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Threshold: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Monday, March 15, 2010 20:52 EDT



    Helen unlocked the pressure-cooker cover. A hiss of fragrant steam billowed out as she took the cover off, filling the dining room with the warm brown scent of…

    "Pot roast!" exclaimed Nicholas, leaning forward in astonishment. "With… actual vegetables. Cooked right here. I’m utterly astounded, Helen."

    "You should be," A.J. said, with reflected pride in Helen’s achievement. "Not only have Helen and Joe been spending off-hours time trying to figure out ways to duplicate the effects of on-Earth cooking in our habitats—which carry a lot less pressure for a lot of reasons—but also a lot of the rest of us have to put in hours getting those greenhouses to work."

    "First major crops grown in Martian soil, or mostly-Martian, anyway." Helen started serving. "Some of these are imports—besides the beef, I mean—but this is a special dinner. And when A.J. says ‘us’, he means it. Not that his sensing and tracking talents aren’t pretty much omni-useful around the colony, but the colony still needs plenty of good old fashioned pioneering muscle. Which," she continued, giving A.J. a kiss on the cheek as she passed, "my trophy husband here happens to be willing to use even if it does make him in danger of being viewed as a real worker instead of a lab geek."

    Nicholas laughed. "Helen, A.J., thank you so much for inviting me. I can’t tell you how happy I am that both of you still seem happy."

    A.J., just recovering from grinning rather fatuously at Helen, nodded. "Yeah, I guess you might have wondered how long this odd couple would last. But we’ve both got so much to do, and what we do… well, we do it best together."

    Helen sat down. "Shall we eat?"

    A few moments passed in appreciative chewing. Helen could see, however, that Nicholas was also studying the Baker household. "Like the house?"

    "Quite a bit, yes. From the outside it looked like almost a pair of domes under the Martian soil… but I had to step quite a ways down. And these walls certainly aren’t rock."

    "Basic structure’s two hab cans buried for insulation and sealing support," A.J. supplied. "Plus we’ve done some extension underground. Digging’s a pain, but it’s really worth it—oh, and lemme say thanks again for the help there."

    "And for the thousandth time, it was our pleasure." Nicholas said easily. "We knew getting settled was a major proof-of-concept priority for you, and it would help us out in the long run."

    A.J. grinned. "Yeah. And survival priority, since we weren’t sure we’d be able to count on any of the governments giving us a hand. Power was actually the first priority, and with things getting competitive we couldn’t rely on doing things the fancy way. Yeah, Ares has got a couple small nuke reactors for the colony, and we’re hooked in, but solar is much more the way to go here. LED lighting indoors, when there isn’t a way to pipe in sunlight. I’ve spent a lot making it comfortable, and it’s roomier than I thought it might be. Now that Meru’s cranking stuff up, we’ll be a lot better off."

    "Not luxury accommodations, perhaps, but I’ve stayed in much, much worse." Glendale surveyed the curved dining/living area. It was clearly heavily modified from the base "hab can," but the underlying structure was the same. He took a bite of potato and chewed thoughtfully. "Interesting. There’s a subtle difference of flavor… almost peppery, but not like the pepper I know you used in the roast."

    Helen nodded, remembering the first hesitant tasting of the Mars crops. "Joe’s positively ecstatic about that. The gourmet in him was afraid that we’d be barely able to raise stuff that’s edible, and now he’s finding some subtle changes in taste that he can use. Possibly, if things get to the point of routine travel in the next twenty years, we’ll have a small export trade in food—not that it would counterbalance the imports."

    "But we do intend to be independent. As you well know," A.J. added.

    "Yes. I am glad that Ares and the IRI were able to reach an accord."

    Helen smiled. Despite the inherent friendliness between some of the principals, A.J., Glenn, Hank, and Joe had spent a lot of tense days trying to hammer out all aspects of that agreement, and she’d had to absent herself from those discussions since she herself was, naturally, an employee of the IRI. With the tiny pool of skilled people on and around Mars, it was actually more the rule than the exception for the formal, or informal, families that existed to include rather divided loyalties. This did make it awkward when there were potential conflicts of interest, and both the Institute and Ares knew they had a lot of legal landmines to negotiate around when they were trying to arrange a deal that would keep Ares mobile and independent, maintain the IRI’s reasonably neutral position, and yet make it possible for both groups to get most of what they wanted.

    In this case, though, the small number of people worked to their advantage. Everyone knew everyone, and respected their needs and goals. Off the record, Nicholas knew perfectly well what Ares intended to do. Off the record, Glenn and the rest of Ares knew that they had to be willing to hand over considerable control to the IRI of certain assets when conditions warranted. So when it came time to negotiate, it was mostly a matter of getting on record with hard-nosed noises of negotiation for the investors and watchdogs back home and then coming to a good gentleman’s agreement and finding the most ironclad legal terms to nail it down, and thus see to it that it wouldn’t be broken if one side or the other eventually ended up with less cooperative and cordial people in charge.

    "How does it feel to be on Mars, Nicholas?"

    "Absolutely wonderful, Helen. I cannot even begin to describe it. How very strange it is, though, that I’m here, running some kind of interplanetary research organization, that has hardly anything to do with paleontology. Not a career course I could have expected."

    "I’ll drink to that. I’m not even sure what I am right now. Paleontologist, partly, but now it’s more biology… with some guesses at behavior of alien species? A sociologist of the alien? Xenopaleoarchaological sociological reconstruction and analysis specialist?"

    "And interplanetary supermodel, too," A.J. inserted.

    Helen poked him. "Which I suppose is the more important point to you?"

    "I can’t complain," A.J. answered equably. "And for our bank account it is arguably the most important point."

    Nicholas nodded. "While there’s obviously a certain element of crude sexism about it, Helen, I think it’s still a rather positive thing. And there is not a man within, um, a hundred million miles that does not envy A.J. and Joe whenever one of yours or Madeline’s advertisements appears."

    "They do make us look good, I admit. And I can’t say that I don’t feel some pride in managing to break into a business usually reserved for those half my age." She raised her glass. "To changes!"

    The two men joined her. "Changes!" and drank.

    There was a muffled thumping at the door, and then the intercom came on. "A.J.! A.J.! Hey, let me in, man!"

    A.J.’s brow wrinkled in confusion. "Larry? What’s the big fuss? I’ve got company right now. Can’t it wait?" Regardless of the answer, Helen could see from the door telltales that he’d opened the outer lock and the cycle had started.

    "No, really, well, maybe, but I think you’d kill me if I just waited on this." The lock finished cycling, and the tall, massive frame of Larry Conley entered. He took off his helmet. "I—holy sheep, something smells great!"

    "First Martian frontier pot roast," Helen said, folding out another chair. "Want to try some?"

    Larry looked torn. "Hey, I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the leftovers…" His eyes wandered longingly to the steaming pot. "But, jeez, that looks a lot better than the package I was going to have later."

    "Sit. Eat. But talk," A.J. said. "If it’s that important, you can even talk with your mouth a little full."

    "Mmm. Thanks, guys. Hey, Dr. Glendale, sorry to go busting in like this. But I think you’ll be interested to. It’s Ares business though—I don’t –"

    Nicholas stood. "I perfectly understand. Even if we are going to be working together, there may be some things you don’t want me to know right away." He turned to Helen, with the same courtly grace he brought to almost any occasion. "Helen, my dear, why don’t you show me around the other parts of the house? With the connecting doors insulated as they are, I’m sure it should be private enough."

    A.J. looked at him gratefully. "Thanks, Nick. We really do appreciate the IRI’s cooperation with us."

    "And we the help of Ares. As I’m sure Jackie and Bruce have told you more than once."

    Helen was obviously bursting with curiosity about what Larry found so important, but if the Director wasn’t going to eavesdrop, neither would she. Instead, she took Glendale into the second hab can, where the bedroom and home offices were, and took care to shut the door behind her.



    "Okay, we’re secure. Give."

    To A.J.’s resigned frustration, now that everyone else was gone, Larry seemed to have lost his initial excitement over whatever it was that he’d discovered, and was much more excited by the pot roast and gravy. "Now this is a meal. Y’know, I really ought to… mmm… learn to cook."

    "Larry…" A.J. said threateningly.

    "You don’t think I should?"

    "Keep it up, Doctor Conley. Just remember who’s in charge of your data feeds."

    "Okay, okay. It’s worth a little wait. You’ll remember that I’ve been working with the IRI and our own departments in trying to match up Bemmie astronomical information with ours? Correspondences of various objects, trying to figure out orbits, all that kind of thing?"

    "Yeah. Cosmological importance for you guys, I guess."

    "Oh, there’s all kinds of great data we’re getting, and if we can get enough out of that oversized DVD and the other stuff we’ve found we could learn a hell of a lot. But I was going over a bunch of data on the asteroids—finally got it separated out and decoded with our in-house programs a little while ago—and I found this."

    Larry tied his personal VRD to A.J.’s with a standard signal. A.J. saw an image come up of a generally spherical object, sketchily drawn as the Bemmies often represented things. At first he didn’t see what had excited Larry, but then he saw a small ripple-shaped line of Bemmius-style writing. Studying it he had a feeling he’d seen some of the symbols before. "What is it?"

    "Don’t recognize it? From the lecture a few months back with Jane and Rich? No?"

    "Missed that one. Glanced over the notes. Anyway, get to it."

    "Well, when Jane and Rich were analyzing the data on the images they could match between the Phobos records and those on the Rosetta Disc, they noticed repeated symbols on the labels for the Phobos base and for the one here. Long story short, they think—and so do I—that those symbols stand for colony or base."

    "A third…" A.J. stared at the image, almost in awe. "Damn, they were busy. Um, there’s an awful lot of asteroids, though. How are we going to figure out which one?"

    Larry grinned. "They do show a few surface features on here. And I know it’s pretty spherical, which not very many are. And I know our friends were very much into water. A quick comparison, and voila! Ceres, no doubt about it." An image of a dusty-gray scarred marble appeared next to the sketchy image.

    "Water and Ceres?"

    "Jesus Christ, A.J., you have so many blind spots it’s amazing you can find your way to the can without some of your damn sensors to guide you. Yes, water and Ceres. We were pretty sure even thirty years ago that a really large proportion of Ceres was water ice—maybe more than all fresh water on Earth combined."

    "Can you tell where on Ceres this base is supposed to be?" A.J. said, ignoring the (to him) irrelevant shot at his lack of knowledge outside of his specialty. "Compared to a planet, Ceres is puny. But after working on Phobos for months I’ve gained a lot of respect for how much even puny space rocks can hide. And Ceres is far bigger than Phobos."

    "If we assume the markings are accurate, yeah. So far all the Bemmie maps we’ve seen have matched up pretty well."

    "Okay. I don’t remember, but do our resident linguistic geniuses have anything to say about whether the labels discriminate between the owners of the bases? That is, can we tell if the base belonged to the Bemmie group that ran Phobos, or the one that had the base here?"

    "Hmm. I dunno. Lemme check." A few minutes later Larry and A.J. were studying the still-sparse translation archives. "Yeah, though it’s pretty tentative. If I’m reading this right, looks like the Ceres base belonged to the other side, the Phobos gang."

    "Okay." A.J. said. "Have we got decent imagery of that side of Ceres?"

    "Not tremendously good. Two probes were sent out that way, but there were a couple of accidents that screwed the chances of getting good Ceres images. We’ve got better pics of Vesta. Still, here’s the best of what we’ve got."

    "Good enough… excellent. Double-excellent!"

    "What’s the deal?"

    "Well, except for the Vault—which seems to me to be the kind of thing you’d only do once, in one location, given the extreme effort involved—the guys down here on Mars cleaned up everything on the base before they left. They obviously won the conflict, or at least didn’t lose and chased off the others; they had the time to build and fill the Vault, seal it off, and do cleanup. Which would mean that their other bases in the Solar System, I’d expect, will either have been smeared by the Phobos group, or they’ve been carefully and completely evacuated.

    "But they didn’t clean out Phobos. And that means that I’d bet that if we find a base from those guys even partly intact, like Phobos, it should have lots of goodies inside. And judging by these images," he pointed to the critical area of Ceres, "no one nailed this base with an impactor or mega-huge bomb. So double-good; the base is probably intact, and if so, it’s probably not cleaned out."

    "Sweeeeeet," Larry said appreciatively.

    "Yep. Now we have to tell Glenn and get together with Nick once we’ve figured out the approach." A.J. was practically bouncing in his chair with excitement. "Time to get that cooperative agreement working for all of us."



    Madeline watched Glendale pace the Phobos Station room with slow one-third g steps. She shook her head slightly, noting that the temples looked more gray than they had just a year before, when he first arrived. He seemed unaware of her presence, which was possible, as she hadn’t made much noise entering. Finally he turned. "I’m terribly sorry, Madeline. Woolgathering again."

    "’Woolgathering’," she repeated, with a soft laugh. "Director Hughes used to use that sometimes, too. Do you know, I never actually looked up where that term came from."

    "Really?" Nicholas smiled, looking momentarily younger. "Then allow me to enlarge your education. In the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, the poorer folk who owned no sheep would search the areas where the sheep belonging to others roamed. Some of the fleece would come off naturally—get snagged in briars or bushes, that sort of thing—and they would gather this wool, eventually hoping to have enough to be worth weaving or selling. As this took a lot of time and effort wandering about, the words ‘wool-gathering’ soon came to mean occupying oneself in wandering unproductively at apparent random—especially within one’s own head."

    "You are a well of knowledge, sir."

    "A sink of trivia, mostly, I’m afraid." His gaze wandered back towards the black-starred window.

    "You sent for me, sir?" she said, quietly.

    "Yes. They’re off, now. I suppose… I want advice. Or another reassurance. Is this the right thing to do?"

    Madeline knew exactly where his concern came from. "Director, whether it really was the right thing to do we won’t know until a long time from now. But I know the reasons you would be sending out this mission so fast, before anyone else gets wind of it. And I agree with them."

    "Should you be going along?"

    Maddie took a moment to consider that. "I honestly don’t know. I suppose it depends on if anyone else decides they want to play hardball, and if they can get there in time. But it’s not really worth it, given that we can track anyone in the system fairly easily. ‘Stealth’ technology is pretty damn tough to manage in space. I don’t think it’s an issue that way, sir. So offhand I don’t see a good reason I should go, especially since I’d really hate to go trucking off into the outer Solar System without Joe. I’ll do it if I have to, of course, but it’s not my preference."

    "Naturally not, and I’d try never to ask that." He made a visible effort to relax. "Besides, Bruce and Larry assure me that none of the other ships in the system, except maybe Nike, are in any position to compete, and if they don’t react immediately, Nobel will get there first."

    She nodded. "And the real thing to worry about is the shortage of equipment downstairs."

    "Ah, not for long, however." Nicholas gave her a more natural grin. "As we are to receive a deputation from our Indian allies via Nike, I had already arranged for some of Nike’s cargo space to include additional equipment. I admit I had originally intended that equipment to be used for expansion in our own interests, but it will serve just as well in this situation. What do you think the United States will do when they figure it out?"

    Madeline shook her head. "They won’t be happy. In fact, I’m reminding you to make it an absolute priority—once they’ve found the base on Ceres and gotten the essentials set up—that Helen and the others send Nobel back right away, unless we can arrange something else with one of the other space-capable nations. And I don’t think they will be happy with us either, so I wouldn’t bet on getting any other arrangements. We’ll need Nobel to do at least one supply run for us if the other countries decide to get grouchy with the Institute." She gave a predatory smile. "But, if you’ll pardon me for saying so, sir, I’d just love to see their faces when they figure it all out."

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