She stood resplendent in the 200-foot high airlock, like she belonged in a showroom that sells alien spaceships. Illuminated by floodlights, her silver skin reflected the rough-hewn rock walls of the shaft.
The Jules Verne as she had been christened, had gone from rough design to reality in four years, two months and ten days. She looked only a little different from the renderings on the large screen at DEEP. Her pressure cabin was a slightly-flattened egg shape, 11 feet long. It now had six portholes instead of four, with the additional ones being in the roof and floor. This had been a weight penalty, hard-won by the scientists. On top were two large canisters containing the parachutes. Below was a truss structure holding the huge cylindrical fuel tanks and four rocket engines out at the edges.
Being an atmospheric craft, she had the advantage that spacecraft do not: testability. She had been through hundreds of hours of flight, pressure and temperature tests. Her hand-picked crew had been trained meticulously, with thousands of hours of study, simulator, and actual flight time.
Serena McNaughton had never dreamed that day four years ago that she would actually be riding the craft into the deep. Her physical fitness, academic achievements, and raw talent for science had made her a fit. She did, however, have to hurriedly squeeze in a degree in geology around her flight training.
The rest of the crew consisted of pilot John Sawyer and co-pilot Pete Kissinger, both recruited from the elite ranks of the Air Force test pilot unit. The other scientist on board was Gabriel Hernandez, a holder of PhDs in atmospheric science and marine biology.
After their intense training regime, strapped in in their lightweight spacesuits, they were ready. Their craft was ready. The only thing left to do was go.
"Life support systems are nominal" reported John to the Mission Control Center. The MCC was no longer a ramshackle collection of portable cabins. It was a gleaming, high-tech steel and glass structure a mile from the shaft entrance. It had even been dedicated by the incoming president, who was a strong supporter of science. Mission controllers watched their workstations intently, scanning data feeds for any signs of abnormality. The atmosphere was hushed, as mission and scientific specialists waited.
The mission director checked in with each specialist, one by one, and they gave their green light for go. "You are go for engine start". John started the engines and brought them up to 60% thrust. Smoke and sonic shockwaves filled the shaft. The crew could see what was around them just fine, however, with displays in their helmet visors showing camera images augmented with radar and infra-red data.
"Propulsion is good. All engines performing nominally" John said.
"You are go to hover over the shaft", came the reply from the MCC.
He increased the throttles until the Verne rose a few feet from the floor, and moved smoothly to hover over the massive open door that led to the deep.
"You are go to descend". John throttled the engines back, gradually at first to ease through the door, and then he pushed the levers almost all the way down. They all felt the sudden weightless sensation of being almost in free fall. They passed the bottom of the shaft, and entered total blackness. "Fifty klicks .... one hundred klicks .... one hundred fifty klicks ..." John called out their speed in kilometers per hour as they fell. "Opening 'chutes".
They all felt a massive jolt as the two giant parachutes unfurled above them, slowing the craft rapidly. An eerie sensation came over them as they switched from their helmet displays to look out of the portholes. They were in the very bowels of the earth itself, unable to see a thing. Down here, Earth was the master, and they her servants. They were tiny and insignificant in comparison.
The lack of any visual points of reference unsettled them so much that they switched their visor displays back on, though John as the pilot had never turned his off. No emotions clouded his mind; every action and reflex was instinctive.
"Setting course for the opening" he announced. The ropes to the giant parachutes changed its angle of attack, and they began to descend at an angle of about 40 degrees from vertical. The opening in the cavern wall was visible by radar. The IR view showed it to be much cooler than the surrounding cavern wall, which intrigued the scientists. No-one knew what was in there, or how deep it went. Their mission was to find out.
Their descent through the vast cavern was smooth, as though they had done it a thousand times. Radio chatter was exchanged with mission control, and displays were monitored. Outside, the temperature and pressure grew steadily. There were soon almost 500 pounds of pressure on every square inch of the hull, equivalent to roughly 1000 feet down in the ocean.
"Looks like it's got steam coming from it" said Serena as she gazed intently at the opening through her IR display, which showed wisps of a much cooler gas rising from the opening, carried by the massive convection current that circulated through the whole cavern. They were only 5 miles away now, and headed straight for it. Four miles to go. Three miles. Two miles. The opening, itself a mile and a half wide, loomed in front of them now, the steam hiding anything that might be beyond.
"Reigniting engines" John said. A slight deceleration sensation followed. "Cutting the chutes .... NOW". He pushed a button, and the lines to the massive parachutes were severed. They felt a slight jolt. They were reliant on rocket thrust alone to stay airborne now. John aimed the Verne straight at the center of the opening. The radar views in their displays now started to show shapes inside - not random rock formations, or even stalagmites, but straight lines! They were at angles, and intersected with each other.
"Misson Control, this is the Verne. We are about to enter the opening."
"Roger that. Good luck, and we'll see you in an hour. " came the reply.
They were about to enter the cave of wonders.