And another character we haven't seen for a bit...
"I can’t believe this," said the National Security Adviser. "First Fathom turncoats and now the U.N. is going to steal a march on us. You want to explain this particular mess, General?"
Ken Hathaway kept his expression respectfully neutral. Despite his dislike for the current administration, he had no intention of torpedoing his own career as the first and, currently, only military commander of a major space vessel. "I wouldn’t describe this as a mess, sir. There are actually some advantages for us in this situation."
Jensen looked at him incredulously. "You—along with my other analysts—assured me that there really wasn’t a chance that the IRI would be able to build a ship around that engine. You all told me they’d probably just use it as a portable power source, or maybe a Mars-to-Phobos transport. And now Walter tells me that they’re about six months from launching their own version of Nike!"
Ken issued a chuckle, which he hoped looked spontaneous. He’d planned this sort of reaction, and Jensen had obliged him with precisely the kind of line he’d been hoping for.
The national security adviser’s face darkened. "Would you like to tell me what you find amusing, General?"
"Sorry, no disrespect meant, it was just… you haven’t seen the thing. Saying they were ready to launch their own version of Nike… Sir, that’s like saying Huck Finn was launching his own version of ‘Old Ironsides’ when he pushed his raft into the river."
Jensen slowly leaned back, the anger shifting towards a hard speculation. "Go on. Are you saying they’re not really making an interplanetary vessel?"
"Well… No, sir. They are, in one sense. I mean, their ship does have a real nuclear engine on it, and that can sure push it around the solar system. But… Here, look at it."
Ken sent a command to the White House network, which acknowledged he had authorization to trigger image presentations, and the far wall lit up with a picture of Nobel, the interplanetary vessel Glendale was having constructed.
Jensen snorted. There were a few other grunts or chuckles around the table.
The Nobel looked very little like Nike. Both had a central hub where the main engine sat, and other parts about four hundred and fifty feet from that center which would serve as living quarters. But where the Nike was a shining vessel, an integral structure of smooth components and clear functionality, Nobel was…
Clunky, Ken thought, was probably the most charitable term you could use. "They’ve had to make do with whatever they could get," he said. "They don’t have manufacturing capability of their own, and all the aerospace resources we have—all the aerospace resources any country has, for that matter—are tied up in building our own ships and bases. So they had to go to the one group of people who can somehow manage space construction and who don’t have their own ship: Ares. But Ares doesn’t have the money or the manufacturing capability to crank out things like Nike’s habitat sections. So what do they have? Speaking as a military man, they’ve got Tinkertoys, Legos, and an Erector set to hold ‘em together."
He pointed. "Look at their so-called ‘habitat ring.’ Looks like a bunch of tuna cans linked together with duct tape and silver straws. That’s because what they’ve got are basically just standard Ares habitat cans, not all that much different from the ones Zubrin first drew up almost half a century ago. The whole central body there"—he pointed at the boxy gray skeleton in the middle of the screen—"that’s just some beams to hold all the pieces together. They’ll be using something like an inflatable tank to hold their fuel together, I’d guess, or maybe some reusable solid tanks. The point is, sir, that thing can’t match Nike in any respect. Especially since you got us a second engine."
The sight of the Nobel, looking as it did rather like the result of a high-school science project to create a model of a space station had thawed the atmosphere considerably. Ken no longer felt that his job was immediately in jeopardy.
"You mentioned that you thought this situation offers advantages, General Hathaway?," Jensen said. "Explain."
"If that thing actually works, sir, it takes a big load off of us. We’ve been committed to being their long-range support since the Institute got established, because there just wasn’t anyone else available. Once they have their own ship working, we’re free to work more for the United States’ direct interests. Sure, we’ll still be doing runs to Phobos Station and the Institute. We’ve got plenty of reasons to do so, and we’ll have to help with the short distance ferrying anyway."
Hathaway flashed a momentary smile at the realization he was now calling Earth-to-Moon orbit hops "short."
Before he could continue, one of Jensen’s analysts spoke up. "What you’re saying is they won’t need us just to survive any more. They can send their own ship on their own errands, ferry their own supplies back and forth, and in general deal with all the logistical headaches we’ve had to handle the past few years. And welcome to them."
Jensen nodded. "All right, General Hathaway. I understand your points. The reports from Mr. Keldering were perhaps overly alarmed. So you don’t see anything to worry about in this situation?"
"Nothing whatsoever, sir," Ken said. "We have a battleship and they have a rowboat. Lets just hope they don’t spring a leak rowing back and forth, that would require us to rescue them."
... fortunately he found a way off the barbeque.