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Threshold: Chapter Twenty Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 21:46 EDT



    "All clear, mates," Bruce's voice responded from Feynman. "Got clear images comin' in from all the Beholders in range, too. Includin' the one you put on the long orbit, A.J."

    "Thanks, Bruce. I think we'll appreciate the long view if this thing works."

    "All right, Bruce," Jackie said, voice somewhat tense. "We're in orbit around Ceres right now at an average altitude of fifteen hundred kilometers. I'm going to have Joe and A.J. try to kick in the drive as we start coming around in the direction away from the sun; if it works, we'll be able to accelerate for about half of each orbit and break free into the outer system pretty fast. A few orbits will do it. If it doesn't work, no major problem. Eventually, we'll have Feynman drag us back in."

    "Right, just as planned. How are the control systems looking? You got out all right, but is the geometry set?"

    "Very good, actually. We can keep even this much water liquid with the waste heat from the reactor and the insulation we already have, and that allows us to use the water as a sort of balancing agent. We can move it around in response to minor changes of the center of mass during acceleration. Lots of calculations involved, but the design models seem to be working out."

    "Good. So how's your feeling on running her dry out near Jupiter or Saturn, then?"

    Jackie gave a strained laugh. "Not totally relaxed about it, but I feel a lot better than I did. All the other systems are working well. We do have auxiliary radiation shielding set up just in case, but Larry and Joe assure me the dusty-plasma drive should shield us pretty well. We've got all the food you could spare, entertainment stuff to keep us from getting bored, and all the equipment we could squeeze out of the research staff. According to Madeline, Nicholas has promised that he'll get Nike out here with another reactor as soon as possible no matter how many favors he has to call in, assuming this thing works."

    A blinking light showed at the edge of her vision. "A.J.'s just signaled. Coming up on sail deployment."

    The screen showed a view of the long, tri-ridged alien vessel, tentacular sail control vanes extending from the midline, four Earth-designed habitat modules on long booms just aft of them, with the bulky Earth-built fuel tank and NERVA rocket nozzle easily visible at the rear. The clash of engineering styles was jarring; the Bemmius preference for almost organic-appearing curves versus the squarish, sharp edged Earthly add-ons. The interior was in some ways worse, she mused, watching the control vanes continue to reach out. The main supports and parts of the hull remained, but much of the rest had been replaced, chopped, modified; you could still see the lower Bemmie-style designs in some areas, where others clearly were high-headroom designs forced into the space of one and a half or two Bemmie rooms. The resulting vessel might be spaceworthy, but she suspected that neither human nor Bemmius passengers would be entirely comfortable in the setting.

    Enough musing. "All right, A.J. Set sail!"

    "Deploying dusty plasma sail, aye, Captain," A.J. said, perfectly seriously. "Main magnetic field now generated. Releasing gas now."

    Jackie thought she saw a faint shimmer in the areas of the release nozzles, but that might just be imagination. The status graphics in the upper right, however, showed the sudden expansion of the magnetic field, ballooning outward at incredible speed. "Field inflation confirmed. Releasing Faerie Dust."

    Now she was sure she saw something. And wasn't the view of the stars around them a little… dimmer? A tiny bit washed out, almost fogged?

    "Ionization of plasma confirmed. Energy consumption within calculated limits. Everything holding, Joe?"

    "We're doing fine. Field's just about expanded to maximum." The professional tone disappeared for a moment. "Just look at that, will you?"

    The long-range images, taken from a Beholder nearly five thousand kilometers away, showed what short range simply could not. The vast tenuous sail was nearly invisible to those within it, as a mist or light fog may only slightly dim the light and soften edges to those viewing it from within.

    To the Beholder's view, projected on the screens of the alien vessel, Feynman, and Ceres base, the tiny dot that was the actual ship suddenly seemed to radiate a mist, a mist that expanded outward vastly, covering more than eleven degrees of the sky, looming up like a pearlescent stormcloud. The mist shimmered, and as more light and energy impinged upon it and the Faerie Dust dispersed within, delicate hints of color and interplay of light glowed out, became a spectral shadow occulting the entirety of the immense asteroid Ceres itself.

    "Magnetosail? Dusty-plasma? Bah." A.J.'s voice held a combination of awe and triumph. "We are riding one of the living forces of creation, a miniature version of the cradle of stars. Captain, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the legacy of Bemmius secordii to their namesake Captain Jacqueline Marie Secord. I give you... the nebula drive."

    Jackie found her voice a moment later. "You were totally correct, A.J., and I'm glad. Joe, is the champagne ready?"

    "Rigged for breaking!"

    A.J. continued, overdramatic lines being his specialty, and in this case, somehow appropriate. "We're giving chase to the King of the Gods, in a ship drawn by a cloud lit by the power of the sun and of the thunderbolt."

    Jackie nodded. "And so we christen thee—the Nebula Storm!"

    A faint additional sparkle of glass and mist was visible from the bow of the vessel. "Dramatic, but I like it," Bruce said. "Is the sail actually working?"

    "If you can see it, it's working. We're getting several percent reflection. Acceleration is … about half a percent of gravity. We'll reach Ceres escape velocity by the end of this orbit, I think, and then it's outward bound." A.J. turned from his seat to look at Madeline, who had been quietly watching the launch. "Maddie, you can send the go-ahead. We're on our way to Jupiter, and we are going to catch Odin just about the time they get there." He grinned over at Jackie. "And wouldn't I just love to see their faces whenever they finally look over their shoulders and see what's coming after them!"



    Horst sat impatiently in front of the screen. It had taken some time to work around the idiotic communications blackout that Fitzgerald had seen fit to impose. Had it been the general's direct order, Horst might have felt more inclined to either obey, or at least to make a polite inquiry as to exactly why they weren't supposed to communicate directly with other organizations. As it was, though, Fitzgerald had been such a scheisskopf—as Horst's grandmother would have called him—that Horst took a positive pleasure in ignoring him. Especially since he had promised Jackie that he'd send her a message every day after they left, and the blackout was making him break his word.

    Having managed to finally send a message back to Jackie at Ceres, he was now waiting for the response. Nervously waiting. Their relationship when he left had been at that twitchy stage where nothing was entirely clear. At this range, assuming she replied pretty promptly, round-trip would still be less than ten minutes. But it had been more than thirteen days, and if the people still on Ceres had guessed what was going on, Jackie could have more than one reason to be angry at him.

    He was pretty sure she'd eventually understand. After all, taking the information didn't hurt anyone directly, and she must have guessed what he was supposed to do for the E.U..  He'd even—sort of—told them. His best bet, he guessed, was to just admit that what they did was a sleazy trick and throw himself on her mercy. If they'd guessed. No point in borrowing trouble.

    Of course, that didn't sit well with him, anyway. Sneaking around wasn't his idea of the way you were supposed to behave, especially to friends. Which was another reason why he didn't like Fitzgerald and his cronies. Odd, too, that there were other areas of the system he'd run into that seemed to have security on them he didn't remember installing. He might have to look into that himself. Well, no, he should probably ask the general.

    What was taking her so long? She should be off-shift but not asleep now. He noodled around with some of the data he had on the secure areas. Some looked like they had to do with the engine controls, which made no sense at all. He'd done all of that, and there wasn't any need for more security on them. But it was there, nonetheless.

    The screen suddenly flickered and he leaned forward eagerly. Then sat back in startlement as the face of Bruce Irwin appeared, looking none too friendly,

    When he spoke, his Australian accent was thicker than usual. "Mr. Eberhart! So sorry to be the one respondin', but Jackie isn't here. I'm not sure that she'd even want to be speakin' to you, but you might try just waitin' a bit. She'll be catchin' up to you lot around Jupiter way." The transmission cut off as abruptly as it had begun, leaving Horst staring at the blank screen in total confusion.

    Catching up to you lot... What could he mean by that?

    The astronomical telescopes were accessible with a little work, since they weren't being used as much at the moment. One could be focused back the way they came on Ceres. That wasn't hard now that they weren't even doing much catching of the mass-beam.

    He drew in a breath, startled. Something was visible behind them, something monstrous. At nearly fifty million kilometers it was still visible as a pearlescent disc in the high-power telescope, implying a size beyond comprehension, and giving no clue at all as to what it actually was.

    Who to call? The general eventually, of course. Not Fitzgerald. Anthony! He was the astronomer. He might know what it was.

    Internal communications, of course, worked just fine. "Anthony, it is me, Horst. I was looking through one of the telescopes and I have seen something very strange. Could you take a look and tell me what it is?"

    "Of course, Horst. Give me the coordinates."

    A few minutes later he heard Anthony LaPointe curse. "Good God! Moving on our own course, or near to it… and the size, it is huge—a thousand kilometers across."

    Horst could not avoid thinking of a line from an old movie. That's no moon, that's a space station. "A thousand kilometers? It is bigger even than Ceres!"

    "Yes. And moving in what appears to be a powered orbit, acceleration roughly on the same order as our own. Now, how…" LaPointe trailed off. Then: "Ahhh, let us see the spectrum… reflected light and ionized gas… ingenious. With traces of manufactured material. And with enough enhancement I believe I can make out something at the center. No detail, but… it is a ship. A variant of magnetosail, I believe. I may have heard of such a thing before."

    "A ship a thousand kilometers across?"

    "The ship itself is small, Horst, smaller than ours by far. Perhaps five hundred tons, a thousand tons, no more. What we see is a cloud of gas and dust, held by a magnetic field. A nebula, one might say, chained to the ship."

    Horst laughed suddenly. "So that was the other secret they were hiding, the one that Joe and A.J. didn't talk about. Their Nobel couldn't catch us, but they fooled us anyway. I think we need to talk to the general."

    "Indeed. Let me record this data and bring it with us. I will meet you in a few moments."

    Horst shut down the terminal and laughed again. This was getting exciting. And perhaps he might see Jackie again sooner than he thought.

    If they were going to catch up, she wouldn't really have much to be mad about at all. Things were looking up!



    "It would seem, Mr. Fitzgerald, that your little plan has not quite worked out as expected. We are being pursued."

    Fitzgerald barely registered the general’s acid tone. He was too busy staring in disbelief at the screen. The bloody bastards had pulled a new ship out of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. He'd known they were working on some kind of ship, but none of the prior alien vessels had been of any use to anyone. The idea that these boffins could have made something older than mankind workable was utterly ridiculous.

    But ridiculous or not, it was clearly coming after them, and according to the data from LaPointe it could almost certainly catch up to them at Jupiter. Fitzgerald shook himself mentally. Gaping was undignified, and dignity mattered. It mattered a great deal. Moreover, it was time for, what was the term? Ah, yes, spin control.

    "Well, now, that makes it interesting, doesn't it, sir?"

    "That may be one way of putting it. I find it less amusing than you appear to find it. Perhaps you can help me find the humor?"

    "Can certainly make a good try at it, General. Sure, they can probably catch us around Jupiter, but have you asked Dr. LaPointe if they can beat us to Saturn—given what we know and they don't?"

    The general tilted his head.  "If they're faster than we are…"

    Fitzgerald grinned. So for once he  was actually ahead of the tech curve. Not always easy to do. "General, you know better than that. We could be going twice as fast as we are now, if we could've arranged the right braking material ahead of time. But it won't quite be where we want it if we cranked the speed up right now. It will be there when we get to Saturn on our current schedule, and we've already got surprises hanging out in Jupiter system. So we'll be heading out on our second leg a lot faster than we're going now, and they can't go much faster because whatever tricks they have in mind, that ship of theirs is basically a sail in a storm. If they do more than a passive slingshot, they'll have nothing to use when they brake around Saturn, which doesn't have as big a gravity well to play with."

    Hohenheim nodded slowly. "True. But then…"

    "Then either they have to try to stop us somehow, or we're in a real race. Which Odin is almost certainly going to win."

    Hohenheim's brow wrinkled. "And if they do try to stop us, that's an attack. On us."

    "Exactly, General. Oh, they wouldn't be coming out after us if they weren't sure we shot 'em, but they've got nothing for proof. If they had proof they'd have just sent a message to Nicholas Glendale back at Mars and we'd all be heading home to some unpleasant times right now. They've got nothing. And me and my boys, we have everything planned out on how to get rid of the evidence if we did get pulled in."

    "Can they stop us?"

    Fitzgerald thought for a moment, sorting through the technologies he had a reasonable grasp of—which was quite a few, so it took a little time to be sure of his answer. "I don't really see how, General. We know the inspections aren't all that easy to get around, and these boys and girls weren't planning on fighting a war anyway. Even darling Madeline was looking for espionage, not naval battles. No doubt Secord and Buckley could come up with some kind of missiles between them, but nothing we wouldn't sense coming, and without some kind of really impressive terminal guidance we'd be able to avoid them just by a couple of random course modifications—which we can more than afford."

    Hohenheim let out a long breath. "All right then, Mr. Fitzgerald. We continue as planned. It's a very good thing that they are not armed, however, since we are not."

    "What? I don't get you, sir."

    Hohenheim gave him a cold smile. "Mr. Fitzgerald, if they do attack us, we cannot return fire. If we were to return fire, they would have the evidence they need that we did, in fact, have the motive, means, and opportunity to destroy their power distribution center, as we in fact did. They will be watching us extremely closely and will not miss a single piece of evidence. You can be quite sure they are prepared to record everything, also."

    The point had not occurred to Fitzgerald before, and the realization was a punch to the gut. The Odin was armed with a weapon potentially more destructive than any ever built, save for nuclear warheads, but it couldn't be used now.

    The general's smile widened, and got even colder. "I see that aspect of the situation had not yet suggested itself to you, Mr. Fitzgerald. Firing back would prove our guilt, and would result in further tragedy. Therefore, to protect my people and my ship, if it does turn out that the Ares vessel—which has rather ominously, I will note, refused to reply to any messages we have yet sent—does somehow have the capability to damage or destroy Odin, I will not fight back, but will instead surrender and hand you and myself over to the authorities." He dropped the smile. "However, as you say, it appears that we will not have to worry about that. So... You’re dismissed, Mr. Fitzgerald."

    Fitzgerald found himself in the main hallway of Odin without even a clear memory of walking out the door. Never thought he'd be the type to give anything up without a fight, he mused. Then again, he has been showing a lot of conscience lately. He shrugged. No point in worrying about it. The likelihood that the Ares vessel could pose any threat to them was pretty small, especially now that Odin knew to keep an eye on them.

    But even if the chance was very small, he'd better be prepared. Just in case.

    The general knew military tactics and politics. But he didn't know nearly as much about espionage and sabotage. Richard Fitzgerald grinned. He'd already surprised the general before with that. He needed to have a serious heart-to-heart with his boys right away. This kind of a party needed advance planning to make sure all the guests played their parts properly. And as one of the guests might be named Madeline Fathom, only the very best planning would do. It might soon be time to really pull out all the stops.

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