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Threshold: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 18:58 EDT



    "I don’t know about you blokes," Bruce said, a subdued tone in his voice, "but ‘asteroid’ don’t seem to do this bastard justice."

    The vast gray bulk of Ceres covered most of the forward viewing area, a titanic object that showed none of the fuzziness of living planets like Earth and Mars, but also none of the human-scale, comprehensible irregularity of Phobos. Instead, it had the cold, crater-scarred sphericity of the Moon, and with nothing else around to compare it to, seemed to be at least as large, especially in the light of the clearly-shrunken Sun, more than two hundred and fifty million miles away. Helen thought it looked less hostile than Phobos had on first approach, but a lot more lonely.

    Jake Ivey, the mission archaeologist, shrugged. "It’s still nothing even compared to the moon, let alone any decent planet." This was a typically Jake comment; he has a focus on his specialty that was like A.J.’s with respect to sensors. Rumor had it that absolutely nothing impressed him unless it was in a properly-labeled dig site, which Ceres obviously was not, at least not yet.

    "Poor Ceres," Larry Conley said. "Always the little guy. Every debate on what should and shouldn’t be a planet has always kept just on this side of letting Ceres into the club. He’s a little shy of a thousand kilometers wide, so people always proposed that as the cutoff."

    "Right now I wouldn’t be inclined to argue with Ceres," Jackie said. "It’s got an actual gravity well that we’re going to feel, not like Phobos where we could shuttle back and forth without hardly noticing the cost."

    Jake brightened. "But that’s good. Phobos had so little that you couldn’t rely on anything having remained in place for you to study properly. Ceres will have kept things where they belong. Hopefully they had disposal areas and there will be remnants of their entire range of activity."

    Helen nodded. Even more in some ways than her own paleontology, archaeology relied on the forensic approach of examining objects in context; said context was hard to verify in microgravity. "Good in some ways, bad in others, Jake. As you probably know."

    She glanced over at the others. "What’s escape velocity from Ceres?" She knew she’d heard the answer before, but it hadn’t really registered.

    A.J., predictably, answered first. "About half a kilometer per second. Not much compared to Earth or Mars, but definitely not irrelevant like Phobos. Unless and until we can get things set up down there to produce us extra fuel—probably from the water, if there is any—we’ll have to be very, very careful about how many trips we make."

    "I could try to land ‘er." Bruce said, grinning.

    A.J. shuddered. "No, thanks. I know you and I set up that sim, just to see what would happen, but there’s many things that could go wrong. And did go wrong in the sims, early on."

    "Are you serious?" Larry demanded, staring across the bridge of Nobel at A.J. and Bruce. The "bridge," unlike Nike’s photo-op-ready installation, was just a control room with viewscreens, safely buried in the middle of Nobel’s blocky central body. "You could land Nobel on Ceres?"

    The Australian captain of Nobel flashed Larry a devilish grin. "Well, like A.J. says, mate, too many things could go wrong to risk it if we don’t have to, but the sims show that this old girl could take the strain. She’s built for accel up to a quarter-g under the right conditions, remember, and Ceresian—"

    "Cererian or Cererine, if you please," the astrophysicist corrected pedantically.

    "Cerelian, whatever mate, gravity is only about a ninth of that: about one thirty-sixth Earth’s. But the landing would be dicey, I admit, so I’m not quite so keen to try it as I might have sounded. Nice to know we could if we had to, though."

    "I suppose," Helen agreed. The idea that the fourteen-hundred-foot ship could land and take off from the miniature planet below was, indeed, oddly comforting, despite the obvious risks in ever actually trying it. "So are we go for scouting the target area?" Helen asked.

    "By remote at first, as usual," A.J. said breezily. "Once more, you will all be hanging on my every word, awaiting my blessing on your perilous enterprises."

    "Hey, Mr. Ego, we’re not a whole A.U. away this time," Larry pointed out. "At this distance I can do an awful lot with the sensors on Nobel."

    "Which I designed, programmed, tested, and helped install. OW!"

    The "OW" came as a result of Helen kicking A.J.’s shin. "You are getting too old to act the enfant terrible, A.J., and try to one-up everyone. And that wouldn’t have hurt if you’d been wearing your suit."

    A.J. tried to look loftily defiant and only succeeded in looking like a three-year-old being scolded. He opened his mouth to say something but reconsidered under Helen’s watchful eye.

    "We’ll still want A.J.’s remotes to pave the way," Jackie said finally. "I’m sure we’ll be able to pinpoint good target locations from up here, but the fact is that there’s only a few of us, and so we’re going to be pretty dependent on remotes and robots to keep things running."

    "At least we’ve finally got a power source with a density that makes it really feasible, thanks to Bemmie and Barb Meyer, bless her stubborn heart."

    "Power carrier, A.J., not source," Jackie corrected automatically. "But it is nice to not be worrying so much about how we can cram enough power into one of your gadgets to let it pull off its tricks, and instead spend a lot of the space on more gadget."

    What A.J. and Jackie were referring to, Helen knew, was one of the first major fruits of the Bemmius explorations. The material Barbara Meyer and her colleagues had discovered—and whose attempted transmission had revealed Madeline Fathom’s covert mission—had indeed turned out to be the holy grail of electrical work, a room-temperature superconductor. The existence of such a material had sent both physicists and chemists running back to their theories to try to find a way to explain the stuff; the engineers had turned instead to discovering how to manufacture it. It had taken a few years, because it appeared that the stuff’s unique properties depended both on its odd composition (carbon, boron, silicon, gold, and a smattering of rare-earth elements) and its microstructure.

    For energy storage, a room-temperature superconductor with high current capacity offered a near-perfect battery; in essence, one shoved electrical energy in and it stayed there, chasing its tail near the speed of light, until you took it out, with very minimal losses in either direction. There were some issues with magnetic fields and so on, but after the engineering was done, the result was a battery with an energy density a couple of orders of magnitude greater than even the best chemical fuel cells or batteries. These super-batteries weren’t generally available quite yet, but the Institute and Ares had managed to get a cooperative contract with the manufacturers in exchange for a small custom run. So far, Jackie had been ecstatic with the results.

    The other major advance from the Phobos/Mars expeditions was in the area of nanodesign. A.J.’s conjecture about the noteplaques had turned out to be correct, and analysis of the plaques, the precise structural design of the superconductor material, and other unusual features of Bemmie design had given nanodesigners (including Dust-Storm Technology) a major leg up in that area. Helen knew A.J. had a large batch of the latest "smart dust" with him; from some of his comments, she suspected that he’d have married these sensor motes if they came with more attractive exterior construction.

    A.J. was agreeing with Jackie. "Ceres is actually going to be a major pain in some ways. It’s not small enough to treat as basically a weightless spinning rock, like Phobos, and it’s got none of the good stuff of a planet like Earth or even Mars. I can’t walk normally there, but I also can’t float along without worrying about maintaining altitude." He leaned back, wiggling his fingers in that rippling motion that showed he was controlling something through his VRD. "So instead of Faeries, this time I had to make Locusts."

    Having seen the squat, squarish-bodied drones with their spidery legs, Helen still thought "Toads" would have been a better name for the Cerean… no, Cererine exploration vehicles. But like any parent, A.J. had the right to name his creations. "So they’ll bounce over the surface, right?"

    "Sort of. That sounds like something bounding along going real fast. I really want them to use the legs mostly as altitude maintenance. They can do a pretty good jump if they have to, of course, but an even glide is more what I like to see for surveying places. At least this time I can also scatter Faerie Dust in appropriate locations, now that we’ve licked the vacuum issues. And with the power storage capabilities on the Locusts, we’ve got more direct physical options for exploring recalcitrant alien installations."

    "You mean we can bust open doors if we have to."

    "Within limits, and ‘bust open’ sounds awfully crude. I would prefer to use more subtle means for many reasons, not the least of which being that we might break something worthwhile."

    "We will most definitely be using more subtle means," Jake declared darkly. "No more of this Indiana Jones breaking and entering."

    "Yeah, yeah, Jake, we know, you already got your changes logged into the procedure book. And I still might have to use force in some cases. You guys have been known to use bulldozers." A.J. was studying readouts in the thin air before him. "No immediate signs of the base. It was, I suppose, too much to hope for that there’d be a clear landing area with markings. We know the general location of the base from the Bemmie data, but on the scale of Ceres that’s still a lot of territory to search."

    "How much, mate? I saw your maps, looked like you’d got her fairly well locked down."

    Larry gave a slight laugh. "Yeah, that little circle-cross does look pretty small. But on a thousand-kilometer sphere, we’re still looking at a search area about twenty kilometers across. That’s about as far across as Phobos, over three hundred square kilometers of surface."

    "Well, A.J. found Bemmie’s base on Phobos his first time out. Why not again?"

    "If only it was so easy," A.J. said. "We were lucky as hell that time. Phobos was leaking water vapor, which of course turned out to be coming from Bemmie’s combination mud bath, sauna, swimming pool, and water supply. So all I did was follow the water. I’m picking up hints of water vapor around Ceres, but it’s pretty damn thin and it looks like it’s all over the place. So probably what’s happening is that if there are cracks that go down far enough to reach the water ice Larry and the others think is there, they’re all subliming into vacuum. Meaning, of course, no trail of breadcrumbs leading to the target."

    "Still, that’s a pretty small area to search with modern tech."

    Larry, Helen, Jake, and A.J. winced. "Small? Look, Bruce, what you’re trying to find is about the size of a house, probably, on the surface. But there are a lot of holes, canyons, valleys, crags, and so on that are in that size range. First, of course, I’m going to try to spot it from up here; I’ve deployed a couple of Beholders already." The Beholders, named for some many-eyed creature in one of the many games A.J. played, were compact multi-spectral sensor and communications satellites, allowing Nobel to maintain both constant radio contact and constant visual surveillance over Ceres. "But if that doesn’t work out—and I’m not seeing an encouraging trend here—then it’ll be down to probe search on the ground, which will be at around walking speed. I’ve got quite a few Locusts, but still… why don’t you do the math? How long will it take to search an area three hundred kilometers square for probably one entrance no more than twenty meters wide? When there’s going to be a bunch of holes just like it all over the place that I have to poke into, maybe quite a ways, before I can tell for sure whether I’ve got the right one?"

    Helen didn’t need A.J.’s lecture, unlike some of the others. She’d done field work where she might be looking for something smaller than that. She caught Jake’s frown, saw that he was thinking along the same lines. Even with the almost supernatural capabilities of some of A.J.’s technology, the thought of trying to find something the size of a single T. Rex skeleton in the middle of a hundred square miles of poorly-lit, pockmarked rocky badlands gave her a headache. It wasn’t made easier by the fact that the Bemmies appeared to prefer to keep the entrances looking "natural"—something which, given the war they’d obviously fought, might have been done for more than aesthetic reasons. She looked down at A.J.; his face was shadowed with uncertainty. She gave his shoulder a squeeze. "You’ll find it."

    A.J.’s face lit up at her touch, something only visible from her angle since he was currently facing his console. She restrained a grin; there was, indeed, something childlike about the man which she found irresistible, and that quick flash of simple joy was part of it.

    "Find it? Of course I’ll find it," the blond sensor expert said, the momentary drop into negativism over. "I didn’t say I couldn’t find it, just that it’s not going to be easy. Unless I get lucky. Which, since Helen’s here, I just might." She gave him an affectionate poke at the mild double-entendre.

    "You know, A.J., you actually discovered Phobos Base before the Faeries ever went inside," Jackie pointed out. "The internal structure map showed a lot of the tunnels. You—and the rest of us—just would never have thought of what they really were beforehand. That’s not true now, though. So why not just do the same internal mapping for Ceres?"

    "Because Ceres is big. Big. Big-biiiig-big big—BIIIIIG!" A.J. did a Warner Brothers’ set of caricature gestures showing how "BIIIIIG" he meant while he voiced the sentiment. "I could, with a lot of pulses and overpowered emissions and processing, manage to map out a lot of the interior of Phobos, yeah. Using all the Faeries and several hours. On a chunk of rock about one-fiftieth as far across. Even with the better power and sensor capacity I’ve got here, there’s no way I’m getting a signal through Ceres." He looked momentarily abstracted. "Well, not a wireless one. If I put some sensors down and start doing impact events on the other side I could get seismographic and vibration data… but that’d require having a lot of spare stuff to throw, or a lot of explosives—a lot more than we have. Anyway, I’m going to do my best—GPR data and all that might help, depending on what stuff they make their installation out of here. Remember that some of their stuff was practically invisible to me, and other parts blocked everything. But we might come down to a remote foot-survey. Still, no point wasting time. I’m already on it."

    A.J. turned back to his console; Helen could see him getting ready to settle in for one of his legendary marathon sessions.

    "I’ll bring you something for dinner later," she said, glancing at the others. They all clearly recognized the symptoms. "That good?"

    "Yeah, that’d be great. Haven’t done this for a while. Time to get really down to business." Thin screens rose up around his station, blocking him from view.

    "Why does he stay there?" Jackie mused as they climbed to the hab ring. "I mean, he could control all that stuff from your cabin, or even one of these connecting shafts, just as easily as he could on the bridge."

    "Because he’s A.J. Baker, certified genius at work," Helen answered with a laugh. "No, really. Partly he does it because he finds it too easy to be distracted in more comfortable surroundings. But…"

    Jackie smiled in understanding. "But he’s also a showoff, and no one will see how hard and dedicated his work is unless he’s somewhere public." Her tone was more amused than critical; Jackie liked A.J., no matter what his faults.

    "You’ve known him as long as I have. Never thought about dating him?" Helen asked suddenly, curious.

    "Date A.J.? God, no offense, Helen, I’m glad you’re happy and all, but Jesus Christ, no. It’d be like dating my hyperactive little brother. Aside from being admittedly very cute, I can’t understand what you see in him—romantically, that is. Joe was much more my speed, but it never really jelled."

    "And once Madeline showed up, that was it."

    Jackie grinned. "Oh, I wasn’t possessive over him. Like I said, it never jelled. But I admit that trying to compete with Maddie would be a lost cause anyway."

    "So… no one serious in your life?"

    The younger woman shook her head, dark hair restrained in a tight ponytail. "Not really. Well…" She looked slightly embarrassed. "I did have a crush on Dr. Gupta for a while."

    "No need to be embarrassed about that. The man has presence." Helen stepped off the central ladder and made room for Jackie. "I admit to having had some rather nonprofessional thoughts about my mentor, too, from time to time."

    "Dr. Glendale? Can’t fault your taste there, even if you seem to have gone downhill since." Helen snorted. "But…" Jackie looked pensive.


    "Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I’m still looking for that perfect guy, as silly as it sounds." She looked dubious.

    Helen tried not to look dubious herself. "I’m sure there’s just such a guy out there, waiting for you."

    "Well, he’d better not wait too long," Jackie said emphatically. "Or I’ll end up marrying this ship, and Nobel just never talks to me."

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