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Threshold: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 21:30 EDT



    "Please have a seat, Mr. Fitzgerald," said Goswin Osterhoudt. The chief operations officer of the European Space Development Company motioned toward a chair positioned near one corner of his huge desk.

    Osterhoudt did not do Fitzgerald the courtesy of rising to greet him. But Richard managed to contain his dismay. Actually, he had to struggle a bit to keep from smiling. People like Osterhoudt were so predictable.

    Two other people were already seated in the office, in chairs positioned near the opposite corner of the COO’s desk. One of them was a paunchy middle-aged man with hair that was almost pure white; the other was a somewhat younger woman with dark hair, dark eyes, and a narrow face. Both of them were wearing business suits, as was Osterhoudt. The man’s suit was expensive; the woman’s, more expensive still.

    Neither of the suits was as expensive as Osterhoudt’s. And where Osterhoudt had taken off his jacket and loosened his tie, neither of his subordinates had done the same. It was all delightfully predictable.

    "Florian Lejeune; Chiara Maffucci," said Osterhoudt by way of introduction.

    Maffucci nodded, her face expressionless. Lejeune half-rose to his feet and extended his hand. "Pleased to meet you," he said.

    Richard shook his hand and took his own seat. Both Osterhoudt and Lejeune had spoken in French, so Fitzgerald presumed that would be the language for the occasion. That was a bit of a relief. His French was excellent. His German was almost as good, but when he and Osterhoudt met privately the COO insisted on speaking in Dutch, a language with which Richard was only passably familiar.

    Osterhoudt’s accent was pronounced, whenever he spoke in a foreign language. But his French and German was quite understandable. In English, he was almost incomprehensible.

    Lejeune’s French had been smooth and fluent, as with a native speaker, but with a trace of an accent. Between the accent and the given name, Richard assumed he was Belgian.

    "Very well, Mr. Fitzgerald," Osterhoudt said. He nodded toward his two associates. "I’ve given them a summary of what I propose to make your assignment, and they have a few questions they’d like to ask."

    There’d been a slight emphasis on the word few. Richard suspected that neither of Osterhoudt’s underlings was happy with the situation—but Osterhoudt was making clear than he’d made up his mind already.

    Richard gazed at Maffucci and Lejeune, his expression as bland as he could make it. Which was surprisingly bland, in fact—he’d practiced in front of a mirror—given that Fitzgerald’s face was composed of harsh planes and angles and decorated with three scars, one of them quite visible.

    Lejeune cleared his throat. "Mr. Fitzgerald, I’m puzzled as to the reason you’re requesting so many people for this assignment. Nine people besides yourself, given that the entire company of the Odin isn’t much more than a hundred people, seems an exceedingly large security force."

    Richard was tempted to point out that in his negotiations with Osterhoudt, he hadn’t "requested" a team of ten people. He’d insisted on it. In fact, he’d made approval of that number a critical item in the dickering.

    But there was no reason to rub a flunkey’s face in his own status. So, politely, he replied: "Yes, I realize that the number must seem unnecessary—and, if this assignment were anywhere on this planet, I wouldn’t have asked for more than five or six. But we’re to be engaged on an interplanetary mission, Mr. Lejeune. Furthermore, we have no clear idea how long the assignment might last. It could go on for years, before we return."

    "Oh, nonsense!" snapped Maffucci. "Months, certainly. One or two years, perhaps."

    Richard transferred the bland gaze to her. "Or three years, Ms. Maffucci. Or four years. The truth is that we have no idea how long we’ll be gone. If we turn up evidence of another Bemmie base somewhere in the asteroids or the outer solar system, we could be gone for a very long time indeed."

    "The projections—"

    "Projections," Osterhoudt interrupted, "are even more apt to go astray once you leave the Earth’s atmosphere than they are on the planet itself. And they’re quite apt to go astray here. Leave this be, Chiara. Fitzgerald is just being realistic."

    "And given that the length of the mission might become very protracted," Richard continued smoothly, "I need a large enough security force to handle attrition. I won’t be surprised at all if one or two—possibly even three or four—of my people become incapacitated at one point or another. Possibly permanently. I have to make allowance for that."

    "I can understand the need for some redundancy," said Lejeune. "But this still seems excessive. Let’s assume that you lose as many as four of your people. That leaves you with a security force of six people, including yourself. For a ship with a crew of not more than a hundred people, Mr. Fitzgerald? All of whom are either experienced and thoroughly-vetted astronauts or prominent and almost-as-thoroughly vetted scientists. I’d think yourself and one other person would suffice." He smiled, almost sweetly. "I realize you do need to sleep on occasion."

    Richard wondered why Lejeune and Maffucci were pressing this issue. You’d expect their questioning to focus on some of the details of the mission itself, given that many of those details were stated in exceedingly fuzzy language in the contract.

    They were probably just covering their asses, he decided. If they pressed him on the operational specifics of his assignment, they’d risk getting too close to knowledge that might someday—if things went badly—wind up being embarrassing. Embarrassing, at best. At worst, such knowledge could potentially even lead to prison sentences. That was very unlikely, of course. Still, it wasn’t impossible.

    By making a fuss over the crude issue of the size of his security force, on the other hand, they avoided that problem—while still, if it ever proved necessary, being able to claim they raised objections and reservations from the beginning.

    It was all so predictable. The only somewhat puzzling thing was the reason Osterhoudt was letting them go on as long as they were. Richard suspected that was because neither Lejeune nor Maffucci was entirely under the COO’s authority. Though officially his subordinates, they probably had other patrons in the hierarchy of the huge corporation—or its board of directors, more likely—and were acting on their behalf here. As much as Osterhoudt might like to squelch them, he simply couldn’t.

    On the other hand—as he made clear that very moment—the COO didn’t have to tolerate them for very long, either.

    "I think that’s enough, Florian. Mr. Fitzgerald has explained his reasons for wanting a ten-person security force, and they seem quite sensible to me. So let’s move on. Do you have any other issues to raise?"

    Lejeune hesitated, and then shook his head. Osterhoudt turned to Maffucci. "Chiara?"

    The woman was made of sterner stuff. She proceeded to waste Richard’s time with pettifogging quibbling over some of the equipment he proposed to take aboard the Odin. It was all quite pointless, since nothing on Richard’s list came close to violating the prohibitions in the Mars Treaty concerning weaponry in space.

    True, combined with some of the equipment already on board or soon to be loaded onto Odin, and certain… enhancements that had been carefully introduced into the ship's design,the stuff being brought by Richard and his team would allow them to construct several quite effective types of weapons. But that sort of arcane military uses of seemingly-innocuous equipment was very specialized knowledge. Richard was confident he could smuggle the stuff on to the ship without alerting even the U.N.’s professional inspectors. There was no chance that either Maffucci or Lejeune would be able to spot the potential violations of the Treaty. In fact, Richard was pretty sure he could assemble a complete weapon system right in front of them and they wouldn’t realize what it was unless it was put into operation.

    Which was quite unlikely also, of course. Richard did not expect to have to actually use any of those military options. He simply wanted them available, just in case. Careful planning for all contingencies, he had found, was the key to success in his line of work.

    Finally, they were done. Maffucci and Lejeune rose and left the room. The Belgian nodded politely on the way out. The woman didn’t.

    "My apologies for putting you through that silliness, Richard," Osterhoudt said. He waved his hand. "Corporate politics, you understand."

    The chief operations officer leaned forward on his desk. "I stress that nothing has changed in the basic parameters of your mission. Whatever nervousness may exist on the part of some of the company’s directors, everyone who really matters is entirely behind this project. We must get our hands on at least one major alien installation. Exclusively in our hands, that is. That is absolutely imperative. The benefits of this new Bemmie technology are literally incalculable. There’s been enough of this ‘sharing’ that we’ve had to tolerate because of the unique position enjoyed thus far by Ares and the IRI. Now, it comes to an end."

    Richard smiled, and said nothing. The smile was mostly to cover what would otherwise have been a derisive jeer. It was typical of people like Osterhoudt to toss around expressions like "Now it comes to an end."

    Really? When the shortest transit time to Mars would take months and there was absolutely no way of knowing when, where and how the Odin and its crew might discover the whereabouts of another Bemmie base? Assuming one existed at all, beyond those already known. That was quite likely, but it was hardly an established fact.

    Ah, well. People like Osterhoudt also paid extremely well. Which was all that really mattered, when you came down to it.



    General Hohenheim found himself shaking his head slowly in disbelief. "I knew it was going to be big, but..."

    "The largest mobile object ever built by mankind, General Hohenheim," Francesca Castillo said proudly, "though not, of course, the most massive." She gestured towards the nearly-completed E.U. vessel Odin. "She masses as much as a modern missile cruiser."

    Hohenheim shook his head again. Ten thousand tons. It would have been impossible to move that much mass into orbit only a year or two ago. Fortunately, the EU had been quick to invest in India's Meru project once it became clear that they were going to succeed in becoming the source of mass transport to orbit using the space elevator approach.

    Odin loomed before the transfer vehicle, ever larger, surrounded by what seemed to be delicate spider-webs but which were massive cables providing anchors, support, power, and access for workers and automated assembly vehicles. It looked, in some ways, similar to the United States' Nike, a generally cylindrical central body with a large "hab ring" set outward from the body near the center, to provide a substitute for gravity when spinning.

    Sweeping back from Odin's rear, however, were four great arching tendrils, delicate compared to the more-massive main body, but extending an almost incredible distance. They were surrounded at intervals by circular bands that bound together and supported the slender ribs of composites, until at the far end was a circle a full kilometer across. The entire vessel, from the point of the bow to the end of that wirework-like cone, was nearly four kilometers in length.

    She is, of course, mostly empty space—cargo, fuel, consumables. Still—!

    "That structure is the mass-beam drive," he said, pointing to the kilometers-long tendrils and their accompanying circular bands. "I notice, however, that especially along the base there are additional pieces that I don't recall from my briefings."

    Castillo, the chief engineer directing the assembly of Odin, pushed a strand of graying black hair into the hairnet she wore while in microgravity. "Additional… oh, yes, I see." She studied the symmetrical, long blades, like fins, that stretched for a considerable distance along the mass-driver support ribs. "Heat sinks and radiators, General. The Odin's reactor generates an immense amount of heat, and for some maneuvers may need to even store some of it and dissipate it even more quickly. As there is no water or air in space to help by evaporating or carrying away heat by convection, radiation is really the only option. It is of course possible to dump heat extremely quickly in an emergency by sacrificing water or, if you had it, another fluid, boiling it off and throwing it away. But such an approach would waste a huge amount of such resources, something you could likely ill-afford where Odin will eventually go."

    Hohenheim nodded. "Yes. The Outer Planets, not the inner ones." Jupiter was uppermost in his thoughts there. The huge gas giant was the largest object besides the Sun in the solar system and it was attended by the largest and most diverse grouping of satellites. More to the point here, it also presented the largest danger, overall, of any location in the system to a large ship except diving down for a close encounter with the Sun itself. "Has the shielding been fully tested?"

    Castillo snorted, a perhaps not very respectful way to address to the man who would be commanding the Odin, but clearly expressing her opinion. "Sir, you couldn't fully test this shielding unless you had Jupiter's magnetosphere and accompanying radiation to test it with. But we have conducted extensive tests on both the general ship shielding systems and on those in the excursion suits and the Hugin and Munin. They have all passed all tests." She pointed. "If you look along the Hab Ring, you can probably just make out the coil sections. The radiation shielding design is made with redundancy in mind. It shunts radiation around sections of the ship to pass down what amount to magnetic… tubes, I suppose, though they're not really tubes and certainly aren't physical. Those go between the spokes of the Hab Ring and pass onward either forward or backward from the vessel."

    "I would suppose, then, that anything lying along the centerline of those 'tubes' would be subject to very intense radiation—even greater than ambient?"

    "Quite so. And true to an extent with the suits. The field does not focus the beam very far, of course, and once the deflected particles leave the field they may be dispersed by the main magnetosphere, which will of course predominate away from the immediate area of the ship."

    "The suits appear to have a rather nonsymmetric field, however." Hohenheim gestured and an image of the Odin's outer-system worksuits appeared, While not very different from traditional suits of this kind, there was one obvious change: a hole, about the diameter of a man's fist, running through the area where many older suits simply had an oblong backpack-like box to carry air supply. In these suits, that area was divided by the hole.

    "Magnetic metamaterials work has allowed us to effectively shape the fields to some extent. The radiation would normally pass through the center of a symmetrical field—which would, unfortunately, include a large part of the astronaut. By biasing the field, the deflected radiation can be sent through a less… crucial location." She smiled at him. "And the Bemmies themselves gave us the superconductor that makes it possible to build the shielding this small."

    "And to do much of the other work involved," agreed Hohenheim. He didn't follow the exact details of the sciences involved, but he didn't need to. What was important was understanding how the changes in technology affected capabilities and approaches. Metamaterial sciences, which had really taken off in the late part of the twentieth century, involved studying how specific variants in the structure of a material, rather than its precise composition, could affect its physical properties. Metamaterials in optics had demonstrated bizarre properties, including negative indices of refraction, optical magnetism, and others, and it was clear that something of the kind was responsible for the operation of the Bemmie room-temperature superconductor material. Similarly, magnetic metamaterials had shown the ability to affect magnetic fields in ways simple changes in composition couldn't.

    "There will be some effects on the drive in the deep magnetosphere," Castillo noted. "Well, to be precise, not on the drive itself, but the deflected particles will be imparting some sort of thrust. You must make sure this is taken into account at all times."

    "Understood. It is something of a magnetic sail by default—no action without an equal and opposite reaction. If we are deflecting and redirecting energetic particles, their deflection exerts a force on us." He pointed to the rear of the main central body. "The main nuclear rocket nozzle—"

    "Ah, yes. Because the Odin may wish to use far more power in bursts from the reactor than Nike did, we have had to build a better cooling and protective system for the nuclear rocket's exhaust. It cools itself to some extent but there is much heat in that area. Also, the main water tankage is spaced around the base of the mass-driver ribs and around the main engine area to provide additional radiation shielding. The wide spacing of the hab sections from both the main body and the active drive areas of the ribs minimizes any exposure to hard radiation from either the nuclear reactor or the mass-driver."

    "Hard radiation from the mass-driver?"

    "Most likely not much." Castillo blinked and for a moment her eyes didn't seem to want to meet his, but she continued before he could be sure. "Still, as they say, it is better to be safe. Magnetically accelerating material to high speeds can produce X or even gamma radiation, depending on how much mass, how high the acceleration, and other factors."

    Hohenheim wondered what she wasn’t telling him. The general was no political innocent and did not doubt his instincts. At the same time, the regulations were clear, and he knew the United States had been carrying out its inspections with clockwork regularity and undoubted thoroughness. There should not be any major surprises hidden on his ship.

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