And now the FINAL CHAPTER that I will be posting; we're well past the middle of Threshold and I should leave the remaining parts as a mystery until the release in a few days.
So enjoy this last chapter!
"Are we ready?"
"All ready," Maddie confirmed to Jackie. "While you talk with Odin directly, A.J. will be able to query the Faerie Dust that should be all over the Odin. The low-bandwidth transmissions involved should be easy to hide in the noise, as long as no one actually is looking for it."
Jackie winced. She hated unknowns like that. "And how likely is it someone will?"
Maddie shrugged. "I don't think I would be doing it in their position. I honestly don't think this idea would have occurred to me if Darth Baker hadn't pulled off that trick on Modofori and his pals. So I think it's pretty unlikely. I just don't make one hundred percent assumptions."
"Joe? You and A.J. ready?"
"Sure am," Joe said. "If they do go nuts and fire on us, we'll have quite a few seconds warning. Even at closest approach, assuming they can manage a firing velocity of thirty kilometers per second—which I don't think they can, not even close—we'll still have five minutes or so. In that time, even with our effective acceleration cut by ten times because Jupiter's magnetosphere's squeezed us down, we can change position by four hundred fifty meters. Since the actual width of the Nebula Storm is only about a thousand feet, they almost certainly can't hit us at all."
"And," A.J. put in, "we've tied the engine system into our radar. If the radar plot shows something coming at us that my sensors say we can't avoid for sure by using the nebula drive, it'll give us a little kick from the main engines, however much it calculates it needs to get to full safe range. That still shouldn't be enough to change our main maneuver program, I hope. There's some leeway in the system."
"Just in case, we are all suited up, right?" Helen put in. "And I'm standing by with patch kits and a pair of hands to help. This isn't really my gig."
"Not mine either," Larry pointed out. "But being ready to be damage control's better than just sitting in a chair waiting to see what happens."
"All suited up, Helen. And Joe says he's got damage control programs in place."
"And of course," A.J. pointed out, "we also happen to be inside a ship made of the same material the Vault on Mars was. A thirty kilometer per second projectile would probably get through, but much less might not."
Jackie nodded. "Still, let's hope none of that happens. On this pass, at least, everything should stay friendly." She looked around once more. "Okay, here goes."
She activated the radio, aiming towards the Odin for the first time in this journey. "Odin, this is Captain Jacqueline Secord of the Ares Exploratory Vessel Nebula Storm calling you, overtaking from approximately two hundred fifty thousand kilometers astern. Please acknowledge."
Twenty seconds passed with no return. Since the radio signal crossed the distance in less than one second, this indicated either someone wasn't listening, or there was some delay in responding. Jackie tapped her finger on her chair arm. It was hard to judge how long she should wait.
Just as she was about to repeat the message, the screen shimmered to life, showing General Hohenheim in what was apparently his office. "Odin returns your call, Nebula Storm. Welcome to Jupiter System. You have come fast on our heels, Captain Secord."
She relaxed fractionally; it looked like diplomacy would at least begin the day. And with that transmission, A.J.'s data had begun flowing. The programmed contingency allowed the Faerie Dust to transmit only when Odin itself was transmitting, so the longer they talked…
"We know where you are headed, General. And it is my intention to beat you there."
After a second and a half passed, Hohenheim smiled. "Of course you do, Captain. While I admit to being… well, let us not be petty, utterly astounded that you had the audacity to take such an alien antique out into space on such short notice—and quite impressed by how well the vessel performs—I cannot pretend to be surprised at your intentions. You will, of course, forgive me if I say that it is my intention to beat you to Enceladus by a significant margin and claim the world, or as much of it as possible, for the European Union."
"Might I ask why you have waited so long to call? We have—as I am sure you are aware—been trying to contact you since we first noticed the astonishing phenomenon of a nebula chasing us."
Jackie shrugged. "General, we had no warm feelings for any of you at the time, and direct communication with reasonable time lag wasn't really possible until now. You know how frustrating communication is with delays of more than a second or two. But consider this a courtesy call. We shall be passing Odin at a range of nine thousand, nine hundred and fifty-six kilometers and will then precede you farther into the Jupiter system."
"We had of course noted that, but your information is appreciated." The general studied her for a moment. "Captain, of one thing I wish to inform you: the actions taken to remove and conceal the information we have taken were done directly under my orders. There are members of my crew who were friends of yours, and I would find it sad to think that these friendships would be ruined by actions which—in truth—must have been at least somewhat expected by both sides."
Jackie didn't dare look around for support or hints. Were we wrong? Was it just a terrible coincidence, an accident, something that just barely missed the Odin and hit us? Or is he trying to find out if we know. After all, no one's said anything about it.
That must be it, she decided. Hohenheim had to pretend nothing had happened. But she wondered what he was trying to say. If we do know, or discover it…
"General, I suppose I agree, in principle," she said slowly. "But if you have spent considerable time with someone and they have used some of that information against you… That's a rather nasty betrayal, don't you think?"
Hohenheim nodded. "I would not blame people for being angry. But remember that there is duty and these people had agreed to do what was done long before they met any of you. I assure you, it was not easy for them to do what they did, and it became harder with each day."
Images of Horst flashed in her mind: of him laughing next to her; the time he’d held her hand much longer than he needed to, after helping her through a hatch; the hours they’d spent talking. All a fake? It did seem hard to believe. Even Maddie and Helen had expressed their doubts.
She reminded herself sharply that keeping someone on Odin talking was the important point here, anyway. "I suppose it must have." She cut in the privacy switch. A.J. could still tell she was having a conversation, but now the images and sound would be projected to her VRD and into her suit alone.
"Since we will remain in reasonable communication range for a limited time... I know it may be slightly out of standard procedure, General, but might I talk with Horst Eberhart?"
Hohenheim’s expression softened momentarily, in a startlingly warm way, and there was a faint twinkle in the brown-gold eyes. "Of course, Captain. I am sure Mr. Eberhart will be willing to give you a few moments of his time. Please stand by."
Perhaps a minute went by, although it seemed longer than that. Then, Horst's face was in front of hers, blue eyes wide, uncertain, and … almost frightened? Could that really be an act? And if it had all been an act, why continue now?
"Jackie… I am very sorry." The apology was the first thing he said. "For everything. I had promised… they hired me for this. If I had known before…" He shook his head. "But then I wouldn't have been hired, and I wouldn't have met you. So it might have worked out badly either way." He took a deep breath and suddenly met her gaze directly, with an intensity that startled her. "But I never lied to you. Never. Not once. About anything."
A crazy part of her actually believed him. The sane part just wanted to believe him more than anything in the whole world. "Horst…"
"They didn't even want us calling back for a long time after we left, so it took me days to find a way around it. And then you didn't talk to me."
"You used me, Horst!" she snapped. "The program that hid the data, A.J. told me how it worked. You couldn't possibly have done that without everything you learned from me, and him for that matter."
"I know! I know, Jackie. But it was what I was there to do. I wasn't… wasn't there to... to get involved with anyone. But I did anyway. And when Anthony got that information and we covered it up, both of us felt … dirty."
He's telling the truth. Dammit, he has to be! "Really?"
"You do not know how many times we have talked about how much it sucks, Jackie."
The dry precisionist tone in which he said the line made her suddenly burst out laughing. She felt like something was letting go inside her, opening up like a flower. "It sure did… Horst. Did you mean what you just said?"
"That it sucks?"
"No. That you got ‘involved.’ We never talked about it."
He smiled, quite shyly. "Hard to do—get involved, I mean—on a spaceship crammed with people. Privacy is usually required. But it is how I felt, certainly."
She blinked back suddenly startling tears. "So did I," she said softly. "That’s why I was so hurt by what happened."
The change on Horst Eberhart's face was astounding. Lines seemed to vanish from his face, and she really understood what people meant when they wrote that someone's face shone with happiness. There was nothing, for that instant, but pure crystal-blue joy in his gaze, and it was that which cut the last knot binding her heart. That look couldn't possibly be faked. Somehow—impossible as it seemed—Horst hadn't known about the coilgun attack. Maybe he'd known the gun existed, but someone else must have fired it and he had never known they’d done so.
A green light blinked on in her line of sight. That meant that A.J. felt he'd done all he could at this point. Time to wrap up. She hadn't thought she'd be so reluctant to do it, but then…
"I have to go, I’m afraid. I guess I'll be seeing you again, at Enceladus. One way or the other."
"Yes," Horst said. "Is it all right if I don't wish your ship good luck, or will that get me in more trouble?"
She laughed. "Sweetie, that's just fine, because while I wish you all the luck in the world, that ship you are on isn't getting any of it!"
"So how did we do?" Jackie asked finally.
A.J. could not restrain a triumphal grin. "We are in. We are so totally in that you would not believe it. Operation Bungee is a go."
"You are sure it will work?" Madeline asked.
He was used to Madeline questioning him. And of course it gave him a chance to brag more. Which was still fun, if not quite as much the absolute necessity as he seemed to remember it being back when he was younger. "Maddie, it will most certainly work. My Faerie Dust was all over their outer surfaces, and there are places where it could get inside the control runs. There's control gadgetry all along the main accelerator ribs, and I'm slowly co-opting control of it. The most important question was whether I could find a way to get inside the ship itself, which I managed while you were talking—a vent valve in the NERVA system which they hadn't changed in their design. A bunch of the dust can get in that way, then through the filtration system. It's meant to handle impurities, but not impurities that are smart enough to avoid being emptied out."
"And then you can run the engines?"
"The NERVA engine, damn straight. Jackie knows more about that thing than anyone other than Gupta. She worked on every part of its design. Between her and Joe, I could figure out how to basically shortstop any commands they give and substitute my own. And I really just need to do a couple of things to make 'em swing ship before blasting.
"Controlling the mass-beam and the coilguns, that's a little trickier. I can mess with the control nodes on the outside, but me, you, and Joe are going to have to go over what I've managed to learn about the control parameters and designs with a fine-toothed comb to figure out exactly what I can and can't do. I can't take control of every system in that ship, at least not without a lot more Dust or a lot more time, and if someone catches on, we're in real trouble."
"Were you able to verify the existence of the coilguns?"
"Not yet. On our next close approach, I will. I can say there are a few anomalies along the accelerator ribs, but none that a fast-talking engineer couldn't explain away at this point. The motes will keep trying to work their way in, try to gain access, but they've got to do it as subtly and conservatively as possible, or they'll trip something."
Madeline looked satisfied. "So the whole plan doesn't need to be changed?"
A.J. shook his head, confidence filling him as usual. "Not a thing really. We do our braking maneuver at closest approach—just about scraping atmosphere off the big guy—and then make sure they do theirs. With the right vectors we should be able to close on them again and give them the chance to make a deal."
"What if they fire?" Larry asked. "People whose ships were suddenly hijacked have been known to do that."
"I think I can screw that up even now," A.J. said. "And by that point, we'll also have the proof we need, I think. So shooting us wouldn't accomplish anything, right?"
"True enough. And it's not like we'll be offering them nothing."
"Then," Jackie said, smiling in a more natural way than she had since they started, "in a few days this should all be over."
"Just a few. Then of course we'll have to actually get to Enceladus, but we can both do that, especially once we're cooperating instead of competing."
A.J. had to admit, he was glad it was almost over, at least on the cloak-and-dagger side.
But he did have one more bit of fun in store for himself at the expense of the Odin. Harmless overall, but it would be his little reminder to Horst—and especially the unseen Mr. Fitzgerald—of just who he'd been messing with.
He couldn't wait.
Ah, A.J., never grow up, you'll get boring.