Harriet watched what was quickly turning into one of the oddest arguments she’d ever witnessed take shape. On one side was an enormous two meter spacer, an experienced surveyor who’d visited more planets in the last five years than most people would see in a lifetime. The other was a kind of dumpy mother of two who’d lived her whole life under a single colony dome and first met someone from outside said dome less than a week ago. They were apparently debating the theological implications of nuclear physics.
“We know that the reactor was modified to disguise your colony, Miss Pracht,” Fyodorovich was saying. “But there are a dozen other ways we could achieve the same end with safer equipment. Part of the reason your reactor is failing is because it’s been forced to do something entirely outside its specifications.”
“It’s not a matter of the technology at work, Volk,” Alyssa replied. “We know the reactor is a nuclear fusion device. But Ransom’s notes also suggest its part of how the Oyarsa defends the colony against Thulcandra. How do we know replacing it with two different pieces of technology keeps the same effect?”
“But what if you don’t need it anymore?” Fyodorovich countered. “You’re not in any meaningful danger from Earth now.”
“Only for as long as you stay,” she countered. “And then only as long as Thulcandra is and remains as helpless as you say it is. You can’t honestly expect us to put our trust in something that flimsy, can you? Outsiders haven’t exactly done right by us in the past.”
Volk sat back in his chair, an old thing left by the basecamp’s previous occupants that had more dust for padding than cushions. It creaked ominously under the navy man’s weight. His face gave little away and, since he hadn’t given Harriet any clues on his negotiation strategy before Alyssa had arrived with the Eldest, she wasn’t sure if he’d expected this dead end or what his next move might be.
But it turned out Volk’s plans didn’t matter at this stage. Eldest Nobari leaned forward, rested his forearms on the table and said, “Commander Fyodorovich, at this point I think we’ve said all that can be said on this front. The Sunbottle is our only tested defense against the threat of Thulcandra. You could very well explain enough of your technology to Alyssa to convince us your new countermeasures could work. The spiritual protection they offer us from the Enemy might even carry over, whether or not you believe such a thing is possible. After all, the original Sunbottle came from Thulcandra itself, a planet on the other side of the spiritual battle we live in. I’m sure a reactor made by those who don’t believe in it at all could function just as well.”
“But you’re unwilling to take our word for it,” Volk said.
The big man sighed. “Under the circumstances, I understand. At least to an extent. Can I ask you something, Miss Pracht?”
“Does the name C.S. Lewis mean anything to you?”
Harriet glanced up at that. She’d mostly been watching the transcript her AI was building up until that point but the introduction of this new, unexpected name got her attention.
“I’ve never heard it before,” Alyssa said. An honest answer, by Harriet’s assessment. She hadn’t met the Martian woman until they visited the ship two days ago but Alyssa struck her as the type to wear most of her feelings on her sleeve. That undoubtedly made puberty hard but journalism easier. For the journalist, not Alyssa.
Nobari, on the other hand, shut down. It was less obvious, just a rapid flick of the eyes from one person to another, a twitch of the cheek and slight turn of the lips suggesting he’d heard something he hadn’t expected. Then all motion left his expression in a clear attempt to withhold any tells. A well done poker face implemented a split second too late.
Volk grunted and changed the display on the holoprojector he was using, replacing the current image of the layout for a replacement reactor with a new image of a large landing craft. “Fine. A full replacement is the safest, fastest way to solve your problem but there is another option.”
“Retooling the Sunbottle.”
He glanced at Alyssa with an amused smile. “I suspect that’s along the lines of what your previous proposed solution was?”
“Yes.” She seemed less amused at the line of thought. “But that assumed we had the time to fabricate a whole new set of junctions and injectors, plus enough batteries to store enough power to run the dome in the meantime.”
A new set of readouts were ready and projected for them to look at. Volk began pointing out parts of the plan as he explained. “That assumes a couple of things. First, that you have to use battery power. But if we bring down a Tigris-class lander we can hook the ship’s generator into your power grid and run your buildings off of that. The reactor only needs to be offline for about a day before you can start booting it up again, in about two days you can run the full dome on that level of output and a Tigris can put out enough power to run Bottletown for about a week, so plenty of breathing room.”
“What about the rest of the dome?” Nobari asked.
“Your crops and equipment can last a couple of days without gravity or air circulating. We’ll keep the EM shielding up so you don’t catch any extra radiation from the sun. Brownouts like this used to be a regular thing on some of the space stations we have so we’ve had plenty of chances to work up measures to deal with them. Nothing we’ve experienced suggests it will pose a problem for anything you’ve got down here.”
“But we won’t have the raw materials strip and replace one full injector system until we strip some of the parts,” Alyssa objected. “That alone pushes our timeline out a day and a half, maybe two. And adds the fisher’s equipment back into the list of things that have to run.”
“No. Because that’s the second thing your plans assume.” The project switched images again, this time changing to pure text. “I’ve been talking with our engineering experts onboard the Stewart, that’s how I knew this problem was coming in the first place. We’ve put a lot of the parts into production shipside already. If you didn’t need them they could’ve always been recycled and this way we weren’t wasting any time. And not only have we already started, our fabbers work much faster than yours. A full set of replacement hardware should be ready to go within six hours.”
Nobari leaned forward and studied the readout intently. “I see why you’re so reluctant to impress yourselves on others,” he said after a moment. “You could sway a huge number of people to your side with these kind of gestures. What do you want in return?”
“Eldest,” Alyssa hissed.
“It’s fine.” Volk cleared the readout. “Personally, I’d just like your goodwill. These kinds of goodwill gifts are common in diplomacy but if you don’t like feeling indebted you can just let us take your old injector systems. Once we break them down we’ll be no worse off in terms of raw materials.”
Nobari leaned back and thought about it for a moment, then glanced at his companion. “Alyssa?”
“I’d like a closer look at the plans for your lander. And I insist on looking over your replacement parts before you send them down. But…” She hesitated a moment, then shook her head. “I can’t think of any reason not to do it this way.”
Nobari nodded, as much to himself as to anyone around him. “Very well. Let’s do it.”
Volk stood up and shook his hand. “Certainly. I presume you want to get this done as soon as possible?”
“Sooner, if we can get away with it,” Alyssa said, also standing.
“Then let’s get you spaceborn ASAP.”
Harriet stepped forward, moving around Volk as the big man led Alyssa out of basecamp, choosing instead to approach the Eldest. “Excuse me,” she said, moving her AI to her off hand so she could offer a handshake. “Mr. Nobari? Could I trouble you for a comment?”
Craig looked through the diagrams Deveneaux was explaining and said, “You say it has less than a year of service left?”
“That’s our most generous estimate, yes.”
“Why wasn’t I briefed on this immediately?”
“Well…” The engineer glanced over at the ship’s tactical officer just down the table. “I did intend to bring it up as soon as we reached these conclusions but there were other issues demanding your attention at the time.”
For a split second Craig wondered if his career was over. It was a Prime Directive violation and he hadn’t even been able to ask Admiral Carrington to formally order his crew to intervene for the sake of form. At the same time his heart was with Volk. He wanted to help the children Earth had abandoned to Mars. He just wasn’t sure that they were going about it the best way. Then again, the Malacandrans had been on the verge of addressing the problem before the Stewart arrived. Perhaps without the distraction of their presence on the ground in the first place they would have solved the reactor’s problems already. He rocked back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling for just a moment. “Okay, Commander, how long will it take us to finish producing the replacement parts they need?”
“Assuming Commander Fyodorovich brings their techs up immediately? We should have all the parts finished an hour after they arrive. Depending on how long the inspection takes we can get a lander loaded and back out in another two.”
“That’s awful fast,” Rand muttered, looking at the parts inventory. “How much of this did we have in inventory already?”
“None of it,” Deveneaux replied. “It’s two hundred fifty year old tech, why would we have it on hand?”
“You’re going to nanofacture all this in…” Craig did some mental estimates. Ninety to a hundred minutes to get up from Mars, plus an hour after they arrived. “Two and a half hours?”
“This is four hours of work, at least,” Rand said.
“Five, actually.” Deveneaux shrugged. “When I couldn’t discuss it with you I checked with Fyodorovich. We decided it was worth going ahead and starting on, so I cleared the cues on the fabbers and started production.”
Rand straightened in surprise. “You canceled my type two shelters?”
“You’re not going to need an outpost on Mars if the reactor melts down, Commander.”
“I agree,” Craig said, clearing the holodisplay. “Well done, Commander Deveneaux. Keep me posted if there are any developments in the situation. I’ll report to the Admiral.”
“Wait. One thing.” Rand visibly got his head back in the game. “How are we getting a lander inside the colony? Do we need to include some way to open the dome?”
Deveneaux shook his head. “I’m told that’s something they can handle on their side of things.”
“Okay,” Pak said, looking around at his fellow shift heads and Gemma. “Who here has ever replaced the servos on an exterior door? Or has anyone on their shifts who has? Lawrence? Tupulo?”
To his surprise, Gemma raised her hand.
“I used to be on one of the crawler crews.” She clasped her hands together and her fingers worried at each other. “Not many people know it but there’s a set of exterior doors at the bottom of the Sunbottle. We had to replace the servos once a year.”
Pak gave the girl a hard look. She was odd, and a little flighty, but she’d never deliberately lied as far as he knew. “What possible use for an exterior door do you have down there?“
She threw her hands out in an enormous shrug. “I don’t know. Crawlers just take replace parts, we aren’t told what they’re for.”
“Fine. Go check with the crawlers on shift today, see if they have any of those servos on hand. It’ll save us time if we don’t have to make the parts from scratch.” He looked up and out the watch tower windows, towards the hatch in the dome a few hundred meters away. “We got enough on our plate as it is.”