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Threshold: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Friday, April 16, 2010 20:29 EDT



    Joe drifted in the long, dreamlike strides Ceres permitted, a cross between floating and walking that had taken some considerable getting used to. Usually, you had to guide yourself in mid-trajectory to some extent, because Ceres’ puny gravity simply didn’t get you back to the floor quick enough. But it wasn’t—quite—puny enough to pretty much ignore. "Jackie, you’re sure we have enough capacity for this?"

    Jackie’s voice over the link was amused. "Joe, for the third time, yes. Do you think I’d have authorized it if we didn’t? I’m just busy up here getting Nobel prepped. You’ve been around the power distribution stuff enough to handle the install, haven’t you?"

    "Oh, sure, that’s not a problem. The setup’s modular. I just know we’ve been using a lot more power lately, what with the research and our guests and all."

    "Well, most of our guests are gone. All but three, I think, and they’re getting ready to leave soon. By the time you have the new main connection set and we can lay down the cable to the project, we’ll have megawatts to spare. And if it does work, then we’ll have enough reason to get another reactor out here."

    "Okay. I’ll stop bothering you, then." Joe continued along, knowing better than to hurry. In low gravity, hurrying just turned you into a pinball. But part of him still wanted to hurry. Setting up a major new power line was necessary so that they could test the repairs they’d made to the alien vessel.

    After what was only about five minutes, but seemed like half an hour to Joe, he reached the control room for the reactor. The main power connection modules were set on the far side of the room. Fortunately, setting up a megawatt-capable connection was a lot easier now than it might have been thirty years ago, but he still had considerable work to do, and even following the procedures being projected for him in his own VRD it would take a little while. Obviously you didn’t want to interrupt power to the whole base, so he had to arrange a cutout, install the new connection, then remove the cutout, without interfering with other operations.

    This would only allow a partial test, of course. To run the ship—if it actually worked, something even A.J. stopped short of asserting as pure fact—would require most of the output of a reactor the size of this one, and of course it would have to be installed on board. But the important test was to see if, in fact, all the work they’d done would permit them to generate the necessary field in vacuum to hold the "dusty plasma" in place.

    "How’s it coming, Joe?" A.J.’s voice sounded in his ears.

    "Not bad. Another half-hour, I guess. By the way, we still need to figure out a good way to mop sweat out of people’s eyes in these things."

    "Yeah, I suppose so. I try to avoid all that sweating, myself."

    Joe laughed. "You can’t really fool us with that lazy bum act, you know."

    "It’s the image. You know that’s… Hey, what the…?"

    "What’s up, A.J.?"

    "One of Maddie’s tripwires just went. Gotta go."

    "Really? Okay, later then." Joe went back to work. There wasn’t much he could do in this case, and besides, as both Maddie and A.J. had been gleefully happy to point out in security discussions, there really wasn’t anywhere anyone could run.

    Well, not for long, anyway. There were miles and miles of Bemmie tunnels, rooms, and so on, only a fraction of them explored so far. But those were all in vacuum, so even if you had a shelter you could only last a short time. And in the open, well, you were obvious. Radiating heat energy like a beacon.

    Them trying to get away with something now, that was a surprise. With the Odin pulling out in a matter of hours, already doing maneuvers to be ready to do a safe burn, who’d be stupid enough to try something?

    At that moment, God brought a sledgehammer down on top of Joe Buckley.



    "The fusion data?" Maddie asked, forehead wrinkled. "That makes no sense at all. Doing it now? When they were about to leave?" She glanced up at another portion of the VRD display, away from A.J.’s face and towards a data section. "Unless... There are only three members of Odin’s crew still here, on a last trip to retrieve material. If they’re working solo…"

    "You seemed to be surprised about what they were getting. Why’s that?" A.J. could ask that in person now, as he had just come around the corner to the central monitoring area. "I got the impression you were about to call me anyway."

    "I’ve found some possible indications that someone might have been tampering with our Bemmius data files, most likely in the astronomical data section. Which makes more sense to me."

    A.J. nodded. "Well, you show me the traces and I’ll see if I can verify. Meanwhile you can track down our free-enterprise burglars."

    Maddie nodded and sent her gathered data to A.J.. He’d been correct that she had literally been moments from contacting him before the alert went off.

    A subliminal shudder whipped through the room like a whisper of disaster. The lights flickered and went out, then backup, dimmer LED lighting came on. All her monitors blanked, but not before she had seen something to truly worry her. "What was that?"

    "Umm… sensor analysis says… meteoroid impact. Significant one, too. Location… Oh, shit!"

    "The reactor?" Maddie’s heart seemed to go cold and stop. "But Joe…"

    "Joe was there in the control room," A.J. said, voice disbelieving. "And the power’s gone, which means it either took out the reactor itself or the control and distribution, which was what he was working on."

    Madeline was halfway to the door before she remembered. "A.J., the three Odin crewmen—they’d gotten access through the bio library. And just before the monitors went out, I saw Helen there."

    "Hold on, don’t go anywhere." A.J. was clearly fighting down his own reaction to this news. "We need to coordinate. Suits on. The communication’s going to be unreliable in here, but better than nothing. And you were right," he said, pulling on his suit, as Maddie did the same, "someone did mess with our files. It’s going to take a while to figure out what they did, exactly, especially now because I’ll have to wait to get back online with the backup copies of our data and do a comparison."

    The grim expression on his face was visible even through the faceplate in dim lighting. "I can tell you who did the erasing work."

    Madeline took another deep breath as she fitted the helmet on. She knew A.J. was probably still analyzing what data he had available for her, even while he was talking. No point in interrupting. He’d known Joe even longer than she had. He was talking for a reason, but all she could really concentrate on was Joe. For the first time in her life, the only thing that mattered wasn’t the mission. "Who was it?"

    "Horst Eberhart. That glad-handing, smooth-talking, son-of-a-bitch Eberhart. He’s the only guy they have who’s that good—better than either of us—and this coverup virus thingie he made, it’s tailored to our setup. Be almost impossible to do by remote. Either he wrote it himself, or he sent someone else all the details on our setup—that he wormed out of me and Jackie, that bastard!—to someone else who did it."

    A.J. made another set of control gestures. "Getting something here, now. I can get some of the independent sensor network up. Getting a low-bandwidth link to one of the satellites—dammit, I forgot, Nobel isn’t in LOS right now."

    "The timing sucks, you know that, A.J.," Maddie said. "Are you sure it wasn’t a bomb?"

    "Ninety-nine percent sure, yeah. The sensors would’ve screamed if a rocket or something was shot in this direction. Analysis shows a straight impact event at several kilometers per second, depending on the exact size of the impactor. That was just bad, bad luck on our part. Typical for Joe, of course."

    Maddie couldn’t exactly relax, but one of the many knots in her gut eased a bit. She really couldn’t believe that anyone on Odin would be insane enough to start what would amount to war by blowing up the base. She’d gotten to know enough of them by now. General Hohenheim was a military man, and dangerous in that sense. But he was also a sensible man, not one to go off half-cocked. Even Fitzgerald couldn’t be that stupid. She hoped. The three other men, though...

    She pulled up her own copies of the files she’d managed to accumulate on Odin’s personnel. As she’d suspected, all three of these were on her red-flag list, which consisted of seven out of the ten people in Odin’s security force, including Richard Fitzgerald himself. All of them had proved to have some nasty histories when she’d used her old HIA contacts to dig on them a bit.

    "Well, I’ve got a bit of good news, I think," A.J. said. "Looks like the impact didn’t go straight to the reactor; must have hit the controls. But the tentative data left from the sensors in the area, just before they went down, seems to show that Joe was not in the precise point of impact. And I know he was in his suit." He patted her on the shoulder. "You go get the rescue party together. I’ll go get these three clowns and bring them back."

    She hesitated. "Are you sure? These people have backgrounds more like mine than yours."

    "Like we said before, where are they going? Besides, I’m best suited to get the remote stuff that still has its own power working as I go along. I’ve got you a link to the satellites now, you should be able to get help. Go save Joe. I’ll go make sure Helen’s okay."

    "Thank you, A.J." She watched for a moment as he went out. "Just be careful."

    "These days I am."

    She activated the link. "Nobel, this is Madeline Fathom. Bruce, Jackie, do you copy?"

    Bruce’s voice came back immediately. "Maddie! It’s good to hear a voice from you again. All telemetry, communications from Ceres just went dead a few minutes ago. What happened?"

    "Meteor impact, A.J. says. Took out the control unit for the reactor. We’re going to need your help on the ground to put things back together, Jackie."

    "Ugh. Well, I think we can probably put something together, but it’s going to take time."

    "More importantly, Joe was near the impact site. We need to contact him, or find him. If he wasn’t"—her voice threatened to do something humiliating like break, but she overrode it—"wasn’t killed immediately, there’s a very good chance the suit protected him, but he could be hurt or unconscious."

    "And the suit can’t keep him alive forever. Righto, then, we’ll shift orbit around and get a look-see with the Beholders while we’re on the way. Back-up power working at all?"

    "Some is, but the priority is of course for life support. And it won’t last forever either. That’s why we have only voice communications and slow data links." She allowed her voice to leave the professional groove for a moment. "Jackie, please, let me know as soon as you get a look at the area. We have to find Joe."

    "Don’t worry, Maddie. I will. Why don’t you get to the landing area, and as soon as we can get Feynman out the doors we’ll come down for you."

    "Thank you. I’ll do that. In the meantime, I have to contact Odin on another matter." Might as well do my job, she thought as she headed for the other door which led more directly to the landing area. She adjusted the transmission frequency. "Odin, come in. This is Madeline Fathom, Ceres Base. Odin, do you read me?"

    "This is Odin," came the deep, warm tones of General Hohenheim. "Agent Fathom, is there a problem? We detected a sudden drop in communications."

    "We have sustained a small meteor impact, General, but one which hit a critical location. One person who happened to be in the area may be injured, but we haven’t verified that. I am calling about another matter, however."

    Hohenheim’s voice was puzzled. "Another matter? This seems to be one of considerable urgency…"

    "If there is anything you can do, I am sure you’ll be notified. However, just before this began, I had verified an attempt by three of your crew to obtain restricted information by criminal means. Specifically, James Salczyck, Leo Modofori, and Axel Zaent."

    Hohenheim’s voice hardened. "This is an extremely serious charge, Agent Fathom. You have evidence of this, I trust?"

    "Our systems did not erase just because power was lost. And I have my own copies of my investigation. I have a great deal of evidence, and we have someone on the way to take them into custody. I intend to have them sent back for trial on Nobel once the immediate crisis is over. Do you have any objection?" This was the first test. If these people were acting under orders, the last thing the general would want is for them to be kept in the custody of others. He would offer to take them back in Odin, which would of course physically make more sense.

    "Well… no, no, I cannot object. Obviously if it turns out your charges are of no merit I—and the European Union—will be extremely disappointed in you and it will have grave repercussions. On the other hand, if what you say is true, you have every right to charge them and in the spirit of our cooperation I must allow you that right. Now," his tone shifted slightly, "these three gentlemen did have one of our excursionary vehicles, the Hunin. Could you arrange to have it ferried to us, after the crisis is over?"

    The second test. "I’m afraid not, General. If these people planned it on their own, considerable evidence of what they intended to do with the information may be on board the vessel they were using, and I will not have time or opportunity to examine the vessel fully until after that time."

    There was a moment of silence, during which Madeline reached one of the common areas which was now filled with worried people; she held up a hand to still the questions as the general resumed speaking. "Well… I suppose this is sensible. However, you do realize that the lander is an extremely expensive piece of the E.U.’s property, and that it must be returned to us as soon as is practical? Even our generosity has limits, and I assure you it does not extend to indefinitely giving away such a vehicle."

    "I fully realize that, General, and as soon as a full forensic examination of the Hunin is complete we will return it to the E.U. by the fastest practical means, even if we must use a considerable portion of Nobel’s capacity to carry it to Earth."

    "Then," he answered, courteously, "I have no concerns. Your integrity is well-known. I will of course expect a formal document to this effect, outlining charges, actions to be taken, and the disposition of the Hunin, but deliver that after you have taken care of your emergency. Good luck, and please let us know if you require anything from us in assistance. Odin out."

    "Thank you, General. Ceres out."

    She looked around at the worried faces. Time to explain. And to hope.

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