Helen answered in a moment. "I'm not saying it's a Bemmie arm-plate but it looks very like one and almost has to be from something like Bemmie, at two hundred twenty seven meters under the surface."
"Is it a recent deposit?" asked Horst in an exited tone.
Helen chuckled. "Depends on what you mean by 'recent', but, no, not really. Estimates on the ice we're going through run between twenty and eighty-five million years old."
"And my best guess is that the layer she's in there might be around sixty-five million years," Larry said.
"Oh," Jackie said, with a pang of disappointment. "So almost certainly something from when Bemmie was in-system, or not long after."
"That's my first guess," Helen said. "We knew they were working on water-based forms for use in enclosed areas, so the idea they were planning on colonizing Europa isn't crazy."
"But," came A.J.'s voice, without an accompanying video feed, "as we also know, they got into some kind of major spitting match in different factions,so all their work got cut off abruptly. So the likelihood they got past the basic testing phase… not very good."
"Still," said General Hohenheim, "it is a fine discovery and the first true xenopaleontological excavation ever performed, yes?"
Helen grinned. "Nice job not tripping on that word, General, I sometimes have trouble with it myself. Yes, that's entirely correct. Thank you."
"Where are you, A.J.?" asked Jackie.
"I'm busy trying to get the damn shoehorn out so Helen can take a better look at it."
"Wait a minute," Joe broke in, "Who's belaying you and watching topside? I just heard Brett mumbling about his model, and I'm over here with Maddie! Larry?"
"Whoa, slow down, sorry, didn't mean to confuse you. I'm not crazy, I am not actually down there picking at the ice, that's one of my Locusts. I'm just doing all the controlling by hand, so it's not a good idea for me to be looking at anyone else right now."
"That's a relief," Joe said.
"Look, Joe, I know I'm an irresponsible kind of guy but do you really think I'm dumb enough to lower myself down a seven hundred foot shaft with no backup?"
"Do I need to remind you of –"
"That was a long time ago, and I was younger and more stupid, and besides, people were in danger. Bemmie down there isn't likely to get any worse over the next few hours."
"No, probably not," agreed Jackie, unable to keep herself from grinning at her two old friends having the same good-natured arguments. "Well, Helen, keep us up to date and let us know if you find out anything else."
"Do you think you'll be able to keep me from telling you?" Helen said cheerily.
"Ha! Probably not. I'm going to cut out now, though, this is getting tricky."
"Talk to you later."
The others disappeared from her view, and she focused on the work at hand. The problem was that the transmitted shock and backpressure from the time when the Odin's nozzle blew off had caused a lot of damage throughout the system, and some of it was quite subtle unless you were able to examine the piping and interconnects directly.
Examining the results of deploying A.J.'s Fairy Dust through the area, Mia had shaken her head dolefully, and Horst had winced. "There are at least thirty sections of pipe that need to be replaced," she'd said, pointing to a number of sections all around the base of the drive system. "We will need to route some of the power differently."
"Also have to cut away remains of welds and bolted fastenings that were broken off when Odin lost her nozzle, and devise new fastenings for the Nebula Storm's nozzle," Horst had said.
General Hohenheim had nodded, looking over the diagrams. "I will leave those repairs to Mia, Jackie, and yourself, Horst. Anthony, Dan, and myself will deal with the repairs to the life support and other related systems onboard."
Thinking of that, Jackie finished this cut and began prepping the replacement section for in-vacuum welding. "General, how is your work coming?"
"Slowly but well, Ms. Secord," the General answered promptly. "Anthony and I are only passable technicians, but Mr. Ritter is an excellent instructor. We are working on cutting off the direction of power or other resources to parts of Odin which we do not believe will require it again, and then will work on improving the function throughout the areas we shall be using now and on our journey home." His voice shifted to a heartfelt formality. "I also wish to express again my gratitude that you shall give me the chance to bring my ship, wounded as she is, home again."
"It's our pleasure – though, speaking honestly, it's purely practical as well."
"Perhaps. But it is still very gratifying."
"Let us not get ahead of ourselves," Horst said with a slight warning tone in his voice. "We have a plan and have begun our work on that plan, but there is so very much that is left to do. And much that could go wrong."
"Yes, your steadfast cheer is always something we could rely on, Horst," said Dan Ritter. "I'm looking on the bright side."
"I prefer to remain realistic about the situation," Horst answered, just the hint of humor hidden in his voice. "That way, if disaster comes –"
"—you get to say 'I told you so' in a very realistic way," Jackie interjected.
"Yeah, Jackie, don't interrrupt our little snipefest."
"Even if we fail, it will not be total disaster," Hohenheim pointed out. "The EU and United States both passed the resolutions to work with the IRI to construct a new vessel that is expected to complete construction and be able to reach us here in reasonable time, and in the meantime Ares has apparently worked with the EU engineers to design a fast-time unmanned supply capsule which can use the drive dust here in Jupiter System to stop."
"I hadn't heard that last bit!" Jackie said, pausing momentarily in her work.
"Neither had I," the voice of Madeline Fathom broke in from distant Europa. "Where did you get that piece of intelligence, General?"
General Hohenheim's chuckle did have a small measure of pride in it. "You forget, Ms. Fathom; the Odin has been wired to act as a very large antenna indeed. The announcement was broadcast just now – or, I should say, a half hour or so ago, but reached Jupiter just now. Director Glendale would have to then take that news and convey it to you, so I would expect you to get a direct notification in a few minutes."
"Why the hell would they have kept the thing secret from us until now, though?" Jackie wondered.
"I would guess to avoid getting our hopes up and let us concentrate on what we were doing. Even now it might turn out something goes wrong with the design , so until we actually see it working we still have to keep working as though we're alone out here."
"I suppose," Jackie conceded. "Still, that's even better news."
"It is, indeed."
The network fell mostly silent for the better part of three hours, as both teams on Odin focused on their work. Jackie found herself remembering A.J.'s comment some time back about getting a method to wipe sweat out of his eyes while in his spacesuit. The suit worked hard to keep you comfortable but it was still hard to stay that way when you were cutting pipe, levering large sections of bulkhead out of the way in zero gravity, and other surprisingly strenuous activity.
Then Helen's voice came back on. "It's definitely not Bemmie itself."
For a moment Jackie was confused, then she remembered the subject area. "Really? How can you tell?"
"This one's noticeably shorter than the regular Bemmie plates. Judging from attachment angles for muscle groups, this was near the base of one of the tentacles, so if it were a Bemmie, this should actually be a larger shoehorn. I think the animal this came from was less than half Bemmie's length and a quarter his mass. Not small, but very small compared to Bemmie himself."
"Why," Brett asked idly, "couldn't it be a baby Bemmie? They were obviously here quite a while before their little civil war, they could've had children either with them or had new ones born while here."
"An excellent question," Helen said, her voice taking on the professorial tone of any academic warming to his or her specialty. "The main reason I doubt it is that while the muscle attachment groups are similar, I don't see any location for the primary precessional muscle groups – which serve for Bemmie's tentacles somewhat like our opposable thumb, allowing the tentacles to interact with each other in very complex ways. So either this animal lacked the precessional groups or had very, very underdeveloped precessional muscles, which makes him a different species.
"Additionally, our anatomical studies of the mummified bodies found on Ceres base indicate that their reproductive strategy involved relatively few children, rather than an R-strategy species. This means that they'd be extremely careful of their children, and with their technology it seems extremely hard to imagine one just wandering out to get lost on the surface. But I think the anatomical evidence of the muscle groups is fairly conclusive."
"Is it like any of the test creatures found on Ceres?"
"In some ways it seems very similar to some of them. Might have been part of a field test."
Joe asked the obvious question. "Well, if they were doing a field test… do you think any of them could be alive down there?"
Helen was quiet for a moment; the image of her that was visible was clearly considering things carefully. "Could they? I … suppose it is possible. But unless we assume they progressed a very long away along their research, or that they found an ecosystem already in place that was by some miracle compatible enough with their form of life that they could integrate their work with it… I would strongly doubt it. Sixty-five million years, after all, is evolutionary-scale time. Even if a significant population was developed and put in place, there are so many ways they could have gone extinct in the interim."
Jackie felt a sting of disappointment. "Well, I'll keep hoping."
"By all means," Helen said. "I'm not giving up hope that there's something amazing down there, I just try to temper that hope with realism. And even if there is nothing alive now, this fossil tells me it was livable a short time ago, at least for aquatic creatures,and – perhaps – we'll find something alive whenever we get there."
"Just as long as the finding something alive doesn't involve us breaking through the ice and then the screaming starting," A.J. said with a comically exaggerated cynicism. "You know that's how it always works. Besides, I still can't quite forget Who Goes There."
Jackie shuddered. A.J. had gotten her to read that story once, and even now, more than a century after it was written, it had the power to send chills colder than Europa down your spine.
"Don't worry," Helen said with a laugh. "I promise, if I see something that looks like freezing solid sixty million years ago just pissed it off, I'll let you and Maddie drop thermite on it before excavating."
"That's why I married you, always practical."
"Almost always," Joe corrected.
"Almost?" Helen asked.
"Well, like he said, you did marry him," said Joe.