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Threshold: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Thursday, April 8, 2010 00:19 EDT



    "I swear, these guys were animated by the Japanese," A.J. growled to himself. "Hentai Japanese animators. Everywhere I go in this ship’s design, I find tentacles."

    "That’s your dirty mind reading into things. Just because the control cables are long, slender, flexible things that extend outward from the—"

    "Bah, Joe, I say again, bah. Just don’t blame me if Bad Things happen to our female crewmembers if we get any on board." A.J.’s real annoyance, he had to admit, was due to the sheer volume of superconducting material he kept finding—to a great extent in the apparently extendable field control and shaping units that lay coiled and quiescent in the alien vessel’s hull. Dust-Storm’s best new Faerie Dust had performed magnificently, but the job was far bigger than he’d ever imagined and they had had to ask for a number of additional supplies since. Even the highest technology couldn’t fix the superconducting cable if all the materials weren’t there to fix it.

    "And," he muttered, "we’re gonna need a buttload of power to run this thing, even if we get her working."

    "If?" Reynolds’ voice responded from somewhere inside the ship. "You know, that doesn’t sound at all like you, A.J. Since when did you start doubting we could do anything?"

    “He’s in a bad mood because he met Jackie’s new boyfriend last night.”

    "Joe," A.J. said calmly, "remind me to kill you after the shift."

    “Jackie has a boyfriend?”

    “Horst Eberhart," Joe answered, ignoring A.J.'s threat of mayhem. "One of the Odin’s crew members,"

    “You’d better not say *that* in front of Jackie, or she’s likely to kill you,” A.J. pointed out.Then he added: "Jackie’s insisting they’re ‘just friends,’ Ren. Which is probably true, technically speaking, given that the cramped conditions we’re living in make going beyond ‘just friends’ pretty tricky. My guess, though, is that Jackie would be quite happy to see that status change before too long. So would Horst."

    "What do think of him?" Ren asked.

    "Seems like a nice guy. He’s smart, that’s for sure."

    Ren’s puzzlement was clear over the link. "But then, A.J., I don’t understand why you aren’t in a good mood. You aren’t jealous, are you?"

    "It’s Joe saying I’m in a bad mood!"

    "Well, you are. I heard you cursing at your sensors not long ago."

    "I’m certainly not jealous." A slight pang of guilt. "Well, no more than I am of any other pretty girl I know well."

    "Any other pretty girl? I really must warn Helen of your approaching midlife crisis."

    "Killed after the shift, Joe! Remember that!"

    "Mars couldn’t do that, what makes you think you can?"

    A.J. tried to glare at him, but couldn’t really keep it up. He sighed. "I guess it’s because I like him, Ren."

    There was a slight silence. "You do know that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, A.J."

    He sighed and rolled his eyes, putting down the imaging probe he had been using. "Maybe not. But that’s the truth."

    He wasn’t even sure he could explain it to Joe. Not without sounding silly, petty, childish, or all three. Helen might understand.

    The Bakers had invited Jackie and Horst to have dinner and visit with them the prior evening. A.J. had been ready to be suspicious and to even put the fear of God—or A.J. Baker—into Horst if necessary. Instead, just the way the tall, muscular, handsome Eberhart entered, a little bit behind Jackie with a friendly but almost apologetic look on his face, put A.J. off his stride. That was the look of a man meeting his date’s parents and worried he might not make a good impression. Given that Jackie was only a little younger than he was, that seemed pretty funny. Of course, Helen was older than Jackie—not that she looked it much—and her real parents were hundreds of millions of miles off, so maybe it made sense. Sort of.

    Then, during dinner—Joe Dinners, of course—Horst had responded quite openly to any questions they had. He didn’t seem to much like the security chief on board Odin, but other than that he just admitted straight out he was supposed to watch for useful stuff but mostly just work with them. Which was only fair, A.J. supposed. The E.U. had to be going nuts trying to find a way to get what they’d see as their fair share.

    Horst was also very impressed by A.J., which made it even harder to be hostile to him. When a man’s telling you how much he admires your work, it’s awfully difficult to maintain the right level of paranoia and suspicion.

    So Horst had talked. And they’d watched a movie, and talked some more, played some four-way Trivia, and somewhere in there A.J. had realized that he really did like Horst Eberhart…

    Partly, he supposed, that was because Eberhart was like him. Except he was several years younger, taller, probably more athletic and certainly better looking. And apparently without A.J.’s ego problem. In his entire life, A.J. couldn’t ever remember meeting someone who made him feel like he could fade into the background. Eberhart was like… like Glendale. Without knowing it, and that made it worse.

    A.J. rolled his eyes, grumbled another curse, and cut off outside communication except for emergencies. "Fine, so I really am starting to feel kinda old. Stupid. And anyway, as long as he cares about Jackie, assuming something gets rolling there, that’s really what matters."

    He began to direct the work of a new batch of Faerie Dust motes along the next section. "Helen was right; time for me to stop acting like the brainy kid genius and instead just be who I am. And that’s a guy who’s got a hell of a lot going for him—not the least of it being that he’s married to Helen." He grinned. "And there’s one thing Horst can’t compete with!"



    "What exactly is bothering you, Mr. Fitzgerald?"

    Hohenheim saw Fitzgerald grimace. "Nothing in particular, General. It's the waiting. Most of the jobs I've been on in the past, I was the one in charge of the timing. Bloody annoying to be sitting here waiting for one of our eggheads to find what we need."

    "Other than that, how do you gauge the situation?"

    "Pretty good, actually, if I look at it from the outside. I’ve managed to keep away from Fathom. She knows I'm here, no doubt of it, but I guess she doesn't want to push things any more than we do. Dr. LaPointe hit it off really well with their astrophysicist, Conley—turns out the two of them have published in some of the same journals and knew each others' work, so they had a common ground. One good thing about the time element is that it's given us a lot of chances for the initial suspicion to die down. Conley and LaPointe are both going over the alien data that they've been getting from the noteplaques. A whole bunch of them turned out to have astronomical-related data on them. That's a big break, I don't think I need to tell you."

    "Indeed it is." The general nodded thoughtfully. While it was A.J. Baker who was credited with the first two discoveries, it was Conley who had discovered the third, and in the long run Hohenheim expected that it would be the astronomers and their allied fields that discovered the best leads to new alien finds. They were, after all, the ones most likely to be studying the right material.

    "I'm more worried about Eberhart," Fitzgerald said. "Didn't mind him getting friendly with the locals. After all, it might make things a lot easier in the long run. But I’m worried about his developing relationship with that IRI engineer Secord, which has the potential to go way beyond 'friendly'. That could cause problems down the road."

    "Horst is a very loyal and honest man. The latter makes it a bit difficult for him to do anything underhanded, true, but the former makes it so that I can depend on him to do his part when the time comes."

    Fitzgerald shrugged, running a hand through his short graying hair. "I guess. And it's not like we're going to ask him to hurt anyone."

    Hohenheim noted that there wasn't a trace of irony or self-persuasion in that last sentence. Richard Fitzgerald honestly did not see that from the point of view of people like Horst Eberhart or Anthony LaPointe they were going to be asked to harm their new friends. Might be, at least. In ways that were probably legal and not physical, and ones that they had intellectually accepted when they took the mission. But it would be harm nonetheless. The general expected the two would still carry through, but he was quite aware of the hard choices he might be asking his men and women to make. It concerned him that Fitzgerald appeared to be totally blind to that.

    Granted, it could be argued that Fitzgerald's attitude was the correct one to take for a man in his position. The Irishman was not the Odin’s commander, he was its chief of security—which, being honest, meant that he also doubled as the informal head of whatever industrial espionage was carried out by the Odin’s crew. It wasn't his job to be liked, or to make people happy; it was to make sure that the entire mission succeeded.

    That said, Hohenheim was still concerned. He was particularly concerned because he hadn’t been allowed any say—any input at all—in the selection of the mission’s head of security. That was... odd. Normally, a commanding officer on such an expedition, especially one as experienced as Hohenheim, would have at least been consulted in the matter.

    The fact that he hadn’t been led him to wonder if Fitzgerald had been given secret instructions. By... whomever. Hohenheim was not naïve. He knew full well that the power structure of the European Union’s space program was complex and involved a number of sometimes antagonistic forces. It was indeed possible that some powerful people or agencies in the EU were using Fitzgerald as a tool.

    "Secret instructions" was perhaps the wrong way of putting it. Hohenheim doubted very much that Fitzgerald had been told to do anything radically different from the mission Hohenheim had been given. The problem was more a matter of parameters. Two men can both be told to do the same task. But if one of them is also privately instructed to let nothing stand in the way of success, then the task itself can become transformed. Especially if the man involved is someone who has difficulty making distinctions or seeing limits to begin with.

    He restrained a sigh. There was no point in brooding on the matter. In all likelihood, nothing would ever happen that might bring the underlying problems to the surface.

    "What about the secrets?" he asked.

    Fitzgerald grinned. It hadn't taken long for the crew of Odin to figure out that there were at least two major secrets that the Nobel personnel were trying to hide from them and doing pretty well at it. One of Fitzgerald's priorities had been to find out what those secrets were. From the expression on his face, he'd clearly met with some success.

    "I know what they're hiding now. Well, not all the details, but I know for sure one of them. Took me a while to figure it out mainly because, well, they're damn good for civilians. Fathom's work, probably, but what I mean is that someone's briefed them on how to say a lot without actually revealing anything. I had to sort through a lot of nothing and get our analysts to go over the secondary and tertiary material before I could get a handle on what they were doing.

    "Anyhow, the boffins involved are engineering and hard sciences people, especially particle physicists and … but you don't need the details. Long and the short of it is that the aliens were melting ice here on a really grand scale for some project of theirs, and they think they've found the generators that let them do it."

    Hohenheim froze. He could see his own reaction was gratifying to Fitzgerald. "Fusion."

    "Fusion. They're virtually certain now, and from some of the work they're doing I think it may be something they’ll be able to get working in some reasonable time. Not in weeks or months, but we're not talking twenty years, either. The E.U. or the U.S.A., now, you might be talking even less time. These boys and girls haven't got those kind of resources, though." He pulled out a data stick. "I've got the outline of an op on there that should let us grab the critical data and send it to HQ. With that as a head start, we'd get working fusion ahead of these guys, and could announce it as our own innovation."

    General Hohenheim stared at the little data stick. The idea had its temptations. There was no fuzziness about whether such a discovery would be worth the effort. Working, efficient fusion technology would have essentially inestimable value for applications on Earth or in space. And Richard Fitzgerald's assessment was almost certainly correct, in that even with the considerable brainpower they had available the IRI-Ares consortium simply didn’t possess the resources to bring that technology out as fast as the E.U. could. If Fitzgerald's operation worked, the benefits would be immense.


    Hohenheim shook his head. "No, Mr. Fitzgerald. This isn't the operation we are supposed to perform, and there are huge potential risks. This well exceeds the level of duplicity we were intending to use. And without seeing your plan I can still tell you that there would be a significant risk of people being injured. You cannot be certain of obtaining this critical information without any confrontations."

    "Very minimal, sir." Fitzgerald looked at him as though he wished to argue, but didn't. In some ways that worried the general even more, as Fitzgerald wasn't usually given to much restraint in speaking his mind. "But if you don't want it, fine. Might be some time before they find anything like what the head office was talking about, though. Going by the odds, looks to me like it might be another year or two. By then, I'm going to be worrying about whether we can count on our staff in a pinch, especially the ones getting really chummy with the locals."

    He did have a point, much as Hohenheim didn't want to admit it. If they spent another year—or even a few more months—on station, pretty soon a number of his personnel would be seeing the people from Nobel as being as much their comrades as those of Odin. "What do you want, then?"

    "Nothing much, sir. Just authorization to have some contingency plans in case I have to push things when we actually do make our move. I know you don't like it, General, but you know as well as I do that if we get loyalty issues there may be some… incidents. I want to have some time to plan ways to neutralize the opposition without getting anyone hurt, and hopefully without them being able to prove we had much to do with it. But I can’t guarantee that there won't be anyone getting hurt, if by ‘hurt’ we’re including any and all sorts of emotional damage."

    "Mr. Fitzgerald, I understand that it’s impossible to avoid any type of damage, when the interests of two parties clash. But we must avoid anything extreme. Any violence would seriously damage the claims the E.U. might get on our target, even leaving aside whatever disputes might arise from the use of industrial espionage."

    "I understand that, sir."

    Hohenheim studied him for a moment. To all appearances, Fitzgerald seemed the very model of obedience. The problem was that a man with his background and experience was inherently a very good actor. What did he really think? More importantly, what did he really intend?

    There was no way to know. Hohenheim would just have to remain alert.

    "Very well, Mr. Fitzgerald. Let me know as soon as anything new develops."



    Once he was out of the general’s office, Fitzgerald allowed himself a little smile. There was a certain delicious irony here. Nothing could be more plausible about "plausible deniability," after all, than the person in charge of a project being in fact ignorant of what was happening when his back was turned.

    True, if and when the discrepancies surfaced, Hohenheim would be furious. But he was just the man in charge of the project. Which is not the same thing as being the man in charge of the payroll. The bonus that had been directly offered to Richard by Goswin Osterhoudt and more subtly implied by Commissioner Bitteschell was more than large enough -- way more than large enough -- for Richard to be quite willing to risk Hohenheim's ire. In fact, he was willing to risk a lot more than a mere general's wrath. With that bonus, Richard could retire a wealthy man.

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