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Threshold: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Monday, March 8, 2010 23:19 EST



    Nicholas Glendale leaned back in his chair, relishing the lightness of one-third gravity—though not quite as much as he was enjoying the majestically rotating view of the Red Planet through his office window.

    Phobos Station was shaping up nicely. Basically the habitat ring of a Nike-class vessel with a docking hub, the Station was one of the subsidiary conditions of the Mars Treaty, a centralized location where missions to and from Phobos and Mars could be launched or concluded. Nicholas had wasted no time in making it clear that he intended to permit ships of any and all types to avail themselves of the station’s amenities, so long as they were willing to help support the station—or to out it more crudely, pay for the privilege. True, such use was implied in the nature of the Interplanetary Research Institute, which essentially owned Phobos Station. But by making it explicit and enthusiastic, Glendale hoped to ensure that the IRI would be more than just an overseeing body, but an active force in the exploration of the Solar System.

    And, as Madeline pointed out, it would also make it a lot easier for us to keep tabs on all the other players. It was a bit of a jarring shift of gears to start thinking in those terms. While you did try to keep an eye on other scientists’ work in academia, the level of paranoia and security needed for his new job as Director of the IRI was something entirely different, and one of the least-pleasant parts of that job.

    Having Fathom as his new head of security, however, certainly made it easier. As he thought that, he heard the faint chime from his door announcing her arrival. "Come in, Madeline."

    "Good morning, Director. Or is it afternoon?" Madeline glided in, every golden hair impeccably in place as usual.

    Easier on the eye as well as on my schedule, Nicholas mused. He was quite honest about the fact that he thought both Joe Buckley and A.J. Baker were exceedingly lucky men. Or perhaps just much easier to live with, he corrected himself. As an admittedly handsome and very well known figure, he’d been "lucky" that way four times, each time ending with a divorce; one friendly, one neutral, two savage. He’d been single for some years now, and suspected he’d be smart to remain that way. For whatever reason—probably flaws in his own personality, he’d readily admit—Nicholas Glendale and marriage just didn’t seem to suit each other.

    "I suppose it depends on your preference," he said, in answer to her light question. "The standard Martian time is early morning. Hopefully we should be concluded by the time Joe is ready to call you."

    She gave a slight frown. "I shouldn’t be that transparent."

    "Madeline, my dear, you should be that transparent about something that isn’t at all a secret. You have to bounce constantly between here, Phobos Base, and Mars; the last thing I want to do is cause you to miss out on whatever you married Joe for. This may be a mystery to the rest of us, but as long as it keeps you happy…"

    Fathom grinned, sticking her tongue out.

    Glendale smiled in response. "Always glad to be of help. It’s time for the general briefing, is it?"

    "With new wrinkles and info, yes. I’ve sent it to your email too."

    "Which I will file with the others after I get the live presentation, yes."

    Maddie sat down across from him. "Well, I’ll try to make it fast. First, Ares. I am required to tell you ‘thank you!’ once again by everyone on Mars. Yes, I know, that’s the fifth time, but they’ll probably send the same message for the next five times anyway."

    "And tell Glenn, Joe, A.J., and the others they’re all welcome. Again." Nicholas had stretched several points to make a considerable portion of the shipment he’d brought with him from Earth, ostensibly intended to help set up the IRI, be delivered to Ares at very reasonable price. That wasn’t, in his view, charity. The division of Mars had given Ares essentially all of the Melas Chasma area as well as a number of other notable claims elsewhere—except for, of course, the Bemmie base on Mars. This made the IRI a political and economic island with exactly one neighbor: the Ares Project. It only made sense to be neighborly. The fact that many of the people involved were his friends just made it easier.

    Maddie consulted her notes. "Walter Keldering is requesting another meeting with you. Probably wants to try to push for more U.S. direct access to the research."

    "Of course he is," Nicholas sighed. "I suppose you’ll have to set one up; I don’t have any reason to antagonize the United States, even if I’m going to have to once more refuse him special privileges—whatever justification he’s come up with this time." Nicholas’ hopes had been that whoever was sent to replace Madeline would be a pure political yes-man, someone who just did exactly as he was told. Keldering was political, but unfortunately was very competent indeed. The former CIA operative had not attempted any bluster or bullying, as might have been expected from the current administration’s attitude. Instead he seemed to be almost infinitely inventive at finding legal and practical arguments that would lead to preferential treatment of the United States with respect to any new discoveries in the alien bases. Even Maddie had more than once voiced a grudging respect for Keldering’s unfailingly polite, doggedly resourceful approach.

    Privately, Nicholas suspected part of Madeline Fathom was actually pleased with the situation; she enjoyed having an adversary who might occasionally test her steel. For Nicholas himself, however, Keldering was just an annoyance. "Put him down for an appointment in a week or so."

    "Yes, sir. On the positive side, the finalized cooperative agreements with Ares have arrived and the Ares board of directors just signed all of them. Once you countersign, all our arrangements will be in place."


    "Let’s see… America’s got the second engine built and tested for Nike and is building two more for Athena. Europe’s keeping tight lips on the Odin. They’re making some major design changes, and I think what they’re planning is something more suited for outer system exploration. Based on preliminary hints and the fact that they’ve hired a number of people in a couple of related specialties, Jackie Secord and Dr. Gupta have both told me they suspect Odin will be designed to use a mass-beam drive as well as the NERVA rocket and standard electric ion drives." She glanced at Nicholas to see if he understood.

    Nicholas nodded. "Ions or small particles fired at the ship which catches them, probably magnetically, thus transferring the momentum directly without need for using fuel. Very power hungry, however, yes?"

    "I think they’re also planning on attempting solar powersats to run the thing. Do it far enough away from Earth to be no particular danger or nuisance and once you’ve proven the reliability, you can also then market the satellites to supply energy. We’ll have to keep a close eye on them. Japan’s well along in the construction of Amaterasu, and current buzz is that they’re planning to also build a real orbital colony. This has been a perennial favorite of Japan’s space enthusiasts, so that’s no real surprise.

    "China, unfortunately, had their engine go bad—you heard about all that. I think what’s going to happen there is that the U.S. will apologize, promise to repair the thing at no cost, and probably sell them or give them another engine eventually. It’ll still slow down China’s deployment significantly, probably putting them last in terms of getting a functional reusable interplanetary craft going. They may benefit to some small extent from watching other people’s mistakes along the way, but overall it’s a bad break for them.

    "India’s moving forward with the creation of the space elevator. They’ve named the project ‘Meru,’ by the way, after Mount Meru, the legendary world pillar in Hindu mythology. Preliminary calculations show that their proposed design will come in under a thousand tons total mass. Modifying the NERVA reactor to act as a power generator – not the best design if you start from scratch, but having the reactor already up in the sky counts for something – they’ll have plenty of power for dragging cargo up and down and keeping a station above the world running. You asked me about anchoring the thing down last time—something I didn’t know much about—so I checked into it. The design they’re using doesn’t really require much anchoring force—about as much as the designed transport capability, actually. They’re going to be splitting the base and anchoring it to several nearby ships, so it doesn’t have a single simple point of failure. Time to completion, about another year."

    "One year?" Nicholas sat up straighter. "That seems awfully fast!"

    "Apparently it’s within reason. And building up its capacity will be built into the design. In a few more years they’ll be able to send a thousand tons per week up or down. With the IRI and Ares having first call on much of that capacity, we will be a lot more comfortable—and after you made sure Ares got a cheap shipment," she gave him a grateful smile on behalf of Joe and his friends, "they’ll definitely make it long enough to survive the crisis."

    "Which means we’re missing just one element: how are we going to get the stuff from geosynch orbit around Earth to here?" Nicholas said. "Slingshot?"

    He was referring to the fact that if you placed a load farther out than geosynch, you could literally let it "fly out" like a slingshot, propelled in essence by the Earth’s rotation, just like a real sling spun about someone’s head.

    "Possible—and, once Meru is fully operational, I’m sure they’ll be building some orbital slingshots anyway. But using Meru itself as a slingshot is limited by a lot of factors of timing and relative position between Earth and Mars. Some packages could be shipped up with their own little electric drives—once you’re in geosynch it’s a lot easier to get elsewhere—but that’d cut down on the actual cargo arriving here and make it a lot more expensive. We really do need our own ship."


    She grinned. "Bruce Irwin’s willing to be the captain and pilot if we get one built. As you know, Jackie Secord’s already offered to run the engineering side, and she’s keeping the reactor-engine assembly maintained now. Pricing on the standard Nike or Phobos Station habitat ring segments, though, is totally out of our league, even if we could get them to slow down their build schedule to supply us."

    "We really do need something like that, though, don’t we?"

    Maddie nodded. "Anything much less than one-third g as constant living conditions will cause a lot of health problems. In fact, I’d really feel more comfortable if we could push that up, and on some of the new ships like Odin they might well. They’ll have more time and luxury for crew selection, so they won’t have to worry about spin disorientation as much."

    "Does Ares have a solution in mind?" This was one of the major reasons for establishing cooperation between the IRI and its closest neighbor. They were, as India had already recognized, the only talent pool of space-qualified experts who were not currently committed to a specific country’s space program.

    "Since the full agreements haven’t been signed, I can’t officially say anything, but Joe told me to tell you ‘damn straight we do’. If it’s what I think, it will work, too."

    Nicholas leaned back slowly. "Then get me those originals pronto, so I can sign them. Let’s get to work!"

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