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Threshold: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Monday, March 29, 2010 21:10 EDT



    "All right, all right, I’m awake," Nicholas Glendale grumbled at the insistently buzzing door as he dragged himself to consciousness. Usually he could wake up immediately, but whoever this midnight caller was, they’d caught him on one of the deep sleep cycles.

    He glanced at the clock as he rose from the bed. No, it was past midnight. It was 2:00 AM, Phobos time. This had better be worth it, he thought, and palmed the door open.

    "I’m terribly sorry, Dr. Glendale," Madeline said, barely before the door finished opening, "But Joe insisted he talk to you right away."

    It was a slight shock to see that Joe Buckley was, in fact, right there with her, along with Reynolds Jones, the tall, prissy-looking materials expert. "Well, I admit I prefer a bit of warning. If it’s that important or exciting, though, I would hate to put a crimp in our relations over a few hours of desperately-needed rest."

    "Sorry, Nick," Joe said. The apology sounded genuine but rushed. "Take your time waking up."

    That did deserve at least a slight smile, which Nicholas managed. "Why don’t you take our late-night visitors to my office and I will join you in fifteen minutes. Madeline, you don’t have to stay."

    "Actually, I think she should," Joe said firmly.

    "I’ll get them to the office and have Joe make us all some coffee," Maddie said.

    As the door closed, Nicholas could hear the conversation continuing, "Only if you have the right beans…"

    He took a quick shower, which was one of the luxuries really only possible with artificial gravity. He had experienced extended weightlessness, and while there were a number of attractive features of that condition, the methods needed to maintain proper hygiene were not one of them.

    The shower cleared his head, setting off the usual cycle of waking-up routines. By the time he set out a few minutes later, dressed in comfortable clothing and with hair damp but presentable, he felt almost human.

    The scent of brewed coffee greeted him at the office door. "I see you found my beans satisfactory, Joe?"

    The gourmet engineer grinned. "I found your stash."

    Glendale couldn’t quite restrain a slight wince. "Were it anyone else, Joe, I would be a bit annoyed. But I think you can truly appreciate Jamaica Blue."

    "I know I do, Nicholas," Maddie said appreciatively. He noted that Reynolds Jones was apparently drinking tea rather than coffee.

    He took his own cup—pure black, no sugar—and sipped at it. "My God, even better than I make it."

    "Well, I did design the machine myself," Joe said, bowing modestly, "to deal with the problem of good brewing in differing pressures and so on, so I probably just have a better touch with it. And with these beans to work with, well, you just can’t go wrong." He sat down, having finished cleaning off the critical components of the coffee machine, and took his own first sip.

    "Now that we’re settled and we’re using up—at a conservative estimate—about $200 worth of coffee, taking into account the rather extravagant shipping expenses, would you like to tell me what this is all about?"

    "Thought you’d never ask, Nick," Joe said. "It’s about the ship on Ceres. I know what it is. And between me, A.J., and Reynolds, I think we can make it work again."

    Nicholas found that he had stopped with his cup halfway to his lips, staring at Joe. "You’re joking. That vessel is sixty-five million years old."

    Reynolds shook his head. "Yes, yes, of course it is, Nick, but we can do this. It’s really an amazing combination of serendipitous events, absolutely amazing."

    Nicholas blinked. "All right, let’s start from the beginning. What is that ship? From what A.J. said, it had what appeared to be some kind of fuel tanks, but ridiculously small for any reasonable range, and the places it connected to didn’t look anything like rocket exhausts or ion emitters. But the layout of the interior—inhabitable areas, storage spaces, power—all pointed to something that had a pretty long range. A.J. said that he would have thought it was maybe some kind of trailer, a cargo/passenger pod or something of that nature, except that something kept nagging at him, especially one area where a lot of the controls went to which seemed to have a lot of that superconductor material."

    "And A.J. was damn right to have that nagging at him," said Joe. "That’s a dusty plasma sail ship."

    "A… what?" Nicholas glanced at Maddie and saw that she was as much in the dark as he was. "I’ve heard of solar sails, and I think of something like a magnetosail, but…"

    "A dusty plasma sail combines the ideas of solar sails with magnetosails and gets most of the advantages of both," Joe answered. "A researcher at NASA—Doctor Robert Sheldon—first came up with the idea. Basically, a properly ionized plasma can be used to guide and expand, or inflate, a core magnetic field outward, and the plasma can be pretty darn thin—basically the equivalent of hard vacuum on Earth—and still achieve the results. The field confines the plasma and the field acts as a sail, catching the solar wind, without needing any physical structures like some of the magnetic sail designs; the force is exerted on the ship through the magnetic field. Then Sheldon noted that if you were to add dust with the right characteristics, the dust too could be confined by the ionized plasma and magnetic fields."

    "That increases the mass of the whole system," Nicholas pointed out. "I understand how the first part works—and it seems a quite elegant solution to the problem of needing multi-kilometer lengths of superconducting cable—but what’s the point of the dust?"

    Joe grinned. "Dust reflects sunlight. The solar wind pressure is puny, while sunlight pressure is a hell of a lot more powerful. If you can get just a few percent reflection or absorption, you increase the effective thrust many times. An even more important point is that this system is effectively constant thrust; you’ll be accelerating just as fast at the orbit of Jupiter as you were here at the orbit of Earth."

    "Now, wait, that doesn’t make sense," Maddie said. "The sun’s light, and I’d bet the solar wind, is a lot weaker out there. It can’t be getting the same amount of thrust."

    "You would be completely correct if you assumed the sail is a fixed size," Joe agreed. "But that’s not the case. The sail will expand and contract in size depending on the magnetic conditions surrounding it, like a balloon rising higher and higher into the air and expanding as the pressure around it drops. The solar magnetic field decreases as you get farther away until you hit the magnetopause somewhere out past Pluto. So as you get farther away, your sail just keeps getting bigger, catching a proportionately larger amount of sunlight and solar wind, essentially maintaining a constant thrust. Yeah, at some point you have to dump more gas and dust into the mix, but overall it turns out to be reasonably constant thrust."

    Madeline looked impressed. Nicholas certainly was. "What sort of thrust are we talking about?"

    "Nothing immense in terms of acceleration. You wouldn’t feel it, not unless you’re awfully sensitive and looking for it, so to speak. But any constant thrust vehicle will kick the crap out of any limited-delta-V system over the long haul, and I’d bet that this ship can at least equal Odin’s mass-beam approach—and it doesn’t need some linear accelerator at the other end being constantly fed. The sun’s doing all the work."

    "Nice." Madeline’s expression showed she was thinking about the implications of the design. "Another nice thing about it, I imagine, is that the drive system itself would serve a magnetic shield. Remember how much engineering had to go into Nike in order to make it safe, and how we had to design special shields for the Mars rovers and shelters?"

    Nicholas nodded. That was another area where the Bemmius superconductor was making things much easier. Before, they’d had to maintain liquid nitrogen around sets of isolated magnets, which then generated a magnetic field surrounding the habitable areas—especially a pain in the original Nike habitat ring design. Now they could just put the superconductor in appropriate configurations and charge up the field, removing a huge, huge parasitic mass cost from the system. "I certainly do. So this dusty-plasma drive protects the ship from cosmic radiation?"

    "And from some other sorts, too," Joe confirmed.

    Nicholas frowned, musing. "With all these benefits, why haven’t we ever built one?"

    Joe laughed. "Kind of my reaction, really. But, first off, the theory never got a lot of play. Why, I don’t know, but even though Dr. Sheldon did several papers on the basic concept and even did some simple but effective demonstrations in the lab, no one was ever really willing to put the money into a test. That might partly be because in order to really test it you needed something to go out past the Earth’s magnetosphere, which was a major operation to contemplate back in the beginning of the century. It was pretty easy, relatively speaking, to get something up in low Earth orbit, but tens of thousands of miles up was a whole different ballgame. And controlling the sail was another sort of sticky point. There are ways you might do it, but they were never clearly laid out in the initial research. Also, it really does require superconducting magnets to work, and those have always been a pain. What happens if your liquid nitrogen pops a leak and you’re out by Jupiter? And there is the eternal question of ‘how do I stop this crazy thing?’" He looked at Nicholas with a raised eyebrow.

    "And how do I stop the crazy thing?" Nicholas asked, obliging him.

    "Very carefully," Joe said with a smile. "Seriously, it’s a bit of an issue. There are a couple of ways. With just the ship itself, basically you have to be willing to stop accelerating before you reach too high a speed, and then tack around a planet large enough to permit a lot of delta-V. You probably want some rockets for that maneuver, because the major slingshot effect comes from dumping mass at an advantageous moment. Then you take a course which opposes your current orbit to enough of an extent that you effectively slow down. It can get pretty tricky, actually, because you’d have to choose your course such that you’d end up at an appropriate planet when you wanted to slow down, and—here’s the really tricky part—you have to be ready to deal with your sail doing weird things to you when you get close to the other planet."


    "Because a lot of planets, like Earth and especially Jupiter, have their own magnetic fields, and when you go through their magnetopause it’ll be like suddenly diving underwater. Your fifty-kilometer sail will suddenly squeeze down to five kilometers, or something like that. All of a sudden you’ve got a lot less thrust—and you might start picking up small but noticeable thrusts from other directions if there’s a lot of charged particles being guided by the planetary field. And of course as a magnetic sail, cutting through another magnetic field is going to have an effect on you as well. Even very small thrusts will have a major effect on whether you actually arrive at your destination or wind up a few tens of thousands of kilometers off.

    "That’s if you’re a singleton ship. If you’re already spacegoing, you can set up a bunch of stations that are sort of like the Odin’s mass-drivers except they might fire high-energy particles or light at your sail, slowing you down. You might also use these ships sort of like one-way shipping containers, and when they got to the end destination you might send them back in using a mass-beam or just a long-time ion drive that will get them home eventually."

    Nicholas nodded. "Interesting. Combining the problems of a sailing ship and a riverboat on a current. But eliminating the problem of carrying a gigantic sail or many tons of fuel." That struck another chord. "You do need to supply the gas and dust for your sail, and a thirty-kilometer sphere is an awfully large volume. How much gas and dust are you going to need?"

    "A few hundred kilograms. A hell of a lot less than you’d need for an even vaguely plausible solar sail, let me tell you."

    "I see." He turned to Reynolds, who had just finished his tea. "What’s your role here?"

    "Mine? Well, material sciences, of course. Reconstructing the ship will require just tons of work making sure we get the materials correct. We think that some of the components are designed to help guide and perhaps even shape the magnetic fields, you know, tacking back and forth, that sort of thing." Reynolds gave an expansive gesture that somehow conveyed the impression of billowing sails. "So much easier to sail when you have rigging, if you know what I mean.

    "Now, Bemmie did all that marvelous work with materials that has frustrated A.J. so much when trying to scan through it both by finding just the right combination of elements, and by tremendously careful work on the microstructural end, to the point that it’s really quite a job to figure out which characteristics of the material are coming from its composition and which ones are from the unique microstructure. This is still an expanding field, you know, and it’s just not something that you can hand to a computer. Even with someone as good as A.J. doing the data collection work, you need a real expert to make the judgment calls. And, of course, material design and synthesis are my major specialities, Dr. Glendale. So naturally I’m going."

    "Going?" He looked up. "You want to go there?"

    Joe nodded. "I can’t supervise this at a distance, really. I have to see it. And A.J. can’t do it all himself."

    "What’s A.J. got to do with reconstructing a ship?" Nicholas found the question coming out more sharply than he intended. If Joe left, Madeline would almost certainly want to go, and he really didn’t want her just leaving; nor, however, did he want to keep her there against her will. "I’m sorry, obviously he’s the one providing you with data, but…"

    "No, I understand, Nick," Joe said. "Actually, it’s the damn Faerie Dust again. A.J. has several new designs and one of them—based partly off some of the Bemmie concepts we’ve managed to derive, and partly on our own experiences—is meant to literally go through something almost a molecule at a time, rearranging stuff according to a prior pattern. A reconstruction expert’s dream. He wanted something to test this on, and while this is a lot bigger than he originally thought, he probably won’t have to do that kind of thing on most of it. The main hull and structural members are made of the same carbon-metal composite-ceramic stuff the Vault was armored with. I suspect the best use of the Faerie Dust will be reconstructing the superconducting components."

    "Could we just build one of these ships from scratch, rather than trying to rebuild something older than humanity?" Nicholas asked reasonably. "There’s a certain poetry about some ancient alien ship being brought back from the grave, so to speak. But won’t it be just far more work to reconstruct this one?"

    Maddie answered that, somewhat to his surprise. "Probably not, Dr. Glendale. First, I don’t think Joe and A.J. would have neglected to think of that, so they wouldn’t be proposing this if they didn’t think it would be the right course. But more importantly, while I think that we—as the human race—probably could build one more easily, I doubt seriously that we—as the IRI and Ares—can. It’s a matter of what resources we have and how we can apply them. In Joe, Ren, and A.J. we have the resources to reconstruct this ship, though it will undoubtedly take time. We simply do not have the resources to build an entire ship from scratch. If we did, you wouldn’t have had the trouble you did getting Nobel built in the first place."

    "She’s got it," Joe confirmed. "Sure, we could just hand over the discovery to everyone and I’ll bet that the United States or the E.U. would build at least a test ship in a few years without any strain at all, but then we don’t get any real benefit out of the deal."

    And that’s the real rub, Nicholas thought. The whole point of the cooperative agreement was to let both parties get some use out of the deal, and with Ares personnel making the discovery they did, indeed, have the right to profit from it. "Madeline?"

    "I think I have to go with them, sir."

    The tone of voice surprised him. So did the formal address. He had known she’d want to, but Madeline would never try to justify it without cause. "What is the problem?"

    She gestured out the window. Glancing out, he saw the massive habitat ring of Odin gliding by in stately fashion. The E.U. vessel was currently docked to Phobos Station, transferring supplies it had brought from Earth, and was preparing to make its return journey. The Odin had made the trip entirely under the mass-beam system and was to return using mostly the fuel it had captured from the beam, thus proving both components of the system. The E.U. was also constructing a second mass-beam unit near Mars, a move which would permit extremely quick transits between Earth and Mars in both directions.

    "That’s the problem, sir. I know that the E.U. has been very accommodating, and that as a U.N. agency we can’t very well forbid them from going anywhere. None of us want to be unfriendly, anyway. But if we’re trying to keep secrets from them on Ceres, it’s going to be a hell of a job. Odin carries a crew of slightly over one hundred people, and we’re going to have—even if all three of us go—a total of less than twenty people on Ceres to keep an eye on them."

    Nicholas shook his head in chagrin. "You know, I hadn’t even thought of that. And they are of course going to Ceres as soon as they finish this return trip."

    "Of course," Madeline acknowledged. "Not only have they already been implying that, but with Ceres now an established base that has some resources of its own, it makes an absolutely ideal destination for a longer-range test of the mass-beam, especially the self-guiding components. They have at least some hope of getting help if something goes wrong, and they’ll be the first people outside of our group to get to see the material on Ceres first hand. They will expect—and have to be given—some considerable access to the base. The Mars Accords make that very clear. And in any case, even with Ares’ claim verified, it’s a matter of good strategy to not annoy organizations a thousand times your size. Playing that kind of handicapped chess game is something I absolutely do not want to do by remote control."

    She chewed her lip. "Also, I’ve looked over their personnel lists. There are some people there that make me nervous, especially their chief of security."

    Nicholas sighed. "I won’t say I like the idea of you leaving, Madeline, because I don’t. But I would be doubly a fool if I hired the best security specialist in the solar system and then ignored her own advice. If I said that I was not going to approve Joe and Reynolds going to do this reconstruction, would that change your mind?"

    "No. It would make it a much more painful decision, sir, but I really think that Ceres is going to be our vulnerable area for a while to come. Especially since we have two major secrets there at this point."

    "So they are convinced it was fusion?"

    "Ninety percent, anyway," Joe answered. "If it gives us enough hints, this would be a bigger jump forward than even the superconductor."

    Nicholas brought up the orbital application he’d come to rely on over the past few years. "The real question is whether we can make this work. Nobel will be getting back here soon, but it will be very tight. The only launch window we will have for a reasonable transit time to Ceres—say six months—is going to be in two months from now. If we’re right that Odin will set out for Ceres shortly after she gets to Earth, then she’ll be launching for Ceres—using mass-beam for constant acceleration—just about the time you get to Ceres. And that means you will have only a few weeks to prepare. I suggest strongly that you have A.J. do as much as possible via remote, even if it means that he’ll do things more slowly than you would. Otherwise you will lose at least eight months of work."

    "I was planning on that anyway, but I’ll make it a priority," Joe said. "I guess we’d better get planning. Sure don’t want to leave the wrong stuff behind."

    Nicholas sighed. Obviously he wasn’t going back to sleep tonight. "No. And I have to get other things moving. I was originally planning on having Odin ferry some of our personnel out there, but if I’m sending Nobel back out right away, it makes more sense to send anything I can back that way. And a good thing that Odin brought Tammy and Stevie out as a favor. I’d hate to try to tell Bruce that he was going to have to wait another year or more to see them."

    "You’re going to send them out with us?"

    "That’ll be between them," Nicholas answered. "They’ll have more than a month to work that out, but I’m not telling them what to do."

    Joe shook his head dolefully as he got up to leave. "I dunno, Nick. Now we’ve got the last element for disaster: a cute perky little girl to be shipped off to the isolated space colony."

    "Funny," Nicholas said with a smile as they were exiting. "According to Bruce, the recipe for disaster is to have a gentleman named ‘Joe Buckley’ on board his ship. So I suppose you’re right in either case. Make sure your insurance is up to date, Maddie."

    She looked concerned. "Bruce does have a point. Maybe I could go out on Odin a little later—"


    "—but then, who’d be there to rescue him from the inevitable disaster?" she finished, grinning. "I’ll be back later to help start the planning, Dr. Glendale."

    "Thank you, Madeline."

    Nicholas gazed out at the Odin. How easily the universe gets more complicated, he mused. I wonder if it will ever get simpler?

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