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Threshold: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 21:53 EDT



    "What is that, Helen?" A.J.’s disembodied voice asked over the suit radio.

    "I’m not quite sure," she answered, staring at the objects in front of them.

    Ceres Base was big—probably as large as Phobos Base—and undoubtedly they’d be finding new weird stuff in both of them for years. A.J.’s Locusts were demonstrating the advantages of a few years of design improvements plus Maelstrom’s superconducting batteries, gaining them access to the interior of the base and opening even severely stuck doors with levering components similar to the old "Jaws of Life" design; even so, it would be a long time before all of the base was mapped.

    There had been signs that parts of this base had been evacuated in a more orderly fashion than Phobos, which appeared to have been "evacuated" mostly in the sense of "suddenly exposed to vacuum." While the areas where the house-sized holes had been punched through had clearly lost their atmosphere instantly, other areas had apparently maintained pressure. But Ceres Base hadn’t been cleaned out, like the Mars Base. It appeared that the conjectures were correct: whoever ran the Mars installation had won, and their opponents kicked out with barely the clothes on their backs or whatever they could drag out in a few minutes. Why the winners hadn’t felt it worthwhile to rebuild or loot these bases, however, remained a mystery.

    The tubes in front of Helen were another mystery. They were behind walls of glass, or a glassy substance, which had gone rather milkily translucent over the years; the tubes seemed to be made of the same stuff, so that all they could make out were tantalizing hints of shape inside the tubes. Helen shivered, as she suddenly remembered an old sci-fi movie with similar tubes.

    A.J. apparently thought the same way. "If anything down there looks like an egg, I’m sending a Locust in to stomp it."

    "Shut up, A.J.," Helen said, repeating one of the constant phrases of the universe. She turned slowly in place, surveying the whole huge room. "See all that? This is a major control center, or something. There must be a dozen of those computer stations with the ramps that we found in Phobos control. And a bunch of noteplaques."

    "It’s a lab," Larry said firmly. "Chem or bio, maybe. Bio, if those fuzzy shapes in the tubes were living. Can we get a better look at them?"

    "One thing at a time." A.J. said. He was sitting comfortably in Nobel, watching through telemetry, as he had another task to help with. "Bruce and Jackie are coming up on the reactor placement. Helen, Jake, Larry, you guys keep looking around but follow protocols, okay? I have to pay attention to this."

    "Understood, A.J.," she said. The idea of Bruce and Jackie having an accident at this point wasn’t a pleasant one. The nuclear reactor, a twenty megawatt design, massed seventy tons and was derived from a combination of nuclear technologies, including the "town-sized" reactors manufactured by Toshiba in the early part of the century, and the thorium breeder design used in the Nike style reactors. It would provide power for almost thirty years before needing a core replacement, and the core itself could be sent back for reprocessing to recover fuel and cleanse the reactor of waste products. Ares and the IRI had a total of five of these reactors on Mars, one on Phobos Station, and one in Phobos Base. They were as safe and reliable as any such design could be, but anything could be broken by accident… and this was to be their main power source for Ceres Base.

    She continued to cautiously circle the oval room with its curved window—containment area, perhaps? Larry was carefully imaging the noteplaques as they lay before attempting to move them aside, very gently, so as to look at the ones underneath. Like those on Phobos, the plaques were locked in whatever their last display state was, and were probably very vulnerable to impact—as Joe had demonstrated once. The fact that A.J. had been able—just barely—to recover the apparently lost data from some of the incidental imaging scans had led to the current requirement to thoroughly image all finds before even attempting to move them. There’d been a general requirement like that in the original expedition notes, but there’d been some fuzziness as to what constituted proper imaging.

    Now there was no such debate, especially after Jake Ivey got through lambasting the prior expeditions for their criminal sloppiness. Jake had grudgingly agreed to certain shortcuts when compared to normal Earth fieldwork, acknowledging that even with modern gear there were a lot of constraints on safely exploring an airless rockball with an average temperature of –106? C.

    "Lowering… support and locking plate is holding well. Keep her centered, Bruce… Jackie, keep an eye on line 3…" she heard A.J.’s instructions dimly in the background.

    "Hey, Helen, take a look at this one." Larry flashed an image of one of the plaques before her. "Is that Bemmie?"

    She studied the semi-streamlined, tri-armed creature. "No… no, definitely not. That looks like one of the creatures they’d left as a model in the Vault, the section clearly showing their homeworld’s native species." She activated her data retrieval. "Hmmm… yes, here it is. We named it Bemmius symmetrius minor, the small symmetrical alien creature. See how it’s rounder in cross section and more symmetrical than Bemmie? And it’s about the size of a housecat."

    Scientific naming conventions for the species of another world was a subject that was going to be hotly debated eventually, she suspected. Right now they were using Bemmius as an overarching tag meaning alien creature from Bemmie’s home ecology, but if they managed to learn enough about the taxonomy of the creatures they’d probably  have to develop a much more detailed and discriminatory nomenclature. For now, though, the only agreed-upon change made to any of the names was to the original: no longer merely Bemmius secordii, he was now Bemmius secordii sapiens.

    "Yeah, now that you mention it I can see that. Did Bemmie actually have that third eye?"

    "In a somewhat degenerate form. It’s there, but much less developed than the other two."

    "In the hole now… Going smoothly… okay, Bruce, detach. We have impact… well within tolerances… triggered the locking clasps, all on cue… lockdown. Jackie, if you want to go and start her up, I think we’re good to go. Start laying  your cable and pretty soon we’ll be in business." She heard A.J. give a sigh of relief. "Okay, I’m back. What do you need?"

    "The tubes?"

    "Right. Let me see… Oh, screw them! It’s some of that damn composite stuff that eats a lot of the wavelengths I scan on. I’ll have to make do with enhancing the visible. Hey, can you find a way into that glassed-off area?"

    "I’ll take a look." There were two other doors leading out of the room, one of which seemed to be closer to the side of the sealed location. She pointed the Locusts in that direction; a few minutes later the door ground slowly open. "Yes, I think this goes around the side."

    She bounced with dreamlike slowness down the corridor, her suit’s lights reflecting a rippled gold and gray pattern from the walls. The corridor ended in a rounded door with a familiar long bar arrangement in the center. "Pressure or seal door. I think this is a containment facility."

    Having already made his little joke earlier, A.J. managed to resist making a similar remark now. Clearly he was getting older and more responsible. Possibly, she mused, he’d reached high-school level maturity by now.

    "Well, after sixty-plus million years of vacuum, plus your being in a suit capable of withstanding small-arms fire, I don’t think we need to worry about whatever they were containing. Nothing showing on the sensors I’ve got around you, Helen."

    "Okay. Try the door?"

    "You can try, but I think you’ll be waiting for the Locusts. Readings show it’s vacuum-cemented at points around the door seal."

    "How long, A.J.?"

    "Hard to say. I’ll give it a quick try, but I think I may have to make several attempts to commit a Lara Croft on this one." She heard a growl of protest from Jake.

    "That bad?"

    She could see A.J. grimace in the miniature screen. "Yeah. Remember how well these buggers built, and with what. I don’t think I’m going to quite have to call up Maddie for advice on demolitions; this isn’t as bad as the first Vault door, but it’s close."

    "Then I won’t just hang around."

    "If you want to help out," Jackie’s voice broke in, "you and Larry can come join me and start laying down cable. The reactor’s powering up beautifully. The more of us who get cracking on this, the sooner we’ll be able to set up our real Ceres headquarters!"

    "On our way, Jackie," Larry said, as Helen emerged from the tunnel. "Jake, you’re staying?"

    "Well, first of all she didn’t invite me, and second, there’s plenty for me to sort through here without the amateur bulls in the china shop around." Jake’s tone wasn’t as hostile as the words could have sounded. "I’ll keep my lines open and keep an eye on the Locusts when they arrive. I might as well supervise the vandalism if I can’t prevent it."

    "Sounds like a good idea to me," A.J. said cheerfully. "I’ll start loading Feynman with the first set of base supplies, including the fuel maker. That’ll be a serious load off of Bruce’s mind."

    "You got that right, mate. Once we’re makin’ our own fuel, I’ll be a lot happier."

    "And we’ll have a lot wider options. I’m on it. With any luck, I’ll be seeing you guys down there soon!"

    She cut in a private circuit. "Looking forward to it." She said, and winked.

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