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Threshold: Chapter Twenty Nine

       Last updated: Monday, May 10, 2010 20:28 EDT



    "We have a problem."

    A.J. turned to face both Maddie and Jackie, who were looking grim. "What's wrong?"

    Jackie answered. "I realized that we'd been making some unwarranted assumptions, so I had Maddie do some inquiries. It took a while, but we confirmed something that I hadn't wanted to confirm. The E.U.'s mass-beam setup wasn't idle a lot of the time. It's been running pretty much nonstop. I have no idea of the cost, but it must be huge."

    A.J. frowned, puzzled. "But that makes no sense. Most of the time, Odin was sitting still around Ceres."

    "I'm afraid," Madeline said, "it makes altogether too much sense. I had Jackie run the numbers. With reasonable assumptions about their capabilities, if they were running it that much, by the time Odin gets to Saturn, there will be a large amount of their drive-dust in the Saturn system. Enough so that they can afford to boost their speed radically for the Jupiter-Saturn leg."

    A.J. stared at them blankly for a minute, then went through one of his fits of typing on invisible keyboards, grunting half-comprehensible audio cues, and staring at things invisible to others. "I see what you mean. And if the stuff's even half as smart as it probably is, you can do all sorts of tricks with it in terms of when and where you use it. They'll have fuel galore left after they stop, and so they can use Munin to land on Enceladus and then after they get their team down they can even explore other parts of the Saturn system. Dammit!"

    Maddie nodded. "It also means we might have to assume that they're not limited when they get to the Jupiter system, either. No reason they couldn't have stuff waiting for them there."

    "Or even have it being sent on its way now," said Jackie. "This trip they might not use it, but they have to be thinking of some Jupiter trips in the near future, maybe with the next set of mass-beam ships. Maybe sending out a mass-beam relay station."

    "This really screws up everything," A.J. grumbled. "I would've bet that we could beat them to Enceladus. They can't go much faster than they are now without trouble, or rather they couldn't if they didn't have an ace in the hole. Now it's clear what they were up to. They guessed that the best chance for exploration finds would be in the outer system and set it all up that way. The E.U. bets big, and looks like they're going to win that bet too."

    Maddie, meanwhile, was studying files from the data they'd accumulated on Odin. "Jackie, you actually did manage to gather some considerable intelligence on how their drive worked. If they're using something like cut-down, massively duplicated Faerie Dust, couldn't we—through A.J., I'd presume—keep them from using it? Shut it down?"

    "I don't know." She glanced at A.J.

    The sensor expert reluctantly shook his head. "Not without knowing a lot about the design. Which is kept seriously locked down, I'm sure. If I had some samples, no problem, but not as it stands."

    "Then why don't we get some samples?" Maddie asked.

    "Huh? I suppose we could try to figure out the exact trajectory they're sending the stuff along—it's going in the same general direction, I'd guess—but we don't have the energy figures, so we don't know how fast it's going. And a rough guess won't cut it."

    Jackie suddenly leaned forward. "But we don't have to guess. We can make it come to us!"

    "How—damn, yes! We saw their signal laser!"

    Maddie caught their sudden enthusiasm. "Can you duplicate it well enough?"

    A.J. drew himself up with comic exaggeration. "Can you doubt me, woman? A.J. Baker, master of all things technological? Even if they did laugh at me in the Academy! But I showed them all, I did. Yes, I can. It's basically a green laser with a very simple pulse pattern that makes it easy for the nodes to verify that it's actually the laser and not something else. Hmm, you know, if we were doing this while they were still accelerating, it'd be like real honest-to-god sailing, trying to cut each other off from the wind. Yes, yes, I can! If any of their Drive Dust is still anywhere near our path, I'll get a sample!"

    "Will that allow us to stop them?"

    A.J. thought a minute. "I dunno. Not directly, really. The stuff we'd need to control is off in Saturn system, or at least scattered around Jupiter, and there's no way I'm managing that. It doesn't leave an easy way to trace it, and it's not going to be all that smart, so doing any fancy programming … nah." He looked a little deflated.

    "We still may be able to use it," Maddie said. "I think I have an idea. But first let's see if we can actually get a sample." She smiled, and A.J. gave a delighted grin back as he saw the glint in her eye. He knew she'd come up with something truly entertaining. "This race is not yet over."



    Horst felt cold and grey. So that's what they were doing. All this time, and I thought I knew them. Fitzgerald wasn't so much a surprise, but he'd thought better of the general.

    The modifications were extensive, yet subtle, hidden from any casual inspection, and with the proper preparation able to be disposed of with virtually no trace. The control software left no doubt as to the capabilities or purposes of the modifications, and the software logs left no doubt whatsoever of what had happened in the hours before their Ceres departure.

    No wonder they don't respond. I wouldn't want to talk to me either after that. Buckley was one of Jackie's best friends, and we nearly killed him. Stealing information was one thing, but this—

    "Something very odd, Horst."

    "What is it?" he said dully, remembering that he was on watch with Anthony. Not that there was much to watch. Interplanetary travel was basically very boring.

    "It is the Ares vessel, she is doing something odd."

    That got a bit of his attention. "What do you mean, odd? Turning back? Accelerating? Shutting off?"

    "Nothing so drastic. It seems to me that they are doing some kind of light experiment."

    Horst looked at the enlarged image that Anthony sent him. "I don't see anything—oh, wait." The translucent cloud had seemed to show a faint shimmer, just a bit different than the usual slight shifts of lighting. "Let me see… The enhancement we should be using… Let us try to isolate the moment. Focus on that… enhance… What is the spectrum here, Anthony?"

    "It seems normal, except there is a spike in the green region of the spectrum."

    "Hmm." Horst rubbed his chin. He was still angry and depressed, but this was interesting. "I wonder why. Have you seen this before?"

    "There are at least three occurrences so far."

    Green. What is that making me…?

    "Anthony, is that spike centered on five hundred and twenty nanometers?"

    "Why… yes, it is. How did you guess?"

    That clever fellow. "Not a guess, a deduction. We may be seeing the start of some trouble. I must go talk to the general."

    "Go to him? Why not call him?"

    Horst unlocked from his chair and drifted to the exit. "Because I wanted to speak to him privately anyway."

    Anthony, knowing his friend's recent moods, didn't ask any more. He just gave Horst a concerned look as the slightly younger engineer dropped into the tube connecting the bridge with the habitat ring.

    Horst pretended not to notice Anthony's gaze. He didn't need sympathy right now. It took him only a few minutes to make his way along the connecting tube and arrive in the full-gravity corridor. He sent a query ahead of him; by the time he reached the door, it was open.

    Hohenheim was sitting at his desk, going over daily reports. "Yes, Mr. Eberhart?"

    "I believe that the Ares vessel is preparing to move against the Odin, sir."

    That got the general’s attention. Hohenheim sat up straighter and removed his VRD glasses. "How so, Mr. Eberhart?"

    "We have detected regular spikes of emitted green centered on five hundred and twenty nanometers, sir."

    Hohenheim gave a slow nod. "I see. They are attempting to draw the Smart Fuel Dust towards them. But we are done accelerating. This cannot affect our current course, can it?"

    Horst shrugged. "I am not sure, really. Light can cross the space far faster than we. If Mr. Baker does obtain a sample, I suppose it is possible he could program it—or, more precisely, have someone with access to more powerful lasers program it by remote. If they are close enough to us when in the Jupiter system, however, they may be able to interfere with our maneuvers by drawing off a significant portion of the fuel. We have more powerful dedicated lasers, but there is at least some risk, I would think."

    The general seemed to turn the matter over in his mind. "I thank you for this information. I will have to have it examined. Would you be so kind as to model the possible scenarios along with Dr. Svendsen? I would like to know as soon as possible if there is any likelihood of such an event."

    "Yes, sir." Horst stood there a moment longer, and as the general looked up again, said, "May I speak to you frankly, General?"

    Hohenheim's gaze was unreadable, but he sat back in a way that somehow made Horst nervous. "Please do."

    Horst hesitated, then took the plunge. "Why did we attack Ceres?"

    Hohenheim studied him expressionlessly for what seemed like an hour, even though it could only have been a few seconds. "Clarify your question, Mr. Eberhart. How exactly do you mean 'attack'?"

    "I mean that we hit them with a projectile weapon. There was no meteor at all, sir."

    "Ah," said the general, in the tone of someone who's been expecting bad news for a long time. "Might I ask how you came to this conclusion?"

    "I found a set of control applications that did not look familiar. When I examined them I was able to determine what the exact systems were that they controlled."

    "I see."

    Horst waited.

    Finally the general stirred. He looked into the distance, as if he saw things in the air beyond Horst. "I do not like to either rehash the past, Mr. Eberhart, or to seek to set blame on others for actions taken here. For these purposes, I think the best I can tell you is that it was decided as a matter of policy, to ensure that there would be no pursuit. Whether that policy was a wise one I do not wish to discuss, as there is no practical reason to do so." He met Horst's gaze. "I am personally very sorry for the trouble it has caused, but we must accept the situation as it stands. If it makes you feel any better, that weapon shall not be used again. I have already given the appropriate orders."

    It wasn't much, but Horst could tell it was as much as the general was going to say. And in some ways, it told him an awful lot. "Thank you, General. I will begin the analysis at once."

    "Very good. You may go, Mr. Eberhart."

    Horst proceeded towards the engineering section, where a status query had shown him that Mia Svendsen was located. His mind was far from settled. The general's speech had avoided a number of statements, but he thought he could read between the lines. Fitzgerald had thought up the attack; maybe he'd carried it out without orders.

    And if he'd done that, what were the odds that he'd follow orders not to fire again? Horst figured he might be well advised to make some preparations of his own. Anthony would help, he was sure. Mia might, too.

    Better safe than sorry, as they always said.



    The tiny mote glittered under the microscope. The faceted angles of reflectors and lenses, darker areas of solar energy conversion, active-material actuators, and other components made a sort of geometric, three-dimensional cityscape as A.J. zoomed in. "A nice bit of work, actually. Simplistic compared to a lot of Dust-Storm's designs, but making it too complicated would be a waste of resources and increase the problems with manufacturing it in large lots. And, boy, have they needed large lots." The sensor expert shook his head in admiration. "I still find it mindboggling, actually. Masswise they've outproduced everyone else in the world on this scale. Sure, it's all been one model for one purpose, but that's still an awful lot of Smart Dust."

    Joe was impressed by the image. He'd seen earlier designs, but he'd forgotten how very much stuff was compressed into the microscopic motes. "Tons of it. Manufactured partly with three-d component design and fabbing, and partly assembled by assembly micromanipulators. They've kept the exact procedures and techniques a dead secret, too."

    "So," Maddie said, "does this actually get us anywhere?"

    "Sure does. I can program this stuff easily, within the limits of what it can do. Which is pretty limited. Even my Faerie Dust isn't particularly brainy—each of the motes doesn't have much more processing power than a 1980 desktop. These suckers are more like late 1970s programmable calculators. Working on things like this you come to understand what the old-time programmers had to go through and why they were concerned about using an extra bit here or there.

    "Of course, I can play some tricks they couldn't. I can split tasks up among many different nearby motes so they can perform overall computation and related active operations that no individual mote is up to. To cut to the chase, I can make this stuff work for us."

    "How much of it can we catch?"

    A.J. raised an eyebrow. "Well, relative to what they sent before, not all that much, but from our point of view, a lot. We've got well over another month before we end up in Jupiter system and start getting to the critical moments. In that time I could get hundreds of kilos of the stuff. Why?"

    "I was wondering if we could replace your dust with theirs in our sail."

    A.J. looked scandalized. "Could we? Well, sure, we could. It's not like the operation of the sail needs tremendously complex work. But why would we want to swap?"

    Madeline's smile was the devilish grin that both scared Joe and, sometimes, turned him on. Not the time for that though, so he should probably be scared. "Because, A.J.," she said, "we can put yours to a much better use."

    A.J.'s offended dignity pose vanished, replaced immediately by keen interest. "Such as…?"

    "Such as sending it to our friends on Odin."

    A.J. stared at her for a moment. Then he burst into a laugh that was very near to that of the mad scientist of bad science fiction movies. "As Doctor Gupta would have said, indeed, indeed we can, Miss Fathom!"

    "Whoa, whoa, slow down," Joe said, confused. "They're like millions of miles ahead of us. How do we get the stuff there?"

    "Nebula sail, Joe, nebula sail." Jackie was catching the excitement. "The motes are meant to catch light and guide themselves with it. They can also accelerate with it, though at a slug's pace. But what we can do with the field is shape it so that it serves as a large, pretty weak accelerator—something like what the Odin does, on a less efficient scale—and shoot the stuff ahead of us. A sort of dusty-plasma rocket. It'll slow us down a little bit, but we just replace the lost gas and dust and adjust the course. Meanwhile we've given A.J.'s motes quite a kick, and they can accelerate a bit more and guide themselves straight to Odin, especially once Odin starts using its fuel-control laser again."

    "She's got it," A.J. said. "And if I can get it to the right places I might be able to pull off several tricks."

    Maddie nodded. "This being the tactical area, I hope you have no problem with my directing the action, Captain?"

    "None at all."

    "Guys," Joe interjected, "I just want to point out that this would definitely be counted as an attack on them. If we start messing with their ship in flight, that is."

    "Didn't they start this, Joe?" A.J. asked.

    "Sure, but we haven't officially said anything about it. And if you're going to be trying to control the stuff you won't want to be a long distance away. I've been trying to figure out the range and accuracy of that weapon of theirs, and it's awfully hard to be sure—given that we don't know the exact design, firing rate, all that—but you can bet they'll start shooting back."

    Madeline shook her head. "I don't think they will, Joe. They're in a Catch-22 situation, you see. If they shoot at us, they'd provide us with the proof we need that they have the weapon we suspect them of having. We could break off combat right then, maneuver to make it hard or impossible to hit us at any range, and then send the record of that short battle home. They’d be completely screwed. And if A.J. can manage to mess with their systems at all, they'd have other problems."

    Joe chuckled. "Okay, I see what you mean. Count on you, Maddie, to already have figured why it doesn't matter that you're chasing a warship in a rowboat, and made sure that the warship can't shoot at you."

    "Sailboat, please," Jackie said. "A four-masted ship of the line, at least."

    "And by at least one measure the largest ship ever made. Telescopes on Earth can probably see us, even at this distance, though they probably couldn't figure out what they're seeing."

    "So what's the plan, Maddie?"

    "A.J., you get ready to catch us a lot of replacement Dust. We'll need more anyway, since the sail's expanding as we get farther out. Joe, you and Jackie do the modeling to figure out the best configuration for the sail to discharge our smarter smart dust and get it refilled. After we send A.J.'s Faerie Dust off, we don't do anything until we can be sure it's in place. The problem is that even with the best advance programming, we won't be able to get back the data from the Dust—and know what we can and can't do with Odin's systems—without active communication. And if we appear to be actively beaming them without actually talking, they'll know something's up."

    Jackie frowned. "Yeah. And Horst isn't anything like stupid. That jerk could probably figure out counters to anything we could do by remote, once he gets the idea. Unless we do something permanent to Odin, which we don't want to do."

    "You might be being too harsh on Horst, Jackie," Maddie said mildly. "The messages he's been sending have been pretty friendly, and I don't think he's so stupid that he'd believe you wouldn't be angry about them attacking. It's possible he may not have known about anything but the information theft. Which is annoying, but it was his job and as I recall he even basically admitted as much."

    Jackie's pretty, intense face twisted into a grimace. "I wish I could believe that."

    A.J. snorted. "Me, too. If it weren't for the fact that he was the system programming engineer for their drive system, which just happens to incorporate the weapon in question. There was no other way for them to smuggle that by the inspectors. He had to know, so far as I can see."

    "I suppose it doesn't look good," Madeline conceded, with a glance at Helen. Helen was older, Maddie more experienced, and both of their instincts seemed to agree that Horst had been genuine. But the facts didn't seem to bear that out. "In any case, you're certainly right about his capabilities. For that reason, we will probably only be able to use the trick once, when we are ready. We will open communications with them once we are in reasonable range, and while I attempt to convince them to cooperate, A.J. will find out what sort of tricks we can play. Depending on which scenarios appear possible, we will adjust the negotiations to reflect what we can do."

    "If they don't fight back?"

    "If they don't, I think we would be well advised to work out the compromise that should have been worked out when they found the base to begin with. A joint custody between the E.U., Ares, and the IRI, and let the E.U. conduct the first landing and get priority. That’s provided, of course, the people specifically responsible for the direct attack on our Ceres base are turned over to us. Otherwise we will do our best to beat them to Enceladus, and we can probably arrange that by disrupting the right systems for long enough."

    Jackie nodded. "I'd still rather kick someone in the nuts, but that really does make more sense. And I'm sure Nicholas would approve."

    "So am I," Helen said. "And I've known him a long time. He'd be very much in favor of it. It's the best approach, and if Maddie's right it will achieve what we're really after: getting the people who shot us locked up, while not embarrassing the E.U. too much and giving us a stronger alliance."

    "It's settled, then," said Maddie, pleased. "Let's get to work!"

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