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Threshold: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Saturday, March 13, 2010 17:19 EST



    "Prepare for spin-up. Nike, are you on station?" Jackie waited for the response.

    "Around behind Phobos in case of disaster, yes, Ma’am," Ken Hathaway’s voice responded.

    "I don’t think you had to get that far away, Ken!" Jackie responded in a nettled tone.

    "Probably not. But probably nothing bad’s going to happen either, and we’re not betting on that. Nike is the U.S.A’s only major interplanetary vessel and Uncle Sam isn’t paying me to take risks with it."

    "Especially," she said, "for a rowboat.’"

    Hathaway clucked his tongue. "Look, I don’t control what the NSA says in public. Been me, even if I thought that, I’d have kept my own counsel."

    "’Even if I thought that,’" Jackie jeered. "Ken, I’ll bet you’re the one who first coined that charming term. Applied to us, anyway."

    A diplomatic silence followed. Jackie smiled. She was pretty sure that Hathaway had,in fact, been the one to put the idea in Jensen’s head that the Nobel was a "rowboat." He’d used the derisive term himself in private, after all, when joking with his friends in Ares.

    He wasn’t going to admit it, of course. Jackie was quite sure that if Hathaway had done so, he’d been aiming to relieve or at least deflect tensions between the current U.S. administration and Ares and the IRI. But the same political skill that would have led him to do so—you didn’t get to be a general in the U.S. armed forces without such skills—would also keep his mouth diplomatically shut.

    "Stick and stones may break my bones..." came Ken’s singsong voice.

    Jackie chuckled. "Yeah, sure, I know. ‘But words can never harm me’—and people who aren’t really familiar with space travel usually don’t realize how little appearances matter when it comes to deep space craft that don’t have to penetrate an atmosphere. Still, I didn’t like having my baby called ugly."

    "Well, sure. Are you ready?"

    "Almost. A.J.?"

    The sensor specialist’s confident voice rang out. "Every inch of Nobel is wired, Jackie. If anything happens, you’ll be the second to know."

    "After you, of course."

    "Glendale squeezed a guarantee out of us on workmanship. I get the bad news first by a millisecond if we have to pay out."

    Jackie took a deep breath. "Fire laterals."

    The side reaction thrusters fired. They were powered by the central reactor, as long as reaction mass was available. The wavering pale line of superheated gases stood straight out at a tangent to each "tuna-can" chord. To protect the bottom of the cans, the side thruster vents were actually mounted a short distance farther out.

    Slowly, majestically, the Nobel began to spin. "Rotation started. Stresses all at predicted levels. No unexpected readings. Keep it going, guys." A.J. was in his professional voice now, which she found immensely comforting. A pain in the ass he could be, but his skill and his ego combined to make him the best man for a job like this. He wouldn’t let anything go wrong; it would be a personal insult.

    "Up to an interior acceleration of one-tenth g… closing in on a revolution per minute… still all green, no signs of stress. Wobble within acceptable limits. Might need to trim weight a bit on one side, though, I think someone missed a couple kilos somewhere… almost there… now!"

    The superfluous command coincided exactly with the automated cutoff of the thrusters. Nobel spun with massive dignity, generating exactly one-third gravity within its linked habitat cans. "How are we doing, A.J.?"

    "Nobel, all green. You’re well within tolerances. Minimal precession at this time. Orbital alignment optimum for main drive test."

    Jackie took a deep breath. The next set of maneuvers would stress the Nobel to the maximum that any ordinary conditions would demand. If she survived that, she’d be fully spaceworthy and Jackie Secord would be the Chief Engineer for the only independent nuclear-powered vessel in existence. "Captain, all systems appear to be ready. We are going to try a main drive burn."

    "Very good then, Chief," came the cheerful Australian tones of Bruce Irwin. As the first man to ever land (however disastrously) a manned vehicle on Mars and one of the few interplanetary-qualified pilots, he’d been top of the list when Glendale was looking for someone to command Nobel.

    Well, actually, second from the top. Glendale had first offered the job to Jackie, to which she’d replied: "Jesus, no. I’m an engineer, and I don’t want to move to management. I’ll stay here in charge of keeping everything running."

    "Right, let’s see what our lady’s got. Nike, now that we’re spinning fine, Nobel is going for a full main engine burn. Figuring on one to lift us up in orbit a bit, say twenty seconds at full."

    The entire set of maneuvers were meant to take only about sixty seconds of full burn. Nobel was lightly fuelled right now, with only about a hundred tons of reaction mass—enough for two hundred seconds of Nobel’s maximum million-pound thrust at an ISP of around one thousand. The light load was important; by having a minimum of reaction mass on board, the effective acceleration of Nobel was maximized, which maximized the strain of the maneuvers. There was no point in testing her at low thrust if she’d break at high thrust, especially since high stress would, obviously, occur when the vessel was low on fuel—towards the end of a journey and therefore potentially as far away from help as it was possible to imagine.

    "Understood, Nobel. Nike is standing by to initiate rescue in case of emergency."

    "We surely do appreciate that, mate. Not that I have any experience with emergencies while flying, mind." Bruce’s tone sobered. "Check course vector."

    "On target, Captain." A.J. said after a minute. "Radar scans show all clear, not that there’s ever anything to hit out here. And Joe isn’t on board this time to jinx everything."

    "True enough. All stations, report in. Everyone strapped in for full acceleration?"

    The "full acceleration" wasn’t actually the problem, as even with a million-pound thrust the Nobel couldn’t exceed about a quarter-gee. The concern was if something went wrong. There were only five people aboard, but that was still a major portion of the skilled space personnel available to the Institute.

    "Good," Bruce said after everyone had confirmed readiness. "Nobel, as programmed: all ahead full, twenty second burn."

    When you were used to weightlessness, a quarter-gravity acceleration was actually pretty impressive, Jackie thought. Nobel seemed to lunge forward, the hissing rumble of the NERVA-derived engine transmitting itself through the main supports of the ship. A few seconds later, the jets cut off. In the rear-view cameras, Phobos Base was shrinking. By space standards, of course, the Nobel was barely moving at all; that burn had added a puny forty-nine meters per second to her orbital velocity of over two kilometers per second. Still, it had stressed the entire ship along its main axis as much as anything ever should. "Anything to report, A.J.?"

    "Minor tightening and tweaks will probably be needed later." The sensor specialist answered a few minutes later, after examining the data. "I’m seeing nothing to worry about on any important components, though. I think we’re go for Operation Cartwheel."

    "Then Cartwheel it is. Nobel, initiate."

    "Operation Cartwheel," as A.J. had whimsically termed it, was the major active structural test. Since the habitat sections were spinning, any attempt to turn Nobel would be fighting against the gyroscope effect, causing a lot of stress across the entire ship. Nobel would be using several short periods of vectored thrust from the main engine to attempt to turn in different directions while the wheel spun.

    A few minutes later, A.J.’s voice reported with great satisfaction, "Everything important’s intact. Might want to shore up some of the connecting areas—I’ve highlighted them in the model—but unless you plan on flying like that a lot, I don’t think it’s necessary. Congrats, Jackie, Bruce—you’ve got yourself a ship!"

    Jackie let out a whoop of relief and exultation.

    "Congratulations, Nobel. A lovely test flight, even if you didn’t get to go very far, and that tail-shaking maneuver looked kinda fun. Maybe I’ll have them do it on Nike before we head back."

    "It probably looks more fun than it is."

    "Yeah, probably helps if you already look like a Ferris wheel."

    "Watch it, Captain Hathaway!"

    "Sorry, sorry. Really, it’s a great ship. "

    She gave him a chuckle. "You’re right there, Ken. So, when are you heading out?"

    "A couple of weeks. We’re waiting for some artifacts they’re shipping back, and I have to send a couple guys over to Nobel to do the inspection."

    "Oh, come on, Ken!" A.J. grumped. "Do they really think we’re putting super-duper deathrays on this workhorse?"

    "No, not really. But the regs clearly state what you can have as armaments in any space vehicle, and that at least one of the major powers has to inspect any new space vehicle after construction to ensure it meets those regs. And since I have every intention of keeping my job, I’m going to make sure the inspection’s done."

    "No worries, mate. I don’t have any guns, bombs, missiles, or even loose sharp sticks on this crate." Bruce said. "Come on over and we’ll have dinner."

    "That sounds like it could be an attempt to bribe an officer of the United States."

    "Righto, I’ll just offer you some vegemite."

    "Ahhh," said Hathaway, in a tone filled with grim vindication, "I knew it. Biological weapons hidden on board. I may have to have my inspectors confiscate any and all biological products connected to Captain Irwin."

    Jackie giggled. "Heard about Bruce’s interplanetary beer stash, sir?"

    "Pressurized containers. Very dangerous. Could be classed as explosives, Mr. Irwin. I’m afraid I will have to inspect some of them. In person."

    Bruce gave a heavy sigh. "Yeah, that’d be right. Suppose you’d better just come over an’ get it done, then. Eight tomorrow all right?"

    "My inspectors and I will be ready

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