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Threshold: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Friday, March 19, 2010 19:40 EDT



    "You found something, A.J.?" Bruce asked, floating quickly up. "Bloody hell, mate, you look awful."

    "Huh? Oh, just a little tired, I guess." The blond sensor expert’s eyes had dark circles, visible even behind the VRD glasses, and he spoke with the heavy tones of someone almost asleep on his feet. "Found something, yeah. Larry made the suggestion, after I hadn’t found anything in the past couple of days, to look for really deep straight holes."

    "You haven’t been up for five days straight, have you?"

    "No, no, I slept a full eight hours last night."

    "The hell you did," Helen said, concern in her voice. "A.J., it’s Tuesday evening."

    "Uh? Oh." A.J. gave a jaw-cracking yawn. "Um, yeah, that’d mean I slept, umm, two and a half days ago. No problem…" He turned back to the console. "Anyway, Larry gets credit, I was wrong. They did get creamed, just not with a big rock. Something hit hard with a lot of smaller things, made holes that looked"—he yawned again—"um, looked like a lot of the other craters, so it didn’t stand out. Punched straight down. Found ‘em because they were all in a pretty close group and so they made parallel holes right around the target area."

    "And can you show us where that is, exactly?"

    "Oh, yeah, stupid of me… right here." The larger image of Ceres on the main screen suddenly ballooned upward as though Nobel were plummeting straight towards the surface of the miniature planet, then halted; a pattern of little circles in bright green suddenly appeared in the center of the screen, with a brilliant red "X" to the left and below the middle of the pattern. "X marks the spot I think you’d best land at… looks to have slightly higher, um… what the hell is it, I can’t think… oh, higher water readings."

    He’s practically dead on his feet, Jackie thought, and moved forward. "That’s it, A.J., you’re going to bed. Jesus, you’re going to make yourself sick. You’re not twenty any more. In fact, you’ve seen the other side of thirty already."

    "Not thirty, refuse to believe it." Helen helped A.J., still mumbling in a disjointed way, out of the control room, while the others watched.

    "Right," said Bruce as the doors closed. "Time to plan the landing."

    Jackie nodded. The reason that they hadn’t landed anyone on Ceres yet was simple: they wanted there to be absolutely no chance of any creative interpretation of the Buckley Addendum that would remove the Cererian Bemmie Base from the control of the joint IRI-Ares mission. Unless the Addendum was interpreted very broadly, they wouldn’t be awarded the leasehold on the entire miniature planet, any more than Ares had gotten all, or even a majority, of Mars.

    The Addendum and its current interpretation, of course, was very clear: the claim would be based on the location of the first person to "set foot"—i.e., land and leave the landing vehicle—on the object in question. Thus, they had to wait until they could determine exactly where the Bemmie base was, and land directly above it. If another ship, like Nike, Amaterasu, or Odin had gotten close, the crew of Nobel might have had to just go for it anyway. But now, fortunately, it wouldn’t be necessary.

    "A.J. won’t be available for a while, obviously," Bruce said. "Still, I don’t see it should be a problem. I’ll be flyin’, of course, so me, you, Larry, Jane, and Jake are doing the landing."

    "You sure you want to send both the top pilot and chief engineer down?" Jackie asked, startled. She’d already resigned herself to waiting until later.

    "Sure am, luv. Let’s face it, this old wheel of tuna cans and duct tape is doing just fine, and if they have to coast home without us, well, that doesn’t take fancy flying, and they’re none of them stupid, so if they have to fix something they’ll figure it out. Landing Feynman on a new rockball, that’s not quite so simple. And A.J., Helen, and Rich all got their chance to land on a brand new world, so I think they can wait for trip two."

    She hadn’t realized how much she’d wanted to be "in" on that first landing until she found she was giving Bruce an emphatic hug. "Thank you, Bruce!" She kissed him on the cheek.

    "Hold on with that stuff, mate—Tammy might not approve," Bruce said, grinning. "Not that I mind, mind."

    "How does she put up with it?"

    "Knowing me, wouldn’t you wonder how she’d put up with me if I was there all the time?" Bruce answered lightly.

    "No, really. How can you both stay married and so far apart?"

    Bruce grimaced, seeing she was serious. "It’s been a fair dinkum problem, or was. See, she knew I was a pilot and I’d be going off for weeks at a time, but months, that was pushin’ it. Speakin’ honestly, we damn near didn’t stay married. But Tammy, she’s the practical sort too. My pay’s good, an’ being out here I don’t spend much of it, and little Stevie loves seein’ her daddy on TV. Very proud of me, she is." Jackie could hear the affection in his voice, the rough edge that was like a tiny hint of tears. "Stevie was sorta an accident, but the best kind."

    "Still… how? I mean, I know you send them long letters, video, things like that, but…"

    "Oh, no doubt it’s tough. But that’s why we’ve made the decision that it ain’t going to be that way any more—thanks to Nick."

    This was something new. "Director Glendale?"

    "Yeah. You remember he called me aside a little before we left? We had a long talk. Well, actually, he did a lot of talking and I did a lot of listening. If the IRI were a regular military or government agency, things’d be different. But Nick basically told me that there was a better way to do things. He’s authorized it all. Tammy and Stevie are coming to stay."

    "Here? You mean, on board Nobel?" Jackie demanded incredulously.

    "Well, not right this minute. But yeah, after we get back to Phobos Station, from then on they stay with me when they want to. And if I’m taking a long trip, like something to the outer part of the System might need, they get to come with me."

    Jackie knew her face reflected her astonishment. It wasn’t the idea that Nicholas Glendale might have thought that far ahead for the welfare of his most important employees; that was characteristic of the charismatic and razor-sharp former paleontologist. The real issue was expense. On Earth, it was much easier to give the family of critical employees appropriate living quarters; but in space, where every ton of food, water, or air cost someone something… and that issue was ten times more important on an interplanetary ship. And there were other problems, too.

    "Bruce, you know that at least some people can’t take weightlessness at all, even for short periods."

    "Right, which is why ol’ Nicky didn’t even call me over until the family’d passed preliminaries. Tammy kept the whole thing a secret from me, too. Could’a knocked me over with a feather when I found out. Tammy wasn’t too keen on it to start, but after these years seein’ each other for a couple weeks at a time, and knowing how there just ain’t going to be any jobs like this anywhere, ever again, she changed her mind. Because, funny thing, I still love her—more’n I did when I married her, strewth!—and hard as it is to believe, she loves me."

    "Not hard at all." Jackie said, smiling wistfully. "She’s a lucky girl."

    "I’m the lucky one." He saw her half-sad smile. "Don’t you fret, Jackie. There’s plenty of guys out there for you."

    "Yeah." She said, turning to the console to start making up the manifest for the landing. "That’s the problem. They’re out there, while I’m out here."



    "…and that is why, Director Glendale, I want to assure you that the European Union is not only going to back Ares’ claim along with you, but also, as Odin is now fully operational and tested, we would be happy to assist you in maintaining supply lines for both the Martian and Ceres operations." After he completed the sentence, Vice-President Bitteschell studied the impeccably-dressed yet exhausted-looking figure across from him carefully.

    Bitteschell was one of the twenty-seven commissioners who made up the European Union’s executive body, the European Commission. In addition to his largely formal post as one of the vice-presidents of the Commission, Bitteschell also held the portfolio of Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry. Since the European Space Agency had been absorbed by the E.U. some years earlier, that made him the effective head of Europe’s space program.

    He could see Glendale’s face relax slightly as he gave his famously brilliant smile. "Commissioner, I won’t conceal from you that this is a considerable relief. The current American administration is… somewhat less happy with the situation."

    How very unsurprising, he thought to himself. Aloud, he said "I would be less than honest, Director, if I were to say that everyone in the Union were precisely happy. Naturally there is some jealousy. But if we were to push in a manner that might limit your rights, we simply make it less likely that we could benefit from any discoveries we might make in the future. And there are few enough vessels in space that I believe that we should all be helping one another. In return, I would hope that we might be able to arrange some cooperation in the dissemination of research results?"

    Glendale’s nod and smile were slightly… off. Too heavy, Bitteschell decided. The Director had spent most of his time in the past year in one-third gravity. He’d clearly kept up on his exercise, but still there was a major difference between spending an hour or three in a centrifuge each day or two, and spending days in a gravity field three times greater than you’d become accustomed to. "I am sure something can be arranged. Certainly we would like to encourage cooperation rather than competition at this stage."

    "Excellent. If you like, Odin can begin by transferring a full load of supplies from Earth to Moon orbit, where Nobel is allowed to approach; we can then take another load in Odin, assuring that instead of falling behind you will be somewhat ahead of your support schedule."

    "We would like that very much indeed, Commissioner. I am sure that Ares, as well as the Institute, would be very grateful for this." The gratification on Glendale’s face was clear. Unsurprising, in that one of the major distinguishing facts of Odin was that the E.U. vessel was nearly twice the size of Nike in terms of cargo capacity. While there had been considerable debate as to the wisdom of modifying the design that extensively, in this case there was no doubt of the advantages.

    "Then consider it done." He shook hands with Glendale, who had risen from his chair with some momentary difficulty. "I can see you are tired, Director. The rest of the arrangements can be done at a later time. I mostly wished to assure you that not all of us are either shortsighted or petty."

    "In that case, I thank you again, Commissioner. I admit that my homeworld’s gravity appears considerably heavier now than I used to find it." The difficulty was evident in Glendale’s almost cautious walk out the door.

    After a few minutes, Bitteschell said, "Send in the general." His desk pinged, acknowledging the command and that the appropriate individual had been alerted.

    The door opened a short while later, admitting General Hohenheim. The general was an imposing figure, tall and square-shouldered, with a neatly-trimmed blond beard and blond hair that seemed to always be just this side of being too long for regulations. However, he was also well-known for getting results, even under the most difficult circumstances, which made his tonsorial preferences irrelevant. Bitteschell nodded and gestured for Hohenheim to sit down. "General, thank you for waiting. I had to be sure that everything would work out as we expected."


    "The Institute will be more than glad of our assistance. This will give us significant access to their information. I want that access maximized for our benefit. We need to get our own source of extraterrestrial knowledge, and this appears to be by far the best opportunity we have."

    "Can you explain that, sir?" the general asked. "I have my own ideas on the subject, of course, but why can we not proceed independently, as America, China, and Japan are doing?"

    The commissioner gave a very undignified snort. "America, independently? Despite their very shortsighted fits of pique, the American government is in a much better position. It is beyond belief that none of the former governmental personnel now working with the IRI and Ares would be passing at least some information back to their government. Moreover, as America had a stranglehold on the last mission, the major profits from it are clearly already going to American companies. Look at Tayler, Ares, and of course the Maelstrom Power Systems startup that is exploiting the superconductor technology. As far as China and Japan," he grimaced, "China is undoubtedly looking for similar opportunities, as is Japan, but the Japanese have already started building to construct a colony in orbit. They’ve also contracted with India for materials shipments now thatMeru actually is completed. The Japanese plan appears to be to offer space residency and tourism, and comfortable research and development locations near microgravity facilities.

    "So. The Americans are currently doing well by secondary means, the fact that the majority of the important individuals involved are American helping to compensate for the fact that America itself doesn’t control the alien installations. India has chosen to attempt to become the heavy shipping focus of this new space age, and from all indications this project will succeed. Japan has its own niche which would be difficult to compete with. Only we and China have no clear ‘direction’, so to speak. We are really in competition only with China in this matter, and—fortunately for us—they are still having problems with their own interplanetary vessel."

    Hohenheim nodded. "Understood. What of the IRI and Ares?"

    "The IRI and Ares have forged an alliance of convenience and necessity which, unfortunately for us, appears to be founded actually on direct personal understandings as well as business sense. This means that I do not foresee a likelihood that we might be able to separate the two." Bitteschell frowned. "In addition, I am reasonably certain that, barring sheer good fortune, no one will discover additional alien artifact sources without their assistance."

    "Why is that, sir?"

    The commissioner gave a slight laugh. "There is an old expression, general, which I’m sure you’re familiar with: ‘Once is happenstance, twice coincidence, but three times is enemy action.’. The people currently working with Ares and the IRI discovered the alien base on Phobos; they then discovered the alien base on Mars; and they have now, apparently, located another on Ceres, an asteroid hundreds of millions of miles away. Despite the IRI’s status as a supposedly independent and disinterested organization, they have had to arrange various business interests to ensure that they are not dependent on the whims of the American—or any other—government. This would seem to have included making arrangements that permit cooperative research and discovery with Ares. This was undoubtedly a result of Ares’ own strategies, and cleverly done. The simple fact is this, General: all the new discoveries on the aliens are being done by members of those two groups, who are mostly friends, and who undoubtedly are doing their best to ensure that both organizations benefit first from their discoveries. Not illegally so, though possibly skirting the edge of the law in places, but still more than enough to make it virtually certain that any new alien finds will only be made through them."

    The general nodded. "I agree. So, to summarize, sir, you want us to cooperate with them so as to get access to their data and find another alien installation—‘get the jump on them’, as they might say it—which we will then proceed directly to and claim for the E.U.?"

    "Precisely. Undoubtedly they will be expecting something of the sort. I want you to select the right crew—engineers, scientists, and security—to ensure that anything they do, we can counter, all while maintaining civil relations."

    "If we take their information—especially on the location of some other installation—and use it to beat them to the site, civility may not be possible."

    The commissioner shrugged. "At that point, civility is not the issue. It would of course be nice if everyone could remain happy, but I am sure that harsh words will be said. Once you have a clear target, however, you may disregard the need for civility, as long as the indications are clear that the target will be a valuable one. We do not want a crater with a few traces of old ruins, as I am sure you understand."

    "I understand perfectly, Commissioner. I also understand that I did not hear such instructions from you."

    Bitteschell grinned. "Always a pleasure to work with such thoughtful men as yourself, General Hohenheim. As you are commanding Odin, everything you need is easily authorized under that budget."

    The big man rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "Given the nature of this mission, I hope that we might be able to authorize additional, hm, research equipment?"

    "Oh, undoubtedly. Our scientists and engineers should not be completely dependent upon our prospective partners. I would recommend you allocate significant cargo to whatever additional equipment you, or your selected personnel, think might be helpful. I will authorize all reasonable expenditures."

    "Then," General Hohenheim said, standing, "I will begin at once. If we are to leave for Mars soon, I have little time to waste."

    They shook hands. "Good luck, General."

    After Hohenheim left, Bitteschell resumed his seat behind the desk and stared out the window at the city vista beyond.

    Which was that of Brussels, unfortunately. While the capital of the E.U. was an interesting city from a professional standpoint—even an exciting one, at times—there was no denying it lacked much in the way of scenic splendor. That was especially true for someone like Helmut Bitteschell, who’d been born and raised in the very picturesque Bavarian town of Bamberg.

    But the commissioner had never regretted his decision. He hadn’t come to Brussels many years ago for the scenery, after all. He was today one of the most powerful and influential figures in the European Union; which, if it still lacked the political cohesion of the United States and had only a small portion of its military power, had a larger population, the largest gross domestic product in the world, and a currency which rivaled the dollar and occasionally surpassed it.

    Good luck.

    Bitteschell had no great faith in luck, actually. But he was a strong adherent to the old saw that one creates one’s own luck, with the proper preparations.

    Should he employ Fitzgerald or not, on this expedition? True, there were potential risks. Judging from the extensive files that the commissioner had studied, Fitzgerald was prone to... Well, not recklessness, exactly. That would be too strong a term. But there was no question that the mercenary from Belfast tended to take an expansive attitude toward his instructions.

    On the other hand, that might very well be what was needed. There would be no way to micromanage—even to manage at all, really—an expedition such as this one, from such a great distance. And Hohenheim’s weakness was the opposite. The man was undoubtedly capable, but prone to...

    Well, not timidity, precisely. That would be a rather silly term to use with regard to one of the most experienced and accomplished members of Europe’s Astronaut Corps. Still, in Bitteschell’s opinion, Hohenheim was not the man to place in charge of Odin. He’d have preferred Joachim Blücher, or even the Frenchman Duvalier.

    However, there was no point in fretting over the matter. Hohenheim was popular with the public—always a major concern when dealing with an expensive project—had strong support in the German government, and unlike Blücher had not aggravated the French and the Italians. Even the British thought well of him.

    Bitteschell’s decision, in the end, came down to the need to keep Europe’s powerful industrial corporations satisfied. That was always a major political concern, also. One of those corporations, the European Space Development Company, had strongly recommended Fitzgerald. The ESDC was centrally involved in Europe’s space program, one of its few truly critical players, and their recommendation had come with the support of several other important corporations as well.

    He pressed the button which communicated with his personal assistant. "Francesca, please get in touch with Richard Fitzgerald and ask him to come for an interview tomorrow."

    Best to err on the side of caution. Bitteschell didn’t think the risks were that great, anyway.

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