We now begin regular snippeting! Look for new chapters on the usual days (M-W-F) until the eARC comes out!
"Pull – gently, dammit, smoothly, don't jerk!" A.J. couldn't keep the tense exasperation from his voice as he barely reacted in time, commanding one of the three autonomous "Locust" drones, Hopper, to ease the tension on the all-too-vital cable.
"No need to snap," Dan Ritter said mildly. The dark-haired former environmental systems tech for Odin spoke English with only a trace of his native Germanic accent.
"Sorry. But snap is exactly what we'll get if we're not careful. We're crossing a hundred meters of ice frozen to minus one-seventy, and the cable's dropped a LOT of flexibility."
A.J. felt his hair sticking to his forehead, barely kept himself from trying – futilely – to wipe sweat away. That doesn't work when you're in a spacesuit.
He stood between two spaceships – the Nebula Storm, half-embedded in a huge ridge of ice that had stopped her final slide after Madeline Fathom had, impossibly, managed to land her on Europa – and the Munin, one of Odin's two explorer/lander vehicles, which had joined them after Richard Fitzgerald's ill-fated mutiny led to Nebula Storm's main reactor being shut down and Odin being crippled and most of her crew dead. Six people on Nebula Storm, six on Munin; the only survivors of this whole disaster.
Of course, on his side that meant that Nebula Storm hadn't lost anyone (yet), while the survivors of Odin had lost a hundred of their friends and colleagues.
"Run the sheath heaters again?" Joe asked over the radio.
So close now. Four meters, maybe five… but…"Yeah, you'd better. If we break this we may be totally screwed." A.J. heard his voice shake slightly and realized that he was far from recovered from the tensions of the last few days. Running on a few hours sleep for days on end will do that to you, especially when you're not twenty any more.
The cable he was helping string from Munin to Nebula Storm was, quite literally, the lifeline for the entire expedition. The superconducting coil batteries on Nebula Storm had been heavily drained for the landing – since her reactor was down – and the remaining energy was being quickly consumed by maintaining the dusty-plasma "Nebula Drive" over the two crashed vessels as a powerful radiation screen, diverting the thousands of rems of lethal radiation that screamed down onto Europa every day from Jupiter's hellish magnetosphere.
Had Munin not been equipped originally as the lander and exploration beach-head for the expedition to Enceladus, they might have been out of luck already. Fortunately, that was its intended function, with last-ditch lifeboat a distant second, and that meant it had Athena on board. The independent nuclear-powered melt-probe was meant to penetrate the icy shell of Enceladus and reach the presumed Bemmie base beneath – and for that it had a lot of superconducting cable.
So it wasn't, strictly speaking, the breaking of the cable that would be the problem; it was the fact that they didn't have time to do this over before the Nebula Storm and her barely-visible pearlescent shield shut down and let invisible, deadly hellfire in again. If that happens, we'll have to splice cable and try to manipulate it almost all by remote, and I really don't know how well the Locusts will do in that kind of environment.
"Activating sheath heaters," Mia Svendsen said cheerfully. She's doing well, A.J. thought. Possibly because she'd become so sure she was going to die at Fitzgerald's hands that she was still riding on relief. A.J. hoped she stayed that way, at any rate; they were going to need all the engineers they could get, and it was an incredible stroke of luck that they'd ended up with not one, not two, but three – four if you counted Eberhart, who was technically an engineer but focused more on computer software/hardware than the heavy gadget sort.
He set the cable down gingerly and waited; his suit's imagers showed the progressive glow of infrared marching down the length of the cable with its embedded heaters, and his other sensors reported the slow but steady rise of its temperature. He chuckled slightly.
"What's so funny, A.J.?" asked Helen.
"We're busy trying to heat a superconducting cable above the temperature that we used to have to cool them down to just a few years ago, so that we won't break the damn thing like a stick." The cable was considerably warmer already, but nowhere near room temperature yet. His smile faded as he looked to the side, at a counter projected in the upper left corner of the suit display; it showed the steady and inexorable drop in Nebula Storm's power.
That'll have to do. "Mia, cut the power. Joe, Horst, I'm ready to pay it out again, you guys pull it through slow and steady on the count of three until you reach the interface. We don't have time to wait any more, it's going to take you at least ten minutes to mate the adapter and get it linked in and then another ten to test before we can really throw the switch."
"Understood, A.J." Horst Eberhardt's voice was steady as a rock, betraying none of the tension A.J. knew he had to be feeling.
"On three. One… two… three!"
A.J. felt the pull begin and the cable began to move again. Behind A.J., inside Munin, Dan Ritter and Anthony LaPointe were feeding the cable through the ship. Outside it was just A.J. and his three Locusts – Hopper, Kwai Chang, and Jiminy. The sensor and exploration probes multiplied A.J., synchronized with his movements so that all four could feed the cable across the gap between the two ships with minimal chance of snags or miscoordination.
Now the cable rippled smoothly from Munin's hatchway, through the manipulators of Kwai Chang and Jiminy, through A.J.'s hands, and thence from Hopper into Nebula Storm. One meter. Two meters. Three. Four.
"That's got it!" Joe's voice was triumphant. "We're starting to attach the adapter now. The rest of you lock down the cable and put the pads around it. Mia, I'll give you the go-ahead for the heaters as soon as soon as we get them connected and grounded – that's priority one in the adapter."
A.J. breathed a sigh of relief and told the Locusts to stay steady as he slowly released the cable. One bullet dodged.
But this far away from home, there's a lot more bullets on the way.