PORTAL: First Chapter Teaser

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Portal will be coming out in May, 2013. Some time before that, the eARC will become available. Thus, the full-bore snippeting will begin not TOO long from now.

 

I thought I'd give you a first taste!

 

PORTAL

By Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor

 

Recovery, N:

1. the act or process of returning to a normal condition, especially from sickness, a shock, or a setback; recuperation

2. restoration to a former or better condition

3. the regaining of something lost

4. the extraction of something useful from materials or a situation which is otherwise useless or poor

 

 

Chapter 1.

     I still have no answers.

 

     That was the thing that kept him here now in an office lit mostly by the ruddy glow of Mars swinging regularly by. Nicholas Glendale was used to having answers, to knowing what he wanted to do and how to achieve it. By the time he'd been five, he'd known he wanted to be a paleontologist, and he'd succeeded – beyond his expectations, even.

 

Then when one of his best students, Helen Sutter, had discovered something impossible and the impossible had turned out to be true – a fossil of an alien creature whose species had built bases across the Solar System in the days of the dinosaurs – he had wanted to become a part of that, follow the dream into space. And he'd succeeded in that, too, and again beyond his wildest dreams.

 

But now that brilliant student, and her friends – his friends as well – now all of them were gone, and a hundred other people with them. The faces refused to leave, the crew of the half-alien vessel Nebula Storm kept coming and going like phantoms in his mind: Helen, with her blond hair tied back, looking at a dessicated Bemmius Secordii mummy sixty-five million years old; A.J. Baker, irreverent and irrepressible sensor expert whose blond hair, cocky smile, and not-too-well hidden vulnerability had eventually led to his marriage to Helen; dark-haired, dark-skinned Jackie Secord, who'd found the first trace of Bemmie on her family's ranch and later become a rocket engineer for the first manned interplanetary vessel, Nike; Joe Buckley, brown hair above a face whose lines showed patience and acceptance of whatever the universe threw at him – good or bad. Madeline Fathom, golden-blonde, delicately built, the single most dangerous – and most reliable – person Nicholas had ever met, one-time agent for the least-known American intelligence agency, later Nicholas' own right hand and married to Joe; Larry Conley, tall and always somehow stooped over as though to apologize for his height, slow-talking but with encyclopedic knowledge of astrophysics.

 

But Nebula Storm was lost with its crew, as were over a hundred others on the ship she had been pursuing, the immense mass-beam drive vessel Odin, both vessels lost with all hands in what was in all likelihood an act of corporate greed gone utterly insane, or – possibly – a terrible accident triggered by misunderstanding.

 

And now he had to decide what to do. The others at Ares Corporation – Glenn Friedet, Reynolds Jones, and the rest of their Board – were waiting on his decision as "Director Nicholas Glendale of the Interplanetary Research Institute of the United Nations".

 

He snorted at the pomposity of the title and stood angrily, the rotation of Phobos Station keeping him as firmly planted on the floor as if he'd been on Earth. Out of habit he began pacing again. If I keep this up, I'll wear a hole in the exceedingly expensive imported carpet.

 

It had all started so simply – as most disasters do. With the discovery of the first two alien bases, one on Mars and one on Mars' moon Phobos, it had become a virtual certainty that there must be other alien installations, possibly with incalculably valuable artifacts within, waiting for salvage elsewhere in the Solar System. The Buckley Accords gave the first discoverer to, literally, set foot on any other system body long-term rights to exploit resources on that body, within a certain range of that first footstep. That was the starter's gun on the greatest race in history – a race to discover these new locations and reach them first, claiming those resources for the country – or the corporation – that first placed a human being upon the planet, moon, or asteroid on which the alien base was located.

 

Larry Conley had made it three-for-three discoveries for the Ares Corporation; his co-worker, A.J. Baker, had made the first earthshaking discovery within Phobos, and later found the pieces of the puzzle that led to a huge installation in Mars' Melas Chasma region, and now Larry had found unmistakable clues indicating that the minor planet or giant asteroid, Ceres, was the site of another alien base.

 

Keeping the discovery a secret, Ares and the Interplanetary Research Institute (usually just called the IRI) had prepared and finally launched an expedition to Ceres, locating and setting foot directly above the base – which turned out to be at least as extensive as the one on Mars.

 

And that, Nicholas thought sadly, was probably the last straw.

 

The European Union's flagship vessel, the Odin, had visited Ceres and remained there for some months. Cooperation had seemed to have been established, and many wonderful results had come of it – ranging from the commercialization of room-temperature superconductors found on Phobos to the discovery of structures which might hold the key, finally, to successful commercial fusion, and a completely intact alien vessel whose drive system and purpose was a mystery.

 

But the Odin had a secret agenda, and within the mass of scientific data one of their people – astronomer Anthony LaPointe – found indications of another alien installation on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn known to have many strange characteristics indeed. Keeping their discovery secret, the Odin prepared for departure, even as a meteor impacted the IRI-Ares base and took out her main reactor.

 

Except that it hadn't been a meteor, and A.J. Baker had been able to show that it was almost certainly a projectile from a coilgun, a magnetic acceleration cannon concealed – against all international and established space travel law – within the mass-driver elements of Odin. There was no proof of this, and neither the IRI nor Ares could afford to accuse the European Union of such things without ironclad evidence. The action showed that their worst fears had been true; the security officer of Odin, Richard Fitzgerald, was an old adversary of Madeline Fathom's and was just as willing to use extreme methods to assure the completion of his mission.

 

Ares and the IRI had, in the meantime, discovered the principle behind the alien vessel's drive system – something called a "dusty plasma" drive which acted like a solar sail combined with a magnetosail, requiring no physical "sail" to capture much of the sun's incident energy to propel it – and using the most advanced nanotech sensor and effector motes had restructured the key elements to work again. For various reasons the Ares personnel decided to attempt to beat the Odin to the now-known base on Enceladus, and revived the sixty-five million year old vessel, launching it as the IRI vessel Nebula Storm.

 

     The modified alien vessel had performed well and the Nebula Storm caught up with Odin near Jupiter, where both vessels were expected to perform an "Oberth Maneuver" to increase their speed and change their course to send them on a rendezvous with Saturn and Enceladus. The situation had been tense but Nicholas had felt that it was under control. Madeline's terse but informative final report had indicated that they had preliminary evidence that the Odin was indeed armed with up to four coilgun-based cannons concealed as part of the main mass-beam drive system, and thus was virtually certainly the cause of the apparent meteor strike that had temporarily disabled the Ceres base and almost killed Joe Buckley.

 

She had also stated that they were going to be able to obtain proof during the Oberth maneuver. From the specific way the former secret agent phrased her report, he suspected they were planning some actions which he, as Director, would be better of not being aware of since he would be then required to advise against it, but he couldn't be sure. Still, he trusted… had trusted… Madeline Fathom (Buckley) to take no unnecessary risks four hundred million miles from home.

 

And in the normal course of things, he still would have at least known what happened. While professional astronomical instruments, both land and space-based, had more important things to do, WASTA would have been focused on the most exciting space travel event in history. The World Amateur Space Telescope Array had been a project started shortly after Meru, the Indian space elevator, had become fully operational, to deploy an inexpensive array of optical telescopes which would be able to be synchronized and controlled from the ground for amateur astronomers to use. It had been an ambitious and ultimately surprisingly successful project, with its multiplicity of smaller aperture space telescopes sometimes nearly matching the performance of some of the professional telescope arrays.

 

Unfortunately, only minutes before Odin and Nebula Storm had passed out of sight around Jupiter, WASTA's control system had crashed due to an adaptive virus infection which had taken a day and a half to eradicate, and another twelve hours had elapsed before the multiple elements of WASTA could be realigned properly; even a very small element of uncertainty in the positioning of the several dozen WASTA telescopes would eliminate their tremendous light-gathering capacity and resolution.

 

So instead of pictures of the ships down to less than a meter resolution – almost enough to read the Odin's name on the hullwe lost them entirely for a few days. Odin's a shattered hulk,front half severed from the rear and most of two of its drive spines shattered, and Nebula Storm… is nowhere to be seen.

 

Even radar had been misled, because whatever had happened, the two vessels had completely changed their courses. Instead of charging forward out of the Jovian system, both had for reasons unknown decelerated and emerged – or not emerged, he corrected himself, since Nebula Storm was nowhere to be seen – on utterly unexpected vectors. It had actually fallen to the Infra-Red Survey Telescope (IRST) to detect the wreckage of Odin and allow the others to home in on it and try to start making sense of the disaster.

 

As no trace of Nebula Storm had yet been found, the theory that made the most sense – a terrible sort of sense – was that she had for some reason slowed enough to drop orbit, scrape the atmosphere of Jupiter itself and be drawn ever closer until the friction melted even her alien hull and Jove pulled the remains down into the crushing blackness of its deadly atmosphere.

 

Nicholas shook his head and felt the ache not just in his head but in his joints, seeming buried in his bones. I'm getting too old for this, he thought.

 

It dawned on him with a faint chill that, in fact, he was getting old. I'm past seventy now. It's been nearly fifteen years since Helen, Joe, and Jackie first dug up Bemmie. Ten years since I stood on Earth and watched Nike blaze its way out of orbit. Almost five years since we discovered a base on Ceres.

 

These days seventy wasn't that old, true. When he was born – when personal computers were new and the web not yet worldwide – seventy was nearing the end of a man's life. People lived longer now and the last great medical advances had pushed active, healthy lifestyles even farther, so that he was physically more as his father had been at forty or forty-five.

 

But right now he felt more like twice that.

 

He sat back down and called up the almost blank document which was supposed to be a press release – one he simply couldn't put off much longer. Oh, there'd been a quick one expressing everyone's shock and loss, with some hope that perhaps Nebula Storm would be located soon – but this was different. He would have to decide what direction he would take, both in public and behind closed doors, in placing – or not placing – blame for the disaster.

 

The European Union itself certainly wouldn't have resorted to such tactics… but the European Space Development Corporation might have; according to Walter Keldering, who was still the United States' representative here at Phobos Base, the ESDC's Chief of Operations Osterhoudt had some rather dark-gray, not to say black, operations history.

 

"Not directly, of course," Keldering had said, some weeks ago, "but he's connected. We're sure of it back at the Agency. And with the political pressure and having seen the benefits coming out of the discovered bases thus far… no, I wouldn't put it past him." He'd made a very expressive face. "And picking – rather forcefully – FITZGERALD for this? Sorry, Nick, but that pretty much screams 'dirty tricks'."

 

He'd appreciated Keldering's honest input – the more so since he could get it now. The President who'd tried to screw Madeline over and, when Maddie foiled him by resigning and signing on with the IRI, sent out Keldering as a replacement was gone now, his final term marred by a completely home-grown scandal that put the opposite party in power. The new President was much more interested in cooperation, the more since he could then rely on others to do a lot of the work while he showed a focus on domestic issues. With those pressures gone, Agent Walter Keldering had become more an associate who simply had to be treated with respect and the same caution over proprietary information as any other, not a specifically-assigned spy.

 

He sighed again and started dictating. "The IRI apologizes for the delay in this announcement, but we have all been in a state of shock, and mourning, ever since we received the news that the Nebula Storm and the Odin had both been lost or suffered terrible damage, presumably resulting in the deaths of all aboard. We have lost friends and even family on those vessels, as have those in the European Union, and we extend our own sympathies to our brethren in the EU over this terrible accident…"

 

This was, naturally, the obvious and wisest course, to say nothing to anyone. Treat it as a terrible tragedy whose cause would likely never be known and perhaps arrange a true joint mission to Enceladus with the EU.

 

But he had to stop the dictation again, because the very idea made his gut rebel. They killed my friends. How can I allow anyone to get away with that?

 

He knew he couldn't really live with himself if he did. That was the reason Madeline, Helen, A.J., Joe, and even Jackie and Larry had gone out on that half-mad venture, chasing down the Odin in a vessel sixty-five million years old: because that kind of action, that sort of robber-baron treachery, could not be tolerated, must not be tolerated in the greater reaches of the solar system.

 

But at the same time he couldn't afford to lose the support of the European Union.

 

I really should have stayed a paleontologist. I had no trouble dealing with the petty politics there.

 

A light blinked on his desktop and he touched the icon. A message from Ceres. Encrypted.

 

Perhaps they'd found some evidence, at least. If he could prove what had happened on Ceres…

 

He was startled to find it was heavily encrypted. The standard decrypt key in the desktop wasn't sufficient; it was demanding a personal one-time key and biometric verification. It must be something important.

 

The screen lit up and his heart seemed to stop for a moment.

 

Then it gave a great leap and he felt a laugh of joy and relief rising as the golden-haired (if somewhat bedraggled) woman on the screen smiled at him.

 

"Hello, Nicholas," said Madeline Fathom. "I'm using the secure Ceres relay for this because I'm sure you'll want to decide what to do – and what you want us to do – very much in private.

 

"A warm hello from all of us here on sunny Europa."

 

 

Comments

  1. Oooooh. I suspect the pending release of political mayhem aplenty…

  2. Joy!

  3. The “real snippeting won’t begin before too long”. Too long would have been December the 27th….

  4. Robert Gottlieb says:

    Here we go…

  5. Can you tell us when snippeting will begin in earnest? After all, it’s been more than two whole weeks since this taste:). Seriously though, looks good so far. So good that I keep wanting to turn to the next page. Keep up the good work.

  6. i’ve been sick – barely avoided the dreaded hospital – so i missed this ENTIRELY!
    i HATE spoilers, so i’m not reading more – but DEAR GODS man! i can’t WAIT for may!

    • I don’t read snippets myself, either! But I know a lot of people like them, and it gives me something to update my page with easily!

      • I always read them – for writers I like, it serves to whet my appetite, while for new writers it’s a way to see if I’m interested.

        I hadn’t mentally connected “Ryk Spoor” with that “Sea Wasp” character from the newsgroups, so it was snippets that got me interested enough to buy. And now, counting ebooks and paper, I own multiple copies of most of your books.

Your comments or questions welcomed!