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Threshold: Chapter One

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 22:50 EST




Political Compromise, n. An arrangement to solve some complex problem which is satisfactory to no one except the politicians who arranged it.

    “I’ll sue all of your asses, you little bastard! I didn’t invest my money in your pie-in-the-sky operation to—

    “—get only a two hundred percent gain in ten years? Well, tough, that’s what you’re getting.” A.J. rose, mirrored-VRD gaze two inches higher than Anton Margulis’ angry brown eyes. “Take it or leave it. But let me guarantee you that if you sue us, even if you win, you’ll wish you’d lost. Please, though, go ahead, try it. You’ve been such a prick ever since you invested, acting as though you thought your money made you a goddamn expert, I’d almost think it was worth it. And I’ll enjoy every minute of making you look like the class-A jackass you are.” He saw Margulis’ fists tightening. “Or you could take a swing at me and I could hand you your ass in a sling. Any way you want it. So do you want your money, or do you want a fight?”

    Margulis glared up at him for a moment. A.J. kept the sneer carefully fixed on his face. He knew the advantage his blank mirrored stare had in this situation, and liked it that way. Finally the speculator’s gaze dropped, he snarled something that A.J. deliberately did not let his sensors enhance to comprehensibility, and he grabbed up the settlement form and scrawled a barely-legible signature across it. The smart-paper form recorded Margulis’ retinal for verification.

    “Thank you, Mr. Margulis.” Hank Dufresne took the form. “And if you will check your designated account, you will find I have just authorized the transfer.”

    Margulis grunted something that might, charitably, have been described as a version of “thank you,” and left the office with considerably more noise than was necessary.

    A.J. collapsed back into his chair, feeling the weight of Earth’s gravity crushing him down. He’d worked hard to keep in shape back on Mars, and overall he thought he’d done fairly well, but there was a big difference between keeping in shape and living in a 1-g environment after being on Mars and similar low-gravity settings for two years. “For a minute I thought he was going to call my bluff.”

    “So did I, and not the part involving a fistfight, either.” Hank shook his head. “Can’t you find a more diplomatic way to do this?”

    “Look, you want diplomatic, you get Joe here. Better yet, Glenn.”

    Hank favored him with a sour look. “I would have, if it wouldn’t take another six months.” He relented slightly. “Actually, I guess it was a piece of luck that any of you three were here when it came to a head. Some of these guys—like him—won’t take anything that isn’t said face-to-face seriously.”

    “He was the last, wasn’t he? Because that was one hell of a chunk of change we had to hand him.”

    “The last one of any note. And I did get one piece of good news; your TV-host girlfriend—”

    “My wha—oh, you mean Myranda.” Myranda Sevins, one of the daytime talk mavens, had allowed A.J. to basically use her show as a publicity platform in the days after the big accident that had nearly cost A.J. his life. To their surprise, she’d actually become something of a convert, investing a moderate (for her) amount in Ares. “What about her?”

    “She sent us another check instead of asking for her money back. Said she figured we’d find a way to make money out of the deal somehow, so if we’d just give her stock she’d back off on the county-sized Mars homestead.”

    A.J. gave a tired grin. “Thank all the gods for that. I know my limits, and I couldn’t outfight her on the publicity front, even with Helen and Maddie helping.”

    “So… you’re not broke, are you?”

    A.J. tried to look nonchalant, then shrugged, looking down. “Not exactly. Liquid assets are pretty much tapped out, though. I’ve got a bunch of options and locked-in investments of other sorts at Dust-Storm that I could liquidate at a terrible loss, but I’d also lose out on my position there. Which was really what I came here to solidify.”

    Hank nodded. He knew A.J. had made the trip back from Mars specifically to work on major advances to the “Faerie Dust” sensor motes, and use his unique talents and access to the alien technology discoveries made by NASA and Ares to finish acquiring a major stake in Dust-Storm Technology. It just so happened that a week before A.J. landed, the U.N. finished its acrimonious arguing over how the entire “Mars situation” would be handled. That had set off an awful lot of political and business landmines, including the current crisis at Ares.

    A.J. brushed back his unruly blond hair. “Anyway, that puts Ares back in the black, or at least much more the gray that we can operate on for a while, right?” He felt his gut tighten as he saw the older man’s normally cheerful face go carefully neutral in expression.

    “Well, A.J., yes and no. That takes off the immediate financial pinch, but we have a major issue that’s only partly to do with money and investors. If we actually had been granted title—or, let’s be accurate, since there wasn’t any way we’d actually be granted ownership of a planet, right to exploit for some reasonable time—on all of Mars, we’d have kept our investors. Or even if we got a really big chunk of it.”

    “Hey, we did!” A.J. said. “Joe’s stunt made it so that we didn’t lose out!”

    Hank shook his head. “We got lucky, yeah. The ‘Buckley Addendum’ was rammed through, but even though the administration claimed that was to ensure ‘fair treatment’ of Ares, it was just taking advantage of the situation to make sure that there was some mechanism to allow other government and corporate agencies to claim rights on extraterrestrial territory, by allowing the first person to set foot on an extraterrestrial body to have a ninety-nine-year no-holds-barred lease on some portion of that body. The wording, of course, allows them to decide how much you can claim. Anyway, the problem is we’ve got a lot of good territory, by Martian standards, but only about nine percent of what we hoped to get—which is not ‘a really big chunk’ to the investors. What would your reaction be to someone who got you to invest in new sensors, and the sensors only did about one-tenth of what they claimed when you invested?”

    “But…” A.J. shut up. He knew that he could clearly differentiate between the scenarios, but what Hank was telling him was, basically, that many other people couldn’t, and to them Ares was already a failure.

    “Let’s get to the point, Hank.” A.J. jumped. He’d forgotten Anne Calabrio was present. She was the only other Ares board member currently on Earth.

    “We’ve ditched the whiners and the guys who somehow ignored all our warnings about speculation and so on,” Anne said. “We aren’t broke, and we’ve got, what, five million square miles of mostly prime Martian real estate. We’re helping build Phobos Station along with NASA, our own colony is starting up fairly well for something so early in the development stages, so what’s the problem?”

    “The problem is that we’re about to be left out in the cold,” Hank said bluntly. As Ares’ financial genius, his job had always been to look ahead and find innovative ways to keep the perennially cash-short speculative venture afloat. A.J. couldn’t ever recall a meeting where he looked more grim. “The presidential election ended just a little before the Mars-Phobos Treaties were finalized, and the president wasn’t happy about the results of the treaties. Sure, anyone with sense would have realized that something like it would be the end result, but I think you people know that our president hasn’t always been sensible unless what you said agreed with what he wanted. My contacts say he’s going to be pulling in the wagons and focusing on purely U.S. interests—which means the government and large businesses. From his point of view, Ares really stole a march on NASA even though we were working together, and we’ve already been paid for our efforts. He probably doesn’t think he owes us anything, and like most people he doesn’t have any real gut grasp of the demands of space travel. So he won’t think twice about doing things that can cause us one hell of a lot of problems.”

    “Like...?” A.J. prompted.

    “Like starting to make us pay our own freight. Yeah, we’ve started our colony, but it’ll be a lot of long, hard years before we can even dream of them being fully self-supporting. If everyone’s playing nice, they recognize that helping us stay established helps them with our expanding resource base and so on, but I don’t think a lot of these guys will get that angle.”

    Anne sucked in her breath as the implications sank in. “Oh, hell.”

    “No kidding.” Hank said.

    A.J. turned the implications over in his mind. His gut churned as the situation clarified. “You mean we’ll have to pay full price for launch capacity. When our own launch capacity never got developed outside of NASA because of the emergency get-to-Phobos-now project.”

    “It gets better. You know, I wasn’t stupid when we got sucked into this. One of the deals I cut was that after the Nike mission was finished—and by the contract I negotiated, it was finished once we’d gotten to Phobos and provided a few months support—Ares could have any available launch capacity basically at cost of launch, no more. But…” Hank ran a hand through his prematurely-white hair. “The Treaty divvied up Mars, and for political points the U.S. used NASA’s foresight in making the Nike engine-rocket assemblies detachable to offer each of the other space-capable nations—China, the E.U., Japan, and India—one pre-tested, functional, high-power NERVA engine to ‘help bring all of Earth into the true Space Age,’ as the president’s one speech put it. The extra engine they agreed to give to the U.N. so they had something to use for their administration of the ‘common property of the human race’.”

    “So? That should help us, right? More people have a reason to get into space, and…”

    Anne shook her head, and A.J. felt his face flush with embarrassment as he saw Hank’s almost pitying look. “You’re such a genius with your stuff that I keep forgetting that you’re also as clueless as a kid sometimes. No, it hurts us. Because all the countries involved are now going to be using all of their available launch capacity to start building their own ships so they can hopefully find something—like another Bemmius base—that they can claim for their own use under the Buckley Addendum. So…”

    Now he got it, and A.J. cursed aloud. “Son of a bitch. So there is no ‘available’ launch capacity for us to use! That means that we’ll be competing directly with the government for its own launch capacity. They’ll sell it to us, probably, for ‘humanitarian’ reasons—translated: they won’t let us starve to death, probably—but they’ll make it so expensive that we’ll eventually have to give up and come home.”


    He slammed his fist on the table. “Dammit, they can’t do that! We fucking gave them Mars! They wouldn’t even have found that stuff without me! If Ares hadn’t shown them up early on, they wouldn’t even be landing there now!”

    Hank shrugged. “Fair doesn’t mean much in politics. We aren’t getting anywhere with that line of thought. We need a solution.”

    “Sure, I’ll just cover myself with Faerie Dust, think a few Good Thoughts, and fly my ass back to Mars!” A.J. knew he shouldn’t be directing his anger at either Hank or Anne, but he ached all over and this new turn of events was… well, just too much. He’d spent most of the last month working like a demon at Dust-Storm, only to be pulled out by an emergency call from Hank, leading to him spending almost everything he had to save Ares from a bunch of idiots… and now another bunch of idiots was threatening the whole project. “Sorry.” He thought for a moment. “What about the U.N.?”

    “Talked with Glenn and Joe on that a few hours ago,” Hank answered. “Our guess is that since the U.N. doesn’t have any launch capacity of their own, they’ll be a long way from building anything. Their best bet will probably be to use the reactor as a power source for Phobos Station or something like that. The countries agreed to let the U.N. be the arbitrator because that was the only deal everyone could live with, but don’t think any of them like it. We also don’t know yet who’s going to be in charge of the Interplanetary Research Institute, which is the body that will be running that part of the show. A couple of candidates could be useful, but a few of the others would be actively hostile to us for a lot of reasons.”

    Something was nagging at A.J.’s subconscious. Something about the mission to Mars… the original crew of Nike… things said… that argument he’d had with Jackie, back in the restaurant before the disaster… Taken off the crew… Dammit, what was it?

    “So you think the space-capable powers will be competing?”

    “Right now it looks like it. Maybe the other four will form some kind of temporary alliance to catch up with the United States, but in any case they’ll be using everything they’ve got to make parity. Nothing left for us.”

    The idea was right there, almost in his hands. “So…” he said slowly, “we need more launch capacity. We can’t build it, right?”

    “You know those numbers, A.J. Yes, we could, if we had time. But… I’m guessing we can keep things running for a year or two on Mars, drawing on the credit we’ve got and so on, but if we have to build our own launch capacity, that goes way down. And of course then to re-establish ourselves we’ll need more launch capacity—assuming that someone doesn’t find some legal wrinkle to use that makes our leaving the area weaken our claim. Which they might.”

    Launch capacity. Outside launch capacity. Outside launch capacity that wouldn’t be focused on building other people’s ships. Why did he keep thinking of Jackie? She was a great engineer, but—

    And then it hit him, in a blaze of inspiration. An ally, a reason, something that only one man would both understand and be able to make work. Somehow he knew this was the only chance they had.

    Feeling his tired muscles scream in his thighs, A.J. stood. “I think there’s a way. We can’t do it, no. We need to keep our money for surviving long enough. But if we can convince one of the other countries to help us directly –“

    Hank and Anne looked at him quizzically. “At their own expense?”

    “No, for their own benefit. Oh, don’t look at me like that, I’m not stupid enough to think that I could convince any politician of anything like that. But I know one guy who could convince anyone of damn near anything. And he would understand exactly what has to be done, too. If I can get him to come here…” He almost ran out of the room, wireless processing already showing a search for the fastest way to contact his target.

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