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Threshold: Chapter Thirty

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 19:30 EDT



    Helen woke up slowly, realizing A.J. was no longer lying next to her. She glanced sleepily around their bedroom, and saw his figure silhouetted against the lazily-spinning stars. She got up and went over to him, sliding her arms around his waist. He jumped slightly, but then hugged her arms to him. "What's up?"

    He was still staring out. Less than ten days from the effective edge of the Jovian system, Jupiter was visible almost dead ahead of the Nebula Storm as a brilliant not-quite-point, a tenth of a degree across and the brightest thing in the sky except for the Sun, now shrunken behind them to the same size—an intolerably bright near-point of light. "Just thinking."

    "What were you thinking about?"

    He gestured out the window. "A lot of things. Partly marveling that my sense of wonder is still holding out. We've seen so many that you'd think I'd be blasé about it, but… I still look out there, sometimes, and think I'm on a spaceship going to Jupiter! and realize that I'm like four hundred million miles from Earth, and I get a chill, just like I used to when I was a kid and saw something incredibly awesome.

    "And partly marveling that I'm actually getting tired of living in little spaceship cheeseboxes. Even pretty luxurious ones. I used to think when I was a kid that I could live perfectly happily in a ten by twelve room for my entire life, as long as I had the right gadgets. Then I expanded that to several rooms because I had to have space to put my stuff, but still…"

    She hugged him. "So what, you want to go back to Earth and follow me on a dig?"

    "The frightening thing is that right now the thought of pitching a tent on Earth, without a single air filter or wiring conduit for fifty miles, so I can use toothbrushes and jewelry picks to dig out a five-foot bone, sounds downright appealing."

    She laughed. "I'm tempted to hold you to that, whenever this crazy mission gets done. But I know you'd regret it after the first week." She sighed, hugging him tighter. "I do miss blue sky, grass, and all that kind of thing. We've been out here in space for… My God, it must be seven years."

    "Closing in on eight. I actually got back to Earth for a few months, so it's only been, what, four or so for me. Still, that's a long time. I'm glad all of us don't get vertigo easily, since it let Jackie spin us up to a full G. I griped at first, but honestly, we needed to get used to full gravity again. Partial seems to prevent the direct bone loss and other effects, but I felt like a rag doll for a lot of my one visit home."

    "Like we all did for the first few weeks of this trip. You're right, though. We need real gravity, or at least a full-bore simulation of the real thing. I suspect long-term Mars residents may have problems."

    "Dr. Wu is doing studies on that. He's also pushing everyone back on Mars to spend more time in the centrifuges. We really do need to do the research to make sure we don't kill ourselves settling other worlds."

    They were quiet for a moment. "Anything else on your mind?"

    He turned to face her. "Just wondering… we've sort of tapdanced around the subject before." He took a deep breath. "Children?"


    "Well of course not now. Anyway, it takes time; nine months, last I heard. And I know your implant's got at least another year on it. But… well, you're older than me, and so I figured…"

    "If I wanted any we really should be talking about it now." She smiled and kissed him. He really was adorable when he looked so nervous. "Thank you, Adric Jamie Baker. I love you, you know."

    "I love you too. So…"

    She shook her head. "I really don't know yet. I suppose … yes, probably. When we go back to Earth. Which we should do, I think, after this is over. Watching Bruce's little girl did make me a little wistful about having my own. But I don't want to raise her out here. Or him, if it's a boy. We've both done enough, haven't we?"

    He glanced out the window, to where the stars still turned and Jupiter gleamed. "Yeah. I guess we have." He kissed her and let his hands slide down a little lower. "Maybe we should get in some more practice on the kid-making thing."

    She giggled. "Why not?"



    "They'll be passing us very close by, General."

    Hohenheim nodded. "That is still some days in the future. What do you mean by 'close,' Dr. LaPointe? In space, that can be a rather broad term."

    LaPointe brought up a display of the Jovian system and the orbital paths. Those present—the general, Mia Svendsen, Richard Fitzgerald, Horst Eberhart, and a scattering of other Odin crewmembers—studied the image and its animated paths.

    "Both of us are on a course to slingshot around Jupiter. While they started out several days after us, they have been moving faster and correcting their course to close in on us. We performed our first correction burn—effectively slowing ourselves down—just a few days ago. We are accumulating the replacement fuel, but they are now catching up quickly. Either of us could try to change that to some extent, but it should be remembered that at the critical moments we must be following the exactly correct trajectory, or we will be very far off our final destination. At any point up until relatively shortly before the Oberth maneuver, even small deviations in course could drastically affect our final course, so any changes we make will have to be adjusted for."

    "No offense, Andy m'boy, but it seems to me that doesn't answer the general's question at all. How close?"

    "I am sorry you are dissatisfied, Mr. Fitzgerald. I was trying to make clear that we could easily affect the answer by a very large amount, or that they could, if either were to maneuver. But, assuming there are no further maneuvers, the Ares vessel will pass us at a distance of ten thousand kilometers."

    Fitzgerald sat up straighter. "Bloody hell, that is close for out here. You think they're planning to attack?"

    Hohenheim held up a hand. "I believe we have discussed this before. If they attack us they would be initiating a war, which I think is highly unlikely."

    Anthony noticed an exchange of glances between the general and Fitzgerald, and a flicker of unreadable expression on Horst's face. It took some effort to keep his own face from showing a bitter amusement. We are still all trying to keep the others from knowing that we know.

    "They have no weapons capable of firing across such a distance, and the fact that we stole—let us not dissemble on this point—important information from them is not at all sufficient justification for them to attack. It is, however, sufficient motive to attempt to beat us to our goal. I confess to being somewhat surprised by this, but I suspect it may be a matter of offended pride, at least in part." He looked back at Anthony. "Can they beat us at this point?"

    This was of course the sticky point, and one over which he had spent some sleepless nights. "General, I cannot say for certain. Just as we have capabilities of which they do not know, so I would be cautious in assuming that we know all of theirs. It is an alien vessel which they have adapted. It is true that we have determined the basic principles on which it operates. And excepting for the one short containment failure they suffered a month ago, the dusty plasma sail has been functioning very well." He noticed the impatient look of the others and hurried on. "In any case, the answer depends on what I assume, General. If they have nothing but a dusty-plasma sail, I cannot see that they can. In fact, at their peak speed they were in danger of leaving the system if they could not stop.

    "Because of that, I think they have arranged something else. They may do an Oberth maneuver, if they were able to arrange a rocket of some kind. They have been slowing—much more quickly than I would have expected—by interaction with the Jovian magnetosphere. The acceleration in question is still very small indeed, but the control they have over the magnetic bubble and its shape permits at least an order of magnitude greater deceleration capability than we could possibly have expected. Still, they will have to do something when passing Jupiter, as we do. Their final velocity will be the deciding factor. Unless they have some particular surprises in store for us, their speed when leaving Jupiter will tell us how fast they believe they can afford to go to Saturn."

    He sighed and spread his hands. "I wish I could be more certain. If I must guess, I would say no, they cannot. While some minor points of their vessel have surprised me, they would need some very effective means of slowing down in order to make it practical for them to match the speeds we expect to reach."

    "There's the problem for me," Fitzgerald said. "You think that Fathom, Baker, Buckley, and Secord can't do the same figuring between them?"

    "They do not know what we can—"

    Fitzgerald made a savage cutting gesture. "Ballocks. Maybe not before this, but you can bet your insurance that once this turned into a chase, little Miss Supergirl called in all her old chums and started digging. And tell me that I'm wrong when I say that once they figured out the mass-driver was running they'd put the rest together very quickly, eh?"

    That was a painful jab. LaPointe had never liked Fitzgerald even before Horst let him in on certain secrets, and sarcasm like this didn't help engender feelings of warmth and brotherhood. Especially when Fitzgerald was right. "No, I cannot argue that. They are very good at their jobs, and if they knew the mass-beam was being constantly in use, then they would be guessing the truth very quickly."

    "So then, if they know that much, they must know they can't beat us. So either they've got something up their sleeves to pass us, or they have something figured that they can use to slow us or stop us."

    The room was quiet as everyone tried to figure out a way of looking at the situation that didn't come out to that answer. From the expressions on the other faces, Anthony saw that no one else was getting anywhere with that. Richard Fitzgerald had a darkly satisfied look.

    General Hohenheim shrugged finally. "Your logic appears sound, Mr. Fitzgerald, but the other facts remain. I find it hard to imagine that they have any weapons capable of harming us at such a range, and even less that they would be willing to use them on us at this point. While they may hold a grudge against some of our people for our trickery, none of them are monsters. They would not condemn a hundred of us to death for that. It is, I suppose, possible that the alien vessel itself has some unique trick that will allow them to match our speed, but that is something we can only wait and see. Even if we had weapons capable of firing upon them, we could no more use them than they could. It is a race, and we shall see which of us shall win. I would hope, however, that they will be courteous enough to talk when we reach a closer approach. We may learn much more in conversation."

    He glanced around the table and fixed on Mia Svendsen. "On the very remote chance that they do intend some form of attack, I want things arranged to minimize damage, along with a complete set of scenarios for redundant controls, escape using Munin, and so on. Even if the scenarios appear ludicrous, they are worthwhile to consider; one day I am afraid they will not be so ludicrous."

    "Yes, sir," Mia replied. "I will have them to you before closest approach."

    "Good." Hohenheim rose. "Thank you, that will be all."



    Horst caught up with LaPointe near his cabin. "You know they do have reason to think we are a real threat, Anthony."

    "Yes, I do. It seems that we have at least three and possibly four factions on board. The general and those immediately involved in the attack on Ceres Base, you and I and our friends, and the rest of the crew of Odin who as yet know nothing of the outrage we have perpetrated."

    Horst looked puzzled. "But you said four?"

    "I am not convinced that General Hohenheim and Mr. Fitzgerald are a single faction. The security chief was responsible for the selection of a large number of our crew, and that is a concern to me."

    Horst's dark eyebrows drew down. "Are you saying he is working against the general? That the general did not order the attack? Why would he not say so?"

    Anthony found his friend's straightforward naiveté endearing but, in this case, a bit frustrating. "Because this is not Earth and he cannot just fire someone and send them home. He needs to maintain a unity in the crew, and at least outward harmony. If Fitzgerald did this in any way that could be justified by something the general said, then the general would be forced to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the relationship between them, it is not the same as it was when first we started, that I am sure of. It seems much more tense."

    They entered Anthony's room. "Mr. Fitzgerald is not happy with our captain, I think," Anthony continued. "And while he has the same general need to keep some apparent peace, he's more than likely arranging to protect himself."

    "But that would be mutiny!" Horst protested.

    "It has happened before. In a sense, have we not been planning just that?"

    The young German engineer looked pained. "Not really. I mean, we are just planning on how to keep from committing another crime."

    Anthony spread his hands. "But it is the same thing, isn’t it? If the order comes from our general or his designated representatives, disobeying and obstructing them would be mutiny."

    Horst slowly nodded his head. "But Fitzgerald…"

    "Oh, I agree, if he is planning something, it is much more likely to be something bad. But I do not think we should be sitting here ignoring the fact that we, too, may be considering the same basic crime."

    "It's just an ugly word."

    "And it would be even uglier were it to come to pass. Let us hope, that it does not, and all we see here is a race." He handed a surprised Horst one of the small bottles of wine he had brought as budgeted luxuries. "In fact, let us drink to that hope."

    Horst nodded. "I will drink to that." After each had a glass, they tapped the plastic rims together. "To peace in our journey."


    As they drank, Anthony could not help but notice that he saw Jupiter go blood-red as the Odin's rotation took the planet behind his glass.

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