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Threshold: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Monday, April 19, 2010 19:57 EDT



    Helen was startled as the lights went out, just as she entered the room. She’d been about to talk to the three men by the main bio console. They’d been clustered around, looking at something in a way that somehow didn’t look right, but the sudden darkness distracted her.

    A moment later, the emergency lights came on. She glanced around, puzzled. "What in...?"

    "Damn," said one of the men, a short, whip-thin blonde.

    "Just as well," said the second. His calm baritone voice and athletic build rang a bell. She knew this one somewhat—Modofori, that was it. "We might have tripped something, and—"

    "Leo!" the third one interrupted, having looked up to see Helen standing there.

    The three turned to face her. There was something in their expressions she didn’t like, although that could just be the sinister tint from the reddish emergency lighting. "Wonder what took out the lights?" she said, figuring that was a relatively neutral topic.

    "No idea," Modofori said. He looked concerned—and, strangely, a bit angry. "Um, Dr. Sutter—or would that be Baker?"

    "Either will do, though I use Sutter professionally."

    "Dr. Sutter, then." He looked around the room. "You know anything about the backups on this base? How long the air will last?"

    That was an unpleasant thought. The lights had been known to flicker on rare occasion before, usually when someone was cranking up a high-power experiment or piece of machinery, but not stay out for any length of time. "Not offhand, sorry. If A.J. were here I’m sure he’d have it down to the second."

    "Maybe we’d better suit up," the third man said uneasily. He shifted his massive, squat frame to reach his spacesuit’s case. People generally carried the suits with them, even though it was much easier to do work with them off in areas that were kept pressurized.

    "Good idea, Jimmy," Modofori said. "But keep the helmets off. If air is going to be an issue, we want to save the stuff in our suits for last."

    Helen, meantime, had been trying to reach the rest of the base. Her gut tightened. "I can’t get through to anyone outside. Communications are down too."

    The three men looked at each other. The first man opened his mouth to say something, but Modofori gave a quick shake of his head. "That’s … odd," he said. There was a moment of silence. "Well, we were just about to leave anyway. Come on," he said to the others. "We’ve got stuff to take back to Odin before she leaves."

    The one he’d called Jimmy glanced in her direction again and then whispered something to Modofori. Helen definitely didn’t like the way this looked. She turned to the other door. "Nothing much for me to do here either, not with the power off. Have a nice trip home."

    The sound of movement behind her gave her a split-second’s warning. She tried to move aside, but the reflexes of avoidance were still back on Earth, and she bounced more upward than sideways. Jimmy, his heavy form under more control, caught her leg and then spun, bringing her forcefully against the wall. She felt rather than heard a sort of crunching, cracking noise as her nose hit the flat surface, and blinding pain rocketed through her face. The concussion dazed her and she wasn’t quite clear on what happened next. By the time her eyes properly refocused, they were all in one of the corridors, a furiously heated discussion going on between the three men in a mixture of languages. She’d gotten used to this kind of discussion, and it wasn’t that hard to translate. Unfortunately so, in this case, because as it turned out she really wasn’t sure she wanted to know what they were saying.

    "—asshole, we could have just walked." That was the shorter skinny one, dragging her by her right side.

    "You saw how she was looking. She’d have sounded the alarm, if we hadn’t tripped it already. And this can’t be a coincidence." That was Jimmy, on her left. Ceres’ gravity made her easy to carry, but two people could guide her more easily than one. Mass was not changed by gravity shifts.

    "You think it’s on purpose? How? And why? If it was a setup, what’s to gain?"

    "Shut up," Modofori said. The other two immediately silenced themselves.

    Helen’s communicator beeped. "Helen?" came the muffled voice of A.J.

    Modofori shook his head. "Why does hers work when ours don’t?"

    "Helen? Answer me, please!" She was tempted to try to answer, but she suspected the result would be painful. Whatever these people were up to, they were serious.

    Modofori fiddled with his radio. "Nothing on our frequencies. Don’t know which one she’s on."

    A.J.’s tone changed, this time to the sharp, wiseass tone that preceded a truly heroic temper tantrum. "Modofori, Zaent, Salczyck, if you are there, better answer this or you’re not going to like it."

    At their names the odd trio had stumbled, bumping into each other and jostling Helen. Something just brushed her nose and she almost screamed in pain.

    "Damn." Modofori grabbed the communicator. "What is it?"

    She could just make out A.J.’s face on the little screen. "We know what you were up to, guys. Now it’s over. Head to the main lounge and give yourselves up."

    "I don’t think so." Modofori looked like he was thinking furiously. "I’ll call you back when I am ready to talk to you. And in the meantime, you remember whose communicator you were calling on. And stay quiet." He pointed the communicator camera in Helen’s direction. "See? Now, I’ll call back on this communicator when I’m ready. And if you play along, I think everyone can come out of this okay. If not…"

    "I understand." A.J.’s voice was as cold as she had ever heard it.

    "Good." Modofori switched the communicator to off, using the "hard off" switch. And pulled the power cell for good measure. "There." He glanced at the others. "Let’s move."



    "I’m getting a very weak response from Joe’s comm, mates."

    "Thank god. His suit wasn’t destroyed, then." Madeline allowed herself to feel a little hope.

    "Apparently not. Whatever hit, though, did one scary lot of damage." Bruce’s voice was grim. "Scattered debris over miles and miles in this low gravity." His tone shifted. "Okay, Maddie, we’ll be landin’ soon enough. Then we drop Jackie off at the site so she can assess the damage, and we can search for Joe."

    "Thank you, Bruce." It occurred to her suddenly that she hadn’t heard from A.J. in quite some time. "A.J., are you there?"

    There was no answer for a moment, and she began to really worry. Then his voice came back, sounding oddly flat. "I’m here."

    "Is everything all right? Did you get our fugitives?"

    "It’s not all right yet," A.J. answered. "But it will be."

    "What’s going on, A.J.?" She knew evasion when she heard it. "Don’t try to handle this if you can’t—"

    "Don’t go there." The cold reply brought her up short. She hadn’t ever heard him use a tone like that, not even when he was furious at her. "I said, it will be all right. I’m taking care of it. You have my word. You just go find Joe and get things running again."

    She thought a moment. "Is Helen all right?"

    "She will be."

    "Ah. Crazy bastards." She thought she understood now. But… "You’re sure?"

    "Absolutely. I gave you my word."

    She knew that A.J. did not use that phrase lightly. It was acutely painful to her to not step forward, but… in his position, if she was sure she could handle it… "All right." She offered a short, silent prayer to whoever might be listening that A.J. really knew what he was doing, and then deliberately let the matter drop from her mind. Agent’s training was what was needed here.

    The Feynman was barely settling into place as she bounded out to meet it. "Let’s go find Joe," she said to Bruce as the door opened.


    The impact site was barely a hop away; in fact, using Feynman would have been overkill if they hadn’t intended to use the shuttle as a search-and-rescue vehicle in the area anyway. Maddie sent several of the Locusts, which she could control nearly as well as A.J., on a survey of the area as Jackie made her way into the shattered hulk of the prefabricated building that had housed the control center for the reactor. Part of it had practically splashed on impact.

    "That’s bad," Jackie said matter-of-factly. "Punched through the main controls like a bullet. A bullet that must’ve been bigger than my two fists. And with atmosphere present…"

    "Big boom." Maddie glanced around the room. It was actually startlingly clean in some ways, probably because the blast and air escaping had thrown everything out. There was still a film of dust here and there—and what was that?

    On the floor, the dust showed a faint, odd pattern: light streaking, then two dark streaks like expanding cones, wide ends pointing towards the wall. The dark streaks, she saw as she bent closer, were really areas with a lot less dust. "Jackie?"

    The dark-haired engineer saw the pattern too. "Joe."

    "He must have been standing here when the thing hit."

    Jackie nodded. "Well away from the very center. I think I can get Nobel to give me at least an estimate of the force of impact. Hold on."

    A few minutes dragged by like hours as Jackie set up the parameters for the model. Then, "Maddie? He could have survived. But it was awfully close. Depends on what he hit on the way out, when he landed, how exactly he was standing…" Jackie trailed off. "We’ll just have to find him."

    "Bruce!" Maddie said, pushing her emotions aside. "I’ve had the Locusts circling the area. Can Nobel tie in and compute a fix on Joe’s location?"

    "Sorry, luv, no joy. Signals seem to be bouncing off the base material, getting absorbed, multipath all over. No way of tellin’ which of six directions to look in. If we can’t narrow it down… well, he’s got Buckley’s of being found in time." Bruce got a dark amusement out of the fact that Joe’s last name was, and had been for years, Australian for hopeless situation.

    "Then," Maddie said briskly, "We’ll just have to narrow them down, won’t we?"

    "We’d better do it quick," Jackie said. "The rest of the base isn’t going to last forever without power. We have to get things running again."

    "How long to replace the controls?" Bruce asked. "Do we even have the parts on hand?"

    Jackie’s gestures showed she was consulting her own database. "Actually, we do. But it’s going to take four, five days at least. And that’s longer than the emergency backups will last. We can probably save all the people, but there’ll be major losses in other areas if it goes that long. We’ll lose infrastructure to frozen pipes and all that kind of thing. We need to get at least minimal power flowing faster." She shook her head, gazing down at the immense hole punched through the area the consoles had occupied. "I might be able to rig something up, but I’m not sure. The reactor itself may have shut down when the controls went, which means I’ll need the controls before I can start it generating again."

    "How much juice do we need?" Bruce asked. "To keep things moving along until you can fix ‘em?"

    "More than a portable generator," she said reluctantly. "For everything, we probably want a hundred kilowatts or more. That won’t run any of the heavy stuff, of course."

    "Right, then. No worries, Nobel’s got that and to spare."

    "Yes, but—" She cut off. "No, Bruce, you’re crazy!"

    "Hey, it’s a fair sight better than losin’ half the base, now, ain’t it? And won’t it be something to add to my resume?"

    "And what about Joe?" Jackie demanded. "We’re talking about saving the base, but what about him?"

    "We have to narrow the search area," Madeline said. "And Jackie, I think you can do that."

    "Me? How? Maddie, you know I’ll do what I can, but I don’t see what I can do."

    She pointed to the tracks in the dust. "You were able to do a quick model to see how hard he was hit. But we assembled all of the stuff here. It’s all in the engineering database. If you can get a good handle on the force of the explosion from A.J.’s sensor readings, can’t you model what happened to Joe and find out where he went?"

    Jackie froze, clearly struck by the idea. Slowly she straightened up. "Yes. Yes, we could do that. We can’t get an exact answer, not even close… but if we can even get a good sense of direction and distance…"

    "Then do it fast, Jackie." She looked at the clock in the upper left of her field of view, a phantom row of numbers projected on her retina by the miracle of laser light. "If I guess right, Joe has maybe four hours left."

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